An Open Letter to My Father and Other Republican Family Members

So, here we are.  As we all know from experience, family and politics never mix.  Many a family dinner or special occasion has been ruined over political discussions that pit uncles against nieces, fathers against daughters, and brothers against sisters.  While I’ve never actually thrown my Thanksgiving dinner across the table and screamed, “What the hell is wrong with you people?” It’s only because I love turkey and cherry pie too much to waste it on an family argument.  And because I love them.

I grew up with my favorite aunt and uncle trying to indoctrinate me into the so called intelligence and viewpoints of Rush Limbaugh.  When I was 30 and pregnant with my daughter, another aunt quipped, “Well, when you’re young we’re all liberal, but when you mature you’ll become a Republican.”

Silence is Complicity.

My father is also a Republican.  Albeit it one that I view curiously from the perspective in the book What’s the Matter with Kansas?  He’s Republican based on the idea of what being a Republican is, not where the Republican party is now.  He gets his news from mainstream network news and is unbending in his political bias.  When politics is brought up between us, it’s a firestorm in under 5 minutes.  So we have learned to avoid the topic as much as possible when we see each other and try to stick to ‘safe’ subjects.  He knows I’m a women’s rights activist, he supports me and my sister’s dreams and believes we deserve the same as any son he could have had.

Another family member commented on a recent Facebook post I had made that she had voted Democrat in every election previously but this would be her first voting Republican.  Wait a minute, you voted for Obama? Twice? But now you’re vote for Trump?  Where are you getting your information from that you would change your vote to a misogynistic, racist, lying, blowhard whose never served in public office?  A man who proudly flaunts not paying the taxes he owes, a man who debases and insults women repeatedly, double downs on his flagrant lies, and who has done next to zero for real charity and service towards others.  A man who is frighteningly ignorant of the Constitution and the Declaration Independence and the moral compass that this country is founded on.

You don’t like HRC? I get it.  You don’t have to like her. That’s not the issue. Is she flawed? Yes. So am I, and so are you.  Has she made mistakes? Yes.  So have I and so have you.  Is she qualified?  More than any other candidate in recent history I can name. You still don’t have to like her, but you should respect her.

Over the years I’ve watched as we slide further apart on the politic spectrum; my father, aunts and uncles, and some cousins into the red and me firmly, proudly liberal in shades of blue.  We don’t talk about it too much, or at least we don’t engage each other in fierce debate, because we are family and feelings get hurt, and rifts arise.  Yet if we can’t debate our family, the people that love us best and unconditionally, about what is best for our country, what does that say about the bonds between us?  Discourse, debate, and differences of opinion shouldn’t be limited to a debate stage or protests.  Debating is about hashing out the truth, taking a stand, and engaging in intelligent discourse about what our core values are and what we want for our family, our community, our country, and the world at large?  Why are we too scared to debate the ones we love?

My core values?  Simply: I believe in equality for EVERYONE, not just people that look like me.  I believe in justice for EVERYONE no matter their nationality.  Skin color, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, culture, language, or economic standing are not acceptable reasons to discriminate.  Whatever rights you have as a white man in this country, which is still where the power of this country rests, are the rights that every man, woman, and child deserve – no qualifications.  Everything else comes underneath and we can debate the ‘how, when, and where’ but we cannot debate the ‘what’.

Silence is complicity.

The fact of the matter is, if you vote for Trump you do not have the same values I do.  And by values, I don’t mean menu list of specifics of gay marriage, single payer health care, taxes, abortions, etc.  I simply mean the core values that I strive to instill in my daughter; respect, justice, compassion, and equality.

I see a lot of talk about making American great again.  What isn’t great about this country is that I, as a woman, still have to fight for my rights in society.  Equal pay, family planning, birth control are all issues men control in order to ‘protect’ us, while at the same gender violence is at an all time high, and women are shamed, blamed, and ignored when we are victimized.  And I’m a lucky one because I’m white.  If I were a black woman or hispanic, or an immigrant?  My rights drastically diminish even further.  America has racism, sexism, poverty, violence, and economic gap that is now so wide between the 1% and the rest of us that the middle ground is disappearing.  We need a leader that champions equality for all, not one who fat shames women, believes in stop and frisk, and peddles fear for votes.  He is the lowest of the low, a liar and a fraud, and we must keep the high ground.

So here’s my voice.  If you vote for Trump, you are promoting a future country based on racism, sexism, ignorance, bullying, and profit uber alles.  A man who promotes anger and finger pointing instead of solutions and collaboration.  I don’t need to embed links to all the articles that back this up as fact.  You don’t need them, and you wouldn’t believe them if I did.  Just listen to him, he proudly spews all of that on a daily basis without a filter.  Today it’s former Miss Universe putting on too much weight and Twitter rants about a sex tape. Yesterday

I don’t care about your politics. You have a right as an American to align conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, Green or Libertarian, and to mix and match based on what candidates you feel represent your values.  But if your values in any way restrict the rights of others based on their skin color, religion, gender, or sexuality – than you don’t want to ‘make American great’ again.  You want to make America YOU.  White. Christian. Male. You are not America. America is all of us.  Believing that diversity makes us stronger, that equality is a human right for all, and that justice is blind.

This election is now beyond politics. This election is about humanity, intelligence, tolerance, and diplomacy. The Presidency of the United States needs to be held by a person that holds up the best of our country as an example for the world to see, that swallows ego and pride in the face of justice and diplomacy.  If you are voting for Trump, you are voting for misogny, racism, ignorance and intolerance. Many of you are simply voting against a candidate which is very different than voting for the future of our country. There has never been a time that I would say, if you vote for a Republican then we can’t be friends, or that our family relationships are at risk… because its never been a choice between a extremely qualified, intelligent, dedicated, yet flawed candidate that has made mistakes, and an ignorant, sexist, bullying blowhard that couldn’t give two shits about poverty, racism, equality, justice, and diplomacy before.

We can not be silent about this. Politics IS personal, but THIS is about a much more than politics and we cannot sit by and watch this like a reality tv show.  We must debate, talk, and be open about this if we are to get the leader we deserve. This is not entertainment, this is our future.  

#NeverTrump

Man Up?? No Thanks.

“Man Up” seems to be the catch phrase du jour within female campaigns over the past couple of months.  While I may be a little late to the party, with the elections finishing up at the polling stations tomorrow… that doesn’t prevent me from expressing my nausea at this recurring phrase.  Bandied about the airwaves, everyone from Diane Sawyer to Jon Stewart has covered this recurring theme.

Everyone’s favorite witch, Christine O’Donnell, sparked the catchphrase back in September telling her opponent, Mike Castle , “this is not a bake-off, get your man-pants on.”   Alaska’s grizzly mama herself, Sarah Palin, followed suit telling the men out there to repeatedly “Man Up” in various stump speeches, while Nevada’s Sharron Angle entered it into her live debate against a shocked Harry Reid, saying, “Man up, Harry Reid.”  Many other female candidates are following suit, endorsing not only the catch phrase, but the concept that men would be better politicians if they acted more like, well, men.

Colorado’s Jane Norton deployed the M-bomb against Ken Buck, accusing him of not being ‘man enough’ to run attack ads against her instead of allowing special interest groups to do it for him.  Further lowering the tone, Buck hit back with, “vote for me, I don’t wear high heels”.  Tit for tat spiraling the gender argument into the gutter.   Or a 3rd grade playground fight.

Guess what?  I don’t need to see Tarzan like chest pounding from any candidate, male or female to decide my vote.  I need substance.  Don’t think your male counterpart followed his moral compass, or stood up for what he said he believed in? Fine. Use your big words.  Don’t resort to childish rhetoric ala playground talking points.  If I wanted to hear a 5-year-old’s discourse, I’d listen to my kindergartener.

It sickens me enough to see politics played out on television like a badly written, poorly acted, daytime soap opera.  Don’t debase it further by immunizing the strength of solid women entering the political arena around the world with mama-grizzly one-offs. We are better than that.

Women’s empowerment does not stem from telling men they are flaccid, weak, individuals in order to appear tough enough to run against them.  Nor does it come from going for the cheap hit under the belt for audience applause.  My inner feminist would be appalled to see a man debate a female candidate’s performance based on the length of her skirt, and I’d feel exactly the same if ‘my team’ pitches the first lo-ball.

All of this ‘manning up’ flies in the face of several key campaigns erupting around the country focused on women as the changemakers.  The California-based Women’s Conference just wrapped up its annual conference, focusing on empowering women as the architects of change.  While innovative campaigns like The Girl Effect have sparked the global agenda by rethinking the role of girls as the solutions to third world poverty.

Not because they are ‘man enough’ to do the job.  But precisely because they are WOMEN,with their own unique attributes and qualities.  Women have fought to have a place in the debate, to represent themselves in government and in global policy and the world’s leaders are now listening.  We don’t need to prove we’re men to remain there.

UNIFEM’S 2010 Open Days on Women, Peace and Security celebrated the 10 year anniversary  of resolution 1325, with meetings in conflict areas designed to “enable direct dialogue between women’s peacebuilding organizations and women community leaders, and senior UN representation at the country level. The purpose was to seek women’s views on means of improving implementation of resolution 1325. These open and inclusive forums for women peacebuilders and activists also provided the opportunity to deepen local ownership of the resolution.”

I see these campaigns and conferences as major rethinks of the female role in society.  Girls looked upon as solutions to poverty, rather than the victims.  Women as part of the process of peace and security, rather than sitting on the sidelines waiting for it to come to them.  Not because we needed to alienate men from the table, but because we deserved to sit there with them.

Man Up?  No Thanks.  I can be a strong, empowered woman, without the trousers.

In the Lead up to Afghan Elections – a New Protest

Elections are always a time for unrest in Afghanistan. Its an unfortunate fact that violence ramps up as a means to deter voters and disrupt the process. The streets in Kabul are literally blanketed with hundreds of posters, every roundabout or wall is covered, and large billboards are erected haphazardly. The candidates represented in the large-scale photography chaos take enormous risks to run for office. Many are threatened with assassination, three are already confirmed dead by the Taliban.  Its not just candidates. Campaign workers are also targets, just last week the bodies of five campaign workers were found slain in Kandahar. Candidates, election officials, and voters alike will take great risks to exercise their right to run for office, and vote, regardless of security concerns.

Despite the tension, I am back in Afghanistan to move several of our development projects forward while observing the upcoming election.

Driving down the poster-strewn streets from the airport, I soon entered the ‘Ring of Steel’ of security checkpoints that surround the city center. There are actually signs up that declare you are entering the ring, a new security ‘improvement’ since last visit.  Ironic as not once was our car, a beat up Corolla, searched or stopped.  I have made my own plans to minimize the increased risk in the election lead up, knowing that its a precarious upcoming few days.

What I hadn’t accounted for was the heightened levels of violence and protests this weekend across the country resulting from one ignorant man in Florida. The threat of a 9-11 Koran burning wasn’t just ignorant from the perspective of tolerance, religious freedom, and respect. It wasn’t just tasteless to take the focus on 9-11 off those that lost loved ones and turn it into a sideshow, turning a day of mourning and remembrance into a twisted Islamaphobic protest. It wasn’t just dangerous to fan the fire sparking between Christians and Muslims worldwide.

It was also bigoted, reckless, and nauseating. Our country is great because of the freedoms we have. People of all religions and races and nationalities have travelled from afar to call America home because of these freedoms. This is not something anyone, of any faith, should take lightly. ALL beliefs deserve respect and are afforded the freedom to practice under our constitution. That’s the beauty of it.

The Florida minister has the freedom to burn the Koran should he wish, as others have the freedom to destroy the Bible or Torah under the same laws.  But actions have consequences.  Proof in point?  Another anti-American riot exploded today in Kabul in protest to his publicized plan.

Threats degrading Islam, like Koran burning, play into the hands of the Taliban by fueling the mis-belief that this is war against Islam versus a war against terroists. Fueling this fire puts our troops and international forces further at risk.

It also puts journalists, humanitarian organizations, and development aid workers at greater risk. Those like me, that choose to work in Afghanistan to help rebuild, educate, and create stability get thrown into the fire as well. I watched the news before flying into Afghanistan, with growing anger to see what a bigot with some media attention can do to rock an already unstable boat.

We’ve been here several times before. The communist-hunting by McCarthy’s trials. The Japanese internment camps in California. Why are we so keen to demonize with such broad strokes entire nationalities or religions? It seems to me that each time we do, we weaken our country a little more. Our strength is in our diversity, our weakness in our fear and racism.

As a nation built on the principles of religious freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness, we should remember that it’s the melting pot that made us a vibrant leader on the world stage.  As Afghanistan holds its elections this Saturday, we need to set a better example of tolerance and equality.  We should hold fast to those ideals our country was founded upon that we tout as the basis for democracy in other countries.

Women’s rights will be the first casualty of surrender in Afghanistan

So said the headline of the Vancouver Sun this weekend.  “Women’s rights will be the first casualty of surrender in Afghanistan.”  The article discusses Canada’s role in Afghanistan and makes the argument that those involved in the international conflict need to look beyond the desire to find the quickest exit strategy and instead take a stand for human rights.   This article was written from the Canadian perspective, but you could easily substitute the United States, Sweden, Germany, or England, among the many involved in Afghanistan.

“Arguments surface today when we raise our voices about violence against women in other countries. We are told that violations of women’s rights are part of someone else’s culture, and that we have no business interfering. We should just mind our own affairs.

In fact, it is those of us inclined to believe that human rights are a Western invention who are most vulnerable to this argument. If the right to food and dignity is as cultural as casual Fridays at the office, it may indeed seem offensive to criticize others for alternative practices. But this is like suggesting that the need to eat is a peculiarly Canadian characteristic. The right to equal treatment, education, and freedom from violence are not specific to one culture. They are universal entitlements that are valued as ardently among Afghan women as our own.”

The words sent a chill through my spine.  This is why I founded Mountain2Mountain.  This is why I believe we can be catalysts for change.  Its why I believe that the women and girls of Afghanistan are the solutions, not the just the victims.

We CAN be the change we wish to see in the world.  We can insist upon human rights and gender equity for all, regardless of culture or geographic boundary.  Not only CAN we.  We MUST.

photo by Di Zinno

The Barrette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today was a first.

Saying goodbye to the women in prison in Kandahar, I felt hot tears welling up in my eyes.  Glad for the cover of darkness that had fallen while we were talking with the women, I turned from the last woman dressed in vibrant purple who was still holding my hand, thanking me for coming to talk with them, as the tears coursed tracks down my cheeks.

I have yet to cry in Afghanistan.  I have visited four different prisons multiple times, meeting with the women and their children that are spending years in jail for crimes they did not commit.  Women who are in jail because a male family member raped them and the family had to save honor, and thus accused her of adultery.

I have met with streetchildren that walk an hour to and from schools, selling gum and maps in the streets, trying to avoid kidnappers that roam Kabul streets.  I have sat with families that have needlessly lost their wives, mothers, and daughters, because they died during childbirth when they wouldn’t take them to a male doctor five minutes down the road.   I heard stories of acid attacks on young girls walking to school, political leaders assassinated outside their family home, and women beaten to death trying to cast their vote.

All of the stories worth shedding a tear for.

Yet I never have.

All the stories move me, and I am truly touched by the heartache and injustice.  Yet I am resolute in finding solutions to help, understanding that there are a million of these stories all over the world.

Tonight was different.  We walked through the prison gate into a large courtyard to seeing children swinging on some playground equipment.  Women scurried back to cover their heads.   We slowly went over and asked them their names.  My limited Dari was of no use, as they all spoke Pashto, and I felt frustrated by not being able to convey the basic niceties.  Luckily they were okay with my male translator joining us and we soon were chatting away animatedly.

They clustered around, kids pulling at skirts or running around in the dusk.  They showed me their rooms and seemed quite willing to talk opening in front of the commander.   The first woman I interviewed was dressed in vibrant purple.  She talked openly of the accusations against her.  She was in the prison, accused of killing the son of her husband’s other wife.  He blamed her, which she denies, and who is to really know what happened.  She is the fifth wife of her husband.  He is 65 and she is 20, they have been married for 4 years.  So when she was 16 she was married off as the fifth wife of a 61 year old man.  The first three wives are dead.  All killed by his harsh beatings.  She shyly pulled up her sleeves and showed us multiple slashed scars and said they continue all over her body from the beatings he gives with a knife.

Another woman we speak with has four daughters.  She was married for ten years, then her husband moved to England for eight years and she divorced him.   Now her daughters are educated, the eldest a teacher, the youngest only seven years old and he is insisting that they be sent to live with him in England.   She refused, saying they were divorced, and she had raised these girls on her own for over eight years.  The reason is unclear why she would be sent to jail, but sure enough there she is.  Awaiting her fate for an unknown crime so that her ex husband can take her daughters away.

It goes on and on.  Heartbreaking, and unfortunately typical of many of the stories I’ve heard before.

I  asked my translator to please tell these women I wish them all the best and that my heart is with them.  Then I clasp their hands in both of mine and thank them in Dari, knowing they will understand.  One of them in a beautiful flowered scarf, presses a silvery jeweled hair barrette into my hand.  She has taken it from her own hair to give to me.  I smile and try to refuse, not wanting to take anything from these women, but she insists.  Then the group turns me around and takes the rubber band out of my ponytail, a comb materializes, one of the women smooths my hair and clips it neatly with the silver barrette.   They hand me back my simple rubberband while laughing gently and smiling.

That’s what did it.  I felt the hot liquid in the back of my eyes and smile broadly as the one with the barrette kissed me on the cheek.   I turned sadly to leave with the commander and turned once to wave and say goodbye again.  My attempts to verbally convey my true feelings felt inadequate.  At the door, the woman in purple was there.  She clasped my hand tightly, speaking and not letting go.  Thanking me for taking the time to visit them, for listening, and for giving them a chance to talk and share.  I held her hand for as long as she let me, squeezing lightly, hoping she could feel how much I was feeling for her.

The Muslim Bike Conundrum

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So of course, as a Western woman who regularly rides a motorbike in AFghanistan, just purchased her own in Kabul, and has started riding her mountain bike in the mountains of Panjshir – the question comes up… can muslim women ride a bike?   I am a Western woman – obviously so, tall with blond hair and an athletic stride.  Afghan men will be surprised, even shocked to see me on two wheels with or without an engine, but many will accept it as a crazy Western thing.

As a good friend in Kabul put it when I first asked the serious question of “What is the worst that could happen?”, he replied, “You have to understand, its just that it simply isn’t done.  You will blow their minds. But many will tolerate it, you are Western.”  When I asked if I was an Afghan woman would it be tolerated?  “Nope.”

That said, I still try to avoid attention.  When I ride, I wear a men’s kaffiyeh scarf around my head like a turban or a full face helmet with my hair tucked into a hoodie.  I wear baggie clothes, gloves, and a big men’s jacket.  Just because many will tolerate it doesn’t mean everyone will.   And its interesting that while a Western woman would be tolerated in many cases, an Afghan woman would not.  A woman is a woman though, right?

I have yet to see an Afghan woman drive a motorcycle or ride a bicycle herself.   The few Afghan women I’ve seen riding as a passenger  sit side saddle.  I can barely hang on behind sitting astride the bike, not sure what these Afghan women do, superglue or velcro their backsides to seat?!

So where does it say that muslim women can’t ride bikes?  and why?

I found a website that acts as an online Q & A for Muslim/Islamic questions.

One woman posts:  “Can a Muslim woman ride a bicycle?   I have read many fatwa’s on the subject.. Some say “yes” and others say “no”. The main reason for saying no is because the wind may cause her clothes to form her shape.. But if that is the case then shouldn’t it also be forbidden for women to leave the house on a windy day?  I mean my husband has taken me out to dinner and to the park on windy days.. whats the difference?   So anyhow Can a muslim woman ride a bicycle or a horse as long as she is covered and nothing is showing.. Of course I wear pants underneath my abaya.. so no worries about anything showing.”

One man replies: “Something I got from a scholar.”   [“As regards riding bikes by women we’d like to state that riding bikes, cars and other means of transportation is in itself permissible. In the pre-Islamic era Arab women used to ride camels. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “The best women who rode camels are the women of Quraysh. They are the best to show affection towards children and to care for their husbands’ wealth.”]

Another man replies:  “Even Prophet has running race with Ayesha r.a  i don’ think there is any reason to stop you from riding if you can safe your self well,  there is no verse in quran or hadith to stop you.  many of woman do ride horses and camel..and Prophet never forbad them…so according to me..there is no harm…if you keep your self well hide unger gaurments.”

Not all of the replies were positive of course, but when negative responses about fatwas and being a bad muslim woman were posted, several men hit back with postings like these two:

“what kind of fatwas were they? I mean come on, riding a bicycle has NOTHING to do with Islam and DOES NOT interfere with our religion whatsoever. Were bicycles invented when Islam started in the first place? I don’t think so.  I’m an Arab guy, was born and brought up in the Middle East, I have read the entire Qur’an six times and have never ever heard that riding bicycles is haram for girls!!! Some parents are just worried that girls might lose their virginity on whilst cycling, that’s all.”

“Of course you can!   Otherwise you can never walk even on street when there even a little hard blowing wind.  Those scholars simply keep issuing useless fatwas. Just dress modestly. Thats it.”

So its interesting that the modern discussion allows for the discourse on women riding bikes, but still no one does it.

Yet.

Election Season

This year three key elections are taking place, following in the footsteps of our own recent history making election that resulted in a liberal, black man, taking over the office held soley by white men since the inception of our country.  I voted early as I was scheduled to be flying to Afghanistan on election day.  I watched in Dubai as the results came in and arrived in Kabul to the news that Obama had been declared the winner.   Never had I been so personally invested in my own country’s electoral process and outcome. 

The first of the three key elections of the year, possibly the decade, came last month in Lebanon – the democratic and multi-cultural jewel of the Middle East.  A country that has work steadfastly to put together a patchwork representation of its diverse religious and ethnic foundation.  Shite, Sunni, Maronite Christian, and Druze all hold political positions.  Different factions within that including Hezbollah run for office, despite being labeled terrorists, because they are allowed to take part in the process if they play by the rules and those that support them will cast their votes in their favor.   Conflicts and 

With a 54% voter turnout, Hezbollah lost the election and the pro-Western Hariri’s coalition claimed victory.  Did this cause Hezbollah to denounce the elections and cry foul?  Quite the opposite.  Having won 58 seats, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah graciously accepted defeat, and congratulated the winners in both the majority and the opposition.  Would the West been as accepting had Hezbollah come out the victor?  

Next up was Iran.  We find ourselves in the middle of history unfolding as this country’s citizens dared to make themselves heard despite crackdowns in free speech and media.  This election did not go as smoothly as Lebanon’s.  When Ahmadinejad was declared the victor in a landslide victory, fraud was called and supporters of the opposition took to the streets demanding    What began as stunningly moving peaceful and silent demonstrations have turned violent as the clerics move to silence the opposition and when that didn’t work, to take aim.  Literally.  Now we are looking at full scale demonstrations and violent clashes that leave innocent men and women gunned down in the streets while they give their voices to change.  

Stories and photos of a young woman, Neda Agha Soltan, have flooded YouTube and the web after she was shot clean through the heart by Iranian militia.   She has become the poster child of the opposition movement and humanizes the opposition to those following the demonstrations in the West, as the heartbreaking video flooded the media.  One innocent among the many that died a senseless death simply trying to speak out.  www.bloomberg.com

Today’s headlines turned my stomach when I read how another nineteen year old boy, Kaveh Alipour, was shot in the crossfire over the weekend.  Upon learning of his son’s death, the elder Mr. Alipour was told the family had to pay an equivalent of $3,000 as a “bullet fee”—a fee for the bullet used by security forces—before taking the body back.   www.wsj.com

As one Iranian stated, “Democracy is a long way ahead. I may not be alive to see that day. With eyes full of tear in these early hours of Tuesday 16th June 2009, I glorify the courage and bravery of those martyrs and I hope that their blood will make every one of us more committed to freedom, to democracy and to human rights.” 

All of this sets the stage for the elections in Afghanistan this fall.  An incumbent in the form of Karzai, deemed corrupt by the citizens, and catering to the ultra conservative Islamic vote, despite coming onto the world stage as a moderate, modern thinking leader supported by the West.  If the elections do happen, will they be free of corruption, will they move Afghanistan forward, will the results be respected by the people and by the international forces that influence the country?  Will the people of Afghanistan that have endured over thirty years of conflict have a say in the course of their country’s destiny?  Only time will tell, and as we continue to watch Iran’s election results unfold and hope that those that wish for peace, and hope for freedom, can find both in the upcoming years.

June 24th, 2009|Categories: politics|Tags: , , , |0 Comments

Senseless Loss in Kandahar

Sad news arrived this morning via my friend, photographer Paula Lerner. Having recently come back from a trip to Afghanistan, both in Kandahar and Kabul she sent an email this morning describing the news of the murder of Sitkara Achakzi, a female member of the provincial council in Kandahar.   Paula had blogged about her during her time in Kandahar a couple of weeks ago.   Murders and assassinations are happening all the time in Afghanistan – this is easily one more that slips through our consciousness as another unfortunate happening in a troubled, war torn region of the world.

What makes this so heartbreaking to me is that this is one of many great women in positions of power and influence in Afghanistan that are willingly putting their lives at risk daily in an attempt to reclaim their country, build a stronger community, and further entrench their own rights to gender equality.   Sitkara Achakzi was assassination walking home from work and was shot outside her front door by two men on motorbike, blame being placed on “enemies of Afghanistan”, another term for Islamist Taliban insurgents.  

The same “enemies of Afghnistan”,  were also blamed for an attack in Kandahar in November in which acid was sprayed into the faces of schoolgirls. This attack happened during my first visit to Afghanistan and served to illustrate just how much risk girls and women are willing to take to receive an education.   

A month earlier, Taliban gunmen in the city shot dead the most high-profile female police officer in Afghanistan.  

Yet women still work in positions of power in and out of government, pushing back against those that wish a return to burqas and house restrictions.  These women are courageous beyond my own imagining. When just walking out your front door to go to work courts assassinations, it makes me treasure the freedoms I have.  Being able to not just walk, but run and bike to work, scantily clad by Afghan standards, without risk is an amazing gift.  

Simply by the luck of geography and the miracle of timing, I was born into a country and era that ensures relative equality between genders.  I enjoy the freedom to choose my career, where I live, take part in competitive sports, even the choice of who to love is mine to make without fear or reprisal.   It is humbling to go about my daily routine as I prepare for a return visit to Kabul in less than 48 hours.

When I was in Afghanistan last November, I was priviledged to sit down with two amazing women.  The first, Minister of Education, Dr. Massouda Jalal, who has run against President Karzai twice, and the second was Dr. Roshanek Wardak Parliamentary member representing Taliban controlled Wardak province.   These women are exposing themselves every day to great risk in order to push forward reforms in their country.  They believe in the future of a free Afghanistan and are willing to risk life and limb to be part of that future.   I can only hope that despite their high profile and high risk I won’t see their names in a news headline like Sitkara Achakzi’s anytime soon.  

My heart goes out to all of those who have lost courageous women. Families and friends will mourn their losses for years to come, but so will the community members and citizens that have lost great activists and leaders through these senseless killings.

Media CAN Change the World

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Here I go, sounding all Pollyanna again. 

I’ve been trying to find a way to work this title statement into my non profits’s mission since I first founded Mountain to Mountain.  Its something I feel on a gut level and yet can’t find the words to back up the gut.  

It became even more clear to me in Kabul after sitting down for several talks with the editor of Kabul Weekly, Faheem Dashty.   Faheem Dashty is more than just the editor of Kabul Weekly, he is also the President of AINA Photo Agency.  This is Afghanistan’s first and only Afghan owned and run photography agency.  A group of men and women photojournalists trained and created this agency to further the country’s ability to tell its own stories through photography and media.   

Dashty told me of death threats, some subtle, others more blatant due to the unbiased content of Kabul Weekly.  He works hard to maintain his job as editor in chief and not be swayed by the whims of politicians, leaders, and warlords.  His office is taken up by a lifesize portrait of Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, who fought the Taliban and inspired a nation.  The ‘Lion of Panjshir” serves as a moral compass to Dashty who refers to him in speech as ‘Chief”.   If it wasn’t for journalists and editors like Dashty, in countries like Afghanistan, corrupt and violent groups and individuals could run rampant without fear of having a spotlight shoved in their faces.   

It is painfully apparent how the work of journalists and photographers serve to tell the stories that would otherwise remain hidden.  Whether to highlight the atrocities brushed under the rug, or to tell stories of individual bravery and random acts of kindness that can inspire others to do the same.   Yet, to tell these stories, often puts the storytellers at great risk.   Corrupt governments, bribed policy makers, and the like don’t want their story told.  And Afghanistan has no shortage of corruption, violence, atrocities, and brave souls.   

Beyond the storytelling and the ability to educate and inspire, is the use of media as a weapon against tyranny and violence.   A recent example on a separate continent proves, yet again, the importance of the media to create change.   In the Congo, the systematic rape of over 40,000 women has been on my radar for a couple of years.  The rapes are in addition to the appalling genocide that has long since surpassed the numbers of those in better known Rwanda.  Yet, little to no mainstream news covers this in the West, worse still is the lack of coverage within a country that despite the high numbers of rape didn’t even have a word for it in its language.  

Chouchou Namegabe Nabintu is changing that through the airwaves.  Through the power of the radio, individual testimonials of rape are broadcast, helping women understand they are not alone, encouraging women to seek medical attention, and even providing ammunition against the perpetrators.   Nabintu’s become a fearless voice in journalism and an important advocate for the rights of women in her country.   “As a journalist I found that Congolese women were silenced, and I decided to battle for their freedom of expression.”  

Could a better example of the importance of media be out there?  So while newspapers are shutting down daily in the United States, and public radio cuts programming, the power of the internet and blogging emerges as a potential tool to remind us all of the importance of skilled journalism and its role in improving the world we live in!

 

photo by Di Zinno

Fight Free Speech with Free Speech

Johann Hari wrote an article in the London Independent about how the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights had her job description essentially perverted by a coalition of  religious fundamentalists states.  Thereby changing her job of defending free speech to reporting on ‘abuses of free expression’ including specifically “defamation of religions and prophets.”   Why the uproar over such a subtle change in verbage?  

The example Mr. Hari gives is chilling.  “So now, whenever anyone on the UN Human Rights Council tries to discuss the stoning of “adulterous” women, the hanging of gay people, or the marrying off of ten year old girls to grandfathers, they are silenced by the chair on the grounds these are “religious” issues, and it is “offensive” to talk about them.”

Chilling the issue further was the response; riots, death threats, and the arrest of an editor that published the article – reprinted in the Indian newspaper, The Statesman.  All because Muslims felt offended by Mr. Hari’s statements against their religion.  To be fair, Christians, Jews, and Hindus were all mentioned alongside Muslims with examples of religious ideas that were accepted to be truth by followers, but that Mr. Hari cited in his concern of the erosion of the right to criticize any religion.  

“Why should I respect these oppressive religions?”  

I saw the same thing happen to a photojournalist I met recently in Afghanistan.  An Australian who keeps an ongoing blog, Kabul Korrespondence.  A recent photo blog had posed the question visually of the Israeli’s treatment of the Palestineans being akin to the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews.   Provocative to all, offensive to some, and relevant given the recent situation in Gaza.  Yet completely within the realms of free speech.  Ironic as there was no ‘speech’ simply photo comparisons.  Comments came in on both sides, and incredibly two blog sponsors removed themselves from the blog and one comment referred to the blogsite as a ‘hate blog’.   

Where is the free speech here?  More importantly, where is it going?  The point of free speech is not to repeat what everyone else already believes.  If free speech exists only to reaffirm given beliefs how do we move forward as a people, as a nation, as a global community?  You may not agree with all the ideas or comments you read.  You shouldn’t.  Those that disagree with us, or write to provoke us, or simply play the devil’s advocate, do more to inspire change and reform than those that walk the line of propriety.  

What would have happened if Nelson Mandela had never stood up to his oppressors.  His views were inflammatory and blasphemous to those in power that sought to keep apartheid in place.  Had he not spoken out, would South Africa abolished apartheid on its own?  Doubtful.

I look to organizations like the Kabul Weekly newspaper in Afghanistan that fights daily for its right to publish openly  to bring the truth to the people.   Its editor, Faheem Dashty, knows that by printing articles that may be considered offensive to politicians or those in power, not only is his newspaper, but his life, is in danger.  Yet his belief that free speech is worth more than a single life, keeps the newspaper plugging along, and keeps the citizens of Kabul informed…in three languages no less.

Just this weekend, one of China’s dissident bloggers was stabbed for the words he wrote.  Xu Lai, was stabbed in the stomach after reading at a Beijing bookstore.  Blogs are a popular news and opinion medium in China, where newspapers are heavily censored. 

The right to freedom of speech is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   It is not reserved for those who speak that to which we agree with.  

The best response to free speech we disagree with is not censorship, its more free speech.   You don’t agree, your disgusted by the vile spew you just read in a recent editorial?   Respond with your voice.  Raise it, write it, photograph it and prove why you are right.  Allow the progressing discourse to elevate the argument and create a discussion.  It will expose both sides to see another point of view, enlightening our own narrow visions, strengthening our own moral positions, and inspiring discussions on controversial topics in order to find the truth in words.

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