21. Where is the outrage?


The compound is where expats (staff from countries other than Chad) eat, sleep, and generally hang out after work.  It’s a space about the size of a couple of basketball courts in a high-school gym, or maybe a medium-sized grocery store.  Life in “the field” is, among other things, a social experiment of the first order.  You have 3-12 ex-pats from all over the world, on staggered six to nine months contracts.  Everybody arrives with a story about why they came, and what they left back home, with attendant hopes, dreams, and dreads.  In short, it’s a reality TV show waiting to happen, except for the obvious.  Short of the surgical amphitheatre, perhaps, I have not seen an environment more rife with social intrigue and drama.  (The surgical amphitheatre wins for personality pathology though, hands down).  Crazy and disturbing shit often happens during the day out here, and everyone blows off steam in their own ways.  It does not take a psychoanalytically oriented psychiatrist to find this rich.  Ask anyone who has spent time in the field, it’s a humanitarian-bent Las Vegas, but nothing goes home on video-tape.  

The thing about being out here is that while it was mostly alien upon first arriving, one settles in rather quickly and adapts to the environment.  It is that despite being in eastern Chad, we are living in a compound environment infused with Euro-Western values that make it so familiar.  

Adaptation has its down sides.  When one adapts to an environment that is not so healthy, it tends towards survival over grace.  Avoidance and desensitization can develop so quickly that within weeks we can become accustomed to something that was perverse and dumbfounding when first encountered.

What’s been on my mind lately are the aspects of work that are truly bizarre and different,  but which have, despite their otherworldliness, become familiar.  The things that for some reason, for many reasons maybe, I cannot tap into, cannot find some common ground or frequency with which I can resonate in my own way with what’s going on.  Since arriving in Farchana, gender roles, writ large in violence, have been one of the largest sources of curiosity, perplexity, frustration, anger, and rage.

“Acceptable reasons for beating your wife.”  This is a mini-list that was told to me by Sudanese women: (1) Refusing sexual relations with your husband, (2) Not doing what you’re told, (3) Not doing domestic duties (cooking, cleaning, fetching water, etc.), (4) Leaving home for a non-duty task such as going to a ceremony without asking permission.  There was a silence in the air when these were being ennumerated.  The women seemed rather at ease, matter-of-factly even.  There is something chillingly disturbing about a well-orchestrated and methodical system of  brutality.  I want to call it inhumane, but how could such a widespread practice be labelled so?  Maybe this is why it is so chilling.

“Unacceptable reasons for beating your wife.”  (1) If you’re drunk, (2) If you demand sex in an inappropriate place, the example given being a demand when children are in the room, (3) If you hit ‘for no reason’, and (4) If you hit her for leaving the house to carry out her expected duties.

I am resisting the inclination to trip over superlatives in describing the extent of the suffering that is endured by women at the hands of a patriarchy that leaves them as objects, vessels, chattel, and reproductive systems.  The first duty is to describe.

Men and women have specific codes, duties, rights, and obligations.  And, it seems, punishments for infractions thereof.  One of the first things that you see when entering the camp is women lining up for water-collection, with their long lines of jerry-cans.  Or with large bundles of wood balanced on their heads, or maybe hanging off the sides of a mule that they’re leading in return from early-morning foraging in the brousse (bush).  Women clean, cook, sell fruit, vegetables and home-made crafts at the market, collect wood and animal feed from the brousse, and collect water.

Men, by contrast, are the animal herders, butchers, masons, merchants and construction workers.  But there is simply not much of this work to go around, so most often what one sees is a group of men sitting together and chatting away.  It is not uncommon for women to be the ones making bricks with the adolescents and children while men sit by, smoke, and watch.

Chivalry back in Canada conjures images of gallant men on horseback rushing to the aid of a damsel in distress.  Sure, maybe it’s sexist in it’s own way, but in Farchana, and I dare say in the larger region, men coming on horseback is the stuff of nightmares.

Two of my staff and I walked today to one of the blocks to check up on a depressed patient whom we have recently started on medication.  Her husband sat beside her and put his hand on her shoulder while she answered questions about having suffered a spontaneous abortion at five months gestation, approximately three months ago.  He stays at home to look after her and has taken on her duties. For a man to show such tenderness in public towards a woman is rare. There are many good men here, too. It’s a guess, of course, but it seems like he is.

On the walk back to the Mental Health Services clinic, we went by the brick-making pits in the middle of camp.  Only women worked.  We asked where the men were.  Both stories we received were from single women.  Their husbands had left to find work in Geneina (a large city in Darfur, just across the border), one having divorced his wife before he left, the other just never came back.  Two small children, looking bored, watched their mother labour in the fifty degree heat.  They were her twins, she said.  After chatting a short while, we thanked her for her time and walked away.

5 Responses to “21. Where is the outrage?”

  1. Hiba Says:

    In “Infidel”, Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaks of the invisible inner cage of (Muslim) women, how it is slowly built, unquestioned, through socio-religious norms. She carefully does not call for external revolution because the consequences of feminist dissidence in many communities are beatings, or honor killings. The Western feminist consciousnesses-raising empowerments don’t make much sense in Chad. Throwing off the valued social mantel leaves you naked at best, disconnected from your self, or literally broken at worst. Constructing an inner subjectivity outside of the socio-economic reality, or in spite of it, seems romantic and dangerous: The jarring disconnect can sometimes only hurt even more. Hirsi Ali calls for an international condemnation of such societies, that organizations, policies and laws need to be critical about what is it they end up supporting and funding in cultural reality – not just in superficialities that sound good on paper. She never managed freedom in her own context (Somalia & Ethiopia) but fled an arranged marriage with no money or support. Unfortunately, literal escape is beyond the ability of so many of these women you describe, that I wonder if even dreaming about it is possible or healing. Conversely, any of us expressing pity would be a terrible, condescending, attitude… what strengths and resiliencies do these women engage in? (Where) do they find value and meaning in what you term their social place as “objects, vessels, chattel, and reproductive systems”? Do they see it the way you interpret it (in addition to your primary duty to describe)? Are they outraged?

  2. alison Says:

    Just caught Hiba’s koosh ball toss… What if our outrage (against discriminatory social/religious norms which result in violence) responded/retaliated with a sustained curiosity rather than initial curiosity resulting in outrage ?! And what if this was an insatiable curiosity not so much about why these harmful patriarchal systems/traditions/gender roles continue unchanged and unquestioned; nor why no one appears outwardly livid- but rather, a wonder for how persons living within this ‘inner invisible prison’ survive intact with dignity, meaning, purpose, agency, strength, sustained hopes, dreams… ‘A duty to describe’. Hmm. More than hearing only what these women suffer, I would be more interested in what their personal accounts would sound like if the story development of these ‘traumatic’ experiences was couched in the context of one’s skills, abilities, talents, competencies? In my experience it seems that when these kinds of narrative questions guide such a story telling of genocide, displacement, rape, physical labour, loss, beatings, cooking, cleaning, baby making, the conversations/dialogue tend to be strengthening rather than self-pitying. It also allows the story listeners/audience to naturally resonate with the story-teller, as qualities of our humanity (free, creative, spirited, willed, resilient) are made transparent and known despite very different histories, ethnicity, age, religion, gender. To be continued…

  3. alison Says:

    Here’s a taste of the narrative questioning I made reference to in my last comment.These questions are borrowed from David Denborough, a most generous narrative therapy practitioner who works out of Dulwich Center, Adelaide. David passed onto me a checklist inventory which was developed and used last year when he and colleagues visited Rwanda and spoke with genocide survivors. This tool then, is specific to this particular population, but can be modified as necessary. Along with sending me this document, David also mentioned, ‘If you do use it/adapt it, please let me know as I would be really interested in how you go about this’. I would like to honour this request, and hope others will find this ‘checklist for signs of social and psychological resistance’ as helpful as I; and we can report back to David about how these kinds of narrative questions prove considerably valuable while fulfilling our moral/ethical obligation to tell each other our own, and one another’s stories… There are three parts to this inventory- before, during, after the attack. For the sake of space, I will only include Part I here. If anyone is interested in the entire document, please don’t hesitate to email me at: inthewondertime@gmail.com, and I will be very happy to share as David did with me. Please note that these questions are rated, where the person interviewed notes whether these events happened ONCE, MORE THAN ONCE, or MANY TIMES. Of course, this informal assessment is a springboard for more detailed/involved conversations. Here’s PART 1- BEFORE THE ATTACK: 1) Tried to protect themselves during attack: physically and/or emotionally; 2) Displayed acts of caring, concern, comfort for others during attack (may include to children or other adults); 3) Received comfort from others during the attack (was able to take this in); 4) Displayed acts of caring for oneself during attack; 5) Displayed acts of dignity or pride during attack; 6) Found ways to hold onto hope during attack: may include spiritual, religious practices; 7) Displayed acts of bravery during attack; 8) Found ways to encourage others during the attack; 9) Tried to stay connected to others during the attack (either in person or via radio); 10) Found ways to stay in touch with what is precious to them about life during the attack.

  4. Dragonfly Says:

    What humanity can put up with is amazing and tragic that it has to.

  5. stevencohen Says:

    Thanks Hiba and Alison for writing. Your words are most appreciated. When I wrote on one aspect of the life-world of women, I did not mean to “collapse” or reduce it to that. It is a delicate thing for a WWHUUMMP to foray into such areas…. I have asked many questions, and more words and voices of women are coming… it’s just taking a while to get the form and content of that post accepted by various levels of blog-vetters. Not that anyone is against this expression. Quite to the contrary, it just takes time when so many people are involved.

    Of note, I have heard almost every expatriate woman who works in Farchana say, at one time or another, “wow, am I glad I was not born here!” Yes, there is resilience, creativity, strength. Of course. But I do not want to weave in a prominent silver lining because it makes the story more palatable, when it was not in the words that I heard. When I spoke with this group of women about the violence that they face in marital situations, they spoke pragmatically of horror, resignation and survival. More is coming… soon.

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