America never was America to me

America First, the President says, and I know he is not talking about me. But this feeling is not new. I remember being in high school, shaking with self-doubt, as our country prepared for a war I did not understand. “Maybe I am the problem?” So I sought out ways to solve it. I read about Islam in hopes of learning what it was about the religion that led to so much death and destruction. But, confused, I found nothing beyond the beauty of the words I grew up reading with my family on Friday evenings.

When my father prayed on the side of the road during a family trip to New York, I remember hating him for having the nerve to be himself. I remember the generalizations I heard from politicians and the media, the rationalizations for the phrase “Islamic terror.” It’s Islamic because they kill in the name of Allah. That was all it took. Say Allah’s name and you have the power to rebrand an entire religion. I believed them. I quietly accepted the bastardizations of my faith, because it was easier.

I remember being in gym class. One of the boys cackled with his friends as I stepped up to bat. He yelled, “Yeah, El-bomb!” I laughed along as if I was in on the joke. People have died. I can take a little joke. I didn’t know then that this was the beginning. That years later, I would feel a constant unease that would soon harden into anger. That the passive patience with which my family withstood yells of “Human bomb!” during a day trip to the amusement park would soon morph into heartbreak. That 15 years later, the morning after the Presidential elections, my mother would tell me softly that she has no home. Both Iran and America have become foreign to her – one with time, the other with circumstance. I swung the bat and missed the ball deliberately.

That day, we planted a flag in our yard because we were fearful, because surrounded by the pageantry of patriotism, we knew that if we did not partake, we would be eyed with suspicion. One morning, I awoke to find my father in the front yard standing over our broken mailbox. He walked back inside and smiled as soon as he saw me. “Some high school seniors must have been having fun last night,” he said. But no other mailboxes on the block were broken. No other yards littered with shards of plastic and wood. I realized then, in that moment, that this country will never make room for me and my family. We can claim America, but America will never claim us.

Still, I accepted my role as the spokesperson for good Muslims everywhere. I stood before my classes and separated myself from all the brown people who looked like me and decided to kill. I reminded my peers that I mourned on 9/11 too, that seeing my country attacked devastated me too… There was no room for me to grieve. I explained and apologized until I forgot what I was sorry for.

But I am tired of apologizing. I am tired of defending my own existence, of proving my own humanity. I don’t think I ever knew what just being felt like – that calm, confident ownership of your own body. The way my father prostrated, kissed the earth, and stood up without a word. To this day, my parents are not bitter, but accepting. They are used to injustice, I suppose. But I am breathless, seething. I am defensive in my American skin.

I know now that America was never mine. I am an accident, a fluke. I should have been born thousands of miles away. I should have been Iranian. And maybe I would have been, if America hadn’t intervened in that nation’s experiment of democracy in 1953.

America was never mine. But I am an accident in America’s making.

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?

Can Islamic Feminism Succeed?

Muslim. American. Iranian.

Ever since I was a young girl, I have sought to reconcile these seemingly conflicting identities. As I grew older, I realized that the hardest identity to reconcile was the one I had actually overlooked.

Woman. islamicfem

I have been reading a lot about Islamic feminism lately, mostly as research for my graduate capstone project, but also because I am fascinated by Muslim women’s efforts to have it both ways. Women like Afsaneh Najmabadi, Nayereh Tohidi and Ziba Mir-Hosseini have written extensively about the use of Islam – the essence of which is submission to God – as a tool for emancipation. They search for the theological basis for gender equality and freedom for women. They assert their right to engage in a major feature of Shia Islam known as ijtihad, which allows for the individual interpretation of Islamic law and the adaptation of faith to modern times. They negotiate and renegotiate what it means to be a Muslim woman in largely patriarchal societies. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim woman living in Iran or the United States. Chances are, your life is dictated by rules set forth by men. Islamic feminists turn the tables, using the same tools that long justified their oppression to justify their liberation.

It’s an undertaking that, I suppose, many Muslim women (including myself) unconsciously perform on a daily basis. But to what end? I want to believe in the ability of Islamic feminism to transform the state of women throughout the Middle East. But as long as Islamic feminists pursue their goals within the confines of religion, specifically religious government, I’m afraid they are doomed to fail. For instance, Iran’s male-dominated clerical regime is not likely to accept the theological interpretations of women as the basis of law. The government prevents women from pursuing positions of authority. The Supreme Leader will always be male. No matter what, the efforts of Islamic feminists will only reproduce the same anti-democratic hierarchies.

The theories of Islamic feminists are just that – theories. This is not to say they lack significance. On the contrary, their endeavors to reinterpret Islam bring new, progressive and challenging ideas to the forefront. In so doing, they undoubtedly help countless Muslim women discover their personal sense of agency, which can be an important force for change. But, in Iran, the foundations are broken. Patriarchy inevitably wins. And women’s attempts at religious interpretation are destined to fall through the cracks.


“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…