Thursday, May 20, 2010

From Marieme Hélie-Lucas, France

Secularism Is a Woman's Issue and co-founder of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML)

Friends in New York,

I do not know how you are going to organize your gathering for Rhonda tomorrow, but if you decide to read out testimonies, here is my contribution. Lalia sent hers to Ariane and Anissa. Zazi and Malika still feel unable to write at the moment.

But i want all of you to know that on the day Rhonda died, around the very time she was dying, Zazi, Malika and myself sat together in a café in Paris to comfort each other, to share our pain and grief, as well as our love, respect and gratitude for her.

There are three things i want to highlight about Rhonda.

1. The first one is what Rhonda did for us Algerians who fought fundamentalists, and promoted free thought, women's rights, separation of state and religion and democracy - against theocracy.

Rhonda supported us when no one else did, when we were abandonned by all those who should have been our natural allies: the Left / democrats at large, human rights organizations, and even by many feminists. It is still the case today...

We were fighting such a lonely battle that her support went straight to our hearts: you have no idea how many friends Rhonda has in Algeria. And how many people who never met her know her name and what she did.

She had to fight for us within her own group of human rights advocates, to convince her organization, CCR, to defend the victims of fundamentalist non state actors. It was a brave and lonely struggle for her too.

For other human rights organizations, she was largely a traitor.

I like such traitors: the Women in Black in Israel fighting the occupation of Palestine and the militarisation of their country; the Japanese women confronting their Emperor , publicly, in Tokyo, accusing him of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on the so called 'comfort women' during WW II; the women of Belgrade physically and emotionally assisting their sisters in Bosnia and Kosovo against the troops of their own country...

I respect people who are capable of standing alone, against their own people, for what they believe is right. Rhonda thought it was right to defend the women who were attacked by armed fundamentalists in Algeria, and she could see that main stream human rights organisations were not doing that.

She took the risk to confront in a US court Anouar Haddam, the ex-FIS and GIA leader who condonned so many crimes and violations in Algeria. I must tell you that i was, we were , afraid for her safety and that one of the things that came to my mind when she was dying was that 'they' could not make her pay for her support to us, not anymore - Strange thoughts one has in those moments...

2. The second thing Rhonda did for Algerian feminists, she did it without knowing. But i am immensely grateful for it.

She was everything young people, in a post independance Algeria influenced by growing fundamentalism, have been taught to despise and hate, or at the very least to keep much distance from : she was white, she was an American, she was a Jew and she was a lesbian: the perfect ennemy ! Algerian feminists and democrats had to face the fact that it was she - and she alone - who was defending us and taking risks and working like a dog for us, when others who were neither Jews, nor lesbians, nor US citizens - and sometimes not even whites ! - were letting us down.

She was working tirelessly when she came to meet victims of fundamentalists in Algeria, she was entirely involved with them, devoted to the anti fundamentalist cause. She understood exactly what it was about. She would exhaust, drain people who accompanied and protected her during these visits - an experience that many in the USA share with us , no doubt ! ( I have fond memories of all of us getting nuts under Rhonda's intellectual pressure during the preparation of the statutes of the International Criminal Court !)

Well, thanks to Rhonda being who she was, friends in Algeria , both men and women, had to quietly reconsider a lot of their prejudices, and this is a major - albeit probably unconscious - contribution of Rhonda to the enlightenment of the Algerian feminist and democratic movement.

3. The third thing is a lesson in the love for life , the art of living, that i received from her in the last weeks and days of her life. It stays in my heart that she wanted to go again to Long Island and watch the sun set on her favorite beach, that she wanted to go back to New York and to the Opera, that she wanted her bed by the window to have a view on the river in her Manhattan apartment... that she wanted to die surrounded by friends, flowers, conversation and music. What a lesson ! Her last gift.