Heal The Women Salone

On Saturday 26th August, I supported the director of Heal the Women Salone based in Makeni, to deliver a workshop to her women’s group on Black Feminism and international resistance against patriarchy. This support group was founded by Fatima Turay to allow women in Makeni to unite and openly discuss issues affecting their everyday lives in a society dominated by men. Women in Sierra Leone undergo crisis based around the economic downfall of their resources being exploited, whilst recovering from the scars of the civil war. The women offer each other possible solutions to the problems they face during volatile situations related to domestic stress, as well as the Sierra Leonean police offering a Family Support Unit (FSU) service for women to be able to report severe domestic abuse.

20 inspiring women attended the workshop, aged 17-60. It was positive to witness young women comfortably discussing issues affecting them in the presence of elder women, without any fear of judgement being made. The recognition of the struggle commonly affecting women was inspiring considering the women felt disheartened and let down by their government and the men who had deserted them during difficult circumstances. When reading any of the shared stories below, one must not base a judgement on African communities but understand the result of poverty and lack of economic power whilst understanding resistance against patriarchy works hand in hand with Sierra Leonean women who are directly affected by Capitalist exploitation, being able to resist neo-colonialism.

Many women who were traders felt when they were pregnant their husbands avoided them as though they had a disease. They complained the men in their community wanted to marry rich women to pay their bills and were not interested in women who are poor with daughters. The women concluded this pressure on their value being based on economic status pressured the women in the community living in poverty to turn to prostitution as a way of making ends meet to be economically self-sufficient, especially if the woman already had children.

The women expressed micro-credit, a microfinance investment facility set up in 2004 to support women financially after the war, as biased and unreliable as the women are landed in debt with an interest rate of 500%. Sierra Leonean women are thrown into prison if they do not pay off their debt without any of their personal circumstances being taken into consideration. The women also exclaimed the claim of education being free for Sierra Leonean women as false.

The women of Sierra Leonean families who struggle financially are forced into sex work. If the woman falls pregnant, she adds a burden onto the family already in financial difficulty unable to feed an extra mouth where she is left to bring the child up alone. A student asked for support for young women who want to pursue an education but are forced into prostitution as poverty fails them from having an independent right to an education. Unfortunately, since the rise in tuition fees in England, many female students have resorted to prostitution to pay towards their fees also.

A Sierra Leonean woman spoke of the attitude of men towards Sierra Leonean women due to prostitution being rife within society. The women complained assumptions were made of their lifestyle if they took pride in their appearance, admired Western dress and enjoyed partying. She retold a man in Flamenco bar grabbed her by her hair and asked her how much she costs. The women were concerned that White British African mineral ex-pat workers were responsible for injecting Sierra Leonean sex workers with life-threatening doses of class A drugs, after promising the women a large sum of dollars.

The 50/50 government representation for women was dissected where the women felt only career women involved in politics had the pleasure of enjoying the 50/50 government strategy. The women felt wealthier privileged women in positions in society never came to support or interact with the working class women affected by poverty. The women struggled to raise their voices as some of the men hold restrictions on their voice and level of action but the women were adamant to get the voices of victims heard and not just the voices of wealthy Sierra Leonean women. The women intend on making a documentary to lobby their government to take societal issues affecting them seriously.

Shareefa Panchbhaya

Community Issues Affecting Women Shall Not be Silenced

Female community and political activists are often silenced when raising community issues which affect women, with their concerns not being treated equally or brought to the priority list in the resistance battle. The energy women put into enforcing tangible change into communities is often undermined from the grassroots and on a broader spectrum by men who are considered to be activists, progressive or revolutionary, with women unfortunately feeling failed by their supposed male allies in the struggle. Women  were the ones responsible for the uprising and mobilising of thousands onto the streets of Tahrir Square to revolt against an oppressive system which became hijacked by patriarchy attempting to demoralise and discourage Egypt’s women from taking to the streets by the military, police and local men sexually assaulting female activists and carrying out ‘virgin tests’. This backfired when women grew more determined and protested against sexual harassment.

If men resisting capitalism, racism, xenophobia, zionism, empire, white supremacy and every other inequality are unprepared to listen to the points women raise on sexism in a world where we co-exist, it evidently hasn’t been fully digested as to how damaging and regressive this issue actually is. Not only has history evidenced the importance of the role of women in any revolution that has sped for change, but if brothers women are meant to work alongside defensively hold up barriers, refusing to understand or empathise with the struggle women face on a daily basis, then we have a major problem. Women shouldn’t have to be placed with the burden of resisting sexism by brothers in the struggle, alongside standing against various injustices when women should feel inclusive rather than marginalised. Men should equally be prepared to challenge this and neither should women be suppressed or silenced. Racism is not the figment of a humans imagination, neither is sexism.

After witnessing the insensitive way women are approached when addressing the struggles effect on women, the attitude of some men reinforces patriarchy in an ignorant, normalised judgemental manner, whilst subconsciously dividing and ruling women by teaching misogyny to both genders. This often results in women learning to detach themselves from fellow women instead of encouraging women to unite by struggle, where some females are considered superior and other women are stereotyped unworthy, whilst the male is oblivious to the challenges, injustices and oppression each individual female has faced during her lifetime. Does stereotyping women support any form of community change? How would anyone be able to encourage a heroin addict to kick their drug habit by shouting ‘junkie’ then telling him or her they are respected? The two are incompatible and contradict any illusion of empathy.

A project worker working alongside sex workers would never get away with approaching their client with “Why are you stuck in this lifestyle, you whore? You’re better than that.”This approach I have witnessed on several occasions by men and I’m disgusted fellow women, regardless of lifestyle are being spoken to in a dehumanised derogatory manner. This is similar to White Europeans telling African people they use to be slaves and are doing them a favour or Black communities being scapegoated for crimes but told they are better than the crime they are ‘responsible’ for, without issues around poverty and the disadvantages and inequalities faced by victims of a racist society at the bottom of the social hierarchy being highlighted. The intention is to be educational rather than counterproductive as everyone is a product of this capitalist patriarchal system. The duty of a woman is to support fellow women whilst educating brothers who normalise alienating women and to work alongside young men to challenge their views on women before sexism is at risk of becoming indoctrinated.

Before criticising women or portraying oneself to be concerned, can one ask them self whether they would be prepared to work with young sexually active women to understand the breakdown in society which influences them? Would critics be prepared to volunteer their time to work with sex workers to understand their struggle before speaking down their penises at them? Do men give sisters any justice before objectifying them and assuming reasons behind her attachment to him? It’s an unfortunate situation when women do not feel they will receive support from the men they are around to inform them if they have undergone child abuse, rape or sexual violence assuming the brother will blame the incident on her or find the situation too alien or uncomfortable to comprehend, unless he himself has faced a similar injustice. Protecting and defending women who are the first victims of any deteriorated society should be a priority rather than a normalised prejudice. It is unfair when men empathise with the struggle of female sex workers in Asia but are humoured by the struggle of women in England below the poverty line, attempting to put food on the table for her family. Men who are unwilling to listen to the points women raise, have no right to address women or speak on behalf of a 50% population one is not ready to see eye-to-eye with. This self-righteous attitude of enforcing change is reinforcing a system rather than challenging the deep rooted causes of prevalent issues within our society.

Women complaining about street harassment should be taken very seriously. It is not men who get objectified on route to the corner shop or face sexist comments on a daily basis from strangers who scan their assets and jeer whether displayed or attempted to camouflage. Why are there so few men standing against the sexual objectification of women? Why are so many men reluctant to face their internal sexism and prejudice, unwilling to learn about their male privilege and the oppressive nature of patriarchy this system we’re trying to resist needs to survive? It is refreshing to hear the men in Ramallah have mobilised to patrol the streets of their community to monitor sexual harassment but unfortunately, many communities blame the victim. As ineffective as racist jokes being made behind closed doors is, it is not okay to stigmatise and stereotype women, putting them into boxes whilst claiming to be for the people and against an unjust system. Any form of reinforcing gender division, supporting patriarchy or not uttering a genuine word against sexism has every right to be challenged. It cannot be expected for an ethnic minority to receive racist comments lightly. Neither can it be expected for half of the world’s population to remain silent whilst patriarchy has only ever proved to be oppressive.

If a person witnesses the Israeli occupation and the anger from the oppressed, the person has no right to silence or comment on the Palestinians being too angry or negative about the oppression they have faced continuously for over 64 years or stereotype them as anti-Semitic. Why is it when women speak of the oppression they have faced for thousands of years, of 48 women being raped every hour in Congo, it is considered to be negative, too furious or stereotyped as being anti-men whilst hands are held over ears? If empathy is non-existent, the oppressor has no right to tell women how they should evaluate their oppression. Surely humans interacting with each other on a daily basis should treat each other justly and humanely. Men have no right to speak about the human rights of women living on land overseas whilst having no respect or empathy for the struggle women face who live on the same land as them. Any supremacist needs to challenge their own internal superiority complex and ego which allows them to hold such controversial values, similar to that of a racist who defensively refuses to make sense of their nonsense opinions.

It is important for us to work as a collective rather than as individual saviours of an unjust world, which liberalism seeks to encourage. Women are equally capable of leadership and should not be dismissed when critiquing hiccups to the resistance movement, which prove offensive. Men cannot afford to deny their male privilege or assume women are merely playing victims in society and continue to patronise women who are knowledgeable around the flaws of patriarchy and the discrepancies around male privilege.  

When working with young people from ethnic minority communities and addressing issues around territorial gangs, substance misuse etc. a clear framework is looked into to understand the struggle of those affected by colonialism and the system they live under which has let them down. When addressing women, the internal reasons should be scrutinised rather than being dismissive or assuming one is permitted to throw flippant sexist comments and dismiss criticism. One would hope anyone who witnesses racist comments flying around would challenge fascist opinions, so why isn’t sexism equally challenged or attempts made to understand why sexism is so ridiculously offensive to those born in a female body. Men who understand the reasoning of white-supremacy creating self-hating ethnic minorities for being told they are inferior which results in the usage of skin bleaching creams, should equally recognise the effect on women who detach themselves from their bodies whilst conforming to be a slave to the sexual desires of men, normalising mistreatment with low expectations due to never experiencing any better. There should be more sensitivity before Black women are attacked whom internalise oppression and wear weave and blonde wigs, when this criticism of women is a direct result of white supremacy.

I refuse to allow my sisters to be afraid of standing up for themselves whilst some men huddle and jeer at the expense of women in a manner of hooliganism. I refuse to allow my sisters to loathe each other and assume we’re in competition when a man attempts to dominate and create division by treating women unequally. I refuse to allow my sisters to refer to each other as ‘sluts’ and ‘hoes’ for a man has placed these words into their vocabulary and normalised misogyny so intensely, they do not realise they have been indoctrinated. I refuse to permit my brothers to continue dehumanising women like we’ve landed from another planet for having different genitals. I stand against normalising any male ‘role model’ teaching our young men and women that it’s okay to disrespect women and from teaching only women who dress ‘modestly’ preserving their image is deserving of respect. This is also contradictory considering women who wear hijab and fully cover in Egypt, Libya and Saudi Arabia are not invincible of being victims of sexual harassment and rape. Men who support the slavery of women through sex trafficking, men who sexually abuse women (and men), men who happen to dominate the majority of domestic violence cases considering patriarchy dictates in a capitalist system where working class men are made to feel inferior and powerless when placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy, should always be challenged without women having to feel isolated or encouraged to maintain issues as taboo by brushing them under the carpet out of fear of ruining the reputation of an individual male or generalising men.

Men only have to feel intimidated by women who understand the patriarchal structure and resist patriarchy if they are in denial of their male privilege. Women addressing taboo subjects are not attempting to divide both genders but highlighting areas which shouldn’t be tolerated but tackled. The oppressor is always on edge, the paranoia of the illegal state of Israel’s ‘security’ will demonstrate that. It is heart-warming when working alongside heterosexual men, who are equally as passionate about the treatment of women and their rights.  Liberia’s women shouldn’t have had to stand alone when marching against rape and genocide, but should have been accompanied by men within the community. We cannot deny or discredit the efforts of resistance from the likes of Hermila Galindo, Vilma Espin, Harriet Tubman, Arundhati Roy, Assata Shakur, Sylvia Pankhurst, Winnie Mandela and Sampat Pal Devi. Brothers are you ready to unlearn and recognise your male privilege, recognise the oppressor within you whilst attempting to understand the struggle women face alongside every other injustice we are resisting? Are you ready to support our struggle we’ve been resisting the majority of the journey alone, for over a millennium?

 ‘No march, movement or agenda that defines manhood in the narrowest of terms and seeks to make women lesser partners in this quest for equality can be considered a positive step.’ Angela Davies

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INDIA(Bundelkhand): Gulabis “Gang For Justice” founder, Sampat Pal Devi, commander-in-chief against domestic violence. The gang pays visits to abusive husbands, demanding an end to the violence

Shareefa Panchbhaya