The essence of the US is in the people, like the ones I met on a train heading to protest reproductive rights and religious freedom.
San Francisco, California: As I waited for my train on the platform, a morning drizzle descended. The overcast sky, cold winds and the sprinkling from the skies were setting the mood for the day. My gaze shifted to two middle-aged women in rain jackets, running shoes and a transparent bag. They were deeply engrossed in their chat but I could not help but wonder if they were heading to the protest like me. As we seated ourselves on the Capitol Express train, we exchanged glances and smiles. “You look like you are heading to the protest, you are the first person I have met going there, so here is a flashlight you could use during the march. And don’t forget to be safe,” one of the women said. It was a moment of solidarity. We introduced ourselves and began talking about our reasons, deep-seated fears and stories. In many ways, it seemed like a funeral, you lament on the losses and connect with people in an instant speaking of the dead. In this context, it was of buried freedoms and forgotten liberties.
I was carrying a poster about reproductive rights and she told me how strongly she felt about a woman’s body and narrated her personal experience.
“I grew up in a Catholic household and was taught abortion is wrong except in the case of saving a woman’s life. My opinions changed after my third son was born with multiple disabilities. I realised through that experience I had limitations as a mother and human being. I was at a breaking point mentally caring for my new baby (who was hospitalised), a three year old and five year old. We were beyond exhausted, depressed and tapped out financially having a child with special needs. I knew that if I had mistakenly gotten pregnant again I would most likely have aborted the fetus. If I had been forced by our government to have another child, I can say with most certainty there would have been terrible outcomes for our family of five as there is no ‘safety net’ in our society,” said Ashley.
In my eight years of living in the US, never have I even considered reproductive rights and family planning as an issue that effects a majority of Americans. But Ashley and many other women I have met in the context of this election believe this could have been the defining issue. Ashley tells me that within her family and friends, she knows that people voted for this president, Donald Trump, hoping for a loud anti-abortion stance. Another mother I met at my son’s school said she grew up in rural Nebraska in abject poverty with orthodox Catholic values. She was sure that everyone in her hometown had only one issue they were voting for – a government that was pro-life and not pro-choice, as they term abortion. It is very hard to understand, considering that freedom seemed like such a natural thing to me in this country.
And then you wake up to an executive order that blocks US federal funding for international non-profits that provide abortion counselling and referrals, and advocate to decriminalise abortion or related family planning services. It’s true that the US currently does not fund any of these services, but to say that no international agency will have US funding if they offer them, even if the own home country permits it, is unjust. And to make matters clear, a sitting vice president addresses an anti-abortion rally in Washington.
Mala Matacin, an assistant professor in psychology, says, “I have seen what has happened to women historically who had unsafe abortions. It’s not anything I want to see anyone return to or have to resort to. I also know the research on children who are born but unwanted. The cycle of violence of abuse continues. If we were a country that really believed that lives mattered, we would support those lives financially and through our public policies. Yet, we do not. Our public policies are based on what I see as moral choices rather than empirical evidence about what happens when society allows for choice. The “moral” choices for those who are pro-life don’t make sense – if you are pro-life then support those lives once they come into the world!”
For the proponents of the pro-life or anti-abortion movement in the US, it is a largely religious choice that manifests as a moral judgement. Choices that many women like Ashley do not want imposed on them. Ashley is 55-years-old and has never participated in any form of protest. But she says this election shook her up in ways she never imagined. “I fear more and more Americans will become complacent, not understand civics and only believe Trump/Fox News, and as he gains more power our civil liberties will be eroded,” she said.
Another woman seated next to Ashley in the train was deeply engaged in our conversation but hardly spoke. She seemed visibly agitated and disturbed. Judy is a 58 year old from an immigrant family who was born in the US. I ask her what got her on this train.
“My mother escaped a civil war in Greece at the age of nine. She and my father escaped the 1956 uprising in Hungary and lived in a refugee camp for one year in Austria (at 18 years of age) before they immigrated to this country. Never once taking food stamps, never once taking unemployment. Worked hard and embraced the ideals of this great nation to which they are always grateful for accepting them. I want this country to know Trump’s ideology is hurtful, wrong, racist and non-inclusive. This is a global society now and I don’t think this man understands that,” she disclosed her fears. Judy says her mother is sad and in tears thinking of what the future holds for this country and the many people like her who knocked on this country’s doors escaping war and persecution and fearing for their life.
And just like Judy feared, Trump signed an order suspending the United States Refugee Program for four months. The order also states that in the future when the doors will be open to refugees, prioritised entry will be given on the basis of religious persecution, to people from minority religions. In layman’s terms, Christian refugees from Muslim-majority countries will be prioritised over Muslims seeking refugee status in the US. Quite ironic, given that the majority of countries embroiled in war and conflict are places with large Muslim populations.
This order immediately transported me to my hairdresser Farida, who I found through extraordinary recommendations on Yelp. During my haircut last week, she had spoken about the revolution in Iran and how as a 17- year-old her world came crashing down. Her dress, music, films and books all became a crime. She told me that she considers faith to be an extremely private matter that involves only two people – you and God. And that any and all interpretation of religion to divide people is untrue and something no religious text prescribes. Farida told me that her brother applied for her green card several years ago but after a harrowing wait, it was approved only three years ago. She was excited that her children, who were still in Iran, are closer than ever to their journey to the US. But I don’t even have the courage to imagine what she is going through and how long it will be now for her to see her children, with the president’s new order banning citizens from certain countries. The president’s executive order at first also banned citizens of seven Muslim majority countries – Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Iraq and Libya – from entering the US, even with valid visas. A decision that has no rationale, considering records indicate no citizen from the banned countries past or current has ever been accused of killing any Americans or attacking US homeland.
For me the essence of the US is in the people, like the ones I met on a train heading to protest reproductive rights and religious freedom. The US I live in has all these people and that is what makes living here worth it.
Trump’s first week in office felt like a wake up call for me. Having spent all my time in the liberal urban cities of the US, I now see my own disconnect to the country I live in. I am an Indian citizen on a non-immigrant visa, with views supporting abortion and deep-seated belief in the inclusiveness of people from different races, genders and religions. I wonder what about this country makes me want to live here, in spite of an eternal wait to become a permanent resident, consulate interviews each time I extend my visa, innumerable job postings only seeking citizens for employment and being thousand of miles from my home country? Certainly not the fancy malls, clean roads or the piles of vegetables and fruits without a single housefly. It is the freedom to live on my own terms and the dignity of my life and existence. This freedom and dignity feels threatened now. Maybe it is not the new government or the president, maybe it was always like this in some ways and I never saw it. But now that I am awake and in solidarity with everybody who’s dignity and freedom are in jeopardy, I will stand up for you. In the words of a young protestor I met on the streets of Oakland, it is going to be a long four years and we might all be seeing each other more often than we want to – fighting each others’ battles, sharing each others’ despair and finding therapy in resistance.
Tejeswi Pratima Dodda is a digital communications specialist in the San Francisco Bay Area.