Since 1933, the IRC has provided hope and humanitarian aid to refugees and other victims of oppression and violent conflict around the world.
The IRC on Twitter
VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
Hocus Pocus - Ann Jones in Liberia
January 31, 2008
By The IRC
|Christianity is a powerful force in Liberia, as is Islam. Photo: Anna Snyder|
|The International Rescue Committee is working with women's advocate Ann Jones to help women in war zones — survivors of conflict, displacement and sexual and domestic violence — use photography to make their voices heard. Ann is blogging the year-long project from West Africa.Their story continues in Liberia, where Ann is posting updates and photos on Mondays and Thursdays into February.Talk about women’s rights in Liberia and it’s not long before some man marches out God. He’ll say, “Men are in charge of women because that’s the way God wants it.”Women answer back. Kebeh, who is not literate and has never heard of Shakespeare, says, “Women and men are the same: born in the same way in the same place. If you cut us, we bleed.”Sangai says, “If God wanted woman to be under man, he could have made her from Adam’s foot. But no, he took the man’s rib—to show we supposed to be side by side.”Annie says, “We supposed to be a helper. You want to move that table, I help you. I want to move that table, you help me. That’s how that works.”Kormassa says, “It’s not God saying we supposed to be under men. It’s culture.”Annie says, “Yeah, we used to have to walk on our knees because of culture. And we did it because we always have to look to feed our children. But now we stand up.”
Kubor says, “It was only culture that made the boy child ‘better’ in the first place.”
“What is this ‘culture’?” I ask. “Where did it come from?”
Oritha says, “Human beings made culture.”
“What if women made culture?” I ask.
Kebeh says, “Women made culture already, but men don’t respect it. They use their power to keep it down.”
Oritha says, “They use violence to keep it down. That’s what this gender-based violence is for.”
God and Allah don’t come into the equation as these women analyze life. It’s men, not gods, who keep women down. Yet standing up is not easy.
Sangai says, “We know about our rights now. But men say the GBV program will go away, and then our rights won’t do us any good because we be left without men of our own to take care of us.”
Oritha tosses her head. “I don’t care,” she says. “I’ll carry my soap to market and sell it and buy food for my children.”
These women are defiant, but they tell me of other man-made rules harder to challenge. God and Allah, it seems, are nothing compared to the power of witchcraft or the spirit world or what these women call “African signs.”
“Women are not allowed to cut in the palms,” Sangai says. She means that women and girls are forbidden to climb palm trees and cut the fruit from which valuable palm oil is made. Some women have tried, and all of them have come to a bad end. First they are said to be not women but “monkeys” who climb trees. Then, if they persist, they are killed.
“How are they killed,” I ask. “Who kills them?”
“They just die,” Sangai says. “They are killed with spirits.”
This phenomenon has been well documented in Africa: a person violates a taboo, then quickly sickens and dies for no discernable physical reason. Western observers attribute such inexplicable deaths to the power of belief.
“But why would women be killed for climbing palms?” I ask.
“Ah,” says Kebeh. “There’s money there.”
Simple as that.
The Masonic Temple, heavily damaged during the wars, is Monrovia’s most impressive building. The secret brotherhood still influences Liberian life, to the detriment of women. Photo: Ann JonesYet not simple at all. Liberia is layered with “culture” and traditions of different origins, different vintages, different potencies—all of them arrayed against women. The largest building in the capital is an immense Masonic Temple, built by members of the secret fraternity. One more tradition, like Christianity, that the Americo-Liberians brought back with them from the New World. Until the reign of Americo-Liberians ended in 1980, every Liberian president was a master Mason. Some of their secrets spilled into the streets, and to this day the simple act of shaking hands is an intricate exercise in finger-snapping interdigitation that separates the elite from the excluded. Speaking of a rape case, one woman tells me: “A man walks into court, shakes hands with the judge, and the case is decided right there.” One of the photographers tells another story—about the firewood ceremony. Every so often the girls and women who are initiates of the Sande bush are required to carry firewood to the head woman. They must walk through the village wearing only skimpy panties. Village men stand by to ogle the procession of near-naked women. The photographer says the ceremony is humiliating. She wants to protest—to refuse to participate. But in recent years two women did so, and both of them died—killed by “African signs.” She believes that if she refuses, she too will be killed by “the spirits.” Even to speak of these taboos is to risk certain death. Yet this woman speaks. Hocus pocus, you may say. But try to imagine the courage of this woman who believes in the power of witchcraft as surely as you believe in the law of gravity. And the Sande bush? What is that? It’s another secret society, this one for girls whose mothers hand them over at a very young age to women called “Zoes,” who take them away into the bush and initiate them in secret knowledge and secret procedures. The Zoes slice off a girl’s clitoris and her labia, and then bind her legs together while her wounds seal as scars.
The best alternative to the “Sande bush”—where girls are subjected to genital mutilation—is the public school. These girls may have a chance for a better future. Photo: Komassa MalayKuleh, a photographer from Montserrado County, was taken as a girl to the Sande bush and mutilated in this way. Years later, as a married woman, she felt the old scars torn, the old wounds ripped apart, each time she gave birth. Now she has a mission. She tells women: “Don’t send your daughters to the Sande bush. Send them to school.” Sometimes women listen, and sometimes girls are saved. The Sande bush, Zoes, spirits, African signs, witchcraft, “tradition,” Masons, Allah, God, men. That’s what women are up against in Liberia.
No comments yet.