It could have been me
Parliament Square protester Brian Haw on Jenni Williams and the W
When Amnesty International interviewed Jenni Williams about the attempts of the authorities in Harare to silence Women of Zimbabwe Arise (Woza), the peaceful protest group she heads, Jenni told them: "They will not be able to criminalise freedoms of expression and assembly, unless they take away our mouths and our ears and our eyes."
How uncanny. We had a portrait of the "three wise monkeys" - "speak, hear, see no truth" - in our Westminster United Nations Heart Gallery, our 45-metre manifestation right in the face of the British parliament. Politicians couldn't bear it and sent 78 police to pinch it. Now, thanks to God, Mark Wallinger and the Turner Prize, its expression is even more awesome.
So we're with you, Jenni and your sisters in Zimbabwe. You've been forced to put your lives on the line. But don't give up, not even when the government sends police to attack you. And then you win, as dear Gandhi said so well.
Since 2003, Woza has been mobilising women in Zimbabwe to demonstrate for political, economic and social rights. Even though Woza is dedicated to peaceful protest, motivated, as Jenni puts it, by "love for our country", its members have been arrested, beaten and threatened. In March, two of them were taken from their homes at gunpoint by the police. They were interrogated, assaulted and left in the bush. In June, Jenni and others were detained following a protest where several were beaten. Jenni was held for three days and forced to sleep on the floor of a concrete cell. A bucket of water was thrown in each day to increase the women's discomfort.
Jenni says the reaction of the authorities to their protests was initially a shock: "We started off thinking that as mothers, as women in Zimbabwe, we would be allowed to go out in the street and say, 'Come on, leaders, it's time for us to love again, it's time for us to end this hatred.'" Sadly, in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, even peaceful protest is not tolerated.
Likewise in Bush's America and Blair/Brown's Britain: here too, we are attacked by police and government agents, yet here too, thankfully, we have our loving lionesses defending the cubs, our kids and our future. Grandmother Ann Clancy and mother Maria Gallestegui on 1 August 2005 to mention but two.
Aussie mum Babs Tucker on Easter Sunday 2006 was dragged away by ten figures in yellow jackets. They called her a "Serious Organised Criminal" (a new law in 2005) for wearing her pretty pink "Peace, Love and Justice for All" banner. It's real, it's happening, and it's really bollocks. We won't accept it, just like Jenni and our sisters around the world.
The fact that Jenni and others in Woza are women has led to further abuse. Zimbabwean human rights defenders are often women, in part because they are often worst hit by the economic crisis as they try to find food and pay for schooling for their families. The police response has been brutal: women with babies are arrested, beatings are common. One pregnant woman was kicked in the stomach by a police officer.
I started our Peace Campaign for the whole world. It began outside parliament on 2 June 2001 (www.parliament-square.org.uk), yet its roots go further back. After the havoc wreaked by the US and UK in Afghanistan, Iraq was the last straw. I'm a Christian, dad, human being, responsible British citizen: we're all responsible to different degrees. Thankfully, so many joined me. We number billions - we are not alone!
Like us, Jenni and Woza refuse to cower despite being intimidated and assaulted at every turn. Bravo! Keep going; we will win. It takes courageous individuals like Jenni Williams and the others to defend liberties by protesting and teaching others that these rights cannot be taken away from them.
When she last visited London, Jenni brought with her a Woza banner. It read: "Beaten, jailed, but still determined to be free."
Brian Haw has been demonstrating outside the Houses of Parliament since 2001. Amnesty is asking people to send a message of solidarity to Jenni and Woza as part of its Greetings Card Campaign
More from New Statesman
- Online writers:
- Steven Baxter
- Rowenna Davis
- David Allen Green
- Mehdi Hasan
- Nelson Jones
- Gavin Kelly
- Helen Lewis
- Laurie Penny
- The V Spot
- Alex Hern
- Martha Gill
- Alan White
- Samira Shackle
- Alex Andreou
- Nicky Woolf in America
- Bim Adewunmi
- Kate Mossman on pop
- Ryan Gilbey on Film
- Martin Robbins
- Rafael Behr
- Eleanor Margolis