Thursday, January 15, 2009

Male Feminists

Although I've repeatedly expressed my discontent with using the word feminist as a universal word for female empowerment movements, I nevertheless want to say that a lot of traditional feminists may be unhappy with this column.

But close observation of the current social situation here in the UAE really does seem to be an anomaly when it comes to female empowerment issues in the Arab world. Of course, this doesn't mean we do not have our fair share of male chauvinists who are unhappy with the current progress of these brilliant Emirati women.
I would like to salute the men who have acknowledged the importance of taking on women as partners in the workplace, political arena, and at home.

Every Great Arab Woman Has a Great Man Somewhere | The National | January 15, 2009

By Tala Al Ramahi

We’ve all heard the proverb: ”Behind every great man is a woman.” Many a female has smiled contentedly at such a profound acknowledgement of her contributions (despite the suggestion that she operates only out of sight of the world). While we, in the UAE, can name our female ambassadors and ministers, our first female judge and other prominent women, we still do not know enough of what they share in common that enabled them to achieve such inspirational success.

This is due, in part, because Emirati women – along with their counterparts in other Arab countries – have risen to prominence and gained significant leadership roles in the political and business arenas in such a relatively short period of time. And while there is a considerable amount of research that could be done on these women, their own declarations and close scrutiny of their life (when possible) can provide us with some insight.

In an interview published in The National in December, Dr Hissa Al Otaiba, the UAE’s newly appointed ambassador to Spain, explained that her decision to take on her new role, which would lead to regular separations from her husband (he just been appointed ambassador to Italy) was influenced by the support she received from her family. “My husband was very encouraging, too. He didn’t want to say it because he wanted me to take the decision, but I felt it,” Dr Otaiba said. She also said that she drew inspiration from her late father, Abdulla Ahmed al Otaiba, who served as vice president of the National Consultative Council.

Earlier this week, Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, the president of the Dubai Women Establishment, presented the keynote speech on the first day of the Arab Women Leadership Forum to a keen audience of young Emirati women, while her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice-President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, sat comfortably to one side as she took the spotlight in front of female dignitaries and renowned scholars.

The Emirati woman’s rapid journey to empowerment is something of an anomaly in this region. For a start, it is our male leaders who are promoting female emancipation to allow women to become partners of progress in the country. That said, culture does not change overnight, and social customs still hold back many a woman from full participation in many fields, even though such measures have the backing from the highest authorities.

Despite the numerous success stories, the UAE is a culture that is still fairly conservative; many Emirati women have difficulty travelling abroad for their education even if they gain admission to the most reputable institutions, while some are stopped (culturally, not legally) from taking jobs in “controversial” professions, particularly those that are male-dominated (civil engineering, for instance), or where the woman is too publicly prominent, such as television reporting.

Such decisions are usually made (or at least, vetoed) by the woman’s father, or husband if she is married. The men risk social criticism, at times, if they decide to allow their daughters and wives to undertake pioneering, albeit unconventional, courses of action. It is, however, infinitely more acceptable in this country for a woman to transform social norms with the backing of the male-figures in her life, instead of rebelling and challenging their authority.

A recent investigative field study of women leaders in neighbouring Oman set out to discover the common features in the lives of such prominent women. It was found that almost all of them had influential mentors and an extremely supportive parent – in the majority of cases it was her father. It takes, after all, a self-assured man to be comfortable, even proud, of his wife or daughter’s success.

A mural by the Emirati artist, Hind bin Demaithan, entitled “Competition or Completion” features an Emirati man and woman, each pulling on opposite sides of the scales of justice. But I believe it is fruitless to regard the rise and success of women as a “battle of the sexes”. Thankfully, for the most part in this country we do not have to view the situation in those kind of terms. After all, a successful woman not only helps boost the prosperity of her family, she also contributes to the development goals of the nation. It seems (for now at least) that “behind every successful Arab woman, is an extremely supportive man” – and one who is confident enough to know that the success of his wife (or daughter) is a blessing, not a threat.


Unlike Elton John, sorry seems to be easiest word for Israel.
This time, they are apologizing for bombing the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza- a building that housed about 700 Palestinians from...the current bombings.

The string of events happens like this for Israel:

1-Bomb shelter/people/UN headquarters
2-Israel: "We're sorry" or "Terrorist group X was using these people as human shields."
3- The world: "alright, we forgive you. Just don't repeat it again."
4- Israel: "Alright, moving on. Next target."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Xenophobia is not so cool...

Tolerance is Also An Integral Part of Our National Identity | December 03, 2008 | The National

By Tala Al Ramahi

Xenophobia is an ugly thing for society to live with. And stereotyping any race or ethnic group is almost always the precursor to racial intolerance. As an Arab studying in America in a post-September 11 world, I was apprehensive that I would have to pay for the outrages that the Islamist extremists had perpetrated.

I would be lying if I said I faced prejudice or intolerance – most probably because my features did not match up with the images of Arabs in the American subconscious. The racial classifications I was subjected to were mostly harmless. To the US airport security official, I looked Eastern European (it was always comical to observe their changing facial expressions when they asked for my passport).

To our local cafĂ©’s barista, I looked conspicuously Mexican – so much so that I had to mutter “No habla Espanol” in butchered Spanish for her to believe me. (Nevertheless, it took her almost a month to get over the fact that my big hair and wide set dark eyes had nothing to do with any secret Mexican ancestry.)

To my then just-made college friend, I was an oil princess. Our friendship went on to become very close and she now knows me better – although she is still a little disappointed that she will not be visiting my mansion on The Palm any time soon.

However, despite my own experience, I have known many an Arab who has been a victim of racial intolerance in the United States because their looks “gave them away”. Hindus and Sikhs have also been consistently mistaken for Muslims, and found themselves the victims of hate crimes because of their clothes and beards – as if that somehow defined a “Muslim” to the outside world.

Now that I am back home in the United Arab Emirates, I have become even more aware that our own society is not impervious to such typecasting either. For many of us, a Filipina now means “domestic servant”, while South Asian implies “labourer” or “taxi driver”.

To many Western expatriates, Emiratis are undeservingly rich and lazy, while some of us UAE nationals view the British expatriates as inconsiderate for their unwillingness to integrate into our society, learn our language, and respect our customs. The expression “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” seemingly does not apply to anywhere outside Europe.

Such stereotyping appalled me when I first returned. It was difficult to conceive that ideals of racial equality or – at the least – tolerance were eroding over here as well. The unsettling thing is how quickly one can become desensitised by the attitudes that surround us, so that not only do they not seem to be wrong any more, but one finds oneself slipping into them, too.

“It’s something you learn to live with. You don’t view it as racism when you understand the country’s dynamics.” That is how an acquaintance once explained the situation to a visiting American. It is when we find ourselves justifying such lamentable attitudes that we really need to look at ourselves and admit where we are going wrong.

The country’s 37th National Day yesterday marked the pinnacle of 2008: the year of National Identity. And as I saw Emiratis, Palestinians and, yes, Indians waving their UAE flags from their cars and on the city’s streets, it struck me that this country, the beacon of the Gulf and the calm haven among so many turbulent storms, would not be what it is today without them. All of them.

We need labourers to build our skyscrapers, and garbage cleaners to keep our streets clean, just as much as we need Western consultants to advise us on those issues where we still have modest experience. Which is exactly why tolerance should be an integral part of our national identity.

We are all so intricately dependent on each other in this country. And while the demographic imbalance has been a cause of concern for many of us Emiratis, who sometimes feel as if we are visitors within our own borders, we must also realise that it is only as a result of such peculiar demographics that we can afford the luxuries and the lifestyles we now take for granted.

We are also indebted to our Emirati forefathers, who had to battle the harsh desert environment to lay the foundations of our young country. Our founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, established the vision we follow today through his unwavering beliefs in tolerance and generosity.

Today’s generation of young Emiratis need to remind ourselves of those beliefs as we follow the noble path that he set. We can do that best by respecting each other, tolerating our differences – and even learning from them.

These greetings are one day late, but to all Emiratis, I wish you a belated happy 37th National Day. And to everyone else within our country’s borders, thank you for helping us make our country what it is today.

The Greatest Story Rarely Told in America

...which may also be the most tragic story that is rarely told in America.

The Greatest Story Rarely Told in America | December 31, 2008 | The National

By Tala Al Ramahi

The last time Israel decided to launch a merciless and aggressive assault on a neighbour – Lebanon – I was completing my final year at Stanford University. It was the first time I had followed such an Israel-related violent outbreak from overseas, but the physical distance from the war did not diminish my obsession with following it as keenly as if I were closer. If anything, the distance only magnified my obsession.

However, as the death toll mounted during that 2006 war, and Israel partook in its own “shock and awe” campaign, I was more shocked and awed by the American news coverage. Watching the 34-day war from afar was like experiencing modern events from a distant universe.

As the Israeli Defence Force launched their indiscriminate bombing campaign, which resulted in the death of more than 1,100 Lebanese – most of whom who were civilians, and a third women and children – I could not have grasped the enormity of the humanitarian catastrophe by relying on US-based sources. I was, however, repeatedly told that Israel, “the only true democracy in the Middle East”, is “defending itself”, “retaliating”, and “responding” to rockets from “terrorists” and “Arab dictatorships” that desperately “wanted to destroy” the Jewish state. Had I not known better, I might have believed them, as do many (if not the vast majority) of Americans.

The issue is even more acute when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Criticism of Israel in the American media, is (as Edward Said called it) “America’s last taboo”. Those who dare criticise Israel’s actions and its moral integrity know that they must deal with the repercussions (and I have had to deal with quite a few while abroad), including right-wing Zionist bullies, hateful racist slurs, and being labelled an “anti-Semite”. The actions taken against academics who openly defend the Palestinian cause are even more pronounced.

And while many American Jews nurture a form of Zionism more fanatical than that held by Israeli Jews, I noticed that the vast majority of non-Jewish Americans were actually either apathetic when it came to this particular issue, or worryingly misinformed.

The extent of such ignorance hit me when I was explaining to my roommate, an American, about my ancestral background. “So why are Palestinians blowing themselves up?” she asked. My knee-jerk reaction was to end the conversation instantly, but her curiosity seemed genuine and not deliberately aimed at aggravating me. I later found out, through endless discussions, that her only window into the conflict began (and ended) with her History class on the Holocaust, and the Jewish population’s desperate need to find “a land without a people for a people without a land”. The historical narrative about an indigenous Palestinian population was absent from her version of history.

She was unaware (as are many Americans) of the Israeli occupation. Nor did she know about the illegal usurping of territory and destruction of Palestinian homes by Israel, let alone the existence of a matrix of checkpoints in the Palestinian territories that make day-to-day movement and life for ordinary Palestinians unbearable.

It is easy to point fingers at American media outlets who have converted neutral Americans into supporters of Israel because of constant biased reporting. Linguistic changes to the narrative of the story, such as using the word “neighbourhood” to replace “Israeli settlements” further exacerbate the situation by allowing such media outlets to distort the truth of what has been called the “hidden occupation”.

Professor Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, explained in the documentary, Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land, that “Israel is fighting a war on two fronts. The first is a military campaign in the territories against the Palestinian people, and the second is a PR campaign being waged in the US through American media”.

We Arabs must learn the lessons of that and provide an alternative narrative that is both productive and newsworthy. But we should also examine our own media. Many Arab-based media outlets host commentators – on TV and in print – who, in response to the current circumstances, issue angry, hate-filled diatribes. And while the situation certainly merits anger and grief, if we are to win hearts and minds on the international arena we must publicise and humanise the Palestinian plight. Too often, the Palestinian cause is undermined by angry rhetoric that only relieves some of our own outrage.

We in this part of the world, already know the reality. We do not need to preach to the choir. After all, we have seen the devastating images on our television screens, heard the cries of Palestinian widows, and the Gazan fathers who have lost their children to Israel’s indiscriminate collective punishment campaign.

But if we hope to spread our message beyond the Middle East, we need the cool voice of reason; intellectual activists who can channel their grief into productive rhetoric. We need politicians and academics who will use indisputable facts to narrate the greatest story rarely told in America.

There are more than 65 UN Resolutions that target Israel, and NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised more awareness for our plight, than we Arabs have done. We must learn that it is not how loud we scream, but how reasonably we express ourselves that will make our voices powerful.