Aim Higher – Coexist. The persons behind Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies

jews and arabs front pic

Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies Facebookpage was started after the Israeli attack on Gaza and popped up on Facebook on July 10 – 16 day ago. In these 16 days the page has literally exploded with followers and people posting their own photos and comments, promoting friendship and love in a time of war. The page took many people by surprise, I included. Who were the people behind the page? I just had to find out, and the initiators were happy to share about themselves.

Abraham Gutman from Israel and Dania Darwish from Syria were classmates at Hunter College in New York and took a class in National Model United Nations together. They were both enjoying discussions about Middle Eastern politics even though they not always shared the same views.

“(We) don’t always agree but we never felt that our different opinions changed our friendship or caused any contingency between us”, Abraham says when I get in touch with them by e-mail.

They tell me that the goal of the page is to diffuse some of the hate and tension on social media platforms:

In addition, this initiative aims to create a space for civil discourse between people who identify with divergent political ideas.

I ask about how the page is a response to the current Israeli attacks on Gaza.

We feel that the escalation between Israel and Gaza caused an escalation in the language that people use on social media. In regards to the conflict, political commentary became more hateful and more violent. Unfortunately, it is easy to hide behind a keyboard and say extreme statements. Although on some things we disagree, we both believe that it is important to support a cease fire and non-violent resistance.

And how has the feedback been so far?

We got a lot of criticism from various sides of the political spectrum but we were lucky that all the criticism was civil and respectful. We did get a lot of positive feedback from Israelis, Palestinians, and many types of people that fit into different ethnic and religious groups.”

Well, not everyone likes the page. After my e-mail exchange with Abraham and Dania, there have been a few hateful messages and photos posted by others on the page. Someone has written:

Don’t tell me love between us… Love don’t exist between Arabs and Terroriste fuck you Isra-bitch”.

The same person ha uploaded a drawing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahi butchering Palestinians, receiving an anti-comment from someone saying:

Aww poor Hamas, everyone is against you… stop crying, stop exploding your silly weak bombs, and Israel will stop defending Israel. It will save you some poor civilians.

But among the overwhelming photos, comments and followers on the page – 31.450 at today’s date, – probably more when you read this – those are an absolute minority. The photos consist of people of different religions and ethnicities, most Jews and Muslims, who in one way or another are doing what the states on an international level are failing to do: coexisting. Photos showing couples kissing each other; mixed families with their children; people with one Jewish and one Muslim parent; best friends hugging each other. Most are holding up sheets with hand-written statements: “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies”; “Jew, Arab, both Semitic. Most importantly, both human”; “Mother Jewish, Father Palestinian, whatever we suffer hate makes it worse”.

With the announcement of today’s ceasefire of Israel’s attack on Gaza, the Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies page uploaded the following statement:

With nearly 900 devastating deaths, a 12 hour humanitarian cease-fire is now in effect. We hope that our leaders can implement a solution in the Middle East that results in a permanent cease-fire in Israel/Palestine and an end to the siege in Gaza. The lives of all innocent civilians are too precious to be compromised by the reprehensible political nature of this conflict.

After the ceasefire, maybe the world leaders could follow the path given of the success of a simple Facebook page, the path of coexistence?

Photo credit: Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies Facebook page

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Being from Gaza

As the death toll rises and media is filled with reports from Gaza, I wanted to talk to someone from there to get a personal view of Israeli attacks. I have never been there myself, and even if I did, in this moment it wouldn’t really matter. How can I portray the grief and sorrow from a war zone when I don’t have family or friends there myself?

On Facebook I have a few friends from Gaza – all of them are outside – and their updates were filed with anger and sorrow. The ones who lost friends published photos of them, the kind of status you should never have to make.

I e-mailed my acquaintances and asked if anyone wanted to tell me their feelings or a comment on the situation. Normally people are happy to give their statements and I sometimes get contacted by people who want me to blog about something they find unjust or important. My last blog post has been shared around 200 times on Facebook already, so I was expecting someone to want to share their view.

But no one wanted to. One friend who usually is very vocal and passionately speaks about the cause of Gaza, replied and told me that he didn’t want to, because he had nothing to say. It was just too terrible to him. I suddenly felt stupid having asked for a comment when the people I asked all were in the middle of a crisis, when they spend all their time worrying about relatives and friends, dreading a call from home saying they had lost a loved one.

Being from Gaza must be a burden in itself. War in other countries usually has a beginning and an end – but for Gaza it’s a never ending story. I wish I hadn’t been that pushy, not thinking about what the persons I asked went through. It’s easy when you’re from the outside, looking in. Not the one being from Gaza himself.

Hawzhin The Middle Eastern Feminist

Hawzhin Azeez

The Middle Eastern Feminist page singled itself out from other feminist pages on Facebook when it started up in December last year. Feminism across boundaries of ethnicity and nations; love over hate; support over anger, seemed to be the red threads for the page.

If you are struggling today, remember that you were never meant to be ashamed, depressed and guilty. You were always meant to be victorious! Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” says a quote followed by a heart from July 16.

The reconciling approach seemed to appeal to many. The page soon had many followers.

Often white, middle class women are blamed for having this approach to women’s rights as they haven’t faced real hardships themselves. But the woman behind The Middle Eastern Feminist page is not one of those.

Hawzhin Azeez’s early childhood memories consists of escaping Iraqi Kurdistan as Saddam Hussein bombed the area with chemical weapons; her pressing a scarf against her face not to breath in the lethal smoke; her mother having skin burns all over her. Living as illegal refugees in Iran the family sometimes didn’t eat for days, and on a regular basis the police came and took away her father, accusing him of being a part of the resistance against the Iranian regime due to his Kurdish ethnicity. The family never knew when or if he was coming back. In this setting there was no room for women’s rights.

“When growing up in a refugee setting, in war-torn countries, it’s incredibly hard being a woman,” says Hawzhin when explaining her upbringing and how she became a feminist. “People hold on to their ethnicity and as a young woman you’re just supposed to behave.”

After finally receiving asylum in Australia, Hawzhin and her family faced a new dilemma: the one of suddenly being in a liberal culture with new gender roles that they had no idea how to manage.

“I was going through my puberty in a family traumatized from the war,” Hawzhin says. “And we were stripped off our identity. My parents were very traditional and conservative and it was difficult for me to be friends with Australian girls. It was an isolating experience going to a Western school.”

In the Kurdish community where they lived a strong social control was being exercised. Hawzhin points out that it was first and foremost the women who exercised this control over each other and each other’s daughters. She says they had internalized the racism and sexism they had been exposed to as Kurds in the Middle East, and turned it into misogyny.

“Gossip was used a tool to limit and control each other between women. It was used to shame and guilt what women and girls did in the community.”

Despite the lack of role models, Hawzhin knew she was a feminist.

“I was born a feminist!” she says. “In Iran I witnessed things that were incredibly wrong and unjust. Religion was used as an ideology to limit the women, what they wanted to achieve. What chador means for me as a human being is that I become sexualized.”

As a teenager she was incredibly angry because she wasn’t able to live her life the way she wanted to. She read a lot of feminist literature in high school, it was her escape.

“My choices were directly linked to my family, if they agreed. I couldn’t create any issues for my family in the Kurdish community. It was a constant struggle between the community’s values and my feminism.”

Despite having arrived to Australia as an 11 year old with only two years of primary school education, Hawzhin was able to enter university after high school to study international relations and political science. But even having made it so far, she couldn’t live the way she wanted to. When she moved out of her parents’ house to do her PhD in another city at 25 years old, she was finally able to be independent. But it took a long time for her to adjust.

“I had no idea who I was. Growing up in a patriarchal family I had been constantly told how to behave and how to live. I now choose to live independently and I wish for every girl to have this freedom. Unless you do this you will never be able to make informed decisions on yourself.”

When starting The Middle Eastern feminist page it was after a long and difficult semester at university, when she was emotionally drained and spent a lot of time in front of Facebook. She noticed how people mostly posted things about what they ate and going to the gym, and wanted to turn her Facebook time into something more intellectual. Her motivation also steamed from being back in her country of origin for the first time since the escape. She went on her own without her parents and met up with her relatives. The trips were wonderful, she says, but she noticed how little women in Iraqi Kurdistan knew about their rights, and this was something she wanted to change.

“I wanted a safe place for Middle Eastern women or women from developing societies where they could talk about their rights and issues they were dealing with. But I also wanted to challenge them and tell them they could have a traditional life and still be feminists.”

Hawzhin mean that some women in the Middle East might not be able to escape their traditional life but that they can find space where they can still be feminists.

Another goal was to educate Western women on Middle Eastern women’s issues. She wanted a place for women from the two worlds to meet and realize that they were dealing with the same issues.

“Women everywhere are dealing with for example street harassment. Although the issues Middle Eastern women have are on another level, we are all struggling. I wanted to create a place for solidarity, for women to find commonalities in their lives.”

“Have you felt supported by Australian feminists or have you felt excluded?”

“Feminism in Australia is not a priority for many people… There is also a barrier between privileged women and women of color. A lot of the feminist groups and women are diffused within the political movements, there are not many groups trying to bridge the gap between privileged women and women of color, to bring all of these different identities together. But this is necessary.”

The page is now an active place for discussions and many of the over 6.000 followers are not only from the Middle East but from all over the world. Through the page connections are being made and people are making friends across boundaries. Hawzhin is actively promoting other feminist pages on her own, urging her followers to like a new page that has recently been started. She’s also sharing her private Facebook page with followers that want to add her as a friend – a page where she has posted photos of herself and her mom hugging, dressed up in Kurdish clothes, as well as photos from university parties where she’s dolled up (“I dress very femininely, I love to wear lipstick,” she says on a side note).

On combining the different cultures, she says that she sees herself as a bridge between women in Afghanistan who can’t leave the house, and urban, developed women in Egypt; that they can contribute to each other through the page.

A long message to her followers on the page from July starts like this:

I haven’t said this in a while, but: I am so incredibly in love with all you inspiring feminists (male and female), and the new ones on this page and the ones that send me private emails and share their stories, and those of you who comment and make witty and brilliant comments to posts. I know that we all come from different cultural and social settings but that does not take away from the fact that we are all struggling against a global system which thrives on the oppression and subjugation of people based on their gender or sexual orientation or race. All of our struggles matter, though the problems we face may differ somewhat.

Hawzhin has had very little negative feedback on her page and says she is shocked by the amount of support and number of women that have been contacting her. Some people expect that she’s a Muslim feminist but this is not what she calls herself.

“I call myself a secular feminist,” she says. “But if women want to cover up that’s great – I don’t believe in ripping women off their scarf.”

“Does your family know you’re a feminist?”

She laughs:

“Oh yes, very much so.”

So how are her parents, the once traumatized refugees that had such a hard time to adjust to the new society they were in, dealing with their daughter having developed to being such an outspoken feminist?

“My family has come such a long way,” she says, delighted. “There were so many things we couldn’t discuss before due to our culture, but this has changed. I am now teaching my younger sister and brother about feminism. When I visit them I always show them feminist documentaries, and my sister who is 13 comes with me to political marches. I’m teaching her to be more independent. It’s important to start with the children.”

Photo 1: Copyright Hawzhin Azeez, Photo 2: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

Young Angry Men

angryman

Stereotypes of young angry men are often used in order to incite fear of the other – that other that is so scary to us for reasons we might not know ourselves. This is a disease so common we don’t reflect upon it. Why was for example Trayvon Martin’s murderer released if it wasn’t for that justifying fear?

I’ve been afraid myself: growing up in the capital of Sweden didn’t spare me from class related tensions, often connected to ethnicity or color, and riding on the subway made me subject of things such as sexual harassment and girls spitting me in the face. I was a blonde middle class girl for all they knew and an easy target for whatever anger they needed to vent. And yes, I was afraid of young men, especially of color, who seemed angry.

Later on when I was grown and graduated university I worked as a substitute teacher while I hoped a job opening would come through. I took on jobs in the projects as the social aspect of teaching appealed to me. The job contained a lot more of steering off violent teenagers and spending time on the phone to the social services than what it contained teaching, and it was draining at times but I was dedicated and stayed on. In one school I had a particularly violent student, one of those who would have scared me when I was younger, a 13 year old boy that we can call Mostafa.

On good days Mostafa was happy with merely stabbing a sharpened pen in his school desk while repeating every word the teacher said in a mocking voice. The whole school seemed to be afraid of him. I dreaded classes with him but always tried to keep my cool. That plus a dose of discipline and kindness was my way of dealing with the students.

“I’m gonna destroy your presentation, you fucking bitch!” was one of his opening lines, to which I usually replied “Oh, really”, which always left him puzzled for a few seconds.

But despite our efforts to teach the kids we teachers never asked ourselves what the anger came from. We didn’t seem to have the energy to do the math of alienation, substandard housing, poverty. Isn’t that the fault of the whole society?

Now Mostafa was the child of immigrant parents from a Middle Eastern country and I mentioned once to the students that I had lived in his parents’ country of origin. Mostafa didn’t comment upon it but other kids asked me of the few words I had picked up in Arabic and Mostafa overheard it all. One day he banged on the door and demanded to be let in when I was preparing a class. He positioned himself on a desk and started to talk to me about his parent’s home country, as if he wanted to verify that it was really true I had lived there. We had a small conversation where he asked questions such as “Did you have friends there?” (“Yes, I did”), before he went out again.

After that day he slowly changed his behavior in my class. He stopped mocking me when I spoke. He stopped throwing things across the classroom. He tried to finish his exercises and left his desk to show me that he was writing (“Great, Mostafa. You’re doing really well”). Then the school semester came to an end, so did my temporary contract and the next semester I was teaching at a different school.

One evening there was a festival in our city and I was out with a friend to listen to some live music. When we approached the hiphop scene I suddenly heard a teenage voice calling my name:

“Jenny, Jenny!”

It was Mostafa, whom I hadn’t seen since the end of the last semester. He had spotted me from the audience stage and suddenly stood above me.

“Hi Mostafa!” I answered with a smile, pleased to see him.

Back then I often – and I still actually do – ran in to former students who were happier to see me outside school than they had ever been seeing me inside of it. When bumping in to each other downtown many wanted to talk a little and tell me about their lives; some simply said hi; the most hardcore ones usually just nodded in recognition or ignored me. Not wanting to talk was to me understandable, as some of them dropped out of school and joined gangs, and this is nothing you want to admit to your former teacher. But nothing of what I could have expected had prepared me for Mostafa’s response that day: he jumped off the stage, threw himself in my arms, and buried his head in my shoulder. Perplexed I hugged him for a few amazing seconds.

“How are you? I’m fine! I gotta go!” He said all in once and then freed himself from my embrace, suddenly realizing what he had done; the hug of a former teacher in front of his friends, then set off and ran away.

I never saw him again, later on I heard that he was one of the kids to drop out of school, but I will never forget the hug that day. It changed my previous perception of young and angry men. In that very moment, the angry Mostafa whom everyone was so afraid of, was nowhere in sight.

Photo credit: mahwaff.com

Sweden and the Middle East Views Receives Community Heart Award

communityheart-award

My fellow blogger Barbara, who has the blog Idealistic Rebel, has nominated me to the Community Heart Award. About the award the creator has said:

community is a social unit of any size that shares common values. Although embodied or face-to-face communities are usually small, larger or more extended communities such as a national community, international community and virtual community are also studied.

In human communities, intentbeliefresourcespreferencesneedsrisks, and a number of other conditions may be present and common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness.

Since the advent of the Internet, the concept of community has less geographical limitation, as people can now gather virtually in an online community and share common interests regardless of physical location. Prior to the internet, virtual communities (like social or academic organizations) were far more limited by the constraints of available communication and transportation technologies.

One broad definition which incorporates all the different forms of community is “a group or network of persons who are connected (objectively) to each other by relatively durable social relations that extend beyond immediate genealogical ties, and who mutually define that relationship (subjectively) as important to their social identity and social practice”

Thank you so much dear Barbara. Even a blogger needs love sometimes.