Unheard Voices

Don't test the color of my blood

Our lost dark nights of war in Sri Lanka: Women and rape May 28, 2009

I feel frozen. My neck is starting to tighten and my heart is beating like a drum. I don’t know why. I thought the memories are erased but it is not. It is buried in me and in many other women. Our eyes are telling so many stories. No one can read or listen or hear but as sisters we feel the pain and the fear among us.

Each time the sounds of the guns come closer to me, my body is shaking and we ran and ran to the place where there is no smell of the army. Each time we hear the news that army is coming closer I wanted to crawl and hide my face between my legs in the dark corner.

When we heard the noise of the army boots, my mother scuffled our hair and asked us daughters to wear clothes that covered our bodies fully with long gowns as many other mothers. My mother put me and my sisters inside the cupboard and  under the bed as her hands are shaking and her eyes are watering with fear. Her hands are tied as her options are blocked to save their daughters.

We learnt when we hide we get assaulted, so we decided to stay together but they the terrifying men selected us by the look of our body and asked to go to the rooms for check up  with them. With their gun inside our mouth they tested if our breast are bombs or if we carry guns in our vagina. Our voice were blocked inside the gun barrel stuck inside mouth. Our body become the frozen ice as blood became frozen inside our body as our eyes were looking for help. There is no rule or hands to wipe our tears of blood. We let our entire body to be frozen.   There are so many tests happened to my friends and sisters like this but we keep quite and only told our mothers.

Our mothers kept quite to save our fathers and brothers life as they would be killed if they asked questions as many times our fathers and brothers think that they are responsible for us.  On the way to school and to home, passing that army camp is not easy or safe. Our bodies got frozen as they checked our bras and between our thighs. Our brothers and fathers were beaten up and taken to their custody for speaking for us. I saw my sisters peeing on the streets as they were checked out and assaulted. We pass the sentry point as we pray the God. Even the God did not hear our cries or wounds.

Each time the army capture our homes(space) many of our sisters bodies are destroyed, assaulted, raped, killed and targeted as war tools to celebrate their victories. Our future turn dark. Many of my sisters quit school and we stayed home avoid the army and the camps.

Our homes are checked on a daily basis especially if there are women. Each time they check, they assault us by saying they are checking to see if we are terrorists and have any thing inside our clothes. Some of our sisters get raped too.

Our Tamil armed group brothers of freedom fighters who helped the army watched us being sexually assaulted; but some I saw had tears in their eyes as their hands are tied.

The army did not even leave me as a 13 years old or my sister who is 6 years old. My  sisters’ bodies got frozen and never talk about any thing. Our mothers told us not to say any thing to our neighbors or the world as she did not trust the world and worried that our future will be destroyed as we were told. One  day a sister from our neighborhood committed  suicide. We asked what happened, the parents kept quite. Later my mother told me that she was raped and killed herself as she does not want to see this terrifying world. We know so many sisters’ disturbing stories are buried in our backyard and in our streets.

As Tamil women, we were raised to not talk about our sexuality or our body as women. It is a secret. And we were brought up with a sense of shame to openly speak about our bodies.  We did not even talk about our sexual issues infront our fathers or brothers. We were told  that without virginity our lives are over.

I saw so many of them and still feel the wounds as someone who have worked in many villages and in Poorani  Women Centre. Poorani Women Centre is the first women centre that gave space to say and build hope for women who are being affected by (raped women, lost parents, lost homes, other…..). Working class women were in more vulnerable situation as we did not hold any status or contacts or as only we acted as with feelings and our voice already in the bottom of the agenda in our society.

I was involved from day one on as committee member and then staff at Poorani. It was seeded by Pat Ready who was a Burgher women who lived in England and Dr. Rajini Thiranagama and many others. As someone who was part of Poorani from the beginning and as someone who translated and communicated  the stories of rape  and their dark life to Pat Ready. I got to know more unheard voices which are still echoing in my ears during IPKF arrival for to bring so called peace.

Sothi(not real name)

“ they destroyed my life. Ariyandom, ariyandom. (dirty, dirty)” Her words hide from her mouth as she was trying to re-live and her body shakes.

“7 army tied me up on the bed. Both my legs and arms are tied…”

I did not want to hear any longer and stopped translating as women we feel and connect. She continued to stammer while her words get lost in her tummy.

“All 7 raped me until my vagina got trashed.”

She was pregnant  which she even did not know until we asked her and had to go through abortion.

“I do not want the child. I will kill the child if I had him.” Thanks to God it was not too late to do abortion.

As we hugged her, Sothi’s story went into my blood and touched and tore my heart. Seeing her washing her hands and feet all the time and screaming at sleep, feeling lost, I wanted to be with her and other women who are in same situation. I quit my school and forgot my age as teenager, as my life was full of these stories.

Another women who had passed the abortion deadline and could not accept her pregnancy or the baby, kicked her stomach to take revenge on the baby. She eat green Papaya and other medicine to kill the baby. But the baby was born. As the baby lay crying for milk, she refused to even see him or feed him. The Indian Peace Keeper destroyed the peace in this woman and her child, like many other women and children to prove their victory.

I can go on and on about women who have lost their hope and their self due to rape and effect of war. Poorani gave a space for women and gave hope. It was destroyed by the Tamil armed group to take over the power of the centre.

After that many women went in many different directions. Some women who had families went to their family and got married. Some of the raped women joined the LTTE as black tigers.

Few years later, Sothi’s destroyed body was given to my mother in a bag as she had requested and felt that she was part of our family. I do not know what happened to other sisters, therefore, defeating the LTTE and killing them does not make me happy or enjoy their deaths as they are my sisters, friends, classmates, neighbours and fellow human beings  even though they have chosen different path.

Even at the Poorani, in the beginning the army came into our bedroom and watched while we were changing clothes, taking bath, in wash-rooms day and nights until the authorities were challenged by us, especially Pat Ready and Rajini.

There are many dark nights that our eyes were not closed and our bodies were frozen:

Example: One day Pat Ready and I went to the army camp and informed Captain George that we are a non-violent group and his soldiers should not come to our centre, especially inside without permission. Pat told him that she will be travelling to Colombo and asked him to tell his army to not to come to our centre or frighten the women who are living there. She informed him that if proper action is not taken, she would report to the International Community. He agreed and came to see and toured the centre.

The day Pat left, Captain George came to our doors at late night, drunk with his gun slung over his shoulder. We had hired a new administrator from Jaffna University.  As soon as we saw Army Captain and his gun, many women and my sisters who came to visit the centre on that day and my grandmother hide themselves under the bed and in rooms. The administrator and two other women tried to talk to him while the Tamil armed group who came with him waited outside. I hid myself behind the front door. The administrator started to talk. George was asking all the questions as he pretended not to know any information about the centre. He requested her to take him to show the place that we are going to use for nursery which was filled with bushes and was dark. The administrator started to shake and cry but her feet were moving. I know why he asked her and what he wanted. I came out and said “Hi Captain George! Why do you want to see again. You came here before and were informed that you and your group cannot come here. Why are you here?” He was startled to see me there. He said that he was just checking to see if we are all safe. I said if there were any problem, we would inform and requested him to leave. He  left. Even though I was so terrified and shaking, I had to do this to save our sisters and me. I felt very strong at that time even though I did not belong to the same status as Dr.Rajini and Pat and was very young at that time. I spoke out for the first time against an army and have never seen even my mother or neighbours challenge the army.

That night, we slept in one of our neighbor’s house. The old woman had asthma. So many boots walked in the SARUHUKAL (dry leaves) and kicked Poorani’s doors throughout the night. The sound squeezed our hearts. The old women, our neighbour’s asthma started acting up  and she could not breath. She was making so much noise, we had to hold her mouth and block her breathing on and off to save all of us. That night our eyes did not close. I can not explain the fear and sorrow till the boots and the smell left us that morning.

Our nights continued to be full of these stories for years. We never wanted to live with those boots and gun and smell of army. But the Tamil human rights activists, media and the International Community talk about how some of our brothers and sisters being kept as human shields. But they buried our feelings and fears and our belonging in their reports as women, especially as working class women who do not have contacts, wealth or education. Our fearful faces and nights of terrors buried in our villages. We never wanted to pass this army camp even if we had to pass to save our lives, lives of our children.

2009:

I was told by a trusted source close to me, that women are being raped and have disappeared. Families are being separated on the way to safe zone. This information  would not be new to most of us, as we see reports everyday.

“A woman was raped by 26 army on the way to safe zone and her vagina and uterus were torn to shreds. She did not tell any one but her pain brought the truth to attention, but she does not want to say anything to anyone.”

Our wounds hidden and buried in the safe zone are slowly emerging.

Continuing effects in diaspora:

It did not stop. We, as women carry the dirt feeling and effect with us everywhere we go. I have counseled many women who do not want to let their husbands touch  their bodies. And their voice is again buried within themselves as they were afraid that they would be abandoned by their husbands and society.

As we shared our stories among us and see the injustice and cruelty, my voice got stronger with other sisters voice.

I have my own stories. But, I could not just only see my pain alone as there are unbearable  pain in scores of women and innocent terrifying experience..

We cannot let any longer let our voice and open wound be ignored. we cannot any longer let the torn vaginas and uterus be ignored. We cannot any longer allow powerful men to use our bodies as tools for their victories.

As Tamils, as human rights activists, as international representatives, as human rights and aid organizations, as humans we have a basic duty, to follow and make changes in these innocent lives, to save their future. Some of the ways we need to immediately address are,

  • send – DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team) as they did during Tsunami
  • Should push UN and international community to stand firm and stop the killing, rape, disappearance and torture of innocent civilians and provide basic humanitarian aid.
  • Speak for innocent civilians and should pressure other countries to follow international law to stop the killing, rape, disappearance and torture of innocent civilians.
  • Canada and other countries have to get involved in finding a REAL permanent solution to save many innocent lives in Sri Lanka by organizing a real peace talk by clearly telling the Sri Lankan government that there would be repercussions such as economic and political sanctions.
  • By facilitating a real dialogue between all parties.
  • Most importantly women from the grass root level, who are the most affected has to be part of the discussion and decision making.
  • Let our families and children to live where they grew up, away from the camps.

Until the real solution touches us, our lives remains dark.

By Regi David, Toronto,  May 27, 2009:

Don’t Test the colour of my blood, I also, will be destroyed.

But even then, the colour of my blood is red, just like yours, my friend.

 

Culture, Class and Resistance of the Tamil Working Class in Toronto – a presentation May 27, 2009

Note: This is the presentation I gave at the Tamil Studies Conference, Toronto 2009. The formal paper might be published later.

This paper is based on field research and work done with the Workers Action Centre in Toronto and particularly by Tamil activists and workers. Through this paper I explore the issues facing labour changes keeping large numbers of immigrant Tamils in Ontario trapped. I present cases of systemic racism, working below the poverty line, and vulnerable and unstable employment. Furthermore, I will discuss the cultural norms formed in Sri Lanka which affect workers in Toronto, such as accepting hierarchy and authority without questions.  One of the important issues I want to address is the barriers facing Tamil working class here, especially systemic discrimination and language barriers.

This paper also explores how Tamil workers developed their own forms and practices of resistance, challenging both the system and the discrimination of mainstream Canadian society. It tracks the growth of this resistance and shows how apparently powerless Tamil workers strive to create a new home in the unlikely space of poverty in Toronto.

Most of the Tamils from Sri Lanka come to Toronto as refugees fleeing the war. However like many other immigrants, Tamils even if they have high education or experience end up with low-paid and precarious employment and have to work through TEMP agencies to get the Canadian experience and to feed their families. This happens even to those who are highly educated and skilled like Doctors, Engineers from our countries whose qualifications are not recognized here.

In 1999, when I was with Toronto Organizing For Fair Employment, we (TOFFE) interviewed over 200 workers in contingent jobs. We found that the majority of workers we interviewed were immigrant workers among whom most were Sri Lankan Tamils.  Nearly 70% earned less than $1500 per month, and that time the minimum wage was frozen under Mike Harris’ government for years, which was $6000 below the poverty level. So, people had to work 2 – 3 jobs just to meet their basic needs.

Many women who came to Toronto, entered the labour market for the first time in their lives, where they worked alongside men and people of different cultures and languages. They were particularly vulnerable to exploitation.  Many of them were not aware of their basic rights. For example:

There was a woman I worked with, who called me for help to if she could get some financial assistance as she had she could not pay the bills and had a baby. I assumed that she would have claimed Employment Insurance benefit. I found out that she did not even know that she is eligible for EI benefit, for which she had contributed while working for a year. We were able to backdate her claim and get all the money for a year. Without our help and not knowing the system, having the language barrier, she would have just lost her basic rights to the benefit.

According to Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 72% of women who were low-paid in 1996 were still low-paid in 2001.

Tamil working men and women are also often disabled by the cultural norms we bring with us.  To begin with, there is a hierarchy in most societies, especially in the Tamil society of the so-called mainstream class of society of lawyers, doctors, teachers and their families and the working class. The mainstream class and even our own working class does not value the labour and dignity of working class Tamils who slave away in factories, and in industries. There is a sense of shame that is internalized by workers who are cleaners or delivering newspapers.

Without us workers, the cleaning workers, the dishwashers, servers, paper delivery people, hotel workers, and factory workers there is no economy.  Yet our labour, our struggle will never find a place in the awards ceremonies in our own Tamil community.

Take me for an example.

n      1994, I was a board member for a reputed Women’s group.

n      Stood up for an injustice; challenged & spoke out against an action that could destroy the centre and harm the people who come there.

n      A fellow board member, a famous, formally educated feminist, a well known Tamil woman in the community, said: “You should get an education and learn English before speaking out. You don’t know anything…” she dismissed all my years of work and activism because I couldn’t speak  so called proper English.

n      But I did not stop. I brought the issue I was fighting for, and it was addressed because it was valid, whether I spoke proper English or not.

Just think about it, if this is happening to me in a women’s group, how other women could be putdown and not respected because of education, class and culture that has oppressed the working class for years.

We are raised in Sri Lanka to be respectful to social hierarchy and not question authority. Tamil workers transferred this attitude of not questioning hierarchy to their employers here, even when the employers exploited them.

For example:

n      2 WSIB workers – 1 cut off fingers, 1 cut off toes

n      when I asked have you filed WSIB claim?

n      Their response: “how can we do that, that feels like betraying our good employer who helped us for 2 months.”

n      This is certainly not a work ethic or an attitude found among “mainstream” workers.

These workers are also targeted for exploitation because of their ethnic difference and lack of language skills.  Employers assume that they will not complain or fight back.  They were frequently paid less than the minimum wage, less than other workers from other communities, and were frequently passed over for promotion.  From my experience as an organizer for the past 17 years in Canada working with many different communities, most of the low income Tamil workers who contacted me kept working for minimum wage and continue to face exploitation in many different work places where most of other mainstream workers moved on and found jobs with higher pay and better working conditions. Women are in more vulnerable situation. This is because of the language barrier, discrimination against our skin color and gender difference.

People work in these conditions because they have no choice, they need to pay their basic needs else they will end up on the streets.

As new immigrants they simply cannot take this risk. The structural changes in labour protection and minimum wage and their desperation as refugees led to Tamil workers being among the most exploited and among those who made up a large bulk of “racialized working poor.”

According to ‘Working on the Edge’ 2007 report by the Workers’ Action Centre, many immigrants work in precarious employment and earn low wages and their basic rights were violated under the employment standard act. Especially Temp workers who are treated as second class workers and they are paid 40% less than other workers who do the same work.

Resistance

However, the story is not only one of exploitation and suffering but also of resistance and mobilizing for change. Here we could draw on alternative cultural norms and values that we brought with us.

There is one particular campaign by Tamil workers that I wish to highlight, as it allows us to see the difficulties of the structural and systemic challenges facing workers.  This was the campaign of workers, mostly Tamil, who delivered newspapers for a major newspaper in toronto.  In 2000, there were over 2,000 workers delivering papers.  80% of these were workers of color, and a large number of were Tamils.

–          Workers were paid $4 an hour

–          pick up papers from open parking lots between 2-5 a.m, both summer or winter

–          for many, this was the first or the last job of the day, in addition to two other jobs they do.

–          The Newspaper claimed to be Canada’s “progressive” newspaper. yet it was the working class, refugees, migrants and other racialized workers who paid the cost.

–          2,000 workers stood up to police, their bosses and threw the newspaper all over streets of Scarborough.

–          Scarborough was the strongest district of the resistance, as it had a majority of Tamil workers.

–          The power that comes from years of struggling in oppression is uncontrollable when it breaks out and runs like a river.

–          That day, the white-collar managers and office people of the Newspaper had to clean Scarborough’s streets of their newspapers, and they had to listen to their delivery workers.  In their first attempt, workers were able to unionize for 4 months and get settlements, and in their 2nd attempt, with the Workers Action Centre, in 2006, they were able to secure compensation for gas money, for wait times, and an increase in piece-work wages.

–          But the corporate world does everything it can to stop our resistance. The Newspaper sub-contracted itself, so that it could escape its responsibilities towards those who deliver its papers.

–          But the unity of those workers is still strong, and most of these workers are Tamil.

A second significant example is the role of Tamil workers in the campaign against the minimum wage that was frozen for 9 years.

We organised a campaign in 2005 to raise the minimum wage to the poverty level:

The Workers Action Centre, and the Tamil workers who constituted the largest group among its members campaigned for 3 years to raise the minimum wage.   They spoke to the media, they challenged MPP’s, and demanded that the minimum wage had to be raised to poverty level.  They have slowly been able to push to have the minimum wage from $6.85 to $9.50 by March 31, 2009 and would be raised to $10.25 by March 2010.  While not as far as we want, it nevertheless represents a significant victory for Tamil workers and all other workers in Ontario.

In the minimum wage campaign, every worker who spoke out to media, MPP, ministry of labour and in public were Tamil. They also challenged the media who wanted to portray the working class as poor only. Moreover, we made a remarkable change for the rights of Temp workers. (Some photos taken by John Bonn, titled ‘Workers’ Action Centre ‘Bad Boss’ Bus Tour‘)

We had to raise our a voice louder than ever during this campaign to be heard. Many times, our voice and concerns were undermined, not respected like the others. When we speak in a loud voice people were forced to listen. Loud voice, some may feel as too loud. But, voice is our only tool and strength we have.

I am proud to say these are victories of the Working class in Toronto, and especially of the Tamil workers, breaking the barriers of culture and class. These history making changes were made possible by Tamil workers who have fought hard to bring change for all the workers of Ontario along with others.

In these struggles, Tamil workers who used to passively accept authority and injustice, and who were sometimes ashamed of their work, silently accepting racism have now gone on to fight back, resist, mobilize and make change for not only themselves but everyone in Ontario.

Tamil workers, yes, the cleaners, the dish washers, the cooks, the hotel workers, the factory workers, the newspaper carriers and other general laborers. We have overcome the barriers of class and culture that has undermined our skills and respect for years.

Most of the changes all around the world has happened because of the workers resistance against oppression. The Tamil community, should learn and respect all different jobs and respect our children’s decisions in their future occupations even if they want to be labourers, because it is the working class that builds this economy. As workers, again, we have to be proud of our skills and contribution and the changes that we have made.

Note: How our family structure and education system, and suppresion of women in our culture contrubutes to vulnerable working situation in Canada was discussed by Lucya P, a former temp. worker. The rest of the paper will published soon here.