Time to Step Up.

I have to begin this post by stating for the record that I am a student of colour at Mount Holyoke College. The implicit assumption that I was safe in this space has been disproved, and I find myself astonished at the blatant lack of protections afforded to coloured students at progressive institutions such as this. Maya’s story is not the first, but it should be the last. It is deeply reflective of the work that is left to be done.

When Maya called me on Saturday morning, I couldn’t find the right words to express how I felt. At that point, I wasn’t absorbing the facts. I wasn’t digesting the reality of the events she was describing to me. In-fact, we were both laughing about it. Shocked, but laughing. Over the next few days, we began to digest the story. Slowly, discussions about Maya’s arrest began to surface, and for many of us students of colour it began to sink in. It spoke to the reality of what many of us have gone through on this campus- although perhaps, never to this extent. Maya’s story, in many ways, has now become our story: the story of young, coloured women who exist in spaces that claim not only to help represent our voices, but amplify our voices.

I cannot speak for the whole Mount Holyoke Community, but I can speak for myself. After four years on this campus, I am finding it very hard to find the love that I initially had for this place. This space, these people, these women have become an intrinsic part of my identity, and their treatment within this space is something I cannot remain voiceless about. The harassment, the racism, the implicit sexism all stand in antithesis to the ideals and values Mount Holyoke claims to uphold. Let us ask ourselves, why a young black international student was allowed to be harassed in front of a Dean and Campus Police? Why was she being accused of stealing – when her only crime was to pick up what belonged to her, and do as the officer told her? Why was Maya never given the benefit of the doubt or allowed to prove her innocence? And most importantly, why is she still being victimized?

I would like to write a rather vocal letter to Mount Holyoke, but I fear it will go nowhere and reap no benefits. For Maya and many of us like her, the feeling of utter helplessness is sometimes worse than the injustice that is projected unto us. Where do we go to tell these stories? Who is willing to listen and hear us? If Mount Holyoke is a place where women are valued for their voices, why does it seem that people of colour are living in some alternate reality?  Are we exempt from the same rights and privileges that are accorded to white women in this same space? Why do we exist outside the system?

On the same weekend of the said incident, one very important event took place- the Women of Colour Conference. In retrospect, this seems rather ironic. At the very same time a group of women were talking about the value of diversity, Maya was spending her weekend in a cell. The truth about racism is that our actions need to speak louder than our words. We can make this space politically correct, we can ask students to take down symbols and signs that are offensive, we can conduct forums and dialogues and speak for the next 177 years about racism, but what it all comes down to eventually is action.

Over the next couple of days students like myself are awaiting an important decision. We want to know what positive action the college will take regarding the charges against Maya. This decision will ultimately reflect where the college truly stands on protecting and supporting students of colour on this campus. Somewhere deep down, my conviction is that the college will stand on the side of justice and truth. It is my hope that the administration and all who are involved in this decision will rise to the occasion and uphold the very valuable ideals that Mary Lyon founded this school upon.

On Friday (the same night of Maya’s arrest), I attended the Arab students Open-Mic Night. A poem read at that event resonated with me (and I am sure, most students of colour). This poem, by Marleny Heredia, forces us to accept that sometimes, even in the most liberal of spaces, there is still much work left to be done.

“Dear Mount Holyoke”

I fell in Love,
When I first met you,
Close to four years ago
your sensible ways
and revolutionary streaks
Melted my soul away

When I first met you
I thought “happily ever after”
I thought you were the one
but you had led me on

Now I am here
and I feel wrong
like that child you thought you wanted
But weren’t ready to have
Like a 16-year-old having a kid
but this is real life and not a MTV-show hit

check your privileges,
You are a white entity
accepting colored beings
as if we are just numbers
you can advertise to your trustees

Every time I complain
about the contemporary whips and lashes
you refrain and remind me that they were once harsher

I walk the halls Mary Lyon once dreamt up
and I just know that she must be convulsing in her grave

See, I once thought she built this school for the likes of me
Till history showed me
that she founded this in 1837
twenty-eight years before slavery had “ended”

you weren’t ready for us then
and you aren’t ready for us now

So don’t advertise to me
that “she saw me coming”
cause if she had seen my color, she would’ve
assumed I was in charge of at least the laundry

you remind me one more time
how far we have come
and the number of students
that walked through the gates
I refute your claim,
and sweetly remind you
of how battered we are inside this cage

What can I say?
The numbers don’t represent shit
if once inside we are treated like specks
only appealing when there is a camera clicking
and a point of diversity begging to be made

Oh, Mount Holyoke,
This isn’t your fault,
but how should I have known
that you weren’t what I thought?

Cause looking back in time
you are still the same
it is me who has grown
and seen that I was wrong

with love, resentment, respect and disgust,

Marleny Heredia

-Anarkalee Perera

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Re-Imagine.

To anyone who has ever spent time around Shaheen and I, it is very apparent that we disagree on almost everything. At times, we have to keep reminding ourselves why we like each other. I have always been her biggest critique and I know, she will always be mine. This is why I am dedicating this post to defending her recently published article on CNN. When I first sat down to read it, I was prepared to call her and argue this out with her. I was ready to disagree with her at some point in this article,  but that point never came. All I could feel was a sense of pride (at my uncanny ability to pick amazing best friends) and a sense of liberation. Liberation at the thought that there were others who didn’t react to Michella’s article with the same sympathy and outrage as everyone around us.

The idea that her article comes from a place of patriotism and blind nationalism (the idea that Shaheen felt like she had to somehow defend India at all cost) is unfounded and presumptuous.  Nowhere in the article does she seek to undermine what Michella experienced and/or to disprove the events that took place. In fact, she was deeply apologetic of these experiences (not because she is Indian, but because she is a woman). She acknowledges that sexual harassment (in any community) is a traumatic experience.

Her article does not draw parallels between situations or arrive at any conclusions. Never once does she weigh what she experienced in Paris to what Michella went through in India. Instead, what she does is force us to think a little harder and a little deeper about what sexual harassment really means to women everywhere! It also forces us to think about what it means to be exotic in a foreign land. Yes, women who travel from the west to the east may experience sexual harassment differently to those who travel from the east to the west. But, the fact of the matter is that it’s not because ‘brown men are sexually deprived and white men are sexually hyper’. The pillage of women’s bodies around the world has a far deeper explanation than ‘men are sexually deprived’. It extends to a conversation about power and control, about social learning and subliminal messaging. If rape were a matter of sexual deprivation, it would have been solved a long time ago.

And this is what Shaheen’s article begs us to think about.  It begs us to understand the orientalist attitudes that have governed our thought process for most of the last century! Begs us to defy these attitudes and to think about how ‘coloured’ our notions of sex and sexuality are!

I am a brown woman who grew up in a brown community her whole life. I have experienced things Michella experienced. Those experiences scarred me. And then three years ago I moved to the West and experienced a different kind of sexual harassment; but it was sexual harassment nonetheless. And they have scarred me too! I can never weigh these incidences against each other and talk about which was worse; which was scarier. They were all scary. They were all the same. Because in one way or another, whether you are physically harassing me or mentally harassing me -whether you are masturbating at me or forcefully grinding up against me at a Frat house – that experience will stay with me all the same.

So I would urge everyone to just re-read her article. Think about it a little and then hopefully this conversation can turn into something more productive. Like why aren’t sexual harassment laws stronger ALL OVER THE WORLD? And why aren’t we ALL engaged in a more aggressive fight against it?

Are Women Human Yet?

Catharine MacKinnon, author, activist and general amazing human being hits the spot in this piece titled “Are women human yet?”. More than half a century after the drafting of the Declaration of Human Rights, MacKinnon ask the powerful question of why women still do not meet the pre-requisites for being “human” and how half the world’s population is still left out of the universality of the human rights language.

“If women were human, would we be a cash crop shipped from Thailand in containers into New York’s brothels? Would we have our genitals sliced out to purify us (of what?) and to bid and define our cultures? Would we be used as breeders, made to work without pay our whole lives, burned when our dowry money wasn’t enough or when men tired of us, starved as widows when our husbands died if we survived his funeral pyre, forced to sell ourselves sexually because men won’t value us for anything else? Would we be sold into marriage to priests to atone for our family’s sins or to improve our family’s earthly prospects? Would be we sexually and reproductively enslaved? Would we, when allowed to work for pay, be made to work at the most menial jobs and exploited at barely starvation level? Would we be trafficked for sexual use and entertainment worldwide in whatever form current technology makes possible? Would we be kept from learning to read and write?

If women were human, would we have little to no voice in public deliberations and in government? Would we be hidden behind veils and imprisoned in houses and stoned and shot for refusing? Would we be beaten nearly to death, and to death, by men with whom we are close? Would we be sexually molested in our families? Would we be raped in genocide to terrorize and destroy our ethnic communities, and raped again in that undeclared war that goes on every day in every country in the world in what is called peacetime? If women were human, would our violation be enjoyed by our violators? And, if we were human, when these things happened, would virtually nothing be done about it?”

It takes a lot of imagination — and a determinedly blinkered focus on exceptions at the privileged margins — to envision a real woman in the Universal Declaration’s majestic guarantees of what ‘everyone is entitled to’. After fifty years, just what part of ‘everyone’ doesn’t mean us?
The ringing language in Article 1 encourages us to ‘act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ Must we be men before its spirit includes us? Lest this be seen as too literal, if we were all enjoined to ‘act towards one another in a spirit of sisterhood,’ would men know it meant them, too? Article 23 encouragingly provides for just pay to ‘[e]veryone who works.’ It goes on to say that this ensures a life of human dignity for ‘himself and his family.’ Are women nowhere paid for the work we do in our own families because we are not ‘everyone’, or because what we do there is not ‘work’? Don’t women have families, or is what women have not a family without a ‘himself’? If the someone who is not paid at all, far less the ‘just and favorable remuneration’ guaranteed, is also the same someone who in real life is often responsible for her family’s sustenance, when she is deprived of providing for her family ‘an existence worthy of human dignity,’ is she not human? And now that ‘everyone’ has had a right ‘to take part in the government of his country’ for the past fifty years, why are most governments still run by men? Are women silent in the halls of state because we do not have a human voice?

A document that could provide specifically for the formation of trade unions and ‘periodic holiday with pay’ might have mustered the specificity to mention women sometime, other than through ‘motherhood’, which is more bowed to than provided for. If women were human in this document, would domestic violence, sexual violation from birth to death including in prostitution and pornography, and systematic sexual objectification and denigration of women and girls simply be left out of the explicit language?

Granted, sex discrimination is prohibited. But how can it have been prohibited for fifty years, even aspirationally, and the end of these conditions still not be concretely imagined as part of what a human being, as human, is entitled to? Why is women’s entitlement to an end of these conditions still openly debated based on cultural rights, speech rights, religious rights, sexual freedom, free market — as if women are social signifiers, pimps’ speech, sacred or sexual fetishes, natural resources, chattel, everything but human beings?
The omissions in the Universal Declaration are not merely semantic. To be a woman is not yet a name for a way of being human, not even in this most visionary of human rights documents. If we measure the reality of women’s situation in all its variety against the guarantees of the Universal Declaration, not only do women not have the rights it guarantees — most of the world’s men don’t either — it is hard to see, in its vision of humanity, a woman’s face.
The world needs to see women as human. For this, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must see the ways women distinctively are deprived of human rights as a deprivation of humanity. For the glorious dream of the Universal Declaration to come true, for human rights to be universal, both the reality it challenges and the standard it sets need to change.
When will women be human? When?