Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Islamic f-word

By Lin Abdul Rahman
The Sputnik, Issue 8, Fall 2010

I was admiring my burqa-clad Barbie at the F-Word Symposium last week when a journalism student cornered me with his notepad.

“What is Islamic feminism?” he asked me at point blank. I rubbed my chin in an effort to appear pensive and to buy myself some time. After spouting some painfully vague answers, I finally admitted that I know very little about feminism. That’s the reason why I’m one of the many wide-eyed wanderers at this event.

As for Islamic feminism – well, I didn’t even know the ideology existed until he questioned me about it.

Admitting that was embarrassing, to say the least. But I console myself with the fact that this kind of situation is out of my control – they are one of the drawbacks to being one of the few visible Muslims on campus. The hijab covering my hair is the equivalent of a bulls-eye on my back. I’m a natural target for all Islam-related curiosities.

For that very reason, my ears perked up when one of the symposium’s panellists, Margaret Toye, spoke of her experience as ‘the token feminist’.

“How ‘out’ do I want to be about my politics?” Toye said in talking about the dilemmas she faced during her earlier days of dabbling in feminism.

Of course, she eventually came clean about her newly-adopted ideology. Toye said she was subsequently and inevitably given role of “the token feminist” – the person people turn to when they need a short cut to understanding what feminism is all about.

Likewise, I stepped into the role of “the token Muslim woman” when I agreed to be interviewed at the F-Word Symposium. I became the shortcut to ticking off the “Muslim perspective” checkbox on this particular student’s checklist of people to talk to.

Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a personal diatribe against interviews. I’m always happy to help a fellow student and I’m even happier to have my voice heard.

But in the same degree, I worry that people looking to me as an example of a Muslim may not realize that my voice is a minority within a minority. I am a far cry from being a credible representative of a group that is highly diverse politically, geographically, and even religiously.

That’s a huge responsibility, and one that I will probably never be able to handle. As it is, the public is already so grossly misled about the diversity that exists within the global Muslim population, thanks in large part to the mainstream media. When people think about Muslims, they think “Middle East”, and when they think of the hijab, they think of “oppression”.

This fallacious understanding of Muslims was almost perfectly played out, again, during the aforementioned interview that I felt more amused than upset. In the middle of answering yet another question, I realized why our conversation was such an uphill battle from the get go.

After several futile attempts, on my part, to explain the Arab culture’s treatment of women, I decided to come clean, even if it means I’ll have to turn my interviewer away empty-handed. I took a deep breath and confessed, “I’m not Arab, actually. I’m Asian,” I said.

His reaction to that confession told me that this is news and that the interview was about to come to an abrupt halt. I gave a mental sigh of relief, even though I had one regret; I wish I could explain to this student that race, religion and gender politics can intersect one another in ways that are very different from what he’s used to.

Alas, his eyes were already scanning the room for better prospects and I had promised someone else another interview.

As we took our leave, I formulated a disclaimer for the next person who might approach me for an interview: Ask me anything you want but be sure to check your presumptions at the door. Otherwise, this conversation ain’t getting nowhere.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What do Omar Khadr and Russell Williams have in common?

By Lin Abdul Rahman

The Sputnik, Issue 7, Fall 2010

As two prominent Canadians contemplate the realities of their newly received prison terms, my fear-induced headline-consuming paranoia jumps ahead to the day when these convicted murderers will rejoin society.

Russell Williams, the former senior Canadian military commander, plead guilty in October charges of murder, sexual assault and burglary.

He received two life sentences for the murders, two ten-year sentences for the sexual assaults, two ten-year sentences for forcible confinement and 82 one-year sentences for his ‘secret visits.’

The sentences make it sound as if Williams will draw his final breath behind bars but in reality, the prison terms are being served back to back; Williams will be eligible for parole in 25 years.

Then there’s Omar Khadr, the 15-year old Pakistani-Canadian who has spent a good portion of his young life at Guantanamo Bay. He was charged with, among others things, the murder of U.S. Sgt. Christopher Speer during a standoff in Afghanistan in 2002. Khadr has recently pleaded guilty to five counts of terrorism and war crimes as part of a strict plea bargain and is now awaiting his extradition to Canada. He will be eligible for early release in 2013.

MacLean’s magazine recently published two different articles that attempted to profile these vastly different criminals whose crimes hold no semblance to one another. But after reading the articles, which were published weeks apart, I realized that the journey Khadr and Williams took prior to committing their crimes somewhat mirror one other.

According to Maclean’s Michael Friscolanti, Khadr was a child soldier who was inducted into terrorism at a very early age. He was “[brainwashed] by a fundamentalist father, raised in the shadow of Osama bin Laden, and sent into battle as a Kalashnikov-waving teenager, he is – in the famous words of one Foreign Affairs bureaucrat – ‘a thoroughly screwed up young man.’”

The phrase “screwed up” automatically conjured images of Col. Russell Williams in his stolen floral green bustier. Growing up, he was as close a definition to an average kid, if there ever was one (newspaper reports of Williams have revealed little to nothing out of the ordinary in his childhood besides the fact that his parents divorced when he was six years old) and he held a stellar record as a Canadian army officer; that is, until his vicious crimes were discovered.

If Omar Khadr the grenade-throwing, Kalashnikov-waving teenager is a product of his upbringing and insurgent combat training, it’s possible to conclude that Russell Williams the stealth rapist and murderer is a product of the average Canadian upbringing and, more frighteningly, his years of training by the Canadian Forces.

Now that’s a scary thought, indeed.