#DalitWomenFight

Content Warning: This piece contains descriptions and statistics concerning the physical and sexual violence against and the murders of Dalit people.

Dalit women all over South Asia are starting and leading historic movements to end caste-apartheid and caste-based sexual violence. The #DalitWomenFight United States tour began in September, and self-organized Dalit women like Anjum Singh, Manisha Mashaal, and Thenmozhi Soundararajan have been sharing their stories no matter how persistently Hindu fundamentalists have tried to silence them.

I attended a die-in in Times Square on October 17, standing in front of the Red Steps, listening to these women’s stories and recognized that caste is something so much larger than religion. The caste system is racist, classist, and colorist. Caste apartheid is anti-blackness and anti-indigenous. An institutional system of violence, caste is a death sentence from birth, with your family’s caste ranking determining your entire life, including your job, spiritual purity, and social standing. Those at the bottom are condemned to a life of exploitation and violent discrimination. The caste system has a death count, and it is not a small one.  In 2014, over 744 Dalits were killed, many of them children burned alive at the hands of Hindu fundamentalists

Dalit Women Fight protest

#DalitWomenFight protestors, varied in age, gender identity, and color, perform a die-in in Times Square. They lie on the ground covered in fake blood behind a poster featuring an image of the Indian subcontinent, blood-spattered, titled “ATROCITY NATION #ENDCASTEAPARTHEIDNOW.”

Caste is everywhere in India and even more intensified in the diaspora, where Hindus facing xenophobia and racism, cling to fundamentalism and traditionalism for safety. Unfortunately, for Dalits and Adivasis, this foundation of the caste system in diasporic life results in an apartheid that has simply translated into a different language. In India, upper-caste Hindus, often light-skinned, receive lower interest rates for loans, better-paying jobs, and occupy most political offices. In North America, South Asian institutions carry over job discrimination, with only a handful of Dalit faculty in the over fifty South Asian and Asian Studies college departments.

India’s Hindu varna, or caste, system has been under scrutiny for decades. Divided hierarchically into five groups, the caste system consists of the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Sudras, and the so-called “Untouchables.” These pariahs have given themselves the name Dalit, meaning “oppressed,” or more specifically, “broken by oppression, but defined by struggle,” to call for the abolition of this system. Hierarchically, this system is ordered by race or color, light-skinned Brahmins at the top and Black, dark-skinned, and indigenous Dalits and Adivasis at the bottom. 

The Dalits are numbered at about 260 million in India’s 1.3-billion person population, by no means an invisible number. However, they live segregated lives, residing in separate villages, praying in separate places of worship, drinking from separate water fountains, and learning in separate schools. They are not allowed to wear shoes in the presence of upper caste people or to drink and eat from the same utensils. The caste system is a lethal one, in which Dalit women are raped, murdered, and burned, where Dalit men are castrated, where the Dalit people are slaughtered, lynched, and brutally assaulted time and time again. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, two Dalits are assaulted every hour and four Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched every day. This violence is meant to silence Dalit communities, to keep Dalit women from receiving justice.

But they cannot silence Dalit women.

I myself have a complex, yet privileged, caste identity, coming from a light-skinned Brahmin father and a darker-toned Vaishnavi non-Brahmin mother. Walking in the dusty streets of India, I would be perceived as Brahmin walking alone next to my father, yet non-Brahmin while accompanying my mother. Beyond that, I am gender nonconforming, or third-gender, unsure of my place in India and existing outside of a caste system that has yet to accommodate people like myself. It is vital, however, that I use my caste privilege to bolster the voices of Dalit women, who do not have and have never had the same opportunities as myself, let alone the privilege to ignore their caste identities as I have until now.

Only in liberation for the Dalits and Adivasis of India can we all achieve liberation. Until Dalit women are free, no woman is free.

Dalit Women Fight

Three Dalit women hold lit-up signs that say #DalitWomenFight

 

NYC to Ferguson: A Reflection

Last Tuesday night, thousands of protestors filled Union Square and marched throughout New York City, shouting “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” and “No justice, no peace!” in response to the Michael Brown verdict. The day before, history was repeated as the grand jury in St. Louis County, Missouri failed to indict Darren Wilson, and yet another white officer was set free after killing an innocent black teenager.

The protest began on the northwest corner of Union Square, as a crowd of people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds held up signs saying “Black Lives Matter” and “Indict Darren Wilson.” Even before the march began, I witnessed the first of our obstacles: conservative news network reporters. One journalist stood in the middle of the crowd shouting at two black protestors for refusing to answer his questions. One of the demonstrators responded, “This is not about you. You are not getting shot at. When you start getting shot at, call me. Now please leave. Get out of here.”

Photo by Priyanka Bhatt

Protestors gather in Union Square. Photo by Priyanka Bhatt.

The group of over 3,000 protestors marched around Union Square, on Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, through Times Square, and across the Manhattan Bridge. One section of the group also walked through Lincoln Tunnel. A police barricade was set up at Williamsburg Bridge, where NYPD refused to let protestors cross. A group of white protestors responded by trying to break down the barriers and asked people to help them. Several people of color were arrested as the police officers at the barricade became aggressive, leading most of the demonstrators to turn around in the opposite direction. For most of the journey, NYPD officers played games on their phones as they walked by us, groaning and rolling their eyes as if we were children they were forced to baby sit. Many joked and pointed their fingers, attempting to reduce our movement against racial injustice and hate crimes to a laughing matter.

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Remembering Leslie Feinberg

I remember first encountering an article by Leslie Feinberg in Workers World where zie wrote about the legacy of queer and/or trans activists of color who participated in left, black power, queer, trans liberation, and AIDS activist movements. It was in this article that I learned about Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a Japanese American AIDS activist who was born in an internment camp and became radicalized during the Civil Rights revolution, and Ortez Alderson, a black queer radical with roots in an anti-war activism, the gay liberation front and also an ACT UP Chicago and NYC member. I deeply appreciated how Leslie documented and preserved this history of resistance, which is so often obscured by dominant narratives that treat black and queer freedom struggle as separate at best and antagonistic at worst. For Leslie Feinberg, struggles against racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy, trans misogyny, police violence, and racism were united and inextricable from one another. In hir 2007 speech at a meeting of hosted Palestinian queer organization ASWAT in Ramallah, Leslie pointed to these connections: “the imperialists—the U.S. to Israelis—use the experiences of women, of gays, of transgenders as pretexts for imperialist war.” Leslie dedicated the proceeds from sales of the Hebrew edition of Stone Butch Blues to ASWAT.

Leslie’s nonfiction work Transgender Warriors, traces trans identities throughout history. Leslie’s writing for Workers World on queer and/or trans of color organizing, trans history, and interviews with Sylvia Rivera worked against historical erasure and disavowal. Hir writing for Workers World highlighted queer and/or trans of color left activism from the 1960s and 70s, figures such as Kiyoshi Kuromiya and Ortez Alderson, and moments of convergence such as the Black Panther’s Revolutionary Convention in 1970s which Sylvia Rivera, Afeni Shakur, and Huey P. Newton attended. Leslie understood that opening up genealogies of queer and trans of color resilience and resistance can counter historical erasure and invisibility. Leslie often marched with and was also arrested with Sylvia Rivera during direct actions. In Transgender Warriors, Leslie describes being at a Palestine solidarity rally in the early 1970s and seeing signs protesting the massacre at Attica prison as well as the Vietnam war: “One banner particularly haunted me: it read ‘Stop the War Against Black America,’ which made me realize it wasn’t just distant wars that needed opposing.” Leslie saw the connection between domestic racialized warfare in America and U.S. warfare abroad.

Towards the end of hir life, Leslie worked in solidarity with CeCe McDonald, writing and visiting her in prion and getting arrested in protest of the white supremacist, anti-queer, and anti-trans violence she faced as well as of the violence of the state’s incarceration of McDonald. Arguing that zie’s Jewish, trans, working class, and lesbian identities as well as white privilege demanded that zie speak out against oppression and violences, Leslie stated “CeCe McDonald survived a fascist hate crime; now she’s sentenced as she struggles to survive an ongoing state hate crime…As a white, working-class, Jewish, transgender lesbian revolutionary I will not be silent as this injustice continues!” Feinberg dedicated the 20th anniversary edition of Stone Butch Blues to CeCe McDonald and made a call for supporters to send in photos of solidarity, to create an archive and multimedia show of support to free CeCe, all our siblings, and ourselves.

Che Gossett is the Community Archivist and Student Coordinator at BCRW. They have also written about Leslie and hir lifetime’s work here.

Broadening the Scope of Anti-Domestic Violence Work with Caritas Doha and Sakhi

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In anticipation of an upcoming volume of New Feminist Solutions (NFS), last month, executive director of Sakhi for South Asian Women Tiloma Jayasinghe and her colleagues came together to discuss ways to broaden and transform the anti-domestic violence movement so that it brings the needs of communities of color to the center.

For April’s episode of Dare to Use the F-Word, the BCRW’s monthly podcast, Amrita Doshi and I wanted to focus on a fellow young feminist working at Sakhi. Her work may not seem obviously related to Sakhi’s mission, but it is in fact crucial to the organization’s overall goals. Caritas Doha is a fellow at Sakhi working on an initiative surrounding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. DACA is an immigration-related Executive Order that targets undocumented immigrants who came to the United States when they were children and who have lived in the US most of their lives. If applicants are approved they receive a two year protection from deportation and the right to work.

Image by takomabibelot from Flickr Creative Commons

Image by takomabibelot from Flickr Creative Commons

Both Amrita and I have previous connections to Sakhi: Amrita has been interning with Sakhi since January, while last semester I worked with the organization through a class (co-taught by Barnard’s Professors Bernstein and Jakobsen) called Theorizing Activism. As a part of this class, students were split into five groups which then were partnered with local activist groups in New York City. Three of my classmates and I were partnered with Sakhi and, under Tiloma’s supervision, researched the “state of the field” of South Asian women’s organizations across the country.

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“I Use My Love to Guide Me”: Conversations on Prison Abolition, Love, and Safety

Over the last few months, BCRW Activist Fellow Reina Gossett has hosted several discussions around the topic of prison abolition, especially as it relates to vulnerable communities, specifically queer and trans people. To provide context, research assistant Carly Crane offered useful definitions of the prison-industrial complex and prison abolition, and compiled links to resources, key figures, and organizations working towards prison abolition.

This coming Monday, April 21st, at “I Use My Love to Guide Me”: Surviving and Thriving in the Face of Impossible Situations, Reina and fellow abolitionist Dean Spade will be joined by CeCe McDonald to share pieces of their previous conversation and engage with the questions and comments of community members.

Reina and Dean spoke with BCRW first in a series of videos on prison abolition and its importance to trans and gender-nonconforming folks, followed by an online Q&A in which they answered questions on topics including trans women’s representation in Orange is the New Black, what justice for Islan Nettles could look like without relying on the state, and how to address critiques of restorative justice programs. Below is the online conversation in full:

Last month, CeCe McDonald joined Dean and Reina to further discuss prison abolition, love, safety, and surviving – especially in what Reina terms the “impossible situations … the violence of poverty and transphobia” put people into: from attackers on the street to prison systems.
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Social Justice Approach to Ending Domestic Violence in Context

In March 2012, Sakhi for South Asian Women, in collaboration with BCRW, brought together NYC based anti-violence organizations to discuss policy goals and create a shared vision of an inclusive anti-domestic violence movement. The 2012 gathering was a follow up to a summit held in 2011. At that time, Sakhi and a number of other organizations and individuals began to explore the challenges of building a broader anti-violence movement within a social and gender justice framework. In a community organizing approach, Sakhi reached out to related organizations and allies in and around New York City, and also connected with policy advocates, service providers and allies from the national anti-violence and racial, reproductive, environmental, gender justice and other social justice movements across the country. With support and input from this rich network, Sakhi organized a two-day event in late October 2011, at New York University’s Kimmel Center. Sakhi worked to find support for travel and lodging to bring in participants from states including New Mexico, Illinois, and California, and from Canada.

The latest installment of BCRW’s New Feminist Solutions series explores the findings of this summit and follow up meeting, through stories from communities of color who have been responding to domestic violence within the framework of social justice. This post provides some context for the upcoming report as well as a starting point for further discussion on the domestic violence movement.

Women from Sakhi at the Summit Preventing Violence

Women from Sakhi at the Preventing Violence, Promoting Justice summit

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African Women’s Rights and Resilience

To celebrate National Women’s Day, Barnard will host the African Women’s Rights and Resilience symposium with Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, co-sponsored by the Gbowee Peace Foundation, Barnard’s Africana Studies Department, the Athena Center for Women’s Leadership, BCRW, and the Barnard College President’s office. The symposium will consist of three panel discussions addressing integral points of continental women’s movements: “Women’s Rights and Transnational Feminisms,” “African Men and Feminisms,” and “Intergenerational Organizing.”

Leymah Gbowee leads a group of women

This semester, I am taking Professor Tina Campt‘s Feminist Theory course, a staple for any Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major. I was happy to discover that this semester’s course is co-taught with Ms. Gbowee. I often find myself treading the lines between optimism and realism, so it is easy to understand why, when reading that Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee would be co-teaching this course, I assumed the syllabus had a typo. After reading excerpts from her book, Mighty Be Our Powers, and watching the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, I was in disbelief as Ms. Gbowee casually walked into my classroom, sat down and introduced herself. I don’t think I am adequately expressing the gravity of this moment: Leymah Gbowee walked into my class–MY classroom–she who helped lead a women’s peace movement with a coalition of Muslim and Christian women, helping to bring an end to the Second Liberian Civil War and to fight the violence against women’s bodies. I could go on and on about her incredible work, but I will spare you the time. Instead I will focus on how she approached our class discussion.

During this class Professor Campt proposed that we interrogate the relationship between “agency”, “resilience”, and “redress”. What stood out to me in particular was the definition of redress. Saidiya Hartman writes in Scenes of Subjection: “redress is a remembering of the social body that occurs precisely in the recognition and articulation of devastation articulation of the broken body.” Redress becomes synonymous with restorative justice.

Ms. Gbowee approached this discussion through the physicality of students’ bodies. She asked two students to join her in the front of the class as she tied them together at the wrists with her scarf. She then asked them to walk in opposite directions and separate themselves. When they were unable to, she elaborated on how progress is limited if we are burdened down by the individuals who harm us. Their bodies were used as representation for ways in which we can begin to attain restorative justice, first through the act of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not to be conflated with forgetting, or passive acceptance of malice, never to be mistaken for weakness, because it requires true strength to forgive those who have committed heinous acts against you.

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Guidelines to Prevent Abuse of Children with Disabilities: Report from New Delhi

While pursuing a major in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies I have studied the concept of intersectionality, an idea that states that different identities interact with one another to contribute to the person’s place in society with respect to systems of privilege and, conversely, oppression. The idea that oppression is never just based on race, class, gender, or ability but an interlocking of all these identities is an idea that I find extremely important. I am also interested in how these systems operate within a culture that marginalizes and stigmatizes disability, especially amongst women and girls.

This summer I had the opportunity to intern with the National Trust, which is an organization under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in New Delhi, India. Its primary function is to ensure the legal protection of rights of people with disabilities. The Center was working on a legal guideline to help protect children with disabilities from exploitation, violence, and sexual abuse. The guideline is intended to bridge the gap between existing laws regarding children and people with disabilities to ensure that the Indian legal framework was equipped to deal with violations, especially those involving sexual abuse, in a stringent manner.

Furthermore, what made the guideline urgent was the fact that the government and private institutions that looked after these children were currently operating without a system in place to correct violations including exploitation, violence, neglect, and sexual abuse. The protection and well-being of children admitted to homes supported by government and non-governmental agencies are pivotal. Some of the key features of the guidelines were:

1. Proper registration of institutions under the government, whether private or public entities, to make sure these institutions were complying under the existing laws of the country. The drafting committee found that because of the structure of facilities that dealt with children with disabilities, they were registered with the government under laws related to either child protection or disability. The committee was keen to consolidate this data and ensure that every facility was accounted for by both laws.

2. Mandatory sensitivity training for all people involved in the administrative structure of these institutions. The guideline emphasized the use of language and gestures while interacting with children with disability. It is crucial that all administration including support staff and cleaning staff should interact with the children according to their training. Hurtful language and gestures not only affect the child, but also make the facility an unsafe and inhospitable place.

3. Developing a sex education program targeting adolescents with disabilities. While protecting children with disabilities from sexual abuse was obviously an important goal of the policy, I was pleasantly surprised to note that there was a clause on sex education for adolescents with disabilities. Sex education is not a component in the education curriculum in India, and so to have it included in this sphere is progressive, even groundbreaking. This gave adolescents with disabilities an opportunity to own their desire, an idea that is often ignored even today. While efficient implementation of this guideline remains to be seen, it is certainly a first and most important step towards the protection and prevention of violence and sexual abuse amongst children with disabilities.

Damini Mohan is a junior at Barnard College majoring in Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies and South Asian Studies. She is a Student Research Assistant at the Barnard Center for Research on Women.

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Exploring Prison Abolition

On February 7, BCRW will be hosting its first ever online event, No One is Disposable, a discussion with activists Dean Spade and Reina Gossett about prison abolition and its intersections with queer and trans movements. Videos featuring discussions between Gossett and Spade, produced by BCRW, are already on the website and they provide the background and context for the conversations of the February event. No One is Disposable and its accompanying videos work to sort out the harmful ramifications and violent nature of the prison industrial complex, specifically for the lives of transgender people.

But what does abolitionism mean for other social justice movements? How does the “prison industrial complex” (PIC) reach into peoples’ lives—both those in and out of jail—and cause harm? This blog post is like a “Part 2” to a post I wrote earlier on the BCRW blog with information and resources for a conversation on prison abolition. Now that we’ve laid the groundwork for action, where will the conversations take us? What could it really mean for our society if no one were disposable?

As a feminist and newbie social activist, I wanted to work out some of the topics involving prison abolition—ending the “War on Drugs,” for instance—for myself: How do feminists, and how do I as a feminist, feel about prison abolition? How does a prison abolitionist perspective and a radical opposition to “prison culture” relate to or possibly enrich more “mainstream” feminist causes like reproductive rights, workforce equality, or anti-rape and anti-abuse campaigns?

When I first started reading prison abolitionists’ blogs and writing, I was struck by their detailed documentation of US “prison culture.” The logic of mass incarceration, I learned, has seeped into our culture. Expanding prisons and booming profits for private companies is either entirely ignored by most of the American public, or quite literally counted as economic growth, entirely disregarding the reality of the human cost—or perhaps accepting it, as dealing in humans is how those invested in the American prison system makes money. A booming American business is a booming American business, right? As this post by Michael Shammas on the Huffington Post points out, there is a (largely unacknowledged) tension between public good and private interests when privatization of the prison system manipulates public mechanisms for private profit. For example:

“Corrections Corporation of America and other private prison companies motivated by higher profit margins have lobbied for mandatory minimums, ‘three-strike’ laws, and ‘truth-in-sentencing’ laws that drive up the prison population. Thus, one man’s incarceration—his ruined life—is another man’s livelihood.”

(For more information on how private prisons make money, check out this article from Salon.com.) As Shammas puts it earlier in his post: “Freedom lost is money gained.”

Reina Gossett + Dean Spade (Part 3): What About the Dangerous People? from BCRW Videos on Vimeo.

This is where prison abolitionists go deeper than those who are simply opposed to mass incarceration: these not-quite-abolitionists still maintain there is a place, indeed, a necessity for prisons in our society, and that they belong in the hands of the state rather than a privatized industry. Prison abolitionists, on the other hand, insist that:

  • prisons are always already violent;
  • that prisons themselves are perpetrators of crimes as bad or worse than those perpetrated by convicted criminals, and;
  • that the state’s practice of condoning and implementing imprisonment not only produces and reproduces violence in our society, but makes no impact on ending or preventing crime.

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No One is Disposable: Resources and Context for a Conversation on Prison Abolition

BCRW recently released a series of four short online videos produced in in conjunction with the upcoming online event No One is Disposable: Everyday Practices of Prison Abolition, co-sponsored by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. In the videos, activists Reina Gossett and Dean Spade discuss prison abolition as a political framework, exploring why this is a top issue for those committed to supporting trans and gender-nonconforming people. In their discussions, Reina and Dean quickly run through quite a few people, organizations, and concepts that are fundamental to the diverse and ever-expanding prison abolition movement. I created this blog post to serve as a reference for the videos and discussion, to provide broader context as well as a starting point for further exploration of the prison abolition movement.

Illustration by Talcott Broadhead - People sit around a table looking at a poster labeled "Trans State Pen. We will build one in every $tate." One person relies with a dialogue bubble, "If they'll build it for us, they'll fill it WITH us." Another says, "DON'T we want to get Trans people OUT of prison?!"

“Trans State Pen” by Talcott Broadhead used in Part 2: Practicing Prison Abolition Everyday. This illustration was originally used in Dean Spade’s trans politics manifesto video Impossibility Now.

What is the “prison industrial complex”?

Here is a definition of the prison industrial complex, often referred to as the PIC, as defined by Communities Against Rape and Abuse (PDF):

“The prison industrial complex (PIC) refers to a massive multi-billion dollar industry that promotes the exponential expansion of prisons, jails, immigrant detention center, and juvenile detention centers. The PIC is represented by corporations that profit from incarceration, politicians who target people of color so that they appear to be “tough on crime,” and the media that represents a slanted view of how crime looks in our communities. In order to survive, the PIC uses propaganda to convince the public how much we need prisons; uses public support to strengthen harmful law-and-order agendas such as the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terrorism”; uses these agendas to justify imprisoning disenfranchised people of color, poor people, and people with disabilities; leverages the resulting increasing rate of incarceration for prison-related corporate investments (construction, maintenance, goods and services); pockets the profit; uses profit to create more propaganda.”

The Prison Culture blog has a useful compilation of various definitions for the PIC.

Who are prison abolitionists?

Prison abolitionists are political activists who share the goal of eliminating the “security culture” of imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment. Abolitionists stress that the prison industrial complex  is not an isolated system (this documentary, The House I Live In, traces the privatization of US prisons and the connections between prisons’ massive profits and the “War on Drugs”). In order to effect real and sustainable change we must call for not only the abolition of prison cages, but also the reorder of a society and culture dependent on security, criminality, and punishment. Prison abolitionists challenge us to change the way we think about who is free and who is not. As Reina and Dean discuss, abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal. (Much of this information is drawn from the definition provided on the Critical Resistance website.)

INCITE!

INCITE! is a “nation-wide network of radical feminists of color working to end violence against women, gender non-conforming, and trans people of color.”

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