Democracy Now! broadcasts from New Orleans, where thousands of women are gathering to celebrate the tenth anniversary of V-Day, the global movement to combat sexual violence against women and children. V-Day began a decade ago when playwright and activist Eve Ensler held the first benefit performance of her award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues. This weekend, Ensler is organizing a two-day celebration at the Superdome called "V to the Tenth." Its focus is on helping the women of New Orleans and the Gulf South. We speak with activists from New Orleans, Kenya and Iraq. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road, broadcasting today from New Orleans. Thousands of women here are gathering this weekend to celebrate the tenth anniversary of V-Day, the global movement to combat violence against women and children. V-Day began a decade ago when playwright and activist Eve Ensler held the first benefit performance of her award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues.
This weekend, Eve Ensler is organizing a two-day celebration at the Superdome called “V to the Tenth.” Its focus is on helping the women of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Today, we speak with activists from New Orleans, from Kenya and Iraq who are here for the V-Day celebrations.
But we’ll start with Eve Ensler herself, the author of The Vagina Monologues and the key organizer behind V-Day.
EVE ENSLER: Well, we went down to New Orleans right after the flood. We were invited down there by women on the ground who were, you know, at shelters and hotlines, and the whole infrastructure, of course, was gone. So we went to see what we could do, which is what we do. We don’t kind of have an interventionist politics. People invite us, or they do what they do and we support it. And we did this amazing evening of storytelling, and we kind of launched this idea of this Katrina warrior network of women, and about 900 women showed up. And it launched this community and network of women.
And we were down there at the same time trying to determine where our tenth anniversary was going to be, and we thought maybe Nairobi, maybe Paris, and then it was like, no, this needs to be at the Superdome. You know, we need to take back the Superdome. We need to reclaim and turn it into Superlove. And what was fabulous about it is, at the same time, we were launching a spotlight on conflict zones last year, and New Orleans is clearly a conflict zone. It has all the ingredients of a conflict zone, a failed state, you know, the desecration of one section of the population, loss of control in the central government. We can go on and on. And so, we began to look at it like that and began to see the impact of what happens when there is a failed state, when in this country people don’t show up and there’s that kind of profound neglect and abandonment, particularly looking at women, because women have carried New Orleans and the Gulf South since the storm.
And I know you all have spent a lot of time there and covered it in an incredible way since the flood, but, you know, I’m there almost every month in some way, and people don’t know what’s going on there. We don’t—people don’t know that we have tent cities there. People don’t know that the mental health rates and the suicide rates are out of control. People don’t know that people who lived in houses that were once $400 are now $1,200. People don’t know that people are being charged for fuel adjustment, this new term, and they don’t even have a meter, you know, the gas meter in their house. I mean, it’s a bizarre, I think really immoral and profound statement about where the US is.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, the reports recently of all the formaldehyde problems with the trailers—
EVE ENSLER: Oh, absolutely.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —and the poisoning of—
EVE ENSLER: And the poisoning and everybody becoming sick. You know, there’s a piece I just wrote for Oprah, where I call it “FEMAldehyde,” you know, which is kind of this new creation made by our own, very own failed government. But I think what we’re saying is that we need to bring women from this country and all over the world to show up for our sisters in the South.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is the special burden you feel the women of New Orleans bear?
EVE ENSLER: Well, I think if we can look at all the pieces of it, we kind of look at the whole story of what needs to change for women everywhere. But there’s the burden of racism. There’s the economic inequalities. There’s the burden of a failed education system there, so where are children going to school? And where are they—it has just been designated the murder capital of America. So we’re talking about one of the highest—the highest violence rate in America. We’re talking about communities where taxi drivers wouldn’t even bring me to go—I don’t have a car—because they were too scared to go into the community, and people are living there.
You know, we’re talking about—I think women particularly are on the frontlines, because they are dealing with children, they’re dealing with husbands who have no work, they are dealing with how to put food on the table, they are dealing with all the kind of nurturing, moving-the-community-forward aspects. And everybody’s traumatized. We’re talking about a seriously traumatized population. So you’ve got trauma.
You know, we did a brunch there recently for the women in the Gulf South, Mississippi, Alabama, grassroots activists, fabulous women who have just been working twenty-four hours a day, and we just gave them a brunch. Women were standing up and weeping, you know, talking about the fact that no one had ever given them a brunch. I thought, a brunch? This is what we’re grateful for? A brunch? And I think, so, part of it is, how do we bring people from all over the US and say we care about the women in New Orleans? We’re going to be giving free massages, free medical exams, free yoga and meditation, all free for the women. And women from all over the country are volunteering. And then we’re going to do a performance of The Vagina Monologues with performers from New Orleans. You know, Charmaine Neville is performing, and there will be gospel choirs. And it’s going to be the biggest mega-event we’ve ever done, at the New Orleans Superdome, at the arena.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what The Vagina Monologues are, for people who don’t understand. I’m sitting with two of your books. One is The Vagina Monologues, featuring five never-before-published V-Day monologues, and the other, Insecure at Last: A Political Memoir, that you wrote.
EVE ENSLER: Well, The Vagina Monologues grew out of interviews that I did with about over 200 women, where I took little pieces and strains of their stories and created literary theater text that are really talking about the sexuality of women. The story of women is filtered through their vaginas and the story of their vaginas, and so it ranges from very orgasmic pleasure to, you know, very shattering stories, like that were based on the women in Bosnia who were raped during the war. And I think it goes from celebration to sorrow to happiness to—but looking at how—if we tell our stories through the kind of biography of our vagina, you know. And it was just amazing to me how many women needed to talk about it, and still do.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Eve Ensler interviewed in New York in February. Well, now we’re here in New Orleans, and the V-Day celebration is taking place today and tomorrow, culminating in a major event on Saturday night.
We’re joined right now by two people involved with the V-Day celebration. Colette Pichon Battle is the Gulf Coast coordinator for Oxfam America, founder of the group Moving Forward Gulf Coast. She’s a native of Slidell, Louisiana and comes from one of the oldest French Creole families in South Louisiana. Carol Bebelle is the executive director of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, a native of New Orleans, and a published poet and writer. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: Thank you.
CAROL BEBELLE: Thank you so much.
AMY GOODMAN: Carol, talk about the significance of this event, thousands of people coming in from all over the country, though there may be a few fewer with American Airlines canceling what? More than a thousand flights?
CAROL BEBELLE: Absolutely. Absolutely, absolutely. Well, for us, I mean, I start where Eve started, which is that she was out in the world working on violence against women, and the end of August 2005 happened, and she turned around, and many of the faces that she saw in water, and many of them were girls and women. And she began to think about what was it that V-Day ought to be doing. They came to do humanitarian work. And then, with the tenth anniversary coming up, she said she thought that it was really important to come back and stand here with the women of New Orleans, because when systems stop working in society, because women are at the center of everything, they get the brunt of the problem.
And so, the institutions shut down, and women, in their physical vulnerability, being, you know, the carriers of children, being the caretakers of the family, the nurturers, etc., when those systems go away, they’re just kind of left out there on their own. And so, the violence that we see here is really — it’s more subtle. It doesn’t leave bruises. But what it does is it winds up essentially rendering women helpless inside of the place where they should be the most powerful. And so, the institutions are not there. They’re not there for the children. They’re not there for the women. And it’s kind of counterintuitive to not take care of women, with women being as important to the life of a society as they are.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you here during Hurricane Katrina?
CAROL BEBELLE: You know, this was the first time in my life that I ever evacuated. And so, I went off, and I left that Sunday and, to my obvious horror, discovered what happened after my exit.
AMY GOODMAN: And your community, how hard hit was it?
CAROL BEBELLE: Well, I live in the uptown area, so I’m close to the Sliver by the River, so my personal home was not — we didn’t have problems. In Central City, which is where I work and I spend most of my time, half of that community was flooded, and it’s a renting community, and so the people are not as easily able to come back home, because they don’t have land that ties them to New Orleans, and so they’re left to the devices of government, in terms of getting rental properties, helping to get rental properties up, and landlords, you know, in terms of the rents and how expensive they are.
AMY GOODMAN: Colette, housing is certainly an issue that you have worked on. Talk about the situation today here in New Orleans.
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: Yeah. Well, Moving Forward Gulf Coast is bringing 1,200 women back to the region for V-Day. And one of the things we discovered as we’ve been reaching out to women in at least eight different cities, diaspora cities, is that a lot of the women want to come back, but, as Ms. Carol just said, many are part of the rental population, and there just is no way for them to come back right now. So we are proud and sad that what we’re able to provide for this one weekend is actually what most of these women need in a more long-term way.
AMY GOODMAN: And where are they based?
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: These women are based out of Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, Little Rock, Memphis, Jackson, Baton Rouge.
AMY GOODMAN: But they come from New Orleans?
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: Many come from New Orleans. They include rural Louisiana, which is often not talked about but took a hard hit of the storm, some from Slidell on the North Shore, all the way out in Pass Christian in Mississippi, Biloxi and Mobile.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s happened in rural Mississippi?
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: In rural Mississippi, there’s an interesting fight between the politicos, and the federal money that has come down for housing in Mississippi was actually not given to people who had wind damage. And so, you have a significant portion of the population in Mississippi who have gotten absolutely no help, and therefore they’ve got no ability to return to the place where they even had houses, not just renters, but they had houses there, and they had no insurance or not enough insurance to return. So Rural Mississippi is one of the — it’s a story that’s often forgotten when people talk about Barbour’s successes in Mississippi.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Colette Pichon Battle and Carol Bebelle, we’re going to break, but we’ll come back. This is Democracy Now! We’re broadcasting from New Orleans.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the PBS station WLAE here in New Orleans, as we are joined by two guests from New Orleans. Colette Pichon Battle is a native of Slidell, Louisiana. She is bringing back a group of 1,200 women in the diaspora back to New Orleans. We’re also joined by Carol Bebelle of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center.
Talk about the performance tonight that will happen at the Superdome, Carol.
CAROL BEBELLE: Sure. Over the last year and a half, sixteen very talented performers and writers and cultural bearers in New Orleans have been meeting with Eve to really kind of go through everything that we’ve gone through inside of responding to this disaster for the purpose of being able to create a performance work. And so, tonight we are going to be presenting that in a staged reading format to the folks gathered here for V to the Tenth. And we’re really very excited about it.
When we look at V-Day, one of the things that I’m really proud of, being from the creative and cultural community, is the fact that all of this started with a play. And we see Swimming Upstream as being an ambassadorial work for New Orleans. It’s not about the houses; it’s about the people. And this piece has a way of being able to help people to really get what this meant to the people when it happened, what we had before, what happened to us during and what it is that we’re reaching and hoping and working toward afterwards. And so, we are really hoping that our audience will get the message that we were sending out inside of Swimming Upstream.
AMY GOODMAN: Swimming Upstream, the title, where did it come from?
CAROL BEBELLE: Well, it was kind of workshopped among the group in creative work. It started off being loosely called Katrina Monologues, and then, as time went on, one of the positions that we kind of had in the group was the fact that in New Orleans, Katrina was not the villain, and it was really our levee system and how poor they were. And so, in a certain way, it was kind of like blaming the woman for something that the woman didn’t do. And as time went on, you know, with Katrina being tagged on everything, that this is really a piece that is about this disaster, but it’s about the state of women, and it’s also about the whole notion of how it is that we need to do a better job of like really tending to democracy and taking good care of it. And so, we thought that Swimming Upstream, which was like the subtitle, was really a better title to kind of go with.
AMY GOODMAN: Colette Pichon Battle, talk about Slidell. Talk about your Creole family history.
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: My family, the Pichons, have actually been on the North Shore since the late 1700s. I live in an enclave called Bayou Vincent. And during Katrina, we sustained about nine feet of water. It actually came from a thirty-foot tidal surge. We don’t have a levee system. What we depend on, like the lower parishes in Louisiana, is the barrier islands that have actually been wrecked due to oil drilling and shipping and all of those things, so we actually have no protection for those thirty-foot tidal surges that come in. So my community was devastated, but we’re coming back. But we had a culture that was very strong and very deep that we’re still struggling to hold on to because of the space in which people have to live now. It’s not in a tight-knit community anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the 1,200 women gathering for the first time this morning here in New Orleans.
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: As of right now, we had buses coming in from Dallas and Houston, Atlanta. We’re pulling in women from [inaudible] this morning on the North Shore, and the Mississippi Coast. As of this morning, in the Superdome at 8:45, all of them will see each other for the first time. They know that they’re on a bus, but they may not understand that so many others are on the bus, as well. So they’ll be meeting on the floor of the Superdome to be inspired, to inspire us and to just give them a welcome back to the region and hopefully a reengagement into the struggles here.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues, that the V-Day movement grew out of. On Saturday night at the Superdome, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Hudson, Glenn Close and others will do a public reading of the play. This is a clip of Jane Fonda describing her first time of watching The Vagina Monologues.
JANE FONDA: This is the last week that Eve is going to actually be doing the whole Vagina Monologues by herself, so I went, having no idea what to expect. You know, when I really try to think about when my feminism became rooted in my body, as opposed to theoretically in my head, it was during that production. It was not what I expected. I have never laughed so hard or cried so hard in a play, and I know that it was during the laughing part that something shifted in me and the feminism moved from my head into my body. The pride that I feel that with this organization that grew out of this little play, she has raised more money than the entire US government has raised to stop violence against women. I mean, it’s just — it’s the best proof of what one person who is truly motivated and talented can do.
AMY GOODMAN: Jane Fonda, remembering her first experience of The Vagina Monologues. Carol Bebelle, do you remember yours?
CAROL BEBELLE: Absolutely. We produced it last year. And though I had read it and I’d seen segments, I had never seen the whole thing. And it’s an absolutely exquisite piece of work. I come out of social service, and so the delicacy with which you get an opportunity to see both exciting and wonderful things about women, as they’ve related to, you know, their vagina and that part of their bodies, as well as the things that have been so distressing, that such a wonderful job has been done in terms of essentially helping the audience to understand how having to exempt that part of ourselves from ourselves in a certain kind of way lays the groundwork for everything else that happens for and to women. And so, it was absolutely very much like Jane Fonda says, that you laugh forever. You know, I mean, these are things that, you know, you sometimes don’t even talk about with your girlfriends. You know, you think about them in your head, and you kind of chuckle about them, and so to have it kind of right there and to be in a community who can kind of experience it with you, and they’re things that just break your heart, you know?
AMY GOODMAN: Like what?
CAROL BEBELLE: Well, when you hear about how women’s bodies are used as the battlefields in war, that these — that’s what’s spoiled, when they talk about the victor and the spoils. It’s the women. That’s one of the ways that the victor has it to be very clear that I’ve managed, you know, to kind of dominate you, is that their men are no longer able to be a protection to their women.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, [Colette] Pichon Battle, here in New Orleans, what you feel has to happen and how you feel V-Day to the Tenth is a part of that?
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: Yeah, I think that this is the start of something. We actually were approached by Eve about helping to get the women back to the region. This is something that activists on the ground have been trying to do for the last two-and-a-half years. No one is helping us get people home. And that call came from V-Day, saying how do we help you get your people back?
What’s going to happen now is that the networks that have been established in locating these women in these cities are being given back to the women, so hopefully they’ll be able to reestablish those networks in the cities in which they are currently residing to make themselves stronger to come back home. So we’re hoping to be one of many ripples in something great.
AMY GOODMAN: And what you feel needs to happen in New Orleans in terms of housing, in terms of the overall situation, what the city, state and federal government, you feel, has to do?
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: Yeah, you know, New Orleans is currently lacking about 250,000 residents, most of whom would be fighting on the frontlines of these battles that are tearing down perfectly viable public housing, that are tearing down rental units, that are causing the rents to go sky high.
AMY GOODMAN: We last were covering the New Orleans City Council, now white for the first time, or a majority white for the first time in what —-
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- twenty years, with people protesting, people being tasered in the City Council room, protesting the imminent breaking down of the public housing.
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: That’s right. They weren’t only tasered inside of the room. They were kept — they were locked out of a public meeting, and Moving Forward was there, outside of the gate that was locked, and people could not go to a public meeting and say what they had to say and be heard and go through a process that the City Council had put in order.
AMY GOODMAN: So what’s happening with that housing now?
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: Well, the City of New Orleans has now given permits to knock down all of them. And so, while you have a growing homeless population under the bridge in New Orleans right next to the Lafitte housing project, yesterday they started demolishing that housing project, and it didn’t get any water. It was one of the strongest buildings in the city. So you have people in the diaspora, you have people under the bridge, and you have housing being torn down, and the people who would be on the frontlines of this are not here to fight.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is your theory of why they’re breaking down housing that hadn’t been drowned?
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: This is a plan that has long been in existence.
CAROL BEBELLE: Absolutely.
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: This Katrina situation has allowed people to move forward on something they planned to do for a very long time. You get to get the folks who you do not want in the city out of the city, and you get to do what you want to do. The developments that will go up in their stead will not be as strong, will not be for the people who are displaced and will not be for the folks who are in the diaspora cities. So, I mean, this is a plan, and as I mentioned, the people who would be on the frontlines are conveniently outside of the region.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think any of the women coming in from the diaspora today will stay?
COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: I sure hope so.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for joining us, Colette Pichon Battle and Carol Bebelle.
CAROL BEBELLE: Thank you so much.
AMY GOODMAN: Thanks for being here, coming into the studios at WLAE, well, from right here in New Orleans.
As we now go global. Women from around the world are traveling to New Orleans this weekend to attend the V-Day celebration. In a moment, we’ll be joined by two prominent women rights advocates from Kenya and Iraq. But first we turn to a clip of the Congolese activist Christine Schuler Deschryver. She is speaking this weekend here at the V-Day celebration in the Superdome. This is an excerpt from an interview that appears on the vday.org website.
CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: I live in a eastern part of Congo. I went back there twenty years ago when I finished my school in Belgium. My goal is now and more than ever to finish, to end with the massive rape we have in eastern part of Congo.
In ’98, I lost my best friend. She was raped by more than twenty people, and after she was killed — the husband was Canadian — he had to assist, and then they killed himself. Today, the children are in the United States. And having eighteen-months, ten-months babies raped, dying in your arms, and you are just there, can do nothing, then talking and denouncing, and, like V-Day, say until the violence stop, we will fight. We will fight, believe me, especially against this new country-support rape.
We’re not talking about, I’m sorry, normal rapes. The women who arrive there — the lucky ones will have the hospital — they arrive because they are completely destroyed. Bones, vagina, all the inside, destroyed. They are raped in very violent conditions. Mostly they’re raped by six to eight men daily. And then they put woods inside you. Now they also burn plastic and put hot plastics inside your organs. I’m not going to give you all the details. And sometimes they shoot inside you. And the bodies of women become ashtrays, the cigarettes on your body, so we have woman who looks like a leopard. And just crazy and hard to believe. It has nothing to do anymore with a sexual need or something. It’s just destroy to destroy. These women lost everything, everything, everything, houses and women being — but they’re still smiling. I don’t know from where they have the strength, and that give you strength to continue.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the Congolese activist Christine Schuler Deschryver speaking about the Congo. She’ll be speaking here this weekend at the V-Day to the Tenth celebration that is taking place in the Superdome. I say “celebration” after she described such a dire situation for women, because women are gathering here to fight back, to fight against violence against women and children.
We’re joined right now by two other international women rights activists who are in New Orleans for the weekend. Agnes Pareyio is the coordinator of the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative in Kenya, the community-based group that helps save girls from female genital mutilation and early marriages. In 2002, she helped V-Day open a safe house in Kenya to create a safe haven for young girls. In 2005, Agnes Pareyio was named Kenyan Person of the Year by the United Nations. We’re also joined by Yanar Mohammed. She is here in New Orleans from Iraq, co-founder of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, the group that vocally supports women’s rights in Iraq. She shelters Iraqi women targeted in honor killings and sectarian violence. She was born in Baghdad in 1960. She left Iraq in 1993, then returned after the US Invasion.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Can you explain the title of your organization, Agnes?
AGNES PAREYIO: My organization is Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative, which means rescuing girls. And I’m the coordinator of the program.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you rescuing them from?
AGNES PAREYIO: We rescue these girls from female genital mutilation and early childhood marriages.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about both. Talk about early childhood — talk about female genital mutilation.
AGNES PAREYIO: Female genital mutilation is a culture that is deeply rooted among my community, and this involves the cutting of the clitoris and part of the labia majora. And this is performed because they believe it’s a culture that makes one an adult.
AMY GOODMAN: That makes a girl an adult.
AGNES PAREYIO: An adult, and accepted in the community. And early childhood marriages are culture that happens in my community, too, because girls are married at an early age, as from nine years to fifteen, which we think these girls are still married when they are children and cannot be wives. And that’s why we came up — Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative came up with that idea of educating their community to understand the effects of female genital mutilation and early childhood marriages.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you go about the education process? And what part of Kenya are you from?
AGNES PAREYIO: I’m from Narok. That is in the southern part of Kenya.
AMY GOODMAN: So you’re talking to your own community.
AGNES PAREYIO: I am talking to my own community, because when you want to change a culture, you have got to understand the culture, and you have also have to come from that culture so that you know what to talk about and how to approach the culture, because if you don’t approach the culture in the right way, people might mistake you to be misusing their culture.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you find is the most effective way to convince the community not to engage in these practices?
AGNES PAREYIO: By making them understand the effects of female genital mutilation, because some of these effects they see and cannot relate with the act of female genital mutilation, like, for example, we practice a type two of female genital mutilation that is called excision, and excision involves the cutting of the clitoris, the labia majora, leaving a scar. And women experience prolonged labor pains as a result of this scar. And our community have never related that to female genital mutilation. And some of the girls die, because some of them are sensitive to cutting, and once they are cut, they bleed and they die. But still, the community have not related that to their cutting. They have always been thinking, oh, they are just dying because they — something happened to them. But once we take them, educate them, make them understand that it is as a result of the scar that some girls bleed to death, and it is as a result of this cut some of these women undergo prolonged labor pains, then they listen to us. And we also give them examples of role models, other communities, because it’s not all the communities in Kenya that practice female genital mutilation.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it illegal?
AGNES PAREYIO: Well, these days we have the Children’s Act that is in place, and that prohibits one to mutilate a girl below eighteen.
AMY GOODMAN: How old are these girls that are being mutilated?
AGNES PAREYIO: They are mutilated from the ages of nine, ten to fifteen.
AMY GOODMAN: And are there examples of girls themselves saying no?
AGNES PAREYIO: Yes, since we’ve started, because we met with Eve seven years ago, and of course these days we have role models. We have got some of them who have finished their Form Four level education, because after — after Eve helping us to construct this safe house, we also introduced [inaudible] education to the community, which they didn’t value. So we take these girls to school, V-Day pays the school fees for these girls, and they are helping those girls from poor communities to pay their school fees and go to school. And now we have role models girls who are now going to colleges.
AMY GOODMAN: Agnes Pareyio is from Kenya. When we come back from our break, we’re also speak with Yanar Mohammed. She is in New Orleans from Iraq. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from New Orleans from the PBS station WLAE. We are not far right now from the Superdome, where major activities are taking place over the next two days. Thousands of women are coming in from around the world and also from the Gulf Coast.
Our guests right now in studio are international guests who have come to fight violence against women: Agnes Pareyio, coordinator of the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative in southern Kenya; we’re also joined by Yanar Mohammed. She is the co-founder of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq.
Welcome, Yanar, as well. You’ve been in our New York studio. We’ve talked to you quite a bit over these last years. Why are you in New Orleans?
YANAR MOHAMMED: It’s a global movement now against violence against women, and we think that the story of violence against women of Iraq is already turning into a forgotten story. This occupation of Iraq has turned the society into fighting groups, and they’re all rightwing groups that have agenda against women, and it’s hard to witness the women of your country suffer under that. For example, the main opposition group is a misogynist group that administers mass killings of women in the cities of Iraq, and it was publicized that only in the city of Basra 130-something women are being killed every year because of these militias. And in the same time, the group that are in power have written for us a constitution that legalizes polygamy and legalizes also pedophilia and all kinds of violence against women. This is the —-
AMY GOODMAN: Explain, explain.
YANAR MOHAMMED: The new constitution in Iraq, which was described to be the most democratic doctrine in the Middle East for an Islamist country, allows Sharia articles to work against the family law that we used to have in Iraq. In Iraq, the polygamy, like multiple marriages, one man can marry four women, that was restricted in the past decades, while now, under this new constitution, one man can marry four women, and that would be legal. One man can marry small children, and that would be legal. And that is called democracy in Iraq. Other than that, the new militias that are ruling in Iraq, part of their political agenda is violence against women, killings of women.
And this is all a new story in Iraq, a story that is not mentioned over the news, because it does not -— it is not suitable for the new administration or the old administration in the US to say that they have brought forward a very violent Iraq to Iraq, an Iraq where we are under the rule of the most religious fundamentalist institution, where women are second-rate citizens and violence against them is not even considered news. That’s why I am here. We want this story to be heard all around the world. Women of Iraq do not deserve this, and they need support. We have heard from V-Day a lot during these years, and we need to hear more from the women of the US, of the world, and also the progressives of the world to be supporting us in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: You recently testified in Canada to accept more Iraqi refugees?
YANAR MOHAMMED: I have met parliamentarians and told them that when a woman is suffering because of militias killing them, when women have a constitution that treats them as second-rate citizens, when — I even gave an example that a young woman five days ago in Sadr City was found in an intimate situation with a man, and the members of a Sadr militia held her by the hand and made her walk bare naked in front of all of the city. This kind of humiliation against women is something new in Iraq, and it comes with the new democracies that were promised to us. This should not happen. And when a woman has to prostitute herself to get money and feed her children in Iraq, this is also something new. Women of Iraq need to be saved at this point from the very barbaric attack that was on us by this so-called liberation of Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Is prostitution growing in Iraq?
YANAR MOHAMMED: Prostitution, I would say without hesitation, it includes almost 20 percent of the women in Iraq, and this is also a new story.
AMY GOODMAN: 20 percent?
YANAR MOHAMMED: 20 percent.
AMY GOODMAN: 20 percent?
YANAR MOHAMMED: Some of it is formal, and most of it is informal. And you are killed on the spot if you are found. But who will feed your children? You know, we have almost one million widows in Iraq. They do not have any source of income, and there are no jobs for these women. How are they going to feed their children? For those immigrants who are in Syria and in Jordan — and there are almost 50,000 to 70,000 women who are vulnerable to that situation, and many of them practicing it. And once you practice it, you are wanted among honor killing within your tribe, within your community, and you’re just stuck there. And all of this is violence against women that is not being acknowledged by the world. Nobody is doing anything for the women of Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: How about these issues in the Iraqi refugee community, in places like Syria?
YANAR MOHAMMED: In Syria, we hear that some women reach to the point where they are begging strangers passing by to exploit them sexually so they can feed their children. You know, women of Iraq were not in this situation, I would say, six years ago. We did not have to do this. We did not have to go through humiliation, through prostitution. We did not have to beg in the embassies to be accepted in the Western world, when the attack on our lives came from the West.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in another voice into this conversation, another international women’s rights activist, who has been involved in V-Day organizing and women’s rights. She’s Malalai Joya, a member of the parliament from Afghanistan. This is an excerpt from an interview that also appears at the vday.org website.
MALALAI JOYA: Freedom, democracy, women rights, human rights is not something that someone or some country donate us. We experience in our life that today, this is six years that, after domination of Taliban — why there is no fundamental change in the situation of our people? Even getting worse and worse.
I believe a country is like a bird. One wing will be injured; how the bird can fly? It’s impossible. And a country, it’s the same. When half of population is women, will be — will not have education, will be lots of violence against them, even do not have human life. How our country will improve if they do not play their role?
For example, right now we are talking about democracy, women rights, human rights, but I think these pictures are [inaudible] what’s going on on women in Afghanistan. In six months, fifty-four women alone in Herat province, they burn themselves. The journalists around the world, they are coming there taking photos, and we need their support. In one year in Herat province, more than hundred women burn themselves in different age because of violences.
Now, women of Afghanistan, they have two big violences they are facing now. In one hand is Northern Alliance, this non-democratic government, fundamentalist government, they are anti-women, first of all, against women, and do not respect women even as a human. This is one reason that women, they do burning themselves through — even educated, some educated women, that we — when they are [inaudible] that they don’t have liberation. They have nothing. When they are going outside, they’re kidnapping them, they are raping them. They don’t have even human life. That’s why.
In another hand, male domination society also it impacts some, because if, for example, that’s what I’m telling you education is very important for that when men and women will have education, they know the values of education and they know the values of women rights, they respect their girls, their daughters as a human.
AMY GOODMAN: Malalai Joya is a parliamentarian in Afghanistan, speaking out about the situation of women. Yanar Mohammed, are you afraid to speak out in Iraq?
YANAR MOHAMMED: I’m not afraid, but that doesn’t mean that I’m protected. I have received a couple of threats in the first year, and in this year I received an indirect threat from those who consider themselves opposition now, while the government has censored me from all the Iraqi televisions. So this is the situation.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean censor you?
YANAR MOHAMMED: I’m not allowed to appear on any television which is affiliated with the government. They — it is not a written rule, but I was not allowed. Like many programs were taken for me, but they were not aired later on. So we work under conditions where we — it’s a survival issue for us. We have to stay there. We have to speak out. But it’s the most inhumane situation which we are working in.
AMY GOODMAN: Agnes Pareyio, what about speaking out in Kenya and the political situation right now with the presidential contest going on, the terrible violence that has taken place?
AGNES PAREYIO: Well, the situation in Kenya is one of the worst for women now, because, for a long time, women in Kenya have not experienced staying in the camps, in the — what we call internally displaced places, which is a worst place where a woman can go, because these are small tents, and all sort of violence go on there, because there are these youth who are drunk. Some of them rape these women. And at the end of the day, you find that it’s only a woman who suffers, because she goes there with her children.
And I do remember hosting two girls who went to the safe house, because they were chased away from school because of school fees, and when they tried to go to their families, they found that all the houses were burned and their parents had nothing. So they came to the safe house, where we paid their school fees, and they are now in school. So it’s — life there is horrible, because people are going without food and have no shelter.
AMY GOODMAN: And the situation now, how has it been affected by this contest between the President, who has remained in power, and his challenger, Raila Odinga? 1,500 people now dead. What is the number for displaced? Some half-a-million people displaced.
AGNES PAREYIO: We have that half-a-million people displaced, and they are living in the internally displaced camps. And these two people, Raila Odinga and the President, are yet to agree on the sharing of the power, which last week they seemed not to have agreed, because each of them has his own interest and has some people to give jobs, so they are not considering the people in the camps, and they are not even caring about Kenya. They are just caring about the positions and sharing positions with their own members.
AMY GOODMAN: Among others, Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, was recently tear-gassed.
AGNES PAREYIO: Yeah. She was tear-gassed, because she was trying to say, well, Kenya cannot accommodate more than twenty-four ministers, because each of them, they agreed to have a big number, because wanted to reward their fellow members, not considering the budget and the burden that they were going to put on the taxpayers. So Wangari was trying to push them to have a smaller number of cabinet ministers that can be accommodated in the budget.
AMY GOODMAN: In the last thirty seconds, Yanar Mohammed, can you return now to Iraq?
YANAR MOHAMMED: I will return. I’m just waiting for the battles to be quiet a little. I guess in a few weeks I will be there. And one last thing I would like to say, that our cities now, our neighborhoods, are a battlefield between groups that were created by this occupation, and this is really something that should not happen to Iraqis. And none of it was mentioned in the hearings that I saw over CNN between the heads of the American government. It’s really sad.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the hearing with General Petraeus —-
YANAR MOHAMMED: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- and Ambassador Crocker.
YANAR MOHAMMED: And all these figures they show about what happens to the surge in Iraq — how come nothing was mentioned about Iraqi casualties, that in our neighborhoods, women and children and young people are going victims to this failure of surge in Iraq?
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Yanar Mohammed and Agnes Pareyio, I want to thank you both, from Kenya, from Iraq, joining thousands of women from around the world who have gathered in the city, in New Orleans. They’re at the Superdome today and tomorrow.