After the Indian Supreme Court’s historic ruling to recognize the legal and constitutional rights of transgender citizens, I noticed many people express surprise at the fact that this comes not too long after the same court upheld a colonial-era law making homosexuality a crime. In the United States, at least, social acceptance of the L, G, and B in ‘LGBT’ has generally preceded that of trans individuals, and we take it for granted that justice progresses in this order (and that such justice is linear). I think that underneath the surprise at witnessing the inverse in India lies an assumption that Western gender structures are universal; besides this basic misunderstanding, a knowledge of colonization’s pervasive impact on regimes of gender and sexuality in colonized lands could also lead one to believe that such structures in the Indian subcontinent would more closely follow Western ones (the anti-gay law was an artifact of the British colonial system, after all). However, non-binary gender has already been recognized by the governments of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal as well, while homosexuality is illegal in all but the last. Although ideals enshrined in law do not necessarily always reflect the views of society or the reality of marginalized groups’ experiences, from these facts we can sense that gender and sexuality may be approached quite differently throughout South Asia as compared to Western societies.
When I heard about the ruling in India and how these rights would not be extended to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, I was reminded of something I learned not long ago about another country we know to be regressive on the issue—Iran.
While our country’s all-too-frequent mass shootings over the past few years have invigorated discussion about guns and self-defense, the perspective of those affirming Second Amendment rights has often been scrutinized. Some critique raced and classed fantasies about defending one’s home from specific kinds of invaders; others question what need those who dominate this discourse truly have to defend themselves against state oppression. The latter is particularly intriguing as it is of course those with the least societal power in this country—people of color, the poor—who are the most susceptible to violence, with more to fear from the state and from their fellow citizens. What does the right to arm oneself mean for a black man, so often stereotyped as a threat—like Jonathan Ferrell, shot dead by police after knocking on a woman’s door for help after a car crash, or Jordan Davis with his “loud music” and Trayvon Martin with his infamous hoodie and bag of skittles? And what does the freedom to buy a gun mean for a Muslim, the association of whom with destructive weaponry continues to this day, fueling hate crimes and the NYPD’s socially erosive mass surveillance of Muslim communities? Meanwhile, the same city’s stop-and-frisk program harasses and humiliates these very people while groping them for weapons (blacks and Latinos comprise 84% of stops although the NYPD’s own data reveals that whites have been twice as likely to carry drugs and guns).
But there’s more. Have you heard of Marissa Alexander?
I just finished this excellent article by post-colonial (among other attributes) theorist Sara Ahmed; it’s rather long but worth reading, and the introduction is particularly touching—but I just wanted to quote here some parts that I found especially important and which really spoke to certain things I’ve encountered.
Disclaimer: I wrote this over a year ago now; thus, it is not exactly my best writing, and the connections to feminist theory (as well as the remarks on securing evidence of objectification) could certainly benefit from deeper analysis of which I am now more capable.
Originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of the Hopkins Undergraduate Research Journal (HURJ).
Everyone knows that sex sells—but is capitalizing on this actually problematic? For many years, feminists have stirred up a storm regarding the way that women are portrayed by the mass media—especially in commercial advertising. Women, exponentially more often than men, are sexualized and objectified, becoming not just objects of desire and affection, but products that can be sold and bought. Consequently, when presented this way, females are looked at in terms of their body parts rather than their personalities—an essentially dehumanizing process. Many assert that objectifying women in order to sell products can impact the way that women are perceived outside of the commercial arena. It is argued that the practice contributes to a wide array of problems including not only personal struggles with self-esteem and psychological illness, but also social traumas like sexual violence. Jean Kilbourne, a pioneer of the movement to raise awareness of objectifying processes in advertising, asserts that “turning a human being into a ‘thing’ is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person.”1
Kilbourne’s allegations are not without consequences; thus, it is important to ask whether her assumptions have any factual basis. Are sexualized women actually perceived as objects?
Quickly glancing at other students’ responses to this article, my critique differs quite a bit, as it does not focus on the strength of Coleman’s argument for women’s progress as promoting economic development, nor does it focus on the depth of Coleman’s analysis of how Islamization has hurt Pakistani women. Rather, I was compelled to evaluate the entire framing of the argument and the goals it seeks to promote.
The oppression of women in Pakistan is a terrible problem which, like patriarchy in all parts of the world, deeply concerns me. However, Coleman’s article sheds little light on the problem because it admittedly “focuses narrowly on the potential economic consequences of Islamization’s impact on women.”
Two weeks ago, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum addressed a crowd of students at the Foreign Affairs Symposium. His invitation was unwelcome to those aware of his views on LGBTQ issues, women’s rights, and—broadly speaking—science. However, one of the most disturbing aspects of his speech was his half-hour lecture on “Islam” and the Middle East, which was, by all informed accounts, profoundly inane. In a discursive climate already prone to gross distortions, stereotypes and omissions about Islam and the Muslim world, that this man was brought to speak authoritatively on “foreign affairs” should be taken seriously—especially given how Hopkins fails to provide students an adequate academic environment to seek alternative, reliable information.
Despite numerous complaints over the years about the lack of a Middle East Studies curriculum, this school still lacks any specialized Middle East Studies professor, let alone a coherent program. We offer an ample variety of courses on the U.S. and Europe, and programs in Latin American, Jewish, East Asian, and Africana Studies, yet for the region stretching between North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, there is nothing organized.
This semester I’m taking a class called “Anthropology of Poetry and Prayer” for which I’m currently reading Carl W. Ernst’s Sufism: An Introduction to the Mystical Tradition of Islam. More than anything I learned from the bulk of the content about Sufism specifically, I was especially struck by certain facts he relayed about history and scholarship on Islam in general. For example, in the Preface (pg. xvi):
The Arabic term islam itself was of relatively minor importance in classical theologies based on the Qur’an; it literally means submission to God, and it denotes the minimal external forms of compliance with religious duty. If one looks at the works of theologians such as the famous Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), the key term of religious identity is not islam but iman, or faith, and the one who possesses it is the mu’min or believer. Faith is one of the major topics of the Qur’an, mentioned hundreds of times in the sacred text. In comparison, islam is a relatively uncommon term of secondary importance; it only occurs eight times in the Qur’an. Since, however, the term islam had a derivative meaning relating to the community of those who have submitted to God, it became practically useful as a political boundary term, both to outsiders and to insiders who wished to draw lines around themselves.
I have never heard of this before; this shocks me both because I grew up in a Muslim household and attended Islamic Sunday school, where the idea of “Islam” as such in defining what we were learning was never questioned, but also because I’ve been studying Islam through anthropology for a while and have yet to come across this fact—and perhaps never would have if I hadn’t read this text. To be sure, the fact of a word meaning “submission” defining the religion was never significant to my interpretation of Islam to begin with. But it’s fascinating to consider the implications of that word, as opposed to others, coming to define the religion.
Thanks to a Washington Post/ABC poll from last February, we already knew that 83% of Americans support the use of drones against suspected terrorists overseas. This fact has been used to support the notion that U.S. drone strikes abroad will not come under domestic scrutiny because there is little demand for such scrutiny among the American public. Supposedly, at least 83% of Americans have accepted the use of unmanned drones as a viable and acceptable counterterrorism tool—and for a country so tired of the “decade of war” Obama repeatedly assures us is ending, this is hardly surprising. But the reality is not that simple.
The new poll—taken after the publication of the DOJ white paper on targeted killings—asks more specific questions about the use of drones to kill individuals, revealing nuances of opinion that say as much about the consequences of transparency as they do about American ethical leanings.
The poll found that 56% of respondents support the use of drones to target “high-level terrorist leaders who may be involved in planning attacks.” Fair enough. However, only 13% indicated support for killing “anyone suspected of being associated with a terrorist group.” And, in a separate question, only 27% indicated that they would favor the use of drones “if there is a risk of killing innocent people.”
In my head and through conversations with others, I’ve written this post a thousand times.
Almost anyone who visits Israel knows to expect a relatively hard time at airport customs. Google the subject and you’ll find an abundance of information on preparing for the occasion, as well as many blog posts on the innumerable times when the process went terribly wrong. Generally, Israeli customs officers glimpse through your passport and ask a few questions about the purpose of your trip; then, you are finished and set free. But many people become subjected to extra measures taken in security’s name. I don’t want to downplay the diversity of ethnic/national categories from which the singled-out come, but the Internet will tell you very clearly: if you are Muslim or have a name that sounds Muslim (whatever that means), you’ll probably face much more trouble. Stay calm and just answer their questions, they say; if you’re here with good intentions, everything will be fine. If your passport has stamps from other Muslim or Arab countries, they’ll ask about that too—but just cooperate and you’ll be finished in no time.
For the majority, it actually is that simple. Take note: both Mark Rosenblum alone and previous Ibrahim Project trips have brought Muslim students to Israel, and they rarely faced difficulties entering the country. But too often, it results in horror stories that reveal the absurdity of the airport’s practices. Before our program began, I’d read stories of people who were subjected to hours of questioning, some even forced to open their email inboxes to ‘prove’ that they weren’t planning anything dubious. El Al Israel Airlines is also known for humiliatingprospective passengers. I figured that I would be okay, though—after all, I was with a group of five other students and two other adults, my passport was empty except for unsuspicious visas from Oman and the U.A.E., and I am an American-born U.S. citizen. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not dangerous, and I figured the Israeli authorities would easily see that too. Boy, was I wrong.