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Becoming a Democracy—The Example of Nepal

June 28, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            Hardly noticed on the world landscape of emerging democracies lies Nepal. This new republic now has its first government, newly formed this past February, under a secular constitution. It’s a route scattered with the detritus of its becoming a republic, though still a relatively nonviolent path.

            Why is the international press not following Nepal’s embryonic struggle?

            Perhaps it’s the stunning northern horizon that distracts observers from realities across the populated hills and plains. Perhaps it’s the pollution in Kathmandu Valley, a choking haze that matches the gaseous airs of Delhi in India and Beijing in China. Or, it may be because this democracy has been largely brought about and led by Nepal’s Maoists and Communists. 

            Last autumn, many among the Himalayan nation’s 28 million people were themselves surprised when two veteran, leftist leaders KP Sharma Oli (UML-United Marxist Leninist) and Pushpa Kamal Dahal (CPN-Communist Party of Nepal) agreed to form a coalition. That step was taken not after, but before, the nationwide election. Agreeing not to compete with one another and selecting candidates from their combined ranks, they prevailed in the polls. Together they won a majority of seats at national and local levels, and in rural as well as urban regions. (The prime-minister’s post as head of the new government was also chosen by mutual consent.) This coalition furthermore drove the once dominant Congress Party to the margins of power across the country.

            Last month, these former contenders went a step further, announcing that this victorious joint force is no longer CPN/UML but a new entity, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). With 174 seats in the 275-member parliament, the NCP leads the most powerful government modern Nepal has seen. A highly unexpected development, this could finally convince a skeptical public that the inter-left competition that had caused years of instability and fed corruption is over… for the present. (The legal term limit of each administration is five years. But given Nepal’s history of unstable coalitions, this could change.)

            Both Oli and Dahal had each previously held the post of Prime Minister, interrupted by short periods when the office was held by a Congress Party leader. Gently ousted after a few months of infighting, none was able to lead effectively. Constant changes of leadership cultivated an atmosphere for corruption and also thwarted implementation of any sustained policy. (E.g. opposition parties would promise to support a weak leadership in exchange for appointments for their members and funding for various personal ‘projects’. With the result that, for example, the prime minister found himself with a cabinet of some 30 members, and an office full of deputy prime-ministers almost as dense.)

            Nepal’s federal election last autumn was particularly significant. It was the first poll undertaken under the new constitution that defined the republic created in 2008, following the 2006 peace accord with the Maoist insurgents, and the (bloodless) 2007-2008 abolition of the ancient and despotic monarchy. (See Nepal’s political timeline from 1768 to 2017)

            The nationwide citizens’ vote was delayed for years; endless disputes and disagreements had undermined the work of the Constituent Assembly. Without laws defining the shape of the republic--administrative districts and provinces, powers of office, quotas for Nepal’s many ethnic groups and women—(finally agreed upon in 2015) an election could not go ahead.

            The public did not know what to expect once the vote was scheduled (in November, 2017). After the two leftist party leaders announced their coalition, few observers in Kathmandu believed it would work out. When the unified plan actually succeeded in winning a comfortable majority, citizens still remained cautious. Interviewing women and men in the capital recently, in the early months of the new government, I found less enthusiasm than I’d expected. The election did not yet assure them real stability, it seemed. In Nepal’s non-affiliated press, I read neither expressions of satisfaction nor pride. News reports were not as celebratory as expected.

            “Let’s see”, cautioned several individuals who I questioned. “It’s too early to say; other factors will be operating”, one journalist hinted. (Whatever the nature of Nepal’s governance, India is a major player, and she was referring to India’s expected claims on the new leadership.)

            Doubts about the durability of the new alliance are not unreasonable. Nepal’s leftists have been squabbling and undermining each other for so long that an enduring union seemed unlikely. Then there was the threat from the large bloc of Madhesi parties. They had earlier disrupted the efforts of the Constitutional Assembly with their regional/ethnic demands. (The strip of Nepal bordering India is known as Madhes or Terai. Nepal’s Madhesi maintain close economic and cultural ties to its southern neighbor and there had been fears that, if not mollified, the Madhesi parties might try to secede to India.) In the recent election, the majority of Madhesi voters unexpectedly backed the joint MLN-CPN.

            After the election, citizens next waited to see how the coalition would handle the single office of Prime Minister. Again skeptics were surprised by an easy resolution. The partners agreed without rancor that the job go to KP Sharma Oli. (Today, after holding office for four months, Oli remains the unquestioned leader.) He has just returned from a visit to China, following an initial obligatory meeting with his Indian counterpart, Mr. Modi.

            Nepal relies on major assistance from both its northern and southern neighbors. Increasingly, with the economic ascendancy of China, Beijing’s role in Nepal is expanding. One sees an enhanced Chinese presence in the tourism industry-- on the streets of Kathmandu, in yoga centers and along trekking routes-- as well as in major infrastructure and health projects.

Note: Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist, journalist and producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in New York. Author of numerous academic articles on Nepal and Tibet, Aziz’ book Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal, was published by Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu and is available through Barnes and Noble in USA.  

[ Becoming a Democracy—The Example of Nepal ]

Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?

June 22, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Harvey Weinstein isn’t in jail; neither is actor Kevin Spacey, chef Mario Batali, TV host Matt Lauer, nor New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman. Although some might like to see them behind bars. Even convicted felon Bill Cosby is free until he’s sentenced in September.

     (Being out of jail does not of course imply any of those accused are innocent. Their temporary respite could be related to the degree of their misconduct, the status of investigations underway, or the efforts of highly paid attorneys.)

     As the extent of widespread abuse of women came to light, I too could not help but recoil with anger. Then, sobering and remembering an unvoiced childhood experience, I signed #MeToo.

     When Tariq Ramadan’s name was added to the growing list of “MeToo” culprits, my response was distress similar to sorrow I felt learning about other ‘outed’ misogynists whose work I had admired.

     There’s a further worrying dimension to Ramadan’s alleged sexual misconduct, namely, his disrepute would be a blow to Muslims’ already uphill struggle to articulate the meanings and experiences of Islam to the public, a universal community needing to hear an eminently qualified and soft-intellectual voice in the debate, such as Ramadan’s was. (Never enthusiastic about Ramadan, I viewed him as an apologist at times. I also found his critiques of institutional Islamophobia and biased media too mild—maybe that’s the academic in him. So Ramadan may have been imperfect at many levels. But his calm style and his erudition are as needed as that of the regrettably few articulate Muslim leaders we have, including the irrepressible and savvy activist Linda Sarsour.

     The urgency with which Ramadan’s case be reexamined came to my attention four months ago in Alain Gabon’s lengthy account of the charges against Ramadan and the history of assaults on him by French leaders. I learned that Ramadan was in preventative detention in a Paris prison, held in solitary, denied medical treatment and contact with his wife (a French citizen; Ramadan himself is Swiss, of Egyptian-Arab origin).    

     Ramadan, without legal indictment or trial, was summarily jailed soon after the allegations surfaced. According to reports, he voluntarily traveled to Paris to answer the charges, only to find himself immediately detained, placed in solitary confinement without medication for a serious neurological illness. He remains imprisoned, subjected to unusually harsh conditions during these past six months.

     Tariq Ramadan is not only an Oxford University professor and highly respected author. He is a regular media commentator on Islam and Muslim affairs. Most who know his work were shocked learning he was accused by two French women of a serious sexual offence—rape. He’s one of a three Muslim leaders who faced accusations of sexual misconduct; of the other two—both Americans, and both exposed before 2017—one was eventually convicted, the second banished by the community, according to a US publication which then uses these cases to explore ‘personality worship’ in Islam! What about personality worship in America?)

      The American press ceased following Ramadan’s case after accusations surfaced. And the American Muslim community has been shamefully absent on the issue. Shameful because there is reason to believe Ramadan’s treatment is unjust (if not illegal), and because those organizations claim a human rights agenda. Although Ramadan was a featured guest at Islamic and other religion-related conferences, and his books are popular, the American Muslim community of mosques and Islamic organizations have remained silent since his arrest.

     Details of the case are well known, as documented in several lengthy articles, including that cited above. They report that there’s clear evidence that one enamored accuser had harassed and stalked him for years. Of the other’s charge, he maintains he was not in the city of the alleged assault. This accuser is said to be an associate of a well known French feminist with a long record of anti-Islamic behavior.

     These arguments do not posit that Tariq Ramadan is innocent. What concerns people familiar with Ramadan’s work in France are: first, a long history of attacks against him as a Muslim spokesperson by (mainly Socialist) political headers who include former President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Valls. Ramadan’s current case seems further prejudiced by its transfer to the office of Paris prosecutor Francois Molins who is concerned with cases of Islamic terrorism. Second, defenders question why Ramadan has been singled out for imprisonment when French film director Luc Besson and state ministers Darmanin and Hulot, all included in the list of accused rapists in the wake of #MeToo, have not been jailed. Thirdly, there’s outrage over the severe conditions of Ramadan’s detention.

     When more is learned about Ramadan’s prison conditions, and the credibility of his accusers is challenged, arguments in his defense are garnering attention, mainly in Europe; and a campaign on his behalf is now underway. Besides the worldwide appeal, and more than 151,000 signatories (to date) on the www.change.org petition, hundreds of scholars have recently signed a due process plea.

     This month, New Trend, the online newsletter, published by Jamaat Al-Muslimeen (06/10/18, #1762) called for inquires into Ramadan’s status. There, The Muslim Association of Britain publicly expressed its shock “to see that even the most basic rules of justice being flagrantly ignored by the French authorities”.

     For the present, a French court agreed that Tariq Ramadan’s wife may now visit him. Let’s see what further appeals produce.

[ Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned? ]

The Interminable Palestinian Uprising

June 06, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Naila and the Uprising” is a new film about Palestine—an old story with a new edition. An almost exclusively women’s production “Naila” effectively employs evocative animation alongside compelling personal testimonials of Palestinian resistance 30 years ago.

The “Great March of Return” which the world just experienced-- immobilized and shamed by the silence of political leaders-- will doubtless be the focus of some future documentary. Naila’s story, which begins with her resistance efforts and imprisonment in the early 1980s, is nevertheless timely.

Why? Because every record of Palestinian civil resistance is linked to today’s, to the next, and to the last-- reaching back to the 1967 war. It was then that Israel imposed more severe restrictions on Palestinian life, when Israeli authorities explicitly announced their determination to suppress Palestinian aspirations of any kind, by any means, and to continue to expropriate their homes and lands.

Daily, in one form or another-- by one death each day or 60, by one smashed home, one detention or one prison sentence, one deported dissident, one miscarried baby, one interrogation, or one handicapped body, one uprooted olive tree, one ravaged field, one expropriated farm, or one more check point, one dispossessed family, by another law restricting residence in Jerusalem, or another barrier set along an ancient road—Israel hammers at Palestinian existence. Then, every day, or each month, or after a year, Palestinian resistance re-emerges.

“Naila and the Uprising” returns to the 1980s to reveal the early stages of what has become an inexorable reassertion by Palestinians of their history and their legal and moral claims. The primary voice within this film, Naila Ayesh, speaks to Majd, her now grown son, taking him and viewers to 1950, before his birth,

Majd’s mother was 8 years old, at school, when she heard that her home had been demolished by Israeli bulldozers. Now 60, Naila recalls her departure for Bulgaria to study 10 years later. There she met Jamal Zakout, the man she would marry, and with whom she would return to Gaza and engage together in their lifelong resistance to occupation.

Her story reminds us of now forgotten Zionist tactics, in this case, the exiling of dissidents. Zakout was one of many Palestinians expelled from Gaza. Moreover, we witness (with live footage from the event) how, when Naila and her son sought to visit Zakout (in Egypt), Israeli authorities allowed them to do so only if they remained away for two years. The history of heartless strategies employed by Israel is a long one.

           

The widespread deportation and imprisonment of Palestinian men at that time resulted in drawing Palestinian women more actively into the struggle, a point around which this film turns. “Naila and the Uprising” includes testimonials by colleagues of Naila, young women, their babies on their backs who began to march in protest. Their actions in turn led to the formation of women’s committees which helped launch a successful boycott of Israeli goods. (Today that kind of boycott is less possible since Israel’s grip on Palestinian economy is far more impenetrable.)

That 1988 boycott and the pervasive engagement of women in the resistance, the film argues, was a major factor in creating a sustained uprising-- what became known as the Intifada. (One could interpret last month’s Great March of Return resulting in 123 murdered  and over 13,000 wounded—as the latest expression of Intifada. There are bound to be more.

Completed in 2017, “Naila and The Uprising” is showing in theaters in Europe, Canada and USA with an upcoming presentation with the director Julia Bacha, on June 16 in New York

 

 

[ The Interminable Palestinian Uprising ]

Arab Women Authors Narrate More Than Women’s Experience

May 26, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

A flood of women’s memoirs seem to have landed in the literary marketplace, along with quasi memoirs for children. Not only confessionals and more discoveries about our gender and its vicissitudes, but revelations of rebellious girls of past generations, ("Brazen: Rebel Ladies" who Rocked the World and the best-selling "Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls") chronicling the modest origins of today’s heroines and celebrities-- political, academic and artistic. Our herstories seem inexhaustible.

                Memoir is the primary genre through which we learn about women. This, with a caveat, is especially true of ‘Third World’ women, where Muslim women are among the most ‘trendy’ and thereby sought after today-- especially if we are ‘victims’. (More of that later.)

                Among Third World writers, we include those in the Diaspora, for example Arab American women --Suheir Hammad, Susan Muaddi Darraj, Evelyn Shakir, and Ghada Kanafani, to name just a few-- now penning an extraordinary number of personal accounts, many of them non-fiction. This, in contrast to Arab and Muslim men (e.g. well known novelists like Abdelrahman Munif, Rabih Alameddine, Rawi Hage, Mohsin Hamid, and Haroon Moghul) most of whom seem to forgo memoir for fiction.

                Before being diverted by an abundance of autobiographies and semi-fictional accounts of refugees from Syria and other war zones, I opened two new memoirs by my Arab American colleagues. One is Looking Both Ways (Cune Press, 2017), a collection of essays about ‘being Arab in America’ by poet and short story author Pauline Kaldas. The other is attorney Alia Malek’s account of the ‘trying to be Arab’ –a phrase I apply with some empathy-- in her family’s homeland, Syria, an endeavor launched just the year before and then observed during the uprising and war there. With her special interest in civil rights and author of a fine collection of biographies of Arabs in the US (A Country Called Amreeka, 2009), Malek went to Syria nine years ago ostensibly to restore her family apartment in Damascus, then, between unexplained excursions to Egypt, stayed long enough to record the earliest months of what became a terribly destructive and relentless conflict. Malek’s new book is The Home That Was My Country: A Memoir of Syria (Nation Books, 2017). It carries eerie echoes of House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and A Lost Middle East, by prize-winning journalist Anthony Shadid who died on assignment soon after resorting his ancestral home in South Lebanon.

                Differences between Kaldas’ collection and Malek’s war chronicle are sharp. Looking Both Ways takes us on a mostly agreeable journey through Kaldas’ childhood move from Egypt to the USA, graduate studies in literature, her family and college life, and a revisit to her homeland during its post-Mubarak transformation in 2013. Kaldas’ inviting style will make any reader, but especially Americans, feel kinship with her. This, while her carefully crafted chronicle of encounters living in America exposes the often unspoken and nuanced tensions of ‘being Arab’ here. Kaldas infuses her perspective with both humor and a benign philosophy.

                Malek’s recounting of her family’s tales is, in contrast, sadly absent of any intimacy. Her chronicle is instead shrouded by an almost inherited bitterness towards the country, an acrimony one sometimes finds among the earlier generation of Syrian immigrants, even middle class families like Malek’s who were voluntary émigrés. Even before the uprising in Syria and despite a decision to write her home-story around a colorful maternal grandmother, she’s unable to convey any warmth in the memories gathered from her circle of relatives and their neighbors she interviews. Malek’s bleak interpretation of Syria is understandable. Having set out to deepen her personal and cultural identity in a house and a homeland largely unknown to her, Malek chose an inopportune moment to do so. Any view of the many fine qualities and achievements of modern Syria is obscured when the country is fracturing terribly and beginning to unravel. Her account of the uprising and the ensuing crackdown and chaos, although unarguable, is absent of any appreciation of what the country had accomplished over the past quarter century. The book will serve as another indictment of the government.

                There is simply nothing redeeming coming out of Syria, whether journalistic chronicles like Malek’s, or Burning Country, or a number of new  children’s books, e.g. Escape from Aleppo, My Beautiful Birds, Refugee, The Land of Permanent Goodbyes, all but one authored by women.

                Notwithstanding the differences between the locales and the styles of Kaldas and Malek, their writings illustrate the extensive possibilities that lie in memoir. First, memoirs augment the many critical journalistic and political analyses in our (sorrowful) Arab history. Second, they are the voices of women for which there seems to be both literary scope and an infinite market.  

                Which brings me to the abundance of women authoring Third World memoirs. Why are so few of our men penning personal chronicles? Why the public fascination with our women?

                Reviewing over four decades of literature on this part of the world, it seems evident:—it’s the appeal of ‘the victim’. In addition to the inexhaustible stories of hardships by and about Arab and Muslim women, with Palestinian narratives the most pronounced and in a category or their own, we now have Yazidi women of Iraq, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State, The Girl Who Beat Isis, and most recently, The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq by Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail.. Arab women’s painful lives are matched by many others, ranging from Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography to a new memoir coauthored by Celemtine Wamariya, a Rwandan woman (The Girl Who Smiles Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After).

                One could posit that narrators of these testimonies are in fact heroines because they survived and overcame adversity. This argument could be valid if they accompany a wide range of stories. However these narratives are often the only personal accounts from those countries and cultures accessible to us. Only when a crisis erupts is a journalist sent there; the suffering witnessed is part of the news, and part of the exoticism.

                Others maintain that women’s lives are overshadowed by men in those cultures, so herstories are eclipsed. (But this is a universally recognized feature of every society; male bias is inherent in western world- authored accounts of those cultures too.)

                Could the preoccupation with women’s memoirs be an outcome of the western feminist movement of the 1970s where women of European origin, caught up in an inchoate pride of self-discovery, rushed across the globe and into their (own) inner cities, not to find parallel revolutions or third world women to model themselves on but mainly to document how others were still confined and in need of liberation? Anthropologists and journalists enthusiastically documented myriad manifestations of female oppression, abuse, inequality, patriarchy and misogyny practiced elsewhere (including among non-whites in their own culture).

                These celebrated-- yes, celebrated-- sad stories may continue to be published because of a public thirst for victims. Or they may dwindle while Americans and Europeans now turn the lens inward and chronicle a neglected violent, patriarchal, misogynist culture newly exposed in our own unliberated households, board rooms, universities and offices.

                Just as suffering ‘Third World’ women’s chronicles present a misguided means of building solidarity and documenting a more evenhanded history, the same may apply to refugee children’s stories. A recent review of several children’s books portrays young war-victims with some sympathy. Yet, it should be remembered that these stories are often the only means through which American and European children learn about Syria, Palestine, Pakistan, and other distant lands; those tales of suffering become a prism through which they may eternally view ‘others’.               

                I cannot advocate that we not pen memoirs, only that we recognize how market and political forces exclude some stories and champion others. Without women’s memoirs so much of social and political history would remain altogether hidden.  

[ Arab Women Authors Narrate More Than Women’s Experience ]

Swing Status, Be Gone

May 18, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

During the last nationwide election, the one before that, and the preceding one as well, I was led to believe my vote really doesn't count. Why? Because I don't live in what our political parties define as a “swing state”, or a swing district, or a swing county. Our media focuses on races and on voters in far away Iowa, Ohio, Florida, or Pennsylvania. OK; voting patterns there may be inconsistent and unpredictable. But what about the ‘predictable’ rest of us?

            As far as I understand a swing district is one whose loyalty to a party is not guaranteed. Thus, attention and funds from the two major parties’, trailed by media, is directed there in order to ‘swing’ undecided votes towards their candidate. Duly highlighted by all the networks and even our own local media, we’re informed that a viable and genuine race is underway… over there. We can rest assured our democracy is a fair contest and that our election system works… somewhere.

            As for the majority of political races in the nation? One concludes there’s no real contest; results are taken for granted whether by gerrymandered arrangement s or by discriminatory policies that thwart registration. Then, there are voters-- a lot of them-- who simply don’t vote. The status quo is undisturbed.

            Maybe this process of designating one neighborhood as politically more vital than another explains why voter turnout across the USA is low, why so many citizens feel there’s no point casting their ballots. We feel excluded.

            Viewing a political race as in-the-bag can be perilous, as demonstrated by Clinton’s 2016 campaign after it ignored Michigan and Wisconsin contests. In contrast, Republicans targeted voters in those states; with or without Russian interference or data provided by Cambridge Analytica, Republicans swung voters there away from their traditional alliances.

            Attribution of districts as swing or solid is more than a misguided strategy; it’s discriminatory. It may also contribute to the cynicism and disinterest we find among American voters today.

            When I lived in New York City, any Democratic candidate on the ballot was viewed as a shoo-in. I and left-leaning associates never felt excited about an election; we rarely discussed one candidate’s merits over another, except perhaps for the mayoral seat. Now I understand how Republicans may have felt.

            Moving into a less Democratic constituency in Upstate New York, I’m the one feeling disempowered today. You suggest I might evade this binary system by seeking out a third party candidate. Yet there too my vote feels meaningless. (Small parties often don’t run a candidate and instead endorse a contestant representing a major party.)

            In NY’s Congressional District 19, currently represented by John Faso, we’re following a vigorous pre-primary campaign. Seven candidates want to represent Democrats to challenge the incumbent congressman in November’s election. Thus far, local press seems non-committal, but articles elsewhere are highlighting CD 19’s Democratic contestants, generating a rumor that this congressional seat will be hotly contested. True or not, the rumor is beguiling; my very own district could move into the swing column!

            “It’s still early in the game,” as politicians and sports commentators say; “Anything can happen”. We still have 6 weeks until the June 26 Democratic primary here.

            But the mere suggestion of our significance can have a positive effect. Who doesn't want to feel significant? Forget about CNN and Fox reporters arriving in our farms and hamlets to interview us. If a contest appears evenhanded, our interest grows, and maybe, maybe, we voters can feel that we really count. 

            Then comes the question: Why wait for outside rumors about the value of our vote? Why wait for a tarnished Democratic Party which blundered in 2016 pursuing so-called ‘minority’ votes and ‘urban-educated’ citizens to the exclusion of others?

            Across the nation, there have been some upsets as vacant seats are announced, and where new faces are emerging to fight in their party primaries. The message I’m getting is that every seat, every election, counts.

            Whatever the source of these rumors, I say: grab hold, chase after whomever candidate represents some principle, however personal or vague, which you identify with, whether through their personality, their statements, or their party affiliation. Candidates are usually women and men driven by the ideals of public service, of the possibility of change, and by the energy of fellow citizens. Know them, push them, challenge them.

            And advise them. Because these newcomers often really don’t know basic facts about us or how to address our local issues. Then lobby your neighbors thought to be on the other side. Try it.  

[ Swing Status, Be Gone ]


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