#ActivistProblems · Feminism · Local Issues · Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

Accidentally Colonial Activism

Critical to helping someone – truly helping someone – is imagining them as just as much a person as you. Maybe not with the same resources or experiences, but just as capable of making the life that they want for themselves. It requires us to trust that the person we want to help is worthy of governing their own destiny, even if it leads them to decisions that we won’t make ourselves. Except in the cases of mental illness or severe brain trauma, I can’t think of an instance where this isn’t important.

So it’s incredibly heartbreaking when well-meaning people accidentally silence those who want a chance to shape their own destinies…

For the last few months, activists and NGOs across Trinidad and Tobago have been lobbying for changing the nation’s marriage laws to prevent young Hindu and Muslim girls from being married to men much older. Obviously, this is an important change to protect young women from predatory older men who may use the law to take advantage of them. As an activist myself, and someone who’s passionate about this particular issue in my own ways, I applaud the Compassion of the people and groups who’ve made this a priority in their work. A lot of those activists are people that I know in one way or another, that I respect a whole lot, and that I’m sort of proud of for making this issue a talking point for a lot of people nationwide.

But the road to Hell, I hear, is paved with good intentions…

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Activist and scholar Dr. Gabrielle Hosein, at a panel discussion for the Organization of American States, represented the views of the local Coalition to End Child Marriage. In her presentation, she critiques the position of a fellow activist group, the Hindu Women’s Organization (HWO). According to Dr. Hosein, the HWO’s perspective that there should be an exception that allows young Hindus of similar age to be married is akin to ‘respectability politics’ (5:00, in the video below).

 

In Dr. Hosein’s presentation, the only statement I find problematic is the one where the views of the HWO (who has been lobbying for a change of the Hindu Marriage Act since the 90’s) gets reduced to mere internalized patriarchy. You see, the Hindu Women’s Organization (while firmly of the belief that the current Hindu Marriage Act puts young girls at risk of being married off to much older men) held consultations with the people they attempt to represent – Hindu individuals and families. And in those consultations, they came to one studied conclusion – whatever new law comes into action should have a clause that lets young people that are close in age get married.

Yeah, I know how it sounds. But hear me out – there are some young people who want to get married to each other. And, as outrageous as it sounds, there are ways to safeguard that. For instance, the HWO’s proposed ‘Romeo Clause’ suggests that the parents of each underage person must consent, and there must be a tribunal in place to prevent abuse of one party by the other. And that still makes sure that the new law does what it’s supposed to do – prevent girls as young as 12 from being forced to marry men as old as 40. It sounds weird…but reasonable.

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But there are many among us (maybe even myself included) who think that we know what these communities need, even when we don’t know what they want. I can only assume that, because what that community wants for themselves isn’t the same as what most activists would consider right, the community loses…which is one of the reasons it’s so important that groups like this coalition are diverse and have roots in the communities that they choose to serve. Yet the HWO is being criticized here for expressing the views of the community that they represent…

Khadija Sinanan of WOMANTRA, another member of the Coalition to End Child Marriage, shares the concern rather acutely in her own presentation at the OAS [you can see the entire set of panels here]. Although she was responding particularly to a question about how men and boys in particular communities respond to the work of the coalition, her response I think sheds an interesting light between the positions of the Coalition itself parallel to that of the HWO (3:06-3:08:20 in the video linked in this paragraph);

“…There is a very real sense of ‘do not tell us what to do with our group. We deal with this section, and do not just enter this space and advise us how to treat with this.’ Which is something to note because it is born out of maybe a very real historical experience of being subjugated…So organizations that identify that, ‘listen, we have had a particular historical experience here within this country. As a result of which, we tend to be protective of laws, not even necessarily in agreement with them, but protective of the way you’re trying to change them…’

“In preparation for this panel, I was reviewing one of the documents – a policy paper that was put forth by one of the religious groups – and you can clearly see in the writing of it how this is not just about the fact that we want this law not changed. The reason behind it [has] very much to do with  [the idea that] ‘there is an intelligencia in the country that has decided that we are backward and this is a savage way of being’. So engaging with different sectors, you have to be conscious of what are you saying. I recall that in one of the earlier panels, one of the panelists spoke to ‘moral authority’. Which I think could be very dangerous language sometimes when you’re dealing with these questions, because there’s a very colonial vibe to that sentiment – I enter here as a moral authority to advise you as to what to do, because what you have been doing is wrong and it is backward’.And sometimes that could be a very dangerous way to enter into that conversation, because a lot of these organizations – especially in the membership, if not at the leadership level – do not agree with girls being married. But they also don’t agree with people telling them what to do…”

Now, to be clear, I can’t say that I agree with the idea of, say, two 16-year-olds getting married. At the very least I think that’s too early (I actually think the legal marriage age should be 21). But I’m also aware that just because I know what’s certainly wrong doesn’t mean I know what is right for a community I don’t reside in. Making decisions about other people’s issues for them, while disregarding the decisions they want to make, is the same as telling people that they’re unfit to govern themselves. As activists, sometimes our job is to help signal boost the conversation that those around us are having, and then let them discover how to rule their lives and communities.

With that in mind, let me do just that, and share the voice of Keir Roopnarine, an educator and activist with Hindu family roots and who has worked with the Hindu Women’s Organization for some time. It’s her perspective (and her dissatisfaction) that guided me to do this, so it would be remiss of me to not let her speak for herself…

 

 

Critical to helping someone – truly helping someone – is imagining them as just as capable as you are to make the life that they want, even if it’s not the life that you want them to wantAs activists, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who we’ve decided to aid. With the exception of the demonstrably harmful, our job should be to listen and facilitate conversation, and then let those who are affected come to their own decisions about the way forward for their lives. Otherwise we risk creating an activism that colonizes people and communities in our attempt to liberate them. That might be worse than failing to help them at all…

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