Monday, July 29, 2013

Maureen Dowd, Here's the Delete Key.

So a couple of days after the excruciatingly ridiculous "interview" of Reza Aslan by Lauren Green on Fox News, we have Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, whose column I read religiously and whose book The End of Men I have on my bookshelf, opining about Huma Abedin and why she stays with Anthony Weiner.

And all I can say is "No, no, no."

Here are a few of the offending lines in the column entitled "Time To Hard-Delete Carlos Danger":

WHEN you puzzle over why the elegant Huma Abedin is propping up the eel-like Anthony Weiner, you must remember one thing: Huma was raised in Saudi Arabia, where women are treated worse by men than anywhere else on the planet.

It gets worse: 

Comparatively speaking, the pol from Queens probably seems like a prince.  

Then there's this: 

Huma gained renown, movie star suitors and a Vogue spread as the stylish Muslim Garbo silently and efficiently parting the waves for Hillary.

And finally, before I facepalm myself to death, Dowd quotes a "friend":

“As soon as she stood up to say those words she changed herself from a sophisticated, mysterious guiding intelligence and beauty next to Hillary Clinton to the wife of a tarnished Anthony Weiner.” 

Wa-hey! Racism and sexism in the same column: a two-fer that I wasn't expecting when I slapped down my dollars for the paper. First Dowd mentions Abedin's upbringing in Saudi Arabia as the reason for her Stockholm Syndrome, as if women across all races and cultures haven't stood by philandering men throughout the ages. Where was Hillary Clinton raised? Riyadh? Jeddah? Dammam? Oh, that's right, Illinois. Oops. Then Dowd smears all Arab men by saying that Carlos Danger and his Wandering Penis is princely in comparison to, you know, all of them...

Okay, so it's kind of fashionable to slam Muslims these days. I get that. You just can't help yourself, Maureen, we'll overlook it like it's a disease. An addiction if you prefer. Which is kind of the same thing. But what's this? You then take the "Huma Abedin is a Muslim doormat" rhetoric which Rush Limbaugh stated in his own idiotic radio show and agree with it, by saying that Huma was most effective when she was "silently and efficiently parting the waves" (I'll ignore the "Muslim Garbo" quip, even though I think you've been harping way too much about Huma's religion and cultural background while omitting the fact that she is the daughter of two PhDs. And as if the most important thing about the woman is her religion, not her citizenship, her work, her accomplishments).

And then you reinforce it with the quote from the "friend" (with friends like this, etc. etc.) - Huma standing up to speak for herself ruined her image and brought her down to the level of wronged wife. No more mysterious guiding intelligence! So what are you saying, a silent woman is a smarter woman? Muslim women are best received when they remain closed-mouthed? So they don't have to trouble you with their perfect American accents and, you know, those words coming out of their mouths?

I don't know what kind of image you want Huma Abedin to espouse, but trust me, she's no victim. The woman is a barracuda, well-versed in what it takes to survive in Washington. And yes, Muslim women know how to do this as well as Christian or Jewish or atheist or agnostic or Hindu... okay I'm getting tired now.

God, but I'm disappointed in you, Maureen. I expected better than this. Huma Abedin needs to call up Olivia Pope and convince her to take her on as a client, because clearly her attempt to control all this damage isn't good enough for you. But you need to look for the delete key on your keyboard, and  learn how to use it. Because that's what you should have done before publishing this ridiculous article.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Here Comes the Burka Avenger! (And she's going to kick your ass)

I've just watched the first episode of Burka Avenger GEO TV's new cartoon for children about a woman called Jiya, mild-mannered schoolteacher by day, superhero by night, who dons a burka in order to fight villains in her village. They're corrupt baddies who try to shut down the girls' school and wreak all sorts of havoc on the villagers because, well, they're villains. Accompanying Burka Avenger on her adventures are three children and a goat, who may well turn out to be the surprise star of the series because he's so darned cute.

Don't mess with the lady in black
The lady in black, the lady in black
Don't mess with the lady in black
When she's on the attack! (Theme song by Haroon and Adil Omer)

The animation is slick, the production values high (way too many commercials, though!), the motivation behind the series noble: pens and books are more powerful weapons than guns and bombs. It was funny, and quite cute, and spreads a good message, coming at a time when Malala Yousufzai and education activists and millions of school-going children are trying to prove that Pakistan is a more fertile ground for education than for terrorism.  It's a brilliant idea, too, because rather than lecturing children from a position of adult authority, it has the potential to get children excited about going to school, placing within the context of a fight between good and evil. This way, the show can teach them values they're easily primed to grasp because of their previous exposure to cartoons and superheroes.

I'm especially pleased that the superhero is a woman, not a man. Pakistani society is hypermasculinized: children are used to seeing men in positions of power and authority, as leaders, military men, policemen, et cetera. They absorb this as the natural order of things from such early ages that it's almost impossible to undo this conditioning later in life. Whereas the women of Pakistan are the silent heroes on the frontlines of the war we've got ourselves involved in today: schoolteachers, health workers and human rights activists are targeted by extremists and attacked and killed for going out and doing their ordinary jobs. It's wonderful to see a woman being feted for something so true to life, and also to see that when her job is threatened, she doesn't succumb to the aggression but instead fights back and triumphs. The children of Pakistan need this lesson as well.

The show has to be careful not to reinforce stereotypes: I was troubled by the idea of one of the villains, Vadero Pajero (although the name does make me laugh when I hear it out loud) - which may lead children to think that all rural authority figures are evil and want to stop children from going to school. In reality it's the Taliban who are closing down girls' schools, not the waderas, but while the show's producers shy away from naming the Taliban, they're happy to name a wadera as one of the main villains.  It also conflates waderas (literally, influential people in a rural community) with zamindars (landowners), which I find troubling in its inaccuracy.

Perhaps children in the city will swallow this easily as most urban-dwelling people think of rural landowners as the root of all evil in Pakistan, but rural children who watch the program will become confused about their parents' employers, who may or may not be the same as the evil landlord portrayed in the cartoon. I think the producers of the show could do some thinking about this for future episodes, and perhaps introduce a balancing character, a zamindar more sympathetic to Jiya's cause, for example. In our divided society, it's of utmost importance that we introduce harmony between the rural and urban populations, not sow more seeds of division and misunderstanding.

Some people in Pakistan have been questioning the celebration of the Burka in the cartoon, which is a tool of oppression for women in Pakistan.  I hold the same opinion about the burka - the burka is a cultural instrument, not a religious one, and has been used to hold women back. It use restricts you from doing any physical activity, keeps you shrouded in anonymity, and came into fashion when people wanted to look more like Arabs than South Asians. Is it right to take the burka and make it look "cool" for children, to brainwash girls into thinking that a burka gives you power instead of taking it away from you?

There's no simple answer to this question. First of all, the show's producers have made the burka a special outfit to be worn only when there's tough work to be done: Jiya doesn't wear a burka when she's teaching in the school or going about her daily life.

Also, they've done something rather tongue-in-cheek: women wearing burkas often get compared to ninjas. "Ninja Turtle" is a common epithet for burka-wearing women who behave aggressively in public, thinking that the burka gives them the religious superiority and moral authority to break every rule in sight, especially while driving. There are gangs of burka-clad women shoplifting and pickpocketing shoppers in Pakistani shopping malls. The head of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad wore a burka to escape being killed during the siege.

The producers decided to turn this on its head and make the burka wearing Jiya an actual ninja who uses a special kind of martial arts (pens and books instead of nun chucks and swords) against her enemies. She can leap up and levitate in the air, fly from tree to tree, has the moves of Neo from the Matrix combined with an Olympic gymnast. In real life you couldn't do any of that wearing a real burka, but Jiya's burka is magic (and also less voluminous - and she wears black nail polish to match, a cool touch). And a superhero needs her invisibility cloak. Haroon has said it's a step up from the tight costumes of Western superheroes, like Catwoman, Wonder Woman and Supergirl.

The superhero's costume is such an integral part of his or her identity that it's hard to escape from the question of whether or not the burka is an appropriate choice for Pakistan's first female superhero. Yes, the burka is oppressive, and not even religiously mandated. However, we also can't deny the fact that in super-conservative areas of Pakistan (not just rural and mountainous - many women who don't wear a burka in their own villages will wear one in Karachi or Lahore because it's a big city full of strangers), the burka provides women with a modicum of agency. Women who would be confined to their houses are allowed to go out if they are wearing a burka.

I wish it weren't so, but it is. Should we perpetuate the idea that women are strong when they put on the burka? Definitely not. Pakistani girls and women need to know that their natural state of being is not hidden away, shrouded by yards of black cloth to make their presence in society acceptable, safe, or halal. They need to learn that modesty can be interpreted in many different ways, and that a simple shalwar kameez and dupatta are good enough for us, because we're Pakistanis, not Arabs ("Why not Dupatta Dhamaka, which is more in keeping with who we are?" asks writer for the New York Times Huma Yusuf). It will horrify me if little girls start wearing burkas in imitation of their hero, because that would be indoctrination of the worst kind.

Afghanistan's first female street artist Shamsia Hussaini's work:
 "Art is Stronger Than War"
My perfect ending to the Burka Avenger series would be that after the villains are vanquished, Jiya hangs up her burka in the closet and never needs to wear it again.

You can read about Burka Avenger in the New York Times here. I'm quoted in the piece.

Here are Adil Omar's lyrics for the theme song, "Lady in Black", which I adore wholeheartedly.

Camouflage, shadows and darkness
No guns, but got ammo regardless
A backpack so she's coming prepared
To leave the opposition in submission, running in fear
Yeah - superhero got 'em kicking and screaming
In hysterics, these clerics had envisioned a demon 
A spirit so quick to deliver a beating
To the enemies of peace, love, logic and reason
Yeah - hit 'em with a logical reason
Kill extremism, corruption and just stop it from breathing
The way it was, she'll be taking it back
So tune in for the story of the lady in black

Don't mess with the lady in black
The lady in black, the lady in black
Don't mess with the lady in black
When she's on the attack

Don't mess with the lady in black
The lady in black, the lady in black
Don't mess with the lady in black
When she's on the attack

Lean, mean, covered from her head to her toes
In a one piece, slick invisibility cloak
She got her eyes visible so she can give you the look
And lay the smack down on all these dirty killers and crooks
Like a panther going in for the attack and the win
The lethal weapon in her hands is a book and a pen
The silent ninja, vigilante in the dark of the night
Would never roll over, cause she has to stand up and fight
Her fists banging harder than the drums in the song
Reminisce about the time before the guns and the bombs
The way it was, she'll be taking it back
so stay tuned for the story of the lady in black

Don't mess with the lady in black
The lady in black, the lady in black
Don't mess with the lady in black
When she's on the attack

Don't mess with the lady in black
The lady in black, the lady in black
Don't mess with the lady in black
When she's on the attack

Sindh is For Lovers

When I was a little girl growing up in Virginia, I used to watch a commercial on TV made to attract tourists to the state. The tagline: "Virginia is for lovers". I was too little to understand what they meant by lovers - ah the innocence of youth - but now that I'm an adult, and I don't live in Virginia anymore, I know there are many different types of lovers. And the lovers that I am most taken by now are not the ones found in Virginia, but the ones found in Sindh: the Sufis, who are Lovers of Allah, their Beloved.

This is always brought to my mind when I bask in the beauty that is Sindh's religion, its philosophy, its mantra and its atmosphere: Sufism, that branch of mystical Islam that believes music, poetry and dance is the heart of the connection to the Divine. That believes in tolerance, peace, and love for all of God's creations. That will never take up a gun or a bomb but relies on the beautiful poetry of Shah Abdul Latif, Sachal Sarmast, Qalandar Shahbaz, and countless others, old and new, dead and alive, who promote love to draw people close to God. That reveres the saints buried in the mysterious shrines all over the land as enlightened beings, in whose presence you feel your soul elevated and filled with knowledge of the mystery that is our Truth.

Listen to the music of this lovely Sindhi Sufi rock band, The Sketches, from Jamshoro in Sindh, to understand why we in Sindh can never abandon our traditions of music, of poetry, of dance and art, but instead think of these disciplines as sacred pathways. Even if you don't understand Sindhi, even if you aren't religious, the message will go straight to your heart and purify it, freeing it from the everyday concerns and the small vanities and all the grievances, burning them out until all that is left is gratitude and joy.

I didn't fail to notice the sentiments of people after the recent elections - we were run down and lambasted for voting traditionally - some call that foolishness, others, loyalty. Politics is, to be honest, a fool's pursuit, far beneath the worth of what is truly important - striving for the next world, not to be caught up in the dirt and squalor of this one. Still, we must balance both the din and the duniya, be in this world but not of it. I too was hurt by those who called us jahils, uneducated, fools and idiots, berating us because we didn't vote the way they wanted them to. They are arrogant, but arrogance and ignorance are so often directly proportional, so often go hand in hand, that the ones pointing the finger are often the ones most ignorant of all.

Sindh is the land of Sufism, of enlightenment, of icons and heroes and heroines and martyrs. The land of Shah Abdul Latif's Seven Queens. The land that accepted the refugees from India with open arms after Partition, the land that moved the Pakistan Resolution in the Indian Assembly when others opposed it. The land of Moehnjo Daro, one of the world's oldest civilizations. A land of prosperity, bounty, and beauty. We have a heritage and a history that should make us feel privileged and proud, yet we remain humble and self-effacing, because that is what our culture teaches us.

If you are from Sindh, as I am, a special message to you: never, ever let anyone make you feel ashamed of being a Sindhi. We have every reason in the world to hold our heads high.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ramazan Mubarak, Here's a Baby

I'm on the BBC talking about this news story...

Happy Birthday, John Siddique!

Today is my friend the British poet John Siddique's birthday. I reviewed his best-selling book of poems, Full Blood, for the Dawn and after that we became good friends. We met last year in his home town of Hebden Bridge, a beautiful, idyllic village in Yorkshire, set amongst rolling green hills, deep valleys, and flowing rivers - the perfect place to be a writer, I think.

John is small and slight, with an Irish twinkle in his deep, India-ink brown eyes. He has a ready smile and a steady laugh, a melodious voice with a Northern burr, and a shaven head because some skulls are too beautiful to remain hidden by hair.

As a person, he is true-hearted and sweet, sincere and honest. He's also slightly daft, as most writers need to be, is wonderful with children, and exceptionally kind to everyone. He knows how to take pain deep into the belly and turn it into poetry that sings of love, hope, and redemption.

Happy birthday, John! May your light always shine brightly in this dark, shifting world. You make the dark times easier to bear.

Imagine thirst without knowing water.
And you ask me what freedom means.
Imagine love without love.
Some things are unthinkable,
until one day the unthinkable is here.
Imagine thirst without knowing water.
Some things we assume just are as they are,
no action is taken to make or sustain them.
Imagine love without love.
It is fear that eats the heart: fear and
endless talk, and not risking a step.
Imagine thirst without knowing water.
Fold away your beautiful thoughts.
Talk away curiosity, chatter away truth.
Imagine love without love.
Imagine believing in the whispers,
the screams and the gossip. Dancing to a tune
with no song to sing inside you.
Imagine love without love.