Obiter Dictum

Notes on the adventure of life.

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When “defeat” is a four-letter word

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Flemish athlete Kris Bosmans came back from a stroke to become the country’s leading para-cyclist.

 

The handsome, broad shouldered young man that fills the front door looks nothing like a Paralympic athlete. His easy smile and sparkling green eyes welcome me as he walks me confidently to the dining room table where the interview will take place. Yet Kris Bosmans (32) is exactly that: a top Belgian para-cyclist and one of the country’s chances at a gold medal at the upcoming Paralympics in London in August.

But Kris wasn’t always an athlete with a disability. He started cycling at the age of fifteen and in 1998, at the age of eighteen, was one of the top fifteen riders in the junior category and one of the fastest sprinters of his generation.

Then the cruel hand of fate struck.

“I’ll never forget that day: Saturday, July 14th, 1998.  I’d just finished the Ghent-Menen race.  It was seven o’clock; I was sitting on the couch in my trainer’s livingroom when suddenly I felt the left side of my mouth go slack. I remember the voices of people around me, as if in glass bubble, asking me if I was all right. I could hear them but I couldn’t respond. That’s when my trainer called the ambulance.”

A wry smile breaks the thoughtful look on his face. “In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, sirens screaming, I remember thinking: ‘I’ll be back on my bike tomorrow’.”

But nothing was further from the truth.

The verdict was harsh: cerebral thrombosis, commonly known as a stroke. This occurs when a bloodclot forms in one of the arteries that supply the brain; the clot blocks the artery and keeps it from functioning. “The first question they asked my trainer when we got to the hospital was: “Is he taking doping?” Can you imagine? You’re eighteen and they suspect you of taking doping?”

In Kris’ case the stroke was due to a hereditary condition caused by elevated levels of a non-protein amino acid called homocysteine. Kris spells homocysteine for me on the corner of my notebook. It is only then that I notice the awkward way in which he holds the pen and the child-like scribble it produces. “I used to be left-handed,” he shrugs, “but now of course I have to write with my right hand.”

He shows me his left arm, which he holds close to his chest, the hand curled to a tight ball. “I can’t stretch my fingers fully,” he says showing me the effort it takes to uncurl them, “and I also don’t really walk very normal.” Seeing my look of disbelief, he gets up and slowly paces back and forth before me. “Sometimes I drag my left foot, especially when I’m tired. And my arm, of course you can see it in the way I hold my arm,” he adds as he sits back down. “They told me I have cerebral palsy. I have less than half the power in my left leg than I do in my right. And there’s the spasticity in my left hand and foot, of course,” he shrugs.

After his stroke, Kris would spend two months in hospital, another four months in a rehabilitation centre and a total of two years recovering. “I remember the first time I got back on my bike, my mom and dad cycling alongside me… My mom just rode away from me!” he exclaims, the look of complete horror clear in his eye. “Imagine that! And she averages just 15 km/h!”

But giving up is not in his nature and the urge to cycle again drove him mercilessly. “I couldn’t accept that I’d never be able to cycle again so when my therapist said ‘Do ten repetitions’, I would do twenty.”

At first, Kris refused to face his new reality. Unwilling to accept the new limitations put on him by his body – the altered grasp of his left hand, his right side having to compensate for the lack of strength and coordination in his left, Kris took up his regular place at the start of Belgium’s top races for juniors.

“I tried for two years to compete as normal athlete against all the guys I’d grown up with cycling.” He falls silent; a muscular hand sweeps invisible crumbs off the table. He stares out at the summer green hills framed in the floor-to-ceiling windows. “The hardest part was coming to terms with the fact that I would never again be able to reach the level of physical excellence I had before my stroke; that I would never compete at the top level of cycling.”

He calls the years between his twenty-second and his twenty-fifth birthdays his “difficult years”.  “On the one hand I had to come to terms with the fact that I’d never become a professional cyclist and on the other hand I just wasn’t willing to admit defeat,” he says.

Kris’s world changed when he saw a documentary about Belgian para-cyclist Jan Boyen, who won bronze at the 2008 Paralympics in Peking.

“He is such an inspirational athlete. When I heard his story I immediately contacted the Flemish League for Handicapped Sport (VLG). I wanted to know how the handicap categories worked. They sent me to a neurologist at the University Hospital in Antwerp, who did a whole lot of tests to determine in which category I would fall. I’m “C3” (“C” stands for cycling. Cyclists with Cerebral Palsy fall in the C3 category). Para-cyclists are divided into five categories: C1 are those with the most severe physical impairments, those with a C5 classification have the least limitations. All riders in all categories ride on normal bikes though,” adds Kris.

Kris first competed as a category C3 para-cyclist in 2009. It soon became clear that his talent was still there, just waiting to be tapped. Within months, he’d won six races. Soon, a ninth place at a world cup race in Spain followed. A few months later, he was Belgian champion. Before the 2010 season was over, Kris would become World Champion.

Today, Kris is a full-time athlete. He has a Bloso statute (the official statute given to all Belgian professional athletes) and a few sponsors. “It won’t make me rich, but at least I’m doing what I really love,” shrugs Kris, who quiet his job as sales manager for a large pharmaceutical company in 2009.

There are 88 days* left to the start of the Paralympics in London on August 29th.  Belgium announced the final selection for its Paralympic team at the end of June. One of those places belongs to Kris.

He nods toward his bike leaning against the garage wall, ready for his second training of the day, scheduled to start as soon as we’re done. “The next race is a world cup road race in Madrid. Then a week of rest and then we begin the preparation for the Paralympics in August.” His goal? “Gold, of course!” he laughs.

What’s after the Paralympics, I wonder. “My trainer tells me that I’m only at the beginning of my career. My strength has improved fifteen percent each year for the past three years, so I’m going to do this for as long as I can.”

And when he can no longer race, what will he do then?

Kris glances at the clock on the wall behind him, at his bike outside the window. “Then I hope to become a part of the entourage of a top para-cyclist,” he sighs, as he stands, clearly impatient to conclude the interview.

He walks me to the front door and we say our goodbyes. Before I’m in the car, the door has closed. I watch him walk up the driveway toward his bike. He really meant it when he said: “All that matters is the bike. Just let it be me and the bike.”

(Published in Flanders Today, July 2012. View here.)

Written by sabineclappaert

July 18, 2012 at 5:53 pm

The Undeniable Importance of Denial

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Oscar Wilde famously said: “Illusion is the first of all pleasures”. I don’t want to bump chests with the larger-than-life Mr. Wilde, but I think he got it wrong on that one. Denial is the first of all pleasures.  And having just turned 36 (ok, ok, damnit: 37), I know a thing or two about the pleasures, and necessities, of denial.

Let me give an example of unequivocal denial that all those over thirty will relate to. (Those under thirty can skip this paragraph; you won’t know what I’m talking about – yet.).

Those over thirty will know the guilty pleasure of bumping into an old high-school friend you haven’t seen since platform shoes were in fashion (the first time round), and with a pang of glee noticing the first wrinkles fanning their eyes, those extra good-living kilos that pad out their face a little too ruddily. And while your eyes stealthily scan their face the way a thousand-watt searchlight scans a midnight sea for survivors, you quietly think to yourself: “Boy, I’m glad I didn’t age the way they did. At least I still look pretty much the way I did at 25”.

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is denial in its purest form.

But not all forms of denial are born equal, and not all afford us the same measure of pleasure.

First there’s pragmatic, necessary denial. The accountant of denials, this rational form of denial protects us against the harsh, inescapable realities of life: the cruel ending of love, sky-high taxes and sagging breasts.

Then there’s also a second kind of denial: the impractical, non-essential kind. Now don’t get me wrong: it is not because this denial is non-essential that it is therefore less valuable. Au contraire: non-essential denial can be very essential indeed. This irrepressible dancing harlot of denials is every girl’s best friend.

It’s the kind of denial that assures us our jeans don’t fit any tighter than they did last month, that we’ve just left them in the dryer a tad too long.  It’s the kind of denial that convinces us to break the cardinal fashion rule “no miniskirts after 30” because well… it is summer and we do don’t look a day over 28. It’s the kind of denial that whispers soothingly that just one more cookie won’t make the difference, or with a reassuring shoulder pat reminds us that a glass of red wine a day is good for the heart. It’s also the kind of denial that cheers us on to climb a bar counter at 2am to do the Two-Tequila Boogie with a boy barely out of college, knowing we have an important 8am meeting the next morning.

It’s the kind of denial that keeps our best friends looking as youthful to us at 36 as they did at 22; the denial that keeps our hips slim and our husbands from growing beer bellies. It’s the this denial that keeps our parents from becoming senior citizens and the one that keeps us animatedly crooning  “Like A Virgin” in the presence of our preteen son.

But most importantly it’s the kind of denial that gives us  the courage to backpack across India at forty, climb Mount Kilimanjaro at fifty or sell the house to motor along Route 66 in an open-top Alfa Romeo Spider at sixty-five.

This denial is the racy red lingerie, the little black whip and the fluffy pink handcuffs in our pragmatic underwear drawer of life. It allows us to dream crazy dreams and take courageous decisions, regardless of the realities of our age or circumstances.

It is this priceless denial that keeps us kicking up our skirts to dance on the bar counter of life – at thirty-six, fifty-six and yes, also at seventy-six.

(English original – Dutch version published in De Morgen, 2010)

Written by sabineclappaert

July 12, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Altered States – living at the boundaries of consciousness.

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Hello? Can you hear me? Yes, in here, in your head. You can? Good, that means you’re conscious.

It may sound strange, but you are the only one who knows for sure that you are conscious. Of course, you can let others know by talking or interacting with them. But what if you were conscious and unable to express it?  What if you were involved in an accident resulting in severe head trauma and were pronounced to be in a ‘vegetative state’. But what if you could in fact see and hear us, but you couldn’t tell or show us? How would you let the outside world know you’re in there?

It is a question that keeps people like Professor Dr Steven Laureys, head of the Coma Science group at the Liege Hospital and Dr Adrian Owen of the Cambridge Sciences Unit awake at night. And rightly so: an estimated 41 percent of patients diagnosed as being in a vegetative state were diagnosed wrongly and are in fact, to a lesser or greater degree, conscious. The problem? Consciousness isn’t an all-or-nothing phenomenon.

Consciousness consists of two components: arousal (wakefulness) and awareness (of the environment and the self). And although several scoring systems have been developed to assess consciousness, no machine on earth can measure it objectively. Consciousness doesn’t have clear boundaries: where does it begin and where – or when – does it end?

Consciousness remains one of life’s greatest mysteries. How do we quantify it and how does it change in altered states of being: sleep, hypnosis, anesthesia, coma or in a ‘vegetative state’, a term used to describe patients that are awake but unaware of themselves or their environment?

“The vegetative state is one of the least understood and most ethically troublesome conditions in modern medicine,” notes Professor Owen. To complicate matters, patients in a vegetative state also look awake: their eyes are open, they breathe without assistance and can move their head, body or limbs and even grunt, smile, cry or groan occasionally, albeit always as nonpurposeful, reflexive response to external stimuli.

But how can we be sure a reflex is not in fact a voluntary action? Owen and Laureys caution: “The diagnosis of vegetative state should be questioned when there is any degree of sustained visual pursuit, consistent and reproducible visual fixation or response to threatening gestures.”

And if one showed none of these promising signs, would that exclude any possibility of consciousness? Not in the case of this 23-year-old traffic accident victim.

Let’s reenact an experiment to measure the conscious awareness of the 23-year-old woman, who was declared to be in a vegetative state after sustaining severe traumatic brain injury after an accident. As in the experiment, a fully conscious person (you and I in this case) will be the ‘control’ to help scientists measure activity in the brain of both the ‘patient’ and the ‘control’.

Ready?

First, imagine if you will, playing a game of tennis. See it? Now imagine visiting all the rooms in your house, starting from the front door. Done?

Here’s the startling result: scans showing the brain activity of the young woman would be indistinguishable from yours. Her brain would show activity in exactly the same areas as yours just has.

“Despite fulfilling the clinical criteria for a diagnosis of vegetative state, this patient retained the ability to understand spoken commands and to respond to them through her brain activity, rather than through speech or movement. Moreover, her decision to cooperate with the authors by imagining particular tasks when asked to do so represents a clear act of intention, which confirmed beyond any doubt that she was consciously aware of herself and her surroundings,” states Owen.

Being aware but being unable to express it via any other means than brain activity.

There’s a term for it: locked-in syndrome. I call it a living nightmare.

(Published in The Word magazine, The Grey Album, June 2012)

Written by sabineclappaert

June 10, 2012 at 3:59 pm

FEMEN: Proud to Protest.

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At first sight, few people would mark the group of topless young women protesting in the streets of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, as outspoken feminists. Garlands of flowers adorn their waist-length hair, strategically thrown forward to cover their bare breasts. But the black graffiti-style slogans that cover their arms and bellies make it crystal clear: “Ukraine is not a brothel” and “Women Power”.

Although we are naked when we protest, our faces tell people ‘We are fighters’. 

Founded in Kiev in 2008 by a group of university students, FEMEN quickly became famous for their topless protests against prostitution, sex tourism and sexism, which is still rife in Ukraine today. The group has been in the news a lot lately with protests in Milan, Istanbul and Moscow and most recently to bring attention to the sloppy investigation and suspected nepotism surrounding the horrifying rape of eighteen-year-old Oksana Makar by three Ukrainian young men. The attack left Makar with burn wounds across more than half of her body. Surgeons had to amputate her arm and both feet to save her life.

Oksana Mahar’s case is indicative of a much larger problem: women are often treated as a mere commodity in Ukraine’s patriarchal society – a fact that is exacerbated by the difficult economic climate, and human trafficking, especially for sex work, remains a serious problem. Evidence exists from a variety of sources of the widespread and increasing nature of the problem: it is estimated that 420,000 women have been trafficked out of the country in the last few years alone.

“Conducting reforms is not women’s business”

FEMEN also wants to tackle the negative gender stereotypes that persist in the Ukraine, whose prime minister famously defended forming an all-male cabinet with the argument that “conducting reforms is not women’s business” and where the legal minimum age for marriage is 17 years for women and 18 years for men, although Ukrainian courts can authorize marriage from the age of 14 years if it is clear that “the marriage is in the person’s interests”.

The country’s governing bodies today still reflect its entrenched patriarchy: about 7% of the Ukrainian parliament is women (compared to 22% in the British and 45% in the Swedish parliaments) and while quotas have been debated, they have never been approved.

FEMEN founder Anna Hutsol (1983), one of the oldest members of the protest group, is clear about her reasons for founding the organization: “FEMEN is based on the idea that girls need to be active participants in society. And by “active”, I don’t just mean “active enough to land themselves husbands”. We want more women to develop a social consciousness”, she told a Russian newspaper, adding that FEMEN is about helping to educate women about their rights.

While the organization has to date focused mainly on women’s rights in Ukraine, its aim is to become the biggest and most influential feminist movement in Europe. Last month, the young women lead a highly publicized topless protest at Italy’s Milan Fashion Week, protesting the evils of the fashion industry with body-painted slogans such as “Fashion = fascism” and “No anorexia”. Shortly after, they took to the streets of Moscow to protest against Putin’s reelection. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov called them “young silly girls”. A few days after the protest, three members were arrested and sentenced to twelve days in jail for “disorderly conduct”.

The only way to be heard

But the organization, which counts approximately 300 members – of which only about 20 demonstrate topless –, has been widely criticized for its controversial manner of gaining attention for their cause and are often accused by fellow Ukrainian feminists for not contributing to a positive image of Ukrainian feminism.

“This is the only way to be heard in this country,” retort FEMEN members, who refuse to apologize for their behavior and who incidentally don’t like to be called feminists.

“We use eroticism in our approach and our dress. That’s not sanctioned by feminism”, Hutsol told Natalia Antonova of Moscow News. “People sneer at us all the time: “You’re against the sex industry, but you are all dressing like sex-workers”. But Ukrainian sex workers by and large don’t own their own bodies. That’s not how it works with us. When one of our girls went topless on Independence Square, she was doing it as a radical act. And it gets people talking.”

But FEMEN membership has its price, just ask journalism student Inna Shevchenko (21), who joined FEMEN three years ago. “In the beginning I was worried about joining FEMEN. I knew my parents and friends wouldn’t understand; I knew I could lose my place at university, I knew I could lose my job”, Shevchenko told WNN. She did lose her job. “Because I protested against the government. I don’t live in a country that is interested in democracy. That’s when I joined FEMEN full-time.”

Three years later, FEMEN counts supporters in The Netherlands, Germany, Italy, USA and even Tunis. It wants to launch a “women’s revolution” in 2017, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, which is part of the Great Russian revolution of 1917.

“I truly believe that we have already started a women’s revolution,” says Shevchenko. “More and more women are realizing that they must stand up for what they believe in, that they must protest. Little by little, men are starting to take women’s revolution seriously too. I truly believe that by 2017 we will really see results.

Little money but a lot of passion still goes a long way. “We don’t have money and people who can help us”, Hutsol said in an interview recently. “We have only our body and mind so we are ready to leave our clothes for our rights…”.

But regardless of their critics or the strong-arm tactics of the Ukrainian secret service, which once visited Hutsol’s apartment in the middle of the night for “preventative talks” and threatened to “break arms and legs”, the women refuse to go quietly. They find support and funding wherever they can: in their 30,000 Facebook fans, in the funding from a German DJ known as ‘DJ Hell’, by selling trinkets online and by making and selling paintings made using their bare breasts.

While many debate FEMEN’s legitimacy, the women continue to stand up for what they believe, and they’re doing it their way. “You have to experience protesting topless yourself to understand it,” Shevchenko tells WNN. “We have created a very iconic way of protesting naked: we always tell the girls to stand in an aggressive pose holding posters above their heads. We tell them to look straight ahead and never to look down. Although we are naked when we protest, our faces tell people ‘We are fighters’. Screaming, aggressive naked women make people very uncomfortable. Society always portrays nudity as something soft and nice, something enjoyed in private. By taking it to the streets as part of our protests we are redefining nudity and we are taking our bodies back.”

Will she still be protesting topless when she’s fifty, I ask Shevchenko. “We have more and more older women joining FEMEN as activists each day,” she smiles. “We now even have a sixty-three year-old Ukranian activist that protests topless. Yes, I can see myself doing this in forty years too.”

Then she falls silent. It crackles across the line between Kiev and Brussels. “I heard on the news today that Oksana is not breathing by herself anymore, that machines are doing it. They’re saying that if she does not improve soon, doctors will face a very hard time of making her live.”*

“Every day there are many such cases of domestic violence or brutal sexism in the Ukraine. But nobody dares talk about it. Everybody just keeps quiet about it, that’s part of our culture.”

But leaving the country for more liberal shores is not an option, even for an intelligent, educated young globetrotter such as Shevchenko. “I can’t just leave. That would be like leaving a person who is dying. This country is dying. I can’t simply run away and leave it. I have to scream, I have to make sure everybody knows what is happening here. That is why I am FEMEN.”

Published on Women’s News Network, May 2012

*Oksana Makar died of heart failure at the end of March.

Written by sabineclappaert

May 23, 2012 at 6:02 pm

Smooth Operator [interview with a hostage negotiator]

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The press office of the Federal Police was clear: we could only interview him by phone. He would not give us his real name and photos were out of the question. I could leave my number. “Someone” would call to arrange the interview. “Someone” called, early one morning a few days later, safely hidden behind a private number. His voice came down the line smooth and rich like amber. “I can’t do Tuesday or Wednesday,” he wiped my suggestion off the table, “But I can do Thursday at four; in person, at headquarters”. Negotiations had begun.

Deep inside the maze of red brick buildings that form the headquarters of Belgium’s Federal Police force sits a squat two-story block that houses special ops. In a cramped office on the second floor, behind a cluttered desk and surrounded by phones, piles of files and whiteboards covered with cryptic notes, sits Vincent*, his muscular arms folded confidently behind his head. “Hostage negotiators are part of the observation unit,” he begins. “There’s also the intervention unit. But those are the guys that smash through a window; we’re the guys that gently open it,” he grins.

To most of us, the murky world of hostage negotiators is embodied by Denzel Washington in the film The Negotiator. Vincent too, is limited in what he can reveal. “There aren’t many hostage negotiators in Belgium,” he tells me the number, off the record. “But what you see in the film isn’t far from the truth. In a hostage situation, the negotiator always has a ‘buddy’ that hears everything, scribbles down extra questions and helps make sure we don’t miss a thing. Then there’s the back-up team.” How many people make up the team and what they do exactly, he can’t tell me. “One thing’s for sure: negotiators aren’t cowboys that work outside the law. Everything is strictly agreed before we begin.” The things Vincent won’t tell me I manage to find out via other sources. The negotiation process, the techniques or the fact that there are two types of hostage situations: a “soft crisis situation” in which the perpetrator is alone, his relationship to the victim is personal and his state of mind emotional and impulsive, and the “hard situation” with multiple perpetrators whose behaviour is rational and calculated and whose relationship to the hostages is purely functional.

Most of the hostage situations Vincent has worked on were ‘soft’ ones. Situations that spiral out of control spontaneously and in which the most dangerous phase is the emotional beginning, when impulsive violence is most likely to occur. “A husband that suddenly holds a knife to his wife’s throat, for instance”, Vincent explains. “In such cases active listening skills can solve a lot. In essence, we then take on the role of crisis counsellor.”

Hard crisis situations are a completely different ballgame. Cases such as the kidnapping of Belgian politician Paul Vanden Boeynants by a criminal gang that demanded 30 million Belgian francs, for instance. “These situations are risky from beginning to end,” explains Vincent. “These perpetrators see victims purely as instruments to help them get exactly what they want. They play an ‘all-or-nothing’ game.”

“The most important factor in any negotiation is the credibility of the negotiator,” says Vincent, fixing my gaze steadily. “Being caught telling a lie, no matter how small, can undermine the entire operation. That’s why we never promise something we can’t deliver.” “Our first priority is making sure we get the victim out safely,” he stresses and research has indeed shown that negotiations will lead to casualties in only one percent of cases, while hostage situations terminated by physical intervention will result in injury or death in 70 percent of all cases.

But not all negotiations end well. “Unpredictable people, someone who has taken drugs for instance, are hardest to deal with. Like the guy we found sitting on a golf course at 5am with two guns to his head. We almost had him convinced to put down the guns, and then he said ‘before I give you the guns, I just want to do one more line (of cocaine or speed)’. That’s when I knew: it’s all over. We ran for him, but we didn’t make it.” Silence spreads through the room to blanket his story. Finally, he shrugs. “We’re not therapists. Once we have defused the situation, we leave.” “It doesn’t always work out. And even if it does… We come back, we debrief and we move on. That’s how we can keep going.”

[published in The Word magazine, December 2011]


 

Written by sabineclappaert

December 2, 2011 at 2:54 pm

Mama Africa: midwife Esther Madudu on delivering babies by the light of a mobile phone

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Ugandan midwife Esther Madudu (31) knows the dusty plains of the Soroti district in eastern Uganda like the back of her hand. She has lived there all her life, she has walked its trails and knows what the vast distances of Africa mean to the reality of its inhabitants. “I was eleven when I saw a woman deliver her baby next to the road,” she tells me.

The incident made a huge impression on the young girl, who decided to become a midwife. “I decided I had to save mothers and babies,” she adds.

Saving mothers and babies is proving more than a full-time job for Esther, who now lives next to the local hospital, in a house she shares with three other families, where she works as one of two midwives that attend to the district’s pregnant women.

Esther gets up every morning at 5:30 to prepare breakfast for herself and her two young children. She then also prepares their lunch and dinner. “I don’t have time to come back home during the day so I prepare everything before I go to work,” she tells me.

Some days are busier than others and on the really busy ones, Esther can see up to forty women in a day. “And you know that more babies are born at night, so I have to be ready all the time,” she adds.

But things are looking up: the hospital now has a doctor and Esther has heard rumors of an ambulance. “Everything you take for granted in western hospitals, we don’t have,” she tells me. “No electricity, no running water. It’s hard to encourage a woman to push with a mobile phone clenched between your teeth to cast some light,” she smiles ruefully.

I meet Esther in northern France, where she is attending the Women’s Forum Global Meeting to launch AMREF’s “Stand Up for African Mothers” campaign, which will aim to educate another 30,000 midwives throughout Sub-Saharan Africa by 2015.

In the glaring stage lights of the assembled international press, Esther sits, surrounded by a professor, a lanky ex-Bond Girl who acts as AMREF spokesperson, the Ugandan Minister of health and other dignitaries associated with the ambitious project.  She sits calmly, her hands folded neatly in her lap, her eyes scanning the audience from behind plain wire-rimed glasses. Swathed in a sunny orange sarong, her face framed by a turban with a cheeky bow, she is an exotic peacock amongst the demure grey of the Western European delegation.

Everyone on the panel speaks; of the need to educate local communities, of the urgency in building decent medical facilities, of the hardships they have witnessed on their trips to Africa.

When Esther is handed the microphone, her voice booms confidently through the darkened hall.

“I came here to stand up for the voiceless mothers of Africa,” Esther begins, murmured conversations dying down to hear her speak. “When people ask me: ‘What can we do to help you do your job?’ I answer: I need more of me. Every year, more than 200,000 women in Sub-Saharan Africa die during pregnancy or childbirth, just because medical care was too expensive or difficult to reach.”

The facts present a harsh reality: only 28% of all health centres have the required supplies and equipment to offer basic emergency obstetric care, while 32% of hospitals in the districts have the supplies, equipment and staff to offer patients caesarean sections.

Women living in remote rural areas are the most at risk: often there is little or no access to qualified health personnel and well equipped facilities. “The only medicine we have to give women is ‘Verbacane’,” quips Esther. Whereas access to skilled midwives, antibiotics, obstetricians and an operating theatre should complications arise are taken for granted in the developed world, in Africa they are regarded as luxuries.

“But we can fix this,” Esther implores, “if we invest in building proper health facilities, educate women to come to our clinics for check-ups and when they go into labor and if we can train more midwives, we can fix this.”

After the press conference and official signing of the campaign’s petition to applause and flashing cameras, in a quiet corner away from the crowds, dignitaries and PR people, Esther and I sit down to talk.

It is Esther’s first time outside Uganda. It was also her first time on an airplane. She flew – alone – from Kampala via Nairobi to Paris. “I’ve never seen an airport like that one in Nairobi,” she shakes her head in disbelief. “So big and so busy! But I told myself: ‘Esther, don’t panic. Just do one thing at a time.’ And so here I am,” she smiles.

We talk of her job and what her perfect day looks like (one in which none of the women she attends to is HIV positive), of flying and the feeling take-off leaves in one’s stomach, of a wayward husband and two kids that should have been three. “I am here because I want the world to understand the importance of midwives in Africa. When I was 29, I lost a baby because the only two midwives at our hospital were in the theatre busy delivering babies. There was no one left to look after those of us in labor. My baby died because it went into distress and couldn’t be delivered quick enough. That is no reason for a baby to die…”

A moment of silence cocoons us; Esther is lost to her memory, I am silent, helpless to offer any meaningful words. “I don’t want that to happen to any woman. The lives of those women and babies are in my hands,” she concludes.

As AMREF’s PR representative walks over to whisk Esther off to lunch, I ask whether she has bought any presents to take back home to her family. She shakes her head, eyes cast to the ground. “No, I don’t have my own money here so I can’t buy presents.” An uncomfortable silence follows as I realize that my question spotlights my own comfortable western life. “But they’ll be so happy to see me when I get back home, that is my present to them!” she beams.

More information on the Stand Up for African Mothers campaign can be found here: http://www.amref.org/info-centre/stand-up-for-african-women-and-children/

 

[published on Women’s News Network, November 2011]

Written by sabineclappaert

November 25, 2011 at 2:54 pm

How to get rape pages off Facebook? Simple. Let your fingers do the talking.

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It’s being debated all over the internet: should Facebook remove pages with titles such as “You know she’s playing hard to get when you’re chasing her down an alleyway” or the more violent versions that invite certain people to “sit on a dagger”.

There are those for, and those against. Facebook equates it to telling a rude joke at the pub and those in favour of keeping the pages online say it’s all about having a sense of humour. Those that want the pages taken down, on the other hand, argue that there is nothing funny about rape.

Jane Osmond, a contributor to Women’s Views on News and campaigner for the UK petition to have the pages taken down, said that “maybe as a society we need to progress the dialogue about what is freedom of speech and what responsibilities do we have to certain groups of people. It almost has to reach a critical mass before there’s a change. So, for instance, you cannot make racist comments now. I want to see the same thing about rape.”

Ms Osmond, of course, is right. It is a fundamental debate that must be held across society. But it is also, as she says, about critical mass. And we forget that we already have ‘critical mass’.

We don’t have to debate with Mr Zuckerberg. We simply need to teach him rule number one of old-school commerce: the client is always right. And for Mr Zuckerberg, women are his most important clients.

Fifty-eight percent of all Facebook users are women. Facebook would be a virtual ghost town without women. “Women perform Facebook status and profile updates more regularly, comment more, add more photos and click the Like button more than men. If it were not for the constant feminine energy fuelling Facebook on a daily basis, the site would be dead,” notes online magazine Smedio

Well it’s quite simple then, isn’t it.

Facebook prides itself on having more than 800 million active users. If more than 400 million of those users, the most active users to boot, deactivated their accounts until the rape pages had been removed, the argument would be settled swiftly, exactly the way we did it in ‘the old days’: by hitting them were it hurts and taking our business elsewhere.

It is a lesson the young Mr Zuckerberg is ripe to learn.

Written by sabineclappaert

October 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Profile of a revolutionary: Maryam Al-Khawaja

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Image via The Atlantic: Maryam in Manama before leaving the country / Twitter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Earlier this year a wave of revolutions rolled across the Middle East. Orchestrated via text messages  on BlackBerries and call-outs on Facebook and Twitter, many of the uprisings were driven by young  people no longer willing to tolerate their country’s repressive politics or flagrant disregard for basic  human rights.

One of the most vocal proponents of human rights throughout the region is 24-year old Bahraini  woman, Maryam Al-Khawaja. In a region where women are still expected to defer to men, Al-  Khawaja refuses to go quietly. The daughter of Bahrain’s most famous human rights activist and the  current head of foreign relations for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, the organization founded  by her father, Al-Khawaja travels the globe demanding attention for her cause.

But the life of a human rights activist is never easy, nor without danger. Returning to Bahrain to  participate in the protests earlier this year, the threat of arrest forced Al-Khawaja to flee the country in  early March.
A few weeks later, her father was sentenced to life imprisonment for anti-government propaganda, a fact she learned when a journalist called to get her response.

She receives regular death threats.

She has not seen her family since early March and heard her father’s voice for the first time since his arrest last Friday, when her mother put him on speakerphone while Al-Khawaja called her sister, who sat beside her mother.“I only heard his voice for a few seconds but that gave me so much strength,” she told me on the phone from the US, where she continues to fight for the rights of the Bahraini people.

I wanted to know more about the woman behind the revolutionary and caught up with Al-Khawaja recently.

Your family is Shia Muslim but you grew up in Denmark. How do you reconcile an upbringing in the West with your Muslim heritage?
Even though I was raised in the west, I was brought up with the values of Islam. What many people don’t know is that Islam is a religion that allows you to ask questions, so my parents encouraged us to question things and investigate other religions before making a choice.
Reconciling my upbringing in the west with my Muslim heritage only became difficult when I returned to Bahrain in 2001.
Going from Denmark, a society that is very focused on the rights of the individual, to Bahrain, a society in which the family unit is the main focus and where everyone wants to know where you’re going what you’re doing, that was a real culture shock.

You are the daughter of one of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights activists. Your father is often described as “very courageous and very outspoken”. What are the most important things he taught you?
My father raised us to have a strong sense of right and wrong. But he was always very clear about what that entailed: ‘Never hate the person, hate the act.’ he said.He taught us that if we hated the human being, our job ended with that one person, but if we hated the act, we truly fought injustice. That is a powerful lesson to learn.

We don’t know all that much about your mother Khadija. Tell us about her. What defines her?
I think my mother is as much a freedom fighter as my father. She is the backbone of our family, especially in difficult times.
I remember a time when my father, who was in prison at the time, went on hunger strike. Knowing that my mother was the only person who could truly affect him, officials asked her to talk him out of it. She refused. ‘I would rather bury my husband with my own hands than ask him to give up what he believes in,’ she said. I know how much my mother loves my father and how difficult it must have been for her to say this. This courage and strength of conviction defines her. Having her husband involved in a struggle for human rights and her daughters scattered all over the world isn’t easy. But her sense of doing what is right far supersedes her desire for a comfortable life with her children gathered around her.

What is your father’s point of view, as a human rights activist, about women’s rights?
Both my father and mother are strong believers in women’s rights. I think that is obvious when you consider the fact that they raised four daughters, always instilling the importance of a good education, encouraging us to travel and see the world and advising us not to marry too young but to wait until we were sure we’d made the right choice. I don’t think you can be a human rights activist without also fighting for women’s rights.

Do you think it is possible to be both a devout Muslim and a feminist?
I think being Muslim automatically makes you a feminist. Many people don’t realize the rights women are accorded in Islam, such as the right to inheritance or the right to make choices at a time when that still seemed impossible. Of course, there is often a vast gap between the teachings of a religion and its implementation in a society, but that is not limited to Islam.
It is a universal problem across many religions. Yes, I still have questions and things I am figuring out about women and Islam, but that’s part of the process.

You choose to wear the hijab (hair-covering veil). Why?
Wearing the hijab is a personal choice. In my opinion it empowers me. As a woman it allows me to be heard before I am looked at. Wearing a hijab also ensures that people will consider my personal space before touching or hugging me. Of course in a society in which men treat women as perfect equals wearing a veil would not be necessary. But that is not yet the case, neither in the west nor in Muslim countries. People have more respect for the hijab in western countries than they do in many Muslim countries. In many Muslim countries women now wear the hijab because they think it is expected of them. Men therefore often think women wear it ‘because they have to’ and they no longer respect it for what it is trying to convey, which is simply: ‘Respect me. Respect my space’.

How will Bahrain have to evolve to empower its women?
I think the question extends beyond Bahrain: the entire region has its work cut out. But first we have to make sure that basic human rights are respected.
Once human rights become part of a citizen’s constitutional rights we can begin to question women’s rights our societies. Without respect for basic human rights how can we even begin to ask these questions?

[Published on Women’s View on News, August 2011)

Written by sabineclappaert

August 23, 2011 at 5:56 am

Interview with Baroness Haleh Afshar – Muslim feminist, professor, British politician

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“There are so many prejudices that cover the words ‘Muslim woman’ that a Muslim woman must always begin by saying who she is not before she is able to explain who she is and what she does.”

Haleh Afshar is so tiny that I almost trip over her the first time we meet, in the bustling lobby of the British parliament as I swing my bags off the security scanners a little too enthusiastically. “Being small is an enormous advantage,” she says, waving away my apologies with a mischievous wink as I follow her along dark carpeted corridors. “People always underestimate me,” she adds over her shoulder, nodding a friendly hello to a passing colleague, a looming Brit in linen jacket and matching tie who shuffles by, dwarfing her in his shadow.

Named one of the twenty most successful Muslim women in the UK, Baroness Haleh Afshar – author, journalist, professor of women’s studies, politics and Islamic Law, British parliamentarian and founder of the Muslim Women’s Network – is as short as her CV is long.

Haleh is a self-described Muslim feminist born in Tehran to a liberal, privileged Iranian family of academics and politicians. Her grandmother refused to wear the veil and her mother campaigned for a woman’s right to vote. “Being a feminist comes with the blood,” she smiles as we settle knee-to-knee in the deep blue two-seater couch in her office. I remark that, to many westerners, the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘feminist’ seem rather contradictory, perhaps even mutually exclusive.

“That’s because generalisations always hide the truth,” she shrugs. “Generalisations close the mind rather than opening it. Defining someone as Muslim entails many hidden generalisations that prevent you from taking the next step. It is interesting: there are so many prejudices that cover the words ‘Muslim woman’ that a Muslim woman must always begin by saying who she is not before she is able to explain who she is and what she does.”

Photos by Jillian Edelstein

Haleh’s razor-sharp intellect and eagerness to learn has defined her life from an early age. At fourteen, emerging from a luxury childhood of nannies, private schools and servants while growing up in France and Iran, she asked her parents to be sent to boarding school in England. “I’d read the book Jane Eyre and realised just how unrealistic my life was. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted; I wanted to stand on my own two feet. So I told my father that I wanted to attend boarding school in England. He agreed, and that summer my parents drove me all the way from Tehran to England. When we got here, my father put the money for my return flight in an account and told me I could return whenever I wanted.”

Haleh didn’t return. She made England her home, first studying at the University of York, where she met her future husband, the New Zealander Maurice Dodson, and later at Cambridge University, where she obtained her PhD.

And even though she now calls England ‘home’, it is clear that Iran is never far from her mind. “I went back to Iran in my late twenties for a while and worked in Tehran as journalist and civil servant in the field of land reform.”

But Haleh was critical of the Ayatollah Khomeni’s view on women, calling it “unIslamic” and has written extensively on Iranian politics, Islam and feminism. She admits that it is no longer safe for her to return to her country of her birth.

Still, Iran continues to define her. “As a teacher of Islamic law, I can tell you that Muslim women have many rights that are embedded in Islam, but which they did not exercise because they did not have access to education – Islamic education – for so long. The moment the hierarchy began to build, after the death of the Prophet, men began to claim the right of interpretation and analysis of the teachings, and women were excluded.”

Her eyes light up with a mischievous glint. “Since the nineteenth century, however, Muslim women have become increasing agitated about their rights. The most wonderful thing about being born in the twentieth century is that men now accept it as part of life that women will be troublesome,” she laughs.

Women’s rights run a red thread throughout Haleh’s life. She had the courage to forge a path beyond her own culture and country; she negotiated with her father to avoid and arranged marriage while studying and she famously declared motherhood to be ‘de-skilling’ and difficult to combine with a career.

Yet Haleh now sits before me a proud mother and doting grandmother who talks passionately about the joys of her large eclectic family and their chaotic Sunday lunches.

“I didn’t plan to get pregnant,” Haleh admits. “I was seven months along with Molly before I even realised I was pregnant. So there I was: I still wanted to do all the things I was committed to, but I had to find a way to make it all work.”

And she did. Having just given birth, she taught from her hospital bed. “One of my students had a van, and he would round up all the others and drive them to the maternity ward. I’d teach them while they sat around my hospital bed. I was simply multi-tasking,” she grins. “Once we had one child, I wanted another, so I had my two children within three years.”

Combining motherhood with a career, as she already knew, wasn’t easy. “One of the reasons for the inequalities in today’s labour market is that housework still isn’t recognised as work,” she points out.

“A couple of years ago I asked the British government, in the House of Lords, which is lead by a woman, ‘why don’t you pay wages for housework?’ to which I got the usual reply that it would diminish women. She frowns dismissively: “absolute nonsense!”

What was most difficult about motherhood for Haleh? “In Iranian culture, your mother is your mother, and you are proud of her. When my own children became teenagers and began to reflect on my ‘oddness’ as their mother – this foreign, outspoken woman – I couldn’t cope with that. I always told them: ‘I am the best mother you will ever get’.”

Afshar admits that if she weren’t married to a Westerner who understood how Western teenagers behave, she couldn’t have coped. “My students were never rude to me, ” she laughs, “so I thought ‘I know the younger generation; they’re lovely!’”

Her laugh fades, and she stares into the distance. “The adjustment to the way in which teenagers rebel here was very difficult. But I never pretended to the kids that it was easy or that I had all the answers. Sometimes we just fought like cats and dogs, but we always kissed and made up afterward. It was never a permanent state of being angry.”

At sixty-seven, Haleh now calls herself ‘a little old lady’, although I suspect that if we were having this talk walking along a country road, and we happened to pass a muddy puddle, she would be the first to jump in. Her exuberant energy always seems just about to burst the surface.

“I’ve always loved old age!” she exclaims. “I’ve done extensive research amongst women of the ‘third age’ here in the UK. Not about the usual stuff like poverty or health,” she says, waving away the topics like pesky flies, “but about kinship, family and relationships. It was an extremely moving experience. I spoke to an African-Caribbean woman who told me: ‘I now have roots in this country. I came and had ten children!’ She obviously felt a great sense of belonging and contentment here.”

The conversation turns to Haleh’s extended family, and she is clearly a great believer in the importance of these relationships and her sense of belonging.

“In our family, we are completely recreating the old tribal Persian culture. Every Sunday we all have lunch together – brothers, in-laws, children, grandchildren…it is absolute chaos! But it’s great – they’re all growing up together, the way we did as children. Of course being part of an extended family requires enormous commitment, but sharing the sadness and happiness of a bigger group means it is not only more demanding but also more rewarding.”

“People who have experienced this deep connectedness between generations are very different people to those who have only heard or read about it,” Haleh points out.

I see don’t see a little old lady in Haleh but a mischievous girl and wise matriarch, I tell Haleh, to which she replies with her signatory booming laugh: “But I am a little old lady! I’ve never had worries about being old,” she shrugs. “You see yourself aging, you see your face crinkling, and you think, ‘ok, so this is the pathway’. But I’ve never been beautiful, so my wrinkles don’t bother me. Now I think: ‘old people are like me and I like it.’ Some of my friends are fighting age – as an active occupation – but that’s just not what I want to spend my time on.”

Does she have other advice to share?

“This whole love business is overrated,” she states without a second’s hesitation. “There is this whole ethos surrounding romance that I think is very counter-productive to women because it assumes, almost from your school days, that you must have a lover.,” she frowns, “It starts very young, this whole idea that not having a boyfriend is a terrible thing. Girls and women define themselves by whether or not they have a lover. It’s terrible.”

But what should we do about it? “Learn to say no, to whatever it is you don’t want to do. And that holds for men as well as women,” she points out. “But more so for women…Learn to say ‘these are the boundaries, take it or leave it’. Coming to the UK as a young Muslim girl taught me to set and respect my own boundaries – maybe at a much younger age than I would have done had I grown up in my own culture.”

Haleh grins. “I didn’t have a boyfriend or go to bed with anyone at university, and by what I heard from my friends, the boys were rather incompetent anyway.” She winks as she jumps off the couch, slapping my knee. “Come on, let’s go! There’s a bill under discussion and I want to make sure I know what is being said,” the little old lady in Haleh nowhere to be seen.

Haleh Afshar
DOB: 21.05.1944
Date of Interview: 16 May 2011
Location: London, UK

Written by sabineclappaert

August 20, 2011 at 7:34 am

Famine: the reality of numbers.

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Famine in Africa. The story trickled in to our media two weeks ago. Each day since, the torrent of numbers swells.

Eleven million people are at risk of starving in East Africa. In Kenya alone, five million people could die of hunger, according to the Red Cross. In the north of the country, 385.000 children and 90.000 pregnant or breastfeeding women already suffer from acute malnutrition.

Every day more than 3.000 Somalians cross the border to Kenya looking for food in bursting refugee camps; many have been on the road for months, the scrawny goats and chickens they set off with long slaughtered.

The numbers are surrealistic, incomprehensible. They fly around like empty drones of imminent mass destruction.

As if to match their force, the West launches its own numbers, digit for digit equally surrealistic.

The EU will free up 88 million Euro to combat the disaster. That’s on top of the 70 million Euro it has already committed to the region this year. The UN wants to commit another 1,1 billion Euro.

A clash of Titans.

Yet all I can think of is a single grain of rice. Rice coated with extra minerals and vitamins that contains ten times the nutrients of untreated rice.

And I think of Electrabel, Belgium’s biggest energy supplier, which listed a profit of 960 million Euro in 2007 and I feel helpless to merciless realities of numbers.

Written by sabineclappaert

July 23, 2011 at 7:48 pm