Monday, December 04, 2017

Barbie in hijab: Glorification of Oppression, or Empowerment?

In mid-November, Mattel’s newest Barbie doll was released, as part of the “Barbie Sheroes” collection. The new, pretty Barbie is dressed in a fencer’s suit, has brown skin and wears a hijab.

She was designed this way to celebrate the accomplishments of Ibtihaj Muhammad, the 31-year-old American Olympic fencer.

I was very excited to see the new Barbie, because it simply acknowledges women who do not conform to the strict standards of so-called “Western” beauty.

Imagine how this little doll can inspire millions of young girls in Muslim families, not only in the US but all over the world, to realize their utmost potential when they grow up, regardless of what they look like or the way they choose to dress.

But Maureen Callahan, a columnist at The New York Post, a woman and an American, just like Ibtihaj, was offended by the new Barbie. She claimed that the new Barbie represents oppression, not empowerment. And unfortunately, she was not the only one to launch such an attack.

“Meet Mattel’s latest doll: dressed conservatively, covered head to toe with only her hands and face visible. The fabric she wears is extra-thick, so there’s no chance of seeing skin. This Barbie wears no adornments. She also wears a hijab,” Callahan wrote, in a judgmental tone that does not only imply complete ignorance regarding modest dress in Islam, but also reflects insensitivity to cultural differences.

Neither Barbie nor Ibtihaj is covered from head to toe. The doll is wearing a fencer’s suit, of the type that anyone, man or woman, would wear for fencing.

She only chose to don a hijab to cover her hair in respect to her cultural and religious background. That is something to respect, not disdain. Why would Callahan need to see Ibtihaj’s skin to give her a liberal stamp of approval? 

The hijab, this little piece of cloth, did not prevent Ibtihaj from being a successful, independent woman and indeed a famous athlete. No more does it prevent Muslim women all over the world realizing their potential. 

Look at the recently formed ministerial cabinet in the United Arab Emirates, for instance. Ninety percent of the amazing young women, in their twenties and thirties, who were appointed ministers for this term are wearing hijabs. Yet they also have stunning professional resumes, including PhDs from top universities around the world.

Covering oneself from head to toe is a particular form of dress, known as burqa or niqab, which only extremist Islamist women wear; and they are a minority. The niqab is already rejected among mainstream Muslims. 

In Egypt, for example, where the majority of Muslim women wearing the hijab, there are court rulings – motivated by organized citizen campaigns – preventing the wearing of niqabs in public places, schools and streets, because they hide a woman’s identity.

But what was still more disturbing to read in Callahan’s article was that rather than celebrating the accomplishment of Ibtihaj as an American woman, Callahan claimed Ibtihaj was not raised in a way that makes her fit to be an American.

This despite the fact that Ibtihaj was born in New Jersey, studied at American schools, has an American family and friends and spent her whole life as an American citizen! It is especially ironic considering the lack of a clear-cut criteria for being “fit to be an American.” What does that even mean? I do believe that what really matters is to be a true human being, which is defined by the value we contribute to the world around us, not our clothes.

The best thing about the US, based on my experience studying and working there for years, is the lack of demographic homogeneity. The US is a rare open society where human beings from all walks of life coexist beautifully.

One of my most vivid memories of the US involves a Saturday morning in 2007, when on my very first visit to Boston, a hijab-wearing woman stopped a Jewish family outside a synagogue and asked them for directions. As someone coming from the ever-conflicted Middle East, this was an epic scene for me, which highlighted the true spirit of being an American and a human.

I hope Maureen Callahan and all those who think like her understand that the hijab is only a piece of cloth that some women choose to wear to cover their hair, but not their minds. A woman can still learn, develop, work, travel and be beneficial to her society while wearing a hijab, a Hindu sari, an Indian hat, or whatever she chooses. People should be valued based on what they do, not what they wear.

Originally published at the Jerusalem Post on December 2nd, 2017

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A New Strategy to Combat Terrorism and Advance Human Rights

The recent terrorist attacks in Sinai came as a reminder that the world, not only Egypt, needs to adopt a whole new strategy to combat violent extremism. 

The tragic number of casualties – 305 dead and 120 wounded – reminds us of the September 11 attacks in the United States, which marked a dramatic shift in international affairs. The appalling situation in Sinai today makes it a necessity to review the currently adopted policies and attempt to find new, creative ways to deal with the issue.

One first step outside the box is to reevaluate the too many theoretical debates defining the scope of effect of terrorism and its claimed correlation to idealist humanitarian values like human rights.

Over the past few years, we have been listening to world leaders talking about the two topics – human rights and violent extremism – as if they are two ends of the same spectrum. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued several fact sheets explaining the link between human rights and terrorism. Consequently, the topic has been debated intensively in several UN main sessions and side events. Analysts from think tanks and academia have issued a tremendous number of papers on the so-called “interdependent relationship” between fighting terrorism and advancing human rights.

Their arguments usually deal with fighting terrorism and advancing human rights as a zero-sum game. Pursuing more of one side should necessarily mean losing more on the other side, so they argue. If you want more security and success fighting terrorism, you have to stop achieving progress on human rights, and if you want more progress on human rights, then you have to drop speaking about terrorism as a threat to human security and be more lenient on fighting violent extremists out of fear of being “Islamophobic” or not “respecting others’ religion.” Even worse, some analysts have gone as far as making excuses for terrorists by claiming that their activities stem from a lack of human rights in their home countries.

In practical reality, such arguments have been proven wrong. We have seen French, British and American citizens turning into terrorists despite the fact that they grow up in liberal democratic nations which cherish individual freedoms and respects human rights. Likewise, we have seen state officials abusing the state of fear arising from the threat of terrorism as a justification to practice political repression on their own citizens or launch military attacks on other nations.

This approach of adopting one of the two extreme strategies has led to nothing but infinite loss and unbearable damages over decades.

Based on my over 10 years of experience as a human rights activist and researcher on Islamic extremism, I believe that linking human rights and terrorism in the way we are doing today is a fatal mistake. By playing the game of fighting terrorism versus advancing human rights, we lethally empower terrorists while tying the hands of nation states, thus making it impossible to put an end to terrorism or achieve any tangible progress on human rights.

Advancing human rights and fighting terrorism are like water and oil. They are two substances from two different spheres. They are neither interdependent nor even linked to each other. On the one hand, human rights is, at the core, a set of international laws codifying idealistic goals human beings have been desperately trying to realize for decades, and have not fully realized – yet. National states abide by international human rights law. Nation states are obliged to take all necessary measures to guarantee those rights for the humans (citizens) living under their governance.

On the other hand, terrorism is a criminal act that requires an immediate and equal reaction. Terrorism is committed by non-state actors who do not conform to any laws or rules that dignify human life and well-being.

Terrorists do not have a common identity or an organized body capable of committing them to any agreement or international treaty of any kind.

Killing human beings and destroying nation states is their ultimate goal and only rule.

Nation states can sometimes fail at advancing human rights or guaranteeing a space for open democracy. This is a shortcoming that can be rectified by time, experience and proper amount of pressure from local citizens and the international community. However, nation states do not have the luxury of trial and error when it comes to fighting terrorism. Failure is not an option here, because it means the end of the state itself.

The “Arab Spring” revolutions and their unfolding consequences in each country could serve as an example. All these revolutions were launched by ordinary citizens, who were eager to end dictatorships and start a new era of liberal democracy where they can enjoy their hard-won human rights and civil freedoms. As the majority of these revolutionaries were so civil and sincere, there were also masked terrorist groups preying on the power vacuum created by toppling dictators.

In countries like Egypt and Tunisia with stable and independent military institutions that already have strong bond of trust with the citizenry, it was possible to keep violent extremism within its limits, and subsequently preserving the wholeness of the state and put the nation’s feet on the right track toward liberal democratization. In countries like Syria and Libya, the situation went out of control because preserving the well-being of the state was not a priority, and this created the perfect opportunity for terrorists to flourish.

In that sense, we should understand that terrorism is not a threat to human rights, but a threat to human existence. If humans are killed, there won’t be human rights. For humans to practice their rights, they need to exist in a safe context first. Terrorism is only one of many obstacles in the way of progressing human rights. Yet, terrorism is not an equivalent to human rights, i.e., one is not dependent on the other.

Human rights are not a luxury, they are a necessity, that cannot be realized under terrorism. But at the same time, human rights should not be used as an obstacle in the way of fighting terrorism. This vital distinction could be a game-changer for how the world deals with the threat of terrorism in the next decade.

Originally published on Jerusalem Post on November 28th, 2017.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Barbie in Hijab Represents Oppression or Empowerment?

Last week, Mattel’s newest Barbie doll was released, as part of the Barbie Sheroes collection. The new pretty Barbie is dressed in a fencer’s suit, got a brown skin, and wears hijab. She is created this way to celebrate the accomplishment of Ibtihaj Muhammad; the American 31 years-old Olympic fencer.

I got very excited to see the new Barbie because it simply acknowledges the women who do not conform to the strict standards of the so-called “western” beauty. Imagine how this little doll can inspire millions of young girls in Muslim families, not only in the United States but all over the world, to realize their utmost potential when they grow up, regardless of what they look like or the way they choose to dress. 

But, Maureen Callahan, a columnist at the New York Post, who is also a woman and an American – just like Ibtihaj – was offended by the new Barbie for having dark skin and modest hijab! Rather than celebrating the accomplishment of Ibtihaj as an American woman, she just wrote a long article attacking Ibtihaj and her background as a Muslim woman! Unfortunately, she was the only one to do the attack in American media. 

In this short video (watch above), I am trying to explain to Ms. Callahan, and all those who think like her, what hijab really is and how a piece of cloth cannot create or implicate oppression. 

I hope you find it useful and I look forward to your comments and discussions. You can always contact me on my email HERE, comment under the video on Youtube, or visit my pages on Facebook or Twitter.