Careers in Human Rights Recap

On Thursday the 14th of May Thandi Matthews and Ahmed Tholal sat down with Commissioner of Human Rights Kevin Lindsey for a discussion on careers in human rights. Commissioner Lindsey spoke to his unique position with the Government of Minnesota as well as the functioning of Human Rights Departments throughout the United States. Tholal elucidated the compromised nature of the Maldivian Human Rights Commission and the difficulties attached to working in what the Maldivian government would like to be a cosmetic institution. Thandi focused her discussion on the shift from private to public practices and the costs and benefits of such a move.

 

During the question and answer period the panelists had a chance to engage with the audience who asked questions regarding necessary professional attributes to working in the field, living with the pace of change, and the extent to which the panelists were willing to go to protect the rights that they espouse.

The US-Mexico Border Crossing Experience, from the Perspective of an Immigration Officer

By Nidson Augustin, Haiti

On February 9-15, 2016, thirteen Humphrey Fellows from the University of Minnesota traveled to Arizona to study immigration with Humphrey Fellows in journalism at Arizona State University. Fellows learned hands-on through site visits and meetings with leaders and academics dealing with issues on the border. This year for the first time, Fellows crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to examine border issues from the Mexican side. The following is one of a series of reflections by Fellows who attended this cross-campus collaboration, generously funded by the U.S. State Department and administered by the Institute of International Education. 

On Friday, February 12, 2016, the Humphrey Fellows from Arizona State University and the University of Minnesota woke up early in the morning in anticipation of a long day in Mexico with a packed agenda. When we crossed the border, some of us were preparing our travel documents for identification by the immigration agents on the Mexican side of the border, but we experienced a very smooth entry into Mexico. None of us were even questioned by Mexican authorities regarding the purpose of our visit, the duration of our stay, and other relevant information about where we planned to stay. As an immigration officer, I was shocked by the naïveté of a state that leaves its border uncontrolled, assuming that no threat will come from the other side.

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The border crossing into Mexico

The first article of the Chicago Convention states that “every state is sovereign,” which means that every state has the right but also the responsibility to protect its national boundaries from any kind of threat that could put in danger its national security.  In Nogales, we saw a discriminatory border; one state puts forth drastic measures to protect its homeland by checking the identity of every single passenger and processing it into its high-profiling database, and another state that is careless about checking people crossing the border.

Some people understand wrongly that the job of immigration consists only of checking the authenticity of travelers’ passports. The immigration control post at a border checkpoint aims not only at preventing unwanted people from entering but also at preventing unauthorized merchandise from entering. Immigration agents are the guardians of US borders and protect the US against terrorists and instruments of terror. They steadfastly enforce the laws of the US while fostering lawful international trade at their borders. Let’s look at the other side: to what extend do the Mexican authorities protect the Mexican market from potential US competitors that could probably illegally bring goods or merchandise to Mexico? There may be some unilateral agreement between the two states that lets US citizens cross the border into Mexico without control. But what about us, foreigners that crossed the border on February 12, 2016 and entered Mexico unnoticed? No Mexican authorities ever knew about the presence of more than twenty foreigners from around the globe. That is a risk from a homeland security point of view.

Let us continue our journey: we spent some time in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico and even had a luncheon at the US Consulate there. But what if, while returning back to the US border, we had had an accident and there was a dead person among us? What would be the legal procedure then? Would our US insurance provider agree to cover a client who had an accident outside of the US? If one of the members of the cohort had lost their passport in Mexico, how would he or she have reentered the US? Fortunately, none of this happened.

On our way back to the US side of the border, the US Customs agents were ready to do their job and did it without sentiment. The entire cohort was sent to secondary inspection, and were complaining that they were being racially profiled, which was not the case at all. A Customs officer is like any law enforcement officer. He or she obeys orders and has been trained to work according to a set of procedures. One of them consists of checking the database system to see if the passenger is cleared with regards to immigration law.

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The Humphrey Fellows in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico local paper Nuevo Dia

One question I had was: Why is there no connection or communication between the immigration officers and the Border Patrol agents? Three agents from US Border Patrol had welcomed us on the US side of the border the previous day. Why didn’t they pass our names and information about our visit to their counterparts at the check point? I also noticed that almost 90% of the US Border Patrol agents are from Mexico, or at least most of them have Mexican descent. How could former Mexicans be trained to enforce laws against present-day Mexicans?

Fortunately, we came back without major incident from our US-Mexico adventure. But we still do not have evidence that we were in Mexico: no stamp on our passport of Mexican entry and exit, or even reentry into the US. We have only the souvenir of our photo in a local newspaper.

Tent City: When Repulsion Becomes Imperative for Discourse

By Ahmed Tholal, the Maldives

On February 9-15, 2016, thirteen Humphrey Fellows from the University of Minnesota traveled to Arizona to study immigration with Humphrey Fellows in journalism at Arizona State University. Fellows learned hands-on through site visits and meetings with leaders and academics dealing with issues on the border. This year for the first time, Fellows crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to examine border issues from the Mexican side. The following is one of a series of reflections by Fellows who attended this cross-campus collaboration, generously funded by the U.S. State Department and administered by the Institute of International Education. 

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Inmates at Tent City Jail

The Humphrey Fellowship Program to me is often about contradictions. It is about contrasting professions, and people involved in these professions spending almost a year together to not just find commonality in their work, method and philosophical ethos but also to explore dissimilarities and challenge thought processes to find organic solutions through debate, constructive arguments, and academic engagement. That inherent trait of the Humphrey Program, to me, shows the most lasting promise of the Fellowship. The stimulation of cognition and strongly held beliefs, as well as the situations that challenge these ideals, creates better leaders who are capable of finding productivity through disagreement. And never has this aspect of the Fellowship been more apparent than during the visit to Tent City Jail in Arizona and its aftermath. However people may view the visit and the lessons learned from it, that the visit resulted in an invigorated discussion filled with nuances about human rights and law enforcement is most certainly undeniable.

THE VISIT

The warmth of Arizona was a welcome change to most of the Fellows, who were ironically burnt out from the constant cold and snow of Minnesota. But I remained true to the Humphrey contrast by being an aficionado of the cold and the snow, and the warmth only served to remind me that I always felt more at ease under the gray comfort of the rain cloud. Little did I know that the Arizona heat wasn’t the only thing that was about to reach boiling point.

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Poster in Tent City Jail quoting Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Having reached Arizona by noon, there was an air of anticipation to see Tent City Jail and I for one was already eager to sniff out human rights violations and pose some important questions to the officials. By late afternoon we were standing outside the nondescript jail building that looked more like the facade of a high school than a jail. But the moment we went inside, the realization that the facade was deceptive became terribly apparent. The outer waiting area was nothing special, but the framed pictures and quotations by the infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio were unnerving, to say the least. A large, overbearing sign showed US soldiers in Iraq and questioned the audacity of people to criticize Tent City Jail and the humaneness of inmates sleeping outside in tents when it was good enough for US soldiers in Iraq. Many of the Fellows were surprised at the brazen justification so boldly outlined from the outset. It was a combination of the paternalistic mindset coupled with a gung-ho infusion of overt patriotism to capture the hearts and minds of people to find legitimacy in the actions of Sheriff Joe and those at Tent City Jail.

And then came the guards. Attired more like a SWAT team (which was exactly what they were going for), four to five guards walked through the front door consecutively as Lieutenant Mossman welcomed the Fellows to Tent City Jail. We were given an initial introduction to the place and its history and a glimpse into what it meant for the leadership to be in charge of a jail. There was an air of sarcasm and a sense of stoic indignation at the allegations being leveled against the jail. As the guards stood a few feet away from the group, Lieutenant Mossman was quick to point out that contrary to what has been publicized, they had absolutely nothing to hide and that those at Tent City Jail preferred to be there as opposed to being inside.

Unbeknownst to us all, there were already ideas forming in Fellows’ heads that conformed to which profession we belonged to. Those would be the ideas that would collide and contentiously be faced off later on. But for the moment the explanations were interrupted by two officers joining the rest. They were accompanied by two ferocious canines that didn’t just indicate the seriousness with which they took their job, but also quite clearly confirmed my fears about the way they viewed inmates inside Tent City Jail. We weren’t going to war, but it so disturbingly seemed like we were.

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Contraband

The intention of the tour was probably to show the justification for Tent City Jail. It was therefore only fair that they start the tour with a demonstration of the contraband brought in and made within the jail. These included dice made from bread, rosaries decorated more eloquently than would be appreciated by the Sheriff, playing cards, cigarettes, blunt objects and other decorative and creative crafts that probably were a result of boredom. Maybe to those who have a preset notion about those serving time, this would have been a tantalizing prologue to the main act, but to me and to many of the human rights colleagues, it seemed more like the precursor to a violent sideshow to intensify the shock of the performance. Before we even got to the actual jail area, it started feeling more and more like a trip to the zoo or a staged performance that we were touring. The knot in my stomach got tighter and the disgust at partaking in the tour increased. It would be some time before I realized that the outrage and aversion to the place would in fact serve a more intrinsic purpose.

The aim of the tour was to make our way through the general population of the jail and see the conditions (the fantastically humane situation, according to the officials). But somehow, being who we were, most of us just couldn’t bring ourselves to become spectators to a show about human rights violations and the degradation of human dignity. And so, following the lead of our director Kristi, we started engaging with the inmates through casual conversation and icebreakers. At the men’s section we met and talked with a cinematographer, an artist, and people who were victims of a society that was set to make them fail and return back to jail. Yes, it is also individual responsibility, but when the individual effort is never galvanized by incentives from the state, then there is an inherent problem. Just to highlight some of the important aspects of the visit, let me list down issues based on the identifiers:

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A regular meal at Tent City Jail

FOOD:

We talked to people about the food, to which they all unanimously showed signs of repulsion and disdain. The explanation about why they only serve vegetarian food in the jail was in itself evidence of the confrontational attitude of the officials. When the inmates sued the jail for the lack of nutritional food being served and won the case, the jail decided to retaliate by complying with the court order and giving them food based on calories and not on edibility.

CLOTHING

And that brings us to the infamous ‘pink underwear’ being worn by the inmates at the jail. “White clothing looks dirty over time, and so we got them nice pink clothing,” said a jail official. The inmates showed us the pink underwear and when we asked them about their feelings on having to wear pink clothing, they were pretty straightforward about it. Somehow it seemed like the reason why Sheriff Joe wanted them to wear that specific color was not really working. As one of the inmates said, “I suppose they want us to be embarrassed we are wearing pink. But times have changed and we aren’t so scared of our sexuality or insecure about it. So for me, I often wear pink even when I am outside. So if this is an act to embarrass us, unfortunately we aren’t embarrassed nor ashamed, because we are more than happy to wear pink even as men.” There isn’t much of a ruckus about having to wear pink by the inmates, but it is the inherent need to degrade and humiliate the inmates that is of utter concern to me.

THE CHAIN GANG

Chain GangThe phrase seems almost Hollywood inspired, but the reality is that despite the constant insistence on the fact that there isn’t anything inhumane or against the inherent rights of inmates going on within the jail, when a group of people are chained together by their feet and asked to work in harsh conditions, that does not seem very humane. The argument from the officials that the people who join the Chain Gang do that on their own volition does not seem to hold a lot of water when you realize that the alternative to joining the gang is to be in the hole. This brings another pertinent issue I noticed at the jail: the oxymoronic notion of compelled choice. From the outset the argument that the inmates voluntarily join the chain gang is quite accurate, but on the other hand they conveniently misspeak about the alternative to their choice.

E-VISITATION

“What are the arrangements for conjugal visits?” I asked. “Oh, we don’t do that sort of stuff around here,” came the reply. It was quite apparent that the lives of inmates inside Tent City Jail wasn’t dictated by a set procedure that conformed to international human rights standards. Rather the procedures that were laid down or rather carved in stone had one standard; that of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his understanding of criminality and how those who come to his jail need to be treated. There were no face to face visits by family members. The staff showed us with pride the brand new internet video phone system that allowed family members to find internet connection and be able to connect with their loved ones. Beautiful in theory and yet impractical as far as the workability is concerned when you realize that they involve a connection cost of about 7 dollars for a certain amount of time and more thereafter. And of course the money was always a pleasant addition to the jail. The logic behind the ingenious method was that now they don’t really have to wait to meet their loved ones because they can connect with them anytime via video call. Unfortunately the quality of the call as well as the virtual nature of them precludes any real person to person connection.

THE INMATES

Like many other countries, US is also riding a gigantic wave of mass incarcerations that is preparing to break onto the shore of humanity, taking an unprecedented toll on human dignity and the real value of restorative justice. The current criminal justice system has become so punitive that many who serve time and have criminal records are simply unlucky to have belonged to a group that is over represented within the system. Numbers and demographics play a far greater role to land people in prison than actual crimes. It wasn’t any different at Tent City Jail. There were women who had spent three months in the jail for being unable to pay their traffic violation fine. But to the rest of the world they will be no different than anyone else in the jail. They will forever be labeled and brandished as an inmate which will then lock them out of the resources needed to survive. There were countless people on charges of drug and substance abuse who aren’t given the necessary treatment and medication to wean off drugs. Their situation lands them in jail and the jail then makes it impossible for them to have a second chance in life. The vicious cycle is so vividly seen at the Tent City Jail, where the Sheriff apparently wants to make things so horrific for people that they wouldn’t want to return. I do not think people return because the Tent City Jail is an accommodating place, but rather because the real reasons for their return are never addressed. But then that was where the discourse began and when things started to become more interesting. At least to me.

THE FINAL PHOTOGRAPH

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Tent City Jail Staff & Fellows

By the end of the tour, I realized that I was conspicuously uneasy and frighteningly motivated to speak out. I knew that despite all the human rights violations we saw, the officials were more than hospitable to the group and I had to keep reminding myself I was a Humphrey Fellow and that there was a certain level of dignity I had to maintain by virtue of being one. But that was what confused me as well. As a Humphrey Fellow who is selected from amongst thousands and selected for a specific purpose, isn’t it my duty to speak out? Isn’t it imperative upon me to live unto the values and courage of Hubert H. Humphrey? Wasn’t it part of my loyalty to be consistently uneasy and unnerved by such brazen challenges? By the end of the tour I was stuck between a rock of not decimating the Humphrey name and a hard place of the silence seeming so un-Humphrey-like. Eventually when it was time to pose for a picture, I had made up my mind that, undignified or not, I was not going to pose and smile with a group that embodied everything I stood against. I couldn’t stand and pretend that the people next to me in the picture were not violating the basic human rights of the inmates every single day. I couldn’t pose for a picture with people who claim that inmates don’t even deserve healthcare, housing, clothing and proper food. And when it was time to say ‘cheese’ I opted to stay out as did a few of my colleagues. I had silently protested and there was bound to be a backlash.

DISGUST, DISAGREEMENT AND DIALOGE

When I said that the most important part of the Humphrey Fellowship is the contradictions and the juxtapositions, I meant it, and what happened after the visit proved that. Somehow, the law enforcement Fellows saw  Tent City Jail in an entirely different light. They saw a jail that was ‘comparatively better’ than the jails in their respective countries. And so came the two sides of the argument. While the law enforcement officials thought that the whole hoopla about Tent City Jail was unjustified when the inmates looked happy and were actually out in tents of their own free will, the human rights Fellows saw the choice to be a moot point when the alternative was simply unacceptable. While the law enforcement Fellows believed that the jails in their respective countries were much worse, the human rights Fellows thought that when you want to compare standards, you don’t do it with the places with the worst examples, but rather the minimum standards that need to be upheld everywhere. The disgust that was apparent to the human rights Fellows was somehow not that conspicuous to the law enforcement Fellows.

The first issue came about as a result of some of us refusing to be in the picture. Some saw that as a disrespectful act of blatant antagonism which was unacceptable. To them our actions were distasteful while the human rights situation in the jail wasn’t. But then it also forced us to think about where they were coming from: a system where an order was followed without a second thought. Where rank and hierarchy was God and where superiors weren’t questioned and subordinates never asked. They came from an automated operational system that had shaped their ideals. But what emerged more conspicuously was that despite that automated system and that singular way of following orders, they were here. They were pursuing the Humphrey Fellowship with human rights Fellows and that itself gave me hope. Yes, I was challenged for what I believe in. I was even challenged when I talked about some of the quotations of Sheriff Joe. My outrage at the comments of Sheriff Joe was often seen as a direct challenge to the ideals of law enforcement. There were heated arguments and raised voices. There were moments when they did not want to listen to my illogical human rights rationale. But even throughout the constant contradictions, the law enforcement Fellows and the human rights Fellows were talking. A dialogue was in motion and though sparks flew and disagreements did lose the original purpose, there was an air of positive discourse. We saw certain aspects that outraged some of the law enforcement officials. We saw some that amused them and we saw some that they didn’t really care about. But at the same time, we saw that it wasn’t too difficult to start from those points that stood out to them and then work our way to a common understanding. While some of them were still skeptical at the end, there was a clearer channel opened to talk and listen.

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Sunrise over Nogales

And that is the most amazing part of this trip. All of the horrifying things listed in this report were opportunities for us as Humphrey Fellows to engage with one another and find common ground. It was an excellent exercise in patience, but at the same time it was also a conversation starter and a platform to bring up difficult conversations. The Tent City Jail visit was a difficult one, during and after. But it was also a stimulating occasion to incessantly do away with the frivolous bits and pieces that honed in on the contentious and focus on the real aspects of human rights, security and law enforcement that will facilitate a more balanced approach. If fear will determine one’s rationality towards the criminal justice system, then justice and human rights will have no place. But if the heavy set doors that are shut tight by that fear can be held slightly ajar to let some light in, there is always hope that human dignity and worth will eventually determine how we approach the criminal justice system. The Cross Campus Collaboration is that power to hold those doors slightly ajar. Yes there was disgust, a necessary disgust, but then it was that disgust that led to the discourse and both are equally necessary for positive change.

2016 Borderlands Trip: Thoughts on the political, economic & social implications of the US/Mexico Border

By Thandiwe Matthews, South Africa

On February 9-15, 2016, thirteen Humphrey Fellows from the University of Minnesota traveled to Arizona to study immigration with Humphrey Fellows in journalism at Arizona State University. Fellows learned hands-on through site visits and meetings with leaders and academics dealing with issues on the border. This year for the first time, Fellows crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to examine border issues from the Mexican side. The following is a  reflection by one of the Fellows who attended this cross-campus collaboration, generously funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Institute of International Education.

As the elections race in the US picks up, Republican front-runner Donald Trump has frequently accused immigrants of contributing to the US’s social problems, contributing to the xenophobic rhetoric that has hampered the development of progressive policies to accommodate migrants and refugees fleeing poverty and conflict. Trump has even gone as far as to suggest that a wall be built to prevent Mexicans from crossing the border into the US, and that Mexico should pay for it.

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Photos of the missing

However, when visiting the border, it became apparent that the Nogales area on both sides of the border plays a key role in both the US and Mexican economies. Visits to a factory highlighted how the cheap cost of Mexican labour allows for more productive business for US companies operating in the area. Being situated so close to the border in Mexico also allows US companies to import necessary parts from the US, allowing companies to further benefit from regional trade agreements entered into between the countries. The border thus becomes a profitable site for both Mexican and US businesses.

While Mexican immigrants are often lambasted in the media for contributing to the social ills of the US, it was evident in the factory that we visited how hard working Mexican people are. Ironically, although not confirmed, it could be assumed that many Mexicans working in US companies had at some stage been migrants attempting to cross the border to the US. Those who have been unable to cross the border successfully are limited to staying in Nogales until they can gather enough money to either cross the border legally or return back to their towns and villages of origin.

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“Coyotes,” or human smugglers, watching the US border from the Mexico side (between the towers)

It was also troubling to hear that when migrants are caught for illegally crossing the border, families are often separated by border patrol (mothers and children on the one hand, men on the other), in an effort to ensure that they will not reunite and attempt a second time to embark on the journey. In some cases during the perilous journey, children are separated from their parents altogether. In other instances, migrants are returned to Mexico along some of the more dangerous parts of the border, thus increasing their vulnerability to being smuggled and trafficked.

Our visit highlighted that while many Mexicans contribute substantially to both the US and Mexican economies through the work that they do in the border region, they remain a vulnerable group in need of fundamental rights protection to prevent exploitation as they search for a better life for themselves and their families.

2016 Borderlands Trip: Law Enforcement Challenges Around Migration

By Syed Fida Hassan Shah, Pakistan

On February 9-15, 2016, thirteen Humphrey Fellows from the University of Minnesota traveled to Arizona to study immigration with Humphrey Fellows in journalism at Arizona State University. Fellows learned hands-on through site visits and meetings with leaders and academics dealing with issues on the border. This year for the first time, Fellows crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to examine border issues from the Mexican side. The following is a  reflection by one of the Fellows who attended this cross-campus collaboration, generously funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Institute of International Education.

Migration of people from one country to another always creates new challenges for law enforcement agencies.  Enforcement of migration laws doesn’t come under direct purview of local police and other local law enforcement agencies. The immigrants living in the United States, however, often complain about undue stop and search and harassment by local police officers.

The trip to Arizona by Humphrey Fellows from both the Law School and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs gave us an opportunity to look at the issue of migration on the US-Mexico border. The Fellows, along with Humphrey Fellows from Arizona State University (ASU),

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The US-Mexico Border as seen from Nogales, Mexico

had a chance to discuss and explore the issue of immigration from different perspectives. It was a very informative and educational trip that gave us an opportunity to see the issue of illegal immigrants from different angles.

Talking to police and border patrol officers on the US-Mexico border gave us the impression that the immigrants crossing into the US from Mexico are all involved in crimes and/or drugs, and therefore pose a challenge to local law and order. We were given the impression that Mexican authorities are not doing enough to stop immigrants and drugs from entering the United States. However, after listening to the mayor of Nogales and other officials on the Mexican side of the border, it became clear to us that Mexico is in fact a victim of the situation. We were told that apart from immigrants coming from different South American countries, people from countries as far as China and India also attempt to cross into the United States from Mexico. It is extremely difficult for a developing country like Mexico to manage a 1,950 mile-long border and stop people from illegally crossing it.

There has always been debate among different law enforcement officers about the role of local police in checking the documents of immigrants. There are many law enforcement officers who have the opinion that local police should not involve themselves in enforcement of immigration laws because it will erode the trust of local communities. It creates a sense of insecurity among the immigrant community, and as a result they hesitate to report to police even if they are victims of crimes. At the same time, many law enforcement officers are of the view that local police can also enforce immigration laws because the people who have illegally entered the country have broken the law.

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Rosaries of migrants praying for safe passage at a migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico

The trip to Arizona and the Mexican border was an opportunity to think about the pros and cons of enforcement of immigration laws by local police agencies.  To me, giving local law enforcement agencies the power to enforce immigration laws is a violation of basic human rights. It will further worsen the miseries of poor migrants, who are forced to leave their countries due to conflict and many other reasons. The already oppressed minority communities will further feel threatened because of stop-and-search procedures by local police for checking the illegal migrants. I appreciated the approach of Sheriff Tony Estrada, who sees immigration as a human issue. When asked about the reasons for his compassion for the migrants, his simple response was, “Put yourself in their shoes.”

Closing borders, erecting walls, and deporting back poor, illegal migrants in the middle of the night, separating children from their parents, is a genuine human rights issue. Instead of having a solo fight, the US government should collaborate with the Mexican government for better border management. Encouraging big companies to invest in Mexico and create employment opportunities may improve the situation. The issue of drugs also needs to be dealt with in collaboration and cooperation with Mexico and other countries in the region. Involving police in the enforcement of immigration laws will further complicate the matter and have a negative effect on its already deteriorating relationship with minority communities.

 

What a 21st century feminist movement should look like in Tunisia?

By Ikram Ben Said

Ikram

Even though we are living in the 21st century, gender equality is still considered a women’s issue, in Tunisia, and policy makers are trying to avoid or postpone the conversation because they are dealing with “more important issues.” Gender inequality has not only been fostered by political decisions, it is also deeply embedded in Tunisians’ minds. It has become the norm and an institution. There is something wrong when women do not feel that they are discriminated against, when they embrace their roles without asking for other options or without challenging this institution, when women just follow the cultural expectations, and when they accept their moral accountability. As I observe the perception versus the reality of gender inequality in Tunisia, I believe that the feminist movement could play a significant role in bridging that gap.

Perceptions vs. Reality

The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index 2014 shows that Tunisia ranks 130 out of 142 countries in women’s economic participation with a score of .46 out of 1. The Gender Equality Policy report in Tunisia argues that one of the main reasons is women’s heavy responsibility for household activities, and the lack of social services “making women strongly attached to their traditional domestic roles.” According to Tunisia’s Gender Profile in 2014, Tunisian women spend eight times more than men on housework activities, raising children, and taking care of the elderly.

Another reason for women’s low economic participation is that the public policies are “gender neutral” or “gender blind.” Tunisian women are overloaded in the workplace with a new kind of exploitation created by the capitalist system and, at the same time, are still burdened by household activities and child care. This is due to the absence of family-friendly flexible jobs, and the fact that Tunisia has not considered the new status of working-moms, by not providing reliable public transportation or adequate social services.

Tunisian women must recognize and rise up against discriminatory practices and problems, as they continue to see gender equality as a low priority. In a survey by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Tunisian women were asked what about the major problems they face in their daily lives. Only 0.5% responded, “reconciliation between work and family life,” claiming that “the heavy responsibility rests on women,” while 0.6 % believed “discrimination and exclusion of women” was a major problem.  Nonetheless, major problems do exist for women in Tunisia. National statistics show that almost 50% of Tunisian women have experienced violence (at least once in her life). Although the Ministry of Women, Family, Childhood and Elderly Affairs in Tunisia proposed laws to combat violence against women, the first shelter for abused women will open in March 2016.   In the NDI survey, when women were asked if they were satisfied with the State’s role in protecting women victims of violence, over half were either highly satisfied or satisfied with what was being done. These results highlight the gap between reality and perceptions and could explain why Tunisia has not addressed women’s issues yet.

A 21st Century Feminist Movement

When gender inequality is embedded in society and shapes Tunisians’ mindsets and behaviors, some people think that the change will come from the top; similar to what happened in Tunisia in the last 50 years ago, starting when President Habib Bourguiba pushed toward a progressive women and family code in 1956. But today’s government is not doing its best to get rid of the practices that are still used to enforce the lower status of women. From December 2014 until October 2015, the Tunisian Parliament voted in favor of only one bill allowing mothers to get a passport, or any other travel documents for their children, without a permit from the father. Only one bill passed and no other bills were proposed by Parliament regarding gender equality, as noted in this report. Some people will find this data as an opportunity to attack the efficiency of the parity law. Even though I believe in this law, I still believe that as long as our work is electing women in the position of power within existing social hierarchies, we should not expect much change. If the grassroots and top political leadership are not considering gender equality as a top priority issue, who will? I call for a vibrant, 21st century feminist movement.

Let me first emphasize the fact that being feminist is not about personal success as a woman – how smart a woman is or how high her job ranking. It is about joining a struggle that allows all women to overcome the structural barriers rooted in society.

Gender mainstreaming should shape the politics of the 21st century, and the feminist movement should and could make it happen. The gender approach can become part of all ministries and institutions by broadening the conversation about gender inequality. It should be expanded to include not only violence against women or women in the private sphere, but also about health policies, public transportation, urbanism, peace and security. A feminist movement should avoid the “women institutions” that isolate the women’s agenda and leave them without resources and power.

When we bring the broader conversation to the high level of policy and explain the big picture to the public, then gender issues will be taken seriously, from the core of each policy and political decisions to the ordinary, daily institutions’ activities. To do so, a 21st first century feminist movement should educate people about feminism and its objectives. Policy makers know “that it is not just the right thing to do but the smart thing” (Hillary Clinton). To succeed in this mission, feminism should make efforts to rebrand and innovate its own narrative. A 21stcentury feminism – one that is pragmatic, inspiring, inclusive, and constructive, coupled with a down-to-earth narrative, is capable of attracting both young girls and boys. But both the form and the content are very important.

The Tunisian feminist movement should invest more in research and evidence-based policies to learn how to better face hot-button issues and engage a broad audience in taking our agenda seriously. Gender inequality has to be adopted and promoted by political decisions, so feminism should be a political movement that asks the strategic questions that make a difference. It should also conceptualize and push for more reforms to achieve concrete results. These present-day results will give more credibility to the movement so we can advocate for radical fights for more profound structural changes in the future. It is also very important that the feminist movement embrace diversity. No one and no organization has a monopoly on feminist theory, even though they may share the same vision, paths, and strategies.

Feminism is about advocating for more opportunities for women so they can make their own choices and not be judged. It has never been a fight for what a woman should look like or what she must do. The first step is to stop viewing women as a homogenous group. Although all women suffer from discrimination, their experiences, backgrounds, and values differ, which makes each woman experience and react differently to oppression. This is a very important component to take into consideration. Furthermore, women are divided by social classes, and sometimes this divide allows women to exploit other women. For example, there is still much exploitation of women housekeepers who usually receive low wages. In addition, some women in positions of power, internalizing the patriarchy, close doors of opportunity for other women.

I am confident that we can bring new ideas and energy to the feminist movement in Tunisia. We can work hard to make it stronger, vibrant, and a movement of change. Let’s open the door to a new generation, and let’s present ourselves with pride. I am a proud feminist of the 21st century!

Ikram Ben Said is Fulbright Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Policies and Public Administration at University of Minnesota. She is also the founder and former President of the Tunisian NGO Aswat Nisaa (Voices of Women). This article was first published on iKNOW politics.