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If Your Name is Ahmed or Fatima, You Live in Fear of NSA Surviellance

In my first piece for The Guardian, I wrote about my reaction as an Arab-American to the NSA/PRISM surveillance leaks -

 

One of the most common responses from the 66% of American citizens in favor of the NSA‘s data-collection programs is, “I have nothing to hide, so why should I have anything to fear?”

But what if you have nothing to hide but are targeted as a suspect nevertheless?

By that I mean, what if your name is Ahmed, Jihad, Anwar or Abdulrahman? Fatima, Rania, Rasha or Shaima? What if some of your phone calls – which the NSA is tracking with particular interest – are made to loved ones in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Lebanon or Palestine? What if the language you speak on these phone calls is not English, but Arabic, Urdu or Farsi, not because it is a special jihadist code, but because it is your native language that you still speak in your home.

In other words, what if you are one of America’s 1.9 million Arab-Americans or2.8 million Muslim-Americans?

Read the rest here.

The article was also featured on HuffPostLive -

My Country Has Been Bombing Afghanistan for (More Than) Half of My Life

I am 22 years old. As of today, my country has been bombing, occupying and justifying the complete destruction and devastation of Afghanistan for exactly half of my life.

I remember October 7, 2001 very well. I was eleven years old, watching TV with my family—we didn’t know that there was going to be any announcement, but still had been using our television much more frequently than usual in the weeks following September 11th.

All of the sudden, there was an announcement that United States troops had started bombing Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden and the other Al Qaeda outposts were alleged to be. All of the sudden, we were at war.

The next morning, I was in my sixth grade social studies class—a great class taught by a wonderful teacher named Ms. Steffes. Every Monday morning, we would share the news that we had learned that weekend. I knew what story I was going to share this morning, if no one got to it before me.

A kid named Jeremy’s hand shot up. He was clearly going to share the important news about Afghanistan first—so I put my hand down.

“Barry Bonds got his 500th home run!”

Was he joking? Didn’t he have anything else to say? Then again, what did I know? I was only eleven years old. Maybe it was a lot more extraordinary to have 500 home runs and a lot more mundane to bomb a third world country while looking for one specific terrorist.

I sheepishly raised my hand. Ms. Steffes called on me.

“Um. I think we started bombing Afghanistan.”

Eleven years later, we are still bombing Afghanistan. As I grew from a little girl into a young woman, my country’s modern military industrial complex that began as an understandable (though in my opinion, still reprehensible) knee-jerk reaction to the tragedies of 9/11 exploded into the devastating wars and militarized occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq. At first we were finding Osama bin Laden. Then we were liberating the women of Afghanistan. Then we were overthrowing Saddam Hussein and bringing democracy to the people of Iraq. We were targeting terrorists, not civilians—but more and more bombs mysteriously missed terrorist outposts, killing and hurting innocent Afghans and Iraqis. These were unfortunate casualties—but in most American conversations, these deaths of poor, nameless people of color in the Third World were never acknowledged.

Those who have been lucky enough not to be killed, paralyzed or lose loved ones face increasing health concerns due to the toxic pollution of warfare. In Iraq, there are more and more reported cases of cancer, particularly in areas like Basra and Fallujah known for being the most violently besieged areas. Babies are being born with previously unseen deformities—often affecting vital organs that will kill them in only a matter of time. Though Barack Obama claims that he has ended the war in Iraq, and has brought many of our troops home, for Iraqis the war continues to ravage their homes and communities.

Both Iraq and Afghanistan have been completely politically destabilized—making them extremely vulnerable to actual terrorist activity and internal violent clashes. Many have died, not from violence by a US soldier, but from violence catalyzed by the US military’s presence.

Even though the US military is glorified, and the soldiers who train to go overseas and fight these wars are seen as heroes, the military is often a traumatic experience in and of itself. In the military, one in every three female soldiers is sexually assaulted. It is far more likely—regardless of gender—to be raped in the military, than killed by enemy fire. Despite the prevalence of this problem, the military has barely addressed it—and often punishes victims far more severely than perpetrators.

Often when our soldiers come home, a lethal combination of misdiagnosed and untreated post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and normalized violence cause them to become violent killers and criminals, waging war on our communities. Many of them are denied the necessary healthcare and disability benefits that they need to even begin to heal their physical and psychological wounds. Many of them struggle to re-assimilate into civilian society, becoming depressed drunks and drug addicts. Many others commit suicide.

What now?

I’m 22 years old. As of today, my country has bombed, occupied and justified the complete destruction and devastation of Afghanistan for half of my life. Tomorrow, and every day after tomorrow, it will be for more than half of my life. It isn’t ending anytime soon—we’re still in Afghanistan, and now, instead of sending troops to fight terrorism, we are sending unpiloted drones to target and kill terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Once again, this kills far more innocent civilians than terrorists and only alienates the United States from the rest of the world. No one is safe—and it if we were attacked again, it would be perfectly understandable.

Generationally speaking, I am in the middle of my family. I have several little cousins who were born in the past eleven years. They haven’t lived in a world without the “War on Terror” or the militarized, violent, dehumanizing psyche that it perpetuates—both overseas, and at home in our communities when we talk about our place in the world as Americans.

I don’t want them to live in a world where 500 homeruns is newsworthy but aimlessly bombing a Third World country is so daily that it is mundane.

 

 

 

Rape Culture: It Doesn’t Just Go Away

Trigger Warning: Discussions of rape, rape culture and sexual assault

 

 

*

 Every once in a while, someone like Todd Akin says something outrageous and suddenly the media is buzzing with the words “rape” and “rape culture.”

“What is legitimate rape?”

“What is rape culture? What is rape?”

“Apparently one in every six women is raped in her lifetime, and one in every four college-aged women is sexually assaulted on a college campus—that seems a little high don’t you think?”

“Did you know that most rape survivors don’t even report their rape? That seems weird. I wonder why that is.”

The conversation continues—it is everything from absurd and ignorant to enlightening and refreshing. For those of us who are all too familiar with shocking rape statistics, it is a relief that somewhere, some guy who clicked on a New York Times or Salon headline in his inbox is taking a moment to read about rape culture.

But there reaches a point where the media is tired of Todd Akin. After all, the news cycle is very short. In an era where most content consumers prefer Buzz Feed over lengthy analytical pieces, it makes unfortunate sense that rape culture critique’s moment in the popular culture spotlight is fleeting. After this, anti-rape activists, journalists and citizens have to wait until the next ridiculous comment to try and squeeze everything we need to say about rape culture into the tiny cultural space that we are allowed until the news cycle turns its focus towards Other Things.

It shouldn’t be like this. We shouldn’t have to wait to talk about rape culture.

Rape isn’t something that happens in bursts every time a politician says something ridiculous or a comedian makes an offensive joke. Rape is something that happens to women every two minutes in the United States. Rape is common and constant—our conversation to combat and destroy it needs to also be common and constant.

I scoffed when Todd Akin said “legitimate rape”—but I knew what he meant. He meant a stranger-in-the-bushes rape, the kind that we always here about but seem to be mysteriously rare. Still, these are the rapes that are easiest to report—it is much harder to report an otherwise nice guy at a party as a rapist to be held accountable. It is hard to report anyone as a rapist because most of the time rape survivors are focused on getting as far away as possible and making sense of what happened to them take the intimate assessment of their assailant necessary to bring him to justice.

The few social programs designed to help rape survivors depend on the rape being a reported—or “legitimate” rape. But most women don’t report rape. Many women don’t realize that they were raped or assaulted until days, weeks, months and sometimes years later. By the time the feelings of fear and violation transform into an awareness of rape or assault, it’s too late for a rape kit or a morning after pill.

This is rape culture. It is knit into our social institutions, prioritizing and labeling a tiny fraction of rapes as “legitimate rape” and other instances of rape as simply non-consensual violent sex. It creates a social space where rapists can rape without being held accountable and women simply have to deal with it.

It makes the terrible statistics make sense.

It has to stop now.

A Few Thoughts On Pussy Riot

By now, I am sure that you have heard of Pussy Riot.

Pussy Riot is a Russian radical feminist, irreverent punk rock music collective—recently in the news for three of its members being on trial, and now sentenced to two years in prison.

pussy_riot

Beautiful drawing, credit: Molly Crabapple.

Pussy Riot—the band’s actual name, but written in Cyrillic for it’s Russian audience–never formally recorded their songs, released albums or performed in planned concerts. Instead, in the purest punk rock fashion, they appear unannounced and unexpected in public venues to perform radical, controversial songs to anyone who might be there.

In February, they performed their now infamous anthem, “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior—the largest Russian Orthodox Church in Russia. One part hymn, one part punk rock, the song begins soft and hymn like, extolling the Virgin Mary as a feminist and praying to her to banish Vladimir Putin. As the song continues, the lyrics become critical of both Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, denouncing both institutions—particularly the roles they impose on women.

This performance—no more than five minutes–got them arrested, tried and then sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

Since their arrest—and the disclosure of their identities—there have been many interesting, thoughtful pieces on how Pussy Riot’s arrest epitomizes the political tensions between Putin’s Russia, the Orthodox Church and the political alternatives that many Russians crave. There have been pieces of music writing that have called Pussy Riot the most important punk art in decades.

Many musicians, including Kathleen Hanna and Madonna have publicly expressed their support for the women of Pussy Riot.

Still—despite their undeniable political and artistic significance—many pieces of mass media refer to the members of Pussy Riot as “girls” rather than “women.” Instead of discussing and dissecting their radical lyrics and daring performances, the media never tires of discussing their colorful balaclavas—face coverings that the women wear as identity masks, not fashion accessories. Now that they are in jail, their victimhood is what is emphasized—not the women whose message was so jarringly provocative that the only way to contain it was to put them behind bars.

Pussy Riot is no cacophonous phase of youthful rebellion gone awry. It is as chaotic and colorful as its performance, as carefully calculated and righteously planned as its lyrics.

The women of Pussy Riot– Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich—are not two dimensional, restless girls who don balaclavas and perform punk rock because they have nothing better to do. They are educated, articulate and politically complex women in their 20s and 30s—two are mothers who haven’t been allowed their children for the past five months.

Instead of profiling Pussy Riot as “manic pixie dream dissidents” as Sarah Kendzior so aptly describes their mass media portrayal, why don’t we discuss the political, feminist and purely bad ass significance of a collective of irreverent Russian women—the majority of whom are wives and mothers—who put their lives and families on the line to disrupt the status quo?

Free Birth Control for All?

I was a little cynical from the start about “free birth control for all.”

First of all, “all” is everyone who has health insurance–which is disproportionately skewed towards those who are white and gainfully employed.

I’m covered because the Affordable Care Act was upheld, and I’m still young enough to be covered under my parents. Though there are many young people who got lucky under Obamacare, plenty of my peers’ parents are uninsured, excluding them from this section of the policy.

So, as an insured woman, I should qualify for free birth control…right?

Not so fast–after asking the pharmacist whether or not I qualified under the Affordable Care Act for birth control without a co-pay, he informed me that it did not apply. It only applied for plans that renewed on August 1, 2012–and the vast majority of plans renew January 2012.

When I expressed frustration, the pharmacist told me that I should be grateful, because otherwise I would be paying for the whole thing with cold hard cash. While I appreciate his sentiment and am thankful for my privilege, it still pisses me off when people with penises who have never had to alter their hormones before they have sex but still feel a need to put said penises into everything that moves make any less-than-empowering comments about my use of birth control.

So, despite the headlines and the chatter on the street about a “Momentous Day for Women’s Health” it frankly felt like another “Same Old Shit of Obama’s Broken Promises Day for Everyone’s Everything.” I still spent $20 on my pill pack–and while this is relatively inexpensive given most birth control, keep in mind that thats $20/month for a year…12 x $20 = $240 which is way less than an abortion, but way more than the amount that men need to spend to control their reproductive futures.

What is so hard about it? Just stop profiting off of my attempts to maintain autonomy of my womb and give women–every woman–free birth control. Then everyone can recycle their bogus headlines. 

Really, Lebanon?

Lebanon is allegedly the most progressive country in the Middle East. Beirut, despite being rocked by war and violence to a point that the landscape is characterized by the empty space left behind by bombed buildings is still the cosmopolitan Paris of the Middle East. Return addresses on envelopes coming from Beirut are rare, and stability one day and cacophonies of violence the next are assumed–even if they take years to transpire. Lebanon always seems to rebuild itself from the ashes, making art from empty space and using loss as an opportunity to tirelessly renew itself, eternally chic and glamourous despite its troubled upbringing.

Lebanon presents itself as the place to be. The women are sexy and wear mini skirts. The youth are carefree and smoke hookah on the beach. Together they make a perfect western-friendly postcard–exotic and enticing, yet familiar enough to be comfortable. For many Europeans and other Westerners, Lebanon is an ideal destination and welcome reprieve from the more foreign, traditional parts of the Middle East.

So, why is it that on Saturday the Lebanese Internal Security Forces raided the Plaza Cinema (a traditionally gay space, known for sometimes playing pornographic films)–and arrested 36 men and charged them with homosexuality? Once the arrestees were at the Hbeish police station, they were anally probed–an invasive and violating procedure that involves putting an egg shaped probe up their anus, and checking for sperm. If sperm is found, or their anus is a certain size deemed “larger than normal”, they are charged with homosexuality–apparently a violation of article 543 of the Lebanese Constitution which prohibits “sexual acts contradicting the laws of nature.” This is punishable with a year in prison.

Most of the men have been released–but three remain in jail, simply for being identified (first culturally, and then through assault) as homosexual.

But what to make of Lebanon? It is normalizing unlawful raids, criminalizing homosexuality and willfully engaging in non consensual violations of privacy and making convictions based on faulty science. It’s humiliating and shameful, dangerous and unlawful. What is particularly bad is that this is not a sudden swing to the right, as many on the outside might perceive it to be. It is simply what has always been part of Lebanon, this time boiling instead of simmering. It is a culturally ingrained, a normalized system of violent traditionalism that leads to the patriarchy, homophobia and vast intolerance that makes it blend with the more unflattering qualities of the Arab World that would be so nice to leave in the past.

 

 

GIRLS: Not a Portal Into the Lives of Millennials

There has been a lot of media criticism of Lena Dunham’s GIRLS. There have been pieces on how it is overwhelmingly classist and about privilege, following the “groovy lifestyle” of a 24 year old college graduate in New York City who was financially cut off from her parents. There have been numerous pieces on how it is racist–not showing any friends of color, or hardly any people of color in a show that takes place not only in New York City, but in Brooklyn, New York. There are those who say that GIRLS is exactly like them and their friends. There are those who say that GIRLS is nothing like them and their friends.

Still, in the first episode, Hannah claims that she is a voice of a generation–and due to the massive media critiques and hype over the show, Lena Dunham–intended or not–has also become the voice of a generation, and plenty of people treat her as such.

I am not denying that there are plenty of girls in New York City and Brooklyn who get help with their bills–sometimes too much help–and attend bizarre parties and have drama within their friendship circles. Many times they are competitive, and invest too much of their self-worth in what under mentally developed men in their mid twenties think of them.

However, my girls are not like this–and many others are not. My girls–some that come from privileged backgrounds, and some that do not really are scrappy. Despite the economic climate, many of my girls (myself included) work a variety of jobs, in many cases working far more than the normal 40 hour work week in order to fund what they were passionate about. After nights of waiting tables, days of juggling social media gigs with nannying jobs we use our hard-earned money–that we earn by ourselves–to fund the production of art, writing, activism and music that we want to give to the world. Sometimes between all this, we still even manage to see each other for a cheap beer or two.

In GIRLS, Marnie is painted from the start as the “relationship girl”–perfect, desirable and then crumbles when this falls apart. Hannah is in a classically confusing sex buddy situation that becomes a relationship–and with that, consumes her life, conversations and self-presentation. Jessa is forever sexy and desirable, using it to stoke her confidence and Shoshana is the neurotic virgin, seeing the world almost exclusively from this angle. Real girls aren’t like this. My girls aren’t like this. While we have sex and relationships, and talk about these experiences, we define ourselves and each other based on far more than whom we are sleeping with and whether or not we see ourselves as objects of desire. This is fairly easy, seeing as how casual sex and attempts at dating are something that most of us squeeze into the wee hours of the night, somewhere between making a living and making a contribution to the world.

In GIRLS everyone is so fucking selfish. No one seems to care about actually being there for one another, and no one seems invested in anything other than their own petty and simplistic life’s happenings. There is no discussion of larger themes–or even taking on the world together or being allies. The moments of friendship seem to be no more than going through the motions.

I am not saying that GIRLS is not entertaining or even well-written—everyone’s tastes are different, but I found the first few episodes interesting and even bold (the later episodes are very boring, in my personal opinion). However, many are using this as an opportunity to talk about the millennial plight, lifestyle and how every 20 something aspiring writer or artist is a “daddy’s girl” (not even acknowledging that most of us now come from two income households) who doesn’t know what real work is, only talks about boys and doesn’t know how to confront real problems.

We are scrappy, interesting, multi-faceted and making it work. We work our asses off. We still manage to see our friends–and when we do, we are supportive, loving and excited about each others success. We have sex–but it doesn’t begin to define who we are. We talk about sex–but we also talk about foreign policy, economics, work and how we navigate the world as women. We are the real GIRLS and together, in solidarity–working our asses off through these tough times–we will probably take over the world.

 

Where Do We Go Now?

Where Do We Go Now? takes place in a small village in Lebanon.

The village is never named–because in a way it is the every village. It is the village that many left behind. It is the village that those of us who only know Lebanon through pictures imagine, nestled somewhere in the mountains, characterized by jagged cliffs and eternally bathed in the radiant, yet simultaneously nondescript golden brown that only happens when rays of sunlight reach the sandy brown village dirt.

It’s the village where our relatives fanned themselves from the heat and cooked anyway, crying and laughing in the same minute. It’s the village where amidst tragedies like war and violence, our relatives still berate one another for not yet being married, bickering with their siblings or not working hard enough.

It’s the village where Christians and Muslims live side by side–sharing meals and stories like family. It’s the village where the same Christians and Muslims who share meals like family fight–holding revenge against one another that only breeds more violence. It’s the village where so much loss has happened, forever repeating our broken record of sectarian clashes, milking it for one last round of devastation.

However, Nadine Labaki’s Lysistrata of Lebanon–the women of the village will not stand for more loss and devastation. They will not stand for the men in their lives–smoking and drinking with their Christian or Muslim neighbors one moment, and then fighting and killing each other the next. The violence is never a full scale war. It is clashes within villages so tightly knit that it should be classified as domestic violence within the overflowing families that characterize Lebanese culture.

One morning–after both the tragic death of a young Christian man followed by a night of the women sedating their men with Lebanese hashish pastries–the men wake up to find that the women dressed as the opposite religion. A young Muslim woman now wore a loose sundress, saying “Look at me! Look at how I am dressed! You can’t kill George now–I am one of them, I am Georgette!” and a Christian woman praying in the morning as her husband looked on in disbelief and asked if she had taken up yoga.

The Christian mother who lost her son nurses her other son while wearing a hijab, telling him that he cannot kill a Muslim now because she is one of them.

As the village carries his coffin to the cemetery, they realize that the cemetery is divided, Christians on one side and Muslims on the other. As the Christian women in hijabs look at the Muslim women in sundresses, they finally ask each other, “where do we go now?”

 

Why Representation Matters

I just watched the documentary, #whilewewatch. It’s free online, and you can watch it too. It’s only 45 minutes.

It’s also very overwhelmingly male–and except for one man, really fucking white.

This bothers me. It is more than just political correctness or affirmative action–it is about me (and all of the other women, women of color), and the hard work I (we) have put into this movement (especially making media to accurately portray this movement) being completely ignored.

I’m a woman. I’m not silent, I’m not invisible and I’m not decoration. In fact, I have fantasized about countering the evils of capitalism through revolution and taking the streets and a radical redistribution of wealth and re-evaluation of our cultural values since long before #OccupyWallStreet was conceived as an idea. To me (and many others), Occupy Wall Street was an answer–a powerful force to show that we were not crazy, and more importantly not alone. It wasn’t about being a hippie, being rebellious or doing something counter-culture just for the sake of doing something counter-culture–it was something that was deeply, deeply needed to shift the dialogue towards the privatization polices and rampant inequality that has absolutely entirely left so many of us completely fucked.

(There really is not a more polite way to put that and properly get my point across).

The reality is, the people organizing Occupy Wall Street, taking the streets, making documentaries, writing articles and exposing the corruption of both our police force and the one percent that rigs our government are women and men of all races and sexual identities. Of course, there have been difficulties–it is impossible for all of us to acknowledge and confront our intricate roles as oppressors and oppressed without working through uncomfortable moments. Still, Occupy–through meetings, media and conversations has provided a space to have these essential conversations, enlightening some of us to our privilege, allowing some of us to speak out in a safe space about our oppression, doing a combination of these for all of us in between. Our differences are our strength and inclusivity–as we bring more and more voices, experiences and ideas of how to make the world a more equitable place we truly will become a powerful force of collaborative change.

My participation in Occupy Wall Street originally had nothing to do with the fact that I was a woman. At first, I was an American before I was a woman.

But then the boy’s club came to town.

Disclaimer: The following paragraphs might get a little bit salty–I don’t know the sodium content, because frankly I haven’t written them yet. I just wanted to say that I mean nothing against male journalists and media makers, and nothing against white men in general. I’m friends with several white male journalists, media makers, commentators and activists–and many of them have an amazing social conscience about their personal privilege merely by being white males.

Soon, those of us who have been activists–or at least bleeding hearts who genuinely believed that change in the world was possible–for years began to feel “replaced” by white men. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but this made it a little bit more scary. In the first Occupied Wall Street Journal, there were no female bylines. The vast majority of journalists and pundits asked to comment on television shows were white and male. The journalists who were asked to cover the topic for major publications–and likewise were paid more for their work–were majority male.

TIME Magazine even famously asked “Where are all the women reporting OWS?” Those of us like myself and Alison Kilkenny who were there since day one, and Sarah Jaffe who was there shortly thereafter were rightfully infuriated. I elaborated a little bit more on all of this here.

You see, I don’t want to have to see myself as a woman in the movement. I want to see myself as in the movement. And, the wonderful part is I have met several amazing women through the movement–and when the movement is at its height and we are in the streets facing off with the NYPD and have the magical feeling that another world really is possible, gender and race don’t matter for a split second because we truly are one.

However, when I see a representation of #OccupyWallStreet that shows barely any women, I’m suddenly struck with my difference. I don’t see myself documented in what is supposed to be a posterity portrait of something that my heart, soul, and every thought has been quite literally occupied by. I don’t feel any antagonism towards the men who are represented, and I agree for the most part with most of what they say. I just want my presence–by which I mean the presence of all women who occupy–to be remembered, documented and passed on for generations.

I want my daughters to watch a documentary about #OccupyWallStreet and see that a woman’s place is in the revolution. I want them to see that there are role model women who are loud, smart, articulate and are rewarded for devoting themselves to social change. I want them to know that we/they are so much more than just the Hot Chicks that Occupy Wall Street–I want them to know that we/they are the hardworking agents of social change.

 

 

 

So where are your tax dollars going?

Did you know that we give $3.1 billion per year to Israel? Did you know that California’s contribution alone could give 3 million uninsured people access to basic primary healthcare?

Read all of this and more in my latest for AlterNet, How We’re Footing the Bill for Crackdowns on Dissent in the Middle East. 

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