oppression

There are no innocent victims.

North Americans and Europeans love to victimize people. We love to package the poor forsaken souls of the “third world” as “helpless”, in need of our savior, and of course as “innocent victims” who then essentially have no voice or control in their own lives. This is simply a fallacy that will lead to more destruction and violence in the long run.

One thing we often misunderstand is that there really are no “innocent victims”, except for maybe babies and small children (but then again, who’s to say of the evil they committed in womb or in their tiny minds??). There are people who have experienced misfortune in their lives. There are people who are poor. There are people who have had terrible things happen to them. To label a person as victim– in my opinion– only re-victimizes. It belittles their experience and makes the actor helpless. Takes away their control, their personal choice and agency in their own lives. Instead of being actors in their own life, they are merely pantomiming someone else’s script. That of their “saviour” who expects them to behave in a certain way to receive assistance.

Look to the very definition of the word “victim”:

  1. one that is acted on* and usually adversely affected by a force or agent
  2. “one that is injured, destroyed*, or sacrificed under any of various conditions”
  3. “one that is subjected to oppression*, hardship or mistreatment”

(*emphasis added)

My grandmother used to tell me that someone can not oppress you unless you let them. Sure, they can enslave you. They can beat you senseless. They can make you do degrading and horrible things– but they can never oppress your mind unless you give them that power. It’s easy enough to say, but much harder to live under extreme conditions. Still, there is truth there. There are many who rise up out of what some would call extreme oppression and do not feel “oppressed”– crushed by the abuse of power— but rather they feel empowered by it. Enraged into action by it enough to even oppress their oppressors.

“Innocent” is also a relative term. Does a person deserve to be raped or tortured or killed because of their own wrongdoing or guilt? Does it matter the level of guilt or wrongdoing? Do they become more deserving of rape or torture if they say injure someone as opposed to simply lie about something? What if they severely injure someone, or even kill them? Do they deserve it then? Do they become deserving of death if they merely spout hatred or have racist feelings in their hearts?  There is a scale of innocence that varies greatly depending on one’s background and belief system. If a person doesn’t injure, steal or hurt anyone directly, does that make the person completely uncorrupted? Completely without sin? Is one only a victim if they are completely “innocent”. Are they only worthy of assistance if they are uncorrupted?

Take for instance the Rwandan genocide in the mid-90s. Humanitarian aid poured in for the poor helpless refugees flooding into the neighbouring countries. Many of these “helpless refugees” were also mass murders who openly admitted their willing participation (page 25) in the slaughter of their countrymen. They were also dying by the thousands of dysentery, cholera, starvation and other such things and painted as “victims” to the outside world. Their innocence was played up with pictures of their young children beside them, their swollen bellies and sad stories of hardship. But were they all really “innocent”? Would they still have received our sympathy, our assistance and our money if we were told they were murderers? Did we really only “rescue” them so that they could continue to oppress and murder others in the future?

People can not be separated from their politics, but when it comes to those in disaster or war zones, we infantilize them and make them apolitical. We infantilize those in need to ease our own morality about helping them. In doing so, we further jeopardize the political situation that is happening on the ground. We take sides with the “victims”, even though they may be less “innocent” than their oppressors. We help them overcome their perhaps temporary “victimhood” allowing them to gain strength over their opponents. In doing so, we perhaps create more “victims” in the future.

Do we feel better about ourselves feeling that the “victims” we help are “innocent”? It certainly eases the mind. One wouldn’t want to think of giving a Hitler or a Pol Pot aid so that they can could continue their crimes, yet this type of thing does happen in humanitarianism.

So what’s the answer? How do we avoid making a further political or humanitarian nightmare while still assisting those who need help?

Lately, I’ve been reconsidering extreme non-intervention and wondering about the possibilities of such an action. It is intervention to militarily invade a country, but is it not also an intervention to take on the function of the government by providing services such as health care or education through the work of international NGOs? How much is humanitarian intervention really helping and how much is it really harming in the long run?  Many NGOs are extremely corrupt and wasting money, but evade responsibility due to their so-called “philanthropic” spirit. Others can be compared to colonial imperialism (on page 60 and 243, also Chomskey and Delany among others ), justifying their takeover of a country on humanitarian grounds much as the colonial powers justified taking over Africa to “save” the poor “savages”.

Now I know that if tomorrow all humanitarian assistance were to be removed from trouble zones, massive chaos would erupt; but we also can’t expect them to stay forever either. So many governments now feel they can neglect their own people, knowing that NGOs and international assistance will come in and fill the gaps and that the international aid will continue to flow as they line their own pockets with little chastisement.

Instead of a government capable and willing to actually take care of its people, the population are left with a patchwork of services that are reliant on continual funding streams that may or may not be there in the coming years. Now those receiving assistance are perpetual “victims” in need of help, who will be reliant on handouts instead of their own capabilities (and they ARE capable). Instead of working towards securing small patches of land for these people, where they could grow their own food and be sustainably self-sufficient, NGOs rush in with handouts of western food assistance that only helps to continue western domination in agricultural markets.

So quick is the western world to jump to judgment of conflict in fledgling nations that are struggling to fully etch out their boundaries and constitutions, little remembering that their own struggles for independence were fraught with wars, slavery and massive human rights abuses. Let’s not forget that slavery was still alive and well in the US for nearly a century after independence and that its Manifest Destiny resulted in brutally conquering Mexicans, British settlers and Native Americans. And can we also not forget that American Independence came on a wave of warring and human rights abuses such as the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War of 1846-8, the American Civil War, the American Indian Wars and the Trail of Tears, the women’s suffragette movement, and the civil rights movement to name a few. And in Europe, the current nations were only made through war and rights abuses; the Battle of Trafalgar, the Finnish War, the Spanish Peninsular War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Belgian Revolution, the November Uprising in Poland, the Carlist Wars in Spain, the Spanish Inquisition, the 1848 Revolutions in Europe, the Crimean War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, and even WWI and WWII.

But yet, we feel it necessary to rush in and chastise those fledgling countries for doing exactly what was done during our nation-building processes because we have suddenly decided on a new sense of morality? Nations have been built on human rights abuses and war, as opposing interests struggle to etch out their own ideas of how to control their country and homogenize their ideas through slaughter and suppression of the opposition. Yet, we expect so many countries, barely 50 or 60 years old and left with brutal, segregationist colonial legacies to set aside their differences and now live in harmony according to OUR standards? Sounds an awful lot like continued imperialism to me. Do as we say, not as we did.

These nations do not need our continued meddling. They need time to develop their own governments free from external pressure to “democratize” and create “free” markets. Interventionism has so far not really proven to create more human rights respecting states. If anything, many governments have become more corrupt on the western aid dime. We continue to fund many proven brutal dictators with vast streams of cash flow and no accountability so they can increase their power, while those in need suffer at their hands. Will the dictator be the one to pay the debt he incurred? Hardly. We then swoop in to “save” those who suffer, spending even more money in humanitarian ventures that will again help line the dictator’s pocket. How is this “helping” anyone?

It’s time to stop meddling and trying to “save” the “innocent” victims and instead looking to our own problems that may be helping to contribute to wars and human rights abuses in other parts of the world. The inequitable and unfair privilege of certain states or communities within the international community. The inequitable policies of the international financial organizations and trade organizations, based in and primarily backing the “richer” nations at a disadvantage to the “poorer” nations. The “richer” nations’ increasing need to consume and pollute the planet that will result in war and death across the globe. The increasing state repression and rescinding of rights that is being found in Canada, the US, and Europe. The discrimination, racism and slavery that still occur across Europe and North America. The North American, European and international systems are still far from being peaceful and respectful of rights, and perhaps we should clean up our own act before we judge others for theirs.

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Using Theatre to Overcome Oppression

Many of the peace strategies used in current conflict zones focus on reducing the direct violence or the structural violence within the government systems while neglecting to truly address the cultural violence that lingers within the society.  Cultural violence, a term made famous by peace scholar Johan Galtung, is described as “any aspect of a culture that can be used to legitimize violence in its direct or structural form”, which can include comments, conversations, writing, art, or ideologies. Cultural violence is the most difficult type of violence to address, as it is thoroughly engrained into everyday practices and gradually built up over a lifetime. Peacekeeping, without strong simultaneous attempts at reducing cultural violence, is like putting a bucket under a leaky faucet and expecting it to stop the leak. The bucket will not stop the cause of the leak or prevent it from continuing and may even contribute to larger problems. Dialogue is incredibly important in conflict zones, but it is often difficult to get a conversation going when hostilities are still broiling. Can we discuss and bring about change when oppression is deeply embedded in a culture? Can we encourage people to speak out against situations of oppression and change their personal behaviours?

Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed is an approach to social change that allows for protected dialogue into an issue behind a veil of theatrics. Spectators, who become active participants in the production, are able to analyze and transform their own reality through the safe dialogue of the theatre. Actors simulate common oppressive behavior and then provide the audience with a chance to suggest actions for the actors to carry out in the scene in an attempt to change the outcome, overcoming the oppression. The hope is that the modeled behavior will help spectators become empowered to act and change their thinking towards oppression in their own lives, giving them the experience of starting a dialogue against oppression. The theatre is a mix of improvisation and scripting, showing repeated oppressive scenes. The audience enacts suggested changes in each condensed round in an attempt to overcome the oppression in new ways or to recreate new forms of oppression for the actors to overcome.

Invisible Theatre extends this format using the pedagogy of overcoming oppression by injecting the activist theatrics into everyday public street life. A scripted core is utilized to demonstrate an instance of social injustice, such as racism or sexism, without the watching public’s knowledge that theatre is being performed in front of them. Actors perform the parts of the oppressors and oppressed, as well as opinionated by-standers that encourage the public to react. They demonstrate how oppression can be resolved or overcome by an average person and encourage the watching public to act in a similar manner in their own lives.

Change begins with ideas. It is not enough to simply separate warring parties. For peacekeeping to be truly effective, we must first stop the cultural flame that stimulates the conflict.

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The United States-led War in Afghanistan and the Implications of the Polarization of the Burqa as a Symbol of the Oppression of Afghani Women

Written by Heather Wilhelm

The United States (US) led war in Afghanistan is one of the most controversial current events in today’s world. After the September 11th attacks on US soil, the government of George W. Bush declared war against the Taliban, the acting government of Afghanistan. It was their belief that the al-Qa’eda terrorist network and its leader Osama bin Laden were responsible for these attacks, and that the Afghan government was in support of and harbouring bin Laden. In an effort to justify the mass bombings of Afghanistan in the weeks (and subsequently years) to follow, the Bush administration created a publicity campaign in which they would claim to be declaring a ‘War on Terror’ against the Taliban in an effort to liberate the women of Afghanistan. They claimed that years of physical and structural abuse against women in this country finally needed to come to an end. This campaign centred around the burqa, a restrictive, all-encompassing religious dress that the Taliban forced women to wear every time they left their homes. The US media began bombarding the American public with visions of women trapped underneath these burqas, in an effort to gain support for the continuing war in Afghanistan. This US government campaign would polarize the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan into an object: the burqa, and would leave the public unaware of the true history of women’s oppression under both the Taliban and US-backed regimes. It would also effectively hurt the progress that could have been made by women after the fall of the Taliban, as little attention was paid to solving the real issues in Afghanistan: gender inequalities and structural and physical violence against women that continue to oppress Afghani women to this day.

In 1964, Mohammed Zahir Shah, the King of Afghanistan created a new constitution for his people that would modernize his country’s political and economic spheres, as well as usher in new democratic legislature that would thrust Afghani women’s rights into the 20th century . The Basic Rights and Duties of the People as listed in articles 25-40 of the 1964 Constitution gave all citizens of Afghanistan equal rights to education, healthcare, and employment. Women were even allowed to enrol with the Armed Forces if they so desired . It was a time for great change and acceptance in the country, and more specifically a time of freedom for women who had been horribly oppressed for hundreds of years. This freedom would not last. In 1973, while Zahir Shah was out of the country for medical treatment, his cousin Daoud executed a well planned out coup d’etat, which would lead to the end of the monarchy that had been established in Afghanistan in 1747 . The end of Zahir Shah’s rein would have terrible consequences for the people of Afghanistan, as only six years after he was ousted from his throne, the Soviet Union would invade the country and the effect of this on the rights and freedoms of the citizens of Afghanistan (especially women) would be disastrous.
It would be during this Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that the United States would become heavily involved with Afghani extremists who were anti-Communist and core fundamentalists . The United States provided these groups with “$30 million in 1980 and increased to over $1 billion per year in 1986-89.” By contrast, opposition groups such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), whose aim was “to unite and fight for the independence of our beloved country” were not provided with any funding. While their aim was to bring about a union of the people to create a lasting democracy, the US was more focused on making the Soviet Union pay a price. To accomplish this, they continued to support exceedingly violent parties who were not above imprisoning, torturing, and murdering innocent civilians in the name of their cause . Even after the Soviets retreated in 1989, the US continued to fund the Mujahideen, which was a group of seven Pakistan-based parties who were equated with Afghani resistance . Interestingly enough, these seven parties denounced the return of King Zahir Shah even though many citizens of Afghanistan felt he was the only hope for their country . After the US-backed Mujahideen government took power, the women of Afghanistan were the first to feel the changes after the ‘Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ was created. Although often attributed to the Taliban’s reign, this Ministry was in fact created under the Mujahideen and called for women in Afghanistan to immediately begin covering practices . In August of 1993, they took it a step further by imposing the following legislation:
Women do not need to leave their homes at all, unless absolutely necessary, in which case they are to cover themselves completely; are not to wear attractive clothing and decorative accessories; do not wear perfume; their jewelry must not make any noise; they are not walk gracefully or with pride and in the middle of the sidewalk; are not to talk to strangers; are not to speak loudly or laugh in public; and they must always ask their husbands’ permission to leave home.

These decrees were almost identical to those that would be practiced by the Taliban after they came into power, however they are solely attributed to their regime by the US government. In fact, between the years of 1992-1996 before the Taliban took power, Afghanistan was embroiled in a bitter internal civil war in which brutal atrocities were carried out against innocent civilians. Thousands were murdered senselessly, and women were often used as rewards to soldiers who had done a good job for the government .
When the Taliban did take power in 1996, Washington was pleased to finally have a chance to end the anarchy in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, where the Mujahideen had basically reduced the city to rubble . The Afghan citizens were also relieved to have a new government in power, and they prayed that the Taliban regime would finally lend the way for change in Afghanistan. All parties were quickly proven wrong as the Taliban immediately began imposing laws that some considered even more strict than those of the previous regime. Women were immediately dismissed from work, and forced to remain virtual prisoners in their homes. Girls were no longer able to attend school . While the Majuhideen had placed severe restrictions on women, they had still been allowed to work, attend school and leave home occasionally as long as they were covered in a traditional Islamic covering. The Taliban would not tolerate such offences, and the punishment for women offenders was often public stoning and/or death. Even these egregious human rights violations did not bring reprimands from the United States . It was not until the Taliban began actively attacking US soil that they finally acknowledged the terrorist tendencies of the regime and their support of the al-Qa’eda network of terrorists who had claimed responsibility for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Tower complex in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 1999 attack on the USS Cole. These attacks finally culminated in the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York City and on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. Not since Pearl Harbour had the US felt the pain of an attack on their own soil, let alone in two of the hearts of their great nation. It was time for revenge, and the administration of George W. Bush decided that war was the only way to make the Taliban pay for their attack.

For years prior to the attacks of 9/11 the US had been unsuccessfully attempting to strong arm the Taliban into turning over Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al-Qa’eda network . Their tactics were no different after September 11th, and the Taliban’s response was unfaltering: they would not hand over bin Laden. A war on Afghanistan was almost immediately declared, with the first bombs being dropped October 7, 2001 . Just over a month later, on November 17, 2001, Laura Bush gave the president’s ‘Weekly Radio Address’, and for the first time, the address was given in its entirety by a First Lady . On this night, Mrs. Bush essentially became the US government’s voice against the oppression of women in Afghanistan, and vowed to end the suffering and subjugation of women under the Taliban government . This fight for the liberation of Afghani women was centred around the burqa, an enveloping outer garment that is worn by women of some Islamic faiths when they are outside their own homes . A brief look at the history of the burqa will help to contextualize the arguments put forth in the remainder of this paper.
The Qur’an is the religious text of the Muslim faith, just as the New Testament is the religious text of Christianity. The Qur’an requires that both Muslim men and women dress modestly while in public, however men are only required to cover from their naval to the floor whereas women are required to cover all but their hands and face . This inequality was mutated even further with the Taliban’s requirement of all women to be burqa-clad while in public . The burqa is the most intense form of covering in the Muslim faith. While some women simply wear a hajib, which is also known as a head scarf, others wear the all-encompassing burqa. A full-length dress fabricated with metres of fabric, the burqa completely covers the wearer leaving only a small hole in front of the eyes covered with mesh to see through. It is a very constrictive garment, and the vast amount of fabric makes it very difficult to walk in, let alone communicate through .
The idea of these personal prisons is a completely shocking thought and vision for the population of the Western world, especially for women who feel they have had the privilege to grow up with equality and independence. The Bush administration used its knowledge of this shock to capitalize on the oppression of women in Afghanistan, and created a publicity campaign that centred on the liberation of Afghani women and girls . They hammered the idea of the Taliban’s mistreatment of women into the psyches of the American public, without a mention of the atrocities women had suffered at the hands of US-backed Afghani regimes in the past . In 2002, the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council (UAWC) was formed in what would be the culmination of the publicity campaign. Although this group looks good on paper, it has still done nothing of any major consequence to help liberate the women of Afghanistan. Instead it has focused so narrowly on the burqa and the ‘unveiling’ of Afghani women that the real and still existing problems of social inequality and gender repression are ignored . The US government and the UAWC have chosen a route of educating the general public by selectively placing all of the emphasis on an object: the burqa, rather than examining the deeper, underlying problems that continue to exist in Aghanistan.
While for some women the practice of covering in a burqa may be a demeaning historical practice, for many others the burqa is a religious symbol or a symbol of how hard women in Afghanistan have fought for the freedom that still eludes them . In the religious sense, Muslim people are thoroughly faithful to the Qur’an and that does not end with Muslim men. Muslim women have been raised with the scripture of the Qur’an and just as Westerners have a strong belief in the teachings of the religion they choose to follow, so to do Muslim women. The idea of modesty in clothing and behaviour is what these women believe, and their choice to wear a hajib or a burqa, is just that: a choice. While many Westerners argue that they only make this choice because they ‘don’t know any better’, it is dangerous ground to tread on to assume that one’s culture or religion is superior to another one. There are American Muslim women who choose to cover themselves even after being exposed to a multitude of different cultures, so one should not assume that the women of Afghanistan would choose to change their religious beliefs simply because of a change in government. Alternatively, there were also women who chose to use their confinement in the burqa to further the efforts of organizations attempting to achieve democracy in Afghanistan. Women took to hiding important documents under their burqas, which could easily conceal books, newspapers, and other items due to their masses of fabric . This contraband could then be delivered to others who were part of the resistance to the Taliban. For these women, the burqa became a form of strength, power and resistance, rather than a government imposed personal prison. Many female Afghani activists still believe the burqa is a powerful symbol and are therefore less concerned with the garments they are forced to wear, and more concerned with the democratization of their country, and the hope of equal rights for all . These women do not need to be saved from their oppressors, they need to be given the tools to create a better future for themselves and their families.
It is hard to believe that after six years of US occupation in Afghanistan there have still been very few changes in the social conditions for women and girls in the country . The new puppet government the US imposed upon Afghanistan is still practicing Sharia law, which has an extremely detrimental effect women. Afghan prisons are now full of women who have been convicted of crimes that range from refusing to marry the man their family has chosen, to simply running away from home . There have also been cases of sexual abuse and torture in these prisons. In 2005, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) collected statistics on Afghanistan for the first time, and the results were less than favourable. The country was ranked 173rd of 178 countries in the UNDP human development index, and statistics provided on health, literacy, employment, and lifespan showed that little has changed in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban . The maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world with 1,700 deaths in every 100,000, and if a woman is lucky enough to survive childbirth she will likely not live past the age of forty-five. An average Afghan woman cannot read or write, and even after the fall of the Taliban only 1% of children in school are girls . The question we must ask ourselves however, is not why have there been no changes, but how can we ensure that there will be changes in the future.

The best possible chance for change in the future, is to first open a dialogue about the real history of Afghanistan. This will certainly not be favourable to the United States, but at some point people need to be told the truth about their government’s actions and how those actions have affected other nations negatively. Also, relying on women in the US to run an effective campaign to save Afghani women is not a realistic expectation. There are many capable, experienced Afghani women who have spent their lives dedicated to improving the lives of their fellow female citizens . This is an extremely risky venture to undertake, and many women have been murdered for their involvement in the Afghani women’s liberation movement. Meena, the founder of RAWA, has been touted as a martyr for her work in starting the movement, and she was the first of many assassinated by both the Taliban and US-backed governments . These women have worked on the front lines for decades, and have lived through the constant fear of retribution for speaking out against the government, so who better to ask than them? The difficulty in asking them rests in their total knowledge of the United States’ history in their country. They know of the atrocities carried out by US-supported groups dating back four decades, just as well as they know about the current warlord government of today. The chance of this information getting out is too much for the US to risk, but this truth could truly set the women of Afghanistan free.
Individual activists are also becoming more prevalent in Afghanistan. One of the most famed Afghani women to speak out in recent years is Malalai Joya, who has chosen to tell the true story of the US ‘libertation’ of Afghanistan. She points out that the only success the US has had in their occupation of her country has been to replace one brutal, misogynist regime with another. Joya raised the unspoken topic of the post-9/11 warlord regime and their ruthless abuses of the Afghani people, but was silenced immediately. To date there have been four attempts on her life, as the US-imposed Afghani puppet government continues to try and silence those who speak out for democracy .
A complete attitude shift is required here on the part of the American public. People need to believe that these horrible crimes against humanity are occurring every day. They need to understand that not everyone wants to be an American or live the life of a Westerner, and that we need respect the cultures of others in order to evoke change. It is time for the American public to realize that their government keeps them under a dark cloud of lies and deception, and to start asking the questions that will finally bring truth and democracy to Afghanistan.
-HW


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