Slavery, then and now
A GRIPPING aspect of the words, the stories and the anger in Durban was the reference to slavery. The words discrimination and racism seemed to be overshadowed by the word slavery - the terrible experience of being bought and sold not only by others but by ourselves.
The intensity, the vividness of this issue, both in the official and the non-governmental conference, gave a special flavour, an important additional power to the statement of injustice, violation of human rights that was being voiced by those who were concerned with other forms of slavery - the trafficking in human body, whether it was in girls and women being sold for domestic or sexual services, or boys and men for soldiering, begging or just labouring. The discrimination faced by migrant labourers, refugees, Dalits, even prisoners, apart from the indigenous people, was likened and described as enslavement because of the types of 'control' and humiliation.
The UN special rapporteur on racism gave figures showing the increase in conflicts between peoples based on ethnic, religious, territorial and historical differences. The parliamentarians from all over the world had a meeting, where one of the topics was freedom of the press versus the increasing use of the Internet to generate collective hate. While there was a general unease with this new form of mobilisation of the worst in the human being, there was also anxiety about curbing the freedom of communication as that could also be misused to control mobilisation for supporters of legitimate human rights assertions. Racism was further broadened to show that colour is not only the pigment, the colour of the skin. It was the bundle of characteristics associated with a perception of inferiority: ugliness, dirtiness, stupidity, darkness as in light and dark. Subadhra Chana of Delhi University evocatively illustrated this point, how colour was about qualities, adding that the goddesses associated with disease and death were associated with the worship of the 'lower' castes and those associated with wealth and knowledge were in the temples of the 'superior' castes.
A woman from the Roma community referred to the colour of her skin, - she was of light skin - saying that she could make a first entry into the preserved territories of the white. But when they found out that she was a Roma, the pigmentation did not matter. It was the stigma of being a Roma, perceived as thieves, dirty people, travellers etc that came up. The stories of the discrimination in Europe, especially in education, of Roma children could have been from any region or country where such stigmatisation was rampant. It was the story of the Dalits of India, the aboriginal people of Australia, the indigenous of Canada. The attitude of superiority - moral and physical - is something we vividly learnt from fascism, the Holocaust and Apartheid in South Africa. Hatred and disgust, not only due to pigmentation, translated into systematic, institutionalised oppression, if not killing.
What of women who perceive themselves as being the victims of double discrimination within caste and race oppression, of being the slaves of all slaves as domestic slavery is not limited to a class or a caste or race?
Women's rights spokespersons were careful to keep their voice at a lower key than the Dalit or Palestine or indigenous or black voices, so that the internal critique of these communities as being harsh, oppressive, outright violent to their own women was not allowed to hurt their legitimacy.
The President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, however lifted the issue right up to the level of racism, by referring to sexism, male attitudes of superiority every time he mentioned racism or racial superiority or oppression. It was left to Radhika Coomaraswamy, the special rapporteur on violence against women, not to stop with women and girl children's special incarceration in war, in genocide, in race-driven cruelty, but to point to brothers and husbands too as perpetrators of cruelty.
One proposal was to imagine women as standing at the crossroads of race and gender and having to choose. This seemed too simplistic. Women cannot choose between these identities but would have to rebuild the system so that such impossible choices need not be made. Examples of women mediating and resolving such conflicts by their bonding across differences were given to bring hope to the forum. One cannot run away from the multiple identities - nor need one get stranded at the crossroads.
The writer attended the Durban conference on racism.