Saturday, July 7, 2007

A word on the word 'Abuse'

The word 'abuse' on its own has become synonymous with three forms only: physical, sexual and verbal. We talk alternatively of 'human rights abuses', but in this regard we rarely use simply the noun or verb-form. We do not talk about the abuse of an Iraqi man or say the Iraqi children are being abused by the international community; it would suggest - absurdly - that a sick individual is 'abusing' them one by one. But I believe that the power of this word, on its own, - to shock people into the realisation of the kind of harm and suffering being inflicted on the individual as a result of the decisions, prejudices, grudges or inaction of other individuals - must be harnessed (Mother Theresa famously characterised an infinite - and therefore supposedly unmanageable - number of victims of poverty in India, as 'one and one and one...'). The problem of the widespread near-acceptance of the human individual's abuse of another human individual can be observed more closely at the national level and at the - further microcosmic - level of the family.

On this blog I often refer to the 'human rights abuses' of one country or another, and in doing so I am aware that, whilst I might succeed in shocking and maybe upsetting the reader, I rarely provoke in them quite the intensity of nausea the majority would instinctively feel on hearing of a 10 month old baby girl abused and strangled by her uncle, for example (a horrific story the media have jumped on here). 'Horrific, incomprehensible, sickening, devastating' are all words that come to mind when we hear of a child being abused by an adult, and yet each day hundreds of people - one and one and one - are abused physically and emotionally by government actions or inaction - and it strikes us more often than not as lamentable and maybe sad, and perhaps even 'tragic' - that poorly abused word. And daily we participate in or at least witness abuse of another - in our family, in the street, in the supermarket - any place and group and partnership in which a hierarchical power dynamic is at work. And it is here that you have something akin to 'institutional racism' - the institutionalised abuse of the other, acceptable on the slightest pretext: impatience, stress, disappointment with service, irritation and disappointment with the 'incompetence' of the other, who stupidly has not adapted to your individual rhythm or 'ethos' or that of the organisation or that dictated by an apparently homogeneous consumer society.

Yesterday I watched a consumer - a woman in her late twenties abuse a uniformed employee of Ikea; she was trying to impress upon the checkout assistant that she was gravely offended and inconvenienced by the service she had received regarding the take-away container she was offered. I commented to Amir that the way she was flailing her arms around and shaking her head, you would think she had had her children taken away by the authorities, in which case her desire to verbally abuse and physically attack the representative of that authority would at least be understandable. Her aggressive 'telling off' of the ever courteous African employee in his demeaning primary blue and yellow Ikea uniform was abusive. But this is a right give to her by her society (Amir -ever alert to these kind of things - could have sworn he detected an Israeli accent!), and by British society.

On my first foray into the brilliant Hackney library accompanying my sister, Bee, and her tiny baby - Hetty, I found the latest issue of the small publication, Race and Class. I'm a big fan and proceeded to use Bee's last 50 pence to photocopy one article: Integrationism: the politics of anti-Muslim racism by Arun Kundnani. I was very struck by the humane tone of the article that so distinguishes it from many others on the issue. Kundnani tells us that the "new conventional wisdom [on cultural diversity] is that a national story of Britishness must be promoted in order to bind the nation together around a set of core values, to which minorities must assimilate [...] but it is argued here, there cannot be one national story of Britain. Nor can one set of 'British values' be imposed as a condition of citizenship. Instead, an integrated society can only be built out of universal values of human rights, justice and democracy - the very values the 'war on terror' tends to undermine'. Yet 'British nationality had historically been complicated both by the absence of a clear idea of what it meant to be a citizen of the British state and by the fact that it was a state made up of multiple nations (England, Scotland and wales). The English resolved these difficulties by conflating an emotional belonging to England as a nation with a contractual belonging to Britain as a state; the myth of an ancient ethnos thereby filled the space where a British constitution ought to have existed."

The consequence of teaching this myth of a integrated and homogeneous British identity with a prior and proprietorial claim on all humane values - set in righteous opposition to the inhumane and inferior values of the (formerly) colonised - is that the other: the immigrant, the Muslim, the Asian, is considered to be stupidly and childishly attached to inferior values - an attachment that must be beaten out of them. That jealously guarded 'core values' such as the right of one man to enslave another and the right of a man to choose his daughter's husband must and do evolve and mutate for the good of society, thanks to the tireless work of individuals and groups across the centuries - not to reflexively punish the 'wrong doer', who after all according to their core values are doing no wrong, but to persuade them of the inutility, the pointlessness, and the harm of what they are doing. What we are living under in England is the legacy of the Victorian empire, where 'righteous' punishment/abuse was liberally employed by everyone from the husband to the nanny to the school master to the factory foreman to the general to the plantation owner all the way to the Queen. How we love to punish in the name of superior values like discipline, loyalty and now perversely in the defence of 'freedom'. But abuse by any other name is still abuse.

Kundnani: "What is meant to be symbolised during the citizenship ceremony [for those who pass their 'citizenship test'] is not an equal exchange of one nationality for another but initiation into a superior civilisation. Such thinking sets ups a hierarchy in which different communities are ranked according to their inherent distance from British norms of civility. While that distance is perceived as greatest in the case of Muslims, all groups seen as 'alien' by virtue of their culture are caught up in it. The clearest example of this is the way that Islam has been singled out for its treatment of women. British values with regard to women are construed as exclusively 'modern' while 'Muslim values' are essentially backward [...] What is striking here is the confidence with which this 'integrationist feminism' obliterates any complexity to these issues in an effort to present British society as naturally liberal and Muslim as naturally sexist. [...] Thus, for example, the epidemic of domestic violence which infects all sectors of British society, and includes two women every week being killed by their partners, receives less media attention than the problem of 'honour killings' carried out by Muslims. It is right that the specific justifications which Muslim men use to legitimise violence is exposed. But this should not be done in such a way that combating violence against Muslim women is seen as fighting against a culture, while combating violence against women is seen as a fight for rights. [...] Additionally, integrationists have no sense that Muslim w omen have long been fighting for their rights within their own communities. [...] Renunciation of one's identity becomes a pre-requisite for emancipation ands a new kind of superiority is entrenched in the name of feminism. State coercion is then justified as a possible means for bringing about this 'emancipation'."

Feminists of Muslim origin that I work with, will defend until their dying day their right to expose individual abuses in the name of Islam or national security where they see them: they will refuse to be intimidated by the right in their country, who claim such abuses are central to their core values; or co opted by the right in other countries who will use them as a stick to beat an enemy state or culture; or silenced by 'cowardly liberals' who would prefer to ignore abuses than risk playing into the hands of conservatives. The feminist and human rights movement should not have a political or national agenda or it risks averting its eyes from politically inconvenient abuses in the name of whichever too-fragile ideology.

One of the best pieces I have read in a long time from a feminist and human rights campaigner is by Azadeh Forghani: Open Letter to Farah Diba: "Kindly Come and Do us a favour, Oh Lady." (translated from the Farsi by Niki Akhavan and Simi Shakhsari for the web site, Payvand). For those of you who don't know the background, Farah was the last wife of the last Iranian Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and now living in exile in Paris, she still wishes to be called by her old title Empress. Azadeh Forghani is one of the women’s rights activists who was arrested for peaceful protest on March 4th 2007 in front of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran. It was on Women's Day, March 8th 2007 that Forghani received a message of congratulations from Farah to herself and the other women's rights activists who had been detained on March 5 following a peaceful protest. Forghani's thoughtful and intelligent response is born of awareness and experience of not only a life-time of institutionalised (in the family, the school, public spaces) abuse but a history of abuse by the state in Iran. Here is an excerpt:

"It is not permissible to use my work or those of others in creating tumult and making personalities. What we did was our duty and nothing beyond it, the price paid was negligible compared to what I have learned from Iranian history, culture, politics, economy and global issues. To the best of my ability, I have approached social issues from seven to eight different perspectives both in thought and action. Now I know the similarities and differences, real or imagined, between the true world of our women of various social classes and the world exemplified by the empress. And I have pretty much learned the reasons and motivations behind various actions.

Let’s go to the real issue at hand. As far has her freedom of expression is concerned, the empress’ symbolic gesture is her own business and has nothing to do with me. Yet our judgment about the nature and reason for her actions does have to do with us. She or anyone else is free to issue statements, and this is their right. However, the empress’ baseless, untimely, ostentatious, and senseless act which was carried out without any consideration of its consequences for us, is an offense to human morals and political honor. The shallowness and pointlessness of her act is her business, but she has offended and transgressed on the domain of our freedom to act and collaborate towards gaining our rights. I will explain.

Mrs. empress! Examine your own conscience or take as witness the objective conscience of another and tell us what relation—any at all—have you had or do you have with the women activists of June 12 and March 4? Their commonality is in their years of struggles for true freedom, eliminating oppression, liberty, and reaching to the minimum of women’s human rights. They have been led to these paths by social forces and a feeling of responsibility for and co-existence with women who are disenfranchised, downtrodden, unemployed, poor, low-wage workers, honorable teachers, nurses, and office employees. What link can you claim with them, other than--in the most honest and best case scenario--a sense of empathy? But is this enough to justify suddenly jumping in the fray and grabbing the opportunity?

Have you spent a penny from your massive wealth on a women’s movement which has cast aside all aristocracy and class-based snobbery? Has any from your family, friends, or acquaintances experienced, even for a few hours, the danger of activism, forming organizations, collecting signatures for petitions, negotiations, arrest, twenty-four hour interrogations, jail, constant social insecurity, distress, job insecurity, etc.? During the last 28 years, 10 of which I have been following closely, has your lifestyle and activities even had a needle’s point of connection—never mind a lively and meaningful one—with the independent women’s movement in Iran? All of the answers to these questions are negative. I have occasionally watched you, your friends, and supporters on satellite television expressing your views. I, like all other activists who are part of this movement, noticed the pretentiousness, the deep chasm, and all of the resources that are unjustly available to aristocratic women on that side, and these factors have made us completely lose hope in you (And of course I want to emphasize that I do not speak here about the aware and clear-headed women on that side who know their place and who carry out political and cultural activities).

But you, empress, under the influence of or in collaboration with those around you, jump in the middle and opportunistically and ostentatiously issue statements, as if we are with your camp. And with your actions you place us, an independent movement that does not rely on any foreign support or on you, under suspicion and leave us to the hands of the interrogators and don’t give a damn when they say: “here is the proof that you get money and orders from abroad, your work does not reflect the needs and desires of women, so there!” Yes, these are all the familiar indicators of your being divorced from social reality and the will of people, being irresponsible and unpopular, and your opportunism in trying to reach your previous paradise."

I think that there is a popular misconception about the defence of human rights as a glamorously international pursuit; a misconception exploited by conservative nationalists and middle-class liberals alike. As Forghani makes clear in her letter, the struggle for an end to human rights abuses is far from glamorous and in her case is not for a 'minority' or 'ethnic group' - that those on the far right like to tell us are being privileged over a now mythic 'indigenous peoples', the white working-class - but for the familiar and local people in Iran - her mother, brother, neighbour, as well as the poor village girl in a distant province. Her fight is against abuses that come in many guises: class, racial, economic, sexual, territorial. Recently, when watching (too late at night) the documentary film on the building of Israel's apartheid wall, Mohammed Alatar's The Iron Wall, the one thing that struck and wounded me the most was the level of abuse the West Bank Palestinians were made to suffer on an hourly, daily basis. Abuse is shamefully banal and when we abuse we all become ugly thugs, no matter our professed belief system or our superficial markings of piety or liberalism. Young settler girls who have been taught to throw stones and insults at Arab children walking to school, have themselves been abused by being subjected to the hatred of their parents. Abuse is local and if the individual wants to fight it they do not need to board a plane with a fat salary from an international NGO, they have to confront their own abusive behaviour and that of those around them.

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