CLIO TALKS BACK: Fatima Mernissi on the Future of the Arab World

Fatema Mernissi
Fatema (Fatima) Mernissi (b. 1940 in Fez, Morocco) is a persistent longtime advocate of women’s empowerment in the Arab world. A university-trained political scientist, a social investigator, and multi-disciplinary humanist and writer of considerable note, Mernissi has carefully studied the situation of women in Islam (historically and in the present), conducted interviews with Moroccan women on the street and in the marketplace, and has kept the world abreast of women’s issues – and advances – in the Maghrib. She is a fervent proponent of literacy and education at all levels, especially for women. Mernissi lectures at Mohammed V University in Rabat, and is also affiliated with the University Institute for Scientific Research. Her current projects concern the development of technological literacy for both women and men.

 This eloquent excerpt from her writings, published in English in 1996, contains the seeds of the projects she continues to pursue today:
 “The only Arab world worthy of being fought for and worth clashing over . . . is one in which the Arab brain can extend its capacities the way a free bird extends its wings to reach the heights. And that Arab world can only exist if – and on condition that – the chief educator of the brain also shares in this modern technological knowledge. And that chief educator is, I tell you, neither the army of educational experts (schoolteachers and university professors), nor the civil servants in the ministries of education and national culture. The chief educator is woman, who, as mother, nourishes the child, in the fateful first five years, with the knowledge she possesses. 
“The lesson of the Gulf War, a lesson you, the leaders of the Arab countries, will read in no Western document, is that the mother of all battles (umm al-maa’rik) is not the one you fight against the Americans, but the one you fight against illiteracy – the illiteracy of men and women. But, up to now, the impression has been that the budgets of the national education ministries are only for men. Thirty years after independence, 90% of Moroccan women in rural areas are illiterate and 100% of them politically marginalized. You will never be powerful, Mr. Arab leader, in a modern world where democratized and democratizing knowledge is both arm and ammunition. You will never be anything but backward outsiders in the world of satellite-borne information, whilst your mothers, sisters, wives and, most importantly, your secretaries, maids and women workers are illiterate. I omitted your daughters from the list because we all know an Arab man is hugely committed to the education of his daughter. She is the only woman with whom he identifies and whose future causes him concern. But we shall all, men and women, leave behind the mutilating law of the tribe-family and take our first steps in the space and planetary age the moment we realize that our destiny is linked to the most deprived, the most excluded of all: the poor woman, ground down in field and factory, on whom any arbitrary power whatever may be visited. The subjugated, scorned and humiliated Arab will be transformed into an autonomous, self-governing person the day he is suckled by an autonomous mother. And the path to the autonomy of the individual is through access to worthwhile knowledge. The day the political leader understands that the most faithful mirror to his strength is the reflection which comes back to him from the female citizens living in the remotest villages, the planetary Arab will be born.  
“An Arab at ease in the galaxies, interested in their movements and attuned to their secrets, can only be born of a woman who weaves her ideas around the satellite networks with the ease with which her ancestors wove a thousand geometrical flowers into their carpets.” 

Source: “Rebuild Baghdad? But in What Galaxy?” from Fatima Mernissi, Women’s Rebellion & Islamic Memory (1996), pp. 9-10. Translated from the French.

The Freedom Traveller

[Editor's Note: This post is by guest contributor Momal Mushtaq. Momal is a women’s rights activist and an aspiring social entrepreneur from Pakistan. Her work in development and media communications, with focus on youth and gender equality, has been recognized by global awards, including a first place award from the United Nations for her work with women. She writes here about her relationship with freedom and equality, and how traveling is her means to self-growth.]

As I flipped through the recent issue of my favourite youth magazine, flashes of the past illuminated the dusty recesses of my mind, like studio strobes in a television studio. My mind was pulled back into another universe that revolved around a clingy but optimistic and determined 20-year-old who had not figured out her purpose in life. But, as fate had it, the winds of change swept my life in its path, and Life, with her capital letter and dignified simplicity was never the same anymore. It seems that by giving a girl a kaleidoscope, black-and-white Life was doing her bit to usher me into modernity and colour, a whole new world, a world so beautiful that there was no looking back for me afterwards.

Travelling changed my life; it is as simple as that. They say that you can learn about different cultures by travelling to places, but travelling taught me more about myself than anyone else. It widened my perspective; helped me become more accepting of other beliefs, ideologies, and lifestyles, and most importantly, it taught me to love myself and my body.

Here's how.

A New Perspective on Life
Back in university, like many other girls in my class, a private van would pick up and drop me off. If I had ever wanted to go anywhere else, like the shops or the hospital, my father or brother would accompany me to and from the venue. I thought that was maybe how life is supposed to be. It is only when I had experienced an alternative way of living that I started questioning my previous lifestyle. During my time in Canada, Germany and the US, nobody stared at me or passed nasty comments as I walked by alone. I could go wherever and whenever I wanted to!

However, when I returned to Pakistan, it began to hurt me more than ever to realise that the country is sinking below the waterline with a barrage of social problems hitting her from all directions. From the scourge of poverty, the stink of corruption, the madness of extremism to what-not! Almost half of Pakistan’s population -- her womenfolk -- sits back at home, not because they want to, but because they don’t have a choice. There’s no law restricting free mobility of women in Pakistan, but the harassment that they face on streets or while taking public transportation have limited their movement. Those who can, drive private vehicles, which is rather expensive. Or, they travel with a male chaperone.

Since I could not take it any longer, I decided to launch the Freedom Traveller (TFT), an online platform to connect and empower female travellers, especially from countries where freedom of movement for women is highly restricted. On TFT, women of all nationalities and beliefs could actively network, share knowledge and resources, and map their experiences during their travels. That is the least I could do, considering the resources that I had. I felt that if women read about other women who are courageous enough to travel alone in their communities or across borders, other females would be encouraged to follow suit.

Freedom is an abstract quality that mature minds acknowledge exists. It is something you can talk, write, or think about, but if you have not actually experienced it, you cannot feel her essence. I developed a strong desire to help women experience what it really means to be free because I have been freed from the grinding restriction of mobility that my life had suffered. Enabling women to be independent would also have an positive impact on the country’s economy, too.

I also knew that I could not go about preaching the message of freedom if I did not practice it myself. That could be the reason why I had learned to drive -- so I could move about more freely in Pakistan. Occasionally, I go for a jog and ride a bicycle around my neighborhood but, in my heart, I know that it is never as comfortable as it is abroad, because every time I venture out I sense creepy eyes boring into me. But, that is not an excuse to give up. To change, I have to be the change, the flag bearer of the coming revolution, the freedom rider of this century!

I have promised to challenge myself every summer for the next ten years. This year, for instance, I cycled all the way from Muenster to Aachen, Germany -- some 200km, to be precise! I did it to prove to every female around the world that there is no one stopping them from achieving their dreams. The unashamedly ecstatic waves of pleasure I had felt riding a bicycle, accompanied with a great sense of accomplishment, cannot be simply put into words. That is why I am not even going to describe it, because you should try it.

Fark Bans Misogyny and Maybe, Just Maybe, We Can Now Read the Comments

Drew Curtis - photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid
On August 18, Drew Curtis, founder of, an online link-aggregation community that was a precursor to the more widely known and used Reddit, announced that the site would be "adding misogyny to Fark moderator guidelines." In his message to users, which has since received thousands of comments, Curtis said, "if the Internet was a dude, we'd all agree that dude has a serious problem with women." One glance at this post on the now defunked subreddit "hotrapestories," where users repost stories from subreddits that serve as support groups for survivors of sexual assault, provides a small snapshot of the sort of behavior Curtis alluded to in his comments. He then got more specific and listed out some of the content that Fark mods will now be deleting from the site. They include "rape jokes," "calling women as a group 'whores' or 'sluts' or similar demeaning terminology," and "jokes suggesting that a woman who suffered a crime was somehow asking for it."

While the majority of people reporting on the news have been incredibly supportive of the announcement, like Nina Bahadur of The Huffington Post and s.e. smith of xojane, there are those, such as Amanda Hess of Slate, who combine their support with a certain amount of skepticism, wondering whether policing misogyny, especially on a site like Fark, is even possible. As Hess points out in her piece,
"telling members of an anonymous Internet message board to stop hating women is, unfortunately, a monumental ask.  But instructing posters to refrain from pushing the boundaries of acceptable human an irresistible provocation.  The gray area between vile offensiveness and dark humor is where Fark's commenter community thrives."  
The community, it seems, is partially built upon a foundation of oftentimes offensive one-upmanship that has made the site feel unwelcome to some women. But in many ways, being female and safely moving around the Internet can resemble a particularly difficult level of Frogger. As Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post points out, much of what makes this announcement so noteable "relates to a core ethos of Internet communities:  the idea that moderation, particularly on divisive issues, is akin to censorship  -- and that censorship is the bane of the transparent, social Web." The policy, she continues, is less a minor change in the rules of one relatively small website, and more a statement on Internet culture writ large.

The really interesting question here is less whether Fark can enforce these new guidelines and more whether it should. In 2011, Anil Dash wrote a post that makes the argument that, contrary to the seemingly ubiquitous statement on websites that "we are not responsible for the content of our comments," webmasters are in fact under a moral obligation to control the tenor of conversation on their sites. While it is true that the online world can be a hateful and horrible place, it does not have to be the web-based version of the Wild West. Ignoring persistently cruel behavior because, well, it's the Internet, is, in many ways, counter-productive. By turning a blind eye to abuse, many webmasters are creating a safe environment for cruelty while at the same time one where those seeking support, amusement, or an exchange of ideas feel stifled and threatened. Free speech for the mean-spirited does not necessarily translate into free speech for everyone. Take, for example, Zelda Williams' recent departure from Twitter as a result of the harassment she endured following the tragic death of her father. The comments and images she received were so cruel, that her use of a popular social networking site was made completely unbearable. Her freedoms of speech and of expression were hindered and nothing was done about it. She is by no means alone in her experience. In 2013, a well-known Canadian feminist blogger went into hiding after being doxxed and then sent dozens of death threats by the men's rights group Equality Canada. This is the extreme result of what an entirely open Internet culture can foster and shows that what happens on the Internet does not always stay on the Internet.

It will be interesting to see in the coming months what kind of effect, if any, these new commenting policies have on the bro-culture over at Fark. Given the comment thread that resulted from Amanda Hess' article, it seems as though Fark mods will be fighting an uphill battle, but a worthwhile one.  And perhaps down the line, other sites like Reddit and Gawker, as well as social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, will follow suit and curb the online abuse that so many people face.  Because, honestly, while of course we have the right to say hateful things to strangers for no good reason other than our own amusement, why should that environment be fostered and protected while those who feel a moral obligation to kindness and respect are sent running offline?

Fark Bans Misogyny From its Forums, Proves It's Possible [Huffington Post]
Fark Bans Misogyny in Comments, Setting a New Precedent for Bro-Culture Websites [xojane]
Fark Wants to Ban Misogyny.  Is That Even Possible? [Slate]
This is What Happens When You Try to 'Ban Misogyny' from a Major Website [The Washington Post]

I Embrace My Female Nerd (and So Can You)

There's something I want to go ahead and put out there: I am a nerd. Many of my female role models live in alternate universes, fight aliens in space, are spies or witches, and are, well, fictional. As this is my first official post as a contributor to Her Blueprint, I feel it is important to get that admission out of the way.

There's been a lot of social commentary written about calling oneself a nerd (or a geek) as nerd-culture has become increasingly popular with rise of Comic-Con International, shows like The Big Bang Theory and Game of Thrones, and Marvel Studio's super-secret plan for world domina... I mean, modestly successful franchises—it's become popular to be a nerd, and self-proclaimed "real nerds" don't like that people are jumping on their Battlestar Galactica or throwing on a Browncoat at this stage in the game.

Any discussion about who gets to call themselves a "real nerd" belongs on another blog (or better yet, on no blogs, as personally, I think it's a ridiculous conversation to have in the first place) — I bring it up as something of an introduction to myself (because I'll bring nerd things into a conversation whenever possible) and as a segue into the actual point of this post: the rising popularity of women in sci-fi.

It’s a broad topic, I know, as well-written female protagonists are hard to come by in any genre, and despite valiant attempts by comic book and fiction writers, female characters rarely translate into box-office dollars and second season pick-ups—until recently, that is. More and more, we're seeing films like Maleficent and Lucy, starring Angelina Jolie and Scarlet Johansson, respectively, put into production; both films are currently in the top 25 grossing films of 2014, with Jolie's Maleficent sitting in the #2 spot, with $747.6 million earned so far, 68% of which is from overseas markets.

Science fiction, and its sister genre fantasy, has always been the refuge of counter-culture; time travel, space exploration, dystopian futures wrought at the hands of despots and the revolutionaries that overthrow them—science fiction is where we look for change and hope. As the boom of nerd-culture sweeps Hollywood, the reach of the sci-fi genre is increasing as well. So far in 2014, seven of the top grossing films in South Africa are sci-fi, already tying 2013's numbers. In Argentina, eight of the top 20 grossing films are from the genre, up from six in 2013. Similar increases can be seen in Peru and Lebanon, with 11 and nine films so far in 2014, compared to nine and six in 2013, respectively.

And there's no lack of science fiction productions on the horizon, with films like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, Cinderella, and Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron, all coming out in the next year. And each of these films features at least one lead female character.

In 2013, the top ten grossing films earned an average of 64% of their total revenues from overseas markets; as Hollywood's sci-fi moves toward more equal gender representation, that representation can be seen reaching into international markets as well.

The landscape of television is seeing similar movements, as was evident at this year's International Comic-Con in San Diego. From events with the casts of BBC's Orphan Black and HBO's Game of Thrones, and Entertainment Weekly's Women Who Kick Ass panel, women took the lead with more than ten panels solely dedicated to female representation across mediums. Women also ruled the convention floor with gender-bent cosplay and a nerd-themed fashion show.

Katey Sagal, Sarah Paulson, Tatiana Maslany, Nicole Beharie, Maisie Williams and Natalie Dormer speaking at the 2014 San Diego Comic Con International, for "Entertainment Weekly: Women Who Kick Ass", at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
There was a time in my life when I wanted to work for the CIA—I wanted to be like Sydney Bristow, Jennifer Garner's character in Alias, traveling around the world in disguises, stealing computer chips and taking out the bad guys. That's a lie, actually, I still want to be like Sydney Bristow, despite every one of my fiercely liberal bones telling me otherwise. Young women—all women—need positive role models, and the amazing thing about the human imagination is that the person inspiring you doesn't need to be real. For better or worse, the reach of popular culture cannot be denied; it is imperative that we continue to move toward and support more female lead characters. And science fiction is a great place to start.

Doctor Who-a threat to the political and social order? [The Guardian]
Women Totally Dominated This Year's Comic-Con International []
Yearly Box Office [BoxOfficeMojo]

Abortion Ship Doctor Slams Irish Policy

[Editor's Note: This post was written by Tracy Brown Hamilton, a journalist based in Amsterdam. It originally appeared on]

Photo credit: WOW Facebook page.
News broke over the weekend that a woman in Ireland was forced to bear her rapist’s child having been denied an abortion after going on hunger strike. Tracy Brown Hamilton chatted to Rebecca Gomperts of Woman On Waves about how Ireland’s laws are failing women.

The Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act of 2013 was ostensibly going to help secure a woman’s rights, and sparked outrage from Ireland’s pro-life community. But the policy is flawed, according to Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, 47.
“It’s ridiculous,” Gomperts says. “Women are dying and suffering health problems. Human rights are being violated. It was bad before, but now it’s worse. This policy won’t help women.”
Gomperts is the founder and director of Women on Waves, an organization that, among other things, sails a ship to countries where pregnancy termination is prohibited and offers non-surgical abortions beyond territorial waters.

Ireland Campaign

In 2001, Women on Waves launched their first ship campaign – to Ireland.
“There is a very dedicated pro-choice community there,” Gomperts says, “and they were very interested in the project.”
The number of women who sought Gomperts’ services exceeded anyone’s expectations. “The groups we worked with said, ‘no woman is going to come to a ship for an abortion’,” Gomperts recalls. “But we had 80 calls immediately, and realized we had not brought enough pills.”

Those who responded included women who had been raped, schoolgirls who could not find a feasible excuse to go to England for a couple of days, mothers who could not afford childcare while away in England, and political refugees who did not have the papers to travel.

In the end, because they did not have two necessary licenses from the Dutch and Irish authorities –one for operating medical facilities and the other for carrying passengers to sea – Women on Waves was unable to distribute the abortion pill.

Regardless, hundreds of Irish women continued to reach out to Gomperts for help.

Non-Surgical Abortion

According to Gomperts, the abortion pill – mifepristone and misoprostol – can be safely used to terminate pregnancies up to 12 weeks at home, without medical supervision.
“The World Health Organisation has published guidelines that say women can do this,” she says. “So there is no need for surgical abortion anymore. The only issue is getting women access to the pills.”
To that end, Gomperts has created an international network to help women around the world find a means of getting the abortion pill. “We are not selling drugs,” she clarifies. “We are a referral service; we help women get a medical abortion at home. But they risk prosecution if it’s illegal in their country.”

And under Ireland’s new abortion policy, punishment has become stricter. “The sentence for such an ‘illegal’ abortion in Ireland used to be three years,” Gomperts says, “and now they have made it twelve years.”

Dr. Gomperts smiles on the telephone during a recent action in Smir, Morocco. Photo credit: WOW Facebook page

No Link to Depression

The new law also removes the possibility of suicide risk as a means of permitting legal abortions. “Of course it was already problematic if you are forcing someone to say they are suicidal just to obtain an abortion,” she says, “but now even that is not allowed.”

Gomperts strongly opposes claims that abortion can lead to mental distress or illness.
“There have been lots of scientific studies published in major journals,” she says, “that show there is no link between depression or suicide and abortion. None.”
Statistics of women who express regret after terminating a pregnancy can be misconstrued, Gomperts finds. “Our data shows that 1 percent of women regret it,” she says. “But a lot of women mean they regret being in the position to begin with. That’s different.”

A Selfless Decision

Gomperts has encountered many women who have been surprised to find themselves opting for termination. “They tell me, ‘I am against abortion, but my situation is different,’” she says. “It takes a certain degree of empathy to extend that reasoning to other people, or to realize that perhaps you are not against abortion after all.”

People are too judgmental about abortion, Gomperts says.
“For me, it’s obvious that it’s a selfless decision,” she says. “There are women who, if they had the right conditions, may make a different choice. But when women really find they don’t have what it takes to raise a child in a good situation, then abortion is a very moral decision.”

Social Justice Issue

Gomperts, who has two children, says she is a doctor first and an activist second. “As a doctor, I’m here to aid in the well being of people,” she says. “And if you want to make sure that the well being of women is being guaranteed, you have to legalize abortion. For me it’s completely about social justice. The problem with many health issues today, including abortion, is that it comes down to who has the means to access the care.”

Tears in the Congo: Jean Chung Returns to DRC Five Years Later

Between 2008 and 2009, award-winning photojournalist Jean Chung traveled through the Democratic Republic of Congo to document sexual violence. In the resulting series, Tears in the Congo: Sexual Violence in the DRC, she captured the strength and bravery of women who gave birth after being raped.

In bold colors, Chung shared stories of women carrying their babies back home after treatment and fistula surgeries, reflecting the ravage of rape that has affected more than half a million women in the DRC.

Five years later, she returned to follow up on her earlier subjects. Chung's latest work Tears in the Congo: Unending War, Unending Tears documents the women and children who continue to fight for their safety and survival, even as rape as a weapon of war continues to proliferate their lives.

Yet now, in 2014, Chung's photos from Congo are in black-and-white. The photo at the top of this post caught my eye and mesmerized me. In the midst of life, zooming through the French countryside on TGV watching green earth pass by, sitting by the ocean looking at three swaths of blue, letting the sun warm my naked spine, I kept thinking, when Chung returned to Congo, all color was gone. Only black and white remained.

For months, I have been on a writing break since stumbling upon May San Alberto's Artemisias in a gallery in Rome. Sometimes the break comes from still not knowing the answer: how to create safety for women and children in the DRC because they deserve it. As much as I do. As much as you do. As we all do.

Over these months, one thought kept surfacing: Our work as activists, as human beings, has to bring effective change. We all must live in safety, at least.

How can this shift occur? More advocacy. More policy and law. More outreach?

In June 2014, the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence took place in London. It created concrete steps toward ending impunity for those who commit sexual violence within war and conflict.

But until impunity arrives and behavior change occurs, Chung has it right. The facts are stark and they remain in black-and-white: For more than ten years, the DRC has been a war zone with death tolls exceeding 5.5 million people. More than 500,000 women and children have been raped.

Chung's photos also remind: As time passes for women and children in Congo, this means their lives remain just as they are. Just as they have been for more than ten years. In need of basic safety. In need of a better chance. In need of change.

Jean Chung is a Korean photojournalist who has won awards such as the CARE Humanitarian Reporting Award in 2007 and the 6th and 7th Days Japan International Photojournalism Award in 2010 and 2011. 

Photo credits: Jean Chung

CLIO TALKS BACK: “It is the Women Who Make the Soldiers”

This week is the 100th anniversary of the German invasion of France – and the beginning of the military cataclysm that wrecked Europe and has affected us all since. All this the result of an assassination in Sarajevo in late June, and the month of failed diplomatic efforts that followed. (France had done nothing except to come to the support of its ally Russia, which was supporting the Serbs against the Austrians, who were allied with Germany). Clio’s previous blog was on this subject.

Clio has since discovered a novel by the best-selling French writer, Marcelle Tinayre (1870-1948), called (in its English translation) To Arms! Published in 1915, it explores the varied reactions of ordinary Parisians as seen through the eyes of one woman during two days (the 31st of July and 1st August 1914 – just 100 years ago) of the run-up to the German invasion of France– when Parisians had learned that the German army was mobilizing for a strike, but hadn’t yet launched it.

In Tinayre’s novel, one older woman who is the concierge in the building where the main character, Simone, lives, exclaims, weeping, on how hard war is on mothers of sons:
“If there were women in the government, war would be ended! It is the soldiers who make the battles, but it is the women who make the soldiers. 
Between you and me, we always think about saving our children. I cannot think that a German mother has a different heart from mine! There are not two ways of bringing a child into the world, and not two ways for him to leave it, and not two ways of suffering when we lose him. Nature is everywhere the same . . . .” 
And the author remarks:
“The cry of distracted maternity, of naked and savage instinct, resounded through Simone’s whole being. The old concierge with grey hair, in the rooms furnished with mahogany, seemed to her a symbolic figure of the Mater Dolorosa. No doubt, at this moment, despatches running on the telegraph wires, or sent on air waves, were carrying the same news to France, Germany, and Russia. Everywhere, the women who had not wished to believe in the catastrophe so incomprehensible to their simple minds, were brutally crushed before the reality. . . . Everywhere. And the women of the Russian huts, primitive souls who knew nothing of the universe, and the prolific German women who lived in subjection to men, and the French women passionately devoted to their sons, all, submitting to the law, faithful to their duty but equally tortured, uttered the same cry, the unavailing cry of the mothers which, from the time of Hecuba and Rachel, resounds eternally from age to age.” 
And yet wars continue, and mothers continue to wail. Ten million men died in World War I and some twenty million were wounded. An entire generation was sacrificed in the course of four bloody years. Wars continue today in many parts of the world. How long will it be before women and men put a halt to such senseless slaughter?

Source: To Arms! (La Veillée des Armes): An Impression of the Spirit of France. Authorized translation from the French of Marcelle Tinayre by Lucy H. Humphrey, with a preface by John H. Finley (New York, 1918; originally published in France in 1915).