Thursday, September 5, 2013

FYI (if you're the mother of teenage boys)

Dear Mrs. Hall,

I have some information that might interest you. Last night, as I sometimes do, I sat at my desk and looked through the evening's news feed. Among friends' postings about Syria, marriage equality and silly cats, I noticed your article making more than one appearance, shared by some folks very near and dear to my heart. So I read it.

I've been a teenage girl, and wow, there are a lot of teenage girl selfies of me on my Facebook. Maybe a few of them were even taken in my pajamas (because I'm a slut like that, apparently. It's cool. My bedroom was still cute).

Maybe boys noticed other things when they saw my pictures. Like, that pajamas for me -- at least during my most selfie-prone era -- usually consisted of pants and a top, which can look curiously like regular clothes, but they're for sleeping in.

I get it -- I was in my room, so I was probably heading to bed, in my pajamas, and probably not wearing a bra, since they're uncomfortable and may even cause health problems. When I look at some of my old selfies, I can't help but notice the extra-arched back, the red carpet pose, the sultry pout (I said some, not all!) because hey, that's how America teaches girls to pose. All. The. Time.

So here's the bit that I think is important for you to realize. If you are friends with me on Facebook, then I guess you are welcome to scroll through my selfies with your husband and children at the table as a family activity, on par with playing Sorry! or watching Shrek. Maybe it's a little strange, but I did put that stuff out there, so I can't complain.

Please know that I genuinely like staying connected with you this way! I hope you also enjoy seeing things through my lens (which may or may not be unique and colorful). If we're friends, I'd like to think that means you think I have some winning qualities. But I don't think any "extremely unfortunate" (in your view) self-portraits cancel that out in any way.

That selfie you don't like -- maybe it doesn't reflect the entirety of my being. I would hope not. It's a single picture. But why did you cringe and wonder, "what I was trying to do? Who I was trying to reach? What I was trying to say?"

Maybe I was trying to remind myself I'm a cute human after a long day. Maybe I was trying to reach out to my friends to show them my new haircut. Maybe I was trying to say "hey Facebook world, check out my cute room!" These are only a few of any number of potential reasons. (Truth be told, though, most of my selfies were inspired by plain-and-simple boredom. I know that's underwhelming. Sorry.)

And now -- big bummer (I can tell you're really broken about this) -- you have to block my posts. Because you are apparently unable to reconcile that this person you otherwise enjoy following is also a female entity with certain attributes that female entities tend to have, and she is not hiding in a corner, and you care about your sons, therefore she cannot exist in their cyberworld. (For the sake of this response, I'm going to go with it and pretend that this line of reasoning makes sense.)

This is not to say you don't have a right as a parent to influence what your boys can and can't see. But here's the deal. All these teenage girls (quite literally, ALL of them, according to your title) you're enlightening? They're not your daughters. You, Mrs. Hall, have three teenage sons, and it is them you should be instructing. Not us.

I know everyone is getting kind of sick of a culture that bombards all of us -- men and women -- day and night with hyper-sexualized images. These are images that get stuck in our minds, condition our behavior, and maybe even trickle all the way down into a bedroom selfie or two.

But if you're going to expect every girl to self-censor rather than teach your sons to be discerning in how they look at them, then you have an issue. The second you put the onus of dealing with this sexualized culture solely on teenage girls, while evidently doing little more than just drawing the blinds when it comes to teenage boys, then you, Mrs. Hall, with your earnest "FYI," are not lifting up young girls. In fact, you're pretty much in lockstep with the same hurtful reasoning that says rape victims wearing short skirts are "asking for it."

Again, I get it. It might just seem easier to block every young lady who doesn't pass your litmus test for modesty online. But modesty is a two-way street, Mrs. Hall, and unless you plan on following your sons around for the rest of their lives and pulling the wool over their eyes every time a woman walks by, you need to stop simply blocking and start talking to them. 

Tell your sons how, yeah, sometimes girls look sexy, and sometimes we even like to do it on purpose. Tell them that if it's on purpose, it could be for any number of reasons, and these reasons do not by default include their attention.

Tell your sons they are young men with self-control who can treat girls like humans regardless of how "modestly" they appear.

Tell your sons not to believe the lie that they are entirely enslaved to their hormones. Like animals. Mrs. Hall, do you really believe your sons are animals?

When Jesus said, "If your right eye causes you to stumble," he did not follow it with "tell that slut to take down her sexy photo or you'll have to unfriend her." He said, "gouge it out and throw it away." He said it is better to literally mutilate yourself than allow yourself to treat another person as less-than because of your own lack of self-control. Because in this world, you cannot always change how people perceive you. The only thing you can reliably change is how you choose to perceive others, and that includes being able to control yourself when it comes to images you find tempting. I hope your sons are learning to do this rather than to simply block every girl you deem too "sexy" for them to process.

I share a lot of things on Facebook. I think it's a great tool to keep in touch with friends, family, classmates, coworkers and maybe even a few random folks I just think post interesting things. I enjoy sharing articles I find insightful, quotes I find inspiring, bits of music or art that I like. The occasional selfie (which may or may not be deemed "sexy") might be one in every 100 posts or so.

Unfortunately, when we live in a world where women are objects first and people later, there is little I can do to prevent people from deciding I am trying to get attention or want to look sexy simply by existing. My God-given breasts, which may someday nurture my future children, might now and then look too visible (for your taste). My God-given lips, which sometimes smile, sometimes frown, and always try to speak truth, might now and then look too pouty (for your taste). My God-given eyes, which change color depending on the light and try always to see with true compassion informed by suffering, might now and then look too sultry (for your taste).

But according to your "zero tolerance policy," Mrs. Hall, a single "unacceptable" selfie (for your taste) would automatically discount anything else I've ever had to share or say. It breaks my heart that these God-given physical attributes would potentially cancel out every other quality I have, should I dare to arch my back too much or pout my lips too much, unless I spend my life trying to assuage the sexist expectations of people like you.

Mrs. Hall, it's not too late! If you think you've made an on-line mistake (we all do -- don't fret -- I've made some doozies), RUN to your accounts and take down the unfortunately-viral blog posts that make it too easy for me only to see you as a slut-shamer disguising her problematic views on girls as genuine concern for boys.

Will you trust me? There are girls out there waiting and hoping to be seen as women of character and not have to hide the fact that they are also sexual beings and should not be made ashamed of that. Some young women are fighting the daily uphill battle to be able to confidently be who they are, and not have to pick a side on some Madonna-whore dichotomy created in the minds of teenage boys' moms -- just like you.

We are real beauties, inside and out.

And we do not need your self-righteous "advice."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Operation Pillar of Cloud and the need for a fresh perspective

Anyone who's been watching the news lately knows that, once again, violence is ramping up in Israel-Palestine. Once again, innocent Palestinians and Israelis are being killed. And once again, ideologues of all stripes are burying their heels in the sand, convinced that their side is completely in the right, stubbornly insistent on "staying the course" no matter what the cost.

Especially here in the West, it's pretty common to hear that "this has been going on for centuries," that "Arabs and Jews just hate each other," that these two sides are just going to keep fighting no matter what. But I have a problem with the narrative that this is merely two "equal" sides battling each other. If that were truly the case, for example, Israel shouldn't act so surprised when Hamas fights back. Israel's stated aim in this recent attack on Gaza, as well as previous ones like Cast Lead and the ongoing siege in general, is to inhibit rocket fire from the Strip. The number of rockets fired in recent days has exploded, so either Israel is failing miserably in its stated goal, or it is trying to accomplish something else entirely.

It is true that Hamas has disgusting anti-Semitic language in their charter. But too often I see people equating all Gazans with that language in ways that are untrue and counter-productive. One of my good friends, for example, is a Palestinian Catholic from the West Bank. He has relatives in Gaza, also Catholics, who voted for Hamas. This was obviously not a vote of fundamentalist Islamist furor. Much like the Republican party here in the U.S. is often more extreme than your everyday conservative Joe, the average Gazan is not out to slaughter all Jews. These relatives of my friend, for example, voted for Hamas because they were building schools and health clinics when the moderate party was doing absolutely nothing to ease hardships for average Palestinians. It was a vote of desperation, not fundamentalism. Israel needs to understand that it cannot pen these people in and restrict their futures forever. Not only is it morally reprehensible, it has only made Israeli citizens less safe. It is not exactly difficult to predict that trapping people in an increasingly dire situation with fading hopes for improvement only breeds more violence. I hope and pray for peace, and that is why my heart breaks to see this dead-end spiral of violence continue.

It is true that there are some who have deep-seated anti-Semitic feelings that inspire them to wish violence against the Jewish people. But there are also those who believe Judaism gives them the right to persecute and kill Palestinians, burn their olive trees, build walls and steal land. This is an ongoing problem that is one of the greatest roadblocks to achieving peace, and all the talk about a two-state solution has done nothing to stop it. The result is that Gaza is basically still ruled by Israel (despite the historic "disengagement"), and the West Bank is no longer viable as a state; the largest settlement blocks now split it into pieces, with settler-only roads essentially turning the West Bank into a labyrinth of checkpoints and areas entirely off-limits to Palestinians. You cannot create a state out of a piece of land that has almost no geographic continuity and that, with the settlements taken out (as Israel consistently refuses to consider shutting down all but the smallest of these settlements -- which is why peace talks are still at a standstill) amounts to less than 20% of historic Palestine.

The inevitable end result of all this is annexation. The two-state solution is pretty much dead. All that really remains to be seen is how the government will treat the current residents of the occupied territory once this finally becomes the reality. It could be continued apartheid, or it could be equal democratic representation. Zionist lingo demonizes the latter as equivalent to the destruction of Israel, as the current demographic reality shows that there simply are not enough Jewish people in Israel to ensure a majority without significant demographic engineering. But it doesn't take a genius to recognize that "demographic engineering" eventually amounts to ethnic cleansing. This is not exactly democratic behavior. And countries that have grappled with past ethno-religious conflicts have been able to find ways to ensure each group has the ability to be represented fairly in government, have their own institutions, develop their own schools and preserve their own culture in the context of bi-nationality. It seems a pipe dream now for Israel-Palestine, but it is possible.

It's a popular talking point that "Palestinians want to wipe Israel off the map." But likewise, there are elements of Israeli society that deeply desire to wipe the rest of Palestine off the map. In fact, many such elements already claim boldly that Palestinians never existed at all. "A land without a people for a people without a land" was not a statement made by people who genuinely had no clue that hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Arabs alongside a sizable minority of Jews, were indeed living there; it was a statement made by people who genuinely just did not believe that most of these individuals counted as people. Palestinians allegedly teach their children blindly to hate Israelis (even though reputable studies of Palestinian textbooks have concluded that such allegations are not true). Yet many Israelis also teach their children that Palestinians' lives are unimportant, that they have no right to exist in Israel as equal citizens. In either case, I'm not sure what makes one more palatable than the other. Right-wing elements in Israeli society glorify militarism in ways I find equally disturbing to those of hardcore Palestinian nationalists like Hamas. I can't support either one.

Meanwhile, the majority of Palestinians are simply trying to live their daily lives in spite of having most all aspects of those lives controlled by a country whose core identity willfully excludes them. And likewise, most Israelis also simply want to be left alone and wonder why the violence continues. The current situation allows the worst elements of both sides to dictate life for the majority. Ultimately, neither side benefits. It is a dead end that desperately calls for a new approach.

No one is saying Jews don't have a right to live in the Holy Land. But I don't see how it's fair for one group to live there at the expense of the other. At the time of Israel's creation, Palestinians owned 92% of the land yet were only offered to keep less than half of it. Hindsight is 20/20, and many Palestinian leaders now admit that they wish this had been accepted. A common argument that Israel was formed through land purchase is a little disingenuous; with the blessing of the U.N., many parcels of land were indeed sold, but only because of legislation formed by the fledgling state of Israel that allowed land purchase if the current owners were deemed "absentee" -- and many of these owners were absent because they had fled the violence in a hurry only to be forcibly prohibited from returning. That's not exactly the same thing as an honest sale. Does that make it OK for anyone to hurl rockets at civilians? Absolutely not. But it does call for acknowledgment that many people still living today have a legitimate grievance against the Israeli government that should not just keep getting swept under the rug.

So if you see Palestinians expressing a desire to abandon the "peace process," do understand that it is not because they don't want peace. It is because every applauded "resolution" and "step forward" has ultimately only offered cover while facts on the ground made their situation worse. They no longer have any faith in the international community, because the international community has repeatedly violated their trust. The PA, for example, merely runs the occupation on behalf of Israel while its top politicians pad their pockets, safe in cozy Ramallah. Hamas claims to offer an alternative, and this is why they have been politically successful -- not because all Palestinians just hate Jews that much. I say this not to speak on their behalf, but simply to tell their concerns as I have heard them expressed to me: Palestinians want to be able to get to school, to move around, to get jobs, to be safe, to have access to places important to them, to travel, to escape from political no-man's land, to have a passport again, to be represented in their country and not marginalized. When these issues are addressed, extremist elements like Hamas will not have the fodder to incite people as they now do. They will not have scores of youth who are facing fewer opportunities and increasingly dire futures willing to do just about anything to resist their situation. Perhaps a belief in compromise is tantamount to "negotiating with terrorists." But I have a hard time seeing how anyone who genuinely wants innocent people on both sides of the green line to have peace can instead keep advocating for strategies that have only exacerbated the situation.

There is plenty of room in the Holy Land for all its citizens. I hope one day we can see this happen. One person, one vote. No permits, no demolitions, no Area C, no Jewish-only roads. Settlements and refugee camps can both just become towns, part of the fabric of the land, instead of hotbeds of controversy. Resources should be distributed fairly, so that no one has to have their water turned off so settlements can have swimming pools. Refugees who still hold keys and deeds to existing properties in Israel should have the ability to return, or at least to receive some kind of restitution. Jews from other Middle Eastern countries who were forced to emigrate to Israel in past decades should likewise be able to return if they desire (a few have already done so in Tunisia, actually). Palestinians whose former homes have since been destroyed should still have the option to move to Israel, buy property, and become productive members of society. They should not be excluded because they are not Jewish. And Israelis or Jews or anyone who wants to live in Nablus or Bethlehem or see the seashore in Gaza should have the option to do so fairly and without excluding or causing hardship on their neighbors. That is a true democracy.

I realize this may sound ridiculously idealistic. But I just can't accept a situation that offers no hope of any sort of equitable solution. Previous ethnic and/or religious conflicts like Ireland, S. Africa, Brussels, etc., were also once thought to be intractable, yet history teaches us that reconciliation is possible. Bombing the shit out of Gaza, on top of the continuing occupation, only makes Israel less safe -- not to mention the high civilian casualties make it simply an unacceptable policy. I view every life lost, whether Palestinian or Israeli, as a tragedy. This is why I think it's time to be honest that Israel-Palestine desperately needs a new approach.

Friday, September 14, 2012

"Innocence" and division

As I sat on Chicago's red line train early Wednesday morning, I did what I do most mornings: check my Twitter feed. It was there that I first read, to my shock and horror, about street violence and rioting in Benghazi and Cairo, the death of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and several other Americans, and about a mysterious and highly offensive "film" denigrating Mohammad and the Islamic faith which allegedly started it all.

As I've watched events continue to unfold, I have to admit, I'm disappointed in many of the reactions I've seen. A situation that so desperately needs a unified and peaceful approach has quickly dissolved into heightened tensions and violence between extremes. Yet in spite of everything, I can't help but notice a little silver lining.

Both the extremism behind the so-called "film," and the extremism behind the reactions of some factions in the Middle East, betray the reality of the situation. Those voices that seek to divide us, radicalize us, turn us against our human brothers and sisters, they are losing. They are losing so badly, in fact, that they will use just about anything as an excuse for causing strife and destruction. They have shown us quite clearly this week that they will do whatever it takes to stay relevant in a world increasingly tired of their hatred and divisiveness. Those of us who believe in a better future than what they are promising us would do well not to play right into their hands.

As a Baha'i, Mohammad (peace be upon him) is my prophet too. I am disgusted by the tasteless and distorted portrayal of his character and life in this deeply Islamophobic (not to mention embarrassingly low-quality) film. But I am also disgusted by those who would use this film as an excuse to distort and dishonor the person that he was by damaging property and taking lives. I'm horrified that many in the Middle East honestly believe that all Americans share the hateful views of the bigots who created "Innocence of Muslims." I'm also horrified that many in the United States honestly believe that "all Muslims" or "the entire Arab world" wish to suppress free speech or attack diplomatic institutions.

Neither of these extremes are helpful to anyone involved. And the truth is, neither of these extremes represent even a piece of the whole picture. It's abundantly clear that we all need to start writing some new narratives. We cannot allow the basest elements of our societies to dictate to us how we treat one another. We must counter their voices of hate with our voices of unity--and back it up not with shoddy camerawork and cheap editing, or senseless and deplorable violence, but with real, tangible human kindness. Not with anonymous diatribes safely behind computer screens, but with genuine relationships.

I am blessed to know many Muslims, both here in the U.S. and abroad. My relationships with them have taught me many valuable lessons about what it means to be patient, to be true to oneself, to "keep calm and carry on," to be kind and respectful even to those who are suspicious or downright hateful toward you. I am especially grateful for those lessons this week, as unfolding events test my faith in fundamental human goodness.

I am disappointed. But I have hope.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Moving forward

Originally posted on the Make Peace, Build Community blog.

At the tender age of 18, moving from suburban Illinois to the north side of Chicago did not initially seem like something that would challenge my attitudes about race. As far as I was concerned, race didn’t matter to me one bit. It was the 21st century, my parents had taught me always to be loving and progressive and adamantly anti-racist—and anyway, this was supposed to be a post-racial society, right?

Yet after beginning my studies at North Park University, which is located smack dab in the middle of the incredible racial diversity that is the Albany Park neighborhood, I found myself feeling somehow unprepared for what I experienced. I didn’t dislike it—in fact, I was captivated by it. But it surprised me just how much I noticed it in the first place. Again, I had always considered myself a non-racist person. Yet it occurred to me that I still had some preconceived notions that needed to be addressed. I hadn’t experienced enough racial diversity in my community to know just how I “fit” into it. If I had stayed in my hometown indefinitely, those attitudes may never have been challenged. But I was blessed to stay in Albany Park long enough to figure it out.

Often, people are content to insist—as 18-year-old me was—that as long as individuals aren’t actively racist, racism is no longer an issue. But while racism of past eras was a conscious and painfully explicit hatred, today it’s a little more subconscious and a little harder to quantify, and that makes it that much more insidious. Discrimination is less blatant, yet it still exists. Many people agree racism is still a problem, yet individual racists are seemingly nowhere to be found. The result is that even as people of color continue to break through glass ceilings, many of our communities remain effectively segregated. My suburban childhood neighborhood is one of many such communities.

The recent premiere of critically-acclaimed HBO show Girls, to use just one recent example, was marred by its stunning lack of racial diversity—despite being set in NYC, one of the most diverse cities in the world. In response to this criticism, the show’s writer Lena Dunham stated that she genuinely had not meant offense, but had merely written her experiences from a very deep-down, gut-level place. It’s tragic that even in our supposedly “post-racial” society, even in a world of ever-increasing connections, many in my generation have had so few meaningful relationships and interactions with people of other races that their “default” expectation, their gut-level perception of reality, is still essentially segregated. It’s not so much that we actively hate each other—although sadly, there is still some of that. But for the most part, we just haven’t done a very good job getting to know each other.

Humanity’s history of racial hatred has left us with quite a lot of baggage to sift through. It’s not the sort of thing you can just sweep under the rug and say “that’s over, we can move on now.” People have tried. But it’s obvious that, for the sake of our communities, we still have a lot more work to do.

When I was younger and living in an area where race was a fairly taboo subject to bring up, I tended to view racism as a sort of “on/off” switch. Either you were, or you weren’t. It wasn’t until later that I understood that not being racist involves so much more than that. It’s a constant process of reaching out to other people, re-affirming your belief in our common humanity, and re-evaluating your own individual prejudices and shortcomings. And whatever kind of community you live in, one of the best things we can do for one another is to each engage ourselves fully in that process.

Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, often compared humanity to the flowers of a single garden, in which individual flowers’ varying hues make the whole garden that much more beautiful. I know that we are on our way to truly recognizing that our differences, however big, small, tangible or imagined, are what beautify this world and make it worth inhabiting.

I hope this realization comes soon—and with grace, I think we can help each other make it even sooner.

Monday, April 16, 2012

"Please, don't help us": On humanitarian aid

Imagine a neighbor was going through his garage and decided that you, his needy non-golf-playing neighbor, could use his old golf clubs. Unsolicited by you, he leaves them on your doorstep. Maybe he really did it to be nice, and that's great. But you still now have to deal with the stuff he didn't want that you also cannot really use. It seems silly, yet it's essentially the premise behind a lot of aid groups -- and because I believe that people really do deep down want to help, I think it's important that we have the conversation on how to do aid better, difficult as it might be.

When it comes to humanitarian aid, there's an interesting tension between giving freely from one place and encouraging economic prosperity in another. Disaster relief is one thing. An earthquake or a flood strikes, of course people need to get food, water, healthcare, etc. from somewhere, and there are plenty of programs that facilitate this. But programs that move around "SWEDOW" (aid jargon for "stuff we don't want") are expensive, inefficient, and sometimes do no more than make the donors at home feel like they did something. It takes a lot of time and money to move that stuff around. "Yoga Mats for Haiti" is perhaps the most aptly lampooned example of this. The money it took to collect, ship and distribute those mats could have been much better spent buying crops from Haitian farmers in order to get people fed. Instead, the influx of foreign food and donations outsold those farmers who otherwise would have been able to salvage enough crops to make a living. It put them out of business and took that money out of an economy that needs to conserve and re-circulate every penny it can. So as someone who genuinely wants to help, I would have a hard time supporting an initiative like that, because while it might get people fed for a day or a week, it has actually made things worse for them in the weeks, months and years down the road.

Yoga mats? Really?

Thankfully, there are many other ways to give freely as well as mindfully. Perhaps the most critical, but also arguably the least warm and fuzzy for the donor, is giving money. There are many organizations that are already a part of communities that need help, that have the local connections to get things done, and a more complete understanding of what is really needed -- after all, those communities would know what would benefit them better than we would. It would be better for them to receive money which they can spend locally and allocate more wisely than mountains of other people's unwanted stuff.

My biggest concern is that people who seem to mean all the good in the world settle for championing initiatives that are, at the very best, only a superficial fix to complex problems. I don't blame people for wanting to help, I applaud it! But we seem to have this idea that doing "something" is always better than doing "nothing" -- and that is just not true. Sometimes doing "something" just makes things worse, and no one wants that. All the good intentions in the world are only as good as what we do with them, and we will never be perfect at it, but if we genuinely want to help heal the world, we need to be constantly vigilant about what our well meaning projects actually accomplish.

I have learned the hard way that this kind of constructive critical approach makes some people extremely uncomfortable. People really are kind, and really want to help, but tell them that their favorite organization is actually making things worse, and it touches a lot of raw nerves.

I've been there too -- I actually participated in TOMS A Day Without Shoes several years ago, long before I learned to my horror how counterproductive those kinds of aid programs can be. Though more or less unconsciously, I had bought into the false premise that all us rich kids need to do to "fix things" is just buy the right shoes and cool t-shirts, or swoop into any far-flung place and start a program to "save" it. The world's problems seemed no more than a puzzle that could be solved by "awareness," hip and intrepid social entrepreneurs, and the steady purchase of free-trade coffee. I was oblivious to the ways that other people's suffering is basically turned into products that I bought without many questions asked. I was unaware of all the incredible things that so many people are quietly and patiently accomplishing in their own countries, in more sustainable and locally beneficial ways. My own goal for myself now is simply to stand behind local people in their own initiatives, help to spread their stories, basically to be a bridge between their work and folks around the world who want to help it succeed. Because the last thing we need is another program -- there are plenty of worthy ones that need support. And it's not about me. I'm just a pair of hands.

Aid groups have done something really fantastic in recent years: they've gotten really good at raising awareness on issues. They do an excellent job of encouraging people who want to help and enforcing the idea that every person can make a difference. Every person can "get involved." And that is true, but I think one of the biggest trade-offs is that the latest generation of humanitarians and activists have a tendency to throw all their weight behind shock campaigns and quick fixes, without due diligence in understanding the global power dynamics and economic realities that create so much need and suffering in the first place; I know I am a long way off from understanding them myself. And when aid organizations stress simple -- or downright simplistic -- means of involvement without pushing for the diligence that comes from nuanced understanding of complex humanitarian issues, quantity of involvement starts to take precedence over its actual quality.

The result is that organizations set up to work on worthy causes can take on a life of their own in a way that is counterproductive. Kony 2012 is a perfect example. An extremely worthy cause is marketed in a way designed to get people to care. That is a good thing. However, the "plan" advocated in the video -- military intervention by the U.S. government -- is definitely not a good thing. And worse, this marketing is done in a way that basically says "support our organization and how we think we should deal with the situation, or you obviously don't care about Ugandan kids." Meanwhile countless Ugandan and other African voices critiquing the video for being outdated and overly simplistic are more or less ignored, condescended to, rendered "voiceless" and "helpless." The campaign and the organization become detached from the very people it claims to support. Millions of actual Ugandans have not even seen this video, yet it's supposed to be about them, for them even, and would affect them most directly. That, to me, is unacceptable.

And even worse, without diligence and understanding, without thinking about the big picture or simply listening to what people actually need and want, well-meaning individuals can become pawns for industry, politicians and the like who exploit people's humanitarian concerns to expand their economic empires and consolidate more power. Aid that's supposed to fill bellies and build schools instead goes to pad the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats the world over. Governments pat themselves on the back for providing a few million in aid to the people of a foreign country with one hand, while the other closes a far bigger arms deal with their oppressive leaders. It's clear that this top-down approach is ineffective at best and downright detrimental at worst.

People's response to that criticism, I've found, is often something along the lines of "I give up then, I guess I can't do anything." This makes me incredibly sad because it is also not true. We (myself entirely included) need to learn how to separate worthy causes from worthy plans and programs. A good aid campaign is designed to render itself obsolete. Programs that essentially put band-aids on important causes, on the other hand, can be merely fronts for the continuation of the real root causes of that situation. That's not cynicism, it's just common sense. Throw enough money and stuff at a population without addressing structural problems, and you essentially make and keep them subservient. I don't think that's quite what most people intend when they set out to "make a difference."

So we shouldn't be asking ourselves "how can we get them stuff?", we should be asking them why they can't afford what they need in the first place, and working with them to address it. That's why I am such a fan of micro-finance, for example, because it allows people who wish to donate to "put their money where their mouth is" in a way that directly stimulates local economies in the places receiving aid, yet still feels a little more personal than just writing a check. I understand that people want to feel good by doing good -- I just don't think that should be our litmus test for what's a good project to get behind. It's not about us. It's about creating a fairer world for everyone to prosper in.

Being more responsible consumers here at home is a key part of correcting the imbalances of privilege and power that perpetuate and exacerbate need and suffering in the first place. Affluent society's expectations for what constitutes a reasonable standard of living are completely unsustainable. This is a huge part of what necessitates the wholesale pillage of other continents' resources that make those other economies so problematic in the first place. (I don't excuse myself from this by any means, because I live here too and am part of the same grid.) Cultivating an understanding that there are plenty of resources in this world to go around, and that we owe it to our human brothers and sisters to make sure everyone has access to them, is one of the most important things we could possibly do. Consuming less in one continent obviously means more for another. Governments cannot, and should not, enforce that -- the onus is on us as individuals to live as ethically and mindfully as possible, and to put our weight behind structural solutions to the issues we care about, instead of quick fixes.

Spiritual solutions to economic problems. I know it's a lot of talk that's much easier said than done. But I'm having trouble figuring out a better way to do it. :)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

For a sister made small

For International Scarves in Solidarity Day, 11 April 2012.

Four corners of fabric and two little pins went over my head today
Much as they do for millions of women around the world,
And as I pinned and tucked, I looked in the mirror
And recognized one simple little truth:
That though my hair was covered, my curves obscured
My heart was open.

So to the sisters in scarves who were ever made to feel small,
To every daughter who was ever made to feel unwelcome,
I know it doesn't count for much, but
Today I will share this symbol and blessing.
Today I wear it with the pride and the respect it deserves.
Today, like you, dear sister,
I will brave the stares and sneers, and gladly accept the occasional smiles,
Because I understand that when you are made to feel "other" than you are,
I am a stranger too.

And to those who ever called my sister a name,
"Towelhead," "sand nigger," "you terrorist," "a threat,"
You need to understand
That in a country based on freedom, diversity and mutual respect,
The real threat is you.
For anyone who ever told her, "Go home, 'we' don't want you here,"
You need to understand
That she is home,
And she is wanted.

So you see, she may be the one who's covered with a scarf,
But from where I'm standing, it seems
It's you who's got a veil over your heart.

You need to understand.

Because in this big crazy world that we call home,
Tolerance is not just a luxury,
And mutual respect is not a privilege that we can take or leave,
It's not just a blanket that makes us feel better about the world.
It's a necessity
It's a fresh water
That we desperately need to survive.

So for a sister that's ever been made small,
My words can only go so far.
But I know that a new world is on its way
Where you will no longer be made small
Over something as small as a scarf and a few pins.
I pray that this world comes soon,
إن شاء الله

Saturday, April 7, 2012

We are all (still) Shaima Alawadi

This week, in the wake of tremendous public outcry and outreach after the recent bludgeoning death of Iraqi immigrant and California resident Shaima Alawadi, it has become clear that the case is not as cut-and-dry as many of us originally thought. That unfortunately has cast a sense of futility over inspiring initiatives such as "One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi," which has been a beautiful show of solidarity across the country in response to this crime. And no matter what the ultimate outcome of the case, that's a shame.

Shaima Alawadi: victim of a hate crime? Or murdered by her own family members?

Many will say that we all jumped to conclusions too quickly. That we too soon assumed that Shaima's murder was a hate crime. Some of us may agree--we should have waited for more facts to emerge--but at the same time, these conclusions were not based on invented or irrational fears. Muslim women in the United States are intimidated and demeaned on a daily basis, particularly those who wear the hijab, as they are arguably the most visible symbols of the Muslim community. I have personally known women who have been accosted in public, taunted and abused in front of their children, even had strangers try to pull their hijabs off their heads. Many people remember the viral video showing the now-infamous infamous Islamophobic rally at a Muslim charity event in Orange County, CA. Many people are aware of these incidents of everyday discrimination, ignorance and hatred.

"But those videos were edited," some might say. "These are isolated incidents." But taking an anti-Muslim rally and putting some dramatic music behind it does not change the fact that there are people, real people, in 2012, targeting and unfairly demonizing an entire religious community based on fears, prejudices and distortions. And we do not have to look far into history to know that the first step towards serious and systematic oppression--even genocide--of a group of people is to spew baseless hate about them from public platforms.

If this was only coming from fringe elements of American society, I would not be quite as alarmed. But today in the U.S., this kind of rhetoric is, sadly, far from being considered fringe. It's going on within Congress (as with the Peter King "hearings"), and it's evident in the NYPD's unconstitutional spying activities on Muslim Student Associations, which were only recently uncovered. Indeed, even the tiniest unfounded suspicion that President Obama is a Muslim is still going strong, years after his election, as if that were a bad thing. So please, don't be surprised that when the case sounded like a hate crime, many of us had little trouble believing it.

I do have to admit that I was a little suspicious of the case upon seeing the video of Shaima's daughter's interview. My first intuition was that it was not entirely genuine. Linguistically the language of the note didn't sit too well with me either--"Go back to your native country, you terrorist" didn't sound like the wording that your typical American xenophobe would use (which is usually a simpler variation to the tune of "Go back home"), but more like someone writing English as a second language (or at least with an extensive background in another language). Third, I thought it was strange that a hate crime of this nature would occur in an area that has a lot of Iraqi immigrants and thus is probably more used to them than, say, a far-flung small town that's never had a Muslim family move in before.

But I didn't want to believe that someone would so demean and marginalize the real victims of real hate crimes by using this as a cover-up. I was also very much aware that I did not know the whole story, nor did I have a right to assume how someone "should" act upon finding her mother nearly bludgeoned to death, so I decided to withhold judgment. Evidence is now suggesting (though not confirming) that my intuition may have been correct, and that is a shame.

But whether this turns out to be a case of domestic violence or a hate crime, it has inspired some much-needed national discussion. I am heartened to see so many of my fellow non-Muslims come out in support of the Muslim community in response to this crime, and I do not believe for a second that the latest details and developments invalidate that support in any way.

It's true that there are those Islamophobes who will latch onto this story as "proof positive of Islam's evilness," or whatever garbage they spew these days. But at the same time, I'd like to hope that it has clarified for many other Americans that even the idea of targeting the Muslim community in America because of their faith is simply unacceptable.

A woman's death is a tragedy no matter who killed her. Shaima Alawadi is my sister, she is part of my big and beautiful human family, and I will cry for her regardless of how she died.

I hope for her sake that the truth comes out soon.