SA’s hero­ines must speak for Pales­tine

CityPress - - Voices & Careers - JANET SMITH voices@city­press.co.za Smith is former ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor of The Star news­pa­per

Twenty years ago, jour­nal­ist and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin told the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion (TRC) that time hadn’t shaken off her tor­ture.

Sikhakhane-Rankin, who went into ex­ile as an ANC cadre in 1972 and was also as­so­ci­ated with the black con­scious­ness move­ment, took the oath on day two of the spe­cial Women’s Hear­ing.

“Years have since passed since I was among a group of women sub­jected to tor­ture by mind-break­ing by the apartheid se­cu­rity po­lice,” she said, “and yet I of­ten find my­self back in the dun­geons of soli­tary con­fine­ment, ready to take away my life for no ex­pli­ca­ble rea­son.

“This all hap­pens with­out any con­scious thought on my part. I hate it when my mind brings those ter­ri­fy­ing mem­o­ries, but my mind just does it for me. It was or­ches­trated to de­stroy me.”

Sikhakhane-Rankin’s tes­ti­mony found chill­ing res­o­nance in 2011, but not for the rea­sons im­me­di­ately as­so­ci­ated with po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers of the apartheid state. In­stead, 14 years af­ter she de­scribed the ter­ri­fy­ing or­deal of women ac­tivists at the zip of the sjam­bok, the Khu­lumani Sup­port Group said the TRC had failed them.

In a re­port on un­remit­ting ne­glect, the so­cial move­ment for sur­vivors of hu­man rights abuses showed how that “fail­ure ... has proved fer­tile ground for the gen­der vi­o­lence women in South Africa face today”. It said rape and gen­der­based vi­o­lence “did not fall within the cri­te­ria of a po­lit­i­cal act” at the com­mis­sion. And it came as a shock to many that the TRC did not even have a cat­e­gory for gen­der vi­o­lence against women. Khu­lumani said it was “sim­ply sub­sumed un­der the head­ing of ‘se­ri­ous ill-treat­ment’”.

Six years later, with Women’s Day hav­ing been marked since 1995, the re­sponse to Khu­lumani’s re­port re­mains as in­signif­i­cant as the em­pir­i­cal def­i­ni­tion of women’s free­dom in our country. In­creas­ing lev­els of vi­o­lence against daugh­ters, mothers and sis­ters rep­re­sent a con­spic­u­ous in­jury in the politics of the lib­er­ated na­tion. Per­haps it is this fail­ure to award proper mean­ing to the tor­ture of women ac­tivists of the apartheid era that has also led to their own rel­a­tive si­lence on the ag­o­nies of their Pales­tinian com­pa­tri­ots.

The Al-Ahrar Cen­tre for Pris­on­ers’ Stud­ies and Hu­man Rights re­leased a re­port last month in which it said Is­rael had ar­rested 84 Pales­tinian women and girls over the past six months. The cen­tre says this fig­ure “in­cludes nine mi­nors, the youngest of whom is 14”. Al­though that num­ber is con­sis­tent with Is­rael’s in­creas­ing mil­i­tary aggression, it doesn’t re­veal the ex­tent of Is­rael’s sys­temic misog­yny against the “other”. This, say many ac­tivists work­ing to­wards the lib­er­a­tion of Pales­tini­ans, in­cludes shoot­ing women and girls, ar­bi­trar­ily de­tain­ing them, in­tim­i­dat­ing them.

We barely hear Pales­tinian women pris­on­ers’ own sto­ries, let alone those con­se­quen­tial nar­ra­tives. Where are the con­duits for those women’s ex­pres­sion among South African women who were de­tainees and pris­on­ers of the apartheid regime?

As Khu­lumani has shown, their sto­ries and their ex­pe­ri­ence were not al­lo­cated the same space given to men, even by the TRC. Who, then, would more deeply un­der­stand a Pales­tinian woman po­lit­i­cal prisoner’s po­si­tion?

If we did hear the Pales­tinian sto­ries, fa­cil­i­tated em­path­i­cally by South African women, we might iden­tify bet­ter with the Al-Ahrar Cen­tre’s spokesper­son, re­searcher Riyadh Al-Ashqar, when he ex­plains how Is­rael “tar­gets Pales­tinian women and young girls in or­der to de­ter them from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Jerusalem in­tifada”.

For all too many Pales­tinian women and girls, Novem­ber’s seventh an­niver­sary of the “Bangkok Rules” (more for­mally, the United Na­tions Rules for the Treat­ment of Women Pris­on­ers and Non-cus­to­dial Mea­sures for Women Of­fend­ers) will pass un­no­ticed and unknown. The Bangkok Rules, to which South Africa and Is­rael sub­scribe, de­mand gen­der­ap­pro­pri­ate de­ten­tion, ar­rest and in­car­cer­a­tion pro­ce­dures, as well as health ser­vices, work, re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, fam­ily care and visi­ta­tion for women pris­on­ers ev­ery­where – in­clud­ing in Is­rael.

If only that had been so dur­ing apartheid. Sikhakhane-Rankin told the TRC how jailed women ac­tivists were made to “stand in­ter­minably as pun­ish­ment” when they were men­stru­at­ing. This alone was a source of fear and dis­gust, and was of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by be­ing beaten in the stom­ach and on the breasts.

Pales­tine’s Ad­dameer Prisoner Sup­port and Hu­man Rights As­so­ci­a­tion has pre­vi­ously re­vealed that Neve Terza Prison in Ram­leh is “the only spe­cialised women’s prison fa­cil­ity in Is­rael”. It and other fa­cil­i­ties, says Ad­dameer, “rarely meet the gen­der-specific needs of women pris­on­ers”. Th­ese in­clude “cul­tural and gen­der-sen­si­tive med­i­cal treat­ment” which is rarely of­fered in an en­vi­ron­ment where there is poor qual­ity food, “phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal pun­ish­ment and hu­mil­i­a­tion from both male and fe­male prison guards, who demon­strate lit­tle to no re­gard for their well­be­ing or spe­cial needs, even when ill or preg­nant”, a lack of fresh air and sun­light, dirty and over­crowded cells, stress and iso­la­tion from their fam­i­lies.

Al­though South Africa is in­deed still strug­gling to prop­erly lib­er­ate all its women, it con­tin­ues to im­prove in meet­ing the de­mands of ar­ti­cle 12 of the Con­ven­tion on the Elim­i­na­tion of All Forms of Dis­crim­i­na­tion Against Women. That res­o­lu­tion – adopted in 1979 by the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly and rat­i­fied by Is­rael in 1981 – is at odds with the con­cerns of Pales­tinian women and girl po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers: body-search­ing; threats of rape by Is­raeli sol­diers and prison per­son­nel; be­ing in­ter­ro­gated by men while shack­led; be­ing forced to re­move their veils; be­ing de­nied ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­rial; be­ing placed in iso­la­tion and be­ing as­saulted.

Th­ese are all fa­mil­iar forms of tor­ture to South African women who were once po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, and who, like many Pales­tinian women, were then also of­ten de­nied their right to a fair trial.

Dur­ing Women’s Month, we urge those coura­geous South African women who were once jailed by the apartheid regime to de­mand, at the very least, a gen­dered un­der­stand­ing of hu­man rights for Pales­tine’s women po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers. They face mul­ti­ple in­dig­ni­ties and ex­ploita­tion. Most are held in pris­ons out­side the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory, de­spite the fact that Is­rael is a sig­na­tory to the Fourth Geneva Con­ven­tion, which agreed that res­i­dents of oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory should be held in pris­ons in­side the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory.

This usu­ally means that dis­tance and Is­raeli law pre­clude their lawyers from con­sult­ing eas­ily with them.

Sikhakhane-Rankin re­called the names of her fel­low de­tainees and pris­on­ers Lil­ian Ngoyi, He­len Joseph, Ruth First, Dorothy Nyembe, Win­nie Man­dela, Martha Dlamini, Shanti Naidoo, Al­bertina Sisulu, Thandi Modise, Bar­bara Hogan, Then­jiwe Mt­intso and oth­ers, just as South Africans now also al­ways do ev­ery Au­gust.

In hon­our­ing those stal­warts, let our women he­roes pay for­ward their fear­less­ness and sup­port women po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Pales­tine. It’s more than time.

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