Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Have Life

In my first weeks in the Middle East, I quickly erased six simple words from my vocabulary: “My dad would kill me, if…” Because the reality of those whom I spent most of my time was just that: Their dads [and brothers] would kill them, if… they texted a secret boyfriend. Left the house with “too loose” of a head covering. Didn’t come home straight after school. Were attacked or raped.

They’re called “honor killings.” [Or in other parts of the world: “Dowry Deaths” and “Crimes of Passion.”] And the idea is that somewhere, somehow, honor from the family has been lost. In order for it to be replenished, the one who brought the loss on the family has to pay. Traditionally, in Arab cultures, women hold the honor in the family. Or in other words: The family’s reputation falls on them and they can really do nothing to increase its value—they can only dirty or decrease it. And if this so-called “honor” has somehow been stained or taken away from the family, the woman [or the girl] pays. With her blood. These aren’t voluntary. These are pre-meditated attacks and murders by male family members on their own mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. [Most often the other women in the family not only support the attacks, but also aid in carrying out these murders.]

But there is nothing “honorable” about them.

As if the tradition and community acceptance of these acts of violence against women isn’t horrid enough, governments in over 30 countries [not only Arab countries] allow them to happen and have simply made room for them within their “modern” judiciary systems. The government and authorities see these passion crimes as a matter of the family—not the law. If the murder of a 16-year old girl is found to be in “a fit of rage” and “for the sake of the family’s honor,” her killers [most presumably, her immediate family members] will not be imprisoned. It’s custom and law that the case will not even be a case at all. Her death will see no justice. She’ll be buried in the backyard, in some unmarked grave, and the record of her existence will be erased—her family will never speak her name again.

There is nothing in the Q. book that permits or authorizes these “honor killings.” But the idea that women are property of men, with no rights of their own, is deeply rooted in Islamic [and other patriarchical] cultures. These crimes aren’t regarded as such on the governmental level because, well, the core unit of society [the family] practices them. Marital infidelity, pre-marital sex, flirting, seeking a divorce from a violent husband, seeming to be “too sexy,” even failing to serve a meal on time—these have all been “reasons” for honor killings. A man murdered his wife based on a dream that she had betrayed him, and in Turkey, a young woman’s throat was slit in the town square because a love ballad had been dedicated to her over the radio. Often, women are stabbed in their sleep, with no opportunity to prove their innocence. And quite regularly, it is their teenaged brothers who are forced to carry out their murders under the direction of their parents. [In case of improbable legal action, these minors would see a lighter penalty (maybe three months in a rehabilitation center) as opposed to the adults (maybe one year in the same place).]

These systematic acts of gender violence are not new. In our Book, we see the Teacher stop an honor killing—the one where they bring out the adulterous woman. Well, I’ve always wanted to point out that she had to have been with an adulterous man, ya know. But we don’t see him being brought out, presumably naked, to be stoned.

I know how He handled it. He dismissed it and granted her freedom and a second chance. The only worthy Judge ruled for life and redemption where humans saw shame and a need for death. He didn’t condone a killing for a proven wrong, leading me to believe that He certainly wouldn’t approve of a murder for a supposed [and unproven] sin. Honor killings, dowry deaths and crimes of passion occur every day in our world, and maybe in your country… Among the very people that some of us have come to love with our hearts and lives.

And so how do we navigate that?
How do we interact with people
who have been trained to believe
that there is no redemption,
no second chance in life?
How do we begin to instill a thought that
there is a God Who is Good and Just,
Who longs to rescue us from our own selves,
Who is slow to anger and
rich in steadfast, unwavering Love?
That they, as females, are worthy of Love?

That He knows their names?
That He wants them to know Him?

That He came so that they may have LIFE?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Superpowers, Reality and "My Fault"

If I were to have any super power I wanted, I would definitely choose “Invisibility.”

Sometimes I forgot how emotionally draining it was to walk outside my house. One major stressor I came face-to-face with while living in the Middle East was my own presence. Unlike my entire life before the desert, I became starkly aware and concerned about how I looked and carried myself. I could do nothing to fit in—only draw attention. People could spot me literally a mile away. And they’d watch me come for that mile and they’d watch me go for the next. I couldn’t escape the stares, the licking lips, the snickers, the singing, the comments, the kissing sounds, the whistles. I dressed conservatively, not showing any skin and hardly any form, yet I’d still be undressed by their eyes.

What bothered me the most was that it was so unwanted, so uninvited and totally unwarranted.

What they didn’t know was that as their stares burned holes in my soul and my jeans, I was on my way home to tell the world about them. About how their curiosity and vulgarity were going to make the headlines in my daily report, about how their stares and creepy smiles made my worth waver, about how I somehow feel smaller and lesser because... they looked at me. Like that. And there’s nothing I can do? Come on! How come they get to win and I get to be drained?

And to pour heaps of salt into my wounds, I was told and expected to believe that it was my fault.

To my utter surprise, I have literally stopped trucks, halted guards from washing cars and caused soldiers to abandon posts. [I never dreamed I could be such a diversion!!] “I didn’t want to walk by you—I had to,” is what I’d think. I locked my jaw, stared straight ahead, remembered that I wanted a strong posture and to just pass them. [And then I’d pray for God to send some more men to my city to go to them and build relationships with them.] Because I couldn’t do anything. Sometimes I’d turn and watch them, trying to shame them, letting them know that I was watching them watch me or video me with their camera phones. But I’d just get mad. Not the raging anger—it was the hurting anger, the kind of deep aching that brings hot tears to your eyes, for both them and yourself.

I’ve had Arab friends and their family members ask me what the hardest thing about living there was and I’ve openly, yet selectively, shared with them these frustrations. They resorted to many excuses and usually laughter, saying something like: “Well, Sah-rrrrah, it’s your fault. You’re asking for it. You’re blonde and have blue eyes. [Actually they’re gray and yellow.] You smile at little children and play with them on the street. You speak in Arabic to the store owners and to the taxi drivers. You don’t wear a [long overcoat]. Of course you’re going to get this attention. What you need to do is hide yourself, away from them. They can’t control themselves—they can’t help it.”

This attitude that men can’t help themselves or hold any kind of self-control just boggles my mind. And what further damages my psyche is that this was an accepted explanation. That women would say this in front of men, and vice versa, and they would both nod their heads in agreement. It was okay to them that I [and every other female] be treated this way, have to dress a certain way, to act a certain way, to be intimidated, because… they can’t help themselves. Entire societies are built in compliance to this gender attitude.

Men are allowed to act this way. And somehow, it’s my fault.

It was stifling and I felt as though the wings of my heart had been clipped. Furthermore, I wonder at the aches they have in their own hearts. I grieve over these accepted and perpetuated gender attitudes. And how mine couldn’t be entertained because what I was doing, in expressing my “hardship” and “reality,” was shaming their men and their culture.

And so, I’d turn inside and wonder how it was my fault—What? That I was born? That I was there? What? The sunset’s call to prayer would sound and I would be hidden. I’d be tucked away in my little apartment, reveling in the fact that at least in there, they couldn’t see me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Compliments: Truth or Flattery?

{{From one year ago… Make sure you stop by my “Latest News” tab and read… my latest news. :)}}

So the other day I was out with my ten, sweet workplace-friends having lunch. And as is the recent norm, they were talking about how dumb it is that I'm leaving them.
[We're not exactly creative people::: we keep having the same conversation.] Then, without me even noticing, because they're SO present, came the jokes about getting married & the offers for them to just "find a guy" for me. A nice, Arab man. Do I want a Mus. or Chr.? How many kids am I planning to have? etc. etc. [They're funny aren't they?]

And suddenly, there it was: One of the most profound compliments I think I've received being here, and from one of the women I most respect...

"You should do it. I think you could cope," she said, in all seriousness, cigarette in hand.

“I’m sorry?!”

"I think you could handle marrying an Arab and living here. You could do it—so just do it. You've proved yourself," she said as she blew smoke out the side of her mouth. "And then we won't lose you for next year," she added, laughing.

“Except to maternity leave, right?” I responded as we laughed together.

Then I clicked my tongue at her and raised my eyebrows, signaling a firm "no."

But my heart's smile overcame my face and,
in the loud restaurant, across the table,
we shared a little moment
as I mouthed a sincere "Thanks" to her.
She smiled at me as she took a sip from her glass
and tapped down the ashes from
her cigarette into the ashtray, refolding her arms,
and finally taking a nice, long drag from it.
And as soon as it came, it left again,
and we were on to the next topic.

That's all it was.

That was it.

But why I'll remember it for a long time is because it says a lot about what she thinks of me. And I'll be the first to admit—I’m just dying for feedback!

I was most intimidated by her when I first started a short ten months ago, but she quickly became my role model, mentor and friend. And when I feel like most days I'm just flailing my arms, spazzing out and being some awkward duck who's not even trying to fit in, a comment like this, from her, speaks volumes to me.

I think many of the women I work with have been watching and waiting for my mess-ups and blunders. Some are supportive and encouraging, others are jealous and rude, many just ignore me...
[...or maybe I ignore them?]... At any rate, in general, from the women outside these ten,
it's been a shallow and isolated "welcome."

But my friend just let me in on her secret: she doesn't think I'm like all the other American girls who come to the Middle East for whatever reason. She thinks I'm legit and that I could “handle” an Arab husband.

Marriage here isn’t what it is in the States—or in my head. Sociologically speaking, it can be said of families within the States that the strongest relationship is the husband-wife. Obviously, the divorce rate is high, but even still—it’s the strongest family bond. In a Mus., Arab context, the strongest familial bond is that of mother-son. And so, when a woman [often a girl of 17-21 years of age] is married, it is usually [not always] an arranged [and sometimes forced] marriage. This marriage isn’t necessarily expected to be one of companionship or partnership, but rather one of procreation and service. The wife provides for her husband’s family by bearing children [preferably sons] as well as taking care of the home and upholding the family honor. There are dowries and bride prices [separate customs] in place for different groups and traditions, and a “good” family name, money and virginity are all key to a successful match. It is true that Is. allows a man to have four wives if he can equally provide for all wives. Usually women who are “beneath” him, are divorced or “damaged goods” in some way, or those who are older virgins are cheaper brides and make excellent candidates for second, third and fourth wives.

All this to say, that while I’m not currently entertaining these options, it was quite a gift to be told that I could make it in her world. [Please read: Not all families treat marriage this way, however, it can be said that this is a prevalent and accepted norm. There are marriages for love and I personally know a few American women who have incredible marriages and families with Arab spouses.] And while there are obvious, additional challenges in cross-cultural marriage and living, my friend welcomed the idea of me being part of her people. [And meeting her brother…]

It could be her flattering me…
but I’m choosing to take this compliment as her truth.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Just One Man

About fifteen months ago, a man my age made a momentous decision: he set himself on fire.

December 2010: A twenty-six year old man named Mohamed Bouazizi had been the sole-bread winner for his family of seven in Tunisia [his mom and five siblings]. He was a fruit vendor. You know the guys, they have those little carts full of fruit and they’ll even cut a piece open for you to taste the sweetness of strawberries and melons and the like. He’s said to have been trustworthy and popular among his peers. Since he had been providing for his family since he was twelve-years old by selling fruit on the streets, he had a history of being harassed and required to pay more than his “fair share” of extralegal bribes to petty officials. “Early” in the morning on the 17th, [yes, 10am is a little early in some parts of the Arab world], he started his day, hopeful for plenty of business to not only pay back his creditors, but also to take home some money and provide food for his family that week. [He paid for food and housing, as well as his sisters’ tuition in university.]

Most accounts go that a female official wanted him to shut down his work for the day and he refused. She slapped or spat on him, cursed his deceased father’s name, confiscated his scales and discarded his cart and produce. In addition, witnesses have confirmed that he was beaten by her aides. He was irate that there was no way for him to provide for his family and for this public SHAMING and abuse that he had suffered. He ran to the mayor’s office to report the incident and ask for his scales to be returned [his only means for business]. When his request to be seen was refused, he obtained some paint thinner and returned to the government building. At 11.30am, amidst traffic and the bustle of his city, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself afire, screaming, “How do you expect me to live?”

The thing about Mohamed is that… he did live through his burns. For a little while, anyway. Most people, when they set themselves on fire, successfully commit suicide in the act, but this time it was different. He was taken to a hospital and cared for until he died on January 4, 2011. The country gathered to see his fate and waited for the government’s reaction. Mohamed wasn’t alone.

Right now, second only to sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab States have the highest percentage of youth in their population. That means that their largest age bracket is 15-24 years old. For North Africa and the Middle East, the majority of their populations are educated. And unemployed. You see, they’re doing everything their leadership is telling them to do. The Arab World has made astounding strides toward education in the last decade. Education matters. And so, these youth are hopeful when they complete high school and perhaps go to university. And then, they graduate to find that… there are no jobs. They have no livelihood. [I can’t tell you how many trained surgeons and engineers were my taxi drivers.] Their aspirations for their futures return to a dismal outlook as the reality of their lives becomes apparent to them.

They’ve done everything they were supposed to do. And now what? How can we expect them to live? Many live in near poverty, if not deep in it. Hence the heavy dependence on family for life and the emphasis put on marriage.

These last 18 months have been a volatile and pivotal time for our world, especially in this region. The day Mohamed died, the entire country rose up in rage and protest against the government. Within ten days, their president of 23 years fled the country.

Mohamed’s fire hasn’t stopped with him. With one successful overthrow, protests spread across the region into Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Libya, Jordan and Yemen. I’m hopeful because of the Arab Spring. In most cases, I’m witnessing a shift in the mindset and attitude of the youth in these countries. They want to have ownership and responsibility in their present and future lives. They’re smart. They work hard. And they want their voices heard. I don’t think they’re ridiculous. They’re only demanding what I believe are modern day human rights: jobs, reasonable food prices, education, and freedom from repression and oppression. It’s not going well for them in most cases, but it’s also not over yet.

I counted it a blessing to be in the Arab World at the time these unprecedented overthrows were being carried out. There’s something stirring in this world. People, young people, are asking questions they’ve previously been denied, as to their existence, their purpose in life, their contribution to their world. It’s a heavy door that’s being pushed open and I’ve only experienced it to be positive in my personal relationships with Arab friends. For the first time in a long time, they say, they are hopeful for the days to come. It’s my prayer that this door opens to a new opportunity to explore The Hope we have in our Father and His Son.

And really… it all started with just one, 26-year old man.

In some ways, it reminds me of a 33-year old Man.
HE made way for a new kind of Life, too.

I’d like to invite you to pick a country and pray for their people.
Lift them up and petition our Father to reveal Himself
in dreams, relationships and new governments.
We’re here for such a time as this.

Some shebab who came out for some protests in my neighborhood.
I, of course, “interviewed” them with my Flip.
They’re smart guys with high hopes for the future.

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