by  Corinne Kumar

(An extract from this was included in the blog symposium on Gender, Torture and Transitional Justice. This was prepared for the Women in Black gathering held in Bangalore in November 2015.)

The story began a long time ago:
with our grandmothers, then their grandmothers,
and their grand grandmothers
stories that have been told over the ages
over and over and over again!

her-stories, vibrant, verbal herstories
of pain and suffering, of survival and hope
of tears and laughter.

And yet, always there was time for celebration
the song, the dance, the image, the poem, the dream
and always, always, the story.

I would have liked to have told you the story
of a nightingale who died
I would have liked to tell you the story
had they not slit my lips[i]*

Fragments of the story are beginning to be told
through the slit lips, through the silences.
Women are finding their voices in their anguish, their anger
making what has been understood as private sorrows into public crimes.
Violence against women has been seen as personal violence,
domestic problems, and therefore, individualized and privatized.
But these are crimes against half of humanity,
these are violations of the right to be human.
In relegating the crimes against women to the personal realm,
these crimes are refused their public face,
denied their sociel significance
disappeared from the political domain.

The frames that have defined the institutions and instruments
of justice have been drawn blinded to and mindless of gender;
and have been based on the legitimated discrimination
and degradation of women.
Women have been denied, dispossessed, devalued.
Women have been made invisible, excluded, erased.
It is to this invisibility, to this disappearing that we speak,
of girl-foeticide,  infanticide, dowry killings in India, rape all over the world,
female genital mutilation in Africa, honour crimes in the Arab world,
trafficking and sexual violence in Asia,
nuclear waste dumping and testing in the Pacific
inviting the women to tell their stories.

But there are no pages to write down our stories
we must find the pages, even create the pages
We must ourselves write new pages in history,
to break new ground
to cross patriarchal lines that have forbidden us to speak our truths:
to break the silence that enshrouds the violence
we must interrupt all that has invisibilised us
to re-tell history, to re-claim the power of memory,
to re-find the power of voice.

For we must remember:
the ways we have survived
the seeds we have kept
the medicinal herbs we have grown
the threads we have woven
the knowledges written on our skins
as we explore knowings deep in our consciousness
truths that we know and must be known
stories that must be told
we are the storytellers of our times.

We must begin to speak truth to power,
speaking to those who use, misuse, abuse power, yet also,
speaking truth  to those who are powerless- the indigenous,
the tribals, dalits, the women, marginalized and oppressed peoples
people with no power
the nameless, the faceless, the rightless.
Ours is a journey of the peripheries of power,
where power itself is being re-woven from the fabric of powerlessness.

We must speak too of another notion of justice; of a jurisprudence which bringing individual and collective justice and reparation will also be transformatory for all. A jurisprudence that is able to contextualize and historicize the crimes, moving away from a justice with punishment, a justice of revenge, a retributive justice, to a justice seeking redress, even reparation; a justice with truth and reconciliation, a restorative justice, a justice with healing, healing individuals and communities. Can the tears and narratives of the women, these sites of pain, and these sites of devastation and destitution lead us to re-thinking and re-imagining another way to justice? What ideas and sensibilities do we need to explore and to expand the imagination of justice? Refusing to separate the affective from the rational (juridical) creates a space in which emotive demands are allowed to be voiced and collective trauma is understood. This can be a step towards re-imagining this jurisprudence from within civil society in which we are able to creatively connect and deepen our collective insights and understanding of the context in which the text of our everyday realities is being written.

We need to imagine justice, differently.


We live in violent times:
times in which our community and collective memories are dying;
times in which the many dreams are turning into never-ending nightmares,
and the future is  increasingly fragmenting;
times that are collapsing the many life visions into a single cosmology that has
created its own universal truths—equality, development, peace;
truths that are inherently discriminatory, even violent.
times that have created a development model that dispossesses the majority,
desacralizes nature, destroys cultures and civilizations, denigrates the women;
devalues the women;
times in which the war on terrorism brings
a time of violent uncertainty, brutal wars:
wars for resources—oil, land, diamonds, minerals : wars of occupation,
terrorism, going global
and franchised to all, the world over;
times that are giving us new words;
censored, freedom of speech
pre-emptive strike, collateral damage, embedded journalism ,enemy combatants,
military tribunals, rendition:

new words:
words soaked in blood.

times in which the dominant political thinking, institutions and instruments of
justice are hardly able to redress the violence that is escalating and intensifying,
times in which progress presupposes the genocide of the many; the gendercide of women;
the violence taking newer and more contemporary forms,
times in which human rights have come to mean the rights of the privileged, the
rights of the powerful and for the masses to have their freedoms, their human rights, they must surrender the most fundamental human right of all,

the right to be human

times in which the political spaces for the other is diminishing, even closing.
the world, it would seem, is at the end of its imagination.
who will deny that we need another imaginary?

Perhaps it is in this moment when existing systems of meaning fragment,
that we may search for new meanings; new imaginaries.

Our imaginaries must be different :

The new imaginary cannot have its moorings in the dominant discourse but must seek to locate itself in a discourse of dissent that comes from a deep critique of the different forms of domination and violence in our times : any new imaginary cannot be tied to the dominant discourse and systems of violence and exclusion:

Perhaps, it is in the expressions of resistance seeking legitimacy not by the dominant standards, not from a dominant paradigm of jurisprudence, not by the rule of law, that begin to draw the contours of a new political imaginary: the Truth Commissions, the Public Hearings, the Peoples’ Tribunals, the Courts of Women are expressions of a new imaginary refusing that human rights be defined and confined by the dominant hegemonic paradigm.

Only the imagination stands between us and fear : fear makes us behave like sheep when we should be dreaming like poets.


So 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.


I remember a story, from another time, another place
another logic:
let me tell you the story:
a story of timeless care,
a story of another imaginary;
it is a story from Tagore on the Riches of the Poor.

Once upon a long ago and of yesterday,
it was a  time of darkness;
it was also a time of famine that was devastating the land of Shravasti
people gathered; poor people, hungry people

Lord Buddha looking at everybody asked his disciples:
who will feed these people? who will care for them?
who will feed these hungry people?

He looked at Ratnakar the banker, waiting for an answer:
Ratnakar, looked down and said: My Lord
but much more than all the wealth I have would be needed
to feed these hungry people;

Buddha then turned to Jaysen, who was the Chief of the King’s army
Jaysen said very quickly Of course my Lord I would give you my life
but there is not enough food in my house;

then, it was the turn of Dharampal who possessed large pastures; he
sighed and said the God of the wind has dried out our fields
and I do not know how I shall even pay the king’s taxes.

 The people listened, and were so hungry:
Supriya, the beggar’s daughter was in the gathering, listening too
as she raised her hand, she stood up and said:
I will take care of these people

how would she they thought, do this?
how will she, a beggar’s daughter with no material wealth,
how would she accomplish her wish?

but how will you do this? They chorused

Supriya gentle and strong looked at the gathering and said:
It is true that I am the poorest among you, but therein is my strength,
my treasure, my affluence, because I will find
all this at each of your doors.

Supriya’s words and actions come from another logic:
she refuses the logic of property, profit, patriarchy;
inviting us to another ethic of care.

she sees the poor as a community of people with dignity in a relational way;

not as individual separate units, and speaks for the many all over the world who are challenging the logic of the master  imaginary and trying to re-find  and re-build communities, regenerating women’s knowledges and wisdoms;

re-finding the dream for us all.

We need a different dream.

We need to invite each other to this different dream;
We need to re-imagine other ways to justice,
subverting patriarchal discourse,
trespassing untread terrain
weaving subjective text with objective context, moving us to deeper layers
of knowings, of tellings
listening to the many speaking, the many more unspoken
understanding those without a name, without a face, without a voice
standing with the rightless
refusing to separate the dancer from the dance.

for we are the dancers, yes
and we are also the dance!

we must re-imagine justice.



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.



[i] Samih-al-Qasim, Palestine


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