Learning and un-learning your own stereotype

When I was growing up, Islam colored almost every aspect of my life – from my clothes, to my social life, to the food I ate. It also motivated me to seek success, to get good grades, to focus on improving the world around me. When my parents taught me to pray five times a day, to fast, and to read the Quran, they did so not because of God-fearing dogma, but because they wanted their daughter to grow up to be a well-rounded, intelligent woman. They wanted me to strive for something bigger than myself. And my experience is not unique. Most Muslim women I know, living in the United States and abroad, can relate to it.

Why, then, does the world insist on seeing us as the exception and not the norm? Despite all the amazing and accomplished Muslim women throughout the world – from heads of state, to human rights leaders, to scholars, to athletes – the stereotype of the Muslim woman persists: voiceless, oppressed, and bereft of rights.

The stereotype is so far from my experience, that I actually had to learn about it. From Hollywood, in fact. Not Without My Daughter (1991) was my first introduction to the stifled, battered woman tyrannized by Islam. The effect of this film was so strong on me and my family (and, as it happens, on the entire Iranian-American community) that, to this day, we cannot bring ourselves to forgive Sally Field for her propagandist portrayal of Betty Mahmoody.

But before I ever knew Betty Mahmoody existed, I learned about Zaynab. She was the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad and the daughter of Imam Ali and Fatemeh. The story of Zaynab’s courage, strength, and wisdom was told and re-told every Ashura when my family and I would go to masjid. After the Battle of Karbala, she and her family were taken captive and brought to the court of the ruling despot Yazid. Amid Zaynab’s protests, Yazid asked, “Who is this arrogant woman?” So began Zaynab’s renowned sermon, as she spoke against oppression, injustice, and bravely defended the rights of her family.

It took me years to realize that my feminism is rooted in Islam – that it is not at odds with, but nourished by my faith. In times of darkness or uncertainty, I will do my best to channel Zaynab. Especially now, when my identity as a Muslim woman has been twisted and bastardized, when I feel breathless explaining and apologizing for events outside of myself, when the hatred emanating from the highest levels of government hangs over me like a constant cloud, when my place in my own country is questioned.

Especially now, I will channel Zaynab.

Black and brown deaths – and the lessons that die with them

Today is Eid-al-Fitr, the Islamic holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But I cannot bring myself to wish my friends and family Eid Mobarak. I cannot stop thinking about what happened several days ago, two days ago, yesterday, today.

Istanbul. Baghdad. Medina. Jeddah. Qatif. Dhaka.web1_111210532-bf0c8bbfe49346c784007fb6854ceb3c

Baton Rouge.

We are breathless. We are exhausted. We are broken.

It is difficult to celebrate when the foundations of your faith crumble beneath your feet. No, not faith in God. Faith in humanity.

Daesh, better known in Western media outlets as ISIS, slaughtered hundreds in the Middle East – not unlike the horrifying attacks in Orlando, Brussels or Paris. And yet, there is no collective outrage. No red-faced TV pundits demanding justice. No screaming or filibustering politicians, no silent protests on the floor of Congress. Muslim grief is not collective grief. It’s deserved. It’s par for the course. They brought it upon themselves, says David Frum.

And this morning, we wake up to the news that police in Baton Rouge tackled, mounted, shot and killed 37-year-old Alton Sterling in front of the convenience store where he worked. His crime? He was a black man with a gun. Like millions of other Americans, he had a gun. Like this San Diego white man, who was only injured and disarmed by police, Sterling had a gun. The owner of the convenience store said the gun wasn’t even in Sterling’s hands when he was killed.

I haven’t turned on cable news. It’s easier to live in the social media echo chamber that is Facebook and Twitter. Because the reality is much too disturbing. The justifications for why a 12-year-old black boy with a toy gun should be shot and killed in cold blood are much too painful to hear. The argument that a 17-year-old unarmed black boy with Skittles in hand brought his death upon himself is much too agonizing to process.

Blame the victims. It’s easier. Blame their religion, the color of their skin, the way they dress, the things they said. They should have, they could have. But what does it matter anyway? They’re dead. The lesson they would have learned died with them.

What is our lesson? In a world where people care little about black and brown bodies, where people have the luxury of absolving themselves of guilt or responsibility for deaths thousands of miles away, where empathy and remorse have geographical and racial limits, where people throw their hands up, shrug their shoulders, and casually mutter “All Lives Matter…”

What is our lesson?

“The World Did Not Love Us”

Last weekend, Iran hanged 26-year-old Reyhaneh Jabbari for the 2007 murder of a former intelligence officer, who, Jabbari claimed, had tried to rape her. Human rights organizations have described the seven-year investigation as deeply flawed and unfair and Jabbari’s execution has been widely condemned by the international community. In a final letter to her mother (full text here), Jabbari delivers a tragic and heartbreaking message reflective of the sorry state of women’s rights in Iran.

You taught us that as we go to school one should be a lady in face of the quarrels and complaints. Do you remember how much you underlined the way we behave? Your experience was incorrect. When this incident happened, my teachings did not help me. Being presented in court made me appear as a cold-blooded murderer and a ruthless criminal. I shed no tears. I did not beg. I did not cry my head off since I trusted the law … The world did not love us. It did not want my fate. And now I am giving in to it and embrace the death.

Rest in peace, Reyhaneh.

“In our country, it is the law that rapes us”

A seemingly harmless social media movement undertaken by women throughout Iran has generated some serious vitriol on the part of the Iranian government. I first wrote about the Facebook unveiling movement a month ago. Since then, Iranian hardliners have launched a vicious smear campaign, falsely claiming that the movement’s founder, London-based Masih Alinejad, was brutally raped by three men in front of her son. An Iranian TV commentator went so far as to call Alinejad “a whore who should not be elevated to the level of a heretic.”

The implication here is clear: Women who remove their veils are not only at risk of sexual assault, they deserve it.

When I first wrote about the Facebook unveiling movement, I argued that such social media activism is a remarkable and influential outlet for free expression, particularly in countries that limit civil rights. The unveiling activism is made all the more powerful because the Iranian government is limited in its ability to contain the movement. Indeed, Iran’s recent attempt at countering Alinejad’s campaign is desperate, bizarre, and emblematic of a government that, thanks especially to the defiance of its young people, has never managed to fully control its civilians.

Masih Alinejad/Washington Post Courtesy Photo
Masih Alinejad/Washington Post Courtesy Photo

It’s also familiar. Just a few weeks ago, government authorities arrested six Iranians who uploaded a YouTube video of themselves dancing to Pharrell’s song “Happy.” They were released days later, shortly after Iranian president Hassan Rouhani tweeted, “#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy.” It certainly wasn’t the first time his administration delivered mixed messages via social media. Rouhani has stated that the Internet should be free and unfiltered, but has been careful not to stir up anger from conservative Islamic leadership. In fact, since his administration took over, the country experienced a noticeable increase in Internet censorship.

Incidents like these are a product of the unrelenting struggle between Iranian youth and the Islamic regime. More than 60 percent of Iranians are under the age of 30. This means that most Iranians have no memory of and no real attachment to the events that led to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. These young Iranians are progressive, educated and tech-savvy. And since the 2009 Iranian election protests, the perceived threat they pose to the Islamic establishment has clearly intensified.

Rouhani is obviously playing both sides. But his give and take leadership style is not likely to bring about real reforms. It seems the Iranian government can continue to act as it pleases, while its president drowns out their deeds with tweets.


“There is no better ambassador than football”


Dan Gaspar, assistant coach of the Iranian national soccer team said it best.  Since the 1970s, Gaspar, an American,  has coached several teams throughout the world, from leagues in Portugal to Japan to South Africa. He called his most recent gig as Iran’s coach a “unique opportunity,” enabling him to experience an Iran quite unlike what is typically portrayed in the media. “It may sound strange to most people, but I’ve worked on four continents and Iran is one of the safest places I’ve worked in,” he said.

In the spirit of shattering cultural misconceptions, let’s take a moment to meet a few of the Iranian players Gaspar is coaching, with this great breakdown by AP writer John Duerden. I’ll be rooting for Team Melli as they face Nigeria, Bosnia and Argentina in the first round. All I ask, World Cup Gods, is that they advance to the second stage this year…

Unveiling on Facebook

In the years since the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East and the Iranian Green Movement, scholars, writers and pundits of all shapes and sizes have been questioning the real impact of social media in creating lasting change. “Slacktivism” is a term we often hear in conjunction with such analyses, referring to the lazy activism taken up mostly by outsiders who do little to contribute to the issue at hand. I, myself, have been guilty of it. When the Green Movement was in full force in the summer of 2009, I watched the news powerlessly from thousands of miles away. Like many Iranian-Americans, the most I could do was change my Facebook profile picture to an image of the popular slogan, “Where is my vote?”

Researchers have found that social media tends to play a minimal role even inside the countries where such movements are taking place. In Iran, for example, most of the tweets about the Green Revolution actually came from outside the country. Iranians had limited access to social media during the Green Movement, as the government had blocked Twitter and Facebook.

FACEBOOK/آزادی های یواشکی زنان در

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a cynical and much-cited essay for The New Yorker in which he downplays the influence of social media as a tool for activism. “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties,” he writes, and “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” 

Yes, Gladwell is correct in his argument that a Facebook user’s decision to change his or her profile picture pales in comparison to the high-risk actions of civil rights protesters in the 1960s. But he ignores cases in which social media has been an outlet for free expression, in stark defiance against oppressive governments that would prefer their citizens silenced.

Case in point: “The Great Unveiling” movement, as Vocativ calls it. Women throughout Iran have been posting to Facebook photos of themselves in which they are (gasp!) de-veiled. It may seem tame and light-hearted on the surface, but we’d be wrong to ignore the bravery of these women and the inherent activism in this. In a country that actively monitors and enforces a strict dress code for women, this is a direct challenge. The movement’s founder has faced criticism from Iranian conservatives but, besides banning Facebook, the government can do little to stop it (in fact, even a ban would be ineffectual in the long-term, as most Iranians can get around them).

I’d say it’s time for a reassessment, Gladwell. This one’s a definite win for social media.