“...Violence, including domestic violence and sexual assault, exists across the board globally – it’s the forms of violence that sometimes differ,” said Lata D’Mello at the WVN gender-based violence awareness event that took place on December 4, 2013, at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
WVN Community Organizer Hannah Keisker gathered together a group of 15 students to watch Breaking the Silence, from Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short-Film Festival; and to learn about sexual harassment and the various ways it is viewed according to the decades-long work of Lata D’Mello*, assistant director of the Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa (MUAWI), an organization serving victims/survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Asian and Pacific Islander communities in Iowa.
The screened film, Breaking the Silence, educates about the Yemeni Akhdam community, as well as the roots and manifestations of sexual violence in Muslim-majority countries. The ‘Akhdam’ , singular Khadem, meaning “servant” in Arabic, are a social group in Yemen, distinct from the majority by their darker skin and African descent. Although they are Arabic-speaking and practicing Muslims, they are regarded as non-Arabs and designated as a low caste group, frequently discriminated against and confined to unskilled and menial labor. The distain and discrimination against the Akhdam renders these women easy targets of violence and abuse. Akhdam women are subject to hate-based attacks and sexual assaults without any type of legal or social recourse. Lata furthered the conversation by highlighting “the lifetime spiral of gender-based violence in Asian communities and how we need to address patriarchy, oppression, and perceptions of vulnerabilities.”
In response to the film and the issues raised by D’Mello, two members of the audience who identified as Egyptian and Tunisian, respectively, strongly disagreed with the way the film represented people in Yemen and the insinuations against people, in general, in Muslim-majority societies. The students basically commented that the Yemeni government attempts to help the Akhdam people, however, they claimed that the Akhdam refuse to receive any help unless it is on their terms. From this contention, a conversation focusing on power and privilege ensued, as well as a healthy debate.
The event took place on December 4th at 7:30 in Meredith Hall (journalism building) room 101 at Drake University, and was in cooperation with the Student Activists for Gender Equality organization.
*Lata D’Mello is the assistant director of Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa, an organization serving victims/survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Asian and Pacific Islander communities in Iowa. She works primarily as a multilingual advocate, providing direct services to API victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as produces and updates Monsoon’s communications materials, and participates in outreach activities through community involvement. In addition, she has coordinated an oral history project on sexual assault among older API women in Iowa. Lata hails from Mumbai, India. She also has had about 22 years of experience as a journalist in newspapers in India, Singapore and the United States. Her interests are social and economic justice, gender studies, community health, and arts and culture.
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