RE-IMAGINING JUSTICE: THE COURTS OF WOMEN STORY
(An extract from a longer essay, Trespass, or Re-imagining Justice.)
Let me gather some stars and make a fire for you and sitting around it, let me tell you a story.
It is a story of the Courts of Women.
It was a dream of many years ago. It began in Asia through the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council who with several other women’s rights groups has held Courts in the Asia Pacific region; El Taller International, a sister organization based in Tunisia has taken these Courts to the other regions of the world- Africa, Arab, Central and Latin America.
The Courts of Women are an unfolding of a space, an imaginary: a horizon that invites us to think, to feel, to challenge, to connect, to dance, to dare to dream.
It is an attempt to define a new space for women, and to infuse this space with a new vision, a new politics. It is a gathering of voices and visions of the global south, locating itself in a discourse of dissent: in itself it is a dislocating practice, challenging the new world order of globalization, crossing lines, breaking new ground: listening to the voices and movements in the margins.
The Courts of Women seek to weave together the objective reality (through analyses of the issues) with the subjective testimonies of the women; the personal with the political; the logical with the lyrical (through video testimonies, artistic images and poetry) the personal with the political, urging us to discern fresh insights, offering us other ways to know, inviting us to seek deeper layers of knowledge; towards creating a new knowledge paradigm.
While the Courts of Women listen to the voices of the survivors, they also listen to the voices of women who resist, who rebel, who refuse to turn against their dreams. They hear the voices of women from the women’s and human rights movements; they hear of survival in the dailiness of life; they hear of women and movements resisting violence in its myriad forms- war, ethnicity, fundamentalism; they hear of women struggling for work, wages, their rights to the land; they hear of how they survive- of their knowledges, their wisdoms that have been inaudible, invisible. They hear challenges to the dominant human rights discourse, whose frames have excluded the knowledges of women. The Courts of Women hear of the need to extend the discourse to include the meanings and symbols and perspectives of women.
The Courts of Women are public hearings: the Court is used in a symbolic way. In the Courts, the voices of the survivors are listened to: women bring their personal testimonies of violence to the Court, which are sacred spaces where women, speaking in a language of suffering, name the crimes, seeking redress, even reparation.
It speaks of a new generation of women’s human rights.
It is an expression of a new imaginary that is finding different ways of speaking truth to power; of challenging power, recognizing that the concepts and categories enshrined in the ideas and institutions of our times are unable to grasp the violence; the Courts of Women are more than speaking truth to power, more than being a critic of power; it is about creating another authority. The Courts of Women also speak truth to the powerless, seeking the conscience of the world, creating reference points other than that of the rule of law, returning ethics to politics. It invites us to the decolonization of our structures, our minds and our imaginations; moving away from the master imaginary, finding worlds, as the Zapatista say, that embrace many worlds. The Courts of Women are about subsumed cultures, subjugated peoples, silenced women reclaiming their political voice and in breaking the silence refusing the conditions by which power maintains its patriarchal control.
The new imaginary invites us to another human rights discourse; one that will not be trapped either in the universalisms of the dominant thinking tied as it is to a market economy, a monoculturalism, a materialistic ethic and the politics and polity of the nation state; neither must it be caught in the discourse of the culture specific but one that will proffer universalisms that have been born out of a dialogue of civilizations, of cultures. And this will mean another ethic of dialogue. We need to find new perspectives on the universality of human rights, in dialogue with other cultural perspectives of reality, other notions of development, democracy, even dissent; other concepts of power (not power to control, power to hegemonize, but power to facilitate, to enhance) and governance; other notions of equality – equality makes us flat and faceless citizens of the nation state, perhaps the notion of dignity which comes from depth, from roots, could change the discourse. Through its very diverse voices, the Courts of Women speak of equality not in terms of sameness, but in terms of difference, a difference that is rooted in dignity, from the roots of peoples, of women who have been excluded, erased; other concepts of justice—justice without revenge that proffers many horizons of discourse and because our eyes do not as yet behold those horizons, it does not mean that those horizons do not exist.
The new political imaginary speaks to an ethic of care:
The Courts of Women are an articulation of this new imaginary.
The Courts of Women invite us to write another history,
to re-tell history, to re-claim the power of memory:
A counter hegemonic history, a history of the margins. The Courts of Women are a journey of the margins, a journey rather than an imagined destination; a journey in which the dailiness of our lives proffer possibilities for our imaginary, for survival and sustenance, for connectedness and community. For the idea of imaginary is inextricably linked to the personal, political and historical dimensions of community and identity. It is the dislocation expressed by particular social groups that makes possible the articulation of new imaginaries. These social groups, the margins, the homeless, the social movements, the Occupy movements, the Arab spring, the indigenous, the dalits, the women, are beginning to articulate these new imaginaries.
Women through the Courts are writing another history, giving private, individual memory its public face, its political significance; transforming memory and experience into political discourse. The Courts of Women are communities of the suffering, communities of the violated but they are also communities of survivors, of knowers, of healers, of seed keepers, of story tellers, of people telling history as a way of reclaiming memory and voice.
The peasants in Chiapas, Mexico, describing their new imaginary explain their core vision in their struggle for their livelihoods and for retaining their life worlds. And in their profound and careful organization, in their political imagining and vision do not offer clear, rigid, universal truths, knowing that the journey is in itself precious, sum up their vision in three little words :
asking, we walk.
The asking in itself challenges master narratives, masters’ houses, houses of reason; universal truths, of power, of politics, of patriarchy. The Courts of invite us to dismantle the master’s house, for as the poet, Audre Lorde says the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. There is an urgent need to challenge the centralising logic of the master’s narrative implicit in the dominant discourses –of class, of caste, of gender, of race. This dominant logic is a logic of violence and exclusion, a logic of civilised and uncivilised, a logic of superior and inferior.
This centralising logic must be decentered, must be interrupted, even disrupted.
The Courts of Women speak to this disruption, to this trespass. The Courts of Women are finding new paradigms of knowledge and new paradigms of politics; a politics with an ethic of care, compassion, community, connectedness, a politics with ethics, a political vision that can offer change for all.
The Courts of Women are our dreams of trespass.
The Courts of Women return through testimony, the voices of the dispossessed to political discourse. In its search towards a new political imaginary, the Courts of Women work towards a politics with an ethic of care; for any theory of poverty (poverty lines, the World Bank one-dollar-a day, millennium development goals, poverty reduction strategies, etc.) that is disconnected from a theory of care will not listen to the voice of the other and simply leave the poor out: the new political imaginary speaks to an ethic of care, affirming one’s responsibility to the other, an ethic that will include conviviality (that wonderful phrase of Ivan Illich). The discourse and praxis of rights cannot mean only economic and political emancipation, but must challenge the current paradigms of thought and politics.
The Courts of Women is a tribute to the human spirit: in which testimonies are not only heard but also legitimized. It invites the subjugated and the silenced, to articulate the crimes against them; it is a taking away of the legitimizing dominant ideologies and returning their life-worlds into their own hands. The Courts of Women celebrate the subversive voices, voices that disobey and disrupt the master narrative of war and occupation, of violence, of patriarchy, of poverty.
We need to find new spaces for our imaginations: gathering the subjugated knowledges, seeking ancient wisdoms with new visions, listening to the many voices speaking, but listening too to the many voices, unspoken.
The Courts of Women offer another lyric, another logic,
lifting the human spirit, creating a new imaginary,
offering another dream.
Corinne Kumar is Secretary General of El Taller International, which has pioneered Courts of Women around the world. She is also a founding member of the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council (AWHRC) and of Vimochana.