Idealize This!: The Ethics of Solidarity

Catherine Traywick

Cross-posted from Hyphen Magazine

One of the first things a (good) transnational activist learns is the practical meaning of solidarity — which, as the latest issue of New York Times Magazine illustrates, is a concept not easily grasped by even the worldliest and most committed of advocates. This week’s installment of the NYT Magazine manages (for the most part) to thoughtfully and contextually explore the plights of Third World women, while examining some of the the hard realities of transnational activism. Nevertheless, the clear subtext of the articles belies the contributors’ apparent commitment to building real and lasting solidarity movements. As journalist Edwin Okong’o points out, the lead feature paints a rather two-dimensional (albeit compassionate) portrait of life in the brutal third world, but shies away from covering the efforts of impactful Third World activists and movements in favor of spotlighting the high-dollar (emphasis on the $) development projects of western nonprofit organizations.

The collective implication of the pieces (particularly as underscored by articles like “The Power of the Purse,” “Do It Yourself Foreign Aid,” and the issue’s own title: “Saving the World’s Women”) outlines a rather paternalistic view of solidarity, in which the savagery of the Third World must be resolved through the philanthropic efforts of the West. Tragically, for the Third World, solidarity is not about westerners recognizing how terrifyingly crappy things are “over there,” and subsequently dedicating a relatively minuscule portion of their grossly exorbitant resources to save the undeveloped from themselves. If only progress and partnership were so simple.

And: if only Asian Americans, by virtue of our heritage(s), were innocent of the above-mentioned paternalism. Unfortunately, you don’t have to be white to bear the White Man’s Burden — Sheryl WuDunn, one of the issue’s key contributors, is herself Chinese American. And, as Americans, egoistic benevolence is part of our national identity. On the bright side, we do have one up on our Western counterparts: while we can certainly appreciate the value of a dollar with regard to international development, some of us may also have distilled from our multicultural rearing a more practical understanding of the profound importance and subtle complexities of this mysterious thing called solidarity.

To put it simply, solidarity is about more than simply joining forces for the common good. Rather, it’s about forging coalitions based on mutual interests, trust, and — most importantly — the equitable distribution of power and resources amongst stakeholders and supporters. (In the jargon of the unenlightened: stakeholders = people who need help, while supporters = people with money to help them.) That last point is where most well-intentioned, would-be do-gooders flub.

After all, it’s pretty easy to build a relationship based on mutual interests and trust when everyone at the table has big hearts and great intentions. It’s quite another thing to build a relationship based on equitably distributed power when half of the table has all the money (and the clout that comes with it) while the other half of the table has none (but desperately needs to get it). That’s precisely where foreign aid by way of western NGOs become a tad iffy, and where Western donors (AsAms included) lose their way (and their cred).

While the issue’s contributors rightly emphasize the profound importance and overwhelming potential of women-based aid and development projects, they might do better also to encourage their readers to consider critically how the power dynamics involved in charitable giving foster or stifle development. If we had been doing this kind of critical thinking ages ago, we wouldn’t have condoned the decades of discriminatory and ineffectual male-centered development projects that have brought this very issue to the front page of NYT Magazine now. Assuming we know what’s best for the Third World, without actively engaging in a dialogue with Third World stakeholders, has never worked in the past — no matter how much money you throw at it.

Moreover, a major failure of the issue is the contributors’ own failure to analyze our place, as Americans, in upholding systems and policies that keep women of the Third World down:

  • Hey, Kristof and WuDunn: What role do IMF and World Bank policies (which we fund) play in restricting public education, limiting women’s healthcare and exacerbating the poverty debilitating the women about whom you write so passionately? Certainly in a globalized world like ours, their problems don’t start and end exclusively within their own borders…
  • And you, Belkin: Though you”re very impressed by the extent of Western women’s charitable giving, touting the “power of the purse,” what about the starvation wages paid to the women who constructed those designer, powerful purses? I want to read a feature about that!
  • And, of course, New York Times Magazine: How about criticizing the structures that caused this kind of inequality in the first place instead of pretending like soft hearts can trump moneyed institutions? Supporting stakeholders to the point that we can honestly acknowledge our own mistakes and remodel ourselves — that would be an act of solidarity!

By all means, read the issue, sincerely thank the New York Times for putting it together, and definitely donate to the wonderful organizations that the contributors recommend — but know that doing so is an act of charity, and not solidarity. Charity does wonderful things for individual people (most of the time), but solidarity addresses the roots of injustice and unites disparate people to make a better world for everyone. Solidarity forces us to critically examine and better ourselves, before presuming that we can do so for others.

On the Road: Parting from a Place Apart

Amy Gajaria

26 June 2009

…leaving Than Goan

The idea of leaving this place fills with such sadness.  I cannot
imagine trading the sounds of chirping birds for the honking and dust of Dehra Dun.  Being here has been such an amazing experience, and in many ways what my idealized version of India was before arriving.

A few days ago, we hiked a few hours uphill through the jungle to an even smaller village; this one inaccessible to motorized vehicles.  We went up with a team of medical staff, a doctor two nurses and a porter, who routinely hike to remote locations to provide medical care to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it.  Being a part of that experience was amazing.  We sat out in the courtyard of a locked building and spoke to the array of people streaming through: some who just came curious to watch, and some with genuine medical concerns.
I can without a doubt say that it’s the most unique place to ever have checked a blood pressure or looked in some waxy ears; it made primary care provision exciting rather than a little mundane.

Though much of the healthcare that I’ve seen thus far is comparable to what we do in Canada, this experience was quite different.  The doctor we were working with (the unique and lovable Dr. Paul) had to do all his diagnosis and treatment with what the porter was able to carry up the moutains on his admittedly strong back.  Despite this, he was still able to provide so much to people that otherwise would have had to hike for hours in somewhat difficult terrain just to get acetaminophin or to receive solutions to balance their electrolytes after a bout of diarrhea.  Were anyone to need any lab investigation or dental work, or even were they to need to see any kind of specialist, they would have to hike hours to a place where they could hop on a shared jeep into Dehra Dun.

The other day in the primary care clinic in Than Goan, we saw a woman who had been gored by a bull, her arm cut deep to the muscular tissue.  Luckily she living in Than Goan, but we heard stories of people with similar wounds hiking five hours to have it stitched and then, after receiving stitches,  hiking five hours back uphill to their home.  It really helps put into perspective how lucky I am, living in a Canadian urban center, to have such easy access to healthcare.  It’s unbelievable how difficult it is for people to see a doctor, and I couldn’t believe how sick some of them became while waiting to see a doctor.   People even have to hike hours to the clinic to get something as simple as a urine pregnancy test, which is unbelievable to me.

Though so much of what seems to be done here is basic primary care:
taking temperatures and treating the flu and gastrointestinal issues, it’s sobering to remember that people cannot simply buy a thermometer, and even if they could, some of them wouldn’t know how to use it.  The gastrointestinal issues are severe, and yet, people are still walking with such little energy that when they arrive to the clinic, they need to be on a multiple day IV.
It’s particularly eye-opening to see the way that sexual health issues are dealt with here.  The doctor we work with cannot even ask about pre-marital sex, for fear that the whole village will descend on his clinic in anger, and so just prophylactically treats all potential sexual transmitted infections.  It’s such a different way of life that it’s sometimes hard to wrap my head around and accept.  Apparently abortions are legal only for married couples here, which though it seems culturally appropriate, truly worries me.

On top of all the amazing medical things I’ve seen, the physical landscape that I’m surrounded by has been unbelievable.  I wake up to do yoga just after the sunrise and take my evening meal outside under the stars.

The mountains gently rise in the distance before plunging into lush valleys through which clear water gurgles.  After one of our hikes, we plunged into the moutain stream, fully clothed, and scooped the clear water into our mouths.

On either side, steep paths switchbacked through the trees and butterflies flitted past our suddenly cooled heads.

Amy Gajaria has just completed her first year of medical school at the University of Ottawa. She’s set off on a two month journey across Asia, spending one month of that doing a medical elective in traditional medicine in the north of India. Amy has yet to see a deadly animal in India, but will keep her eyes peeled in anticipation.

Beirut Diary: It Happens in the Bathroom

Graffiti in bathroom stalls is usually an exhibit of messy jargon and crude comments and not the most obvious site for serious discussion and advice seeking. In Lebanon, however, stalls in female bathrooms are emerging as the centre for conversation on issues that are too personal for the home, too intimate for friends and too reserved for magazine advice columns. Despite the centrality of the family in Lebanese culture and the importance of peers and a large social network, bathroom stalls seems to be a prominent space for young women to anonymously open up about sexuality, body image and tradition.

On the surface, Lebanon has garnered a reputation as the beacon of liberal thinking and modernity in private affairs in the Middle East. But at home, young women can still be subject to the stifling dictates of tradition, prompting a sense of confusion and isolating guilt. Sometimes it’s just difficult to vocalize personal issues when you have expectations and defined roles. However hushing them up helps open doors – or in this case close them up and write all over them – that can relieve the confusion and guilt.

This phenomenon has prompted Samia Osta, an MA candidate in Sociology, to research and write her thesis on the topic of bathroom graffiti and female identity at the American University in Beirut (AUB). Osta first observed the phenomenon from the perspective of a Lebanese migrant having lived and studied in three different countries.  For example, she didn’t note the same sort of angst and questions about body and sex as she has in the bathrooms of AUB while living in Montreal – a place known for its political and outspoken graffiti.

It seems that nothing can quite escape the snake like chainmail of questions and responses – every bathroom is covered with scrawls and inquiries. Osta has been documenting the different types of penmanship that appear in bathrooms all over the campus for more than a year. She’s noted revelations such as “I’m gay but nobody knows” and desperate questions about sexuality and relationships, which sometimes indicate that an intervention may be needed. The most persistent themes in these writings are almost always about intimacy and body issues. A fact that suggests formal support networks, or structures such as counseling may not be available or used by these women. And the anonymity of bathroom writing shows that these kinds of issues are still quite taboo in Lebanese society.

Osta mentions that her own experience of growing up as a Lebanese woman in a culture surrounded by taboos and lack of discussion about intimate topics compelled her to write and research the issue of bathroom graffiti as an outlet for young, university-educated Lebanese women. Of course, these are not simply scrawls on a stall – they signify larger societal issues of boys having later curfews, girls having to show more face time at home, and finding less acceptance in going out frequently with friends. Additionally, large contingents of Lebanese young adults live in their family homes until they are married. This complicates the access young women, especially, may have to information about pregnancy or what to do when in an abusive relationship.

Whether the bathroom is a viable outlet for women to share these concerns is something that concerns Osta’s research. One thing is for sure, while men’s bathroom graffiti can carry the generic crude humor or strong political sloganing, girls are using this as a space of intimate conversation. It shows the high regard Lebanese youth hold of their peers, often going to people of their generation before anyone else. This is a universal phenomenon, but the fact that writing in the bathroom is so distinctly personal sheds a new light on the societal make up of the society. Who did the mothers of these girls rely on 20-30 years ago? Is the bathroom a new type of salon for today’s twentysomethings?

For a generation used to the voyeuristic exposure of online social networking, the bathroom is as anonymous a space as can be. There is less self-absorbed instant gratification here, and a greater degree of dealing with taboos through helping girls relate to one another’s issues – albeit in secret, of course. The graffiti does help generate a small community behind closed doors and above the toilet seat. Questions will have entire maps leading to answers, rebuttals, and sometimes, insults and deep and personal reflection. One particular graffiti conversation started after a girl declared she may have become pregnant and was unsure what to do. In response, people offered advice that was practical – referring her to the doctor, advising her to talk to the partner – and responses that were somewhat confrontational such as citing religious declarations on pre-marital sex. All of this whether you are looking for it or not.

Osta hopes to contrast her preliminary findings with universities that are based in Arabic. So far, all the writings at AUB, an elite university with an overwhelmingly Lebanese make-up, are in English which points to interesting contrasts between different social classes and language groups in Lebanon. She suspects Arabic universities would have similar tales in the toilet, but hopes to confirm her suspicions with further research. For now, it’s safe to say that the bathroom is a sacred place for young females, but for reasons beyond primping and prepping. Topics often left as hush hush find a way – through some ingenuity – to flush themselves into the everyday conscience.

 

LAL: Summer Tour in Canada

LAL :: On Tour from July 30th to August 21st
Check out a date near you.

pic10

Toronto’s politically charged, electronically driven LAL are touring the country this summer.

LAL will be promoting their third studio album Deportation which was inspired by the events surrounding 9/11 and its fallout — the rise of a cloaked surveillance state, thicker lines drawn around who is “legal” and who is “not” and most particularly by the fate of several deported friends.

Deportation stands to be their most provocative and fully-realized album to date.

“We wanted people to sit up and think about this word [Deportation] and what it meant, to read it aloud. So much music doesn’t provoke you to think, so it was important that we named this CD something that get people thinking,” explains lead vocalist Rozina Kazi.
Deportation also hosts some of Toronto’s finest including Zaki Ibrahim, Ian Kamau, Montreal’s Moonstarr and more.

Post-tour, LAL will present their new media project ‘zero cluster’ with Faisal Anwar and Jose Garcia at the Art Gallery of Ontario (August 2009/January 2010) before heading to India in September to work on their 4th record due out September 2010.

Stay tuned here for the complete tour listings, updates, and sound.

TOUR DATES:

30 Jul 2009
Casbah with Lee Reid & Mirimichi
Hamilton, Ontario

31 Jul 2009
Musclow Hall
Maynooth, Ontario

1 Aug 2009

Club Lambi with Kalmunity, djs Scott C, Andy Williams & Moonstarr
Montreal, Quebec

2 Aug 2009
Mercury Lounge w/ dj Rise Ashen
Ottawa, Ontario

5 Aug 2009
Hayloft
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

7 Aug 2009 – 1:00PM
Regina Folk Festival
Regina, Saskatchewan

9 Aug 2009
Under The Volcano Festival of Art and Social Change
Vancouver, British Columbia

11 Aug 2009
Broadway Youth Resource Centre
Vancouver, British Columbia

13 Aug 2009
Duncan Garage Showroom w/ Pauline Edwards
Duncan, British Columbia

14 Aug 2009
Luck Bar/With Greenlaw,Big Reds, Pauline Edwards
Victoria, British Columbia

15 Aug 2009
Big Time Out Music Festival
Cumberland, British Columbia

21 Aug 2009
Art Gallery of Ontario
Toronto, Ontario

“Home, Strange Home”

Teju Cole, Nigerian born – American based writer takes on the strangeness of “return migration” to a home unknown, and the act of inventing memories of exile in The New Yorker’s special issue on Journeys.

Home Strange HomeABSTRACT: COMING TO AMERICA about the author’s dual citizenship. When the author was five months old, his mother took him home from America to Nigeria. There, he began to invent memories of Kalamazoo, Michigan, his place of birth. There was the rubber puppy he’d played with in the crib, their one-bedroom apartment on Howard Street, and so forth. He had Nigerian citizenship from birth, yet he was also an American. In political arguments, he took the side of America; during the Olympics, he rooted for the U.S.A. When he graduated from high school, his parents decided to send him to college in the U.S. The journey seemed like one of return, the opposite of exile. A direct flight, followed by a daylong journey across the Midwest, brought him to the town where he was born and baptized. But his first evening on campus, it suddenly struck him that everyone he loved was six thousand miles away. Seventeen years of invented memories abandoned him. That evening he began to invent new memories for himself, about the home he had left to come back home: what he had liked about that other life, and what parts of it he was happy to be rid of.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/04/18/110418fa_fact_cole#ixzz1Jc1dPNyF

Here’s a short video about Teju Cole’s experience of returning to America:

Post Your Map… Suritah Teresa Wignall

Post your map_ Suritah WignallWe will regularly be presenting a featured artist, writer or performer who is exploring questions of identity and personal narrative through their medium of expression.

The map is your representation. No rigid lines, no defined routes. You direct it on your own account.

dscn22341Post your maps_ Suritah Wignall she-infinite-copy

Artist: Suritah Teresa Wignall

Suritah Wignall

Description:
Emerging African Canadian artist Suritah Teresa Wignall is a passionate communicator; Suritah’s paintings are filled with confidence, colour and light. She is currently focusing on portraits that honor and express her African roots: “I am truly inspired by the African form, our beautiful features, succulent soul food and the rich complexions that coat our skin… I want to reflect back to my people a sense of their own inner beauty”.

Her talent as a visual artist was recognized at an early age and nurtured by several mentors and teachers. In 1998 she connected with a group of dynamic young Canadians of diverse cultural backgrounds who were devoted to the exploration of both self and social identity through art. Beginning to place herself within a broader cultural context, the inspiration for her art making began to center around a commitment to her African heritage and the portrayal of her people with positivity, beauty and strength.

Suritah’s accomplishments include both solo and group exhibitions in Canada and the United States. Her portraits were chosen for the sets of the TV pilot of Trey Anthony’s DA KINK IN MY HAIR, Ryerson University, YMCA and have the graced the dressing rooms of Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Maxwell, Floetry, Goapelle, Femi Kuti and Alicia Keys.

In expressing her vision of African Canadian Identity and consciousness Suritah is taking her place in Canadian culture as an artist of beauty and power.

Suritah Teresa Wignall

Emerging African Canadian artist Suritah Teresa Wignall is a passionate communicator; Suritah’s paintings are filled with confidence, colour and light. She is currently focusing on portraits that honor and express her African roots: “I am truly inspired by the African form, our beautiful features, succulent soul food and the rich complexions that coat our skin… I want to reflect back to my people a sense of their own inner beauty”.

Her talent as a visual artist was recognized at an early age and nurtured by several mentors and teachers. In 1998 she connected with a group of dynamic young Canadians of diverse cultural backgrounds who were devoted to the exploration of both self and social identity through art. Beginning to place herself within a broader cultural context, the inspiration for her art making began to center around a commitment to her African heritage and the portrayal of her people with positivity, beauty and strength.

Suritah’s accomplishments include both solo and group exhibitions in Canada and the United States. Her portraits were chosen for the sets of the TV pilot of Trey Anthony’s DA KINK IN MY HAIR, Ryerson University, YMCA and have the graced the dressing rooms of Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Maxwell, Floetry, Goapelle, Femi Kuti and Alicia Keys. Impressed by her talent, Vanessa L Williams, a featured actress on Showtime’s SOULFOOD, well known Toronto poet D’bi Young and singer songwriter Erykah Badu have each bought one of Suritah’s works of art. Suritah has also designed the album cover for the Stephen Lewis Foundation and the book Cover for D’bi Young’s Book, Rivers and Other Blackness between Us. In 2004 Suritah was honored with a grant from the Sheila Hugh Mackay Foundation in support of her on-going career.

In expressing her vision of African Canadian Identity and consciousness Suritah is taking her place in Canadian culture as an artist of beauty and power.