Liberty, justice, and toilet freedom for all

toilet

While I was studying for my Masters degree, I worked part time as a janitor.

It was extremely glamorous.

The last school where I worked, Tong High School in Bradford, England, had unisex toilets. I don’t know how common this is, but I’d never seen it in any of the schools I’d been in before (and I’ve been in a lot of schools, as I’m sure many people have).

It’s a given that men and women have to do their private business in separate areas, isn’t it? After all, we are so different from each other that there’s no way we could ever do that in the same place.

I don’t know if it was gender consciousness on the part of the architect who built the school, but I do think that not seeing boys and girls as being creatures so alien to one another that they have to pee in separate facilities has the potential to go a long way towards achieving gender equality.

In the United States, trans children are legally able to use the toilet that fits the gender that they identify as at school. Hopefully someday, gendered toilet usage won’t even be a conversation, the same way different races using the same toilets is no longer a discussion. People will be able to identify with whatever gender suits them, or not identify with any gender at all, and use the appropriate water closet. (I’m really uncomfortable with the number of times I’m having to type “toilet”.) This idea isn’t all that implausible- there are some cultures that have a third gender, and older cultures in which the current, pervasive definition of gender wasn’t a forgone conclusion until colonialism mandated rigid, “God”-assigned roles. Until then, it absolutely has to be a conversation, because in some parts of the world, being gender-nonconforming is a risk that can end your life.

For trans people in particular- although anyone not fitting obviously into their assigned gender category can feel this way- deciding which toilet to use can be a real source of anxiety. some have been attacked for using the “wrong” bathrooms. People think they are justified in violently assaulting people simply for existing (Media Matters explains how the media is partially responsible). It happens too often to just be a coincidence, or just be the work of a handful of sociopathic individuals. Traditional beliefs about gender, although arbitrary, mean that people believe that violence is justifiable to defend them.

If all toilets were unisex, maybe that would just be one step further in eradicating antiquated gender roles. Maybe it would be safer for people who identify with a gender different from the one that they were assigned at birth to inhabit public spaces, and they wouldn’t be attacked for using the wrong toilet because it wouldn’t make any difference.

This is not only a trans issue, although it most likely has the most obvious impact on trans people. The issue is much larger than toilet-usage. Although things like this might seem inconsequential, I believe taking these things for granted can have less than ideal consequences.

If teenagers in Northern England can use the same toilet facilities without incident, is there any reason the rest of us can’t do the same?

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Being childfree is not an “interesting debate”

A little while ago, I was talking to my cousin when he said something to me about “When you have children.” I said “I’m not having children.” He was shocked, and said “Because you can’t, or because you don’t want to?” I honestly don’t understand why he was so shocked, because I had told him five years before this conversation that I was never going to have children, and I reminded him of that. He said “I didn’t think you were serious.” I asked him why he thought I wasn’t serious (because that wouldn’t be a very funny joke. There’s not even a punchline.) He said “Because it’s not just your decision.”

Um.

It is absolutely just my decision, because it’s just MY BODY. He then asked me “What if you meet someone and he really wants kids?”

This is disgusting and misogynistic. If a woman who doesn’t want children is in a relationship with a man, she’s expected to sacrifice her body and the rest of her life for something she doesn’t want? A man is entitled to force her to go through forty weeks of pregnancy, childbirth, and then 18 years of being the primary caregiver for a child that doesn’t even get her name? (While I understand that for most people this isn’t an issue because most people want to breed, and most women don’t seem to have a problem with the patriarchal tradition of men automatically passing their name onto children, for someone who has no desire or intention to use her body that way, it can turn into a violent form of torture.)

In fact, in the past two days, I’ve had two more people ask me a) why I don’t want children, and b) what I would do if I met a man who wanted children. Interestingly, both of the people who asked me this were men. I don’t understand why people ask this question as though it’s thought-provoking, or like it would somehow change my answer. I don’t know to make myself any clearer. “I’m not having kids” doesn’t mean “If I meet a man and he really wants kids then I will have them,” it means “I’m not having kids.”

My cousin said that it was an “interesting debate.” This isn’t interesting, nor is it a debate. I am an adult human being. I have the right to decide what happens to my body. My human rights are not up for debate, and my humanity is not “interesting.”

The Michael Brown Problem

Unless you’ve been living in a cave in Siberia for the past few weeks, you know that unarmed, black, 18-year old Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th. The police officer’s name was not released until a week after the incident, during which time it seems that the Ferguson police had been trying to concoct a ridiculous story that they still weren’t even able to get straight, including a version of events in which Brown physically attacked the officer, something that every single eye witness has refuted.

The police officer, Darren Wilson, has still not been charged with anything. The murder, and the subsequent lack of legal action, has led to unrest in Ferguson, with the National Guard being sent in and pointing guns at unarmed, peaceful civilians. (The National Guard left after being completely incompetent in doing their jobs.)

The shooting of Michael Brown, and the ensuing media circus, show the painful reality that black people in the United States are not human beings. (John Stewart has done a wonderful job of explaining this.)

The New York Times called Michael Brown “no angel.” Sean McElwee at Demos compared this to the way the humanizing, generous way that the same paper described convicted, white serial killers.

I’ve written before about how men of color are victims of gendered, racialized violence because of how they are perceived. The perception affects every aspect of the lives of people of color. It’s why when I complain about people touching and making comments about my hair, I’m not talking just about having “unfair” beauty standards placed on me, I’m talking about people seeing my existence as being less than human. It’s why when Richard Sherman talked loudly after a football game, white people started screaming about what a thug he was, as though no white athlete has ever screamed trash talk. It’s because he’s not seen as human. It’s why unarmed black people can be killed by the people who are charged with protecting them, over and over and over again in the “greatest country in the world”, and will most likely never see justice. In the past month, Michael Brown, John Crawford, and Eric Garner, were all murdered by law enforcement.

What kind of justice is there really for Michael Brown and his family? Even if Wilson is charged, prosecuted, and convicted, this boy still lost his life for having the audacity to exist in a black body. What justice is there for anyone who is murdered senselessly because of what s/he looks like?

Black people are not seen as human beings in America.

Detroit citizens transported back to Stone Age

The United States of America. The self-professed “greatest country in the world”; the “land of the free.”

Anyone who knows me knows that I would beg to differ. And perhaps, so would the people of Detroit, Michigan.

Detroit used to be a bustling metropolis. In the early 20th century, it established itself as the world’s automotive capital, and during the 1950’s to 70’s, it was a prosperous city thanks to the thriving auto industry. It’s also the home of Motown, Berry Gordy’s record company (which is now a nickname for Detroit, as well as the musical genre), which was played a large role in racially integrating music and entertainment.

Despite all of the commercialism and creativity that the city was known for, there was also volatile racial tension, not to mention a Klu Klux Klan presence that surfaced in the 1920’s. The city’s decline has resulted in urban decay and abandoned buildings, and Detroit recently filed for bankruptcy.

Last week, Detroit has been in the news for reasons a far cry from its Motown and automotive heyday. Thousands of residents no longer have access to running water. In the “greatest country in the world,” in one of its biggest cities, there are people living in houses who don’t have access to running water. Thanks to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department 17,000 people have had their water turned off because of late payments in 2014 so far.

The United Nations has condemned the state’s actions. According to UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation Catarina de Albuquerque, “Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying.”

Is it a coincidence that such dramatic hikes in water tariffs and shut offs are taking place in a city that is over 80% black? Maureen Taylor doesn’t seem to think so, and frankly, neither do I. There were, after all, corporations who also owed on their water bills, and their access was not revoked as a result.

People living in the world’s most developed nations should not be dealing with water shortages. (In fact, no one should be dealing without access to water, but it seems especially egregious given the fact that the USA has the world’s largest economy.) Protesters have been arrested. This is how power and privilege work to continue to disenfranchise those already living in poverty. It’s appalling, and it’s no way for the people of Detroit, for people in the United States, or people anywhere in the world to live.

When culture fails

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a widespread phenomenon. In the popular imagination, it’s often associated with Islam, or Africa, even though they both Islam and Africa are varied and diverse. While it is true that FGM is practiced in 29 out of 54 African countries, it also takes place in Asia, the Middle East, and even in developed countries such as the US and the UK. While it’s sometimes justified using religion, no religion officially sanctions the practice.

In reality, FGM is a tradition that is born out of and justified by the basis of culture. The reasons for continuing the harmful vary- it makes women more beautiful, it makes a woman a more desirable partner, or it assuages women’s natural wild, animalistic urges. In one Senegalese village, an imam said that without FGM, “Women would be jumping on top of all the men.”

Unlike male circumcision, which actually has some benefits (although there are plenty of people who oppose this practice as well); there is absolutely no physical, medical, or moral advantage to female circumcision. In fact, risks include severe physical pain, infection, decreased sexual pleasure, urine retention, fistulas, infertility, and even death. It keeps happening solely because of social expectations, and even though it’s normally carried out by women, it is supported by an undercurrent of patriarchal values that place much less value on a woman’s life than on a man’s.

Tostan, a Senegal-born human rights NGO, takes a holistic approach to ending FGM: Instead of just telling women to stop doing it, it focuses on educating whole communities about the importance of respecting the rights of all people. And it works: Malicoumba Bambara, a village near Thies (the country’s third biggest city), officially ended the practice in 1997.

Social norms approaches are another way of educating communities to eradicate harmful practices. In a nutshell, people make assumptions about what other people are doing, and then model their behavior based on this perception. Social norms approaches change people’s ideas about what everyone else is doing. When enough individuals change their ideas, it leads to a group-wide change.

Too often, people justify sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other discriminatory practices with “It’s our culture.” There is a flaw in this theory, though: Culture is something that is created by people. You’re not giving yourself enough credit if you think that you have to do something solely because it’s your culture. People make culture. FGM is a cultural practice, but it’s not infallible. Like I’ve said before, when culture harms people, then it’s the responsibility of everyone to change it.

 

Seriously, where the fuck are our girls?

On April 14th, nearly 300 Nigerian girls went missing in Chibo, Nigeria. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the kidnappings on May 5th. Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has said that they will sell the Christian girls and marry off the Muslim ones. While journalists in Nigeria were working tirelessly to get the word out, the international media remained largely silent. Why did the Nigerian military lie about having found the girls? Why did the parents have to go looking for the girls themselves? And why did it take so long for any kind of international intervention to take place, when merely weeks before thousands of dollars and hours of manpower had been spent trying to find a disappeared plane (full of non-African people)? Every part of this is appalling.

The world’s indifference to the kidnapped, or more accurately, enslaved girls resulted in protests, both within and outside Nigeria, as well as “hashtag activism”: in this case, the creation of #bringbackourgirls on Twitter. Some have criticized those participating of doing it simply to a) to make themselves feel better without actually causing any change, and b) helping to legitimize Western military intervention in Africa , and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s statement that it “will be considering not just the recent incidents but also longer-term counter-terrorism solutions to prevent such attacks in the future and defeat Boko Haram” certainly does nothing to assuage those fears.

It is, however, partly due to this type of social media activism that spurred the Nigerian government, as well as others, to action. The United States has sent experts to Nigeria to provide strategic advice in looking for the girls, and China, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel have also gotten involved. It’s disheartening that it took social media to get governments involved in looking for abducted children, but it shows that social media has the power to do more than allow people to pat themselves on the back.

It does say something that nearly three weeks after the original girls went missing, 11 more were kidnapped. It says something that a month after the girls have gone missing, they haven’t been found. It says that on an institutional level, the lives of girls in Nigeria are not valued. There are of course activists, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters who care about the lives of the young girls in their lives, but the government’s complacency in looking for children is indicative not only of the government’s general incompetence to fulfill its obligation to its people, but that girls’ lives are simply not a priority.

Nigeria’s finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made the statement that she was tired of speaking about the Chibok girls. Realizing her faux pas, she backtracked, but to be honest, I’m tired of talking about these girls too. Because they should already have been rescued. And because this should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.

Sochi

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Sochi 2014

We are one week into the 2014 Olympic Games. I haven’t been paying very much attention, but I will say that the Russian police choir singing Pharrell Williams’ Get Lucky was hands down one of the most awkward things I’ve ever seen or heard in my life. 17- year old figure skater Michael Martinez, the first Filipino to make it to the Winter Games in 22 years, is a real Cinderella story. Martinez, along with Julia Marino, also a lone athlete representing her country and the first Paraguayan athlete to ever compete in the winter Games, embody the determination and skill that the Games are meant to celebrate.

Russia came under fire in mid-2013 for passing a law banning “propaganda of homosexualism.” The law is draconian, and people and organizations have faced harsh fines and imprisonment for promoting acceptance of LGBT people. When LGBT people are subjected to violent physical assault, laws should be implemented to protect them, rather than make them even more vulnerable.

It’s not only when it comes to this issue that Russia’s domestic policy is problematic. The country’s human rights record is abysmal. President Vladimir Putin has destroyed any semblance of independent media. Human rights activists such as journalists and lawyers are arbitrarily detained, violently assaulted, and murdered. Thousands of medical patients die from lack of access to palliative care. Racism and anti-Semitism in Russia are also rampant with Central Asians, Africans and people of African descent (yes, there are black people in Russia!), and Jews all facing discrimination, although the election of a black councilman in 2010 is promising.

For an event that is meant to celebrate unity in athleticism, having Irina Rodnina light the Olympic torch was a questionable move. Last year, Rodnina posted a picture of Barack Obama manipulated to show a white hand holding a banana in front of him, imagery that is steeped with historical, racist baggage. Instead of offering an apology, she fell back on the “freedom of speech” defense to justify her bigotry.

Still, the solidarity shown by athletes, from an on-podium kiss after winning an event, to painting nails in rainbow colors, show that despite the problems that exist, there are plenty who look forward to Russia evolving into a nation with full respect for human rights.

South Africa: 2014

2014 is the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s independence, and is also an election year. Although South African politicians often describe the country as a “rainbow nation,” is the term really more than rhetoric used in an attempt to pacify those who speak about persisting inequalities and rampant corruption?

Today’s African National Congress (ANC) is a far cry from the radical, revolutionary group that fought for independence. 20 years after the ANC rose to power, legislative changes have not necessarily translated into racial  or class equality for South Africa. Black South Africans suffer from increasing rates of unemployment, and maternal mortality rates have quadrupled under ANC leadership.

Incumbent President Jacob Zuma has at best, a questionable record as head of state; his most recent abuse of power blowing R208 million (USD18.5 million) of public funds to pimp out his private residence in Nkandla. While City Press calls Nkandla “the village at the centre of South Africa’s election,” the votes of President Zuma’s disenfranchised neighbors will most likely not sway the election, despite Julius Malema’s wishful thinking that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) will win this year’s election; and the ANC’s declining support.

Despite the corruption and inequality that has continued to characterize South Africa under ANC leadership, it’s unrealistic to think that an opposition can group can win this year’s election, especially after the implosion of the coalition formed between the Democratic Alliance and Agang SA; under which Mamphela Ramphele would’ve run as the presidential candidate.

But who knows? Maybe all the political analysts are wrong, and an opposition group will win and wave a magic wand and erase all of South Africa’s systemic problems. One can dream, anyway.

Why your new neighborhood is violating other people’s rights

The right to housing is one of the most fundamental rights, and yet it’s no secret that millions of people around the world are going without. While commonly thought of as a developing world problem, the UN Human Rights Commission estimated in 2005 that 100 million people across the world were homeless, meaning that the problem is not isolated to just deep, dark Africa.

The right to housing is articulated in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which states in article 11 that everyone has the right to “an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”

I’m not even going to touch the androcentric nature of this, and most of the international human rights instruments whose drafters seemed to believe that the inclusion of half of the world’s population was unnecessary.

In modern and urbanized cities like London, Cape Town, New York, gentrification is receiving increased attention, and it has serious implications for working class people who are forcibly displaced from their homes due to their inability to keep up with dramatic hikes in rent.

Joel and Aaron Israel, brothers and landlords in Brooklyn, are alleged to have let their property go into disrepair in an effort to force out their current tenants and dramatically increase rent prices.

While it’s unrealistic to expect that neighbourhoods never evolve, or that rent prices will never increase, the actions of these brothers clearly reflects a lack of respect for the right to adequate “housing…. And to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” The people in this building, and those worldwide who are subjected to forcible relocation as a result of gentrifying trends need to be protected. Whether that is through inclusionary zoning or the provision of council housing, states worldwide have a responsibility to make sure that no one is forced to stay in inadequate living conditions.

Marry who you want, and marry who you like

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Along with other fundamental rights, such as “the right to life, liberty and security of person” (Art 3) and “freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state,” (Art 13); the UDHR also states that “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution,” and that these marriages “shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses” (Art 16).

It’s an age-old phenomenon for people, especially young women and girls, to be forced into marriage against their will. In some cases, they are forced or coerced by their parents. In other instances, skewed ratios of women to men thanks to gender-selective abortion, mean that young girls and women are kidnapped, forced into marriage, and subjected to physical and sexual assault.
While usually associated with, but not limited to developing countries, forced marriage takes place all over the world, including in the United States and the United Kingdom.

On the other hand, family members rejecting their children’s choice in partners is not an uncommon occurrence. Al-Jazeera reports that a man in India, Sidhnath Sharma, is suing his son, Sushant Jasu, for marrying a woman of a lower social class, saying that “For ages, it has been an accepted tradition of arranged marriages within your own caste,” and that his son choosing to eschew tradition “not only stunned [him], it also affected [his] social status.”

Full and free consent means being able to not marry, or marry whomever you choose. As Jasu’s mother states, “If my son is happy with his marriage, I should openly back him. Time has changed now, one should understand it.”