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Issue 111

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NEW BOOKS

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This month we review two books on the special difficulties faced by Third World women, and a shocking portrait of post-war Vietnam and Kampuchea, countries now abandoned by the West.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Third class citizen

The Triple Struggle: Latin American Peasant Women
by Audrey Bronstein
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War-on-Want Campaigns (pbk £3.00/hbk £12.00)
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Available through Third World Publications or W-O-W, 467a Caledonian Rd. London, UK.
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Through prolonged interviews with 38 women living in El Salvador, Guatemala, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, the author presents three forms of oppression that Latin American peasant women face:

1. as citizens of underdeveloped countries,
2. as peasants living in the poorest areas of those countries,
3. as women in male dominated societies.

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Audrey Bronstein takes us inside the houses of these peasant women, inside their family life, through selected extracts from their stories. Why, she wonders, is international exploitation considered more vicious than that encountered within the community or home? Her interviews show that ‘the force of power as wielded by a Latin American peasant man beating his wife is as wrong and deserving of condemnation as the force of a multinational corporation stripping Bolivia of its mineral wealth’.

It is, however, not easy to penetrate intimate family life and come up with clear answers especially when you go there with such strong views as Audrey Bronstein does: ‘Any attempt to separate the women’s struggle from this larger battle, the class struggle, will be divisive and counterproductive.’ This view is carried so far by the author as to consider injustice, tyranny and arbitrariness in the home chiefly in terms of economic exploitation. But the author does not fully face the fact that the ‘husband oppressor’ is himself an oppressed man.

He is also, usually, the father of numerous children. Strong criticisms of husbands are quoted in the book, in contrast, there is far too little about the man as father figure, and very little material or analysis done taking a three generation perspective, which is essential for understanding the male dominated society. This approach would provide the theoretical framework that the analysis of the third struggle requires.

In spite of these reservations, it would be well worth translating this book into Spanish and Portuguese for a wider diffusion of its contents. The historical background and statistical information provided on each of the five countries, as well as the pictures, match the energetic style of the interview presentation and manage to leave a vivid impression of peasant female reality in Latin America.

The most encouraging aspect of the book is that it shows the ability of adult women to learn — when they have the chance. We read how ‘learning to hold a pencil, the first step to literacy, becomes impossible while constantly tending a small baby, let alone two or three’. The new generation of development programmes for women, including actions to generate legal change in the status of women, simple labour saving technology for the tasks women are required to do, the inclusion of men in family planning education, and the involvement of more women in planning development projects, offer hope.

Basic needs like the rights of women to some education and knowledge are treated as superfluous luxuries in oppressive peasant societies. Even so, no chance to advance in this direction, however slight, should be lost.

Nilda Sito Maxwell

Our Own Freedom
photography by Maggie Murray
commentary by Buchi Emechetar
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Sheba Feminist Publishers (pbk £3.75)
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The 'triple struggle', this time of African peasant women, is seen through 90 photographs by Maggie Murray, a member of the Hackney Flashers (a London-based group of feminist photographers). Buchi Emecheta, a Nigerian novelist, provides the simple but informative commentary. The quality of the reproduction doesn't do the original photographs justice, but the book would make a good visual aid for development educators.

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Vietnam: Lest we forget

Aftermath: the struggle of Cambodia and Vietnam
by John Pilger & Anthony Barnett
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The Statesman Nation Publishing Co. (pbk) £3.50
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Map of Vietnam Aftermath is a vivid collection of articles published originally in Britain’s New Statesman and the Daily Mirror. The writers, John Pilger and Anthony Barnett, are well-known journalists, deeply committed to the peoples of Vietnam and Kampuchea. They tell the tragic story as they see it of the two nations’ struggle to overcome the aftermath of the Vietnam war.

Pilger was the first Western journalist to visit Kampuchea after the downfall of Pol Pot in 1979. His reports, ‘Letting a Nation Die’ and ‘The Filthy Affair of Denying Relief’, moved Western nations to mount the greatest humanitarian relief programme ever, despite their staunch anti-Vietnam stand. In this sense, Pilger writes in the best tradition of Western journalism, urging the public to take action against injustice by appealing to its humanitarian instincts, if not its intellect. His concern is for any people who may be the victims of far-removed politicians and geopolitics.

After the conquest of Saigon, he returned to Vietnam to find the country heroic but smashed. The technological nightmare unleashed by the American forces had left behind a lunar landscape of poisoned fields and pulverised towns. The Western world had turned its back on Vietnam, leaving the tattered people to starve. Pilger, outraged by what he sees, wants us to share this outrage. His style is abrasive. He shouts and bangs. Each sentence stuns, leaving little room for drawing one’s own conclusions. But he succeeds in cutting through the apathy so many of us have learned to love.

Anthony Barnett, a specialist on Kampuchea, writes from a more academic, analytical background. He reaches the same conclusions but more subtly. His articles carry us from Pol Pot’s extermination camp at Tuol Sleng in ‘The Bureaucracy of Death’, through the rebirth of the Khmer people as a nation under Vietnamese occupation in ‘Between Vietnam and Pol Pot’, to his most recent article written in September 1981, ‘Sabotage of the Defeated’, which concludes with an appreciation of the Khmer spirit and a ray of hope.

The articles make the reader question many of the misconceptions about Vietnam and Kampuchea multiplied by the Western media: for example, that the Vietnamese are bellicose by nature; that they invaded Kampuchea with no provocation; or that their poverty is a result of communism. Vietnamese activities shouldn’t be whitewashed, but they should be reported fairly.

Aftermath helps redress the balance, providing an-all-too-vivid picture of two small nations, two peoples, struggling to survive in a world gone mad. Whether in Kampuchea, Vietnam, El Salvador or Poland, people are more important than geopolitics.

Roger Newton


CLASSICS

Common Sense
.being the book that roused the American colonists to rebellion.

BY A STRANGE quirk of fate, two inflammatory and opposing documents hit the streets of Philadelphia on the same day, 10 January 1776. One was Tom Paine's Common Sense, rousing the American colonists to revolution. The other was a copy of the King of England's speech to Parliament, delivered several months before, denouncing the American rebels.

The timing was perfect, as far as Paine was concerned. The cold blast of the royal speech stung the loyal Philadelphians out of their remaining doubts. They turned instead to Paine's passionate call to arms. In 1776 alone, 56 editions sold out, half a million copies at a time when the population of the 13 colonies was under two million.

'The country was ripe for independence,' wrote a contemporary, 'and only needed somebody to tell them so, with decision, boldness and plausibility.' Paine provided the necessary change of perception, from grateful dependent to free spirit, with an orator's gift for rhetoric.

He avoided the tangled details of the injuries inflicted on and by the colonists - the taxes, the trial without juries, the Boston Tea Party - and got down to first principles; principles applicable still to any nation tied submissively to a rich industrial power. What, Paine wanted to know, did America need the mother country for?

America supplied England with raw materials and later with a guaranteed market, in the classic colonial pattern. The monopoly was expedient for England, but how did it help America? 'While eating is the custom of Europe,' Paine pointed out dryly, an independent America could trade with anyone she liked - even England - and on her own terms.

As for military protection, Paine showed that England 'did not protect us from our enemies on our account, but from her enemies on her account'. In fact, England depleted American resources by dragging her into English quarrels with Europe. What astonished Paine most of all was that the Americans could believe in the King after he had turned English guns on them - hardly an act of a benevolent father to his faraway children. 'When my country,' wrote Tom Paine, 'into which I had just set my foot, was set on fire about my ears, it was time to stir. It was time for every man to stir.'

'My country,' Paine called America. But he had only been there 14 months when he wrote Common Sense. He was an Englishman who had been a stay-maker and later a shopkeeper till both his business and his marriage failed. Aged 37, a penniless nonentity, he came to try his luck in America. He hoped to find a brave and clear-eyed new world, unsullied by the sophisticated corruption of the old. As a bourgeois radical, he despised the principle of a social order determined by the blueness of one's blood. To his horror, he found the King's arm snaking out across the Atlantic, crushing egalitarian ideals and drawing America back into the old order where the monarch aristocrats lived above the law.

'In America,' Paine countered defiantly, 'THE LAW IS KING' - and he placed a crown symbolically on his proposed 'Charter of the United Colonies'. The first part of Common Sense is his analysis of the purpose and origin of the power to govern. His philosophic base was that men have a natural moral sense but they are not angels. So they must have some (minimal) measure of government to ensure that their self-interest doesn't overtake their concern for the general good. In turn, there must be a safeguard to prevent the governing body from detaching itself from the community and becoming a self-perpetuating power: frequent elections, with the power of recall in the hands of the community.

Hereditary monarchy, of course, contradicted these principles. Paine could see no justification for it. Even if one group of people freely chose to set one man above all others, they had no right to deprive their children's generation of the same freedom of choice. If anything, it was that power to elect their leader freely that they should protect.

And the idea that some magical virtue was passed from king to prince was roundly scorned. Even if virtue were hereditary, which Paine disputed, the origins of most monarchies hardly inspired confidence: William the Conqueror, for example, was a French bastard landing with an armed banditti'.

Paine summoned his readers to greatness: away from meekness to liberty. They didn't fail him. But what might the ghost of Paine think now, of America in the 20th century, 'protecting' Vietnam and El Salvador as England once 'protected' America? The child of freedom, to whom he helped give birth, now come of age, follows the pattern of her ancestry.

Anuradha Vittachi

Common Sense
by Thomas Paine (1776)
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Pelican Classics, Penguin paperback Aus: $3.30/Can: $l.85/US: $l.95/UK: £1.00
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