By Naazish YarKhan
The world has become a smaller place and information flows in breath-taking quantities. Yet there is a paucity of conversations between people of different nations. Relying by and large on media reports of the “other,” our understanding of nations and their people is scarily lopsided. Even as citizens in a globalized world we often only have part of the story, especially when it comes to women in other cultures or countries.
I recognized this dilemma when approached to write this article following my participation in Common Ground News Service project pairing women’s rights activists in the Middle East with counterparts in other countries through email and facilitated conversations. The goal is to provide an informal forum where they can support one another and provide examples of best practices, novel approaches and other tools that have helped create progress in their efforts.
My conversation – with selected partner Maha Akeel, a Saudi journalist – focused on how international media can help the work of women’s activists in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, particularly Saudi Arabia, where censorship is so prevalent. My assumption, based on having lived in the Middle East as an expatriate more than a decade ago, was that it would be extremely dangerous for those in the region to discuss critical issues.
To my surprise, Maha noted that controversial topics were in fact being addressed with increasing frequency in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. Perhaps it is less risky for locals rather than expatriates, but just as women (and men) in the United States have begun to use blogs and online forums to discuss matters important to them, especially those that television doesn’t deem worthy of sufficient airtime, so have our counterparts in the MENA region.
From our conversation, I learned that even Saudi activists have begun to use social media as a platform to share news, exchange views and discuss issues that are taboo or need more attention, or both. Similarly, in Chicago, where I live, my fellow peace and justice advocates frequently use Yahoo or Google groups, Facebook, Twitter, and of course email to stoke awareness about our causes.
Whether it’s “them” in Saudi Arabia or “us” in Chicago, the issues we discuss range from stories in the news to those stories that have been consistently ignored and demand further attention.
I look to amplify my own voice on the global scene regarding such issues through Avaaz (meaning “voice” in several European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages), a global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere. Among other causes, it has given me a chance to act on my conscience and, in one particular case, lend my voice to help stop the Iranian woman Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani from being stoned to death.
Another act of conscience was writing an article decrying the murder of Asiya Hassan in Baltimore, Maryland – a case of extreme domestic violence. It was an instance where I was glad to be a writer whose work is regularly read. My outrage that religion or women were often accused of “inciting” men in domestic violence coverage, struck a nerve among my readers. I spoke out against Hassan’s murder in my blog on The Huffington Post, shared it on a listserv, and had it published in our local newspaper.
In the South Asian community and elsewhere in the MENA region, domestic violence is often seen as a woman’s failure to be a good wife or daughter. Social media give people around the world a chance to raise awareness of such issues, and give them a longer, harder look.
As a journalist, do I have the power to create change through my writing? I believe I do. But writing can go only so far. It can galvanize a person, but passion without action is pointless. What we need is to hear more women’s voices, especially from places unrepresented and misinterpreted by media, which can help inspire change in our shrinking world. And conversations like the kind I had with Maha can help facilitate this change by helping us become aware of the struggles and efforts in other parts of the world, so that we might join forces.
The shortage of conversations between our worlds isn’t going to disappear suddenly. It’s going to take effort on all our parts. What’s more, to be effective it is going to require that we evaluate customs, trends and traditions from the perspective of those who live in those societies rather than through the lens of outsiders.
Naazish YarKhan is a writer, media and communications strategist, and principal of Bigmomentum Communications Strategy in Chicago. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).