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.
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
By The Frustrated Arab
April 6, 2013
I loathe the premise that people of colour should be ‘grateful’ that others are taking notice of their subjugation, or that they should bite their tongues and clench their fists and instead show gratitude because their varied plights are being in some way ‘acknowledged‘ by others.
“Shouldn’t you be glad that people are recognizing these issues?” is the arrogant lamentation which customarily follows even the most caustious criticism of these perverse pseudo-solidarity actions – FEMEN’s nude predominantly white, predominantly thin photo-ops “for Amina“, a 19 year-old Tunisian woman who posed for them with the words “my body belongs to me, it is not the source of anyone’s honour” scrawled across her torso, being the latest example, and KONY2012 being an earlier one. This aforementioned response contends that we should withhold criticism, alleging that even being ‘noticed‘ should be good enough.
Despite having our religious attire, skin colour and even facial hair, being routinely mocked and worn as makeshift costumes as a part of ‘solidarity actions’ it is said time and time again that we should be ‘grateful‘ that anyone simply has reason enough to ‘care’.
Despite the watered down slogans of liberation and freedom being copy-pasted by the parade of online followers of groups such as FEMEN many of these same activists are so inebriated with colonial feminist doctrine that they gleefully take part in patronizing , Islamophobic and misogynistic rhetoric in response to women of colour telling them that they take great offence, that their voices will not be usurped, that they are the sole guardians of their plights and no one has the authority to speak on their behalf, no matter how allegedly ‘well-intentioned’. In response to FEMEN’s topless “jihad day” event Muslim women created #MuslimahPride on Twitter; Sofia Ahmed, one of the women behind “Muslimah Pride Day” described the campaign as follows:
“Muslimah [term for a female Muslim] pride is about connecting with your Muslim identity and reclaiming our collective voice. Let’s show the world that we oppose FEMEN and their use of Muslim women to reinforce Western imperialism.”
Using #MuslimahPride many Muslim women began voicing their disapproval of FEMEN, one such woman was Zarah Sultana who posted the following photograph on her public Twitter page, which I have received permission to post here, and which in turned catalyzed many other Muslim women to do the same in an array of languages, by women from multifarious backgrounds:
The sign reads: “I am a proud Muslimah. I don’t need “liberating”. I don’t appreciate being used to reinforce Western imperialism. You do not represent me!”
The responses Sultana received were drenched in perverse Islamophobia, sexism and pure, unashamed hatred:
“Fuck off back to your own country”, “burn in hell”, “grab your ankles and remain silent”, “Mohammad was a pedophile”, “put on your burka”, “she’s happy with her chains” etc.- all coming from those who, just moments earlier, were tweeting gleefully in support of Muslim women.
When it comes to non-natives speaking in regards to native issues – it is a path that must be tread upon lightly in order to avoid (a) tokenization and (b) the usurpation of native voices. Solidarity is great, but it is when campaigns turned publicity stunts like the ones FEMEN indulges in begin using brown bodies as props while at the same time perpetuating orientalism and engaging in blatant prejudicial acts to promote their idea of ‘liberation’. FEMEN, and other such groups, offer no solution to the undeniable subjugated of women present in the Middle East-North Africa, it is all a show of thin, white grandeur.
Simply stating that you are in solidarity, that you support a woman’s right to don the headscarf, remove it, cover/uncover etc. is in no way dubious. It is when aforementioned solidarity crosses the red line and veers into the seizure of native voices and the tokenization of these voices does this become intensely problematic, ineffective and perverse.
Also it has long been chronicled that women of colour are often left out of mainstream feminist discourse, unless it is by means of humanitarian imperialism channels where they are simply tokenised. Bell Hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins), a feminist, social activist, does a magnificent job describing this in much of her work.
In terms of the mounting questions in regards to how one is to raise awareness in light of such groups as FEMEN: you raise awareness by highlighting native voices, not co-opting them. It is your duty to amplify, not commandeer.
As Sara Salem, PhD researcher at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands, notes:
“Feminism has the potential to be greatly emancipatory by adopting an anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic and anti-Islamophobic rhetoric, instead of often actively being racist, homophobic, transphobic and Islamophobic. By clearly delineating the boundaries of what is “good” and “bad” feminism, Femen is using colonial feminist rhetoric that defines Arab women as oppressed by culture and religion, while no mention is made of capitalism, racism, or global imperialism. It is actively promoting the idea that Muslim women are suffering from “false consciousness” because they cannot see (while Femen can see) that the veil and religion are intrinsically harmful to all women.
Yet again, the lives of Muslim women are to be judged by European feminists, who yet again have decided that Islam – and the veil – are key components of patriarchy. Where do women who disagree with this fit? Where is the space for a plurality of voices? And the most important question of all: can feminism survive unless it sheds its Eurocentric bias and starts accepting that the experiences of all women should be seen as legitimate?”
Post-Colonial feminists worth mentioning, a few of many:
Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Responses to FEMEN by women of colour, others:
The Inconsistency of Femen’s Imperialist “one size fits all” Attitude by Bim Adewunmi
Femen’s Neocolonial Feminism: When Nudity Becomes A Uniform by Sara Salem
The Fast-Food Feminism of the Topless FEMEN by Mona Chollet
That’s Not What A Feminist Looks Like by Elly Badcock
The African History of Nude Protest by Maryam Kazeem
My piece on rediscovering Feminism
Is Western Patriarchal Feminism Good For Third World/Minority Women? by Azizah Al-Hibri
Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed
And two relevant books by Edward Saïd:
Culture and Imperialism
— Callie Beusman, Muslim Women Shockingly Not Grateful for Topless European Ladies Trying To ‘Save’ Them, April 5, 2013