Intersectionality

Inter/section/ality

Notes from talk, “An introduction to intersectionality,” given at Seomra Spraoi on 23 April 2014.

Inter/section/ality

Different definitions lead to different applications. Context is important. Intersectionality is a means not an end. (What is the end?)

Origins: Comes from struggle, from the lived experiences of people (mostly women) who experienced oppression/discrimination that felt had multiple origins connected to their class, race, gender and sexual orientation. (Combahee River Collective)

Then, there was an impulse to study these intersections and give the study of these intersections a name. Kimberley Crenshaw did this in 1989 when she coined the term intersectionality. Intersectionality then became  a method for studying the means by which we engage the intersection and overlapping of social identity categories and systems of oppression.

Social identity categories can be: Age, race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, levels of ableness, nationality, visa status, occupation, relationship status, religion/non-religion, dependents, etc.

Social Oppression: Social oppression is a concept that describes a relationship of dominance and subordination between categories of people in which one benefits from the systematic abuse, exploitation, and injustice directed toward the other. Because social oppression describes relationships between categories of people, it should not be confused with the oppressive behavior of individuals. In social oppression, all members of a dominant and subordinate categories participate regardless of the individual attitudes or behavior.

Oppression comes from the Latin root opprimere, meaning to “press down.”

Examples: Sexism, heterosexism, cisgenderism, classism, racism, colorism, ableism, lookism, nativism, colonialism, etc.

 

Asks of us to:

Arundhati Roy,  “To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple.”

 Audre Lorde, “There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.”

 Intersectionality also asks us to be introspective examine what privileges we have, as well as how it can create forms of oppression for others.

Strategies of resistance/intersectionality and social movements:

  1. Intersectionality can help us to identify ways in which we can build coalitions across single-issue political movements. Examples,LGBTQI, choice, immigration, taxation justice,de-carceration, work place organizing.
    1. Example the queer movement taking up the issues of immigration and economic justice as a way to build a broader coalition.
    2. Sex workers taking on issues of immigration and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
    3. Religious groups using texts and faith practices to make arguments for social justice (think liberation theology).
  2. Contextualize our position in the world relative to others. Ngugi, “Our propensity to action or inaction or to a certain kind of action or inaction, can be profoundly affected by the way we look at the world.”
  3. Countering narratives/telling a different story. Ben Okri, “Discursive change is a precondition for structural change.”
  4. Understanding the relationship between oppression and exploitation.MarthaGimenez responds, “To argue, then, that class is fundamental is not to ‘reduce’ gender or racial oppression to class, but to acknowledge that the underlying basic and ‘nameless’ power at the root of what happens in social interactions grounded in ‘intersectionality’ is class power.”
    1. The working class holds the potential to lead a struggle in the interests of all those who suffer injustice and oppression. This is because both exploitation and oppression are rooted in capitalism. Exploitation is the method by which the ruling class robs workers of surplus value; the various forms of oppression play a primary role in maintaining the rule of a tiny minority over the vast majority. In each case, the enemy is one and the same.
  5. Resistance. Necessitate a transformation of what we understand or value about resistance. Arundhati Roy, “But I think we really need to reimagine nonviolent resistance, because there isn’t any debate taking place that is more important in the world today than the one about strategies of resistance. There can never be one strategy. People are never going to agree about one strategy. It can’t be that while we watch the American war machine occupy Iraq, torture its prisoners, appropriate its resources, we are waiting for this pristine secular, democratic, nonviolent, feminist resistance to come along. We can’t prescribe to the Iraqis how to conduct their resistance, but we have to shore up our end of it by forcing America and its allies to leave Iraq now.”
  6. “White-y on the moon.” International Solidarity Activism post Arab Spring has become redundant.
  7. Calling-out vs. Calling-in: Compassionate vs. confrontational. Audre Lorde, “Hopefully, we can learn from the 60s that we cannot afford to do our enemies work by destroying each other.”
  8. Recognition of our own mortality and the enormity of the struggle WE face.

 

pakistan parrot

On Malala Yousafzai & the Importance of Examining Narratives

A lot of folks have asked my opinion recently on Malala Yousefzai and her advocacy for the cause of girl’s education in Pakistan. I come to my opinion purely as a consumer of mainly Atlantic-centric media (or Anglophone media from the perspective of writers in Europe and America), and as an activist.

With that said, I think the lauding of Malala and the recent granting of ‘Malal Day’ at the U.N. is indicative of a particular worldview that has become quite problematical for people who neither support an imperialist nor an Islamo-centric world view. I should be careful to qualify here that I do not see the two as equivalent in terms of the power they yield, but rather that neither has the political acumen nor the interests of ordinary people at heart.

Whilst I do not agree with those folks who I would describe as conspiracy theorists, putting forward the idea that Malala is an agent of the CIA. I do, however, believe based on her public statements, that even at her tender age she promotes a certain vision of the multiple issues at play in Pakistan that is politically useful for those in power in the US, Europe and at the UN. Her desire to advocate for the education of girls in Pakistan is undoubtedly an aim worth supporting, but it does not mean that we cannot have a critical understanding of what she presents and promotes.

It is for this reason that the recent letter written by a Taleban commander, Adnan Rasheed, is of particular importance. My impression from watching news and reading articles is that the letter presents some uncomfortable points of view, and has thus mainly been down played by Malala and the public relations firm that represents her.

Firstly, it is interesting to note that Adnan admits that it was the Taleban who are responsible for shooting Malala and 14 other girls on a bus in Pakistan. This has put to bed critics who claimed that other groups, not the Pakistani Taleban, were responsible. Yet where Malala claims the reason for this attack has to do with her education advocacy, Adnan’s letter puts forward another claim. He writes that girls’ education is long a part of the history of Islamic civilization, and therefore is not contrary to the particular political aims of the Taleban (this of course is questionable). It was, however, Malala’s-in his words- “smear campaign” against the Taleban that provoked the attack on her. Now again for those who might jump on me here, I do not think anyone agrees that a legitimate response to the pronouncements of a young girls can include assassination attempts. The difference of opinion about why Malala was targeted reveals a narrative that is more complex than the story is usually presented to us.

I will not go too far into the politics of present day Pakistan, especially those transpiring in its north-west provinces (sometimes referred to as the ‘tribal areas’), but to say that it is often reported that the Taleban blows up schools, especially girls schools, because they do not wish girls to be educated. However, as Adnan writes, and other media sources reveal, this is not the entirety of the story. It seems to me, rather, that schools are used by both the Pakistani Taleban and the Pakistani army as places to store supplies, plan attacks, etc. Is it convenient for the Pakistani Taleban that some of these schools are also for girls and they can essentially kill two birds with one stone? I would say yes. But I do not think that the campaign in these areas necessarily focuses on bombing girls schools for the sake of it, but like many tactics in a protracted conflict, it is a part of a larger strategy. I do not think the Pakistani government is involved in the Swat region out of some sort of feminist mission, and thus it is necessary to examine these things in further detail.

So if we take for example the perspective of the Pakistani Taleban that Malala was in fact engaged in assisting the Pakistani military in a propaganda war against the Talebs, it puts her claims that she was targeted merely for promoting education for girls into a more complex light.

On another level, we have to remember that this is an area of the world that has been highly politicized and that there are wars being fought on several battlefields at once. The conflict in the Swat Valley of Pakistan is related, though not the same as, the battle in neighbouring Afghanistan. And like Afghanistan there are local, regional, and international stake holders that play their roles in the conflict. Part of the complexity is that in a world where things are so globalized the actions and events on all three of these different levels can affect each other sometimes simultaneously. Just as the situation where the pastor in Florida who wanted to burn the Qur’an brought about riots in cities across Afghanistan, so can the speeches of a 16-year-old girl have reverberations around the world.

Where the rhetoric used by Adnan Rasheed in his letter to Malala comes across to many Atlantic-centric people as anti-Jewish and promoting a Islamo-totalizing view of our collective future. So too, do the words Malala used in her speech at the UN come across as political to many in the Islamic world. The best examples I can give are her using the words Taleban and terrorist interchangeably throughout her speech. I think we have become so used to the media equating the Taleban with terrorism that we almost forget that this framing comes off as pejorative both to the Talebs and to those who see the Taleban as fighting on their behalves. If Malala is a representative of Pakistan, her equating the Taleb fighters as terrorist sends a certain signal to them about the government’s willingness to negotiate with them and the concerns and communities that give rise to their existence.

Malala specifically calls Pakistan a democratic country, though the military that was helped through her pronouncements against the government acts with impunity, especially in the so-called ‘tribal areas’ where Malala is from. According to many international reports, Pakistan’s penal code and specifically its laws against blasphemy have been used to target both women and minorities. Other issues such as the freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, and broad human rights abuses and exploitation of communities in Baluchistan in addition to the ‘counter-terrorism’ policies of the government paint a disparaging picture for the prospect of meaningful democracy – and it is precisely these sorts of human rights issues and abuses that give rise to groups such as the Taleban. Where religious ideology and political aims meet in transnational militia groups like the Taleban we call it ‘terrorism’. When these are well funded and under the cover of the authority of a state we call it ‘freedom’.

These are precisely the reasons I believe that it is imperative for activists and concerned people of the world to examine the narratives that are placed in front of them for consumption. There is definitely room to feel a sense of pride for a young person who experienced great hardship and tragedy in her aims at advocating for girls education in Pakistan. But that story was just too simple.

As a long time activist on issues to do with the Middle East, I have had to learn to be quite critical of my epistemic framework or at least the one I was socialized with growing up as an American entering my formative intellectual years at the same time as the US began its ‘Global War on Terror’ (what we activists call the Global War OF Terror). The worldview that is presented us in media, especially media that has proven itself to be uncritical of power time and again (see this very good talk on the subject of the media and the Iraq war by acclaimed Egyptian journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous). We need to question people when they use terms like ‘terrorist’, ‘warlord’, ‘Taleban’ and even ‘women’s rights advocate’. We have to remember that there are powerful systems in place, political and economic, that rely on certain narratives that are ultimately self serving, keeping elites in power at the expense of ordinary people. We need to understand that all over the world people have different and varying world views based on their experiences, needs and desires and whilst we all seem to want ‘peace’, ‘education’ and ‘democracy’ the differentiations of power and histories of oppression leave us with very different abilities to achieve these goals.

Malala and many before have taught that the pen is mightier than the sword. I am beginning to believe that is quite true – but not in the way that she meant it. I think that the narratives that are put forward to hide certain kinds of violence, like that of the state or transnational capitalism, have become extremely powerful tools in the fight to silence the poor and working class people of this world. I think we need to wake up to that reality and fight against it as harshly and single-mindedly as we do in our struggles to promote the rights and education of women and girls.

I think Adnan Rasheed’s best points were made when he asked, “If you were shot [by] Americans in a drone attack, would [the] world have ever heard updates on your medical status? … Would you [have been] called to UN? Would a Malala day be announced?”

Would we have the courage to ask such questions to those who hold real power?

Obama Mask Bush

Defeating the Enemy: A Response to Khalid Saghieh

by Rami Elamine

Khalid Saghieh’s “Sleeping with the Enemy: The Global Left and the ‘No to War’ Discourse” in Jadaliyya leaves a lot of questions unanswered, including where exactly he stands on the question of a military strike on Syria. Saghieh, a former editor of the leftist Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, accuses the anti-war movement, particularly in the United States, of siding with the “far right” and making arguments that are Islamophobic, steeped in “cultural imperialism,” and indifferent to the Syrian people. This could not be further from the truth. His critique seems to rely entirely on the distortions, caricatures, and outright lies of the US media and those pushing for intervention.

Saghieh claims that anti-war protesters stood between those holding posters of Bashar al-Asad on one side and those with anti-imperialism slogans that had nothing to do with the Syrian people on the other. The only place you ever saw people holding up Asad’s picture was in the news, and they were always a small number and usually Syrian immigrants. In terms of the anti-imperialist slogans, even the ANSWER Coalition, which is probably who he is referring to, always had something about the Syrian people.

He goes onto say that the anti-war protesters’ “discourse took its vocabulary from the tracts of the far right and, instead of turning its guns on imperialism, turned them on the Syrian people.” Of course, he provides no supporting examples for such an outrageous claim. The fact is that even the far right was not using Islamophobic and racist arguments to make its case. And moderate Republicans were actually making arguments that most on the left would have no trouble getting behind. More importantly, almost every protest, teach-in, petition, article, etcetera against US intervention had support for the Syrian people front and center, mainly through an appeal to help the millions of Syrian refugees. “Money for refugees, not for war” was one of the more popular chants at protests.

Saghieh shows his frustration with Barack Obama’s inability to sell this war to the American people when he chastises Obama for not doing enough to “[design] an ideological banner for his next war.”  He writes, “This time, there would be no ‘battle for democracy’ or war in the name of ‘freedom for Afghan women.’ Not even ‘freedom for the Syrian people.’ This would be a war, rather, about American ‘red lines’ and ‘national security.’” I am not sure how Saghieh missed this, but “humanitarian intervention” is precisely how the Obama Administration justified an attack, just like they did with Libya (which has been such a disaster that they have to now reach way back to Kosovo for an example of a successful intervention). Their mantra has been that this is about a brutal dictator who used chemical weapons on innocent Syrians, including women and children. They know they would not have gotten any support from the American people or Congress’s approval if they did not frame it in these terms. Maybe by denying that humanitarian intervention was in fact the “ideological banner” Obama designed for this war, Saghieh can avoid having to respond to the numerous articlesdebunking its use to justify war.

Saghieh is also frustrated by the connection with the Iraq war that everyone but him was making: “Perhaps most disturbing of all, some have attempted to ‘apply’ the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the Syrian situation….? Why would people not make that comparison given that both the government and the rebels possess chemical weapons and the Obama Administration has yet to present any conclusive evidence that the Syrian government carried out the attack?

But most of all, Saghieh is frustrated with the fact that the American people, of all people, dashed his hopes for a US military intervention. After all, they have not been able to stop any of the other wars the United States has launched over the past ten years. And with Obama at the helm, it should have been easy to coopt a large section of the anti-war movement.

But clearly the American public had had enough. What Saghieh does not account for is that the groundswell against the attack in this country was so massive that it eclipsed the left and the traditional anti-war movement. For a lot of people this was their first time getting involved in politics, and—for them—that meant contacting their congressperson to voice their opposition. They did not take to the streets like hundreds of thousands did during the Iraq war, but ultimately their impact was greater because their numbers were bigger. It was such a broad section of the United States that it of course included many of those on the right as well. However, despite their involvement, the overall tenor of the opposition to intervention was not Islamophobic or anti-Syrian by any means.

So, no, we were not sleeping with the enemy but we were sleeping. Fortunately we have now woken up with a much larger number of people fed up with the death and destruction that the United States and its allies have wrought upon large parts of the world. In addition, for the first time in a long time we succeeded in stopping the real enemy, the US war machine. We feel good because, unlike Saghieh’s apparent stance, we know that the best way to help the Syrian people is to prevent US bombs from falling on their heads and homes.

horrya

Understanding the Syrian Revolution Under 4 Minutes

Published on Mar 6, 2012

In which John Green provides some historical context to the current civil war in Syria, discussing Syrian independence, the rise of the Ba’ath Party, Syria’s relationship with the rest of the Arab world (and Russia), the Presidencies of Hafez al Assad and Bashar al Assad, the Arab Spring protests in Syria, and the many flags of the Syrian nation.

syria tornado

Welcome to Free Syria

by Anand Gopal

Abu Malek was pacing back and forth in the hospital parking lot, muttering to himself and firing off phone calls. “Don’t say ‘How are you’ to me,” he told one caller, “because I am not fine, I am very, very, very, very bad.” The hospital was in the Turkish town of Antakya, and the staff was treating several rebels who had been wounded in the fighting across the border in Syria, about ten miles away. The Syrian army was in the midst of a major offensive, sweeping through one northern town after another with tanks and heavy artillery, trying to kill as many rebel fighters as possible before April 12, when a ceasefire brokered by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan would go into effect. The revolution had been grinding on for more than a year, and as many as 10,000 people had died already.

From Turkey, Malek had followed events closely and stayed in contact with his family in the northern town of Taftanaz. (Malek’s name and those of some of the people mentioned in this article have been changed.) Soon after he learned that the army had surrounded Taftanaz, phone lines were cut, so he sent a friend to retrieve his family. The friend returned with the news that Malek’s mother was missing, his cousins were missing, and his house had been razed.

The government had lost control of Taftanaz near the start of the revolution, and an intricate system of popularly elected councils called tansiqiyyat had been created over the past year—“like miniparliaments, a government for us,” as Malek put it. He had been chosen to represent Taftanaz in Turkey, where he raised funds and cultivated contacts with the international community. He was proud of the rebel councils—they were proof that Syria did not need President Bashar al-Assad—but he worried that the other council members had been captured or killed.

Malek agreed to help me get to Taftanaz, but he demanded information in return: “I want to know if my family survived—and I want to know if my revolution survived.”


Traveling with me from the Turkish border to Taftanaz was Wassim Omar, an acquaintance of Malek’s whom I would see several times during the week I spent in Syria. He had access to a network of revolutionaries along the way, almost all of them friends he had made during the uprising. Our driver avoided the highway and hopscotched from village to village along back roads; with the mobile-phone system disabled, it was impossible to know about troop movements and the location of army checkpoints.

Omar had been studying Arabic literature at Aleppo University before the revolution began. Now he traveled between Turkey and Syria often, smuggling rebel propaganda and supplies. This was his first trip back over the border since reports of the army’s campaign in Taftanaz had reached Antakya.

The roads were empty, and in the tiny mountain towns the shops stood shuttered and padlocked. The rebels once maintained checkpoints openly in daylight, but now they confined their activity to the nighttime. “If you could have seen this place before the fighting,” Omar told me. “It was alive.”

We had yet to come across any villages touched by violence. But then, as we pulled into the town of Killi, about ten miles south of the border, we saw a multistory granite house with a collapsed roof, yawning holes in its façade, and rubble everywhere. Omar gasped.

According to locals, Syrian aircraft had circled overhead for days, taking reconnaissance photos as almost all civilians and rebels fled the village. Then, on April 6—four days before we arrived—tanks came and fired from close range at this house and more than a dozen others. Soldiers had a list of those who had gone to protests or were involved in the rebel movement, and they went from house to house hunting them. Because most of the townspeople had left, however, there were very few arrests or casualties.

On the outskirts of Killi, I found one of those who had stayed behind. Nizar Abdo lived in a housing complex built around a central courtyard. When the soldiers arrived, Abdo hid in a neighbor’s house. He watched through the shutters as a tank wheeled in front of his property, took aim, and fired. Afterward soldiers bulldozed the remains.

Standing where his house had once been, Abdo admitted that he had attended a few protests during the start of the revolution. He said he had never been political; more basic frustrations drove him: “You have to pay money to get a job, otherwise the government won’t help. . . . You have to pay bribes.”

Now homeless, he was unsure where he would go. But, embittered as he was, he still tried to see an upside. “At least,” he said, “we aren’t Taftanaz.”


The 15,000 residents of Taftanaz are mostly farmers and traders: rows of olive trees stretch outward in every direction, although in recent years drought has browned patches of them. The town is typical of northern Syria; there are dozens like it nearby, an archipelago of villages known for their Babylonian cuneiform tablets and preserved sections of Roman road. Life there is slow, conservative, and pious.

Since Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970, Syria has been ruled by an alliance between Assad’s mainly Alawite military and wealthy Sunni businessmen from the cities. The government provides food subsidies, jobs programs, and funds for rural development for the people of places like Taftanaz, but in return demands absolute fealty. Businesses favored by the regime win no-bid and below-market contracts, creating what Syria scholar Bassam Haddad called “a crony capitalist state par excellence.”

When Bashar al-Assad became president after his father’s death in 2000, he tried to liberalize the country’s economy. The government eased price controls on basic goods like fertilizer and animal feed. It reduced subsidies to the oil sector, leading to a 42 percent jump in the price of fuel. Meanwhile, a vicious drought dried up the countryside, prompting thousands to flee to provincial towns like Homs and Idlib, or to smaller communities like Taftanaz, which did not have the capacity to absorb the influx.

“There were no jobs, and if you found one, you had to see the mukhabarat,” the secret police, for permission to work, Omar said. “If you wanted to buy a house or travel outside the country, you needed to see them.” Office workers moonlighted as cab drivers. Farmers doubled as scrap dealers. In every corner of society, but especially in the countryside, the social contract holding the Assad regime together was failing.


On March 6, 2011, a group of adolescent boys, inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, painted antigovernment graffiti on walls in the desert town of Daraa. After word spread that the boys had been arrested, Daraa’s streets filled with protesters. In Binnish, a few miles down the highway from Taftanaz, Omar and his friends watched the news in amazement. Later that week, fifteen of them gathered late at night at a mosque to plan a protest, making signs with anti-regime slogans.

The following day, they stepped into the town’s main square for the first protest of their lives. Omar was terrified: he knew the price of his actions would be imprisonment, and that the regime could target his family. But, to his surprise, the people of Binnish joined in. They came from all over town, shouting, “Daraa, we are with you! We in Binnish are with you!”

By April 2011, demonstrations were popping up all across the country. The Syrian army tried to cut them down, firing on and killing scores of civilians, only to inspire further protests. The mukhabarat, meanwhile, targeted the core activists in each town. One afternoon, agents showed up at Omar’s door. “They treated me like a toy, throwing me here and there,” he recalled. He said he was kept in captivity for two months, frequently strapped to a gurney, electrocuted, and beaten. A general finally released Omar after he promised to stay away from politics. When he left prison, he went straight to a demonstration.


Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the Syrian elite remained glued together in the face of the protests. But the conscript army started to buckle, and some soldiers found they could not fire on their countrymen. I had met one of them in Turkey, a twenty-seven-year-old named Abdullah Awdeh. He was serving in the elite 11th Armored Division, which put down protests around the country, when one day he was directed to confront demonstrators near Homs. Their commander said that the protesters were armed terrorists, but when Awdeh arrived he saw only men and women with their families: boys perched atop their fathers’ shoulders, girls with their faces painted in the colors of the Syrian flag, mothers waving banners. He decided to desert.

By June 2011, there were hundreds like him; nearly every day, another uniformed soldier faced a camera, held up his military identity card, and professed support for the revolution for the entire world to see on YouTube. These deserters joined what came to be known as the Free Syrian Army. (When I met some of them just after I crossed the border, they told me, “Welcome to Free Syria.”) Awdeh, with his aviator sunglasses and Dolce & Gabbana jeans, assumed command of a group of nearly a hundred fighters.

Many activists worried about the militarization of the conflict, which pulled peaceful protesters into a confrontation with a powerful army that they could not defeat. But in small towns like Taftanaz, where government soldiers had repeatedly put down demonstrations with gunfire and thrown activists in prison, desperation trumped long-term strategy. Abu Malek likened the actions of the rebels to those of a mother: “She may seem innocent, but try to take away her children and how will she act? Like a criminal animal. That’s what we are being reduced to, in order to defend our families and our villages.”

In Taftanaz, fighters from the FSA started protecting demonstrations, quietly standing in the back and watching for mukhabarat. For the first time, the balance of power shifted in favor of the revolution, so much so that government forces could no longer operate openly. Party officials and secret agents vanished, leaving the town to govern itself.

This created new problems: courts stopped working, trash piled high on the streets, and the police stayed home. To fill the vacuum, citizens came together to elect councils—farmers formed their own, as did merchants, laborers, teachers, students, health-care workers, judges, engineers, and the unemployed. In some cases, the councils merged with pre-existing activist networks called local coordinating committees. They in turn chose delegates to sit on a citywide council, which in Taftanaz and surrounding towns was the only form of government the citizenry recognized.

Syrian authorities repeatedly sent tanks in to Taftanaz and neighboring villages, targeting the new council members. After every intrusion, the rebels would reassemble. But on April 3, the Syrian forces returned to Taftanaz, this time to end the insurgency there once and for all.


When I reached Taftanaz on April 9, the air in the town stank of manure, hay, and gunpowder. The smell of smoke grew more powerful near houses, and once inside you found your eyes watering and your throat burning. Many of the locals who were left had taken to wearing surgical masks.

Every fourth or fifth house was completely destroyed; many of those still standing had black streaks climbing outward from the window frames. Boys were scrubbing graffiti off the walls: ASSAD, OR THE COUNTRY BURNS, signed by THE ASSAD DEATH BRIGADE 76.

For three days I explored the gutted town, speaking to everyone I could about the battle. I spent my nights in a neighboring village—government soldiers conducted raids in the evening—but each day I returned to learn more.

On the first day, I sought out Abu Malek’s relatives—almost everyone knew him—and found Abdullah Rami, a young man with sunken cheeks and a hard stare. He had been a university student, but “the revolution makes choices for you,” he said, and now he was a rebel sniper. He described for me what had happened on April 3.

It began early in the morning, when helicopters appeared above Taftanaz and fired into the town center. Then, around 7:00 A.M., the mortars started. (A farmer named Muhammad Abdul Haseeb was at home at the time. “I got all the children and women together and ran out,” he told me later. “One of the shells dropped really close by, but I couldn’t see where it hit. Later I learned that it killed my brother.”)

Most of the residents escaped. By around 9:00 A.M., tanks had arrived at the outskirts of town, and they shot at anything that moved. A plump forty-six-year-old man named Massous had loaded dozens of relatives into his truck and was about to turn onto the main highway when he saw a tank about a thousand feet away. It fired and hit his truck, killing his father and mother and injuring his ten-year-old daughter.

Around the same time, nearly a hundred men gathered inside a house near the town’s center to decide whether to retreat, as rebels elsewhere had done, or stay and fight. A few dozen chose the former, but most stayed. “We didn’t want to end up like other cities, crawling back after the army leaves,” Rami said. “Our neighbors needed something to believe in.”

As the army shelled the town, the men spread throughout the warren of low-slung concrete buildings, onto rooftops, into homes, and through alleyways. Rami went to the main road through town and helped bury I.E.D.’s, most of them assembled in Turkey and smuggled into the country, and rebels hid nearby with the detonators.

Around noon, a tank approached the building where Rami was hiding. A second pulled up alongside it and swung its turret slowly around. Then Rami heard a deafening boom and saw the tank pop up in the air—an I.E.D. explosion, which he had captured on video and later showed off proudly. After a few minutes, the second tank was also struck as it tried to retreat.

Across town, another rebel group was in a firefight, and Rami could hear the reports from their Kalashnikovs. The rebels used civilian houses as cover and, at one point, trapped soldiers in an alleyway and shot them all.

By late afternoon, though, the advantage had shifted to the army. Soldiers left their tanks to circumvent the I.E.D.’s and fought their way to the center of town. They surrounded a house full of rebels, a few of whom climbed to the roof to signal surrender. The troops responded with heavy fire, killing almost everyone inside and out.

By sunset, soldiers returned to their tanks or were billeted in homes (both sides, lacking night-vision goggles, avoided fighting after dark). The rebels regrouped in a house on the town’s edge. There Rami learned that his brother had been killed.

A short while later, his mother sent word to him that soldiers had found the shelter where Taftanaz’s women were hiding. They threatened to take revenge on the women if the fight continued. Dejected and cornered, the men voted to retreat. By sunrise, there were no rebels left.


Saleh Ghazal, a member of Taftanaz’s large Ghazal clan, was a stubborn man. After a sniper’s bullet struck his grandson Muhammad, a medical volunteer who had tended to wounded fighters, his family decided to flee. But the old man insisted on staying behind. He would mourn in his own way, he said, in the home he had grown old in, in the town his grandson had died for. And besides, he figured, the army would have no interest in an eighty-two-year-old.

On the morning of April 4, soldiers from the 76th Armored Brigade returned to town. They came with officials from the Military Intelligence Directorate and armed Alawite civilians referred to as shabeeha. When soldiers burst through Saleh Ghazal’s front door, he hid upstairs in his bedroom. They raced from room to room, shouting out the names of his family members, loudly enough for neighbors to hear. When they found Ghazal, they shot him, then lit his corpse on fire. As it burned, they went downstairs and wrote a message on the wall in silver paint: NOBODY CONTROLS SYRIA EXCEPT BASHAR. Then they doused the floors with gasoline and set the place ablaze.

The soldiers visited every house in the neighborhood. As they neared Mustafa Ahmed Ahad’s place, he went into the bathroom and locked the door. Soldiers ransacked the house and set it on fire. A few days later, Mustafa’s eighty-seven-year-old father, Ahmed, returned to find his house a pile of blackened rubble and his son missing. Eventually he found Mustafa’s charred remains buried under slabs of fallen concrete. “He was poor, he was a worker,” the elder Ahad said. “He was a grandfather, he didn’t go to demonstrations.”

A large number of women, the elderly, and aid workers had taken refuge in the basement of Rahim Ghazal’s centrally located home. “They broke into the house and found the door to the basement,” one of the women told me. “The gunmen ordered everyone upstairs and took the men with them for questioning. They ordered us to go back downstairs, and then we heard gunfire.”

Government forces dragged nine men and boys outside, lined them up against a wall, and executed them. The soldiers came back to the basement and selected five additional men, then took them to a nearby shop, where they were lined up and executed. Two volunteers for the Red Crescent were shot in the yard outside Ghazal’s house. By the time Syrian troops left that evening, there was not much left of Taftanaz. In each house, the story was the same: any male who was found was summarily executed, and his house was burned.

At least forty-nine civilians were killed in the massacre, and nearly 500 houses were destroyed. On my second day in town, I saw a crowd of wailing women surrounding a pickup truck. In the back, flies swarmed around a tar-black decomposing body. The missing flesh above the mandibles exposed what looked to be a set of gold teeth. A group of men pushed a teenage girl toward the truck; upon seeing the teeth, she crumpled with a shriek of recognition. It was Jamil Setoot, an office worker who had been heading to his job in Aleppo on the morning of April 3. As he waited by the highway for a taxi, soldiers were moving into Taftanaz. They shot him and tossed him into a field, then killed the cows and sheep in the area for good measure. When the property’s owner returned days later he found Setoot’s body lying among the animal carcasses.

I went to Abu Malek’s home and found that it, too, had been burned to the ground. After relatives cleared the rubble, they found a body too badly disfigured to identify. They added it and about thirty others to a mass grave on the town’s edge. Many of the tombstones there mark the remains of Malek’s relatives. At some point during the killing, locals watched as a Syrian soldier refused to carry out an order and was executed. They retrieved his body later and interred him in the mass grave, marking his tombstone simply as SOLDIER.

A second mass grave sat on the opposite side of town, where more corpses are buried, rebels alongside civilians. Next to it, a large hole had been dug. A little boy was playing nearby, and when he saw me peering into the hole, he pointed to it and said, “For when they come back.”


Ibrahim Matar served in the army unit that put down the early protests in Daraa. He didn’t believe the government’s assertions that the protests were organized by Al Qaeda, but he felt it was too dangerous to desert. When he finished his service, in November 2011, he came home to a transformed Taftanaz: ordinary people were running the town. “It was like a renaissance,” he said, “a new look at life.”

During the massacre, he fought alongside the rebels and then abandoned the town at night. When he returned to his scorched home, he headed straight for his prized library. “I saw the burned paper,” he told me, “and tears came to my eyes.” He had been studying for a master’s degree in English translation and had maintained the library for years, collecting books by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett. “Some say Godot is God,” he said, “but I say he is hope. Our revolution is now waiting for Godot.”

Matar brought me to a mosque that sits next to one of the mass graves. Inside, there were heaps of clothes, boxes of Turkish biscuits, and crates of bottled water. An old bald man with a walrus mustache studied a ledger with intensity while a group of old men around him argued about how much charity they could demand from Taftanaz’s rich to rebuild the town. This was the public-affairs committee, one of the village’s revolutionary councils. The mustached man slammed his hands on the floor and shouted, “This is a revolution of the poor! The rich will have to accept that.” He turned to me and explained, “We’ve gone to every house in town and determined what they need”—he pointed at the ledger—“and compared it with what donations come in. Everything gets recorded and can be seen by the public.”

All around Taftanaz, amid the destruction, rebel councils like this were meeting—twenty-seven in all, and each of them had elected a delegate to sit on the citywide council. They were a sign of a deeper transformation that the revolution had wrought in Syria: Bashar al-Assad once subdued small towns like these with an impressive apparatus of secret police, party hacks, and yes-men; now such control was impossible without an occupation. The Syrian army, however, lacked the numbers to control the hinterlands—it entered, fought, and moved on to the next target. There could be no return to the status quo, it seemed, even if the way forward was unclear.

In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices—which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, “we have to give to each as he needs.”

It was a phrase I heard many times, even from landowners and merchants who might otherwise bristle at the revolution’s egalitarian rhetoric—they cannot ignore that many on the front lines come from society’s bottom rungs. At one point in March, the citywide council enforced price controls on rice and heating oil, undoing, locally, the most unpopular economic reforms of the previous decade.

“We have to take from the rich in our village and give to the poor,” Matar told me. He had joined the Taftanaz student committee, the council that plans protests and distributes propaganda, and before April 3 he had helped produce the town’s newspaper, Revolutionary Words. Each week, council members laid out the text and photos on old laptops, sneaked the files into Turkey for printing, and smuggled the finished bundles back into Syria. The newspaper featured everything from frontline reporting to disquisitions on revolutionary morality to histories of the French Revolution. (“This is not an intellectual’s revolution,” Matar said. “This is a popular revolution. We need to give people ideas, theory.”)

Most opposition towns elect a delegate to one of the fifty or so district-wide councils across the country. At the next level up is the Syrian Revolution General Command, the closest thing to a nationwide revolutionary institution. It claims to represent 70 percent of the district-wide councils. The SRGC coordinates protests and occasionally gives the movement political direction: activists in Taftanaz told me that they sometimes followed its suggestions concerning their publications.

The SRGC sends representatives to the Syrian National Council, the expatriate body based in Turkey that has been Washington’s main interlocutor, but the relationship between the two organizations is complicated, and many in Taftanaz expressed their disdain for the SNC. “Who are they?” Omar asked me. “What have they done? They are busy talking to foreigners but they don’t know the situation inside Syria.”

I asked Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst who studies the Syrian opposition at the Institute for the Study of War, about the U.S. approach to these two different rebel organizations. She said she doubted the usefulness of “supporting a group like the SNC, which on paper pays tribute to all the Western ideals we hold dear but has absolutely no legitimacy on the ground.”

Washington officials, however, have said they prefer to deal with known quantities like the SNC rather than the grassroots opposition, which operates deep inside the country and whose leaders usually stay anonymous to stay alive. To complicate matters, some towns have competing councils. The various bodies have only recently begun to formalize their vision of a post-Assad society, even if their constituent elements are already carrying this vision out in practice.


The village of al-Fua runs right up against Binnish. The two look almost indistinguishable—the same shabby buildings, the same patches of drying olive groves. But whereas Binnish is a town mobilized from top to bottom in support of the revolution, al-Fua is a Shia village, a rarity in the swath of Sunni countryside around Taftanaz, and its residents support Assad’s government.

Many Sunnis see the Shia and Shia Alawites as inseparable from the regime; the Shia and Alawites, for their part, fear Sunni reprisals. Revolutionaries in Binnish told me that their town had escaped the army’s northern offensive because they promised to massacre al-Fua if they were touched. Even Matar, with his talk of the French Revolution and equality, told me, “I have relations with everyone, with Christians, with Druze, with all kinds of people—but not with Shia.”

Liberal activists from Syria’s cities are dismayed at this divide, but theirs is a revolt so different from that of the conservative countryside that they seem, at times, like two different uprisings stitched together. The revolutionaries have failed to make significant headway in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities, where, despite a few recent bombings, the alliance of the industrialist aristocracy and the Assad security apparatus remains firmly in place, and where the well-heeled see the countryside awash in chaos (a Bloomberg headline from April read: “Syria Elite Dance to Dawn as Risk of Assad Collapse Fades”).

Rebels in rural communities have been pulled deep into asymmetric warfare, which has opened the uprising to more radical influences. Omar told me that Salafis, ultraconservative Islamists who have operated underground for years, have openly joined the revolt in Binnish, although “they keep to themselves.”

On the way back to the border, our driver celebrated the Sunni fighters and sang songs poking fun at the Shia, Iran, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Omar had arranged for his comrades to take me back to Turkey while he stayed on in Binnish to prepare the next issue of Revolutionary Words. Darkness had fallen, the army offensive had given way to a shaky ceasefire, and rebels thought they had the roads to themselves. But when we approached a checkpoint, it wasn’t clear whether it was controlled by rebels, by the army, or by the Alawite shabeeha. The driver swerved abruptly onto the shoulder and sent one of the passengers into a nearby village to fetch another vehicle, which carried me onward via side roads while the first car headed through the checkpoint as a decoy.

We reached the border just after dawn. I ran across a field with a Syrian refugee family at my side, heading toward a barbed-wire fence. We found a gap and crawled through to Turkey.


When I handed Abu Malek my notebook filled with the names of the Taftanaz dead, he fell silent. After a while, he said, “I feel like I am about to burst.” He pointed to the names: “He was just a teacher; he had a small piece of land, that’s all; I had spoken to him just last week.” Nineteen members of Malek’s family had been killed.

Later that day, another relative from Taftanaz made it across the border to report that seven more bodies had been found, some of them apparently executed in a lineup. “Before, I just wanted to kill Bashar al-Assad,” Malek said. “But now I must kill all of his family.”

Had it been wise for the guerrillas to try to defend Taftanaz rather than retreat, as they had in other towns? It was a question that Malek said Riad al-Asaad, leader of the Free Syrian Army, had put to him at their headquarters in a Turkish border camp. “I shouted at him, ‘Who are you to ask me anything?’ ” Malek recalled. “ ‘You sit here and eat and sleep and talk to the media! We’re inside, we aren’t cowards like you.’ ”

Malek called the Free Syrian Army a “fiction” meant to give Western governments an impression of unity. When I asked Ibrahim Matar’s commander in Taftanaz about the FSA leadership, he answered, “If I ever see those dogs here I’ll shoot them myself.” The Turkey-based commanders exert no control over armed rebel groups on the inside; each of the hundreds of insurgent battalions operate autonomously, although they often coordinate their activities.

The ceasefire barely held up for a day, and in June a U.N. official described the conflict as a civil war. In Turkey, Malek continued to raise funds and buy weapons for the Taftanaz rebels. Once, I went with him to a tiny office in a working-class section of Antakya, where he haggled with a man over the price of roadside-bomb detonators, the use of which Malek said he had learned from “a friend in another country.”

Some of the rebel groups had contacts with the United States, which was helping to coordinate the flow of money from the governments of the Gulf states. Others were developing their own patrons, a sort of privatization of the armed movement similar to what took place in Libya. Malek received a steady stream of visitors, mostly wealthy businessmen, from the Gulf. He knew that such pacts were dangerous, but he believed the exigencies of war demanded them.

Still, in Taftanaz the revolt felt intensely local. On my last afternoon there, as the muezzin’s noon call to prayer sounded, I walked through the town’s central square. It was Friday, the traditional day of protest in the Muslim world. You could feel everywhere the heavy atmosphere of defeat: the town had been reduced to heaps of rotting trash and broken concrete, and not much else. And yet after the prayers were over, men and boys left the mosques and headed toward the square. Waving the old pre-Assad Syrian flag, they chanted, “God loves the martyr! God is the greatest!”

The Syrian army’s helicopters buzzed overhead, watching. Protesters climbed atop the ruined buildings surrounding the square and waved their banners. This was the first demonstration since the massacre. Here and there in the melee men burst into tears as they saw friends and relatives for the first time. The protest was a ritual of survival, part of a revolution that seemingly can’t be won yet somehow refuses to be extinguished. On a mound of twisted metal and concrete shards that had once been a house, a group unfurled a banner that read, EVEN FROM THE RUBBLE, WE WILL FIGHT THE REGIME.

 

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Decoding the Syrian Propaganda War

by Anand Gopal

(originally published in Harper’s)

Last month, video emerged from the Syrian town of Tremseh showing scores of blood-sodden bodies of children and adults, some with cracked skulls and slit throats, all of them purported victims of the Syrian army. As the camera panned across the grisly tableau, an anguished commentator read out the names of the dead and cried, “God is greater!” The Syrian National Council, an umbrella rebel group, announced that 305 people had been killed, making Tremseh the gravest massacre of the fifteen-month-long uprising. Hillary Clinton decried this “indisputable evidence that the regime murdered innocent civilians,” and the United Nations issued its strongest condemnation of Syria to date.

Anand Gopal writes frequently about the Middle East and South Asia. He is the author of “Welcome to Free Syria,” in the August 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. His book about the war in Afghanistan is forthcoming from Henry Holt.

But there was a problem—no one had actually visited the town. The New York Times,for instance, reported the story from Beirut and New York, relying solely on statements and video from anti-Assad activists and the testimony of a man from “a nearby village” who visited the scene afterward. When the first U.N. investigators arrived two days later, they uncovered a very different story. Instead of an unprovoked massacre of civilians, the evidence pointed to a pitched battle between resistance forces and the Syrian army. Despite rebel claims that there had been no opposition fighters in Tremseh, it turned out that guerrillas had bivouacked in the town, and that most of the dead were in fact rebels. Observers also downgraded the death toll to anywhere from forty to a hundred.

The battles of the Syrian revolution are, among other things, battles of narrative. As I recount in “Welcome to Free Syria,” the regime has indeed committed grievous massacres, including one I saw evidence of in the northern town of Taftanaz. The Assad government also puts forth a narrative—the country is under siege from an alliance of criminal gangs, Al Qaeda, and the CIA—that is quite removed from reality. Yet there is also a powerful pull in the West to order a messy reality into a simple and self-serving narrative. The media, which largely favors the revolution, has at times uncritically accepted rebel statements and videos—which themselves often originate from groups based outside the country—as the whole story. This in turn provides an incentive for revolutionaries to exaggerate. A Damascus-based activist told me that he had inflated casualty numbers to foreign media during the initial protests last year in Daraa, because “otherwise, no one would care about us.”

Some in the West are equally uncritical in their skepticism toward the revolutionaries. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, recently declared that as many as a quarter of Syrian rebel groups may be inspired by Al Qaeda—which, according to those who have been inside and met the resistance, is simply not the case. Al Qaeda–style groups can be found among the revolutionaries, but they remain rare. Moreover, radical Islam is far more complex than Washington tends to appreciate. I’ve met beer-guzzling Syrian rebels who carried the black Al Qaeda flag, but for whom this was no contradiction: Islamist stylings in Syria are typically part performance vocabulary, part unifying norm in a riven society, part symbolic invocation of guerrilla struggle in a post–Iraq War world, and part expression of pure faith.

How do we pick through the signaling? There’s still no substitute for on-the-ground reporting (another recent New York Times article that was reported entirely outside Syria sounded alarm at Al Qaeda taking “a deadly new role in the conflict”). But we also need to examine our epistemic framework for the revolution. Syrians are fighting for complex reasons that often do not conform to the way Western leaders have ordered their knowledge of the world: “moderate” versus “extremist” or Western-style democracy versus dictatorship. As my feature illustrates, some of the revolutionaries have established councils that look unlike our institutions, but that are deeply democratic in their own way. Others adore Western-style social liberalism but scoff at the West’s free-market ethos. Others seek some variety of religious law. And most probably don’t know yet what they want, except to live in dignity, free from political and economic repression.

But the complexity doesn’t end there, because, as I realized during my visit, the revolutionaries themselves face a powerful need to order facts in certain ways. The rebels I met in Idlib Governorate spoke of every defeat they suffered as a tactical retreat. Or they insisted that their uprising was supported by all minorities, even as it was becoming unmistakably sectarian. Such claims are designed in part, to be sure, for foreign consumption, but they also serve the rebels themselves. They create value and meaning in what might otherwise be a state of anomie, cohering people around a just and fruitful cause even as families are slaughtered and the regime stands unbroken. Following a devastating series of defeats in northern Syria this spring, I asked a rebel commander there whether he thought Assad would ever fall. “Of course,” he replied. “I know we will win—otherwise, why would we still fight?”

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Iran’s Cinematic Revolution

by: Reza Aslan

At [the 2010] Sundance Film Festival, two Persian-language films—both by female filmmakers—once again demonstrated why Iran’s vibrant film industry remains among the most celebrated in the world. And Women Without Men—a feature film by Iranian director Shirin Neshat which opens on Friday—also adds to the canon.

Kick in Iran, a documentary by Fatima Abdollahyan, follows the triumphs and travails of 20-year-old tae kwon do champion Sara Khoshjamal, the first Iranian woman to qualify for the Olympics, as she competes for a medal in Beijing. Kick is a sobering documentary, representing the very real struggle of Iranian women to succeed in a society dominated by men.

Years before our television screens were flooded with images of green-clad protesters, the only access that most Westerners had to Iran’s dynamic culture came from movies.

The second Persian-language entry, Women Without Men, is the feature film debut by Shirin Neshat, arguably one of the most celebrated visual artists of the last decade. (Neshat has already won the Best Director Award at the Venice Film Festival.) Set in the backdrop of the CIA coup that toppled Iran’s first democratically elected government in 1953, the film elegantly interweaves the lives of five women as they struggle to cope with the dramatic political and social forces shaping the world around them.

Iranian films have long had a presence at Sundance, often playing to packed houses and taking home major awards. According to John Nein, senior programmer at the Sundance Film Festival, there were half a dozen Persian-language films to choose from this year.

Persian cinema has a long and rich tradition,” Nein says, “but it’s been evolving recently in interesting ways—in its formal qualities and how it engages with important contemporary issues. Iranian filmmakers are not only experimenting with form, but they clearly have a lot to say. They’re engaging in the issues of their own society, but also constructing a bridge for other people to understand what is happening there.”

Indeed, years before our television and computer screens were flooded with riveting images of green-clad protesters—many of them women—fearlessly facing down Iran’s brutal security forces, the only access that most Westerners had to the country’s dynamic social, religious, and political culture came from the hypnotic images captured by Iran’s filmmakers, widely viewed as the most accomplished in the developing world.

Iranians take enormous pride in a flourishing film industry that produces nearly 150 commercial and art-house films a year, an astonishing figure given the deeply mismanaged, poorly financed, and heavily restrictive environment under which Iran’s filmmakers must work. Nevertheless, Iranian films regularly compete in festivals around the world, winning top prizes at Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Berlin, etc. Iran even has a number of its own annual film festivals, the most prominent of which, the Fajr Film Festival, premieres both domestic and international films from across the globe. (Last year, the International Prize went to the Bosnian film Snijeg by acclaimed female director Aida Begic, who also took home the Best Director Award.)

Iran’s artists, writers, and filmmakers have been considered a troubling voice of dissent long before the 1979 revolution and the subsequent founding of the Islamic republic. This was especially the case in the turbulent decades of the 1960s and ’70s, the era that launched what is commonly called the Iranian New Wave, a cinematic movement that gave birth to the careers of some of the country’s most acclaimed contemporary filmmakers. Heavily influenced both by the French New Wave and by Italian Neo-Realism, these films took as their subjects the repressive political atmosphere that existed under the rule of Iran’s long-serving dictator, or shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. The shah, though reportedly a fan of American films, dealt harshly with these filmmakers, throwing them into prison and banning and censoring their films.

But if life was difficult for Iran’s filmmakers under the shah, it has become almost intolerable under the Islamic republic. Since 1979, Iran’s censorship laws have become both more severe and more haphazardly applied. In fact, the laws are now so baffling and inconsistent that they make Hollywood’s opaque MPAA rating system seem downright transparent. So, for instance, The Lizard, an uproarious comedy of errors about a petty criminal who poses as a mullah, originally passed all government censors and was allowed to screen throughout the country. But after breaking all box-office records in Iran, the movie was immediately and inexplicably pulled from  screens by the same censorship office that passed it in the first place.

The irony is that part of what makes Iranian cinema so unique are the ingenious ways in which filmmakers have learned to sidestep the draconian censorship laws that, for example, forbid male and female characters from touching one another on screen. Such restrictions have forced Iranian directors to stretch their aesthetic powers in clever and creative ways, allowing them to develop a distinct and highly symbolic cinematic language that is instantly and universally recognizable as Iranian. Perhaps the most notorious aspect of this distinctly Iranian cinematic style is the use of visual poetry and metaphors to express views and emotions that would otherwise land the filmmaker in jail. Indeed, the use of metaphor has become so prevalent in Iranian cinema that plot is merely an afterthought, a fact that can sometimes confound Western audiences (and critics) who are used to the plot-driven, fast-paced action of an American movie.

What happens in the typical Iranian film? Well, nothing much:

A middle-aged man drives through the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone to bury his body later that night after he commits suicide in Abbas Kiarostami’s Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece,Taste of Cherry.

A poor laborer at an ostrich farm loses an ostrich and spends the rest of the film searching for it in Song of Sparrowfrom Majid Majidi, the Oscar-nominated director of Children of Heaven.

An Afghan refugee in Iran rides his bicycle in a circle for a week in hopes of earning money for his wife’s operation in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Bicycle. (Makhmalbaf’s 2001 film Kandaharwas named one of the top 100 movies of all time by Time magazine.)

Two mentally unstable sisters live locked up in their impoverished parents’ tiny home, where their interior lives clash with the world outside in The Apple, the directorial debut by Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s daughter, Samira Makhmalbaf. Based on a true story, The Apple features the actual sisters and their real parents, who “act” in the movie opposite professional actors. The dialogue of the actors is scripted; the dialogue of the sisters and their parents is unwritten and spontaneous.

Samira Makhmalbaf’s achievement in The Apple is indicative of larger trends in contemporary Iranian cinema: The boundary between fiction and reality is often blurred, and the wall between the camera and the audience completely removed. So, for instance, Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry ends with the film crew bursting into the scene to help the actor playing the main character out of his grave. Everyone shares a smoke as the credits role.

Samira’s success also points to the increasing role in Iranian cinema of female filmmakers, many of whom are grappling with the thorny issues of women’s rights. It is not that this subject has been ignored by male directors. Jafar Panahi’s two recent films— The Circle, a film about the lives of poor women in Iran that won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2000, and Offside, about a group of young female soccer fans who sneak into a match—have both been lauded for their searing criticism of the treatment of women in Iran. But it has been women themselves who have most forcefully challenged Iran’s censors by exploring themes of gender relations and social inequality. Indeed, some of Iran’s best filmmakers are now women: Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, the country’s most famous and prolific female director ( The Blue-VeiledMainlineOur Times); Tahmineh Milani, who directed The Hidden Half(a film that landed her in prison in 2001); Manijeh Hekmat, director of Women’s Prisonand, most recently, Three Women; Pouran Derakhshandeh; Parisa Bakhtavar; the list goes on and on. Through the quality their work and the passion of their artistic achievements, women filmmakers like Neshat and Abdollahyan have placed themselves at the forefront of the revolutionary changes rocking Iranian society.

Of course, women have some way to go—both in Iran’s film industry and in Iranian society—before they will finally be considered equal to men. At the end of Abdollahyan’s documentary Kick in Iran, a journalist asks Sara Khoshjamal’s indefatigable coach, Maryam Azamehr, if sports and the success of female athletes can have a lasting impact on the role of women in Iranian society. Azamehr scrunches her nose and looks up to the rafters. She thinks for a long moment.

The question goes unanswered.

Reza Aslan, a contributor to The Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestsellerNo god but Godand How to Win a Cosmic War.

©2012 The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC