Aamra bhulbo na, Agniva

This is the form of Wikipedia editing I hate the most, updating an entry to reflect the passing of an inspiring human being. Agniva Lahiri, rest in power, and in amusement at the foibles and ironies of this world. Was it only a month ago that I reached out and you told me about setting up the first Asian transgender home in Kolkata? I hope we can make it happen in your memory.

I’ll miss the adda and the shared cackling at different points in time in our connecting stories. I’m heartsick, once again, at the struggles my trans friends have to go through to be seen and to be, fully. I’m so sorry your body gave out on you, but your spirit will not. Aamra bhulbo na.

Amplification, not representation

And this, my friends, is one of the essential pillars of Whose Knowledge?. Not only re women, but around race, sexuality, caste, class, indigenous peoples… the many many marginalised communities of knowledge and wisdom in our worlds. Obama staffers talk about how they made sure women were heard: “Female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called “amplification”: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.”

I will not die a victim, I want to live as a leader

The incredible Dalit leader, Manisha Mashaal: “When I look at my life I know that as a Valmiki woman there are hardly any places where I can find another of my sisters. Even after my education, my travels, and leadership, I still find myself discriminated against, underestimated, and shoved aside. Discriminated by both upper caste and also other Dalits who do not address their English and caste privileges which act against the members of castes below them, and those whose English fluency is not on par with them. If I struggle like this, then I can only imagine what other rural Dalit women must struggle with?”

At the AWID Forum I just returned from, Dalit feminists had moved from being participants in the past to being presenters of sessions in the present. While I celebrated with them, I also questioned with them when and how the 260M + Dalits of the world would find their place in ‘plenary’, when their struggle and power would be acknowledged widely and visibly. And before we turn to the world stage, let’s acknowledge our own biases and invisibilities in India, in South Asia. Manisha, hum aapke saath hain, lekin bolne aur karne mein bahuth pharakh hai. Keep us honest, my friend. #DalitWomenFight

(and in Hindi.)

Aami Dhaka. Man Kabul. Ben Istanbul.

Aami Dhaka. Man Kabul. Ben Istanbul.

And if you have no clue why I’m saying any of this, please crawl out of your US-European bubble and look at how the rest of the world is hurting. I’m tired of the biased reports, the skewed responses, the invisibility of pain. We may be brown, black, and beyond your geography. But we hurt in the same way, we bleed in the same way, and the same warped forms of terror kill our peoples – whether they claim Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism or any other form of religion as the basis for their hate.

And for my friends in the US and Europe who hurt with me, thank you for your love and solidarity.

Seeing each other fully: IRL, on Wikipedia

This has been an extraordinarily complex 24 hours. On the one hand, in the Wikimedia free knowledge world, I am celebrating Christophe Henner and Maria Sefidari being made Chair and Vice-Chair of the WMF Board (there’s power for you). And then the new Board’s bold and brilliant decision of making Katherine Maher WMF Executive Director, removing months of possible uncertainty and waste in a fell swoop (there’s leadership for you). And the Wikimedians of the Year being declared as Emily Temple-Wood and Rosie Stephenson-Knight (there’s almost redundant affirmation for you; Emily has been my Wikipedian of the decade for a while now).

On the other hand, there’s the world beyond, the expanse of the ‘real world’ these past few days: the awfulness of the Brexit vote, the portents for the November election in the US, and the overall environment of hate, racism, xenophobia, and ‘othering’ of multiple kinds. And yet, these two worlds are connected. In multiple ways.

Take as an example, the two English Wikipedia articles on the Orlando shootings and Jo Cox’s assassination in the UK, both awful, gut-wrenching acts of violence and hate in the past weeks, occurring days of each other. The descriptions of the perpetrators in the lede paragraphs are currently this, respectively: “The assailant was Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American” and “A 52-year-old man was charged with her murder and will stand trial under terrorism protocols”. In the Orlando article, the lede goes on to describe Mateen’s alleged (and disproved) links with ISIL. The Cox article has nothing further in the lede, not even the name of the proven neo-Nazi Thomas Mair, who shot her; you have to scroll down to the end of the article to find a single paragraph on the man. Omar Mateen has a long, separate, article on him. Thomas Mair doesn’t. In previous versions of the articles that I remember seeing just a couple of days ago, Omar Mateen was described as ‘being of Afghan descent’, while the unnamed (from the start of the article) Mair was believed to have ‘a history of mental illness’ and links to ‘right-wing extremism’.

These two articles demonstrate both what is extraordinarily brilliant and amazing about the Wikimedia community – and what is deeply, deeply troubling, and needs shared, collective, reflexivity and leadership. The fact that they exist, that 608 distinct humans have worked so far on the Orlando article and 243 on the Cox article, that each iteration is meant to improve in all good faith, the substance and quality of the article… all this matters, is meaningful, and worthy of celebration. At the same time, the fact that these brilliant, passionate, committed authors have their own systemic – possibly unconscious – biases of how they describe the perpetrators of these crimes, while possibly lacking the self-reflexive thought on how that impacts countless innocent people tarred unfairly with the same biases… that is the critical challenge for the future of knowledge on the internet, and far more broadly, the critical challenge for the future of our world as we live it today.

What does each of us take away from reading these articles as ‘fact’, as ‘information’, as ‘knowledge’? What ways of seeing the world, of seeing *each other* do we imbibe?

I deeply miss being at Wikimania right now, celebrating the joys of moving on from mayhem with some sense of balance and thoughtfulness. Yet I urge everyone who is lucky enough to be at Wikimania to look at each other today and over this weekend, and ask yourself this question (as I asked it of senior leadership at the WMF a few years ago, to uncomfortable silence): ‘Do we in this room even begin to represent the swathes of humanity that exist in the real world, that are on the internet today, that will be on the internet tomorrow? How can we possibly begin to design with, create with (*with* _not *for*), and amplify the knowledge of, those who do not look like most of us in this room, and who have had very different life experiences?’.

My hope is in the fact that people like Katherine, like Emily, like Maria, like Christophe – they are brave enough to ask this question of themselves, and of each of us, knowing that the answers are going to be messy, uncomfortable, painful, and yet will lead us in the only direction worthy of free-as-in-‘libre’ knowledge. Towards a world in which we truly see each other fully. Whether on Wikipedia or in the real world.

We Also Made History

Over the years, I’ve learnt how much the histories and voices of marginalised communities can be made invisible, rendered unheard. And in an intersectional world, those who carry multiple invisible/unheard identities are discriminated against the most. The greatest irony, of course, is that in most cases, these identities – privileged or disprivileged – are accidents of birth. Race, sex, caste… did you choose to be born as you are?

What we do choose is how we understand and live with our privilege and power, or its lack. For me, it’s been (almost) a lifelong learning process of understanding the privilege and contradictions of being born into an ‘upper caste’ family in India. And of rejecting that system for myself, and more structurally.

But some of the bravest, most resilient women I have known over the years are Dalit women who have faced multiple forms of oppression, of discrimination, and have fought, challenged, and sometimes triumphed over human-made awfulness. And yet their lives and struggles are rarely marked by the rest of us.

In a tiny contribution to seeing and hearing and marking these lives, my week 4 contribution to the ‪#10wikiweeks‬ challenge is a stub on We Also Made History, the first book ever to pull together a history of Dalit women’s contributions to the anti-caste Ambedkar movement in India. It was unbelievably difficult to find reliable sources, even for such a notable addition to historiography. When was the original published? In 1989, in Marathi, and in 2008, as an English translation. This is not ‘old’ archived material; this is contemporary scholarship that has gone relatively unmarked by Indian scholars and media.

I’m reading the English version now, I’m saying their names.

Musawah and other musings

Three weeks ago, I decided to give myself a #10wikiweeks challenge: write a Wikipedia article every week, for ten weeks. The first two weeks, I wrote about Freedom Nyamubaya and Peggy Antrobus, amazing feminists from Zimbabwe and the Caribbean, respectively. Now I’m into Week 3, and it happens to be the first week of Ramzan/Ramadan this year. So here’s my iftar offering: an article on the incredible network of global feminists working on feminist interpretations of Islam, Musawah. Many of those in the network are personal inspirations, and they delightfully confuse and confound the stereotypes around Muslim women (as though this is a homogenous category). I would love to know how many of you knew Musawah existed, and how many of you are surprised and pleased to know what they do. Ramzan Kareem, everyone!

I also snuck in an article earlier in the week, on Ayize Jama-Everett, the inspiring African-American science fiction writer I heard at the Bay Area Book Festival last weekend. I’m rarely shocked by gaps in the English Wikipedia, but this one did surprise, given that Ayize is a US citizen, and has written a fairly acclaimed trilogy. Wonder why he got left out, despite obvious notability? People do often choose to write about what they know (and whom they look like), including on Wikipedia.

As Siko Bouterse and I have said on Whose Knowledge?: there is a historical process of socio-cultural colonisation and imperialism that has outlasted the territorial. In a sense, the ‘global South’ and the ‘global North’ are political terms of geography, history, as well as ideological and material dis/privilege: there is a ‘global South’ in the global North and vice-versa.


Not One More…

So the Stanford rape case has had me so angry, it’s been hard to respond coherently. The situation is that of Brock Allen Turner, a (white) male student – who happened to be on the Stanford swim team at the time – raping an unconscious female student in January 2015, and then getting only six months with probation last week, because the judge deemed a prison sentence would have a ‘severe impact’ on him. The woman responded with a searing letter: “I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me. It is the saddest type of confusion to be told I was assaulted and nearly raped, blatantly out in the open, but we don’t know if it counts as assault yet. I had to fight for an entire year to make it clear that there was something wrong with this situation.”
The father of the perpetrator responded with another letter in which he called it “20 minutes of action” for which his son shouldn’t be punished.
And in the meantime, Black Lives Matter activist Jasmine Richards was facing up to 4 years in prison for trying to ‘de-arrest’ someone during a peace march. She was finally sentenced, in the past week, to 90 days in jail, with 18 days served, and 3 years on probation. She spends time in prison, Brock Allen Turner doesn’t.
So all of this is fury making of the worst kind. But I wondered – knowing how rarely rape gets convicted anywhere in the world – what the stats were in the US. Sure enough, Rebecca Solnit had the even more fury-making answer: so you thought 6 months with probation was absurd? The outrageous truth is that reporting a rape (women are twice as likely as men *not* to report) will be unlikely to lead to a conviction: only slightly more than 2% are convicted.
What is the conviction rate in India? Better than the US, strangely, but declining each year, even as reported cases go up: 44.3 percent in 1973, 26.4 percent in 2011.
And the base: across the world, rapes go unreported in the majority of the cases. It’s estimated that in India, reported cases are 1.8 per 100,000 people; for the US, it’s 28.6 per 100,000. And again, across the world, in the majority of cases, the perpetrator is known to the victim/survivor.
So in all the fury making around Stanford, yes – sign the campaign asking for judge Aaron Persky’s recall (I did). But as in so much else around injustice, recognise how we all tend to respond to individual cases rather than the underlying structural conditions of patriarchy and sexual assault. Did we pay attention to this case because the media carried it, and because he was a Stanford swimming champion? Did we not pay attention to Delta Meghwal’s rape and murder because she was Dalit?

So hold on to your outrage, make it count. Support the women and men around you who fight against patriarchy and discrimination every single day, not just this week.

#NotOneMore #FreeWomensBodies #NoMoreRape #RecallAaronPersky #JusticeforDelta #BlackLivesMatter

Shut Up and Listen (also, Read).

20160604_103350Just back from two days at the Bay Area Book Festival in downtown Berkeley, where we bookended our time with the most brilliant panel yesterday of five authors of speculative and subversive fiction in which only *one* was a white dude (and the others covered a multiplicity and intersectionality of races, ethnicities, genders and sexualities), and ended today with an Egyptian transnational secular Muslim feminist speaking with a Bay Area African American feminist.

20160604_112602In between, we went to a panel of science nerds who write about cooking, linguistic nerds who are conlangers (those who construct languages) for shows like the Game of Thrones and the Expanse, wandered down Radical Row and talked revolutions, and made friends with bookshelves in the middle of the road. Bibliophile, activist, heaven.

While my brain is still processing and sedimenting all I learnt, I’ll leave you with a few brilliant lines from Harlem/Bay Area African American science fiction writer, Ayize Jama-Everett, who when asked how/if his speculative fiction is also subversive, said: “I’m a black man in America. Every thing I *do* is subversive… When I read about utopias, I ask: where are the black people? …Writing is both an act of lunacy and bravery. It’s blood on a page.”

And the final final word from the fabulous Mona Eltahawy, speaking to the equally fabulous Chinaka Hodge, to folks who think about ‘rescuing’ people from ‘over there’ and bringing them back ‘over here’, mistakenly thinking ‘over here’ is not equally (if differently) misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, homophobic… “We’re doing our own work ‘over there’. Work on your own ‘over here’… and don’t forget to shut up and listen”.

Yes, my brother, my sister. *mic drop*.