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Cheryl Jefferson on how Chicagoans can help stop ritualistic violence

Cheryl Jefferson

Cheryl Jefferson

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Updated: June 24, 2014 12:54PM

For 1001 blissful nights beginning in 2011, I studied belly dance at Chicago’s Jasmin Jahal School of Dance. With each class, I grew in self-confidence and reveled in my femininity, a far cry from my shy, lonely childhood spent in leg braces. But the genie escaped from the bottle when I discovered that this expression of female empowerment is the dance of death for many women.

I remember the exact moment I saw the exposé in an Elle magazine in Jasmin’s lobby. My jaw dropped as I read about how this art, which was once so revered that the pharaohs pledged peace treaties on dancers’ bellies, was now potentially fatal, as some societies see belly dance as grounds for honor killing.

Honor killing is the murder of a female for shaming her family. Women have died for wearing jeans, reading, delivering a girl and more. There are approximately 50,000 victims annually, including 400 in the US and a suspected dozen or more in Chicago. I also found that worldwide, millions of girls are forced into child marriage, undergo female genital cutting, endure acid violence and other criminal traditions.

Criminal traditions are ancient rituals still practiced today that kill or maim millions of females each year — yet on an international level, they’re seldom prosecuted as crimes. But why did I care? After all, in the United States, these actions are illegal. We have the infrastructure to prosecute and we do. But many places don’t have effective systems. I realized that Chicago, as a global city, can help by raising consciousness as the first step toward change. As an author and speaker, I decided to support this effort.

I started by attending the UN Commission on the Status of Women, where I did research. Then I spoke at TEDxIIT 2013, after which I approached Dean Harold Krent of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. In our discussion, I proposed a fine-art exhibit to bring these issues before legal influencers and inspire change.

“The Art of Influence: Breaking Criminal Traditions” opened in October to 300 people plus 2000 students who attend the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and adjacent Stuart School of Business. We have also held a series of exhibit talks, a symposium, been featured on NPR and favorably reviewed on Gaper’s Block. The exhibit, which has been extended through April 12, features various artists — including my husband, Richard Laurent — and is open to the public during normal business hours. It then moves to the Beverly Arts Center. In addition, a series of broadcast projects also are planned.

Ultimately, the arts make these difficult issues accessible, they allow us to support global change by explaining that criminal traditions are not about gender, culture, or religion bashing, but about human rights — including the right of surefooted women to dance.

Visit “The Art of Influence: Breaking Criminal Traditions” at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law (565 W. Adams).

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