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‘For me, Palestine is paradise’: An interview with Leila Khaled

Exclusive interview with Leila Khaled
Recorded on Thursday 3rd of April 2014
First published here.

Frank Barat for Le Mur A Des Oreilles (LMADO): How are you Leila? What are you doing nowadays in Amman?

Leila Khaled: I am fine as long as I am a part of the struggle for freedom, for our right of return and for an independent State with Jerusalem as capital. I know it is not going to happen in the near future, but I am fighting nevertheless. Here in Amman, I am the chief of the department of refugees and Right of Return in thePopular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (P.F.L.P).

LMADO: You are a Palestinian refugee, one of six million. Do you still think that you will return one day? And what do you make of the conditions of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who are denied their most basic rights and yet, are sometimes criticized for trying to improve their lives in Lebanon as this might affect their right of return to Palestine?

LK: The Palestinians were distributed to different countries. Each country has had an impact on the people living there. Those in Lebanon, in the 70s and 80s, until 1982, were the ones that helped the armed struggle, that helped defend the revolution. Israel was attacking and invading all the time and occupying parts of the country as well. After 1982, the main mission of the Palestinians was to achieve their rights, their civil and social rights, which they are deprived o in Lebanon. This will enable them to be involved in the struggle for the right of return. The Palestinians in general take the Right of Return as a concept and as a culture. Any Palestinian will tell you that he fights for his social and civil rights, but this means that he is preparing himself for his return. The two are inseparable.

LMADO: The question of the refugees, in the negotiations, has, in the last decade, become more and more obsolete, something that is no longer an inalienable right but something that can be negotiated. The same applies to the last round, the “Kerry negotiations”. What do you make of this? And what do you think is going to happen after April 29th when the negotiations are supposed to end?

LK: The PFLP and myself personally have been against the negotiations since 1991. The problem is that the two parties are sticking to their guns. The Israelis think that Palestine is the land for the Jews all over the world. The Palestinians are sure that the land belongs to them and that they were forced out in 1947/1948. When this conflict moves from one stage to the next the two sides are considered as even in their power but the fact is that we are not (this is just an illusion). The leadership chose to go for the Oslo accords, thinking that this was a step forward in achieving the main rights of the Palestinians. Some people believed this, but they discovered, after twenty years, that it was nonsense. It brought catastrophe on us. There are more settlements than ever, twice more than before Oslo, the number of settlers has doubled, more land is being confiscated, and, of course, the Wall has been built. The apartheid wall. Israel is an apartheid state. These negotiations, now, are meant to help Israel and not the Palestinians. We have already experienced what Israel means by negotiate. Israel never respects its promises, its obligations, and simply continues its project of making Palestinians’ lives hell. My party and I are against this last round of negotiations too, of course. Especially now. The Americans are supporting an Israeli project that will only help Israel. There was an agreement, sponsored by the Americans, which said that you had to stop settlements in the West Bank and that 104 prisoners should be released on three different dates. Now, the Israelis have said no, we will not abide by this agreement and we will not release the last batch of prisoners. By the way, those people who are released, are often put back in jail shortly after anyway. This is what the Israelis refer to as the rotating door policy. The politicians say that the prisoners should be released but they are then rearrested. Many of them are already back in jail. It is very clear from this that the Israelis are not ready to make peace with the Palestinians. They are also taking advantage of the fact that the Arabs are occupied with many other issues, and do not support the Palestinians. Nobody is therefore going to condemn Israel when they flout the agreements they sign.

Also, what does Kerry want? What is his plan? Nobody knows. It’s all verbal. Nothing is written.  The leadership should refuse what Kerry offers. By the way, Kerry did not go back to Ramallah with another offer. Which means that the Palestinian Authority (is going to use its second option and go back to the U.N Then, today, in the news, the US has again said that it will object to such a move. What does this all mean?

I do think that we need first to consider the nature of the State of Israel. Secondly, we have to understand more about their projects and plans. Thirdly, we know that the Israelis are much more powerful than us in some respects. But we are also powerful. It all depends on our people. We have the will to face the challenges that the Israelis are putting in front of us. There is an English saying that says: “When there is a will, there is a way”. We still believe that this is our right and that we have to struggle for it. We have struggled, we are struggling, and we will struggle. From one generation to another. Freedom needs strong people to go and fight for their dreams. That is why I do not think that there will be a settlement now. The Americans always want to prolong the negotiations. This will not help.

LMADO: If negotiations do not bring peace to the Palestinians, what will? What should the leadership do?

LK: Resist! That’s how you achieve your rights as a People. History has shown us that. No People achieved their freedom without a struggle. Where there is occupation, there is resistance. It is not a Palestinian invention. We are actually going to call for a conference to be held under the auspices of the U.N, just to implement the resolutions taken by this body on the Palestinian question. Resolution 194 calls on Israel to accept the return of the refugees. Fine, let’s put the U.N on the spot. Let’s have a conference reminding people of this. The problem is that the references to any negotiations that have taken place were drafted by the Americans, which we know are biased towards Israel.

LMADO: P.L.O stands for Palestine Liberation Organization. Do you think it has lost its true meaning? Bassam Shaka in 2008 told me that the P.L.O, before anything, needed to go back to its roots as a liberation movement.

LK: No liberation is achieved without resistance. My party has not changed. It has stuck to its original program. We are calling to escalate the resistance. People talk about popular resistance. It does not only mean demonstrations. Using arms is also popular. We have people who are ready to fight.


LMADO: What does peaceful and non-violent resistance means for someone like yourself, who chose armed resistance as a mean for liberation?

LK: Resistance takes more than one face. It can be all kinds of resistance. Non violent and violent. I am ok with those who choose non-violence. We are not going to liberate our country by armed struggle only. Other kinds of resistance are necessary. The political one, diplomatic one, the non violent one. We need to use whatever we have got. For more than 10 years now, people have been demonstrating in Bil’in, in Nabi Saleh….protesting the wall and the annexation of the land. How is Israel dealing with it? Violence, tear gas, bombs… Do you think it is acceptable to have an army with a huge arsenal, against people holding banners? I am ok with using all means of resistance. We cannot say that non-violent resistance alone will achieve our rights. We are facing an apartheid State, Zionism as a movement, the Americans, and in general, the West, which supports Israel. When the balance of forces changes, then we can start thinking about negotiating.

LMADO: It is always easier to advocate for armed resistance when the general public knows who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed. Your actions in 69 and 70 were about that, correct? To put Palestine on the map. Do you think the educational process of showing another face of Palestine, showing that the Palestinians have legitimacy and are in the right, has been done enough since the 70s?

LK: Let’s take the example of Vietnam. Or of Algeria and South Africa. People needed time to convince the whole world of the just cause of their struggle. It took time. In the end, the world realized that those who are oppressed have the right to resist the way they want to. Nobody can impose a form of resistance on us. We chose armed struggle. We did not achieve our goals. Then the intifada broke out and the whole world took us seriously. We gained the support of people all over the world. Still, we did not reach our goals because the leadership was not brave enough at that time to escalate the intifada, to take it to another level. Israel was ready to accept to withdraw from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But our leadership failed us. The intifada was the choice of the people. If you go back to the beginning of the resistance and holding arms. It was a necessity for the Palestinians after 1967. We depended on the Arab countries to restore our homeland. But they failed us too. Israel occupied more of Palestine. So we decided to take our destiny into our hands. By waging an armed struggle. Nowadays people are waiting but they realize that these negotiations will get us nowhere. Our past experiences with Israel have shown us that they cannot be trusted. They do not respect their words. Threaten us all the time. Abu Mazen is not a partner for peace? Who is? Sharon? Netanyahu? This right-wing government? This is not a government, it is a gang, essentially, which represents the settlers, the fascists, the racists. The lie began last century. That this was the land of the Jews. The bible gave it to them. Is this democratic? The world in 1948 accepted this lie. God promised us the land! As if God was an estate agent. This is a colonial project. This is the main issue of the conflict.

LMADO: The struggle is about ending Israel’s settler colonial project, then, ending apartheid. What will happen, in your opinion, the day after? The day after victory? An Algerian like solution, or a South African one?

LK: We have always offered the more human solution. A place where everybody lives on an equal basis. Jewish, Muslims, I do not care about the religion of the person. I believe in the human being itself. Human beings can sit together and can decide together the future of this land. But I cannot accept that I do not have the right, now, to go back to my city. Like six million Palestinians. We are not allowed to go there. We are offering a human and democratic solution. Nobody can tell me that we cannot decide the fate of our country because we are refugees. What happened to us is a first in history, as far as I know. People being chased away from their homes and another people, coming from very far away, taking their places. The Israelis were citizens of other countries. Israel, thanks to various organizations, before 1948, built an army, Okay, but there was no society. They brought people from outside. Even now, there are huge contradictions in this country and this society. People come from different cultures, some do not even speak Hebrew. We do not want more blood, but are obliged to resist. We have the right to live in our homeland. When the Israelis realize that as long as they do not budge this conflict will be endless, they should accept our solution. Some Israelis have already understood that. That you cannot go on fighting forever. What for?

LMADO: Can you talk to us about the role of women in the resistance. And do you think your actions, the hijackings in 69 and 70, did more for Palestine, or for women around the world, or both?

LK: The hijackings were a tactic only. We wanted to release our prisoners and were obliged to make a very strong statement. We also had to ring a bell, for the whole world, that we the Palestinians are not only refugees. We are a people that has a political and a human goal. The world gave us tents, used- clothes and food. They built camps for us. But we were more than that. Nowadays there are plans to end the camps, because they are a witness of 1948. Women, are part of our people, they feel the same injustices. So they get involved. Women give life. So they feel the danger even more than men. When they are involved, they are more faithful to the revolution because they defend the lives of their  children too. When I gave birth to two children, I became more and more convinced that I had to do my best to defend them and build a better future for them. I felt for women who had lost their children. So I think my actions had an impact on both, to answer your question. The popular front slogan was: “Men and Women together in the struggle for the liberation of our homeland”. The P.F.L.P implemented that by giving a place to women in the military. At the same time, women also played a big role in defending the interior front, the families. Thousands of Palestinian women are now responsible for their families. After all the wars, the massacres, the arrests, the killings by Israel, these women protected their families from being dispersed. Also, women are now educated, they work, they travel, go to university and so on. Before the revolution, it was not like that. Now it is. And it is a must. You can see that women are involved in many aspects of the struggle and society. Whether it is inside or outside Palestine.

LMADO: Lina Makboul who directed the film “Leila Khaled; Hijacker” implies in her last question in the film that your actions did more harm than anything to the Palestinian people. The film stops right after the question. What did you answer?

LK:  She told me she did this for cinematic purposes. But I did not like that. The fact that people could not hear my answer. My answer was no, of course! My actions were my contribution to my people, to the struggle. We did not hurt anyone. We declared to the whole world that we are a people, living through an injustice, and that the world had to help us to reach our goal. I sat with Lina for hours and hours you know, telling her the whole story. She told me afterwards that Swedish TV only wanted the question.

LMADO: Do you sometimes reflect on the past? What was done, what could have been done, what could have been done differently, when you see the current state of affairs? What went wrong?

LK: Recently  my party has held its seventh conference and reviewed its positions. We then made a program to widen our relations with the progressive forces around the world, especially on the Arab level. We also decided to strengthen our interior structure. I also learned that I had to review my own positions, my own thinking. Every year, around December, I look back at the past year and then decide to do something for the coming year. This year, I decided to quit smoking, so I did.


LMADO: Mabruck!

LK: I made this decision and it was easy for me to implement it.

LMADO: Why has Palestine, in your opinion, become such a symbol for the solidarity movement?

LK: Palestine for me is Paradise. Religions talk about paradise. For me, Palestine is paradise. It deserv
es our sacrifices.

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.

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.

 

anti-Assad-demonstration--007

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?”

birth control iran

When I ran out of birth control in Iran

 

I recently had to extend my trip to Iran and ran out of birth control. No biggie, I thought, contraceptive pills are easily found in pharmacies throughout the country and you don’t even need a prescription. I walked into a pharmacy in Tehran two nights ago, showed the pharmacist my own birth control pills from the United States, and asked for something similar. “We don’t have anything like this,” he said, “our choices of birth control have become extremely limited the past few months.“With the same tired look he also responded to questions from other customers, repeatedly forced to say the same thing: “We no longer have that. You have to check on the black market.”

I knew that Western sanctions against Iran had made it difficult if not impossible to procure many vital medicines. Cancer patients, sufferers of multiple sclerosis and those with numerous others serious conditions have turned to buying medicine on the black market for exorbitant prices, and at times not finding them at all. But I never thought there would be shortages of medicines as routine as birth control. Juggling requests and questions from an anxious crowd of other customers, the pharmacist barely looked back at me: “Ma’am, the only thing I can offer you is Yaz or Yasmin. That’s the best we have in Iran right now.”

I was deeply worried, as Yaz was bad news. I had taken it four years ago only to develop blood clots and extreme mood swings, and gained weight. Yaz and Yasmin are the same birth control brands that now face major lawsuits in the United States because they have been established to cause heart attacks, strokes, pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis, and blood clots in women. Distributed by Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals, there are currently over 9,000 pending lawsuits against these brands of pills.

I could not believe that the best birth control left in Iran – an Iran whose pharmaceutical market has been decimated by sanctions – were the same pills facing court action and considered a serious health threat in the United States. I visited several pharmacies that same day, and received the same answer from one beleaguered pharmacist after another, all of whom had grown tired of telling their customers they no longer had the medicine they needed.

For years, there has been a plethora of birth control pills and other contraceptives easily available and extremely affordable in Iran, a country that boosts one of the most successful family planning programs in the world. It is only in the aftermath of cumulative American-led sanctions against Iran’s banking and financial sectors that most of these options have disappeared from pharmacies. Up until two months ago, pharmacists told me, there were simply no foreign made birth control pills available at all. Many doctors are wary of prescribing the Iranian-made pills because sanctions have made access to the raw materials required to produce them nearly impossible, making many of these drugs unreliable.

“My face completely broke out and I vomited on a daily basis from the birth control pills I took,” said Negin, a 33-year-old architect I spoke with. “I tried every pill on the market this past year, and each was worse than the other. It got so bad that I now have my aunt in Germany send me a packet of birth control pills every month.”

Neda, a 28-year-old engineer, recounted a similar experience. “The month that I took birth control in the winter was the worst month of my life,” she told me. “I have never experienced such extreme highs and lows in my mood. I thought I was going crazy.” She said her gynecologist eventually advised her to stop taking the pills and to find alternative types of contraception.

I went to a gynecologist to see if she could prescribe something for me that was close enough to the pills I take back home. I told Dr. Leyla Eftekhari that I was not willing to take Yaz or Yasmin given my prior experience with them. “I know how horrible they are,” she said, “but you only need to take them until you get back to the U.S. I don’t prescribe anything else to my patients, because they’re simply worse. This is the best we have in Iran now.” And she proceeded to write me three other prescriptions: one in case I had nausea, one in case I experienced spotting, and the other in case I developed extreme headaches. “You’ll have to put up with the potential weight gain and mood swings. But if you get a blood clot, come see me immediately.” I walked out of her office with four prescriptions in hand.

Astonished that good birth control that would not make a woman sick had become so difficult to find, I traveled to pharmacies throughout Tehran and Karaj the next day. In Karaj, a burgeoning city 20 kilometers west of Tehran, a pharmacist told me that when it comes to such medicines specifically for women, most are no longer available. One pharmacist put the situation in perspective like this: “Two months ago, we didn’t even have access to foreign birth control– at least we do now, even if it’s Yaz or Yasmin. But go searching in all of Iran, and you won’t find any vaginal creams or vaginal antibiotics. And for women who are undergoing IVF treatment, they have to search high and low to buy their medicines on the black market. There’s nothing left in the pharmacies.”

What all this means is that women suffering from yeast infections, urinary tract infections, and other vaginal infections have no recourse to modern medical treatment for extremely common, painful maladies. And for a woman undergoing IVF treatment and hoping for a child, well, the black market with it’s back-breaking prices awaits, with no guarantee that the medicine she buys to inject into her body are actually the drugs she thinks she’s paying for.

Some have suggested that Iran’s birth control shortages may also be due to the Ahmadinejad government’s push to reverse the country’s family planning program in a bid to boost the national birth rate and increase family size (today, Iran has a population growth rate of 1.2 per cent and a fertility rate of 1.6). I posed this specific question to pharmacists and manufacturers, who are working at the frontline of shortages.

They agreed that mismanagement and internal conflict over public health policy play a role in medicine shortages, but on the issue of birth control, they didn’t think it was the government’s doing. Foreign brands of birth control went missing for five months at precisely the same time that other foreign medicine became hard to find in the country. Nearly three months ago, Yaz and Yasmin returned to the market, but other foreign brands that used to be widely available did not.

Throughout this, however, Iranian-made birth control pills have remained on the market. Some raised the issue of IVF treatments, arguing that if decreased access to good birth control pills was government policy to increase the birth rate, then where were the necessary injections for IVF treatment? Women who were actively trying to get pregnant could not find the medicine they needed to ensure their pregnancy. And why have vaginal antibiotics and creams disappeared, which have nothing to do with increasing the population? “In short, what is going on is that medicine for women has become increasingly difficult to find–all medicine for women, and no one talks about it,” said a pharmacist in Tehran’s Vanak Square.

Last week the U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees all American sanctions, announced that it was adding additional items to its general license for medicine export to Iran. The export of medicine has always been allowed under the current sanctions regime against Iran, yet there is still a severe shortage of medicine in the country. At this point, actions like this from the U.S. have become comical for those of us who travel to Iran frequently. Which bank is willing to make the transactions necessary for the medicine to reach Iran, given that sanctions have choked off Iranian banks from the world? Which company is willing to ship the medicine to Iran, given that almost all shipping routes have been sanctioned? The U.S. Department of Treasury can appear to be making a humanitarian gesture, but without making actual changes to banking and trade sanctions – which have been and will continue to block the sale of medicines to Iran – nothing will change.

And in the meantime, millions of women in Iran will continue to suffer the consequences of compromised U.S.-made birth control pills and the lack of any medications at all to treat the other gynecological problems they may have. American policy makers, who ironically invoked the plight of women in the Middle East to enact their wars in the region after Sept. 11, should know that their policies in Iran are quite literally making women sick.

Narges Bajoghli is a Ph.D student in anthropology at New York University, and director of the documentary film, The Skin That Burns (2012), about survivors of chemical warfare in Iran.

Article origionally published an Iran News Wire

 

Syria, 2006

The Veils of Democracy: Into the thought-experiment of Steal this Hijab

Dear Steal this Hijab readers:

I launched Steal this Hijab in April 2010 as a way to communicate all that I was learning through my PhD studies on gender rights in an Islamic context. I maintain StH in my spare time, and given I work, research and am politically active – there is not much time to spare!

However, I feel the idea-experiment that StH is the fruit of, continues to be an important aspect of my development as a critical thinker (dare I say scholar?!), and activist. Steal this Hijab demands me to stay quite vigilant about searching for new ideas, movements and ways of calling for and creating a world where equality, freedom, mutual aid, and cooperation serve as the foundations onto which we sketch our lives.

One of the central commitments that I have decided on in terms of the ethos of StH is a dedication to amplifying the voices of those who struggle for justice – allowing them to speak for themselves, yet trying to make those voices heard at all levels. This commitment is ultimately in the service of my own conception of democracy as a praxis that must continuously be struggled for, even as it evolves and changes and appears in different guises over time and space. I seek to understand and promote forms of democracy that utilize a horizontal decision-making process. One that understands that fundamental and sustainable change comes best ‘from below’, from the struggle of ordinary people who take control over their own lives for their benefit, but also for the benefit of their families (in whatever configuration!), communities and larger society.

I think the tension over individual and communal needs will be addressed through a creative process that does not seek to collapse power around one pole or another – but sees that freedom (even individual freedom) as an imperative foundation of a socialist society. I think this means we draw from those models that have been won for us through thought and struggle, whilst searching for novel understandings and new ways to organize ourselves that help us to press the project of liberation forward. This sort of conception of practice in political theory is often referred to as direct democracy and forms of the basis on which many libertarian socialist organizations formulate and practice democracy.

I have felt more and more that the conversations happening in the field(s) of gender studies at its intersectional or axial points are some of the most emancipatory of any I have come across. Mainly because I think the struggle over gender, its implications and formulations of power structures both within and without, ultimately converge into a focus on issues of inclusion and exclusion. In the abstract that notion seems somewhat intangible, but when contextualized it becomes quickly apparent. A classic example from a gender studies perspective is  the debates over abortion – who should ultimately be responsible for the decision of what a person does with their body. How far does autonomy go when it comes to the question of a potential other life? Is the right to life strictly in the hands of the person bearing the fetus, or should society extend rights (even an equality of rights) to the fetus? If the fetus needs to be considered in decision, how should this be done, and to what extent does the life of the fetus have over the right to life, including quality of life, of the person bearing it?

In many countries throughout the world, the issue of abortion and its connection to issues of democracy – especially direct democracy – are fundamental. In the case of abortion the decision to continue with a pregnancy or not often does not lie in the hands of the person who is carrying the fetus. In Ireland where I live, the state is the ultimate decision maker on this question. And the state has, until this day, made the decision to exclude the right of the individual over a dated conception of the will of the whole – coming out of the dominant notions held by the Catholic Church. Catholic conceptions of societal ethics continue to influence what is perceived as the status quo in Ireland, despite a clear change in attitudes towards both ethics and the Catholic Church. But with a political system that perpetuates top down power structures in the favor of maintaining the status quo in order to maintain themselves, means that principles of direct democracy and individual freedom are subordinated to the will of a perceived majority. Rather than allowing for ‘choice’ – the right to choose what one does with their own body, the power over this decision is made by the state not, for instance, an individual woman.

The example of abortion, and the need for a robust democratic process that balances the needs of the individual with that of their community – a process that one can enter into or exit out of voluntarily, whose aim is mutual aid, means asking the question of how to organize ourselves in a horizontal manner that bring to bear the myriad of voices in our societies in a way that people are able to participate freely, with equal powers and equal say?

I am fully aware that we dwell in a world where this must be culled from the wreckage we’ve created, and it can be a painful, insidious process. However, I fully believe that without socialism, without an answer to how we are going to share our stuff, share the resources and potential of our world fairly, environmentally, equitably . . . we will perish. This means the participation of all in our communities, not in a coercive or brutal fashion, like socialist regimes of the past (and some of the present!) but in a way that recognizes and celebrates differences whilst seeking a stronger solidarity of the whole.

I think it will necessitate a great deal or organization, of work that will not always be glamorous and a lot of experimenting. However, if we are to decide that we want our planet to live out the fullness of its life in this galaxy, if we are to survive global warming and climate change, and if we are to decide to think of ourselves not as infinitesimal glimmers of light that burst and die, but rather as connected forces in a perpetually streaming river of life we might have a better understanding of the ferocious power for good that is our potential on this planet.

The question remains about how we do this. How do we birth this world into full being? People have been asking these questions for a long time, and they continue to be important to consider anew. And these are the types of questions, observances and struggles that Steal this Hijab is keenly interested in. We seek to find novel ways people are participating positively in their communities, and have narrowed our focus to the movements that specifically look at gender and rights discourses. We see this as a lens through which we encounter the myriad of equally important issues – like class, race, ability, etc. that effect how our communities are organized, interpreted, understood and lived.

The focus on gender in Islamic contexts comes out of my own personal experience as an activist and the evolution of how I identify myself. Born in the United States to an Iranian father and an American mother, the questions about my own identity began early on, and with the intrepid journey to better understand what, by so many politically motivated accounts, was a clear divide between East and West. It’s a divide that has produced in me, an affection for the questioning of boundaries and borders. An urge engendered in the deepest part of my being to be critical and analyse and ask questions and never accept finalities. This has often landed me in trouble. . .  with my parents, with my teachers and eventually with all those in authority – be it bosses or the machinery of the state. My learning curve as a critical, active participant in my world rose exponentially with the world I inherited as an adult. A world where an autumn morning in the first few days of my university life changed the composition of power structures away from an orientation of openness (for a few), to the suspicion of the many – especially those who came from Muslim majority countries. My white skin, and non-hijab wearing head, provided me with a privilege others from my cultural and ethnic background did not have the safety of. However, my visceral urge to ask questions set me upon a unique path – one that saw me join the work of a tiny, but remarkable solidarity campaign called Voices in the Wilderness (Voices).

Voices was a campaign, whose second floor apartment that doubled as an office, organized delegations of activists opposed to the economic sanctions policy in Iraq, to travel to the country with the specific intention of breaking these sanctions. The act was for Americans, a federal crime, punishable by the potential of 12 years in prison and a fine of up to one million dollars. Because voices was a grassroots campaign of activists, it was not able to break the sanctions in any significant way in terms of providing needed supplies to desperate civilian infrastructure in Iraq. In this way, the small amounts of aid that voices was able to literally carry over in suitcases and handbags, served as more of a symbolic gesture than any practical one. However, the need to call attention to the effects of this policy on ordinary Iraqis – not the political elites – was important in raising the question of the policies’ purpose and more generally helped to bring forth more abstract queries that were important to consider.

The problem of the sanctions policy, however, was not only how it affected the lives on Iraqis – though that was the most crucial aspect. Far more insidious was what the sanctions policy illustrated about the role the U.S. played in the world more generally. The sanctions policy signaled a disregard not only for the lives of Iraqis, but what might generally be acknowledged as an incoherency in how the U.S. viewed and defined itself as a nation, and how it acted and behaved relative to other nations in the world. The sanctions policy itself was not exclusively an invention of the U.S., it was ultimately a policy invented and implemented by the United Nations. But it was one that came into being and perpetuated at the behest of the United States, because it served an important purpose in a larger regional power struggle in the region.

Unfortunately we all know the story from here, a war in Afghanistan, a second in Iraq and an ongoing regional struggle over political power that is increasingly sectarian in nature and composition. Voices has continued their work struggling to demand an end to U.S. economic and military war in the Middle East, and they are joined by many organizations throughout the world that continue to shine a light on U.S. imperialism. What has made the last years in the MENA region peek the interest of activists the world over are the uprisings and revolutions that have turned post-colonial power structures up-side down. Maybe not entirely reversed, but knocking down the notion that the region is fated to be ruled  by dictatorships funded by oil and backed up by the largest capitalist economies on the planet: America, Russia, India, China. People have been in streets (as a handful have always been), but their numbers grow, their demands becomes larger and louder  and include more and more sections of society.

Steal this Hijab has been especially heartened by the ways in which issue-orientated groups have attempted to work in solidarity with each other and with different sections of the population in order to strengthen the demands of the whole. Women’s rights groups have joined with football fans have joined with LGBT activists and folks bridge demands across class and ethnic identities. These spurts of activism are extremely delicate and not without their problems, but they kindle the project of liberation as it sparks or as it roars ahead. In Turkey activists have learned from other movements, especially Egypt, that dialogue at a grassroots level is needed before the move towards electoralism spoils meaningful dialogue on the composition of the society they endeavor to create. These community councils are the living embodiment of the ideals espoused by direct democracy, and help to prove the tangibility of the notion.

Their is much more to this story, but I will have to continue it in the future. For now, I wanted to focus on communicating some of the impulses and purposes that has led to this very spare time project, and let you know some about where Steal this Hijab comes from and where it wants to go. I would love to have the time and resources to expand the website into something more significant. Perhaps someday I will be able to do that, but for now it remains a project that shares the ebbs and flows of my own life.

I encourage commentary and (meaningful) exchanges on this blog. Hopefully some day some of you may send me stuff to publish, and we will have more regular readers and daily posts. Until then, the project continues.

In Solidarity,

Farah

for Steal this Hijab

Turkist miniature

#resistankara: Notes of a Woman Resisting

 

by Pinar Melis Yelsali Parmaksiz

The Gezi Park protests can be, and are being, analyzed in multiple ways. Meanwhile, on its nineteenth day as this piece is being written, the protests and the solidarity of the protestors continue to advocate for a life in which resisting and acting with creativity and humor transform human existence.

Women of different generations and walks of life have participated in this resistance and solidarity, which started in Istanbul, but has spread over many cities. First and foremost among these was Ankara. For the women protestors, there are different reasons behind their resistance; a significant number of these reasons overlap with resistance to government interference with the female body. That is precisely why the resistance has moved away from the banality of everyday life, creating new kinds of public relations in urban parks, walking anew through old neighborhoods. Considering that women rarely take to the streets, besides on 8 March [International Women’s Day], what can be said about being a woman engaged in resistance and on the street in this new state?

It is likely that only few of the women on the streets would identify themselves as feminists, but this popular uprising constitutes a process of resistance, whose language, form, and ethics are produced on the streets. As such, it provides opportunities for political engagement and exchange, which are also educational. A new kind of language and solidarity has been developed, not despite religious, ethnic, sexual, political, cultural, and generational differences, but precisely by way of such differences. The passive resistance and community built in Gezi Park has already provided us with various examples of this new language. Here in Ankara, too, people are resisting in solidarity in similar ways, and yet the proximity of the state and the concreteness of its presence make the physical struggle here more continuous. Both Kuğulu Park, which the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality attempted to demolish in the past, and Güvenpark, which went through a series of alterations, have great symbolic value.

The most recent of these alterations was undertaken in 2003 by, once again, the Metropolitan Municipality, in the form of a de-pedestrianization project for the central Kızılay area, where Güvenpark is situated. This project became relevant again in the context of the military barracks proposed for the site of Gezi Park, because the prospect of the Kizilay project was once subject to a plebiscite, similar to that which is being suggested for Gezi Park. Traffic lights were uprooted and pedestrian crossings were blocked in Kızılay. Later on, however, following the reactions of Ankara residents and local NGOs, the Metropolitan Municipality took a step back. The Kızılay plebiscite, which was already viewed as shady, was declared invalid. Having these memories in mind on 31 May, thousands of Ankara residents gathered in Kuğulu Park and walked down to Kızılay. For this reason, the central role played by Güvenpark and Kuğulu Park in the resistance is especially meaningful. Add to that the ghost of Kızılay Park, which used to extend across from Güvenpark in the 1930s; in its place now stands a giant shopping mall.

Of course, for women, being able to go out is an issue. On the one hand, thousands of women did take to the streets, filling the squares and avenues of Ankara. On the other hand, women with kids have had to make arrangements: to go with or without the kids; to plan to first feed the kids and put them to bed and then leave; to share the babysitting responsibilities with the fathers and the grandparents—all in a persistent effort to find a way to get to the street, the park, the square. Spraying anti-teargas solutions in someone’s eyes, volunteering to work at the temporary libraries established in the parks, picking up the trash, advising people not to use swear words, talking about the real addressee’s of swearwords, debating, but still, talking, screaming, not keeping silent, not swallowing, and walking, and walking again.

One action in Istanbul that was of marked importance in terms of female participation was the arrival in Gezi Park of mothers, whose children may or may not have been there on the eve of 13 June. They went out on the streets to turn the tables on the call from the Mayor of Istanbul for mothers to “come and fetch your children,” and, more generally, on the government’s political discourse, whereby women are recognized in and defined through the domestic sphere. In doing so, they made it clear that motherhood cannot be instrumentalized as the sole legitimization of identity politics, and they enabled us to imagine motherhood as a liberating experience and identity.

In addition, Taksim brought the mothers of the so-called marginal and slacker “Children of Gezi” together, if only symbolically, with another group of mothers. They shared Taksim Square with the so-called Saturday Mothers, who gathered last Saturday, as they do every Saturday, for the 429th time in Taksim, to ask—not for their children’s right to life, but for justice for their unresolved cases, most of which involve state violence against political or Kurdish activists. They also shared Taksim Square with the mothers whose children, having been murdered by the state in Roboski, were called terrorists.

The historiography of feminist movements in Turkey maintains that the second wave of the feminist movement post-1980 consists of the daughters of the first generation of Kemalist mothers. The Gezi Park resistance is not a feminist protest, but it might be considered as having important outcomes for women. The fact that the middle class constitutes the main social base of the Gezi resistance increases the number of Kemalist women participating in it. Despite that, many more women, other than just Kemalists, are part of this resistance. What is truly novel is that “even” the Kemalist women are getting beyond their ordinary hang-ups, the demons of Kemalism: the Kurdish people and the covered women.

The silence of the media has had a significant role in this. Another significant role has been that of the Prime Minister and his paternalist jargon. Women are raising their voices against a male power figure, who does not miss any opportunity to rule over the morality of “maidens” and the sexuality of women at large, while at the same time trying to sugar-coat with the idea of freedom his jargon about “my covered girls.” Moreover, it is heartening that women, especially Kemalist women, are rising against the real and symbolic fathers who have constantly told them how to live. I am excited to transform the street into a place of resistance and solidarity alongside the women of my neighborhood. Given that the shopping malls have been the most “secure” areas to take children in these days, it seems all the more vital to me that we should lay claim to our neighborhoods.

fuck the embargo

Despotism or Feminism

Dr. Ziba Mir-Hosseini is a legal anthropologist specializing in Islamic law, gender, and development. She is currently Professorial Research Associate at the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Law, University of London. In this lecture, Dr. Mir-Hosseini explores the Islamic feminist movement’s potential for changing the terms of debates over Islam and gender, arguing that the real battle is between patriarchy and despotism on the one hand, and gender equality and democracy on the other.