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Violence Against Women: Interview of Lindsey Collen


The interview of Lindsey Collen below is the full original version of the one in L`Express of 25 November, 2009. She was introduced as "active member of LALIT and Muvman Liberasyon Fam", and the interview was in the context of the 16 days against violence against women. The Muvman Liberasyon Fam keeps a "Femicide Register" for deaths that women suffer, because they are women, or in part because they are women. The long and sad list has recently been added to by the death of Marie Ange Milazar, a sex worker murdered after having been tortured. Her suffering is made all the more poignant by the fact that she was 8-months pregnant. The three men arrested are very young, very poor, and some of the newspapers say that they are HIV-positive (and thus somehow taking revenge on the poor woman), and the family of one of the young men says he is under treatment for schizophrenia. LALIT presents its condoleances to Marie Ange Milazar`s family and friends. LALIT believes that it is high time that sex workers got full protection from the police, and that for this to happen, prostitutes cannot continue to be hounded out by police.

Question: What is the actual condition of women in the actual Mauritian society at all levels? the modern woman, the traditional woman, the prostitute, the housewife.

Lindsey Collen`s reply: Women, and by "women" I mean "all women", are still very much subject to patriarchy and to patriarchal controls. This patriarchal control manifests itself in hierarchies: the private sector business with its CEO ("Chief" being the key word in the CEO); the civil service with its "head" at the top, and its sub-heads and sub-heads, even more sharp in the police force, with its Commissioners, and "senior" this and "chief" that; NGO's with their "directors"; political parties with their "leader"; trade unions with their "negosyater"; newspapers with their redacteur en "chef"'; religious hierarchies with their Bishops and the like; mafia groups have their "roi"; and even the family with its "chefde famille" and sometimes still even a "chef du clan". These hierarchies are the mainstay of patriarchy. So, women, whether modern, traditional, a housewife, a nun, a prostitute, a student are constantly controlled by these hierarchies. The hierachies are crystallized in quite ruthless bureacracies, where the blind logic of bureaucracy rules. Should a few women rise within these structures, as indeed some do, it is within patriarchal structures that they rise. It does not change the structure that dominates women.

Patriarchal structures, it is interesting to note, make many men suffer, too. Not just women and children. When Mr. Naden Pakeeree lost his wife after she had had an abortion under the patriarchal law that still outlaws abortion since 1838, although she pays the ultimate price, he too suffers beyond all imagination. Mr. Suresh Dawaking, whose wife was killed by a hired rapist and killer, has suffered for years for his loss, and fought a long battle to get to the truth. Ms. Veronique Topize and Ms. Bindu Ramlogun have suffered acutely from the loss in police custody of their respective husbands: but their husbands were killed by a patriachal hierarchy. Killed in much the same manner as women who die from domestic violence: behind closed doors, and with the blame being supposedly on them. All this to say that patriarchal violence is a very harsh and dangerous phenomenon, and it is in everyone's interests to end its rule.

Q: What do women cry out for today? Que réclament les femmes aujourd`hui?
R: Women want a society that is organized in a less hierarchical way. This is a very real material desire, and it stems, not just from desire, but also from the fact that women still have part of our lives that exist outside of the existing patriarchal hierachies. We already live outside of patriarchy, with part of our lives. Women are still at the centre of the hearth. Notice the word "centre" not "chef". And a hearth has no hierarchy. A household might, but not a hearth. A woman today, in her hearth, shares food amongst her children with great care to be equal, or to benefit the weaker one. She does not withold food from the lazier child. And also, we women share our knowledge of everything from health to cooking without any money changing hands, without going into commercialized realms. We give away lullabies. We share recipes. We even run an illegal banking system called "sit", which has no hierarchy and no bureaucracy, and which exists today all over Mauritius. It is egalitarian. We would like society as a whole to be run rather more like this.

Q: What are the difficulties women face today? What are the various forms of violence the must face in day-to-day life?
R: Women face the violence of social inequality: most of us have no access to the land nor to food security. We are creatures of nature that have been ripped off mother earth to which we have a right to a common share. We, as women, are in charge of providing the food on the table for children and old people and often for young men, too, without access to decisions about the use to which land is put. The question of agrarian reform is of prime interest to women. This is of key concern at all women's meetings.

Women face the violence of all the patriarchal hierarchies I have mentioned, and at the level of daily reality, this means we are only allowed in public spaces with a permit. Not otherwise. That is to say, we cannot just wander around the public. We cannot just lean on railings. We have to be careful that the time is a time that the permit allows, if we are on the streets. We have to have a reasonto be in public. If we are attacked, people will ask, "What was she doing there?" or "Why was she there at that time?" They will not say "Why did that man attack someone for nothing?" Therefore, it follows from this mad logic, that when we are in public, we are open to wolf-whistling, groping, ridiculous propositions, and quite hostile eye-contact, in short, to harrassment. It is not easy to trust anyone in public. If you are a woman who is known to many people, you are given slightly more protection against this ambiant violence, but then again you may be open to the most vicious of attacks in leaflets, as I was this year. If you are young, harrassment is worse, but it does not disappear as you age. If you are a sex worker, you have much less protection. In fact, sex workers complain of a high level of male violence in their every day work. They are merely seeking living. While the men's role in visiting them is the pathetic one: they have to pay someone to have sex. Prostitution is indeed mainly a man's problem.

But there is violence, perhaps the most violence, within the family. Husbands and in-laws maltreat women, often with physical violence. This violence takes place behind closed doors. And the victim is blamed for it. The family, as an institution, is far too weak to respond to the needs of its members: for a start it has, in nearly all cases, no access to land or to capital. Yet, it is glorified and sentimentalized, while it implodes and, in its crisis, exacts violence from mainly women and children.

Q: Quels sont les projets en cours afin d`améliorer la condition de la femme à Maurice? Dans le monde?

R: The movement for women's emancipation - world-wide for some 200 years and in Mauritius for some 60 years - is a long process of liberation. The most recent upturn in this struggle was in the 1960s and 70's, when women demanded total liberation. Our demands for emancipation and liberation in downturns get mis-interpreted and we, as the women's movement, tend to lose control over expression of the demands. We find that the press, for example, will interpret our desire for equality as a desire to rise within patriarchal structures. This is common world-wide, and is a form of "recuperation" of a movement. The term "gender", itself, for example does not come from the women's struggle, but is a form of recuperation of the movement for emancipation, into something more tame, i.e. gender equity. This is not our demand. We want equality, and equality includes equal access of all human beings to decision-making on land and capital, for example. We do not want an equal proportion of inequality.

Let's take another example of this recuperation: we want women to be less dominated by household routines, so that we are free to be active citizens. We certainly do not want men to be drawn into this drudgery more. This means our demand is for the socialization of as many household tasks as possible. The women's movement is not interested in policing men to do their share of housework.

A third example is that women want to be recognised by society as the centre of the home and the hearth."Society", in the present epoch, often means the "state". So, we want child-support from the state, we want housing for every woman on the planet and this is often from the state, too. We do not want the Thatcherist politics of laws that run after biological fathers to pay for children they may detest: this is a major cause of increased violence against women and children. Of course individual men "should" be nice people. But it is, once again, not the work of the women's movement to run after and act as policemen relative to men who fail to look after their families. Society as a whole is who should look after all families, and all children. Any child, as South Africans say, is my child.

And to round off with a final example: women want to put forward demands that bring out the humanity in us, and in everyone in society. When we suffer from rape and sexual violence, for example, we demand that, instead of having to go to the very pinnacle of patriarchal hierarchies, the police station, we go to the hospital, a place for healing people. We have won this demand. Any woman or any person who has suffered sexual violence now has a first port of call: the hospital. There, a police officer, a woman, will take any statement you may choose to give. In other countries the women's movement has made the mistake of calling for more woman police officers: this is an erroneous demand relative to rape. It causes the State to strengthen a patriarchal structure that it is not in favour of women to strengthen.
Q: Do you have any personal idea of how to enhance or improve women condition and value in the modern society?
R: This is something for which there is no short cut: we women have to mobilize. As we come together and call for our emancipation, as we re-define our programs, as we re-work our manifestos (just as the Muvman Liberasyon Fam is doing during the present 12-month period), so we already emancipate ourselves. It is not something someone else can do for us.