On Tuesday, March 10th the Institute for Human Rights alongside the UAB Department of English and the UAB Department of Political Science and Public Administration welcomed Rebecca Traister, writer-at-large for New York magazine, to present a lecture entitled, “Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger.” The lecture is a part of the UAB Department of English Alumni Lecture series, a series that invites prominent writers and scholars twice a year to discuss ideas and issues related to the study of English. In this lecture, Traister discussed her inspiration for writing and how she became a writer, women’s anger throughout history, the validity of women’s anger, and how women’s anger can make change in the modern era.
The lecture focused on the consequences of women’s anger, a topic that Traister has extensively written about in her book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” published in 2018. Traister has also written books entitled “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” published in 2016, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” published in 2010, that focus on similar topics. Alongside her books, Traister has been a feminist journalist for 15 years and describes anger to be a significant part of her work. This anger, Traister says, is a reaction to the many inequalities and injustices in the world. Without anger, it would be impossible to be in the line of work she is in. However, Traister describes being unable to be openly angry. She found that expressing her personal rage would undermine the messages she has been so committed to sharing.
This changed in 2016 with the election that ultimately resulted in Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States. Traister had covered the Hillary Clinton campaign as a journalist and describes being unsurprised that Clinton had lost but at the same time “shocked to the point of paralysis” that Trump won. She also describes feeling a sense of responsibility for being a part of the demographic that voted for Donald Trump (white, middle aged women) and expresses being unable to think clearly because of her anger. Her husband encouraged her to actively pursue her anger and write about it. In a way, this encouragement permitted her to think about anger very intentionally, prompting her to write her 2018 book.
Traister moved from her personal journey to discuss the historical implications of women’s anger and how history classes often remove this narrative. Traister encouraged the audience to think about what we learned about Rosa Parks from grade school: a stoic, exhausted seamstress who practiced an act of quiet resistance. Traister expands on this well-established narrative of Rosa Parks by reminding the audience of Parks’ other accomplishments as a member of the NAACP and encouraging us to remember Rosa Parks as a woman who participated in conscience political action based in fury. In another example, Abigail Adams is known for saying, “remember the ladies,” in a letter she wrote to her husband John Adams. Traister reminds the audience that in the same letter Adams wrote, “All men would be tyrants if they could” and warned her husband that if the founding fathers did not take women into consideration, “women are determined to ferment a rebellion.” Traister also includes Elizabeth Freeman, or Mum Bett, into the example, a slave who sued for her freedom and was successful, concluding in a landmark case that was influential in the emancipation of slaves in Massachusetts. Not many people in the audience had heard Elizabeth Freeman’s name before. It is relatively common to find furious women at the start of many movements in this country, Traister says. The deliberate depiction of women as quiet and merely supplemental or in the right place at the right time removes the purposeful, furious action that women have partaken in throughout history.
Now why has this become the case? Traister argues that this pattern has occurred because angry women are powerful and powerful women are a danger to the patriarchal society. She proceeds to analyze the many ways that angry women have been portrayed in media and history. The stereotype of angry women is that they are infantile and not worthy of listening to. There are examples of describing high profile, powerful, and angry women as shrill, unhinged, ugly, unnatural and “a crazy aunt.” Traister explains that women’s anger is coded in our minds as unattractive, the opposite of how society perceives an angry white man. The best way to discredit women, Traister states, is to simply show them opening their mouths. However, Traister describes some of anger’s most important roles. It can bring people together by creating a movement around a shared fury. It can encourage people to become involved in politics, inciting political change. Black Lives Matter, Mom’s Demand Action, Black Lives Matter, Brett Kavanaugh protests, Time’s Up, #metoo, and many others were all started by women.
At the end of her lecture, Traister encourages us to think about anger differently, as fuel propelling us forward. She states that a movement is made up of many moments and the movement for full equality has been ongoing for two centuries. Each person must decide whether or not to change the world and should we decide to do so, our anger is what is going to keep us fighting. Traister ends the lecture by giving each audience member the same task: keep going, do not turn back, and stay angry for a long time.
On February 4th, 2020, the Institute for Human Rights, alongside the African American Studies Program, the Department of Art and Art History, the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, and the Department of History hosted a discussion with artist Edouard Duval-Carrié. The event was moderated by Dr. Charly Verstraet of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at UAB. Duval-Carrié and Dr. Verstraet discussed Duval-Carrié’s different works, a large overview of his work, as well as the width of the scope and the diversity of his works. Dr. Verstraet and Duval-Carrié specifically discussed Duval-Carrié’s Indigo Room and his collection of artworks entitled Imagined Landscapes before addressing questions from the audience.
The theme of the night was “Under the Surface,” which was described to have two meanings. The first is to delve into what is hidden and unseen in the world and the second is a representation of silence. These meanings carry over into Duval-Carrié’s work and in his life. Duval-Carrié is based in Miami but was born and raised in Haiti. Much of his work represents his Haitian culture and the relationship between the Caribbean and the United States.
The first piece of art presented was Indigo Room. This art installation is a room of blocks, created by local high school students, with a large feminine figure on the ceiling. Duval-Carrié described the piece to be a celebration of the bicentennial of Haiti’s independence as well as to signify the movement of Haitians from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, New York. He worked directly with high school students and asked each one to create a “memory window,” about Haiti. These “memory windows” were encased in resin and placed in the museum alcove. The installation is blue, to represent being underwater. Duval-Carrié stated that he wanted to make sure that as Haitian people arrive to different cities in the United States, the Haitian culture arrives with them as well The figure on the ceiling is the ultimate mother in Haitian culture, representing both the cosmos and water. He described the installation as a mix of the past, religion, and politics. Duval-Carrié also said that in 2014, he and the students who he worked with to create the installation reunited. He described being so impressed at how many of them continued with the arts into their adult lives.
The second discussion point was the collection of artworks entitled Imagined Landscapes. These pieces are re-imagined from the artworks of the Hudson River School, depicting an idealized Caribbean. Duval-Carrié described the Hudson River School paintings as alluring and romantic. While the paintings were beautiful, they forgot to incorporate the humans living on the islands and the suffering they endured. Duval-Carrié’s re-imagining took select Hudson River School paintings and upended them, making the scenery large and mysterious. Most importantly, he adds the culture of the Caribbean and the heartbreak of United States imperialism back into the landscapes.
Duval-Carrié has taken his talent and passion for art to inspire important conversations around the world. He encourages Haitians to be proud of their heritage and their country. He encourages Americans to recognize the way imperialism reshaped entire countries and how those countries are still reeling from its effects. It is important to acknowledge the powerful effects of art in reclaiming culture and sparking conversations and it is vital that we keep those conversations flowing.
If you are interested in learning more about Mr. Edouard Duval-Carrié, you can look at his webpage where a listing of his current exhibitions can also be found.
*Author’s note: I am aware of discourse on person-first language (people with disabilities) versus identity-first language (disabled people). I identify as disabled (chronic illness is a form of disability) and personally prefer identity-first over person-first, but I will use both forms in this blog as to avoid repetition.
The history of disability is asymmetrical. We know that history is always written by those with the power to wield the pen, and the powerful have always trodden on disabled people*. This is why history has most commonly staged people with disabilities as passive subjects — voiceless patients, preserved in history as miserable recipients of medical treatments, cures, and operations. Before the acknowledgement of dis/ability as a socially constructed identity much like gender or race, the dominant framework was the medical model. Impairments were seen from a medical standpoint as afflictions to remove, and “disability history” is full of famed doctors who found apparent solutions to bodily deviance. [Read more about the difference in the medical and social models in this post by graduate student and IHR intern Shane Burns!]
Disability scholars, in the past few decades, have begun to reclaim disabled narratives and frame them in ways that empower and enrich the social matrix of ability.
Like African American revisionists, we strive to reevaluate history with an additional, more critical lens. Before critical race scholars/theorists reasserted historic perspectives to reveal deep-seated racism (alongside the influential Civil Rights and Black Power movements), American society accepted racial discrimination as a fact of life. Ableism can be subverted in a similar way. Modern principles of universal justice and equity equip us to destroy structural injustice wherever it lurks within the depths of unchallenged social praxis. Additionally, revisionism – in disability history, Black history, LGBTQ history, etc. – grants the option to see historically oppressed groups as agents of change rather than sufferers of fate. Obviously, the lingering trauma experienced by oppressed identities cannot be ignored, and it would be detrimental to assume that the same forces of oppression no longer exist. But viewing disabled people as individuals with power, richness, and complexity is an empowering perspective.
In that spirit, this blog will give a brief overview of the disability rights movement, and will highlight some overlooked historical perspectives of persons with disabilities. I will condense the obligatory section detailing the terrible harms suffered by people with disabilities over the centuries : subjugation, abuse, isolation, eugenic extermination, etc. Disabled people have suffered in a wide range of circumstances and continue to suffer today from a toxic mixture of economic, social, political, and cultural barriers. It’s exhausting and demoralizing to read about these things as a disabled person. It also encourages unneeded pity from non-disabled people. Though pity may come from good intentions, it only reinforces dehumanizing attitudes. These attitudes replicate through supposedly innocent interactions like “oh, you poor thing,” and “if I were you, I’d just want to die! I can’t believe you do it!” These sentiments are fairly common reactions from non-disabled people, and they are often said with emphatic sympathy. Yet these are the same attitudes that have stolen agency from disabled people, used their life struggles as perverted inspiration, and used as an excuse to suppress, subject, torture, and extinguish people with disabilities.
Ableism, like many other “isms,” is bound and sustained through micro-level interactions rooted in unconscious yet detrimental assumptions. If you are a non-disabled person, I urge you to reflect before you react to disabled narratives, and consider how your assumptions have been informed by bias. Be sure to actively listen with compassion, react with empathy instead of pity, and always practice validation. It’s okay to have questions, and it’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Sit with your discomfort. Explore it. Decide to challenge it, and you may find yourself with a new perspective.
The Disability Rights Movement
“People with disabilities have been socially dispersed and have lacked both a common identity and the economic and political resources to coalesce into an active and effective movement capable of political action. A rights-oriented consciousness and an adequate organizational apparatus have both been essential to creating the disability rights movement.” – Scotch (1989, p. 4).
In other words, the disability rights movement required a) the collective understanding that disabled people as a group deserved rights and b) the resources to organize and motivate that group effectively.
This effort began to gather momentum in the 1960s, inspired by the grassroots activism of the time (another significant nod to the Civil Rights & Black Power movements). The early disability rights movement also benefited from community programs for disabled people, such as disabled student programs on college campuses. These programs were meant to provide services for people with disabilities, but they also inadvertently connected disabled people.
This was a radical change in society. Most disabled people were physically and socially isolated from one another prior to this movement — individuals with diverse impairments didn’t recognize each other under a “disabled” identity. This disconnect is caused by compounding issues. For instance, an epileptic person has a different set of struggles than a Deaf person or a wheelchair user. In other words, different impairments look and function differently, and it can be hard to conceptualize shared identity between such diverse experiences. Community spaces are often inaccessible, while home environments are isolating. In these situations (especially when surrounded by non-disabled caretakers/family) personal autonomy and dignity can be limited. Without opportunities to share narratives among peers, disabled people had no way of knowing the vast network who shared their experiences. But when this network began to develop, it became apparent that many of us feel the same pain. Together, we could investigate our experiences and find that they’re all rooted in the same institutional structures, harmful biases, and violent enforcement of so-called normalcy.
The first major assertion of collective disabled power came in the early 1970’s. Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) was a British group whose radical publications – including Fundamental Principles of Disability (1975) — formed the ideological foundations from which the social model of disability emerged in the early eighties. Penned by Mike Oliver, the social model pointed out that having a disability is not an impairment in itself, but that impairments are created by an inaccessible society. The impairment of poor vision would be disabling if glasses weren’t widely accessible. This shifted the entire paradigm of ability. Everyone experiences limitation and impairment, ability exists on a spectrum, and the social mechanisms that separate “abled” from “disabled” can be torn down. The suffering experienced by disabled people isn’t inherent and should not be accepted. Disabled people can celebrate their own existence, and can demand a better existence for themselves and their peers. Judy Heumann says it much better than I can:
“As long as you believe that your life is a tragedy, you can’t do very many good things with your life. Once you believe that the tragedy isn’t your fault, that it is the failure of the political system to acknowledge your rights as a human being, to be equal in society, that you can as an individual have a voice as part of a group, then you can make a difference.”
Disabled Perspectives in History
Historical records lack the perspective of most disabled people themselves, save for a notable few whose privilege awarded access to education and personal acclaim. Helen Keller was certainly not the first person to be born both Deaf and blind, but her family’s relative privilege granted Ms. Keller access to education and the social positioning to benefit from it. Helen Keller is an inspirational, barrier-breaking figure. That’s not up for debate. But it is noteworthy to mention that her privilege – having a well-connected white family with roots in Southern aristocracy – facilitated her success. Helen learned a variety of communication methods, including ASL, Braille, touch lip-reading, and speaking verbally. She attended college – a notable feat for any woman in her era – and went on to publish a dozen books, helped found several organizations (ACLU, American Foundation for the Blind, Helen Keller International), and even won an Oscar (Helen Keller International).
Frida Kahlo is a famous Mexican artist and painter whose disabilities greatly impacted her work. The story of Kahlo’s trolley accident at age 18 is infamous, as well as the physical impact – a broken spine, broken pelvis, and a severe abdominal injury. Prior to this accident, she contracted polio at age 6, and is believed to have been born with spina bifida (Daunton). These experiences are well-known; Kahlo’s legacy has been tainted by pity and morbid fascination with her painful experiences. I believe she should be celebrated in a light that honors her experience. Not only was Kahlo a fierce, vibrant spirit with immense artistic talent, but she broke barriers for other disabled women of color. Kahlo embraced the unique, rich perspective that she had gained through dealing with years of pain, vulnerability, and isolation – channeling it into powerful art. Frida Kahlo unapologetically existed as a disabled woman of color, presenting her body in all its beautiful, sexual, and painful complexities.
Harriet Tubman is another extraordinary woman of color who was affected by disability. Tubman experienced a traumatic brain injury at age 12 at the hands of a slave owner. Tubman dealt with complications for the rest of her life including severe pain, seizures and/or narcoleptic episodes. Her disabilities may have contributed to her success, as Tubman’s narcoleptic trance-like episodes offered moments of great spiritual impact (Sabourin et al, 2016). A deeply religious woman, Harriet Tubman was guided by her faith to rescue hundreds of slaves over the course of thirteen incredibly dangerous escape missions. Tubman also is the first woman to plan and lead a military operation against the Confederacy – with stealth skills and knowledge of Southern geography, “General Tubman” conducted a successful raid on Combahee River that freed over 700 slaves (National Museum of African American History & Culture).
The history of disability – as a movement, as individuals, as an identity – is rich, compelling, and intersectional. We should see it as an under-explored reserve of knowledge hidden by suppression, and a perspective to be treasured. Disability history demands to be re-examined and reclaimed in a framework of empowerment. It’s critical for incorporating disability rights into wider society. When you apply modern standards to historical events and figures, a narrative of agency and power can emerge. Simultaneously, it can reveal the despicable mechanisms that create, inform, and enforce oppression. As I said earlier — modern principles of universal justice and equity equip us to destroy structural injustice wherever it lurks within the depths of unchallenged social praxis.
April is Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. The word genocide brings to mind the well-known horrors of the Holocaust, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia; yet, numerous atrocities that have gone unnoticed and unmentioned. I will focus on dehumanization, extermination, and denial for this blog to bring awareness by shedding light on and bearing witness to the history of the Bengali people. For clarity, dehumanization is defined as when one group denies the humanity of another group, extermination is the action of mass killing itself, and denial refers to the perpetrator’s effort to disprove that the genocide ever occurred.
During the 1970s, a genocide took place in present-day Bangladesh. Rough estimates approximate a death toll numbers of nearly 3 million. The systematic annihilation of the Bengali people by the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War, targeted Hindu men, academics, and professionals, spared the women from murder, but subjected nearly 400,000 to rape and sexual enslavement.
Bangladesh, as a nation, did not exist prior to 1971 because it was part of an area called “East Pakistan”. The pursuit of independence for Pakistan came following India’s independence from Britain. At the time, religion and culture separated the East and West sections: West Pakistan was populated by mostly Muslim Punjabis, while East Pakistan was more diverse with a considerable population of Hindu Bengalis (Pai 2008). West Pakistan looked down upon their eastern neighbors, calling the area “a low-lying land of low-lying people” who “polluted” the area with non-Muslim values (Jones 2010). This is a clear demonstration of dehumanization which Stanton says “overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder” by equating the victimized groups to vermin and filth. Lacking empathy for their disregarded neighbors, the people of West Pakistan abused their eastward neighbors economically and through lack of aid. West Pakistani elites, living and working in the political center of the country, siphoned most of the country’s revenue, initially generated by East Pakistan (Jaques 1999). Additionally, West Pakistan neglected to send adequate aid following the Bhola Cyclone that ravaged East Pakistan, and left close to 500,000 dead in 1970 (Pai 2008). The amalgamation of denied human rights contributed to the commencement of the Bengali independence movement. In response to the Bengali’s call to secede, West Pakistan developed Operation Searchlight.
Operation Searchlight is seen by many as the first step in the Bengali genocide (Pai 2008). Per the Bangladesh Genocide Archives, the operation, initiated on March 25, 1971, resulted in the death of between 5,000 and 100,000 Bengalis in a single night. Forces of the Pakistani Army targeted academics and Hindus, specifically murdering many Hindu university students and professors. The goal of the operation was to crush the Bengali nationalist movement through fear; however, the opposite occurred. Enraged at the actions of the Pakistan Army, Bangladesh declared its independence the following day (Whyte and Lin Yong 2010). Over several months, the Pakistani Army conducted mass killings of young, able-bodied Hindu men. According to R.J. Rummel, “the Pakistan army [sought] out those especially likely to join the resistance — young boys. Sweeps were conducted of young men who were never seen again. Bodies of youths would be found in fields, floating down rivers, or near army camps” (Carpenter 2016).
Men became primary targets (almost 80 percent male, as reported by the Bangladesh Genocide Archives). The abduction and subsequent rape of women by soldiers took place in camps for months. Many more were subject to “hit and run” rapes. Hit and run rape explains the brutality of forcing male family member–before their own death–view the rape of their female family member by soldiers (Pai 2008). The use of rape, as a weapon of war by Pakistani forces, violated 200,000-400,000 Bengali women during March and December 1971. The high number represents the complicity of religious leaders who openly supported the rape of Bengali women, referring to victims as “war booty” (D’Costa 2011).
Archer Blood, American ambassador to India, communicated the horrors to US officials. Unfortunately, the United States refused to respond because of Pakistan’s status as a Cold War ally. President Nixon, taking on a flippant and discriminatory attitude, regarded the genocide as a trivial matter, assuming a disinterested American public due to the race and religion of the victims. His belief that no one would care because the atrocities were happening to people of the Muslim faith (Mishra 2013), created an uninformed and disconnected America concerning the Bengali genocide of 1971.
“Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities… Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy.” – Archer Blood, American ambassador to India
Pai (2008) suggests the Pakistani Army strategized the genocide into three phases over the course of 1971:
Operation Searchlight was the first phase as discussed earlier, which took place from late March to early May. It began as a massive murder campaign during the night of March 25, 1971. The indiscriminate use of heavy artillery in urban areas, particularly in Dhaka, killed many, including Hindu students at Dhaka University.
Search and Destroy was the second where Pakistani forces methodically slaughtered villages from May to October. This is the longest phase because this is when Bengali forces mobilized and began to fight back; rebel Bengali forces “used superior knowledge of the local terrain to deny the army a chance to dominate the countryside”. This was also the phase in which the Pakistan army targeted women to rape, abduct, and enslave.
“Scorched Earth” was the third phase beginning in early December, and targeted and killed 1,000 intellectuals and professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers in Dhaka. The Pakistani Army surrendered to Indian forces days later, ending the genocide on December 16, 1971. Though Bangladesh established its initial independence directly following Operation Searchlight, the people of Bangladesh established themselves and their nation as a peaceful country, and began the reconciliation process.
The American government has never acknowledged the actions of the Pakistan Army as a genocide. Henry Kissinger characterized it as unwise and immoral, but never termed it to be genocidal. The horrible acts that occurred to the Bengali people was clearly a genocide under the terms of the UN Convention on the Convention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 (CPPCG). The CPPCG defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
Killing members of the group;
Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Pai (2008) asserts, “That the genocide took place in a context of civil war, communal riots (which include instances where Bengalis did the killing) and counter-genocide, should neither mitigate nor detract us from the fundamental conclusion that casts the Pakistan army as guilty of perpetrating genocide.” To this day, Pakistan has continued to explicitly deny the occurrence of a genocide. Despite this, the atrocities that mark the journey to Bangladesh’s independence have not swayed the Bengali people; their rich culture and flourishing country provide clear evidence. Today, Bangladesh is a prosperous country, ranking 46th of 211 countries in terms of GDP. They are one of the largest contributors to UN Peacekeeping forces, and the Global Peace Index ranks them as the third most peaceful country in South Asia (behind Bhutan and Nepal).
Boissoneault, Lorraine. “The Genocide the U.S. Can’t Remember, But Bangladesh Can’t Forget.”Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 16 Dec. 2016. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
Carpenter, R. Charli. ‘Innocent Women and Children’: Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians. Routledge, 2016. Print.
D’Costa, Bina. Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.
Jones, Adam (2010). Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-415-48618-7.
Pai, Nitan. The 1971 East Pakistan Genocide – A Realist Perspective. International Crimes Strategy Forum, 2008. Print.
Weber, Jacques. “THE WAR OF BANGLADESH: View of France.” World Wars and Contemporary Conflicts, No 195.1999, pp. 69-96.
Whyte, Mariam, and Jui Lin Yong. Bangladesh. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2010. Print.
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