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


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.


Understanding the Syrian Revolution Under 4 Minutes

Published on Mar 6, 2012

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

syria tornado

Welcome to Free Syria

by Anand Gopal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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?”


Iran’s Cinematic Revolution

by: Reza Aslan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question goes unanswered.

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

©2012 The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC



Equal Education, Unequal Pay

It’s 2012 and close to four years after the Lilly ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed into law. Surely, the gender wage gap has been closed, right? Wrong.

Even with moves toward equalizing pay between men and women, men still make almost 20% more than women in nearly all industries. This is despite the fact that women receive the same education, with the same tuition price tags and levels of debt upon graduation. The only major differences are that there are more ladies in college and they have better average GPAs to boot. The benefits of paying women their fair share include increasing the GDP while reducing the poverty rates for families.

Check out the infographic below to see what else the gender wage gap affects.

For more info graphics, and to visit the page this one was originally posted please visit this link.


adorning afghan walls

Adorning Afghan Walls

by Nagmani

After Tunisia and Egypt, it was Afghanistan’s turn to be covered in the bold and beautiful colors of graffiti. It all became possible because of one young woman’s unflinching determination. She stood up and vowed to help her country; she is Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist. Her cry for freedom is an example of the serious changes she wants to see across the Middle East. But it was not an easy ride for the twenty-four year-old Shamsia Hassani—who highlights injustices against women in conservative Afghan society.  Continue reading

CEDAW and Islam

Women, War and Fundamentalism in the Middle East

by  Haideh Moghissi

A constructive discussion and dialogue about Islam and gender has never been free of its controversies. The task has been how to explain the stubborn survival of traditions and practices hostile to women in Islamic societies without adding to the arsenal of racist imagery about Islam and Muslim women, targeting diasporic communities in the West. How to challenge the inferiorizing stereotypes about Islam and Muslim women without resorting to apologetic and self-glorifying accounts of Islam and Muslims Continue reading

warhol iran prostitute

War of Position and War of Maneuver: Sexperts, Sex Pervs, and Sex Revolutionaries


by Sima Shakhsari

The recent issue of Foreign Policy on sex has instigated critical feedback from many who have rightly challenged racist and Orientalist representations of gender and sexuality in the Muslim and Arab worlds. Several critics have rightly pointed out that essentialist approaches to culture that rely on facile binaries of men/women, freedom/oppression, and West/East lack any meaningful analyses of geopolitics, economy, colonial and post-colonial formations, and historical nuances. Most of these responses, however, have focused onMona El Tahawy’s article, which reproduces discourses of violent Arab masculinity and victimized femininity.

Here, however, I want to take up Karim Sadjadpour’s “The Ayatollah Under the Bed(sheets),” an anecdotal character study-like article that seeks to understand the perverse mentality of the Iranian mullahs and the practicing Muslims who emulate them. Sadjadpour tells his readers that “for those in the West who seek to better understand what makes Tehran tick, the regime’s curious fixation on sex cannot be ignored.” He continues by warning us that “the outwardly chaste nature of Khomeinist political culture has perverted normal sexual behavior, creating peculiar curiosities—and proclivities—among Iranian officialdom.” Conflating the “regime” with “the mullahs” and deeming “the mullahs” to be characteristically perverted, Sadjadpour seems to suggest that the way to defeat “the regime” is to kick it where it hurts: its sex organ!

Both a war of position to gain hegemony and a war of maneuver for a (sexual) revolution, Sadjadpour’s article seems to be a part of a constant battle between the diasporic “experts” who seek to topple the “regime” and the Islamic Republic, which like many states, seeks to discipline and regulate the life of its citizens. While the role of the (sex)perts in this war is concealed, the “regime” in Sadjadpour’s article is reduced to the iconic perverted “ayatollah” who preys on the heterosexually-imagined Iranian people.

In this war zone, and in a time when the liberatory forces tell us that a sexual revolution is long due in the Middle East, I echo Maya Mikdashi and Sherene Seikaly and say, “let’s talk about sex!” But, as Foucault has taught us, I approach this “sex talk” with skepticism, asking why and how we talk about sex. How is sexuality put into discourse during the “war on terror” and how do complex international and transnational networks of people, information, and capital impose strategies of regulation and discipline? In other words, I am interested in the way that sex is a form of transnational governmentality in this neo-liberal and neo-colonial age. Governmentality, as defined by Foucault, is an ensemble that includes institutions, procedures, analyses, calculations, and strategies that enable a complex form of power (biopower). This form of power targets the population, uses political economy as its form of knowledge, and utilizes the apparatus of security in its normalizing work. According to Foucault, government is not just limited to political structures of states, but includes the way in which the behavior of individuals and groups might be conducted by non-state entities and individuals.

Sadjadpour’s article is an example of the way that “experts” participate in normalizing the sexuality of the Iranian population while taking part in the regime-change discourses that neoliberal, neocolonial and geopolitical agendas espouse.

Perhaps to make his sex talk “sexy,” Sadjadpour claims that “for a variety of reasons—fear of becoming Salman Rushdie, of being labeled an Orientalist, of upsetting religious sensibilities—the remarkable hypocrisy of the Iranian regime is often studiously avoided.” Unlike Sadjadpour’s claim, however, several feminist scholars such as Minoo MoallemAfsaneh Najmabadi, and Homa Hoodfar, among others, have written about the state (and non-state) regulation of sexuality in pre and post-revolutionary Iran. These scholars have tackled a range of issues from colonialism to nationalism, fundamentalism, heteronormalization of sexuality in modern Iran, historical accounts of sexuality, and the post-revolutionary state’s control of sexuality. Minoo Moallem, for example, has written extensively about Islamic fundamentalism as a modern transnational movement (and not, as Sadjadpour claims, a pre-modern atavistic regime). Engaging the Islamic Republic as a modern nation-state that disciplines and regulates gendered and sexed identities, Moallem has shown how the hegemonic masculinity of the citizen/subject is a site of contradictions between the pious masculinity of the clergyman and the secular masculinity of the citizen. Let us not forget, however, that the Iranian state is not an exception in disciplining and normalizing the citizens. The tensions over gays in the military, gay marriage, birth control, and abortion in the United States are all examples of the state disciplining and normalizing practices.

Yet despite this broad-ranging and critical feminist scholarship on gendered and sexed identities in modern Iran, it is only hegemonic accounts of sexuality that garner attention in mainstream media and academic circles. These sensationalized narratives often juxtapose an untamed, perverse, traditional, rural, and religious sexuality to a sanitized, modern, and urban Iranian sexuality. Conflated with tradition, Islamic sexuality comes to mean bestiality, sodomy, pedophilia, and polygamy, while a heteronormative (and more recently homonormative) sexuality is constructed as modern and revolutionary. We are told by sexperts that young urban Iranians are challenging the “theocratic regime” by having sex in the private sphere. In this framework, talking about sex or having sex (of the acceptable form) becomes a sign of resistance to the Iranian “regime.”

Thus the marketability of accounts of sexuality is predicated on the binary of repressed sexuality in Iran and freedom of sexuality in the “West.” (Debates that followed the publishing of half-naked pictures of Golshifteh Farahani in a French magazine are examples of this trend). As many scholars have pointed out, women (and increasingly queers) become markers of freedom or oppression within colonial discourses. During the war on terror, native informants who write about the oppression of women and queers in the Muslim and Arab worlds have increasingly become best-sellers and star academics who act as neoliberal self-entrepreneurs, circumvent the tenure processes, and work as “experts” in think tanks that are closely connected to academic institutions.

Interestingly, despite the strategic political appropriations of queers among these (arguably homophobic) groups and individuals, Sadjadpour seems to have missed the chic of queer bandwagon. He denounces “sodomy” and bestiality (which he equally abhors) as abnormal obsessions of Khomeini, suggesting these deviant practices to be familiar to the backward and anti-modern mullah. He claims that:

[s]cholars of Shiism—including harsh critics of Khomeini—emphasize that such themes were the norm among clerics of Khomeini’s generation and should be understood in their proper context: Islam was a religion that emerged out of a rural desert, and the Prophet Mohammed was himself once a shepherd.

There is much to be said about the elitism, nationalism, and anti-Arab sentiments implicit in this statement. In this anti-regime brand of the Iranian nationalistic discourse, “mullahs” become representatives of the Arab other, and the Iranian revolution of 1979 becomes the signifier of a “second Arab invasion.” Needless to say, representations of a temporally fixed Islam and depictions ofperverted Islamic masculinity are consistent with Orientalist discourses that inform the rampant Islamophobia of the war on terror. Maya Mikdashi and Sherene Seikaly rightly point out that Sadjadpour dismisses “the centuries old tradition of practicing Muslims asking and receiving advice on sexual and gender practices.” In fact, Sadjadpour is fixated on the backwardness and deviance of the religious advice on sex. Of course, it does not take an expert of Islamic jurisprudence to know that most practicing Muslims constantly negotiate Islamic codes of conduct though the concept of ijtihadand interpretation. It is exactly because of this concept, for example, that not too long after the 1979 revolution, Khomeini issued a fatwa deeming sex reassignment surgeries to be religiously permissible. Not surprisingly, Khomeini uses normalizing concepts borrowed from modern medical and psychological discourses of his time (and not the Prophet Mohammad’s time!), including Harry Benjamin’s The Transsexual Phenomenon. In fact, modern medical and psychological discourses and religious ones are not necessarily contradictory, but often congruent in normalizing the modern citizen/subject.

Relying on binaries of modern/tradition, secular/religious, public/private, and state/society, Sadjadpour misses the messy overlaps between these discursive oppositions, thus positing a unified traditional Islamic state against a modern homogenous Iranian society, captive to the monstrous and pre-modern sexuality of mullahs. Sadjadpour agrees with Mehdi Khalaji, a Washington-based think tank “expert” who claims that “Islamic jurisprudence hasn’t yet been modernized. It’s totally disconnected from the issues that modern, urban people have to deal with.” Yet, according to Sadjadpour, because there is no separation of religion and politics in Iran (as though this distinction is clear in liberal democracies such as the United States), this perverted Islamic sexuality is dangerously trickling down to the public sphere and dragging Iran down the temporally regressive path: “Because religion is politics in a theocracy like Iran, uninformed or antiquated notions of sexuality aren’t just confined to the bedroom—they pervade the country’s seminaries, military barracks, boardrooms, courtrooms, and classrooms.”

Ultimately, Sadjadpour’s point is that the key to the liberation of Iran is not bombs, but sex! Revolution is achieved through taming the unruly sexuality of the mullahs who are obsessed with bestiality and sodomy, and encouraging “modern” and normal sexuality among youth, whose ‘”frustrated” and “pent-up” sexual energy would otherwise turn into unhealthy and dangerous acts (Basiji youth are pathologized as violent beings whose frustration comes from not “screwing”!)

Elsewhere, I have discussed the production of expertise in think tanks as part of insurance technologies to manage the “risk of terrorism.” These strategies involve the production and division of populations into those who pose the risk of “terrorism” and those who are threatened by it. The experts’ job is to produce, predict, calculate the probability, and eliminate the risk that threatens the interests and values of the “international community.”

Interestingly, Sadjadpour’s speculations about the outcomes of a repressed and perverted sexuality (terrorism) and his choice of “experts” are in line with this management strategy. Not surprisingly, the expert Sadjadpour introduces as a “scholar of Shiism,” is Mehdi Khalaji. A disrobed seminary student, Khalaji got a job at a US propaganda radio service in Prague and migrated to the United States. Despite his lack of formal academic credentials, Khalaji has been working at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank that seeks to protect Israeli state interests. Given his choice of “experts,” Sadjadpour’s recommendation that “the sexual manias of Iran’s religious fundamentalists are worthy of greater scrutiny, all the more so because they control a state with nuclear ambitions, vast oil wealth, and a young, dynamic, stifled population” is quite predictable.

It is also not surprising that Sadjadpour blames unhealthy sexual behavior on the Iranian regime’s repression and internet censorship. There is no doubt that the Iranian state is increasingly limiting access to the internet through filtering, censorship, and harassment of internet users. Yet, US concernwith internet censorship and its campaigns to lift what Obama has termed Iran’s “electronic curtain” in Iran are hypocritical, to say the least. While the United States’ government has worked diligently to circumvent internet censorship in Iran, it has imposed its own filtering criteria. Sadjadpour is correct in pointing out that pages containing the word “sex” (including Essex University) are filtered in Iran. Yet, he fails to mention that it is not just the Iranian state that is obsessed with the sex life of its people. For years, the US government has been contracting private companies such as Anonymizer to send free anti-filtering proxies to Iranian internet users. The US provided proxies, however, block certain words to prevent moral deviation. Incidentally, for a long time, in order to discourage Iranians from surfing gay porn sites, US sponsored proxies filtered the word “ass. Apparently, the US freedom/security apparatus did not realize that its filter-breaking proxies were filtering all words that contained the letters “a-s-s,” including the American Embassy!”

The irony of it all is that while the liberatory forces are so concerned about rights and freedom in Iran, harsh sanctions that deprive the Iranian population from food and life-saving medicine are not considered human rights violations. As I have discussed before, as a trope, the “people of Iran” constitutes a population, which is produced through the discourse of rights, while being subjected to death exactly because of those rights. In fact, the protection of the rights of the Iranian population is presented as the raison d’être of sanctions and/or war. Shuttling between biopolitics and necropolitics, the Iranian population is subjected to the normalizing techniques of liberal democracy, while being disposable as that which contains the threat of terrorism. Not reduced to bare life, but produced through the discourse of rights, the Iranian population lives a pending death (through economic sanctions or the hovering threat of a military attack) in the name of rights. As enticing as it is to be enthusiastic about the alleged “sexual revolution” in Iran, the politics of rightful killing renders the hippie motto “make love not war” meaningless, when making love is implicated in a war machine that marches to the tune of “killing me softly with your rights.”


eL seed

Iran, Women’s Rights and the Arab Spring

For each woman that is imprisoned, another will take her place and swell the ranks of the women’s movement. –Shrine Ebadi, Iranian Noble Peace Prize winner, 2004.

The stories of sweeping reform across the Middle East has captured the attention of many of us. In this week’s Weekly Rights Podcast, Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, talks to the Campaign about the effect that Arab Spring has had, and will have, on women. She talks about her new book, The Unfinished Revolution, which is a collection of women’s stories of struggle and defiance from around the world. Her book includes essays from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and women’s rights activist and member of the One Million Signatures Campaign Sussan Tahmasebi, who discuss the status of women in Iran. Minky also discusses the role of women in the protests and uprisings in Iran, and how they have affected women in the Arab Spring.

International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran – Podcast 49: Women in Iran with Minky Worden.

Islamic School for Girls

An Islamic School for Girls


by Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix

In 1982, when she was just 17 years old, Houda al-Habash opened the doors to her Qur’an

school for women and girls at the Al-Zahra Mosque in Damascus, Syria. Houda is representative of a pioneering generation of women in the Middle East who have begun to study Islam within the mosque like their fathers, uncles and brothers — a trend that is reshaping the region. We made the film because despite the influence of schools like Houda’s, stories about them are still rare.

In the film, inside her organized and lively school, Houda teaches her students about women’s rights within Islam and encourages them to take their secular education seriously. She and her students are engaged in a debate about women’s roles in the modern world, similar to the debates we find in our own culture. In the end, we were more compelled by the similarities than the differences in that debate.

The Syria we left when we finished shooting in November 2010 has drastically changed because of the popular uprising against PresidentBashar al-Assad’s regime. Houda is no longer teaching at her school; like many Syrians with the financial means, she and her family left the country to live in the Arabian Peninsula. Houda’s daughter, Enas, has said, “A light has gone out in our community,” because it is no longer safe to go to the mosque. It is impossible to know what will happen in Syria, but Houda certainly gave her students a foundation of faith and discipline to face the challenges before them.

This Op-Doc is adapted from “The Light in Her Eyes,” a feature-length documentary about Houda al-Habash.

Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix are the directors and producers of “The Light in Her Eyes,” which will be broadcast on the PBS series “POV.” Ms. Meltzer’s work has been exhibited at the Whitney Biennial and the Sharjah Biennial. Ms. Nix’s work includes directing the feature documentary “Whether You Like It or Not” and producing “The Yes Men Fix the World.”


Angry Arab

Palestine is Still the Issue | Interview – The Angry Arab on Zionism, Syria, and more


Originally from Lebanon, As’ad AbuKhalil is professor of political science at California State University, a well known commentator on Arabic TV stations such as Al-Jazeera, and runs a popular blog, which he writes in English, called The Angry Arab News Service.

He is known for his radical leftist political stances and, in particular, his emphatic support for the Palestinian struggle. However, he has recently received criticism from readers and former fans for his stance on Syria (he is against both the Assad regime and the opposition’s Syrian National Council).

In January, AbuKhalil was in the UK for a speaking tour of university Palestine societies titled “The Case Against Israel”. The day before his first talk at Goldsmiths University, I sat down with the professor in an Edgware Road cafe to discuss his thoughts on the Palestine solidarity movement, the historical significance of the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, the uprising in Syria, as well as other regional developments. I started off by asking him about his speaking tour.

As`ad AbuKhalil: I am going around to speak on making the case against Israel. I’m not going to be making any qualifications, or any disclaimers. I think I am of a generation who have seen too many Arab intellectuals, particularly in the United States, who used to get awkward and nervous whenever, after giving a long talk about the Palestinians, they are faced with a Zionist in the audience who would ask them: “But do you accept the existence of Israel?” And I’ve seen so many famous names dance around that question… I have become influenced by it in a way to be very categorical about it. When I started speaking publicly about Palestine in the United States, in the first few cases I was confronted by these same people who would stand up and say “But do you recognise the state of Israel?” And to that I would answer “Of course I wouldn’t!”

Asa Winstanley: So they don’t bother now?

AA: That never comes [up] anymore! And I felt like: that was so easy, why didn’t they all do that before? Since Oslo there is a trend in the pro-Palestinian community, particularly those with links to the PLO, to make the case for Palestine palatable with a case for Zionism. And that’s why I am here to oppose it.

AW: Why do you think Israel seems to be so sensitive to the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement?

AA: Since I left Lebanon in 1983, I have seen an erosion in the standing of Israel, especially in the eyes of Western liberals. When I left, these were the hardcore supporters… Public opinion in Europe has markedly changed over the last few decades. So much so that in almost all countries, even Germany, there is more support for Palestinians than for Israelis.

In Russia, after the rise of the supposed Islamic fundamentalist threat over there, there has been in fact a rise in the support for Israel, but if you talk about Scandinavian countries, or England, or France, and so on. I mean the public opinion is now, in England, more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli when they are asked that question. But now of course that does not translate into the political parties of the House of Commons or places like that.

In America, it has remained the same. It’s still 63 percent for Israel, versus [about] 12 or 13 percent for Palestinians. But what has changed even in America is that the bedrock of support for Israel has shifted from American liberals to hardcore Southern Baptists, Republicans, conservatives. So Israel is aware that they have an image problem, that they did not used to have a few decades ago, and they are particularly sensitive about college campuses… Why? Because they know this is their future generation of leaders, and if this bug gets to spread all around, it’s going to be hurting Israel in the long term. Assuming Israel’s going to be around by the time they reach power. In America, of course, there is such a big gap between college campus activism on Palestine (or any matter) and the very closed, conservative nature of Congress, that Israelis have less to worry about – and yet they seem to be worried.

AW: Why do you think BDS has taken off so much in the last five to six years?

AA: Israel does not do the just thing in the new world after the Cold War. Zionists still operate the way it did back in the 1880s, when they arrived in Palestine. They still use the same brazen and blatant racist resort to war crimes and massacres that they used all along, and I think they realise that it is much more shocking and horrific by the standards of today, and as a result there is an avalanche of reaction against Israel that has been generated in Western countries.

AW: What are the differences between the BDS movement in its modern form, and the more historical Arab boycott of Israel?

AA: The Arab boycott of Israel was much more strict… On the popular level it is [still] extremely strict: refusal of travel to Israel for any purposes – tourism of any form… There are disagreements about the visits, for example, some believe that if you go to Palestinian areas for activism and you can stay in Palestinian areas, spend money there and it’s fine, as long as you boycott any companies who trade with Israel.

The Arab boycott has been extremely effective – the loosening of it has been at the official level. When I was growing up, there was this simultaneous double boycott of Israel. There was the popular level that did not need any instruction, and then there was the official level, which was bad… So the BDS movement is a continuation, I think, of an Arab League official plan.

AW: What is your opinion of activists, quite often from Europe and America, who go to occupied Palestine?

AA: I have no problems with that whatsoever. I have a distinction made about Arabs who go there – those who have Arab citizenship, even if they have a passport from elsewhere. I am not against Palestinians who hold citizenship in America to go to Palestine, because that’s their home. But as long as Israel is occupying the land, and to abide by the Arab League boycott of Israel, I still believe we should adhere, and that all Arab citizens should not pass through Israeli soldiers’ checkpoints to enter into Palestine. If you do, it’s in areas where you do not have to go through them.

AW: So what’s the material difference there?

AA: That we have an Arab League boycott. The Arab League never did anything good! But they did [make] this plan of boycott of Israel, which I believe is something we should support.

AW: Many activists who go to Palestine are actually from Sweden, Norway, Scandinavian countries.

AA: Amazing. Those countries, when you go there, sometimes if you will stay for a week you will see a demonstration about Palestine somewhere – posters about Palestine everywhere – it’s amazing. Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands – it’s advanced. Over there, being pro-Palestinian is becoming part of the definition of being a leftist. I mean it’s easy to be a leftist against war in general – the John Lennon version. The challenge is to be a leftist in a way that puts real challenge to the powers of government and the super powers around the world, because you can really expose the hypocrisy on the question on Palestine. This is why Palestine becomes more symbolic for many activists. It’s not only about Palestine, it’s about the hypocrisy of the Western world.

AW: I think I read in one interview a Scandinavian activist saying that Palestine had become the Vietnam of our time.

AA: Yes, absolutely. And I’m glad that Jane Fonda is not on our side. Who wants her?

AW: Western activists who go to Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank will quite often come into contact with Israeli activists, some of whom are anti-Zionist. You’ve said on your blog that you’re against any contact with Israelis, basically. Is that a fair understanding of your position?

AA: This is not an easy position, but that is my position. I have taken that position for a while. [Once] I was giving a talk at SOAS here in London and my hosts were sitting with me, and one of them was a graduate student and it was clear that she is one of the activists on Palestine. So suddenly it occurred to me to ask her, based on her accent, I said: “Are you Israeli?” and she said “Yeah, I am”. I said “have you served in the army?” and then she told me yes, that she was an instructor in the Israeli army. And then I had to tell her, “Well, let me tell you my position: I cannot talk to you.” Everyone around her, even her teacher (and one of her teachers is a good friend of mine) are telling me that she’s a wonderful person, that she has made a radical transformation, and I said “But that’s my position.”

And it’s not because of ideological dogmatism that I take this position, at all. It’s really, like, emotional. I mean, I get bothered – I just get bothered. To be sitting and chatting with somebody, and then thinking that this person may have killed a brother or sister… You know, I just can’t do that. Even with Ilan Pappe – I was telling [my wife] Farah – I was with him on a panel once, I didn’t ask that question. He’s done great work, but he served, right?

AW: I read in his memoirs that he did.

AA: Yeah, and as a result I remember I made a conscious effort not to shake his hand. So it bothers me. There is one known Arab here, who has been an adviser to Yasser Arafat and I told him, I said: “Don’t you have a psychological barrier?” Because it’s huge in my case and I don’t want to cross it and he told me “I do, but I feel like I have to cross it for another purpose”… I mean it’s psychological and personal… and for me, I am not for the categorical rejection of anyone. I have elaborated a position which [laughs] which basically…

AW: You wrote on your blog you’re opposed to contact with any Israeli, except where they’ve taken armed resistance against Israel.

AA: … they are resistant against Israel, or if they leave the land. There’s this socialist, anarchist Israeli who keeps sending me email, and he wrote an open letter to me one time. I never responded to him, I couldn’t.

AW: So do you think Westerners who make contact with Israelis are breaking a boycott?

AA: Not necessarily. I’m not dogmatic about that. They have a different experience, and I know their motives are very good, and I’m sure [the activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer] Rachel Corrie, who paid with her life for the cause, had dealt with Israelis, and I’m not in any way going to to delegitimise what she does for that… But this is for me – I’m not in any way saying that this is national or international policy, you know, this is suitable for me, it may not be suitable for someone else. I know many Arabs who disagree with me. Farah disagrees with me on this…

AW: There is a difference between a personal opinion and a general boycott strategy.

AA: Yea, yea, of course. This is the suitable position for me. There are Arabs I know who are activists, who deal with Israelis and I don’t reject them in any way, I’m not judgemental like that. But for me, I cannot.

Farah Rowaysati: The BDS [movement] does not call for boycotts against Israelis as persons, it calls for the boycott of institutions.

AA: But I am for super-BDS.

FR: I’m against dealing with Israelis who are Zionists…

AA: One time I gave a talk in Berkley, and this guy came up to me and said, “I’m an Israeli and I really agree with everything you say, I’m going to go back and work for human rights after I finish my law degree for the Palestinians” and I was like “Well, you know I don’t speak to Israelis” and he said “Yeah I know, I understand: I just wanted you to know” [laughs].

I’m happier like this, you know what I’m saying? I have a huge psychological block… We come from South Lebanon, both of us, which is so directly affected. We both grew up in homes that are within a few miles from Palestinian refugee camps.

FR:We’ve experienced several wars.

AW: What do you make of Gilad Atzmon? He is an Israeli saxophonist – a jazz musician who expresses support for Palestinians.

AA: I have declared him an anti-Semitic person based on things I’ve read. And that upset many Western supporters of this guy, and Arabs. I have refused any contact with this guy and, you know me: I’m strict about many things… and one of them is refusing any association with anybody who has the slightest tinge of anti-Semitism. And he has more than a tinge of anti-Semitism – he basically, writes against –

AW: ‘Jewishness’ is what he calls it… He’s a strange character because he keeps cropping up every few years and there keeps being controversy about him. He lives here [in London] by the way.

AA: Oh really? Call me paranoid – I mean that, please do, call me conspiratorial – I know there are genuine anti-Semites who creep into our movement, but I do worry that there are some infiltrators who pose as anti-Semites to stigmatise the movement. I’m not sure which group he belongs to, but either way I don’t want him [around]. It would be funny if he was sitting here in the cafe, right now.

AW: [Laughs] With all this news about Israeli organisations that want to sabotage the “delegitimization” movement [like the Reut Institute], people are getting justifiably paranoid about spies or infiltrators. Especially in London.

AA: It’s legitimate to be paranoid. I have heard enough by people in the United States about their experiences in the 1960s and 70, and many of them tell me that the loudest big-mouths during the 60s and 70s were the ones who turned out to be turncoats, the ones who would say during meetings, you know: “Let’s go and bomb that building!”

AW: You recently commented on your blog about Hamas being “for sale”. What did you mean?

AA: Al-Quds al Arabi had this story on the front page in which [Hamas leader] Khalid Maashal was cited – he was under pressure by the Saudis, that they would not have any dealing with Hamas unless he cuts all ties with Iran. And he was quoted as saying something to the effect that “I would accept that, if Saudi Arabia was providing the same support that I’ve been getting from Iran.”

So to me that indicated that Hamas is up for sale. I have always been suspicious of this guy, and never liked him (I’ve always felt that he is leading the movement on the footsteps of Fatah)… Look how [Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza] Ismail Haniyeh, when he went for his tour recently, asked to stop in Saudi Arabia.

AW: So how do you think those comments are related to the wave of Arab uprising the previous year, and the rise to prominence of the Muslim Brotherhood?

AA: [Many Palestinians] are worried that the Arab uprisings are marginalising the coverage of the Palestinians, and I share that kind of worry. Ismail Haniyeh strikes me as much more sincere than Khalid Maashal despite my opposition to the ideology of the movement and its practices. On the other hand, I think they also want to take advantage of the rise of the horrible Muslim Brotherhood, and I think the lousy Muslim Brotherhood is one of the reasons why I find Hamas to be very problematic.

It is a by-product of the Muslim Brotherhood which has contributed really nothing to the struggle for Palestinians… Look at Rashid Ghanuchi [leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda party], who flies all the way to Washington DC to prostrate and speak before Zionist groups and offer to not include in the new [Tunisian] constitution an article that will ban normalisation with Israel — which tells you that they buy and sell.

AW: I put on Twitter that I was going to interview you, and I got several Syrians angrily Tweeting questions.

AA: On Facebook, if you read Arabic… both sides are very unhappy with me, and the Syrian regime side, they have a lot of supporters. And both sides are unhappy. What can I say? I have nothing to apologise for. If anything, I think the positions taken by the Syrian National Council have reinforced every single suspicion and doubt that I have harboured against them all along. I do believe there is a real conspiracy, and I believe there is an attempt to hijack a legitimate uprising against a repressive regime.

AW: One question on Twitter was: “How does it feel to be called a regime apologist?”

AA: If some intellectual goons of the Syrian National Council think that they can intimidate me or delegitimize what I do, by calling me a “regime stooge” or something like that, of course that’s not going to bother me, because I know myself. I mean, as long as I get a daily barrage of criticisms, and sometimes insults – not as obscene as the ones I get from the other side, but still from the side of the regime – I know where I stand.

When I was opposed to the Syrian regime in 1976 when they invaded Lebanon, to crush a great leftist movement at the time, these people who are criticising me now were not even born. So I don’t need any sermons about the stance against the Syrian regime. Their intellectual method is very clear. It’s quite funny, in fact – you may be opposed to the Syrian regime, you may call for its overthrow, you may support armed rebellion against the Syrian regime. But – if you don’t support the Syrian National Council, you are for the regime. What the fuck is that? It’s absurd. In other words, I want to reassure my enemies that their attacks on me and name-calling do not bother me in the least, and the more they come, the better. I want to make the life of my enemies miserable…

I don’t support the Free Syrian Army. Now I have received information that the Free Syrian Army of Riad al-Assad comes from the background of Hizb ut-Tahrir [a political-religious movement]. No, I don’t support that. I don’t support pawns of Turkish, Islamist intelligence. But the principle: I am in favour of the right of every Arab population to raise arms against its government. Absolutely, and I make no apologies about that.

AW: The Tunisian government as well?

AA: Absolutely!

AW: One of your criticisms of Al-Jazeera [the popular Arabic satellite TV channel owned by the royal family of Qatar] is that they now rely on anonymous sources a lot. Someone on Twitter wanted me to ask: “why then do you use anonymous sources on your blog?”

AA: I am not a newspaper. I am not a TV station. I am a blogger who is doing a very personal thing. I share whatever information I have, and even rumours. Sometimes I receive rumours and I share them with people. Sometimes they are true, sometimes they are not – and whenever I am given evidence that something I have put is wrong, I always say that I’m correcting it, and I don’t change it. I have a policy of never re-editing things I have posted after I’ve posted them.

On Al-Jazeera [Arabic], when they used to air Bin Laden’s tapes, they used to put the disclaimer every time: “We have not yet authenticated this statement” — even when it was very clear it’s Bin Laden! [But now] whenever they put various clips from YouTube, they never have any disclaimers…

AW: So don’t you think journalists might have reason to be using anonymous sources in Syria?

AA: I did not in any way oppose the use of anonymous sources in journalism. I was making the point about how Al-Jazeera is now comical. This is like a caricature of propaganda TV in the Arab world…

AW: What accounts for the shift? Is it purely [Qatari] reconciliation with Saudi Arabia?

AA: Absolutely… Basically, Al-Jazeera have become to me much more malleable, much more obedient in its service for the shifts in Qatari foreign policy than I’d expected. But it has become a campaign by Qatar and whatever Qatar represents… It has become so feverish, the campaign is so comical, it’s so lacking in credibility, and therefore lending an undeniable, unwitting hand to the Syrian regime.

AW: A final question on Palestine and Palestinian solidarity: what do you think is the main thing to focus on, strategically?

AA: Non-compromise on the total rejection of Israel. I believe the total rejection of Zionism in Palestine should be in the platform and the plan of every movement. I think all these attempts to reconcile Palestine and Israel, and “let’s live together as Israelis and Palestinians in two separate states” – all that is going to be at the expense of the lives and the cause of the Palestinians. And for me, any movement that does not reject – categorically – Zionism, is akin to a movement against apartheid South Africa that basically wants a reconciliation with apartheid, and there should be no doubt about that part. You know, we should insist on that part.

AW: Thanks for your time.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book “Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation” has been published by Pluto Press. His Palestine is Still the Issue column appears monthly. His website is
Assad Wake Up Your Time is Up

Lebanon, the Sectarianization of Politics, & Genderalizing the Arab Uprisings

Eugenio Dacrema (ED): A Few days ago a new session of the National Dialogue council started in Beirut, hosted by the president Souliman. The list of issue which will be discussed is officially very long, but obviously the main issues are related to the recent events occurred especially in Tripoli, but also in Beirut. Why is Syria so important for the political stability of Lebanon? Can you draw for us a picture of what is happening?  Continue reading


Bless us anyway – we want more life!

Dear Steal this Hijab Readers,

Thanks for reading, listening, gazing, and opinionating!

I started this blog for many reasons. I think the most important of which came from the need to respond intelligently to a question that was very often posed to me – “WHAT?!!! Islamic feminism?! Is there such a thing????”

Well, as a brief perusal of the blog might indicate, there is indeed a space where ‘Islam‘ and ‘feminism’ meet. What is Islamic about our feminism, or feminist about our Islam is the question. Is this a feminist blog? The simple answer is yes! Is it an Islamic blog? Ah, jury’s out. Religion and the modern world have had some issues, and they aren’t anywhere near resolved.

What the blog isn’t is an overly simplified, easily quantified, essentialization of gender, religion, sexuality, or politics. And I hope that reflects the heterogeneity of the subjects explored.

My hope is that the blog be provocative – intentionally or not – because I think that in the space where we stretch our conceptions of what is possible, where we dare to be wrong, where we bear the vastness of the universe, we realize that there is something bigger than “fact” (male/female).

I think to question those things that are most deep within us, whether it’s a religion, an identity or a political creed is to be living as if you are alive (pregnant) with the knowledge that the world is something that still holds so much potential.

I think a lot about something Prior Walter says in Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. You see Walter is this gay man of colour from New York who finds out he has AIDS (in the 80’s) and he’s trying to cope with his inevitable demise. And in the midst of this situation he finds a lot of humor and some interesting wisdom that I think speaks powerfully to the spirit of this blog and the whole notion of being an Islamic feminist – something so human and yet so provocative.

Prior says, “I’ve lived through such terrible times and there are people who live through much worse. But you see them living anyway. When they’re more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they’re burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children – they live. Death usually has to take life away. I don’t know if that’s just the animal. I don’t know if it’s not braver to die, but I recognize the habit; the addiction to being alive. So we live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough. It’s so inadequate. But still bless me anyway. I want more life.” 

Steal this Hijab reaches into [her]story, politics, philosophy, art, sociology, culture, . . . to find those discussions, those connections, those ways of seeing (as John Berger so eloquently put) that might cultivate our political imaginations. We beg for more life in the conversations around us. We live past hope, even where we find the world so inadequate, so cruel, so uncompromising, so static.

But. . . bless us anyway – we want more life!

hoax 7

western feminism’s relationship with Islamic feminism and notions of “visibility”

by Ari Burton

(originally published in hoax zine)

The first book I ever bought on Islamic feminism sits on the shelf adjacent to the bed in my childhood room. Its maroon cover is subsumed by the mountain of books piled on top of it in order to maximize shelf space. I remember the amalgamation of tan lettering that forms the title without even having to pull it off the shelf; In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman’s Global Journey by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. It marks my adolescent forays into feminist theory, the excitement which bounced off the walls of my pubescent soul at having discovered women’s liberation. No longer did I feel like the overly-radical black outcast plopped smack dab in white quasi-Republican suburbia. Other people in the world wanted to talk about gender equality instead of occasionally yelling “girl power” because the Spice Girls made it trendy for little white girls to coyfully bite back at patriarchy all while still falling into the same fucked up mousetraps of beauty standards and sexist ideals. This book was one of many which helped me feel less alone, despite having never actually read it.

Now, two days away from marking a month of living as a Muslim woman, I want nothing more than to throw it away. I want to send it packing along with its literary compatriots whose pages embark on Christopher Columbus-eque missions, charting boats made of words and punctuation marks into this new, unfamiliar world called Islamic feminism. I want to stop the boots of these intellectual conquistadors from leaving their footprints on land they have very little business treading, because their manifest mission isn’t to understand how Muslim feminist movements fit into the frameworks of the societies they exist in, but to find reflections of white western feminist ideals transplanted in an unexpected geographic locale. They want to find a Rose the River with a “Middle Eastern” name who carries the banner of “Yes We Can” in her own native language. They want to delight in these “oppressed” women challenging the patriarchal conventions placed over their niqab covered heads by readings great works such as Lolita and The Feminine Mystique, books that theoretically demonstrate a liberated person in the same western imagination which still sees that part of the world as being backwards and behind. They want to see these women burn their burkas in place of bras, don power suits or pants, and blast Middle eastern reduxes of riot-grrl music in their eco-friendly compact cars to show the world that feminism has come to the war-torn, poverty-stricken, patriarchal sand dunes.

Essentially feminists like Fernea have no vested interest in actual Islamic feminism and its visibility in the global fight for gender egalitarianism. Their scholarship masquerades under the guise of expose journalism, purportedly shedding light on what is thought to be a great oxymoron. They hop international flights seeking to understand this great unknown, returning to the west with their own feminist ethnographies meant to aid others in the “holistic” study of women and gender in the academic sphere. In reality they merely want to look in a trans-planted mirror and see themselves.

For a genre which claims to bring about higher levels of visibility, the scholarship of white western feminists seeking to understand Islamic feminism does the complete opposite. This genre of scholarship is not about Islamic feminists and how they navigate the tensions of their world to their individual identities. Readers who pick up these books will be hard-pressed to find Islamic feminists speaking from their own voices. These are not edited anthologies where women are given the page space to discuss themselves in the context of their political movement, their personal lives and the global fight for gender egalitarianism. Instead they are regulated to the space inside the occasional set of quotation marks and the descriptions which are supposed to provide context to the commentary. Much like the book and movie The Help, the portrays of these women are about as dimensional as matzah bread and continually imposes their western feminist paradigm onto the lived experience while using these women’s voices as validation.

This type of scholarship has not only made a severe mockery of Islamic feminism by regulating its participants and their stories to side show status, but it has effectively succeeded in putting a distinct face on an entire movement of people. Islamic feminist in this purview does not mean a women-identified Muslim who believes in ideas of gender egalitarianism, but generally an Arab woman living in a Muslim country fighting that society’s patriarchal standards and working to be more liberated in line with her western sisters in the struggle. She is shucking away the husks of her backward, oppressive, religious society and stepping into the sunshine of modernity to warm and tan her kernels. She is the face of Islamic feminism, a cardboard cutout concocted by the chimerical imaginations of western feminists who refuse to believe global gender egalitarianism can come if women make different choices than those who identify with the feminist movement living in America. She plays into the notion that a monolithic global movement is the only way to progress, and people in the developing world would be wise to hop on the band-wagon before others have to come in and save them. She silences the voices of those who believe in gender egalitarianism but are not Arab and living in Middle Eastern Muslim societies. Her existence as a fantasy character for which western feminism gets to role-play signals to a larger problem about the relationship to academic scholarship and the Muslim world, that Muslim is automatically connotated with Arab Middle Easterners, and the analytic frameworks built around them is supposed to trickle down to the rest of the Muslim world.

I can honestly say as a queer Muslim womanist, the scholarship surrounding Arab Muslim feminists has fuck all to do with me. That cardboard cutout circulating as the face of global Islamic feminism doesn’t speak for me. She doesn’t speak for the African diasporic Muslim women who are forming their own relationships with gender egalitarianism in the worlds they live in and the Muslim spaces they navigate. She doesn’t speak for the ways in which gender egalitarian movements manifest themselves in predominately Muslim African countries which are non-Arab and the specific challenges they face. She only flushes our experiences out of existence and into a sea of other non-Arab Muslim folk who believe in the gender egalitarian movement but are not given the space to speak for themselves.

She’ll never speak for me as a Muslim womanist because in my mind the two geographic locals and their gender struggles hardly apply to each other. I don’t live under Shar’ia law, but instead a constitutional framework masquerading as secular but still taking its kickbacks from the Bible and the people who thump it. I do not engage with western institutions and notions of modernity because I think they are ideal, but because its what’s necessary to survive in the United States of America. I refuse to leave this country because in my mind colonization has pretty much wrecked the collective minds and memories of the global world to the point where the majority are all grindin to try and fit this framework which is finally crumbling in the western world. There really is nowhere else to go, and even if there was I refuse let this place fall to the descendants of dogs. My ancestors helped built this motherfucker, built a legacy of upward social mobility while still paying their dues to social justice, and I’ll be damned if I get run off simply because some foolish fucks wanna be a post-racial society that subsequently decimates its populations of color all over again.

Most importantly, I do not need the likes of white western feminism to have a fetishizing pity party on my behalf for simply being brown, modest, and religious. I made the choice to convert to Islam, made the choice to be modest and doing so didn’t invalidate my capability to make other choices. I didn’t loose the ability to speak for myself, which means I don’t need somebody who is unfamiliar with the intersections of my identities to take a Richard Burton voyage into the depths of my world and my soul only to come out with a more shallow understanding than they previously had in the first place.

I am just as verbose, crass, moderately unapologetic, cynical, and sarcastic as ever. I can speak for myself, yell for myself and rage for myself. I don’t need this body of scholarship to speak on my behalf and dissect my issues like an unsuspecting frog in a 6th grade science classroom. I need scholars like Fernea who think they are doing people like me a favor to take all of the seats. And if they need help finding one, maybe my poor little oppressed brown brain can muster up the mental faculties enough to line some up in an interesting formation so they feel as though they have a choice.   

hoax is a feminist collaborative zine attempting to find the connections between us despite our differences. it is co-edited by sari & rachel and kept alive by numerous contributors and people like you! feminists of all backgrounds & genders are encouraged to submit to this zine!

To order hoax 7 (where this article was first published) or back issues please visit their Etsy shop.