Last Updated: Fri Oct 14, 2011 09:26 am (KSA) 06:26 am (GMT)

Saudi Arabia and Chicago: women on the same wavelength

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 globalised world we often only have part of the story, especially when it comes to women in other cultures or countries.

I recognized this dilemma again when approached to write this article following my participation in a project sponsored by the Common Ground News Service, which paired women’s rights activists in the Middle East with counterparts in other countries through email and facilitated conversations. The goal was 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 and also in 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 and/or need more attention. Similarly, here in Chicago, 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 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. Amongst 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 amongst 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 gives people around the world a chance to raise awareness of issues such as this, 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 I keep in mind that writing can go only so far. It can galvanize a person, but passion without action is pointless. What we need now is to hear more women’s voices, especially from places often unrepresented and misinterpreted by the 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’s 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 prolific writer and a Media and Communications Strategist. She is the principal of Bigmomentum Communications Strategy in Chicago. This article was distributed by the Common Ground News Service).

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