That’s funny. I already wrote a blog and thought I had posted it, but for some reason it didn’t go through. So, the last post won’t make any sense. Here’s what should have come first.
I’m fasting today to honor Nasrin Sotoudeh, the heroic human rights lawyer imprisoned by the Iranian government for her willingness to take on human rights and political cases, ended a life-threatening hunger strike. The authorities finally capitulated to international demands that the government stop punishing her family, specifically, in this case, her 12 year-old daughter, who had been prohibited from traveling until today.
Today Nasrin will begin to take sustenance again, and she will live. But she still remains unjustly and inhumanely imprisoned. I will deny myself food today, as she has done for the past 49 days, in personal protest against the Iranian government’s cruel treatment of this noble hero. Won’t you join me and fast to demonstrate your solidarity with Nasrin?
I’m watching Of Gods and Men. It’s about a group of French Trappist monks who chose to stay in their community rather than flee to safety during the Algerian civil war. They were kidnapped in 1995 by terrorists, but their death was never explained. Some have argued that Algerian soldiers killed them during a botched rescue attempt. The first part of the movie shows the monks selling their own honey and vegetables in the market, offering medical care and advice to the locals, who are mostly Islamic. When fundamentalists come to their town, the town leaders come to consult with the monks. When the terrorists come closer and begin to kill all foreigners, the monks refuse military protection. The Algerian army, in fact, is just as brutal and violent as the terrorists. This beautiful movie highlights the monks’ incredible forbearance and dedication to peace. It is a portrait of truly peaceful Christian practice, so unlike the practice of our allegedly Christian, elected representatives, who wage war around the world and who never cease to find reasons to kill and main and destroy in the name of freedom. But the film also highlights the peace and love that are central to Islam, as well, showing the daily lives of the people, their friendliness, their vulnerability, and their civility. The terrorists are presented as men at odds with Islam, men who hardly know the Koran and who have a simplistic and militaristic interpretation of scripture. They are not unlike those among us who vote for bombs and landmines and hatred for people who don’t worship the same god.
Since I have returned from Nepal I have reclaimed my sense that we are all united in a great web of being, of aliveness and no longer identify myself as an atheist. Love is our greatest resource, the power most essential to our nature as well as the link between us all. We are not singular and cut off from one another. We only exist with one another, in relation to one another, and the relationship that we have with one another when we are being true to ourselves is loving. We are true to ourselves when we treat each other with love and compassion. Everything else about us—guns, violence, hatred, oppression, war—is against our truest nature.
Since I have embraced this essentially spiritual way of understanding the world, which was always very basic, if buried, in me, my attitude towards other believers, especially Christians, has changed. I’m no longer angry. I still dislike the masculinism underlying the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), the ancient and arbitrary division between Self and Other that recognizes men as subjects and women as objects, but I have given up the burden of burning indignation. My fury and resentment hurt me more than objects of my fury. As Donna Farhi relates, “harboring resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
The Dalai Lama was asked how he could feel loving kindness for the Chinese, who invaded his country, destroyed most of the monasteries, murdered thousands of Tibetans, and were continuing to repress and eradicate his people and culture. He was silent for a long time, and finally answered that he distinguished between the act and the agent. He could repudiate the actions of the Chinese but still feel compassion for the Chinese agents who brutalized his people. They are suffering greatly, after all, because they have strayed so far from their true nature.
My true self is not the crazy tangle of thoughts and emotions that continuously run through my mind, nor my ever-changing body, but rather the silent, neutral witness of my experiences in the world. It is this quiet aliveness, this prana, the shimmering vitality that I share with all other sentient beings, the life-force that courses through the forests, the oceans, the mountains, the rocks, the sun, the fiery core of our planet, the rivers, the plains, all plants, all organisms, even the stars themselves, that is my truest ground of being. This is what Rainer Maria Rilke calls “the infinite ground of our deepest vibration.” As he wrote,
Be in front of all parting as though it were already behind you,
I was glad to see that the NYTimes had the sense to publish this letter from TAINA BIEN-AIMÉ, Executive Director, Equality Now, about a recent article that misrepresented women’s rights in Yemen.
“Offended Yemeni Women Protest President’s Remarks” (news article, April 17), you noted that Yemen’s conservative customs concerning women are not legislated as in neighboring Saudi Arabia. To the contrary, in many ways sex discrimination in Yemen is sanctioned both by law and in practice.
The Personal Status Law calls for wife obedience, allows marital rape, reinforces stereotypes about women’s roles as caretakers within the home and severely restricts women’s freedom of movement. The recent remarks made by President Ali Abdullah Saleh condemning women’s participation in public protests as being un-Islamic reflects the secondary status given to Yemeni women.
The Yemeni government must not only repeal all discriminatory provisions in its law, but also take steps to end discrimination by enacting laws that will protect women and girls, like setting a minimum age for marriage and supporting women’s equal participation in public life.
The face of the Yemeni uprising belongs to a 32-year old mother of three. Tawakul Karman (also spelled Tawakkol: her name in Arabic, توكل, means “trust”) has been cheered by students and others calling for the end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh‘s autocratic regime. The activist and chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains has been leading sit-ins and demonstrations calling for greater civil rights, education and economic opportunities. Ms. Karman, who belongs to the main opposition party, Al-Islah, has also spoken out against the rise of religious fundamentalism and violence in her country.
In the 2003 parliamentary election, Al-Islah won 46 seats. As of 2010, 13 of Al-Islah’s parliament members are women, including Karman. She removed her niqāb (face veil) at a human rights conference in 2004 and since then has called for “other women and female activists to take theirs off.”
Did you know that “Sufism provides answers to some of the most complex issues in the contemporary Muslim world, where youth comprise the majority of the population”? This is great news. Listen to this:
Moroccan youth are increasingly drawn to Sufism because of its tolerance, its fluid interpretation of the Qur’an, its rejection of fanaticism and its embrace of modernity. Young men and women find in the Sufi principles of “beauty” and “humanity” a balanced lifestyle that allows them to enjoy arts, music and love without having to abandon their spiritual and religious obligations.
Sufism or tasawwuf, as it is called in Arabic, is generally understood by scholars and Sufis to be the inner, mystical, or psycho-spiritual dimension of Islam. Today, however, many Muslims and non-Muslims believe that Sufism is outside the sphere of Islam. Nevertheless, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the foremost scholars of Islam, in his article The Interior Life in Islam contends that Sufism is simply the name for the inner or esoteric dimension of Islam.
After nearly 30 years of the study of Sufism, I would say that in spite of its many variations and voluminous expressions, the essence of Sufi practice is quite simple. It is that the Sufi surrenders to God, in love, over and over; which involves embracing with love at each moment the content of one’s consciousness (one’s perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, as well as one’s sense of self) as gifts of God or, more precisely, as manifestations of God.
But Idries Shah still best defines Sufism:
In Sufism, the shortcomings of the dictionary are exposed perhaps more strikingly than in other fields…A Persian dictionary…says: ‘What is a Sufi? A Sufi is a Sufi”–and succeeds in rhyming the entry: Sufi chist?–Sufi Sufi’st. This is actually a Sufi quotation. The compiler does not believe in trying to define the undefinable. An Urdu one says: ‘Sufi refers to any one of numerous special, but successively necessary, stages of being, open to humanity under certain circumstances, understood correctly only by those who are in this state of ‘work’ (amal); considered mysterious, inaccessible or invisible to those who have not the means of perceiving it.
Right, so today is International Women’s Day and all over the country and the world women stood on bridges to celebrate. Nice symbolism. Bridges lead from one place to another. They unite places otherwise separated and bring people together.
Think about it, though. For all our progress–some might even say because of our progress–women seem to be standing on some pretty shaky bridges these days. Yes it’s lovely that the Secretary of State is a woman and I do like Ms. Clinton but wish it were possible that we could call her Ms. Rodham. Remember how she had to change her name to make conservative politicos in both parties comfortable enough to vote for her HUSBAND? She had to do that not so she could get elected, but rather so HE could, and so that she might snug into the quaint and mostly decorative “First Lady” role. This the voters demanded, apparently.
And look, now, after we thought we were done, at least for a while, with that demented, logic- and syntax-challenged, gun-toting white wacko who calls herself “feminist” while training her rifle’s cross-hairs on democratically elected politicians who support all women’s right to sovereignty over their bodies, we’re suddenly beset with a radical extremist Christian who is going around the country spreading hatred for Muslims. Have you tuned into Brigitte Gabriel yet? Apparently she grew up in Lebanon and lived in Israel for a spell yet typically greets her audiences by screaming “Yee-Haw!” into the microphone. Then she launches into a well-rehearsed rant against Muslims who, she says in an all-capitals sort of way, are TAKING OVER THE COUNTRY and INFILTRATING AT EVERY LEVEL OF PUBLIC AND PRIVATE LIFE:
“America has been infiltrated on all levels by radicals who wish to harm America,” she said. “They have infiltrated us at the C.I.A., at the F.B.I., at the Pentagon, at the State Department. They are being radicalized in radical mosques in our cities and communities within the United States.”
“I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five (people) that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department”
You guessed Joe McCarthy, right? Right. This woman draws enormous crowds of fawning American Islamophobics, who write letters to her such as the following, which her organization, Act! for America sponsors on its website:
Now you are doing the right things to help this once great country try to regain it’s center. You are an awesome individual with such a sincere heart. And that brain of yours. You always know just what to say.
First of all, the proper punctuation of the possessive “it” is “its” not the “it’s,” which is a contraction of the verb “to be.” Not clear whether this grammar problem stems from Act! for America or from the enthusiast who is awed by Brigitte’s brain. In either case the quotation doesn’t convey a strong sense of intelligence and education. Here’s more testimony from a loyal follower, who wrote this on ‘The Tea Party Platform“:
It was a distinct privilege to be among those at the Faith Bible Church in Arvada, CO on August 10, 2010 to listen to Brigette Gabriel. It was an honor to later have the opportunity to meet her. I walked away from that meeting with far more than her book,They Must Be Stopped, her 55 minute DVD and a lapel pin. I walked away with a sense of urgency that should be felt by every American who wishes to preserve his/her way of life.
This follower explicitly stated that Gabriel preaches the following points:
The single goal of muslims is to replace our republic with a government based upon islam. Their goal is islamic control.
There are a large number of active terror cells in this country already in place. Some cities have a large number of active members. Among those cities is my home, Denver.
By the way, Brigitte changed her name, too. It seems “Nour Saman,” her real name, was way too Ay-rab for her radical Christian and right-wing Jewish audiences. (Why the Aryan ‘Brigitte’?) And let’s take a look at her erudition.
Willing to bet that these audiences would characterize the following statement, which Brigitte allegedly made, as “just what to say”?
The difference, my friends, between Israel and the Arab world is the difference between civilization and barbarism. It’s the difference between good and evil [applause]…. this is what we’re witnessing in the Arabic world, They have no SOUL !, they are dead set on killing and destruction. And in the name of something they call “Allah” which is very different from the God we believe….[applause] because our God is the God of love.
Oy, vey! This hits on so many levels of “what not to say” that even my Republican grandfather, who rolled over in his grave the day I applied to work for Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA), must be kicking the sides of his coffin. You don’t go around saying that some human beings who name their higher power with a different name than you do have “no soul” unless you’re trying to dehumanize them. And we all know that dehumanized “things” are lot easier to kill than human beings. There is “our God” who is the god of love and “their God” who is the god of hatred and therefore “our God” won’t mind if we exterminate them. All in the name of love, of course.
there were women lying in houses with their skirts torn torn up to their waists and their legs wide apart, children with their throats cut, rows of young men shot in the back after being lined up at an execution wall. There were babies – blackened babies babies because they had been slaughtered more than 24-hours earlier and their small bodies were already in a state of decomposition – tossed into rubbish heaps alongside discarded US army ration tins, Israeli army equipment and empty bottles of whiskey.
This woman, who has been accused of defending this holocaust of innocent Muslim women and children, thrills American women and American men, with statements such as:
Has this woman heard of Indonesia? Does she know any American Muslims? Does she really want me to believe that the lovely Indian woman I recently met, a physician in her 70s, a volunteer, like me, at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, and a Muslim, is a radical?
Muslims who believe that the Koran is the word of God and who believe that Mohammed is the perfect man do not share my beliefs but that does not make them radicals Muslims. A Christian or Jew (or Buddhist or Jain, for that matter) who is so intolerant as to equate all Muslims with murderous terrorists does, however, fall into the category of “extremist” in my book.
Particularly when that woman encourages Americans–who are raving mad for her–to consider all Muslims “soulless” beings. The name of her book, “Because they Hate,” more accurately describes her followers than the people she’s going around denouncing.
For International Women’s Day some Pittsburghers stood on a bridge to draw attention to the plight of Afghan Women, who happen to be Muslim and therefore members of the same “soulless” zombies that Brigitte Gabriel is urging Americans to hate and fear.
We’re standing on some shaky bridges–and women like Brigitte Gabriel and her followers are working hard to undermine them completely. How should we understand such extremism? Doris Lessing, who almost always builds bridges, has this to say in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside:
Anyone who reads history at all knows that the passionate and powerful convictions of one century usually seem absurd, extraordinary, to the next. There is no epoch in history that seems to us as it must have to the people who lived through it. What we live through, in any age, is the effect on us of mass emotions and of social conditions from which it almost impossible to detach ourselves. Often the mass emotions are those which seem the noblest, best and most beautiful. And yet, inside a year, five years, a decade, five decades, people will be asking, “How could they have believed that?” because events will have taken place that will have banished the said mass emotions to the dustbin of history. To coin a phrase (8).
The very same people running wildly after Brigitte Gabriel today will probably disown her in the future. But for now, they have caught the fever, the mass emotions of suspicion and fear and xenophobia that afflict so many Islamophobic American men and women today. It would be nice if these extremists would stop building bombs under the bridges, these way-stations between groups of human beings who are different from one another, people who might actually like to get to know each other and who would surely get along better if they had ways to reach one another.
At last the New York Times wakes up to the revolutionary action going on in Yemen. But there is nary a word about توكل كرمان, Tawakul Karman, the feminist activist and head of Women Journalists without Chains, who on January 23 was arrested (without a warrant) and jailed by the authorities for organizing a protest against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh without their permission. Up until her arrest, she had been active in student demonstrations outside Sana’a University. Numerous people, including many women, clamored for her release, and she was freed on January 24. She immediately returned to streets and bravely shouted:
We will continue this struggle and the Jasmine Revolution until the removal of this corrupt system that looted the wealth of the Yemenis,
to approximately 1000 demonstrators. Since then, Karman has not surfaced in the news. Who has silenced her? Amnesty International believes that
Tawakkol Karman is being targeted for her activism and role in organizing and taking part in recent protests and sit-ins in Yemen.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), reports that a very reliable source informed them that someone from the government phoned Ms. Karman and told her that she would be killed if she left her house.
The way the Times covers them, the only people demonstrating in Yemen are men. It also reports that
Unlike in Egypt, the peaceful protests in Yemen were not led by young people, but by the traditional opposition, largely Islamists.
I dunno, these guys look pretty young to me. Of course the demonstrators are mostly men, since women do not generally enjoy high status in this tribal culture. But what is meant by “Islamists”? Unfortunately, without qualification, this word prompts immediate images of “terrorist” and “fundamentalist” and “people we hate” in the American media.
It is crucial to remember is that women, educated, literate, politically active women, have been involved from the very beginning. Tawakul Karman, for example, has spoken out aggressively against religious extremism and the rising presence of Al Qaeda in her country. See her letter to Women Without Borders/SAVE [Sisters Against Violent Extremism] here.
If the US, which has supported Saleh to the tune of $250 million over the last five years, writes off this rebellion as merely an “Islamist” uprising, and chooses to support a puppet dictatorship instead of promoting civil rights and political freedom for all people in the country, it will probably bring about a much more repressive and anti-American result.
Ordinary women and men are participating in this movement. Here is what the government did to women who peacefully protested the arrest of Tawakul Karman:
Human rights defender Ms Bushra Alsorabi was reportedly beaten by four security men who tried to take her camera. She was hit with an unidentified object thought to be a rubber bullet or smoke projectile resulting in burns to her body and clothes. She was hospitalised in the Republican Hospital in Sana’a as a result of her injuries.
Police used their guns to beat participants, they also reportedly pointed their guns at various participants and threatened to kill them. Five other women participating in the protest were also injured, two of whom had to be hospitalised as a result of their injuries. Up to 35 persons from the Al-Ja’ashen group of displaced people were arrested during the protest and were taken to five different police stations.
Approximately 35 families were displaced from their villages in Al-Ja’ashen County in Ibb because they refused to pay unofficial taxes (200,000 YR) to the head of the tribe who is a member of the appointed Shura council. 10 months ago their villages were attacked and houses were burnt down, they were forced to flee, and currently live in camps in different parts of Yemen, including Sana’a. Those who still live in Ibb, Ta’ez, and Ma’reb are still targeted by security officials.
Although the NYTimes very briefly mentions that Yemen is
one of the Middle East’s most impoverished countries,
it suggests that the reason the people have taken to the streets has more to do with traditional opposition politics and Islam than with genuine frustration and rage at a regime that they view as corrupt.
Yemen is the poorest country in the world. Roughly the size of France, it sits on the Southwestern corner of the Arabian peninsula. It suffers massive unemployment and mismanaged resources, including water. It it also riven by decades-old political strife between a once independent, Socialist South and North, which itself was split between the Islamist Islah Party and the General People’s Congress (GPC), the party of President Saleh. The North and South were unified in 1990, but tension between the two very different entities have remained high.
In 2007 disgruntled former civil servants who had been forcibly retired after unification, lawyers, academics, students, and journalists, began to organize broad demonstrations to demand greater economic opportunities, greater freedom of the press, an end to corruption, and a fairer share of the country’s oil resources between the North and the South. By 2009 more traditional community leaders, including tribal sheiks, had joined the Southern movement. Most demonstrations were peaceful, according to Human Rights Watch, which monitored the situation through video and first-hand reporting, but there were some outbreaks of violence.
The government of President Saleh responded to these demonstrations with shokcing brutality. In 2009 Human Rights Watch reported:
On an almost daily basis since 2007, the Southern Movement has organized largely peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins, festivals, marches, and other forms of public protests to give voice to their cause. With disturbing consistency, security forces have opened fire on protesters, killing and wounding unarmed demonstrators. The Yemeni authorities appear unwilling to permit public displays of grievances by the Southern Movement, regardless of their peaceful nature.
Government forces and extra-legal pro-government militias shot at, killed or wounded countless peaceful, unarmed demonstrators in various southern villages. Saleh calls this squads of hit men “Committees to Protect Unity” (CPU). In 2009 Saleh’s government also ordered hospitals and other medical facilities to refuse to treat persons who had been injured while protesting. Some militias even carried out attacks on demonstrators within hospitals. It also instituted mass, arbitrary arrests of women, men, and, unbelievably, children, in a broad attempt to intimidate the population. Newspapers were shut down, media outlets were attacked, journalists were arrested and harassed. Bloggers were detained, websites were blocked, academics and other opinion-makers were interrogated.
This same government is currently repressing the largely peaceful demonstrations in the streets of Sana’a. These demonstrators are not religious fanatics or enemies of the state, but rather ordinary people whom a corrupt and oppressive government has thoroughly alienated.
YemenOnline today reports that all of its articles covering the demonstrations have been deleted by hackers. Editor-in-chief Jamal Al-Awadhi stated that,
It seems an undeclared war against freedom of expression and what happened means that there is control over the sites and there are those who intervene to manipulate by the news and articles using new technology.
Tawakul Karman and other human rights activists, the people who are calling for greater freedom of the press and for an end to repression and the rise of extremism in their country, are very important to the cause of democracy in the Middle East. It makes no sense for the United States to support dictators and thugs. As Human Rights Watch cautions, we need to make sure we don’t turn the “enemies of Al Qaeda into its friends.” See their very smart seven principles for US Policy in Yemen here.
Even though she is a member of Islah, an Islamist opposition party, Karman is a moderate Muslim and a sane advocate for justice and liberty. Her first name, Tawakul, means ‘Trust” in Arabic. We need her, and others like her, to be okay.
Muslim feminists like Tawakkol Karman, as well as the Nawal El Saadawi, the Egyptian doctor, writer, and activist, or Asma Jahangirare, the Pakistani lawyer and human rights defender, or Meena, the matyred founder of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), work to bring about peace and prosperity for all human beings. The New York Times, and the rest of us, ignore them at our peril.
Yes, yes, it’s all very wonderful (and I sincerely mean this) that Tawakul Karman has been released from prison. And I admire and respect her call for greater freedoms of expression and for her leadership of Women Journalists for Change. It’s hard to stand up to a government that forces women–look at them–to shroud themselves from head to toe. Look, it’s currently the fad in academic feminist circles to defend the veil and to stand up for it, which is kind of weird.
Obviously, women, all women, everywhere, ought to have the freedom to wear a veil if they want to, and I can understand the sense of freedom that one might have while walking around anonymously in public.
But the problem is that there we are not talking about women making the choice to wear the veil, but rather about a culture in which women who choose to take the veil off are made to feel like sluts. Imposing the veil on women is an ancient way of manipulating and controlling women in public.
Are the women in the photo above, Tawakul Karman’s supporters, wearing the veil to dodge police cameras or for cultural reasons? Either way, they are wearing it out of fear, fear of what would happen to them were they to show their faces and bodies in the world. Are women are wearing the veil because they “choose” to, or because they fear what will happen to them if they don’t? Karman shed her veil. Her followers may not have the luxury to do the same.
Just so you know where I stand, I think that the idiot-brained American bigots who have shamed Muslim women and girls in this country for wearing the veil are uncivilized barbarians and assholes who ought to be fined, jailed, and made to do long and tedious hours of community service for their crimes. And the French! The French have always been stupidly self-centered about their culture. If a woman wants to drape herself in black, let her. If she likes to cover her hair, so be it! We don’t go after Orthodox Jews who cover their hair with wigs. Why harrass Muslim women? Let people be as they wish to be, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone. And no one is hurt by my neighbor’s headscarf.
In response to more than 5,000 protesters, many of them women, Yemeni authorities released activist Tawakul Karman yesterday, but quickly arrested lawyer and human rights activist Khaled Al-Anesi, who had been defending Karman. Al-Anesi was arrested as he tried to reach the attorney general to explain why Karman’s arrest was illegal. Security forces rushed him and carried him, along with a number of other human rights activists, to prison.
Both Al-Anesi and Karman are reported to be in good spirits and hopeful for political change. Speaking at a rally after her release, Karman said,
We will continue our struggle until regime change happens in our happy country. We will defend order in our country, we will defend the system, the constitution, the law. The Jasmine Revolution will continue until the entire regime goes.
Karman is pressing for President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has dominated Yemeni politics for more than 30 years, to step down. Parliament has recently considered changing the rules of terms limits, which would allow Saleh to appoint himself president for life.
More than 1000 civilians protested the crackdown on freedom of expression outside the office of the general prosecutor. Among the protesters was Naif al-Qanes, a leader in JMP and the chairman of the political administration in The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. He was beaten and arrested this morning. [Source: Hood].
Where these protests for greater freedom of expression in Yemen will lead is hard to say. Saleh is clearly concerned, if not frightened by the civil unrest and the outrage that his government’s arrest of Karman has sparked. This morning’s New York Times reports that President Saleh, perhaps in response to these civil protests, has raised military salaries and cut taxes in half. A “Jasmine Revolution” that would bring about greater civil liberties and a more democratic government would certainly be a good thing, especially if such a government were able to rid itself of Al Qaeda in the region. The current administration in Yemen makes a show of cooperating with the US, but has not so far managed to rout the group out.
Yemen is a poor country governed by tribal powers and characterized by powerful, traditional cultural patterns. It is an unlikely spot for the blossoming of calls for greater civil rights, freedom of expression, and greater civil liberties for women by women. Tawakul Karman has blossomed here, and inspired thousands of women to follow her. She leads an organization called “Women Journalists without Chains” in a society in which women are frequently silenced and shut away.
To say this is not to argue that American women, many of whom voluntarily enslave themselves to men for economic or emotional reasons, are significantly more enlightened. Nevertheless the educational, political and economic freedoms for women are much greater in this country than they are currently in Yemen or many other Muslim countries. That American women fail to make use of these freedoms is quite another problem for a later discussion.
We are talking about Yemen. We are talking about a culture in which women are expected to remain silent and in which we see women speaking out and calling for greater freedom of expression. This is important. I am writing about it because I am hopeful and because I admire this activist. I remain troubled by her affiliation with Islah, an apparently fundamentalist party that would subject the country to a narrower, Muslim (Shariah) rule of law. I worry that the rise of this party could set women back. But for now, this woman is not stepping back.
What is happening in Yemen and why should we care? Tawakul Karman, a feminist activist was arrested today for her role in student demonstrations against the government last week. She and her husband, Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi, were making their way home yesterday evening when the police came for her. He has no idea where she is. “Maybe at the central prison, maybe somewhere else, I don’t know.”
Tawakul Karman is the president of Yemen’s Women Journalists without Chains and a member of the Islamist opposition party, Islah. She has frequently criticized the brutal, militarized government of Ali Abdullah Salah, who has dominated Yemini politics since 1978.
With two civil wars, an Al-Qaeda presence and 40 percent unemployment, what else is President Saleh waiting for? He should leave office,
Karman has led sit-ins every Tuesday to protest the government’s repression of civil rights, particularly women’s rights. She has called for “allocating 30% of the posts of governors, cabinet members and ambassadors to women and establishing a binding law ensuring a fair and equitable share in legislative assemblies for a real participation of women,”[Source: Hiwar] and has attacked the Minister of Information for persecuting the media in general and for attempting to prevent her organization, Women Journalists without Chains (WJC), from publishing a newspaper and sponsoring a radio, in particular. She has also advocated taking off the veil. In a recent interview by WJC, she said:
I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain. People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion [Islam] to wear the veil, it is a traditional practice so I took it off.
Until today, her outspokenness has brought the usual intimidation. In that same interview, she stated,
I was threatened to be imprisoned and even killed. So far, the threats have not been fulfilled although I consider that taking away my right to expression is worse than any form of physical violence.
Will we hear from Tawakul again? Probably not, unless the international community speaks out. The government of Ali Abdullah Saleh is not friendly to women dissidents.
On January 13, 2011, just ten days ago, government security forces fired live bullets and molotov cocktails into a peaceful demonstration of women in Hadramawt and Lahij provinces. Security forces killed Nouria Saleh Maktoof, by running her down. They severely injured Zainab Shakir Bin Thabi with bullets in Hadramawt province, and maimed Nathra Salih with bullets in Lahij province. [Source: Women Journalists without Chains]. WJC condemned these acts:
The organization announces its full condemnation of the oppression and assault perpetrated on the peaceful demonstrators by the security forces, and considers it state violence directed against women, and a grave violation of the fundamental right of citizens to assembly and freedom of expression, which are basic human rights. It considers this state terrorism and official state violence clashing with all local and international agreements and charters guaranteeing these rights and Yemen’s pledges to respect and protect these rights
These are very strong words, words that clearly make the government of President Saleh deeply uncomfortable. But will they be heard? What change can women activists like Tawakul Karman and her sisters in the WCJ really bring about?
What is going on in Yemen is not that different from what has been happening across the Arab world for the past 40 or 50 years. A long-entrenched government of quasi-secular dictators whose power depends on the military, propped up by western powers, now faces a passionate outburst by its long-oppressed populations. Unfortunately, the voice of these justly angry people is not the voice of Tawakul Karman, which is currently in danger of being snuffed out in some dark prison, but rather the voice of Islamic fundamentalism.
I’m not quite sure why Karman has allied herself with Islah, which is also known as the “Reform” Party in Yemen. The official name of this political party is “Yemeni Congregation for Reform” (al-Tajammu‘ al-Yemeni lil-Islah), which was established shortly after the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen, “to be a lively continuation of the modern Yemeni Reform movement and a framework for all who seek to reform and change the current situation to a better one guided by Islamic faith and Shari’a.” [Source: “Political Action Program of the Yemeni Islah Party”, cited by Anahi Alviso Marino].
Any government that is founded on a religious platform, even a Buddhist platform (look at what the Buddhists have done to the Tamils in Sri Lanka), is going to end up persecuting someone, particularly women. Consider the transformation of Iraqi society since our catastrophic invasion. Women who used to work and move through society in secular clothing have been banned from their jobs and forced to cover themselves with the hijab and burqa. A similar, tragic transformation took place in Iran.
To point out that a turn from a secular-tribal patriarchal state, such as existed under Saddam Hussein or Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to a religious patriarchal state, is a tragedy is not to say that military dictatorships or autocratic states are good for women. Clearly, they are not. My argument is that the people will never be free as long as the women are oppressed, and women are always oppressed under religious leadership.
For the last 10,000 years most of the religions that have grown up on this planet have centered on masculine deities and been dominated by male priests, who helped to entrench patriarchal forms of government. There have, of course, also been many dissident women who have resisted their disenfranchisement, but most of these women have been silenced or controlled and prevented from making any serious challenge to the universal ideology of patriarchy, which states that men are superior to women.
I understand that women feminists and democrats who have been raised within a religion find it difficult to leave it. And in many countries, including our own, it is simply not possible to make any headway as a politician without espousing the dominant religion. And yes, I can see the wisdom of a moderate approach, which works to reform a society from within its major institutions, whether they be Islamic or Christian or Hindu, as a means to appeal to the majority of the people.
So, we should care what’s happening in Yemen because, like many modern Arab states, it is politically halfway between autocracy and democracy and civil unrest could tip it into theocracy. The recent calls for greater democracy and freedom for all the people, which are heard all across the Arab world these days, are likely to usher in a “Reform” movement and a religious government, or a theocratic “republic” in which the mullahs and the ministers will suppress women like Tawakul Karman. Such an outcome would be a terrible irony, of course, since Karman will have helped to bring about the revolution. We should not support such a revolution, but rather should call for greater democracy and civil rights for women within a secular government. We should not make the same mistakes in Yemen than we have made in Iran and Iraq.
There is a lot that is right about Tony Porter’s “A Call to Men” speech, also a lot that is wrong. See also the website. What is right is the message that normative masculinity is rigidly identified with violence and domination and masculinist oppression, Normative masculine men are fundamentally insecure and spend their whole lives proving that they are “men” by punishing, persecuting, and shaming others who appear to be “less masculine” than the most violent and powerful.
I like what he says. I preach what he preaches. I want my son to hear this. But I’m bothered by the racial undertones. How do you respond to them? Did you notice them? Did they bother you? Do you know why? I’m trying to figure out why they bother me. ESPECIALLY because I like the message.
What creeps me out is that the deliverer, the prophet, is preaching to mostly white women of a certain class. It’s called “A Call to MEN” and here’s this black guy calling to an audience of mostly white women. The camera searches and searches for the random dark-skinned women, as though to say—“see! he appeals to black women! we can prove it!” What’s up with that?
Alas, he corresponds in some ways to racist stereotypes that liberals have. We aren’t a bit surprised to find out that he grew up in the “tenements” of New York City, since, after all….he’s Black, and that’s a romantic image for us Northerners, in a sexy West Side Story way. But also he’s astute, and right (as in correct, as in just) and he is in fact delivering the truth about gender relations. He’s a boundary-transgressing animal. He makes us uncomfortable.
His message about gender may be a truth that has been obvious to you since you were born, or maybe only after a revelation, in a college film class, for example. You got a dose of “good news” which meant not “the news that Christ was born,” but rather, “a refreshing dose of rationality in a sea of violently emotional and sometimes frighteningly violent thinking, a.k.a. the Truth, or its closest approximation so far.
News. He spreads it. It is good. But the context in which he dispenses (his seed?) troubles me. The gender relations of this gender-conscious video bother me, actually, much, much more than its race relations. I thought I was going to see a rally from a man to men, some kind of masculinist ideology-fest at which men were reinforcing with one another, muscling themselves up in defense against the feminizing threat of wimpy-ness or small-penis-nes. So I tuned in. It sounded fun. But what I got was this quite different animal.
What do you think about it? Can we talk about race here? Does the race problem cancel out the feminist message? Do you think it is important to talk about race and gender at the same time? I do.
I mean, surely that was one of the greatest things that our president did for the nationwas to talk about race relations (A More Perfect Union), which have been brutal, indecent, and hard to comprehend, in our country since its founding.
The Europeans who landed here, in search of gold and slaves, neither of which they found, slaughtered thousands of natives deliberately, with swords, and by accident, with disease, in the 1500s. So we Americans were founded in violence, pestilence, and fear. And greed. Yes, also in hope, in a search for freedom from interference by other people with whom we don’t agree. But that quite liberal inclination to seek liberty was not strong in the first settlers who got themselves established here–they were much more repressive and intolerant than most Americans learn. With the goodwives looking on approvingly, the venerable Fathers of Massachusetts burned people at the stake. They whipped Quaker women naked down the streets; they tarred and feathered; they ostracized; they publicly humiliated.
Not all the European invaders were English or Protestant, of course. They were far more diverse than most seem to know. They were Dutch; they were Swedish; they were French; they were Spanish. They were also Natives of that continent, whose ancestors wandered, we think, from the Bering Strait. They were Asian but also maybe Russian and Sami, too. When you start moving back, you realize there is no single blood line, no such thing as a “pure” race; no such thing as race. No such thing as native.
Our family history is rich and complicated. But violent.
Here’s the problem: The”democratic spirit,” the spirit for freedom, seems to have gotten tangled up with the spirit for imprisonment. It seems to have gotten involved with bizarre theocratic notions of American male supremacy, of Judeo-Christian mythology about Adam and Eve; and religious intolerance. You think we’ve evolved? Today’s Puritans have no compunction about compelling their fellow citizens to accept major infringements of their civil liberties without a whimper. These people who use “freedom” like a weapon, a blasphemy, these people who claim to be the “moral majority,” who want to put women back into the kitchen and the kindergarten, these “men’s rights” groups and “white rights” groups, these devils who claim to be angels, …THESE are the people who have mastered the game of self-representation, of marketing, of selling the soul, selling the SELF, self above all, in our country? These people who want to give the top 2 percent of the population the greatest tax benefit? How did they sell that one? Why are still selling it?
We’re the center of capitalism, why has the left let the right control this market? We live here, too. We, too, know how to sell the self to get ahead. We’re just as good, we think, at the game. Except we’re not. We’re not making any progress lately. What is wrong with us?
It’s the age of the internet; yet people are lazy. They mostly want to be fed. So. FEED THEM. Get the slogans out there; advertise, throw all your creativity into the project. OUT PERFORM them. What has gone wrong? Are we stuck in the 18th century? Don’t we know how to sell knowledge?
Don’t get me wrong. I admire the President. It matters that we finally elected a man who defines himself as a Black man. And he is a great man, a well-educated man, an eloquent man, a philosopher, an intellectual (he’s practically French–he’s our Jefferson!). He’s thoughtful. He’s a feminist. He’s by all accounts enlightened in his views about women, race, class, ethnicity. He gets an A plus for human rights. He won the Nobel Prize.
I like him. But why isn’t he standing up against intolerance and bigotry with greater strength? What, in fact, is the difference between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims? None that I can see.
What is good, in Barak and in Tony, is the turn towards the light, the truth.
Too many people seem to think is that the truth is fixed. Therefore. once they find what they think it is, they freeze it in time, and won’t let it move or change with the flow of history and events. We call these people fundamentalists.
But really the truth is not fixed. It is continually in flux, like an amoeba or an energy. It is always changing in response to historical events taking place in a specific environment. These might be events that have uncertain and potentially cataclysmic, world-altering consequences. Like, for example, if Ahmadinajhad and his cronies were to get possession of the nuclear bomb and to set it off. World-altering. But who would you fear more? I’m-a-dinner-jacket or Rick Santorum? Mike Huckabee? Mitt Romney? Re-read The Handmaid’s Tale. Say hello to our possible future. We have to overcome our unwillingness to embrace the product, to sell “the truth.” We need positive slogans.
Or do we? We can’t predict events. But we can predict the way that we respond to them. Do we escalate the violence? Or do we master ourselves? Could we ever really master ourselves as long as we were trying to dominate an Other? Isn’t this the message and the method?