Jennifer Collins

Berlin and Blackface

Since moving to Germany, I’ve often been surprised by the lack of racial sensitivity in the country. Of course, Germany’s 20th Century history always lurks in the background and generally Germans have (quite rightly) zero tolerance  for Neonazis or Holocaust denial. But I have witnessed, I suppose what you would call, a lot casual racism borne out in the language, media, politics and everyday conversation.

For instance, yesterday I came across a Deutsche Welle article on the Afro-German experience which I think illustrates what I’ve encountered quite well. In it, Sharmaine Lovegrove, the black British owner of the English bookstore Dialogue Books in Berlin, mentions an anti-racism play at the Schlosspark Theater in which a white actor is blackfaced. She said she was shocked when she saw the posters and wondered what type of place she was living in. I personally nearly fell off the bench in the u-bahn station upon seeing the posters for the play. The play’s director says he could not find a black actor suitable for the role and instead decided to paint a white actor black, seemingly seeing no clash with the play’s anti-racism message, despite the history of blackface theatre. I spoke to a Canadian friend of mine about it who told me about one of the election posters used by the sartirical political party, Die Partei, during the Berlin senate elections in September of last year. The posters depicted comedian and former Titanic editor Martin Sonneborn (who was running for election for the sartirical party) painted black as President Obama alongside the words  “Ick bin ein Obama” – a reference to JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. Sonneborn was subject to widespread criticism for the poster, but when asked about it, he merely said that he wasn’t aware of the history of blackface and didn’t care if it offended anyone. Is a plea of ignorance really a good enough excuse especially when you’ve since been informed about the connonations of your words or actions?

African immigration to Germany is traditionally quite low, probably because of the lack of historical ties here. (People like to point to Germany’s generally non-colonial past, but let’s not kid ourselves Germany did have some African colonies and its treatment of its conquered subjects was brutal.) Perhaps Germans feel it is not their history and for this reason are not sensitive to it. Perhaps it’s that the Afro-German community is relatively small. I’m not sure. But I do think that Rochelle Rowe, a London-born academic who lives in Berlin, makes a pertinent point in the DW article about identity politics and the seeming difficulty in Germany with having a hyphenated identity:

“One of the feelings she has is that people seem to be disappointed when she says where she is from. ‘They’re looking for something sounding more exotic. This might be to do with the problem there seems to be here of being able to be of a migrant background and German at the same time,’ she explained. ‘I don’t feel the need to say ‘I’m from London but my grandparents came from Barbados.’ I’m black British and it’s an established identity that people have fought for.’

This issue is reflected in Germany’s citizenship laws and treatment of the country’s Turkish poplution. It’s something I want to delve into more. Unfortunately this is a very unformed post full of partially-formed thoughts. I want to do more research on it and will blog about it again soon.


Abortion in Ireland: Twenty years after the “X Case”

Abortion in Ireland is illegal. Legislation from 1861 deems it a criminal offence carrying a maximum punishment of life imprisonment. In 1983, an amendment was made to the Irish Constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann, which equated the the right to life of the “unborn” with that of the mother (Article 40.3.3), further strengthening existing legislation.

However, Ireland does have an abortion rate. Every year, thousands of women travel to Great Britain for an abortion. (In 2010,  4400 women made the journey.) These women are a silent minority. They probably won’t speak about their experience to many people. They go there by boat or plane. Have their abortion and come home.

Abortion in Ireland is deemed lawful under one scenario. Twenty years ago, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that it is lawful for a woman to undergo an abortion on the island if her life is in sufficient danger. The ruling resulted from a particularly disturbing case, which outraged people on the island and beyond.

On February 6th 1992, in what became known as “Case X”, an Irish judge issued a court order preventing a 14-year-old rape victim from travelling to England for a termination. The girl had been sexually abused by a friend’s father from the time she was 12. The abuse culminated in her rape at the age of 14.

Before travelling to London for her abortion, the girl’s parents had contacted the Irish police to seek advice on having the foetus DNA tested to help with criminal proceedings against their daughter’s rapist. The police informed the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the then Attorney General, Harry Whelehan, quickly and successfully sought a High Court injunction prohibiting the girl from leaving Irish jurisdiction until she had the baby. The family were already in London and returned home voluntarily.

The family appealed the injunction on the grounds that their daughter was suicidal. But the temporary injunction was made permanent. The judge ruled that the risk that their daughter would kill herself was not sufficient to override the right to life of the unborn child.

The issue divided the nation. Thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against the decision – not just in Ireland. The family took its appeal to the Supreme Court – the highest court in the land. A psychologist gave evidence of the girl’s suicidal state. The Supreme Court ruled in her favour, allowing her to travel for an abortion.

Twenty years on from that landmark Supreme Court decision, which stipulates that it is lawful for a woman to have an abortion if her life is at risk, Ireland is much changed. Married couples can now legally divorce. We’ve seen immigration from all over the world, something that has enriched Irish society. The Catholic Church, an institution that once ruled Ireland with an ecclesiastical iron fist, has slowly lost its influence, following revelation after revelation of child-sex abuse. Fianna Fail, the political party that had dominated Irish politics since the foundation of the state, was destroyed in the last election. (This was previously unthinkable, for Irish politics has always been particularly tribal.) The country has gone from bust to boom to bust again.

And yet, we are still waiting for a government to legislate for the “X Case”.

Governments have come and gone since the ruling and not one has had the moral or political courage to legislate for the ruling. A small protest took place outside Dublin’s Leinster House, the seat of Dail Eireann (the lower house of the Irish parliament), on February 6th to mark the “X Case”.

Five women wore the masks of the five Irish Taoisigh (Prime Ministers) who have been in power since 1992: Albert Reynolds, John Bruton, Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen and, the country’s current Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. The women donning Reynolds, Bruton, Ahern and Cowen masks carried signs marked with an “X” indicating that these governments had failed to legislate in for the ruling. The woman dressed as Kenny held a question mark.

Legislation for the “X Case” is, of course, important, but it does not go far enough. All woman on the island should have access to safe abortions without having to travel to another country. Current polls indicate a majority of Irish citizens feel the same way. Yet successive governments have kowtowed to a small but extremely vocal anti-abortion minority. They’ve even had to gain assurances that EU treaties would not undermine the Irish Constitution in this area.

In a letter to the Irish Times, Katie Robinson of “pro-life” group (I personally dislike the term “pro-life” because it implies those who support abortion are anti-life, which is not the case. But this is what they call themselves),Youth Defence, asserted that the Irish people don’t want abortion legalised, as has been proven in referendums and by the lack of political will to tackle the issue.

However, as Alison Spillane of the Irish Feminist Network quite rightly points out: “When asked by referendum in 1992 and 2002, the Irish people have twice refused to roll back on the Supreme Court judgement in the “X Case” and remove suicide as legitimate grounds for abortion. Furthermore, the 1992 referendum didn’t give Irish people the chance to vote on whether they wanted abortion fully legalised. It instead proposed three amendments:

  1. Article Twelve: an amendment to the Constitution which stated that suicide should not be considered a sufficient reason to legally allow an abortion. This amendment was rejected.
  2. Article Thirteen: an amendment allowing the right to travel for an abortion. This amendment was passed.
  3. Article Fourteen: an amendment allowing the right to information on abortion. This amendment was passed.

The 1992 referendum was also fought at the same time as a general election, which marginalised public debate on the issue.

The 2002 referendum once again tried to tighten the constitutional ban on abortion and did not give the Irish public the chance to vote for fully legalising abortion. The twenty-fifth amendment proposed removing the threat of suicide as sufficient grounds for obtaining a legal abortion and introducing new penalties for helping a woman to have an abortion The Irish public narrowly rejected the proposal.

While succesive Irish governments have tried to water down the provisions of the “X Case” instead of legislating for them, the Irish public has consistently rejected those attempts. The question is what they would answer if they were given a chance to vote on the full legalisation of abortion?

In the meantime, action may finally be taken on the “X Case”. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) passed judgement in the ABC case taken up by three women against Ireland. The court ruled that Ireland’s abortion laws violated the rights of woman “C”, a cancer patient whose pregnancy posed a serious risk to her health and who had to travel to Britain to have an abortion.

The court said that the Irish state had failed to properly implement the constitutional right to a termination if a woman’s life is in danger. All the women involved in the case said they suffered medical complications once returning to the Republic of Ireland after their abortions and also complained that Irish abortion restrictions had “humiliated and stigmatised” them.

The current government has established an expert group to address the ABC ruling. The group is due to publish a report in June, which will hopefully lead to action on the “X Case” 20 years on.

Timeline showing legislation on abortion in Ireland:

A Little Bit on ACTA

The penchant for anti-piracy legislation labelled with easy-to-remember, four-letter acronyms has the digital community up in arms at the moment.

Following last week’s global protests against US anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA, which saw some 70,000 websites alter or totally black out their webpages during a 24 hour online demo that forced US legislators to put the bills on hold, activists have now targeted Poland’s government.

Online activist group Anonymous appears to have disrupted Polish government websites to protest the country’s support for a plurilateral  agreement aimed at establishing international standards for enforcing intellectual property rights.

Over the weekend, government websites were either inaccessible or extremely slow and seem  to have been subject to denial of service attacks. Anonymous recently vowed to launch a “full-scale attack on Poland’s government” which is set to sign the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) on January 26th .

The Polish Wikipedia community is also debating whether to stage a protest blackout similar to the one staged by the English version of the online encyclopedia last week.

ACTA includes provisions on counterfeit goods, generic medicines and copyright infringement online (although the last point couldn’t be inferred from the agreement’s title).

While some of the more controversial clauses, such as an obligation on signatories to introduce a three-strike law for disconnecting repeat infringers, have been dropped, digital rights organisations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), warn it will stifle free speech and creativity online and would restrict fundamental civil and digital rights.

According to digital rights organisation European Digital Rights (EDRi), ACTA would impose criminal sanctions forcing internet service providers to monitor and censor online communications or be held liable for copyright infringement.

The agreement requires internet actors to disclose the personal information of alleged copyright-infringers to rights holders. EDRi maintains that ACTA could lead to the mass surveillance of millions of users regardless of whether or not they are under suspicion.

The secret nature of ACTA negotiations and lack of public consultation has also been slammed by civil rights groups and members of the EU parliament. As have provisions that would prohibit ISPs from hosting software that can access copyrighted media.

ACTA under the radar

SOPA and PIPA have been high-profile news over the past few weeks mainly due to the efforts of major internet players like Google and Wikipedia and digital rights advocates such as the EFF. But ACTA, negotiated by the EU, Australia, Japan and the US, among others, has managed to slip under the public’s radar.

The EU Council of Ministers quietly adopted ACTA in December during a meeting of agriculture and fisheries ministers. Buried among items on fishing quotas and aid for citrus fruits is the property rights agreement. The official press release is here.

EU Member States have already started their national ratification processes, but the EU Parliament has yet to vote on the issue, which it can ultimately veto. The legislation will be passed onto parliament in February with a view to holding a vote in May after discussions with the International Trade Committee (ICT) as the body in charge. The parliament passed a resolution in favour of the EU signing the treaty back in 2010.

It’s all looking a bit sparse now but…

… the blog will be up and running soon. I’ll have all my previous posts and articles up here too.