Monday, September 27, 2010

From Marieme Hélie-Lucas, France

Our friends in Algeria held a huge commemoration of Rhonda on September 25, 2010.

Please read news coverage in Algeria's national dailies El Moudjahid and Liberté (in French) on the Media page.

Monday, September 20, 2010

From Anita Nayar

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

Rhonda was a lamp to so many of us. She lit our path with a brilliant intellect and consuming passion that informed and transformed so many challenging political struggles.

We first worked together in the mid-90s. It was a hectic time and when she knew I’d be working late she’d turn up at my office with an offering of fruits, to ensure that we could work all night crafting language for the UN’s population and development conference. With each creative formulation she would explain the legal precedent and rationale. These arguments, which her law students helped to research, eventually became our legal bible and many governments gratefully drew from them.

Rhonda also shed her radiant light on my more recent efforts to develop a feminist analysis of climate justice. Once again she wanted to enlist the clinic students and even get CCR on board to revive the third generation of human rights – to not only include the rights of people to a safe environment but also of the earth’s well being.

Four years ago, when she was diagnosed with cancer she had to find the strength to be a lamp to herself, as she had been for others.

We saw her brilliance and passion as she researched her medical treatments; helped women fight for the diagnostic work that is often ignored; and strenuously cross-examined those (poor) doctors, always with a determination to not just survive, but to live.

Her analytic mind was challenged to open in a different way when she pursued complementary therapies with Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, as there seemed to her to be no measurable proof of whether these treatments were having effect. However I noticed she did submit easily to the Ayurvedic massages – after her first experience of having four women rub warm oil all over her body she said “I felt as close to a newborn baby as possible, except maybe after great sex.”

We saw Rhonda learn so much about love and friendship through the experience of cancer, difficult as it was. The illness was her teacher. And being a great teacher herself, she invited us to accompany her on this journey. And many people did. People came from all over the world to be with her. An entire inter-generational feminist community of caregivers formed around Rhonda, stunning hospice workers and nurses and I think maybe even ourselves. Her eventual dependency created an opening for meaning in our own lives as we learned to give of ourselves.

But the caregiving was not without its ups and downs! Rhonda, as many of us know, was afflicted with a certain kind of… hmm, how shall I put it… chaos! Though she sought peace, mightily, her attempts to introduce additional minutes into an hour were about as successful as getting the Vatican to accept the concept of reproductive rights.

And when she tried meditation that great mind whirred. And later with the treatments, she became too exhausted to maintain focus. So then she decided that it would be better if we meditated for her. She asked my partner Joslyn if she would lead the wide circle of caregiver friends in meditation. This happened every night during the last week of her life. And while the clinking of Scotch-on-the-rocks could be heard at times during meditation, any number of people began to get into it.

When it got to the point where Rhonda could no longer manage conversation or sustain a state of wakefulness we sat with her in meditation sharing our energy and experiencing hers. The smile on her face was profoundly peaceful.

On her last day she awoke to a beautiful dawn overlooking the wide and still East River. She was surrounded by love until her last peaceful breath at sunset when the river danced in silver light.

As we continue on, my hope is that we celebrate Rhonda’s life by the way we live ours. May I please ask you to practice this with me by standing up, taking the hands of the people next to you, keeping in mind the great spirit that brought us together and saying in her words when she first publicly announced her cancer – (please repeat after me):

“I love you all - together - we make a world!”

From Sharon Thompson

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

Late this past August, my sometimes lover & I lay on her deck in Maine watching Perseid meteors flash across the Milky Way so fast we rarely saw one at the same time. Pshhhht. "The meteors must be very close to seem to cross the stars so fast," she whispered. I wasn't sure. "They could just be very fast."

Rhonda lived her life both close in and fast. Probably everyone in this room has waited for her. Psshhht, she'd arrive, and the meeting or the party lit up. One day when her mother bathed her, she told me early on, she put her tiny fingers in an electric socket, bolting the pair together until her mother summoned the strength to pull them both free. Maybe that's where your electric charge comes from, I thought, your energy, your heat, and your will to be free.

Probably everyone in this room has also felt the energy leave a room with Rhonda. I've felt that profoundly since her death despite the fact that Rhonda and I disagreed a good deal. In fact our relationship began with a disagreement. It was over the upstart lesbian caucus in CARASA. The group was a diversion, she argued fervently. We had to focus on the central issue: poor women's need for abortion.

"Poor women are lesbians, too."
"But they aren't pregnant."
"Sometimes they are."

In the end, I won that argument, at least by default – the lesbian caucus continued, Rhonda came out, maybe in my arms (you never could be sure of something like that with Rhonda) -- but although we endured many stalemates in the years to come, I don't think I ever won another debate with her, not even by default.

After ten or so years, we gave up arguing & loving -- her underarms smelled like ailanthus, her chest like lettuce, her cheeks were perfumed with Noxzema, and her body was always very hot, as if cancer already scorched her from within, something that scared us both (her mother smelled like a burning house as lay dying, she told me once) -- and simply accepted each other. That was another of her gifts: finally accepting those she loved, wishing we were different, certainly in my case, but loving us even though she knew we probably would never be.

One reason she moved so fast perhaps, stuffed so much into her days and nights, so many fights, so many loves, so many friendships, so many miles, so many cases & briefs & desires, was because she always felt, as she used to say "at some level," especially after her mother's death, that she didn't have that much time. In any case, it was wondrous, how much she packed into 24 hours a day, a loaves and fishes miracle, even at the end.

But the best thing she did, I think, throughout her life but especially at the end, was to encourage everyone she felt a possibility running through to do their utmost as well. And we will, I'll bet, with all our hearts and some of the heart and strength she has passed on, lighting up our skies with her flame and with ours, showing the world what a meteor a woman can be when she puts everything she has into it, as Rhonda did, every day and every night for as long as we knew her.

Psssht. She's gone, but we aren't, and the second clause at least, is good. Is hope. Is possibility. Is another meteor shower to come. And another. And another. Psssht.

From Vivian Stromberg

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

I guess I just want to share a little bit about – some of you may know and some of you may not know – Rhonda and I were married for close to twenty years. And so for us, it’s a very big loss, but there are many lessons that maybe I can share and some stories that I can share.

The first is if you want to be married twenty years to anybody, but especially if you got a chance to Rhonda, separate apartments is a really good idea. First and second floor works very well.

One night, a friend of ours was coming in from DC; she was visiting from Nicaragua and on a tour. It was a horrible storm, a storm something like the other night with the freak tornadoes and stuff. I went to pick Mirna up at the train station, and when we were driving back, we couldn’t get on to 18th Street. The police were there, the fire department was there, and they said that nobody could come. It didn’t feel so comfortable to me, so I insisted that we lived on that block and I needed to get up the street. We got to the house, and the entire neighborhood was in front of our house. Those of you who’ve been to the house, Rhonda’s office on the second floor was facing the street. There was a huge tree on the street, right in front of the house, that the winds pulled up. It fell across the street and totaled two cars. Rhonda was still working on her computer at the window. She had no idea.

The second, I think, also reveals how Rhonda was able in a magical way to tunnel in and focus in a way that everything else disappeared. When I had my first hip replacement, they denied me nursing care. So, for the first week when you can’t bend and you can’t walk, friends and family took turns 24 hours a day. Martha’s laughing because this was a very famous story. My daughter slept that night, and when she went to work, Rhonda’s turn was 8 to 11 to stay with me. She got all ready. I was sitting near my desk with my walker because I can’t walk without it a few days after surgery. And she said, “You want breakfast?” “Yes.” “OK, I’ll be right back, I’m just going to go upstairs for a minute, and I’ll come right back.” She went upstairs, she took a shower, she went to work. And I was sitting there waiting for the next shift.

Through all of that, we had a very special relationship, and I miss her very much. While Rhonda was very sick and in the hospital, we had a new baby born. He’s now six months old. He was born just a little over one pound and spent two months in the same hospital where Rhonda was. He’s now six months old and fat – almost as fat as me, not quite – and a very happy guy. But when he came home from the hospital, it was the precise hour that Rhonda died.

I don’t know what that means, but it means something to me because I can’t get it out of my mind. I think that life goes on and you learn from what you have the opportunity to experience. You try to apply that to make everything around you, what you can see and what you can’t see, just a little bit better. Thanks.

From Judy Levin

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

Rhonda and I had many conversations about this moment over the last several months.

And she made me promise that I would provide the comic relief and concentrate not on her accomplishments, but on her foible.

And so, only because I promised her I would do it. I have come here today to ridicule Copelon not to praise her.

As awed as I was by her brilliance, I was appalled and amused by her ignorance of popular culture.

For example… Once, when we witnessed a bizarre incident on the street, I remarked that it was a Seinfeld moment to which she replied “What? Who? Seinfeld? Who’s that?

On another occasion, we went to see Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, a Carl Reiner film noir spoof from the mid eighties, which included sequences for the original films from the forties and fifties. Rhonda was totally lost from the get go; so desperate was she to figure it out that she even stayed awake. Finally, during one of the old sequences she turned to me and said (she always talked during movies) how young Humphrey Bogart looked – she thought he was older than that. She was really confused when I told her he’d been dead for 25 years.

And then there was the time, about ten years ago, when the stock market suffered a precipitous drop in a single day, that Rhonda observed with some satisfaction that the rich where getting bad news for a change. I cautioned her not to celebrate too much but to think of her 90+ year old father who probably depended on the stock market for his sustenance... You’re right, she said, my father’s in blue chops.

I love her so and will miss laughing with and at her as much as being inspired was her.

From Jan Freeman

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

And So It Happens

You begin to say good-bye to the pine floorboards,
to the posts and beams that hold the house together.
But you cannot say good-bye to the walls:
they still hold you
as if they have become your back, your arms,
as if they momentarily hold her here in the house
on the couch, where she has begun to disappear,
the pillows absorbing her, her body hidden, emaciated;
her only words in the night as she dreams:
I want the restaurant,
I want to go to the restaurant.
Her arm reaching up.

Does she reach for the dead,
gathered in the trees above the roof of the house?
Or is she reaching for you?
Speaking to you?
This good-bye of the body
without words,
this good-bye after the friends have left,
their flowers and wine bottles scattered
on the tables and windowsills
as she travels
closer to the ceiling
than the floor,
closer to the ocean
to the sky,
closer to there
than the couch
in the body of her house.

From Amparo Claro

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

Our Dearest Rhonda,

I’m very happy to be here today, with the light of the sun around the friends that has accompanied you during all your life.

I do appreciate the will of the Organizing Committee to bring me here, your own country, remembering and making this joint homage to you: a tribute that brings images, thoughts and heart feelings of a multidimensional portrait that we are painting and building up to day. Right now, you are maybe recognizing yourself… or you are maybe surprised hearing us, from a level of pure awareness.

I hope you remember when we met in 1990 in Argentina. It was one of the Feminist Latin American and Caribbean Meetings and you came directly to me showing your interest in the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network that I was running. You wanted to know everything about our activities, campaigns and groups and NGOs in América del Sur and Central America.

Since that year our friendship continued to grow and you began to come to Santiago staying in Santa Sofía, the place where I live, in the pre-cordillera over the city. You also became a good friend with my partner Nana until the point that once you stayed to take care of her during a week after her surgery, while I was travelling. Another time you wanted to come with a friend, I imagined a lover, but you arrived with three gorgeous women that are here today. With them we enjoyed music and the inspired spirit and keen humour they have.

Rhonda, you were certainly not a common women or an ordinary US citizen. You rejected many characteristics of the North American Empire.

You were always aware of the damage and implications of the so-called values and objectives of the imperialistic global economy. Precisely because of that, you challenged the most cherished and protected tendencies of this kind of market economy seeing their negative implications for countries in the global South.

You found repulsive the ignorant arrogance of believing that there are superior people that must own and control other countries resources. You couldn’t stand the fake “nice and supportive” interventionist foreign policy machinations and manoeuvring in the national politics and policies of other countries.

You strongly rejected war, and you did it denouncing specific ways of torture that thousand of women suffered in wars and defending some of them too. For you, sexual and reproductive rights were human rights. You had a pristine view about injustice. I saw you feeling quite uncomfortable when there were unfair human situations. This clarity and commitment were due to your embedded sense of justice, to your compassionate heart. We could touch both of them… they became tangible and concrete in your choice to buy used cars; in the selection of the presents you bought for your friends in every trip… they were made always by artisans and indigenous peoples in their countries; in the gorgeous present for Elena’s birthday, a women that worked for Nana and still works for me in Santa Sofía, buying her a stove to heat the house in Winter.

Your last intervention in Chile, in support of the Inter-American Court against the Mexican State for the assassination of three Mexican young women in Juarez, showed once again, despite how you were feeling and how tired you were in physical weakness, your iron will and your brilliant and smart speech and knowledge giving the Court tools to face the procrastination of the Mexican State.

You do know dearest Rhonda that your already excessive number of friends grew a lot in Chile. All my good friends became your friends and they are sending today all their love.

Helas! My dearest, I wonder, when will you return again to this illusionistic, elusive and weird world. We need your analysis, your commitment, your energy and vision to transform this so damaged place into a better and softer one.

From Vahida Nainar

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

I am happy to have the opportunity to be amidst friends and turn the virtual hugs into literal ones. Like for many of us, Rhonda has been a mentor to me. Today, I am known and invited as speaker, panelist and jury members of people’s tribunals as an expert on international law, gender and conflict. I came to be one because of Rhonda. No, I was never her student, but I learnt a great deal from her on the job and I was privileged to have worked with her. Well, what did I learn from her? Despite being qualified as a lawyer, it was from her that I learnt to read the law from a human rights/gender perspective, to push the boundaries of law and to create new boundaries in the quest for gender justice. Push the boundaries of law is what we did in our advocacy in the negotiation process of creating the International Criminal Court. And the result is there for all to see – an unprecedented gender integration in the statutory documents of the ICC. We were all tiny cogs in this giant wheel that made it possible. But Rhonda was a significant and instrumental cog in shaping the language of all the gender related provisions of what we achieved.

Her work against fundamentalisms was not limited to fighting Islamic fundamentalism with the Algerian case. A coalition of feminists groups in India invited her to be part of a panel to document and analyze the violations in Gujarat 2002, which was against Hindu fundamentalists. Like she always believed if you don’t find justice within the national systems look for it in international law and that was the case in Gujarat– exploring application of international law where the national system failed to do justice. And I remember that we were all in awe of her knowledge and brilliance. Again, during the process I learnt to listen to victims and survivors and to ask the appropriate questions. I learnt to listen to their testimonies and not be debilitated by it. It is what helps me when I go around the world documenting horror stories of violations against women and producing reports that could contribute to achieve the end of gender justice. And at the end of the visit to Gujarat, she was keen to ensure that what we said in our interim report was well within the framework of the law.

And yet, despite her knowledge of different situations of violations of women’s rights around the world and an overall human rights approach, I was surprised on how on some issues she was firmly rooted in the US perspective. One such issue was that of reproductive rights. I had a friend, a very known and respective feminist from India, who was visiting the US for some advocacy work at the UN and she was raising the issue of female feoticide. As you know, in India the preference for a male child is to the extent that families get the pregnant woman to do sex determination tests and often force her to abort female feotuses. I was part of this conversation where my friend was explaining how it violated the right of the woman to choose and the long term impact it had on the society. She explained that the female to male ratio was seriously skewed in many states in India, that there was trafficking of women from the south to marry the men from north and the horde of new issues of violation and abuse it was causing. Rhonda for some reason could not see why this should be a problem or a concern for women’s group or feminists. Perhaps she was concerned that raising the issue at the UN for women’s right to keep the female feotus would somehow impact women’s struggle in the US for the right to abortion although the point was about choice – the choice of abortion in the US and the choice of keeping the female feotus in India. She turns around and asks my friend ‘but why are you so concerned that men cannot find women to marry. Let them all become gay !!! Well, that was Rhonda and her ingenious solution to the problem.

There are other issues that she worked on that remain incomplete such as torture. After working on the landmark Filartiga case that got the US court to recognize and acknowledge the seriousness of torture, she often raised the issue of torture by private actors, for which there is very little support. I am working on a paper on the issue and she was supposed to look at it, which is now… well…, not possible.

I will always miss you Rhonda.

From Karima Bennoune

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

I believe that Rhonda Copelon will be remembered as one of the most important feminist international lawyers of our time. For me, as a professor of international law myself, she was a mentor and a role model who wedded theoretical brilliance with real empathy and relentless advocacy. Her relentlessness in pursuit of human rights – especially for women – though sometimes exhausting, was profoundly inspiring.

Today, I am speaking as the proud daughter of an Algerian secular father of Muslim heritage, and in that capacity I want to memorialize Rhonda’s profound contribution to the progressive fight against Muslim fundamentalism in Algeria and beyond. I know that I speak today for many Algerians, including those who gathered in Paris yesterday to hold their own memorial. They sent me a summary of their event this morning which included the following wonderful sentence: “The testimonies were interspersed with the reading of poems in Arabic and those texts chosen by Rhonda against a background of Yiddish music.” How fitting.

In these terrible times of anti-Muslim hysteria in the U.S. and in the wake of the law-violating “war on terror,” it is sometimes hard for U.S. progressives to remember that the often dangerous struggle of the left and women’s movements in Muslim contexts against the forces of their own extremist right is one of the most important human rights struggles in the world today – and deserves support. But Rhonda, with her vigorous commitment to universality and secularism, understood this so well. She knew that the most progressive stance toward what is called the Muslim world is concrete solidarity with its progressives, not apology for fundamentalism. She had long worked to challenge religious orthodoxies – whether the religiously justified dispossession of Palestinians by the Israeli state or the attempts by the Catholic Church and Protestant evangelicals in this country to crush women’s reproductive freedom.

So it made perfect sense that in 1996, Rhonda brought the groundbreaking lawsuit Jane Doe v. Islamic Salvation Front and Anwar Haddam on behalf of nine Algerians and the Rassemblement Algérien des Femmes Démocrates (RAFD), a leftwing women’s group, against the notorious Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and its leader. The case which she brought under the auspices of the Center for Constitutional Rights charged the FIS and Haddam with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including assassination, rape and torture. The situation in Algeria was far too dangerous for any of the individual plaintiffs to be named. However, their lawyer was named and her clients feared for her safety. Rhonda even traveled to Algiers to take their testimonies at a time when it was considered far too dangerous to do so.

Though Haddam prevailed on summary judgment, a decision that was wrongly decided, the case represented pioneering progressive legal advocacy in that it recognized and sought a remedy for the grave harms to progressive activists posed by religious fundamentalists, a cause which Rhonda championed throughout her life. It was another “brave milestone case that broke her heart,” as Ros Petchesky described McCrae. The victims – who had watched family members butchered or survived death threats and attacks themselves - never forgot that Rhonda stood with them. In 2008, a group that included some of them wrote, “We thank you, dear friend and comrade who supported us personally, publicly and legally, at a time when you were nearly alone in doing so. We thank you for defying the conventional wisdom - including among the major human rights organizations – by defending the victims of fundamentalist armed groups.” Rhonda herself talked about how devastated she was about the outcome of this case, and about the failure of progressives in the US to support her plaintiffs. This was a lonely struggle as the progressive struggle against Muslim fundamentalism so often continues to be.

In recent months, I have thought a great deal about the loneliness of this work as Rhonda described it while I have tried to internally challenge the decision by the Center for Constitutional Rights – an organization that Rhonda loved – to represent the interests of a notorious Al Qaeda ideologue Anwar Awlaki. Awlaki remains at large and openly threatens “unbelievers” and non-fundamentalist Muslims with assassination, and he advocates the most violent form of jihad – the kind of jihad that targeted the Haddam plaintiffs in Algeria. While I believe that Rhonda would have agreed with opposing United States government targeted assassinations which is the point of the CCR suit, I also believe that she would have found a different way of doing so. Because she would have recognized that Awlaki too has victims and she would have been concerned about them as well. Unlike Rhonda, many Western human rights groups have been clamoring to associate themselves with Muslim fundamentalists as a way of challenging Western governments. I hope that human rights advocates treading on this complicated territory will learn from Rhonda’s important legacy in this area.

I will always remember that at the end of her life Rhonda was still relentless. In late March, she still had the energy to be outraged that Amnesty International had suspended the head of its gender unit, the Indian feminist Gita Sahgal, for publicly criticizing the organization’s close public relationship with a British former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg who was also a supporter of jihadist movements and who claimed to be “conservative on family values.” Rhonda knew exactly what that meant. She spent much of the evening at the party for Charlotte Bunch in March politicking around this issue. A few of us Algerians finally managed to drag her away from the politics upstairs and onto the dance floor. And I have to say that even 1 ½ months before her death, she was still a fabulous dancer.

It will be one of the honors of my life that I got to be friends with Rhonda Copelon. I miss her very much. But, I know that when we are both principled and relentless in our pursuit of justice, as she was, she lives on in us. To paraphrase the words said by many Muslims at the time of someone’s passing, with a secular humanist twist: “We come from the universe and to the universe we return.”

From Sue Bryant

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

Thank you for the opportunity to say a few words about Rhonda, a founding faculty member of the CUNY law school.

At the time that Rhonda came to the Law School she was already recognized as a prominent feminist lawyer who had argued important cases in the Supreme and federal courts. She could have become a faculty member at many other law schools but she came to CUNY because she wanted to continue her life’s work of changing the world – she found a home at CUNY – in the aspirations for justice that she shared with our faculty and 26 years of graduates.

In those early years, Rhonda brought to her institution building and curricular designing her understanding that gender justice could not occur without breaking the public/private divide. A few examples: recognizing that child care was a public responsibility, she worked tirelessly to have one of the first day care center ever located in a law school, and she insisted that family law, a course focused on gender justice was as important as a course like contracts focused on markets - thus family law became and remains a mandatory course in our first year. She taught that course for many years and inspired graduates to work to break the private-public divide in family law and other areas.

Many professors teach but find their professional nourishment outside teaching in their research and activism. Rhonda found a way to link her two professional loves teaching and political lawyering – in the IWHR clinic. Not surprising that Rhonda saw the two as linked because she taught the way she lawyered:

Both her teaching and lawyering were bottom up. While highly theoretical with strong views, Rhonda listened and was profoundly shaped in her advocacy by her clients and in her teaching by her students. Lawyering she often said was to be done by “being responsive to what people in need want.” She insisted on listening to the world and working in Solidarity.

So to in her teaching, she sought and was hugely successful in listening to her students’ needs – as she herself said “Teaching is an openness to life.”

Rhonda accomplished something profound in her teaching. She genuinely listened to hear her students’ passion for justice and she tried to reach each of them in a way that not only gave them technical expertise but also touched their hearts.

One graduate at a recent gathering in which 50 of Rhonda’s clinic students came from all over the states and world to honor Rhonda -- described how Rhonda showed her how to keep her humanity, keep her heart open, as the student read pages of horror crimes committed against women and Rhonda taught her how to listen to this pain and yet not be paralyzed by it; but instead to lawyer against it. To teach these kinds of lessons, a teacher has to listen deeply to what students are saying and thinking.

This was not hard for Rhonda because she loved her students the way she loved her clients – in her own words from this same gathering, “the students were a true joy.” They were “delicious, delightful and important.” And she loved CUNY’s access mission that brings us an extraordinary and exciting group of students.

Rhonda lawyered with a philosophy that if justice is on your side, do not limit yourself in what you ask for. So too when she taught, she always aimed to get the students to do beyond what they thought they could do. She raised money and sometimes chipped in some of her own to take students around the world so that they could see the effects of their advocacy and do important first-hand listening themselves.

At the same time convincing, no demanding of them that their work be excellent, always reiterating that to lawyer in progressive causes you need to be better.

Demanding – there’s a word commonly associated with Rhonda. That demanding tenacity only worked because it came with a loving generosity and the warm smile that radiates from the buttons we wear today. A CUNY support staff member who heard I was talking today said please tell people how important Rhonda was to the staff and her willingness to listen to and support us.

I’ll end with this thought – We are in the middle of the Jewish holidays – days that Rhonda celebrated with family and friends. Central to these Holidays is a request: May we be Blessed and may we be a Blessing.” No doubt Rhonda was Blessed – with powerful intelligence, charisma, tenacity and a gentle spirit.” She was also a Blessing – to the women of the world and to those of us who got to work and learn from her at the CUNY School of Law.

From Ros Petchesky

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

Rhonda, Rhonda –

What year was it when we first met? I was beginning the research and writing that would become my book on abortion, and you were preparing litigation that would become McRae—that brave milestone case that would break your heart. Several friends said, You have to meet this amazing feminist lawyer who’s doing work parallel to yours, and we inevitably would—in CARASA in its earliest days (the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse), formed in 1977 in opposition to the infamous Hyde Amendment; and then that first bike ride in the Provincetown dunes where all my synapses immediately responded to your energy, deep intelligence, passionate feminism, and needless to say your charm. So began 33 years of interminable phone conversations, finishing each other’s sentences, complementing (and sometimes fighting over) each other’s perspectives: your human rights, my political theory, your legalism, my leftism.

Reproductive rights – it felt like we and many others were in that moment and the next two decades making this movement, defining its terms, closing ranks against its conservative enemies. But of course this was a grandiose illusion; the movements were making us at least as much. In CARASA we worked with many others to build the vision that many younger activists today aptly call reproductive justice—to link abortion and contraception to a much broader view of women’s right to have or not to have children in conditions of dignity and social support, with full access to health care, child care, housing, livelihoods, sexual and bodily self-determination, and freedom from class, racial, sexual and gender inequalities. You brought this social justice perspective to your historic litigation of the McRae case in the Supreme Court—challenging the Hyde Amendment and its exclusion of poor women from Roe v. Wade’s constitutional protection of abortion by denying federal Medicaid funding. You always identified the loss of McRae as one of the greatest sorrows of your life. Just this past year, when Democrats debating health care reform seemed poised to bargain away women’s hard-won abortion rights, you came out swinging once again, in the midst of cancer, and urged not only that we take on the compromisers of the status quo but that we renew a full offensive against Hyde itself—push to abolish that shameful denial of poor women’s access once and for all. And I’ve no doubt, had you lived, you would have led us in this fight—even today in the midst of the biggest right-wing backlash since the McCarthy era.

In the 1990s we carried on the struggle in international arenas—in the UN meetings in Cairo and Beijing, where you and I found our niche as partners in crime in the reproductive and sexual rights drafting committees in the Women’s Caucus and somehow people kept getting our names mixed up, which was fine with me because there wasn’t anyone I’d rather be mistaken for. (So what’s this about, we wondered. Jewish? intense? dark curly hair? names that start with R?) Together we argued strenuously for the words “bodily integrity” in the documents. “The physical integrity of the human body”—awkward language that finally made its way into the Cairo Program and the Beijing Platform—just didn’t do it for us. Nor did the Cairo document (Beijing was better) really capture the scope of what you identified as the “indivisibility principle” linking political, civil, economic, social and cultural human rights and I as “enabling conditions” and “social rights.” So in our writing together in the preparations for Beijing, we talked about “the significance of bodily integrity and self-determination, including health, wellness and sexual pleasure, not as individualistic concerns, but as inseparable from women’s full and equal participation in all aspects of social life.” And we insisted the concept of “means” to achieve reproductive and sexual rights had “to include . . . food, shelter, work and basic security, as well as the right to development.”

Sexuality, pleasure, passion—they were always inseparable for you, dear Rhonda, from reproductive politics, as from your political life at large. For years we shared intimate stories—our secret crushes, our hopes and disappointments with the latest lover, our pulls and self-doubts in love and work. And always lurking behind the long shared dishings lay the question—so are lesbian and heterosexual sex dramas really so different? Are bodies so different in their needs, desires, vulnerabilities, mortality? Is this common yearning really the core of human rights?

Meanwhile, the body’s journey had its own will and way. I hoped and grieved with you during your own struggle to reproduce, the painful and costly years of fertility treatments, embarked upon with the same stubborn determination you brought to every advocacy effort, and finally to fighting the ovarian cancer—the cancer you later thought germinated from those very hormones you let into your body trying to get pregnant, the cancer that would ultimately reproduce and reproduce until it took your life.

But, Rhonda, we all know you really weren’t defeated in your desire to experience parenting. Just look at how attentively you mothered generations of students and protégées; your adopted granddaughter, Eugenia; your dear sister-cousin Terry; your beloved Finbar, then Sophie (another passion we shared, our cats, and mourned together when they died). And how persistently you extended this nurturing to your hundreds of close friends across the globe, insisting that we all know each other and be connected whether we wanted to or not. Such a heterodox and far-flung family you produced!

Of course many of us not only basked in the joys and clarity of your attentions but also suffered the frustrations of being part of, not merely your “gang,” but your veritable multitude, your horde, your battalion. How did our friendship survive the countless times when I got the dreaded message, “MAILBOX FULL,” or waiting 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour for you to stroll into the designated meeting place before the opera? It did, because invariably you would emerge with your gorgeous beaming smile that dissolved my curmudgeonly scruples about time and that said, I am so happy to see you, you are the person I most wish to be with at this moment on this earth. My wise son Jonah—who was fondest of you, I think, of all my friends—once told me: Rhonda may be frustrating, Mom, but when she’s there she is totally and completely there. Indeed.

In the end you wanted us to see death and the body’s disintegration as something not so frightening, even another kind of opportunity for reflection and discovery. Somehow you made the ultimate loss of your body’s integrity an opening for new forms of community, connection and passion, a way to bind you to the world even as you left it. Reproductive and seductive to the last minute, and always the teacher, you left us with a great and bounteous love.

From Peter Weiss

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

After getting from Rhonda the latest report on her medical condition, I would occasionally end the conversation with “I’ll say an atheist prayer for you.” I think she liked both parts of that, so it may be appropriate if, on the day after Yom Kippur, I take Micah 6:8 as the text for by brief remarks. Diligent research led me to a version attributed to a second century rabbi which read “work hard, love mercy, do justice and don’t become too well known to the authorities.”

Work hard – did she ever. When I said, at the CCR event honoring her, two weeks before her death, that she had helped build her house in Noyac, to prove that there was nothing men did that women couldn’t do, she corrected me by saying “Not helped, I built it.” It’s true that she was involved in so many things that she didn’t always finish every article or book she had promised to write, but that’s OK; even her fragments are masterpieces.

If loving mercy means caring, she was a master at that also. The love and solicitude that she lavished on her ever changing, ever growing circle, was a wondrous thing to behold, and a precious gift for those who received it, and gave it back, with interest.

As for doing justice, that was the core of her life. It’s what sent her to law school, to the Center, to CUNY and to the far corners of the world, wherever justice needed to be done, amended and expanded. As when domestic violence needed to be recognized as a human rights violation, rape as a war crime and the oppression of Algerian women by fundamentalists as worthy of the attention of human rights advocates.

The one part of the rabbi’s admonition that didn’t apply to Rhonda was not becoming too well known to the authorities. Her modus operandi was just the opposite: Don’t get sidetracked when there are important points to be made; go to the top. That is what made her feared by the defenders of the status quo and, in equal measure, loved and admired by those who wanted it changed.

There was a wonderful phrase by James Baldwin in last Sunday’s review of the new book of some of his previously unpublished writings. “Sorrow”, it read, “wears and uses us, but we wear and use it too.” Let us wear and use our sorrow at Rhonda’s death to continue her work in transforming the face of justice and in caring for each other and for those whom Frantz Fanon called the damned of the earth.

From Ann Cammett

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

Greetings! My name is Ann Cammett and I am a professor of law at UNLV, the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Rhonda is the reason I am a law teacher today. And Rhonda would have been delighted to be feted in this way, with laughter and song by her fellow travelers. Before I begin I want to thank the organizing committee – Alison Bernstein, Anita Nayar, Blanche Cook, Clare Coss, Cathy Albisa, Charlotte Bunch, Linda Stein, Pam Spees, Petchesky and Roxanna Carillo. I thank them for the opportunity to speak to you, and for bringing this global community of friends and activists together.

I promise not to be a drag, but I must say this piece: this is the first time I have spoken publicly about Rhonda since her passing, and I must admit that I have experienced a fair amount of trepidation about this moment. After she passed away I was almost inconsolable with grief, even though I had known from the beginning how sick she was. It was only after her death that I realized why I was so taken aback by it. Rhonda was tough, an incredible fighter, and a force of nature. On some level I never believed that she would really die. That was the effect that she had on many of us – she made us believe in the impossible. Now, after she’s gone from us I am left to reflect on what she meant to me during her life and for my life moving forward, and I can honestly say that no one has had more of a personal and professional impact on me than Rhonda Copelon.

Today I have opportunity to offer a few words of praise for this extraordinary woman – my mentor and beloved friend – and one of the most thoughtful, creative, and generous people that I have ever known. In 2009 I was honored – along with Charlotte Bunch – to introduce Rhonda at SALT (the Society of American Law Teachers), where she was to receive their Human Rights award. She asked the two of us to introduce her because she said that we represented “different aspects of what [she] considered [her] human rights practice: [her] pedagogical role as law professor and [her] activist role as an advocate for women’s human rights.” Rhonda’s incalculable contributions to the field of International Women’s Human Rights are well known, and you will hear others comment on that today. What is less known is the enormous impact that she had on her students. So my task here is a modest, but important one: a story about one activist teacher’s profound influence on another, and I’m sure that in the telling I am channeling the story of a hundred others who were privileged to be have Rhonda’s unique style of mentoring.

I will always be grateful for that chance to tell Rhonda at that SALT dinner how much she meant to me while she was still alive. In that introduction I talked about being Rhonda’s teaching assistant for her Family Law class at CUNY Law School, the place where I first began to work with her. But few people know that Rhonda was the reason I went to CUNY to begin with. I met her when I was considering law school in the mid 1990s, spoke to her for a bit, and she said, “You should come to CUNY,” and I said “OK”! Little did I know that it was only the beginning!

Rhonda’s family law class was fascinating and as you would imagine, often controversial. Rhonda had already established herself as a special Supreme Court litigator in reproductive rights cases and all the movements for gender equality, arguing such cases as Harris v. McCrae, which challenged the cutoff of Medicaid funds for abortion. Rhonda’s cases always focused on improving conditions for those most at risk as there was often an economic justice component to her work, and I truly admired that.

During one law school class in particular I was in for a treat when she delivered a lecture essentially equating the institution of marriage with slavery. Even the most stalwart young feminists squirmed in their seats as it appeared that she had shot a thunderbolt through their most core belief systems. But in Rhonda’s inimitable soft-spoken (barely audible style) she continued to in a non-polemical way deconstruct the institution of marriage and challenge heteronormativity, and moreover - push people to think of the family as a political unit like any other, a place where specific rights and responsibilities were countenanced and regulated by society – i.e. a feminist analysis of marriage. To this day I am a social justice family lawyer, owing to the perspective that I developed from working with Rhonda. Rhonda said that she “commandeered” me into being her teaching assistant, and to some degree that’s true only because of her persistent nature, but the reality is that I reveled in the chance to work with this woman of uncommon talents.

Now, I just have to say this: for all her genius Rhonda could be absolutely exasperating! And in the spirit of this event I think it only fair that we talk about that.

First of all, Rhonda was incapable of getting almost anywhere on time. She always had to make several stops along the way to tackle some pressing issue, pick up or drop off people, or a CD, or an important document. Through Rhonda I learned patience.

Second, she had the capacity to change her mind over and over again about even the most minute task: where to have dinner, what time to meet, how to approach any problem, no matter how small;

Finally, few of us have ever been in an important meeting with Rhonda where she didn’t say “just one more thing” at least three times, extending long meetings past the point of human endurance;

So, this begs the question: if Rhonda was such a pain in the ass, why do I miss her so much? Why do we miss her so much?

The answer to that question lies in the heart of everyone here, because she had a way of touching every single friend in a way that made them feel like they were truly special to her.

As for me, over the years this is what I’ve observed:

When Rhonda showed up late it was often because she was tackling an ever growing list of problems which could be taking place anywhere on the globe, or she could simply be ministering to a friend in need. Hell, I can’t tell you how many times I bent her ear asking for relationship advice (if you can picture that!)

Rhonda’s tendency to change her mind, while exasperating to us, was partly the source of her genius. No one was able to see a problem from every conceivable angle in the way Rhonda did, but when she was finished with that process she’d be way ahead of the curve on many issues, and the fiercest advocate you could ever imagine. You’d be glad she was on your side!

Finally when Rhonda would say “one more thing” it was usually because a truly important issue was overlooked during the conversation – and it was usually about gender – and she was usually right. Rhonda, even in her passing, acts as some sort of feminist super-ego in my brain saying “don’t forget your gender analysis”!

But one of Rhonda’s talents was being able to see talent in other people and to help them to utilize their talents in the best possible way, and to bring them along with her. She was my model of how to be an activist law teacher.

What Rhonda offered me was an inspired example of how one could be an academic and continue to important work in the world: scholarship that had meaning (in that it served to improve people’s lives); a way to inspire students, should they choose, to find their own way to make a contribution. And, as it turns out, teaching has been a good fit for me. But then again, Rhonda knew that even before I could see it when she “commandeered” me into being her teaching assistant – and to my joy – a beloved friend.

Another thing I learned from Rhonda is to never let the current state of the law or your circumstances limit you. Because she failed to be limited in her approach to achieving her social justice goals, she was not afraid to take chances. If the federal courts are inhospitable to civil rights, pursue the fight for justice under the rubric of international law… For activist lawyers this is an incredibly important lesson. The political landscape is constantly changing – and it is a mean world out there. Being effective in social justice work depends upon your ability to become a shapeshifter.

I want to close by saying this: It is a rare gift to be able to publically honor someone that has meant as much as Rhonda has meant to me personally, philosophically, and professionally. I may have had the inclination to be an activist law professor, but Rhonda gave me the tools to make it happen and for that I’ll forever be grateful. She was also the best friend anyone could want. We all miss her.

From Charlotte Bunch

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

I am pleased and humbled to welcome you to this Celebration of Rhonda’s life on behalf of the organizing committee. Gracias a La Vida – honoring her and the gratefulness for life she taught us – on this beautiful Sept day just after her 66th birthday last Wed. the 15th.

This event represents only a small sample of all the remembrances and tributes to Rhonda’s work and life that have poured in from all over the world, including events in Nicaragua, Paris, Costa Rica, + Uganda..

On the extraordinary blog to Rhonda organized by her friends Maureen + Anita, there are now 120 people from over 30 countries who shared their remembrances and photos - reflecting Rhonda's global community of activists, scholars, & friends from Argentina, to Burma, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Japan, Kenya, Malaysia, Serbia, Sierra Leone,

I printed out pages and pages of these tributes – so moving and humorous – I wanted to read some, but there are just too many – but the diversity of voices and languages are testimony to the wide range of her influence on individuals and on institutions– from South African Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs to the long serving chair of the CEDAW Committee Ivanka Corti to imminent lawyers + activists working for human rights and justice in every corner of the earth those gathered in Spanish by Radio Fire International and from her colleagues at the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice. All wanted to be heard today and we carrying them with us into this event.

Rhonda touched so many people – intellectually, politically, + personally
– as the fierce pioneer for gender justice with a creative legal mind that never stopped – literally keeping her and many of us up at night.
– the generous and demanding teacher who helped to launch many a career in social justice work
– as a tender and loyal friend who took great joy in sharing her love for the beauty in life of food, nature, and great music.

Her voracity for life knew no boundaries – personal or political
– wanted to know everyone, to be everywhere (even if she arrived when the event was over) and to do everything with a sense of urgency about social justice and a vast curiosity about the world that could exhaust those around her.. and often led to missed deadlines and… very late dinners.
– appropriately, as she requested, her ashes have been scattered in many places so now, at last, she can be everywhere at once.

I remember all the times Rhonda said to me “We must do … ” to which I would try to sensibly reply but Rhonda who is the “we” … who can take it on – we are all overloaded - But too little effect – as it rarely stopped her from finding a way to take it on herself or move others to action.

She was the original Yes We Can (and Must)…Her extraordinary will power could manifest in stubbornness that drove us crazy, but it also helped to achieve many of the milestones discussed today. It extended her own life against all the odds - to give her time to see one more opera, make one more submission to the InterAmerican Court, and to say good bye to so many of those who loved her.

And love her we did. The organizers for this event today did it out of respect and admiration for her extraordinary work – which is incredible, But above all - out of love – because she touched so many of us so deeply as a friend.

To speak more personally about my own sense of love + loss for a moment
– Hardly a week passes, when I do not at some moment – want to call Rhonda to discuss something a Supreme Court or UN decision, a movie, or a personal struggle to “let go” in the process of passing on leadership. (Giving up control was a topic we often tussled with – not easy for either of us.)

I realize when I long for those conversations how much Rhonda was always “there” for her friends. We might not talk for weeks but when we did – conversation picked up as if it had never stopped. She was an insightful political adviser to sort through complex thorny issues + never shied away from difficulty, but she was also intensely interested in our life struggles.

She had an uncanny ability to know when I needed comfort, or company or just to talk about something difficult. For example, when Roxanna left New York to work in Burundi for 2 years - shortly before both of our 60th birthdays, Rhonda suggested we celebrate our birthdays together.

At this time when I was feeling very vulnerable, Rhonda was quick to share more of her own personal life with me, welcoming me to come along with her anywhere and especially to her home and friends in LI. Instinctively she filled a need I hardly acknowledged + got me to discuss things I hardly knew I was feeling. As I became part of the gang for whom she has provided this family + home, I came to see how many women she did this for.

Even after she was diagnosed with cancer – she continued to ask me first how I was doing with my aging issues + to joke that now she would not have to go through those problems. She remained present to the lives of others. Whether in politics, culture or personal struggle – Rhonda could penetrate to the core of the issue and illuminate as well as sympathize with others.

Today – we share memories and stories – reflections on what Rhonda was for each of us in her life + her work, which were usually intertwined. Each person is speaking to different aspects of Rhonda’s life – and through this we see how wide was the canvas of life she painted. There could be a dozen more speakers in each of these places
– but we hope as we honor + celebrate this amazing woman in all her humanity-touching, tough, driven, humorous and annoying all at once. We will be echoing what you loved about Rhonda - That we can share at least some of the loss + grief we feel because she has left us - and be reminded also of how she united us in community and love.

After the testifiers and music, we will have a brief time for an open mike community sharing by more of you before we end with a reception. The first speaker will be Ann Cammett

Sunday, September 19, 2010

From Clare Coss

Haikus for Rhonda

Dark sky architect
Stairways ascend to the stars
Virgo's cupola

Pale sun/tall windows
Effusive women talk - dance
Hope on New Year's Day

Around your table
High-spirited activists
Argue for the world

Rhonda Rhondushka
Circles ever widening
Your spark eternal

From Lepa Mladjenovic, Belgrade

Feminist lesbian from Belgrade, Ex Yugoslavia, Ex Eastern Europe, one Member of Rhonda’s Family by Choice

a note

In March this year I was staying with Rhonda in her Europeanish flat over the East River. I told her at one moment:
- Rhonda, I adore you,
She said:
- You say that to every woman!!
I said:
- Yes I adore women, and I know exactly why I adore you: you have a passion to encounter women and be intense, emotionally and politically, in that exchange.
She said:
- What do you mean?
I said:
- I remember 15 years ago when I met you I was sleeping in your place, we went together to a Madre celebration in a big hall. There were many of your friends there. When the event was over you told me, wait a little, I need to talk to some people. I observed you then for the first time how carefully, in full tender concentration you talked to one and then another and then another woman... with the pleasure of a girl who does not want to go to sleep, because life is beautiful, with a fury of a feminist whose condition depends on this particular political discussion you make in this very moment. In New York, your behavior seemed to my post socialist eyes completely anti-capitalist, soulful ~~~ moving my heart.
Rhonda was listening, thinking in silence, to my story - her face of joy-blooming and doubting at the same time.

Ah, I say now.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

From Romany Kramoris, Sag Harbor, NY

Owner, Romany Kramoris Gallery

The Secret Life of Rhonda Copelon - Main Street Night Owl

Everyone I've met at Rhonda's dinners, events, and sedars have been high powered professionals. Serious. Accomplished. Impressive, each one in what they are doing to improve the world. They all bite off big chunks. How did I fit in with all these luminaries?

We met first at the Music Festival where I volunteered on PR. With comp tickets for the most glorious classical concerts and world renowned musicians, my task was to fill seats. I began picnic dinners under the tent with friends who invited friends before and to each concert. Everyone called everyone and everyone brought a dish or a bottle of wine. Each picnic was a pre-concert banquet. In anticipation of an extraordinary evening, we had fun talking and eating, tasting some unusual creations. Rhonda became my best comp taker. With delight, she papered many a seat by herself and with friends. When concert season began, the phone began. Rhonda was first or nearly first. "What are your favorites this year? Who's playing? Any possibility of 8 tickets?" "I'll let you know if any more are released." She became enthralled with the concerts and at some moment I realized this was our special connection.

Over the last several years, late, near midnight and after the Sag Harbor Cinema discharged it's audience to the streets. Many would see my lights on and come in to talk, listen to music, see the current show. Expressing intimidation at first toward coming in, eventually she did and decided to start a journal. She bought one from Nepal with handmade pages and a maroon cover with a wood button and simple string closure. It looked very ethnically Rhonda. She quickly became very comfortable dropping in late at night for long or short. Music in the dark of the night during quiet hours became an anticipated and repeat event over the years. Sometimes she came with books of favorite photographers. We'd go on into the wee hours picking out favorites or the best qualities. Sometimes we'd find something that didn't quite work. "Why not? This is fun." Next came her own photography. Images of the waves and ripples, evening sunsets, both subtle and brilliant at Long Beach. Some calm, some magnificent. Pictures of pilings that she poeticized as "Refugees". Her photographs reminded me of doctor's orders to exercise. I love to swim in the bay after work at 11 or midnight. No one else wanted to join me except for Rhonda. We'd plan to meet with big towels and hot herbal tea.

At the concert picnics, Rhonda met Jutta whom she immediately loved and adored and Jutta loved and adored her back. This past blizzardy Christmas with snow piled miles high we got a call at 10:15 from Rhonda. She wanted to see us after the movie in Sag. She arrived like a trooper, bearing gifts of Viennese dark chocolate cocoa and other Austrian delights to nibble on plus a romantic candle. We laughed, we jided, "what are you doing out in this blizzard". We caught up. We listened to Sutherland's Christmas Album and Schumann's energetic, lifting and moving "Op. 44", one of my faves in the Blue Angel Room, our new room stringed with hundreds of criss-crossed colored lights. Magical!

Rhonda left a card for us which said, "You have added music and beauty to my life. I feel so enriched." Jutta and I tucked the Schumann into her pocket. We kissed each other, turned all the outdoor lights on, and Rhonda turned on her giant flashlight. We watched her trudge happily over the snow bank to find her buried car.

One Sunday evening last May, Nancy came in and urged that Rhonda wanted to see me out on Main Street. I ran out to the wagon filled with friends, hugged her, and told her how much Jutta and I loved her. It was a beautiful calm evening when I finally left the gallery that night just in time to see the last sliver of sunset over Long Beach.

From VAWW-NET and WAM, Japan

Violence Against Women in War-Network Japan and Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace

Dear Friends,

We are deeply saddened to have lost a dear friend and great supporter. For those of us in Japan in support of the women victims of Japan’s military sexual slavery system until 1945, Rhonda had been a very important friend who helped us in many ways. We will always remember her big smile, and her very caring attitude to everyone, including those of us who worked very late to put handouts together for the next day and the cleaning ladies who tended her hotel rooms. She came to Japan twice; we are too sorry that there will not be a third visit, which we were so much looking forward to.

Rhonda was a key person in holding the “Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery” in Tokyo in 2000 as an international effort to help bring justice for the survivors of the system. Officially she was the leading Legal Advisor to the Tribunal. She was a primary force in organizing and carrying out the Tribunal to end, organizing the International Advisory Committee, putting together the Tribunal’s Charter, which was adopted by the International Organizing Committee including representing NGOs from seven different Asian countries and regions, and bringing together the international panel of Judges who are internationally eminent figures in legal profession. She saw to it that its Judgment was finally delivered in The Hague, the Netherlands one year later in 2001. Then Rhonda came to Japan again to join us to directly address the Japanese government with the Judgment in 2002. In 2003, when the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women discussed Japan’s periodic report, she welcomed the few members from our organization who went to lobby at the committee and helped organize a lobbying team to help us while she was also busy supporting the Gujarati women.

After the Tribunal, many of us took part in the effort to build a museum where all the Tribunal materials are kept, and where the reality of war crimes is recorded and kept for posterity. We wanted Rhonda to see this museum so - the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM). She would have liked the entrance, where visitors are met by the many portraits of those brave survivors who came out. The faces of these women give us power to go on, to keep our voices high to say “never again, anywhere in the world!”

Rhonda must now be with our former representative MATSUI Yayori (1934-2002), who was one of the Co-conveners of the Tribunal. We hope that those survivors who left us are now talking to her directly, rather than through an interpreter, as there must no longer be any language barrier where they are. Rhonda used to say to us that one of her wishes was to be able to listen and talk to the survivors directly, so that she could tell them directly how much respect she had for their courage for breaking the historical silence.

In solidarity,

NISHINO Rumiko and NAKAHARA Michiko
Violence Against Women in War-Network Japan (VAWW-NET Japan)

SHOJI Rutsuko
Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM)

From Felice Gaer

Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and Member and Vice-Chair, UN Committee against Torture

I said goodbye to Rhonda in late April, in person and in correspondence. She turned that sad exchange into yet another teachable moment, reflecting on what I should do – and of course not do!

When I complimented her and thanked her for all she had done, she turned it around to compliment me, thank me, and urge me to do more. Whatever subject we addressed, she was bursting with creative approaches and new advice: Weakened by her fight with “the disease,” she spoke of how much she had just enjoyed being taken to visit a park in Brooklyn to see and smell the spring flowers –and when I replied that I too had been overwhelmed by the beauty of flowering trees and bushes as I drove through a surburban NJ town that morning, Rhonda advised me impatiently: Felice, you have to get out of the car!!

That instruction was so characteristic of the remarkable activist that was Rhonda Copelon. And we laughed about it, together, recognizing that even here, seeing and experiencing the sights and smells of springtime, Rhonda wanted full commitment from each of her friends, colleagues, students.

Rhonda’s memorial in New York on September 19 offers all her friends from around the world a chance for continuing reflection on how much more commitment like hers is needed, and where. Her extraordinary role has already been chronicled and preserved in the websites dedicated to her memory. She told me, just a couple of weeks before her death, that she had known of the extent and significance of her own contributions to changing the rights discourse and promoting accountability for violations of women’s human rights – but that she had not realized until her very last years how much others did indeed value it.

I spoke of her contributions at a Symposium convened by CUNY Law in March 2008 at the New York City Bar Association, on the subject of General Comment 2 of the Committee against Torture:

"This morning, I took from my shelf a remarkable 1994 article, “Recognizing the Egregious in the Everyday: Domestic Violence as Torture.” This work, and those that have followed it, have been eye-opening, agenda-setting, and extremely influential. Professor Rhonda Copelon, the author of that article, has served as Faculty Advisor for the Law Review on this Symposium. Through a body of writing, analysis and advocacy, she has transformed the way that the human rights discourse and UN bodies in particular understand ‘the place of women and the status of gender-based violence within the human rights discourse” and I would like to recognize that contribution. …

"In 1994 she told us that “the egregiousness of gender-based violence has been matched only by its absence from human rights discourse.” Today, that too has changed significantly and is still changing in large measure due to the insights and attention she has brought to the subject matter, to the work of UN and regional human rights bodies, and to CUNY Law School itself through the International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic.

“So I salute Professor Copelon and her students – a group of remarkable and dedicated lawyers who are changing the way we look at the world of human rights. As was stated at the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995, they are looking at the world “through women’s eyes” –and as a result, so are the rest of us!

“Professor Copelon …helped us see the invisible: to move past what one critic has dared to term as irrelevant “sentimentality” rather than human rights abuse. In the work of the Committee Against Torture, as reflected in General Comment 2, we have clearly moved into examining these important areas of abuse, the roles of private actors, and the actual obligations of state actors to exercise due diligence about such matters. Effective measures require more than words: they require continual evaluation.”

# # #

It turned out that Rhonda was not present when I made those comments – illness and traffic caused her to arrive late to the Symposium. When she read the remarks in my draft article, some months later, she told me they were “over the top…” but also, that “there were a couple of important things missing”-- among them the idea that education is a preventive measure in itself. Working with Rhonda was an education, and those of us fortunate enough to have had that experience won’t forget it. Let us ensure that her achievements continue to spur us and others worldwide to keep moving forward to build greater preventive mechanisms and remedies to abuses of human rights.

From Priscilla Ruth MacDougall

Dear Rhonda's Team:

It brings a chuckle every time I see the reference to Rhonda's "Team". That was the last word she ever said to me--in an email shortly after several of us were honored by the Veteran Feminists of American in NYC in 2008.

Nadine Taub did not have a biography in the program, so I started working on one and got into contact with Rhonda. She got right into it, and, with a couple others, we got a bio included.

I wrote her something about signing in "Sisterhood", a term I had long not been able to use, and she responded. "We're a team."

The words shall forever stick with me as will all my memories of Rhonda which started with her editing my first naming rights article for the Women's Rights Law Reporter in l972. We met at the Women and Law conferences from 1970s into the 1990s, and she was always a presence and inspiration. She was always in the forefront, and in the background, and will remain so in my mind always.

Friday, September 17, 2010

From Ivanka Corti, Italy

Former Chairperson of CEDAW

Rhonda will remain for ever in my memory!

Unfortunately I didn't find any photo as testimony of our long, sincere and collaborative friendship.
At the beginning of this year Rhonda promised me to come to Rome during the year, happy, as she wrote, to meet us again and to continue our long talks. The destiny didn't permit the realisation of the common desire.

Rhonda, be sure that I will always remember our long collaboration and I conserve all our correspondence. I will always be thankful to your suggestion after Cairo Conference to involve CEDAW on the follow-up of the results of the great achievements this Conference represented for women. We had many meetings about that in my hotel in New York and succeeded, particularly to your efforts and the understanding of Dr. Nafis Sadik, Director of the UNFPA at that time, to realise the first meeting of the Chairpersons of all the Human Rights treaty bodies on "HUMAN RIGHTS APPROACHES to WOMEN'S HEALTH, WITH A FOCUS ON REPRODUCTIVE AND SEXUAL HEALTH AND RIGHTS" in Glen Cove in December 1996. In your presentation, Rhonda, on Sexual and Reproductive Rights as Human Rights, you gave a great contribution to eliminate, with arguments, some "tabus" consolidated by patriarchal culture.

Thank you also for having supported me with your ideas and your juridical background when I had for four years to acomplish the important and greatful task of chairing for the best of the interest of women round the world the CEDAW Committee. Thanks to all of the organisers for this celebration in memory of a great WOMAN Rhonda Copelon was. Thanks again to Rhonda for her generous battles in favour of our human rights!

Ivanka Corti
Former Chairperson of CEDAW

Thursday, September 16, 2010

From Mina Watanabe, Japan

Women's Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM)

Dear friends,

Thank you very much for the invitation to Rhonda's memorial event. We are not able to participate in it unfortunately, but we'd like to share the photos of Rhonda in the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal for Japan's Military Sexual Slavery held in Tokyo, in December 2000.

Rhonda had devoted tremendous energy and effort to the Tribunal as a legal advisor, and she also joined the actions in following up the Hague Judgement delivered in 2001, in order to make the perpetrators and the Japanese government accountable for this crime. We are strengthening the effort to bring justice to the survivors of the "comfort women" system. The survivors passed away almost every month, but we shall win this struggle by realizing redress for the survivors, and leave a precedent in history that the government has to be accountable for the sexual violence committed in the conflicts, even after 50 years have passed.

We will remember Rhonda, especially her warm respect to the survivors. We also hope to be a part of the global struggle for justice.

Best wishes,

Mina Watanabe
Secretary General
Women's Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM)
Tokyo, Japan

Monday, September 13, 2010

From Elizabeth Heineman, USA

Professor of History and of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies, University of Iowa

When the late Ken Cmiel and I planned a conference on the history of sexual violence in conflict zones, we – on a lark – invited Rhonda to deliver the keynote address. We were sure she’d be far too busy and would beg off, and we could quickly turn to more realistic prospects. Instead Rhonda immediately agreed. This was a wonderfully generous act towards two academics she’d never met and, probably, had never heard of, but it was also a testament to Rhonda’s breadth of vision: she never doubted that historians and human rights activists had plenty to say to each other. Rhonda’s talk was brilliant and passionate, and her engagement in discussions of historical topics far from her area of expertise truly inspirational.

Despite her illness and her continuing work as an educator, scholar, and litigator, Rhonda never flagged in her commitment to this project, taking time between medical treatments to revise her talk into the capstone essay in the collection that emerged from the conference. I am tempted to say that this essay may have been one of the last things Rhonda wrote. Yet I would not be surprised to learn that Rhonda left a great many works in her last months and years, not wanting to let any promise remain unfulfilled. Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights, which will appear in 2011 with Penn Press, will be dedicated to her memory and to that of Ken Cmiel.

We are lucky to have had her among us, and the world is a better place for her having been here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

From Linda K. Kerber, USA

Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of History, Lecturer in Law; University of Iowa.

I think I must have been introduced to Rhonda by Liz Schneider, whom I had interviewed when I was writing No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship, back in the early 1990s. Liz and Rhonda had worked together on an amicus brief filed by the CCR in Healy v. Edwards (1975) and argued by Ruth Bader Ginsburg; in it they went straight to the heart of the claim that women’s easy exemptions from jury service were violations of equal protection and due process of law. Rhonda had done creative research on this issue, establishing, for example, that nearly half the Florida women who claimed exemptions from the obligation of jury service for child care actually were holding full time jobs.

Rhonda insisted that the most convenient time and place for us to conduct an oral history was that this utter stranger spend a couple of days at her summer cottage on Long Island. (The house was still under construction). It did not bother her that I knew little law; it did not bother her that I hadn’t heard of her great argument in the Supreme Court in Harris v. MacRae. (I shudder now at how little I knew.) Those days glow in my memory. Rhonda was enthusiastic, she was kindly, and she conducted an intense two day tutorial as we walked the beaches.

I count myself lucky in our friendship, lucky to have experienced, even only occasionally, the warmth and energy with which Rhonda set an example of a life of generosity, ethical commitment and friendship. Her memory is indeed a blessing.

From Forum Against Oppression of Women, Bombay, India

An autonomous feminist collective

We from the Forum Against Oppression of Women met Rhonda and worked with her in the horrible year of 2002 following the genocidal carnage that killed more than 2000 women, men and children from the Muslim communities in the state of Gujarat, India; destroyed their property, livelihood and places of worship; and displaced nearly 100,000 people.

Even for the subcontinent, which has seen many such incidences of communal violence, 2002 was unprecedented. To add to it, the political party responsible for the carnage was in the seat of power in Delhi. In the face of the seeming collapse of the national system of justice, some of us, groups from different parts of the country decided to put together a panel of feminists -- jurists, activists, lawyers, writers and academics from all over the world as the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat. The idea was to use the experience and expertise in dealing with such and similar conflicts across the world to get a feminist understanding and intervention for justice in Gujarat.

Rhonda was one of the 9 members in the panel. The panel first met in Mumbai with the organising women’s groups. They then visited areas in and around Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Panchmahals in Gujarat between 14th and 17th December in three separate teams. During their visit in Gujarat the panelists met with 181 women and 136 men. People from 7 districts in Gujarat deposed before the panel. They spoke about the violence that had occurred in more than 84 different societies, towns and urban areas and 66 villages within these districts. Around 320 people spoke to the panelists during the IIJ.

In those strenuous and tough times the memories of hope for many of us were the strong connections we made with feminists across borders and boundaries. We learned from each other and felt affirmation in our beliefs through the courageous words and actions of tireless feminists like Rhonda. Her vast experience in dealing with human rights violation across the world brought in specific contribution in terms of applicability of International jurisprudence in national context.

The report of the International Initiative for Justice, was published as “Threatened Existence: A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat” in December 2002. Through the writing of this report Rhonda and her other team members helped in bringing out the limitations of justice in sexual offenses, due to inadequate legislation, as well as pointing out the obstacles and limitations of national and international legal remedies, while sharpening legal definition of Genocide”

The experience took its toll on each of us. In Rhonda’s words:

“It was chilling to confront the pain and terror of the survivors in Ahmedabad… Among the things I will never forget were the eyes of the many women and several children who came to tell their stories, beautiful eyes, which like their lives were filled with terror instead of the promise of the future; eyes that are particularly familiar to me from the photographs of the ghettoised Jews of the Nazi holocaust and those of the Palestinians today resisting the crush of Israeli occupation… I will never forget the hope dashing moment in the widow’s community when we learned of the huge and unanticipated BJP (Right wing Ruling party) victory. Taking my hand the woman next to me said, “Now they will never let us survive…"

"Learning of the utter lack of domestic recourse, even from the Supreme Court, forced me to sadly relinquish my earlier admiration of the progressive role in protecting human rights and reflect on the dangers of the growing right-wing control of the courts in the US, my country. The parallels between the growing fascism in India and the US are sharp and the Gujarat experience brought home the damage the Bush administration inflicts throughout the world in the post 9/11 demonisation of the Muslims as terrorists…”

Despite the fact that the entire initiative was hectic, the travels tedious and the sessions tiring, Rhonda brought her specific insights and experience into this extremely traumatic journey for several of us, with utter sensitivity and strength. We were privileged to have her participate in this historic initiative for us as feminists in India and remember her warmly. Her loss is being felt deeply.

Love and solidarity

Thursday, September 9, 2010

From Albie Sachs, South Africa

Retired judge, Constitutional Court of South Africa (appointed by Nelson Mandela in 1994)


From Sarah Buel, USA

Clinical Prof. of Law, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law; Director, Diane Halle Center for Family Justice, Arizona State University

Rhonda Copelon is one of my heroes and mentors; yes, even now. Although we didn’t get to work in the same office, our paths crossed often enough to make a real difference in my world. Rhonda was always supportive of me and my work, even when my impatience with slow progress threatened to sabotage my career. She helped me understand the big picture of intimate partner violence as human rights violations, and taught us the nuances of torture in the DV context before much of the world was ready to hear. Just seeing Rhonda’s name in an e-mail list or knowing she was part of a joint project always warmed my heart for I knew there would be meaningful, respectful dialogue and work accomplished. She took the time to call or send follow-up thank-you messages, including personal admonishments if it was clear I’d worked all week-end. When I nervously considered entering the academy, the warm, funny, over-the-top supportive pep talk Rhonda gave me was so persuasive that it’s stayed with me these many years. I loved Rhonda’s tenacious, unwavering commitment to making a difference for survivors across the globe. As I write this, the tears streaming down my face are a testimony to how much I will miss her and my profound respect for her and her life’s work.

From Tezi Schaffer, USA

I was a classmate of Rhonda’s at Bryn Mawr, and remember a gorgeous, impossibly poised young woman who talked with her hands, with great vitality. We both spent our junior year in Paris. She brought all the intellectual sparkle one stereotypically associates with the Left Bank back to Bryn Mawr.

We lost touch after graduation, but I read with vicarious pride about her legal accomplishments. Her passing was a shock. I recognized the classmate I had known in the videos of her last years that I saw on the web. The thick black hair was gone but otherwise, the sparkle, the passion, the generosity of spirit, and the perpetual sense of discovery were all there. Those are the qualities which touched so many people, and which will be sorely missed.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

From Jody Raphael, USA

If I am correct, I met Rhonda and her roommate the very first evening at dinner in our dorm as freshmen. That would be September 1962. The conversation began and lasted, with some interruptions, for almost 50 years. We really bonded in a class on the French Revolution taught by the charismatic Alain Silvera. It's funny now, but then we all were Anais Nin clones. Rhonda was quite the style leader, with her long black hair up to an elaborate French twist and I slavishly followed. (I think we also wore capes.) Last year, I had to e-mail Rhonda with the news that our mentor had died and she was predictably distressed. The class, she told me, was "thrilling."

Then Rhonda departed for junior year abroad but she wrote me and I secured a room for her senior year around the corner from me. Then began our joint quest to gain entrance to law school, Rhonda to Yale and I to the University of Chicago. I remember the day as if it was yesterday. Rhonda had the habit of waiting around for the mail and noticed that I had a fat envelope from the University of Chicago law school. She tore up the campus looking for me, to no avail, and was there to greet me when I finally showed up for lunch (I was in class), throwing her arms around me and thrusting the letter into my hands. This anecdote shows Rhonda's essential sweetness and caring nature that supported me throughout our years in college.

How amazing that we both ended up working in the same field, and amazing, but not surprising, that our deep link was able to survive over all the years of geographic separation. About two years ago we met in New York for breakfast, that turned (almost) into lunch. Rhonda told me later she thought we could have talked all day.
I am enormously grateful for Rhonda's team and for all they did for her in the last days.

From Jacqueline Pitanguy, Brazil

Rhonda was such an extraordinary woman. Strong, committed, capable, dedicated. Her enthusiasm and the tenderness with which she embraced the most difficult causes of women's human rights always impressed me. Rhonda combined solid judicial knowledge with passion. She was unique.

From Georgina Ashworth, UK

Rhonda had a very special effect on me the first time we met and drafted material together for the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. I hardly met her since, but she stayed in my mind as a person of exceptional good and intelligence - when others, alas, are fading from memory. She is a great loss to humanity and human rights, and even to people who knew met her as rarely as I did.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

From Kamala Visweswaran

Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin

I am so saddened, and at a loss to hear of Rhonda's death. I met Rhonda in late March of 2004 to recruit her for an ATS case on India. At dinner that night we discussed Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain which was about to be heard by the Supreme Court. CCR had filed an amicus in the case, and Rhonda was on her way to Washington with a group of its lawyers to hear the arguments. When I asked innocently what she thought the Supreme Court ruling might do to the precedent set by Filartiga, she said conspiratorially, "You know, I helped bring Filartiga." "Oh really," I asked, sufficiently unimpressed (having already spent too much time with self-inflating lawyers), "in what capacity?" "Well," she whispered, eyes twinkling, "I was co-counsel." Rhonda, delighted with my mortification, agreed to have the CUNY clinic help us on our case.

Over the next two years, Rhonda sent and lost emails for clinic conference calls on a Blackberry she tried to operate while crossing the street, educated us on the finer points of superior responsibility, and tried to convince us that a satellite transmission might be enough for long-arm jurisdiction. She also helped organize NYC screenings of the documentary describing the events of the case, sought out conversations with local activists, and gleefully asked all kinds of uncomfortable questions about a community coalition and its internal politics.

I can't believe she's gone. I miss Rhonda's camaraderie and the spirit she gave to what might have been a lost cause without her. I remember her coaxing us through the "frightening election" of November of 2004, and thought I'd share the words of encouragement she sent for us to start our next year of work:
"wishing everyone peace and progress in 2005, inside and out. and we'll need a good dose of outrage, energy, and hope. rhonda"