Friday, February 27, 2015

“Islam In The Media: How Global Events Tarnished Its Reputation”

BY: Usma Hosain, Senior at The Bryn Mawr School

The latter half of 2014 was a busy time for global events and happenings. Not only was the Gaza-Israel conflict appearing everywhere, but the execution videos released by ISIS were dominating headlines. Topping all of this off was the coverage done on the behalf of media, tarnishing and slandering Islam as a religion and muslims as a population.
In late September, I was watching CNN, eager to hear about the conflicts filling the world and praying it would have nothing to do with muslims. My heart dropped, however, as I read the headline posted on the screen. “Does Islam promote violence?” I felt tears fill my eyes and the lump in my throat made itself known. The screen flashed and changed to two news anchors interviewing one of my favorite authors and scholars of religion, Reza Aslan. As I listened to Aslan critique the remarks of Bill Maher regarding muslims, one of the anchors interrupted him and brought up an aspect of Islam I had never heard of; the reason being that it doesn’t exist. She questioned why Islam is so misogynistic towards women. I could hear my heart pounding and all of a sudden, I couldn’t hear the interview anymore.
            Thoughts were running through my head faster than I could process. Words regarding muslims that I had heard throughout the years flashed through my head. ISIS, Al-Qaeda, jihadist, terrorist, monster, murderer, and more. I fixated on one, however: “jihadist.” Alongside all these events, I had been writing college essays and I had used jihad in one of them. I looked up the dictionary definition, wanting to verify I was using it correctly in terms of how people hear it today. Yet again, I was let down. The dictionary definition is as follows:

ji•had noun \ji-'häd, chiefly British, -'had\
"a war fought by muslims to defend or spread their beliefs"

1. a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty; also a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline

2. a crusade for a principle or a belief

The definition provided by not only Merriam-Webster but also the Oxford English Dictionary (slightly varied) puts muslims and Islam in a light that is less than tasteful. Although the second definition is closest to the original, deriving from Arabic, the former is less than accurate. I consulted my Arabic-English dictionary that I had purchased for school. Among the hundreds of definitions listed, ‘a holy war’ did appear, however, there was nothing to suggest it had anything to do with Islam. In fact, in the Qu’ran, it is written that those who wage war on behalf of Islam are not true muslims. After emailing and exchanging several correspondences with the editors of Merriam-Webster, my concerns with their inaccurate definition were politely dismissed. And so, I set out to right the wrongs that I had seen. I started to write a petition to have the definition changed.
I’m not sure what I expected to happen, nor am I sure I had any expectations. I knew that if I could draw enough attention to the issue, even in the case that it did not get changed, I would have done my part. Be it one person or one hundred that read it, I would know that I tried, and I did change the way some people viewed my religion and my culture. I did not, however, expect that this project would take as long as it has.
More often than not, we are much too eager to put people into a box based on what we can see. More often than not, we blindly follow and agree with what the media says, not taking into account that the information they provide may not be the full story. More often than not, we do nothing to speak up, for it is easier to maintain silence than break it. Of course, as I grew older, I came to understand this, but it was not until I began writing the petition that my heart swelled with pride and I embraced my identity. Until that moment, I had not found the courage to break the silence.
My journey, however, does not end here. Over the months that I’ve been doing research and emailing scholars of Islam, I have been envisioning my future. I know that as a woman in politics, I will come to face many hurdles. There will be days when I want to give up. There will be days when I feel my effort is wasted and I am making no difference at all. I will, however, have days when I take pride in having the courage to undertake such a huge project at the age of 17. I will have days when I know that I may be inspiring other people to speak up for their beliefs. I will have days when I feel I have started a movement, for a movement starts not with thousands of people but one person, courageous, willing, and brave enough to begin.
They say women in politics is a bad idea because we’re so hormonal. They say we’re too emotional to make sound decisions and keep in mind what matters. They say women can’t do it on account of their gender. I beg to differ. Women have been the unsung heroes of the world for hundreds of years. In the absence of men, instead of shying away, women stepped up to the plate, ready and willing to help with anything and everything.
I suppose my education at an all girls’ school for 13 years has shaped me into what some would call a die-hard feminist. Some may say my views on women in politics makes me a radical feminist. Some may say that my hopes, goals, and aspirations for my petition are far too ambitious. I, however, refuse to back down. I refuse to walk away from a cause I feel so passionately about. I refuse to silence the voice I was given.
My name is Usma Hosain. I’m a 17 year old first generation American from Baltimore, MD. I am a feminist and I am an advocate for what is right. Above all, I am and always will be proud to be a Muslim.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Rape. Then and Now

BY: Kate Nace Day, Director/Producer of A CIVIL REMEDY
Twenty-five years ago, survivors of rape and domestic violence in the United States started telling their stories to Congress. For four years, their stories joined the testimony of physicians, law professors, representatives of state law enforcement and private business in the eight separate Reports issued by Congress and its committees that led to the enactment of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. On rape, Congress found:

         “Three-quarters of women never go to the movies alone after dark because of the fear of rape and nearly 50 percent do not use public transit alone after dark for the same reason.”
         “According to one study, close to half a million girls now in high school will be raped before they graduate.”

         “[One hundred twenty-five thousand] college women can expect to be raped during this -- or any -- year.”

         “[Forty-one] percent of judges surveyed believed that juries give sexual assault victims less credibility than other crime victims.”

         “An individual who commits rape has only about 4 chances in 100 of being arrested, prosecuted, and found guilty of any offense.”

In September 1994, the VAWA was enacted, declaring for the first time: “All persons within the United States shall have the right to be free from crimes of violence motivated by gender.”  Violence against women became more than a crime or personal injury. Such violence was now, in national law, sex discrimination, a violation of civil rights. Victims were given the same civil rights remedy as victims of crimes motivated by race or religion: a federal civil action for damages against perpetrators. 

That September, Christy Brzonkala was an 18 year-old freshman at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.  In her dorm, minutes after she met two varsity football players, one of them asked her to have sex with him. She told him “no,” twice.  When she went to leave, she says they raped her – first one, then the other, and then the first again. As he left, the first warned her, “You better not have any fucking diseases.” He later announced publicly, he “liked to get girls drunk and fuck the shit out of them.”

After Christy Brzonkala complained to the school, two rounds of disciplinary hearings were held.  One football player was acquitted and the other was found guilty of sexual assault and suspended for two semesters.  His suspension was quickly voided.  He was then found guilty of “using abusive language.” The University Provost personally intervened and overturned his second suspension.  He returned the next fall, on a full athletic scholarship.

Christy Brzonkala sued under the civil remedy provision of the VAWA.  As her case made its way to the Supreme Court as United States v. Morrison, the only question had been framed early on by the trial court. It was not the question whether her civil rights had been violated, but a question of federalism. The Supreme Court answered: Congress had no power to place law in the hands of women victims.  In the entire record of her case, Christy Brzonkala has only one word, “no.”

It is fifteen years since the Court’s decision in Morrison. The story of rape on American campuses has been building - on new social media, like the websites of survivors like Know Your IX and student organizations, SAFER, and blogs like Feministing and in the unprecedented political and legal responses of the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights' disclosures of Title IX investigations and The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. 

This past year, survivor stories became newly visible in documentary film.  In Cecilia Peck's BRAVE MISS WORLD, rape survivor and activist Miss Israel and Miss World Linor Abargil encourages victims of campus rape in America to speak out, and they do.  The director of the award-winning THE GREATEST SILENCE: RAPE IN THE CONGO, Lisa Jackson follows five survivors as they fight for accountability on campus and in federal court in her newly released film, IT HAPPENED HERE  

Just days ago, Kirby Dick's film about campus rape, THE HUNTING GROUND, premiered at Sundance.   Dick is known for telling human stories of inequalities and power, violence and impunity.  The Invisible War, his 2012 film on rape in the US military, pressed for accountability in how the military handles rape. In March 2014, a bill to take military sexual assault prosecutions out of the hands of commanders fell only five votes short of beating a Senate filibuster. 

 I have not seen THE HUNTING GROUND, described by the Sundance Film Festival as a “piercing, monumental exposé of rape culture on campuses.” While it may be too early to know the specifics of the film’s policy agenda, US Senators Barbara Boxer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand were at Sundance speaking on a related panel. Both are backing legislation requiring schools to disclose publicly the result of anonymous surveys concerning assaults. 

I hope colleges and universities will use these films to teach the vulnerability and violence of rape, its entrenched inequalities and shocking failures of accountability. To teach what the law says, what law does, what law has the power to change – in rape at home, at school, and on the streets, rape as pornography, rape for profit, rape as spectacle, rape in the military, rape as genocide, rape as war too extraordinary to be believed, rape in peace too commonplace to be visible.  

To those in colleges and universities who try to silence survivors or erase the small details and remembered events of their stories, then and now, young women are saying, “no.”