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Friday ramblings: Muslim feminists, guidelines for peacekeepers and soy lattes

Friday, April 6, 2007 by Marianne Elliott

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I have a kind of ritual for my Friday mornings (Fridays are the beginning of our weekend here). I wake early and do the following in no particular order: put on the coffee and heat soy milk for my morning latte, do my morning meditation, and spend at least a couple of hours reading emails and blogs. Then I make another latte and start to untangle all the thoughts and reflections that are crowding my mind – unwinding them into a post here.

So it is not surprising that my Friday morning posts tend to be crowded with ideas and this morning is no exception.

Home in Kabul got me thinking about Muslim women and feminism, this has been an discussion I've had with lots of Western feminists. I am really uncomfortable with the idea of Western women coming to the rescue of the oppressed Muslim woman. In my line of work it is easy to find examples of this kind of thinking. I particularly disliked the impact I noticed on Western women's perceptions of Muslim women and men of that spate of books that flooded the popular reading market a few years back – starting with "Not Without My Daughter". I would come home from my work in the Gaza Strip and find that women in the West wanted to hear about the terrible victimisation of Muslim women.

Then – soon after I left Gaza 9/11 happened and there was this other layer in it all. The message I saw everywhere I looked was of Arab and Muslim men as dangerous, violent, unpredictable and irrational. I am a Western feminist and it made me so uncomfortable, so angry – I can't imagine what it felt like for Muslim men and women.

I have only one very simple method for avoiding this kind of trap – it is to meet people, talk to people, to be open and ready to move very far from your comfort zone and to discover what the world looks like from a very different point of view. In Gaza and here in Afghanistan I don't want to do any work on "women's rights" without local women by my side – telling me their stories, sharing with me their analysis of the challenges and the ways forward. Ideally I also want lots of local men involved as well. After my recent post on Women's Day I think I need to take the opportunity here to point out that I have no problem finding Afghan men who want to work with me on projects and initiatives that will identify and try to remove the barriers preventing women from accessing their fundamental rights.

Of course I have prejudices and stereotypes, I bump into them all the time. I can only hope that by continuing to move away from certainty and a sense of my solid ground, by being always willing to move towards the questions and the uncertainties that I will also keep challenging those prejudices, and learning to let them go.

But wait – there is more from Home in Kabul – she also reminded me to go back and visit the weblog of Jan Pronk. I've posted here about Jan Pronk before, he was the UN Special Envoy to Sudan and amongst the Sudanese Government's complaints about him was the fact that he wrote about the situation in Sudan on his personal blog. His is an interesting story and you can read more about it in his own words, here. But the post that really got me thinking today was the one linked by Home in Kabul, where Jan Pronk lists 15 guidelines for peacekeepers.

Much of what he lists is common sense – 'International peacekeepers should respect their national colleagues, they know their own country better than we do', for example, and 'Delegate, trust your staff, work as a team'. This is fundamental and I don't think there is any way that anyone could get past step one in this kind of work if they don't really genuinely believe this, and act accordingly.

Some of what he says looks simpler on the surface than I find it to be in practice – 'Respect local cultures and traditions' for example seems to go without saying, except that some local traditions (in any setting, mind you, not only here in Afghanistan) are harmful to minorities or vulnerable groups. Child marriage is an obvious example. Finding ways to promote protection of child rights in communities where early marriage is a common and traditional practice is complicated and sensitive work – the best approach I know of is the point Jan makes above – respect your national colleagues, they are committed to the same human rights principles that you are AND they know their country so very much better than you do.

Some of his guidelines are more inspired – and resonate with my 'inner journey' – like:

10. Never be satisfied. There is no room for complacency, despite many achievements.

11. Insecurity, risk, uncertainty and political pressure are not a
hindrance, but a challenge. They are no exceptions to a normal and
stable pattern. They are not exogenous factors, but inherent to

12. Fight bureaucracy. Fight also the bureaucrat in yourself. Stay a movement; keep the spirit of a pioneer.

13. Care for people. People first.

And finally -  the must recurrent message of my life these days and weeks:

15. Please, stay


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14 Responses to "Friday ramblings: Muslim feminists, guidelines for peacekeepers and soy lattes"

  1. Frida says:

    Here is another link that got me thinking this morning:
    An Afghan-born artist makes video art about the effects of war in her home country.

  2. You are always so thoughtful, Frida… thank you for this. Friday’s are nice…
    You can’t think you know someone or some group of people unless you really do know them- and by that I mean, talk with them, look in their eyes, feel their joys and pains, laugh with them. It’s so easy to make snap judgements about someone- anyone- and be totally wrong. I have done that and regretted it and tried never to do it again. We have so much to learn about other people- and thank God we have people like you, dear Frida and Home in Kabul as well- that help us with all this.

  3. homeinkabul says:

    Very insightful Frida, you articulated everything I wanted to convey but couldn’t. I hate the look on people’s faces when I tell them that my father is the one who encouraged me to be independent…my mother too, of course, but my father had HUGE role in it. This sort of attitude by Western feminists really does close the door on valuable conversations that we (women) could be having. It either creates a defensive sort of reaction, without nuances, or just shuts me up. It also makes me wary to form partnerships with non-Muslim women, which is a true shame. I am a true believer in the ‘sisterhood’, there is so much we can learn from each other and condescending attitudes don’t help anyone.
    I also like your point about balancing respect for local cultures with the need to change harmful practices. They are in every culture and the respect for a culture should not outweigh the need to right wrongs. But this can be done with locals.
    I will be very sad if we don’t meet in person one day (Inshallah)…

  4. Mardougrrl says:

    What a wonderful post…and it’s something I also think about a lot–how to balance a genuine concern for women throughout the world with respect for those women’s own choices. It’s so easy to get on a soapbox and think that you know how these women SHOULD be feeling, and devaluing how they DO feel and what they SO say by claiming that they are “oppressed” or “brainwashed.” Women are not a monolith. That being said, of course, there ARE women who are being oppressed, etc, and those women deserve our full assistance.
    So it’s a tough topic.
    Thanks for making me think (as always!)

  5. tiny noises says:

    this is the kind of approach and compassion I dream our world’s peace keepers and humanitarians are practicing. So good to know you are among them, learning and leading and trying to walk side-by-side with the communities you are dedicated to assist.

  6. [a} says:

    omg!! THANK you for posting this!! I feel that so many people just don’t understand the whole idea of women in Islam.
    I want to drag some journalists & writers [with those really narrow minded articles] into Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan–show them that Muslim women are achieving things, enjoying life, accepted as normal members of society, & all that stuff! But you’re right, there are so many extremists–although throughout the Quran and Ahadith it is said that extremism has no place in Islam–that are ruining it all! I think us Muslims have gotten a bit “loose” [and cowardly] in our ways, and rather than helping out our own people, sorting out our issues, we choose to ignore it & let the “Westerners” solve our problems. You’re so open-minded, Frida!!

  7. Laini says:

    Very thought-provoking post. I know I fall into the trap you talk about here, having a very unsophisticated view of the lives of women in Muslim countries. I’ve read some novels like Naguib Mahfouz and that helps a little to see life and the ordinary rather than the extremes of news stories and statistics, but it’s still a very limited perspective. It’s so easy to turn the women into sort of paper-cut-out “victims” and not see the full context of the culture, not that violence and misogyny in a culture excuses anything. I think there’s a kind of backlash, too, against what has been sort of mischaracterized (by the right, of course) as an attitude of excusing violence and injustice when it’s an integral part of a culture. I don’t know if I can express this, but if there is a statement made, sensitively, like yours above, that one has to account for culture, the first thing the right wing in the US is going to do in its ham-fisted, appeal-to-the-least-sophisticated-thinkers way, is to accuse YOU of excusing the violence for being too non-judgmental. As we all know, “nuance” is not the strong suit of the right wing. The way Nancy Pelosi is bring vilified right now for wearing a respectful head scarf in Syria? All of a sudden she’s pandering to the “evil Muslims”!! That’s just how the media seems to work here; the right are such masters of dumbing down, of manipulating the hoi polloi. They manage to make an argument for cultural sensitivity seem like making excuses for injustice. So, you’re up against that as well as everything you’re doing in your day to day work. God forbid we try to have a context for understanding the rest of the world!
    And Jan Pronk sounds really interesting. I’ll have to check him out.
    Have a good weekend, Frida!

  8. Thank you for such insightful words! That is why your work there is so special and valuable! I do believe that you have to experience the truth in order to really know it. I also really enjoyed seeing Asma’s reply to your post… She knows it, doesn’t she? Enjoy your weekend! xo

  9. Paris Parfait says:

    You’re so right about not leaping to judgement about Muslim women. Just as Western women are all different, with different stories and experiences, so are Muslim women. Unfortunately, many Western readers are hindered by stereotypes, as they don’t bother to look beyond one or two information sources. Thanks for always speaking your truth and enlightening others about the situation “on the ground.” xo

  10. lacithecat says:

    Sigh … I have to admit that the media has made me gun shy at times with the stricter and devout Muslims of this area. I have a several more Western Muslim friends … but its just the same. I realize that its a two-way street in terms of reaching out and I have not been doing my part. Only once – at the corner stationary store – has a muslim woman (fresh from her prayers) – smiled at me and said ‘Hi’! I was speachless as it was the first time … in 5 years … that a woman has done such a thing. Sad isn’t it. We live in the same neighborhood, but with 9/11 and the Mosque’s role … the fragile doors have closed firmly.
    You will realize it when you come. Woman are rarely seen, men frequent the cafes and stare hungerly at everyone passing by. There is no mixing, but there is plenty of mistrust and its not getting better.
    I have a lot to learn from you.
    (and that list makes me long to go out into the field again and be active. sigh …)

  11. megg says:

    This was an incredible post. I feel so uninformed and overwhelmed by all of this. Thank you for helping me to understand more.

  12. AnnieElf says:

    Frida, I’ve had this paraticular post from Home in Kabul bookmarked for reading for a few days. Now that I’ve read YOUR post – well, thanks for the push. I’ve heading there now to read it, at last.

  13. Great post, Frida. Much here to mull over, and I will.
    I love this: Fight also the bureaucrat in yourself.

  14. ceanandjen says:

    As usual, this post blows me away. As I began reading it, I realized how true it is that we westerners develop stereotypes that we really have no business developing having never experienced these many far away places. Personally, I know that I have developed both sympathy and fear of what I “perceive” to be the truth in these cultures. It is very difficult to be truly informed when your point of reference is so limited. (read: if you can not actually experience it yourself) I commend you both for everything you strive to do on a daily basis, as well as for your incredible writing and your ability to share so many truths and insights with us.
    I always know that my day will be greatly enriched by having come to visit you here and I thank you for that.
    Take good care dear Frida.xoxoxoxo

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