“Occupy” Living Space?

In 1993, Venezuelan businessman David Brillembourg died leaving behind him an unfinished skyscraper intended to be the third highest building in Caracas.  The building’s official title is Edificio Confinanzas but it is better known as David’s Tower. After Brillembourg’s death his business went to the wall and the building lay empty for 14 years.

Venezuela has a huge problem with shortage of living accommodation, many thousands of people are homeless not only due to poverty but also as a result of frequent floods.

In 2007, local families in Caracas, desperate for a place to live, began to move into the giant skyscraper.  Now c. 2,500 people live as squatters in this building.

Surely if there is something we all deserve to ‘occupy’ it has to be living space?

Have a look at this fantastic series of photographs from Foreign Policy here –


I am Spartacus…

In their book, Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn tell the story of an Indian neighbourhood – Kasturba Nagar – a place where the inhabitants are Dalits (Untouchables) and the lanes run with sewage and desperation.

For almost fifteen years, Akku Yadav and his gang ruled the slum with weapons of terror.  They robbed, tortured and murdered at will – much of the time choosing rape as their preferred method of controlling the people.  In this area rape is so stigmatizing that the victims often remained silent, which allowed Akku Yadav to act with impunity.  The few that reported the crime were ignored by the police.

The slum-dwellers say Akku Yadav once raped a woman right after her wedding and that he and his gang dragged another woman – who was seven months pregnant – into the street where they raped her in public view.  They also gang-raped another woman just ten days after she’d given birth – that woman was so humiliated she killed herself by dousing herself with kerosene and setting herself on fire.

In addition to the rapes, Akku Yadav once stripped a man, burned him with cigarettes and made him dance in front of his sixteen year old daughter and tortured a woman by cutting off her breasts and cutting her to pieces in front of her daughter and neighbours.   One man, Avinash Tiwari, planned to go to the police, so Akku Yadav butchered him as well.

The inhabitants were terrified of Akku Yadav.  25 families moved away but most had no hope of escape, so they took their daughters out of school and hid them in their houses to try to protect them. And the police didn’t help – as long as Yadav targeted Dalits they didn’t interfere.

Usha Narayane is from this neighbourhood but her parents struggled and saved all their lives to educate her and her siblings.  She has a degree in hotel management and was due to begin work when she went home for a visit.

Akku Yadav was rampaging as usual.  He raped a thirteen-year-old girl and then he and his men went to the neighbours of the Narayanes to demand money. The gang broke up the house and threatened to kill the family.  The neighbours were too terrified to act, so Usha went to the police to file a complaint for them.

The police told Akku Yadav what she had done and he and 40 men surrounded Usha’s house.  Yadav had a bottle of acid and he shouted at Usha to back down.  She barricaded herself inside and called the police – but they didn’t come.  So Usha turned on the gas in her house and told Yadav if he came in she’d blow them all up.

The neighbors were unsure what to do but when they saw Usha fighting back it gave them courage and they hurled sticks and stones at Yadav and his men.  The gang ran off.  The Dalits were ecstatic – for the first time ever they had defeated Akku Yadav and his men. The slum-dwellers burned down Yadav’s house and he was arrested for his own protection.

Akku Yadav’s bail hearing was scheduled and rumour had it that he’d bribed the police and was going to be released.  The hearing was set for a court miles away in Nagpur. Hundreds of Dalit women marched to attend. Akku Yadav strutted into court, confident and unrepentant. He saw a woman he had raped and called her a prostitute and said he’d rape her again. She ran forward and hit him with a slipper and then all the women came forward and surrounded him screaming and shouting.  They threw chili powder at the police guarding him and then the women pulled out knives and began to stab Akku Yadav.  They had agreed that each of them would stab him at least once.  They killed him and cut off his penis and then marched back to Kasturba Nagar. The slum had a party – the monster was dead.

Everyone knew Usha Narayane had orchestrated the murder but she wasn’t in court that day and though she was arrested nobody could prove her involvement.  The woman had decided if they all stabbed him no one wound – or one woman – could be said to have killed him.  A public outcry followed the murder of Akku Yadav and the plight of Kasturba Nagar became public.  A retired high court judge took the part of the women saying they’d sought help from the police and had been abandoned.

This is the type of story that clearly demonstrates to me the type of moral dilemma that plagues our world.  Akka Yadav had clearly caused immense suffering and was no loss to humanity.  The police were corrupt and the Dalits had no recourse to justice.  One has to wonder if it is just to allow suffering to continue.  Or to allow the tyrant to thrive.

And yet…

Perhaps it’s the savagery of the attack but somehow the solution feels wrong as well.  It reminds me of war. But having said that – what else could they do?

I don’t know the answer.

What do you think?

Half the Sky

In the Introduction to their book, Half the Sky, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, recount the story of a Cambodian teenager named, Srey Rath.

When Rath was 15, she decided to go to Thailand to find work.  Her parents worried but Rath and her four friends were all promised jobs in the same restaurant so it seemed safe.

However the job agent took the girls into Thailand and there handed them over to gangsters who took them to Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia, to work in a brothel.

At first Rath refused to have sex with customers, so she was beaten and raped by the boss of the brothel and his men.  A subdued Rath stopped fighting but instead she sobbed and had to be drugged by the brothel owners so that she wouldn’t repel the customers.

Rath and the other girls were forced to work fifteen hours a day, seven days a week in the brothel.  They were forced to act as though they were happy to see the customers, kept naked and barely fed – “…because the customers didn’t like fat girls.”

The girls were never allowed out or paid for their work and were housed in a locked tenth floor apartment to which they were bused under guard.

One night, one of the girls prised a long, five inch board from a drying rack.  Rath and three other girls balanced the board between their balcony and the balcony on the next building twelve feet away and then sitting on the board inched across.  The board wobbled and shook and they knew they’d be killed if they fell ten stories but they figured their lives were over anyway so it was worth a chance.

All four girls made it across and the surprised tenant of the opposite apartment let them out through his apartment.  The girls took the elevator to the street and found a police station.  The police tried to get rid of them and when they refused to leave, imprisoned them. Rath spent a year in a Malaysian prison because she was an illegal immigrant. At the end of that year, the policeman who was supposed to be repatriating her, sold her to a trafficker who sold her on to a Thai brothel.

Bad as it was, the owners of the Thai brothel didn’t beat Rath or lock her up.  Two months later she escaped and went home to Cambodia.  With the help of a social worker and an aid agency loan, Rath became a street pedaller and soon began to earn enough to keep her parents and sisters.  In 2008, she upgraded her cart to a stall and her business expanded.  Now she is married, has a son and a thriving business and is a cheerful, outgoing girl determined to make her way in the world.

While there is no denying that this is a story of injustice and suffering and corruption it is equally a story of resilience, perseverance and hope.

But the story of Rath is not just a story of seediness and the sex industry, it is – as Kristoff and Wudunn point out – the story of modern slavery.

If this slavery is to become a thing of the past, like other forms of slavery, we all need to become abolitionists.


How real is reality?

Antonio Gramsci's writings on the hegemony of ...

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The first step in changing our world is an examination of what actually constitutes reality. We are all products of our environment and as a result we inevitably take many things for granted, believing them to be the natural order of things. As a result of this tendency, slavery, child labour, the subjugation of women and certain classes and the assumed superiority of specific races were all at one time – and unfortunately in some quarters still are – considered to be ‘the natural order of things.’ As Sir Ken Robinson, the British campaigner for educational reform says,

we don’t see the world directly. We perceive it through frameworks of ideas and beliefs, which act as filters on what we see and how we see it. Some of these ideas enter our consciousness so deeply that we’re not even aware of them. They strike us as simple common sense. They often show up, though, in the metaphors and images we use to think about ourselves and the world around us. (1)

So what if many of the things we take as unshakeable realities aren’t fixed in some unalterable way but rather exist because we allow them to exist? 

Cultural transformation involves deliberate changes in individual choices and in institutional structures and norms. (2)

Reality Check…

Social reality is an expression of human agreement, someone is the president of a country and has the powers of that office because a system of government is created and acknowledged by the inhabitants of that country. When the fundamental agreements which frame belief and behaviour change, social reality will change.(3)

The idea of Cultural Hegemony was developed by the Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci in the early twentieth century.(4)  Gramsci, who spent much of his life in one of Mussolini’s prisons, raises some interesting questions about the nature of what we consider reality.

In a cultural hegemony everybody comes to believe that the way things are is the natural order of things. The ideas and values of the ‘ruling class’ are seen as the norm and their ideologies are believed to benefit everybody – whilst of course, really only being of benefit to the ruling class. Gramsci suggested that cultural norms (which vary from society to society and time to time) must not be perceived as either “natural” or “inevitable”, but rather that these cultural norms – institutions, practices, beliefs – should be investigated and reassessed to assist in establish greater social and economic equality.

According to Gramsci, people concentrate on living their lives in a way that is meaningful to them within their personal circumstances and as a result the rest of society seems to have little or nothing to do with her or him. But Gramsci would contend that each person’s life also contributes to making the social reality in which they live. (5) He maintained that this is how many systems are upheld because we come to think of them as the natural order of things – literally, as ‘common sense.’ We see the society around us as being the only way things can be and any attempt to change it is seen as is a ridiculous proposition which flies in the face of common sense.

Take slavery. There was a time in the Western world when slavery was considered ‘the natural order’ of things. Certain people were seen as a slave class and were owned by other people. The social practices of the time were built around this idea and nobody – even the slaves in all likelihood – thought there was anything that could be done to change this ‘reality.’ Slavery was so much part of social reality that wishing to escape from it was seen as an illness.

In 1851, American physician, Samuel A. Cartwright delivered a widely reprinted paper to the Medical Association of Louisiana, this paper was on the subject of a mental illness called drapetomania – an illness he believed afflicted slaves who were inclined to run away. Cartwright said this illness was a result of masters who, “made themselves too familiar with [slaves], treating them as equals.“(7)

He went on to say that,

“If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy. They have only to be kept in that state, and treated like children to prevent and cure them from running away.“(8)

This example appears shocking to the 21st century Westerner as it is clear to us now that slavery is not the natural order of things but rather a social reality based on economic motives and mistaken ideas. But more useful than being shocked at the behaviour and beliefs of our ancestors, would be the realisation that we are just like them. People – like us – made that reality and people – like us – changed that reality. This is just as true of the many dysfunctional social realities we live with today as it was true of slavery. Dishonesty in governments and finance, poverty, abuse of women and children, lack of education and opportunity for the majority of the people on the planet – these are examples of social realities constructed and supported by us and therefore within our control. Just like slavery. 

So how do we distinguish between immutable reality and changeable reality? If we want our societies to improve we must be willing to contribute to improving them. And if we want to do this we must begin by investigating social reality for ourselves. We have a responsibility – as well as a right – to look at everything rather than just accepting what we see around us as unchangeable.

 Mount Everest and the Atlantic Ocean belong to a type of reality that the philosopher John Searle(9) calls ‘brute’ reality. We obviously don’t create brute reality – though we do seem able to destroy it. Social reality is something different. We don’t make mountains and trees but we do make social reality – or at least we all help to make it and so we can all help to change it.

Assessing everything does not mean that we should necessarily reject all we find – it just means that we should actively choose for ourselves. If we simply reject everything this is just the flip side and therefore equally limited and limiting. Truly examining reality is only possible if we try to see with our own eyes. If we put aside not only our prejudices against everything but also our attachment to everything and try to make all of our decisions independently and with justice. We won’t be protected from making mistakes in this process but if we are more interested in discovering truth and justice and reality than we are in supporting any systems or persons, that in itself will protect us, as it will allow us to see our mistakes, rectify them and move on towards solutions.

Recognising that there may be things distorting or blocking our view of reality won’t make the obstacles disappear any more than just knowing you are short-sighted will fix your vision. However, diagnosing the problem not only allows you to take it into account, it may also allow you to find ways to improve your vision.  In order to do this, the first – and possibly the only truly vital step – is to begin to see ourselves as co-creators of the social reality rather than just its victims or beneficiaries.

1 Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism – Bahá’í International Community’s Contribution to the 18th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development – 3 May 2010, New York, New York

2 Ken Robinson, The Element, p.251

3 Paul Lample op. cit. p.9

4 Gramsci, Antonio (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers. (ISBN 071780397X.)

5Ibid pp. 233-38

6 S. L. Chorover. From Genesis to Genocide (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press 1974). p. 150.

Cartwright, Samuel A. (1851). “Report on the Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race”. DeBow’s ReviewXI.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h3106t.html. Retrieved 2007-10-04.

8 Arthur L. Caplan, James J. McCartney, and Dominic A. Sisti (2004). Health, Disease, and Illness: Concepts in Medicine. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. p. 35 ISBN 1589010140.

9 John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality.