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Being human
Cover of the NI Issue 277 I would like to quote a few lines from Edward Said’s Imperialism and Culture, with reference to your issue on nationalism (NI 277). ‘No-one today is purely one thing. Labels like “Indian” or “woman” or “Muslim” or “American” are now no more than the starting-point, which, if followed into actual experience for only a moment, are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively white, or black or Western or Oriental. Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultural and ethnic identities.’

Nationalism creates the idea and the feelings of separateness. Perhaps it is a word that should be excluded from usage. We are all Human Beings. Our uniqueness is enriched by our vast diversities of culture. These must incorporate rather than exclude, be of interest rather than a source of fear and offer friendship rather than hostility.

Naomi Griffiths
Kendal, England

Kevin Coffey (Letters NI 276) is under the impression that a global ballot would be democratic, even feasible. In Britain, the turnout at a general election and the percentage of the vote gained by the elected party means that in actual fact the Government does not have a majority of the vote.

The UN is deliberately toothless, while arms industries in NATO countries sell weapons to both sides in conflicts around the world, creating a global balance of terror. When these blow up, people start to demand that ‘something must be done!’ and NATO countries, as the only ones with effective armed forces, can then ‘volunteer’ to police the war zones – on condition that they have control of the UN Security Council.

Michael Spencer
Halifax, England

I share your concern about Nestlé (NI 275). I also believe they are exploiting the poverty of small-scale dairy producers in many Asian countries.

In Sri Lanka, the Government encouraged local production of milk. The prices paid to the small farmer were subsidized from savings made through the purchase of cheap milk powder. Now, however, the small farmer has to compete directly with the artificially low prices of milk powder dumped on the world market. Prices are determined and totally controlled by Nestlé.

It would seem that the dividend to shareholders is the only concern of this company, even if it has to be achieved by exploiting ignorance and poverty in developing countries.

Dr ER Orskov
Aberdeen, Scotland

Split education
Nelson Mandela knows that he must integrate South Africa’s once-segregated schools in order to create a superior society. Recently he integrated a reluctant school at Potgietersrust – by politely telling their racist governors to get lost. It might bring peace to our shores if Nelson Mandela were to tell our sectarian church leaders and school governors, particularly those who insist on religious segregation of schools in Northern Ireland to get lost too!

Educating kids separately, whether by race, class or church, inevitably breeds social friction and mistrust. Dear politicians and religious leaders, please end the tragedy of your split education systems – now!

Barry Johnston
Chester, England

Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Çiller’s story
While no-one can deny that gross human-rights abuses are occurring in the south-east of Turkey at the hands of Turkish security forces, it is rather flamboyant to place the blame on the shoulders of Tansu Çiller (In the Dock NI 275).

Like many Westerners you have glossed over the difference between the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a ruthless, bloodthirsty terrorist group, and the Kurdish people. Çiller’s systematic campaign is against the PKK not the Kurdish people. She was among the first senior Turkish politicians to acknowledge the injustices to which the citizens of the south-east were subjected, and, along with the State Minister for Human Rights, Algan Hacaloglu, appears to be making genuine efforts to find a suitable solution for the whole Kurdish question.

And what of the PKK’s murdering of civilians, ‘imperialist’ Turkish school teachers and unarmed soldiers? Or are these legitimate activities for ‘freedom fighters’?

William Gourlay
Melbourne, Australia

Tibet Society
I found much significant information in your issue on Tibet (NI 274), though I felt that there was a serious omission in not mentioning the Tibet Society, which was founded in 1959 and is the oldest of its kind in Britain. You also ignored the visit of the Dalai Lama to Britain in July last year, which was organized by the Society in conjunction with the Buddhist Society and the Network of Buddhist Organ-izations.

Andrew Sherratt
Uttoxeter, England

Ed: We are sorry that the Tibet Society of the UK did not get a mention. It can be contacted at: 114/115 Tottenham Court Road, London W1P 9HL. Tel: (0) 171 363 7533; Fax: (0)171 383 7563.

In my reading of your magazine on Tibet (NI 274) two elements seem to be glaringly missing. You do not criticize the feudal and patriarchal structures of Tibetan Buddhism. Nor do you question women’s position in Tibetan society. We know from history that women’s participation in revolutionary movements doesn’t add up to much as they get pushed aside afterwards. Most of the images offered by you of Tibetan women are those of mothers and nuns. Could there possibly be others who are raising their voices against the oppression from a religion which backs only a man’s right to enlightenment?

Rani Drew
Budapest, Hungary

Trading places
I understand Sara Chamberlain’s despair (Endpiece NI 271) at the commercialization of India’s Hindu culture. However, this may be seen as a Western view of a ‘Southern’ culture as one which should remain unchanging.

A similar comment from an Indian journalist could read: ‘It is a pity that young Westerners are no longer spiritually motivated. They don’t go to church; they want to have sex before marriage, take drugs and choose their own partners. The Christian church has always given sound ethical and spiritual guidance to young people. Alas, they are turning away in droves and brazenly defying centuries of Christian traditions.’

Personally I feel liberated to have broken from the chains of traditional Christianity. Tradition can be oppressive even if it is picturesque. Surely young Indians have the choice to embrace change, just as we in the West have the choice to move away from a way of life championed by the older generations in our society?

Jennifer Herron
Sydney, Australia

I commend NI for helping to make the people of the South more visible and allowing their voices to be heard. But what about lesbians and gay men? Although you have touched on gay and lesbian themes, you have never, to my knowledge, devoted an entire issue to lesbians and gay men. Isn’t it about time? Or will the gay men and lesbians of the South continue to be invisible and inaudible?

Jane Sanders
Woollahra, NSW, Australia

Ed: We did an edition on gays and lesbians in November 1989 (NI 201).

The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

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L E T T E R [image, unknown] F R O M [image, unknown] R U S S I A

Bitter fruits
Olivia Ward finds sexual harassment alive and flourishing among the ice-blocks of Vorkuta.

Natasha was celebrating, but modestly. No expensive bottles of champanski, just some cranberry juice distilled from the bitter-tasting fruit of the short polar summer.

‘I just can’t believe I have a job!’ she said, pulling a heavy sweater over her lacy blouse as a gust of icy air blew into the restaurant. ‘I almost gave up caring.’

Twenty-four years old and with the fair prettiness of a nineteenth-century icon, Natasha had come to Vorkuta to make her fortune. Since the 1960s, the Stalinist prison colony that dealt death to so many luckless souls had paid dividends to those willing to trade comfort for higher-than-average earnings.

‘I had an offer to run an investment firm,’ Natasha chuckled. ‘At least that is what they called it.’

Just out of college in southern Russia, and with no job waiting for her, she launched her career as manager of a pyramid-selling scheme. Like many Russians at the dawn of the market economy, she was taken in by exciting promises that money could be spun out of thin air.

But as prices of shares rose, the schemes collapsed. Some of the company masterminds fled the country, others quickly started new firms.

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY

Natasha was left with 11 months of winter and the small flat she had managed to buy in better times. After three years of independence, returning to her parents’ cramped apartments would be a humiliating defeat.

‘I thought a job would turn up any day,’ she said. ‘But it was never the kind of thing I wanted.’

On the rim of the Arctic Circle, Vorkuta is a town that runs on coal. The male-dominated industry sets the tone. As the mines declined so did all the town’s jobs.

However, Natasha learned, there was always opportunity in one sector.‘On my first interview the boss said: “We don’t want any women here – but you can change my mind.” He made it clear what he meant.’

In the sophisticated cities of Moscow and St Petersburg, sexual harassment and discrimination are rife. But in the rough environs of Vorkuta, women are as much commodities as lumps of coal.

‘Do men make insulting proposals to women when they look for jobs in the West?’ she asked.

‘If they do, the victims can take them to court,’ I replied.

Anxiety shadowed her face. ‘Aren’t they afraid of reprisals – being beaten up or killed?’

I sighed. Western women often complain, with good reason, of unacceptable behaviour from men in the workplace. But their worries seem trivial compared with these problems.

Here, women desperate for jobs can expect constant harassment, even rape. Natasha had escaped those nightmares, but was still filled with resentment.

‘I’d like to charge those men with destroying my self-confidence,’ she said, stabbing her salted fish.

‘I was afraid to get dressed in the morning. If I wore long baggy clothes and scraped my hair back and didn’t wear lipstick, they’d look at me with contempt. If I made myself the slightest bit attractive they treated me like a prostitute.’

Do women in the West have these dilemmas?

‘Not so much these days,’ I said. ‘They dress as they like and expect men to behave themselves.’

Natasha choked with laughter.

‘In that case, we should send our men to the West for training. And not let them back into the country until they have passed a test.’

But, I reminded her, there must be some civilized northerners. After all, she finally found a job as a reporter on the local daily newspaper, a triumph for someone with no previous experience. Her first article had appeared that day, a smoothly written piece on unemployment.

‘I was so lucky,’ she said. ‘I went to the newspaper and met the senior reporter. He read a story I wrote and told them to hire me right away.’

In fact, Natasha said, I would meet him shortly. He wanted to join us, a rare contact with a foreign journalist.

Almost as she spoke, Misha arrived. A tall energetic man in his thirties with badly-cut hair and a neatly-ironed shirt. A glass of wine and several cigarettes later, he glanced at Natasha, and his watch.

‘You don’t want to be late for work tomorrow.’

Natasha rose and he helped her on with her coat. His hand lingered on her shoulder caressingly, a gold wedding ring glinting on his finger.

It was time, I felt, to go south.

Olivia Ward is bureau chief for the Toronto Star in Moscow.

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New Internationalist issue 279 magazine cover This article is from the May 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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