September 23, 2009

Let’s Give Them a Voice

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:09 pm by Superintendent

Historical and political trends seem to come and go with each era in history; studies in Russian history and culture were much more prevalent during the Cold War era than nowadays in higher education curriculums, emphasis on Asian countries grew post-Vietnam, etc. Since 9/11 (and I hate that 9/11 seems to be the origin point of most of my discussions or topics, but I feel it is, at least for my generation) Middle Eastern topics and courses have witnessed rapidly increasing interest, especially in academics and the media. It seems that American society is attempting to play catch-up to understand this culture that we actually have been involved with for decades.

Even the explosion of historical fiction on Middle Eastern issues speaks to the almost faddish phenomenon of interest in Islam and its political consequences. (I can probably name at least 10 books off the top of my head that are frequently on the “Buy 3 for 2” table at Borders). However, it seems the intense desire for this information is so that we can assign themes to Islam, so we can categorize it into our education system and our own culture and to a degree control it. Psychologically this could make sense; if we can’t catch Bin Laden, in the least we’ll analyze to death his culture and that will give us some level of understanding. As Americans, we tend to simplify issues and water them down to one or two major concepts. We also tend to rely on symbols to represent our feelings towards an issue. The symbol selected to represent the cruelty and “wrongness” of the Middle East, it’s un-democratized system and everything we oppose as democratic Americans (of course) is the burqa… or more specifically, the oppressed (Afghan) woman in the blue burqa. Whether this is fortunate or even helpful to Muslim women is another issue altogether.

One of the most fabulous courses I have taken at Marist is a history course called “Women in Asia”, taught by Dr. Bayer. As we analyzed issues throughout many Asian countries, the course offered the ability to not only discuss particular instances and issues, but also to have a thematic approach to Asian women. One of the most compelling themes, and one with the most to be questioned and debated, in my opinion is that of agency. Never before have I heard it even surmised that we as Americans reduce women to the status of “victim” and therefore actually wrong them as well as their oppressors by refusing to give them their own identity, voice, and agency. Our studies and focus on Afghanistan compounded this theme by the realization and debate that we have reduced women in Afghanistan to nothing more than faceless blue burqas; they have become our warring symbol, our “reason” for invading to bring democracy and protect them, but in the meantime we have lost the value and reality of their situation and history. They are victims of an oppressive regime, nevermind their individual attempts and small rebellions. American society and media uses these women as a tool, as our justification and legitimacy, yet that is what they are to us: tools, usable for a specific purpose, as long as they do not stray from the storyline AP or the Post has assigned them.

In this sense, we are no better than any man who holds down a woman and denies her individuality. Who are we to create this path for Muslim women and only really cover their story when it falls in line with our perceived image? What about their voice, their choices, their everyday thoughts and decisions? What about reading a banned book? What about speaking up at a small gathering? Or holding classes for girls to learn subjects more or less forbidden? Why do we keep them as victims?

The woman in a blue burqa. Voiceless, faceless. But what about how women are using these tools of oppression to their advantage? Take for example RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. ( ). While not everyone may agree with all of their tenets, they are a group of women who seek to liberate and aid Afghan women. Though they were originally more of a feminist movement in the 70s (similar to our own 2nd Wave), they have been radically active against the Taliban and fundamentalists in the recent decade. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. These women use their burqas to their advantage in order to promote truth, to document reality, and to rebel against fundamentalism.

The film footage is wobbly and blurry but stunning: A soccer stadium in Afghanistan is packed with people, but there is no match today. Instead, a pickup truck drives into the stadium with three women, shrouded in burqas, cowering in the back.

Armed men in turbans force a woman from the truck, and make her kneel at the penalty line on the field. Confused and unable to see, the woman tries to look behind just as a rifle is pointed against the back of her head. With no fanfare whatsoever, she is shot dead. The shaky video camera captures the cheering crowd as people rise to their feet, hoping to get a better view of the corpse on the ground. The blue folds of the burqa begin to stain red with blood.” How was this scene brought to other media sources around the world? By RAWA members hiding cameras under their burqas and documenting what otherwise would have been part of a routine. (This was in 2001) Members of RAWA and other Afghan women smuggle photos, cameras, documents, books, etc under their burqas and transport these otherwise forbidden materials to other women or to outside sources. Groups like RAWA also hold underground schools and lessons for women and girls and face danger and risk their lives daily to engage in activities we take for granted.

In the same article, a 26-year old member of RAWA is interviewed. She uses an alias, for security and safety reasons, but her descriptions and stories are all too real. When asked “What has been RAWA’s most crucial activity in Afghanistan?”she answered along with education for women that “We also bring in video cameras to expose the crimes of the Taliban. It’s risky work. We filmed the execution of the women that you saw in “Beneath the Veil.” Also, we’ve filmed hangings in Kabul and several other cities, taken pictures of Afghans who have had their hands cut off for stealing, or their necks cut. There are photos on our Web site.

We make a hole in the burqa and film through it. That’s why the quality of our films is very bad; it’s very difficult. No one has ever been caught doing it; but execution is the only punishment if you get caught, especially if the Taliban knew we were RAWA.”

These women are not sitting idly by in their burqas waiting for the USA to come save them from victimization. They are taking their lives into their own hands and rebelling with the hand they were dealt. They are using the weapon of oppression against the oppressors. Why is the United States not throwing its full weight behind such groups and organizations and giving them the media coverage they need and funding too? Maybe because in part media coverage would undermine their efforts, but it just seems that America is more willing to write off women in Middle Eastern countries as victims who are not part of the active changes, when in fact, they are playing a profound role.


September 15, 2009

Speaking of Saudi Arabia

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 8:00 pm by Superintendent

September 3, 2009

Reflecting Upon This Day

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:36 pm by Superintendent

A Little Bit of Unity Between Women Wouldn’t Hurt

Islam is incorporated into the legal systems of many societies and cultures in other countries. Though Islam originally seemed to promote gender equality and respect for the sexes, tradition and politics have transformed Islam into a tool, a weapon, that is used against women to subordinate them by both religious and legal means. There are articles, criticisms, and media coverage of women’s rights violations across the Atlantic, there is not nearly as much coverage of women’s rights violations on Muslim women in America. America has a strong history of separation between church and state (at least, ideally it does). Though American institutions are no stranger to patriarchal bias, laws have been enacted to protect women and promote the equality they are entitled to. But what happens when a highly traditional religion, such as Islam, comes into contact with a more progressive social order, such as in America? What then for Muslim women? Though religious practices and beliefs are tolerated due to freedom of religion, where is this line drawn?

For women whose religion is such a strong and vivid part of their lives, it can be difficult to embrace a more liberal society. Though there is nothing wrong with incorporating religion in one’s life, sometimes the influence of certain forces like religion can obstruct the ability to see right from wrong and to protect the self. In the past I have come across a handful of articles discussing the agency of Muslim American women in America and their confrontation of social/cultural practices they will no longer accept. One issue is that of domestic abuse.

The New York Times reported on a group of Muslim American women confronting domestic abuse and opposing in this article: Culturally, domestic abuse seems to be almost acceptable by Islam, though the very tenet of wife-beating does not seem to really relate to Muhammad or his teachings. However, the stories of these women, of Muslim women subjected to the men in their lives, speaks of just brutal pain. Being beaten through pregnancies. Feeling guilty because of a “lack of obedience”. Countries like America offer Muslim women outlets: other women to discuss the wrongs, laws to protect against abuse, social outlets like shelters to escape if other avenues are blocked. The article even discusses how it is not just men that feel domestic abuse is acceptable. The writer cites female relatives giving suggestions on how to improve obedience, suggesting the abuse is the fault of the woman. That premise, buried within the walls of Islam, that women are to blame for wrongdoings, speaks to the long-surviving notion that women are somehow impure, unclean, and wrong. These ideas are ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. And thankfully, some Muslim American women have begun to challenge these ideas and escape from domestic abuse.

Obstacles in the Road

However, the road to safety is never an easy one. It takes enough courage to try to stop the abuse, to go outside of the family and social structure to complete strangers and trust in them. However, America is not necessarily the land of opportunity and equality it claims to be. Muslim men and women alike experience prejudice by other Americans daily. This article, as well as others, discuss the concerns over leaving the “safety” and familiarity of religious notions and stand up for rights that one might not have even known they were entitled to. Yet, Americans too seem to put the blame on Muslim American women for the domestic abuse, at least partially. Looking at women wearing the hajib and criticizing them as if they have enabled this abuse by embracing subordination. What this country needs is understanding. And some education wouldn’t hurt either.

Until recently, there was very little communication between different faiths and cultures, specifically Islam and America. Never before has Islam gotten such wide-spread attention in this country. What we need in order to ensure peace in the future and understanding is to incorporate education on Islam in our schools, in our public discourses, in our churches and synagogues. We need to understand that these women aren’t enabling the abuse by embracing their religion; their men are abusing them by manipulating their religion. In a sense, Muslim women face a similar issue all American women do: the idea that women are to blame for particular crimes, especially ones that are gender-motivated. How many times is rape not discussed as rape, or is discussed in terms of what a woman wore or her past? Similarly, these Muslim women are not discussed as victims, but as enablers of their own situations. Why then is there not a large vocal discourse against domestic abuse within the Muslim American community?

One of the answers given by this specific New York Times article was mirrored in another article I read today. As the 8th anniversary of 9/11 is tomorrow, media sources are covering a wide array of facets of that day. One article I read was about Muslim American’s fears on 9/11, specifically relating to their safety and public appearance on each subsequent anniversary. Muslims interviewed spoke about the seclusion of the Islamic community on this day, how it is a day of being with family and staying primarily indoors if need be. The MSNBC article can be located here:

This all resonates with the idea of public image, of the perception that Muslims are the “other”, are different than the rest of Americans. Muslims were involved in 9/11, and I don’t mean the hijackers. Muslims experienced loss, pain, grief, shock, all of the horrible emotions the country did. Similarly, Muslim women experience victimization due to their gender as well as the rest of us. In both of these instances, the reaction of the Muslim community seems to be to shrink internally and attempt to find strength within itself. Muslim Americans are not willing to publically admit a problem with domestic violence, and so they attempt to solve it internally (which gets them nowhere). Similarly, post-9/11, Muslims isolate themselves and hide the pain they went through. While I understand their motivations in this case, and I would have the same fear, what is needed is for there to be a public discussion of problems both communities go through.

Yes, Muslims are a minority in America, but in this country their experiences are the same as the rest of the country’s. We can no longer let cultural or religious differences divide us from a mutual understanding. Look at the pain that has caused in the past. Women need to unite in this country as well. No more Catholic v.s. Jewish women, Muslim v.s. Evangelical. How about women with women, both experiencing the negative aspects of being a minority in a country where we are in fact the minority? How about women not look down upon those who have found the courage to confront their abuse and simply offer them the help, despite what adorns their head? How about a little be of unity, here?