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Global Roundup: Women in Prison Open Letter, Singapore Autistic Trans Woman, Japan Women Artists, Queer Pakistani Influencer, India Pioneer of Queer & Feminist Movements
Curated by FG Contributor Samiha Hossain
Women in jail in Lynwood, California, lie on beds kept in a communal area because of overcrowding. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Hundreds of women who have been imprisoned have, with human rights organisations, lawyers and activists, written an open letter calling on the organisers of a high-level conference in Rwanda this week to include female incarceration as a key topic. They said that current and former female prisoners are excluded from discussions on women’s rights, leading to a lack of the funding and policy reforms needed to address the alarming increase in the criminalisation of women and the number of children detained with their parent.
The number of women and girls in prison has grown by almost 60% since 2000, nearly three times the increase in the male prison population of about 22%. Evidence shows women’s incarceration is closely linked to domestic violence, poverty and discriminatory laws.
The acclaimed Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga and the Ugandan human rights advocate and poet Stella Nyanzi are, with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among nearly 250 signatories calling on the organisers of the Women Deliver conference, which begins in Kigali on Monday, to ensure “high-level forums on women’s rights are inclusive of all women”.
Susan Kigula, a signatory to the letter who was wrongly convicted for the murder of her husband and spent 16 years in prison before becoming a lawyer in Uganda, said it was sad that organisations and individuals still looked down on women who went to prison and did not include them in policy decisions.
You don’t have to punch someone a second time by rejecting them and not wanting to associate with them. We are all human beings. People should understand formerly incarcerated women need to be included. These people should not be judged by their past. -Susan Kigula
Claudia Cardona, who spent almost a decade in prison and now is the director of Corporación Mujeres Libres, an organisation that defends the rights of women affected by the prison system, said society considered women in prison or who had been in prison as not worthy of being heard.
However, we have the lived experience to enable us to construct a world where all women are given opportunities and have their rights protected. -Claudia Cardona
Lune Loh and J-min, queer and trans Singaporeans, are now seeking safety in the UK after fleeing anti-LGBTQ+ persecution in Singapore. They held a protest in London to raise awareness about the attacks they and others faced in the city-state. (Safety4Harvey UK)
CW: sexual violence
Last month, a group of LGBTQ+ activists and allies stood outside the Singapore High Commission in London to demand justice for Vickreman “Harvey” Chettiar, an autistic, trans Tamil woman living in Singapore.
Harvey was allegedly raped at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in 2014 while detained on a male ward. Following her assault, Harvey filed a police report. No action was taken against her alleged rapist. In 2016, she filed a civil suit against the National Healthcare Group, which owns IMH, hoping for some measure of justice, but her case was struck out in March 2021.
According to Justice4Harvey and Safety4Harvey, movements which sprung up to advocate for her, she is currently facing four criminal charges for minor offences linked to her “traumatising experiences in 2013 and 2014”. As a result of the charges, she could be sent back to IMH. Separately, Harvey has been charged with harassment after allegedly posting an online threat aimed at president Halimah Yacob. A pre-trial conference is expected to take place imminently. If her bail is revoked, Harvey would be sent immediately to a male prison where it’s feared she would face discrimination and risks to her safety.
The protesters who gathered in London called for Harvey to be given dignity, and for her not to be sent back to IMH. They fear that if she is, her life will be at risk. They also explained how Harvey and trans people in Singapore are the targets of the Christian far right. Some told of how they are currently seeking asylum in the UK as a result of this persecution.
In 2022, Singapore repealed Section 377A of its penal code, under which same-sex relations had been a crime. But, at the same time, the government bolstered rules preventing same-sex marriage by amending the country’s constitution. This was widely seen as a move to appease religious groups and conservatives angry at the shake-up of so-called traditional family values. Recently, the country’s government has begun looking at ways to deal with so-called cancel culture as “anti-woke” rhetoric takes hold.
Today, we’re here for Harvey. Today, we are here because we’re against the Christian far right in Singapore, the political presence and the fact that they’ve tried to take over politics in Singapore and the world, and they have networks across the world and they’re trying to push back trans rights. -Lune Loh, trans activist currently studying for her master’s in London
"Self-portrait (Full-Figured, Yet Not Full-Term)," a self-portrait produced by photographer Yurie Nagashima while pregnant in 2001.
Tokyo Gendai, a major new art fair, welcomed more than 20,000 visitors with five artists featured in “Life Actually: The Work of Contemporary Japanese Women Artists,” an exhibition examining women’s distinct perspectives — including gender and other topics. Female photographers in Japan have long struggled to gain economic and reputational parity with their male counterparts. But a shift took place in the 1970s, according to the show’s co-curator Michiko Kasahara, who is also the deputy director of Tokyo’s Artizon Museum.
In the 90s, photographer Yurie Nagashima created a parody of the “hair nude” photographs that swept Japan’s art scene at the time. Pubic hair was typically blurred in print media at the time, but the images began skirting censorship by presenting full-frontal nudes of Japanese actresses and celebrities as works of art. Nagashima, however, thought the phenomenon sexualized women by placing them in “unnatural poses” and making them look like “soft porn models.” Her own ‘90s takes were a sarcastic and irreverent response, intended to hit back at a genre dominated by male photographers. In one shot, a topless Nagashima peers defiantly at the camera while straddling an exercise bike; in another, she seems to mockingly stare at the viewer, wearing transparent pink tights and a matching wig as she lies across a leopard print throw. A selection of Nagashima’s self-portraits went on show at Tokyo Gendai.
Nagashima said she became more vocal about labeling her work as “feminist” after having a child. She was struck, she said, by the patriarchal structure of Japanese society and found herself in a double bind, caught between the expectations of being the perfect mother while also becoming an even better photographer. The predicament prompted her to pursue a master’s degree in sociology in 2015. Her thesis later became the basis of her first critical book, which explored the discourse surrounding women’s photography. It was, Nagashima said, her way of deconstructing the “onnanoko shashin” (or “girly photography”) movement that male critics categorized her works as being part of. The reductive term was used by certain male critics in the 1990s to describe a group of women photographers who used lightweight (and therefore more accessible) cameras to capture themselves, their friends and their daily lives.
I wanted to deconstruct ‘girly photography’ and reveal how it had been a different movement all along. I wanted to show that the nudes we took had been influenced by the third wave of feminism. I wanted to highlight that the male critics had misunderstood what we were trying to do at the time. I wanted to show what I had actually been doing. -Yurie Nagashima
While Kasahara argues that the country’s women artists are now more conscious of their self-worth than ever, and their number has increased, Japan’s art market is still stacked against them, with fewer opportunities to showcase their work or further their careers than their male counterparts. She states that art museums and galleries must both consciously increase the number of women artists shown.
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Photo by @burhan_rebels
Growing up in Pakistan, Burhan never saw another queer person depicted in media or popular culture. They were ostracized for their effeminate adaptations, and terrorized for their flamboyant personality. They received a full scholarship to attend Dickinson College, a prestigious liberal arts school located in southeast Pennsylvania, at just 17 years old. It didn’t take long for Burhan to flourish academically, as they focused on sustainability and other environment-related disciplines.
Today, Burhan works as a program manager for a non-profit in Boston, and has delivered speeches at numerous international conferences, including the Green Allies Conference and United Nations “We the People” Film Festival. For their efforts, Burhan was named one of the “50 coolest South Asians of 2022.”
Using fashion and photography, Burhan expresses their queerness for the world to see. Their Instagram page, which boasts more than 15,000 followers, is filled with stunning photos of Burhan in gender-fluid attire. Along with each photo spread, Burhan highlights a social issue, writing about heavy topics such as sex education and so-called honor killings. This past week, Burhan got hitched, marrying their partner in a traditional Nikah ceremony. While the marriage took place in Greater Boston, Burhan hopes images from the glamorous affair reach their home country, where hopefully other young LGBTQ+ Pakistanis can see there is life beyond the closet.
Trans and queer liberation have the potential to set everyone free, so when people see a queer person being themselves in public, it challenges what people have been suppressing for so long. My content is meant to challenge what people have been taught to fear and suppress. It is shameless, bad, and unapologetic. -Muhammad Burhan
Illustration: Aditya Krishnamurthy
Maya Sharma is an LBT and women’s rights activist with more than four decades of experience in the field. She works on documenting the lives of queer people from marginalised classes and geographies and has authored two books on these themes. She started her journey as an activist in the 1980s following the anti-Sikh riots, and has been an active part of the feminist and queer movements in India since then. Maya is currently the programme director at Vikalp Women’s Group, a nonprofit that seeks to increase women’s accessibility to health, education, and livelihoods.
In 1984, when the anti-Sikh riots broke out, Sharma met a lot of young women who were forced to marry their deceased husband’s brothers or uncles. This was done because the families had lost an earning member and there was a government compensation for the remarriage of women widowed during the riots. Witnessing their suffering helped her see how oppression is systemic.
After moving out of her husband’s house, Sharma started living alone in a servant quarter in a middle-class locality in Delhi. While working there, she met a woman with whom she fell in love. Sharma says she was a great singer, poet, and writer who taught her a lot. This was the time when Sharma was learning about the intricacies of class, gender, and sexuality, and how and where they overlap to create new systems of violence. She realised that class is not just about money—class is culture, class is language.
In the Interview with IDR, Sharma recounts her activism throughout the years. The 1990s changed a lot for women, she says.The women’s movement of the period was sparked by incidents such as the Bhateri rape case and the ensuing protests, and the dowry deaths and conversations around their causes. The LGBT movement in the country was also gaining pace around the same time. She believes younger and older generations have a lot to learn from each other. She admires how tech savvy the younger generation is and how they know exactly what they want.
The younger people can learn the art of letter writing from the older generation. We have everything on social media, but we have lost the art of writing letters. Since we don’t have enough documented queer history, these letters can serve as great archiving material. -Maya Sharma
Samiha Hossain (she/her) is a student at the University of Ottawa. She has experience working with survivors of sexual violence in her community, as well as conducting research on gender-based violence. A lot of her time is spent learning about and critically engaging with intersectional feminism, transformative justice and disability justice.
Samiha firmly believes in the power of connecting with people and listening to their stories to create solidarity and heal as a community. She refuses to let anyone thwart her imagination when it comes to envisioning a radically different future full of care webs, nurturance and collective liberation.