put away the scriptures and follow justice

I’ve not been very good at keeping this updated with articles I’ve written and had published elsewhere. Here is a piece that I wrote for openDemocracy back in February. I’ll be putting up others over the next few days.

During a visit to Bayelsa state in Southern Nigeria last year, I was taken aback to hear a male Christian leader quote Karl Marx to describe how trust in God reduces the potential for struggle and mobilisation: “religion is an opiate of the masses.” Belief in the divine can stop people from acting when those with power are seen as favoured, regardless of their corruption, crimes and human rights abuses. All too often, inequality is seen as God’s will.

When I began doing human rights and peace-building work in Nigeria in 2013, I struggled with the role religion should play. I worried about strengthening structures that continue to be patriarchal and homophobic, and which in some cases accentuate religious tensions that lead to violence. The conflict in the Middle Belt of the country is a good example. This recent sermon by David Oyedepo, one of the most influential pastors in Nigeria, is another:

God has anointed me to lead the revolution against Islamist jihadists… You catch anyone that looks like them. [Stamps foot] Kill him. There is no report to anybody. Kill him. Pull out his neck and spill his blood, I will spit it on the ground.”

When I talk about religion, I’m referring to religious institutions and ‘big men’ rather than to the personal beliefs that people hold. Many people of faith question the power of religious institutions and the ways in which they use it. When the Ebola virus came to Nigeria last year, for example, many pastors and faith healers invited those who were worried to come to them for a cure. Most people of faith I know denounced this act as highly irresponsible.

But faith-based organisations in countries with inadequate welfare states also serve the vulnerable and marginalised. They garner huge respect and influence by offsetting the failure of the state to provide basic services. They are filled with women and men who have a genuine passion for the work they do—setting up safe houses for women experiencing violence and abuse, bringing different religious communities together in inter-faith dialogue, providing food and shelter for the displaced and much more. My time spent with them has been among the most rewarding in my work.

So I’ve come to realise that I have to work with what’s already here—what has meaning for and influence over people’s lives—and that often does mean religion.

I was brought up a Hindu. I tried to see my way through the thicket of hetero-normativity and male domination by learning the history of alternative practices, but I couldn’t find a form of Hinduism that wasn’t shot through by Brahminical patriarchy, one without ingrained caste-based ablist discrimination.  I go to temples with my family and do puja (worship) with them, but I am guided by my own ethics rather than religious morals.

I doubt whether any revisionist Hinduism could uproot its oppressive nature: even the most reform minded believers come up against unambiguous words in religious texts and practices eventually. For example, most religions teach the superiority of men over women. The Buddha may have changed his mind about allowing women to join the Sangha (community) after protests from female followers, but the eight Garudhammas or “weighty rules” still entrench hierarchy between women and men regardless of their knowledge and experience.

Hetero-normative and patriarchal interpretations dominate. This is unsurprising given that most texts are written, interpreted and taught by men. It is vital to reinterpret these texts, to question what is presented as ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ and recover the lived experiences of different people in the past. This is particularly so in countries where there’s little room for manoeuvre outside of religious frameworks.

One of the most effective strategies in the toolbox of the activist can be their knowledge of culture and religion, whether this is the history of same sex love and desire in India or the role of women in Buddhism. Our ancestors can surprise us with what was permitted, accepted and even celebrated: so-called ‘unchanging’ traditions are never static since social mores alter over time.

Nevertheless, transforming religious structures isn’t easy. As a woman in Port Harcourt recently told me, “I am a Christian and we are taught we must be submissive wives. I now know that although I still must submit, there are some things that should not be tolerated.” She was talking about violence against women and girls, so there is progress of a sort in shifting consciousness. But the transformation I seek is not that women know that violence against them is wrong, but that they see themselves as equals—and so much else besides.

Perhaps these deeper changes won’t happen unless religion itself is fundamentally transformed. Given the power religion has already, do we risk strengthening the hands of reactionaries and patriarchs when working with religious institutions? Recently an Indian activist told me about an all-male gathering of religious leaders that was organized by an international aid agency to talk about the struggle against sex-selective abortion. On returning home, the men started speaking about all abortion as ‘sin.’

An over reliance on religion can also marginalise religious minorities that are already ostracised. It can strengthen narratives that declare that ‘religion’ and ‘nation’ are synonymous, such as the myth of “Hindutva” culture propagated by Hindu nationalists in India. The logical result is that all others are seen as ‘foreigners’ who dilute the ‘purity of the nation.’

This includes those who do not believe in any religion, whose numbers are often kept artificially low by social opprobrium and the danger that comes with questioning religious orthodoxy. Apostasy is a death sentence in many places. Most of my friends in Nigeria who see themselves as humanists are not ‘out’ to their colleagues, families and friends, which is understandable when the potential risks include being beaten by family members, committed to a psychiatric hospital for the medical diagnosis of “the personality disorder of atheism,” and receiving death threats.

In the UK, those wishing to leave religion have a safety net since there are structures in place to protect them. However, even here, the move from ‘multiculturalism’ to ‘multi-faithism’—where ethnic minorities are viewed through the lens of religion, often at the expense of any analysis of race—marginalises the diversity of voices and viewpoints. Relations with racialised communities have become mediated by religious leaders. Black people have become essentialised as inherently religious, casting those who are not as ‘inauthentic.’ Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion—everywhere and for everyone.

Yet fundamentalism is increasing in many parts of the world. Contemporary religious-political movements make use of the state machinery to consolidate power and impose their version of doctrine. The primary victims of fundamentalist action are those who come from the religion, community and society in question. There are many, like those in Women Against Fundamentalism, who are fighting these trends, and they need allies.

Nevertheless, in countries where religion is a major social force, there’s a real need to engage with religious leaders precisely because of the power they have. Not doing so minimises impact, and means that one can’t reach the majority of women and men for whom faith is a daily lived public and private reality, often mediated through religious structures.

In some cases, pushing for the implementation of religious doctrine may actually help to realise human rights, at least to some extent. For example, using the technicalities of Sharia jurisprudence saved Safiya Hussaini and Amina Lawal from death by stoning for adultery in Nigeria—a ‘crime’ supposedly ‘proven’ by their pregnancies. Safiya says she was repeatedly raped, but she was still judged guilty. In many communities, pushing for rights by using religious arguments is more likely to be listened to, heard and accepted, both by those who are marginalised and those in power.

Religion also offers its own possibilities for transformation. In Malawi for example, Anais Bertrand-Dansereau writes about how youth organisations that are faith based can have a more positive approach to sexuality by telling young people that “sex is a gift from God.”  They can raise and discuss issues that others shy away from for fear of being seen as ‘immoral.’ This teaching is restricted to sex within monogamous, heterosexual marriages, so it has its limits in terms of human rights, but still it is instructive.

However, the women and men everywhere who are trying to challenge oppression and discrimination need to be supported directly, not just through religious leaders. I recently heard a woman in the Niger Delta talking about violence against women and girls:

“I now have a platform to challenge our imams about what they say. Mostly our husbands don’t allow us to meet and attend gatherings. They choose which Islamic schools we attend… It’s our imams who are asked to represent us. Women don’t attend Friday prayer – but Muslim women organise too.”

The growing trend in the development industry to work with those in power—meaning men, religious leaders and traditional authorities—at the expense of strengthening the mobilisation of those oppressed is profoundly dangerous. Religion is power and it represents the status quo.

For these and many other reasons, we need to engage with religion, but to do so critically. We also need to fight for, maintain and strengthen secular spaces where people of all faiths and none can come together and organise, outside of the influence that established religion can exert elsewhere.

Do we see transformation in terms of negotiation and compromise or disruption and revolution? This has implications for the nature of the changes we’re working towards and the process of how to get there. Working with religion can be an important stepping stone along the way, but we should not be constrained in our vision or strategy by what is said by holy books or holy men.

After all, in the history of struggle, freedom is only gained when it is demanded. It is achieved when those who are oppressed and their allies rise up and force the hands of those in power. We should not be constrained by religion when we envision and strive for the transformation of society. As the Indian activist, intellectual and architect of the Constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar once said, “Put away the orthodox scriptures. Follow justice.”


Nigerian state rape law pushes anti-queer agenda

I wrote this for Women’s e-News in July.

When an email with the subject line “Kano: Passage of Rape Prohibition Law” comes into your inbox, it seems like a cause for celebration.

This, after all, is news about a state in Nigeria, where the National Assembly continues to stall on the passage of legislation aimed at tackling the rising incidence of sexual and domestic violence. It’s also where a prominent politician, in response to attempted legislation to curb domestic violence, said that the legislature of Rivers State should be “mindful of passing a bill that they will be first offenders.”

However, my excitement quickly faded when reading the actual provisions of the new law in the Northwestern State of Kano, where the Boko Haram extremists kidnapped 260 female students (60 have escaped). After stipulating a maximum life sentence for those convicted of rape and an additional fine of about $1,200 and requiring the court to demand compensation for survivors, it goes on to stipulate punishment for “homosexuals and lesbians.”

Legislation worldwide on violence against women suffers from poor enforcement; a lot breaks down between the incidence, the reporting, the investigation and the prosecution. Given this and increasing state and popular attacks against queer people in Nigeria, will the provisions of the rape law that are actually enforced be mainly those that criminalize and punish queer people rather than rapists?

This law fits into a history of homophobia and criminalizing homosexuality in Nigeria that is relatively recent. Until a few years ago, the yan daudu of Northern Nigeria (men who act like women) and the practice of women marrying each other in southeast Igboland (although apparently not about same-sex desire) were more or less tolerated in practice. This is in contrast to Nigeria’s criminal code which, since 1991, has punished “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with14 years of imprisonment.

Societal Backlash

Nigeria is witnessing societal backlash against “the gays” and those who support them, with the popular narrative being that of the need to guard against a Westernized agenda infecting “our people” and destroying “our culture” despite the long history and present activism of queer people in the country. For those of us for whom queer rights is integral to our feminism, this is how a rape prohibition law comes to be a development which to fear, not celebrate.

In Nigeria as a whole, 1-in-3 young women aged 15 to 24 have experienced at least one form of gender-based violence. Half of the girls in the north have been married by their 16th birthday and are expected to have their first child within a year. When I was in Kano in mid-June, women’s rights activists also told me about a growing number of reports in recent months of girls aged 2 to 12 being raped. They also said that, despite politicians saying the right things, there was next to no enforcement. Political will and action to tackle violence against women and girls are clearly needed. But where does homosexuality come into it?

The Kano law talks of specifically about the crime of lesbianism , in addition to the by-now familiar punishment of 14 years in prison, which echoes the national law, and a fine of about $300 for anyone who “has carnal intercourse against the order of nature” with any man, woman or animal. The provision is worth quoting in full:

“Any woman who has a feeling of love for another woman or girl, and went ahead to employ the means of satisfying that passion, either through bodily contact or otherwise with or without consent in order to drive sexual pleasure is said to have committed lesbianism, and shall be imprisoned for a term of 14 years and shall be liable to a fine of N50,000.” (The fine is equivalent to about $300.)

Laughable in Legal Terms

Where to start with this? The lawyer in me laughs at the breadth and uncertainty of this section. The mind races to think of exactly what all this could include. The very notion that the only reason queer women have sex is to satisfy “a feeling of love” fits into particularly gendered ideas of women, sex and desire. Imprisoning women for acts “with or without consent” seems strange in a rape prohibition act. Surely lack of consent is a cornerstone of the definition of rape? Or are homosexuality and rape now conflated into each other?

From a legal point of view, what does this actually change? After all, this law says nothing new about “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” that wasn’t already criminalized in all of Nigeria. The sharia, which applies in 12 northern states including Kano, gives a maximum sentence of death for men and 50 lashes and-or six months imprisonment for women. This was reinforced recently in the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan in January 2014.

The Kano law against rape is the first time the crime of lesbianism has been so explicitly stated in secular law in Nigeria and punishment has increased from six months under sharia to 14 years. However, criminal law comes under federal jurisdiction and so the Criminal Code Act already applied in Kano. And, although it is not explicit, there is a strong argument to be made that the Criminal Code Act applies to women as well as to men, so what do the provisions in the Rape Prohibition Law add?

Not only does it seem redundant from a legal point of view but, according to activists in Kano, there was no concerted push from women’s rights activists to enact the law in its present form. We wondered whether putting rape and homosexuality in the same legislation was a way of getting unpopular provisions in. Sadly, anti-queer prohibitions are likely to have much more support than those against rape.

Statement by Indian groups and individuals on Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, 2013

I was asked by the people at Orinam to give thoughts on this and signed it. It was read at a solidarity protest in Delhi held on Friday 7th March and delivered to the Nigerian High Commission in Delhi.

March 8, 2014

President, Members of Parliament and the People of Nigeria

H.E. Ndubuisi Vitus Amaku
High Commissioner of the Federal Republic of Nigeria
EP.4 Chandragupta Marg,
Chanakyapuri New Delhi-110021
Tel: (+91) 24122142/143/144
Fax: (+91) 24122138

We register here our strong condemnation of the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, 2013. The act, signed by President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan on January 7, 2014, violates the basic human rights of same-sex desiring individuals, their families, friends, loved ones and their supporters, by impeding their right to live and love without harm to others, in enjoyment of the rights of freedom and equality guaranteed by the Nigerian Constitution and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. In the face of this severe blow to the struggle for universal human rights, we reassert our solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer people of Nigeria, and of all 36 of Africa’s 55 countries where same-sex relations are illegal.

The Act not only prohibits and criminalises the institutionalisation of same sex relationships, but also prevents the registration of organisations, clubs or societies that pertain to multiple queer genders and sexualities. Public display of amorous relations between persons of the same gender invites a jail term of up to 10 years, and anyone – irrespective of their sexuality – who witnesses and/or aids a same sex civil union, meeting, registration of organisation is also liable to be punished under this draconian law. It is clear that the law is meant to clamp down on any form of love and affection that is non-heteronormative. We are astonished by the Nigerian government’s blind and misguided belief that a law can serve as an effective deterrent to love.

We write as citizens and groups of India, also a former British colony grappling with the multiple legacies of colonialism, of which the inheritance of homophobic laws is only one. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, 1861, recently reinstated by the Supreme Court represents the most aggressive institutionalisation of the criminalisation of homosexuality in the Indian subcontinent. In both cases, the State has acted against its people, failing not only to recognise their fundamental human rights, including the right to dignity, equality, non-discrimination and personal liberty, but also effectively condemning millions of its citizens to compromised health. This is particularly egregious in countries like India and Nigeria with some of the world’s largest populations of persons affected by HIV/AIDS. The threat of violence, harassment, and abuse against queer persons in both countries will continue unabated, having now received a particularly insidious form of State sanction.

We believe that it is homophobia, rather than homosexuality that is a colonial legacy. Today, we are engaged, along with our counterparts in other ex-British colonies, in an on-going struggle against this legacy of colonialism, a struggle in which we have relied primarily on the activist labours of our people and on the moral and legal commitments of laws and Constitutions that we have given unto ourselves. As a postcolonial state that is proud of its hard-won independence, we understand, share and support Nigeria’s commitment to realising and maintaining democratic decision making processes, in line with your Constitution and in the exercise of your sovereignty, unimpeded by the external world.

It is important to emphasise that the Act disregards and devalues the lives of Nigeria’s own people. We urge you to listen to those brave Nigerian voices in every walk of life, who have stood up for basic human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people in Nigeria without regard to considerations of tribe, region, religion, sex, nationality, disability, or sexuality.

We reach out in solidarity against attempts at imperialist control over our political, moral, ethical and cultural lives. The irony of history is that the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, 2013, which is an instance of such attempts at control, is being hailed as evidence of the expression of sovereignty but is in fact criminalizing long, established and documented cultural practices of same sex desire and relationships in Nigeria. To recognise the rights of all Nigerians to lives of dignity, equality and freedom of expression and assembly, by immediately repealing the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, 2013, would be the true assertion of sovereignty.

– See more at: http://orinam.net/statement-by-indian-groups-and-individuals-on-nigeria/#sthash.dQIDi52c.dpuf

how foreign governments hurt not help LGBTQI rights

On Monday, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. The law criminalises lesbianism for the first time, strengthens punishment for anyone caught having sex with someone of the same sex and outlaws the promotion of homosexuality. It criminalises those who assist individuals to engage in homosexual acts and requires citizens to denounce those they suspect of being gay. It introduces an offence of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ with those convicted receiving a sentence of life imprisonment.

This move by the Ugandan government followed fundamental retrenchment of rights in India and Nigeria in December and January.

The Indian Supreme Court ruled in December that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalising sexual acts ‘against the order of nature’ was, in fact, not a breach of rights as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. This overruled the previous 2009 decision of the Delhi High Court that made criminalising homosexuality unconstitutional and ‘completely changed everything’ according to Anand Grover of the Lawyer’s Collective who brought the legal challenge. Prior to 2009, the Indian Penal Code was used to harass, extort money from and blackmail India’s LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) population. It had disproportionate impact on those from ‘lower’ socio-economic classes and castes who had little recourse to assistance. Rajnath Singh, president of the BJP, India’s main opposition party, welcomed the  Supreme Court decision saying ‘we believe that homosexuality is an unnatural act and cannot be supported.’

This was followed mere weeks later by President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria assenting to legislation that prohibits and criminalises marriage contracts or civil unions entered into by people of the same gender, public show of same sex amorous relationship and registration of gay clubs, societies and organisations. It also criminalises anyone who witnesses or aids a same gender marriage, civil union or operation of a gay rights organisation. Criminalising homosexuality is not new in Nigeria. Section 214 of the Criminal Code Act criminalised ‘any person who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature’, with a jail term of up to 14 years. In the northern states which have adopted sharia law, the maximum sentence since the turn of the millennium has been the death penalty for men and whipping and/ or imprisonment for women. Since January, the police in each state are said to have drawn up lists of suspected gay people who they now plan to target. Arrests and punishments have been intensely popular with police having to protect defendants from crowds throwing stones.

The United Nations, human rights organisations and international donors have been quick to condemn these moves. Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement saying ‘Disapproval of homosexuality by some can never justify violating the fundamental human rights of others.’ Amnesty International called the law ‘a mockery of the rights enshrined in the Ugandan constitution.’ Bilateral donors have threatened to review or withdraw aid, with Foreign Ministers issuing strong condemnatory statements.

Foreign governments think they are taking positive action. These are countries that say they support the rights of queer people and are working to protect them. This is positive. We certainly do not want them to look the other way in deference to the position of Nigeria or Uganda as a strategic ally in the fight against extremism in Somalia or Northern Nigeria or in terms of the world economic markets.

However a bit of strategic thinking, acknowledgement of history and context and joining up rhetoric to reality would be welcome. What is often missing is any consultation with activists to find out the impact of particular courses of action, taking their cue from them in terms of how best to support their work in fighting for realisation of rights and bringing this concern for rights back ‘home’.

‘Over there’

When examining the impact of foreign governments on the lives of queer people, we need to consider change in the formal legislative field and more nebulous terrain of changing people’s attitudes and behaviour. After all, not being imprisoned, not being sentenced to death or even being tolerated, although achievements in and of themselves, fall far short of real success.

Foreign governments have reacted strongly to what has been happening in Eastern European, African, Asian and Latin American countries and in ways that may well not help. Even in terms of legislative change, this has not always worked to stop the passage of regressive laws. In Nigeria and Uganda, the UK, USA, Canada and others have been outspoken (publicly and privately) on this issue for months. Yet as of January, Nigeria had passed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act but President Museveni had refused to assent to anti-gay legislation in Uganda. At the time, many commentators attributed this to Uganda’s reliance on foreign aid as opposed to Nigeria’s relative independence due to oil receipts. International pressure did lead to the removal of the death penalty from the legislation but recent events in Uganda have shown the fallacy of this analysis and the limit of donor power in the face of endemic societal homophobia and huge electoral popularity.

Diplomacy evidently does not work (all the time).

There may be a space for private, behind closed doors advocacy but, given so much of the rhetoric around the legislation is of the ‘resisting Western imperialism and protecting our [insert country/ ethnicity/ religion/ region] values‘ kind, are public threats of sanctions, cancelled meetings and withdrawing aid at this point merely playing into the hands of the homophobes?

In India, Nigeria, Uganda and many African, Asian and Latin American countries, much of the debates around homosexuality centre around the narrative of it being a ‘Western disease’ that is being imposed on ‘our’ countries in contravention of ‘our’ culture, history and tradition. Museveni has said, ‘There’s now an attempt at social imperialism, to impose social values… Outsiders cannot dictate to us. This is our country.’ Others like President Macky Sall of Senegal have stated, ‘”We don’t ask the Europeans to be polygamists. We like polygamy in our country, but we can’t impose it in yours. Because the people won’t understand it. They won’t accept it. It’s the same thing.” Politicians cast themselves as heroes for resisting this Western imperialism to (mostly) loud applause from their public, all too crucial in election or pre-election years.

Actions by foreign governments reinforce this world view. In Uganda, Denmark and Norway announced they would re-direct its aid away from the Ugandan government and towards human rights and private sector organisations. The Netherlands has suspended its aid. Austria and the US have announced an internal review of its relationship with the country and warned this may mean cutting aid.

This is in the face of numerous organisations and activists from across the continent who have spoken out against the use of aid conditionality. They say imposition of donor sanctions does not result in improved protection of rights and objectives of movements cannot be met if donors withhold aid as:

• donor sanctions reinforce the disproportionate power dynamics between donors and recipients
• they are based on assumptions about African sexualities and the needs of African LGBTI people
• they disregard the agency of African civil society movements and political leadership
• politicians can scapegoat LGBTI people for donor sanctions to retain and reinforce national state sovereignty
• they sustain the divide between the LGBTI and broader civil society movement – emphasising that LGBTI rights are special and more important and supporting the idea that homosexuality is ‘un-African’ and western-sponsored
• aid cuts affect LGBTI people who are part of the population that benefit from funding

Although I believe that we have to stop solely blaming colonialism for our homophobia, it is worth mentioning that many of these laws were imposed on countries during the time of imperial rule. That is not to say that we were all living in a utopia and colonialism introduced homophobia (and transphobia and patriarchy) to countries that were colonised. However, we need context and historical awareness – and to disrupt the tendency to see white as civilised, saviours and upholder of rights and black as savages, victims and backwards.

As the group of activists mentioned above conclude,

The history of colonialism and sexuality cannot be overlooked when seeking solutions to this issue. The colonial legacy of the British Empire in the form of laws that criminalize same-sex sex continues to serve as the legal foundation for the persecution of LGBTI people throughout the Commonwealth. In seeking solutions to the multi-faceted violations facing LGBTI people across Africa, old approaches and ways of engaging our continent have to be stopped. New ways of engaging that have the protection of human rights at their core have to recognize the importance of consulting the affected.

In addition to actually working to intensify backlash, others have written and spoken about ways in which action by foreign governments and donors often constructs queer identities in particular (Eurocentric) ways. Even the alphabet soup of the language used is that of Euro-America, disrupting the long histories of indigenous words, such as the mevengu of the Beti people of Cameroon, the yan daudu of northern Nigeria or the gor digen of Senegal, that describe those who lived queer lives. Furthermore, external NGOs and governments often distort and impose priorities on movements by funding particular arenas of work. It seems everyone must follow the linear path of decriminalisation to marriage and adoption, regardless of the priorities of queer activists of the countries concerned themselves. This also pits the ‘civilised’ developed world against the ‘backwards’ Third World and follows homonational agendas, the tying of gay rights with a nationalist ideologies such as the ‘war on terror’ or, in the case of Israel, the occupation.

When looking at donor influence, it is useful to distinguish legal change from social change. In some instances, donor pressure may be able to stop legislation from being passed or particular people from being punished. However, in almost all cases, in the way it is being currently practiced, it has an adverse impact on being able to achieve long-term, meaningful, radical and transformatory societal change. The ‘homosexuality is a Western disease that they are trying to impose on us‘ argument, unfortunately, is not only well ingrained but seems to be gaining ever more traction. Given this, any hint that a foreign power is trying to persuade the government to do or not do something is only going to play into this perception and therefore strengthen the arguments of the homophobes. Legal change (or failure to pass regressive change) may be achieved but at what cost to progress in changes in societal attitudes and behaviour?

Over here’

Furthermore, if governments really cared about queer people being persecuted in Africa and Asia they need to put their money where their mouth is. Asylum policies should be put in line with this rhetoric. You cannot try to protect people from oppression in one place but, when they come to you expecting help, send them back for more.

Following passage of legislation in Nigeria, the UK government is now automatically granting asylum status to those they accept as LGBTQI from Nigeria. This sounds great but the operative words in that sentence are ‘those they accept as.’

In 2010, campaigners described institutional homophobia in the asylum system that has meant almost all LGBTQI asylum seekers are refused sanctuary. Not much has changed since then. British authorities are notoriously quick to make assumptions about who is and who is not being ‘genuine’ about their sexuality. There seems to be this idea that if a person has not had (multiple) same sex partners previously and does not head down to Soho to party it up the very second that they step off that plane that they are just making things up to be able to stay in the country. Asylum seekers in 2014 are often interrogated by hours and asked degrading and personal questions such as ‘When x was penetrating you, did you have an erection?’ and ‘What is it about men’s backsides that attracts you?’

A couple of years ago, I worked with others on the case of Betty Tibikawa, a young Ugandan woman who was about to be deported despite the fact that she had been publicly outed in a Ugandan magazine, was wanted for being a lesbian and had been branded on her thighs as punishment. The UK Border Agency just did not believe she was telling the truth about her sexuality. When I visited Betty in Yarlswood Detention Centre, she said to us she thought it was because she had long hair. She observed that those of her friends seeking asylum with short hair and who ‘looked lesbian’ were much more likely for it to be granted.

The Lesbian Immigration Support Group in January sent an urgent appeal to act in the case of Nadine Ida Ketchakwe to prevent her deportation to Cameroon, where homosexuality is illegal and an imprisonable offence. In Nadine’s case too, her claim for asylum was also rejected because the judge did not believe she was lesbian. This is despite the death threats she had received from her husband and brother and the many letters of support she received from lesbians in Manchester. As LISG asks, ‘How do you prove you are a lesbian, if the accounts of other lesbians about you are not accepted?

All recent news coverage has been about the ‘awful’ things that are happening in places like Nigeria and India. What has been missing, both in the coverage and people’s analysis of what is happening, is the conditions that people fleeing persecution face when they try to find sanctuary.

As Sandhya Sharma writes:

A recent report by Women for Refugee Women highlights the specific trauma women asylum seekers face where their vulnerability exposes them to an underworld of victimisation. Of the women interviewed, 96% had relied on charities for food and 56% had been forced to sleep on the street and 16% having experienced sexual violence while destitute. Unsurprisingly, the figures for mental health distress amongst this group are extraordinarily high with 97% reporting depression and 63% at risk of suicide or reporting suicidal feelings.

In the UK, asylum seekers are not allowed to work while waiting for their case to be decided. They do not qualify for council housing or housing benefit and cannot claim mainstream benefits. A single adult asylum seeker receives £36.62 a week i.e. £5.23 a day. Somehow they are expected to house and feed themselves on this at a time where rising inflation is driving increasing numbers of people to food banks, poverty, homelessness and destitution.

The way forward

Turning away from any human rights abuse is not be the answer. However, action taken should not be the easy fixes of removing aid or issuing condemnatory statements that are likely to inspire further backlash rather than positive change. If foreign governments actually wanted to help, they must stop drawing a sharp dividing line between the ‘civilised’ West and the backward ‘third world.’

After all, the story that is always overlooked is that of activists organising against repressive laws and customs and of their family, friends and acquaintances who support them. It is encouraging that Norway and Denmark have pledged to fund the work of human rights organisations. Supporting the work of the many who are engaged in activist work would make a big difference. Funding for any movement is woefully low and the queer movement is no different. In 2010, organisations empowering LGBTQI people received less than 1/100th of 1 % of total aid donated by major government donors.

Donors need to listen to what activists want, not impose a blanket supposition of their own priorities of what they think should be funded. Activists need long term organisational rather than short term project based support. After all, these organisations may be the only safe spaces around. In Sri Lanka, Equal Ground offices act as a ‘safe zone’ for members of the queer community in an area dominated by militia groups that carry out the death penalty for those who deviate from normative forms of sexuality and gender identity.

Furthermore, if they really care about the lives of queer people, asylum and immigration systems should be humanised to provide real support and succour to those fleeing persecution.

Genuinely working for queer people at risk of persecution requires foreign governments to exert real empathy and care – and to do so by listening to the activists involved and reforming asylum and immigration systems.

This piece was originally published on New Left Project.

enough talk about intersectionality. let’s get on with it

I wrote this for openDemocracy. It follows an article I wrote in January analysing conflict in the feminist movement and aims to help the movement break our current stalemate and find alternate ways forward.

When The Spectator published Julie Burchill’s ‘Don’t you dare tell me to check my privilege’ last week, it was yet another salvo in the ongoing conflict around inclusion and diversity on both sides of the Atlantic. These discussions take place in all movements but they have recently taken particular prominence in online feminism. 

Social media doesn’t start these conversations, it amplifies them. Tweets and online articles feed each other and create increasing polarisation and conflict. Feminists are occupied by seemingly endless, frustrating cycles of accusation, defensiveness and recriminations. These have an attendant drag on our motivations for continued engagement.

But this is a politics of representation, a process of looking at who speaks for whom about what. Our attention needs to move towards a politics of change: re-visioning a shared future and working towards its realisation through activism. In doing so, we may also open up more fruitful arenas for discussion.

You can read the rest here.

I end by saying:

Issues of power, exclusion and marginalisation should inform our activism. This has to be in terms of prioritisation of issues, whose realities we address andrepresentation. When we do this, we move towards a more holistic vision of ensuring all are being carried forward by a movement purported to be universal in nature.

Enough of paying lip service to concepts like ‘inclusion’, ‘diversity’ and ‘intersectionality’. Let us now focus on doing them in practice.

I have been talking about inclusion, diversity and pushing the horizons of the feminist movement for years. This is the fifth of 5 pieces that I’ve written on this.

reaching out across the battle lines: moving beyond conflict in the feminist movement

I wrote a piece for The New Left Project trying to step back and reflect about what has been happening when it comes to conflict within the movement in the past 15 months.

I started writing it one Friday night after work in July last year as a way of thinking through and articulating what I was feeling – and it went up yesterday. Six months is surely one of the longest lengths of time it has taken anyone to write a post. It is also, at 3,226, probably one of the longest pieces that has been written about this subject on the internet.

There was a time back in the summer when I was not going to publish it at all. I was worried about the backlash it seemed almost certain to receive (because pretty much everything that is written about this does), the impact this would have on me personally after years of feminist/ activist drama and the amount of my energy and time it would take. Everything seemed so polarised that it felt any attempt to be reflective and nuanced would be attacked by all sides.

So I wrote it and I left it. I came back to it a few months later, added some bits, rewrote others and then left it again. I repeated that last week and finally had enough. I wanted to just send it out there, partly so that I could stop thinking about it (and rewriting it) and partly because I wanted to see whether it made sense to others. Before I came to Nigeria, I had spent five years in the activist scene in London trying to mobilise people into the movement and work with others to try to shape the movement to be more inclusive and diverse. I am pretty much done with this (for now in any case) so this is my attempt to reach out one last time.

The past twelve months have been a tough and exhilarating time to be a (black) feminist activist in the UK. We have seen issues around race, disability and gender identity in particular placed at the heart of feminist debate in a way that has not happened during the memory of those of my generation. We have long been asserting there will not be a women’s liberation that is meaningful to all women without simultaneous end of structural racism, homophobia, heteronormativity, ablism in all its form, class oppression, neo-colonialism and global power structures, transphobia and transmisogyny.

This analysis has not been limited to black feminists. Indeed, the importance of working towards a linked liberation, where the achievement of one ‘set of’ rights is conditioned and incomplete without the achievement of all others has been long discussed within many activist movements for decades. Constantly raising and pushing this has been met with some success, with anti-racist, socialist and other movements having significantly expanded their frame of organising to include the experiences and realities of women. This often is not accompanied with a deeper understanding of patriarchy and how it combines with other forms of oppression and marginalisation or with recognition that marginalisation can come from within families, communities and movements as well as without. At the same time, the (dominant) feminist movement has made substantial progress and, at the very least, frequently makes conscious efforts to ensure it reflects the truths of all women. Campaigning against policies that trap immigrant women in abusive relationships is one of the many examples of black and white women working together. The struggle against religious fundamentalisms and their specific impact on women’s rights and freedoms is another.

Progress has been limited however. Most activists seem not to see the rise of the faith agenda, as witnessed by the increasing number of faith-based schools and funding of faith based organisations to assist women who have experienced violence which use methods such as mediation to ‘solve’ domestic violence, as a core concern. There is little campaigning by wider movements on issues of reform of the immigration and asylum systems. The struggle for LGBT rights has remained overwhelmingly focused on issues of marriage and adoption, neglecting the poverty experienced by many LGBT people who are also black, disabled and working class.

Limited shift by those for mobilise for social justice in recognising the interconnectedness of all movements is echoed in the feminist movement. All of this continues to cause conflict as women who are further marginalised by dominant structures of power and hierarchy struggle for their needs, realities and priorities to be taken seriously by others in a movement they want to believe is also theirs. These tensions are neither new nor inherently bad. After all conflict and challenge has great potential for renewal and dynamism. What matters is how we respond to it. Ways of current engagement and the anger, confusion and pain recent debates have caused has led to many within the movement feeling frustrated and disengaged.

We need to step back and reassess where we are as a movement and how we relate with each other.

You can read the whole article here.

It ends by saying:

Somehow we need to come to a place where all parties recognise and address all inequalities and power imbalances and weave this understanding throughout their activism. We need to do this collaboratively with genuine desire and humility to learn from each other, being proactive without relying on others to teach and in the spirit of working out our differences. I like to think of this as a rights based peacebuilding approach that recognises that there is not a level playing field between all parties. Just as achieving real, sustainable peace, is difficult, requires continuous work and is subject to setbacks, nevertheless it is possible as long as those engaged are willing to talk and listen and think and change.

A tale of two countries: Nigeria, India and LGBTI rights

Saying we live in a time of both intense global backlash against and unprecedented visible activism for LGBTI rights seems a rather obvious thing to say.

The past few years in particular have seen increasing polarisation between states when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity. On the one hand, you have state policing of sexual orientation and gender identity with any perceived deviance punished. On the other, there are countries where the state seems focused on trying to bring everyone within ‘the norm’, with guarantees of the right to marry and have children as an indication of ‘job (more or less) done’ and the sign of superior civilisation (in contrast to all those countries over there) but little being done to challenge and change structural inequality.

Within a space of a month in December 2013/ January 2014, both India and Nigeria saw fundamental retrenchment of rights. I have felt a lot of time thinking and talking about this over the past 6 weeks. Here are some thoughts.


The sign, echoing the anti-colonial ‘Quit India’ movement, is a reminder that criminalising homosexuality was introduced by the British colonisers

The Supreme Court of India in December ruled that section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalises sexual acts ‘against the order of nature‘ was, in fact, not a breach of rights as guaranteed under the Constitution. This was in response to an appeal brought by religious organisations who argued that homosexual sex is against the cultural and religious values of the country. In reality, the Penal Code is an expression of British Victorian morality, as decided by Thomas Macauley in 1861, not a reflection of the long history and acceptance of same sex love in India and the rest of the South Asian subcontinent. Case law has this provision applying to any form of non penis-in-vagina sex (including oral sex) thereby criminalising quite a large part of the population (according to the results of recent nationwide surveys about the sexual habits of Indians) but it has been used in recent times to, in effect, criminalise being gay.

I was in India when the Supreme Court verdict was announced and found so many echoes with the previous year and the outrage around issues of violence against women and girls following the gang rape that occurred in Delhi. Both events sparked intense mainstream and public debate, to an extent that seemed (more or less) unheralded in India. Just like I had never been engaged by what seemed every single person I came across in talking about violence against women and girls in 2012, I had never had discussions with these people (by which I mean people who are not activist friends) about sexuality in 2013. I was really pleasantly surprised and happy to see how things had shifted in terms of attitudes. These were people who would have been devastated to find out there was a gay in the family (they surely know that probability means there is definitely at least one?) but were against criminalising homosexuality. That is incredible progress and a good indication of what the movement has achieved in the past ten years.

There were Bollywood stars, cricketers, authors, politicians and other public figures standing up in support of LGBTI rights. Vikram Seth appeared on the front cover of India Today, saying:

There’s nothing heroic in doing what I have done. There are [gay] people who live lives of quiet desperation in India’s towns and villages. They are bullied by their families and relatives. They need people to voice their dismay and disappointments… Can you imagine the difference it would make if four or five widely admired people from different walks of life were to stand up and say: ‘This is no big deal or I am bisexual’? People who have come out in the freedom of the last four years since the high court judgement can’t be simply pushed back into darkness of the closet. But I am talking not of them in this respect, but of those people, full of self doubt or with bullying families who desperately need people to point to and say: ‘They are like me too’.

He was very outspoken and visible in the media in the aftermath of the judgement about his bisexuality – but that did not seem to affect people’s willingness to read and buy his books.

Protesting outside the Karnataka High Court

The ruling Congress Party pledged to take appropriate legislative action to recognise and protect rights which, given there is a general election in 2014, is pretty astounding. Let’s see what actually happens but a political party taking action in an election year on this issue is a significant step and any legislation that passes as a result would have legislative rather than judicial authority and so be less likely to be the focus of significant backlash. Of course some members of the BJP and some religious figures supported the Supreme Court decision, with Rajnath Singh, the President of the BJP (the main opposition party) saying ‘we believe that homosexuality is an unnatural act and cannot be supported. This was counterbalanced by over a dozen protests that took place all over India and around the world in a global day of rage. The protest in Bangalore, which I attended, attracted over 900 people with many onlookers engaging in discussion and debate with those present. Over a thousand people from all over the state attended the protest that was planned a fortnight later.

In some ways, the ruling may end up having quite a significant silver lining. It has shocked many into making a stand, galvanised and re-politicised the movement and meant that LGBTI rights continue to be discussed openly – in homes, schools, newspapers and TV screens. Indeed, this shift (and yes, it’s far from complete) may provide a more enduring basis for protection and promotion of rights than any law, especially one that is court mandated and therefore open to the classic anti-democratic challenge.

It felt like a time of real dynamism, energy and re-politicisation. It was also a time to remember that too much energy and resources can go into legal change with little left over for the much more difficult to achieve radical and transformatory societal change. Now, of course we need laws to change to provide a baseline of protection but actually the work that is needed is with police forces across the country, in schools, at all levels of society and in all areas of the country. India has had legislation against domestic violence for years now but to what extent have things actually changed?


I returned to Nigeria last week to find that in my absence, anti-gay legislation had been assented to by the President. Here is the version the Senate passed – I assume this is the same as the final law (which has not yet been gazetted). It does the following:

  • prohibits marriage contracts or civil unions entered into by people of the same gender s 1(1)
  • renders invalid any marriage contracts or civil union entered between people of same gender and therefore the people are not recognised as entitled to the benefits of a ‘valid’ marriage s 1(2)
  • renders void any marriage contract or civil union between people of the same gender issued by a foreign country s 1(3)
  • prohibits marriages or civil unions between people of the same gender from being solemnised in any place of worship s 2(1) [but all marriages and civil unions are prohibited under s 1(1) so what’s the point of this?]
  • invalidates marriage certificates issued to people of the same sex in Nigeria s 2(2) [Was this happening before the legislation passed? When? Where? Which marriage certificates issued in Nigeria exactly will be invalidated?]
  • prohibits registration of gay clubs, societies and organisations, their sustenance, processions and meetings and criminalises registration, operation or participation with a jail term of up to 10 years s 4(1) and s 5(2)
  • prohibits and criminalises public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly with a jail term of up to 10 years s 4(2) and s 5(2) [What exactly does this cover? Can I hold someone’s hand? Hug them? Kiss them on the cheek? There have been various graphics circulated online showing politicians hugging asking whether they now to be prosecuted too.]
  • criminalises people of the same gender who enter a civil union or marriage contract, with a jail term of up to 14 years s 5(1)
  • criminalises anyone who witnesses or aids a same gender marriage or civil union or the registration of a gay club, society, organisation, procession or meetings with liability of 10 years in prison s 5(3)

The rights that this law violates under the Nigerian constitution, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and international human rights law, let me count the ways.

(right to equality, right to dignity, right to non-discrimination, right to privacy, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of expression, right to marry, right to freedom of thought…)

Since presidential assent, there has been a number of people who have been arrested, publicly lashed and/ or currently waiting sentencing where the death penalty is applicable. Legislation, arrests and the punishments meted out have been intensely popular with police having to protect defendants from crowds throwing stones.

This has been met by either conspicious silence by many in the human rights movement or those who claim to work to defend and protect human rights speaking out in favour of the law. Only a handful of Nigerians have spoken out publicly in opposition so far. It is early(ish) days though and one can but hope that this will change.

 Some thoughts

This all seems overwhelmingly depressing but I am also reminded at how suddenly things can change even though it all seems so overwhelming now and any prospect of change completely remote and unreachable. I remember reading the text of the Delhi High Court judgment that ruled section 377 to be unconstitutional (in the queue for Wimbledon of all places) completely overjoyed because I never thought that (legal change) could happen. I think about conversations about the recent judgment and yes, there is a lot of homophobia, but I would never have though that people would be supporting the movement for rights to this extent even just 5 years ago.

Also, in contradiction to popular representation, it is not all bad news coming from Africa and Asia. The story that is always overlooked is that of activists organising and people speaking out – against these odds.

Just in the past few days, the internet has been abuzz with the news that Kenyan journalist, author of One Day I Will Write About This Place and How to Write about Africa and winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, Binyavanga Wainaina published a piece entitled ‘I am homosexual, mum‘. He followed this with a series of short videos on the fear of imagination to explain why. You can watch the first one below then click the link to YouTube and watch the others.

Both Vikram Seth and Binyavanga Wainaina are well known figures and as a result, it is not surprising that they have garnered so much attention for the action that they have taken. They are continuing a conversation that is sorely needed – one where homosexuals are seen as real people and ‘one of us’ rather than the insidious influence of the white man surreptitiously converting people into ‘abnormal’ and ‘wicked ways.’ It is not surprising that this has garnered so much attention.

However, around the same time, LGBTI activists in South Africa organised a protest of the Nigeria vs South Africa football match in solidarity with and to protest the legislation in Nigeria. There are queer rights activists, such as the Coalition of African Lesbians, the Karnataka Sexual Minorities Forum or the Nigerian Initiative for Equal Rights, all over Africa and Asia mobilising for rights. Then there those who live across all levels and sectors of society but whose ‘I don’t see what the problem is, why are they criminalising these people?’ is completely hidden from national dialogue. One of my activist friends says he finds in his travels around India that villages and rural areas can be more accepting of the multiplicities of the forms of existence and relationships than the cities. At the protest in Bangalore, I got talking to two men who had jumped off a passing bus on the way home from their labouring jobs to find out what was going on and wanted to know what all the noise was about. They stayed for a whole hour after I told them to show their support. This effectively rebuts the classist and casteist assumptions that it is only the elite who care about human rights, including the rights of sexual minorities, and all who are from working class or marginalised caste backgrounds are automatically homophobic. Unfortunately, the voices and existence of queer people and their allies, especially those from marginalised classes, castes, religious groups or rural areas, are far from visible in public discourse on these issues – in their own countries and internationally – further reinforcing that complete lie that homosexuality is a ‘Western disease’ that is infecting ‘our people’ and is completely contrary to ‘our traditional values’. Those who say this do not seem to mind having truth get in the way of their assertions.

The reality is that there have always been those who feel same sex love and desire – in every corner of the world and throughout time. We need to break free from imposed Victorian colonial mentalities (truly the real Western disease?). We need to instead start reclaiming, revisioning and reowning our rich histories,  traditions and present realities of people living in ways alternative to the perceived norm and fighting for their right in order to do so.

This piece was amended on 30th January, in response to a comment by Orinam.