women of colour

May Musings - 08

Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

I write to you from the city of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. I’m on a rare excursion to a new country for the main purpose of pleasure rather than business: a privilege I treasure, Alhamdulilah, and one that I am lapping up with rich delight. It’s my first trip to a post-Soviet nation; an introduction to a whole new history which I know embarrassing little about. I look forward to that changing, inshallah!

Tonight won’t be the night I write about Georgia, however. Partially, this is due to only really having spent a few hours walking around the city, and what does one know of a place after only a few hours bar superficial observations like ‘people stare a lot’? I mean, girl - when you’re wearing bright mustard trousers and white sunglasses, what do you expect?

No. Today I write about two things on my mind. One, this brilliant article on the Castor Semenya case, written by a woman who formerly raced against her:

I competed for Australia in the 800m against Semenya at the 2009 World Athletics Championships in Berlin. Today I am convinced that the court of arbitration for sport’s decision to endorse rules aimed at excluding Semenya and other women athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone is the wrong one.

The author talks about how she initially was in favour of the decision to exclude Semenya, but later changed her mind, as a result of her sociology studies, an education in the history of these sorts of exclusions, and befriending women who have naturally high testosterone. Key was this final point, and it reminded me that nothing creates empathy and the potential to change minds like the deep simplicity of human connection. She goes on to say:

As a sociologist, I have now spent several years immersed in this  issue, interviewing elite track-and-field stakeholders from around the  world including athletes, coaches, officials, managers, team staff and  media personnel. In their accounts I have seen so many echoes of my own  experience in Berlin: an astounding lack of information, an absence of  alternative viewpoints, a fear of the unknown, weak leadership from  national and international governing bodies, and a stubborn refusal to  dig a little deeper and reflect critically on where their views come  from and what biases might be underlying them. The path of least  resistance is to turn away from information and perspectives that might  undermine one’s investment in the simplistic notion that sex is binary  and testosterone is unfair (at least in women).

A worthwhile piece, I thought. Check the rest out here. What do you think about the decision?

***

The second thing on my mind is related to an experience from this afternoon at a local Georgian mosque. I had no idea I’d find one, given the country is largely Orthodox. Perhaps, I thought, they might have a hostile attitude towards other faiths. On the contrary, the mosque had a clear sign pointing to it from the main street in the old town, loud and for all to see. Off I traipsed, hoping to catch the Maghrib prayer before the time was up.

At the front of the mosque stood a man who I immediately understood found me an object of interest. I quickly queried the whereabouts of the women’s wudhu section and after providing directions, he followed up with asking whether or not I was married, where I was from, and whether or not there would be a chance of hanging out the next day. I learnt he was a football player who’d lived in the city for two years, but he had obviously found it tough, especially during a month like Ramadan. So I was sympathetic to the idea that he was looking for friends. But it was also clear that he was interested in more, and this was a sentiment I neither shared, or was willing to entertain.

Herein lies the rub: in a simple world, I’d love to be able to help a Muslim brother out. I’d love to feel like I could make connections with folk on my travels who share the same faith and the same love of a football club (Liverpool!). But so often, I find myself forced to choose between my urge to connect with a fellow from the Ummah and my safety as a woman. Even more tragic is when the individual is a man of colour, as this man was, because my urge is to think well, life in Georgia must be lonely, and it’s hard to find community at the best of times…!

Ah, the interaction underscored the complications of living at intersections. It reminded me why the concept of intersectionality is so useful. Intersectionality names the challenge of say, being an Arab speaking, black, Muslim woman. The culmination of all these identities reveals that an appraisal of the world through each one of those lenses alone is not nearly enough to understand it’s complex lived reality.

***

In the end, I bid the man a farewell and kept him in my prayers. That’s all the capacity I have for the moment. Khair, inshallah. But it’s certainly a stark reminder of how much longer we have to go.

***

The old town

The old town

Sexual Harassment Comes At A Cost. So Does Speaking Up About It.

And the price is often steepest for the women who can least afford it.

This opinion piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

DAVID MCNEW VIA GETTY IMAGES  Demonstrators at the #MeToo Survivors’ March in Los Angeles last month. 

DAVID MCNEW VIA GETTY IMAGES

Demonstrators at the #MeToo Survivors’ March in Los Angeles last month. 

Why do people leave organizations? Reasons often include dealing with bad management, finding a higher paid role elsewhere, or not seeing opportunities for promotion and growth. Workplace sexual harassment is rarely treated as an issue of retention, but it affects morale and career satisfaction at least as drastically as an issue like a difficult boss. 

Sexual harassment is one of the many ways workplaces are a hostile environment for women, pushing them out of organizations and sometimes entire industries. And sexual harassment clearly reflects the power structures that define our society. It exacts a high cost on all individuals and communities, but the price is disproportionately shouldered by women who can least afford it. Women of color and other marginalized women are among those hit hardest by a culture that for generations has turned a blind eye to the epidemic.  

Workplace sexual harassment comes with a steep cost: the cost of participation.

A 2008 study by the American Psychological Association found a correlation between “work withdrawal” and the aftermath of sexual harassment for black women. And in a 2016 survey of the Chicago leisure and hospitality industry, where the majority of women are of color, 49 percent of housekeepers said a guest had answered the door naked or exposed themselves. The most damning result? Of those housekeepers, 56 percent said they did not feel safe returning to work after the incident.

The system was failing these women. Formal report numbers were low, partly because the workers didn’t believe it would make a difference to tell their stories. In fact, 43 percent of respondents said they knew someone who had reported harassment and seen nothing change. Unfortunately, their fears are well-founded. Two-third of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some sort of retaliation, according to a 2003 study cited by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And although times are changing, they might not be changing for women in certain workplaces just yet. 

When marginalized women, particularly women of color, need solidarity, their white sisters don’t often show up.

The outpouring of recent allegations of sexual harassment and subsequent consequences for some perpetrators have prompted many to say we’re in the middle of a turning point in how sexual harassment is dealt with. This is true for some women, but not for all.

When allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men turned Hollywood upside down, Jane Fonda pointed out the obvious: The women speaking out were being listened to because they were famous and white.

Fatima Goss Graves, the CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, agreed, saying, “Class and race and stature play into whether someone is believed.”

Ironically, the #MeToo movement was started a decade ago by black social activist Tarana Burke. It took Alyssa Milano, a white actress, using the hashtag for it to go viral ― among other white women, at least. We’ve seen this before, such as in the racism of the suffragettesFEMEN’s attempts to “liberate” Muslim women despite protests, and the exclusive nature of the Women’s March. When marginalized women, particularly women of color, need solidarity, their white sisters don’t often show up.

We have seen this play out in the cases of black actresses like Lupita Nyong’o and Aurora Perrineau. The implication is clear: Yes, women who allege sexual harassment and other forms of abuse are to be believed ― if they’re the right kind of woman. The majority of women don’t fit that criteria, and those who live and work at the intersections of marginalization ― whether due to race, religion or disability ― are often hardest hit by harassment. Unfortunately, they’re also the least supported. The eventual outcome is dismal.  

For women who are not famous, wealthy or otherwise influential, socioeconomic, cultural and historical disadvantages compound to make it more likely that harassment will occur and less likely that it will be taken seriously. 

The history of sexual exploitation through slavery has created a culture where black women are more likely to be sexually harassed but less likely to be perceived as victims. They are therefore less likely to report, and the cycle continues. Socioeconomic status exacerbates this vulnerability; the majority (58 percent, as of 2013) of low-income families in the U.S. are a racial or ethnic minority. Low-income women of color often lack bargaining power, face language and financial barriers to accessing legal services, and in some cases, are not even aware of their rights. Undocumented workers also face unique additional challenges, as fears of retaliation or deportation may deter them from taking legal action.

It is imperative to acknowledge that efforts to improve the lot of one group of women may only tangentially affect women in other groups.

It is imperative to acknowledge that efforts to improve the lot of one group of women may only tangentially affect women in other groups.

If we are truly interested in building a world where all women feel safe, supported and able to fully participate in their communities and workplaces, we must remember a rising tide does not lift every woman’s boat. We need to be proactive in our advocacy for low-wage women and women of color. We must ensure vulnerable women are provided adequate training, in the language they are most comfortable in, so they understand their rights. The more educated a workplace is, the less likely potential perpetrators will be to think they can get away with harassment. We need to find ways to support these women ― legally, financially, emotionally ― when action is taken.  

The #MeToo moment will be incomplete if it serves only the white, wealthy and otherwise privileged among us. Look around in your own workplace and make sure no woman is being overlooked. Failing to do so will not only affect the women as individuals, but will ultimately damage our workplaces, our communities and our societies. We will all be poorer for it.

Seeing yourself reflected...

It was my first night settling in. I wiggled into a comfortable nook in the couch, put my feet up on the edge of the coffee table and switched on the TV. 

...only to release a high pitched squeal.

Fatima Manji

There was a hijabi lady reading the news, in Britain! THERE WAS SOMEONE WHO KINDA LOOKED LIKE ME! And she wasn't even talking about terrorism, or women's oppression! 

My first instinct was to send a pic to my insta story, the next to tweet about it. I had to share my excitement, after all. 

That's honestly been the most remarkable thing thus far about this move. Seeing myself, reflected.

I can't quite explain what it is like to walk around a city - an English speaking city at that, which, for better or for worse, feels more like 'home' - and see myself in the faces of those around me. London is (visually, at least) truly multicultural in a way no other place I have been is. To think of myself as becoming part of that is something that feels remarkable, subhanallah.

It's delicious. I'm walking around and seeing hijabi women - of all the colours - wearing all the styles wander past me. I am yelling 'Al-Salamu Alaikum!!' to every single one of them, my toothy grin in their face.  They look at me with bewilderment, but that's fine. Their confusion increases my joy. Because who they are isn't unusual here, and I guess that means I am not unusual either. Who would have thought it would feel so good to be 'not-unusual'? I mean sure, I've only been here for a few days, so it might be hubris, and sure, I am proud of who I am wherever I am, and sure, I love standing out...

...but for the first time, I know what it's like to be one of the crowd.

To have people say 'oh you're from Sudan? I love Sudanese people!' instead of being the first Sudanese person they know.

To walk around and see my aunt, uncle, brother...

...to hear my aunt, uncle, brother, grandmother.

And to see them right alongside my neighbour, my boss, my colleagues.

What a gift. 

Subhanallah. 

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