Women,Violence and Education:The Politics of Empathy

Giacomo_Ceruti_-_Women_Working_on_Pillow_Lace_(The_Sewing_School)_-_WGA4672

Only when lions have historians will Hunters cease to be heroes.    African Proverb

 

 

This Spring delivered worldwide tragedies,  collecting western press attention, sometimes obsession, often releasing waves of compassion and support into the international community.

A Malaysian plane disappearing.  A South Korean ferry filled with celebrating teens capsizing. Deadly mudslides and tornadoes in the United States.  Earthquake and fire in Chile.

These much documented events developed as Syria, Central Africa, the Mideast, South Asia, in fact the world, continued to roil in conflict.

US media zealously displayed the emergence of a “new cold war” between the United States and Russia, a monumental clash of personalities: Putin and Obama.

But world media largely ignored the capture of hundreds of young women and girls in Nigeria.  The international press  highlighted the horror almost immediately. Leading United States outlets such as the New York Times and NPR gave consumers brief  note of the tragedy.  But, the “missing schoolgirl crisis” did not become a media event until two weeks of “inadequate response ” by the Nigerian government.

Some suggest the grief-stricken cries of  the parents along with the empowering challenge of  the female education activist, Malala Yousafzai, engaged the Nigerian diaspora triggering world-wide political protests, online campaigns and a twitter hashtag program engaging celebrities such as Michelle Obama and Justin Timberlake.

Nicholas Kristof on Sunday called for United States intervention.  The United States Government, on the eve of a  Global Economic Conference scheduled in southern Nigeria, has agreed to offer support along with France and Britain.  Promises for assistance do not suggest immediate results will follow despite the well appreciated powers of the US anti terror machinery. Headlines across the press, television, radio and online media herald United States intervention.  Few understand initial efforts are limited to ten specialists.

One may be justifiably perplexed about how a world power which can locate a well protected target such as bin Laden can be limited in abilities to find young women in difficult terrain.

United States relations with Nigeria are not simple.

Black hats are easily placed on the criminals.  Boko Haram, generally translated as “forbid western education,”  as a  group initially represented protest against a class based society in which the wealthy alone were educated, generally in western capitals.  The educated returned as leaders who, to the founders of Boka Haram’s view,   impoverished and subjugated the population.  There is general agreement that this political mission has been abandoned for a criminal enterprise of murder, rape and greed.

The issue for the media and the US government has been whether or not the Nigerian establishment can justly wear a white hat and be “deserving” of US assistance.  Nigerian ties to “radical” muslim groups, its own repressive policies and history,  and the economic challenges in the country suggest strategic and opportunistic issues for the government.  The sincere may also raise human rights concern.

But the young women remain in danger.

The abductors and torturers of the women and girls are alleged to have connections with international organizations interested in imposing sharia law on populations. The Nigerian government is also alleged to have abused women and girls of the Boko Harman to punish its militants.

Raping, mutilating and enslaving women is a time-honored tradition of war across society. This is a fact which should not be lost as the world finally turns its attention to the plight of these young women.

Of course, education is vital to any society.  Like the water of the natural world, education serves as the basis for any and all development.  Without education of the population, a civilization cannot be sustained.

Fundamentally, however, the abduction and torture, the enslavement and sale of these  young women is not an issue of female education.  It is an issue of violence against women.

We need be watchful of campaigns such as “protect our girls” for the implicit paternalism which has historically generated cultures of violence. We need to  also speak loudly and unequivocally for peace, for a refusal to tolerate sexual or physical violence against women.

This terrible tragedy has caused pain and loss to parents, brothers, grandparents, friends, aunts, uncles, cousins.  We must be mindful of the personal nature of that pain which surely must be fraught with images of the horrible violence inflicted on the child.

Ironically, in the massively educated west, media and government manipulation of this tragedy seeks to suggest appropriate targets for empathy and political action.

The resulting campaign for educational access for women is certainly vital .

It is difficult to learn to read, however, at the point of a gun.

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Wadjda

cropped-praying-girl-1.jpgWadjda is an award-winning movie  marketed as the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.  As a western feminist, I consumed available press about the film  and decided to watch it as an act of support for the woman who made it and the story I understood that it told.  My conjured  images of black shrouds in the searing sun suggested that I would be moved and educated by this film.  How surprising, then, is the discovery of delight!

Black forms moving slowly on sunlit streets do in fact inhabit the film.  My western eyes see this without fully comprehending as I am willing to suspend judgement.

Behind the gates and doorways, in the daily action of the real lives of the largely  middle class women and girls we encounter in this movie, all is completely as we know it.  Appliances are modern, gleaming and available for the plentiful food.  Western popular music stimulates the tween girl as she surreptitiously creates bracelets and other “black market items.”  Mother and daughter share intimacies in large airy well-decorated rooms.  Discreet tensions and open conflict overflows from these spaces to the rooftop above where the women still dress in jeans and cool shirts looking down on their world.

Certainly the conservative culture controls female life.   Wadjda  watches her dignified, beautiful mother carefully groom her hair and apply her make-up in the morning before disappearing in a swirl of darkness.  The girl  flares in anger when a taxi driver, clearly economically and educationally disadvantaged and possibly an illegal immigrant, chides the woman like a child for being tardy in getting into his taxi for the three-hour ride through the desert to her employment.  The woman’s friend ultimately rejects this ordeal to find liberating employment in a local hospital.  The dynamics gently explored include the powerlessness of the women , the control of the driver, the ingenuity of the children and the authority of a male even if a mere boy.

Wadjda watches the mother she adores measure her own worth through her father’s eyes in terms of the quality and quanity of  food she prepares.  She struggles to comprehend why this beauty  subverts her own desires for style of dress and hair to please a man so rarely present.  Wadjda is beginning to comprehend  too well that, in her world, biology is destiny.

Contemplating the viewing of this film, I considered that this would indeed be a “foreign” culture.  How startling then to understand the complexity of emotions seen in Wadjda as she endures her conservative, female-dominated religious school.  The insistence of conformity in appearance, down to the shoes which are worn, the  absolute prohibition of any feminine decoration, including nail polish, the suspicion of female friendship, much less love, remain cross-cultural signifiers of  patriarchal social systems and female enforcerment.  Similarly, scenes where students mindlessly recite memorized “beliefs,” use of  shaming and group ostracism as disciplinary tactics and consequent consistent competitive subcultures are also well recognised.

Startling and joyous to feel recognition of the delight of  a child’s physical freedom.  As Wadjda runs down the street, even skips a bit, walks solitary but dreams of riding a bike, the memory of that joy is irrepressible.  When a child is lucky enough to have a full stomach, a secure roof and no present threat of physical harm or illness, exploring the sun -filled day with muscular limbs is a complete pleasure.  Even from my sedentary perch, watching Wadjda, I could recall so many  hours jumping in the sun-drenched Chesapeake waters. I could almost feel again the breeze through my hair on a spring evening as I rode my bike through shaded  streets of row homes or as I explored city spots which I could pretend were dark forests.

Watching Wadjda play with her precocious friend Abdullah, I envisioned my fair-haired daughter racing her friends aside a swimming pool in the summertime.  I remember the tension and  gladness I felt as I watched her small frame dart through other little bodies in pursuit of a soccer ball on a fall day.  I felt contentment that, though grown up, she still chases my puppy down the lane.

Wadjda is not a film which will change the world, if indeed any film can.  It is not a soapbox for any particular ideology.  The movie treats character and culture with respect but not without a critical lens.   For me the movie was a surprise.  It was a reminder that there are universals in life which transcend culture and political or religious systems:  childhood, sunlight, clean and open air, curiosity, hope, movement, friendship and love.