Yara Sallam in jail, and the moral bankruptcy of the United States

Yara Sallam

Yara Sallam

Note: Visit the Egypt Solidarity Initiative website for resources on the #noprotestlaw campaign, including a list of Egyptian embassies to write about these arrests. Other important links are at the bottom of this post.

Yara Sallam is a human rights activist and a women’s rights activist. She is also a feminist. The distinction may seem captious, but I am careful to draw it. Rights activists (of whom I’m one) want to change the rules of the world. Feminists want to change the world itself, its deep structures of power; to have new players in a new game, on a different, still dormant field. The rules are bad; the game as we play it now is stacked against almost everybody except those who keep the score; to instill some modicum of fair play is essential. Yet nobody with much of a mind who’s worked in human rights for long escapes feeling this is palliative, a tinkering with superficies, and that however impossible a deeper change may be, the labor cannot carry on without a tinge of the impossibility that inhabits only our anger and our dreams. Why are we addicted to the game we are losing? “The roulette table pays nobody except him that keeps it,” Bernard Shaw wrote. “Nevertheless, a passion for gambling is common, though a passion for keeping roulette tables is unknown.” Check how the ball is weighted, calibrate the points. But in the long run someone also has to say: break the wheel, step away from the table, stop the game.

Boys will be boys: Men's rights activists John Kerry and General Abdelfattah el-SIsi meet in Cairo, June 22

Boys will be boys, I: Men’s rights activists John Kerry and General Abdel Fattah el-SIsi meet in Cairo, June 22

Yara is a friend, and she is under arrest tonight, in the Heliopolis police station in Cairo. June 21 was an international day of solidarity against Egypt’s anti-protest law. The law — a decree introduced in November — clamps draconian punishments on demonstrations, including prison terms of 2-5 years for anyone “calling for disrupting public interests,” that is, criticizing the state. It was meant to bolster the rule of the military counter-revolution by choking the rich protest culture that grew up in Egypt after February 2011. Two days after the law was promulgated, activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah joined a demonstration against military trials for civilians. Two days after that, police broke down his door, slapped his wife, and arrested him for violating the protest law. This month, a court handed him and other defendants 15-year prison terms. Last month, another judge gave Mahienour el-Massry, a well-known rights lawyer, and eight others two-year sentences for demonstrating against the torture and murder of Khaled Said — a victim of Mubarak’s police whose killing helped spark the 2011 revolution. “The military authority stands now on the remains of its opposition,” a dissident said.

June 21 was meant to show support for the victims of Egypt’s new, systematic oppression of dissent.

Protest march in Heliopolis, June 21, minutes before it was attacked: Photo by @KhalidAbdalla

Protest march in Heliopolis, June 21, minutes before it was attacked: Photo by @KhalidAbdalla

The anti-protest law protest in Cairo wound through narrow streets toward the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis. At every open space, hired thugs — the baltageya who were the Mubarak regime’s enforcers against dissent — and security forces assaulted them. Armed with the full power of the law, the regime still enlisted extra-legal violence — against a few hundred marchers. Mina Fayek, one of them, says 

We were attacked by thugs who beat us with broken glass bottles and stones. Then suddenly they disappeared and instantaneously the state security forces appeared and started firing tear gas and “sound guns” …  I saw a police officer directing the thugs with my own eyes, so they [would] stall the protesters till state security cars could make their way to them.

Photographs (taken from @Youm7) show coordinated onslaught of civilian attackers and State Security vehicles: via @Amosaadz)

Photographs (taken from Youm7) show coordinated onslaught of civilian attackers and State Security vehicles: via @Amosaadz)

Dina Youssef, another protester, says: 

When the police and people with them started throwing glass bottles and tear gas at us, I couldn’t run and hid behind a tree! One of them found me, and started threatening me with a strange knife, so I ran and jumped into a ground floor balcony in a nearby building.

Photographs reportedly showing two of the baltageya who attacked the June 21 march

Boys will be boys, II: Photographs reportedly showing two of the baltageya who attacked the June 21 march

Two other boys and four girls joined me, and they started crying hysterically. I tried to calm them down because the man with the knife had seen us. He was stalled as protestors started throwing stones at him, so we all ran from the balcony to the street and started chanting ” police are pigs”! They then shot tear gas canisters at us and as we ran, we were chased by a huge man with a big stick.I managed to make it into a building to hide … This is how they treat demonstrations in Egypt because we asked for #noprotestlaw.

Security forces seize Omar Morsi at the march. Salwa Mehrez, left, was also arrested because she refused to leave him.

Security forces seize Omar Morsi at the march. Salwa Mehrez, left, was also arrested because she refused to leave him.

Security forces arrested over thirty people. Seven were freed this afternoon; the rest, at least 24, will be brought before a prosecutor tomorrow. They include Yara and Sanaa Seif. Sanaa is Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s youngest sister, a student activist and artist from a distinguished family of dissidents who have racked up years of imprisonment between them; according to her aunt, the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, she was arrested “when she refused to escape and leave 3 young men to the police.” Reportedly they will face charges including illegal protest, “attacking public and private property,” and “possession of flammable materials and explosives during participation in such a protest.” Soueif writes, “We never even fired a firecracker!”

Leaked charge sheet against the arrested protesters

Leaked charge sheet against the arrested protesters

My friend Yara is brilliant, charismatic, and kind. A lawyer educated in Egypt, France, and the United States, she has worked for the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in The Gambia; as manager of the Women’s Human Rights Defenders program at Nazra for Feminist Studies, in Cairo; and as a researcher for the the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). In 2013 the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network gave her its North African Shield award for her work in support of other women’s rights activists. Last year she explained the roots of her feminist commitment:

The first time I read about feminism as a theory was in 2010 while I was doing my master’s degree, but I didn’t need to read the theories and the books to practice feminism. I was lucky to be raised in a leftist family that believes in equality between men and women, and applies these values. My mother is, by anyone’s definition, indeed a feminist, but still refuses to call herself one because of the negative connotations associated with who is a “feminist” and whether this implies an aggression toward men. For me, growing up seeing a strong woman like my mother, who fought her own battles bravely in the public sphere, struggled while growing up, takes strong stands in her personal life despite social stigmas, is what inspired me and made me the feminist I am today. She taught me about feminism in her day-to-day struggle, and I will be grateful for her all my life.

 Yara Sallam interviewed after receiving the North African HRD Shield award, 2013

I know her family is desperately worried for her as she sits caged in a cell. Their fears run like rainwater into a pool of fear. They join the fear that families of Muslim Brotherhood supporters felt after thousands were slaughtered in Rabaa or dozens in Abu Zabaal. The tears of the secular and of the religious are equally salt. Having massacred and suppressed Islamists, a government determined to cement its power increasingly turns its gaze upon the remaining liberals and the revolutionary young. A few days before Yara’s arrest, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights released a report she had taken the lead in researching: an investigation of state responsibility for the rampant killings in the summer of 2013.

August 16: Old woman wounded by birdshot at Rabaa El-Adawiya collapses on hospital floor. From @SharifKaddous

August 16, 2013: Old woman wounded by birdshot in the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at Rabaa El-Adawiya, Cairo, collapses on hospital floor. From @SharifKaddous

The day after Yara’s arrest, John Kerry came to Cairo. He brought news that the US “had quietly sent an estimated $572 million to Cairo in military and security assistance this month,” gun money that had been suspended since October over human rights concerns. He also came with a promise of 10 Apache attack helicopters to keep the dictator secure: “The Apaches will come, and they’ll come very very soon,” he intoned, sounding remarkably like John Wayne. He spoke of the US’s “historic partnership” with Egypt — or, as a “senior State Department official” told reporters on the plane:

I  think that the Secretary is going to make clear that we want to be as supportive as possible of Egypt’s transition … [There is a] recognition that Egypt has been going through a very difficult transition. There’s a strong desire on the part of the United States for this transition to succeed. Egypt is a strategic partner and we have a longstanding relationship with Egypt. It’s a partnership that’s based on shared interest, strategic interest.

It was a great festival of making-clear. “Egypt and its people have made clear their demands for dignity, justice and for political and economic opportunity,” Kerry said. “They just had a historic election for president.”  Indeed: Egypt has seen three contested polls for president in its history. In 2005, Mubarak triumphed; in 2012, Morsi narrowly won; and then there’s Sisi’s landslide. This democratic avalanche is the first where the winner gave himself more than 95% of the vote. Truly historic! Even Mubarak’s faked ascension showed more modesty.

Kerry came to Egypt disguised as a diplomat, but acting like a criminal accomplice. The United States colludes with murder. (The same day Yara was jailed, an Egyptian court confirmed mass death sentences on the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and 182 supporters — gleefully envisioning the execution of the political force that won Egypt’s only free elections, ever.) The Obama administration has policies of a sort on human rights; but they are not about change. They are about keeping the misery inconspicuous. At best where our most suasible allies are concerned, they envision a slight tinkering with the rules of repression to make the violence palatable. But the United States will keep furnishing the means of murder to its friends. The Apaches are coming.

These days the Apaches are the cavalry. And they're both coming.

Boys will be boys, III: These days the Apaches are the cavalry. And they’re both on the way.

You can see this everywhere. Two days before Yara’s arrest, under pressure from homebound constituencies, the Obama administration announced punitive measures against Uganda’s government for passing the horrific Anti-Homosexuality Bill. These included visa bans on the worst offenders — good — and some adjustments to humanitarian aid, more carefully targeted than most observers expected. Oh, yes, and there was a slight change in the US’s intimate military relationship with Museveni’s dictatorship. “We have also cancelled plans to conduct the Department of Defense’s Africa Partnership Flight exercise in Uganda. This was intended to be a United States African Command (AFRICOM)-sponsored aviation exercise with other East African partners.” Tremble, puny generals! But the rest of the massive military support the US provides Museveni remained untouched. The means of killing that Obama gives the dictator are literally incalculable: just try to come up with a solid dollar figure. The regime is usefully repressive. So long as it’s stable, it remains a pillar in AFRICOM’s efforts to fight back terrorism in East Africa, and retain American hegemony over the region’s resources, including a growing likelihood of lots of oil. Never mind that those arms and military expertise go to kill thousands in Uganda’s north, and are the key props of the same government that arrests lesbians, and gays, and trans people. The Apaches will keep coming — at least, till somebody says: Stop the game.

“The U.S. government is mindful of the wide range of issues encompassed by our relationship with Uganda,” the administration’s statement said, including “a partnership that advances our security interests in the region.” American gays applauded Obama’s service to human rights. Wasn’t it proof that LGBT rights can actually coexist with America’s “security interests” in seeing people killed? The Human RIghts Campaign said Obama had “put all world leaders on notice.” He’d affirmed his “deep commitment to advancing the human rights of all people,” etcetera. Then everybody got ready to go to the White House and shake Obama’s hand. But you should be careful shaking the hands of those who shake the hands of killers. Blood rubs off.

Visit the Egypt Solidarity Initiative website for resources on the #noprotestlaw campaign, including a list of Egyptian embassies to write about the detentions, as well as images, placards, and other materials.
A June 22 statement on Yara Sallam and other women human rights defenders arrested in the protest, from Nazra for Feminist Studies, is here. A June 23 press release from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and 11 other groups is here.
Visit egyptprotests2014.tumblr.com for updates about the detainees, further protests, and the law itself. 

 Sanaa Seif interviewed about the role of women in the Egyptian Revolution, 2011

Sunila Abeysekera, witness: 1952-2013

Sunila
The last time I saw Sunila Abeysekera was almost three years ago, over breakfast on one of her very occasional visits to New York. Some people, myself included, were trying to talk her into applying for my old job at Human Rights Watch, a post I thought far too small for her. She politely demurred, in different terms: “My life is enough of a problem,” she said, “and the last thing I need in it is a large organization.” She talked about the dangers of having your work commodified and separated from the people it’s about – either by a bureaucracy, or by the kinds of personality cults that thrive around those who get called (as she was: often, unwillingly, and accurately) “heroes.” Both distract from the simple realities of the stories you try to tell, and the stories, she said, were what counted.

At the same time, she was at one of those points (they came quite frequently) where her life was in serious danger in Sri Lanka. People were threatened enough by the stories for which she was witness and messenger that they wanted to kill her. Her friends urged her to get out, and she herself said she needed a quiet place somewhere, to rest and think. She said that kind of thing much more often than she meant it. The resting part was something of which she was utterly incapable. She never did it, not till the very last.

Sunila died today, back in Colombo, at 61, after a long battle with cancer. I knew her much less well than many did, but I thought of her as a role model as well as friend. She was scholar, activist, intellectual, feminist, and listener. Others will have more and better things to say about her. I’ll just remember this: while always subordinating herself to the stories she had to tell – – horrible stories, many of them, about rape, torture, murder in the long Sri Lankan civil war – her passion for truth and her personal compassion were always part of them. Without being that kind of person, a kind you instantly recognize but can’t possibly describe, she would never have heard them, would never have won trust or become a witness.   A lot of august philosophers these days write and theorize about the role of the witness in contemporary politics and ethics, but the writing was unnecessary as long as she was alive. You could point at Sunila, and understand.

I would say “rest in peace,” but wherever she is, she isn’t resting.

Human Rights Watch on women’s sexuality: Nice women don’t have one (1)

lesbian invisibility

Still hazy after all these years

This is Part 1 of a three-part post

Missed connections; or, how not to find lesbians

Here’s some of what a friend of mine, an Egyptian lesbian, 33 and butch, told me about days and nights during the Revolution in Midan Tahrir, where she put her life on the line.

We felt the presence of women, very strongly — and the presence of queer people very, very strongly, on the front lines, at essential moments. How amazing it was when people were just dealing, without judging. On February 2, the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] were there, and in a couple of hours they organized an assembly line to break the stones, to carry them to the front lines, with water and food supplies — they organized a hospital. I was with the shock troops, in the front line.   … We needed to frighten the other side, so they would think that we were stronger than they’d thought. They had guns, Molotov cocktails. We were fighting them with sand and rocks.  I was up there wearing a hood, to protect me, and you couldn’t tell if I was male or female. There was this Salafi near me, and he kept eye contact. He came down to me, to give me water. He said, I’ll take you further up, to the real front, the most dangerous zone. Just keep me in your line of vision, we can support each other.

I stayed there for hours, with eye contact with this man, on the line—and in the end I was positive that he realized I was a female. And he helped me stay there. …

It was moving for me, later, when I got to know about other protests in the global North inspired by Egypt. I’m not into this kind of petty nationalism—I believe in human rights.   But I am tired of being told: you are a second class individual, because you’re from the global South. You’re third class, because you are female. You are fourth class, because you are lesbian.   Suddenly we are at the center of the world. And suddenly we know that we can do it.

After the Revolution, Human Rights Watch, like other rights groups, sent hordes of workers to Cairo to interview Important People and figure out what had happened. One was Minky Worden, a colleague of mine, who’s editor of HRW’s spanking new anthology, “The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights.” I doubt they found my friend, a grassroots activist, Important enough to spend time on; zero of her passion or vision animates the book.  The volume claims to be a comprehensive picture of “the recent history of legal and political battles to secure basic rights for women and girls”; it banners a rah-rah quote from Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee: “Women are not free anywhere in the world until all women in the world are free.” Well: some women. In 332 pages, the book doesn’t contain even one substantive mention of lesbian or bisexual women, their struggles, or their human rights.* Talk about being fourth class.

Ugandan demonstrator in New York, 2011

It’s 2012, and this should not happen. It’s shocking on many grounds. You can’t describe the international women’s movement in the 20th and 21st centuries without describing lesbian and bisexual women. They’ve been there at every juncture — as Charlotte Bunch and Claudia Hinojosa, for instance, have shown in documenting just one part of this rich history, lesbians’ activism at the UN. (Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights owes a lioness’ share in its creation to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was, by modern biographers’ estimation, bisexual.) These fighters, like my friend, have stayed on the front lines: they’ve helped keep feminist movements conscious of difference and honest about the raw realities of sexuality. If they’ve been a target for violent attacks on feminism — more reason for HRW to acknowledge their importance! — they’ve also been among its boldest thinkers as well as bravest defenders.

I won’t even obsess here over the volume’s complete silence about the massive rights violations against transgender women and men — or its indifference to trans activists’ amazing successes at encoding progressive conceptions of gender in national laws. Some things no longer surprise me. But as a former Watcher, I do wonder what HRW was thinking, or failing to think. There are only a few possible interpretations of its perspective:

  • There are no serious human rights violations against lesbian or bisexual women.
  • Lesbians are not women.
  • Lesbians are not human.

It would be interesting to know which of these reflects HRW’s current official position.

Lesbians are real women, and sometimes it bears repeating: Dyke March in Soweto, 2007, © Behind the Mask

Of course, I started the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, almost nine years ago. We did a slew of reporting on lesbian, and bisexual, and transgender women, and trans men. We hired the first-ever researcher at a a major human rights organization to work primarily on lesbian issues. One therefore feels particular disillusion that all this hasn’t filtered into the organization’s understanding of women’s rights. It’s tempting to mutter, with the grandpaternal gruffness of encroaching senility, that this omission wouldn’t happen if were around. Non ego hoc ferrem calidus juventa consule Planco: feed that to your Babelfish. But that’s absurd. The silence speaks to deeper structural problems as pressing during my tenure as they are today. It illuminates at least three things:

  • how a large organization like Human Rights Watch fails to foster conceptual or practical connections within its work;
  • how lingering insecurities about sex (especially visible around sex workkeep it from accepting sexual autonomy as a fundamental value;
  • and how human autonomy itself remains a problematic principle for institutions across the rights-defending business.

Let’s start with the first.

I’ve pretty much spent twenty years trying to mainstream sexuality within the work of human rights. We rolled back many prejudices at Human RIghts Watch; but barriers in attitude persist. Three, hardly confined to the organization, remain relevant here:

Demonstrator in Windhoek, Namibia, 2001

Sexuality is not respectable. You may have a right to exercise it, but don’t expect me to bring it up in decent conversation. One sees this in the diehard reluctance of human rights researchers to raise the matter in their colloquies with “mainstream” partner organizations. I can easily imagine Minky thinking you can’t really promote the positions of lesbians (or, God forbid, pr-st-t-tes!) in a volume with a contribution by one Nobel winner (Shirin Ebadi) and a blurb by another (Gbowee). Never mind recent events in Liberia, which suggest Gbowee may not need a reminder that sexuality is always politically central. Sometimes they grasp these things better in Freetown than in New York.

Sexuality isn’t that important. Here what I’ve often called the “humanitarianization of human rights” kicks in: in an era of massive humanitarian catastrophes, cases seemingly on the scale of individuals shrivel in significance next to the gargantuan, aggregate anonymity of a Rwanda, a Darfur, a Sri Lanka. Without a queue of zeroes trailing the numbered victims, a situation can’t merit the diligence of crisis. Of course, if you tabulate the women and men jailed every day under (for example) anti-prostitution laws, many tortured or raped as a direct result, the zeroes start to accumulate, and the crisis becomes real. More below. But it’s still hard to persuade rights institutions of the simple, obvious fact that asserting one’s sexual autonomy is one of the major triggers for abuses worldwide.

Sexuality is private. It’s something you only do (legally) behind closed doors, and it can’t possibly be implicated in grand public events like revolutions. This is a delusion sustained by never talking to revolutionaries about why they were really there. Suffice it to remember Audre Lorde, who wrote that

In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives. …

During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag … Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.

I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.

This goes without saying

All three presumptions, however diminished at Human RIghts Watch, still haven’t gone away. Moreover, the organization’s structure reinforces them.  For the uninitiated, the group (typical of large rights institutions) is proudly centered on its regional divisions, dealing mainly with “mainstream” issues on the several continents. Then there are a range of thematic divisions — LGBT, women, health, business, and others. The latter are small, generally underfunded (during the seven years I was there, the LGBT program never got access to Human RIghts Watch’s general support money), and distinctly understaffed.  In order to do the work they need to do, they must depend on other divisions’ cooperation: not only to propose press releases or take on reporting on their own, but to assume the yeoman labor of talking to groups that represent thematic interests, not just “mainstream” ones, in their areas.

Connections: sign from a lesbian feminist march, June 30, 2011, Aguascalientes, Mexico

My staff worked extremely hard to sell sexuality issues to other divisions as, well, sexy. Yet overcoming the three attitudes above was a challenge. Ordinary practice and accumulated prejudices whispered to an ambitious researcher that an interest in LGBT issues would not, in the long run, embellish one’s career. What was needed and not forthcoming was a clear mandate from the group’s governance: a message that thematic issues were not poor stepkids, a child among the ashes doing work ancillary to the great stream of human rights, but were intrinsic to its current and core — and the organization’s “mainstream” sectors had to take them up.

Habit is a great deadener: so Beckett said. In 2009, someone in the organization’s program office analyzed which thematic division’s concerns were most or least taken up by other parts of the organization in their work. Not surprisingly, LGBT issues came out near the bottom. The program office (responsible for overseeing all the programmatic work) attended on me with a guilty hangdog-Hamlet look, saying This was an organizational failing and was there anything they could do? I had plenty of suggestions, starting with a general instruction from the leadership that each relevant division propose at least one project on LGBT rights. But the conversation faded at the crowing of the cock, as Shakespeare wrote in a famous play about a Denmark where nothing quite gets done.

The wrong kind of activists: LGBT rights demo in Beirut, 2009 (Photo: Alexandra Sandels)

This anthology is the result. Minky — the book’s editor, and, as I say, a colleague whose work I generally respect — writes how in April 2011 she spent her time in Egypt “interviewing human rights activists, women’s rights activists, and organizers of the Tahrir Square protests.” Now, I don’t know all the questions she asked, but I’m 99% sure some never occurred to her: “Do you know any lesbians? Were there any lesbian women in Tahrir? What were sexuality’s roles in the revolution?” The third would have gotten plenty of interesting responses. The other two, asked of most people, would have led ultimately to my friend, and to quite a few other women whose stories would have been compelling. But moral hesitation, or a monolithic category of “women” that foreclosed any subdivisions, or some other internal censorship kept the idea, I’m betting, from transiting her mind. And as a result, she never learned. The problem at Human Rights Watch is that the information to establish the urgency of the issues doesn’t arrive in sufficient quantities, because the questions don’t get asked across the organization. So the organization still doesn’t learn.

Part 2 continues below.

*The word “lesbian” occurs exactly twice in the book, both in an article by Gara Lamarche, HRW’s former Associate Director. One instance refers to his efforts in 1994 to expand “Human Rights Watch’s mandate to include lesbian and gay issues” — which the rest of the book might leave you supposing hadn’t succeeded. The other mentions Atlantic Philanthropies’ funding in South Africa “to address gender-based abuse and hate crimes against lesbians.”

CORRECTION: I’m reliably told the demonstration against Ugandan legislation shown above was in London, not New York.

Sex workers on feminism

It’s movie night!  This video, made by sex workers, features sex workers speaking out about women’s right “to choose what happens to one’s body and to control what happens to one’s body.” It’s a rousing defense of the right to bodily autonomy as well as sexual expression, and I particularly like the slinky music playing in the background.