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Benjamin, Saranel (2004) Pushing Boundaries? Separating the women from the women. Centre for Civil Society : -.

As I sit here to write this piece, terrible things are happening around us : Israel is putting up an apartheid wall around Palestinian settlements (and the world watches on unspeaking); fifteen schoolchildren are hospitalised because of a poisonous gas leak emitted by ENGEN, a muli-national corporation situated in the heart of a poor township South of Durban; thousands of HIV positive people are still waiting with desperate hope for the government’s promised anti-retroviral roll-out; politicians are crossing the floor changing political parties as often as they change their underwear (and without changing their ideological stance); activists in Mandela Park are being persecuted by the state for simply demanding the right to shelter and Iraq and Afghanistan are countries ravaged by the forced invasions of the United States and its allied forces (the only beneficiaries are American owned oil and construction companies). A year after one of the most insolent wars to be waged in modern times we find ourselves agreeing with Arundhati Roy’s statement that we must still consider ourselves at war – a relentless war for basic freedoms and rights against the monsters hidden inside New York skyscrapers.

Last year, round about the time of the forced invasions, Arundhati assured us that “we be many and they be few”. She was referring to the global anti-war movement that shook the world for months last year. Despite the fact that millions of people marched against the war on Iraq, the US still invaded another sovereign state heralding not just a new form of Imperialism but also an old form of colonialism that muffled out the sounds of angry people chanting “ONE TWO THREE FOUR! WE DON’T WANT NO FUCKING WAR!”. Every continent on the map chanted out these anti-war slogans against the world’s most arrogant and bastardised state : The United States of America.

On the 21 March 2003, I watched the world stage change forever. As George Bush ordered the first bombs to be dropped on the people of Iraq, hundreds of women and men and children marched through Durban. A million marched through the streets of London. Brave Americans marched against their government at a time when they themselves were facing serious repression. What amazing people emerged from the bowels of humanity. It was these mass actions across the globe that showed us that we were human, not barbaric, not in need of saving by a man who assumes he is the Saviour of the 21st Century. We all knew that boundaries had been breached. A war had been declared. On another nation. On sacred divisions. On Empire.

The Emperor of course thinks he is the saviour of the modern world. He wants to free the people of Iraq, especially the women, from the horrors of Sadam Hussein. Don’t get me wrong, Sadam is as bad as Bush himself, and the world, in my opinion, needs saving from both these men. But I have a problem with patriarchs like Bush. Its toxic fathers like him that leave us all in therapy sessions for life (or we become mass murderers). Bush has held up human rights and women’s rights to freedom like an immunity symbol to cover up the atrocities that have been going on under his velvet cloak of democracy. For years women in every country the US has forcefully invaded, interfered with, every place that they have used nuclear bombs, uranium depletion, have had to suffer inexorably : from rape, birth defects to infertility, death. Loss of identity, family, language, life. Women as victims of war have been hidden in the dark recesses of Madeline Albright’s “collateral damage”. And now women make way again for the big multinational corporations who come with big Uncle Sam smiles promising to save the uncivilised by forcing them into cheap, unworthy jobs to make Levis, Nike, McDonalds, Coke, things they will never be able to afford to buy. Neo-Imperialism has an old face, new objectives and the same old, same old victims. So much at stake. So much to lose.

So for me the most striking feature of the anti-war demonstrations that took place in Durban was turning the corner into Commercial Road and looking over my shoulder to gaze mesmerized at this sea of women in black purdah and orange security jackets marshalling a separated group of muslim women through the streets of Durban. They were on their way to lay siege to the US Consulate’s offices. Just behind them, an ocean of men, women and children in all colours, clothes and convictions marched in a desperate attempt to free themselves of the shadow, shackles, vampirism of Bush’s imperial war. And I wondered who were we fighting here… was it Emperor Patriarch Bush, Imperialism, conservative strands of Islam, the Mullahs, all of them?

The very fact that Iraq, a predominantly Muslim nation, was being invaded by a country who had demonised Islamic people and their nations and caricatured them as the modern day terrorist out to steal the American Democracy, made the nature of these demonstrations contentious. An aerial view of the demonstrations would have shown a consolidated body of people marching for justice, against imperialism. But a peep through the keyholes would have revealed a “them” and “us”, the former being those who believed that this was purely a march for the preservation of Islam and its nations; the latter being those who thought the view myopic believing that the portrayal of a world at war was more embracing and realistic. What was stopping Emperor Patriarch Bush from invading North Korea tomorrow or Cuba the next or as we speak, Haiti? The fact that we are still having to fight for the right to breathe clean air, the right to have water, light, warmth, shelter, medical treatment, the right to move and settle where we want, the right to land, are all indicators that we are nations under threat from imperialists like George Bush, Tony Blair and the rest. So much is and was at stake…

So there we were on a sunny Saturday morning, waiting for the march to start. Sitting on the grass we watched dancers perform, organisations read out their views on the war, people formed peace signs on the grass and a man in chains walked in an endless pattern on the stage. A homeless person lay on the grass scrutinising a map of Durban. He asked one of the marchers for money to buy some bread. He got turned down. He went on a verbal rampage about the University up on the hill and how it excludes people with no money. He was chased away. People filled the park outside the Workshop. They came from everywhere : Mpumalanga, Bayview, Wentworth, Sydenham, Umlazi. They came to protest against a world at war. Their banners read “NO EVICTIONS!”; “NO DISCONNECTIONS!”; “GO HOME, US IMPERIALISTS!”; “BOMBING FOR PEACE IS LIKE FUCKING FOR VIRGINITY!”. Rows of Muslim men (only) held banners for Islam and walked in columns around the park. The women stood on one side of the park. As the march was about to start, one of the Mullahs read out instructions for the march. One of the instructions included that muslim women had to march separately. Amidst the bellowing of the crowd that consisted of women who were not of Islamic faith, the Mullah corrected himself : muslim women could choose if they wanted to march separately. Despite the moderation of his instruction, muslim women marched separately under the watchful eyes of several high ranking Mullahs. What did we win here?

And those of us who marched with faces turned up to the sun, feeling its warm embrace on our skins, we didn’t go untouched either. Squashed in by Muslim male marshals we were shouted at to go march with the women. Don’t overstep your boundaries. Be disciplined. Anger mounted until eventually “FUCK YOU!” was hurled back. Didn’t they know what was at stake here? Couldn’t they see that as we marched separately, together, we were a people at war. Women separated from women. Women being siphoned off to the margins. Mullahs, Bush, Sadam, Male Marshals all on one side. What were we fighting here?

Outside the consulate, someone whispered in my ear : at least there’s a woman on the platform to speak. As the woman speaker got up to speak, she roughly pulled her scarf up around her head. She said nothing of the women. She spoke about the men : Bush et al. Should I be grateful that someone with breasts got up to speak. No. I will not be grateful. I will never be grateful. Should I be grateful for the fact that Mullahs allowed the women to attend workshops on the issues of the war (and had to sit separated from their husbands, brothers, fathers, boyfriends”? No. Neither I nor any other women there will be grateful.

Did we achieve anything there? We got women on the street to march, to be activists for the day. Did we change anything? I don’t think so. Muslim women will march separately from their sisters. They will sit separately from their male families. We have been squashed into a hole again. Into a box with a crude drawing of a woman on the outside, marked with the words :TAKE TO THE FRINGES. And we dare to take on George Bush whilst muslim women scream “VIVA SADAM”. We are crushed as a movement of women. Hopefully, we can feel good that we tried to change something out there. Some can be happy they were activists for a day.

Whatever the contradictions, whatever the schisms, chasm in our struggle, one thing is for certain : nothing is pure. Nothing is romantic. Nothing is worth receding into the background of obscurity. Everything is worth fighting for. Everything is worth pulling down barriers for. Everything is worth pushing boundaries for. Removing wire fences.

Orginally published in Agenda Volume 59: Women in War.

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