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At last: Muslim women having our say.

July 11, 2006

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Is it possible? Has the western media really begun to listen to Muslim women? A series of recent articles under the banner ‘Half The World’  in the Guardian (UK) features stories about Muslim women and interviews, including one with Noble laureate Shirin Ebadi, with people from Afghanistan to Somalia.

From these reports, we hear about the high percentage of Saudi women engaged in business, of women taking the leadership in Somalia’s call for peace. (In 1988, on my first visit to Kuwait, I myself learned how active Kuwait women were in the nation’s commerce, with many top Kuwait companies run by women. But publication of my report, and doubtless others like it, was sidelined by the 1990 war and the focus of Kuwaiti women’s right to vote.) The Nation magazine is now featuring reviews of books by mainly Muslim women and the reviewer is the insightful Moroccan (American Muslim) writer, Lalia Lalami (morrishgirl.com).

Writings by Muslim women about our achievements escaped western feminists and scholars for many years. The number of Muslim women heads of state also escaped notice. Women singled out in the past were the complainers, the victims who appealed for assistance in fighting injustices in their society. And of course, there was the veil, burqua, and chador to claw at. For so long, and it probably hasn’t ended, what examples western writers highlighted showed abuse and inequality rather than the pride, achievement and intelligence. That abuse, as presented through western writers, must stem from Islam. Our women became a powerful stick with which to attack Islam, reaching its apex with horrifying accounts of the treatment of Afghan women at the hands of the Taliban. Never mind their suffering during the wars leading up to the Taliban’s ascendancy. No cries rose on behalf of Muslim women in the horrifying years of Russian occupation.Shirin Ebadi’s is receiving more attention today with the publication of her new book, Iran Awakening. There, she reiterates what the Egyptian activist, Nawal el-Saadawi has been arguing for many years, namely that women’s adversary is patriarchy, not Islamic teachings and values. And that is a universal opponent. Will the message finally get through?

For many years, Muslims could not write positively of their lives and cultures without becoming defensive of Islam. Our work went unpublished, or it was marginalized. Non-Muslims, especially feminists and anti-Arab advocates could get advance further by rushing to the defense of abused Muslim sisters. That would keep them in the leadership of the worldwide struggle for equality. Meanwhile anti-Arab advocates could add Islam to the reasons for their difficulties with Arabs and accept repeated Middle East political crises as acceptable.

For decades, Muslim lawyers and writers have been working hard to challenge patriarchal interpretations of Islam and the Hadiths, accounts of the life of the Prophet Mohammed from which many Muslim values derive.

Their scholarship was unmatched even though it did not reach into the lectures of Friday prayers across the world. The excellent work of sociologist Fatima Mernissi is followed by that of many other scholars, Asma Afsaruddin, Amina Wudud, Azizah Al-Hibri, Rafia Hassan. All are working in the USA. And the list is growing.

Scholarship by and about Muslim women is augmented and complemented with collections of creative and critical work. Shattering Stereotypes edited by Fawzia Afzal Khan is a fine collection; another is Islam Out Loud, edited by Abdul Ghafur. Azizah, a magazine for “contemporary Muslim women,” edited by Tayyibah Taylor is another example of a lively forum, run by Muslim woman, where one can read critical and reflective essays about everything that concerns them from gay relationships to where women pray in the mosque.

It doesn’t matter that these books are not best sellers listed by a major newspaper. They represent an enormous body of thinking, and the thoughts of millions of women, Muslim women. It is long past time for us to tell our own worlds.

Am I giving the western press undue praise for a few recent features by our members? Yes, I think we need years to see if any really change is underway. Meanwhile take note of our women who are writing. Support them. Write any parallel experience you have. Show yourselves.

[ At last: Muslim women having our say. ]

Watching Torture--and the UN Report

May 24, 2006

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

So the United Nations has somehow found the spine to censure the USA on its treatment of foreign prisoners. Yet, we note that the UN report (Monday,May 22) refers only to Guantanamo Bay captives and the practice of transferring detainees for punishment outside US territory. Should we be pleased by the UN statement?

Should the captives themselves be hopeful? And if the US government is culpable, what can an American say to the men and women who, for more than 4 years, have being subjected to things we really cannot imagine, even with the photos?

I doubt that the tortures we saw practiced in Afghanistan and Iraq were invented for Muslims and Arabs.

African Americans say that Abu Ghraib exercises are neither new, nor unique to Iraq; American Black men are subject to similar humiliations and torture in US prisons. Remember how police treated the MoveOn prisoners in 1980 in Philadelphia when Black men were striped and marched naked in the streets?

Did you not see photos of naked Iraqi young men, captured and striped by US soldiers, immediately following the arrival of foreign troops in Baghdad? The youths had been forced to walk uncovered through the streets. Somehow, no journalist or human rights officers noted the racial underpinnings of that action.

We heard about how Jews were forced to desecrate their holy book during their persecution in Europe. We have photos of massacred Japanese and Vietnamese men and women, many of them mutilated and exposed. (It seems we maintain a taboo on photos of mutilated Whites —western men and women--except to demonstrate the savagery of enemies.)

On the www.afterdowningstreet.org site one can scroll through a collection of ‘disturbing’ pictures. It seems the bodies and body-parts posted there belong to Iraqi women and men...and children. In some pictures of the Arab ‘victim’ we see groups of American servicemen standing casually beside the dead.

Analysts point out that today’s high-tech, compact cameras and internet make it possible for these pictures of death, abuse, torture and gross immoral acts to reach the masses. As a result (we maintain), we now learn the truth. These awful facts can no longer be hidden from the public, we argue. We demand investigations ; we will make our government accountable, we say.

Our righteous, angry, progressive movement with hundreds of hard-working investigative journalists, prides itself on the discovery of US crimes against humanity. No matter that it takes years to uncover. The revelations seem to cleanse our culture and conscience. American is not so bad, after all-- because we expose the truth.

Hearing the UN’s call for the closure of Guantanamo prison, I and my families doubt if justice will be restored.

Long, long before the release of those shocking photos, most ordinary Iraqis and Afghans knew that terrible things were being done in the prisons. Even after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke across the world, mistreatment did not stop in the dozens of US prisons and other dungeons across Iraq.

Whatever journalistic essays reveal and the United Nations censures, the American vase of democracy seems broken. Perhaps the damage is irreparable. Too much humiliation has been heaped on hundreds of thousands in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. Its affect is cumulative, and unstoppable.

As we observe, resistance to US power and arrogance is accelerating globally. And across the world, Iraq’s insurgency might seem like a reasonable response—a justification not only for prison abuses but for the daily invasion of thousands of homes, farms, schools and streets, and for 12 years of a merciless and unprecedented UN-overseen blockade.

[ Watching Torture--and the UN Report ]

The Charm of Blackness

April 11, 2006

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

By Rachida Mohammedi

A child of the Sahara, an Arab woman, a poet, educated in an Islamic atmosphere, my values are carried to me in simple songs.

Among the most cherished of these is “Kul lil maleeha-ti fi al-khimari al-aswadi: Tell my charming lover--she with the black scarf…”

Through our folklore, anywhere across the wide Arab World, no one can deny how much we enjoy Arab popular songs and poems without a thought about which country these words came from. For us, the song and the poem are beyond any nation.

Kul lil maleeha-ti fi al-khimari al-aswadi, wherever it originated, reminds me that throughout our Arab culture, Black, when it covers the head and shoulders or filigrees our hands, is reserved for the idea of glamour.

Think about henna, that earthy dark paste we use to decorate our palms. Arabs are unable to speak about beauty and adoration, to recount love stories, or to recite a fervent poem without imagining henna on our lover’s hands and feet, without invoking the image of dark henna. Henna, that green plant whose Black essence gives Arab romance its inimitability and value. The darker the henna on the palms of one’s beloved, the more beautiful she is! This is in the realm of aesthetics and love.

What about Blackness in Arab public life? From the 6th to the 14th centuries, during the height of the Abbasid Empire, from Istanbul in Turkey to Lisbon in Portugal, when the world was speaking Arabic, the Abbasids ascribed Blackness to the legal system—the most advanced system of justice the world had known. The Abbasids, the civilization embodying the height of knowledge, innovation and aestheticism across the world, chose Black as the official color of their courts. Yes, the Black cloak worn by its judges, a symbol of the dignity and pride of the Abbasid justice system, is the precursor of the same Black garment (abayah) proudly shouldered by judges and lawyers up to today.

Does the world notice that the Arab woman and man’s common Black abayah is the origin of today’s legal robe? It is also the robe recognized as the symbol of justice worldwide. It is the same robe proudly worn by graduating students. Is there anyone who doesn’t dream of donning this gown when she or he receives their university degree? In our Abbasid culture, more than a thousand years ago, the aalam, scholar, was awarded this Black abayah as a signed of their academic achievement.

From the court of justice to the halls of the academy to the heart of Islam, Black symbolizes esteem. Consider how our holy Kabbah in Mecca is adorned solely in Black cloth. This color that enshrines the holiest site of Islam, expresses the sublime meaning of our Kabbah. This in turn expresses the high regard in which Black is held by Islam.

          From these historical facts to lines uttered by our poets, Black is beautiful. From Arab poetry, rich in the metaphor of Blackness, in its sweet treatment of beauty, to justice across the empire, Black has always been a symbol of pride, beauty, love and the sublime. Who else but we give Black such profound meanings? Compare these facts to others’ claims that everything white is perfect and right.

[ The Charm of Blackness ]

From One End Of Wall Street To The Other

March 15, 2006

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

At the southern tip of Manhattan, the opposite end from Spanish Harlem, is Wall Street. A quintessential symbol of supreme power, the street is barely 200 meters long.

WBAI Radio’s offices and studios, where I work, are on Wall Street. So I’m frequently in the neighborhood. Three short blocks away from my building is the financial hub of the country—the New York Stock Exchange. Another 100 meters beyond is the big hole in the air, that awful record of the collapsed World Trade towers.

The neighborhood has become more frequently visited since 9/11/2001. Every day, tourists come by here. They arrive by tour bus, by foot, and by subway. They move around guards and barriers with respect, photographing NYSE, the super-size flags, the guards and gothic columns.

No private cars are permitted.

Nearby the Stock Exchange are offices of hundreds of financial companies where thousands of young people toil, night and day. They are ambitious and hard-working MBA graduates from across the USA—future stockbrokers and company managers. I can’t enter their offices. But I see where they exercise. Numerous sports clubs, some at street level, are located in the immediate vicinity of their Wall Street offices. I glimpse those young wannabe executives huffing and puffing on treadmills and cycling machines. Early mornings. At lunch-time. After work. All young, all fit, all well groomed, they must stay trim to advance in the financial world.

Raj, an aspiring stockbroker originally from India, tells me he’s at the office until after midnight. It’s his job to witness the opening postings of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

This neighborhood is equally busy at midnight and during the day, but not with restaurant and theatre visitors. Lines of black limos park nearby Wall Street waiting for the young executives to come off their shift. Lines of fast food couriers stand in the cold with boxes of pizza and fried chicken-- nourishment for those staying through the night. Whatever the hour, this place is alive.

Since radio is a 24-hour operation too, we journalists also find ourselves leaving our office late, but without a limousine standing by. Our low budget ‘peace and justice’ radio station moved into the neighborhood before 2001, when Manhattan was losing tenants.

After 9/11, things changed. Despite predictions that the city was unsafe and that many residents would flee, that didn’t happen. The city center seems to have more glamour and appeal than ever before.

[ From One End Of Wall Street To The Other ]

Can Radio Really Change Lives?

February 25, 2006

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Every now and then, someone I don’t even know contacts me to tell me I changed their life. Imagine! I’ve never met them. But they know me through my radio broadcasts.

For more than 10 years I’ve been host of “Tahrir,” a weekly program from New York-- a talk show with in-depth interviews.

A ‘thankyou’ arrived yesterday from Yvonne Wakim of Syrian (father) and Cherokee (mother, Native American) heritage. Yvonne became a regular “Tahrir” listener a long time ago. Soon afterwards, she began writing. Yvonne has now completed two children’s books. “Because of you, I decided to become a writer,” she says. “I never forgot. Even ten years later I needed to tell you I succeeded.”

Naturally, I’m delighted.

One never knows who’s out there in ‘Radioland’. Radio listeners often become attached to a particular broadcaster. I understand. I myself prefer radio because it offers intimacy; television does not.

Most people listen to radio alone, often in their car. Listeners bond with that unseen voice. The announcer’s outlook affects listeners’ views:-- about being Arab, about their career, about their health, about friendships, even about their purpose in life.

I work hard to appeal to my own community. And, thankfully, young Arabs and other Muslims who before 1995 were not attracted to journalism, seeing me at work, decide to study broadcasting.

Occasionally a listener who is Arab writes me. When they do, they reveal deep experiences. I receive calls from women abused by husbands, seeking support from other Muslim women. I receive calls from men detained for visa violations. I get emails from poets like Zaid Shlah in California who heard my interviews --by internet-- with scholar Dr. Salma K. Jayyusi, from filmmakers in search of Arab actors.

One of those ‘you-changed-my-life’ emails was from Francisco. “Those beautiful poems about the Mother of Ishmael… moved me to tears”, wrote Francisco, after hearing my June 21st program with poets Rachida Mohammedi and Mohja Kahf about Mother Hagar. Their Hagar poems evoked memories for Francisco of his grandmother, Maria Mufdy. Francisco’s next email was longer. “…. I’m a regular listener, from Dominican Republic, originally of Beit Jala, Palestine… I tune into Tahrir to get in touch with my arabness… I finally embarked on a research project to learn about my family in Beit Jala.”

Soon, I hope, Francisco and I will produce a radio program based on his grandmother’s life.

[ Can Radio Really Change Lives? ]


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Tahrir Diwan

a poem.. a song..
poem Poem "Daddy's Been Gone"
Theater artist Andrea Assaf performs from the "Robin Monologues"

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Rajia Hassib's
In The Language of Miracles
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