Morocco: Human Rights Violations Under Article 475

Zohra Filali shows a picture of her daughter, Amina Filali, at their family house near Larache, northern Morocco. Amina Filali committed suicide after being forced to marry the man who raped her. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)
Zohra Filali shows a picture of her daughter, Amina Filali. Amina Filali committed suicide after being forced to marry the man who raped her.
(AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)

Originally published on The Advocates Post

In Morocco, a 15 year old girl experienced constant harassment and threats from a 35 year old man in her town.  He waited for her each day outside of her school and on several occasions told her, “I will force you to marry me.”  One day, he abducted and raped her at knifepoint.  The victim made a complaint to the gendarmes, who arrested the man.  In his statement to the police, the rapist admitted his crime, declaring that he did it “because it was the only way I would be able to marry her.”  In order to avoid scandal, the victim dropped out of school and married him.  “I am raped now every day,” she told members of the local association that works with women survivors of domestic violence.

This tragic story is one of many included in a joint submission The Advocates for Human Rights and our Moroccan partner Mobilising for Rights Associates (MRA) made recently to the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child.  The submission  draws attention to the serious human rights violations resulting from the application of Article 475 of the Moroccan Penal Code, which  provides that whoever “abducts or deceives” a minor, without using violence, threat or fraud, can escape prosecution and imprisonment if (i) the abductor marries the victim, and (ii) those persons who have a right to request annulment of the marriage do not file a complaint.[1]

Organizations and news reports from Morocco indicate that Article 475 has been applied in cases of sexual abuse of minors in order to preserve the “honor” of the victim and her family.  Notably, this issue has received widespread coverage following the 2012 suicide of Amina Filali, a sixteen year-old girl who killed herself after being forced to marry a man – ten years older than her – who had raped her.[2] Additional news reports confirm that the use of Article 475 continues.[3]  Further, associations working at the local level in Morocco report that girls married under Article 475 continue to suffer rape and domestic violence after the marriage.

Information from our Moroccan partners illustrates the extent of the problems with the application of Article 475. One local association that works with women reported that, of 11 cases involving rape of a minor that they handled in 2013, Article 475 was raised in 6 cases; the age of the victims ranged from 14-17, while the age of the rapists ranged from 23-28.[4]  In one case, a 14 year old girl was raped by her 28 year old cousin, and she became pregnant as a result.  She sought help from the association to file a criminal complaint, and there were several court hearings.  DNA testing established that the accused was the rapist.  Under Article 475, the two families agreed on a temporary marriage between the rapist and the victim to avoid shame, with a predetermined divorce date after one month of marriage.[5]

Associations working at the local level in Morocco report that the young victims experience tremendous pressure to abandon criminal prosecution and agree to the application of Article 475  from law enforcement, justice system personnel, as well as the families of the perpetrators. Even their own families pressure them to agree to marriage under Article 475 in order to avoid shame. Because all sexual relations outside of marriage are illegal under the Moroccan Penal Code,[6] victims also fear prosecution and imprisonment under Penal Code Article 490.[7] In fact, one Moroccan association reported several cases of rape victims who filed complaints to initiate criminal prosecution but were prosecuted themselves under Article 490.[8]

In one instance, a 15 year old girl was raped by a 25 year old man.  She became pregnant as a result of the rape, which is considered proof of illicit sexual relations.  She did not want to file a criminal complaint because she feared prosecution under Article 490, so she fled her home and sought shelter through a local Moroccan association.  The rapist’s family made threats against the victim’s mother, however, and she was pressured to not file a criminal complaint and to marry the rapist under Article 475 instead.[9]

Article 475 must be understood in the context of early marriage in Morocco.  While the legal age of marriage for both men and women is now 18 in Morocco,[10]the Family Code allows the marriage of minors when “justified” and after substantial control by the Family Affairs judge.[11]Both the number of petitions for authorization to marry minors and the approval rate are high and increasing.  In 2007, 10.03% of marriages were of minors, and 86.8% of the 33,596 petitions were authorized.[12]  In 2011, the rate had risen to 11.99% of all marriages and 89.56% of 46,927 petitions for authorization to marry a minor were granted.  33.58% of petitions in 2011 were for minors ages 14-16[13].  The overwhelming majority of the minor spouses, 99.31%, were girls.[14] The Family Code provides no threshold minimum age below which authorization to marry may never be granted.  Local NGOs report marriages of girls as young as thirteen, fourteen and fifteen.[15]

In practice, judges often issue authorizations based on their own cursory visual examination of the minor girl’s physical appearance and determination that she is capable of assuming “marital responsibilities,” rather than resorting to the required expertise.[16]  Reasons advanced by judges for authorizing underage marriage include saving family honor, avoiding scandal, protecting the girl’s chastity and preventing her from debauchery.  Some even cite marriage as a solution to poverty.  At times judges do not even substantiate their decisions in writing.  Corruption among public actors and the ease by which medical certificates attesting to the minor girl’s “maturity” can be obtained are also factors allowing circumvention of the law.[17]

In spite of the reality of early and forced marriage for young Moroccan girls, the Moroccan Government made statements in recent United Nations submissions that Article 475 does not apply to, and has not been applied in, cases of sexual abuse of minors.  For example, in response to the most recent concluding observations of the Committee Against Torture, the Moroccan Government stated that Article 475 does not apply in cases of sexual abuse and that there is no statutory text in Morocco that exempts the “perpetrator of child rape from punishment when he makes the child concerned his wife, because anyone who commits rape is punished in all instances, even when he marries the victim of rape.”[19]  The Moroccan Government further stated that Article 475 “is not applicable to rape but rather to the crime of the abduction of a minor who leaves the parental home to be with someone and agrees to marry him.”[20]

In other words, in the Moroccan Government’s view and in contrast to the many reports originating from Morocco, Article 475 is intended to address situations involving marriage without the consent of the family where the prosecution for abduction of a minor can be dropped if the victim’s family withdraws the complaint to “maintain good family relations and to protect the make-up of the family if arresting the husband could lead his minor wife to lose any chance of a normal life.”[21]

On January 22, 2014, Morocco’s Parliament voted to abolish paragraph 2 of Art. 475.  While this is a positive step, and certainly a victory to be celebrated, the bill that was approved unanimously this week only abrogates the exoneration through marriage provision.   It does not change the rest of Art. 475 which provides that a man convicted of statutory rape in Morocco is still only subject to a few years in prison and a small fine.   It does nothing to impact the larger problems faced by minor girls who experience sexual abuse or early marriage in Morocco.

The Moroccan government must go further to protect the rights of women and girls.   Given the factual situation on the ground in Morocco and the clear violations of Morocco’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Moroccan government must:

  • Amend Morocco’s Penal Code and Penal Procedure Code to facilitate procedures for bringing sexual abuse and rape of minors cases, including eliminating discriminatory legal provisions that require proof of actual physical injury and place heavy burdens of proof solely on the victim.
  • Amend Morocco’s Penal Code to abolish criminal prosecutions under Article 490 for “illicit sexual relations.”
  • Develop and implement a plan for educating the judiciary and public that criminal proceedings against rapists will not be terminated if they marry their victims and that Article 475 is not to be applied in cases of sexual abuse and rape of minors.
  • Penalize all acts to encourage, pressure, or threaten minors to marry, whether by public or private actors.
  • Amend Morocco’s Family Code to establish clear and objective criteria under which judicial authorizations for the marriage of minors may be granted in only exceptional cases, and in all events establish a threshold minimum age under which authorization to marry may never be granted.

Related post:  Amina Filali and Violence Against Women in Morocco


[1]Dahir n° 1-59-413 du 28 joumada II 1382 (26 novembre 1962) portant approbation du texte du code pénal, as amended, (« Penal Code »), Art. 475: 1) Quiconque, sans violences, menaces ou fraudes, enlève ou détourne, ou tente d’enlever ou de détourner, un mineur de moins de dix-huit ans (Article modifié par l’article premier de la loi n° 24-03 modifiant et complétant le code pénal, précitée), est puni de l’emprisonnement d’un à cinq ans et d’une amende de 200 (cf. supra note correspondant à l’article 111)  à 500 dirhams. 2) Lorsqu’une mineure nubile ainsi enlevée ou détournée a épousé son ravisseur, celui-ci ne peut être poursuivi que sur la plainte des personnes ayant qualité pour demander l’annulation du mariage et ne peut être condamné qu’après que cette annulation du mariage a été prononcée.

available at http://adala.justice.gov.ma/FR/Legislation/TextesJuridiques.aspx.

[3]See, e.g.,http://www.illionweb.com/larticle-475-tue-toujours/, http://www.illionweb.com/bouchra-victime-gang/, and http://www.yabiladi.com/articles/details/21035/tetouan-fille-suicide-apres-avoir.html.  In addition, one association working with MRA reported that their region of Morocco alone, three girls married under Art. 475 had recently tried to kill themselves. Written Communications to MRA and The Advocates for Human Rights from Moroccan NGOs (5 December 2013).

[4]Written Communications to MRA and The Advocates for Human Rights from Moroccan NGOs (5 December 2013).  In the same Written Communications, another association from a different region reported that Article 475 was raised in 3 of 5 rape cases that they handled where the victim was a minor.  A third association reported their experience that in 6 cases where Article 475 was raised since 2011, the average age difference between the victim and the rapist was 10 years (with victims ranging in age from 14-17 and rapists from 23-28). Id.

[5]Id.

[6]Dahir n° 1-59-413 du 28 joumada II 1382 (26 novembre 1962) portant approbation du texte du code pénal, as amended, (« Penal Code »)art. 490.

[7]Written Communications to MRA and The Advocates for Human Rights from Moroccan NGOs (5 December 2013).

[8]Id.

[9]Id.

[10] Dahir n° 1-04-22 du 12 hija 1424 (3 février 2004) portant promulgation de la loi n° 70-03 portant Code de la Famille («Family Code ») art. 19.

[11] The authorization is not subject to appeal. Id. art. 20.  Article 21 also requires the legal tutor’s (guardian’s) consent.Id. art. 21.

[13]Id.  Note that these numbers are consistent with information from the local level.  One local association that works with MRA reported that from January to November 2013, the First Instance Court in Khemisset granted 325 of 442 petitions for authorization to marry minors.  Written Communications to MRA and The Advocates for Human Rights from Moroccan NGOs (5 December 2013).

[15]Ligue démocratique de défense des droits des femmes (LDDF), Droits des femmes et code de la famille après 4 ans d’application(2007).

[16]Interviews with Local Morocco NGOs, (May 2012 – December 2013).

[17]Abdellah Ounnir, Les justiciables dans le circuit judiciaire relatif au contentieux de la famille, inLe Code de la famille: Perceptions et pratique judiciaire, pp. 89-139 (Morocco: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2007);Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc(ADFM), Implementation of the CEDAW Convention: Non-Governmental Organisations’ Shadow Report to the Third and the Fourth Periodic Report of the Moroccan Government(Nov. 2007).

[18]In January 2013, the Justice Minister made a statement to the effect that he would not oppose proposed modifications to 475. A bill (sponsored by MPs) to modify and complete article 475 was adopted by the Council of the 2nd Chamber of Parliament and  transferred to the relevant Committee on legislation within that Chamber for review on January 29, 2013.  This bill would increase the penalties, eliminate the 2nd paragraph of 475, and reinforces the link between 475 and the later sexual abuse of minors articles in the Penal Code.  A second bill (sponsored by MPs) presented in the 1st Chamber would eliminate the 2nd paragraph of 475 (among other modifications to the articles on sexual abuse), but the version adopted by the legislation committee had eliminated these reforms.  Another bill (sponsored by MPs) for a VAW law in 1st chamber that would cancel 475 among its 35 articles was transferred for review to the legislation committee in February 2013.  The current status of these three bills is unknown and it is unclear what subsequent steps if any have been taken on these three bills.  A proposed VAW bill submitted by the Family Minister to the Government Council (and tabled) did not contain any modifications to Article 475. See http://www.medias24.com/POLITIQUE/5975-Benkirane-desavoue-Bassima-Hakkaoui.html.  Most recently, on January 8, 2014, the Committee on Justice, Legislation and Human Rights in on of the Parliament’s chambers voted to abolish paragraph 2 of Art. 475.  See http://www.aujourdhui.ma/maroc-actualite/societe/viol-des-mineures-au-maroc-une-loi-debattue-au-parlement-107202.html www.yabiladi.com%2Farticles%2Fdetails%2F22289%2Fviols-mineures-deputes-annulent-l-alinea.html&h=1AQFFOSTM

[19]U.N. Committee Against Torture, Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 19 of the Convention, Information Received From the Government of Morocco in Response to the Concluding Observations of the Committee Against Torture, para. 111, CAT/C/MAR/CO/4/Add.1(9 September 2013).

[20]Idpara. 112.

[21]U.N. Committee Against Torture, Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 19 of the Convention, Information Received From the Government of Morocco in Response to the Concluding Observations of the Committee Against Torture, para. 112, CAT/C/MAR/CO/4/Add.1(9 September 2013).

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Rainbow Looming Our Way To Gender Equality

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There are little plastic rubber bands all over our house.  On my way upstairs this morning, I noticed them strewn on the stair treads like colorful flower petals after a spring storm.  That’s because my 11 year-old son spent more than an hour yesterday at the top of the stairs, “where the light is good”, perfecting his starburst bracelet on the Rainbow Loom.   Technically, it’s his 8 year-old sister’s, but his Rainbow Loom will be arriving tomorrow via Amazon Prime.  He used some of his Christmas money to buy one for himself.

Anyone with kids in elementary or middle school will understand what I’m talking about, but this is something worth talking about even if you don’t have kids.   The Rainbow Loom has been popular for months. What is striking for me as a parent, however, is that this is a toy that is equally popular with both boys and girls.  Of the more than $3 million in sales since August, almost half of the Rainbow Looms reportedly were purchased for boys.

I first noticed the Rainbow Loom’s gender-neutral popularity last month at a PeeWee hockey tournament.  Since the tournament was out-of-town, the team and their families were all staying at the same hotel.  I noticed that all of the younger siblings – especially the boys – were prodigious Rainbow Loomers.   A group of younger brothers, all 9 and 10, were Rainbow Looming by the pool.  Later that night, they were Rainbow Looming at the rink before the game.

“Do the guys on your team like to Rainbow Loom, too?”  I asked my son.  He’s one of the youngest on his PeeWee team; most of the boys are already 12.

“Sure,” he said.  “But we didn’t have much time for it this weekend. You know, because we had to focus on hockey.”

Before my oldest son was born 14 years ago, I thought I could raise my kids in a gender-neutral way.  I had a wide range of toys on hand for him to choose from, including a baby doll.  But he and his younger brother showed no interest at all in playing with dolls or stuffed animals or Barbies or anything like that. When I caught them drop-kicking the doll, I finally gave it away to a more loving home.   By the time our daughter was born, we had no toys left that could be characterized as stereotypically female.   That is, until the day that I found her cradling a Darth Vader action figure.  She was kneeling next to a bowling pin that she had put to bed with a Kleenex for a blanket.   The premise of my nurture v. nature theory having been blown out of the water, I took her to Target and let her pick out a baby doll.  At eight, she is still taking excellent care of her “family”.

The bigger lesson for me was that kids will choose to play with what is interesting to them.   My kids inherited a substantial Hotwheels collection from my brother, but the boys never played with them much.   My daughter has always enjoyed playing with the cars, although she often plays with them differently.   Sometimes I’ll find them all lined up by color, for example.  Instead of making car noises like “Vroom! Vroom!”, the conversations I’ve overheard coming out her room are about relationships.  “Oh, Baby car!  Are you lonely? Do you want to park by Mommy car?”

Toy choice is the single most sex-typed behavior that children display.   Sure, my daughter chooses the stereotypical feminine toy most of the time.But the point is that she should be able to play with any toy and in any way that she wants to, regardless of what our society traditionally dictates as the appropriate gender-based toys.  And that goes for her brothers, too.

This holiday season, my daughter and I talked a lot about the gender-based marketing of toys.  It’s especially noticeable in the toy section – some stores even have aisles blatantly identified with pink for girls and blue for boys.   On the same toy aisle where she picked out her first baby doll, we noticed a ultra-pink display for “Lego Friends”.  My daughter, unimpressed at this new line of Legos marketed to girls, observed that,  “I don’t get it. It seems like they should just sell all the Legos in the same aisle.”

Which brings me back to the Rainbow Loom, a toy that has grown tremendously popular without much marketing at all. Rainbow Loom is popular because of word of mouth and YouTube.  Kids decided it is cool and fun to Rainbow Loom, and they shared that information (along with the colorful, plastic bracelets) with each other.

I witnessed something similar last summer when my son and the other boys at camp were obsessed with fingerweaving.  I have a mental picture of a group of them, all 11 and 12 years old, sitting around and fingerweaving during their free time.  In the middle of the circle was a huge mound – yards and yards and yards – of their collective fingerweaving.  Every once in a while, someone would call out, “I need more yarn!” and someone else would make a run for the craft room.  Fingerweaving was cool and fun in their social context and everyone, regardless of sex, was doing it.

I see the same phenomenon with the Rainbow Loom.  When tween boys are making jewelry at the hockey rink, you know it is not a popularity bogged down by gender-stereotypes.

“Why do you like to make things on your Rainbow Loom?”  I asked my daughter.   “Because it is creative and fun!” she replied.

When I asked my son the same question, he replied,  “Because it’s fun.  And creative.”

That pretty much says it all.   In a gender-biased world, they found a gender-neutral toy that they both love for the same reasons.   So I ordered them each a new package of 1800 colorful little rubber bands.  I won’t even mind picking them up off the floor.

The Rainbow Loom – and the kids that have made it wildly popular – give me hope.  Hope that this generation will keep our society moving, slowly but surely,  towards gender equality.

The Meaning of Mandela

Mandela memorial painted on a building in Capetown, South Africa
Mandela memorial painted on a building in Cape Town, South Africa

When Nelson Mandela died last week, I was struck by the somewhat impersonal nature of the “continuous live” media coverage.  In the United States, I heard interviews with reactions from world leaders, I saw billboards with quotes from Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou about what Mandela meant to them.  We now, apparently, memorialize our greatest heroes in memes, soundbites on photos which we share and share again.    But what I really wanted to know was this:

“What are the people of South Africa feeling right now? How are they mourning the loss of the father of their nation?”

As it turns out,  my brother Jeremy is in Cape Town, South Africa.  He started sending back photos of the makeshift memorials that were springing up around the city. Touching tributes, both large and small, that showed the genuine love and respect felt for this man.   Jeremy is a professor of African history, so I asked him to share his thoughts about Nelson Mandela along with his photos.  

Rocked our World
Madiba You Rocked Our World

The Meaning of Mandela

by Jeremy Prestholdt

I arrived in South Africa a few hours after Nelson Mandela’s passing. The nation had only just begun mourning, but the way in which the former president had touched the lives of all South Africans was plain. From Soweto to Sandton, Cape Town, and Qunu, the outpouring of grief and appreciation was unlike anything I’d seen. While I knew that Mandela was revered, the deep respect for him that I’ve witnessed over the past days suggests that he was far more than a popular leader: he personified the myriad aspirations of South Africans.

Nobel Peace Prize
Nobel Peace Prize

As a professor of African history I often tell Mandela’s story. For decades Mandela was vilified as a terrorist. After he traveled to Algeria for military training, many in South Africa called for his execution. Rather than hanging Mandela, the Apartheid government tried to make him irrelevant by condemning him to a life of hard labor. During his nearly three decades in prison he became an icon in the struggle against white minority rule in Africa.

Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 was a watershed in the fight against Apartheid. Yet, it was his adroitness in navigating the path to national freedom that cemented his place in the hearts of all South Africans. Unlike most political leaders, Mandela had an extraordinary ability to balance justice with reconciliation. By drawing on this skill he accomplished what many deemed impossible: he steered a deeply divided and unequal society towards peace and greater freedom. For this Mandela earned universal appreciation as well as the title Tata (father of the nation), a word now on everyone’s lips in South Africa. It’s this deep appreciation for the father of the nation that is so evident here.

Mandela Flag

Though I’ve recounted Mandela’s history many times, joining South Africans during this period of mourning and remembrance has made me rethink the conclusion to the story that I will tell in future. The new ending will not be Mandela’s presidency or his death. Rather, it will be a reflection on what Mandela means to us now. South Africans–and mourners around the world–have demonstrated that, perhaps more than any other figure of our time, Mandela represents our collective aspirations for freedom, justice, and equality. In this he is more than a South African icon. He is a global symbol of human possibility.

Cards

All photo credits to Jeremy Prestholdt

Thank you so much, Jeremy, for writing this guest post!

Long Walk to Freedom

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“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite…

Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never explained.”

 (From Long Walk to Freedom, 1995)

For many years, I have kept a copy of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom on my bedside table.  I don’t keep it there because I am in the process of reading it (I have read it twice), but because I keep the words of this great human rights hero in my heart.   I like waking up in the morning and knowing that it  is there.   Sometimes I just lay there and look at the title on the binding for a few seconds.  It helps me remember the good in this world.

Long Walk to Freedom was published in 1995, just a few years after Nelson Mandela was released from his nearly three decades of imprisonment on Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison for leading the ANC.    I was in law school at the time.  I think that when  I first read it, I was especially looking for information from his early years about how and why he became a human rights warrior.  (Yes, Nelson Mandela was a lawyer, too.)   I love that as a child, he was called  “Rolihlahla” , which means “pulling the branch of a tree ” (i.e. “troublemaker”).

Here are a few of the things that he wrote in the book that rang true for me.

“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”

and

“I have never cared very much for personal prizes. A person does not become a freedom fighter in the hope of winning awards.”

and

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

Tonight, when I heard the news that Nelson Mandela had died, I was not surprised.   Nelson Mandela was 95 years old and had been ill for a long time.  His human body had become a painful prison from which his soul deserved freedom.    I remembered that he had written about freedom in his autobiography.  I don’t know which parts of  Long Walk to Freedom were written clandestinely on Robben Island and which were written after his release, but long-term detention must have had an impact on his views of freedom.  When Nelson Mandela talked about freedom, it was not limited to his own person.  Rather, for Nelson Mandela, freedom was inextricably linked to the freedom of other human beings.

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

and

“Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.”

Freedom from imprisonment was not the end of the story for Nelson Mandela.  It was only the beginning of his work in leading South Africa towards a new, post-apartheid era.  What he says about leadership  in Long Walk to Freedom is also instructive.

“A leader. . .is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

and

“A Nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones”

When Nelson Mandela wrote his autobiography, he still had many years left in his long life and many miles yet to walk.

“I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

Your long walk is ended now and the world is a better place because of it.    Rest well, Rolihlahla!  I will keep your words in my heart and –  on my bedside table.

  While I understand that a movie based on the autobiography has just been released, I hope that others will take the time to read Long Walk to Freedom.   Nothing can inspire admiration of this great human rights leader than the words written by Nelson Mandela himself.

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Chronicles of a Bike Commuter

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I’ve been a bike commuter on and off for twenty years.   But it wasn’t until I began posting about it on Facebook recently that I began to realize that maybe biking is more for me than just transportation to and from work.  I know that bike commuting impacts my daily  life (I’m definitely grumpier when I have to drive), but is it possible that the simple act of riding a bike has also influenced me in other ways?

I started bike commuting back when I was in graduate school in the Boston area, motivated partly by the fact that I had no money and partly because driving, parking and everything associated with cars is a PAIN in that city.  I biked to law school a lot, but I took a break during the long years of managing babies and daycare pick-up for young children.  Although I don’t consider myself a serious cyclist, I have returned to steady bike commuting now that my children are older.

I have to admit that, living in Minneapolis – America’s most bike-friendly city,  I have it easy as a bike commuter.  It is only a 4 mile commute to my office downtown, with most of the ride in a dedicated bike lane (thanks to the 2008 economic stimulus package for cities).  We even have a shower in our office building.  While I don’t ride in the ice and snow of the Minnesota winters, I do bike commute almost every day from late March until early December.

Everybody knows that there are obvious benefits to bike commuting.   Riding your bike to work increases your physical activity,  thus helping you drop pounds, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, improves your mental health, etc etc.    There is an environmental benefit as well in terms of reduced emissions.  While I can’t do anything about my carbon footprint when I travel internationally, I can do this one small thing when I am at home.  And, of course, there are economic benefits:

October 10, 2012:  The financials are in! By bike commuting for 5 months, I saved more than $700 in gas and parking. (There’s probably a way to calculate the calories burned, too but that’s too complicated for me.)

Upon reviewing and reflecting upon my Facebook posts, however, I think I can identify some other benefits of bike commuting that are a little more intangible.

I have learned to be a little more organized.  Bike commuting  require some planning.    I have a stash of work clothes in my office and a collection of shoes under my desk.  Shopping when you have to transport things in your bike panniers really forces  you to plan ahead. Many a time, I have felt like a Parisian, peddling home with a baguette in my bike pannier.  Other times I have kind of pushed the limits…

July 17, 2012: I’m getting to be an expert bike commuter. Tonight I rode home with two bottles of wine and a litterbox in my pannier.

I definitely notice a lot more about the world around me. I think it may be the combination of the need to watch out for cars and the time to reflect, but I have become a bike seat philosopher.

April 29, 2013: I saw some interesting things on the bike ride home from work tonight: old guy strolling cheerfully down the street in his boxers and fedora; lady going for a walk with her cat in a Baby Bjorn; guy singing at the top of his lungs while driving a black Cadillac convertible, MN license ISLAM4U; guy tossing hot sopapillas out of his apartment window to delighted passers-by on the sidewalk below; lady biking with her little-dog-Toto (whatever breed that is) in a Camelbak; and a lady in a motorized wheelchair racing a lady pushing a baby in a pram, both laughing hysterically.

I guess spring brings out the crazy in all of us!

October 15, 2013:  I’ve noticed that people in convertibles smile a lot more than people driving regular cars.

I feel more connected to my community.  You interact with people much more when you are on a bike than when you are in a car.

October 2, 2013:  On this gorgeous fall morning, the cop directing traffic near the Convention Center called out to me as I passed him, “Have a good ride, miss!”

October 3, 2013:   I am chronically late, always rushing to get to the place I was supposed to be 5 minutes ago. So I had to laugh at the guy who called out to me as I passed him on his bike, “Slow down there, girlie! You’re gonna get yourself a speeding ticket!”

There are certain characters along my bike route that have become familiar to me.  People that I once would have zipped by without noticing are now friendly faces.  There’s a tall homeless guy who wears a gray polarfleece jacket regardless of the weather.  I pass him walking near the Convention Center most mornings and he shouts a hello.  I can tell by his accent that he is from West Africa.  There’s a kid who goes to Whittier Elementary who I have ridden with several times for half a mile or so on his way to school.  He’s saving up to buy a day-pass to Nickelodeon Universe at the Mall of America.   There is an elderly Somali gentlemen who raises a hand to salute me every afternoon near the Horn Towers.  And then there is Gandalf in Boxer Shorts, a grizzled old guy with a long flowing beard who generally strolls down Blaisdell Avenue wearing nothing but boxer shorts and dress shoes.

May 23, 2013:  I spotted Gandalf in Boxer Shorts again on the bike commute home. Then, one block later, a new character – Smeagol, Tan and Extremely Cheerful!

Is it possible that bike commuting has made me into a more compassionate human being?

October 1, 2013:   This morning, I stopped and helped a kid who took a wrong turn and got lost while biking to school. So I was in Good Samaritan mode, see. On the ride home, I stopped to help an old man lying face down on the sidewalk. Imagine my surprise when it turned out he was just taking a little rest between sets of push-ups.

Nope, I guess not.

October 11, 2013: If I were a”Spiritual Healer” (which admittedly, I am not), I do not think I would choose to solicit customers by standing in front of the White Castle on Lake Street and darting out to the the bike lane when the light is red. Also, I would be a little less judgmental when the bikers refuse to take my “Spiritual Healer” card.  And I would definitely not say to them,  “Ohhh-kaaaay. Your loss!”

Of course, bike commuting is not all smiles and sunshine.

October 3, 2013:  On this misty morning, the whole city smells like wet dog.

October 7, 2013:  This morning, I rode over a banana peel in the road and almost fell off my bike. Much funnier in the cartoons than in real life.

October 8, 2013:  Strong winds on the ride home tonight. Once or twice, I was standing up and peddling as hard as I could but literally going nowhere. I felt like I was in the cyclone scene from the Wizard of Oz. (Cue the Wicked Witch of the West theme song!)

 

October 10, 2013: I was biking home from a lovely event on a perfect fall evening under a canopy of majestic elms, gloriously ablaze with color …   when a bird pooped on my shoulder.

 Stay tuned!  More Chronicles of a Bike Commuter to come!

October: Lake Harriet, Minneapolis, Minnesota
October: Lake Harriet, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Rise Up Singing!

Pete Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94.  I can’t remember a time before I knew his voice; his songs are part of the soundtrack of my childhood.  I began listening to Pete Seeger’s music again more recently, when my own children were young.  Together, we sang his songs “Goodnight, Irene” and “We Shall Overcome” and  “If I Had a Hammer.  Yet, in spite of the fact that Pete Seeger gave thousands of performances during my lifetime, I only saw him in person once.   He was not on a stage.   Pete Seeger was standing alone in the rain on the side of the highway near his home in New York’s Hudson Valley.  He was holding not a banjo or guitar, but a sign protesting the Iraq War.   As we drove by, I noticed that his mouth was open and moving.  “Hey, I think that’s Pete Seeger!”  I said, turning in my seat to continue watching him.

And I realized that his mouth was moving because – alone in the rain, on the side of a highway- Pete Seeger was singing his heart out for peace.

I’m thankful to Pete Seeger for his music and his activism – and for being someone who who really does make me believe, deep in my heart, that “We Shall Overcome” one day.

Rise Up Singing!

(Originally published on October 14, 2011 and updated on January 28, 2014)

History shows the incredible power of music to inspire and influence, to energize and heal.  The power of song can be seen in its impact on movement-building,  from the anti-slavery and  labor union movements in the 1800s to the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s.  Liberation music has been important throughout the world, including songs of resistance during the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.  Most recently, music has been part of this year’s Arab Spring.  In protests against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, for example, music was a powerful way to convey the voice of the people.  (NPR story did a great story on The Songs of The Egyptian Protest)

I absolutely love Rise Up Singing, the folk music group singing songbook.  The book contains the chords and lyrics to more than the 1200 songs.  When you flip through it, you get a sense of how many songs there are out there that speak to such a wide variety of social justice issues.  Rise Up Singing grew out of Peoples Songs, Inc., Sing Out! The Folk Song Magazine and the post-World War II American folk song movement led by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and many others who sought to combine political activism with music.

But music that inspires me to stand up for human rights is not just about protest songs or folk music.  Music speaks to the individual. Inspiration is personal.   In 2006, I was in Geneva with representatives from dozens of U.S. human rights groups to participate in the UN’s review of  US compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  We were all working on different issues and we came from all over the country, from Florida to Hawaii.

As an icebreaker at our first meeting, we were asked, “What is your favorite human rights song?”  I remember being amazed as we went around the room at the tremendous variety in terms of songs, genres, languages, meanings that had inspired this group of activists.   I told the group that my song was “If I Had a Hammer”.  (My kids were still quite young at the time and we were listening to a lot of Pete Seeger, who is my own personal antidote to Barney.)

Since then, I’ve been making a mental playlist of the songs that have inspired me over the years.   My list of songs is actually long enough for several playlists, but I decided to pull out just a few songs from each of the eras of my life so far.  This was a real challenge and there are a lot of obvious omissions.  Maybe I’ll just have to do another playlist someday.

In the meantime, I’ve got the HUMAN RIGHTS WARRIOR PLAYLIST for you on YouTube.  You can also link to each song individually below.   Enjoy!

From My Childhood

  1. If I Had a HammerPete Seeger      (See above. Pete >Barney.)
  2. Free to Be You and Me   – Marlo Thomas & Friends     In my opinion, one of the best things about being a kid in the 70s.
  3. The PreambleSchoolhouse Rock      Did you know that the U.S. Constitution is one of the first documents to establish universal principles of human rights?
  4. Star Wars Main Title/Rebel Blockade Runner – John Williams   People say Star Wars was a Western set in space, but I saw the Empire for the police state that it was. Extrajudicial execution of Luke’s family,  arbitrary detention of Han Solo et al. Not to mention the genocide on Alderaan.
  5. FreedomRichie Havens         My parents had the Woodstock album.  I think I know this and every other song on it by heart.
From My Youth 
  1.  Sunday Bloody SundayU2       I first heard this on my high school radio station WBRH. I went right to the library and looked up the 1972 Bloody Sunday Massacre in Northern Ireland. (Yes, I’m a nerd. I know.)
  2. Holiday in CambodiaDead Kennedys      I went through a big DK phase in high school.  Also, I knew a family that had fled the Pol Pot regime.  I still think of them when I hear this song.
  3. Talkin’ Bout a Revolution Tracy Chapman    Growing up in Louisiana, I had seen poverty.   But it didn’t prepare me for the mid-80s urban poverty I saw when I went to college in New Haven.  This song still rings true 25 years later.
  4. Tell Me Why  – Bronski Beat      I remember this as the first song I heard that directly addressed prejudice against LGBT persons. Rock on!
  5. Waiting for the Great Leap ForwardBilly Bragg     The lyrics have changed since I first bought Worker’s Playtime (on cassette!) in college, but I think it is possible that I have listened it to 1,000,000 times.
From My Adulthood
  1. All You Facists (Are Going to Lose) – Lyrics by Woody Guthrie, Music by Billy Bragg & Wilco     From the Mermaid Avenue album.  Yes, the Facists are bound to lose some day.
  2. HurricaneBob Dylan       Rubin “Hurricane” Carter did an event for us to help raise money for our Death Penalty project.   If anyone ever wants to make a movie about your life, he highly recommends that you ask that they get Denzel Washington to play you.
  3. Living Like a Refugee –  Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Star Band                     I spent the first 5 years of my career working with asylum seekers.   This song captures many of the things I heard about their experiences.
  4. Face Down  – Red Jumpsuit Apparatus     Violence against women is the most common human rights violation in the world – 1 in 3 women will experience abuse in her lifetime.   In the US, a woman is beaten or assaulted every 9 seconds.  Kudos to these guys for singing about it.
  5. MinorityGreen Day      Sometimes I have to remind myself that not everyone thinks the way I do about human rights – yet.
  6. Sons & DaughtersThe Decemberists        This is kind of where I am right now.  With sons and daughter.  Hoping to “Hear all the bombs fade away.”