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Human Rights Minor Introduced in UMass Boston College of Liberal Arts

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The panelists at the human rights minor event. The photo was taken by Stephanie Geheran, Women’s and Gender Studies major and Department ambassador

The College of Liberal Arts at the University of Massachusetts Boston introduced the new, much-anticipated Human Rights minor concentration.

The reception panel, titled “Occupations, Border Crossings and Gender: Human Rights in Palestine, Kashmir and the U.S. Mexico Border,” featured an incredible trio of University of Massachusetts Boston professors. The group discussed human rights issues across various regions in the world.

The newly-added minor is available to all students on the UMass Boston campus, regardless of major or area of study, and has roots in UMass Boston’s history first as The Human Rights Working Group, in which staff, students, and community members collaborate to promote awareness of human rights infringements on campus.
The panel on March 3 assessed border politics, colonization, racism, militarism, and gendered resistance and what these forces mean for the treatment of human rights across the globe, as well as at home.

The event and the minorbecame a collaborative effort of faculty and students with all disciplinary backgrounds.  Host Elora Chowdhury of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies; class of 2005 Human Rights Working Group Co-Chairs Brian Gangemi and Diana Bell; Rajini Srikanth, Dean of Honors College; and many other incredible people participated in the panel.

The panel itself gave background information, visuals, and commentary on the state of human rights infringements not only by population and race, but by gender as well.

Panelist Luis Jiménez, Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department, opened the talk with a discussion of United States-Mexico border conflict.

“It’s a fascinating place just because compared to every other border in the world, with perhaps the exception of the South Korean-North Korean border, the disparity between the two countries is quite marked. The American side looks like Americans are afraid of the line,” Jiménez said.
Summarizing the political history of Mexico, Jiménez delved into the role race and identity plays in such disputes.
“The  U.S. border was created as a result of manifest destiny and colonization. When the treaty for the border was signed, there was a contingent that wanted all of Mexico. But the main reason this failed was because there was the immediate problem of what to do with the Mexicans,” Jiménez said. “I mean, what do you do with them? There were a lot of them, and they weren’t white.”

A series of laws resulted in the systematic criminalization of Mexicans or Mexican-looking people.

“About three million people have been detained for immigration violations, even legal citizens,” he remarked. “Imagine if they had detained you and you are a citizen. If you don’t look American, how are you going to prove you’re a citizen?”
“No one carries passports around, and drivers licenses no longer qualify. So if you cannot prove you are a citizen, you have to depend on people believing if you are a citizen. And if people think you do not physically look American enough, then you can get deported.”

Deepti Misri took over the talk and led it to the South Asian region of Kashmir, discussingthe violence and tensions over the push for Kashmiri independence from Pakistan and India. Misri is Assistant Professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she is also affiliated with the departments of English, Ethnic Studies, and Religion.

“It is notoriously one of the most militarized zones in the world. Back in 1947 during Partition, the creation of India and Pakistan based on religious affiliations, Kashmir was a territory known as a Princely state. It was ruled by a Hindu ruler but with a Muslim majority,” Misri said.

Both Pakistan and India wished to keep the territory, and still do. The region was divided between the two countries, and Pakistan and India have participated in three wars over Kashmir.

“In 1949, the Kashmiri people were promised a say in their fate, but the Indian government retracted this, which is what makes this an occupation,” Misri said.

“The Kashmiris rebelled against India, which owned most of Kashmiri land. There were very brutal counterinsurgent methods made by the Indian state throughout the 1990s, such as raping women and abducting large numbers of Kashmiri men. In the 2000s, mass graves started cropping up around the region. There was a correlation between the numbers of abducted men and the bodies in the mass graves.”

Misri addressed what such a conflict means for the Kashmiri people along the division of gender.

“Muslim men have mostly been subjected to torture and abductions, and even some sexual violence. This vulnerability was similar to that experienced by Muslim men in the United States after 9/11—men were disappearing here too,” she said.

“Women in Kashmir are also tortured and abducted, but primarily face large scale rape and other indirect vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities are exasperated by previously existing gender roles. When men are abducted, women who rely on them economically become destitute and suffer an indirect violence. A lot of these women end up having to do sex work.”

Still, Misri explained the hope the women of Kashmir provided, and the power their activism in response to the violence has.
“These women also represent resistance. They are out there in rallies, and much of their passion for independence is driven by their grief. A significant element of this is demanding the return of their male loved ones. These women were previously restricted to the home, but now they are taking a public and political stance.”
Isis Nusair, the final panelist, is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and International Studies at Denison University. She teaches courses on transnational feminism; gendered migration, feminism in the Middle East and North Africa; and gender, war and conflict.

Nusair pointed out the time period connection between the development of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Partition of Pakistan and India. She addressed the same heavy-handed, colonial role of Britain in the development of the conflict.
“The years 1947 and 1948 were also critical years in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In 1947, the British divided Palestine. The Palestinians owned the vast majority of the land, and the Jews were a minority. The British granted the Jewish population 55% of the land and the Palestinians 45%. The Palestinians rejected it and war broke out. Today, population and land property remains a big point of conflict.”
Nusair approached her talk by way of a visual journey, complete with storytelling and photos she took herself, when she visited her homeland years prior.

“Travelling there is a strange experience and is always a question of who is allowed to cross borders and who is not,” she said. She focused on her experience visiting Rachel’s Tomb and what it was like constantly being stopped by Israeli soldiers for identity checks.

“Here I was treated like a tourist in my own country. I started at a restaurant I used to go to as a kid, which was cut in half with the construction of the Israeli wall. I followed the wall for some of my journey and wondered how someone could take for granted living with such an ugly and imposing structure. There was a lot of graffiti and documentation on the wall itself as a way to protest and subvert,” she said.

“I am Palestinian, but I had to speak in Hebrew to the guards. I even used the Jewish Israeli pronunciation for my hometown when a soldier asked where I was from. I couldn’t help but wonder what the reactions would be of the Orthodox Jewish passengers on transportation if they knew I was Palestinian,” she told the audience.

The three panelists captured the essence of the new program launching at UMass Boston. The Human Rights minor seeks to address many of the same elements that the panelists touched upon—race, gender, identity, and how all of these are tied to conflict and human rights violations.