Feminism from further afield (3)

I’ll admit I scratched my head when I was wondering how to write about ‘feminism’ and its role in my life. Lani Parker asked me if I was a feminist in her podcast

Lani: We’ve talked about intersectionality a bit and identity politics, and moving towards the movement stuff. I was wondering, and we talked about bringing in women’s issues and race issues. I was wondering, what does feminism mean to you? Because you’re a very strong feminist.

Eleanor: Thank you. I’m not sure I’m a strong anything. I’ve not really studied feminism as a theory or gone to any feminism classes or courses, or anything like that really. I think for me, feminism is being able to do what you want to do when. Your gender shouldn’t limit your opportunities. Having said that, I realise that it’s not, even if you think you’re a feminist, there are a lot of things in this world that put a stop to your choice, because it’s just easier to conform. I know I got married quite young, and if I was a feminist, if I wasn’t a disabled person, I think, thinking back, I might not have got married at that age. And I think I got married then because I had this internalised idea of myself as not being worthy. And I think that if I didn’t marry the first person who asked me, I might never get another chance. Whereas I don’t think that I would think that if I was a non-disabled woman? So that’s why I’m saying that your choices are compromised, and that’s the intersections they’re kind of in.

I think back of the influences from my own background. My mother is a strong woman, she travelled on her own and escaped from the countryside to go to the city to study during the Communist takeover in Quangzhou. She supported my father in his business and was a businesswoman in her own right. But she stayed well in the family.

My first understanding of the misogyny and patriachal society is from church. One of my mentors, Mrs M committed suicide because of domestic violence and her deep unhappiness also from the fact that her Indian community gave her no support. Of course I have imbibed enough Chinese and Indian films to know how chances are stacked against women. Although I have to add that that Chinese kungfu movies (of which I am a huge fan) have always had strong women warriors and fighters.

Its nothing like the experience of despair and inexplicable resignation of a community when it unfolded in front of me as in the death of a respected member of the community. Everybody seemed to be resigned to it – nobody could/would help her. I raged – I did not understand why she didn’t have choices. I did not understand the patriarchal rules they adhered to. Nobody was denying he abused her. Even sadder was that her sister was given in marriage to help raise the four children she left behind.

I think it was that and another near suicide of another close Indian friend – also through domestic violence that I stopped believing in romance. It simply did not exist in my community. Women got married. They had children. Some men (friend’s fathers) had more than one wife. Even the school secretary but they are not mistresses, they are concubines, unless they are Muslims, then they are wives. We did not question it, it was part of life as we knew it. There was no judgemental bullying of the offspring of such alliances either.

But I got married at a young age myself. I think whatever I felt, I wanted to belong to the idea of the ‘feminine mystique’ . It is still a patriarchal society and as a disabled woman, I longed to belong as with a ‘normal’ ‘rites of passage’ as a woman. And I became a wife and a mother without ever questioning myself.

It was only after the birth of my second child, I decided I should also think of having jobs but soon we moved to Strasbourg (the opportunities for partner and children came before considerations for my own career.) I should say I was enjoying joining other women’s groups and disabled people groups in London at the time, so it was not an easy choice personally.

The logistics of making a new home, grappling with children’s routines, getting to grips with a different culture and language took all my energy and space at the time. I enjoyed expatriate life, made new friends and a new semi diplomatic status. But it had its own toll on me. I felt isolated and without access to my own circle of friends (since I didn’t work) and intellectual stimulation.

I started on a Masters in English Literature with the OU. This where I started researching and thinking about feminism looking at women revolutionaries in the 1790’s, such as Eleanor Ty’s Unsex’d Revolutionaries: Five women Novelists in the 1790’s

So my journey to feminism is not through the suffragettes or learning about them. It was from the voices of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays. I started noticing the absence of women’s work. I had collaborated and presented papers in Museum conferences about gender issues.

 

Start at the beginning (1)

this is the start of blogs in preparation for a chapter in a journal which asked me to write  ” on your work in relation to your personal activism and advocacy with the onset of austerity, and the intersectional tensions as a disabled women involved with a diverse set of communities. In particular we thought you may want to contribute a chapter about your personal reflections, that rigorously capture the new and emerging issues for disability activism” …..

So I am taking the opportunity to write a few notes on my journey.

Chinese girl with mid length hair looking at the camera, with glasses above her head
As a 16/17 year old teenager

When I was a teenager, I had some Swiss penpals who came to visit me in Malaysia. I was very excited, these were my first contacts with white people (apart from religious clergy associated with my school). They came for two weeks bearing gifts of Swiss pen knives and an ambroidered blouse. In these days of social media, it is difficult to imagine a world where we wait for letters to arrive in the post, where handwriting was still important.

I took them to a few places but in Kuala Lumpur, they insisted on visiting a palm reader in a fancy hotel. I refused to pay the fee but he took my palm and was very interested – he said that I would travel the world and live in foreign lands. It was clear to the teenager in me that this was a real scam. I thought how could that be when I was disabled and not able to hobble far. I did not really bother to keep in touch with those penpals after a while, I did not expect to reciprocate the visit to Swizerland.

I went to a mainstream school, there were no special schools in Malaysia and I never met another disabled child when I was growing up. My schoolmates accepted me and they included me when they could but they never asked questions when I was excluded either. One of my classmates was very kind to me and acted as a sort of helper, she got my bag and bought me lunch from the canteen. We went to my house together because she had to wait for the bus, I m not clear why. I was self absorbed like any other teenager. I was not a particularly nice child, I was spoilt by my wonderful parents- even as I felt like an outsider oftentimes when I could not join and perform in the class band, choir and be on stage or do sport, I raged against what seemed like an injustice to me and only me.

black and white photo of girl on bike with glasses. shes wering a dress.
I had a Ragleigh bike with stabilisers

My parents were reasonably well off and it was not a big place, my hometown. The town people knew me as I used to cycle around on a girl’s Ragleigh bike with stabilisers. That bike gave me independence – I valued the mobility independence far more than  my non disabled friends who could walk. That bicycle was a precursor of the wheelchair I got from the NHS when I started university as an undergrad at Kent University in the UK.

My bike made it possible to visit my friends and be part of their families – Malaysia is multicultural. I celebrated all the festivals and it helped me understand cultural differences by being embedded in it. The muzzein call to prayer in the morning, church bells on Sundays, firecrackers for Chinese New Year, and all types of processions ( not found in other parts of the world where I have lived) like for Thaipusam.

This part of my youth is so important in the development and passion for intersectionality and the importance of understanding that no oppression is in isolation of the politics and the context of our community and society.

 

At the Spirit of Women Changemakers conference

4 women speakers sitting at a table, one East Asian next to 2 white women and then a black woman at the end.
photo by @Belinda_Phipps

I was invited to speak the opening session at the Fawcett Society’s Spirit of Women Changemakers conference on 12 November.This is the speech I gave.

First of all, I have to say I’m not at all comfortable in talking  about being a changemaker…for me, my journey as a campaigner is a long process helped and shaped by many other people along the way.

As a disabled activist,I started my journey in the US I was inspired by the grassroot activists in Austin, Texas, who often frequent the Capitol there. I came back to the UK to work at Coventry University but very quickly realised that I was more needed as a disability campaigner than a database/ relationship manager. In 2010, I was one of the co-founders of DPAC and went on my first march on 3rd Oct to protest against the coalition government’s spending review. We were marching with trade unions as well then and I found myself speaking /sharing on platforms with leaders of trade unions as well as other campaigners. I remember saying on an interview with the Guardian that we were going back to something like the Victorian age and people said I was scaremongering then.

At about the same time, I was invited to speak on violence against disabled women by the Million Women March at Trafalgar Square with my great friend, Michelle Daley. We both realised that there was a huge gap where disabled women was concerned on VAW and domestic violence,  disabled women are twice more likely to be victims. Disabled people Organisations are gender neutral and women organisations do not deal with disability generally. Disabled women are marginalised and their issues are essentially invisible. We get a double dose of discrimination and stereotyping ..and triple dose as disabled women of colour.  So we founded Sisters of Frida with other disabled women, we had a meeting over tea near Euston station . But we took a long time deciding on a name. I suggested Sisters of Frida because of the inspiration of Frida Kahlo who was an incredible artist whose work featured her pain and disability but she was more than that, she was creative, she was an activist, a feminist, a lover, bisexual vibrant woman of colour. We wanted a sisterhood that encompass all that, intersectional and inclusive.

So I don’t think I set myself off to be a campaigner or activist or a change maker. In 2012, I was a torchbearer, I think I see myself more in that role, carrying on where previous campaigners have set a trail.  I often say I am a coordinator, I coordinate people who have the skills and set venues and do a lot of the back end work. It means a lot of networking and going to a lot of meetings  – for example SOF had 4 workshops on disability and sexuality recently which were brilliant, we had a pilot event first and mostly disabled women just told us what they needed was a safe space to talk to other disabled women. No other such space exist. So we needed some funding to pay for the venue, access stuff like BSL and I pitched it to the RSA after a feminist funder turned us down and luckily the RSA  agreed. For me, the great motivator is being able to fill that type of gap. And that had a great intersectionality element in it because it was disabled women of faith, LGBT and women of colour, we shared our experiences and stories.

It might seem trivial to focus on this among all the welfare reform changes that is happening but disabled women are seen to be asexual and there are a lot of mis understandings and that is a fundamental sense of selfhood, of being a woman which is important in having self confidence.

We were also involved with the UK working group, part of WRC , we went to Geneva for the last UK cedaw examination, in 2013 we were able to put in some recommendations for disabled women and  this year we went to CSW (Commission on the Status of Women) in NYC to talk about the devastating cuts by the UK government on disabled people.  The UK govt has been found to have gravely violated the Rights of disabled people by the UN Committee by its austerity measures. It’s not easy to be a disabled campaigner – there are some serious barriers: lack of access, being left behind in the public space as a result of discrimination, the lack of funding, energy and time. Disablism/ ablism is rampant. The starting point is often just to insist for our right to be there, and often that fight can be so exhausting you re left with no energy for the event itself. I think being a disabled campaigner means you need some self care too and prioritise – hence things I do can take longer to come to fruition or take the back burner. We have to balance what we do juggling work, family and energy levels. Maybe the role of the change maker is this case is to rethink and give voice for those  women many of whom are struggling by having their independent living threatened by savage cuts to their care packages, their access to work support, their benefits slashed, their motability vehicles being taken away. Some of them are made homeless by things like the bedroom tax, if they face domestic violence perpetrated by their carers, they are not believed and oftentimes, they have no where to go. A few of them have committed suicide. And there will be more, people want legislation to allow assisted suicide. Disability hate crime has gone up and we are seen to be burdens for feminists, as unpaid care work they have to shoulder.

But disabled women are at the forefront of the present disability movement, and I would like to pay tribute to Debbie Jolly, a co founder of DPAC and fundamental in campaigning for the Rights of disabled people, who died this week.

At the V&A: Identity, and using the right language

crowd of people sitting on the floor, some cross legged, mostly young people.
the audience

The week before last, I recieved an e-mail

I am contacting you on behalf of gal-dem (http://www.gal-dem.com/ )  and the V&A Museum, as we hoped you would be interested in taking part in our upcoming event.
Hosted on the 28th October, gal-dem are taking over the Museum to curate a night of talks, workshops and films which celebrate women of colour.
During the course of the evening we will be hosting three panels discussions exploring what it means to be a woman of colour in various spaces. The first will be on creative women, the second on music and the third on politics. Each talk will be aprox 30-40 minutes long and include 4 women on each panel. We would love you to speak on the panel for politics. Is this something that you would be interested in?

I was pleased to be asked and agreed even if it was scheduled at the late hour of 9pm. The V&A requires a fair bit of travelling to get to and back from where I am.

Upon discussion about the panel discussion itself, one mentioned surprisingly that for her, ‘people of colour’ referred to Black people, those of Afro-Carribean heritage and with someone else who is herself of that background, said she did not like the term. I asked this of a Black British person I respected and she told me that it’s used mostly in the USA, with its origins there, but not a prefered term here in the UK – similar to the usage of ‘people with disabilities’ (mostly used in the USA ) and ‘disabled people’ (here in the UK).

I started questioning on how I would identify myself then as an East Asian or South East Asian/ Malaysian Chinese/British Chinese. But I do not really want to box myself. I had written briefly on that discussion of terminology for Media Diversified.

Of course I question myself on identity politics – should identity be framed as only a political issue? No is the brief answer. Its also very much a cultural issue. I was brought up in a very multi cultural, multi faith environment where we had to learn more than one language but my parents only spoke to us in Cantonese and I grew up listening to Cantonese opera but watching Bollywood as well as Hollywood movies. I did South East Asian history and English Literature learning about daffodils but knowing nothing about the local fauna and flora. I’ve moved so much in my life and gained nourishment from each of the places I have called home, Kent, Yorkshire, Strasbourg, Austin, Massachusetts, Coventry and London…

I am very grateful to friends, both American and British, hearing my doubts voiced – took the trouble to tell me about the origins of the term ‘women of colour’ from Loretta Ross:

“….didn’t see it as a biological designation—you’re born Asian, you’re born Black, you’re born African American, whatever—but it is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been “minoritized.”

This is exactly how I would want to add myself there, as a gesture of solidarity so that I do not have nail my nationality, birthplace, ethnicity (colours) to the mast. In a way it is like the social model of disability, I do not have to state my impairments – by saying I am disabled, I am joining a community which had been discriminated against.

It was a great evening, I ate with friends there even if we did not make it to the Soul Food Kitchen, I was dazzled by the diversity of the Gal-Dem ensemble, it was so so busy…I’m sorry to have missed the ‘twerking’ session

tables set up for dining with people, lovely room with tinted glass pictures
Soul food kitchen where carribean cooking was demonstrated

great contemporary portraits

2 portraits of a black woman topless, shes holding big feathers, the other of her with her back
in the gallery

but I could not see the poets performing their poems 🙁 a shame…

road of people with their backs to the camera
the backs…

On Media Diversified – Rights Not Games: A Week Of Disability Resistance

I was asked by Media Diversified to write a piece on the Paralympics. Originally I wanted to explore the opportunities of disabled people of colour in the arena of sports. I tried to get an interview with Ade Adepitan – for me, he’s the symbol of the disabled sportsperson still in that arena as a media personality. But he’s a very busy man even if he agreed to an interview, we just did not make it. To be honest, it made me realise I did not understand much about the world of sports – not even Boccia.

I am glad that Vilissa Thompson wrote on the overwhiteness of the games. My role in 2012 was as a torchbearer which, at the time, earned me some criticism because of the anger over Atos as a sponsor. I was accused of betraying my disability activism which I deeply resent as partly racist  especially when nobody else was attacked in the same manner for contributing to the Paralympics Opening Ceremony (all white ). However, I do understand activism and it’s important to note the protests. I was not at any of the events because I was away at a disability conference in Lancster but I kept in touch through social media. I suspect, in my heart of hearts, the memory of the hurt from 2012 still rankles .

Last Sunday, I woke up to news on Malaysian social media that three Paralympics gold medals had been won at Rio. As a disabled woman with Malaysian roots, I felt very proud. This was a first – Malaysia doesn’t usually feature much in the Paralympics (or the Olympics).

However, it’s a different environment here in the UK (where the Paralympics is being broadcast on Channel 4, with its visually spectacular, slickly produced, and controversial trailer, We’re the Superhumans). Disabled activists, such as the group, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) used the publicity generated by the Rio Paralympics to draw attention to the “disproportionate impact of austerity” on disabled people in the UK.

They planned a week of action; Rights Not Games, to draw attention to the cumulative impact of the cuts imposed by austerity. The intention was not to oppose the Games or criticise the British Paralympians, but to highlight the contrast in funding for the Paralympics with the benefit cuts and independent living support for disabled people.

Read the rest of the article at Media Diversified

Remembering the murdered #sagamihara19

Last Tuesday, on the 28th July, I was bleary eyed, jet lagged from my journey back from Malaysia feeling very relieved that my power wheelchair came back in one piece with no visible damage when I read with misbelief that a man had got into a residential home, Tsukui Yamayuri En (Tsukui Lily Garden) facility in Sagamihara, south of Tokyo, Japan and murdered 19 disabled people. I was in shock imagining the fear and the chaos these people must have felt during the time he wrought the carnage. They were trapped in their beds, there was no escape for these disabled people. I know exactly how it feels when you’re bed bound. The horror of it all. If I feel outrage for the people who died, I feel even more for the survivors who have to deal with the aftermath. They must be completely traumatised as well as their family, friends and the people who care for them.

I know others in the disabled community have blogged about this but for those who do not know the story – a knife wielding attacker slit the throats of several residents, nine men and ten women, aged between 18 and 70 and injured 26 more under the belief of Nazi eugenics ideology. I will not name him and give him that glory while the victims remain nameless. I want to write this from an East Asian perspective if possible.

He had given warning previous to the attack, in letters he wrote in February that he could “obliterate 470 disabled people”, Kyodo news agency reported. He said he would kill 260 severely disabled people at two areas in the facility during a night shift, and would not hurt employees.

He also said, 

“I envision a world where a person with multiple disabilities can be euthanised, with an agreement from the guardians, when it is difficult for the person to carry out household and social activities.

I believe there is still no answer about the way of life for individuals with multiple disabilities. The disabled can only create misery. I think now is the time to carry out a revolution and to make the inevitable but tough decision for the sake of all mankind. Let Japan take the first big step.”

These words sent a chill down my spine. Originally I had thought that he must have mental health issues, it must be some kind of internalised self-hate, that he was carrying out some kind of twisted hara kiri, a form of ritual suicide but he didn’t kill himself, he does not self-identify as disabled, he gave himself up to the police. I was doing my own stereotyping from my impressions gleaned from Japanese films. It isn’t that.

Then like many of the disabled community I wanted to know the faces, the stories of those people who died. I want to mourn them properly. It is said that the families did not want for them to be named because of the continuing stigma of being disabled. And I rebel against that  – why are disabled people always invisible? I remember crying at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC when I read a sign saying something like there were not many photos of disabled people killed then because they were not photographed. The implication is that nobody thought they were worthy of having their photos taken at the time.

In these days of social networks and the instant media we saw and mourned the mass killings in Orlando and in Nice recently. So I asked the question: where are the outpourings here? Things have not changed. Disabled people are still not worthy – our stories are still not heard. Only in the disabled community there were the outrage and sorrow expressed. Is it because it happened in Japan? Yes, I had white people telling me that it’s not surprising that it happened there, it’s the ‘culture’, disability is not accepted, ‘ they hide their disabled’ and I nearly screamed but eugenics is not part of the Eastern culture. I am brought up in the East, in Malaysia, people did suggest to my parents that they should put in an orphanage but nobody said I should be dead. This man was influenced by Nazi eugenics idea – so it was imported from the west! And it is here in the UK that disabled people are hounded to death/suicides sometimes by the Department of Work and Pensions. It is not as gory as a bloodied kitchen knife in the middle of the night but the result is both ending in pain filled deaths as a result of their disabled status. And the reasoning behind both is that disabled people’s lives are not worth keeping.  I struggle to understand when I campaigned against assisted dying in the UK. The concept does not exist in the East. Human rights is a thorny issue there but there is no ‘right to die’ only the right to live. Would there ever be that discussion? From all accounts, the care facility, Tsukui Yamayuri En (Tsukui Lily Garden), is a good one in Japanese standards. There was mention of integration. I fear for the future of the residents that they will now get locked away to ensure security and in the environment of fear. I am worried that there would be repercussions for disability organisations working for independent living that might impede their progress of integration, against segregation. I also fear that people with mental health issues might get worse incarceration if it was decided that this murderer did it because of his mental state.

Here, in the UK, we talk a fair bit about intersectionality and I am very conscious that my identity intersects with race, gender, disability and being a migrant. Many of my peers write about the importance of diversity but somehow disability often gets left behind in the discourse.  We will not get the ‘je suis …’ status because not many want to be connected to disability not even those who are disabled but have hidden disabilities because of the stigma.

I am struggling to understand why these people should be nameless. This is happening at the same time when we are looking forward to watching the ‘super humans’ Paralympics in Rio. There seem to be a huge difference between the ‘Yes we can’ refrain to those nameless victims in the care facility.

How do we reconcile the differences? Dennis Queen and I have organised a vigil to remember the #Sagamihara19 outside the Japanese Embassy on Thursday 4th August starting at 4pm for disabled and non-disabled to mourn them. There is an online book of condolence to add your name if you so wish to do so at and an online international vigil on twitter hosted by @DisVisibility (UK time 23:00).

p/s this was totally unintentional but the number 4 for the Chinese is linked phonetically with death. Thursday is the 4th day of the week, at 4pm on the 4th.

After discussing it with someone who said the families do not want to be named and apparently journalists have asked. I am beginning to understand that fear of intrusive journalists – do we have a right to salve our curiousity? its a different society – do we have to view it through our our own prisms? I include myself that I demand to have that information but what purpose would it serve? I should be more concerned that the disabled people organisations are able to do their work towards independent living for their people. I just saw this – that Japanese Paralympians pay tribute to the massacred victims – they do not appear to be forgotten in Japan!

Japan’s Paralympic team members paid their respects to the 19 victims of the recent massacre at a care home for disabled people while vowing to win 10 gold medals in the Rio Games.

The 127 athletes and 98 officials in the Japanese delegation held a moment of silence for the victims of the July 26 attack during a departure ceremony in Tokyo on Aug. 2

The team members pledged to do their best to promote a society where people with disabilities can live side by side with able-bodied people.

“For more than half a century, we’ve been promoting self-reliance of disabled people and their social participation through sports activities,” said Mitsunori Torihara, chairman of the Japanese Paralympic Committee, in his speech. “We can never forgive the atrocious incident that occurred.”