We Don’t Listen to Arabs (But We Should)

“Instead of approaching problems with humility, we approach them with hubris”, began Dr. James “Jim” Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute. When it comes to the Arab world, Zogby proclaimed, the hubris characteristic of American foreign policy and subsequent ‘humanitarian’ intervention blinds us to the goals and fears of the Middle East / North Africa (MENA) region. Zogby’s prescription for hubris is simple: “Listening”.

Dr. James Zogby addresses the UAB and Birmingham community.
Dr. James Zogby. Source: Nicholas Sherwood

Dr. James Zogby addressed the UAB and Birmingham community on Tuesday, November 14th at UAB’s Alumni House. His lecture, titled “What We Don’t Know (But Need to Know) About the Arab World Today”, drew on his personal and professional experiences in diverse capacities in the US and in the Arab worlds alike. Notable roles Zogby has played include: political researcher / pollster in the MENA region, collegiate instructor of social research and public policy, professional advocate for human rights for Arabs, advisor for multiple US presidential candidates, and a member on the US Council on Foreign Relations. Beyond his professional accomplishments, Zogby is also the son of an immigrant from Lebanon. His ties to the Arab world are professional, personal, and deeply profound.

Zogby’s theme throughout his address was the pressing need to see the Arab world not as an abstract concept but as an area of the world that represents people with their own culture, political ideas, religious beliefs, and social and economic concerns. Americans must understand the Arab world is comprised of people sharing universal human concerns: worries related to their employment, their children’s future, and healthcare. By imagining the Arab world as a world separate from our own, we dehumanize Arabs and detach them from the shared human experience. This dehumanization can and does have grave consequences.

The War in Iraq, according to Zogby was a colossal mistake that “made enemies out of people that could otherwise be our friends – because we don’t understand Arabs”. An example, says Zogby, is the Bush’s Administration’s claim the US would be ‘greeted as liberators’.  Zogby’s extensive polling in the MENA region asked Arabs what they felt about the invasion and how these feelings impacted their view of America. Many Arabs he polled viewed the foreign troops as occupiers, not liberators, and thus Arab support for US foreign policies (not just concerning the MENA region) plummeted. However, Zogby qualified, this resentment towards U.S. policy must not be conflated with a resentment towards American ideals. Ideals such as democracy, freedom, and equality are supported by Arabs. It is the execution and implementation of these ideals, Zogby stated in his address, that forced the wedge between the US and the Arab world. This wedge exists today. And the distance it created is widening still.

Without sincerely listening to the stories of another, we risk of imposing our own beliefs and goals on the other. That’s why Zogby prescribes listening to and studying the Arab world as the first step to overcoming the gap between the Arab and the Western world. How do we do this? Zogby detailed an old habit of his, whenever he travels abroad. The first thing he does when arriving in a new locale is to buy up several local newspapers to read during his stay. The big stories, the international and national topics, Zogby says, anyone can learn about in the big-name newspapers and publications, even in publications abroad. But what of the smaller stories? The local and personal experiences tangibly impacting the lives of locals in their respective communities? These are the stories that reflect what’s actually on people’s minds in their day-to-day lived. It’s these small stories, Zogby explains, that help us understand the subjective, though in many ways universal, experiences of people we would otherwise have no access to. After buying and reading the local newspapers, Zogby talks with the people he meets on his journeys. Taking the time to immerse yourself in the minutiae of a new community, not just abstract geopolitical conflicts, offers insight and builds empathy. Without cultural empathy and the understanding that follows, Americans (or any people for that matter) cannot hope to speak or act on behalf any other people – including Arabs.

Dr. James Zogby with members of the the Insitute for Human Rights and Birmingham Islamic Society.
Zogby, the IHR, and members of the Birmingham Islamic Society. Source: Tyler Goodwin.

Another barrier to understanding Arabs, Zogby posits, is American culture. Some aspects of American culture perpetuate damaging stereotypes concerning Arabs and correlate the whole of the Arab world with ignorance, violence, and anti-Western ideals. This abject dismissal of Arab culture as worthy of understanding in its own right begins with the American public education system and is reinforced through the media and political apparatuses the American public later consumes as adults. Zogby recalls his American grade school social studies classes as a child, remembering the brief entry on Arab history and culture in relation to the rest of the world. This entry summarized Arab culture as a Sheik sitting on a camel in front of the pyramids. This has particular emotional salience for him; again, Zogby is the son of Lebanese immigrants. The Arab entry, he recalled, lacked any mention of the history-altering contributions offered by the Arab people; these include the Arabic language, scientific discoveries, Islam, and architecture.

The American education system imprints foundational appraisals of other cultures onto American children; the erasure of the Arab world and its historical significance only serves to minimize the experiences of Arabs to American children. In Zogby’s case, as is the case for millions of other American children, Arab dehumanization is done to Arab American children about their own culture and heritage. Another factor impacting the dehumanization of Arabs is the prevalence of the American media industry to hyper-focus on political and religious violence of the MENA region without mention of the prosocial peacemaking attempts undertaken by many Muslim organizations and Arab governments. “Terrorists make the news”, Zogby claims, “Arab doctors don’t. We look for what’s shocking. The vast majority of Arabs who live in peace simply aren’t shocking, and they certainly aren’t good for ratings.” This mischaracterization is further emboldened by the American political system. A shocking anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias permeates many American politicians and their policy agendas. This bias, if unchecked, will further demonize not only Arabs within the Arab world but also Americans descended from Arab cultures as well. This cultural bias against Arabs affects not only Americans living within the system, but also Arabs living without the system. Anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigration American policies and norms are used to inspire Arabs (and other global citizens) to unfairly characterize the US as well. Willful ignorance of the lives of Arabs threatens not only American ideals of freedom and equality, but it also threatens US national security. It is America’s moral obligation to herself and her global neighbors to reverse course and listen to Arab voices. By listening, we hear their stories, their needs, and their fears. By listening, arbitrary and damaging cultural boundaries are rendered meaningless.

Zogby’s life’s work is defined by his role as a boundary-crosser. Although a practicing Catholic, Zogby holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from Temple University. The son of Lebanese immigrants, Zogby dove early and deeply into the world of American politics. His professional and personal identities reject the notion of boundaries. This seems to be Zogby’s mantra and fundamental guidance for his work – to overcome the boundaries dividing humanity and to take a deep look at ourselves and how we approach intercultural communication and bridge-building. Zogby has certainly listened to the Arab world. America must follow suit.

The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election Event Recap

Photo of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in front of American flag
Trump vs. Clinton. Source: Galya Gubchenko. Creative Commons.

On Thursday, November 9, one year after the 2016 presidential election, the UAB Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored the event, “The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election,” at the Edge of Chaos located in UAB’s Lister Hill Library. Other sponsors of the event were UAB’s Department of Government and the Edge of Chaos.

The event featured special guest, Dr. Rachel Bitecofer, the Assistant Director of the Wason Center for Public Policy, a professor at Christopher Newport University, and an academic pollster. The event was on her new book, which has the same title: The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election.

Large amounts of data are presented in Bitecofer’s book. She states it “brings an empirical, political science approach that answers the question of why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election, and it focuses on the strategical elements that campaigns are going through because the public is not really aware of what they see in campaign politics.”

 

Dr. Rachel Bitecofer standing in the Edge of Chaos at UAB
Dr. Rachel Bitecofer kicking off her lecture. Source: Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter

Bitecofer began by announcing that her approach to looking at the election results is holistic and systematic, and argues that the entire campaign was framed by an electoral strategy, meaning that there were two problems the candidates faced: reaching out to moderates and independents to vote one way rather than the other and then to get the partisan voters to show up. “If they show up, they’re a guaranteed voted,” Bitecofer said, “but that is a big if.”

The lecture was broken down into chapters. The first was titled: “Pitchforks and Torches.” This was when Bitecofer “put the 2016 election into context,” and looked at the patterns that put Donald Trump in the White House. She examined patriarchal behaviors that were prevalent in the 1950s and 60s that still persist today. She examined the effect of the media’s influence and how the US entered an era of polarization; the media has opened “partisan vacuums,” which are areas where it is possible to only get news from a partisan source like Breitbart or HuffPost.

In the next chapter of the lecture, “Making of the Media Event,” Bitecofer showed how Trump dominated the media until snagging the GOP nomination. Bitecofer’s research was presented with graphs that showed how Trump’s popularity in the news peaked when he did things like “picking a fight with the Pope on Twitter,” or “saying he wanted to ban all Muslims from the country.” Bitecofer then showed that even while Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were battling it out for the Democrat Nomination, the news continued to focus more on Donald Trump. She said that this came from Donald Trump’s knowledge of “how to capitalize on both his celebrity and the media’s thirst for scandal.” The Trump campaign ran a base-centered campaign. They appealed to the base voters, a voter who votes for the party rather than the candidate, rather than the establishment.

Bitecofer debunked the myth that “if the Clinton campaign had done ‘x, y, or z’ they would have been more successful,” by saying that, using the metrics one usually does to measure campaign success, they ran an almost perfect campaign. The Clinton campaigned out-fundraised the Trump campaign and the Clinton campaigned got the SuperPACs, which is unusual for a Democrat’s campaign. Despite the almost perfect campaign, there were mistakes. The Clinton campaign made the mistake of hiding the fact that Hillary had pneumonia, and during the debate when she was sick, she made the claim about “deplorables.” Bitecofer said this was a mistake as Clinton has always had so much control over her emotions and demeanor that this came as a shock to many people because “she let that control down.”

Continuing the observation of the media, Bitecofer presented the evidence of news sources’ endorsements of Hillary Clinton. All but two major news sources endorsed Clinton, which was unlike any election in history. Usually, according to Bitecofer, there are sources that only endorse Democrats, and some that only endorse Republicans. Some who never endorsed a Democrat before endorsed Clinton. Not only was this strange but, “not even sitting Republicans endorsed Donald Trump until after the Iowa caucus. No one in the party wanted him,” Bitecofer asserted.

Third-party voting, referred to as “defecting” in presidential elections, was a large issue in this election; defection rates were higher than any in modern history – higher than the 2000 elections. “In Wisconsin, for example, a state that Clinton lost by 1%, the defection rate for third party candidates is normally about 1.5%. [It was] 6.32% in 2016,” Bitecofer found. “The problem is that all of the defectors who wrote in Bernie Sanders’ name or voted for Jill Stein because they just could not bear to vote for Hillary Clinton, cost her the election. I am not saying it is their fault, but I am saying that the campaign that they ran did nothing to prevent it.” She also found that defection only mattered in Hillary versus Bernie. There was almost no defection from Republicans to a third-party candidate. “Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.”

Bitecofer then told of an experiment that she conducted. She went to the adamant Bernie supporters and asked, “What if instead of Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton brought on Elizabeth Warren as her Vice President candidate? Would you have voted for her then?” This tactic suggested Hillary empowered the more progressive Democrats and attempted to bring in those who were in the #BernieorBust movement. About half of them said it would have made them more likely to vote for Clinton. From this experiment, Bitecofer concluded that had the Clinton campaign ran a base-focused campaign like the Republicans had, “we would likely have the first female president sitting in office now.”

Ultimately, it was concluded that “Clinton ran the perfect strategy for the wrong electoral campaign in an extremely polarized era. In such an era, it is all about firing up your base; you better give them candidates that get them ‘up’!”

The UAB Institute for Human Rights is proud to have such knowledgeable lecturers for our events and programs. For a list of our upcoming events, please visit our events page.

Partnership & Peace: Riane Eisler Visits UAB

Disclosure: The author is currently enrolled in Professor Eisler’s UAB course, “Cultural Transformation Theory” through the Department of Anthropology. Some statements in this post result from class session discussions and personal interactions between Professor Eisler and Nicholas Sherwood.

Riane Eisler signs "The Power of Partnership". Source: Nicholas Sherwood

Riane Eisler is a peacemaker. She is an attorney. A researcher. A mother. A grandmother. She is also a Holocaust survivor. On October 26th 2017, UAB’s Department of Anthropology and Institute for Human Rights hosted Eisler to deliver a keynote address to the annual Peace and Justice Studies Association conference held in Birmingham, Alabama. Eisler’s address to the UAB, PJSA, and Birmingham communities served as a call-to-arms for the audience members to embrace a complex and nuanced understanding of peace-through-partnership. Eisler posited the normative value of peace can only be internalized and implemented once a systemic understanding of peace has been embraced by intellectuals, activists, and advocates alike.

Eisler’s analytic framework is housed within the intellectual school of systems theory. In her case, a systemic approach to culture makes room for the total sum of human interactions, from the micro intrapersonal level, the intermediary levels, to the the macro transnational level. This interdisciplinary approach encourages integrative research from many fields of study to understand cultures themselves and how to transform cultures of domination towards cultures of partnership. To study partnership and dominator societies, Eisler and other researchers affiliated with the Center for Partnership Studies (CPS) utilize a vast array of academic disciplines, including biology, functional neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, and political science. Eisler’s most prolific work, The Chalice and the Blade, marked the beginning of her scholarly oeuvre, and first introduced Cultural Transformation Theory (CTT) to the world-at-large.  The central concept of CTT is the “partnership-domination” continuum, whereby any given culture may be ranked according to specific identifying markers: family / childhood relations, gender relations, economic relations, and cultural narratives / language. A culture’s placement is influenced many factors. However, a fundamental differential between these two absolute points is the relative equality (or lack thereof) of both primordial halves of humanity: male and female.

Cultures with gender inequality lean towards a domination orientation, whereas cultures with gender egalitarian values lean more towards a partnership orientation.  Furthermore, dominator societies are also marked by authoritarian ranking in all social relations (from the family level to the international level) and a high degree of accepted abuse and violence (again, from the familial to the international levels; Eisler, 1987). By contrast, partnership societies are noticeable by gender equality, egalitarian and democratic relations (from the family to the national level), and a low degree of built-in violence (Eisler, 1987). To orient a culture towards partnership and peace, four cornerstones of society must be addressed: 1) family / childhood relations, 2) gender relations, 3) economic relations, and 4) narratives / language (Eisler, 2017). Observing how a culture embodies these cornerstones offers the culture’s placement on the “partnership-domination” continuum, and any attempt to transform a cultures towards partnership must simultaneously attend to these four markers of a society’s norms and values.

Riane Eisler delivers the keynote address to PJSA 2017. Source: Nicholas Sherwood

First, family and childhood relations. Eisler’s book The Power of Partnership (Eisler, 2002), explores key relationships in every person’s life and how these relationships fundamentally orient an individual towards patterns of behavior aligning with partnership- or domination-based behaviors. For any individual, family and childhood relations set the template for relationships for the rest of her or his life. As children grow, they consciously and unconsciously adopt the behaviors they learn from their parents and family members. Values held by a family, such as embracing diversity or quashing the questioning of authority figures, can and do impact the socialization of a child.

Partnership societies typically socialize children to be empathic of others, tolerant of diversity, and explore the world with curiosity instead of fear (Rando, 2010). By contrast, dominator societies instill in children an unquestioning loyalty towards authority figures (typically the patriarch of the family), suspicion of Otherness, and a generalized fear of acting dis-concordantly with the norms of society. To create peace from the bottom-up, families must socialize their children to understand diversity is a ‘given’ of the human condition, empathy is a powerful tool to be used for good, and respect for authority may also mean resisting abusive or unfair treatment.

Eisler’s second cornerstone, gender relations, explores how cultures treat the fundamental difference between two halves of humanity: male and female. In dominator societies, conventionally feminine traits (such as caring and nurturing) relegated as being ‘lesser to’ conventionally masculine traits (such as aggression and violence; Eisler, 1987). Partnership societies tend to view genders as equal in right and measure (Eisler, 1987). This question of gender equality, according to Eisler, is critical to understanding how society views Otherness. Gender identity and expression are among the first identifiers a person assesses when meeting someone else, and how a society ranks (or chooses not to rank) this difference is critical to understanding conflict and peace within culture. Why do some cultures actively repress one gender in favor of another? Are rigid stereotypes socialized and expected in men and women? And what does this gendered system of ranking mean for other kinds of relationships? Eisler believes peace is impossible without taking a critical look at gender disparity across all cultures and societies.

The Real Wealth of Nations (Eisler, 2007) explores Eisler’s third cornerstone, economic relations. For a culture to move towards or sustain a partnership orientation, their economic system (whether socialist, capitalist, etc.) must promote caring policies that reward consumers and producers alike to engage in industries that promote our innate human capacities, such as creativity, care-giving, and sustainable development (Eisler, 2007). Economic systems featuring rampant inequality between classes, the devaluation of caring work (such as caring for the elderly, traditional “house work”, and the empowerment of marginalized populations), and mechanisms of suppression are dominator-based.

Caring economics, a partnership approach, features the reward of caring work not only by capital, but also policies such as: paid maternity / paternity leave, universal healthcare, educational standards, and just treatment of employees in any job sector. The benefits of moving towards a caring economic system are mighty, including: gender equality in public and private sectors, reports of higher life satisfaction, higher profit margins for for-profit companies, higher customer satisfaction, and higher GDP; Eisler uses the successes of Scandanavian countries to support her economic hypothesis (Eisler, 2007). Companies that have adopted a partnership-orientation in their business model include: First Tennessee National Corporation, New Age Transportation, Johnson & Johnson, and Berrett-Koehler (Eisler, 2007).

Finally, with respect to the partnership-domination continuum, the particular narratives of a culture offers insight into the normative ideals enshrined in a society. Myths such as the “Original Sin”, a narrative common to many religions, espouse a dark view of human nature that features an underlying belief in a fatal flaw (or flaws) inherent to all members of humanity. Idioms such as “survival of the fittest” imply the human condition is typically competitive and warlike. These two examples belong to the domination paradigm of culture. Rewriting cultural narratives that sanctify norms such as love, acceptance, and mutual aid would reorient a society towards partnership. Anthropologists have long attempted to glean lessons from the myths and symbols found in societies; these same lessons can and should be applied in a modern context. Repeated stories become narratives. These narratives can become myths. While no myth deserves to be destroyed, as cultural erasure is a gross human rights violation, a reframing and re-contextualizing of dominator myths will serve to move a society towards peace.

An Eislerian peace process entails a cultural shift towards partnership values, with emphasis on four cornerstones of society: family / childhood relations, gender relations, economic relations, and narratives / language. Her systemic approach to peace promotion covers broad swaths of the human condition, and requires a working-through at all levels of society, from the macro, to the micro, and between. Eisler’s insights provide a new and necessary approach to peace promotion: peace is systemic.

Peace requires a conceptual breadth that transcends typical disciplinary lanes. Finally, to orient a society towards peaceful partnership will require a reconfiguration of the most basic elements of a society, from interpersonal relations to the global political system. Given our human potentials for domination and partnership alike, the choice to create and sustain peace is firmly ours to make.

References

Eisler, R. (1987). The Chalice and the Blade. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Eisler, R. (2002). The Power of Partnership. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Eisler, R. (2007). The Real Wealth of Nations. San Fransisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Eisler, R. (2017). Building a caring democracy: Four cornerstones for an integrated progressive agenda. Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies, 4(1).

Rando, L. M. (2010). Caring & Connected Parenting. Pacific Grove, CA: The Center for Partnership Studies.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the United States

A mural of diverse faces on the gateway into Chamizal National Memorial
National Park Gateway: Chamizal National Memorial. Source: National Park Service, Creative Commons

Every four years, the US Department of the Interior releases a strategic plan highlighting their mission and future goals to best serve the American people. As the current plan spanning the 2014-2018 cycle is now drawing to a close, the updated 2018-2022 strategic plan has been created, but was leaked early online. Outside Magazine drilled deep into its content, and on November 2nd published an article addressing the fact that while there were significant changes in terms of National Park fees and regulations, “few took notice that the new administration has deleted the entire diversity, equity, and inclusion mandate from its plan.”

Political discussions about the outdoors usually focuses on the health of the environment or land usage rights, but a movement has been growing to confront what has been described as “The Adventure Gap“, or the underrepresentation of people of color in outdoor spaces. Grassroots efforts have been established to try and address this, such as the organization GirlTrek to get black women outside and walking to increase the health of their communities, but with many state and national parks being located outside of a city’s public transportation network and the entrance prices for popular parks being on the rise, the government for the last several years has been developing ways to extend access to those who would not have had the opportunity to participate in the park system through programs like Every Kid in A Park, an initiative that offers free admission to all fourth grade students across the country. Yet by excluding the mandate on diversity, “the inclusion of individuals representing more than one national origin, color, religion, socioeconomic stratum, sexual orientation”, equity, “freedom from bias or favoritism”, and inclusion, “the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure”, it is unlikely that initiatives to promote participation by minority groups within America’s public lands will be supported.

This is the latest in a string of decisions in which previous protections, mandates, and initiatives concerning diversity have been deconstructed or removed under the current administration. For example, in January following the inauguration of President Trump the new whitehouse.gov website was found to not only have dropped the page on climate change but to have also discarded the Obama-era page affirming the executive branch’s commitment to supporting the LGBTQ community. This was followed in October by an announcement from the Justice Department that protections from discrimination in the workplace under Title VII (“prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin”) would no longer apply to transgender workers. An easy argument to latch onto is that it is not the government’s place to be forced to affirm the identify of various groups, but after the January ban on refugees, the July ban on transgender military service personnel, and the September announcement of the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, it is no longer assumed that the government will issue protections for those who have been historically marginalized. However, the United States has wrestled with similar moral and legal debates over the last 200 years, and as preached by 19th century minister Theodore Parker and echoed later by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Since the establishment of the United States, there has a been constant tension concerning who is allowed to claim certain rights. In 1868, a first step of progress was made by introducing the 14th Amendment into the constitution, granting US citizenship to former slaves and declaring that all people are to be seen as equal under the law. At the time this amendment was a revolutionary statement, and throughout the country’s history this amendment has been the foundation for many of the most well-known civil rights cases the United States’ court system has ever seen.

Ninety years after the 14th Amendment had been ratified, challenges on the nature of equality were still being debated and put to the test as measures such as Jim Crow laws were enacted. Separation between blacks and whites was enforced in many public spaces, and education, marriage, and healthcare for the black community were all impacted negatively as a result. Yet in 1954, these policies were brought to court under the title of Brown vs Board of Education. Through the success of the plaintiff’s argument, schools across the country would soon be desegregated over the following years.

A display board from the Rosa Parks Collection Library of Congress about Equal Employment Opportunity
Equal Employment Opportunity – Title VII. Source: Ted Eytan, Creative Commons

Moving into the Civil Rights period of the 1960’s, the next phase of striving towards diversity, equity, and inclusion was the implementation of Affirmative Action in 1961. The history of the action is summarized on the National Conference of State Legislators website, recounting that

“In 1961, President Kennedy was the first to use the term ‘affirmative action’ in an Executive Order that directed government contractors to take ‘affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.’ The Executive Order also established the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, now known as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).”

Affirmative Action still stands today and has been joined by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but much like the decisions preceding them, these acts are still hotly contested. Critics argue that the actions lower standards and may force an employer to hire candidates unfit for the job, while supporters counter that the actions succeed at allowing underrepresented applicants such as ethnic minorities, women, those over age 40, racial minorities, and those who are disabled an equal chance to compete for white collar positions instead of being weeded out at the beginning of the process due to negative biases. Regardless of the controversy, Affirmative Action was another step in laying the groundwork for future actions, codes such Title IX (“prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.”), and eventually the incorporation of diversity policies and statements into modern organizations.

After the implementation of Affirmative Action and Title IX, some organizations decided to go beyond the minimum and make diversity a core aspect of their operations.  Through diversity statements, organizations and businesses make it clear that they stand for the promotion of a diverse workforce and that diversity in background, skills, and life experience breeds a healthy work environment. Universities have taken the lead on this front, and UAB has incorporated these ideals in two ways. First, any group who wants to become an official club on campus must make sure to include the UAB Nondiscrimination Clause within their constitution before being approved. Secondly, the university has created the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to specifically promote this cause. On the office’s website, a Statement on Diversity is included that reads

“Diversity is a defining feature of Birmingham’s past, present and future. At UAB, we are committed to capitalize on what makes Birmingham and the University trailblazers in moving inclusion forward. We are invigorating conversations, fostering civic engagement, widening perspectives, stimulating innovation and connecting people. Every day, we seek ways to actively promote and recognize principles of fairness and equity, in relation to, and across, intersections of race, age, color, disability, faith, religion, ancestry, national origin, citizenship, sex, sexual orientation, social class, economic class, ethnicity, gender identity, gender expression, and all other identities represented among our diverse communities.”

These type of statements work as a positive sentiment, but it is important to note that by making an organization-wide commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion also serves as a protection for people underrepresented in certain industies. In August, Google faced an incident that sent waves through Silicon Valley as one of their employees, James Damore, sent out an “Anti-Diversity Manifesto” to other employees across the company. In it he stated that “Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership” followed by “discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”

The google team marches in a gay pride parade
Google Gay Pride. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

The response from those both inside and outside of Google was one of outrage and condemnation, although it should be noted that Damore did have supporters behind him and that these beliefs were not new development to the field. In the April 2017 Issue of The Atlantic, it was reported that within the tech industry most women have had to combat issues ranging from demeaning remarks to fending off repeated instances of inappropriate sexual advances. The article also referenced a number of studies reporting that women “are evaluated on their personality in a way that men are not. They are less likely to get funding from venture capitalists, who, studies also show, find pitches delivered by men—especially handsome men—more persuasive. And in a particularly cruel irony, women’s contributions to open-source software are accepted more often than men’s are, but only if their gender is unknown.”

This put Google in a difficult situation, for if they kept Damore as an employee others would see that as condoning his points and continuing the cycle of discrimination against women, but if they fired him as a gut reaction Google would be confirming his “echo chamber” criticism of the company. However, because of Google’s proactive steps to address this type of issue should it arise, a statement rejecting the manifesto was issued by their Vice President of Diversity, Integrity & Governance, Danielle Brown.

“We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company, and we’ll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul… Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.”

Through the embedding of diversity into their values, Google was able to swiftly respond by referencing their company policies and showing that those who disagree do so against the whole of the company’s standards and practices.

The Google incident is one of many demonstrating the importance of developing and including diversity statements and mandates within institutions and organizations. While used mainly to voice solidarity and commitment, the statements have the power to protect those who are underrepresented should a situation arise. The recent dismantling of these mandates and protections by the Department of the Interior and the Justice Department have left minority groups far more vulnerable to exclusion up through the highest levels of government; yet when viewing these decisions through the historical lens of diversity advocacy in the United States, the current blockages may only be temporary stumbling blocks on the road to further and deeper acceptance of inclusion across the nation.

We, too, are America

a picture of a microscope
microscope. Source: milosz1, Creative Commons.

We see you. More specifically, I see you. I see you and I understand your fear. Your fear, though, is not of our ascent and overthrow of your supremacy. Your fear is that we–those for whom you believe yourself superior in gender, race, ability, intelligence and religion, but equal to under the law—will treat you as you have treated us. This is your actual fear.

For so long, you have hidden behind your power to give and take at will and random, without accountability. You believed might and standing would continually protect you as you abused, assaulted, and harassed us behind closed doors, in elevators, at parties, or in cars. You assumed your strength would guard against numbers because silence remained your closest companion until it revealed you. Now, silence is your betrayer and light is shining into the darkness. With light comes freedom.

However, not for you.

Finally, thanks to the unfaithfulness of silence, the light that comes with freedom will change you, as the nullifications of uneasy interactions, creepy glances, and videotaped confessions that “boys being boys” and “locker room talk” conclude what we have known all along: you are an insecure predator.

You always have been.

For centuries, you employed power to mask your insecurity while building empires and corporations upon the backs of those “under your feet and purview”. You made rules and assured yourself they did not apply to you. The rules are changing, and you are afraid. You shudder at the possibility of the enforcement of an unjust law you created, applying to you. You are fearful that you will rot in jail for a crime you may or may not have committed, based upon the verdict of 12 who are not truly your peers because they do not look like, live like, or know what it like to be someone like you. You will know what it is like to tell your side of the story and find yourself defending your participation in and motives about the situation that caused you to end up here. Identified as you truly as a perpetuator of trepidation .

You always have been.

Your taxonomy and modus operandi, whether on the forced labor field of terror, in a Las Vegas hotel room or Charleston church, or behind a “news” desk or podium, remains hiding in plain sight because the condition of many is blind submission. The conditioning served us well too, for a while. However, now we are woke. Eyes wide open and aware of the insidiousness of your nature. This scares you, so you label us a threat because we discarded the previously employed labels you doled out. Threat, in your mind, encompasses all manner of challenges you have not experienced during your time in authority. We are a threat to your domination, to your supremacy and privilege. This is what frightens you. The poisonous fruit you provided opened our eyes to the facts about who you are and what we have known all along: you are an idol worshipper.

You have believed the lies told to you and by you for so long, that in many ways, the facts cannot penetrate the walls around your heart and mind. You contrive revisionist history as a method to mask the brutal reality of your ancestors, unwilling to yield to handwritten letters, photographic and videotaped evidence that counter your claims, and absurdly ask us to disbelieve what we see what our eyes, hear with our ears, and experience over time. The words you employ are not for freedom of expression but an expression of your hate, leaving us to wonder if you know how to express yourself in a manner to prove your point without resorting to vileness. You are not out to institute unification, rather everything about you proceeds from an inner core of division. You are in an identity crisis.

You always have been.

Conflicted on one hand about the creation of humanity as made in the image of an unseen God, while on the other, using some as cattle and unpaid laborers, burdened by cherry-picked scriptures applied to build a theology of exclusion. You claim to seek the facts through the reading of words written in years past but systematically avoid anything that may shatter the illusion of grandeur created in the ivory towers which redlining amassed. You proclaim belief in gender equality, except when it comes to leadership, reproduction, sexual experience, and wages. You defend colonization and imperialism due to a misapplied belief that those demonized and dehumanized are ignorant and incapable of civilization; however, pyramids, irrigation systems, and social order existed before the feet of your ancestors stepped on this, and that land. You balk at peaceful solutions and challenges to your authority by responding with insults and name-calling as though life and death are games played in a schoolyard. Even when you are wrong, you are uncompromised in your steadfastness to show your superiority, while marketing yourself as a humble follower of God. You want to be a mirror without looking in one.

I see you.

We see you.

We know the facts.

The fact is, change has arrived. For we, too, are America.

 

Additional readings:

Langston Hughes

The Color of Law

America’s Original Sin

Nations and Nationalism

Jessica Valenti

Crisis in Myanmar: Ethnic Cleansing of the Rohingya

**This is a repost. Please make plans to join us for a lecture and discussion with Dr. Wakar Uddin on Monday, Nov 13 at 630pm, in the Edge of Chaos.

Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine State – Burma.
Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine State – Burma. Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Creative Commons.

Trigger warning: this blog references graphic physical and sexual violence. Please do not read if easily affected by these topics.  

“Now is the worst it has ever been. We have heard from our grandparents that there were bad things happening in the past too, but never like this.” – interviewee from Pwint Hpuy Chaung commenting on the violence in the Rhakine, Myanmar

Ethnic cleansing. State-sponsored violence. Genocide. This is what the Muslim Rohingya and most scholars would call the egregious human rights violations carried out by the state over the last eleven months. Myanmar’s government disagrees. The village-burning, mass-murdering campaign has been a legitimate effort against militant Rohingya insurgents from their perspective. The Rohingya are members of an ethnic and religious minority group that has suffered discrimination from the Buddhist-dominated state for years. A large population of Rohingya live in the Rhakine, an extremely poor area on the coast of Myanmar. Though the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for generations, the ethnic majority considers the group to be illegal Bengali outsiders. The minority group has been denied citizenship for decades and has recently had restricted travel with the institution of state-sponsored “Muslim-free zones.” The decades of discrimination came to a head in last October, when Rohingya militants killed nine police officers. In response, Myanmar government began a colossal campaign to push Rohingya into Bangladesh through burning entire towns, executing villagers, destroying food supplies, and widespread sexual violence. Officials describe the campaign as targeting militant insurgents, yet vulnerable groups like women, children, and the elderly have been beaten, murdered, and raped at a wide level. Entire communities have been devastated through arson, executions, and looting. The violence has been strategic in an effort to drive out the Rohingya. The mixing of mud with village grain supplies forces surviving villagers to flee or starve.

Interviews with refugees from the region conducted by the United Nations Office of High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) report of atrocities like murders of newborn babies, massive gang rapes of girls as young as eleven, houses set on fire with entire families locked inside, and brutal beatings of pregnant women.

“In Kyet Yoe Pyin I saw the military killing a newborn baby of a distant relative … My relative could not come out [of her house] as she was in labour so they dragged her out and hit her stomach with a big stick. They killed the baby by stomping on it with their heavy boots. Then they burned the house.” -19 year old woman from Ngar Sar Kyu (OHCHR 2017)

Much of the violence is fueled by decades of religious and ethnic discrimination against the Rohingya, a majority Muslim population within a Buddhist state. When the October 9, 2016 attack occurred, religious tension reached a boiling point. As a part of the government’s reaction, state military officers have been committing heinous crimes against innocent Muslim individuals. Survivors report their attackers as saying, while raping or beating them, “What can your Allah do for you? See what we can do?” Women systematically dragged into holy places to be gang-raped by groups of soldiers. A long beard is a religious practice among the Rohingya; however, several religious leaders have been publicly humiliated by having their beards shaved or burned off with melting plastic. Holy Qurans have been gathered and burned, and numerous religious leaders are kidnapped and murdered. There is also the denial of families to perform religious ceremonies to mourn their dead.

“I was rounded up, along with 30 others villagers, who were mainly youngsters. They tied my hands behind with a rope. They burnt plastic and dropped melted plastic on my feet and neck. They also burnt my beard with burning plastic.” – Religious leader (OHCHR 2017).

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi. Source: Global Media Sharing, Creative Commons

Activists worldwide, including Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have called the Myanmar government’s response to last October’s incident “grossly disproportionate”. Many specifically criticize Myanmar’s de facto leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for her leadership during this period. Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel peace prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” (Nobel Peace Prize 1991). Today, some see this as incredibly ironic, even labelling the atrocities of her administration as crimes against humanity. In fact, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein calls the campaign “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Harsh V. Pant suggests that while Suu Kyi, the de facto leader, does not control the military, “her refusal to condemn military abuses against Rohingya provides the generals with political cover”.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership as a prominent factor is why international forces have not yet intervened. Suu Kyi is a much-loved public figure, has garnered enough legitimacy to make the violence seem possibly justified. Suu Kyi’s struggle to gain democracy in Myanmar nearly a decade ago brought globally acclaimed; however, these new democratic processes have magnified prejudices of the public. Suu Kyi herself has expressed anti-Muslim sentiment at times. Peter Popham describes a 2013 interview conducted by BBC presenter Mishal Husain, the Nobel laureate was heard saying angrily, “no one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.” This statement is a strong indication that Aung San Suu Kyi’s non-violent legacy should be dismissed when considering the legitimacy of Myanmar’s claims.

The Myanmar government has recently blocked UN forces from entering the country to administer aid so refugee testimonies are the source of much of the information on the violence. Over half of the refugees report family members still missing after officers rounded up important male villagers–teachers, businesspersons, and religious leaders. Fifty-two percent of women reported experiencing sexually violence in some way – usually during public nude line-ups of female villagers, where officers grope, slap, and pinch the vulnerable women. Most reported occurrences of mass executions by knife or shooting, including babies, toddlers, children, women, and elderly people. OHCHR in January’s flash report is the source of the collected data and all the reports of violence cited earlier.

Rohingya Refugee Women Stand By Their Homes
Rohingya Refugee Women Stand By Their Homes. Source: US Department of State, Creative Commons. Source:

These issues have been ongoing since last October’s attack, but fighting began anew last month when Rohingya militants once again launched an attack that killed nearly a dozen security officers. The group that launched the attack call themselves ARSA, or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Nearly three-hundred thousand Rohingya are currently fleeing this violence, but have faced obstacles every step of the way. The path to the Bangladesh border is treacherous already, weaving through mountains and jungles, but Myanmar security forces have added additional danger. Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, said, “Rohingyas [are] being indiscriminately killed and injured by military gunfire, even while fleeing, and helicopters and rocket-propelled grenades being used against the civilian population.” Amnesty International reports that Myanmar security forces have been putting land mines along the route of fleeing refugees. Even if the violence dies down and refugees attempt to return home, they will likely be denied entry back into Myanmar. The government has recently released a statement that any returnees are required to show proof of citizenship — something that has been denied to Rohingyas for decades.

The international response has been halfhearted at best. Entities like the United Nations and Amnesty International have collected information through interviews and satellite surveillance, yet, Myanmar still refuses to allow international aid. India, one of the most powerful countries in the region, has shown support to the Myanmar state by condemning ARSA and being hostile to Rohingya refugees. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley seems to tiptoe around the matter by similarly condemning Rohingya violence but reminding Myanmar to “adhere to international humanitarian law, which includes refraining from attacking innocent civilians and humanitarian workers.” In a situation of clear ethnic cleansing, politically delicate statements like these are insufficient.

Human rights violations at this level and scale are painful to read about and not become stricken with grief. However, we must keep in mind that hope is still alive—the world is in the process of becoming a better place, and awareness of these topics is vital to that change. To those who are reading this, remember to treat yourself kindly. When the horrors of the world make you feel hopeless, remember the good that still exists. Remember to take a break every so often to recharge. Whenever I feel like the world is just too bad to improve, I remind myself of this quote by Anne Frank: “I hold onto my ideals because, in spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.”

The Birmingham Islamic Society (BIS) will host a demonstration for Rohingyas outside the Hill Student Center on Saturday, September 16 at 12-1:30PM. The event is free and open to the public. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Refugees: Peace of Mind

The Storm Refugees – Tribute To The Victims Of The Harvey Storm. Source: Daniel Arrhakis. Creative Commons.


“Armed conflict kills and maims more children than soldiers,”

-Garca Machel, UNICEF

Global unrest and armed conflict are becoming more common, intense, and destructive. Today, wars are fought from apartment windows, in the streets of villages and suburbs, and where differences between soldiers and civilians immediately vanish. Present day warfare is frequently less a matter of war between opposing armies and soldiers than bloodshed between military and civilians in the same country.

In 2014, there were 42 armed conflict, resulting in 180,000 deaths worldwide. Civilian death tolls in wartime increased from 5 per cent at the turn of the century to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s. War and armed conflict is one of the most traumatic experiences any human can endure, and the brunt of this trauma is felt by civilians- most especially children.  In 2015 alone, some 75 million children were born into zones of active conflict. As of May 2016, one in every nine children is raised in an active zone of conflict. Two hundred and fifty million young people live in war zones, with the number refugees at its most prominent since World War II. Currently, there are 21.3 million refugees worldwide, and half of them children.

For refugees, the events leading up to relocation (notably war and persecution), the long and unsafe process of relocation, settlements in refugee camps, and overall disregard for human rights, takes a major emotional and mental toll. PTSD, depression, anxiety, and sleeping disorders are just few of many problems refugee children experience. Respecting human rights is essential to society’s overall mental health. Equally, a society’s mental health is essential for the enjoyment of basic human rights. Addressing the psychological needs of victims of armed conflict is essential for the prosperity of war-battered children’s future.

The Relationship between Mental Health and Human Rights
Armed conflict affects all aspects of childhood development – physical, mental, and emotional. Armed conflict destroys homes, fragments communities, and breaks down trust among people, thereby undermining the very foundations of most children’s lives. The psychological effects of loss, grief, violence, and fear a child experiences due to violence and human right violations must also be considered.

Throughout the process of becoming a refugees, the three main stages in which people experience traumatic and violent experiences include: 1) the country of origin, 2) the journey to safety, and 3) settlement in a host country. The interrelationship between human rights and mental health are recognized in various universal human right conventions and resolutions. Numerous legislative measures exists for mental health, but two main conventions that address the situations refugees experience include: 1) Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and 2) The Convention on the Rights of a Child. These two conventions specially address mental health pertaining to violence.

UNHCR Tent. Source: Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. Creative Commons.

Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: 1987
This Convention is significant towards the promotion of mental health as a human right because “torture,” any act that creates severe pain or suffering, can be both physical and mental. This convention is particularly relevant to refugees because they are more vulnerable and susceptible to mental and physical torture.  The short video documentary released by the UNHCR provided refugees and migrants to tell their own stories of kidnap and torture during their journeys to Europe. The stories told by survivors are emotionally distressing but highlights the realities refugees continuously experience.

The Convention on the Rights of a Child: 1990
The Convention on the Rights of a Child is the first legally binding international instrument to integrate the full array of human rights. This convention is also an important document for mental health. The CRC explicitly highlights the significance of both the physical and psychological wellbeing of a child. This convention is particularly important because it addresses the relationship of affect armed conflict on mental health. First, Article 38 of the Convention highlights state parties’ obligation under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population in armed conflicts, and shall “take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.” International humanitarian law is a set of rules which aim, for humanitarian purposes, to minimize and protect persons from the effects of armed conflict. Second, Article 39 of the Convention states “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect,… torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts.” For children refugees, the Convention on the Rights of a Child is an imperative document for the security of their right to mental health, and mental health services.

Barriers to Accessing Health Care Services
The process of becoming a refugee takes a tremendous emotional and mental toll on all refugees. PTSD, depression, anxiety, and sleeping disorders are just few psychological diagnoses given to refugee children. The fundamental right to mental health care is addressed in various international standards, such as the Convention of the Rights of the Child, however, there continues to be numerous barriers preventing access to these services. There has been an unparalleled surge in the number of refugees worldwide, the majority of which are placed in low‐income countries with restricted assets in mental health care. Currently, responsibility for mental health support to refugees is divided between a network of agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO), government, and nonprofit organizations. Yet, the reality is that most refugees with mental health problems will never receive appropriate services. Cultural barriers, such as language, persistently affect a refugee’s capability to utilize mental health series. A study examining health care barriers of post-settlement refugees reveals language is the most impeding cultural barrier to accessing healthcare. Refugees and mental health service providers often do not speak the same language, making successful communication during healthcare visits less effective. Language barriers affect every level of the healthcare system, from making an appointment to filling a prescription. A lack of multilingual interpreters for refugees and health care providers weakens the healthcare system, making miscommunication about diagnoses and treatments possibilities common. Lastly, stigma surrounding mental health is another barrier to health services. Refugees often feel the words “mental health issues” should be reserved for individuals with extreme learning disabilities, and do not understand mental health problems can be conditions like depression and anxiety.

Psychopathologies due to trauma are very powerful, however, recovery is possible. In Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery, she discusses her theory of recovery. She states recovery happens in three stages: 1) establishment of safety, 2) remembrance and mourning, 3) re-connection with ordinary life.

Stage 1: Safety
Trauma diminishes the victims’ sense of control, power, and overall feeling of safety. The first stage of treatment focuses establishing a survivor’s sense of safety in their own bodies, with their relations with other people, in their environment, and even their emotions. Self-care is also an important focus point during this stage. The purpose of this stage is to get victims to believe they can take protect and take care of themselves, and they deserve to recover.

Stage 2: Remembrance and Mourning
The second stage of Herman’s recovery theory highlights the choice to confront trauma of the past rests within the trauma survivor. It’s important for victims to talk about their goals and dreams before the trauma happened so they can reestablish a sense of connection with the past.  That second stage begins by reconstructing the trauma beginning with a review of the victim’s life before the horrors and situations leading up to the trauma. This second step is to reconstruct the traumatic event as a recitation of fact. The goal of this step is to put the traumatic event into words, and come to terms with it. Testimonies are ways for survivors to get justice, feel acknowledged, and find their voice.

Stage 3: Reconnecting
In the final stage, the victim focuses on reconnecting with oneself and the recreation of an ideal self that visits old hopes and dreams. The third stage also focuses on emotionally and mentally reconnecting with other people and social reintergration. By this stage the victim should have the capacity to feel trust in others. A small but influential minority of individuals revolutionize the meaning of their trauma and tragedy, and make it the foundation for social change.

Peace. Source: John Flannery. Creative Commons.

A Peaceful Future 
Even though human rights activists are not psychological clinicians, we can still contribute to the success of these stages. At present, more than half of the refugee children population are children. Despite the violence these children have experienced, refugee children are the foundation and hope for a peaceful future. However, for that to happen, refugee children need to find peace in themselves. Respecting human rights is essential to society’s overall mental health. As activists we need to advocate for refuges and children who don’t have a voice. Activists for human and mental health rights should start focusing their goals on ensuring their communities and hospitals contain mental health care provisions. As activists, we can lobby for more accessible mental health services throughout our health care system, join and volunteer at non-profit organizations, and advocate for the rights of refugees. As Herman Melville states, “we cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.”

 

How We’ve Failed Puerto Rico

In the aftermath of a horrifying hurricane season, Puerto Rico remains in a state of devastation. The contrast between the situation in Puerto Rico and that of post-Irma Florida or post-Harvey Texas is shocking. If those affected in Puerto Rico are American citizens, why have they been treated as second-class outsiders? Many may treat them as such because public knowledge on the citizenship of Puerto Ricans is severely lacking. A study conducted by USA Today and Suffolk University reported that less than half of respondents believed that Puerto Ricans are American citizens by birth. Though people born in Puerto Rico are just as American as those in the states, U.S. has continually deprived Puerto Rico and its citizens of economic and political livelihood. The depth of the current devastation is just one symptom of a long history of abusing Puerto Rican human rights and economic wellbeing.  In this blog, we will investigate how these abuses came to be, why they still occur, and how we can change them.

The American flag, Puerto Rican flag, and Spanish flag are shown flying in front of a blue sky.
Spanish flag, PR flag, USA flag. Source: Oscar Rohena. Creative Commons.

“Is Puerto Rico Part Of Us?”

The title of this section is the first Google auto-completed search that pops up after typing, “is Puerto Rico?” When one considers the level of pride and patriotism that typically comes with being an American citizen, it seems shocking that so many are unaware of what comprises American citizenship. The answer to the question is yes, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Puerto Rico is not a state, it is a Commonwealth of the United States. Commonwealth status means that the island has local autonomy, though the ultimate source of governance is U.S. Congress. Puerto Rico has its own set of locally elected officials, including a bicameral legislature and a governor (the highest office available in Puerto Rico). The island also has its own constitution. Puerto Rico was not always American territory; the Spanish colonized the island for nearly four hundred years. The United States acquired Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. The territory was acquired with the intention of using Puerto Rico as a market for excess goods and as a naval base; to this end, military rule was instituted once the U.S. gained control but shortly abandoned in 1900.  In 1917, Puerto Rican rights began to expand as federal law gave U.S. citizenship to anyone born in Puerto Rico. Per the Jones Act of 1917, Puerto Ricans serve in the military, are free to travel the United States, and use U.S. postal service. However, they are not allowed to vote in U.S. elections. The U.S. Congress has the power to veto or amend legislation passed by the local government, even though Puerto Ricans have no input in congressional elections. This disenfranchisement is both political and economic; nearly half of all residents of Puerto Rico live in poverty. The unemployment rate is nearly double the United States’. In addition to the level of economic crisis for individuals, Puerto Rico has accumulated seventy billion dollars of debt. To pay for this, the local government has chosen to close schools, cut health care and transportation budgets, and increase sales taxes. These policy decisions make it even more difficult for Puerto Ricans to obtain proper education and healthcare — both of which are human rights. Spanish colonization is partially responsible for allowing islanders to suffer from mass poverty while continually using the island to extract goods for the benefit of Spain. However, America did not act in its full capacity to bring prosperity to Puerto Rico, and has continued to exploit the island and its people.

 

Puerto Rican protesters hold a sign protesting government corruption.
El Pueblo Reclama. Source: Oscar Rohena. Creative Commons.

How is America Responsible?

Decades of political and economic marginalization has taken its toll. Over the years, the United States has treated Puerto Rico as “little more than a military base and an economic enclave.” Over 70% of net domestic income generated in Puerto Rico ends up leaving the island due to the economic structure instituted by the U.S. to extract surplus (Committee for Human Rights in Puerto Rico). This makes it impossible for families to generate and accumulate wealth. Puerto Rico as a whole is forced to spend huge amounts of money on incredibly high transportation costs due to maritime law. The law states that all commercial transport must be executed using United States transport—the most expensive transport system in the world. These costs ensure that the cost of Puerto Rican exported goods are substantially higher than they would otherwise be, making their products much less competitive in the international market. Additionally, the United States government is responsible for health crises through years of bombing and/or military testing. Viques, one of the islands within the Puerto Rican territory, reports residents having “increased rates of cancers, asthma, diabetes, heart abnormalities, hypertension, skin conditions, and birth defects” (Collado). To make this issue even worse, the island suffers from widespread inaccessibility to healthcare. Even if residents had the money to afford medical care, there is an incredible shortage of medical professionals; doctors leave the island for a more prosperous future at a rate of one per day. Not only do these circumstances violate Puerto Rican citizens’ human right to an adequate standard of living (UDHR Article 25), but this also makes it much more difficult for affected citizens to participate economically, socially, and politically. All of these compounding factors – economic marginalization, environmental destruction, political disenfranchisement – have created a perfect storm that makes Puerto Rico more vulnerable than ever. Hurricane Maria was able to decimate the island because of the actions of the United States – the economic structure and historical exploitation made Puerto Rico unable to maintain basic infrastructure that would protect them from hurricane damage or allow them to rebuild. This is why the historical legacy of American actions towards Puerto Rico matter, and why our current administration’s dismissal of Puerto Rican suffering is such a critical issue. The aftermath of Hurricane Maria is not a one-time occurrence.  Puerto Rico has been repeatedly struck by natural and manmade disasters that have impeded its progress, and many of these are caused or exacerbated by the U.S. The United States has failed miserably in protecting the rights of American citizens of Puerto Rico. We, as fellow Americans, should be held responsible in upholding those rights.

 

Three people hold signs at a protest supporting Puerto Rico.
4N3A5376. Source: Working Families Party, Creative Commons.

What Can We Do?

As always, we first must investigate our own perceptions of Puerto Rico as well as our peers’. If nearly half of Americans do not know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth, it is entirely possible that many people you know may believe similarly. Though human rights should be protected regardless of citizenship, America often influences the global standard of action. We, as Americans, have a duty to protect our fellow citizens from human rights abuses before we can take a wider lens in our international scope. To address current issues of disaster relief, the Unidos por Puerto Rico fund allows individuals to send money directly to relief efforts. In the long term, it is essential to start raising expectations for Puerto Rico as well as expectations of how America interacts with the island. Our current administration claims that Puerto Rico’s financial crisis and poor infrastructure are issues “largely of their own making.” This is flatly untrue. While from the outside it may seem that Puerto Rico has created its own dire situation, the most damaging factors would have never been in play without the role of the United States. To ensure proper education and healthcare are provided to the 3.4 million American citizens on the island, Puerto Rico no longer needs to be viewed as an outside entity responsible for solving its own problems. There are multiple ways to solve this. One may be addressing the issue of Puerto Rican statehood. The most recent referendum on Puerto Rican statehood found that 97% of voters wanted to obtain statehood. However, this has no significant impact on the decisions of Congress, because legislators have no direct accountability to Puerto Rico. Therefore, American citizens who have power over their legislators through their constituency must make their voices heard in order to protect our voiceless counterparts in Puerto Rico.

 

The Long-Term Risks of Depleted Uranium Outweigh Military Necessity for the Weaponry

 

30mm-DU-penetrator. source: wikemedia creative commons

The public knowledge about the U.S. military deployment of nearly 10,000 depleted uranium rounds (DU) in 2003 from jets and tanks remains virtually unknown. There is an estimation that the US fired 300,000 rounds during the first Gulf War conflict in 1991, without releasing knowledge or evidence of testing to inform of potential health hazards of new munitions. The only mistake deadlier than firing this overabundance of DU weaponry is the denial of it, and failing to acknowledge the hazards posed to civilians. American and British occupation forces have forbidden the release of statistics related to civilian casualties after the occupation of Iraq. Additionally, they refused to clean up contaminated areas, and deny international agencies and Iraqi researchers the right to conduct full DU related exploration programs.

Despite American and British disclosure that they used around 400 tonnes of DU munitions in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, the United Nations Environment Program believes that the total may be nearer 1000 tonnes. Persistent and consistent reports from medical staff across Iraq have associated this legacy from the conflict with increased rates of certain cancers and congenital birth defects. The extent to which DU may be associated with these health problems is still unclear as the conditions since 2003 have not been conducive to studying civilian exposure and health outcomes. When looking at some of the major battles that took place during the operations in Najaf, Basrah, Al Samawa, Karbala and Nasiriyah, involving platforms armed with DU, Dutch Peace Corps PAX has established with certainty that DU was used in populated areas and against armored and non-armored targets.

The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) campaign to eradicate DU stockpiles within countries who purchased DU munitions and DU capable weaponry, define and clarify DU and its potential risks to civilians and military personnel:

Depleted uranium (DU) is a toxic heavy metal and the main by-product of uranium enrichment. It is the substance left over when most of the highly radioactive isotopes of uranium are removed for use as nuclear fuel or for nuclear weapons. DU possesses the same chemical toxicity properties as uranium, although its radiological toxicity is less. Due to its high density, which is about twice that of lead, DU has been used in munitions designed to penetrate armor plate. It can also be used to reinforce military vehicles, such as tanks. Munitions containing DU explode upon impact and release uranium oxide dust.”

The radiological toxicity of DU is less than uranium so the concern for human exposure should be uranium oxide dust. Keith Baverstock explains what happens when DU oxides, “When uranium weapons explode, their massive blasts produce gray or black clouds of uranium oxide dust particles. These float for miles, people breathe them, and the dust lodges in their lungs.” In other words, the lung is most susceptible to DU and in the topographical context of Iraq, where much of the country is defined by flat desert, winds blowing DU particles along with the dust is particularly dangerous. Winds may blow particles from combat sites into civilian inhabited areas, contaminating water and people. Even if only a small demographic of civilians is contaminated in a particular area, the half-life of a DU particle lodged inside alveoli is 3.85 years; emitting radiation directly to the tissue.

DU debris left behind in destroyed tanks of buildings poses a threat towards peacekeepers, civilians, and military personnel years after the conflict has ended. Many abandoned vehicles still litter the Iraqi countryside as silent reminders of the invasions within towns, villages, and cities. These carcasses are fun locations for kids to play in; and civilians come close to these contaminated objects daily in order to get to work, retrieve water and many other simple daily activities. These tanks are sometimes towed away towards scrapping sites without proper decontamination procedures, leading to further potential hazards when the metal is stripped and used for the construction of manufacturing goods.

Pregnant women and their offspring are particularly susceptible to DU toxicity as an unborn within the embryo of a mother rapidly produces new cells, providing the perfect environment for genetic defects. As certain small uranium particles are soluble in the human lungs, they enter the bloodstream through the lungs, pass through the lymph nodes and other parts of the body before excreted in urine. Uranium accumulates in bones, irradiating the bone marrow, potentially inducing leukemia, while building up in organs causing the breakdown of certain biological faculties as well as developing cancers.

The U.S. military and WHO have conducted research in Iraq to determine how malignant DU is and what sort of dangers it poses to civilians. Their conclusions determined that the potential toxic hazard is far too low to warrant cleanup action. These claims come in direct confrontation with independent studies performed by PAX conducted thorough studies within laboratories and fieldwork in contaminated locations where DU was fired; their findings determined sites and recovered physical DU evidence that proved contrary to American studies.

A New Breed of Munitions

“It is a superior weapon, superior armor. It is a munition that we will continue to use if the need is there to attack armor.” Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, US Department of Defense.”

Conflict is often the mother of invention. Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaigns toward the Kurdish people of northern Iraq in 1991 lead to the largest coalition of nations. Both Gulf wars produced horrific weaponry on a scale not seen since WW2, capable of precipitating public health and human rights violations years after deployment. The US Department of Defense, in 2003, praised a new breed of munition first deployed in Iraq–the depleted uranium round. These weapons hailed for their tank and bunker busting abilities; 68% denser than lead and upon impact, known to spontaneously combust leaving charred remains of the unfortunate targets. Armor plating on tanks and other armored combat vehicles use DU.

The advantages of DU munitions are clear, and key countries including the United States, Great Britain, France, China, Russia, and Pakistan produce and stockpile them. Many more former Soviet satellite states currently possess tanks in their arsenal capable of utilizing DU; however, it is unknown whether DU is a component of their arsenal is unknown. Many governments, including the European Parliament and Latin American parliament, started passing legislation banning radioactive weaponry from purchase, production, or use. The Kingdom of the Netherland is a key player in bringing transparency on the issue of depleted uranium. Organizations and individuals such as the Dutch peace corps, PAX, and the committee’s chair, British MEP Struan Stevenson of the conservative ECR group stated that there was a “demonstrable case for a strong and robust resolution calling on member states like the United Kingdom and France to stop using DU”. Led by Stevenson, a group of MEPs from across both Europe and the political spectrum have also submitted questions to the EU’s foreign affairs chief Cathy Ashton to ask what the European Commission has been doing to encourage the development of a common position on DU within the EU. They also call on the EU to demonstrate leadership on the DU issue. The questions remained unanswered at the time of writing, although pressure to reach consensus is rising with the new reports of spiking cancer rates and birth defects around Iraq.

The Deformed Babies of Fallujah, Iraq

The U.S. military supported by British forces, set the city of Fallujah as the stage of incredibly intense urban warfare in 2004, with intentions of deposing opposition forces within the city. The second occurrence of military operations in November and December 2004 dubbed ‘Phantom Fury’: the most brutal operation since the official end of major combat operations in 2003. The aftermath left in Fallujah was astonishing with 60% of buildings destroyed or damaged, and the population of the city at 30%-50% of pre-war levels. The physical damage the city has sustained is not what is most disturbing.

Since 2009, credible media reports from Fallujah released reports of high rates of congenital birth defects in the city to the world’s attention. Iraqi medical personnel acknowledge the health risks of DU despite the lack of a direct link between DU and rising birth defects in Fallujah. Doctors have called for further follow up research on DU and cancer patients in Iraq. The U.S. has denied usage of DU rounds in Operation Phantom Fury while they maintained the claim that no records had been kept since 2004. However, in 2005, two DU-contaminated tanks found within Fallujah, possibly destroyed by A-10 thunderbolts according to an interview with an expert from the Ministry of Science and Technology in Baghdad. Two other DU capable platforms utilized during the combat of Phantom Fury–the Abrams tank and the Bradley armored fighting vehicle (AFV).

Moving to Secure a Healthier Future

PAX estimates that there are more than 300 sites in Iraq contaminated by DU, which will cost at least $30m to clean up. Iraqi authorities are hard pressed to mobilize an effective cleanup effort and the calls for contamination containment in Fallujah have not been properly answered by the Iraqi government. Sampled hair from women with malformed babies in Fallujah tested positive for enriched uranium. The damage inflicted upon genetic code is proving to develop tremendous strain on the population of Falluja both mentally and physically as generations to come may be thinned out by fatal birth defects.

Due their economic superiority and contribution of deploying DU, the US and Great Britain should step forward with the funds and equipment necessary to conduct long-term research and contamination containment alongside Iraqi medical personnel. The ethical issues of toxic weaponry are clear. Militaries should discontinue the usage of DU weaponry or stockpiling under the notion that the usefulness of these weapons outweigh the potential harm caused to civilians. Human rights, specifically that right to life and safe environment, should take precedence over military needs. Children dying after only a few weeks after birth due to a country’s military actions years ago is a blatant breach of UDHR Article 3: Right to life, liberty, and security of person.

The issue of DU is not confined to DU alone. It also resonates within a broader spectrum of illegal weapon usage like gasses, weapons of mass destruction etc. Awareness of the suffering of those in Iraq is necessary so we, as an international community, may mold the peaceful and just world we envision.

 

The Right to Menstrual Hygiene

a picture of three girls smiling
Jordanian School Girls. Source: David Stanley, Creative Commons

It probably goes without saying that periods are difficult to manage. They are painful, expensive, and often quite problematic for people who experience them.  We use resources such as pads, tampons, pain relievers, and bathrooms in an effort to manage menstruation. According to the WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring System, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is when people with periods are able to use sanitary materials to absorb menstrual blood, change and dispose of these materials in privacy as needed, and have access to soap and water to keep clean.  For those of us who do have access to what we need to manage menstruation, it seems that we often take these things for granted. But what if someone doesn’t have these resources within reach? The bottom line is that a lack in opportunity to practice proper menstrual hygiene is a violation of human rights due to its negative impact on mental and physical health, access to education, and gender equality.

What Is the Problem?

The aspect of this issue that might be the easiest to recognize is the inaccessibility of products like sanitary pads and tampons. One study in Kaduna State, Nigeria reported that only 37% of women in their sample had all the products needed for proper menstruation management. In Uganda, 35% of women reported the same thing. This can partly be attributed to financial issues and the frequency at which the products must be purchased. Some products, such as menstrual cups or washable pads, can be washed and reused over an extended period of time, making them cheaper in the long run. However, they are initially far more expensive than the disposable options. They are simply outside of the budget for many people. Even when someone can afford to pay for the reusable materials, finding somewhere to purchase them may be a problem.

Issues of accessibility do not end with menstrual hygiene products. In many countries, schools lack proper sanitation facilities, like bathrooms, which are vital to being able to safely and comfortably replace and dispose of used menstrual products. This is seen in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where there is an average of 1.2 “toilets” per primary school. These “toilets” are actually pit latrines. They are not usually kept in good condition and rarely have sufficient waste disposal options. In situations like this, there is little to no access to a truly safe and private place to change menstrual materials.

a picture of a traditional pit latrine, which looks like a very small building with a tin roof and two tin doors
Traditional Pit Latrine. Source: SuSanA Secretariat, Creative Commons

Exacerbating this issue are the stigma and shame associated with menstruation. Around the world, girls are taught from a young age that having a period is something to hide and to be embarrassed of. In many countries, girls are even considered to be “dirty” when on their period. This can be seen in western Nepal, where there is a tradition called “chaupadi” which requires that girls and women stay outside throughout menstruation. If they enter a home, it is believed that all of the people and animals of the household will fall ill. This perspective puts both their mental and physical health at risk. Menstruation is frequently viewed as a taboo subject, so many girls are not taught anything about it before their first period. Even after they begin to experience menstruation, they do not have access to much knowledge of why it happens or what good menstrual hygiene management is.

It is also important to recognize the relationship between menstrual hygiene management and the transgender community. Menstruation is typically referred to as a strictly feminine issue, but that is simply not the case. Many transgender men and non-binary individuals experience periods, and they should be included in the conversation about menstruation. By failing to recognize their connection to menstruation, we fail to recognize the validity of their experiences and identities. This failure is a problem within itself, but it can also have repercussions on the mental health of transgender and non-binary individuals and their ability to access sanitary materials and bathrooms for menstrual hygiene management. We need to actively work towards being more inclusive with the language we use when discussion periods and related topics. This involves choosing gender neutral terms over gendered terms, such as choosing to say “menstrual hygiene products” rather than “feminine hygiene products”.

Why Does It Matter?

According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every individual has “a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of themselves. When you are told that one of the basic biological processes that you experience and cannot control is shameful, it has the potential to lower the value that you see in yourself. Combined with the common lack in understanding of menstruation, this can lead to significant amounts of fear and confusion and have a considerable negative impact on mental health. Article 26 dictates that everyone has a right to education. Without access to clean menstrual management products or places to change and dispose of used ones, many girls around the world miss school during menstruation to try to keep it hidden. Some girls do not even have the option to go to school during that time. This creates a disparity between the educational and career opportunities of men and women, violating Article 2 of the declaration, which says that everyone is entitled to their rights without discrimination based on distinctions like one’s sex. It is unacceptable to allow limitations to be placed on individuals’ access to their human rights based on something that is uncontrollable. In order for things to change, individuals must take action.

What Can We Do?

Part of the reason why access to menstrual management products is such a difficult issue to deal with is that the majority of people are not comfortable talking about it. Even in the United States, where we generally have access to education about the most basic aspects of menstruation and know that it is normal and healthy, there seems to be some sort of collective, irrational fear surrounding the topic. Periods have a direct impact on half of the world’s population and an indirect impact on all of the population. We cannot continue trying to pretend that the obstructions of human rights that are caused by poor menstrual hygiene management do not exist. Conversations about menstruation might be uncomfortable at first, but they are absolutely necessary. uncomfortable at first, but they are absolutely necessary.

Many organizations have begun working towards improving MHM worldwide. AFRIpads, for example, works to provide menstrual kits with reusable sanitary pads and storage bags to women and girls throughout Africa, while creating job opportunities within the organization for women in Uganda. They also collaborate with Lunapads in a program called One4Her. For each eligible product that is purchased from Lunapads, an AFRIpad is donated to a student in need. On UAB’s campus, we have access to a chapter of Period: The Menstrual Movement, an organization that is dedicated to improving access to menstrual hygiene products for homeless women in the United States. If you are interested in taking action, the group is currently hosting a donation drive for pads and tampons through October 31. You can find donation boxes by the elevators in any of the residence halls. They are also hosting a Period Packaging event at the Spencer’s Honors House from 6:30pm to 8:30pm on November 1, where people will come together and pack menstrual hygiene products in kits to be given to those in need. Additionally, the Blazer Kitchen is hosting a toiletry drive through October 30, to which you can donate menstrual hygiene products, as well as many other non-perishable items.

If you lack the resources to financially support the improvement of MHM, do not be afraid to speak up and get involved in the conversation. Be a part of spreading awareness and breaking the stigma surrounding periods.