Archives: Newsletters

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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Speech Bubbles: Comics and Political Cartoons in Sisi’s Egypt

 

The Century Foundation invited me to contribute a chapter on Egyptian cartoons and comics for Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings: Experiments in an Era of Resurgent Authoritarianism. This chapter builds on extensive fieldwork conducted during my two-year ICWA fellowship, offering the most comprehensive study to date of the challenges facing cartoonists in Egypt. I am grateful for the perceptive feedback provided by co-editors Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna, who helped sharpen my argument and analysis. The book, which features chapters from a number of distinguished scholars and journalists, will launch in June in New York and Beirut. It can also be read at the Century Foundation’s website here.

***

Abstract: In print and online, Egyptian cartoonists have created sites of political dissent in defiance of a state-sponsored crackdown on opposition movements, public protest, and free speech. Based on analyses of cartoons and interviews with the artists, this chapter argues that cartoonists have expanded the red lines of acceptable discourse by forging workarounds and challenging official censorship. In the absence of traditional spaces for free speech and political dissent, cartoonists serve as a vanguard for pushing the envelope, opening opportunities to criticize authoritarianism and abuses of power by the state.

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Nationalism for Kids: How Egyptian Comics Teach Conflict

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.

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Vulnerable, Together: the Ocean and the Sailor

On the ocean, the horizon can feel crushingly wide. From the cockpit, we can only react to what the expanse reveals—and what it doesn’t, with frustratingly vague clues. As we sail through the tropics in rainy season—filled with towering thunderclouds and sudden, violent storms at any hour—we find ourselves often peering nervously into the horizon. As black clouds mushroom, we can only guess at many factors: how hard is it raining? Will it continue? Which direction will this storm go? How much wind does this storm cell pack? Do we need to shorten our sails? Now? If there isn’t lightning now, will there be? Should we turn around or forge ahead?

A sailing adage calls the sport ‘hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.’ But that leaves out the gnawing uncertainty of reading a horizon and the edginess that can accompany complete vulnerability to the elements.

Off the Pacific coast of Panama, Josh and I sit in the cockpit and discuss the darkening horizon. We left Islas Secas in a good breeze and clear sunshine one hour earlier. Now, I watch with increasing dread as the indigo underbellies of storm clouds billow higher into a wash of white above the mainland. These storms grow rapidly, packing powerful winds and terrifying lightning that could easily destroy our boat’s electronics, punch a hole in the hull, and electrocute Josh and me.

Maybe we can beat this storm, I wonder aloud. I sit on the edge of the cockpit and we watch the clouds for a few tense minutes. The wind increases on our bow, and our silence is carried away by the headwind that flogs our jib, leaving it snapping angrily.

I want to make it to the mainland and the promise of calm anchorage. It’s been two weeks since I’ve slept well, and I can feel my nerves fraying under my salt-stained skin. We have been taking shelter behind offshore islands, where storms and swell wrap into our anchorages in the night, causing the boat to toss and turn, leaving us doing the same.

We could stop at Isla Brincanco, a small, steep island between us and the continent, but it’s a “roadstead” anchorage. We would be potentially exposed to wind and swell, and the guidebook warns that the only solid holding (for the anchor) is at least forty feet deep—fifty-five feet at high tide. Deep anchorages are not ideal because they require we pay out extensive chain, at least 200 feet, and this is tiring to pull up manually. Plus it leaves us vulnerable to an invisible bottom, along which rocks and trees could snag our anchor in this seldom-used location, and freediving to unsnag the anchor would be at Josh’s limits.

I watch the leading edge of the storm, a distinct line of black sweeping south, giving us an idea that it’s traveling north—towards where we want to go. No. No, I don’t like the look of the clouds. I make our decision.

I pick up the VHF radio and hail our friends Jon and Shannon on Prism, sailing half an hour behind us. We have been sailing with this young couple off and on for seven months, and we frequently chat on our VHF radio to check in and to help each other. “I think we’re going to tuck into this island and see what happens with these clouds.” The wind picks up, and we roll in all but a fraction of our jib.

“Well, we’re going to keep going.” Shannon’s cheery assertion causes me to cringe internally. Am I overreacting? Should we do the same?

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Remembering Alexandria’s Visionary

In my first piece for the New York Times, I write an homage to the great Alexandrian scholar Mostafa el-Abbadi, who passed away in February. Several obituaries of el-Abbadi appeared in Egyptian newspapers, but most merely consisted of his curriculum vitae. No remembrance captured his colorful disposition and feisty erudition, let alone his ambivalent …