Of Gods and Humans


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 mostly 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 disapprove of the many heinous crimes that Christians have committed and continue to perpetrate against other people.  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.

I am learning to separate terrible acts from their agents, who deserves my compassion. Patriarchalism and masculinism injures all of us.  What difference does it make whether we acknowledge a creator or not, if we all honor the essential divinity of the cosmos and dedicate ourselves to loving kindness?

I have felt a great deal of regret for my often disrespectful attitude towards other people’s faiths.  I was not always kind to my former partner Tim, who probably would have been a priest or monk in an earlier era.  He is well named.  Timotheus means lover of God.  His spirituality was one of the things that drew me to him most, so it is ironic that I should have dismissed his belief in Christ as his savior so rudely and thoughtlessly as I did at times.  I do not share his faith, but I respect it and identify with him as a person of spirit, a person who actively searches for deeper meaning.  He understands that we are not here simply to indulge our selfishness, but that we have souls and that our lives have greater significance.  Our different ways of understanding the divine should not divide us.  We are all looking for the same sense of refuge, belonging, and love.  That Tim and I were unable to find it with one another is sad, but not tragic.  Nothing lasts forever, and what we had was very important and beautiful.  Our love has not disappeared, it has only changed, shifted in focus.  It is not always easy for me to hold onto this truth, and it takes real work, prayer, and discipline to get through the tough moments.  I feel sadness, grief, and pain.  But I also feel lighter and freer as I let go of my attachment to him and discover the deep roots of my love for him, my sincere desire for him to be happy and well.   It’s going to be hard to pay my heating bill this winter.  I keep catching myself searching for quick fixes, as though a new romance or compelling passion will soothe the discomfort I feel facing the future alone.  The answer, the solution to my longing and unease in this world is not going to be found outside myself, not in another person, not in a new relationship, not in a new accomplishment, not in a more sculpted body, not in the publication of books, not in the acquisition of a well-paying and glamorous job, but rather only through a slow and steady practice that brings me in tune with my true self.

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,

Like the winter just gone by.

Because among winters is one so endlessly winter.

Only by over-wintering does your heart survive.

Be and know at that time the state of non-being,

The infinite ground of our deepest vibration

So that you may wholly complete it this one time.

Sonnets to Orpheus, 11.13.

Pittsburgh to Doha


I’m taking my son, Brendan, to Nepal, for two months this summer.   At first he was really excited, but now he tells me that he does not quite understand why he feels so miserable about leaving the United States and going to teach English in a Buddhist monastery.  He worries that he will not know what to do in the classroom, and it does not help that he has received very little information about the age his students will be, or which monastery he will be teaching in, or what he will be expected to do.  He is afraid that he will not enjoy the work,  that he will be lonely, and that in the two months that he spends in Nepal the world that he knows at home will go on without him. I suspect that he unconsciously fears that he will be different when he returns.

Although he was thrilled and enthusiastic when I first proposed the trip, he has balked every step of the way since it started.  After he packed his bags, he sent me a text saying that he did not want to go.  We talked about it and he felt better.  He even returned to his silly self when he filmed me at the airport:

We flew to JFK .  Over a very nice, very expensive dinner, he tried to talk me into letting him fly back to Pittsburgh.  His distress was real, and deep, but I knew he would regret not going ahead with the trip in the long run, and I could also see that he wanted me to hold firm and help him keep to this path.

Sometimes the path is very painful, frightening, and hard.  Two weeks before departure, my boyfriend Tim, who has lived with me for the past three years, abruptly broke up with me, out of the blue.   I was driving on Route 8 North at the time, with two loose dogs in the back seat, and I only managed to keep the car safely on the road because my biological response to profound and catastrophic situations is to shift into a robot-like rationality and calm.   Later on, when the initial danger has passed, is when I fall apart.   I am still falling apart a little bit.

I knew we were going through a rough time, but I also thought I knew that we loved each other dearly and would work through it.  I didn’t understand how unhappy he was because he never told me.   Looking back on it, I cannot say when he changed, or when what had been abiding love for me transformed into courtesy.  He says he still loves me, but that he only now realizes how important it is for him to be with someone who is more like his mother, a devout Catholic and avid sports fan.  I’m an atheist and I can’t stand American football.  I thought the fact that we loved each other in spite of our differences was the important thing.

He has been very nice about it all, very sincere, very courteous.  He will stay in my house while I am gone and look after our dogs.  He drove us to the airport and told me I could ask just about anything of him.   My mind boggles.  What had been a certain reality wavered and evaporated, like a mirage in the desert.

He berated me!  He hurt me!

He beat me! He deprived me!

For those who hold  such grudges,

hostility is not appeased.

He berated me!  He hurt me!

He beat me! He deprived me!

For those who forgo such grudges,

Hostility ceases.

So reads the first chapter of the Dhammapada, Buddha’s teachings on the way.  No good, no peace, no happiness will come to me if I complain and wail and moan about what my boyfriend, whom I loved very much, did or did not do to me.   I am suffering, yes.  My heart aches.  But how I respond to this particular experience will determine how I will feel in the next few months and the more distant future.  I choose to let go lovingly.  As the Buddha says,

In this world

Hostilities are never

appeased by hostility.

But by the absence of hostility

are they appeased.

This in an interminable truth.

I am here on this journey with my son, my only child, in order to give back to him some of the attention and care that I could not give to him for most of his life.  His father and I divorced when he was six, and due to a set of unfortunate circumstances Brendan spent all of his school years in his father’s house.  I lived far from him and saw him only once a month, sometimes for only a few hours, during that period.  When I dropped him off at his father’s house, into which I was rarely invited, I wept at the side of the road in my car.  Because I diligently worked to have a relationship with him, we are very close now.

We had a very easy 13-hour flight to Doha in exit row seats on Qatar Airlines.  Best airplane food I’ve ever had.  Both Brendan and I slept most of the way.  Then we took a taxi to our elegant hotel, an old-fashioned Arabian manor with hand-carved mahogany doors and marble floors, right in the middle of the souq.

Shortly after this video, Brendan broke down again.  I thought he was having an allergy attack, but he was crying.   We are both limping along at the start of our journey together.

He needed some time along so I wandered out into the souq, a warren of covered walkways and open air courtyards, cafes and shops.  I quickly came back because I didn’t feel comfortable walking alone at night, and a few men had made comments to me.   I asked Brendan to come out  with me.  I wanted him to see how beautiful it all was–the men in long white robes and headdresses, the women in sleek black abayas sitting in the outdoor cafes smoking hookahs—the coffee shops and the spices in bulky burlap bags, the men lounging over their dinners and beautiful women in turquoise headdresses.  Our hotel sits at the edge of the souq, where the bird-sellers hawk feathered and furry creatures, stacking cages of chicks on top of kittens.

He came out and we walked here:

Then we settled down into an outdoor cafe, where I ordered hummos and tabbouleh, which were delicious and fresh, just as spicy and lemony as Tim’s concoctions, and maybe even a tiny bit better.  I also ordered what I thought would be a minty-apple drink, but which turned out to be a hookah.  The smoke made me light-headed and slightly sick to my stomach.  Brendan sank down into his funk again while I prattled on about how lovely it was to be out in the Arabian night admiring the parade of tourists and locals.  We came back to the hotel.  Brendan retreated into the familiar comfort of the internet and I wrote this blog.

It is now 3:22 am, Qatar time, and the muzzeins are singing beautiful prayers into the darkness.  Brendan has scrambled out the door to look over the balcony towards the sound.  Here is a video of the view that he is looking at.

The first lines of the Dhammapada are:

Preceded my mind

are phenomena,

led by mind,

formed by mind.

If with mind polluted

one speaks or acts,

then pain follows,

as a wheel follows

the draft ox’s foot.

The words are profound and simple.  Our minds–both our individual consciousnesses and the ancestral/cultural consciousness that we each inherit–shapes, forms, and interprets the mental objects, the phenomena that we encounter in this life.   It is not the other way around.  We are not blank slates, not clay tablets that life writes itself upon, but rather intelligent and emotional beings who interpret everything that we encounter.  Therefore it is important to free ourselves from the bad habits that we have inherited or learned.

We unlearn bad habits–delusional thinking, hatred, violent, attachments to passions–by meditating and becoming more conscious of how we respond to phenomena, and more conscious of how we wish to respond.

Both Brendan and have begun this journey in pain.  Some of that pain is unavoidable.  The Buddha taught that all beings experience pain.  He also said that he taught one thing and one thing only: pain and its cessation.

The first of the four noble truths is that we cannot avoid pain.  What we do have some control over is how we respond to the pain that we feel.  We can either behave and speak in ways that will prolong the pain and increase our suffering, or we can behave and speak in ways that will lead beyond the pain to a sense of ease.

The Buddha said,

If with mind pure

one speaks or acts

then ease follows

as an ever-present shadow.

Neither Brendan nor I know what we will encounter on this journey.  We know that we will be living with a Nepali family, but we do not know where that family home is, or how many people are in it, or when we will begin living there.  Tomorrow we fly to Kathmandu.  We are scheduled to arrive at midnight, and our very kind Nepali host will meet us there, so late at night.   We have much to learn, but we also have much to unlearn.

Yemeni Women’s Rights


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.”

Whither the Revolution for Women in Egypt and Yemen?


Where are the brave, feminist women and men who helped to bring down Mubarak in Egypt, and who have long been agitating against Saleh in Yemen, now?  About a quarter of the million protesters who brought down the Egyptian dictator were women.   Tawakul Karman, who has led anti-government protests at Sana’a University for years, voices the concerns of progressive Yemeni women. Time Magazine and The Guardian call her the “head of the Yemeni protest movement,” but what power does she really have? Will the men–and so far in Egypt they are all men–who rise to power because of these women value or represent their concerns?  To ask this question is not simply to inquire about politics  in the Middle East, but also to consider how deeply entrenched misogynist attitudes and customs will influence the new states to come.

Nesrine Malik, writing for Altmuslimah, argues that the few women who have been featured as central to the Arab uprisings have been “tokenized” and do not represent any genuine egalitarian development in the Middle East:

While the prominence of women in the revolutions has been moving, there is a psychology behind celebrating and glorifying women’s political activity when it is part of a popular push. In these times women are almost tokenised by men as the ultimate downtrodden victims, the sign that things are desperate, that even members of the fairer sex are leaving their hearths and taking to the streets. The perception isn’t that women are fighting for their own rights, but merely that they are underwriting the revolution by bringing their matronly dignity to the crowd like some mascot

It was not a good sign when, on February 11, the day Mubarak fell, groups of men in Tahrir square groped numerous female protesters, and a gang of thugs from the crowd raped CBS journalist Lara Logan.

It was also not good when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over, appointed an all-male panel of legal experts to revise the Egyptian constitution.  A broad coalition of women’s groups immediately demanded that women have a greater part in planning the future state and that at least one woman lawyer be appointed to the panel, but their concerns were ignored.  On March 8, International Women’s Day, thousands of Egyptian women marched in Tahrir Square.  Instead of being celebrated for their heroic role in bringing down an oppressive regime, they were assaulted hordes of hostile men, who soon outnumbered them,  shouting insults and commanding them to “Go home, where you belong.”  Groups of men attacked and beat many female protesters and chased them down the streets.

Egypt and Yemen are ranked 125 and 134 out of 134 countries in a World Economic Forum report on the status of women.  Forty-two per cent of Egyptian and 57 per cent of Yemeni women are illiterate.  Genital mutilation is still practiced in rural parts of Egypt. Women occupied 8 of 454 seats in Parliament in Egypt and no seats in Yemen’s government.   Egyptian men freely grope, harrass, and insult women on the streets without fear of punishment.  The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights reported in 2008 that the majority of women had been harrassed, most frequently by state security officers.

Amnesty International reports that the Yemeni women “are valued as half the worth of men when they testify in court or when their families are compensated if they are murdered.”  Feminists have recently called for and end to the hideous practice of forcing girls into marriage at very young ages, sometimes as young as 8.  Last year a 12-year-old died from injuries sustained when her 30 year-old husband forced himself on her.  Another, 13, bled to death after her husband tied her up and raped her.  Predictably, top Yemeni clerics have denounced those who have called for a ban on the practice as apostates.

The recent abominable treatment of a very brave Libyan woman, whom Muammar el-Qaddaff’s forces raped, then abducted, isolated, and interrogated for days, has highlighted discriminatory attitudes in that part of the world as well.  The New York Times reports that

Like many traditionalist countries in the region, Libyans often treat rape as a crime against the honor of a woman or her family, rather than as an attack on the woman herself. In some families, a girl or woman who has been raped is cast out or shunned.

The change in the Egyptian regime so far has not made women any safer.

On March 9 the military cleared Tahrir Square of protesters and took at least 18 women into custody at an annex to the Cairo Museum. There soldiers beat or strip-searched these women while other men watched and took photographs.  They also forced the women to submit to “virginity tests” and threatened those “not found to be virgins” with  prostitution charges.  One woman found not to be a virgin by this humiliating “test” said soldiers afterwards gave her electric shocks.

Amnesty International has described these forced “virginity checks” as torture designed to degrade women because they are women and called for all medical personel in Egypt to refuse to administer these tests.

Journalist Rasha Azeb, whom the military detained, testified that soldiers  handcuffed, beat, and insulted her.  Before she was released, she heard the screams of the other women being given electric shocks and beaten.

17 women, including 20-year old Salwa Hosseini, were taken to a military prison in Heikstep, where guards tortured them further.  Ms. Hosseini told Amnesty International that

she was made, with the other women, to take off all her clothes to be searched by a female prison guard, in a room with two open doors and a window.  During the strip search, Salwa Hosseini said male soldiers were looking into the room and taking pictures of the naked women.

Let us remember that the men who did this were not working for Mubarak, although such abuses certainly took place under his watch.  These events took place under the jurisdiction of the provisional government.  Will they continue to occur?  Who will stop them?  Will they prompt Egyptians to vote for a more religious order, a rule of Shariah law?

Egyptian women are incredibly strong and determined.  Witness Dr. Nawal El Sadaawi, the determined feminist who founded Global Solidarity for Secular Society and who has been working to liberate women for more than fifty years.  Dr. Sadaawi argues that women need more than what passes for “democracy” in the modern world.  Women will only be free when the underlying roots of misogyny are broken apart and exposed to the light, where they will wither away.  Until men stop learning to demean, degrade, and condescend to women, the political systems that come into place will perpetuate these practices.

Sexism–prejudice–the unconscious or conscious belief that women do not have the same rights to self-determination, to subjecthood, to speaking out, to being visible, to making choices about their own bodies, to moving through public space independently, that men enjoy–this is the underlying cancer that destroys all societies.

Androcentrism, the mistaken belief that the world centers around men and that men should be in charge of women, is at the root of all other forms of oppression, because sexual difference is the first difference, the foundation of the awareness of self and other. Masculinism is a pernicious an evil in the European and American West as it is in the Arab world, and this is why feminists across the globe have reached out to one another.

Until we can learn to live with one another’s differences, whatever they may be (and they might be different ways of being male, different ways of being female, different ways of being sexual, different ways of interpreting anatomies and proclivities), until we can learn to stop forcing human beings to accept extremely rigid and narrow sexual roles (all women must…and all men will….), we will not be free.

The first step towards freedom, real liberty for women and for men, is to separate the state from the church, because nearly all world religions perpetuate the false belief that men are superior to women.   But as we have seen under Mubarak and Saleh and under every US president, setting up a secular government is not in itself enough to eradicate widespread prejudice and violence against women.

The only thing that will bring about the kind of change that we all desperately need is a feminist consciousness and a dedicated belief in the political, economic, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual equality of women.  The revolutionary action that thousands of Egyptian and Yemeni women have taken in the past months has done a lot to remind women–and women are the ones who most of all need to believe, to embrace this truth–that they are inherently as valuable as human beings as men, and that all women and all men, including gay and transgender and bisexual and cross-dressing women and men, possess the same rights to self-determination and social power as the dominant, heterosexual men who currently dominate global politics.

The argument I am making here should be clear:  thousands of lion-hearted women and feminist men have stood up to oppression in general, and against women in particular, across the Arab world.  It is wonderful to see Dr. Saadawi and Ms. Karman get the recognition they deserve after their years of struggle against and persecution by their governments.  I also salute Saida Sadouni, the Tunisian feminist “widely hailed as the mother of Tunisia’s revolution, a living record of her country’s modern history and its struggle for emancipation” and agree with Soumaya Ghanoushi, a writer for the Guardian who argues that Arab women have shattered Western prejudices of submissive, veiled women and

refuse to be treated with contempt, kept in isolation, or be taken by the hand, like a child, and led on the road to emancipation. They are taking charge of their own destinies, determined to liberate themselves as they liberate their societies from dictatorship. The emancipation they are shaping with their own hands is an authentic one defined by their own needs, choices and priorities.

Yes, all of this is true.  But it is also true that revolution may bring about a change in regime but not a change in deeply rooted attitudes towards women, not only in the Arab world, but here at home.  Feminists in Egypt and Yemen have been working hard to bring about truly egalitarian change for many years.  I support them and hope that their cause remains in the spotlight, because their cause is our cause.

Sufism May Save the World


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.

As an American theologian explains,

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.

I find this very hopeful.



Why Egypt’s progressives win – Opinion – Al Jazeera English


 

 

Egypt Watchers should read Paul Amar’s  informative article, which explains how progressive social forces are changing the country, and why Suleiman and conservative business interests will have to work with them.  Here’s a snippet:

 

It is crucial to remember that this uprising did not begin with the Muslim Brotherhood or with nationalist businessmen. This revolt began gradually at the convergence of two parallel forces: the movement for workers’ rights in the newly revived factory towns and micro-sweatshops of Egypt – especially during the past two years – and the movement against police brutality and torture that mobilised every community in the country for the past three years. Both movements feature the leadership and mass participation of women of all ages and youth of both genders. There are structural reasons for this.

via Why Egypt’s progressives win – Opinion – Al Jazeera English.

Muslim Feminists Disappear from the Headlines: on Tawakkol/Tawakul Karman


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.

Protesters in Sana'a, photo from NYT 28 Jan 2011

 

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.

In their statement protesting the arrest of Karman, from which the excerpts above are taken,  Women Journalists Without Chains also reports that

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.

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.   I can admire reformers who take this path, but I can’t consider this a very clean path.

It’s simply not intellectually honest to sign up for a religion, any religion, that in word and practice continually reiterates the falsehood that masculinity is superior to femininity.

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.

I like what he says.  I preach what he preaches.  I want my son to hear this.  I want him to memorize every word.  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?