Friday, June 28, 2013

The Uprising of Women in the Arab World

By Michelle Abou-Raad

Throughout the Arab Spring, women have been indispensable actors in fighting for political freedom and economic opportunities across the Middle East. Nonetheless the social, political, and economic standing of women in Arab countries has remained relatively stagnant, and women continue to experience abuses and inequality. For instance, 83% of Egyptian women have experienced some sort of sexual harassment and only about 16% of Palestinian women participate in the labor force. The plight of Middle Eastern women has not been lessened by their dedication to the uprisings in their respective countries, and many women still face the same sexism that has and continues to plague their society. Palestinian women, especially, are all too familiar with the hardships of living as women in the Middle East. Not only are Palestinian women bound by the strict limitations set by the patriarchal culture they have been brought up in, but they are also subjected to the struggles of the ongoing conflict. As a result, the circumstances that Palestinian women have endured induce various psychosomatic and psychological problems and hinder them from achieving their full potential academically, socially, and economically. 

The Uprising of Women in the Arab World, also known as the Women’s Intifada, is a campaign which aims to highlight discrimination against women, create common ground for feminist activism, and reopen the debate for women’s rights. The Uprising strives to smash patriarchy and empower Arab women with the motto, “Together for fearless, free, independent women in the Arab world!” It unites men and women from different regions and religions and operates through social media and the website in both Arabic and English. The Facebook page garners 113,000 “likes” and posts daily updates and news on issues related to women’s rights, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. 

The website hosts a blog with topics relating to the deterrence of women’s rights and it has begun a photo campaign in which women and men send in pictures of themselves with the reasons they have joined the Women’s Intifada. Most importantly, the website compiles personal accounts from women in Middle Eastern countries about the different ways their rights have been infringed upon. The “Tell Your Story” section relates heart-wrenching accounts about sexual harassment, rape, arranged marriages, determents to freedom and receiving an education, and sectarian divisions. For example, Abeer from Jordan talks about how she was molested at age 9 by her neighbor. At the end of her story, she writes, “I am with the uprising of the Middle East because I don’t want to be scared from this day on and because […] I still hear every single day something said against me as a woman.” Stories such as Abeer’s highlight atrocities and difficulties that many women in the Middle East encounter due to the sexism and prejudice that are inherent in their societies.
The Women’s Uprising provides an outlet for Arab women who refuse to maintain their roles as silent victims. It is a platform which gives women a voice and the opportunity to share their experiences, relate to one another, and unite in the fight against inequality. It is a revolution that will continue “until the Arab Spring does with women what spring does with the cherry trees.”

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings: A Cause for Celebration or Reflection?

By Michelle Abou-Raad

April 15th, Patriots’ Day, or as we Bostonians like to call it, Marathon Monday, is a civic holiday during which New Englanders of all ages line the streets of Boston and its neighboring cities to cheer on runners as they hit the pavement for the 26.2 mile race (42.195 kilometers). It is a day of celebration and excitement that everyone, especially my Boston University classmates and I, looks forward to all year. However, this past Marathon Monday did not end with the usual lighthearted jubilation that I have come to love. Instead, we were left with great loss, broken hearts, and a city paralyzed by fear due to the two bombs planted at the finish line by brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

What followed that perilous Monday was a city and its people feeling shocked, afraid, and distraught. Many of the emotions we felt were mollified when Tamerlan was killed and his brother was apprehended after a statewide manhunt four days following the bombings. When the news of Dzhokhar’s arrest reached us, everyone felt a sense of relief as well as great patriotism. College students from around Boston rushed to the Commons, a public park in the city, to celebrate the “defeat of the terrorists.” Caught up in the frenzy of enthusiasm, I joined the throng of students on their way to the Commons. However as I began walking with the students who were chanting “USA! USA! USA!” I came to the realization that this was no cause for celebration. Three main reasons convinced me to turn away from the crowd and return to my room that evening.

First, the notion that someone’s opinion could change so drastically from one week to another alarmed me. At the Commons, students praised and cheered for the police officers that they had been cursing and criticizing less than one week ago for breaking up their parties. I could not help but wonder if this praise and commendation was genuine or just a false sense of nationalism.

Another recurring thought was what could have instigated such deadly and hateful actions? The Tsarnaev’s were two young men who had lived in the United States for most of their lives and seemed to be fully integrated into American society. Planting bombs at the Marathon was obviously not a spontaneous decision. This plan was based on an underlying motive that caused them to take such destructive actions against a country they had inhabited for many years. We may never know the reason for the brothers’ actions, but regardless, it is clear that there was a serious problem and a deep hatred for the United States that drove them to kill three people and injure almost 300 innocent civilians. Instead of celebrating, we should have been addressing potential issues that give rise to this type of radical behavior. 

Finally, I realized that actions of terror and violence are commonplace in many parts of the world. On the day of the Boston Marathon bombings, 33 people were killed in car bombings and explosions across Iraq. Seventeen people were killed in the Central African Republic conflict the weekend before the Marathon, and about 6,000 people were estimated to have been killed in Syria in the month of March alone. I cannot imagine living in a place such as Iraq or the Central African Republic where people must live in constant fear of attacks. For weeks after the bombings, I tensed up and felt pangs of worry whenever I heard sirens outside of my window fearing that some other sort of danger had gripped my city.

I believe it is important to put this tragedy into perspective because the death and destruction that Boston and its people suffered is a nightmare for many with no happy celebration at the end of it. The Boston Marathon bombings received local, national, and international media attention, while the tragedies that I stated above were not even mentioned by American news syndicates. The Marathon bombings were a grave tragedy and they should remind us to embrace a human perspective with a broad lens. We must not only shed light upon the suffering and hardships of victims in our city, state, or country, but also of those around the world. Boston has received immense support and solidarity over the last few months. The global response has been inspiring, and I truly hope that my city and I will be able to reciprocate these thoughtful sentiments when tragedies like this one strike other areas of the world.

 Michelle Abou-Raad is currently completing an internship at Women without Borders/SAVE in Vienna.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Terrorism... Again: Old threats, alternative solutions

By Edit Schlaffer

Terrorism just got a new haunting image, a Muslim man with bloody hands stands in the streets of London holding a meat cleaver that he used to butcher a Royal infantry soldier only moments earlier. This fateful incident connects two young men from very different walks of life. The attacker Michael Adebolajo, apologized to the women nearby for the gruesome sight, declaring that women in their lands "have to see the same" and explaining that "The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying by British soldiers every day."

At this point we should take a step back to reflect on whether we are in danger of stumbling into the stereotyping trap. Some will be quick to judge, that the two perpetrators actually represent the people in the far lands that one of them was referring to.
In the course of my recent work in the most volatile regions affected by terrorism, I had the enlightening experience of listening to the voices of fathers and mothers of suicide bombers who had lost everything that was dear to them; their children and their dignity. Yet instead of calling for revenge, they express an entirely different sentiment: "You may not use our country as an excuse to spread terror, death, fear, and bloodshed." This message undermines and discredits the typical narratives spread by recruiters, who refer particularly to Palestine as a source of grievance and justification for engaging in violent extremism.

The Palestinian mothers whom I met want to get this message out to the Western youth: "This is our fight, not yours." We have to respect this idea, for they are front-runners and are taking high risks within their society. Indeed, Nabila, a mother from Ramallah, told me that when she heard the news of her son's martyrdom, she fell to her knees and praised God. Soon after she reassessed he initial reaction: "What am I doing? I am thanking God, but instead I should be asking for his forgiveness." So she stood up and demanded for the women around her to stop their celebratory cheering. Even while this shocked her husband, she bravely faced the assembled group and challenged the local male culture of bravery. Reflecting on the aftermath she says, "We are still where we are, but just without him. He was my eldest, my strength and my protection." Now she wakes up every night, begging him in her thoughts: "Please come home, just one more time, my darling."

When I learned about the drama that unfolded on that London street, another mother came to mind: Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, a scout leader and former teacher. She engaged one perpetrator in a very personal way, asking him what he wants, managing to calm him down. Maybe this was a rare moment, when someone asked him to spell out his fragmented thoughts. This is a remarkable approach that starkly contrasts the "hard power" methods that are more commonly used. Such new "soft power" applications could act as the basis of an effective alternative in counter terrorism strategy.

The consequences of this assault immediately affected the delicate community cohesion, so that Muslim citizens again feel under attack and threatened. Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, a London-based blogger, voiced her sense of personal unease when leaving her home after the Woolwich attacks: "I felt scared, fearful of how I was perceived and what people would be thinking. I'm worried for my safety, for the security of my family."
Western anti-Muslim sentiment needs to be balanced by Muslims voicing their determination to confront the Islamist threat and expose the abuses of Islam by a small minority of extremists.

These voices are indeed widespread, even within Pakistan, a country closely associated with terrorism. I was very impressed by a group of women from the SWAT Valley -- a hotbed of extremism -- all of whom have a son or husband who was forcibly recruited by the Taliban or arrested by the army for Taliban involvement. Yet what do we actually know about these people and their stories? In some cases the villagers had witnessed symbolic public executions in front of their houses to scare those who wanted to resist joining the militant forces. The village women, recognizing how "Jihad" brought violence and misery to their families, are keen to voice their opposition, even in light of the well-known potential, brutal consequences. Madeeha, one of my interview partners, insists: 'If the recruiters come back and the men in our village cannot stop hem, then we women will join forces against them.'

Aisha Al-Wafi is the mother of Zacarius Moussaoui, who was the only person ever to be tried in a US court for being involved in the 9/11 attacks. In a conversation with me, Al-Wafi passionately exclaimed, "Strangers come and give orders to my son not to respect me? What's that about?... The extremists -- I hate them, because they don't love Islam, because The Prophet says, 'your mother, your mother, your mother'... And the extremists say, 'don't listen to your mother?' That's Islam? No, that's not Islam." She is calling out for tolerance and respect for others: "We (Muslims) need to respect, so that we'll be respected."

Talking about community cohesion makes me contemplate the countless missed bridge-building opportunities that could have materialized on a global level. A workshop with a group of women, family members of victims of the 9/11 attacks, showed me that more than ten years following the attacks there was still a need to come to terms with the aftermath of the attacks. The most remarkable feature of this meeting was the complete absence of hatred or desire for revenge towards Muslims at home or abroad. These women do not fuel any toxic anti-Islam rhetoric. Rather they highlight the commonalities between themselves and families living in regions of the world within which terrorism constitutes a daily and very real threat. These women of the Tuesday's Children group set an admirable example, and sent out a joint declaration that they refuse to hate.

What we see here is fascinating: new female approaches that challenge the mainstream scenario, namely Jihadists' claim that they are acting with the support of Muslim communities. Ultimately, we all have to find a way to live together, and we need therefore to be actively engaged in making the ambitious project of peaceful co-existence work. We have to realize that there are alternatives and powerful new players: women, co-shaping the security arena.

Flash Points: Edit Schlaffer presents SAVE on CBS