Archive for August, 2015

Scheherazade Stays West

August 31, 2015

Growing up, I read a lot of books. From a young age I was the biggest book worm in my family. At age 5 I decided to read the whole Narnia series. And I did. My love for reading only grew, and when I was like 8 I went on a historic fiction kick. I read Cry, the Beloved Country and Wolf By the Ears, and one curious book called Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher.

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This book was about a young heroine, a storyteller, who saved the day because she had the powers of words. I remember loving that book. The girl was exactly who I wanted to be, adventurous, brave, using stories and words to control her own story. Of course, it wasn’t until years later that I met Scheherazade again.

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For my 6th grade ballet end-of-the-year recital, the theme was “Around the World”. Naturally, our lyrical ballet class was representing the “Middle East”. We wore typical bellydancer blue with lots of sparkles, and our song was an instrumental piece from the ballet “Scheherazade”. I mean I was a dancer, so I loved stepping into character and hip-rolling around the studio. But even then, I couldn’t see what bellydancing had to do with Scheherazade.

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The context Scheherazade was put in the next time I met her, in a high school World History class, couldn’t be more different than the storyteller I first met. She was described on a page filled with pictures of scantily clad women, in sensual terms, like her only importance was that she represented the collection of stories in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. I couldn’t understand why my history teacher was turning a childhood hero of mine into a slut. Had she always been an alluring bellydancer first and a storyteller who saves her kingdom second?

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Thankfully, history class was not the last time I met Scheherazade. In Scheherazade Goes West by Fatima Mernissi, I have finally found the Scheherazade I originally got to know. And even better yet, I learned more about her, about her political significance, about her culture, and about what she represents to muslim women like Fatima. I also got to discover through this book the reasons behind why the Scheherazade I first met was different from the Scheherazade of bellydancing and westernized harems. I felt like I had met two different women because I had. I had encountered Scheherazade from eastern culture, and Scheherazade from western culture.

I know which one I prefer. I prefer the Scheherazade that I fell in love with as a girl because she was a role model I looked up to and wanted to become. Not the Scheherazade I act out in a dance routine and then cast aside because I don’t really want to be a sensual object at all, I’m just playing the part assigned to me.

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“A stupid girl gets nowhere”

August 31, 2015

While reading Scheherazade Goes West, I found myself becoming frustrated and somewhat annoyed by the content I was reading. At first I felt like Fatema Mernissi was an advocate for Eastern harems, arguing that Western harems should transform into what the East had started. All I could think about was how disturbing and degrading it must have been to be a woman living in a harem in the East, living just to satisfy the needs of a man. However, the more I read, the more I came to realize that the women in the Eastern harems were held captive in a very different way than the Western women. While Eastern women were physically captive to the desires of men, Western women still to this day are prisoners within their own minds. Instead of feeling sorry only for the women in the Easten harems…I began to feel sorry for the way many women in my own country are living…including myself.

I was so quick to believe that the women in the Eastern harems were seen only for their outward appearance, instead of realizing that these women were desired for their intelligence as well. Sadly, this mindset shows how I myself have been captive to thinking that outward beauty is all that matters. Fatema Mernissi was constantly told that, “a stupid girl gets nowhere”(92). Unfortunately, living in the West, I have been led to believe that an ugly girl gets nowhere. I am disgusted even typing out those words but I can’t ignore the fact that it something our culture tumblr_lculrahess1qaobbko1_500wrestles with. I have become numb to the norm that physical beauty is the main goal. It is so engrained within my mind that if one can just put on enough makeup, lose those extra pounds, eat less dessert, (the list goes on and on) then beauty will be obtained. I am embarrassed to admit these were my initial thoughts about the women in Eastern harems but it just goes to show the world I live in.

After reading several chapters, I started to see that harems were the culture back then and very well could have been an important role for these Eastern women. They didn’t know any different. This was life for them. These women may have been physically restricted but they were still encouraged to think. Mind and body are one when considering beauty. As a Westerner, I was blind to see the deeper role these women had, they weren’t minimized to just pure looks. They were intelligent women and nobody was telling them differently. We see this example in Scheherazade; she was capable of deep thoughts and was always one step ahead of her master when she was telling stories in order to stay alive. She had to take risks and her job required deep thinking. For those reasons, she is seen as a role model to many Eastern women. Contrary to popular Western belief, these women used their intelligence to their benefit, not only their physical beauty. While they physically might be seen as captive, they weren’t captive inside their own minds like the women in Western harems.

In the last chapter of Scheherazade Goes West, Fatema Mernissi shares her experience shopping in a store in the United States. While I was saddened and embarrassed by the awful experience she had when being told that the store did not carry her size because it was not “the norm,” I was able to relate too much to her and wasn’t entirely shocked by her awful experience. I have been so used to Western culture telling me what is pretty and what’s not that it is no surprise to me anymore. And yes, I fall intodo-you that trap daily; constantly thinking my worth relies on how I look that particular day. It’s alarming to think I am so numb to what culture has deemed as beauty. And what’s even worse is that I find myself believing it more often than not. It was refreshing to read an Eastern woman’s perspective on the West’s treatment and expectations of women. It’s a daily battle, but I am determined to look beyond the false images of beauty that are thrown at me on a daily basis. We are all different, yet we are all beautiful. Celebrating our differences is true beauty. When are we as a culture going to do that?

How does one experience a culture in a week (or three)?

August 31, 2015

At the beginning of this summer I was promoted from the ever-fascinating job of “hostess” to the more challenging and lucrative job of “waitress.” In a city like Seattle, servers are a big deal. The bustle and over-populated charm of this big city draws people in and promises them a great time full of great service and great food and the people here must also be great because living somewhere this gorgeous must be great, great, great! It is therefore my sole purpose in life to take my small piece of the corporate pie and make it great, as well. People from all over the world sit in my section on those same booths and tell me the same stories about how they rode “The Ducks”, went to the Space Needle, and Pike Place.

FullSizeRender (1)For 40 hours a week, I smile and say “Yes, aren’t those things so great?” and pray silently that they stay downtown where we keep the tourists corralled so that we don’t accidentally step on them when they inevitably stop in the middle of the sidewalk to look at their GPS. I rarely tell them about all the things they’re missing when they ride around in their rental cars and focus only on their photo ops. They don’t care. They’re focused on “the Seattle experience,” not “experiencing Seattle.”

But, these tourists are the blood of the city during this time of year. Without them rushing around all summer, Seattle’s economy would flat-line. Low-level service workers, such as myself, rely on these people for our livelihoods. Despite my sarcasm, I don’t hate them in the slightest; they help me pay my bills and I’m grateful for that. My issue really is that they come to the city just to say that they did it. Rarely does anyone ask me what I do for fun or where to get the best latte. I want them to go home understanding how perfectly beautiful my city is but all they want is surface-value. Again, I don’t hate them. I feel bad for them.IMG_1423

As I read Dr. Segall’s Performing Democracy in Iraq and South Africa, I thought about how different a city looks between when you visit and when you live there. It’s hard because, like the Seattle tourists, you want to see the things everyone else has seen. You want to gape at the glories everyone has written about and make judgments about those things, for yourself. But, you aren’t really experiencing the culture the way the people who live there experience it.

Segall asks us in her book to notice what should be considered as “important signs to illuminate what is less noticed: gender locations, social contestation, and artistic revision (xvii).” These “three correctives” should help make navigating parts unknown a bit easier. When we leave for our trip, we should notice how men and women interact with each other in each setting. Gender roles are hotly debated anywhere you go, so observing interactions between men and women in other countries can allow us to understand their culture as they see it. We should not go somewhere else and expect or judge people based off of the roles they would normally play in our society. Instead of looking at them and thinking “wow, that’s an odd thing for a man/woman to do”, we should instead think, “hmm, how does this behavior work in this society?” By putting people in our little American boxes, we are making who they actually are invalid. Looking at a woman in a hijab and immediately assuming that she’s oppressed is like taking a bite of an orange and thinking “this apple tastes funny.” It just doesn’t make sense and we should be aware of that as we interact as visitors. We should also be wary of thinking that everyone has a political agenda or that everyone’s reasons for protest are the same. Many people can fight for the same thing and have different reasons as to why they are fighting. Also, just as there are people willing to talk all politics, there are many people who want to enjoy their lunch without some tourist girl asking them all about their political opinions. Lastly, to experience a culture we should be mindful of how the people within that culture see themselves and the events in their lives. The view our media gives us as outsiders is entirely different from the view of the people themselves. Artists such as painters, poets, writers, actors, and musicians all give a new side of the story and if we pay attention, we can understand them all a bit better.

All in all, the word “tourist” brings out mixed reactions from me. While I don’t hate tourists, I would hate to be called one and I hope that I can be myself and appropriately connect with other people while I visit their cities. Although, I’m sure some Spanish or Moroccan waitress will roll her eyes at me at some point.

Finding Freedom

August 30, 2015

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European men travelled to Eastern countries for both political and recreational reasons. However, culturally, they were unable to observe Eastern Harems. Therefore, their writings about Eastern women were mere assumptions. This is what fanned the flame for furthered orientalism, or the way of seeing Arab peoples and cultures in a distorted and exaggerative way, especially compared to that of Europe and the US. Western men assumed that Eastern women lived in a polygamous culture in extreme seclusion, and a lot of Western writings from that time wrote of uncontrollable male sexuality and supposed oppression. The harem was like a blank canvas, unable to be explored by Westerners, therefore “filled in” with what they simply imagined. Unfortunately, their assumptions became the norm in the Western world.

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In Fatema Mernissi’s book tour travels, she became fascinated by Western male journalist’s idea of harem life. In Scheherazade Goes West, she wrote of the Western men’s view of the Eastern Harem; an essentially euphoric world where Eastern men prefer their women to be submissive and silent, where the women wear little and say next to nothing. Fatema describes the Western Harem as a “pleasure garden where omnipotent men reign supreme over obedient women”. The reality is that Muslim men often describe themselves as having fear of women and major self-doubt in their harems, real or imagined. Muslim women are actually praised for their intelligence, a conclusion that Western men don’t come to in their idealized harem.

Women in the Middle East are often seen as universally oppressed. One of the most compelling arguments that I’ve ever heard in regards to my own culture, is that perhaps western women are just as oppressed; a different kind of harem. It’s the difference between a literal harem and cultural harem. It is estimated that the average American woman sees 400-600 advertisements per day. Women are bombarded with Western images of the “ideal” body; long legs, thin waist, big boobs, tan, flawless skin, perfect teeth- you get the point. Thinness is emphasized as a standard for female beauty. However, the bodies idealized in the media are atypical and not necessarily healthy. Today’s fashion models weigh 23% less than the average female. In a study on young girls, 69% said that magazine models influence their idea of the perfect body shape. This creates an unrealistic standard for the majority of women.

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Fatema, being a 30 something Moroccan woman, never once thought she was “too big”, ugly, or unattractive, until she stepped into an American department store. Without hesitation, the middle-aged saleswoman looked at her and said, “There are no skirts here your size” and “4 and 6 are the norm”. It was one of the first times that Fatema ever felt insecure about her body. However, this little incident gave Fatema a huge revelation: “Now at last, the mystery of my Western Harem made sense. Framing youth as beauty and condemning maturity is the weapon used against women in the West just as limiting access to public space is the weapon used in the East. I realized for the first time that maybe “size 6” is a more violent restriction imposed on women than is the Muslim veil”.

I found this revelation extremely compelling. Again, I’m learning of a new perspective. I’ve always had very strong opinions on Western media and their portrayal of women. I’ve seen how it’s affected the overall confidence of some of the most beautiful, strong, amazing women I know. I’ve also had to fight against it myself. Not only does Fatema’s statement compel me to think of my own culture in a different light, but further forces me to be rid of any preconceived notions I may have had, consciously or unconsciously, of Eastern women.

All that to be said, I’m researching and reflecting on things that I’ve yet to experience without having had a face-to-face conversation with someone who has actually experienced it. Hearing individual stories and truly immersing myself in a culture will teach me so much more than what I can read about sitting in a classroom. I’m especially curious about Muslim women’s opinions of American women. It will be enlightening to ask the question about Muslim women’s view on oppression. Do they actually feel oppressed in any way? Do they view me as oppressed? What about freedom? I identify my freedom with my faith. Do they?

Redefining Oppression: Restriction of the Mind and the Body

August 29, 2015

The more days I spend as a twenty-something American citizen, the more I am shocked by how mesmerized the West is by physicality, and perhaps more importantly, how quick we are to judge based purely off of the physical. The revitalized feminism movement is fighting for a woman’s right to dress and look however she pleases and that a woman’s body does not exist for male pleasure and adoration. Along with the physical aspects of modern day feminism, there is a push for women to participate in politics and make up a greater percentage of leadership roles, however, much of the buzz about feminism is centered around protests like Slut Walks and “Free the Nipple.” These demonstrations make up much of the conversation about feminism, as though a woman’s physical rights overshadow her right to knowledge, power, and participation. As Fatema Mernissi explains in Scheherazade Goes West, thanks to Immanuel Kant, Western women have to make a “terrible choice” between “beauty and intelligence,” and “it is as cruel a choice as the [Islamic] fundamentalists’ threat: veiled and safe, or unveiled and assaulted” (90).

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What I find to be both disturbing and fascinating is how, although the West has created the image and stereotype of an oppressed Muslim woman who is veiled, voiceless, and not equal to men in public or private sectors, in America, we observe women who have no choice but to be completely unveiled and remain voiceless and subordinate to men in the home and on the street. As Mernissi describes, on the contrary in Islam, communication and intelligence are the primary aspects of intimacy and sexuality, and a woman must use her wit and language in order to earn the respect of men, and often times, vice versa. The caricature of the inferior and silent Arab woman is a Western creation, and because of this, it is no surprise that the West’s own women often find themselves tricked into the same mold, although it looks physically different. We have been taught that our eyes should perform above our minds, and this is the greatest achievement of Western men – they have succeeded. The Western man has created a Western woman who is silent, beautiful, and stupid, and this is exactly what Mernissi has a problem with when she sees what the West has created out of Islamic harems. Although Mernissi’s harem woman has been trapped, she has been by no means controlled and subdued; on the contrary, women in Islamic harems are sexually and intellectually powerful. Western women have been stripped of practically all of their power, not because men are afraid of them and are keenly aware that when a woman gains power she uses it (as is true in Islam), but because women have been taught to become the physical prizes of men, and if they fail in this, they are of little to no value. Not only does the Western woman have to choose between beauty and intelligence, but she must choose between veiled and unsafe or unveiled and unsafe, in psychological, emotional, and physical ways.

Egyptians dance as they celebrate at Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the popular revolt that drove veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak from power after 30 years on February 12, 2011. AFP PHOTO/PEDRO UGARTE

The West has succeeded in diverting the word oppression away from our own culture, and women in America are finally beginning to ask the question of what oppression really is and what disguises it can wear. Oppression exists in the Islamic world, and the Arab Spring has brought about transformation in the lives of Islamic women. However, the oppression of women in Western culture is only beginning to be brought to the surface, and when it has been, there will be change, and there will be anger. Just as Mernissi is furious with the West for subduing and creating a homogenized Islamic women, women of the West will be furious with men who have perpetrated the expectations of a silent woman, and perhaps we will have a Spring of our own.

Western Adaptations of Scheherazade a Form of Fanfiction?

August 28, 2015

Fanfiction.  If you haven’t heard of it by now then it’s probably because you do not have internet or have Wishmaker_Scheherazadesomehow successfully managed to avoid all ads, trailers, and conversation about the most recent fanfiction phenomenon, 50 Shades of Grey.  While most fanfiction is intriguing and a reflection of fan’s dedication and admiration for characters and worlds created by someone else, fanfiction does have a detailed pornographic side (ex: 50 Shades of Grey).  While fanfiction is a development of the past couple of decades, adaptations and other forms of borrowing stories and culture have been present worldwide for centuries.  Specifically the West’s interest in Scheherazade and her stories told in The Thousand and One Nights have been recreated and readapted with specific focus on tiny details often taken out of context much like fanfiction.  However unlike most forms of fanfiction and its artsy counterpart of fanart, the West belittles and destroys the essence and message of Scheherazade’s tales, exemplifying not only an early form of cultural appropriation but also ignorance on the Arab culture and society.  The dissimilarities found within the depictions of Scheherazade in the East and West also illuminate the differences between the Eastern and Western harams.

Within Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems, Fatema Mernissi rejects, defies, and condemns Western understanding and misrepresentation of Scheherazade and the stories she narrates by enlightening and informing readers about Eastern harams and the highly political backbone of The Thousand and One Nights.  Unlike the Western haram, the Eastern haram does not perceive women as something of frivolous beauty with a lack of brains.  Mernissi explains how “according to Western philosopher Kant, women should not study geometry, astronomy, or history” which are “all disciplines considered vital for any ambitious harem beauty who wanted to keep up with her caliph” (93).  This explicitly illustrates the stark differences between what the West and East expected of their women as well as illustrates the differences between the literal Eastern haram and the figurative Western haram. Manovens_Francisco_Masriera_y_Mal_Des_Amores_An_Odalisque_1889_Oil_on_Canvas-large As Mernissi explains, the Eastern haram acknowledged women as intelligent and equal to men expected and capable of participating in intellectual dialogue that further attracted men to women.  This contrasts not only with the Western perception of harams being silent women bending to the will of men, specifically sexually, but also contrasts with the Western haram.  Furthermore, Mernissi explains and enforces the idea that while Scheherazade narrates stories within The Thousand and One Nights that contain pornography, “the key message is a political one, even when Scheherazade chooses to speak in the register of pornography, she has a political message to convey” (64).  This therefore exemplifies how the West belittles the politically charged stories Scheherazade narrates, focuses solely on the pornography, and utilizes the pornography to provide the basis for their highly sexualized, exotic fanfiction versions of the story.  Mernissi rejects this belittled version of Scheherazade and argues that Scheherazade and her emphasis on social and political change is well acknowledged in the East.  The East understands how much The Thousand and One Nights “stresses female self-determination, helping to explain why in the 1980s and 1990s, why Egyptian fundamentalists repeatedly burned symbolic copies of the populist Arabic editions of the book, making certain that in the Arab world no one mistakes Scheherazade’s descriptions of sex for trivial pornography” (68).  Therefore while the West has lucratively transformed the haram and Scheherazade into something sexy and exotic in order to fit Western social constructs, the East views Scheherazade as a fiery political force needed to be tamed and censored.  This stresses the power Scheherazade holds in the East that she has lost in the West.

Mernissi further explores the belittling and exploitation of Scheherazade by the West and argues Kant’s philosophy forms the basis of the Western haram.  Mernissi continuously stresses Scheherazade’s role as a political figure with a feminist, humanitarian agenda using education and stories to advocate social and political change.  However the West has disregarded Scheherazade’s political role in favor for a “skin-deep, cosmetic, and superficial” understanding and representation of not only Scheherazade but also the relationship between men and women in the haram (74).  As exemplified through various Western art pieces, Hollywood cinema, and popular fashion and costume, the West hyper-sexualized Scheherazade and stripped down her personal story and the stories she narrates until individual pieces out of context can be easily viewed and portrayed as exotic and pornographic.  This exemplifies early form of purely pornographic fanfiction made to cater to Western men’s sexual needs and project ideals Western women should aspire to.  Mernissi explains how philosophy discussed by Western philosopher, Kant, stresses the stark contrast between the Eastern haram and the Western haram.  Mernissi states, “Kant’s message is quite basic: Femininity is the beautiful, masculiniScheherazadety is the sublime” which is “the capacity to think, to rise higher than the animal and they physical world” and according to Kant “you’d better keep the distinction straight, because a woman who dares to be intelligent is punished on the spot: she is ugly” (91).  Kant’s thoughts on the differences between the sexes exemplifies the cause for the West transforming and reducing Scheherazade to something of a simple pretty thing to look at as a means of maintaining desired social archetypes.  Because the Western haram expects women to be silent, pretty things willing to be exploited, when the West wrote the fanfiction of The Thousand and One Nights Scheherazade also became a silent and therefore unpolitical, pretty thing that fit perfectly into the Western archetype for all women.  In Western fanart of Scheherazade, a sexualized version of her image and cultural dress became the focal point of many pieces and articles utilized as costumes by the upper class.  This reduces not only Scheherazade, but the Arab culture as well because it allows the West to reduce various, diverse, and entire cultures to one stereotypical and exaggerated image.  This continues to allow the West to separate and divide itself from the East and also helps the West project itself as more sophisticated because of the belittling of a story that is political, aware, and complex to something revolving completely around superficial beauty and appeal.   Mernissi supports this when she explains according to Kant “the world is not populated by a single race of humans who share the capacity to feel and think, but by two distinct kinds of creatures: those who feel (women) and those who think (men)” (94).  This further explains the Western expectation of women very present in the Western haram and still present in today’s Western society.  Representation of the East in ways that takes away they dynamics and truth from its culture and reconstructs it as something frivolous enough to be used as a costume and misperceived as simply exotic and strange also helps create a third creature: the other, also known as anything not found in the West.

Until the West learns how to be identify the beauty, intricacies, and differences found within other, individual cultures, the adoption and representation of other cultures within Western media and society will continue to resemble poorly written, ignorant, heavily cultural appropriated fanfiction that simplifies cultures and insults rather than compliments.SheherazadeFanart(In my internet quest for Scheherazade fanart, I discovered a Japanese anime that includes the character Scheherazade while the plot follows Aladdin.)

As exemplified in this “blog” post, I have been unable to master condensing my interest and passion into a blog post that contains all the necessary information but in a not as lengthy form.  This is something I hope to improve on while in Spain and Morocco.   

Art and Image: Tools of Power and Domination

August 24, 2015

The power and importance of images has come up again and again as we quickly prepare to embark on our journey.  We’ve discussed how images shape not just what we see, but how we see as well.  In Scheherazade Goes West, author Fatema Mernissi weaves an incredible picture of just how powerful art is in influencing both Islamic and Western views on a woman’s place in the bedroom, society, and wider politics and culture.  To her, art is incredibly important, because it flips the script on how we view women and the spaces they inhabit in these two respective worlds.  Art also reflects harrowing truths that we sometimes miss in real life, freezing a snapshot of the artist’s deepest fantasies for us to examine.

Thus, Mernissi embarks on a journey to understand why in the West, with its “enlightened” men and progressive politics, there are so many celebrated paintings of these passive and nude odalisques hanging in great halls of museums.  Mernissi is further shocked that in the West, even Scheherazade, the princess who makes the Sultan fall in love and change his ways by using her words to create powerful stories, has been transformed into nothing more than a seductive nude that uses her body to make the Sultan fall in love.  The West, for all its freedoms, still uses art as a method to imprison women in a less obvious, but just as sinister, harem.  Christiane, Mernissi’s French editor, explained that in Western erotic art, men are never depicted in their own harems, rather, it “‘was always a male observer looking at a nude woman he paralyzes in a frame'” (184).  The “male gaze”, as it’s referred to, is tied to philosophy and modern culture, where “‘Even now,’ she said, ‘I still hear the unavoidable…be beautiful and shut up – both in the workplace and in personal relations…'” (184).

In stark contrast, Mernissi details her own Islamic experience with art, where a woman’s intelligence is celebrated and images depict beautiful women as fiercely clever story tellers, adventurers, and boundary-crossers who aren’t afraid to be in control or pursue happiness.  She states that unlike the West, where men were in control of the painting and acquisition of art up until recently and used it as a means to revel in their fantasies and dominate the real women around them, in the Islamic world, powerful and public women, like Princess Nur-Jahan, influenced the art that was being made and because of her initiative, women were “no longer quite so invisible as they had been” (191).  Mernissi states, “The basis of misogyny in Islam is actually quite weak, resting only on the distribution of space” (192).  Once women breach that and make their way into the public space, male supremacy is jeopardized.

In the West then, famous painters and artists like Ingres who painted passive odalisques were not painting realistic portraits of Islamic harem women.  Those passive nudes do not exist in the Orient.  Rather, these artists, “bred in democracy, [were] dreaming of odalisques and an Islamic civilization that [they] confused with women’s passivity” (200), when in reality, Islamic women are anything but passive.

Mernissi argues after being turned away from an American department store because she is too large for a “size 6”, that perhaps the “size 6” is a more “violent restriction imposed on women than is the Muslim veil” (213).  She writes, “Unlike the Muslim man, who uses spaces to establish male domination by excluding women from the public arena, the Western man manipulates time and light.  he declares that in order to be beautiful, a woman must look fourteen years old” (213).

Another way the Western man manipulates time and light is through art.  In paintings, we are portrayed as young, passive, and nude, and if in reality, we do not look the way they have painted us, we are deemed invisible and irrelevant.  We have all been looking with disgust at art we’ve thought depicted an oppressive Muslim harem.  In reality, it seems we have been looking at our own captivity.

Sparing a Glance: Moving Beyond the Tourist Experience

August 18, 2015

When traveling someplace new, it is so easy to get caught in the tourist trap; seeing, doing, eating, photographing the same things as everyone else. Staying on the surface of the culture may feel comfortable and safe, but only through an alternative mapping of the location do we find space for a true, holistic experience of the location’s culture.

In my hometown of Pendleton, Oregon, people visit to experience the famed rodeo and “Wild West” history, but they neglect to notice the sacred spaces that truly make Pendleton what it is. For example, my town was recently featured on national news websites for a local man setting up a huge volunteer work party to repaint and fix up an elderly couple’s decrepit house. Small, rural Pendleton is predominantly lower-middle class, and there are a lot of people who are struggling to stay afloat, desperate and embarrassed with their situation. But there are also a lot of people who are acting as the hands and feet of God’s love in the community, reaching out and making life-changing differences for others. But when you come to town solely to bar-hop and go to the rodeo, you miss this entire narrative, which, in my opinion, is truly the heart of Pendleton.

I feel that this experience is only all the more true for Americans traveling overseas, especially to Arab or Islamic countries. It takes deliberate effort to peer past the prominent perspectives of mainstream Western media and see the sacred spaces and cultures at the heart of the community.

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When I tell people I am traveling to Morocco, I am met with diverse reactions. Some people do not even know where it is, some people voice excitement about the adventure and the learning opportunities, but some people, knowing that it is an Islamic country in Africa, show apprehension or concern, either in their words or in a more subtle expression. Before learning about Morocco and Islam, I admit that I shared a bit of this apprehension about the “Middle East”- without even knowing exactly why. Whether it is due to our political culture, the media gaze, or just our self-preserving humanness, we are programmed to fear “the Other.” But this fear causes us to live our lives in the tourist experience, where comfort and safety abound, but connection and growth are elusive. In order to break out of the tourist experience, we must shed our shell of judgment and fear and recognize the common struggles and joys of humanity that are shared among people everywhere in the world.

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In her book, Performing Democracy, Dr. Segall outlines three correctives that counter the media gaze and help us see “what is less noticed”: gender locations, social contestation, and artistic revision.  Looking at gender locations helps us to see the important roles of women, a group who, almost universally, goes unnoticed.  Examining social contestation shows us the diverse groups in a community, rounding out the one-dimensional view of media.  And artistic revision shows us how individuals move on through healing and protest following a collective trauma.  As a whole, these three correctives remind us to “spare a glance, a moment to consider the imaginative ways that individuals name themselves” (Segall, xvii).  Recognizing the ways individuals name themselves as opposed to the (often narrow-minded and incorrect) names that Western media gives them, allows us to turn away from the kitschy tourist experience and step into the sacred spaces at the core of the community.

A Time to Remember

August 18, 2015

Sometimes we have to forget our own imperfections and step back from the inconsistencies in our own lives to see the oppression and sufferings others are up against. For me, this is something I consistently wrestle with. The obstacles that I face are usually minuscule compared to the hardships people all across the world are going through, yet I can’t turn my focus away from my pitiful “problems”. Problems that make me feel ignorant when I read about the hardships that the people in Morocco are facing. While I am over here complaining about my lactose intolerance and dying for a taste of ice cream, people in Morocco are dying for a taste of freedom. To see the injustices the people of Morocco are experiencing quickly puts my own life into perspective.

After reading Performing Democracy in Iraq and South Africa, I was struck by Fadwa Laroui’s devastating story. As a single mother in Morocco, Fadwa is treated unjustly due to the fact that she does not have a husband and in result she suffers financially to provide for her two young children on her own. In search of some hope and financial relief, Fadwa and her father planned a multifamily development to provide housing for poor families but since Fadwa was a single mother, morocco poorshe was not considered head of the household and therefore denied access to the development. In result, the land they intended to help the poor was taken by the wealthy which ultimately sparked Fadwa’s unique protest. Her protest to show the poor aren’t being helped and their needs are not being met.

Dr. Segall states, “When performing protest, bodies are political” (211). This is exactly what Fadwa uses her body for when she risks her life in desperation for her story to be heard. Desperate for political change, she lites her body on fire in front of city hall for all to see. In this act of complete sacrificial protest, Fadwa gains back control of her life. The power and freedom that the Moroccan government had stripped her from is displayed in the moment of her public suicide. She gains control over her destiny.

After reading her story, I have realized the importance of listening. Listening to a people want changesingle person’s story even if it may contain pain and sorrow. And allowing myself to let go of whatever I may be caught up in my own life in order to cry and lament or rejoice and celebrate when necessary with that person. Whatever the occasion, I want to be able to let go of my own struggles for just a moment and acknowledge the deep issues taking place in another’s life.

Fadwa was rejected the simple right to have a safe place for her family to live, something we all take for granted in America. The frustration and anguish that Fadwa experienced is unfathomable to me but I know the least I can do is listen and share her story. Her story makes me wonder what would have happened if someone was willing to stand with Fadwa and listen to her. If someone was willing to care enough for this woman’s life the moment she stood in front of town hall ready to lite the match, maybe she would still be on this earth. Maybe something would have been different.

An Approach to Alternative Mapping

August 17, 2015

“The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy” (Orphan Pamuk)

morocco-fes-fes-el-bali-tanneryAs a Westerner about to travel to Morocco, I already anticipate that impressionable first intake of non-Western soil. I imagine disembarking the boat and being bombarded with all the colors, sights, sounds, and smells of a single first experience, eager to catalogue random tidbits of anything giving off a foreign vibe. But how can I cultivate a conscious resistance to generalization and stereotype prior to this introduction? How can I develop an alternative mapping, not limited to tourism? By educating oneself! Though that’s the simplified solution. More than following up with the news, more than charting boundaries based on political regimes or catering to any single idea of democracy in light of Arab Springs, look to see how people name themselves in creative forms in response to sites of trauma, of collective memory, of atrocity, resistance, and injustice – in effect, acknowledging the sacred spaces that define a community of people. The inherent difficulty behind this acknowledgment resides in the blind spots that arise from the hegemonic social paradigm promulgated by Western media. To name a few: there needs to be an active relinquishing of post 9/11 racism. In the context of our own sturdy wall separating church and state, we need to admit that we are nervous and dislike the idea of hybrid religious and political identities that in turn inhibit recognition of internal religious disputes. To continue, it is not the case that mass media has an exclusive globalizing effect and people need to accept the very prominent existence of Islamic feminism that deviates from the widely circulated image of the oppressed Muslim woman. And furthermore, we need to seriously relinquish the notion that the West has monopoly over an objective democratic recipe by which we measure the merit of external democratic pursuits (although it’s more like we don’t acknowledge other democratic efforts unless they are a direct offspring of our influence). As a traveling Westerner, I need to begin asking myself the question of “What groups are dismissed, labeled, or excluded by the Western press from this idea of democratic desire” (xix)? Upon entering a region, there needs to be a conscious effort to try to avoid the “dangerous fiction of a unified culture” while listening for the pluralistic voices in local protest that redefine democratic performance.  In regards to nations in mid democratic bloom, it helps to become consciously aware of these restrictions, biases, and generalizations characteristic of one’s own social paradigm as a means to better hear and become acquainted with the true authentic nature and hopes of another non-Western culture.

From a political state of melancholy, there stems social change and a need for creative emotional forums to reclaim identity and move toward communal healing. Segall’s Performing Democracy in Iraq and South Africa seeks to illuminate these “alternative spaces of communication and reception” (xvii). She adds three correctives: amid these creative spaces, there is a connected reimagining of gender locations, social contestation, and artistic revision. Flowers handed to guardsAs travelers, we need to attempt to see the beauty behind the overarching vision imagined by the people, the fodder for the community’s fight for justice and change. New cultural forms are emerging to lend all kinds of people voices and platforms to incite action, challenging previous gender roles and finding artistic outlets to encourage the impetus that is ushering in both political transformation and an excitement shared by communities over having so many creative venues to communicate through.  We need to ask ourselves what types of storylines do we dismiss as anomalies and which testimonies do we disregard on the grounds of not complying with the single stories Western media feed us?  Because those stories are very likely the ones we need to start paying attention to.