Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Culture and Women's Rights



By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

On Friday, I was at a dinner event at which prominent businessman Marc Lasry said he used to dance with and have “a secret crush on” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “She was quite a dancer,” he added, while calling Mrs. Clinton on stage to speak on women’s rights.

Mrs. Clinton was sitting at a different table than her husband, former US President Bill Clinton, who, like the rest of the audience, laughed. The audience’s tables included Platinum, Golden and Silver, which cost $100,000, $50,000 and $25,000 respectively.

As I am not from this society, I can’t know if Mr. Clinton’s smile genuinely represented his feelings or not. I don’t know if Mr. Lasry’s comments made him jealous at all. But I am certain that even if Mr. Lasry had said his relationship with the Secretary of State was more than just a crush, Mr. Clinton, whose affair with Monica Lewinsky remains historic as much as it is notorious, wouldn’t cause the same reaction as it would in a Kurdish man, who could slay his wife in an “honor killing” over such a comment.

This is, of course, just a matter of how two different cultures treat women. But the question is: Should we leave it this way merely because it is a cultural matter? In post-Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a woman, no matter how old she is, still can’t get a passport without the approval of a “male guardian” – i.e. a brother or father.

Held in New York City’s Chelsea Piers along the Hudson River, the dinner was organized by the International Crisis Group under the title, “In Pursuit of Peace,” and award four women who have made extraordinary accomplishments in their patriarchal societies.

The women included prominent Tunisian journalist Sihem Bensedrine; Somali human rights activist Shukri Ismail; Guatemala’s attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz; and Afghan human rights activist Sima Samar.

In a room where the marvelous golden and silver tables had their surfaces decked with glasses of vintage wine, it gave a harmonious feeling to see, for instance, Shukri Ismail, wearing a headscarf and confidently approaching the stage get her award.

“So let us pledge ourselves to the proposition that women must be equal citizens and equal partners with men,” Mrs. Clinton said, “recognizing that the changes we seek and the aspirations of the people that we support will not be realized overnight. That’s true around the world; it’s true even in our own country.”

Mrs. Clinton went on to recall a number of influential examples. With hearing of each one of them, I felt sorry for women in my country. As a journalist working in Iraqi Kurdistan, I remembered the days in which murdering women became so frequent that it no longer became newsworthy.

Of the stories that I recalled that evening was the pale 22-year-old woman who had married a man without the approval of her family. She had miraculously survived an intense shooting that left her husband dead with 17 bullets in his chest. Four bullets struck her hip as well. The culprits, one of whom I interviewed, were at large.

At this time, I was stringing for the New York Times, and finally managed to convince them that the story was worth publishing and different from other typical honor killings.

Another touching event that remains with me was a young woman who was too shy to talk to me over the phone about the miserable situation engulfing her after she underwent female genital mutilation in Kurdistan. “My husband hates me. I can’t fulfill his expectations,” she told a female friend of mine over the phone.

Let me be short and clear. I know, as any other Kurd or perhaps Muslim does, that there are cultural differences between the West and us. I also know when westerners such as Secretary of State Clinton talk about women’s rights, they may speak from a Western point of view.

But there are certain universal things for which cultures truly need to compromise. There has to be no justification for taking the life of a woman.

Men must convince themselves that beating a vulnerable woman does not represent manhood; it rather represents lack of it. When our sisters and mothers want to work outside and show that they have more ability to serve the society than merely being confined to a kitchen, we should not prevent them from doing so. We should admit that it is wrong to determine a girl’s future husband while she is still in the cradle or her mother’s womb.

More importantly, we should pressure our government to enforce the beautiful laws it has passed; otherwise, the society is nothing more than a jungle where only the strongest can survive.

* Follow the author on Twitter at #namo_abdulla, or email him at: naa2138@columbia.edu

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Weird Questions

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

Instead of going to Starbucks every time, I recently asked my roommate to give me some suggestions on what kind of coffee beans I should buy so that I could make my own coffee here in New York City. Even though he is a constant coffee drinker, he gave no suggestions except to “Google it.”

While I had received this answer previously to some other questions, which are not expected to be asked in Internet-savvy New York, I found my friend’s answer weird.

“In the era and city of advertisements, how could I possibly find on the Internet reliable information judging which coffee is good and which one is bad?” I said.

But the friend introduced me to something called “reviews,” which are qualitative evaluations provided by voluntary customers about products they have tried. The reviews gave me satisfactory answers, perhaps much better than any friend could do, allowing me to buy great coffee of my own choice.

I had to admit that my question was weird and not my friend’s answer.

In a city like New York, where Internet penetration is as deep as it is wide, weird questions are no longer solely about men’s salaries and women’s ages. They include any question whose answer is conclusively available on the web.

In a country like Iraq, where I am from, many of New York’s weird questions are still normal.

The reason is simple: In the English-speaking world, the Internet supported by countless resources can provide a much easier and more convincing answer than a friend. A postmodern and free community such as Facebook, which currently has some 750 million netizens, is more responsive to someone who knows English.

The first weird question I asked was on my second day in America. In a similar Iraqi behavior, I met a prospective classmate and asked him if he could accompany me to find the nearest branch of Bank of America. Like a good guy, he joined me, strolling down Broadway.

Though he was from California and new to New York, he took out the latest version of the iPhone, which, just like Moses’ Staff, found the exact location of and directions to the destination I needed.

To avoid repeating such embarrassing location-related questions, I realized that having a smart phone was a necessary part of New York life.

But in Iraqi Kurdistan, where most houses don’t even have addresses, in order to reach a destination, I needed to memorize and apply a passage as easy as this one: Take the main road until you reach a mosque, then make a left and go all the way down. Stop in the fifth street, our house has a red door facing a dusty children soccer field.

Each time, for instance, I visited a friend of mine in one of Kurdistan’s most affluent neighborhoods, Ainkawa, I had to call him to come and pick me up near a petrol station.

Even before coming to the US, however, I knew that numeric and statistical questions might be weird to ask. I would, for instance, have searched the Internet to find the unemployment rate in 1982 America.

With the recent transformation of the Internet from a “read-only” to a “read-and-write” tool in which users are active participants rather than passive recipients, there are an unbelievable number of weird questions to which people seek answers online rather than in real life. It did not use to be like this a couple decades ago.

People increasingly don’t even need to be physically taught by a teacher or present at a school to learn or even earn a degree. As the number of online schools is increasing, a recent survey shows that the number of American students taking at least one online course has now surpassed 6 million, including one-third of all students in higher education.

In order not be replied with “Google it,” I might have to check to see if the question is answerable on the Internet, or to ask after saying a phrase akin to, “What’s your personal OPINION on…?”

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

From Green Zone to the Big Apple

By Namo Abdulla - for Rudaw

In mid-July, I feared nearing the United States Embassy in Baghdad’s International Zone. Commonly known as the Green Zone, it looked massive and endless, surrounded by multi-layered blast walls topped with barbed wire.

But this time, the fear did not stem from the possibility of a bomb attack; I was instead afraid that I wouldn’t get a US visa by the time my fall semester classes began in New York.

For a couple friends of mine whose names were Mohammed, it took weeks and months to get an American visa. Some Erbil-based US diplomats whom I knew and approached gave a one piece of advice: apply “as soon as possible.”

Beyond anyone’s expectations, however, my visa was issued in just five days. Getting a US visa so soon made me think of and rethink a couple explanations.

First, it was wrong to think that the US government discriminates against Muslims wanting to go to America. It may rather treat those named “Mohammed” differently, because the holy name is enormously popular, and it’s unfortunately too easy for an innocent person to have the same name as a terrorist these days.

The second explanation, which I thought was equally important, was that I’m not from the troublesome part of Iraq; I rather belong to Kurdistan, a safe and pro-American haven in northern Iraq. In Kurdistan, no American soldier, diplomat or businessman has been killed or kidnapped since the US-led invasion in 2003.

Upon my arrival in New York’s massive JFK Airport, there was again no questioning whatsoever. I presented my documents, and in a few seconds, the officer stamped my passport, letting me step into America. I admittedly loved it right then and there. Day after day, the stereotypes I had about this country were now vanishing.

It was about 11 p.m. when I saw New York for the first time. As looked around to see everything, I perhaps looked like a person with wandering eyes. Right there, I got a feeling that it was impossible to draw any comparison between the US and Iraq.

Sitting in a yellow cab, I could see through the window the actual tall buildings that I had only seen in Hollywood movies, which had never given me a true image of what American society looks like. Reading all the English banners on the streets, this time I felt I was in a movie.

Before coming to the US, I had already made my mind that if somebody asked where I was from, the response would be just “Kurdistan.” No mention of the word Iraq at all, a behavior totally opposite what I had done a few days earlier in Turkey. I had, perhaps rightfully, thought that in America if I said I was from Iraq, everybody would suddenly think of bombs if not terrorism. But if I said Kurdistan, everybody would welcome me.

The attempt soon proved to be in vain. Few had any idea about Kurdistan. Each time I had to tell a long story to define it and explain where it was on the map. Hopelessly, I had to change my mind, saying I am from Iraq. The response, this time, has often been a big “wow.”

* The author is a student at Columbia Journalism School. Follow him on Twitter at #namo_abdulla, or email him at: naa2138@columbia.edu

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My First American Thanksgiving

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

The final Thursday of November, on which Americans eat millions of turkeys, could be “very depressing” for me, said a university professor.

The reason isn’t that I am a vegetarian who disapproves of the massacre of the poor birds for a momentary human pleasure that day. I am actually so obsessed with meat that I could never possibly be a vegetarian. In an email sent to students at Columbia Journalism School, the professor discouraged us from staying around campus or eating at a restaurant on this special day, which is called Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving celebrations date back to 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians had a good harvest. It wasn’t recognized as an official holiday, however, until 1863, during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.

Upholding tradition, on the eve of Thanksgiving, US President Barack Obama pardoned a turkey.

“It’s an annual ritual,” said Maura Judkis in her Washington Post blog, “that reminds us of both thankfulness and our elected officials’ power to decide between life and death.”

In a humorous and sarcastic way, Obama said that saving the turkey’s life was one of his recent actions for which he “can’t wait” on a congressional approval. “Otherwise, they'd end up next to the mashed potatoes and stuffing,” he said.

This year marked my first Thanksgiving. Invited by an American family, I was lucky to end up at a big table of food rather than eating with the homeless in a restaurant down the street. After being away from home for months, I needed a homemade meal.

While it was a totally new experience, Thanksgiving reminded me of some similar and dissimilar characteristics of Kurdish life. First, it had a familial atmosphere, which is part and parcel of Kurdish life in Iraq. It’s typically a daily occurrence in Kurdistan that women cook, waiting for men to return from school and work, and then, share the meal altogether.

But in America, family gatherings have become something of an occasional matter. Adopting an individualist approach of life, Americans (here I mean women too) are expected to leave their families after reaching a certain age in which they can depend on themselves. I have friends whose siblings and parents are divided across countries and even continents.

As I entered the house without taking off my shoes, I suddenly took sight of a beautiful white cat roaming freely inside. Unlike our cats, she was not afraid of us, sitting smartly on one of the chairs at the table, a behavior that I had seen only in Tom and Jerry cartoons.

My family used to tolerate cats only when needed to catch mice in our house. But in America, there is much more respect for animals, which have their own rights groups. Dogs and cats are petted and enjoy a much more luxurious life than, for example, some homeless men spending their night outside my apartment on the chilly street.

Last but not least, my Thanksgiving Day had a multi-religious nature: a Muslim at a Jewish family gathering with Christian friends. Despite discussing many sensitive issues from turkey the bird to Turkey the country, from religion to politics and the Iraq War, we remained joyful and tolerant all day.

Last year, I was in Baghdad during Eid al-Adha, which Shiites and Sunnis celebrate separately. I wondered: Why not think of an Iraqi Thanksgiving that brings everybody, regardless of religious or ethnic backgrounds, together?

* Follow the author on Twitter at #namo_abdulla, or email him at: naa2138@columbia.edu