Archive for March, 2009

All a question of perspective

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Getting places in Nairobi

Getting places in Nairobi

When this artist friend of mine was in Nairobi about a year ago, he was told: you need to be careful. You can’t just walk here, it is way too dangerous. Watch out. Take a cab, ask a friend to drive you.

Being the brave and adventurous artist my friend is, he decided to ignore such warnings. What did he have that people would want? No car to be robbed, a fairly empty wallet, and the paint spotted clothes he was wearing.

And off he went, carrying his sketch book, setting up his temporary observation/sketching post for the 30 minutes to an hour it takes to complete a watercolour.

By the end of the day, the sketchbook boasted quite a few more attractive watercolours.

And then was the time to go back.

These two young girls started following him. A seasoned traveller, he readied himself for the likely approach.

But they followed him, and did not say anything. After a while, his questioning looks finally caused them to warn: You know it is dangerous to walk like this. The Mzungu cars will run you over.

And they escorted him back to the main road. They were concerned that he could reach a means of transportation that would take him back to the safe heaven where he belonged, the land of the 4×4 and other sport utility vehicles that just brush past the risk-taking pedestrians.

This reminded me of a time when I was walking with a friend in a Flushing neighbourhood, in a place where everyone travels by car. We were stopped by a car, the owner of which asked for us to explain why we had elected to walk. This was just not done… And we had become the other.

On race as a cultural determinant, “So say we all!”

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Battlestar Galactica event at the UN, Tuesday 17 March, 2009

Battlestar Galactica event at the United Nations, 17 March 2009

Edward James Olmos, star of the Battlestar Galactica television mini-series, registered a huge success at the UN on Tuesday night. He literally took over the Economic and Social Council Chamber by addressing the racial issue. There is only one race, said he, the human race. So say we all!, he shouted, once, and again, and again, until a large number of people in the audience responded by shouting back in unison.

Olmos was reacting to a statement made by a UN official who had said something along the lines of human rights having to be applied without any discrimination based on religion, race, color…

An outraged Olmos immediately took him on, explaining that race was a 600 year old invention of the Caucasian race. By inventing races, and the other, Caucasian had invented racism.

As the crowd chanted, the triumphant Olmos turned to the UN official: when a bug tells you I don’t like you, then this is racism.

The UN official did manage to respond that by using the word race, he had only been quoting from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…

“In just minutes, he pounded Rihanna’s face to a pulp”: on violence against women

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

In just minutes, he pounded Rihanna’s face to a pulp. Such was the appalling title of a Friday 6 March cover page article of the New York Daily News.

To make the story even more compelling, before and after colour photographs illustrate the gory reality described by the title.

Violence against women, detail from a 17th Century painting

Violence against women, detail from a 17th Century painting

The publication of this piece of news was perfectly timed, just as a worldwide campaign on violence against women is being promoted, to coincide with International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March.

In just minutes, he pounded Rihanna’s face to a pulp.

What is the intention of the article and why use such a title? Are we supposed to be appalled, horrified, indignant, or indulge in our potential voyeurism and read on?

Why such gory details? To sell the issue of the newspaper obviously. Which means that the reader is expected to want to read such news written in such terms.

What is it then: “If it bleeds, it leads”? Well, this bleeds alright.

A wealth of lurid details will make the news all the more worth reading. Way back, when I was studying linguistics, I remember having picked up a title which read something like: Gorgeous Rita is raped by 8 Legionnaires in Paris, Place de la Concorde (the French title was La belle Rita se fait violer par 8 légionnaires, Place de la Concorde à Paris). The article had nothing whatsoever to do with the alleged news, the title was just a way - a horrible one, tapping into the voyeurism of readers - to draw attention to a minor piece of news.

Being a bit out of the loop on pop music, at the time I saw the headline, I was totally unaware that Rihanna was a pop star. All the more reason for the newspaper to publish this story. If it bleeds, it definitely leads.

There are different ways of speaking about violence against women. In an op-ed published the same day in the International Herald Tribune, and issued for International Women’s Day, the Secretary-General of the United Nations writes: Sexual violence against women is a crime against humanity.

From slavery to trafficking in persons

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

Blue Hearts against human trafficking

Blue Hearts against human trafficking

Alright, so it had been decided practically universally that slavery was a no-no. Practically universally. Meaning that in most parts of the world, the act of selling a person for a sum of money, on a public market, had become a thing of the past.

Toussaint Louverture had won. William Wilberforce had won. Victor Schoelcher had won. Harriet Beecher-Stowe had won. Abraham Lincoln had won.

Slaves being freed, Jose Maria Sert

Slaves being freed, Jose Maria Sert, detail

As proof of their victory, places and objects have been preserved, a testimony to what once happened. In various parts of the world the old slave quarters, the old slave markets can still be visited.

Fragments of chains that held them, parts of ships that transported them, tools they used, baskets they weaved, pots in which they cooked, bowls in which they ate, all are kept and displayed as evidence of this crime of a not so distant past.

The fact that evidence is collected should be proof enough that slavery is gone, that the slave trade has been abolished and declared illegal, that slaves have been emancipated. A not so distant past, but still the past. The 19th century is the determining moment in history when little by little abolition happened, costing a nation a civil war.

And then… And then came new, contemporary forms of slavery. Then came the sweat shops, and the forced labour, and the sexual exploitation, then came new ways for human beings to exploit the bodies of other human beings. Then came what the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) calls the crime that shames us all: human trafficking, or trafficking in persons.

Trafficking may include the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons. The goal of trafficking is exploitation, and the exploitation can include prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery - an indication that it has then not been totally abolished -, and the removal of organs.

Women and men who are smuggled across borders to get a job as house servants, in houses from which they cannot escape, are the victims of human trafficking. Young girls and women who are offered a plane ticket to take a well-paying job in another country to find out upon arrival that the job is nothing better than prostitution, and who cannot escape until they have reimbursed the investment that was made in them, are the victims of human trafficking.

Join the Blue Heart Campaign against human trafficking!

Blue Heart Campaign Against Human Trafficking

UNODC Blue Heart Campaign Against Human Trafficking

Don’t forget the ladies

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Women watching a march of the Ligue, Paris, 16th Century

Women watching a march of the Ligue, Paris, 16th Century

And what about women’s rights or the human rights of women? International Women’s Day is this week, an invitation to reflect on the rights of women.

Well, since my last post was about the Magna Carta, maybe we can start our quick overview right there.

Women are indeed mentioned, sometimes en passant, as in the article specifying the three exceptional reasons that would authorize the imposition of an aid, one of which being when the King would marry his eldest daughter.

As a matter of fact, it is mainly in relation to the issue of marriage that women are mentioned in early texts dealing with human rights. This is the area where they are allowed, or not - most frequently not -, to exert some level of free will.

The Magna Carta is no exception. Article 8 - we have seen this reflects a strong preoccupation for the subject - rules:

8. No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she prefers to live without a husband; provided always that she gives security not to marry without our consent if she holds of us, or without the consent of the lord of whom she holds, if she holds of another.

If women therefore have some limited level of freedom when it comes to marriage, their words has little legal value, as evidenced by Article 54

54. No one shall be arrested or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman, for the death of any other than her husband.

The age of discovery and Renaissance in Europe allow women to play more important roles. Not all women, but some really powerful women make their mark, a position of power that is frequently the result of their marriage. Marriage is a way to secure alliances, end conflicts, acquire land, protect inheritance, and women are given little choice as to who their husbands - sometimes two or three, as life expectancy is rather short then -  will be.

The discovery of America, and the Reconquista over the Alhambra are associated to Isabella, Queen of Castille. It is in her own right, but together with her husband, King of Aragon, that Queen Isabella allows Christopher Columbus to set on his expedition, and it is in the name of the two Catholic Sovereigns that the Alhambra is conquered. Both events happened in 1492.

It is also in 1492 that Marguerite de Navarre was born, in Angouleme, the daughter of a 15-year old Louise de Savoie who became a widow at 19, after having given birth to a son, Francis, later Francis I, King of France. By decree of French King Louis XII, the highly educated Marguerite is forced to marry a practically illiterate Charles of Alencon, to ensure that the county of Armagnac stays in the family.

After his death, she remarries the King of Navarre, and as sister to the King of France, Marguerite de Navarre became the most influential woman in France. She had her own salon, corresponded with scholars, such as Erasmus, and wrote poems, plays and stories.

Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre

Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre, Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

Her most famous work is the Heptameron, but the one that caused her the most trouble was Miroir de l’âme pécheresse, which was condemned by the conservative Sorbonne as heretic. This, she wrote in 1531 shortly after the death of her infant son, the only son she had at the then advanced age of 38.

Her daughter Jeanne d’Albret is married against her will at 13. The story goes that she had to be bodily carried to the altar. After four years, the marriage is annulled and she later remarried Antoine de Bourbon. As Queen of Navarre, she declares Calvinism the official religion of Navarre. Her son, King Henry III of Navarre, later to become King of France as Henry IV,  married another Marguerite, Marguerite de Valois, sister to three kings of France. It is on the occasion of their wedding, that a large number of Protestants who had came to Paris were murdered during the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, on 24 August 1572, along with several other thousand Protestants in Paris and throughout the country.

While these women, as daughters or sisters of kings, benefited from excellent education, they enjoyed limited freedom, being made to marry in the interest of the kingdom. Marguerite de Valois is featured in Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 novel, named after her, Queen Margot.

At some point in the novel, Queen Marguerite agrees with her mother, Queen Catherine de Medici, about how fortunate men are to be free to run, while women have to stay in the palace and wait. She then explains that it is not her personal fate she is so concerned about, but more the general condition of women.

This would seem to be more of a 19th century comment, attributed to a 16th century woman, similarly to the transposition I described with Rozema’s adaptation of Mansfield Park.

It is difficult to know what the feelings of women were at the time, as the writings of female authors, such as Marguerite de Navarre reflect the feelings of exceptional women, exceptional in the sense of their fortune and education, at a time when education was for the most part reserved to men, although Renaissance certainly brought a change to this.

These exceptional women evolved in a limited circle, frequently related through the marriages arranged between member of the royal families of Europe. Queen Claude de France, Marguerite de Navarre’s sister in law is another example. The daughter of Louis XII of France and Anne de Bretagne, Claude was to inherit the Duchy of Brittany from her mother. With the intention of keeping Brittany separate from the French crown, Anne decided to marry her daughter to Charles of Spain who was to become Charles V. French nobles reacted and convinced King Louis XII to marry Claude to Francis, later Francis I of France. At 7, she became engaged, and married at 15, thus ensuring that Brittany would remain part of France.

Education for women was perceived to be necessary to ensure a good marriage. It is to further her education that Ann Boleyn is sent to the French court, where she becomes a lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude. There she meets Marguerite de Navarre, who is said to have given her a copy of the Miroir de l’âme pécheresse.

It is seldom that women could refuse the marriage that had been arranged for them. Even more difficult was it to refuse to become the King’s mistress. Back at the court of England, Anne refused to become King Henry VIII’s mistress, which prompted the King to secure an annulment for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Following a long dispute and the refusal of the Pope to grant an annulment, the King decided to break with Rome, and took control over the Church of England.

Anne became Henry VIII’s second wife and in 1533 gave birth to Elizabeth. After she had failed to produce a male heir to the throne, the King had her arrested and executed, in 1536. Twenty-two years later, in 1558, Elizabeth succeeded the Catholic Mary Tudor, her half-sister, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, as Queen of England.

Princess Elizabeth’s education had been extensive: she studied Italian, Latin, French and Greek, and at age 11, she translated Marguerite de Navarre’s The Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul, from the French, and presented it to Henry VIII’s last wife, Catherine Parr. A powerful queen, Elizabeth was able to resist repeated petitions from the English Parliament for her to be married, and became known as the Virgin Queen.

Other powerful women have helped shape European history: queens, regents, King’s mistresses, intellectuals have proven that women can think and act independently. It is not until the 18th Century, however, that women of more modest origin have fought directly for the recognition of the rights of women.

Women Political Club, French Revolution, 1790

Women Political Club, French Revolution, 1790

In my view, three women in particular defined women’s rights in the 18th Century. In the British Colonies, in a famous letter of March 1776, Don’t forget the ladies, Abigail Adams, threatened her husband of a rebellion if women’s interests were not taken into account at the time John Adams represented Massachussetts in the Continental Congress.

In 1791, Olympe de Gouges posted all over Paris her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne, a version of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen that she had adapted to represent the rights of women.

And in 1792, in England, Mary Wollstonecraft publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman where she argues that if women had access to education, they could show themselves to be equal to men.

The fight for equal rights continued well into the 20th Century, with the passionate English suffragettes, as well as later fights, some countries recognizing the right of women to vote as late as 1979.