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March 20, 2018
by mara.ahmed
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Middle East civilian deaths have soared under Trump. And the media mostly shrug

Margaret Sullivan: The numbers are shocking — or at least they should be. 2017 was the deadliest year for civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria, with as many as 6,000 people killed in strikes conducted by the U.S.-led coalition, according to the watchdog group Airwars. That is an increase of more than 200 percent over the previous year. It is far more if you add in countries like Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and many others. But the subject, considered a stain on President Barack Obama’s legacy even by many of his supporters, has almost dropped off the map. Obsessed with the seemingly daily updates in the Stormy Daniels story or the impeachment potential of the Russia investigation, the American media is paying even less attention now to a topic it never focused on with much zeal. More here.

March 19, 2018
by mara.ahmed
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Even today, after a century of feminism, we can’t fully be ourselves | Elena Ferrante

“…not only is female power suffocated but also, for the sake of peace and quiet, we suffocate ourselves. Even today, after a century of feminism, we can’t fully be ourselves, don’t belong to ourselves. Our defects, our cruelties, our crimes, our virtues, our pleasure, our very language are obediently inscribed in the hierarchies of the male, are punished or praised according to codes that don’t really belong to us and therefore wear us out. It’s a condition that makes it easy to become odious to others and to ourselves. To demonstrate what we are with an effort at autonomy requires that we maintain a ruthless vigilance over ourselves.” More here.

March 19, 2018
by mara.ahmed
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St. Lawrence Market

This morning we drove to the St. Lawrence Sunday Antique Market in Toronto. Before any shopping/rummaging, we had breakfast at Le Petit Dejeuner. Had to wait in line but excellent poached eggs, potato rosti, apple slaw and brioche, followed by Brussels-style waffles with strawberries and Chantilly cream. At the market, we found wonderful jewelry and knick-knacks. Had coffee and hot chocolate at Second Cup and then back to Mississauga. Sahar picked us up for dinner. We had a medley of chaats at Milan (including my favorite: samosa chaat) and Kashmiri chai. For dessert we went to Sugar Marmalade and had strawberry mille-feuille with matcha ice cream, Taiwanese popcorn chicken (needed something savory too) and mango shaved ice. Will not be eating for several months after today!

March 18, 2018
by mara.ahmed
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Toronto with my BFF

The day started with a visit to Amra’s niece and her brand new daughter, who is absolutely gorgeous mashallah. Had a lovely brunch at Figo Toronto (baked eggs and ricotta pancakes), then off to Kensington Market where we spent most of the day. Kensington is an amazing old Toronto neighborhood full of small Victorian houses built in the 1880s for Irish and Scottish laborers. Immigrants from all over the world have passed thru or continue to live here, from Eastern European Jews, to immigrants from the Caribbean, East Asia, Central America, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Iran, Vietnam, and Chile. Not only is Kensington Market famous for its vibrant diversity, mix of foods, and art scene but it’s also home to Trotskyites and radical politics. We walked around the neighborhood, visited old book stores and a silver jewelry shop, had some strawberry rhubarb pie at Wanda’s Pie in the Sky, and then sat around waiting for live music at Poetry Jazz Cafe. Although the decor is cool, their website was dramatically off (it said the cafe would open at 430pm when it actually opened at 7pm and the music started at 10). One would have thought that they’d be rather chill for being so badly organized, but we found the establishment to be aggressively money-grubbing. Music was ok, but at the end of the day, Miles Davis posters are not enough. Jazz comes with a certain history and culture. There’s nothing free-spirited or ground-breaking about shoving customers from place to place in order to squeeze in more people (a bouncer-type loud character from London was assigned that job), whilst collecting a cover charge and hard selling drinks. Oy vey. Had some vegetarian empanadas for dinner and then back to the hotel.






March 16, 2018
by mara.ahmed
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Screening at the University of Toronto

Wonderful screening at the University of Toronto Mississauga organized by UTM/TV, Pakistan Development Fund (PDF), Pakistani Students Association (PSA), and the ICCIT Council, with my brilliant niece Fizza Akhzar providing the impetus for the event. Great questions about filmmaking during the Q&A and a rich discussion about the partition and what it means for Indians and Pakistanis. I’m always moved by the generosity of students who find the time to experience something new and thought-provoking, in the midst of immensely busy schedules. Thank you to my cousin Akhzar Hassan and his beautiful family for getting me to the screening and attending it. So lucky to be surrounded by so much love ♥

mara ahmed with university of toronto students

March 15, 2018
by mara.ahmed
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Austin Package Bombs Appear to Be Targeting Prominent Black Families

Adam K. Raymond: Mason, 17, was a musician who was set to enroll at the University of Texas Butler School of Music. His grandmother LaVonne Mason is a co-founder of the Austin Area Urban League. House, 39, was a father and founder of his own money-management firm. His stepfather, Freddie Dixon, who is close with Mason’s grandparents, was the longtime pastor at Wesley United Methodist Church, a historic black church that was founded by newly freed slaves.
Dixon told the Washington Post that he doesn’t think the victims’ history is a coincidence. “Somebody’s done their homework on both of us, and they knew what they were doing,” he said. “My diagnosis: Number one, I think it’s a hate crime. Number two, somebody’s got some kind of vendetta here.” More here.

March 15, 2018
by mara.ahmed
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Go-Rilla Means War by Crystal Z Campbell

Today Damien-Adia Marassa and I went to the Visual Studies Workshop to see “an installation and screening of Go-Rilla Means War by artist and writer Crystal Z Campbell. Featuring 35mm footage salvaged from a now demolished black civil rights theater in Brooklyn, New York, Go-Rilla Means War is an experimental short that merges fact and fiction. The film is a relic of gentrification, and highlights the complex intersections of development, cultural preservation, and erasure in the form of an intricately woven parable and celluloid frames weathered by decades of urban neglect.” It’s on until tomorrow. Check it out.


March 14, 2018
by mara.ahmed
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Stephen Hawking was anti-war and anti-capitalism

From teleSUR English: In the 1960s Stephen Hawking opposed the war in Vietnam.

More than 30 years later he spoke out fervently against the war in Iraq. He also joined the BDS movement against Israel, calling the situation “like that in South Africa before 1990. It cannot continue.”

He wasn’t just one of the most brilliant minds of our times, he was also someone with a social conscience and critical of capitalism, saying:

“If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”

Rest in power, Stephen Hawking.

March 14, 2018
by mara.ahmed
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Stephen Hawking joins academic boycott of Israel

I remember reading A Brief History of Time many years ago – pure magic. What a great mind. Stephen Hawking dies at 76.

Remi Kanazi: Rest in Power Stephen Hawking. A brilliant mind and principled man.

In 2013, Hawking pulled out of a conference in Israel to support the Palestinian call for academic boycott and protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. More here.

March 14, 2018
by mara.ahmed
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Saba Mahmood (1962 – March 10, 2018)

On the morning of March 11, 2018, I woke up to the incredibly sad news that Saba Mahmood had passed away. Professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, a scholar of modern Egypt, and the author of stunning books like “Politics of Piety” and more recently “Religious Difference in a Secular Age,” she shifted paradigms by reframing Eurocentric discourse that’s become pat and uninspired.

I didn’t know her personally. I am not an academic. But as a Pakistani American activist who strives to unpack Islamophobia and imperial feminism, I’ve come to rely heavily on her work on secularism, religiosity, feminism, and ethics.

Saba Mahmood’s seminal book, “Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject,” was published in 2005. In her review of the book for Jadaliyya, Samah Selim writes:

The book is thus both an anthropology of the women’s mosque movement in Cairo in the mid-nineties and an elaborate philosophical critique of secular concepts of agency in a post-9/11 arena where “Islam” is increasingly manufactured by liberal western elites as the antithesis of “reason,” “enlightenment,” and human emancipation, and where “feminist politics runs the danger of being reduced to a rhetorical display of the placard of Islam’s abuses.” The ethnography is framed by a major political statement about the role of academic research in the world at large, and the meaning of resistance to regimes of oppression.

Mahmood’s startling answer to the feminist dilemma raised by the mosque movement is to sever the idea of women’s agency from “resistance to relations of domination, and the concomitant naturalization of freedom as a social ideal,” or more broadly speaking, from “the goals of progressive politics.” (In other words, there is no inherent reason why women must resist their oppression, since agency can be fully articulated in an embodied ethical practice that transcends western liberal distinctions of public and private). She does this by proposing the practice of da’wa in women’s circles in Cairo as an example of “lifeworlds” that altogether escape the antinomies of liberal thought, including feminist ones.

Studying the mosque movement turned out to be an eye-opening experience for Mahmood herself. In her essay, “Feminist Theory, Agency, and the Liberatory Subject: Some Reflections on the Islamic Revival in Egypt,” she reflects:

But what I have come to ask of myself, and would like to ask the reader, as well, is: Do my political visions ever run up against the responsibility that I incur for the destruction of life forms so that “unenlightened” women may be taught to live more freely? Do I even fully comprehend the forms of life that I want so passionately to remake? Would an intimate knowledge of lifeworlds that are distinct from mine ever question my own certainty about what I prescribe as a superior way of life for others?

[…] As someone who has come to believe, along with a number of other feminists, that the political project of feminism is not predetermined but needs to be continually negotiated within specific contexts, I have come to confront a number of questions: What do we mean when we as feminists say that gender equality is the central principle of our analysis and politics? How does my being enmeshed within the thick texture of my informants’ lives affect my openness to this question? Are we willing to countenance the sometimes violent task of remaking sensibilities, life worlds, and attachments so that women like those I worked with may be taught to value the principle of freedom? Furthermore, does a commitment to the ideal of equality in our own lives endow us with the capacity to know that this ideal captures what is or should be fulfilling for everyone else? If it does not, as is surely the case, then I think we need to rethink, with far more humility than we are accustomed to, what feminist politics really means. (Here I want to be clear that my comments are not directed at “Western feminists” alone, but also address “Third World” feminists and all those who are located somewhere within this polarized terrain, since these questions implicate all of us given the liberatory impetus of the feminist tradition.)

“Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech” came out in 2009, in the aftermath of the Danish cartoons controversy. In conversation with Talal Asad, Wendy Brown and Judith Butler, Mahmood suggested that “struggles over religious difference cannot simply be settled by the heavy hand of the law.” She was “puzzled by the fact that the kind of injury expressed by ordinary pious Muslims did not find any voice in the polemical debates in either the Islamic or the European press” and wondered if this was because the “religiosity expressed by most Muslims in response to the Danish cartoons was incommensurable with the language of rights, litigation, and boycotts that came to dominate the debate.” After all, “the rights of minorities are actually framed by the norms of the larger community; it’s against those norms that minoritarian claims are judged and contested, and that is where the idea of religious liberty and freedom of expression as an individual right remains inadequate to grasping the situation.”

Saba Mahmood’s “Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report” was published in 2015. Sophie Chamas reviewed the book for the Cairo Review of Global Affairs:

In Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, Mahmood argues that by solidifying religious divisions and emphasizing differences, modern secularism itself has heightened tensions in countries like Egypt. The modern state and the secular political rationality that animates it, she argues, has paradoxically made religion a more, rather than less, significant part of the lives and subjectivities of those who belong to both minority and majority communities.

In Mahmood’s view, while political secularism extricates religion from politics and relegates it to the private sphere, it positions religion as an essential aspect of individual and collective identity, thereby emphasizing rather than de-emphasizing religion, increasing rather than decreasing its importance. As it promises to free the state from religion and religion from the state, secularism, by defining and limiting religion’s appropriate place in society as private, personal belief, restricts and polices the practice of religion. Secularism thus reserves itself the right to adjudicate on what constitutes an integral aspect of a “belief system” and is therefore entitled to protection under the state’s commitment to religious freedom and equality.

[…] Religious Difference in a Secular Age persuasively highlights the ways in which the modern secular state cultivates religious difference, reinscribes religious inequality, and prioritizes majoritarian values and sensibilities over those of its minorities while claiming to be a neutral arbiter between communities. The author acknowledges that secularism is not something that can be done away with, any more than modernity can be. Though Mahmood declines or fails to envision an alternative, she argues that depriving secularism of its “innocence and neutrality” can help craft a different future.

As I mourn the loss of a major thinker, a rigorous scholar and public intellectual, a woman of color from the Global South who influenced the work of countless academics all over the world and provided Muslim activists like myself the language to challenge the “civilizational stand-off between Islam and the West,” I have delved deeply into her work and discovered more gems.

For example, before turning to anthropology, Saba Mahmood was an architect who worked in dense urban neighborhoods, designing housing for the poor and homeless. Also, when still a student at Stanford University, in a piece entitled “Cultural Studies and Ethnic Absolutism: Comments on Stuart Hall’s ‘Culture, Community, Nation’,” Mahmood questioned Hall, the legendary cultural theorist and academic, about “how is it that arguments made with a progressive agenda converge epistemologically and argumentatively with those of the political right, perhaps unintentionally, in their failure to decenter normative assumptions derived from the entelechy of Western European history about the political aspirations of ethnic, nationalist and/or politico-religious social movements?”

She was indomitable. She was only 56. Her work will continue to improve us.

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.

More at Round Table India.

March 13, 2018
by mara.ahmed
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Indian, Pakistani: Why Two Women Felt Compelled To Make This Partition Documentary

Many people have asked me over the years how Surbhi Dewan and I came together to make A Thin Wall, an intensely personal film about the partition of India. Here is our story, recounted beautifully in Surbhi’s words.

No matter how similar we were, or how well we understood each other and how close our friendship was, the world would see us, first and foremost, through the lens of our nationalities – and how our nationalities had always been, and still were, at loggerheads with each other. But that is why it was important for us to be heard – an Indian and a Pakistani living a different reality, choosing to remember a time before the two nations were born, and to imagine a new narrative for the future. Our voice, no matter how feeble in comparison to the jingoistic media frenzy, had the right to be heard. So we trudged along – thinking, talking, listening, shooting, writing and sharing. More here.