Afghanistan, women’s rights and violence against women and girls

I spoke at Amnesty’s Student Conference on 17th November 2012 on a panel with Tabassum Wolayat and Noorjahan Akbar of Young Women for Change. What follows has been reconstructed from the notes for the panel.


So much has been achieved in Afghanistan for women’s rights. We have women in parliament, girls in schools, the constitution enshrining equal rights and a law to eliminate violence against women that criminalises killing in the name of ‘honour,’ child marriages and giving away girls to settle disputes. However, progress made is far from sufficient. It has been estimated that 87% of women in Afghanistan face violence. The biggest fear of women under 30 in Afghanistan is sexual assault. The Eliminate Violence against Women law is only enforced in 10 out of 34 provinces.

Women face violence at home and then again for running away. In 2010, Bibi Aysha had her nose and ears cut off by her husband because she ran away from abusive in-laws. Alternatively, women who escape violence end in prison. Half of the women in Afghanistan’s prisons are there for zina or sex outside marriage. This includes women fleeing from forced marriage or domestic violence. In many instances, women who are raped or forced into prostitution are put in prison instead of being given medical care and psychological counselling and their perpetrator being punished.

Last year, Gulnaz was sentenced to 12 years in prison after being raped. Due to the mobilisation of human rights activists in Afghanistan and their allies outside, she was freed – although there was some concern that this might be conditional on her marrying her rapist. At the time, she said, ‘What kind of government is this? What kind of Afghanistan is this? My attacker committed a crime, and they arrested me!

There are many women and men who fight for women’s rights – who push to have women’s rights in the constitution and laws, run refuges and shelters, educate women and girls and work to change attitudes and behaviour – but they are in constant danger of violence. They are followed in the street, are verbally and physically attacked and their offices and homes targeted. Safiye Amajan, director of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kandahar was shot and killed in 2006. In July this year, Hanifa Safi, head of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Laghman was shot and killed. Sitara Achakzai, Malalai Kakar, Majabina, Nazaneen…all women who have been killed because of working for women’s rights. According to Shinkai Karokhail, a member of parliament, ‘You can’t be an active woman in Afghanistan and not feel threatened. It is part of my daily life.’ The government takes very little action. Not only does this climate of impunity threaten women’s lives, but it means they are less able to defend and promote the human rights of women and girls. I was at a conference in Istanbul in September this year bringing together women’s rights activists from across the region. When we were discussing what inhibits their work, fear was one of the major factors mentioned.

In addition to all of this, there are simply not enough refuges in the country to which women can go to. Those that exist struggle month by month for survival – and this is a country that has seen so much aid. Why has more of that not been for women?

Before going further, I want to dispel a myth. Often I hear about ‘culture’ and ‘religion.’ ‘It’s not their culture. They’re not like us. We cannot go in and try to turn Afghanistan into Sweden – or Denmark – or Norway.’ It is interesting, isn’t it? We do not hear this about the human rights of men – when we talk about freedom of speech for example – but whenever we talk about women, there is always someone talking about the need to be ‘culturally sensitive.’

In reality, women in Afghanistan had equal voting rights before women in the UK. Women in Afghanistan drafted the 1964 constitution, which provided for equality between women and men. Until the early 1990s, women were teachers, ministers, doctors, professors, lawyers, judges, journalists, writers and parliamentarians. And, as we have seen from the news this week, Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland because she was denied a life-saving abortion as ‘this is a Catholic country.’ ‘Religion’ and ‘tradition’ cut both ways. We cannot let narrow patriarchal interpretations of religion, tradition and culture destroy women’s lives and limit what half the population can and cannot do.

Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister, promised that ‘We will not walk away, as the outside world has done so many times before’. Women activists with whom I work fear that this is exactly what is happening, meaning the gains women’s rights activists and their allies have fought to secure will be lost. Nine out of ten women are worried about the Taliban returning to government, believing it would risk what has been achieved for women. Shakila Nadiri who teaches women to drive in Kabul says ‘Just the thought of losing what we have gained is very scary.’

And what is the UK doing? Not nearly enough. The top three things the UK should do on women’s rights in Afghanistan:

1)     Use its influence to support women to be part of peace and transition processes

Women are being shut out of negotiations and discussions about peace and transition. There are 9 women out of the 70 members of the High Peace Council – that’s 1/8 of the members and I hear the women are not part of the discussions that really matter. The international conferences have civil society conferences beforehand but these do not really inform the discussions and the women on the Afghan delegation are not the ones setting the agenda. At the local level, it is no better. The UK can and should do much more to use its influence to ensure women are part of the processes. As a women’s rights activist from Zambia says, ‘when women are not at the table, they are on the menu.’ Women in Afghanistan are not at the table and women’s rights are definitely on the menu.

2)     Work with and protect women human rights defenders

The UK has no system in place to protect women human rights defenders or women in public life. The EU has guidelines on human rights defenders – on what countries can do to prevent and respond to attacks on human rights defenders. This is not being implemented in Afghanistan. Given the attacks of which I spoke about earlier, the fact that the UK has no mechanism in place to protect these women is indefensible.

3)     Fund women activists to deliver services and conduct advocacy and campaign for women’s rights

Women’s rights and well being need to be front and centre of all aid to Afghanistan but the current UK development plan for Afghanistan does not prioritise women’s rights. I have two quick examples for you. As of 2011, the UK did not spend a single penny of its £178m annual Afghanistan reconstruction budget on maternal health. Afghanistan has the highest rate of women dying in childbirth in the world. This is 10 times the number of civilians killed in war. The UK does not spend a penny on maternal health. In order to address violence against women properly, the international community needs to spend at least $90m over 5 years – that is three times the amount currently being discussed. When Bethan and I ask UK officials whether women’s rights will be a priority in the new UK development plan for Afghanistan, we are told this is not likely. Again, so much international money has gone into Afghanistan, why has it not done more to help women?

I want to highlight the vital need to take action. Tahmina Kohistani, athlete and only woman from Afghanistan to compete in the Olympics said that ‘Even if the government has a peace deal, I fear that women will be prisoners once again. I don’t want this and I don’t want the international community to forget us.’ Amnesty, GAPS and other NGOs are launching a campaign action next week to ask the British Ambassador in Kabul to take action to support women human rights defenders. I really hope that you will join us.



is selling women selling justice?

I have spent a lot of time this week thinking about the ways in which social justice organisations continue to use women and our bodies to raise money and awareness.

Polly Tomney ‘raises awareness’ about autism

Readers in the UK may remember Polly Tomney posing in her bra on advertising hoardings before the May 2010 general elections with the message ‘Hello Boys. Autism is worth over 6 million votes. It’s time to talk…’ in a bid to get party leaders to take autism seriously.

Eva Mendes shows her ‘commitment’ to fur-free clothing

PETA has a long history of using women’s bodies to promote animals’ rights from I’d rather go naked than wear fur to boyfriend went vegan and knocked the bottom out of me (with its lovely overtones of domestic violence) and milk gone wild (too hot for the Superbowl – YouTube directs you to porn videos after it’s done).

‘Animal testing’ at Lush, Regent Street

Lush has also joined in. Their latest publicity stunt where a performance artist undergoes ‘animal testing’ in the window of is Regent Street shop is one of the most triggering things I have ever seen. Tamsin Omond, Lush campaign manager, writes that it was thought important that the test subject was a woman (and the oppressor is a man) given the performance was ‘a public art intervention about the nature of power and abuse…  It would have been disingenuous at best to pretend that a male subject could represent such systemic abuse.’ As Laura Woodhouse writes, ‘Like PETA, Lush have capitalised on the fact that women’s bodies garner attention and, like PETA, they don’t seem to be particularly bothered about any collateral damage.’

Nuts supports Oxfam’s big bra campaign

Then you have Oxfam and its big bra hunt where women are urged to dig out their old bras and donate them to Oxfam shops after which they will be sold or sent to Senegal where they are sorted and sold by Frip Ethique and profits invested in Oxfam’s work fighting poverty in Senegal.  Great, more stuff we don’t want going to those poor people in Africa. It’s good to know women in Senegal are there to buy bras that aren’t good enough for UK women! This campaign has been taken up by Nuts magazine no less, which next to pictures of women topless holding their bras, ready to take them to a Oxfam shop, (I’m not showing those images!) has the following text: ‘Over here at Nuts, we’re big fans of ladies taking off their bras. But it’s rare that we can genuinely claim it helps people. Well this week we can… So toplessness can help people in Africa.’

Want 100% genuine girls?

Think it can’t get worse? The one I find most troubling is The Girl Store. Its website intro promises ’100% genuine girls – young, innocent and available’ with the text overlaying shots of a girl of around 4 or 5. It invites you to ‘experience the sensation of buying a girl… her life back.’ Just when you think you have stumbled across a website you need to report to the police, it turns out to be ‘the first e-commerce sure where purchasing schools supplies helps girls avoid being sold into marriage or sex slavery’ which urges you to ‘buy a girl before somebody else does.’ The website then redirects you to its shop where Leena, age 5, Binny, age 7, Vimla, age 4, Kavita, age 7, Padma, age 7 and Vajra, age 5, are joined by 3 girls stamped ‘new’: Divya, age 6, Chandini, age 13 and Gita, age 5. The girls are standing on auction, looking young, distressed, and vulnerable, with school supplies (pencils, maths box, workbooks and uniform) and their prices next to them and orange stamps indicated which items have been ‘purchased’ and which girls are ‘off to school.’  The Girl Store promises that if you buy these items for Divya, Chandini and Gita, you will make sure that they attend school and are not sold into marriage or sex slavery.

The Girl Store auction

I agree that lack of ability to buy pencils, books and uniforms is one factor that leads to girls leaving school. However, girls are forced into marriage from all socio-economic backgrounds and there is no simple link between levels of education and ability to choose your future. Furthermore, the deliberate equating of your experience (in buying a girl a maths set) with that of those who do buy girls (for marriage and slavery) is deeply troubling. It is surely no accident that the youngest of girls are in the majority of those being featured. I also would like to know from where they are buying these school items? The pencils cost $3. As someone who loves and buys Nataraj pencils whenever I am home, I know that a box does not cost Rs 160. I can’t remember how much it costs in the shops but online I can find a box for Rs 30. Does the Mahindra Foundation, set up by a $12.5bn multinational group, really require over 80% of the money raised by American people buying pencils to save Indian girls to over their administrative costs? As Ms magazine asks, why does the sale of notebooks and pencils warrant the clear and deliberate eroticisation of small children?

I hope people speaking out about all the above campaigns as well as the Stop Kony controversy encourages charities to think twice about the messaging in their campaigning and fundraising. Although Invisible Children may well think it was a great success in terms of raising the profile of their organisation, the video has provoked much criticism and anger, especially among those living and working in Uganda. Just because something in a certain way raises money (The Girl Store was phenomenally successful in getting Americans to donate and sold out in its first day) or gets people to know of your organisation, should not mean using the bodies of women and girls in sexualised and gendered ways is justified; dodgy messages along the way be damned.

Charities can raise money and awareness while retaining credibility and steering clear of the sensationalism that links your cause to sex and the simplistic nature of asking Western (white) people to save brown girls from their brown families by buying them pencils.

This was first posted on Black Feminists on 29th April 2012.

the hypocrisy of international women’s day

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a good friend of mine when the conversation turned to International Women’s Day. I asked her whether she was looking forward to it to which she dismissively said, ‘Yeah, but for us, every day is international women’s day.’ I replied, “Yes, but this is the one time of the year where everyone else pays attention.’ This was an offhand conversation. I did not expect it to come to frame my experiences of the day this year.

I lost count of the number of times people wished me International Women’s Day on Thursday. A fair few of them were feminist activists but this also included many who seem to count winding a feminist up as one of their more enjoyable pastimes. Even those who I have not seen for months sent me text messages and emails. My email inbox was filled with different newsletters or emails from organisations wishing me a happy International Women’s Day telling me what they stood for and how this was important for women, how absolutely central to their work women’s rights was and in what ways they were going to celebrate this day. There have been so many events planned that my head is spinning from finishing the merry-go-round that is the days around 8th March.

Whenever 8th March comes around, the vibe reminds me of independence days. In so many ways, 8th March is an independence day for women. It’s a chance to reflect, think and write about what we have achieved so far, feeling proud of the activism that brought that to pass (even if it is not your own), taking stock of how far we have to come and how far there is left to go. The anniversaries of the anniversary (100 years of international women’s day, 60 years of Indian independence, 55 years of Ghanaian independence and thus the start of decolonisation in sub Saharan Africa) take on special significance and become key moments in and of their own right.

All of this is good, right? So why have I spent the last few days feeling so annoyed?

My reaction is to blatant cynicism and hypocrisy I have experienced. Plenty of people do precious little for women most of the time, focusing their attention on issues that disproportionately affect men, organising events where just white middle class men are able to speak and not seeing the ways women are differently affected by the same issues nor the issues of particular concern to women. Then, all of a sudden in March, they realise that now is their opportunity to prove their feminist credentials. They organise an event, write an article or otherwise speak out on women’s rights. The amount of attention around international women’s day almost crowds out the work of year long feminist activists. Of all the events organised, count the number that have been organised by activists. Why would you organise an event this week, knowing the number of organisations and institutions with much bigger marketing budgets that will ‘have it covered’? Of the media coverage received in the past week, how many activists have written articles or otherwise been profiled? And how much of all of this has focused on black, lesbian or bisexual, trans, disabled and/ or working class women?

This all matters, and it matters because of the attitudes of the people who come to ‘own’ IWD. This becomes clear when you consider their actions the rest of the year and exactly how they choose to mark the day.

In the week beforehand, I heard about some plans. A European embassy in an African country invites women’s rights activists to a reception with the injunction that the dress code is ‘smart and feminine.’ A school in Beijing provides a free photo-shoot for its female members of staff, complete with hairstyling and makeup. There are events up and down the UK offering massages and a chance to buy jewellery. The website is run by Aurora Ventures, a private investment firm. International Women’s Day is not for activists anymore. It seems to have largely become depoliticised, an alternate Mothering Sunday or Valentine’s Day, stripped of its call for fundamental, radical and transformative social change.

On 7th March, I attended an event on the perspectives of women in LGBT campaigning. Afterwards, I congratulated one of the men in the organisation: ‘This was a great event, well done; just make sure that all the events you do from now on have at least 50% women on the panels,’ only to be told that this was impossible as it ‘would be too difficult.’

Thursday morning, David Cameron announced the criminalisation of stalking and the piloting of ‘Clare’s Law’, declaring ‘ending violence against women and girls is a priority for this government.’ He ends by saying ‘So International Women’s Day is vital as it forces people across the planet to focus on issues like this. But we have got to make sure that action to stamp out violence against women continues every day – and that’s what this government is determined to do.’ Given the brunt of the government’s economic policy is falling on womenand the impact of cuts to services (31% in the current financial year) and legal aid, how seriously can anyone believe David Cameron or anyone in his coalition government cares genuinely about stopping violence against women?

The South Bank Centre’s Women of the World festival is perhaps the main women focused event happening in London the weekend after International Women’s Day. I have heard mainly positive feedback and I do get the impression that Jude Kelly, its artistic director, is a committed feminist who has fought hard to be able to put on the festival at all. When I return on Sunday night, I sit down with their April programme and google the names of those taking part in events. I count the numbers of women and men: 49 women and 153 men. Fifty-two women are missing and 52 men have taken their place.

I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, a 32% representation of women is not so bad. It is usually much less. A few months ago, Kira Cochrane found that 22% of newspaper articles are written by women, 28% of Question Time contributors are women and 16% of Today Show reporters and guests are women. Given the abysmal statistics elsewhere, must we be content with figures like 32% when women make up over 50% of the population?

We are meant to be grateful for the small crumbs that are offered in March. These are expected to suffice to sustain us for the rest of the year. I do not believe any of these people or institutions actually care about women beyond our use as a PR opportunity. This ethos is simply not followed through the rest of the year. It should be obvious that the awareness, discussion and celebration need to continue past early March. You need to pay attention towomen 365 days a year and not just on the one day which has our name on it. After all, women’s rights are for life, not just for International Women’s Day.

This piece was originally posted on Black Feminists on 12th March 2012.

an appraisal of Rwanda’s response to survivors who experienced sexual violence in 1994

I had written a journal article based on the research I conducted in Rwanda for my LLM thesis back in 2008. It took a whole 3 years for the journal to come out from the time I submitted my article to publication. This piece appeared in the Special Issue of the Wagadu Journal of Transnational Women’s and Gender Studies on Sexual Violence and Armed Conflict: Gender, Society and the State in Spring 2012.


Over a million people were killed in 1994 during Rwandas genocide and war, with many women compelled to offer sex, raped, held in collective or individual sexual slavery and mutilated. An estimated 250 000 to 500 000 women still alive were raped between 1990 and 1994, 30 000 pregnancies resulted from rape and the 67% of survivors considered HIV positive continue to suffer the consequences of wartime sexual violence (Wells, 2004-2005).  Countless women now live with serious illnesses, pain or injury, unable to provide for families.  The level of trauma is severe, compounded by shame, exclusion, stigma, survivors guilt and contested feelings towards the children of bad memories born of rape and as many perpetrators were neighbours who often live nearby. Despite commitment to the rights of women and recognition of the prevalence of rape during the genocide, the Rwandese government has been slow to offer legal redress, medical treatment and counselling and has not prioritized prosecution and punishment. Conviction rates are low.  Reparations are not forthcoming.  Neither the national courts nor the gacaca, have investigated and prosecuted these cases in a fitting manner.  Although attention has been paid to sexual violence, defects in the drafting of statutory law and its implementation discourage reporting, investigation and prosecution.  Recent procedural revisions dismiss very real fears around fair trial, public ridicule, and increased trauma.  Difficulties in addressing the legacies and widespread nature of sexual violence are being overlooked as the government prioritizes the construction of a sense of nationhood and continuation of its own power over the needs of survivors.  The result is that many women, infected with HIV or with other serious illnesses, are slowly dying without reparation, healthcare, counselling or seeing perpetrators brought to justice.

You can access the full journal article here.


migration, race, class, gender and the state

I chaired and spoke on this panel put together by Southall Black Sisters (I am on the SBS management committee) on ‘Cohesion, Migration and Religion’ at FEM 11, organised by UK Feminista. Here are my notes written up into a post.

The intersection between migration,  women’s rights and what this means in practice for women has always been an important arena for struggle – for black women and for SBS, which throughout its existence has campaigned for family reunification, in anti-deportation campaign as well as for the meaningful right for women to exit the family.

Immigration law and policy is the cutting edge of black communities’ experience of state racism, by its very nature racist and classist, created to prevent certain types of foreigners entering the country. The government pretends that immigration laws affect all foreigners fairly but we know they do not. Conservative and Labour governments have justified racist and draconian immigration laws as the basis for good race relations, reduced the money, housing and services available to immigrants and asylum seekers (even though immigrants actually pay more tax) and whipped up hysteria by talking of ‘bogus’ asylum seekers.

The immigrant experience has always been made problematic by the state. “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man,” Enoch Powell, Shadow Defence secretary at the time, quoted a constituent as saying in 1968. ‘Enoch Powell was right’ say the far right today: this is the ‘dystopian’ future of which he imagined – a Britain overrun by immigrants.

Extreme as this rhetoric is, it’s symptomatic of a continuous and ever-present strand running through British politics. Immigration policy is about keeping the wrong people out and letting the right people in; about managing the movements of black people and seeing immigrants as the problem. Debates around capping immigration have raged for decades. Papers released a couple of years ago showed Margaret Thatcher complaining that too many Asian immigrants were being allowed into Britain but that she had less objection to (white) people from Rhodesia, Poland and Hungary since ‘they could more easily be assimilated into British society.’ Could this be because of the colour of their skin by any chance?

The BNP may not have won a parliamentary seat in the 2010 election but their popularity in the years before led to the immigration debate moving sharply rightwards in the first decade of the twenty first century. More recently, David Cameron spoke at Munich, on the same day the EDL were marching, lambasting ‘segregated communities’ living ‘apart from the mainstream’ that behave in ways that run counter to ‘our values.’  [For a post I wrote at the time, see here.] The debate has always displayed distinct inequality, not only in policy but in its very discourse. All race relations policy has been predicated around the management of black communities rather than around human rights, safety and the prevention of violence. Migrants have never had equal footing with the state.

Black women, already problematised through the colour of our skin, have been further ignored and pathologised as women. Policies around multiculturalism and cohesion allow self appointed so-called leaders to speak on the behalf of their communities, including where it comes to women’s rights.

The practice of ‘virginity testing‘ in the 1970s has been well documented. Immigration rules at the time did not require women arriving in the UK to have married their fiancés in order to have visas if the wedding was due to take place within 3 months of arrival. Internal Home Officer papers show the practice of conducting medical examinations to see whether a woman entering the UK under this bracket was a ‘bona fide virgin or fiancée.’ At least 80 ‘virginity tests’ or, to give them their proper name, state sanctioned sexual assaults took place, based on racist and sexist stereotypes that south Asian women are submissive, meek and always virgins before marriage and on the biologically false notion that all women have hymens before having sex. The UK state has still not apologised for this.

So, this was in the 70s, right? Maybe it’s gotten better and we all now live in a paradise of gender migration equality? I’m afraid not. The government is now proposing to introduce reforms to family-related migration to ‘bring immigration back to sustainable levels and to bring a sense of fairness back to our system.’ Although they talk about fairness, the purpose of these proposed reforms is really to reduce migration. The government is planning to put in place an additional series of requirements that people will have to meet in order to join their spouses in the UK. These are likely to lead to highly subjective determinations by immigration officers that rely on stereotypical and discriminatory ideas of what is a genuine marriage. What worries us even more is that the proposals are more or less copied and pasted from those of the anti-immigration think tank Migration Watch which campaigns against the ‘rise’ of immigrant populations and advocates the need to stop family migration altogether, conflating forced, arranged and sham marriages as it does so.

This goes to another trend that we find deeply disturbing: the use of women’s rights to justify racist immigration policies. The government banned non-EU spouses under 21 from entering the UK in the name of preventing forced marriage. We argued that this policy was disproportionate and discriminatory and that it would, rather than addressing forced marriage, merely drive it underground.  There is no evidence to show that, in the vast majority of cases, forced marriage and gaining entry to the UK are linked and there are more effective ways to address this issue. Luckily, the Supreme Court, in the Quila and Bibi case, agreed that this policy was an unjustifiable, unfair and disproportionate response to the problem of forced marriage. Although forced marriage is a very real problem, it should not be used in a cynical way to justify the government’s immigration agenda.

Another example: the impact on vulnerable women with insecure immigration status. SBS started a legal challenge recently, this time against the Ministry of Justice about the government’s decision to remove the provision of legal aid from non-detention immigration, especially for women subject to domestic or gender related violence. This put the onus on abused migrant women, one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society, to navigate their way around the law and legal processes, in contravention of race, gender and disability discrimination law and the Human Rights Act. We won before we even went to court, thanks to our legal challenge and the lobbying that we and other organisations, such as Rights of Women, did. The government announced they would table an amendment to cover domestic violence cases. It isn’t enough though. SBS is determined to ensure this covers all vulnerable women, including trafficked women and migrant domestic workers.

A last example: that of women claiming asylum. The overwhelming majority of asylum seekers are men. Refugees are imagined by international and national law as male political activists persecuted for their protests against the state. Not only do women’s political activities take different forms but the nature of the persecution faced differs and includes that based on their gender. The law marginalises and depoliticises the persecution women face at home and does not go far enough to reflect the reality of women’s experiences. This is just as much the case when looking at the experiences of women seeking asylum due to persecution on the basis of sexuality. Sexuality is viewed through a very Western lens and assumptions are made that, if you do not fit the modes of homosexuality of some in the cities of the UK, then you are lying. I worked on an anti-deportation campaign recently where the woman in question was told that officials did not believe that she was fleeing persecution on the basis of her sexuality because she didn’t look like a lesbian.

The key point is this: you can’t talk about immigration without talking about race, gender and class. A quote from one of the women who uses the services provided by SBS: ‘I don’t feel like I belong in this country. I feel that the minute that I had my first experience of racism at the age of 18 and now I am 53 – and race is always an issue and yet I am intelligent, educated and can speak English. This proves that the problem is major. So someone who speaks English and is not educated – what the hell must they be going through?

We need to drastically reconfigure our thinking; moving immigration from its inherent racism and sexism and towards reflection of human rights, including those of women. Immigration policy has always been filtered through the male gaze – made mostly by men looking mostly at men. Black women have never been at its heart, or if we are, it’s mostly in ways that use the language of women’s rights to justify racist immigration policies. All of this has massive implications on the lives of black women, which is only set to intensify in the light of the cuts to services and legal aid that are currently ongoing. Over the years, we have made some gains – far from what is required – but even they are going to disappear.

let us talk about racism when discussing identity, belonging and multiculturalism

I read the speech of David Cameron, Prime Minister, to the Munich Security Conference with more than a little anger at the partial nature of his analysis.

He was talking about Muslim young men turning to extremism and violence because they did not feel British, and this is all he had to say about racism:

So, when a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them.’

That is it. Not mentioning impacts of racism on feelings of identity and belonging not only shows a complete lack of understanding, but decontextualises the situation and denies the reality of the power dynamics at play.

‘…we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values…. instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone.

If this analysis is correct, I should be among the immigrants to the UK most likely to feel British. I moved here when I was five. I have never lived in areas with big Asian communities. We have always been one of very few black families in the area so I have never experienced these ‘segregated communities.’ So why did it take me until I held a British passport, age 18, to even start feeling English? Why did I, at the age of seven, automatically support the football team playing against England even though I had no idea which country it was?

The reasons, as for many black immigrants and communities, is not due to the ‘failures of multiculturalism’ or ‘living in separate communities.’ Rather, the cause is years of racism, everything ranging from the direct attacks to the daily grind of living in a country that has policies, institutions and discourse that do not take you into account,

We lived in Oldham when we first moved here in the late 80s/ early 90s. Believe me, learning to read ‘Paki go home’ and getting beaten up regularly because I was a ‘Paki’ was not a fun induction for a five year old Indian girl to the ‘British way of life.’ While at university, I had stones thrown at me on the street in Nottingham because ‘your people bombed the Twin Towers.’ My Asian male friends were asked to leave a pub in Leeds because they were making others feel uncomfortable. Obviously a group of Asian men together are terrorists plotting to blow up the country. Last year, I had a skinhead spit at me on a Sunday afternoon while I was waiting for the bus at Finsbury Park tube station in north London. I had told him to stop harassing an Asian couple, quite newly arrived in the UK. Apparently ‘their lot’ had not only stolen his mates’ jobs, but also beaten them up. Luckily the bus came before he hit me but nobody waiting at the bus stop did anything to stop him in the meanwhile. I was told afterwards that perhaps I should not have intervened because it was not safe. However, I can handle this more than the couple that was getting harassed in the first place, having experienced similar things ever since I can remember. I wonder if David Cameron has ever felt as ashamed of the United Kingdom and ‘being British’ as I did then? It is not surprising that I felt closer to this woman and man who had spent just arrived in this country than the British people waiting at the bus stop who, like me, had grown up here.

I know I am not the only black person who has had such experiences.

Saturday morning (perhaps just before Cameron delivered his speech?), I passed a group of men walking down the road singing/ chanting. I first thought it was a protest that I’d missed out on finding out about. They joined their mates outside a pub. I noticed the England flags and actually thought of going to check out the England match that had somehow slipped under my radar. That’s when I noticed the men wearing the EDL jumpers. I later found out that they were on their way to the demonstrations in Luton.

I do not think David Cameron will ever know how I felt at that moment; an instinctive physical and visceral reaction. It was broad daylight, there were plenty of people around but I was still scared. Why did he not talk about the fact that I, in the country in which I was brought up in, did not feel safe walking the streets of London this weekend? What sense of belonging are we supposed to feel?

I know I am not the only black person who feels this way when they walk past EDL or BNP supporters.

What and whom was he trying to signal, knowing the EDL were marching the same day? He says it was an unfortunate coincidence, but this is the effect it had:

Some of crowd were jubilant, saying that Cameron “had come round to our way of thinking”. Paul Bradburn, 35, from Stockport, said Cameron was “coming out against extremism”. He added: “The timing of his speech is quite weird as it comes on the day of one of the biggest EDL demos we’ve ever seen. If he wants to start sticking up for us, that’s great.”

Coalition approval ratings are down, but is going for the BNP/ UKIP vote really the way forward?

I know the EDL are not reflective of the majority of Britons. However, I can say the same to David Cameron. He talks about Islamic extremism. Why is he not talking about the racism on the streets, in our schools (it would be good to learn about slavery, the British empire and colonialism by the way), in our policies, in our institutions and perpetrated by individuals?

They point to grievances about Western foreign policy and say, ‘Stop riding roughshod over Muslim countries and the terrorism will end.’ But there are many people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who are angry about Western foreign policy, but who don’t resort to acts of terrorism. They also point to the profusion of unelected leaders across the Middle East and say, ‘Stop propping these people up and you will stop creating the conditions for extremism to flourish.’ But this raises the question: if it’s the lack of democracy that is the problem, why are there so many extremists in free and open societies?…These are just contributory factors.

Really? The UK has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in the last 10 years, propped up Middle Eastern governments and dictators for their own ends for decades and that’s not to mention Britain’s historic and continuing role in Palestine and Kashmir. Surely anger and despair over foreign policy decisions is more than just a contributing factor here. Don’t take this from me. Michael Scheuer, the CIA analyst who led the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden has said attacks are motivated precisely because of foreign policies: ‘They hate us for what we do, not who we are.’ I don’t particularly trust CIA analysis, but I assumed it carried some weight with David Cameron.

…we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream…

Integration into society works both ways. I’m guessing by speaking against these segregated communities, the Tory government is going to get rid of faith schoolsfree schools and even private schools as well? I cannot think of a way to divide people faster than have children spend hours every day in the company of others just like them. How well are government ministers integrated into ‘mainstream’ British society? What is the mainstream anyway? This kind of language assumes a model of the white person, with anything outside it as deviant and ‘other.’ How many close black friends do people in the government have? I am guessing David Cameron does not have many friends in his inner circle from outside a narrow white, upper (middle) class background. I do not consider that to be mainstream either.

The failure, for instance, of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage, the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone when they don’t want to, is a case in point… do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths?

Can everyone please stop using the rhetoric of fighting for women’s rights to justify any of this? Quite frankly, I have had enough of white people and black men talk over the heads of black women about black women, about our bodies, our experiences and our realities, using gender equality and culture/ tradition arguments to justify their racism, imperialism and sexism. The continuing occupation of Afghanistan is now justified in the name of the liberation of women. As Kandiyoti argues, ‘the challenge to platforms for gender equality comes not just from actors with fundamentalist agendas, but from a conjuncture where women’s rights have been opportunistically intrumentalised to serve geopolitical goals, and neo-liberal policies have severed social justice from gender equality concerns.’

Implicit in all this is a positioning of ‘liberated’ white women against the oppressed black women that smacks of orientalism. Of course, neither characterisation is true. Black men are not savages, black women are not victims and white people, including the government, are not saviours for black women. Yes, ‘the horrors of forced marriage‘ are very real, but violence against women is not limited to black communities. Let us not forget only 6 percent of reported rapes end in a successful prosecution and that2009 showed a dramatic increase in the numbers of women killed by violent partners in the UK. This includes all women. White women are not living in some feminist fantasy utopia of equality and opportunity and black women are not all oppressed.

I do not trust that Cameon has the best interests of black women truly at heart, I really don’t. He may say he does, he may even think he does, but he really does not. If he really cares about black women, he would talk with us and listen to us seriously when we identify what we need.

The reason why some people living in this country do not feel British is not solely because of the nature of the communities in which they live but rather also the nature of mainstream British society and UK government policies. It would have been much more honest of Cameron to acknowledge there continues to be problems with racism, systemic, institutionalised and individualised, in this country. By not mentioning the role entrenched racism plays in all of this, he just ignored our lived reality and experiences. David Cameron needs to stop perpetuating a white-centric view of race relations and have a long hard look at himself, as well as at British society, institutions and policies.

Frankly, I’m just bored by this whole debate. The speech showed a lack of new analysis and seemed aimed at bolstering the popularity of the Tory led government. It seems David Cameron has missed it but we have been having this same debate about multiculturalism since 2004. There is nothing new in his speech, just as there is nothing new in what I have written here. Why do we have to keep saying the same things over and over again? Can we move forward please to the proper debate that is needed?

This piece was first published on Black Feminists on 11th February 2011. It was the first blogpost I ever wrote. Hopefully my pieces have become shorter and more concise since then.

A Veneer of Legitimacy: Gender, Citizenship and Ethnicity in Rwanda

I presented this paper at the Citizenship and the Commonwealth conference held between 10th – 12th November 2010. I cannot seem to insert the footnotes – please let me know in the comments if you would like references.


The aftermath of war and conflict has the potential to radically transform society, acting as a definitive break with the past and a means to reconfigure ideas of gender, citizenship and nationhood. This was especially so in Rwanda in the 1990s. The aftermath of devastating civil war and genocide, waged in large part due to disagreement over the delimitations of citizenship saw the country completely transformed in infrastructure, government and citizenry. Millions were killed, fled the country, returned home from the diaspora or were internally displaced, causing and exacerbating fundamental and profound societal change. The end of hostilities, when society is in flux and creating and strengthening institutions and constitutional culture, can realise the potential that exists to address and redress imbalances, bringing marginalised groups into constitutional and political conversation. The constitutional moment can prevent future conflict: changing the structure of governance may, by including voices rather than relegating grievances to outside the political process, reduce the likelihood of violence. It is a moment of opportunity for women. This time can also exacerbate difference.

The transition focused on remaking a deeply fractured and divided society into a nation, with a corresponding sense of nationhood. Rwanda sought to address ethnic strife and improve the reality of lives for women, utilising the constitution to entrench gender equality provisions and increase female representation in positions of power. Although established norms of proper behaviour persist, Rwanda has the highest rate of female representation in parliament in the world, the government has pledged to remedy traditional exclusion and repression of women and, together with human rights NGOs, is working to transform rhetoric into reality, passing laws reforming inheritance and succession regimes, integrating gender equality into the Constitution, and poised to enact legislation on gender based violence. Significantly, there seems to be general acceptance that Rwandese culture regarding women needs to be transformed. Largely due to advocacy efforts and other actions of Rwandan human rights NGOs, Rwanda has made great strides towards the achievement of gender equality and realisation of women’s rights yet these advances must be viewed in the economic and socio-political context of the nation where the government openly admits the transformation of political culture and ways of thinking to be a prerequisite for the restoration of full human rights. Based on research conducted in the country and interviews with Rwandan and international human rights NGOs on their work, this paper, after examining the contribution of women and women’s organisations to the new polity and to constitutional debate, asserts that the ways that the Rwandan government has incorporated gender equality into a new sense of nation is deeply flawed and aims at furthering its own authoritarian agenda. In a country where government rhetoric of equality of citizenship and break with the past masks growing centralisation of power into the hands of a narrow elite, the instumentalisation of gender equality and women’s participation is very worrying indeed. True citizenship needs to be extended to all those who live in the land.


Patriarchal culture in Rwanda is changing, due to civil society and its parliamentary and government champions, yet these advances must be viewed in socio-political context. Based on research conducted in Rwanda in August and September 2008, this paper argues dramatic change in women’s legal and political status has been accompanied by centralisation of power. Juxtaposing changes in gender roles and political power, the paper traces developments and concludes changes in gender roles are not as revolutionary as at first glance, with attendant implications for the boundaries of citizenship in the polity.

Cockroaches, Temptresses and The Hutu Nation

Rwandans share common language, culture and religion, but identify themselves as radically different, as Hutu and Tutsi. Decades post independence were marked by continuing and virulent campaigns against the Tutsi, depicted as cockroaches to be crushed. The first targeted killings began in 1959 and continued intermittently, causing millions to seek refuge. Raising the spectre of return to subjugation, extremist Hutu advocated annihilation, especially when war broke out with the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) headed by Paul Kagame. The myth of the Hutu nation was instrumental in constructing gender roles. Women, permeable boundaries due to intermarriage and reproduction, became the focus of propaganda. Tutsi women were characterised as working for their ethnicity, enemy infiltrators and deceitful temptresses. Presented as beautiful and desirable yet inaccessible to Hutu men, sexualised images fused ethnic and gender stereotypes, and led to widespread sexual torture to humiliate, degrade and destroy. The first targets of the genocide were female politicians and activists, in part a backlash against recent social and political advances. The interahamwe raped Tutsi and educated Hutu women. Agathe Uwiringiyimana, the first female Prime Minister, was depicted as sexually promiscuous and a national threat. She was one of the first to be raped and killed, targeted because she was an articulate and outspoken woman and prominent in the opposition. Raped, mutilated and impregnated, survivors bear lasting legacies of physical and psychological damage and above all, shame, stigma and social exclusion. Approximately three quarters of inhabitants were killed or displaced in genocidal massacres and war in 1994. The RPF, seen as heroes at the time, are not above reproach. The United Nations estimates soldiers killed between 25,000 and 45,000 people in 1994 and, as of January 2010, only 36 soldiers had been tried.

Women led societal reconstruction, filling a void left by government collapse. Grouping under Pro Femmes Twese Hamwe, organisations lobbied the transitional government to facilitate mechanisms to promote gender equality and encouraged the population to support women. The Ministry of Gender and Promotion of Women’s Development (Migeprofe) established representatives in each prefecture and commune. Women’s committees, running parallel to local authority structures, were set up. Electoral law for the 2001 local elections emphasised women should constitute at least a third of council committee members. In 2002, 25% of National Assembly members, 5 out of 26 ministers and secretaries of state, 2 out of 5 presidents of Supreme Court departments and more than 35% of gacaca judges were female. In the same period, prominent Hutu coalition members resigned, complaining of lack of real power. Consolidation of contro became complete in 2000 when the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, the prime minister and the president resigned and Kagame became the new president.

The Constitutional Commission, including three women out of twelve commissioners, spent six months facilitating discussion in communities before drafting text. Consultation enabled significant input by women’s rights activists. The 2003 Constitution enshrines gender equality in its preamble, sets a 30% female quota for decision making posts and declares political organisations must reflect gender equality in recruitment, operation and leadership. It establishes a bicameral legislature with a Chamber of Deputies that has 24 out of 80 seats reserved for women elected by local councils and women’s organisations and a Senate of 26 members, with at least 30% female representation. However, constitutional provisions are not all progressive. Speech around ethnicity is subject to strict regulation. The Constitution pledges the country to fight genocidal ideology, provides propagation of division is punishable by law, and stipulates political organisations must reflect national unity. The Senate is appointed, not popularly elected, only 53 out of 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies are chosen by direct universal suffrage and a Forum of Parliamentarians monitors deputies and senators for divisionism. How these provisions have been used against challengers to power will be discussed later. European Union observers declared there was no referendum campaign, with information disseminated insufficient, imprecise and the government presenting the constitution as the only way to guarantee peace, reconciliation and reconstruction. The constitution was ratified with 90% turnout and 93% approval.

Presidential and parliamentary elections marking the end of transition were held 4 months later. Officials carefully selected candidates, threatening others. Election observers expressed concern at the lack of real opposition, the climate of intimidation and arrests and preponderance of news coverage favourable to the RPF. Moreover, the leadership openly acknowledged transformation of ways of thinking as prerequisite for restoration of full rights: the people will only influence policy once divisions have been banished. The 2003 constitution and elections therefore, far from marking a transition to democracy resulted in RPF power consolidation.

Increasing government restrictions on political space and human rights, growing intolerance of criticism and a refusal to allow discussion of ethnicity mark the years since transition. Legislative elections in September 2008 resulted in RPF candidates winning 79 percent of the vote in voting marked by procedural irregularities, noticeable absence of political debate, reports of intimidation and short-term arrests. Opposition leads to accusations of ‘genocidal ideology,’ a vaguely defined crime established in 2008 but prosecuted before, that does not require intent to incite violence based on ethnicity nor causality. Criticism, including calls for prosecution of RPF war crimes, can be construed as ‘genocidal ideology.’ Political groups and organisations may be disbanded on conviction. A media law passed in August 2009 requires journalists to have levels of education most independents cannot meet. The BBC Kinyarwanda service and Voice of America have both been accused of disseminating genocidal ideology. In April 2010, the Media High Council suspended two of the few remaining independent newspapers, effectively silencing independent reporting before the August 2010 presidential elections. The United Nations, European Union, United States, France and Spain expressed concerns about the human rights situation ahead of the elections. None of the three candidates were believed to be a serious threat to incumbent Paul Kagame but the three opposition parties that have openly criticised policies were not on the ballot. The Democratic Green Party and the FDU Inkingi were unable to register due to arrests, intimidation and attacks and PS Imberakuri was unable to stand after its leader, Bernard Ntaganda was arrested in June and charged with ‘genocidal ideology.’ The members of all three parties were harassed and threatened. In October 2010, Victoire Ingabire, leader of the FDU Inkingi, was re-arrested and Bernard Ntaganda transferred from prison where he has been on hunger strike, to hospital.

Activists have to be careful as margin for manoeuvre is limited. Activities are tolerated only if compatible with government discourse and criticism has led to threats, deaths, injuries and disappearances. Experience has made Rwandan human rights defenders wary of speaking out. Organisations critical of the government are accused of being too political, harbouring genocidal ideas and threatened with dissolution. Leaders of human rights organisations have also been co-opted by the offer of governmental posts that are too dangerous to refuse. An increasingly authoritarian state has led to the expulsion of genocide survivors. Until 2000, through the organisations Ibuka and Avega, they demanded improvement in economic situation and challenged utilisation of the genocide, opposing the display of skulls, bones and corpses at memorials. Ability to agitate for change was neutralised by increasing pressure, with physical attacks and assassinations leading many to flee into exile, to be replaced by leaders with a history of involvement in RPF politics. Organisations are urged to join the Civil Society Platform, whose leadership has close ties to the government. There are very few independent human rights NGOs left in the country. The impact of government’s utilisation of ‘genocidal ideology’ has been to stifle dissent.

Gender Equality in Context

Women head households, have achieved equal parliamentary representation and work in prominent positions. Activists were involved in drafting the Bill on Gender Based Violence as well as laws recognising rights to inherit land and property. These changes, along with equal primary school enrolment and dropping maternal mortality have impact but gendered attitudes have continuing influence. Women tend to hold ‘female jobs’ with low pay. The feminisation of poverty continues. Female literacy is low. Survivors live beside those who assaulted and betrayed them. Justice has been slow. Rates of violence against women are high. De facto polygamy is on the rise. The notion the man is the lord of the manor thrives. Furthermore, gender equality has to be seen in context. Decisions are to be made by consensus between leaders and the enlightened part of the people. Political liberalisation is contingent on changes in population mindset to remove genocidal thinking. Students, demobilised soldiers and returnees from exile are required to spend time at ingando or solidarity camps where ideology is disseminated. Accusations of genocidal ideology and corruption, disappearance of oppositional politics and distribution of positions of responsibility in public and private sectors has concentrated control. Parliament, far from being a check on executive power, enables undemocratic actions. The Forum of Parliamentarians mentioned earlier suffocates full and free debate. President Kagame initiates the majority of legislation and little suggested is altered. Longman characterises the parliament ‘not as a forum for real debate but rather as a tool for legitimising government policies by giving them a veneer of popularity.’

Gender equality gains have to be seen in the context of limited parameters for political debate. The government seems committed to achieving gender equality and this is certainly very useful diplomatically. Rwanda is known and lauded as the nation with the highest number of women in parliament. Multiple motives may lie behind championing of women’s rights. Cynical calculation views this policy as a way of being assured support from the majority female population and parliamentarians and obscuring lack of competitive democracy and on-going human rights violations in the eyes of the international community. Perceptions crediting President Kagame for changes for women in Rwanda heighten loyalty among women who make up the majority of voters and attribute their promotion at all levels to the President. Women may be being used to legitimise governmental power and consolidate Kagame’s power base. Furthermore, female parliamentarians and women’s organisations can only push forward a pro women agenda in so far as this is amenable to the leadership. The passage of the 2008 gacaca law exemplifies this. The gacaca, community fora used for guilt/ innocence determinations for genocidal crimes, were given jurisdiction over rape, raising fears of survivors suffering stigma and ridicule once experiences of sexual violence became known and of justice not being done. By the time most NGOs knew about the legislation, it had been adopted. All activists interviewed stated surprise at speed of passage and lack of consultation given the sensitive nature of changes proposed and expressed reservations. The lack of political freedom limits ability to influence policy. Rwanda is essentially a one party state. According to Kenneth Roth, ‘under the guise of preventing another genocide the government displays a marked intolerance of the most basic forms of dissent.’ Emphasising the international community did nothing to prevent the genocide has manipulated international guilt into strong support for the RPF with institutional and government donors giving latitude for actions.


The status of women, traditionally characterised as virtuous wives, virginal daughters or loose women who controlled resources through links with men, has profoundly changed. However, Rwanda is not as much a gender success story as it seems. Much of it is a façade of power that remains as long as women operate within circumscribed space. Real power remains in the hands of a small coterie surrounding the president. This much is evident from the repercussions for those who dare to criticise the government, the marginalisation of women’s organisations from discussions surrounding the 2008 gacaca law and sidelining of survivors’ needs and experiences, particularly distasteful given the genocide has become politicised in internal and external discourse to justify and legitimise actions.

Around the world, the 2008 election results were celebrated. With 56.25 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies, one country in the world finally seemed to recognise women as equal citizens. It was hoped equal representation would mean the scope of political debate would shift to reflect women’s concerns and the reality of women’s lives. A more nuanced approach, one that looks at political and societal reality, is needed. Gender statistics and the horror of the genocide are being instrumentalised to cloak what is really happening. Human rights to freedom of speech, assembly, press and from torture are as relevant for women as they are for men. Meaningful, not tokenistic participation is the goal. In a country where full and active citizenship is restricted to the enlightened, those who do not challenge government discourse, cause for celebration is muted indeed.