Archives: Newsletters

Civil liberties and tyrannical majorities

“Everyone has the right to advocate individually or collectively to advance her people, nation, and country… to express her thoughts and attitudes in accordance with her conscience… [and] to communicate and obtain information to develop her personal and social environment.” —Article 28 of the Indonesian constitution (1945)[1] JAKARTA, …

Not another Western intervention

Can writers transcend archetypes, stereotypes and other misguided expectations? When I met an editor from an American newspaper five years ago, I sought guidance for crafting the perfect pitch. Having just begun working as a journalist in Cairo, I was developing an expertise in Arab political comics. The editor’s response was blunt: The rag was likely …

Empowering girls in schools

DUTSE, Nigeria — On a hot Saturday morning, I visited a government girls’ secondary school in this town on the outskirts of Abuja. There is not much to see except for the market and people selling food and goods along the unpaved, bumpy roads. I traveled there with Bella Ndubuisi, the founder of a leadership development program—Girl Lead Hub—that …

Transpuanism

MAJENE, Indonesia — Oyhe and Chycong were teased as kids because their family struggled financially. Times got especially tough after their father died during their first year of elementary school, but their mother forbade her seven children to work. She wanted them to have a childhood. Throughout their youth, the boys were also teased more frequently …

Advancing women’s rights in Nigeria: conversations with female leaders

ABUJA—Nigerian women have held the fabric of their society together for decades. From the likes of Fumilayo Ransome Kuti, who fought for women’s access to education and political representation, and against dictatorship—and was the country’s first woman to drive a car—to Dora Akunyili, who served as director of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control and ardently fought to eradicate the production and sale of counterfeit drugs and unsafe food, they have been at the front of societal transformation and progress. But women in Nigeria still lag hugely behind in quality of life, health and political leadership. How is it possible to achieve a developed and sustainable nation when half the population is left behind?

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Report from Egypt past, present and future

The following is an adaptation of remarks I delivered at ICWA’s semi-annual gala on June 2 at the Cosmos Club, Washington, DC.

On March 6, a colossal head of an ancient pharaoh was uncovered in a 10-meter deep pit in the city of Matariya, an hour north of Cairo. The excavators wrapped it for protection overnight in a Spiderman blanket, probably the first thing they saw lying around. It was a gift to Egyptian jokers and meme-makers on social media. Such is Egypt in 2017, where the ancient and modern collide on a daily basis. The pharaonic past is inescapable, unearthed in this instance as civil engineers were plotting a new shopping arcade.

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Hidden battles in the fight against Zika

PANAMA CITY—I stare at my doctor in disbelief. He’s supposed to provide the best prenatal care in all of Panama. And he’s telling me, at eleven weeks pregnant during my first prenatal appointment, that I don’t need a blood test for the Zika virus.

I’ve traveled here from a remote community in Bocas del Toro, Panama—an outpost for backpackers, surfers, outlaws, and an uneasy mix of Afro-Caribbean and indigenous cultures. By US standards, I’m nearly a month tardy for my first prenatal exam. But getting to decent medical care is time-consuming and expensive, so I hope to combine necessary tests for this trip. I’m at the only hospital in Latin America affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, believing it will be my best shot at keeping this growing baby safe as the threat of disease rises.

“You don’t need to worry about Zika there,” the doctor says, leaning back confidently in his desk chair. “It’s really only in the indigenous communities.”

But Panama is the only country in the Americas with increasing reported cases of Zika. In the rural archipelago where we have lived on Oleada for the past four months, there have been 11 reported cases. That statistic makes me nervous: due to a combination of painfully limited state resources and reputedly poor healthcare, very few people see a doctor in Bocas. The hospital at the edge of town reflects the sorry state of medical care here: it’s crumbling into the unmown grass and trash scattered across the property. The facility is unable to test for Zika in Bocas, so any reported cases must travel elsewhere and self-identify for the test, which costs the equivalent of $150, a flabbergasting amount by local standards. In an area of only 2,000 people densely packed into a single settlement, 11 reported cases likely reflects only a tiny, eerie shadow of a much larger epidemic.

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Panama Canal, Part II: Waiting for Disaster

PANAMA CANAL—Our boat floats 85 feet above the Caribbean Sea. Waiting at the top of the Panama Canal locks on the Atlantic side, we stare from Gatun Lake down three steep chambers directly to a new ocean. Neither Oleada nor I have sailed this sea. Here, the notorious Caribbean trade winds whip clear water into short, steep waves. Thirty-foot waves …

Forced into Marriage at 17, Now Fighting for Divorce: A Tale of a Child Bride in Nigeria

In developing countries, one in every three girls is married before reaching age 18. One in nine is married under age 15. – [1]

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[2]

“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.[3] 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.

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The Sacred Bridge

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). [1]

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.[2]

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.[3] 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,[4] 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.

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