12 Years a Slave. How About a Lifetime in Slavery ?

Moving as the film is, even more gut-wrenching is a global index published today that shows a staggering 29.8 million people serving as modern-day slaves in countries ranging from Nigeria to Myanmar.

Ten countries account for three-fourths of the world’s slaves, and India alone is host to almost half the total, according to Walk Free, an Australia-based rights group. While slavery is illegal in every country, the fight against it is not a big priority for most governments, and some forms of the practice – including forced marriage and trafficking of women and children for domestic work and as sex workers – may not be considered slavery in these countries.

Walk Free doesn’t break down the numbers to show how many modern-day slaves are women, but it’s likely to be a high proportion of the total. Yet there’s not much action on say, domestic workers in Asia or the Middle East, a practice that encourages the trafficking of women. Despite reports of violence against domestic workers in cities from New Delhi to Dubai, the demand – ironically fueled at least in part by greater numbers of working women – hasn’t abated.

Some Philippine recruiters recently decided to stop sending maids to Singapore till the issue of the payment of a placement fee is addressed – which often leaves maids with little cash in hand. Indonesia has demanded more safety for its workers in Singapore after a frightening number fell to their deaths cleaning windows in high-rise apartments.

worker

Yet, while the decision in Hong Kong to not grant residency permits to domestic workers who have lived there for years has fueled the debate for greater rights, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort to end slave-like conditions – or even grant a mandatory day off to domestic workers.

So for every country that steps in to try and protect the rights of its women who are trafficked to richer countries, poorer countries including Cambodia and Myanmar willingly send their womenfolk into slavery.  Public apathy is as much to blame as government inaction.

We Can Be Superheroes, Burkas And All

One wouldn’t generally expect Pakistan to produce role models for women – not since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, and not the kind for Birkin bags that a certain foreign minister is famous for.

So Geo TV’s animated kids’ show Burka Avenger has been nothing short of a revelation. It is set in a picturesque green valley, where the arrival of a villain with a long beard who shuts down the local girls’ school casts a pall of gloom. Until, that is, the appearance of a figure in a flowing black burka, who takes on the religious zealots and corrupt politicians alike. Turns out – spoiler alert – it’s a teacher, who wields the chalk by day and displays her considerable martial-arts skills by night to protect the girls’ right to education, clad in a black burka.

There are so many facts about this one could focus on, especially when the young Afghan schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban for daring to go to school is being touted for a Nobel Peace Prize. Amazingly though, some of the conversation about the Burka Avenger has centred – not on the brave, new stance of Geo TV or the much-needed focus on education or the hopes for change in depicting women on TV and as superheroes – but on her burka, and the fact that it’s a symbol of oppression. Really.

That’s a debate worth having, yes. But picking on this series for just this reason is a bit disingenuous, surely. And hey, maybe just maybe, the show’s creators meant to show the burka as also being a symbol of power. Why must superheroes everywhere conform to the Western ideal of one, including their dress code? Is it more inconceivable to have a heroine clad in a saree, a kimono, an ao dai – or, indeed, a burka – than it is to imagine one with cat’s whiskers?Image

When Constitutions Collude to Keep Women Out of Politics

Aung San Suu Kyi has just concluded a five-day visit to Singapore, her first to the city state. In her many meetings and speeches – all warm, witty and carefully delivered – she asked companies to invest responsibly in Myanmar, invited Burmese nationals in Singapore to participate in the country’s transition, and reiterated her demand that the constitution be changed, so she can run in elections to be held in 2015.

Myanmar’s constitution gives the military a lot of power in the political system and prohibits anyone with children who are foreign nationals from holding the posts of President or Vice-President. That is clearly aimed at Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British nationals.

That the military has no interest in giving up its cushy position is hardly surprising. That a woman is deliberately being sidelined from the political system in Asia is also, unfortunately, not surprising.

Women’s political participation in Eastern Asia, Southeastern Asia, South Asia and the Pacific Islands is well below the global average, according to research from Monash University. In all these regions, “there is strong resistance to women’s participation in public life evidenced in the formal statements of leaders and politicians and in the mentalities of the broader societies. Cultural, customary and religious discourses are frequently used to moralize that the ‘rightful’ place of women is NOT in politics,” the researchers wrote in a paper last year. Violence against women in politics or those seeking political office is very common in these countries, the report noted.

While gender quotas and reservations have significantly improved women’s political participation in some Asian countries, others are dragging their feet over such legislation. In India, a women’s reservation bill in India, which proposes to amend the constitution to reserve 33 per cent of all seats in the lower house of Parliament and in all state legislative assemblies for women, has languished for more than three years in the lower house. Women’s political participation in India is 11 percent.

Elsewhere, women do slightly better. In China, where Mao famously said ‘women hold up half the sky’, their political participation is about a fifth of the total, whereas in South Korea it’s 16 percent. The Philippines – where President Aquino, whose mother was once President, and who has recently appointed women to key posts including Chief Justice and Tax Collector – the participation rate is nearly a fourth, while in Thailand, where Yingluck Shinawatra is Prime Minister, albeit a mere puppet of her brother, the rate is 15 percent. Myanmar – and this should come as no surprise to Daw Suu – has the lowest score of all Asian countries measured, of less than 2 percent.

Investors rushing in to cash in on the gold rush that is Myanmar would do well to remember that statistic alongside the numbers on Myanmar’s gas reserves and its potential for mobile phone users and credit-card holders.

Love Our Goddesses, Hate Our Women

A print ad campaign in India with images of battered Hindu goddesses seeks to highlight a disturbing dichotomy in the country’s culture: a reverence for goddesses and female deities on the one hand and rising numbers of rapes and abuses of women and girls on the other. You can see the images here.

How to explain this twisted double standard? Is it the patriarchal mindset, the centuries-old preference for boys, repeated reinforcements of chauvinism in the popular culture, the lack of strong legislation, or feeble political will to take a stand? All of these and more, perhaps.

There has been a 16 percent jump in the number of reported rapes in India in the five years through 2012, and a 902 percent jump since 1971, Bloomberg reported, citing police records. In the first six months of 2013 alone, reported rapes in New Delhi soared to 806 from 330 in the same period a year earlier.

An ad campaign, no matter how striking, is not going to put an end to it, even if the men charged in the horrific Delhi gang-rape were found guilty after a speedy (by Indian standards) trial. But the campaign it has at least got people talking.

There may be fewer goddesses in Bangladesh and China,  but that doesn’t mean there’s less violence against women in these countries. Almost a quarter of men surveyed in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka, said they had committed rape at least once, according to a survey of more than 10,000 men. The survey, published in The Lancet Global Health journal,  is said to be the first multi-country one on the prevalence of rape, and is part of a UN report on violence in Asia and the Pacific.

One in 10 men said they had raped a woman who wasn’t a partner; with partners included, that number jumped to 24 percent. Just under half said they had raped more than one woman. Nearly three quarters of those who committed rape said they did so for “sexual entitlement”. The second most common reason was rape as a form of entertainment. In other words, they were bored. Makes for chilling reading.

When getting home safe is all that matters

Stunned by yet another report last month of yet another gang-rape in India, this time in Mumbai, where I lived and worked for eight years, and which I believed to be the safest city in India, the most woman-friendly. It’s hard to wrap my head around the facts of the story, given that the mill-area where the 22-year-old was raped in the presence of a male colleague is where I went into work for nearly six years. The former textile mills now house media companies and private-equity firms, malls and restaurants, and is a bustling bee-hive of activity in the centre of the city. A city that doesn’t feel safe anymore, like dozens of other Indian cities.

What’s also worrying is that recent attacks on women – including the horrendous one in New Delhi last December – appear to be targeting a certain kind of woman, in particular: educated and working, usually in the city. This is not to belittle other attacks on women that occur every day across India, where a rape reportedly takes place every 21 minutes. But it seems that the more Indian women break with tradition and embark on careers and independent lives, the more determined men are to bring them down – sometimes violently.

The blowback also targets women: following the rape and eventual death of the young woman in New Delhi last year, some offices banned women from working overtime, while others barred women from certain kinds of jobs including at call centers, which may require working night shifts. Women are being unfairly discriminated against at the workplace and denied equal opportunities, and they have no one to turn to, not even the police or lawmakers, who rather than pledge to address the security issues, have said women should not stay out late, dress provocatively or take public transport.

India has a lot to lose should its women be forced to quit work because of concerns over safety. Already, despite rising levels of female literacy, labour-force participation by women fell to 16.8 percent in 2011 from 22.4 percent in 2005, according to data from the Asian Development Bank. In the World Economic Forum’s ranking of gender parity in economic participation, India languishes near the bottom, ranking only above Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen, a gap that “will be detrimental to India’s growth,” WEF said in a 2011 report. This is not progress.

Since the attack in Mumbai, women journalists – and even visitors to India – have been speaking out about their own experiences with sexual harassment and violence on the job. They are not the only ones being targeted, clearly.

I fear for my young niece’s future. What good is having your country counted among the economic powerhouses if she must one day make a career choice based on how late she must stay at work or whether she will be required to travel? When women across the world are debating issues including the glass ceiling, leaning in and pay parity, women in India are worried simply about getting home safe from work.

Being Sweet

The co-owner of the building in which my office is located, introduced me to a stranger as ‘One of John’s (my boss) girls’. He felt awkward saying it too, I could tell. But he wasn’t quite up for calling me ‘architect’ to my face it would seem. ‘An intern architect working at John’s company’, would have been the proper introduction. But instead he went with the introduction that gave me the least bit of credit possible. What’s worse is that I didn’t correct him. I laughed it off and walked away. Why didn’t I say something? I wish I did but I don’t really know what I would say even now.

This is just a little something to serve as an example of the quandary I find myself in as I learn how to be a professional. On site, the men are mostly very sweet to me. They treat me with a certain amount of deference – but it has more to do with me being a woman than a professional. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I can blame them either. I don’t need deference but I look at John. People listen to him. He has that air about him of trustworthiness and authority. That’s what you need to project as an Architect so that your contractors, clients and consultants listen.

I think about what I project. I think about the social habits people develop to fit in. For example, I’m nice and kind of funny/weird. People like me because I’m nice and remember me because I’m kind of eccentric. Being nice has gotten a bad rap over the years. But it’s true. I’m not very loud or pushy or even particularly opinionated. I can be all of those things of course, but they aren’t my prevailing spirit. What does that mean though as I exist in the workplace? Does it doom me to being ‘one of the girls’? Or can I be respected without being brash? I’ve felt this disconnect for a long time, between who I need to be to succeed and who I am. I’m an artist – entirely self indulgent but reflective and passionate. I’m a human great dane. Anyone who knows the breed knows they’re big showy goof balls. That’s me. Sure I understand that at the office, you can’t be the big dope you might be after hours. That’s fine. What confuses me are the social habits, especially the way in which I communicate with the opposite sex. I’m daddy’s little girl. That’s kind of my default if I were to pick a female stereotype. But in truth, can daddy’s little girl really grow up to be an Architect?

I reflect on the way that people perceive me and the dysfunctional things that people consider assets in our way too jaded world. I refuse to become dysfunctional in order to fit a dysfunctional system. Refuse. I refuse to be someone I’m not, so that I can play out a social game that I resent. So my quandary is how. How to be two things at once – the goof ball that I am as well as the professional I am becoming.

I don’t want to be ‘One of the girls’. As everything, I suppose it will evolve through trial and error, until I have a learned response for days like today, when someone tries to put a label on me.

 

The Ominous Hijab Part II

I ventured into this topic a few months ago here, when I visited my boyfriend’s homeland of Turkey, for 2 months.  In that time, my boyfriend became my fiance, hosts became family and, well, the entire trip was pleasantly hijacked.

In the weeks that ensued however, I did manage to do what I set out to do: spend time in Turkey’s capital, drive along the coastal towns, and reaching as far south as the city of Izmir, and ending of my whirlwind tour in Istanbul.  What I found pertaining to the hijab was little short of disappointing.

I still haven’t been able to engage with much of the pro-hijab audience, only with my peers who seem adamant that it not only comes from an archaic mindset, but that it is very much anti-Turkish.  This harmless piece of cloth seems a strong point of contention not only from a feminist perspective, but from a political one as well.  And since being an outsider, I could only go on the sometimes biased opinions of my guides, I had to maintain a polite distance from adopting these beliefs.

However even in my own observations, it was hard to deny that within the intellectual and middle to upper class world, the hijab was truly found few and far between.  Through my exploration of the countryside, stopping in villages to get gas, food etc., I did notice that something as seemingly harmless as knee-length shorts and sleeveless tank tops did gather me stares.  I am not sure if they were simple suspicion or judgement, but when they came from women covered head to toe in 40 degree celsius weather, I couldn’t help feeling guilty of something.

At one point, visiting the market and bazaars of Izmir, a city strongly loyal to the old rule under Ataturk, there was a strong air of modernism and progression.  Muslims were very proud to be Turkish, and were very clear to highlight that the two were not the same.

My personal views on the hijab still have not been swayed, only moreso affirmed, so I am not left with much to say, but I took some photos while I was in the Izmir bazaar.  It shows two clothing stores, side by side.  One is selling current demure clothing for the muslim woman who chooses to cover herself, and the other sells beautiful and vibrant traditional Turkish dress hailing from yesteryear.

I think they describe the state of flux that the hijab has created in Turkey, far better than I ever could.

Modern vs. Traditional attire

Contrasting storefronts in an Izmir bazaar

Colourful Woman Wednesday: Masia One

This is the eleventh post in our “Colourful Woman Wednesday” series, which features stories of colourful women surviving and thriving. If you’d like to share your story, or nominate a colourful woman for this feature, email us or get in touch via TumblrTwitter or Facebook

Masia One

Masia One is a remarkable performing artist. She’s the first female nominated for a Much Music Video Award (Rap) and winner of the Chinese Canadian National Council Pioneer Award. Her music has edge and passion and her style is undeniable. In an interview with the Coloured Collective’s Lisa Rajkumar-Maharaj, Masia has this to say:

How would you describe your musical style? What are your musical inspirations?
My music is based in Hiphop and has dancehall, reggae, and pop influences.  It is also very influenced by my nomadic lifestyle.  The message is with the intention of making people feel brave and positive to balance out the amount of degradation in mainstream sound today.
 
To say you are multi talented is an understatement. Other than singing, what other types of work do you do? 
I’m currently the Creative Director of a NYC based high end men’s outerwear line M71 that will be launching at Magic in Las Vegas this Fall. My company The MERDEKA Group is a branding boutique where we take events, artists or products and create the brand identity through graphic design, manufactured merchandise and events.  We’ve worked with Redbull, Adidas, Mobile Jam Fest (Youth Creativity Festival) and facilitate opportunities to bring the grass roots community and corporate interests together.  Finally, I really like painting and I hope to get a gig one day illustrating a children’s story book.
 
Tell us a bit about your upbringing and how you fit into and perceive the urban music scene.
I was born in Singapore and grew up in Vancouver, BC.  When I found a bootleg Public Enemy tape in Singapore at the age of 8, I knew I had discovered something unlike anything I had heard before. When I put out my first album Mississauga in 2003, I’m don’t think I fit into the perceived urban music scene at all – because of the way I look I was told to either be a spoken word poet or car model. Today Hiphop & Urban music is undeniably international and I’m hoping to bring my experience in music & culture back to SE Asia, the place of my birth.
 
Any performances, albums or anything you’d like to share with our readers? Where can we buy your album?
I have 2 upcoming releases for 2012.  The first is BOOTLEG CULTURE, produced by Grammy winning producer Che Vicious (Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 50 Cent, Kanye).  Guest appearances include The RZA, Isis of Thunderheist and Talib Kweli.  The second is a record done live at Tuff Gong (Bob Marley’s studios) in Kingston Jamaica together with an incredible band Dubtonic Kru.  My music can be purchased on iTunes or on my website www.masiaone.com (store opening at the end of the month).
The first single Warriors Tongue can be viewed here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_b8QMVJVQjs
 

Masia One Album cover

Finally, since the theme of our blog is Colourful women, that is, women who create a unique space for themselves in the world – powerful women of varying racial and cultural backgrounds, what would you say makes you a Colourful woman? 
Every woman is a colourful woman, but what is exposed in the media is an extremely skewed monochrome vision.  Only 24% of news subjects are women.  In a vast mainstream of Hiphop music, there is a spotlight on only 1 female – who incidentally glamourizes being a Barbie.  At the ground level, casting couches are happening every day in order for women to break through in this industry.  I guess what makes me able to show that I am a colourful woman is that I have been able to be independent and self sufficient in the business from reading my contracts to booking shows, where there’s usually a male “gatekeeper” for every female act.  My business MERDEKA is the Malay word for “independence & freedom” and this is certainly something I champion for all women.

Change is a step towards evolving

For as long as I can remember change has been part of my life. Every four years there was something new happening: a new school, new living arrangements, and therefore new friends. Growing up, I used to pretend my life was a movie that aliens watched very closely. I think it helped me look forward to whatever change was coming, and anticipate the new adventures by taking away the fear.

But in the last couple of weeks, the changes that have happened are even surprising me. In a year and a half, I’ve: moved to Paris, completed a semester at a French university, got a job at a hotel as a receptionist, and today I started a job back in journalism. Plus I  learned French, ran a half-marathon, and on schedule to run another  in Amsterdam in October. I think this is the life my mother wanted for my sister and I when we moved to New York. A life with opportunities to choose what we wanted. A sense of adventure that embraces change and enjoys the challenges that come with it.

During my training session at work today, someone said: When I started working here, it was the first time that I saw blacks, Arabs, and whites talking, laughing and interacting. Apparently, that was unheard of for a French company.

It was the very first time I heard someone mentioned diversity in France. You always hear about diversity initiatives, how they add to the experience of all. And today during lunch it really was truly evident. There we were, four journalists, from totally different backgrounds that together spoke seven different languages. Change has a way of deciding what kind of person you want to be: a) do you move forward and face a challenge, or b) stay in the safety of what you know, and pray that it stays like that forever?

But in life nothing is permanent. I am part of that wave of change.

The Ominous Hijab

I’m in Turkey for 7 weeks.

Among many new cultural experiences, I’ve been curious to witness first-hand the role in society of the ominous hijab.  I’ll be spending time in the capital Ankara, in Istanbul the largest city, and throughout the countryside and smaller villages, as we journey south to the Aegean coast.

There is no official religion here, although 96% of the population is Muslim, it’s a secular state.  Compared to most of their Arab neighbours to the east, they’re more like Islam-Lite.

I have to say though, in the short time I’ve already spent here, I’m pretty disappointed to find maybe… 5 women in a hijab.  There were two in niqabs in the grocery store and that got me pretty excited, but for the most part, I’ve been walking around the city and seeing girls in shorts shorter than mine, and couples making out like pimply teenagers in local pubs.  Damn.  No islamic rigidity here.  Actually most of them seem to be terrible muslims, like my boyfriend, who drinks like a fish, doesn’t know when Ramadan is, and hasn’t been inside a mosque since Allah knows when.  I’m hoping he doesn’t go up in flames when he takes me to Hagia Sofia.

Ask him his opinion of the hijab, and he’ll tell you it’s downright stupid. “Nothing in the Qur’an says you have to wear one, and it’s a stupid tradition perpetuated by idiot men who want to keep women docile.”

“Well what about women who choose to wear it freely of their own accord?”

“Well then they’re stupid too. Why would you want to cover yourself like that? It is hot as shit outside.”

Image

My grandmother was Muslim, though she never wore a hijab, and I don’t really remember ever seeing anything too Islam-y in their home. She married a Christian, and I’m sure somewhere, someone probably thinks that means she’ll roast in hell and won’t get to heaven to receive her 40 virgins (wait… so do women get 40 virgins too in Islamic heaven? Talk about short-changed), but mostly all I remember of her, was that she was a sweet but firm woman, and the most wonderful hugger.  Hijab or no, she was respected and valued all the same.

I’ve never had the opportunity to speak with a fundamentalist or a Shi’ite to understand sharia law or why a woman would choose to veil her identity from an ever-growing visual world.

Western women complain about being objectified all the same, and judged for their looks before anything else, yet here in twisted irony we view the obscurity of the Islamic female face as part of that same distress.

I still haven’t gotten down to the bottom of why the hijab is such a thorn in people’s sides, but I’m hoping my remaining time here will lend me some insight.  At the end of the day though, I feel like women should be able to do and wear whatever the fuck they want, but the hijab to me, feels more like a visual statement of religion in your presence — and that, is something I have an entirely different opinion about.

More soon.