Indigenous Women

At our recent meeting our study group focused on indigenous women in different parts of the world and the numerous challenges they face in a rapidly changing world. Tracing indigenous traditions, Elinor Gadon  explained what makes people tribal rather than Hindu as she shared details on her research work with indigenous women in different parts in India:

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Culturally they have always been part of Indian civilization. Unlike most tribal peoples outside India, they have maintained trading and ritual links with city-based, ‘civilized’ society for well over two-thousand years. Hindu civilization did not on the whole seek to displace or convert tribals, although there was certainly often conflict, and tribes were forced to retreat to the remotest areas: the forests and mountains between Hindu kingdoms.
The defining features of tribe anthropologically might be given as a close, ritualized dependence on the natural environment, especially the forest, a strong egalitarian social organization based more on clans than on caste or class, and a high degree on until at least recently of economic self-suffiency and political independence. Drums, dancing and song are at the heart of tribal culture. They do not worship the gods in temples of with the aid of brahmin priests, but at shrines in the forest. All their deities are closely connected with nature, identified with features of the local environment or natural forces including diseases. As well as priests they have diviners and shamans who go into trance to communicate with spirits.
Equality  is a powerful ideal. Land is usually divided equally among household, unlike Hindu villages which tend to have large divisions between landlords and landless laborers. Elders carry more weight in village councils than young men, and women do not usually take part, although they may have decisive influence from the sidelines. On the whole women are much freer than in Hindu villages. They speak out openly and are not bound by double standards of sexual morality, as free as men to have love affairs. Divorce is relatively easy; divorcees can marry again without any stigma. This emphasis on equality goes along with tribal villagers sefl-respect, self-sufficiency in fulfilling most of their own needs.
(Submitted by Elinor Gadon, from Felix Padel, “The Sacrifice of human being: British Rule and Konds of Orissa” New Dehli: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp17-19. Photo curtesy of WSRC/GaiDI)

Looking at issues of gender-based violence and inequality among indigenous women in a different part of the world, Marguerite Bouvard  spoke about her past experiences as she recalled her ties to Mayan women in Guatemala:

o23_84_99-m  My presentation was on the International Indigenous Women Forum and its work in leadership and human rights training, and building alliances between the Indigenous women‘s movement and the global women’s movement. Specifically I spoke about indigenous women in Guatemala, the generation that was subject to General Rios Montt’s genocide and the younger generation of Mayan Kakchiquel’s program. Lisbeth Coloc developed three programs for 60 women and their families that included strengthening the community and political advocacy, economic development, how women can become self-sustainable by building their own businesses and psycho-social help. The program works with community groups in five municipalities and is the largest indigenous group in Guatemala.

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News from our members: Marguerite will be reading poems from her new poetry book, The Light That Shines Inside Us on March 20 at 12:30. A quote from the blurb by Steven Kessler, “Across cultures, and languages, wars, brief intense joys and relentless suffering, her poems radiate compassion and a universal humanity. “

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Violence Against Women With Disabilities

women-disabilities(image: PSC Crisis Connection, Disability Support Services, 24-hour Hotline)

The World Cultures Study Group had the pleasure to welcome Ana Maria Sanchez, who is currently working on her PhD in Public Policy, for a very interesting and stimulating talk on violence against women with disabilities.

Ana presented her work which is concerned with women with disabilities, a demographic that, she deplores, has generally been overlooked by the feminist researchers and activists. Focusing on two countries, Mexico and India, Ana strives to investigate the ways in which the various women’s rights organizations in these countries address, if they ever do, the problem of violence against women with disabilities.

The talk was a consciousness raiser for many of us, as Ana explained that the very word “disability” is unequivocal and resists a simple definition, even more so when it is used in different cultural contexts. She also underlined the difficulties she encountered in studying women with disabilities in Mexico and India, because they are a somehow invisible group first because they are a demographic minority, which does not make them a primary concern for government officials, then, because they are often hidden or isolated from the rest of society. Ana showed the importance of thinking about women with disabilities with a gender perspective and the necessity to raise awareness that women with disabilities are entitled to women’s rights.

Ana sent two links that she wanted to share with the members of the group, here they are:

Why Should Disability Spell the End of Romance?

For Different Indians Disability Means Different Things

The World’s Cultures Study Group would like to thank you again, Ana, for sharing your work with us. I hope this brief does justice to your inspiring talk. (Submitted by Maryline)

Crossing Borders

WCsg_border-fence-08

(image: latinamericanstudies)

The act of crossing a border is fraught with possibility and danger. Through personal accounts of the group’s members we traced historical changes and looked at how political borders have shifted around ancestral locations.

Starting the conversation was a shared concern regarding the plight of young unaccompanied minors who cross the border from Mexico into the United States. These children are seeking the possibility of a better life, but often find themselves exploited by human traffickers or by the US immigration system, which makes no special allowances for them. They rarely gain access to a lawyer with the result that they end up in in juvenile prisons for long stretches of time. The immigration system could make greater efforts to secure them pro bono lawyers and help place them in foster homes, but chooses not to.

We then embarked on our border-crossing journey in the Mediterranean port city of Trieste. At various points it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Italy and, during World War II, a region claimed by both the Allied powers and by the communist bloc. In the end, Trieste remained in Italy even as the areas around it were incorporated into Yugoslavia, splitting up families and friends. Through these shared memories and their complexity we could see both the arbitrariness and the fluidity of these political borders, but also their very real and enduring cultural, economic and emotional impacts.

Alsace, whose political border puts it within France, was brought up as another example. The region has a history of resistance to Germany, which occupied it during World War II, and yet its language shares little with French and much more with German. Political borders and the emotional ties they create can therefore cut against what might seem to be more natural cultural affinities. We were reminded that we often use borders to create ‘others’ based on what would seem to be relatively insignificant differences (like the ones between Alsace and Lorraine).

The province of Buyan-ulgi in Mongolia was another fascinating account of the ways in which political borders do not always map with more obvious cultural – specifically religious and ethnic – similarities. Buyan-ulgi is dominated by Muslim Kazakhs who seized the opportunity afforded by the opening up of Mongolia to ask for an open border with the Russian state of Kazakhstan, perceived to be culturally similar. The Mongolian state allowed both the open borders as well as dual citizenship in this case. However, ten years later, it would appear that the experiment has failed. The state government in Bulyan-ulgi finds that the open border is causing law and order and other problems and has now requested that it be closed again. We also learned about the weakening of Mongolia’s alliance with Russia as Russia’s economic power has declined, and the growing importance of Mongolia’s other border with China for the Mongolian economy. Whether this shift in economic relationships will also have cultural and political implications is perhaps a topic for another discussion.

As our round table conversation continued, we learned of the ways in which Manhattan and New Jersey are crosscut by invisible and visible borders marked by ethnic and cultural differences which, to some extent, creating borders of choice. Urging us to think about the reasons why we, as human beings, seem to need to create borders, it was suggested that this was driven by the need to feel comfort in likeness, to create communities; others thought that it might be driven by a competitive instinct – the need to create ‘other’s with whom one can compete on who has the best scenery or the best sports team.

Through the vivid memory about living in Calcutta, India, at a house in a middle class neighborhood that adjoined a slum, or basti, we were reminded of how borders can be extremely meaningful even when they are not national or even ‘official’. More about political borders and their lasting and profound effects was highlighted through anecdotes relating to post-Imperial changes in India, specifically in the region that became first East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, where families fled to newly formed India in the aftermath of partition.

While the violence and bloodshed around partition (which is the term used to describe the division of British India into India and Pakistan) often reminds us of the worst in human beings, this story did help us understand how human beings can be traumatized when borders cut through their lives without blaming or hating those left on the other side. Forced migration and the resulting sense of displacement and loss created a profoundly significant impact of borders in their own lives, and eventually may have passed down to the next generation. Over time, upon returning to the ancestral home, reconciliation occurred by recasting the relationship between the ‘deportees’ and the ‘occupiers’ as one among equals and by welcoming cherished  childhood memories.

That kind of reconciliation is, of course, the happy ending we all hope for when we think of Israel and its politically fraught borders. Apart from helping us understand the historical roots of the Israeli state, the stories about flow of legal and illegal immigration to pre-independence Israel (first under the Ottoman rule and later under the British mandate) shed some light on the fascinating social experiments that were enabled by the return to this region of young Jewish ‘pioneers’. Within the kibbutzim they set up, they sought to erase hierarchies of gender and class, to share all labor and promote egalitarian ideals. Whether or not the experiment fully succeeded, it was a wonderful illustration of the possibilities, as well as the perils, of crossing borders. (Moderated and summarized by Smriti)