Celebrate. Innovate. Make Possible. was the theme for PATH’s 40th anniversary celebration, which took place on Friday, May 12, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. PATH is a global health innovation organization that works to improve the health of the most marginalized groups of people, notably women and girls. I had the privilege to speak as a panelist at the event and share about the work I do in Nigeria as an ICWA Fellow and girls’ rights advocate. The experience was surreal and I have been able to reflect on the importance of such a dynamic program and my personal growth.
“Trafficking in Persons (TIP) is the third most lucrative business in the world, after drugs and arms sales,” an official from the Nigerian National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) told students during a three-day training workshop held from May 22-24 in Abuja. The workshop aimed to increase the awareness of in-school students on migration and trafficking. For three days, students from five junior secondary schools (two girls and one boy per school) gathered for the workshop at the newly launched Abuja office of Girls’ Power Initiative, an organization dedicated to empowering girls in Nigeria. The workshop discussed topics including values, self-esteem, and assertiveness. The students were trained to understand the difference between migration and trafficking; and how to identify a trafficking situation.
Millions of children live in poverty in Nigeria;lacking access to clean water, food, health care services, and education. Two and a half million children suffer from severe acute malnutrition, “defined by a very low weight for height (below -3z scores of the median WHO growth standards), by visible severe wasting, or by the presence of nutritional oedema.” In Nigeria, 430,000 children live with HIV/AIDS.1 In April, I attended a wedding reception where I saw masses of children scramble for leftover food from the guests’ plates. It was an awful sight, to witness and a reminder of the plight of Nigeria’s children. Where are their parents? Why do they look so unkempt? When was their last meal? These were all questions that ran across through my mind as I reflected on their pitiful condition.
In developing countries, one in every three girls is married before reaching age 18. One in nine is married under age 15. – 
In Africa, Nigeria is expected to have the largest absolute number of child brides. The country has seen a decline in child marriage of about 1 percent per year over the past three decades. At this pace, the total number of child brides is expected to double by 2050. – UNICEF
“I was a slave in my husband’s house,” said 17-year-old Rahma. “My pregnancy had complications and my husband sent me back to my parents when I was diagnosed with fistula,” added 19-year-old Fatima. As I listened to these girls share their experiences as child brides, I struggled to keep the at bay as I wondered why on earth anyone would want to deprive these girls of their childhood and livelihoods. Yet, many men (often much older) in countries like Nigeria choose to marry teenage girls, some pre-teens. Forty-three (43) percent of Nigerian girls are given in marriage before the age of 18,;17% are married before their 15th birthday. As Africa’s largest growing population with over 180 million residents, it is anticipated that Nigeria will have the largest absolute number of child brides by 2050.1 In response to this alarming news, the Nigerian government in November 2016 launched a campaign with a pledge to end child marriage by the year 2030. In line with the African Union’s resolution to eliminate the practice in the African continent; Nigeria joins 15 other African countries that have made this a national commitment. Despite this, achieving an end to child marriage is a long way ahead.
In a recent Newsletter (JVC-3), I shared the perspectives of Acehnese Muslims in an attempt to complicate singular notions of Islam. The Story of the Stick tuned in to the (dis)harmonies of Islamic belief and practice, and set the stage for a consideration of the role that religiosity and gender play in Banda Aceh’s political theater (JVC-4). 
One astute reader, a friend who has also spent significant time in Indonesia and Aceh, wrote to remind me to “emphasize just how different Islam is practiced [in Aceh] from other parts of Indonesia.” She also pointed out that “there is no uniformity in religion for the entire geography of Indonesia.” Her critique pushed me to reflect on how I had inadvertently reactivated the same media framing of Indonesia as a religious place that I had criticized in my opening paragraphs.
She’s right to note that Aceh is different – exceptional, even. Indonesians from elsewhere often define themselves against what they see as extremism in the province, presenting it as an exception to the rule of tolerance in the rest of the archipelago. Initial responses to any mention of my work there are almost always condemnations of the rules of syariah, often by Muslims who have never visited. I have taken to playfully dismantling this straw man (straw place?) fallacy, noting that depicting all Acehnese as religious fundamentalists fits incongruously with the other stereotype of the Acehnese as heavy consumers of coffee and cannabis.
Only two months after the argument about a stick in Masjid Baiturrahman, police found and destroyed nine hectares of marijuana less than an hour’s drive from that sacred place. That’s a newsworthy amount of ganja, but no international media outlet covered it. Why is it so difficult to view Indonesia outside of the prism of religion? I’m complicit here – I introduced you to Aceh by repeatedly referencing its grand masjid, which had an effect altogether different than had I ushered you into this rich culture with a cup of “coffee buffoonery.”2 How do our impressions of this syariah law-observant place change upon acknowledging that all this coexists?
The duality proves my friend’s point: it is problematic to think about beliefs and practices in terms of geography, even at the city level. Subcultures and deviants in all corners of Indonesia tend not to own spaces or dominate discourses, but they give the lie to normative ideologies, religious or otherwise. All too often, they escape reportage, and this matters: the act of looking creates the seen, but also the unseen. And seeing is an act of privilege and power.
In this Newsletter, I argue that the insistence on viewing Indonesia primarily as a religious place has actually marginalized moderatism and silenced secular voices. By detailing an event hosted recently by the Sacred Bridge Foundation, a collective of freethinkers and misfits bound together less by geography and place than by ideals and space, I engage you in a consideration of how place and space structure religiosity, radicalism, and revolution.
I presented a version of this paper in February at “Framing War and Conflict in Comics,” the second annual Symposium on Arab Comics at the American University of Beirut.
When General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi ran for the Egyptian presidency in the spring of 2014, the children’s magazine Samir published a stoic caricature of him its cover. This wasn’t the first time that Sisi, who had overthrown the country’s first democratically elected president a year prior, had appeared on the cover of the kids magazine. A couple of months earlier the curly-haired boy Samir, the magazine’s signature character and namesake, held a gilded framed portrait of a uniformed Sisi with the headline, “Egypt’s authentic son.”
“We had a very big problem when we had published that caricature,” Shahira Khalil, the chief editor of Samir tells me at her office at the state publishing house Dar Al-Hilal, in a grand, century-old building. “Some people, they told us, ‘You are politicizing children.’” Liberal parents were angry that the magazine was glorifying the junta leader. The “radical Muslims,” as Khalil calls the ousted and now illegal Muslim Brotherhood, were likewise upset that the leader who oversaw a massacre was being lionized. Even the mainstream media, which was categorically pro-Sisi, was not sure what to make of the cover at a time when caricatures of the former general were rare.