Dana Bakdounis

Kick-Ass Woman of the Week

Growing up in the Arab World, I watched as one of the prominent symbols of the region, the Hijab, evolved to become much more than a religious symbol, but into a political and social statement as well. Despite the general view that the Hijab is strictly an Islamic symbol, it is interesting to note that the practice’s history goes way back in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and there are several references to it in both New and Old Testaments.

Throughout the Middle East, there is general agreement that most veiled women wear the Hijab willingly. These women see the practice as a way to secure personal liberty in a global society that objectifies women, and one that gives them the freedom of movement and control over their bodies. Others believe that the veil itself objectifies women even further, especially if it is forced upon them.

A few weeks ago, a picture appeared on the extremely popular Facebook page “The  Uprising of Women in the Arab World.” The image, seen above, shows Dana Bakdounis posing without her veil, holding a note that states she was forced to wear the veil for twenty years, and that she is making the choice to “feel the wind in [her] hair and body.”

The image sparked controversy across Facebook, whose administrators actually removed the photo from the page, blocked Dana’s profile, and blocked the administrators of the page. Facebook then claimed that they had made a mistake after receiving several notices of an infringement of their policy from some who saw the image and flagged it as being inappropriate.

Dana explained that in no way does her decision limit her faith in her religion. On the contrary, she feels that a journey that of self-exploration may in fact lead her back to wearing the hijab, but if that happens the decision will be hers and only hers. Hundreds of supporters added her as a friend and sent her emails commending her on her bravery.

This week, Dana without a doubt deserves the title of kick-ass woman of the week. Despite receiving many threats and condemnation for her picture, Dana says that she looks forward to continuing her support for gender equality causes, especially in her home nation Syria.
“I want to take another picture, but from inside Syria, just to show that I could be a fighter against injustice and power. With my camera I can help the people and support the Free Syrian Army.”

Dana is one of many women making their voices in the global debate about women’s rights despite the uproar against this movement. I highly recommend that all of my readers check out the Uprising of Women Page on Facebook, and support Dana on Twitter using the hash tag #WindtoDana.

Until next time…

It’s Not Defense… #Gaza

No warnings, no sirens, and no bunkers to hide in. Yesterday, in a mere few seconds, the sky fell on the Dalook family, and all eleven of its members were killed after their home was struck by an Israeli missile, their lifeless bodies stuck under huge slabs of concrete and mangled metal.  Among the dead, 2 children and a baby.  Israel claims to have been targeting a man by the name of Yahya Bayya’ii, accused of firing Hamas rockets into Israel. No one in that neighborhood had even heard of him.

The State Department’s statement on this issue is that Israel has the right to defend itself against the launching of primitive rockets from small radical groups within Gaza. The State Department graciously encouraged both sides to avoid civilian casualties, but nowhere gave the Palestinians in Gaza the same right to defend themselves against the offensive operation being carried out by Israel. The Palestinians, once again, are relegated to a less-than-human status by the US and Israel. This time though, the comments we have been hearing from the mouths of some Israeli politicians, journalists, and ministers are simply atrocious. Here are a few examples:

In article in the Jerusalem Post, Ariel Sharon’s son, Gilad, stated:
“We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too.”

Matan Vilnai, Israel’s deputy defense minster, called for a “bigger holocaust” from Israeli armed forces as a punishment for Gaza.

Israeli Minister of the Interior, Eli Yishai stated regarding the war currently being waged on the Gaza Strip: “The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages. Only then will Israel be calm for forty years.”

It was difficult to swallow that such opinions can be held by anyone, let alone some of the most influential voices in the country. If these are the voices that are heeded, how can there ever be a true peace?

Noam Chomsky said it best:
“The incursion and bombardment of Gaza is not about destroying Hamas… it is not about achieving peace… Israel uses sophisticated attack jets and naval vessels to bomb densely-crowded refugee camps, schools, apartment blocks, mosques, and slums to attack a population that has no air force, no air defense, no navy, no heavy weapons, no artillery units, no mechanized armor, no command in control, no army… and calls it a war. It is not a war, it is murder. When Israelis in the occupied territories now claim that they have to defend themselves, they are defending themselves in the sense that any military occupier has to defend itself against the population they are crushing. You can’t defend yourself when you’re militarily occupying someone else’s land. That’s not defense. Call it what you like, it’s not defense.”

The images out of Gaza are always difficult to see. They were four years ago during Operation Cast Lead, and they are now. Israeli hardliners, some aforementioned, continue to promote the idea of punishing Gaza as a whole in unspeakable ways. As the world continues to cry out for justice in Gaza, Israel refuses to make concessions, and seems to prefer a state of endless conflict with the Palestinians, and as was the case four years ago, it is the innocent civilians that are paying the heaviest price.

The FSA’s Zubaida Al-Meeki

Kick-Ass Woman of the Week:

Many of my friends have traveled and lived in different places around the world, from the US to Europe. I remember that whenever I called them, most of them would say how far away they felt. Yesterday’s protests in Amman, Jordan, my home, made me feel that way more than ever. As I continue to wrap my head around these events (by that I mean put my many thoughts into words), of course my Twitter feed continues to be filled with other ongoing stories not just from Jordan, but from around the Middle East.

As I scrolled through the many tweets, one caught my attention, sharing a story out of Syria that gave me the uplifting boost I was looking for before I headed to bed last night. I had found my kick-ass woman of the week, and this one was definitely deserving of the title.

Zubaida Al-Meeki’s story just recently came to light a few weeks ago. She became the first female officer to announce defection from President Bashar Al-Assad’s army. Al-Meeki is an Alawite originally from the Occupied Golan Heights. Formerly a General in the Army, she describes the atrocities and crimes being committed by the regime as going against her beliefs and principles. As soon as the town she was in, Bibila, was seized by the Free Syrian Army, she approached the nearest checkpoint and told opposition forces that she wanted to join the fight against Assad to protect the Syrian people.

An Alawite, a woman, and a General in Assad’s army. She left many of the FSA fighters dumbfounded and suspicious when she first approached them, but she proved them all wrong.
“The revolution gave dignity to the Syrian people and gave minorities a sense of belonging to one country. All of the sects in Syria have suffered so much under this regime,” she says.

With her people and her country as her source of inspiration, Al-Meeki now has the job of training those with little or no military experience join the fight with the FSA.

Al-Meeki, to me, is a model FSA member, not just because she has become a symbol of female FSA members, but because she sees the Syrian population as a single entity that cannot be divided according to sect or religious affiliation. It is this goal that will hopefully help the FSA achieve the goals of a liberated and just Syria.

Until next time…

Professor Rula Quawas: Preserving the Right to Education

Kick-Ass Woman of the Week

I started this segment about  a month ago by talking about Queen Rania. My main motivation in doing so was  to highlight her efforts in promoting the power of gender equality and education, the two causes closest to my heart. This week’s kick-ass woman title goes to a woman who stood up to these causes and lost her job as a result: Professor Rula Quawas.

The University of Jordan in Amman is regarded as one of the most prestigious universities in the region, but what happened with Professor Quawas definitely tarnished its reputation in my book. She was fired half way through her two year contract for allowing students to produce and publish (on YouTube) an anti-sexual harassment video. One particular video was deemed too controversial by the University Administration.

Here’s the video:

In short, what you see  is female students holding up signs of abusive words, phrases, and statements directed towards them by several of their male classmates on and around their campus. The video spread on YouTube, and eventually caught the attention of the Administration. Furious that such a film could tarnish the university’s reputation, the University’s Vice President called Professor Quawas demanding an explanation, and was asked to take it down. Quawas refused to do so and wrote a letter defending the work of her students. She was stripped of her post as a result of her refusal.

Professor Rula I salute you for standing your ground, protecting your students’ freedom of expression, and promoting their right to education and dignity.

Several issues arise from this case. First is the fact that a university such as the University of Jordan would not stand by one of its own professors, especially one who completed her undergraduate and graduate degree there and returned to give back to the institution.

Second, and more importantly, is the fact that rather than praise the work of the students and recognize gender-based harassment as an area that needs immediate attention, the university disappointed its female student body by firing the Professor who stood up to their rights. The Administration thought that this route would save their reputation, when it actually achieved the exact opposite. In a letter sent by the Committee on Academic Freedom for the Middle East Studies Association of North America, Quawas was supported, and the University’s decision was deemed a violation of academic freedom.

I was touched by the video that the students put together, and am shocked that such vulgar phrases are used at an educational institution like the University of Jordan, which should be a place that promotes gender equality and human dignity rather than prevent it.

So thank you Professor Rula for standing up for these students’ rights despite the university’s decision.

A Tribute to Activist Fatima Saad

The uprising in Syria is a subject I wish I could avoid. It is a topic that makes my blood boil, for I still cannot understand how it is humanly possible for the leader of a nation to crack down on his people in such a brutal way. The dangerous political atmosphere and vile crimes committed in the nation created a complete media void. Since then, Syrian citizen journalists have stepped in, risking their lives to bring news of the oppressive government’s violence against the population to a global audience.

Word came this past week that one of these civilian journalists was tortured to death by the Syrian government. At just 22 years old, Fatima Saad was apprehended by Bashar Al Assad’s security forces from her house in Latakia last June. According to the Syrian League for the Defense of Human Rights, Fatima died at a Damascus branch of the General Security Directorate, which is part of the Syrian intelligence service.

Fatima was a part of a network of civilian journalists, as many others did, she adopted a  different name, and was known among her circle as Farah El Rayes. As a qualified nurse, she was known in her poverty stricken suburb for her kindness and generosity. When Assad’s forces initiated the crackdown, she volunteered to teach other residents in the city basic first aid training. Her help was essential especially after regime forces destroyed the community’s only public clinic.

Saad was first arrested with her father and brother. Several of their belongings were confiscated, including Fatima’s camera. Found on the camera was a video and several images showing several of her friends carrying the Free Syrian Army’s flag and chanting against the regime.

Fatima was subjected to physical and psychological torture by the Syrian regime in an attempt to make her name those in her photos. Her death brings the number of Syrians killed specifically under torture of the regime to 1,125.

This week we must all pay tribute to Fatima. She has become a symbol of the fight that the Syrian civilian journalists continue to lead every day as they risk their lives to share their stories with the world. Her bravery and generosity will forever be remembered, and it is efforts like hers that will help the Syrian people succeed in their pursuit of freedom…

Hurricane Sandy: Kick-Ass Woman of the Week

Hello readers and followers!

So after a few not so fun days with no power.. Ladies and gentlemen I am back with my latest kick-ass woman of the week: Sandy.. Hurricane Sandy. It was sort of an easy choice.. Here’s why:

Coming from Jordan, in the Middle East, I was simply awe-struck with what I saw. Winds that roared, and rain that just didn’t stop. I lost power Monday night and didn’t get it back till early this morning.  A few friends and I decided to go into the city to see some of the impacts and even they were speechless, despite witnessing instances of extreme weather in the past.

Here are a few pictures and videos highlighting some of the damage in and around New York:

A Crane Hanging by a Thread in New York

Part of the Financial District in New York

Lower Manhattan

Queens Flooded Streets

New York’s Subway System Shut Down

I also wanted to end this post by expressing my deepest gratitude to technicians, rescue crews, firefighters, and police officers who have been working around the clock to bring New Jersey, New York, and the rest of the East Coast back on its feet. The way people have come together in their communities is in itself a powerful force to be reckoned with that even Sandy couldn’t bring down..

Until next time..

A Special Eid Al Adha Lesson

Today marks my favorite Muslim holiday. As a child, like all other kids my age at the time, I looked forward to it for one primary reason: getting gifts (usually in the form of cash) from every single relative visited. It would turn into a competition to see which cousin would raise the most money. As a grown up though, I came to embrace the wonderful meaning and story behind the holiday, and it is that story that makes it my favorite holiday today.

Eid Al Adha is literally translated into “The Festival of the Sacrifice.” It is a four day holiday that marks the end of the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). The festival directly commemorates a historical event that actually involves the Prophet Abraham. In this story, God tested Abraham’s faith by ordering him to sacrifice his only son, Ishmael. As Abraham laid down his son and held a knife to his throat, God sent an angel from the sky with a ram that Ishmael under the knife. Abraham proved his faith and his willingness to sacrifice anything for God.

This marks yet another holiday I will be away from my family in Jordan, where my uncle would usually share the story behind Eid with all of the kids in the family. This year though, I took over for my uncle here in the US, and when I shared this story with my friends, I learned more about the holiday than I ever knew, and was truly touched by what I heard.

One of the many things I am thankful for here in the US is the ability to live in a place where diversity is widespread. Through the friends I’ve made here, I learned that Eid Al Adha is yet another example of the shared origins Islam has with Christianity and Judaism. The story and message celebrated throughout this Eid is one recognized by all three. Even though in the versions accepted by Christianity and Judaism it is Isaac who was almost sacrificed by Abraham, it is heartwarming to be reminded that all three religions in the end celebrate 2 major commonalities: the existence of one merciful God, and the ultimate prevention of sacrificing human life.

In all three religions, nothing is more sacred than human life. Many things are worth sacrificing for a good cause, but human life should never be one of them. I hope this is especially something that the cease-fire in Syria can achieve and remind the government and rebel fighters of.

I believe Rumi (who I am now obsessed with by the way) said it best. And I will leave you with his words:
“I am neither Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim. Doing away with duality, I saw the two worlds as one. I seek One, I know One, I see One, and I call One.”

Eid Mubarak to all my readers and followers. May this year bring us all joy, prosperity, and peace.