Book Review: I Am the Beggar of the World

Last month, I looked at Eliza Griswold and Seamus Murphy’s work profiling Afghan women poets particular form of poetry, the landay. Their work, as they presented it in an article on Slate, came across as nuanced and reflective (my own words) of Afghan women’s experiences. I was eager to review their book, I Am the Beggar of the World, which is available this month and was kindly provided by the publisher.

Image via Slate.

Griswold worked with Pashtun women translators to find and present poems that would translate well into English. The book is dedicated to one of her translators, who tragically passed away in Afghanistan in 2012. Seamus Murphy, the photographer, traveled with her to capture photographs along the way. The book is divided into love, grief, and war-related landays translated into English, sometimes alongside Griswold’s commentary about the poem itself.

Murphy photographs scenes from everyday life, mostly candids and a few portraits, that are shown in the book. There are women in some of the pictures, but it doesn’t solely have pictures of women in burqas (or without burqas, for that matter). The decision is refreshing (in contrast, for example, to a 2009 Globe and Mail spread about Afghan women that Krista reviewed for MMW), and serves to emphasize the universal themes that are present throughout the women’s poetry—the themes from the poems both reflect and transcend women’s life experiences. The photographs from Afghan life presented by Murphy beautifully pair with the poems.

The poems themselves represent a variety of subjects: from joyful love to risqué situations, to doomed love and unimaginable sorrow, and even poetry that is historically and politically inclined—they run the gamut of perspectives. I appreciated the range of poems selected in this compilation, as it serves to portray that the women’s poetry—and experiences—aren’t all doom and gloom-related. [Read more...]

“Hijabi Experiments”: Are They Enough to Change America’s Perception on Hijab?

Every time we think this discussion about hijab and burqas has ended, the internet surprises us with new horizons on the issue. I was checking my Facebook the other day, and a video caught my attention because of its title. It was called “Hijabi Experiments.” I am not a big fan of watching such videos, but this particular one, originally posted in December 2013, had about three million views, so I thought there must be something different with it.

YouTube Preview Image

I have to say: I was disappointed. The video itself was poorly made, and its message was not very clear. According to the video’s creator, “the intent (of this experiment) was to educate (people) about why women wear hijab. The goal was to not only erase the ignorance towards ‘hijabophobia’ but also to raise awareness as to why it’s so important to intervene in these types of scenarios.”

The producer also stresses on the fact that “women in hijab can defend themselves, but it doesn’t hurt to know that her brothers and sisters in this country and other countries are by her side.” [Read more...]

Marilyn Monroe in a Burqa: Commentary or Cliché?

Walking home recently, I rounded the corner from my apartment and noticed a poster that was banal and startling at the same time. I had previously written about the (mis)use of images of Muslim-looking women by Dutch non-profit organisations as an attention-grabbing device, which may or may not be related to the actual work being promoted. Here was another prime example: a film festival poster showing a pair of female legs and high heels peeking out under a blue burqa, blown about above a vent à la Marilyn Monroe in the film Seven Year Itch.

Movies that Matter festival poster.

Movies that Matter is a Dutch non-profit organisation that holds an annual film festival, showcasing films dealing with various human rights issues all over the world. It aims to “fuel the dialogue on human rights, influence public opinion and activate the promotion of human rights”. I couldn’t find the objectives of promoting Orientalism and fetishisation of Muslim women’s bodies anywhere in the organisation’s materials, unfortunately.

There is no explanation for the choice of image, so I can only speculate. Burqa-wearing women don’t wear anything else underneath? Muslim women like to wear heels? The burqa as a sign of women’s oppression and therefore a human rights issue? (Yawn.)  [Read more...]

Words and Images of Afghan Women Poets

Image via Slate.

Earlier this month, Slate featured a photography-poetry project, “The Secret Lives of Afghanistan’s Female Poets.” The photography-poetry collaboration stems from the work of journalist Eliza Griswold and photographer Seamus Murphy, who reported “Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry” for the New York Times magazine in 2012. Griswold and Murphy’s work will be published in a book, I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, next month.

In the New York Times article, Griswold reveals the world of a homegrown Afghan women’s poetry group, Mirman Baheer, and the women from around the country who are its members. She reports on the important role of poetry among women as she describes the poetic form of the landai (a popular form of couplet):

“Pashtun poetry has long been a form of rebellion for Afghan women, belying the notion that they are submissive or defeated. Landai means “short, poisonous snake” in Pashto…The word also refers to two-line folk poems that can be just as lethal. Funny, sexy, raging, tragic, landai are safe because they are collective. No single person writes a landai; a woman repeats one, shares one. It is hers and not hers. Although men do recite them, almost all are cast in the voices of women.”

Griswold notes that while some poets receive support from their families, for others such poetry becomes a personal refuge from unsupportive family members and a way to speak of their sorrows. [Read more...]

Friday Links | March 14, 2014

March 8 was International Women’s Day and, as usual, there was a sudden rise in news items that feature women, some of which will be featured in this week’s Friday Links. At the same time, women around the world were involved in protests. A few dozen Iraqi women took to the streets to demonstrate against the new draft law, that would permit the marriage of girls as young as nine and automatically give child custody to the father. Thousands of Lebanese women took to the streets to demand that the government finally approve the country’s first law against domestic violence. In Turkey too, women took to the streets to demand attention to the problem of domestic violence. Dozens of Algerian women marked this day with a demonstration to remember the hundreds of women killed by Islamists during the 1990s. In Iran, for the first time in five years, people were permitted to celebrate International Women’s Day, and many women activists used this opportunity to urge the current regime to do more to address discrimination against women in the country. A religious leader in Tajikistan spoke out against International Women’s Day (re-branded Mother’s Day in 2009), claiming this is neither a religious nor a national holiday and therefore inadmissible.

The war in Syria has shattered the health care system, and for women, medical assistance is now almost non-existent, which has lead to a rise in maternal and infant deaths.

Despite the dangers associated with the work and the relatively low pay, a growing number of women are venturing into the media sector in Pakistan, hoping that their voices will be heard.

According to a report by campaign group Justice for Iran, which reviews 35 years of the Iranian female dress code, at least 30,000 women and girls were arrested in the last decade for violating the rules of dress.

A Crimean Tatar woman during an anti-war rally in Bakhchisaray, Crimea. Tatars make up around 13% of the population in the Crimea and are, considering their history, wary of the Russian regime. Image by Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters.

Tunisian sex workers demand that their brothel in the coastal town of Sousse be reopened, so they won’t have to beg for charity.

The autonomous state of Puntland has outlawed the practice of Female Genital Mutilation; an estimated 70 percent of the women in Somali region have undergone FGM.

Statistics show that Lebanese women are still victims of social, political and economic discrimination.

An estimated third of Syria’s Kurdish fighters are women, as determined as their male counterparts to topple the Assad-regime and ensure the future of their people.

A Moroccan woman has been sentenced to ten years imprisonment for killing her alleged rapist, who abused her for several years.

Although most reports on female Syrian refugees focus on Lebanon and Jordan, female refugees in Turkey also face exploitation, early marriage and sexual harassment.

Women outnumber men in medical colleges across Pakistan, but only half of these women will end up working in the medical field, due to the many obstacles they face.

The Tajik capital Dushanbe now has an all-female police unit, which patrols the city on bikes, and which will mainly concern itself with issues that mainly affect women, such as domestic abuse. [Read more...]

How “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” Saved Me

“This book is about what lies behind such deceptively simple responses to problems we think we already understand or believe that we should act on even before we understand.” – Lila Abu-Lughod

When Muslimah Media Watch started out in 2007, one of the goals was to be able to create a platform for self-identified Muslim women to be able to critique portrayals and stories about us and our communities in mainstream media. Comment and speaking for ourselves was a novel concept.  There continue to be countless Orientalist academic works, investigative reports and documentaries, heartwrenching movies, art  and books (whose jackets covered with pictures of women in niqab with desperate eyes heavily lined with Kohl) on the oppression of Muslim women and countless harrowing tales of our oppression. Let’s not forget the appropriation of our veils and their symbolism.

After reading and facing criticism for our work and writing from men and women of all faiths, I try to find mentors and women to whom to look for encouragement as we waged this form of jihad on stupidity and ignorance.

I blog often and try to smash assumptions, but am often tired by incessantly proving I do not need “saving” in any aspect of my life.

Within the online community, I have been blessed to find colleagues and friends – including MMW and countless others – who think, challenge stereotypes, and critique in intelligent and mannered ways. (Truth be told, there is always the acceptable rage and rant that we also allow ourselves. Obviously.)

Last year, when I saw a wonderful tweet (thanks @kawrage!) and some beautiful rumours about Professor Lila Abu-Lughod’s upcoming book Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, my heart started to beat faster. [Read more...]