The Struggle is Real

What am I supposed to believe?

There are almost too many angles about Muslim women. Those angles might be a good thing. Not the slants, mind you (although those also abound.)

Do I misperceive Muslims? Or is the news riddled with misconceptions of those who live out the Islamic faith. Is my opinion built by rumors, fear, or perhaps even listening for too long to one side of the story? If this is the case, then the problem does not end with me.

Fear is not just a shadow when dealing with cross-cultural dynamics, it is a reality. Journalists are not exempt from this alarm. Reporting an honest narrative can be risky when the people on whom you report are disliked in droves.

If I find some bold (and supposedly true reporting) how do I narrow down the information in this broad topic? I can focus on the human rights issues assaulting numerous women in Arabic countries. Or are the controversial aspects of their faith the real news story? That last question has not gone without debate; is Islam misogynistic? Also, not all Muslim live in the tension of Terrorism sweeping through the Middle East, but there is violence in this religion.

The point? All these facets can confuse me away from an opinion. It isn’t two sides of a coin, but twists in a labyrinth. Journalists (professional and citizen alike) report opposing religious views, fascinating cultures, gender equality struggles, terrorism threats, and the tender or rough hearts of a lot of women. Sorting can be time consuming, and I don’t have a lot of spare time.

Sometimes the journalism is stunning and accurate, calling attention to victories, struggles, and everyday life of these women. But in the end, a detail will be forgotten, a definition or clarification neglected. This is not an easy one for journalists to present well. Someone will be offended, but the story has to be straightened out. (Hint: this is not going to happen.)

I can knock the journalist off the pedestal, or remove them from the chopping block. But it’s my own opinion I fear. I will never be thoroughly correct. I’m one woman, with one perspective. I can choose to see broadly, but I will still develop a bias (and everyone should.)  If I stop pressuring for an unobtainably pure opinion, I can continue my research.

The struggle is real, and never complete.

The Point Behind the Pictures

What did 29-year-old Atena Farghadani do when she learned of her near-13 year prison sentence? At first she couldn’t accept it, and then she settled in. Prison would be home. And she would create.

Farghadani did not live in prison though, not for too long. She was released after 18 months. But good lord! 18 months in prison is still a tack on of mental weight. She endured passed the dingy, inhumane conditions.  For some of her imprisonment she stayed at the notorious Gharchak prison. Deadly criminals shared cells with those charged of political crimes. Sanitation was not an issue, because there is no sanitation in this prison. Four showers and 189 inmates to a chamber. Farghadani told the Washington Post, “I consider Gharchak prison as a graveyard of time . . . where time dies. I sometimes see those inmates in my nightmares.”

What crime did she commit to earn such punishment? It had to have caused terrible consequences to result in threats of a 12 year nine month sentence. Or not. She published a cartoon poking fun at the government. This might seem odd to an American who has seen droves of memes and satirical bobble-head-like representations of any US citizen crazy enough to get into politics. Half way around the globe though, mocking the government, pointing out their wrongs, and making them look bad is still illegal. So Farghadani sat in prison, making art on paper cups, until even those were taken from her.

At length, Farghadani went free. And she still creates art with political and social themes.

“You, of course, have become an inspiration to so many around the world, Atena — a beacon of creative and political resistance.” Such is the praise afforded Farghadani by Michael Cavna, one of the numerous reporters to cover this story. Why wouldn’t people flock to the front page to present such a heart-warming and blood-chilling tale? Some gave a call to action, trying to persuade people to sign petitions while the cartoonist remained in prison. What now does her story inspire, now that she is out from behind bars . . . ?

Well, I could feel wimpy about my efforts in the arts, and writing, or I can open my eyes and realize that Farghadani did not aim for prison. Her point was to pursue a passion to be heard. Sometimes the limelight focuses so much on the cost that people don’t see the starting point. The beginning of this story is a stubborn female Iranian artist who draws cartoons. I want to see her art, and hear her voice.

Atena Farghadani holding one of her recent cartoons



Women Who Fly

Breaking dusk, a C-130 takes off from Shindand Air Base.

Being a pilot takes a lot of work. A lot of time. And an obnoxious amount of math. For the women I’m about to highlight, rising to the aforementioned challenges is the easy part.

For Flight Lt. Ayesha Farooq, her path to the sky was riddled with turbulence. Just a couple years ago, the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) was lagging behind other nations’, holding women back (although not blatently) from attaining the rank of fighter pilot. In fact, at the time of Binah Shah’s 2015 article (a great read if you have the time,) Farooq was the only woman to claim the title of combat ready pilot. Big deal? Well yes, it is. Because women in Pakistan are still expected to fulfill wifely roles, and joining the air force for Farooq did not come without the usual disdain from her family. She took the rebuke, turned it to fuel, and transformed herself into a pilot.

Now in a Muslim country, doing what Farooq did is gutsy to say the least, but for this next fighter pilot, getting the position was only half the battle.

“You knew this was going to happen, (Rahmani) said they told her” in response to a plea for help from her superiors in the Afghan Air Force. Al Jazeera has a long article trying to get this story straight. It starts out as a classic tale, a Muslim woman rises in the ranks of a male-dominated occupation, in this case a fighter pilot. Afghanistan’s first fixed wing fighter pilot, to be exact. Less than a decade later, and after two years of training to fly a C-130, she was applying for asylum in America. So what happened? First the Taliban decided she had to die (a threat she still fears,) and then her extended family harassed her family so that the latter had to move several times.

More women have trained as fighter pilots in the Afghan Air Force, but pressure, and probably fear, has kept many from taking up active duty. At least one other female fixed wing fighter pilot exists, but she (for obvious reasons) stays out of the lime light. But Rahmani maintains a Facebook and Twitter profile, because she wants to inspire other young women to reach for the sky.

It’s inspiring to hear about stories like these, and I am sure there are thousands more like them, in many occupations, and many nations, and many religions. But inspiration comes at a cost. And once you’re in that situation that is so inspirational, you feel every penny of the price to be paid.

The Challenge that Sent me Searching

What is there to Muslim women besides a hijab (or najib), an often disputed and judged religion, and controversial traditions? These are the aspects that frequently draw pity and attention, but it is, thankfully, not where their identity ends. And although the clothing choices, free or otherwise, of Muslim women has been a source of contention, there are brave Islamic women who have stepped beyond the boundaries, stereotypes and classic roles of their culture.

To be up front, there are issues in the way of seeing these women without an inflated bias, and many concerns are not unmerited, as threats from Islamic extremists have covered a large portion of the globe the last several years. It is now clear to many, though, that grouping people in a particular religion with troublemakers of their faith is creating silence, not clearing up knowledge . Muslims are impacted by the modern terror dynamics probably more so than other people groups, and that factor doubtlessly feeds into coverage by typical news sources.

A number of Muslim women are and have been standing up and making extreme moves away from tradition, while staying true to their faith. What part of that story is conveyed through the media, and what might be missing? Do tales of heartbreak and challenge receive too much coverage, or is that the truest condition of Islamic women? What are the rewards and consequences of challenging the status quo? And what progress has been made in creating a greater variety of opportunities for Muslim women?

I had more questions than answers as I began this project, (although I had strong suspicions, and followed my instinct during research.) I found compelling reasons for more people to see and value Islamic women, appreciate aspects of their faith, and applaud as an entire mass-culture of women claim their place among the global society. I wanted to see their lives, because Muslim women have intrigued me, with beauty, pain, bravery, and a rich culture. Reading stories about such women as I have described here briefly is much of what has inspired me to pursue journalism, research, and education. But I wanted to know the facts behind that inspiration. Whether or not the truth meant disillusionment, I waned to understand these women and their stories. Because, regardless of the results, they were taking risks and changing their culture, just like they do today.