When Women’s Heads Protected Men’s Bodies

It’s 1914, a war unlike anyone has ever seen is beginning to rage in Europe, and Mennonites in Canada are in a precarious position. The government granted them conscientious objector status when they originally emigrated (the gov’t needed good farmers to “settle” some rich prairie soil), but now that’s being called into question. See, Mennonites are pacifists (you can read more about that here). But as more and more young Canadian men went overseas, more and more Canadian politicians and members of the public demanded to know why Mennonite men were exempt, and who even qualified as a Mennonite.

Enter the ladies.

This coincided with a large number of young women moving into cities to find work. Away from the rural settings, they found the traditional Swiss Mennonite bonnet impractical for factory work, and out of step with their new lives. They still covered their hair with a prayer cap, and there was no discussion of losing the head covering all together (not yet, anyway), but they were replacing the bonnet with simple versions of contemporary hats.

The (majority of the) male leadership was having none of it. Knowing that their community was under close scrutiny, they appealed to the women to maintain Conference dictates and keep the bonnets (proving that they were indeed a community separate and distinct from the larger society, and thereby deserving of their conscientious objector status).

Not surprisingly, the women wanted to know why they had to keep to the dictated dress, but the men did not. Conference standards also called for them to wear the plain coat, but very few did, and the leadership did not pursue it. Their arguments fell on deaf ears, however, and after a series of formal meetings, a council of inquiry, and painful schisms within the church, the Conference held to their earlier standards and demanded women maintain the bonnet. The women were far from being silenced. I found some delightful tidbits in the archives about women standing up in church and publicly tearing a strip off a bishop, or declaring that it was God’s will, not the male leadership’s, that mattered.

This is a chapter in my dissertation, and a paper I am presenting at Eastern Mennonite University’s Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries conference. Here is the full abstract:

This paper examines how Mennonite groups during World War I used the metaphor of appearance (particularly the prayer bonnet) to express conformity and boundaries while simultaneously pushing boundaries and challenging gendered expectations. These factors helped define a woman’s social location, and became visible markers for the group’s enforcement of membership in the community.

Dress provides distinction between the sacred and the profane, particularly in the symbolic separation of an ethno-religious subculture from the dominant society, often tied to patriarchy and social control of women. While this is a significant part of the head covering debate, the Canadian Mennonites are not simply an interesting example of a common phenomenon wherein men control the powers and privileges of women. In this case, male church leadership sought to regulate women’s appearance in order to gain group-specific benefits (exemption from the draft) for the men. Given the intimate associations between dress and identity, such debates were in a very real sense a battle over women’s bodies for the “greater good” of their faith community. When the women of First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario, refused to wear regulation bonnets it was a denial of Conference’s final authority. By choosing hats they were showing their autonomy in a setting where they should have been meek and submissive. They demonstrated how women in a deeply patriarchal community can circumvent the apparently rigid system of male authority. Though they were fully aware of the blatantly unfair double standard in dress between men and women, these women were not helpless or willing to submit. While they shared their community’s beliefs in yieldedness, they were confident that their submission was ultimately to God and not male church leadership. Where women are confined within a male dominated culture, control of their own bodies becomes a means by which they can assert their wishes, grievances, and desires. Through these means they can find ways of reworking the very institutions that restrict them. The head covering manifested the religious, social, and gender performance in Ontario in the 1910s and ‘20s.

A Barbaric Cultural Practice

Many argue that it’s just a cultural practice. That it has nothing to do with religion, at least not anymore, even if God’s name is invoked. Families argue over it. Is she ready? Is she too young? Will it interfere with her ability to move forward in her life with her goals and aspirations?

A swath of fabric that covers the face. Its origins are non-debatable. From a time and culture that viewed women as less than human — the head religious authorities even debated whether or not a woman could have a soul. Sold to the highest bidder in ostensibly civilized ways, women nonetheless served as means for their family (namely their fathers and brothers) to secure goods, land, and status. This cloth served two purposes: to protect women (who were considered fragile and vulnerable) from evil forces and to obscure her from men’s gaze. You see, since most of the marriages were arranged, women wore veils to obscure or hide their features just in case the groom did not like what he saw and changed his mind at the altar.

Wait. Did I forget to mention I’m talking about the wedding veil? Why? What did you think I was talking about?

Roman wedding veils were traditionally red. Greek ones were orange.
Roman wedding veils were traditionally red. Greek ones were orange.

Oh, and let’s not forget that a bride’s veil traditionally symbolizes purity and modesty. But we’ve moved beyond these ideas, right? Women pick spouses for themselves, dowries aren’t usually exchanged anymore, and we can pretty safely assume that the soon-to-be-spouse has seen the bride before the day of the wedding. And we like to think we no longer place a woman’s value on how sexually “pure” she is (we do, but that’s a different discussion).

But even if that’s all true, and the wedding veil has little or nothing to do with its roots in “barbaric cultural practices,” isn’t it time we did away with them? As the enlightened and progressive society we are, how can we not all be offended at the site of a woman, on what should be one of the happiest days of her life, expected (read: pressured) to don an item of dress that is undeniably rooted in such anti-woman practices? How can we condone this ongoing barbarism? If we no longer need a dowry or a matchmaker or anyone’s permission to marry the love of our life, why do we still need this mysoginistic slave cloth repressing us?

Let’s purify all the offensive Today’s Brides and Bride Guides from the shelves of our stores. Demand bridal boutiques stop carrying the offensive items and rend the ones veil5 in our closets in two!

In fact, let’s set up a government sponsored hotline where people can call to report this barbaric cultural practice. Is your neighbour’s daughter getting married? Do you suspect her parents are pressuring her to wear a veil? Sure, she may say it’s what she wants, but how can she know what she really wants when her whole life she’s grown up dressing up her dolls in wedding veils? She’s never known another way, but fear not, we’re here to show her! Freedom awaits!

In two weeks, we’re having a federal election here in Canada. The Conservative Party, which currently holds power, has been slipping in the polls. That is, they were until they breathed new life into the debate on whether or not women “should be allowed” (hello patronizing) to wear niqabs during citizenship ceremonies. See, this question was already settled. More than once, actually. The Supreme Court has ruled in favour of a woman’s right to choose. (Yeah, I just did that) You don’t get to arbitrarily ban religious or cultural practices just because you don’t like them or it makes you uncomfortable. It’s in the Charter. If you can prove that the niqab is in some way inciting hatred or violence against an identifiable group (i.e.. women) or that the practice causes harm (you can’t, and it doesn’t – in and of itself) then you’ve got some game. If not, put on your big boy pants and accept that in this multicultural country in which we live the Scots may eat haggis and that may gross the heck out of you (especially if you’re vegetarian), and Jews (often) circumcise their sons (ouch), and (some) gay men may wear sparkly tight jeans, and Indigenous people go four days without eating or drinking for a spiritual quest, and northern men wear too much plaid and large ear flaps. But we all love this country and make it richer for our differences and peculiarities.

But this hasn’t stopped the fear mongering in this election. You know why? Because it plays well. And since they started blaring the protector-of-oppressed-women trumpet, the Conservatives have seen a jump in the polls. They’re playing us like marionettes, because what they’re saying about the niqab as a “barbaric cultural practice” touches a place inside many of us that thinks they might be right. We know what the Taliban did, and we understandably don’t want that here. Right?

Only, when you start pulling at the strings the whole thing quickly unravels. There is no way that allowing a woman to wear a niqab while she swears an oath (AFTER having being unproblematically identified to ensure her identity is correct – somehow that keeps getting skipped over in the debate) in any way reduces her effectiveness at that task, or threatens the heart of Canadian democracy. We just don’t like it. Because it makes us uncomfortable.

I get that. It used to make me uncomfortable, too. Until I started meeting some niqabi women. And then my research spun out from there, and now the powers-that-be at the university say that since I passed my comprehensive exams last year I am (allegedly) an “expert” in this field. superthumb

For those who may not know, scholars from Hoodfar to Ahmed to McDonough have found the same thing I have: that these women veil because they want to be judged for WHO they are, what their ideas are, rather than on how they look. It also acts as an identification marker communicating to the world that they are Muslim and proud of their faith.

Did my little rant against the wedding veil sound silly? Trumpeted up? Grasping at straws really to create a bogeyman that doesn’t exist?

Yeah. That’s how the niqab debate sounds to women who wear it.

Figure Skating Hijabi

figure skates

Oh my word – I am in full swing geek-out here. I love figure skating. I was never really a skater myself, although I do love to skate. But I married a former competitive figure skater (ice dance), and my daughters skate. All in all, our family is often at the rink four or five times a week.

I also love the Olympics. I know that they’re far from perfect, and I’ve noticed that in my liberal-academic milieu it’s not really in vogue to be pro-Olympics. There’s plenty to analyze around gender/race/materialism/capitalism/nationalism/empire/human rights/etc. Don’t get me wrong – I love me some good social deconstruction. But when it comes to the Olympics, I just feel like, “Come on. Do we have to be angry about something all the time?” Because for all their faults, I really do support an endeavour where countries from all over the world come together in peaceful competition. Where athletes compete fiercely against each other, but come together and support each other too – across national boundaries. I was watching when the Russian cross-country skiier broke his pole and ski, and was impressed with his determination to finish the race regardless. And I was touched when the Canadian coach ran out and gave him a new ski. justin-wadsworthAnd no, I don’t think it was because he was “Canadian” and we’re all just so nice. Other coaches and other athletes from other countries have done similar things. The Norwegian coach that gave the Canadian skiier a new pole when hers broke during the Torino Olympics – costing his team a medal in the process. Or when Canadian sailor Larry Lemieux sailed off course in the 1988 Seoul Olympics to help the Singapore sailors who capsized, and would have drowned without Lemieux (who also gave up a medal to go see if they needed help).

But I digress. Let’s just say that Sochi isn’t helping with the comprehensive exams studying.

Here’s why I’m geeking-out. We watch a lot of figure skating in this house, and my husband coaches. It’s obvious that figure skating tends to be a very “white” or “Asian” sport. There are important exceptions – Surya Bonaly anyone? She kicks butt. But sitting through countless hours of kids’ figure skating lessons in a pretty culturally diverse city, I’ve often noted that every child on the ice is either “white” or “Asian-descent.” Among the “white” kids, there are new Canadians – and they’re all Russian (and tend to be very good). Seriously, it’s in the genes or something. The only exception to this is in some learn-to-skate classes my husband has coached. There, the majority of skaters were a bit older than “white Canadian” kids tend to start, and were almost all new Canadians (not from European countries). I have a theory about this. My oldest daughter is in an “elite” skating class, and all the parents there (including us) give the same reason for starting their kids in skating: “Canadian kids need to know how to skate. It’s part of a Canadian childhood.” Class field trips, friends’ birthday parties, skating parties, skating with friends on weekends, etc. In other words, while all these children have been selected by some of the best coaches in Canada as potentially gifted skaters, none of the parents put them in skating because they saw them as potential competitors, but because they(we) saw them as Canadian kids.

Immigrant communities — whether they’re coming to Canada in 2014, or came in 1914 — go through a similar process of adjustment. One part of that is second and third generations assuming the cultural norms of the host culture. So, in this case, while first generation parents are primarily concerned with getting life established (finding work, housing, navigating a new school system, health care, making sure their families are adjusting okay, etc. etc. etc.), as the community is here longer they begin to move on to secondary and tertiary concerns. So, there are plenty of second, third, and even first generation kids in our girls’ club. But their “communities” are established “Canadians” – even though some of the parents are themselves immigrants. Also, in some of their home countries figure skating is also a big deal (Russia, Japan, China).

So, what’s my point? Well, aside from enjoying the combination of migration theory and figure skating, I’ve been sort of watching the Canadian figure skating scene and wondering when we’ll have our first hijab wearing competitive skater. I haven’t seen one yet, and if she’s out there she hasn’t made it to Juniors and is still in lower level competitions. And when she comes (and I’m sure she will come) what will her costume look like? The ISU has pretty strict guideline about what a woman can wear in competition, and it’s well known that within those rules there are definite standards and expectations that can seriously affect a competitor’s mark. That’s right – if the judges don’t like what you’re wearing, it will probably show up in your marks. How would judges respond to what would have to be a modified costume? Is it allowable under current guidelines? I was idly thinking about this since the Sochi games began, and then I found THIS (or should I say HER):

Zahra Lari

Zahra Lari is a figure skater competing at the Olympics on behalf of the UAE. She’s not a medal contender, and didn’t begin skating until she was 11 (ancient for a girl by figure skating standards – none of the women on the Canadian team started after the age of 3, our daughters started when they were 2 – you get the idea). But she’s out there, and she’s doing it! And she’s still young. She should definitely have another Olympics or two in her career.

In the UAE they call her their “Ice Princess,” and she’s getting a lot of support. No wonder – she’s the first figure skater to compete at the Olympics from the region. Clearly yet another example where a woman in hijab is oppressed and can’t pursue her own dreams … oh wait.

A Satirical Look at Beards and Hijabs

Image A satirical look at women and hijabs – and their male counterparts – is getting a lot of well-deserved attention. A Man’s Hijab takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to real issues that face Muslim women and men. It uses male standards of dress to put a spotlight on how these matters tend to be argued almost exclusively over women’s bodies (and definitely not just from the Muslim side).

Plus, it’s fun!

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Wherein Quebec makes an indecent proposal, and the rest of Canada is not let off the hook

Back in September I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion at Carleton University in Ottawa discussing Quebec’s  proposed Charter of Values. I’ve been spending a lot of time on the Charter since it was unveiled, and intend to blog and publish more on it, but wanted to at least acknowledge it for now. The panel (called “An Indecent Proposal?: Considering the Quebec Charter of Values” and organized by Dr. Melanie Adrian) brought together some very interesting and well spoken thinkers.

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A bit about the Charter (if you’ve been without any outside world contact, or if you’re outside of Canada). It would prevent public employees in Quebec (very broadly defined) from wearing any overtly religious clothing or accessories. The supposed reasoning goes that this will create a “neutral” and thereby “equal” space where no one’s religion is privileged over another, and where people receiving services from a state representative will not have to worry about that individual’s personal views influencing how they are treated.

This morning, CBC’s The Current did a special episode on the Charter: Will the proposed secular charter help or hurt Quebec?. You can listen to it here. It was a good episode, but there was something missing. In fact, it’s the same thing that’s missing from almost all of these conversations — a person who studies religion! Who understands the incredible complexity of how “religion” interacts with, shapes, and is shaped by larger society. Someone who could comment on what “secularism” is in Canada, and what it is most particularly in Quebec. Who could add nuance to the incredible boat wake Christianity has left (is it gone?) in Quebec. Who knows about what religious dress in public “secular” spaces means, and who has a solid understanding of religion and human rights. Oh, I don’t know … someone like me! 😉

Objectifying and Consuming Muslim Women

Unbelievable. The recent cover of Foreign Policy is almost beyond words.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written on this blog, you can guess pretty easily what I think about it. But   rather than rant or ramble, I’m going to highlight for you the spot on analysis from the amazing people over at Bitch Magazine.

 “From book covers to op-eds, Western media loves reducing the complex lives of Muslim women to two eyes staring out from a scary and oppressive head scarf. This imagery implies that sporting a niqab, chador, veil, hijab, burqa, etc. means you’re oppressed, and that wearing it is something women are subjected to, never something they choose for themselves. This cover is no different, and the weird black body paint on a naked woman makes it even worse. As Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi put it, the cover ‘[invites us] to sexualize and rescue her at once,’ and the takeaway message is ‘The female body is to be consumed, not covered.'”

 

Catholic, Mennonite and Muslim Veiling Practices in Canada: Or What I Study

My last half year or so has largely been spent preparing for PhD studies next year. By “preparing,” I mean that I had to write a tonne of scholarship and program applications, all of which required me to specify my research plans. Since my proposed dissertation is (surprise surprise) closely connected to the interests I express on this blog, I decided my research proposal might be of interest to my readers.

Now, be forewarned, it is full of academic speak, which can be a bit dry. But, it does fairly succinctly summarize what I plan to do. Since I have been accepted into my PhD program of choice (it’s a Religious Studies program) and this proposal has been initially approved, it looks like in some way or another I will get to spend the next four (or five) years studying Catholic, Mennonite and Muslim veiling practices in Canada. And yes, that does sound like getting to eat cake all day to me (without the tummy ache … although footnotes are certainly a pain in the … never mind).

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Women praying with Catholic mantilla or chapel veil during Mass.

So, here is my research proposal (slightly edited):

My research concentrates on interreligious encounters in North America, particularly in the experience of minority women within the framework of material culture. I examine the intersection of religious ideology, gender, culture and historic factors, and the impact these have on women’s appearance. This material evidence, integrated with oral histories and conventional academic sources, provides unique insights into the role new Canadian Muslim women who veil navigate for themselves in a society which views such customs with suspicion. In my proposed dissertation, Blinded by the Veil: Mennonite, Catholic and Muslim Responses to the Hijab, I will use these two Christian groups and how they respond to this visible Muslim practice as a case study of how North Americans encounter the reality of multiculturalism, while considering Muslim responses to these perceptions.

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Part of the Haute Hijab Fall 2011 clothing line.

North American society values the separation of private convictions and public practice. In this culture, Canadians and Americans alike take pride in their tolerance of other’s beliefs. This creates tension, however, when private religious belief is demonstrated in a public way. The Muslim veil, in particular, is a source of fierce debate, extending to proposed legal banning. When Muslim women wear their hijabs or niqabs in public venues, some perceive this as a hostile practice that directly confronts “North American values,” such as equality and liberty, particularly for women. They understand the practice of veiling as a return to a framework of society their foremothers fought to move beyond. Many North Americans interpret hijab through the lens of “liberation,” where instead of promoting feminism’s true ideal (the ability to choose for oneself), “liberation” is turned into explicitly removing the veil. In this way, the veil becomes a solid onto which many North Americans project their own negative understandings of what the practice of hijab represents. In these perceptions, it is a short jump from a hair covering to male guardianship laws and female genital mutilation.

Conversely, these associations are not entirely unfounded. Groups such as the Taliban, Iranian morality police and Saudi Mutawas have used hijab as one of several methods to repress women’s rights. Tragic murders in Canada where hijab (often inaccurately) appears to be the impetus, such as Aqsa Parvez’s, spark heated debates about veiling and fears of further “honour killings” as inextricably linked with Muslim immigration. New Canadian Muslims for whom hijab is a familiar practice cannot reconcile these haram acts with their own veiling practices, and do not necessarily understand the objections Western feminist tradition motivates, are themselves blinded to what their veil has the potential to communicate. Therefore, Muslim responses to these concepts will make up a third smaller, but essential element of this study. Without engaging the internal Islamic theological debates, I will review Muslim women’s reasons for veiling, and how they use the hijab to assert their agency within both the Islamic and mainstream North American communities.

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Swiss Mennonites wearing the States Bonnet, a very contentious article of clothing, in 1920. Image from the Mabel Groh collection, Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Both Mennonites and Catholics present the perspective of people with histories of veiling and that are actively engaged in building relationships with their new Muslim neighbours. Both denominations present a large spectrum of beliefs regarding headcoverings and the role of women in society. Do the dynamics of the debate as these groups moved away from veiling in any way affect the way they respond to hijab? What does covering women’s hair represent to them? Does it relate to women’s sexuality, individuality or liberty?

In this study I seek to bring forth these cultural and religious misunderstandings, and the ways in which these three groups are working to move beyond them. This will provide both a case study of how North Americans are encountering religious diversity, and specific methods groups are employing to transcend contentious differences. To accomplish this I will use a primarily material culture based methodology while incorporating a traditional academic framework, and following the examples of scholars in the field. I will utilize oral histories (in the manner of Willa K. Baum, Thomas L. Charlton, and Robert F. Harney), religious fashion and textile inquiry (such as the works by Linda B. Arthur, Emma Tarlo, Fadwa El Guindi, Heather Marie Akou and Faegheh Shirazi), and previous work on Muslim women in North America (including Sajida Sultana Alvi, Homa Hoodfar, Sheila McDonough, Katherine Bullock, and Donna Gehrke-White).

Confessions of a (Mennonite?) Theology Addict

It has been a long time since I last wrote a post. This is, naturally, a reflection of it being Fall and therefore my schedule is busier with school. But it’s also a reflection of a new problem I’ve never had before: a wee touch of writer’s block. That’s because the things that have gotten me all fired up this term are not, in fact, textile/fashion/interfaith related. Oh, those are there, of course. They always are. But nothing in particular has inspired me enough to actually blog on it. What has been inspiring me are all theological. And then, sitting here at the computer tonight, reading through various Mennonite blogs (we’ll get to why I was doing that on a Saturday night in a moment), the problem dawned on me. You see, it constantly frustrates me that people don’t see the connection between theology and textiles. “They both start with a “t”?” you may ask? No! Well … yes, but that’s not what I meant! There is so much theology in what people do with textiles – particularly where dress is concerned. There are a few enlightened souls out there that do get this, but most people give me a look somewhere between “how do I retain a polite expression while thinking that is completely and utterly out to lunch?” If you have trouble picturing that, it’s similar to the expression people have when they’re eating at a friend’s house and the food put in front of them resembles puréed cheese — sort of a “why would you do that?” mixed with, “oh, how very interesting! … ahem.”

The point is, I was doing precisely what I so dislike — not seeing the connection between the two. I thought that since this was a faith based textiles and fashion blog, I should probably leave more overtly systematic theological aspects out of it. Pah! No more!

With all that lead in, this isn’t actually going to by about systematics. Sorry. Not today. But it is going to be about ponderings. You see, I feel it is time for me to confess something: I’m not really a Mennonite. Okay, that’s not really true. I am a card carrying Mennonite  in that I am an active member in a Mennonite congregation, I am a passionate grad student in a Mennonite institution, I am a pacifist, I love potlucks, and I plan on doing my PhD dissertation in part on Mennonite beliefs. But most importantly, these activities are not some happy coincidence, but a reflection of the deep resonance I find in Mennonite theology and community. These are my people, by choice and by association.

Proud to be Mennonite - Too Humble to Say So Out Loud

But not by bloodline. My mother is Mennonite, but it’s not in her genes, either. She joined the church in her early twenties for many of the same reasons I did at about the same age. But I can pass. My heritage is thoroughly German, I speak it a bit, and my family is from Ohio and Indiana. But alas, there is one dead giveaway. I don’t have a Menno name. My husband also identifies as a Mennonite (usually) but is also lacking the pedigree. So I didn’t even get it through marriage. This has always been present in my mind, but has become more so lately. I’m not really sure why. But at the lunch table in my school the other day, I was discussing how I need to learn which Mennonite names are Swiss Mennonite, and which are Russian Mennonite for a project I’m working on. Those at the table who also joined the church as adults identified with this, but one of my professors — who has the Kentucky Derby bloodline of Mennonites — commented on how, for him, it was simply an instinctual thing.

Why do I covet this so? Literally millions of people have joined the Mennonite church without said historic bloodlines, so I’m certainly not alone. And frankly, it’s probably a good thing — genetically speaking — to mix it up a bit. But my family has been Methodist for generations, and while I have nothing against Methodists, I don’t identify with the denomination. It also doesn’t exist in Canada anymore. As I’ve already mentioned, I resonate with Mennonite Anabaptism — the people, the activism, the focus on community, the music, the textile arts, the culture, and most of all, the theology. (Side note: in my first year Intro to Theology class we discussed whether or not there was “Mennonite theology,” and the final consensus was that this is all Christian theology, not Mennonite. While yes, I agree it is certainly Christian theology, I find a very distinct flavour to the Mennonite theology and witness)

This is a tribe I absolutely love belonging to, and it is so important to me that this is the community in which we are raising our children. Besides, I know many Mennonites who have the lineage but do not identify with the faith. I just wish I had both.

Malalai Joya: “A Woman Among Warlords”

While I’m off from school this summer, I’m enjoying having time to read everything I can get my hands on. Of course as a grad student I spend most of my days reading, and I certainly do enjoy what I get to read for school. But it is a special treat to choose whatever tickles my fancy, and for many of them to be non-academic (and therefore faster) reads. There are two books in particular that I would like to share here: one is Kabul Girls Soccer Club: A Dream, Eight Girls, & A Journey Home, by Awista Ayub, and the other (the one I’m choosing for today’s post) is Malalai Joya’s book A Woman Among Warlords.

Malalai Joya's book. This image comes from the web site of Afghan Women's Mission, an organization well worth checking out.

This book is her account of her life and her activism. She is most known as the youngest and most outspoken member of Afghanistan’s parliament, where she served for Farah province from 2005-2007, when she was dismissed from her position for consistently denouncing the government corruption. Most particularly, Malalai takes issue with the warlords and human rights criminals now sitting in parliament and other government offices, enacting laws similar to those of the Taliban’s, without ever standing trial for the crimes against humanity they committed during the civil war (the time between Soviet occupation and the Taliban).

There’s no question that Malalai is brave. She has survived multiple assassination attempts, keeps her true surname a secret to protect her family, moves to a new safe house every night, is constantly surrounded by her security detail (headed by a trusted uncle) and is forced to wear a burqa while in public to protect her identity from would-be assassins.

It’s easy enough to learn more about Joya. Simply Google her name or go to http://www.malalaijoya.com. Most of what’s out there is her political activism. This is undeniably important and inspiring. But here are some of the parts of her story that I like the best.

To start with, while never sugarcoating or downplaying the many challenges Afghanistan faces, Malalai presents an Afghanistan few people ever hear of or see. She talks about the goodness and strength of the ordinary “barefoot Afghans,” as she calls them. For example, she describes how during the time of the Taliban, when women were not allowed to leave the home unattended by a close male relative (a mahram), she personally witnessed and heard multiple stories of Afghans helping each other. When the Taliban stopped unattended women (as we all know, the consequences for which could be dire) many time complete (male) strangers would step in and say, “No, I am her mahram.” This was, of course, extremely dangerous for the men themselves.

In another instance, Malalai describes her older brother’s resistance to the Taliban. He concealed a camera and took pictures of the Taliban’s human rights atrocities. One day he came across an execution victim (their bodies were often put on display) and he took a quick picture. A Taliban patrol saw him and began beating him. They forced her brother to accompany them to a photo developing store. He waited with two other men who had also been taking pictures. When the photos were developed, the Talibs brought them to him and asked if they were his. The role was a series of wedding photos and nothing more. Of course they weren’t his, but he said they were. The Taliban let him go, but then he began to worry about the two men left behind. What if the photos had been mixed up and they were punished for his? He went back to the store to see what would happen. After a while both the other men were also released. He found out later that the man in the store switched the roles of film with some harmless ones other customers had left

Another part of Malalai’s story I find particularly interesting regards her upbringing in refugee camps. As anyone who reads this blog knows, refugee issues are especially close to my heart. Malalai is a perfect example of the point – far too often forgotten – that refugees are individuals with the same hopes, dreams, fears and potential as any other person.

Malalai spent most of her childhood and adolescence in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. In this part of her story she highlights two things: the terrible treatment Afghan refugees faced in Iran and the importance of having the opportunity to receive an education. Regarding the first, I confess I didn’t know this. She describes Afghans as second class citizens in Iran and is critical of the influence the mullahs of Iran wish to have and do exert on Afghanistan’s politics. Much of what Malalai says regarding fundamentalism (the term she uses for the “dark minded” individuals who prefer to forbid the sound of women’s laughter) is very interesting to me and what I study. Particularly when she says “… just as you cannot judge a book by its cover, you could not tell who was fundamentalist and who was a democrat by what they wore” (p. 69). This is an extremely important point. She uses it to highlight the hypocrisy and danger of fundamentalist war criminals who shaved their beards and adopted business suits. This is also true to the reverse. Part of my surprise of Malalai’s description of Iran and its policies comes from having met Iranian mullahs in dialogue (see post on this here). They were extremely gentle in their beliefs and demeanor. When I pushed a bit with one cleric in particular on gender issues, I could find no fault with any of his answers. When I commented on this he observed, “many places in the world, particularly in the Islamic world, the men are very hard. Very hard. They have lived hard lives and they take this out on their women, even to the point of violating them. This is absolutely haram!” (Haram means forbidden or sinful in Islam)

To expand on this point, I return to Malalai’s account. “As a social activist and politician, I don’t talk a lot about Islam. Too often extremists invoke Islam to justify crimes against the people. And politicians invoke Islam rather than focusing on what policies they will implement. The people of Afghanistan have Islam in their hearts and minds. They don’t need those who are a shame to Islam to impose their rules on them in the name of Islam. They don’t need it in their government, and they do not need anyone – certainly not politicians – to guide them in their faith” (pp. 97-98).

At a press conference in June, 2010, Malalai condemns the inclusion of war criminals in the "Peace Jirga"

The final point I’d like to discuss is education. Malalai received an education because she grew up in refugee camps. She is a strong advocate for the importance of education in a person’s life. In one example, two young girls came to see her because their father would not let them attend school. They asked if she would speak with him and she agreed. When he arrived it turned out that he was a huge supporter of hers. She pointed out to him that if he supported her words and her thoughts, he had to consider how she learned to think that way. That it was all possible because she had gone to school and that if he wanted the same for his daughters then he needed to send them to school, too. He agreed and enrolled his daughters (to their great joy!)

While we give lip service to the importance of education, we forget how essential it is for human rights to take root. As Malalai says, women cannot fight for their rights if they don’t know them. And it’s not just about educating to a certain perspective. It’s one of the only sustainable ways out of poverty – a problem that afflicts 70% of Afghans.

I am inspired and hopeful when I read Malalai’s story. It is people like her that make a brighter future for this war ravaged country a real possibility. This is what Afghanistan (and indeed, many such areas) needs – a homegrown leader pointing the way. Not foreigners telling them what to do.