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.
By Zeinab Khalil
April 11, 2013
Femen, a Ukraine-based self-identified “sextremist” women’s movement, labeled April 4 as “International Topless Jihad Day.” It was meant to be a day of global demonstrations in support of a young Tunisian woman who sparked many reactions when she circulated photos online of her naked body marked up with politically-charged messages that challenged social norms. Years ago, when the veil-ban was a hot topic in France, Femen staged protests where they dressed in burqas before collectively stripping. More recently, the group demonstrated in Stockholm in front of the Egyptian embassy with their bare bodies displaying phrases like “Sharia is not a constitution,” “Freedom for women!” and “No Islamism, yes secularism!”
Before hearing anything about this event, April 4 was a big day for me, too. After months of rehearsing, it was the night I would perform in the campus production of The Hijabi Monologues. I was excited for this rare platform to share the stories of Muslim women’s diverse, complex experiences; honest and humanizing narratives that discuss our celebrations and challenges.
To Femen, however, this sort of initiative would be cast as irrelevant, even pitiful, because as it turns out, I, along with millions of Muslim women around the globe, am suffering from a case of “false-consciousness.” To Femen, the very idea behind hijab, and, more generally, religion (read: Islam) is intrinsically, solely and perpetually harmful to women. This is where Femen comes in to save us and help us realize a self-affirmation that we otherwise would never experience. Thanks to the efforts of those who staged topless actions in front of mosques and embassies across Europe with makeshift beards, towels on their heads, painted crescents on their breasts and signs that read, “Muslim women, let’s get naked!” I should now feel supported, affirmed and liberated.
Shockingly, I don’t.
My aversion to Femen has little to do with their sensationalist tactics and everything to do with their exclusivist approach to feminism, imperialist rhetoric of salvation and simplistic assumptions on liberation, all of which are far from what the group’s message sets out to be: radical and progressive.
The group’s exclusivist approach reminds me of the first and second waves of feminism in the United States, where the mainstream women’s movement marginalized women who didn’t agree with its approach and instead sought to define its own concerns and struggles as the most pressing and as “universal.” As a result, Third World feminists during this era were pressured to choose between adopting the struggle for women’s liberation or ethnic liberation. They defied this restricting binary framework and instead called for a more interconnected approach that simultaneously addresses multiple structures of oppression. There are valuable lessons to be learned from this phase of the women’s movement, but Femen isn’t paying attention. The group insists on a selective approach that highlights oppression, prioritizing gender and leaving all other markers of identity — race, religion, sexuality and class — unnoticed on the backburner.
Even more unsettling, Femen’s calls for “Muslim women, unveil!” summon images of colonized Algeria, where French women regularly staged public “unveiling ceremonies” for Algerian women under the cry of “Vive L’Algérie Francaise!” Local norms, especially around women’s sartorial choices, were used by colonists to justify subjugation. In order to progress and “civilize” the indigenous, Algerian women were made to unveil so that they could become “free” under French occupation. Femen adopts a similar tone where Muslim women can only realize liberation through the imposed aid of their white European counterparts.
I’m tired of the trite Eurocentric assumption that one’s feminist credentials are reflected and validated through choices of dress. Time and again, mainstream Western feminism has sought to dictate and prescribe the concerns and needs of other women without including them in the conversation. By deciding that the biggest challenges to liberation are rooted in “culture,” Femen dismisses the multiple elephants in the room that stand in the way of liberation.
Guess what, Femen? Challenging society’s patriarchal norms is on my daily agenda, but I’m just as equally enraged with the racist, corporatist, global imperialist structures that perpetuate patriarchy and wreck women’s lives over and over again — especially women who look like me whom you claim to be liberating. In fact, your efforts don’t support my sisters, but distract from the fearless organizing they do every single day, even if you actively choose to overlook it.
The feminism that I know isn’t one that denies the agency of women or feeds off of explicitly racist tropes that infantilize women. While I find Femen’s approach off-putting and regressive, I won’t allow this to have me second-guess my commitment to various feminist causes. Feminism, like most other movements and ideologies, has been used overtime to justify militarism, war, neoliberalism and colonization. Despite this, I’ll continue to advocate my own understanding of feminism — one rooted in equality, humility and self-determination.
To my well-meaning saviors, please understand that the misogynistic, racist ordeals I experience regularly aren’t oppressions that I can disentangle from one another. In this sense, your bigoted, exclusivist movement becomes an additional battle and a burden to Muslim women activists instead of a source of empowerment. Understand that you can’t save or support women whom you see as lacking the ability to make critical decisions of their own. So either take a moment to listen to the voices of the Muslim women you drown out and accept that their experiences are legitimate, or get out of our way.
Zeinab Khalil is an LSA junior.
Copyright © 2013 The Michigan Daily.
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