Sunday, 28 February 2016

Rant about Human Zoos and Yoga Enthusiasts

I am currently reading an excellent, yet profoundly depressing, history book called The Kaiser's Holocaust.* I was reading with wonder the description of the European justifications for colonialism from divine superiority of the white people over other races to social Darwinism whereby the very ability of the Europeans to savagely annihilate peoples with their superior fire-power was seen as evidence of the unfitness of such peoples to survive and the justification of their destruction by stronger people, more fit to rule and populate the earth.

Then I came across a description of a phenomenon that startled me. It was not that “freak shows” and “human zoos” were in themselves new to me. We've all heard of the history of shows in European and American cities in the 19th century where captured people were paraded, sometimes even in a fake setting of their “natural habitat”, for white city-dwellers to ogle at and wonder about their “exoticism”. But this time it created an association that pierced the moral superiority that I'd been feeling while reading.

I had recently watched a documentary called “Milking the Rhino”**, which “examines the relationship between the indigenous African wildlife, the villagers who live amongst this wildlife and conservationists who look to keep tourism dollars coming in.”*** Part of the movie is filmed at a Himba conservancy in the Marienfluss valley in Namibia. There is no denying the fact that the traditional Himba lifestyle will seem exotic to a Westener, even the modern, world-travelled generations.

One particular scene in this fascinating film had totally irked me. It was a discussion between a local conservationist and the owner (or manager) of an eco-tourism lodge that had been set up in the conservancy. The owner (a white woman, of course) was telling the conservationist that he should tell the locals not to whip out their merchandise as soon as they see the jeeps carrying the tourists arriving, but to act more normal, going about their daily business, and interact with the tourists first on a non-commercial basis. She was basically telling him (and the camera) that the white wealthy tourists were coming to ogle at the exotic Himba in their natural habitat, and they should behave like good zoo creatures and succumb to the gaze, rather than try to benefit from these strangers that invaded their village by offering souvenirs to sell to them.

The era of white people wanting to look not just at a lion but also a “Hottentot”**** in their zoos is not over. Now we are just illuminated enough to think that zoos are cruel and wealthy enough to be able to travel to see the lions as well as the Hottentots in Africa for ourselves.

I thought I recognised (and resisted) this tendency in the past. I have always condemned misery tourism to places like North Korea and I was disdainful of the tours that were organised in Windhoek to Katutura, the biggest township, considering them poverty porn. I knew this was not the way to do things, but was I so innocent myself? Are my own interactions with or attitudes towards different cultures any less racist?

It is hard to know what is acceptable these days. On the one hand misery tourism or treating tribespeople as zoo animals is obviously wrong. But on the other hand, we can't be too eagerly embracing other people's cultures either, or we get accused of cultural appropriation. I recently heard that accusation levelled at Western yoga enthusiasts.

I don't think just sticking to our own culture and shutting the doors can be the answer either – and I'm not just saying this as someone who loves her nachos, curry, pad thai, falafels and pizzas and shudders at the thought of a life without the offerings of world cuisine. Understanding others helps us get along, respect others and critically evaluate and sometimes improve our own way of doing things.

So my tentative conclusion is that the key has to be engagement, respect and understanding. I'm not sure I need to know the historical and culinary roots of my nachos in order to enjoy them (hell, I don't know the historical or culinary roots of most of Finnish food), but if I don't love the food for the taste of it or the music for the sound of it or the painting for the look of it – if it rather tastes or sounds or looks exotic to me – then I should investigate further, but in a careful way. I am reminded of the time we visited the hurly-burly of the massive meat market in Katutura in Windhoek and I was watching with a mixture of fascination and horror the way the butchers just hacked up entire animals there, in the open air market, cutting up pieces that were then tossed on the braai and sold to hungry people waiting. I may even have snapped a photo of the forlorn cow head dumped in the corner of the market for flies to feast upon. But I made zero effort to engage or understand why this was the way it was done and what the local people thought of it. I was just another tourists ogling at the exotic customs of the Namibians. Maybe I'll be a bit more aware next time.

*David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen, Faber & Faber, 2010.
**David E. Simpson, Kartemquin Films, 2009.
****A very derogatory term that actually originally referred to the Nama people of Central/Southern Namibia, I have also just learnt.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Rant about Yellow Rides on Tinder

Due to my work I visit Bucharest quite regularly. A fascinating city that I would recommend to anyone. But during the last few trips I have paid particular attention to one aspect of life there that I wanted to highlight here: taxis.

Taxis in Bucharest are licensed, but prices are not regulated. Rather they are freely set by market conditions, and each taxi will have the price/km printed on its yellow side for all potential customers to see.

What I find even more interesting is how taxis are booked. Hailing one off the street is not recommended as there are apparently some dodgy operators around, as is the case in just about every city. Instead, everyone has an app on their phone by which they can book a taxi to their location. Once they have logged a request, a driver will propose to provide the ride. With the proposal you can see the driver's picture as well as scores (1-5 stars) that previous clients have given him and choose whether to accept the offer or wait for another one. A colleague of mine regularly rejects drivers if she does not like the look of them and a new proposal will appear almost immediately. It is almost like being on Tinder (or that is how it appears to someone like me who has never been on Tinder but finds the concept fascinating).

Sounds familiar? I predict that Uber will not even try to penetrate the Bucharest market, as the local players are already playing their game, and with apparent success.

A well-functioning taxi market is in my opinion an essential part of urban planning that aims at reducing car ownership and encourages people to use other modes of transport instead. We simply do not have enough space in city centres for people to park their cars (which is what a privately owned car will be doing most of the time – being parked).

Geneva is trying to address the threat posed to the highly regulated and even more highly priced taxi market by suing Uber and trying to get it banned. Bucharest is taking another route: learning what it is about Uber that customers seem to love so much and shamelessly copying it.

You can guess which approach has my vote …

What is the approach in your city? Something even better?

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Rant about private bathrooms, law clinics, mittens and senior diapers

Some weeks ago F and I were discussing refugees and asylum seekers in Europe for the umpteenth time and comparing stories of all the amazing initiatives that we had heard about it.  One distinct feature of the discussion was, however, the fact that it concerned other countries.  People were coming together with great ideas and open hearts to help in Germany,  Finland, even bizarrely anti-refugee England and, as I mentioned in my last rant, tiny Iceland.

Why was nothing happening in Switzerland?  We are not the least connected or informed members of the Swiss society, why were we not being bombarded with initiatives that we could join and where we could do our little bit?

Starting to dig a little deeper we discovered that the problem was not the inactivity of the Swiss civil society, but the lack of “crisis”.  When one looks at a map, one would be forgiven for assuming that asylum seekers arriving across the Mediterranean to Italy will venture up the country and arrive in Switzerland, to the extent that they cannot be handled by the Italians (which they cannot, as a result of the sheer numbers).  In fact they are not.  They do a detour into Austria with the aim of reaching Germany (or Sweden or other countries further north).  They are not interested in Switzerland.

As bizarre as this was, it meant that F was not the only one who ended up carrying his old winter jacket and other second-hand clothes still in good condition to Germany on a visit, as they were needed there, not here. 

We were not deterred, though.  The Swiss know that the tide may turn, so while the immediate situation is not critical, a lot of work can still be done.  We found, for example, an initiative by OSAR whereby refugees (ie asylum seekers who have been granted refugee status and the right to stay) can be housed with Swiss families.  As we have a guest room / home office in our flat, we thought we'd volunteer, but were told we don't qualify as we cannot provide a private bathroom for our potential refugee housemate. 

“Only in Switzerland” is all I can say.  Given the rent level here, we are super-privileged by having a second bedroom.  I don't know ANYONE who has their own bathroom – let alone a spare one.  But apparently refugees can expect better from the Swiss society!

So we turned elsewhere and thought that maybe there is an area where we DO qualify and have something to provide that maybe everyone cannot.  Obviously enough that would mean law for both of us.  As the self-appointed pro bono officer of my office I am currently investigating with a few colleagues the possibilities that exist for our firm to help in providing legal advice and assistance to asylum seekers.  We already had our first mandate approved by management (obtaining export licenses for unused medication to be sent to a clinic for refugees in Greece), which was exciting.  F, for his part, is looking at setting up a clinic that would combine the language skills and international law expertise of the students at his Institute with the Swiss administrative law expertise of Geneva University.

The lesson we learned from this – whether our ideas ever come to fruition or not – is that there is a way for everyone (who wants to) to help in a way that feels right for them.  For us it means harnessing our legal and organisational skills. For those with a spare room (and bathroom...) it may mean offering that to house asylum seekers, but only if you're comfortable sharing your living space, with I recognise not everyone is.  For those with a needle addiction (like my mum), it may mean knitting beanies, scarves and mittens in preparation for winter.  And so on.

Nyt has reported that at least in Finland there is a surge in people volunteering IN GENERAL, not just for helping asylum seekers, which is great.  Those that grumble that we should not be helping all these foreigners when there are Finnish senior citizens stuck in their wet diapers in badly staffed care homes should shut up and volunteer to go on diaper duty at their local care home.  And of course there are those who think we should help Syrians and Iraqis in the refugee camps and not let them come here.  Well, please do.  I have ranted previously about the many organisations that are active in the camps and could undoubtedly do with more donations.

Not only are there absolutely no excuses not to get involved, this can be fun if done in a way that plays to each of our strengths.  I'd love to hear in the comments what you have gotten up to!

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Rant about the Cuddly Serbian Police

Does anyone remember, some weeks ago just before the current refugee crisis in Europe exploded, a news piece from a small German town, where a driver on a local bus, upon noticing that many of the passengers were foreigners, possibly refugees or asylum seekers, activated the bus loudspeaker and announced, in English, that all the passengers were welcome in Germany?

Such a simple gesture, yet it made international news.

I was personally moved and inspired by the gesture. It was the hallmark of much bigger things to come, the change that had been just hovering in the air. The change is not the sudden and dramatic increase in the number of asylum seekers, but us, as Europeans, determining who we are and what we stand for. I think we are at the crossroads of history.

I never thought I'd agree on an issue of immigration and asylum policy with Finland's new minister of justice, but when he tweeted on 4 September that there are two sides to the immigration discussion, the right one and the wrong one, I wholeheartedly agreed. Because I think the time has come to choose sides, and it is no longer a question of simply nodding one's head when someone else wishes the asylum seekers welcome. It is time for each of us, individually, to put our money where our mouth is. Our children and grandchildren will ask us down the line, what WE did, when the chips were down and Europeans were asked to reveal their true colours.

And so many people are doing this. I wrote in my last rant about my frustration with the hostility that people were showing, but that is receding to the background in my newsfeed, partially because the positive news are outnumbering the negative ones, partially because I am no longer interested in reading about meanness and cruelty. The haters are SOOO last month.

The news that are pouring in are overwhelming in attesting to the kindness of people. From a Serbian police officer cuddling a Syrian toddler to frustrated Austrians driving to the Hungarian border to offer a lift to the fleeing families. It is not only in pesky Iceland that individuals are coming forward in their thousands to offer to house asylum seekers, even the Finnish prime minister (at the instigation of his wife, naturally,) has promised his second home for this purpose. In many countries refugee organisations are not inundated only with arriving asylum seekers, but with offers to help from the local population.

We are finally beginning to see the real power of the “civil society”. It is not some far away fancy concept for academic study and policy wonks to talk about on current affairs programs on TV. It is us.

Other inspiring examples, from your own experience or what you have seen in the media, welcome in the comments! I will come back to Switzerland and our own efforts in my next post.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Rant about my Grandma's Suitcase

I never got to know my paternal grandmother, as she passed away before I was born.  I know little about her childhood, but I know she was pretty (one of the few surviving pictures is of her as a teenager, as she is crowned the “Miss” of her village) and that she was very talented and smart, but was prevented from getting a schooling by her father, who had views on “people getting ideas above their station”.  She left home young, to become a waitress in Viipuri (Vyborg), the nearest town.  I also know she grew up to be an open, lively, positive and sociable woman, in an apparent refusal to let her experiences shape her life. 

Viipuri is these days called Выборг.  It is a small town in Western Russia.  My grandma left it first sometime in 1940, either as the Winter War was raging around her, or as a result of the 1940 Moscow Peace Treaty, in which Karelia, the district in which she had been born and lived her whole life, was ceded to the Soviet Union.  She returned during the Continuation War, as the Finnish troops regained the territory.  She left in a hurry again, with only what she could fit in a suitcase, as the Soviet troops were advancing towards the end of the war.  This time she settled, for good, in Central Finland, which is where she met my grandfather.

This is my personal family background, but I doubt it is very rare.  Just among Finns my grandma's  experience, as traumatising and dramatic as it was, was not unusual.  Karelians evacuated into the (rest of) Finland numbered close to 500,000, which is about 12% of the population at the time.  Yet they were all settled and integrated.  People took them in and gave from what little they had in the harsh years following the war to those that had lost everything.  Other Finns moved in the opposite direction during the war: 70,000 children were evacuated to Sweden where they were received, cared for and kept safe.

Most European countries went through something similar in the 1940s, many of you will have grandparents or great-grandparents who were displaced or evacuated at some stage, or who had to, in some other way, seek and rely on help from others.

The evacuees from Karelia are hardly different from those fleeing the war in Syria and Iraq.  National policies in European states are what they are, but I am baffled by the lack of empathy, or indifference, or even open hostility, that so many individuals are demonstrating.  Have they forgotten their own family stories? 

I am very grateful for the fact that my grandma was helped on her journey and as she settled into a new life in Jyväskylä.  Here I am, partially as a result, having had all the chances in the world that she did not have.  It is my duty to help, in turn, those now fleeing their homes due to a brutal war that is not their making. 


Thursday, 13 August 2015

Rant about the Power of Stories

I must have been about 12 years old when my mum told me about the nightmare that my brother K, who was 8 at the time, had had the previous night.
I was surprised by this. Not because of the content of the dream, or how it had affected K or mum, but by the FACT that my brother HAD DREAMS. He was a PERSON, not just a little kid who could be a nuisance to me.
Let’s just say I was not the most socially or emotionally precocious child …
I was reminded of this incident some months ago when reading about a grassroots awareness campaign that an NGO was running in some rural Indian village aimed at improving the rights of women.* The program was simple: organising workshops for men, during which they were taught how and why to treat women better. But the level was startling to someone living in my comfortable western, urban, educated bubble. One man, interviewed after completing the workshop, was proudly explaining how he had learnt that he should treat his wife and mother better, because they were people too and had their own thoughts and feelings.
While I’m hoping that all of you (men) reading will know that your wives and mothers have their own thoughts and feelings, why is it still that men have stories and experiences and women have women’s stories and experiences? And men are only interested in the stories and experiences of the default kind?
This was bothering me, so I did a test with one of the most casually comfortable male feminists I know, my partner F.** (This means that everything I say from now on has been scientifically proven.) I asked F to name his 5 favourite movies and 5 favourite authors. He named Lord of the Rings, Pride, The Jungle Book, Matrix and Dinner for One (movies) and Daniel Kehlmann, Herman Melville, Erich Maria Remarque, Ronald Dworkin and Karl May (authors).***
This tallies with statistics. Men read books written by men. Women read more books written by women, but because women read more than men in general, in the end this still means that 50% of male authors’ readership is female (while only 20% of female authors’ readership is male).**** I had a quick look at my own reading journal (yes, I keep a reading journal, shut up) and it appears that since the start of 2014 I’ve read 15 books written by men (42%) and 21 books written by women (58%). Granted, a book written by a man is not necessarily about men and a book written by a woman is not necessarily about women, but I am willing to state that the gender of the author (just like other attributes, such as race, nationality, class) does mean something in considering what the stories are that these authors write.
Same goes for movies. Women go to see more movies than men do (source). Here my facts are admittedly more vague and impressionistic, but let’s see if you agree. Women go to see all kinds of movies, including ones that focus on the stories of men (this follows from the stats – as there are many more women who go to the movies than there are movies about women, they must be also watching the stories of men). But I find it hard to even imagine a man going with his bros to see movies about women. This applies across the spectrum, from rom-coms to buddy road trips (Thelma & Louise) to serious drama (think last year’s Still Alice) and even war movies (which are almost by definition about men, but one exception comes to mind, the 2008 Les Femmes de l’Ombre, which is about four French (women) commandoes sent to rescue a captured geologist). If men go to see such movies, it is because their wives/girlfriends drag them there.
Why is that? Why do men not even consider women’s stories interesting enough to watch on screen (or read)? I get it that the most popular movie genre is a white hetero dude saving the world, but why ONLY this story, over and over again? And I don’t only mean douchebags who complain that the role given to Charlize Theron in the latest Mad Max ruins the whole action movie genre (really), but men in general?
I can only pose the question, I think, inviting everyone to provide their thoughts, and to consciously examine their own entertainment consumption habits. I will also continue to drag F to see movies that do not star white hetero dudes and suggest he read good books written by women. If any of you other smart dudes out there want to broaden your horizons and find awesome authors that happen to be women, I am happy to give tips and recommendations!
Because this stuff matters. Media and culture are key to better understanding which is key to better empathizing which is key to better accepting.
Love and peace.

*I read this in a paper article which I can no longer locate, which means that I can neither give the source nor even the name of the NGO. Bad me.
**He recently ran a ½ marathon wearing a “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt, without even mentioning it to me. It was a campaign tee for a Palestinian LGBT organisation. I was so proud of him.
***F told me that apparently info on favourite movies and authors is very personal, so for the sake of fairness, my favourite authors are Terry Pratchett, Margaret Atwood, Sofi Oksanen, Mika Waltari and Chimamanda Ngoci Adichie. I've mentioned my favourite movies in another rant.
****Admittedly this is only one study, but done by GoodReads based on the data their members reported, so quite a comprehensive look at avid readers. The Guardian did some good simple analysis on the numbers.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Rant Insulting Charlie

(Hi! I'm back!)
Religious nutjobs storm the offices of a French cartoon magazine spraying bullets and fear and all of a sudden we all turn into Charlie.
I was hoping, as we all were, that ultimately something good would come out of the atrocity, like happened in Norway after the Utøya massacre four years ago when the nation came together, confirmed its liberal values and became the most admirable country on earth. There were encouraging signs with the unity marches (I was on the other side of the globe at the time, but there was a Je suis Charlie demonstration even in Auckland) and the awesome cover of the 14 Jan edition of Charlie Hebdo (and the fact that so many news outlets reprinted the cover with full knowledge that this will be considered a provocation by religious nutjobs).
What bothers me is that we are all so keen to be Charlie without much thought for what Charlie really is or was.
Freedom of expression is such a nice concept in theory. It is also nice when we are using it ourselves or someone is using it to criticise something we also see as a problem. But it is distinctly less nice when it is used to insult and offend us.
David Brooks at New York Times wrote a pertinent column pointing out that Charlie Hebdo would have failed in the United States and in Finland Helsingin Sanomat went further by noting that many of its cartoons would have been illegal. Charlie Hebdo was indeed in the business of dishing out insults in all directions, being a quintessential iconoclast.
Should we be protected from being insulted? Germans and Swiss seem to think so. Both countries have decided that to hell with the freedom of expression, the right not to be insulted is more important and protected by the CRIMINALISATION of insults.
Other countries are more restrained and only restrict certain types of insults. The legal systems I know best, namely English and Finnish, still contain blasphemy laws. The thinking appears to be that while our feelings in general are not worthy of protection, our religious feelings are somehow different and more important. The belief in the concept of “holy” is not just an everyday feeling, it is different, indeed holy in itself. Insulting it is worthy of punishment.
The European Court of Human Rights has been of no help, upholding the conviction of a neo-nazi for disseminating anti-Semitic materials* and a ban on a vulgar movie including Christian imagery.**
Herein lies, in my humble opinion, the problem. How can we condemn religious nutjobs for taking the law into their own hands and dishing out punishment for an act that our societies themselves consider unlawful and deserving of punishment? Isn’t that hypocritical? If we want to say, like some religious authorities do, that what the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists did was unacceptable, but that the right punishment was not a bullet in the head, then at least that is honest criticism. If we want to go further, and say that we are Charlie, thereby indicating that we endorse the right to freedom of expression to the extent of insulting everything and everybody, including things we hold dear,*** then we must look in the mirror and repeal the laws that restrict that freedom, whether blasphemy laws, general laws criminalising insults, or vague terrorism laws.
So far that appears to have happened only in Iceland, the smart little country that abolished its blasphemy law after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. France, by contrast, seems to be going in the opposite direction. Some of you will have heard about Dieudonné’s conviction for his thoughtless “Charlie Coulibaly” facebook comment, but more alarmingly I read in my Amnesty magazine that in total 117 people were charged in the two weeks following the attacks under France’s laws that criminalise “praising terrorism”, many of them summarily condemned. Calling the attack “France’s 9/11” appears to have been accurate in perhaps more ways than intended.
This is sad and counterproductive. Locking up islamists when they say hurtful things only furthers their sense of victimisation. If we really are for freedom of expression, we must be for all of it, including insults, and for everyone, including Muslims. When I see that happening, I will be able to conclude that freedom won and the bullets of those religious nutjobs really did hit their own foot.

*Kühnen v. Germany, App No. 12194/86 (1988).
**Wingrove v. United Kingdom, App No. 17419/90 (1996).
***Chapeau here for the French President François Hollande, for standing up so firmly for a magazine that dished out pretty outrageous insults at him.