Commentary: The White House Summit on Women

This post is a series of reflections on the White House Summit on the State of Women, or #USOW. The aim is to critically reflect on many such celebrity-centric high-profile events that claim to be issue-centric, but really end up being more about groupthink and partisan-politics-centric. In the process, such events harm the issue by using up crowd energies but really achieving nothing at all except a series of selfies with celebrities. So agendas are damaged by being contaminated by personal agendas and partisan political agendas, as well as the taint of liberal feminist “happy talk.” I am writing this post because I believe that feminist politics are serious business that affect the everyday lives and deaths of vulnerable populations, and feminist politics do not deserve to be co-opted and deployed for partisan politics showcases. I appreciate that as a participant, my own career would be better served by rave reviews (I went there and it was awesome). But no, thanks.

Last week, at the White House summit on women in Washington DC, celebrities rather StateOfWomen-1200x613descriptionthan issues were the glue that kept the program together. The event calendar was completely packed, as if by committee. The schedule kept going over. They held on to Michelle Obama till the end, otherwise some of us were ready to give up and leave. I’m mad that my phone was dead from too many selfies and tweets, and by the time Michelle arrived, I couldn’t get a ridiculous me-with-FLOTUS-on-big-screen selfie.

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Inspiring but insipid slogans that point to real change. A program that deploys them for a feelgood party and fritters away the energies to preserve the status quo.

By 7pm, my companions and I were utterly exhausted with just listening to speakers. At a couple of points in the day, we were sent back & forth to “solution seminars”. The one I attended sure didn’t feature any solutions worth mentioning. For instance, the session I optimistically chose – “Revolutionizing Gender Norms” – featured Amy Poehler and Valerie Biden. The panel also included a representative from Mattel (with a beguiling foreign accent, so she sounded very smaht) who described how influential Barbie (Bah-bee) was for young girls, and how much thought Mattel is putting into this influence. I waited for the punchline: she concluded her presentation with showing how Mattel is working to change things – a commercial that showed young girls leading and ordering adults around and acting like adults, and then playing with their Barbies. In other words, feminism co-opted for cash. Like, are we that stupid?

All day I waited in vain for some chance to contribute our ideas rather than sit and listen to people repeat how great Obama has been for women. 

The program was designed last minute (but Michelle is organizing it! So, come!) and was really hard to decipher. When is lunch? When is this speaker? That event? And what happens since we’re running so behind? When does Michelle show?

A long star-studded day – president Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Oprah, Nancy Pelosi, Loretta Lynch, Kerry Washington, Mariska Hargitay, Amy Poehler, Warren Buffett, and many other luminaries addressed the 5000 women gathered at the summit today. (The most engaging speaker by far was Michelle Obama. I have to say I’d be very surprised if she were to forego a political career in the near future. So watch for that).

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Oprah & Michelle chat about women, men, and Michelle’s life.

The main goals of the event weren’t really to highlight the real issues that affect women but to highlight a) the Obama administration b) nonprofits, products, and programs related to women and girls produced by Poehler, Hargitay, Goldman-Sachs, etc. And also to drum up support for a loosely feminist-framed Hillary administration.

Overall I’d describe the event as a women’s Democratic Convention where the achievements of the Obama administration were repeatedly highlighted. Nancy Pelosi concluded her comments with “Let us all thank President Obama for….” which sounded remarkably like a prayer, and gave me the heebie-jeebies.

No opportunity to mention the future “Madam President” was lost – including by Obama.

Mariska Hargitay (whom I love) highlighted her Joyful Hearts Foundation, Amy Poehler reminded us of the Amy Poehler Smart Girls program, Goldman-Sachs brought in a line of successful businesswomen who benefited from their 10,000 Women financing programs, and so on. We admired the wildly successful business women who got Goldman Sachs cash, and sat thinking, like Tributes in the Hunger games, we could make it too. If we only tried hard enough and bought into Goldman-Sachs.

No opportunities presented themselves, whether in the large sessions or the small ones (the ones I attended) to ask questions or raise problems or critiques. In my ‘Solutions Seminar’, we were told quickly before the session started, that due to lack of time, the Q&A section of the panel had been cut. So sit back and enjoy your celebrities.

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Like everyone else, I took a me-with-Obama-on-big-screen selfie, but I assure you, he was in the room. I want him to know, I was thinking, Okay, you’re cool, and you do a great slow-jam-the-news, but no more drones and no more deportations, okay? … He wouldn’t be listening though. So I just got a selfie.

During his speech, Obama actually used the construction of “we” have to serve as examples against Them with their oppressive patriarchal structures and cultures. Excuse me while I hurl. In the Obama speech, I restrained myself with great difficulty when he made a resounding call for desperately needed social change, and I wanted to shout Yo! Mr. Hope! You had 8 years! And what’s with the drones and the deportations! Except I didn’t really want to be pursued by the Secret Service hotties just that evening.

The main take-away for me was the opportunity to network and chat with the activists and change-makers at my table, such as Dilshad Ali of Patheos, Hind Makki of Side Entrance, Aisha Rahman of Karamah, and many others. But we were instructed to remain at these tables for the duration of the day – which means we had no opportunity to network with anyone who wasn’t already in our networks. The only new person I met was a pediatrician from Evanston who was in the lone, snaking queue with us that morning.

I exaggerate. I had other take-aways too. The fact that most other women are far better at professional fashion than I am. Stunning, really, but also sadly dedicated to high heels in a long day of a women’s summit.

I also learned how to generate a photo-op for the powers-that-be, deploying diverse women change-makers nationwide without actually involving these women in any dialogue or change at all. If you or your friends were able to get a word in about how to effect real change, you’d be the exception. You’d be the backstage groupies.

In other words: how to co-opt feminist politics for a photo-op. Well-played, Washington, DC. Once again – well-played.  

 

Gender activism: within the system or without?

wadudAt times, I hear some Muslim women scholars sniff at activism. I hear people say that the activists who educate young women in conservative seminaries and teach them wifely obedience are superior to such scholarly activists who rock the boat, jettison baggage, and demand new gendered frameworks. I hear people say that such activists could have continued to be highly regarded scholars in “mainstream” religious circles, and that it was their own fault that they demanded too much, made too many big statements, and demanded – for instance – prayer leadership, the right to divorce, and so on.

This is an age-old debate of course: work within the system and slowly accomplish some goals, impact a large number of stakeholders, and slowly achieve change? Or demand more, and turn large numbers of mainstream community members against yourself – and potentially get them to dig in their heels even further?

I disagree with such claims – that working within the status quo is the only true path to reform. With all respect to warriors on the path, quiet, patient work within the system is one of the paths. We need all our warriors on this path. Scholar-activists like Amina Wadud have blazed a path for all of us. Whether you agree with her or disagree, she helped raise everyone’s expectations. For my part, whether you find your spiritual home within the status quo or not, if you work toward egalitarian ideals, we are all sisters & brothers.

But even if I love your community service, be warned, some of us wage war against the status quo.

National No Bra Day

“Encouraging women to show off their braless chests in the name of awareness won’t save anyone, but its message to breast cancer patients and survivors is clear: Your disease is about your secondary sex characteristics, not about you” – Christina Cauterucci.

In my last blog post, “Dear breasts”, I talked about what it means to have “survived” breast cancer with a mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Truth be told, though I’ve been commended for my courage in speaking out, it took me 6 years to do so.

Today, on “National No Bra Day,” I am sitting here facepalming at the sight of innumerable photos of women supposedly bringing “awareness” to breast cancer by letting the girls out. As with the share-bra-related-information-in-your-Facebook-status gimmick, I struggle at the edge of solidarity and the inevitable sensationalism of all campaigns. I must believe that there are at least a few well-intentioned individuals who have contributed to this “Fauxliday” as Cauterucci puts it. But I struggle.

Why? Because these twitter pictures of celebrities sharing their perfect breasts with the public are yet another slap in the face for mastectomy-survivors like myself. How is it that their flaunting their still-existent-nipples will help breast cancer survivors?

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A journey through annual conventions of the Islamic Society of North America

 

imamapaloozaMany years ago (okay, in 1991), when I was not an American, and had never thought I would be an American, I was working at the International Islamic University (IIU) and I heard from a student tell of an event called the Annual Convention of ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America). This dear friend of mine was a religious misfit like myself, and her mother had hoped she would find a nice, educated, liberal, upwardly mobile professional, and religious boy at ISNA. So her mother packed her off to Chicago where she attended talks by Imam Siraj Wahhaj and Jamal Badawi (she got the two of them mixed up, and told me how Jamal Badawi was amazing! Tall and Black and amazing! Okay, in the photo below, Badawi is on the LEFT.) But she met no nice badawisirajboy – probably because she wasn’t really focused on the job. A year or so later, in 1993, I met a couple of Canadian students at the IIU, young women who were on friendly terms with ISNA leaders and who had organized major events such as the protests against the Bosnian genocide. They told me more tales of ISNA. 

It crossed my mind – how completely amazing and insane would it be if I, the niqabi from Kinnaird College, could attend ISNA. Most of the people in my social class did not quite get my religiosity. As for those who did get religion, they criticized my lack of traditional gendered behavior and my love of English literature. I was so lonely as a religious woman. I felt being at ISNA would put me in a cerebral network of love and awareness. All I’d known so far was Jamaat-Islami (whence I was now an exile, because I was no longer an Islamist) where the boys tended to be conservative, macho, and more interested in power politics than religion. Then I’d known my Chishti Sabri silsila where most of the people were – well, women. Radiant, smart, and devoted women, but, mostly, upper class. In case this escaped you, dear reader, I’m not upper class. I’m barely hanging on to middle class. More on that later. 

A few years later, in 1996, as a newly arrived graduate student, I attended ISNA in Columbus. I had no money, and was kindly accommodated in the interns’ hotel room. I felt completely out of place among these very American undergraduate women who were so comfortable with each other and with their very informal cliquishness. When I spoke (in my strongMatrimonial-20141 angular British accent, completely pure of midwestern slang) about the ISNA experience, they stared at me quietly, and then turned back uncomfortably to talking about Stuff. I felt dreadfully Pakistani, so foreign, and so disappointed that I wasn’t in heaven even though I was at ISNA. And no boy had liked me yet. 

Several ISNA’s later, I am off to Detroit for ISNA 2014

It is now 21 years since I first heard of ISNA. I still have no money, but I have friends – friends I can crash with. I did eventually find a man, by the way. I didn’t meet him at ISNA, but I met him at the cousin of ISNA (AMSS, which is now NAAIMS).

isna-hallwayNow when I attend ISNA, I am overwhelmed by the crowds of uncles, aunties, sisters, brothers. I smile indulgently as I pass through the hotel lobby where young Muslims flirt and make eyes at each other. I roll my eyes at the fanfare around the arrival of celebrities – and then I try to shove my way in so I can catch a glimpse of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. I am excited to see friends I haven’t seen in years. On my way to and from lectures and events, I see friends from all over N. America. I am connected now, and I am home. As home as possible. 

 

Check out my Meet the Author event on SUNDAY AUG 31, SESSION 12M, 11:30 AM – 12:45 PM. Room 311AB. 

Warning: scam job ads that seek to prey upon women

The internet jungle preys upon the innocent. Someone I know has been looking for a job, so I had my eyes open. I was poking around university Facebook pages when I saw a note on the Beaconhouse National University FB page that said:

“A reputable company urgently requires for HR Assistant (only Females) Fresh Graduate or Graduate students Salary Package-Rs.16000-20000 K- negotiable. Apply at nida5448@gmail.com. Subject line HR Assistant”.

It sounded off, but then I thought, maybe it’s not so strange here. I sent her the note.

She contacted them, and the ‘company’ requested a skype interview.

On skype, the man immediately started insulting and threatening her and told her she’d better do everything he said or he’d post nude pictures of her on the internet. She immediately quit skype.

Pakistani friends: please warn your students and young women not to fall into such traps and not to be intimidated by anyone.  I have found the same ad posted on a variety of job-related FB pages. It is truly criminal because they know people are desperately seeking jobs.

‘Just right’ British gender: J.K. Rowling and Enid Blyton

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My bedtime reading these days is ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.’ A few weeks ago, I was (re)reading ‘Last Term at Malory Towers.’

For those of you who do not live in a time warp, the latter is by an extremely prolific British author, Enid Blyton, who published between the 1920s and the 1960s. If you have read Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St. Clare’s series, Harry Potter’s dorm stories with their focus on school discHp4gf_029Durmstrangipline, food, and social relations will ring familiar. When I was growing up in Pakistan, Enid Blyton’s books were all the rage. I consumed them hungrily (though my English teacher cautioned us that they were not particularly well-written).

Anyway, in ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,’ we meet the visiting foreign students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang. Beauxbatons students are hyperfeminized (in the film, all vila) while the Durmstrang kids are hypermasculine, gruff, and dark (I mean, Malfoy almost went there). Beauxbatons is, of course French, while Durmstrang is somehow Northern European.

The British students at Hogwarts, however, possess a ‘just right’ gender quotient. Sensible nerdy Hermione and tough hex-queen Ginny sniff at the feminine wiles of Fleur Delacour. Ron and Harry are uncomfortably weirded out by Victor Krumm’s “grumpy” good looks and lack of humor. The Hogwarts / British students are perfectly balanced in the middle. The men have eyebrows that are not terribly noticeable and the women are not excessively attractive. Just right.

Enid Blyton, mostly writing in the 1930s-1950s, uses American and French characters as foils to the perfect British balance of third-year-at-malory-towers
gendered culture. The American Zerelda Brass (Third Year at Malory Towers) is obsessed with her appearance, wears (gasp) makeup, hates sports, dislikes getting sweaty and muddy in the lacrosse field, and looks forward to a career as a famous film actress. The English girls, with their rough and ready ways, their forthright (um, rude?) manners, and their sensible, tomboyish ways are shocked and amused by their American friend. Zerelda means well, but she gets into a lot of trouble until she learns to become “sensible.” The unscrupulous, funny, mischievous French students (Claudine, for example, in St Clare’s) must also learn English and sports (and that “English sense of honour”).

Gwendoline Lacey, though English, is considerably wealthier than the other Malory Towers girls: her task is to become a good deal more sensible and middle class, less attached to her notions of femininity (braid your hair! get in the pool! stop worrying about your skin!), and eventually, to face the fact that she will be employed as a (gasp) secretary or something.Harry-Potter-and-the-Order-Of-The-Phoenix-rupert-grint-17184344-1920-800

Rowling’s writing is way, way, way better than Blyton’s but both writers position British / English gender as being just right, moderate, neither too feminine nor too masculine, in contrast to their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Rule, Brittannia, in gender moderation.

Trick mother’s day question

2014-05-08-happymothersdayOn this ONE day of breakfast in bed, flowers from low-wage moms in Colombia, and mother’s day discounts at various stores, answer me this question:

Which would you rather have: a) overwhelmingly positive associations in the public imagination as the universal symbol of sacrifice and love, TV commercials about diapers, peanut butter, laundry detergent, and Pine-Sol centered around motherhood, and flowers once a year? Or would you prefer b) actual things like more maternity leave, childcare, vacation time, and a shorter and more flexible work week?

And yes, it’s a binary because clearly we can’t have them all …