Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

recently i was discussing samah salaime‘s visit to rochester with some friends and explaining the disturbing aspects of having a palestinian woman talk about the lack of women’s rights in arab communities inside of israel, without first providing the political, economic and social context within which these crimes are taking place. the term “honor” killings is extremely loaded to start with. it is viscerally associated with muslim (or otherized) communities as if a white man killing his girlfriend or wife in a bout of jealousy (a common occurrence in western countries) doesn’t have anything to do with patriarchal ideas related to a man’s “honor.”

yes, samah alludes to some prejudice in the gentlest, most elusive of ways (by mentioning the lack of cooperation from israeli police) but she doesn’t say the words occupation, nakba or apartheid. she doesn’t talk about how palestinians have been turned, deliberately, into a marginalized, ghettoized minority through long term violence and racist state policies. all of this becomes even more problematic when she makes these context-less presentations that reinforce all the tropes about arab backwardness (can’t forget those pictures of murdered women with an ancient, blood-covered “dagger” in the middle), in privileged parts of israel or the u.s. – countries which are responsible for creating the conditions under which such crimes occur.

i was reminded of that conversation when i read about a new book called “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?”

it’s reviewed here by Subashini Navaratnam:

Abu-Lughod notes the irresponsible damage inflicted by books like Half the Sky, The Caged Virgin, and The Honor Code, because truly virulent messages about Islam, in particular, and the people who inhabit the Global South, in general, are disseminated to a wide readership through sweetened doctrines of liberal humanitarianism and pro-democracry. “Half the Sky, like Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin and Nomad, and even Appiah’s The Honor Code,” Abu-Lughod writes, “is an invitation to Westerners to do something elsewhere. These books do not ask us to examine the role Westerners already play—whether in their everyday practices, their governments’ actions, or their economic strength—in perpetuating global inequities that exacerbate (and sometimes cause) the sufferings of women elsewhere”.

[…] When women, who are usually expected to perform reproductive labour and care work without complaint, refuse this work, it can be a form of resistance to the ways in which patriarchy is deeply entwined with capitalism. But merely resisting the work or refusing to perform it doesn’t change the structure, or help to envision a new one. Contemporary bourgeois feminism’s focus on “independence” and “choice” neglects to ask how freedom comes about, and at whose expense.

As Abu-Lughod points out, when Gateefa’s young daughter-in-law wants to take care of herself and goes off to get her eyebrows done, she leaves her children with another elderly female relative. As Abu-Lughod points out, Gateefa dislikes this attitude because it’s not a communal concept of child-rearing, as modern women want the benefits of the household without the work of the household. This is the case both among rural and urban young women who have grown up on liberal feminism—there is always another woman or a domestic helper, usually less-educated, less mobile, and/or older, doing the work for no or very little pay. Yet, it seems to be patriarchy’s intent that we go on blaming women for this condition without asking why women are being valued for the activity of their uterus while also being encouraged to have it all, which necessary entails not being present for this work in order to present a more efficient self elsewhere—in their career, for example, or to their male partners. More here.

12 years a slave

saw “12 years a slave.” questions that haunt me: how does one even start to make reparations for slavery? how does one come to grips with the magnitude of its depravity? how does one recover from it? how can one ever move beyond it? when we say that harriet tubman, sojourner truth and frederick douglass were “born slaves” and went on to become abolitionists and humanitarians do we truly understand the staggering immensity of what that means? speechless.

Islamophobia and Racism | Rochester Indymedia

a couple of weeks ago, i mentioned my talk at a local church about islamophobia and racism. someone objected to (mostly black and brown) muslims co-opting the term “racism” when islam isn’t really a race but a religion. i promised to post my lecture in order to clarify the connections between islamophobia and racism. it was just published by rochester indymedia. here it is.

the wolf of wall street

thoughts about “the wolf of wall street”: (1) misogyny is as embedded in capitalism as it is in hollywood. the film could have been an hour shorter, easily, but it looked like marty and leo were having too much fun. (2) as repugnant as the so-called wolf might have been, it strikes me that it was precisely because he didn’t have the kind of “class” and “ivy league” network that guys at goldman sachs have, that he was rounded up by the FBI. it’s nice to have a story with a moral, where the flamboyantly bad guy gets his comeuppance but the wolf was a pip-squeak as compared to the big boys. he was able to smuggle $25 million into a swiss bank account? that’s a joke no? the AIG bailout alone was worth $182 billion. but that’s a class of criminals we don’t want to portray in film cuz frankly the script would be a dud: no sleazy-looking small-time crooks, no FBI agents, no retribution, no moral of the story. who’d wanna see that?

Her – Official Trailer

so much to think about after seeing “her”. altho it’s not a flawless film (the script is less than dazzling and the overall tone of the film is a bit too schmaltzy), it touches upon and gently investigates extremely important questions. what does it mean to be human? in a world of texting and email, what do we mean by social connectedness? at a time of fb networks, how do we conceptualize the idea of a friend? in a future where siri will acquire complex, individualistic traits, what will we expect from traditional tropes such as love and intimacy? many parameters of human psychology are changing rapidly and it’s critical for us to understand and incorporate those changes into existing norms and behavior patterns, into the institutions that govern our society. the film is not a cautionary tale but a disinterested peek into a future that seems to be already here.

prime suspect

watched all of “prime suspect” on netflix and loved it. helen mirren is masterful all the way thru, from the beginning of the series in 1991 to its end in 2006. the first three series, written by lynda la plante, are incredible in their complexity and gritty realism. not only do they locate crime in a richly textured racial, socio-economic and political milieu but they investigate and expose sexism and corruption within the police force with a kind of unflinching sang-froid that is unthinkable in american television. such is the unvarnished, convoluted reality we are confronted with in the series, that even the successful conclusion of a case does not satisfy. it’s impossible to wrap things up neatly and unambiguously. mirren’s performance, as DCI jane tennison, is intelligent, precise, full of restrained intensity. the evolution of her character’s career, life and disposition is truly mesmerizing. the hard choices tennison had to make as a woman driven primarily by her work and society’s reaction to an aging woman in a position of authority continue to resonate strongly to this day.

helen mirren in prime suspect
helen mirren in prime suspect

Ken Burns: The Central Park Five

watched “the central park five,” an excellent documentary by ken burns. it’s heartbreaking and infuriating but, unfortunately, the institutional racism it exposes is not that shocking. the NYPD, the criminal justice system, the media, the politicians, and the public were all complicit in destroying the lives of five kids. it’s disgusting that the lawsuit filed by the 5 victims against the city of new york remains unresolved to this day.

an honest conversation

last week i had a guy come in to service our heating system. i had never met him before. as i was leading him to the furnace, he asked me where i was from. i said: “from here.” he said: “yes, but what’s ur nationality?” i said: “american.” he sniggered and went to work. later he started telling me about how he had been in the navy and didn’t believe in “negativity” and had friends from pakistan and israel and all kinds of exotic places. he said: “do u like thai food?” after i told him i did, he said: “oh yeah, coz u must love curries.” i told him not particularly. he asked me about good indian restaurants. i still didn’t commit to any foreign nationality. as he was leaving, he told me i shouldn’t be offended by his questions. he’s not “negative” about any religion or ethnicity. he even watches the BBC. i told him to watch democracy now. also, i said: “since u keep digging, let me tell u something. ur questions r intrusive and u only asked them because i’m not white. what’s ur nationality? i’m sure u’re not native american. what r ur roots? what’s ur food? ur story? why do u feel entitled to ask me personal questions about my background when we don’t even know each other? because i’m not white?” he thought about it and agreed that i was right. he said goodbye and thanked me for teaching him a valuable lesson. he said: “next time i’ll just say hello mara and get to work.” good idea.

Dirty Wars on Nov 12 at 7pm at the Cinema Theater in Rochester!

DON’T MISS THIS!!! RCTV presents Dirty Wars, Tuesday, November 12 at 7pm at the Cinema Theater, on the corner of Goodman St and Clinton Avenue. The film will be followed by a conversation with Director Rick Rowley. This is a groundbreaking film which premiered at Sundance this year, received the award for best cinematography and was featured on Democracy Now! More about the film here.

my review:

i saw “dirty wars” this week at the cinema theater here in rochester. the film is based on jeremy scahill’s investigative work as a journalist. i have been aware of the quality and integrity of his reporting for many years and the film does justice to it. the cinematography is superb and so is the tight, almost breathless editing of the film – no wonder it was a favorite at sundance. i knew many of the events covered by the film: the night raid and killings in gardez (afghanistan) where US soldiers dug out bullets from the bodies of pregnant women in order to create a counternarrative; the strikes in al-majalah (yemen) where 45 innocent people were killed, most of them women and children; the extrajudicial execution of anwar al-awlaki and later his 16 yr old son. however, there were a few things that jumped out at me. (1) JSOC (joint special operations command) which was responsible for gardez, and is known for its super secrecy and ability to fabricate and distort reality, was the exact same elite force that carried out osama bin laden’s murder. something to think about. (2) JSOC was described by an insider in the film as having become the paramilitary arm of the white house. when asked whether things had gotten better or worse under obama vs bush, he said that global operations under obama had become “harder, faster, quicker – with the full support of the white house.” america’s covert wars have expanded from 40 to 75 countries. (3) afghan civilians described american soldiers who had beards and wore local clothing. they said those were the worst US soldiers – more violent and cruel than anyone else. they called them the “american taliban.” we see pictures of them in the film. so funny that when i was in islamabad a week or so ago, many people told me about americans living in the tribal areas in the north who had beards, looked like pashtuns, and stirred up trouble in that part of the country. i didn’t pay much attention until this. (4) i loved how jeremy concluded the film by saying that the war on terror has become a self-fulfilling prophesy. that’s my take exactly. these secretive, illegal and morally repugnant covert wars r preparing the ground for endless backlash and destroying entire countries as they become engulfed in increasing violence. american citizens are not immune to these nefarious operations – the president has carte blanche to kill anyone of us, whenever he likes.

eschatology and hospitality: an interfaith conversation

oct 19, 2013: presented a paper with my friend Rachel McGuire at the new creation conference at roberts wesleyan college today. the topic of our presentation was “eschatology and hospitality: an interfaith conversation.” we talked about hospitality as an equalizer of power – a way to restructure society. rachel spoke about prophets such as jesus and malcolm x who shake up oppressive power imbalances and decolonize our minds. i talked about amartya sen’s book “identity and violence: the illusion of destiny” and discussed complex, multi-faceted identities within each individual as opposed to cardboard stereotypes which pit unchanging, incompatible “cultures” against one another. we quoted jacques derrida, the letter to the hebrews, jesus, muhammad asad, and the andalusian sufi and poet ibn arabi. ours was the only interfaith presentation, presented by two people instead of one. it was academic but forcefully connected to our present reality. the response was brilliant. instead of one tentative question we got an array of questions and comments which ended up becoming a discussion. yay!!!

my co-presenter rachel is on my left and my friend eileen who was there to cheer us on, is on my right.

rachel mcguire, mara ahmed and eileen borduin vanderzwan
rachel mcguire, mara ahmed and eileen borduin vanderzwan

Reflections By An Arab Jew – Ella Shohat

Ella Shohat: It was precisely the policing of cultural borders in Israel that led some of us to escape into the metropolises of syncretic identities. Yet, in an American context, we face again a hegemony that allows us to narrate a single Jewish memory, i.e., a European one. For those of us who don’t hide our Middle Easternness under one Jewish “we,” it becomes tougher and tougher to exist in an American context hostile to the very notion of Easterness. As an Arab Jew, I am often obliged to explain the “mysteries” of this oxymoronic entity. That we have spoken Arabic, not Yiddish; that for millennia our cultural creativity, secular and religious, had been largely articulated in Arabic (Maimonides being one of the few intellectuals to “make it” into the consciousness of the West); and that even the most religious of our communities in the Middle East and North Africa never expressed themselves in Yiddish-accented Hebrew prayers, nor did they practice liturgical-gestural norms and sartorial codes favoring the dark colors of centuries-ago Poland. Middle Eastern women similarly never wore wigs; their hair covers, if worn, consisted of different variations on regional clothing (and in the wake of British and French imperialism, many wore Western-style clothes). If you go to our synagogues, even in New York, Montreal, Paris or London, you’ll be amazed to hear the winding quarter tones of our music which the uninitiated might imagine to be coming from a mosque. More here.

talking about the notion of easternness, i am reading an excellent book called “good muslim, bad muslim” by mahmood mamdani. in the first chapter he discusses the idea of what we call the “west” and how it’s changed over time to become a racial identity rather than a geographical one. whatever exists on the periphery of the west is then called “east” or the orient. he talks v poignantly about this “blank darkness” (africa, pre-columbus america, etc) which cannot be categorized as either east or west. that’s a pretty large part of the world. the otherization of the east, esp islam, goes all the way back to the crusades.

i analyze this misguided need to partition identities into neat little boxes in a paper i’m writing which discusses “fractured identities.” i use al-andalus as an illustration of what that means.

Maria Rosa Menocal: One of the least appreciated features of Islamic culture, that vital part of it that comes directly from the poetry-loving and word-worshipping desert culture of the pre-Islamic Arabs, is the way that from the beginning it embraced the possibility of contradiction–as, I believe, poetry-centric cultures are bound to do. F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously said that the test of a first-rate mind was the ability to hold two contrary ideas at the same time. By that measure, which I think is essential for there to be true religious tolerance and the sort of cultural vitality that can come from that, Andalusian culture, and by extension much medieval European culture, was first-rate indeed. There are dozens and dozens of wonderful examples of this, little-known because we tell the story as if they, like us, were striving to be unified creatures: ergo, Arabs spoke Arabic, religious people were pious and would not have cultivated erotic poetry, and Christians spent all their time crusading against the enemy. more here.

Linsanity Official Trailer

saw “linsanity” and loved it. not only is it a well-produced, moving documentary but the man at the center of the film, jeremy lin, is captivating. unquestionable talent, impeccable work ethic, natural leadership skills, fearlessness and passion should have ensured a successful career in professional basketball, but lin had to struggle and prove himself non-stop. it was exhausting to watch it on film so i don’t know how he survived it in real life. the racism was relentless, whether it was the subtle kind that wouldn’t let him play in practice let alone in games, or the blatant kind where audiences shout racial slurs at him or sports commentators make fun of the “chink” in his armor. he talks about learning to laugh at the racial jokes rather than getting upset because he plays an awful game when he’s angry. for a young man in his early 20s to be able to process racism and continue to perform brilliantly is absolutely mind-blowing. many times some of his mannerism and wacky humor reminded me of my 18 yr old son. so proud of him!

another brainstorm from netanyahu

netanyahu: “i think if the iranian people had freedom, they would wear jeans, listen to western music, and have free elections.” — 1) who wrote netanyahu’s speech? thomas friedman? 2) the point is not so much to prove that yes, iranians do wear jeans and have a proclivity for western music, but to question whether eating at mcdonald’s is the only path to peace and salvation. 3) it’s obvious that consumerism is at the core of the new mission civilisatrice, but it’s kinda honest of netanyahu to include democracy in his list of cool, western must-haves. hey, he forgot to mention sperrys and hobos.