Tawakul Karman Update

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.

Tawakul Karman: Brave Muslim Feminist Arrested in Yemen

Tawakul Karman at an anti-government rally outside Sanaa University. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

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,

she is reported as saying in Yemen Post.

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.

Can we talk about race? On Obama and Tony Porter.

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?