My brothers are being burned alive, because they believe in peace.
Mosque made out of salt bricks in Pakistan’s Khewra salt mine.
By Assed Baig
April 12, 2013
Regiment 207’s military camp a few miles from Sittwe.
Burma’s Muslims are still having a pretty awful time of it. Last year, the country’s Buddhist majority launched a series of attacks on the minority Rohingya Muslim population, supposedly because they’re not “ethnically pure”. The attacks have continued this year and now include the general Muslim population, as well as the ethnic Rohingyas, getting their homes burned down and heads smashed in by marauding gangs of vicious Buddhists.
After monitoring the plight of the Rohingya and the two incidents of violence against them in June and October last year, I decided to fly out to Burma in wary anticipation of another round of trouble. The problem was that I had no money, no commission, no media organisation backing me and the mainstream media had pretty much stopped reporting on the issue. When I turned to the public to help fund my trip, the response was overwhelming (turns out people do have an interest in helping to expose the extended violent persecution of vulnerable minorities) and they collectively helped me raise enough money to go.
We stayed in Sittwe, the main city in Arakhan state, which is where the majority of the Rohingya camps are situated. Travelling past the police check points every morning and into the Rohingya camps, it felt like being transported into a parallel world where suddenly it’s fine to forget about your obligations as a human to not be an unscrupulous bully to a group of people just because they originally come from somewhere different to you. The Rohingya Muslims aren’t recognised as citizens of Burma, meaning they have no rights and very little access to education and healthcare.
A Rohingya boy at an unregistered internally displaced person camp in Arakhan state.
While in Sittwe, some of my contacts told me about Rohingya women being kept at a military base. I tracked down some of the eyewitnesses, but I needed to get close to the camp to confirm what I’d heard. Bear in mind that taking pictures and video of a Burmese military base obviously isn’t something to be taken lightly, and the people who’d agreed to take me there risked their lives if they were caught.
The evidence I obtained during my week in Sittwe strongly implies that the Burmese military is imprisoning Rohingya women from the Arakhan region and using them as sex slaves. That evidence has been passed on to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a United Nations agency dealing with labour issues, who have lodged a complaint to the Burmese government and launched an investigation in an attempt to rescue the women.
Eyewitness testimony of a military camp situated a few miles from Sittwe town (and home to Regiment 270) describes around 20 women and three children under the age of eight being held at the camp. One of the witnesses, Amina (name changed), described walking past the camp when she heard voices calling out to her. The imprisoned women asked Amina if she was Muslim; she is.
“Please help us. If you can help us escape from here you will go to jannah (heaven),” one woman told her. “Many military men come, we can’t breathe. We want to become Muslim again. If we stay like this we will go to hell.” The intended meaning of what was said was, Amina felt, clear: these women are being raped, and they don’t have to say it explicitly for anyone to understand what’s taking place.
The prisoners asked Amina to pass the message on to someone who could help. “Our parents can’t find us,” they added.
A Rohingya woman at a medical clinic. Photo by Dougal Thomas.
The women only managed to speak to Amina because it was Burmese Independence Day and the soldiers were away. “We’ve been arrested here for quite a long time now. They have left us today because they have a special visitor,” they told Amina. The women continued, telling Amina that if the word was spread too much that the military would kill them, as well as warning her that she was at risk of being killed herself if she was spotted talking to them.
Amina saw three children inside the camp. Two of them popped their heads up on the windowsills and one came up to the fence so that Amina could pass through some vegetables she’d collected. “The women were crying,” she told me. “Some of them called me daughter, others called me sister.”
Amina described some of the women as pregnant, which could indicate that they’ve been prisoners since the June or October violence and have become pregnant during their imprisonment. Information relayed from various sources indicates that local villagers are aware that women are being kept as prisoners but are too scared to speak out. And as Rohingya aren’t recognised as citizens of Burma – and therefore have no rights – it’s fair to assume that the punishment inflicted on them for making these kinds of allegations wouldn’t exactly be regulated.
A Rohingya burnt to the ground in Arakhan state. Photo by Spike Johnson.
An 18-year-old Rohingya man I interviewed described another camp 20 minutes away (which is home to the medical regiment), where another woman was apparently being held under similar conditions. He was one of around 14 rice paddy workers who went to speak Rakhine with the woman, the language spoken by the Buddhist population of Arakhan. The woman replied, “Don’t speak Rakhine with me any more, I am Muslim and a prisoner here.”
She then told the men her father’s name and where she was from. They asked her what she was doing at a military camp if she was Muslim, and if she was ready to come with them. She replied, “I have two children,” implying that her children are being used to keep her at the camp. This evidence has also been passed on to the ILO.
I tracked down other eyewitnesses, but they were mostly too afraid to speak. One woman who’d seen the women imprisoned at Regiment 270’s camp initially agreed to speak to me, but backed out after her husband threatened to divorce her if she spoke to any journalists about the situation. The Rohingya have no rights or official form of protection, and those who do speak to journalists are risking their lives, so the reluctance to divulge what they know is perfectly understandable.
The last known sighting of these women was at the end of March and it’s uncertain whether they’re still alive. It’s also uncertain if the women are still at the camp or have been split up into different camps. But what is certain is that there are innocent Rohingya women being held captive by the Burmese military and plenty of locals know about it, only it’s impossible for them to do anything about it without the threat of losing their lives.
Follow Assed on Twitter: @AssedBaig
More stuff about Burma and the Rohingya:
Copyright © 2013 Vice Media Inc.
International solidarity should take its cue from the women affected, not try to impose values on communities
April 11, 2013
Another week, another heated debate over the tactics and language used by the feminist protest group Femen, which last Thursday launched an International Topless Jihad Day. The group, started in Ukraine, uses topless protest as a way to raise the profile of women’s rights. The day of action was called in response to threats received by a Tunisian Femen activist, Amina Tyler, for posting topless pictures of herself on Facebook.
With slogans such as “nudity is freedom” and statements such as “topless protests are the battle flags of women’s resistance, a symbol of a woman’s acquisition of rights over her own body”, Femen claims the removal of clothes in public as the key indicator of the realisation of women’s rights and the most effective type of activism. Everything else is seen as not radical enough and failing anyway. By these standards, countries in north Africa and the Middle East and communities from those countries living in Europe are seen to be falling far short.
It argues that it is “transforming female sexual subordination into aggression, and thereby starting the real war” by “bare breasts alone”. Using your naked body can be a legitimate form of a protest of last resort – there is a long history of using naked protest and the threat of it outside Europe. However, the way it has been used by Femen feeds into and reinforces a racist and orientalist discourse about the women and men of north Africa and the Middle East. With statements such as “as a society, we haven’t been able to eradicate our Arab mentality towards women”, Femen positions women of the region as veiled and oppressed by their men as opposed to the enlightened and liberated women of the west who live in a developed and superior society where they have the “freedom” to remove their clothes.
We know this is not true. Black women (and I’m using black as a political term to denote shared and continued experiences of racism and colonisation) are not all (and only) oppressed and black men are not all oppressors. Women in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand do not live in a feminist utopia. There continue to be active and vibrant women’s rights movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The feminist story belongs to all women, everywhere.
Femen’s actions also come at a time of intensifying international backlash against women’s rights that is increasingly being framed, perpetuated and accepted by male elites as rooted in “the west” and imposed on other countries in a form of cultural imperialism. Unfortunately, statements from white French women saying things like “better naked than the burqa” feed this narrative and are more likely to damage rather than support the struggles of the women they call their sisters.
Its defenders may say that Femen means well but having good intentions is far from enough. There is a long and problematic history of colonial feminism and the “good intentions” of outsiders using racialised notions to “save women over there”. This actively causes harm, including when communities react to this by holding on to static notions of “culture” and “tradition” in the face of outside challenge as a way to resist colonialism and racism. Women’s rights becomes the battleground with feminists from these communities and countries often left in a double bind, stuck between trying to reject racist ideas of black men and communities and challenging their attitudes.
We need a politics of international feminist solidarity that integrates a gender, race and post-colonial power analysis and takes its cue from the women affected and those who are already challenging gender inequality. As I have argued elsewhere, a more holistic and nuanced approach would consider how patriarchy combines with racism, neo-colonialism and global capitalism to create a fundamentally unjust world. We need to think about how our decisions, from where we shop to the issues about which we remain silent, affect the lives of women and girls in other countries.
Femen has continued to be unapologetic about its tactics and language and refused to address its blatant racism. When you are criticised by those “for” whom you are meant to be working, the response should be to think critically on your actions. Its latest piece offers no self-reflection or attempt to acknowledge criticism from women’s rights activists from the region, only self-aggrandisement. To paraphrase Gayatri Spivak, white women will not save black women from black men. The role of feminists from outside should be to support the work of the women in the communities concerned, not add to the problem. International feminist solidarity is crucial but this is not the way to do it. A true ally does not use racism to attempt to defeat patriarchy.
Copyright © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited.
By Laila Alawa
Muslim-American activist, blogger and outspoken feminist
April 10, 2013
I am a proud Muslim-American woman, and I am tired. I am tired of being told that I am oppressed. That I have no voice. That I need to be liberated.
I am tired, and I am speaking out for the rights of my and other fellow Muslim sisters to be able to dress and be how they wish to be.
When I first heard about the ‘titslamism’ campaign that the radical feminist organization FEMEN was undertaking, I regarded it with apathy. Their original mission seemed to be intended to raise awareness around the Tunisian activist Amina Tyler, a woman who posted a photo of her bare breasts to the FEMEN Tunisia Facebook page and received backlash from the Tunisian government for doing so. As a result, FEMEN opted to begin protesting in front of Islamic centers around the world, baring their breasts in an effort to deal with Islamism.
Or so they purported.
In actuality, however, their campaign is not aligned with what they supposedly intended. FEMEN and its supporters have banked on what they feel is ‘politically correct’ these days to tap into: a healthy dose of Islamophobia with a heavy dash of sex appeal. Inna Shevchenko, the leader of FEMEN, backs up these allegations in a response she wrote addressing the very Muslim women who protested the efforts of her campaign to ‘free’ them:
So, sisters, (I prefer to talk to women anyway, even knowing that behind them are bearded men with knives). You say to us that you are against Femen, but we are here for you and for all of us, as women are the modern slaves and it’s never a question of colour of skin. … And you can put as many scarves as you want if you are free tomorrow to take it off and to put it back the next day but don’t deny millions of your sisters who have fear behind their scarves, don’t deny that there are million of your sisters who have been raped and killed because they are not following the wish of Allah!”
As the very woman who is supposedly being ‘freed’ by these protests, I am offended and disgusted. As a covered Muslim woman, I am greeted on a daily basis with passersby who tell me that I no longer need to wear the headscarf because I am in America. In this exact statement supposedly freeing Muslim women from the clothes they seem ‘forced’ to don, there is a level of oppression being expressed, as though there is only one way to be ‘free.’ The same beliefs are employed in FEMEN’s offensive and ultimately pointless protests.
I anticipate there being a number of comments posted to this article notifying me that my father will stone me once he hears that I’ve spoken out (he will not, he is a sweet, supportive man, as most men are in the Islamic faith), that if I were ‘back home’ where I ‘came from’, I would be forced into a hut with four other women and raped on a daily basis under the guise of Islam (I come from Syria and Denmark, neither of which engage in those supposed practices, practices that are not condoned in Islam, although unjust instances of domestic violence still occur under the guise of the faith). So, for any readers who quickly scan through this piece and begin complaining about my so-called oppression, recognize that I am fully free and require no sort of help on your part.
FEMEN protests display a blatant expression of orientalism and colonialism in their belief that there is only one way to be free: through the utter disrobing of all garments covering the body. In perpetuating the belief that there is only one way to go about being free, FEMEN provides a narrow-minded solution that is not feasible for anyone else to fit into. Rather than being revolutionary, FEMEN utilizes the same rhetoric used in colonial history to simplify women to just their attire as a representation of their ultimate freedom. Amusingly, topless protests are not even legally permitted in the free nations in which the FEMEN protests take place — effectively contradicting the freedom that FEMEN attempts to express to Muslim women as being the only way to live. I have not heard a single Muslim woman speak out about how she now feels freed due to the FEMEN protests.
Why is that the case? Is it because all of the — as Inna so condescendingly put it — “bearded men with knives” are holding Muslim women back from speaking out? No.
It is because we have no need to be freed by a group of condescending protesters, all skinny, white and fitting squarely into the acceptable media paradigm of ‘true beauty.’ It’s like a random stranger telling you how to eat ‘better,’ even though they have no information on who you are or how you manage your daily nutritional intake.
Just as many past colonialist movements have only served to hurt, rather than help, the very people they pretend to care about, so too does FEMEN with its movement to ‘free’ Muslim women from the imaginary oppressors. n its attempts to bring attention towards the movement, FEMEN blatantly shut off any attempts for a dialogue, telling Muslim women that we have no right to speak out on the very issues that we are supposedly being hurt by.
I speak out not because a bearded man told me to, not because I am nothing but, as Inna stated, a puppet for “dictatorial countries to promote the official position of the government… .” I speak out because the FEMEN protests offend and infuriate me, as a Muslim woman, as a covered woman, as a feminist, and as an equal human being in this world. I am tired, and I am speaking out for my own and fellow Muslim sisters’ right to be able to dress as we like and be who we wish to be in this world.
My choice to cover is my own, and FEMEN’s very protest to uncover is oppression in itself.
Follow Laila Alawa on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lulainlife
Copyright © 2013 TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc.
You say you live the way you want. Being fifth wife in harem the maximum you can be is the favorite wife… Right?
Sisters, we don’t care how many times your men are praying, but we care a lot what do they do in between. We care a lot about violence and aggression, we care a lot when your fathers, brothers and husbands are raping and killing, when they call to stone your sisters, we care a lot when they burn embassies etc, and all that for Allah!"
— FEMEN Leader Inna Shevchenko, Topless in the Country of Hijab?, April 8, 2013