Tag Archive: Middle East


It’s the go-to plot-line for some of the most popular stories of all time: fiercely feuding families, each raging with bitterness towards their enemies; each fueled by a relentless pursuit for power; each harboring an unwavering stubbornness.

But this isn’t some fairy tale. Not some CGI-filled summer blockbuster. Not a set of novels-turned-HBO-series.

This is really happening. Everyday. Right now.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been ablaze for decades, and arguably – depending on which history books you’re reading, what channel you’re watching, or what sites you follow – for much longer than that. Each side sharing startling similarities: compelling arguments against the other; claims to land considered holy; fervor for being recognized as ‘legitimate.’ Impassioned with rich and hallowed religions, Israelis and Palestinians similarly use their faiths to validate claims over the region. As the years have passed, both camps have made their mistakes; both have reneged on promises; both have backed out on peace talks.  There are two points, however, that don’t exactly straddle both sides as equally: the deaths of those caught in the carnage, and the media’s reporting of it.

As of this writing, there have been 28 Israeli casualties confirmed – two civilians and 26 soldiers killed in combat. However, Israeli strikes on Gaza have resulted in over 560 deaths, mostly civilian, along with the immeasurable destruction of Palestinian communities (well, what was left of them). We are learning more and more everyday about Palestinian children being caught in the crossfire; how the Israeli people now have an app to warn them of any potential missile strikes from Hamas (because that seems fair); and of journalists who are criticized (and/or fired) for reporting on what’s really happening in the region.

Are people just now awakening to the horrors that have been going on for what seems like ages? It’s a real-life ‘game of thrones’ that is eerily mirroring the acclaimed TV series (spoiler alert): everyone is getting killed off. Both sides undoubtedly have blood on their hands; but anyone who honestly reports on it, or dares to criticize Israel’s role in this on-going debacle, is quickly dubbed by American mainstream media (along with any U.S. officials who go on record) as “anti-Semite.” Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if the word “terrorist” or “terrorist sympathizer” gets thrown around either. You know, when they need a good sound bite.

Still, there are those who buck the system:

And social media has undeniably made exposing truth about this (and countless other under- and mis-reported issues) much more accessible to a wider audience; an audience that is starting to question the motives and political agendas of their own governments. Nonetheless, the Obama Administration has done what every American government has done since the creation of the Israeli state in 1948 and the subsequent Arab-Israel War: confirmed its unwavering alliance (and continued arms funding) of the brash little country in the midst of one of the most turbulent regions in the world. Social media be damned.

A more startling example of how twisted the story can get via traditional media is this one, where an American Jew – yes, you read that correctly – is voicing concern over Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories during the annual Jerusalem parade (in Israel). He doesn’t exactly get the star treatment:

Now, his explanation of what happened after his [peaceful/non-violent] demonstration:

What’s not clear (and for a very good reason) is where exactly this young man’s “court appointed attorney” came from. Without direct involvement – which would’ve undoubtedly made inconvenient headlines – is it not within the realm of possibility that the appointed attorney along with the reigning judge who over saw the case were “directed” to make this go away (i.e. dismiss the case and free the ‘suspect’) by order (i.e. pressure) of the U.S.? Not because they actually care about this kid; hell no. But because the minute he went viral with his message – a powerful and articulately stated one at that – he became a liability; a smoking gun. He’s an American and more importantly (and dangerously), a Jew. And we simply can’t have someone like him say anything that may call to question the U.S.’s position within this gaza of thrones.

It’s bad enough that the video of the incident and the subsequent explanation by the young man was shared so quickly and by so many; the U.S. certainly could’ve executed damage control in an effort to avoid any obvious and potentially media-susceptible intervention. Even with Obama’s recent claims to be “seriously concerned,” he still affirms Israel’s “right to defend itself” amid the rising death toll of Palestinian civilians.
The aftermath of an airstrike on a beach in Gaza City last Wednesday. Four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The aftermath of an airstrike on a beach in Gaza City last Wednesday. Four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Another story was recently posted about the cease-fire/non-cease-fire back-and-forth that took place under President Sisi’s and Egypt’s “counseling.” Egypt? Really? So, instead of tapping into a stable country that might actually have some political pull with one or both sides of this conflict, we’re going with Egypt? Sigh.
Although a five-hour ceasefire did in fact occur to allow for humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip, most U.S. media reported that an extended ceasefire was accepted by Israel, the Arab League and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas but was rejected by the military wing of Hamas, the group that controls Gaza. What is not being reported as accurately (and as loudly) is the reasoning for the rejection.
Egypt’s reluctance to give up its mediator position, even though Hamas – with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood – can’t stand Sisi (a staunch anti-M.B.er), doesn’t help either.

The rest of the world is finally starting to really speak out against Israel and its dealings with Palestinians, yet Israel is getting more and more belligerent with an arrogance matched only by its ‘big brother’ – the U.S. Frustrating = a severe understatement. Even Sec. of State John Kerry was recently caught with his foot in his mouth and then reverted back to singing the tried-and-true tune that goes something like this: “America and Israel, sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”

The minute we (America) actually start to take a stance that’s more aligned with the rest of the world, more aligned with human decency and more aligned with common sense, is the same minute progress may actually be made on this long, drawn-out subject. Slowly but surely others within the global community have been embracing this “radical” mantra, although it’s the U.S. that can actually do something about it. The “right of Israel to defend itself” is long overused. America should refuse to continue funding and arming a country that continuously (and unabashedly) denies that right to others. The right of Palestinians to live should be given the same weight and attention. This simply is not a fair fight.

This isn’t an Israel-bashing tirade mind you; the Israeli people are not the issue whatsoever. This is simply a call for justification and clarification of our continued support of a country that doesn’t do anything for us but bring misery. Our direct involvement and unwavering defense of Israel is the primary reason why this region is so unstable: other countries see Israel’s continual mistreatment of Palestinians and blame the U.S. for its refusal to remove itself from the situation. The Israeli people deserve better than to have their government continuously wage war in their name (sound familiar?), making violence and bloodshed a daily occurrence. 

Ethical reporting on what’s really going on, the outright questioning of U.S. involvement in the region and an international call – and persistent insistence on a realistic two-state solution are what need to happen for there to be any hope for this deteriorating saga. Unlike the show, this is a new kind of game; one where the thrones aren’t just made of ancient swords and the battles won with dragons, magic and unsullied soldiers. In fact, this isn’t a game at all.

 

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With so much talk lately about the rioting and unrest in the Middle East and North Africa – myself doing some of this talking – it occurred to me that something was missing from the discussion: what the impact of the fashion world had on this turbulent area. I know what you’re thinking: sounds a little out of place in the serious shroud that usually accompanies political and social upheaval – kind of like that dirty blue blanket Charlie Brown‘s pal Linus is always clutching. But in truth, it’s a cultural element that can arguably be one of the most telling of its surroundings, and should be rightly explored as a contributor in reshaping this troubled region. After all, without fashion wouldn’t we just be sporting our birthday suits and fig leaves?

The Arab Spring‘s springboard (pardon the pun, I just had to) originated in Tunisia; so when the 3rd annual Tunis Fashion Week was scheduled to take place, to the surprise of many – and to play into my use of the cliché – the show actually did go on. Even in the midst of democratic protests and tons of governmental red tape, it was a chance for designers, consumers and admirers to celebrate their culture’s rich history in textiles and reinvigorate its next chapter, as the Arab Spring seemed to be doing for the people.

It was a risky move; because as the uprisings were [and still are] reshaping the political and social landscape of the Mid-East and Africa, the fashion world is struggling to tell its own story: one of reclamation and resurgence.

It might seem like colorful garments and shiny accessories would be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind during such a time of distress [unless you count fashion therapy as a legitimate treatment, which I personally do]. But it does stand to reason that this particular art form has uniquely weaved itself into the very fabric of the culture; enveloping its people both figuratively and literally with an identity that undeniably distinguishes itself from the rest of the world.  And in times like these, a unifying identity is a necessity. Not unlike the oversized team jerseys, #1 foam fingers or cheese-wedge hats that magically unite thousands of total strangers in American sports arenas. Ok, maybe just a little different.

The Artsy Side:

The Tunis Fashion Week was an opportunity to honor a society that’s been creatively restrained for much of its history. At the dawn of the Arab Spring, an era of expressive personal suppression – mostly from religious fundamentalists – was showing signs of coming to an end, and the Fashion World was vying for its turn to rediscover itself. Designers came correct; presenting innovative ways to intermarry modernity with a traditional streak tying back to the roots of the people. ABCB, a line by Amine Bendriouich, a Berlin-based Moroccan designer, referenced the religious element in its inception, providing commentary on the conservative essence that had so far reigned all of Tunisia. Fares Cherait, Salah Barka and Baligh Mecky were among many budding designers that graced the runway with frocks that spoke to a newfound artistry. It is this artistry that’s promising to emerge full-force: as an opportunity for self-expression and women’s empowerment to take hold within the generally suppressed culture. The freshness is catching on, not just with the young progressives, but with older generations that are surfacing from the traditional shadows and – slowly but surely – embracing a more liberated face of change. The real miracle is how fashion isn’t just surviving, but somehow actually flourishing in Tunisia (and other Middle Eastern areas); owing much to the onset of luxury lines’ accessibility to the average consumer. To many people in the region, the sophistication of brand names and fine apparel has become more about the sheer pleasure of donning such refined garments rather than just a mere symbol of status. “Feeling like a million bucks” is not just something Westerners could say anymore.

Through some kind of social osmosis, the people’s hope appears to have seeped into the psyche of fashion designers, whose general sentiment is that of optimism. Dina Said, 30, considers herself one of the first designers to present a fully Egyptian-made ready-to-wear line at London Fashion Week. In an interview with Egyptian blogger Nadine Sabry, Said says, “In the forties and fifties, fashion used to come out of here. It was a center of high fashion, with beautiful things being made here. I hope we get back to a time like that.” And it certainly seems like the Arab Spring has awakened that yearning: the “Ana Masry” (“I am Egyptian”) movement has already spawn bracelets, t-shirts and a plethora of various apparel and paraphernalia calling on people to unite under their Egyptian nationality – buying Egyptian products and clothing while they were at it. We in the US call that a two-fer.

Designer: Salah Barka

Designer: Baligh Mecky

Designer: Fares Cherait

 

 

The Not-So-Artsy Side:

Of course with the pros, there must be the cons. The appearance of celebrated artistic freedom is being countered by the [continued] persecution of designers that go against the grain in some of the stricter nations. This past November, 70 fashion designers were arrested in Iran for organizing shows. In Saudi Arabia, where the king just recently permitted women to vote, they still face restrictions on what they can wear, and when. What’s more, as the suppressed people are chanting for reform and liberation, the capitalist mantra that so many have been programmed to resist as infidelian methodology (just made that up), is vibrantly emerging. Despite the Anti-West ideology that the extreme Islamic right clutches onto, gigantic super malls are sprouting up among the societal discord. Chains of clothing stores and hoards of international companies are profiting from this dynamic anarchy. The Chalhoub Group, partners with brands like Fendi, Chanel and Saks Fifth Avenue, is just one of many luxury brands’ marketer that plans to expand past its 115 stores in the UAE. Expected to grow 10% next year, the Middle East’s luxury fashion industry – an estimated $5.7 billion in 2010 – is predicted to double in some Mid-East markets over the course of five years. While more of these brands are becoming increasingly attainable by greater numbers of the public, the elite still weilds the power to maintain a class divide; one of the things that the Arab Spring’s original platform strove to breakdown. However, with so many people still out of work, the region’s economy in disorder, and the future of living standards for many uncertain, growth of the fashion industry could very well be a potent injection in the arm of the region. Jobs stemming from the capitalist initiative of America-sized malls and mass produced clothing could possibly help cast a non-oil based surge into the economy.

So as the Middle East and North Africa navigate through the uncertain times ahead, the fashion world seems to be part of this new story-telling; where cultures’ identities are being simultaneously remembered and created – and in both instances, celebrated. A look ahead – with fresh takes on progressive, modern expressions – is being explored by looking back – at tradition, history and heritage; and fashion takes on the critical role it should be honored for: the people’s mirror.

                                                            

Related Articles:

Be sure to check out the following piece just posted on Newsweek’s online portal, The Daily Beast (thedailybeast.com) – it outlines what artists are grappling with in terms of censorship [and therefore, an uncertainty about creative right to expression] in a post-Mubarak Egypt:

Egypt’s Artists Fear Censorship by Islamists

Also be sure to follow me on Twitter to catch all my latest findings on things Mid-East, Far-East and how the West Is Winning: @2worlds1eye

Coolio and his twiggy braids would be proud. Real proud.

Now there’s a new place being dubbed the “concrete jungle”. And you’ll never guess where it is. Well, you might guess if you actually read the title of this article. So much for surprises. But for those of you who like to implement the whole “skimming-as-reading” method, it’s none other than the next “lil’ America” itself: good ole’ Iraq.

Not where you were thinking? Don’t feel too bad – you’re not alone. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting either, but – as it turns out – the US has left its mark in a big way, and the break dancing youth in Baghdad are living proof. That is, if you consider skull tattoos, body piercings and iPods playing 50-Cent the marks of the American Beast.

As December 31st draws nearer, so does President Obama’s order to withdrawal most of the troop forces stationed in Iraq; and one can’t help but wonder what the last 8 years of US presence has done to bridge the gap between the two cultures. It appears that the impression bestowed upon the nation’s young public is a boisterous mixture of an abundance of camouflage fashion (hot pink fatigues are the top choice for “blending in” to the desert surroundings), misspelled body art (Gangsta = GangStar, as the tattoo artist accidentally adds an “s” to one poor kid’s arm, no doubt forever-tarnishing his street cred), and – let’s not forget – the maniacal ‘Twilight‘ Edward vs. Jacob craze (that I should add, is about 2 installments behind). Is this sounding pretty American yet? It should.

“Punky” is what the Iraqi teens and 20-somethings are calling their newly adopted cultural movement, according to “Lil Czar” Mohammed, a 22-year-old rapper, and part-time teacher at a primary school in Baghdad. Mohammed was interviewed by the Associated Press, and along with other Iraqi young “hustlers” as they are calling themselves, was featured in the November 27th issue of the St. Petersburg Times. His baggy jeans (yes, they are indeed camouflage-print), NY cap (turned backwards of course) and nimbly-shaved head (with a $ etched into it) are all signs o’ the funky-fresh times that now reside in the midst of a country where almost half of the population is under the age of 19, according to former Senior Advisor to the US Embassy in Baghdad, Brett McGurk. And remember that tattoo I mentioned that was misspelled to read “GangStar“? That was Mohammed’s.

So it looks as though after all those years of observing US soldiers patrolling in their country, Iraqis are clinging to the machismo stylings of what they’ve come to consider “American”, including a pension for Ed Hardy-like hoodies, hip-hop & rap tracks and English slangy speech. Throw in Rollerblading stunts through hectic town traffic and heated breakdancing competitions in the parks, and you’ve got a virtual Little Brooklyn.

And even better, they’ve become rappers themselves; many of them incorporating lyrics that speak to their war-torn upbringing and hope for a better future. The “Iraq Rap” page on Facebook has almost 1500 fans.

Granted, none of this is sitting quite right with the parents and elders of these young Iraqis, but much like their American counterparts, the youth aren’t really letting that bother them.

According to Fawzia A. al-Attia, a sociologist at Baghdad University: “Teenagers, especially in poor areas where parents are of humble origin and humble education, started to adopt the negative aspects of the American society because they think that by imitating the Americans, they obtain a higher status in society.”

Al-Attia also claims that due to the unexpectedness of the young people’s openness, the country’s adults are not familiar with any sort of real strategy in which to handle the youth’s new-found rebellious voice. The rejection of school uniforms, forbidden love relationships and disrespect for elders has Iraqi parents, teachers and officials at a loss for control – and understanding – of this vital part of their society.

But oftentimes with the expression of something new, comes the edginess of defiance.

Another example of a feisty youth: tattoos and piercings. The tattoo industry is surprisingly booming now in Iraq; mostly due to young customers requesting coffins, skulls, snakes and dragons on various parts of their bodies – attempting to mimic the designs that they observed on US soldiers’. Even young women are donning butterflies and flowers on their shoulders as symbols of their adopted pro-Western philosophies. To boot, the tattoo parlors themselves now openly display advertisements of half-naked models on their storefronts baring examples of the body art available within. I can almost picture the jaws of the conservative older Muslim Iraqis as they scrap the floor in disgust and awe. The thought that’s no doubt running through their heads = “What the…?”. Ironically, it’s what a lot of American parents are also thinking about their own children. [ We’re not so different now, are we? ]

And as for the young ladies of Iraqi, they’re apparently taking ‘hijab-chic’ to a whole new level, rocking tighter tops, form-fitting jeans and accessorizing with the all-too-popular American-girl must-have: a small dog in an oversized purse. (Paris Hilton, your influence is far more reaching than could have ever been imagined.)

Still, under the reign of Saddam Hussein (remember him?), where satellite television, the internet and cell phones were strictly monitored – and in many cases banned outright – these same young people were denied the exposure of such western cultural nuances, so it’s no wonder that the bottleneck buildup of defiance burst out to this inevitable result. Unfortunately, other more positive aspects of the American culture are not nearly as present within Iraq’s younger demographic.

High school student Maytham Karim is interested in learning English. Sadly, the only English he presently knows are the “F-words” and all related derivatives. (And as we habitual cursers know, there are quite a lot of ’em). For these kids, most lessons in English end up coming from American music, specifically rap, which in most instances employs the more ‘colorful’ parts of our language, to say the least. Nonetheless, at most schools the lists to get into English classes are hefty with eager students and can be a months-long wait. The desire to be “more like Americans” is what fuels these young Iraqis to take what they see and hear in movies, music and online and translate it into a form of insurrection from their conservative, restrictive surroundings; which – let’s face it – isn’t such a bad thing.

Sound familiar? (wink, wink fellow Americans)

The take-away: American influence has seeped into the youth of a country whose next generation is still grappling with its identity. As much as the need for more positive aspects of US life is necessary to balance their understanding of what it is to be American, Young Iraq is still making a sort of headway into a new and unexplored frontier for their next step: life without US occupation. Here’s wishing them luck.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness“, a cherished phrase outlined in our Declaration of Independence is markedly and universally regarded as the essence of the basic rights afforded to each American. Plus there’s no denying that it rolls off the tongue ever so nicely.

In the US, it seems that while these three simple staples are inherently part of our culture, along with them, another fight is underway: to get more money for the hardworking American and to demand more accountability for those in power. The current Occupy Wall Street movement (and other Occupations throughout the country) are prime examples of how the American people are decidedly taking the Declaration’s most memorable phrase and manifesting it into their own destinies. The cry is pressing; government needs to be held liable for our current economic condition.

Across the pond, however, with the rise of what is being dubbed The Arab Spring, it seems that people are fighting too, but for things that the US luckily already has: basic human rights and a stable democratic government. With the ousting of Egypt‘s Mubarak, Libya’s Gaddafi, and the countless other civil uprisings all over the Middle East and Northern Africa, the people are finally speaking – and it’s louder and clearer than ever before. Nevermind a raise in wages or an explanation for why the mortgage bubble burst; they just want to be able to live under relatively peaceful conditions as human beings without fear of being beheaded or stoned. Doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Still, what makes this time in our global environment most interesting is how similar these movements actually are in their fundamental purposes – even though they are so very different in their cultural foundations.

The US government has long been in bed with Wall Street, Big Business and the richest 1% of the population. There’s no secret there. And the Arab governments have long been in bed with the US, with much of their military and weapons-funding funneled directly through countless US administrations (both Dems & Reps are guilty on this one). So what we essentially have is this:  a governmental gang-bang with the “Do Not Disturb” sign indiscreetly hanging outside the door while both the American and Arab people wait outside with housekeeping.

Obama Administration: Arab People, You Deserve Better! American People, .. Uh… Sorry, We Got Nothin.

Baffling still is the unrelenting endorsement for the Arab uprising by the current US administration; an unwavering support for the military to step aside in countries like Egypt – allowing the people to put in place their own civilian-run government via a fair, democratic electoral process. Not to mention, another manipulable US ally in this unstable region wouldn’t be too shabby of a by-product. The US government’s consensus: hooray for the Arab Spring!

Conversely, the same US administration is producing an all but mute stance on the OWS movements that are taking place in their own back yards. No real response or tangible explanations are being offered to the American people, and the protesting is largely being ignored by top administrators. (coyly saying “we’re working on it” doesn’t really count either). Any response that’s not a muddled, ambiguous retort is one of complete cynicism. GOP candidates like the smug Newt Gingrich even go so far as to criticize the Occupy protestors by saying to “go get a job right after you take a bath”. Ah, eloquent words indeed. Especially coming from one of the dirtiest, corrupt hypocrites in all of US governmental history.
The fact is, no administrative support is going towards the uprisings that are occurring here in the US, but plenty of support is being ushered towards the Arab people who are rallying with a similar volume. Which brings me to:

So Egypt, Where’d You Get All That Tear Gas? Oh, Wait…

As Egypt’s unrest continues to swell, and more protestors are killed or injured by military forces and riot police, the question inevitably arises: where did all the tear gas, rubber bullets and nerve gas even come from?

Surprise, surprise. And by “surprise”, I mean “totally not a surprise”.

As much as the US claims that it supports the Arab Spring, and uprisings like that in Egypt, one wonders how the weapons being used against the very people who the US government is supporting are the same ones graciously supplied to the corrupt governments that the US actually helped put in place? Deep is the rabbit hole, indeed.

The simplified analysis here would be that, foreseeing the reality that Egyptian people have simply had enough, the best move for America would be to align itself with the winning side. It’s not just smart politics, it’s a safety mechanism the US has learned to utilize all-too-well over the years. So while Mubarak and Gaddafi were once very close US allies, now that their incredible unpopularity among their own people has removed them, best for the US to denounce these jokers and cuddle up with whomever’s next. In many cases with the Arab Spring, this means a civilian-installed leadership; most likely un-akin to what the US is used to dealing with. So good luck there.

But What About Here At Home?

As an Arab, I am extremely happy to see the tangible overturning of unethical Middle Eastern governments (aka dictatorships/tyrannies) and witness the people finally taking matters into their own hands – however dangerous the obstacles may be. There are generations of depravity to make up for, and so it will no doubt take just as long to establish something new and better; but there is a unified voice finally being heard, and that’s something that’s indeed long over-due.

But as an American, I am extremely disappointed that this same gusto for change hasn’t resulted in a more productive governmental transformation here; one that truly brings into question practices that are inherently damaging those three vital pieces of what we’ve collectively come to call our rights as Americans and that are outlined in our precious Declaration. If we are truly to set an example of how freedom of speech, peaceful demonstrations, and the right to organize are core principles that we wholly stand by, then we’d better start showing off our stuff right here at home. The spotlight is on and all that’s audible is the sound of crickets.

What are becoming evident now more than ever, especially through these movements, are the similarities shared between Americans and Arabs – revealing just how much of a cultural bridge exists between both worlds at the most elemental level. We are all in a similar pursuit: that of happiness.

Since I keep getting requests from friends to share traditional Egyptian recipes and tips incorporating Middle Eastern/Mediterranean cuisine into everyday American fare, I figured I’d finally indulge them. What can I say, I’m a dang good friend.

Growing up with that kind of culinary fusion really did – I believe – expand my palette, so my hope in contributing these interesting recipes is to do the same for my readers.

I will be posting a new dish periodically; sometimes in its most traditional preparation (just like Mom made!) and other times as a modern blend that embraces both the customary preparation and the intermixing of American flair.*

*To be honest, that’s “just like Mom made” too, since her ability to infuse tradition with what’s popular got us to eat every bite on the plate.

So get ready  to learn how to make some of the most incredible dishes from this part of the world, incorporate them with familiar foods, and hopefully impress your friends just like I did.

 

I’ve never really considered myself a feminist, in the traditional sense. I believe in equal rights across all spectra: gender, race, religion, hair type, skin tone, you name it. But I’d also like to think I live in a time [and place for that matter] where being a woman doesn’t translate into a constant struggle for that equality. But alas, (that word isn’t used enough – it’s got a dramatic yet poignant effect), we simply do not live under the utopian conditions that most of us naively assumed the 21st century was to deliver. Hell, I’m still waiting for my electro-laced pair of Nike’s and hover-converted DeLorean.

In a rather revealing Newsweek article published last month, the best – and worst – places to be a woman were outlined; where a rather thorough compilation of data was collected that spanned from how well women were treated within their justice systems to their participation in government. Five major factors were used when categorizing which countries in the world were optimal for women’s prosperity, and which were lacking: Justice, Health, Education, Economics and Politics. Each of these factors were graded on a scale of 1-100, and were evaluated  according to how well women fared when it came to these basic fundamental issues. Not surprising, primarily Westernized, progressive nations made it in the Top 20 where overall scores ranged from 100-85.

What was surprising, however, was The United States’ ranking: 8th overall in the world – something that most Americans might very well scoff at in disbelief. After all, this is the nation where the invention of the phrase “stay-at-home-dad” is considered a benchmark for judging how far the working mom has truly risen the corporate ladder. Sigh.

On the forefront of women’s prosperity in the international community with an outstanding overall rating of 100, was actually just a little fellow: Iceland. Piloted by a female president, this tiny nation leads all others in women’s rights, health, education, financial well-being and political clout. The US’s score is a good deal lower: 89.8 overall. Ouch. Our poorest grade was in women’s participation in government; arguably the foundation for which any improvement – and success – can be given a chance to be implemented into society.

As Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary-General once said, “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” So it seems that without this incorporation and participation of 50% of the world’s population, any growth – economic, societal or otherwise – is bound to be stunted.

I began to then take a look into where the worst places to be a woman were and again, sadly I wasn’t too surprised by what I found: the poorest, most democratically lacking countries took the top ranks. Chad climbed to the No. 1 podium position with an overall score of 0. Yes, you read that correctly. Zero. Health and education were rated as non-existent, as women have basically no legal rights. And this wasn’t the only place with remarkably dismal scores. Countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Sudan where honor killings and arranged marriages are not only legal, but oftentimes condoned by the male-dominated governments filled the top 10 spots. At least they’re winning at something.

It seemed like the more I read about this, the more frustrating it was to realize that the underlying reasoning behind much of the world’s difficulties was the lack of vital, unobstructed female participation in absolutely every aspect of life: from active roles in passing legislation to the incorporation of women in the labor force as equal contenders for jobs, salaries, and the ability to climb the industry ladder. Without establishing the root for which fundamental change may have a chance to grow, no hope can be realistically garnered for any sort of development for women’s rights – in this country or any other.

We [The US] like to think we have it made over so many other places and admittedly, we certainly do have a lot to be proud of. There are private and governmental programs in place that support female-owned businesses, more women with college degrees than almost all other nations, and increased advancements in early breast cancer detection with new 3-D mammogram technology. But the US is still lacking severely in reproductive-health services, maternity-leave policies and the number of women holding political office (thanks Hillary, but we’re going to need a whole lot more assertive pant-suits to counteract the Sarah Palins/Michelle Bachmans that have effectively set back our gender another 30 years).

Still, women in other countries, mostly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, have it a lot worse. While Egypt didn’t make the top 20 for worst places to live as a female, it certainly didn’t make any where near the top 20 best places either. With its growing political uncertainly – also echoed by many other Arab countries now in critical civil turmoil – there’s no telling where the future of women’s lib is heading. If Sharia law becomes incorporated more stringently into the daily lives of Egyptian citizens, (or any other Arab/Islamic country) this could substantially thwart any progress for women to make their mark in the growth of developing countries. As much as the US would like to believe that Egypt is the Mid-East pillar for democracy, its immensely flawed model obviously revealed an intensely corrupted system as evidenced by the ousted former President Mubarak. Amidst the already mighty reign of men in this and other Arab/Islamic societies, women oftentimes struggle to survive, let alone be heard – or even better: be participant.

Some people would argue that there are many things being done to promote the empowerment of women in business via microfinance programs: lending services that assist natives of impoverished countries. These programs claim to empower indigenous workers to grow their businesses usually based on the capitalist model, and many times use a particular emphasis on aiding women as their common-place tagline. Nevertheless, the impact that these programs have on women – or whole communities in general – have not been accurately measured, and therefore no concrete conclusions can be drawn regarding their effectiveness. It can be assumed however, that if women’s presence is not established in the governmental strata for which these programs are even permitted to be employed, any help derived from them would therefore have no fighting chance to exist.

This may sound bleak. And it is. Understanding where we are as a country, (and where everyone else is), is key in grasping how far we still have to go in the pursuit of women’s equality. But the answer is unquestionably clear: the establishment of women in government is the first and most critical step in moving forward toward progress in absolutely every way. While it is still very much a ‘boy’s club’, for any sort of international evolution to take place the female population must construct an assertive voice at the very base of our society – not just for the well-being of the gender, but for the overall advancement of our civilization.

Ethnic composition of American Muslims, accord...

Image via Wikipedia

So after all that’s happened internationally over the past 10 years, it looks like American Muslims are bouncing back – and polls are showing that they’re happier than they’ve been in awhile (post-911 discrimination anyone?)

Stats are showing that Muslims’ standard of living and optimism is reported as having improved since the last survey done in 2008. What does that say? Mainly that the Bush Era of right-wing extremism is beginning to wear off* from when the “blame-the-crazy-Arabs-for-all-our-problems” mantra was in high fashion. (Our combat boots and camouflage hunting outfit was completed by this oh-so-essential accessory). Crazy part is, even though they’re reporting that things are improving, Muslims are also saying that the discrimination has pretty much hovered around the same level – between crappy and a little less crappy. Even though predictions of Obama taking office were widely anticipated as potentially having a positive impact on Muslims worldwide, his gracious** world tour at the start of his term clearly didn’t help Americans ease up as much on their misinformed and ignorant treatment of Arab Muslims. Clearly some things are harder to change than others.

The good news: this same polling is revealing that American Muslims and their Jewish counterparts are actually agreeing on things – can I get a Salem!? how ’bout a Shalom?! – primarily their views on resolving the unrest spanning generations in the Middle East that. These two groups have long been at odds on a great many things, and to have a united footing on such a fundamental issue as attaining peace in arguably the most chaotic part of the world, is progress indeed. I just wonder how long it will take for the next group of Americans to be pulled out of our boiling melting pot and thrown on the back burner to be singed and isolated. We have a knack for that unfortunately, and as our history has shown, we like to spread this honor amongst all our fine minorities. Hey, at least we don’t discriminate in the way we discriminate.

Still, I do hope things continue to improve for American Muslims, and American minds become more and more open to learning about a culture and a religion that has been greatly misunderstood for so long. (and peace in the Mid-East would be super cool too!)

I recommend reading the LA Times article here

NOTES:

*at least a little. Still could use significantly more work I’d say.

**the word ‘gracious’ is being used with a thick layer of sarcasm here people.

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