Archive for January, 2008

“The Greatest Silence” – DRC Documentary Wins at Sundance

January 30, 2008

LisafilmingThe Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo,” a feature-length documentary by Lisa F. Jackson, was awarded a Special Jury prize at Sundance last week. The film is unflinching in the face of the mass rape, mutilation, kidnapping and torture inflicted upon as many as hundreds of thousands of women and children in the Congo. Jackson, herself a survivor of gang rape in the US, interviews Congolese victims and rapists alike to uncover the world where such cruelty thrives.

Since 1998 an estimated 5.4 million people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a result of ongoing insurgent violence, which has displaced more than 500,000 people from their homes in the last year alone. Most deaths occur from malnutrition, untreated injury, and disease.

The ongoing violence and instability has rent the nation into enclaves of virtual lawlessness, where atrocities are committed with impunity by nearly every side, including rebel factions, Congolese soldiers, and UN aid workers stationed in DRC.

At the very end of a long line of suffering are the Congo’s women and children. After visiting the Eastern Congo, Eve Ensler described it as “hell.” Lisa Jackson describes it as “a literal heart of darkness.”

Yet, even with 5.4 million dead in less than a decade and the ongoing rape and mutilation of hundreds of thousands of women and children, there remains little global awareness about the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Hopefully this film, and the less-publicized documentary Lumo, will raise awareness and much needed funds and aid to this devastated area.

Note: On January 23, 2008 a peace signing took place between Congolese President Kabila and representatives of General Laurent Nkunda, leader of the dominant Mai-Mai faction. The lasting implications of this agreement are as yet unclear.

Further Reading:

The UN Mission in the DRC

The Panzi Hospital in Bukavu

V-Day and UNICEF report: V-DAY and UNICEF Call for an End to Rape and Sexual Torture against Women and Girls in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Friends of the Congo

The Greatest Silence Link Page

See also Blackbird Posts:

“Like Rwanda But Worse” Rape As a Weapon of War in the Congo [Part 1: History of the Conflict

Rape As a Weapon of War in the Congo [Part 2: The Savagery]

Rape As a Weapon of War in the Congo [Part 3: The Healing and What You Can Do To Help]


“The Boat Must Be Rocked” – Congresswoman Slaughter on KBR Rape Case

January 25, 2008

Congress members are finally demanding accountability for the actions of US contractors in Iraq and around the world.

Spurred by the lack of charges in the recent case of Jamie Leigh Jones, who was gang raped by fellow KBR employees while working as a contractor in Iraq, Reps Louise M. Slaughter (NY-18), Jan Schakowsky (IL-9), and Ted Poe (TX-2) have drafted letters to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The letters deliver, Slaughter says, a much needed “wake-up call” to the White House. Over 110 members of Congress have signed the letters.

In a special posting on Feministing, Slaughter writes

Yesterday, I, and over 100 of my colleagues, took a serious step to breaking the dangerous “boys will be boys” attitude that has been allowed to fester for far too long among United States government contractors in Iraq and around the world.

…it appears that the Departments of Justice, State, and Defense would prefer that the American public forget what happened to Jamie Leigh Jones.

It appears they do not want to rock the boat.

But this boat must be rocked. Because what happened to Jamie Leigh Jones was not an isolated incident.


It is increasingly apparent that there are many women working for United States government contractors that are regularly subject to sexual harassment, assault, and rape. And what is even more apparent, the perpetrators of these heinous acts are not held to account and justice is almost never served.


We will not rest until these answers meet our satisfaction and there is a guarantee that criminal offenders are punished to the letter of the law and that contractors, getting rich on massive taxpayer funded contracts, are held to account.

It must be the Bush Administration’s unequivocal position that individuals working as United States government contractors, whether at home or abroad, have the same rights to treatment, services, and proper legal recourse when they are victims of a violent crime.

The letters demand that DoD and the DoS detail their efforts to maintain the safety of Americans working for US contractors abroad.

Further Reading:

The Jamie Leigh Foundation – Jones’ non-profit is “dedicated to helping United States citizens and legal residents who are victims of crime while working abroad for government contractors and subcontractors.” Also lots of info on her case.

Jone’s testimony to a House Judiciary Committee.

(The comment board is unfortunately peppered with “well-intentioned” comments that drop phrases like “hot” and “understandable” and “asking for it.” The most surprising is the commenter who is shocked to have offended, believing to have simply offered up a compliment.)

ABC Coverage of Jones’ Case.

Take Action:

Sign a petition urging the Senate to promptly pass H.R. 2740 – The MEJA Expansion and Enforcement Act of 2007, (or the Clarification of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act.) This expands culpability to all US contractors outside US boarders and requires the FBI and Department of Justice to track and report on related criminal activity. NOTE: Bill has passed in the House, use form for Senate only.

Speak out to the Department of Defense and the State Department.

No “Right” Way To Be A Woman in Power – Barriers of Sex & Race in ’08 Election

January 8, 2008

Gloria Steinem has a brief yet interesting op-ed in the Times today about Clinton’s struggle against the gender barrier verses Obama’s against the racial barrier. She writes

I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest. The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together. […]

But what worries me is that he is seen as unifying by his race while she is seen as divisive by her sex.

What worries me is that she is accused of “playing the gender card” when citing the old boys’ club, while he is seen as unifying by citing civil rights confrontations.

What worries me is that male Iowa voters were seen as gender-free when supporting their own, while female voters were seen as biased if they did and disloyal if they didn’t.

What worries me is that reporters ignore Mr. Obama’s dependence on the old — for instance, the frequent campaign comparisons to John F. Kennedy — while not challenging the slander that her progressive policies are part of the Washington status quo. […]

This country can no longer afford to choose our leaders from a talent pool limited by sex, race, money, powerful fathers and paper degrees. It’s time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers.

The piece doesn’t explore any of these issues, but it does bring them up in a mainstream media that has so far demonstrated an awkwardness and general avoidance of the topic – as though pointing out that Clinton is being regarded differently because she’s a woman is sexist in itself.

In September, Chris Matthews asked Senator Chris Dodd if he found it difficult to debate against a woman. The feminists rolled their eyes and angrily blogged about it. I thought it was a fair question. It simply took at look at the issue from a different point of view.

Gender restrictions in our society, even the ones that deem women weaker and dictate that gentlemen don’t fight with, pick on, or bully women, effect both sexes. In this case, how do you come out swinging in the verbal slug-fest of a presidential debate, when a gentleman is taught to treat women gently, pay for dinner, and open doors? This isn’t about the reality of how women are treated, it’s about image. Image is everything to campaigners, and while aggression against another man is seen as, well…manly, the same demeanor against a woman may well label you a brute.

Whether this is insulting or sexist isn’t the point of the question. The fact that these pre-conceptions exist (and what is a political campaign if not the careful juggling, polling, and pandering to the pre-conceptions of targeted voter groups?) is reason enough to acknowledge them. The very act of not-acknowledging these differences, of perpetuating the long-standing silence surrounding issues of gender and race, is to normalize the stereotypes, to authenticate them, even.

Does gender or race have anything to do with competency in the oval office? Of course not. But when a society is ingrained with so many unfounded fears, insinuations, skewed perceptions, and unspoken assumptions, it becomes clear that many voters believe gender and race have a lot to do with it.

Yesterday hecklers interrupted Clinton’s primary-eve speech in Salem NH by chanting “Iron my shirt!” and brandishing a yellow sign printed with the witty taunt. The stunt got little media attention, although when later in the day Clinton got teary-eyed while talking about her vision for the country, critics erupted with speculation about her strength and emotional ability to lead.

Granted, an informed debate on gender stereotypes is not likely to break out on Hardball, but Matthews was one of the only mainstreamers to ask an obvious question, rather than avoiding the question so as not to offend, in the pretense that the reality that keeps the question relevant doesn’t exist.

Then again, with so much else to consider – health care, national security, choosing a new commander-in-chief – how many Americans want to hold a mirror up to their own deep-seated cultural views and/or stereotypes? Maybe blaming the media is too easy. I have enough trouble finding people who recognize racism and sexism in everyday life, let along those who want to talk about it, or worse yet, admit their own long-standing notions.

Am I being too cynical?

Self-Immolation a Growing Trend in Afghan Girls & Women

January 7, 2008

Rawaimage In Afghanistan, a growing number of women, primarily aged 10-40, attempt to flee lives of hopelessness and despair by setting themselves on fire.

It is difficult to accurately estimate the number of Afghan women and girls who attempt to kill themselves by self-immolation. Anywhere from one hundred to several hundred cases have been documented each year since 2002. A New York Times article reports that in 2004 the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission recorded 40 cases in six months in the city of Herat alone. These reported numbers are exceptionally low, however, because families often hide the incident or try to lie about the method of death.

Reported cases are almost entirely of those who survive, even briefly, and find themselves being treated in a local burn unit. Yet even these women often attempt to lie about their wounds, insisting the incident was accidental. The staff at the burn unit in Herat’s Regional Medical Center have learned to discern the truth. Fuel-soaked clothing and little evidence of an attempt to stifle flames strongly point to self-infliction. Dr. Ghafar Bawar, a plastic surgeon who consults at the unit, explains

“When an accident happens, they try to stop it. In self-inflicted burns, a high percentage of the body surface area is affected. When it is more than 40 per cent of body surface area burnt . . . it’s usually self-inflicted.”

For many western readers, it’s hard to understand what would drive these women, many of them teens, to commit such a desperate and agonizing act. It’s important to recognize Afghanistan’s deep-seated culture of female oppression and the utter lack of options perceived by most women.

Many Afghan women, especially in rural villages, live in a state of near slavery. They are kept uneducated and have little or no control over the most basic aspects of their lives.

Forced into marriage as a young teen, (the youngest reported case of self-immolation was a nine year old child), to a man possibly decades older, an Afghan girl must obey not only her new husband but any of his male or female relatives. She endures daily beatings and other, often sexual, abuses. She cannot read or write and has been prohibited from learning a valuable skill or trade. All she knows of the world is what she has been told, and what she is told cultivates hopelessness, humiliation, and the constant threat of violence. Even her own voice is useless to her. If she speaks out she earns only ridicule or further punishment.

Where can she turn? A few girls are lucky enough to learn of a shelter for abused women and child brides, though even fewer are able to escape. Illiterate and isolated, most women have no idea that any escape is possible. In their minds, they have nothing.

No courts, no police, no divorce, no justice, no escape.

When the Taliban were toppled and Hamid Karzai took power at the end of 2001, it seemed Afghan women would enjoy a life of more freedom and stability. Unfortunately, many women live under nearly the same oppression, humiliation, and violence that they suffered under the Taliban.

Let’s take a closer look at the reality of life for most Afghan women, shaped drastically by recent Taliban rule and related gender beliefs which, for too many, still linger.

Life Under the Taliban

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan, through continued insurgency and civil war, from 1996 until nearly 2002.

Under Taliban rule, Afghan women were oppressed in literally every aspect of their lives. In what has been referred to as gender apartheid, women were placed under house arrest, denied the ability to work or gain an education, and required to shield themselves from all males except very close relatives. The windows of her home were painted black, lest an innocently passing male catch a forbidden glimpse, and she could not leave her home at all unless escorted by a close male relative and sheathed in full burqa. When outside the home, she was careful to both speak and step softly, lest her presence be seductively audible to strange males.

Any woman who had lost all male relatives in the years of ongoing conflict was literally trapped in her home.

Unable to seek medical treatment from doctors who, under Taliban rule, were necessarily all male, women frequently died of treatable ailments.

Anyone caught defying the new laws risked public beating and execution. Speaking too loudly or or inadvertently flashing an ankle or wrist earned a woman a public lashing. Women caught unattended outside their homes, assumed to be attempting to flee, were often stoned to death. Women in the presence of a non-related male were charged with adultery and hanged.


In 2002, when the Taliban lost control of Afghanistan’s central government, the lives of many Afghan women brightened. For the most part, educated, urban women returned to work or school and as their country worked to rebuild itself, they strove to reclaim their lives.

Unfortunately, Afghan women in poor, rural areas, continue to live under the same oppression and abuse as before. While Taliban law is no longer in effect, many rural areas are governed by tribal law, which remains uninfluenced by the Afghan government. In many territories, warlords rule with impunity and throughout the nation societal norms give males full dominance over women, who are treated with violence and contempt on a daily basis.

Three women initially held positions in President Kazai’s cabinet, however all have since been replaced by males, including the Minister of Women’s Affairs. A 2006 article in the Christian Science Monitor explains

Women’s inclusion in Afghanistan’s government, which the international community has been using as an indicator of democratic progress, is actually regressing. The interim Supreme Court has consistently sided with conservatives […] It has issued bans on women singing on television… and upheld the marriage of a 9-year-old girl, even though Afghan law sets marriageable age at 16.

Afghan women are repeatedly denied equal access to legal representation and due process. Nearly 80 percent of the women in prison have been convicted of zina, engaging in sexual activity outside marriage. But the majority of those convicted were simply trying to escape domestic abuse and seek refuge outside their oppressive households.

The reality of life for many rural Afghan women is one of utter helplessness. Once forced into marriage, an Afghan female loses the ability to determine what she does, or where she goes, in some cases ever. Daily beatings are common, as are psychological humiliation and degradation. Rape perpetrated by a husband is not considered abnormal, let alone a crime.

Afghanistan’s groundbreaking 2004 presidential election was a passing irrelevance for most Afghan women. According to a 2007 UNIFEM fact sheet,

  • 87% of Afghans believed that a woman needed a male relatives authorization to vote.
  • 35% of women believed they would not have permission to vote.
  • 18% of men admitted they would not allow they wives to vote.


  • 70-80% of Afghan women face forced marriages
  • 57% of Afghan girls are married before the legal marriage age of sixteen.

Why Fire?See Stephanie Sinclair's Amazing Photo Essay at 50Crows

Although self-immolation seems to be one of the most abhorrent choices for suicide, it is, for many, the only choice. Although some find access to poisons, most have no way of going outside the home for any needed materials. Other available options, such as wrist cutting or hanging, are not fool-proof enough for their intentions. Fire, they believe, is absolute.

Medica Modiale, an organization dedicated to aiding women in war zones and areas of crisis, conducted the first report on self-immolation in Afghan women. They found:

Self-immolation as a method of committing suicide is so frequent because women feel they have no alternative. They can never leave the house and have no access to medicaments. However, there is flammable material in contrast in every kitchen.

Medica Modiale’s Nabila Wafiq told the Washington Post

“When we asked most people why they committed self-immolation, they said that when they take pills, they don’t die, but when they commit self-immolation they believe they will die, 100 percent.”

Additionally, women are drawn to fire by the opportunity for retribution it presents. An overwhelming atmosphere of shame and dishonor surround the families of those who choose to who self-immolate. This actually contributes to the death-rate of these suicide attempts, as most women die because they are not immediately taken to the hospital, or not taken at all.

The fact that it is difficult to lie about the method of death, often leaves abusive families with an intended stigma. Unfortunately, this motive backfires on a woman who survives. The shame of her act often means total isolation and neglect.

Wafiq also asserts that the trend is growing, in part, because of news reports of suicide by self-immolation, which fail to mention the tortured survivors of the act, or those who take agonizing days to finally die.

Journalist Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, speaking to RAWA (The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) about “Lifting the Veil”, her documentary on the experiences of Afghan women, explains

There are many ways to die – you can take poison or jump in a river. But I think that if those women had died in that way, it would have been easy for the men of the family to cover it up, saying she had a heart attack, or she fell down or something.

But if you pour kerosene on yourself and you light a match, you’re making a statement. You’re saying look at me, I am in pain, I am in misery, I am not going to die quietly, I am making a point.

In Their Words…

17-year old Fazela:

“My name is Fazela. On that particular day when I burned myself, my husband — who is also my cousin — had a fight with me,” she recalls. “He beat me. And after I was beaten, I poured kerosene over myself. Then I lit myself on fire. Before this, I really wanted to leave this house. But he took my burqa and did not let me go outside of the house. Now I really regret that I burned myself.”

Radio Free Europe RadioLiberty

16-year old survivor describes the moments leading up to her self-immolation

“When he did not have access to heroin and narcotics, he tortured me. After midnight he would hit me. That night he hit me and hit my head. Blood was coming from my nose. I asked him why he was doing it and he hit me even more.”

— BBC News 11/15/06

How You Can Help

Donate to the Afghan Women’s Mission and you can specify how you want your dollars spent – general fund, education, awareness, etc… They also have pledge program, volunteer info, and more…

The Feminist Majority Foundation runs a campaign entitled Help Afghan Women. They make it quick and easy to petition the US government, spread the word to friends and colleagues, join an action team, and of course, donate.

RAWA has a range of specific donation needs – used digital cameras, school supplies, medical supplies. They also have all sorts of other ideas of how you can help – from translating articles to arranging photo exhibits. Of course you can always write awareness letters or just send some cash! Check it out.