Thursday, October 13, 2016

Madaya Mom

Marvel has no shortage of superheroes under its creative branch, but perhaps none are more heroic, or relevant, than Madaya Mom. The new comic book series comes from a collaboration between Marvel and ABC News (both owned by Disney), detailing the real-life accounts of a mother living in the war-torn Syrian city of Madaya. 

The comic is based on a series of blog posts from the mother — who, for safety reasons, has chosen to remain anonymous — published on ABC beginning in January with "Syria Starving: A Family's Fight for Survival." The Madaya Momcomic takes into account some of her real-life exchanges with ABC's journalists; she would text them updates about her and her family's situation.
"Today, our one meal was rice and bean soup ... our bodies are no longer used to eating," the mother starts one exchange with ABC. This, in turn, became the opening line for the comic book. 

The mainstream media has given less coverage to Syrian cities like Madaya unless they've been beset by headline-grabbing tragedy. So the comic offers a new way to provide context to what daily life is like in the besieged region through the mother's perspective. It's the clear intent from ABC, as they have also provided a teacher's guide with the comic. 

Madaya Mom is available to read and download for free here.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The 2nd World Nomad Games...

In early September Kyrgyzstan hosted the 2nd World Nomad Games at the lakeside resort town of Cholpon-ata. The Games kicked off with a lavish opening ceremony on September 3 and closed with an eclectic concert on September 8. The week between was filled with earnest competition, friendly contests, and a full-on Central Asian Burning Man-like festival. Attended by delegations from more than 40 countries–some serious competitors and some perhaps press-ganged backpackers–the Games were a vibrant celebration of nomadic culture. “If Genghis Khan were alive, he’d be here,” the announcer at the opening ceremonies boomed to an appreciative cheer from the crowd.
8 September marked the final day of the World Nomad Games, which saw Kyrgyzstan finishing at the top of the medals table and an impressive closing ceremonyThe Games included over 20 sports and games traditional to nomadic cultures, including falconry, horse racing, wrestling and Buzkashi, a Central Asian sport in which horse-mounted players attempt to place a goat or calf carcass in a goal. The games were accompanied by a cultural programme, which this year featured music and fashion events.
Kyrgyzstan triumphed in the medals table, winning 79 medals including 25 golds. Making up the rest of the top five were Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Azerbaijan. The second World Nomad Games were held from 3 – 8 September 2016  on the shore of Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Remove Your Veils!

The headscarf in the colonial period
As far back as over 100 years ago, people were already arguing that the headscarf was a symbol of male oppression and therefore incompatible with Western civilisation and its system of values. In the French colonies, authorities actually followed through on these ideas, forcing women to take off their veils. Historical insights from Susanne Kaiser
It must have been a strange spectacle: a group of traditionally dressed female Muslims gathered on a stage. Then, before the eyes of the tense spectators and a specially invited group of international journalists, they were given a sign and simultaneously began to take off their veils. Perhaps they took to the podium one by one, pulled off their headscarves and publically declared that they were freeing themselves from patriarchal tradition and embracing emancipation.
Soldiers were ordered to mingle among the audience and encourage unveiled locals to join in, to support the de-veiling spectacle on the stage with applause and expressions of sympathy. Everything was carefully staged, no dramaturgical detail left to chance. But did Muslim women feel liberated from the male yoke in the wake of this public display?
The colonial rulersmasquerade
One of the women later recalled how she had cried when she was forced to put on a red and blue robe for the mass spectacle. As though in a theatre, she was supposed to embody "Marianne", the female representation of the French Republic.
Monique Ameziane was 18 years old when she was selected for the propaganda campaign of the French colonial power in Algeria, a campaign that attained its climax in de-veiling ceremonies held for maximum media effect in all the major towns and cities in the year 1958. Her story is documented in the military archives of the French army in Paris. The young Algerian woman did not voluntarily remove her veil, but only took part in the theatre because she was told that her detained brother might otherwise face execution. Others like her joined in because they did not want to lose their jobs in French households.
French generals intended to make an example of women like these, and show the whole world how modern France was triumphing over the archaic nations of Islamic Africa.
"In The Seraglio" by Frederick Arthur Bridgman (photo: Wikipedia)
"In The Seraglio" by Frederick Arthur Bridgman. For the colonial powers of Europe, the veil was the epitome of cultural and social backwardness: in Egypt, for example, "to put an end to the 'medieval and barbaric customs of Islam', legions of well-meaning educators were let loose on the colonial civil population [...] to express solidarity with repressed and disadvantaged women against the dominance of the Oriental male, and liberate them from it"
Step-by-step guides to de-veiling
In Egypt, the British had already realised by the late nineteenth century that women were the key to dominance of the colonies and instigated a public debate over the hijab. The feminist intellectual Leila Ahmed shows how Lord Cromer exploited the head covering to his own ends, in order to expose "Islam" as a complete social failure. He said that the gender-based segregation effected by the veil branded women as inferior and subservient to men. This was how Cromer attempted to play Egyptian women off against their husbands, fathers and brothers.
In order to put an end to the "medieval and barbaric customs of Islam", legions of well-meaning educators were let loose on the colonial civil population: missionaries, feminists, even doctors were deployed to express solidarity with repressed and disadvantaged women against the dominance of the Oriental male, and liberate them from it. They often distributed handbooks with a step-by-step guide on how to remove the veil.
Cromer – apparently such a champion of women's rights – made a name for himself in England as an opponent of female suffrage. In Egypt, he made sure that no more women qualified as doctors – women, he felt, were better able to realise their natural qualities as nurses. There are rumours that Cromer was not concerned with the freedom of Egyptian women at all, but that he couldn't bear to be seen by women concealed from his own view by the hijab.
The dream of a domesticated society
The colonial period in Egypt ended before the "forced emancipation" could bear real fruit. In Algeria, on the other hand, the dream of a total domestication of society continued for a while longer. But because most Muslim women did not want to give up their hijab of their own accord, they had to be pushed towards their "happiness", and because that wasn't as easy as they thought, the colonial authorities resorted to more creative methods.
Monique Ameziane, who had to play the part of "Marianne" in a de-veiling ceremony, is an example of this colonial inventiveness. The twist in her story is that in actual fact, until her stage appearance, she hadn't actually been wearing a headscarf at all. It was, in fact, wrapped around her head especially for the ceremony.
Rudolf Lennert's "Tunisian Bedouin" (source: Lehnert & Landrock, Cairo)
Rudolf Lennert's "Tunisian Bedouin". The Orient as the West liked to imagine it: in 1890s' France, "pictures and postcards were circulated among the French public, allegedly portraying totally normal Muslim women as ladies of the harem in sumptuous robes and in suggestive poses, veiled yet bare-breasted"
Frantz Fanon, who hailed from Martinique and was, therefore, himself from a French colony, is today regarded as a pioneer of post colonial theory. In his case studies from this era, Fanon presents other victims of the enforced de-veilings who were dressed in exotic traditional robes for the act – or at least in what the French considered to be traditional robes.
The media trick with the ethnic clothing had already been effective in the 1890s. At that time, pictures and postcards were circulated among the French public, allegedly portraying totally normal Muslim women as ladies of the harem in sumptuous robes and in suggestive poses, veiled yet bare-breasted. It later emerged that the pictures had been staged and that prostitutes had been paid a great deal of money for their involvement.
They did, however, fulfil their purpose and fuelled the oriental fantasies of French men, who were barred from all contact with Muslim women – apart from prostitutes. At the same time, those who remained at home could imagine that this was what conquest looked like. The Algerian author Malek Alloula has put together an informative collection of French harem pictures.
Colonial folklore for the anti-colonial resistance
But Fanon shows something else too – and this is the essential message that emerges from many of his writings, one that is considered far too infrequently in contemporary discourse – namely that women put up a fight. When they realised how obsessed the occupiers were with the veil and saw the possibilities that this presented, they wasted no time in exploiting the power of this piece of cloth to further their own interests. Female resistance fighters who had previously worn the veil now disguised themselves as converts by removing their headscarves. Dressed in Western outfits and high heels and with elaborately coiffed hair, they were not taken seriously by border guards patrolling France's newly acquired cities (such as Algiers). This enabled them to smuggle weapons for the anti-colonial resistance in their handbags.
These days, Muslim women in Europe are fighting back, but not in a militant fashion. Instead, they take their cases to the constitutional court or write books. At the same time, feminists such as Alice Schwarzer continue to take the same line as more than 100 years ago, namely that the key to the emancipation of Muslim societies lies in the status of women. They see the headscarf as the flag of Islamism; the symbol that sets women apart, that makes them second-class citizens. They say that the headscarf and full-body veil are a serious impediment to and restriction on movement and communication.
In all of this, they do not seem to be aware of the dilemma they are presenting to Muslim wearers of the headscarf: is the only option open to women to choose between allowing themselves to be dominated by men or by pseudo-feminists? Faced with this choice, many opt for the veil.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

For Many Women And Girls The White, Western Liberal Ideal Of Girlhood Is Neither Possible Nor Desired...

In recent decades, the world has been moved to help girls, especially those in the global South. The Western campaigns and projects are legion: Girl EffectGirl UpGirl RisingG(irls)20 SummitBecause I am a GirlLet Girls LearnGirl Declaration.
The United Kingdom’s former prime minister, Gordon Brown, regularly writes about the potential of girls (see for example here). In 2009 the popular New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote the book Half the Sky about the oppression of young women. It has led to the creation of an eponymous movement devoted to ‘turning oppression into opportunity’ for young women. This April, the World Bank pledged $2.5 billion dollars for investment in girls’ education and empowerment projects in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Are girls really the key to societal progress? Why has the international development field converged on the figure of the girl? What kind of girlhood is desired?
Women and girls have frequently functioned as symbols for expressing hopes and fears, a powerful shorthand for the kind of society that people want, and what they think is important. Today, development campaigns often portray girls in the global South as not only threatened by disease, terrorism, patriarchy and poverty, but also as holding the potential to resolve these problems. This combination of promise and fragility makes girls irresistible targets for reform. Girls stand in not only for their own but also their family’s, nation’s and indeed the world’s progress.
Generally, the international development community sees rather particular ways of being a girl as healthy and modern. In short, empowered, modern girlhoods are marked by individualism and entrepreneurship, consumerism, delayed marriage and motherhood, participation in the wage-labour market, and positive public expressions of sexuality. It’s a model of girlhood most associated with the white, middle-class experience. In contrast, girls living in poverty, in rural areas or in neighbourhoods rife with violence, crime or drugs find themselves classified as ‘at-risk’, ‘backward’ or ‘failed’ girls. So are girls who prioritise the wellbeing of their faith communities and families, and who value solidarity over individualism. But, all is not lost – education, empowerment and/or leadership projects posit that failed girls can be transformed into empowered, modern girls.
UN Photo Pakistani schoolgirl
A young girl does her school work in Karachi, Pakistan. Credit: UN Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
My research in Pakistan, however, highlights women and girls for whom the white, Western liberal ideal of girlhood is neither possible nor desired. These girls viewed waged work not as a ‘choice’ or a ‘right’ but as a form of compulsion, primarily because the work opportunities available to them are often contingent and highly exploitative. They called for strengthening local systems of support, including faith-based governance bodies, councils and civil society organisations. The Western international development community typically deems such institutions as patriarchal, oppressive and unaware of ‘best practices’. However, my participants found these organisations supportive, especially when public/state-sponsored social services were absent. It is these local organisations that step in when development agencies leave or are unable to sustain projects.
No one is suggesting that all local organisations are exemplars of gender justice – the jirga (village council) who ordered the murder this May of 16-year-old Ambreen in Abbottabad for helping her friend escape the village to marry is clearly not! What I am suggesting, however, is that there are many ways of being a girl. Surely, if girlhood is important, and girls are important, then girls and women in the global South also deserve a say in what kind of life they want, and how to live it.
In practice, the attention on the figure of the girl makes social development appear as yet another individualised project. It avoids attention on the structures, systems and networks that actually produce the economic, social and political marginalisation of girls. For example, the search for new markets in Africa and Asia, corruption, colonial legacies, and the War on Terror all deepen poverty and displace hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people. But the international community asks girls to takepersonal responsibility for their welfare. For instance, Nike Foundation’s campaign Girl Effect portrays girls as ‘co-creators of new solutions’ to poverty. How are adolescent girls going to address state corruption and the War on Terror? No one is denying the agency of girls; indeed, I have documented such forms of resistance. However, we cannot expect girls to do this work in the absence of an authorising environment. Putting the onus of solving systemic problems such as poverty, terrorism and disease solely on girls, rather than calling for political solutions, is in reality contrary to the interest of girls.
The convergence on the figure of the girl should be greeted with skepticism. These campaigns tend to render invisible some of the biggest problems afflicting girls in the global South. In the case of Pakistan, for instance, we can begin by acknowledging the political and economic conditions that make the lives of girls and their families precarious. This would include advocating for living wages rather than simply ‘jobs’. It would involve protesting the exploitation of the country’s natural resources and its people by transnational capital. It would call for legal measures to provide safe working environments, and holding the Pakistani state accountable for re-investing in the enervated social service sectors. Ending the rampant corruption among the political elite, as demonstrated by the recent charges of money-laundering against the prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s family, would also help girls because it would help Pakistan. Not coincidentally, it is Sharif’s daughter who is leading USAID’s Let Girls Learn project in the country. As long as attention remains on girls, instead of elite corruption and exploitation, the revenue streams for the Sharif family remain open.
Effective feminism, feminism for the people instead of the elite one per cent, requires structural changes to political and financial institutions to improve the wellbeing of women and girls. We should not allow feminism to be reduced to window dressing that can be used to transform girls into flexible, low-paid and underemployed workers – the ‘human capital’ needed to reproduce current inequalities.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

My Name is Kashmir...

My name is Kashmir 
My name is not India 
My name is not Pakistan too
My name is Kashmir 
and my name is Maqbool Butt
My name is Afzal Guru 
My name is Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani
My name is Burhan Muzaffar Wani
My name is Parveena Ahangar
and many mothers like her
I have many other names whose names
I don't know; they are known as the “disappeared”
My name is Kashmir 
My name is the names of women who were raped at Kunan Poshpora
and my name is the name of unknown graves. 
My name is the name of thousands of youth who were killed
and no one knows where their dead bodies are 
My name is Kashmir
My name is not India
My name is not Pakistan too.
-Ajmal Khan AT

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Modest Fashion is Everywhere! But Where Are Its Roots?

When tracing the roots of modest fashion, it becomes clear that its history has been long lost and forgotten. From the early eighth century, which was dominated by the Islamic Empire, to the Ottoman Turks in the fourteenth century, modest clothing has been designed and worn by women from many different cultures and backgrounds. The definition of what was to be worn was not homogenous either, but had a varying degree.

The ‘modest’ woman however, should not be reduced down to her dress sense. The attire we choose to astonish and captivate the world’s heart with is merely one part of the identity. Modesty is a concept that delves into a long deep dialogue, with contrasting opinions and thoughts but nonetheless, we must not magnify our differences. After all, time has sequentially proved that the definition of modest clothing has adjusted, accordingly with social customs.

Saudi Arabia –  Pre-Islamic Arabia
In pre-Islamic Arabia, women were already wearing long robes and shawls that would drape over the shoulders and ensured a loose effect.

Saudi Arabia – Abbasid Islamic Period
During the Abbasid Islamic Period in the eighth century, Muslim women continued the legacy of colorful clothing. Although, this was not too long after the emergence of the mystic and elegant black abaya appeared. It is the same black abaya that is symbolic and present in the Muslim world today. Yet this unraveling transformation has a story behind it.

Some time in the eighth century, in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a poor merchant began selling cloaks: one in every color. One day, the merchant ran out of his colorful cloaks and was left with only black ones that were not wanted by anyone.

He felt despair, but the merchant recalled that he had noble poet as a friend and decided to make a visit to ask for help. The poet then composed a poem that praised the beauty and blessings of the woman who was seen dressed in a ‘mysterious’ black garment, mentioning that black was the color worn by the rich and the noble.

The story ends there. Moments after the poem was written, women flocked to the cloak seller leaving him rich and the women leaving the shop feeling richer.

Ottoman Empire – Fourteenth Century
Dating back to fourteenth century, where the Ottoman Empire ruled the borders of the Mediterranean Sea, women’s clothing had an interesting, yet magnificent aura that would simultaneously convey elegance and royalty. The enatri, otherwise known as kaftan,was the primary garment of choice. It was worn with a gömlek (under tunic), a hirka (cardigan) , salvar (ankle-length trousers) and a ferace (overmantle).

As Aise Asli Sancar, a renowned writer on Ottoman women, once said that the Ottoman women are much more complex and multifaceted than usually portrayed. And indeed this is true. There is a plethora of knowledge to learn about the fashion that was prevalent during the reign of this empire.    

Headdresses at the time of the Ottoman Empire were prevalent. The Seljuk women wore embroidered cloths on their heads, or were seen wearing a dazzling diadem dressed with a gem in the shape of a crop at the center of the forehead. A couple of centuries later, starting from the early seventeenth century, women’s headdresses began to transform into lighter caps, manifested by the hotoz, as shown below. But of course, like any other form of clothing, these headdresses were ornate and diversely unique.

The modest kaftan style of women’s clothing was once the stamp of female attire in the arabesque world of Morocco. Its potent effect as a fashion statement and as an illustration of boldness and beauty is still alive in modern fashion, as we see young women across the globe wearing these long flowing robes and colorful headscarves. The influence of the kaftan has stretched far to reach even the high end fashion shows in recent times.

So, modest fashion has transformed through history, yet kept its primitive essence of elegance, length, and style. The root of it is what built the modest industry today. The trends and items that we are now exposed to, usually found online, have been influenced and shaped by what women wore far back in eighth century. Alas, it would be nice to see modest fashion having the larger scale influence that it deserves. Maybe one day we’ll live to see fashion week London, Milan, Paris, and New York implementing a separate runway dedicated to modest fashion!