The Unintended Consequence of Headscarves?

June 20, 2006

A girl with cherry earing
Originally uploaded by Farhang .

Here is something that the holier-than-thou types will be unnerved by: I find that wearing the headscarf makes women look more attractive.

What is more, I suspect that I am not alone in thinking this. In fact, I have checked with a few friends (mostly because I was getting worried if it was the right thing to think) and found out that they share my aesthetics. No, it is not only my demons. This is one of those things that everybody knows and nobody wants to talk about, because… well, because we are talking about Muslim women’s headdress and not the swimsuits featured in FHM’s latest!

But it’s true. And THAT gives a whole different meaning to the phrase “unintended consequence.” Of course the intended consequence of legislating hijab and making the headscarf mandatory is that it makes women modest and keeps the men’s demons in check. This thinking has driven the age old effort in the Muslim world to keep women shrouded in public. To be fair, it has succeeded in some places. The all-black ninja thing that Saudi women wear makes them look scary, and the Taliban’s definition of hijab aimed not only at women’s modesty, but at their total invisibility. Coupled with the generally suffocating social and cultural atmospheres that marked Taliban-era Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia for since I remember, and the violence that they made into a big part of public life, everything would be kept in check, including the people’s very souls.

But I suspect that my fashionable Muslim sisters -especially here in America- have subverted the headscarf into a haute accessory. And power to them! I was recently lunching with a few Middle Eastern friends (men) in a popular hangout location in D.C. and it was the opening weekend of some big movie. The place was bustling with young people from all backgrounds, but the Muslim women stood out -at least for the few of us on the table- in their sophisticated taste as indicated by ethnic jewelry and other accessories, and yes, the headscarves that subtly bore their national origins.

I am convinced that many people wear the headscarf not so much out of conservative religious zeal or parental compulsion as much as out of free choice, a sense of belonging, and the sheer trendiness of headscarves as an accessory. If they were that conservative or under pressure from their parents, many would not be accompanied by dates (trust me, they could not have been siblings) or dressed in otherwise “immodest” clothing such as tight and/or ripped jeans, short-legged capri pants, or that latest craze among girls: short-legged, curve-exaggerating, loose pants that look more like a skirt than pants, but upon closer inspection are really pants…

Naturally, talk of the headscarf dominated our conversation, and though we are all against legislating for (or for that matter against, as the Europeans seem to be so excited about) headscarves, we all agreed that it made women look attractive (“sexy” is how one friend put it) -in some mysterious way that God himself only knows.

Now you tell me if this is all a figment of a handful of homesick, nostalgic, single Muslim men’s perverse imaginations, or that there is some truth to this?

When The Going Gets Tough

June 17, 2006

Notwithstanding his rising unpopularity inside Afghanistan these days, our Chapan-clad and Qaraqul-donning president has always had a way with international audiences, reporters, and dignitaries. From journalists and media-types to fashion designers and heads of state, people have always been wooed by President Hamid Karzai’s charisma, confidence, unfailing optimism, and a flair for always giving the good news -regardless.

I found this out for myself a couple of years ago when I was at a a gathering in D.C. where Mr. Karzai spoke about Afghanistan. I could sense myself identifying with the full-house audience who palpably adored him. Given that his talk about the situation in Afghanistan was not entirely congruent with reality at the time, for about half an hour he made Afghanistan seem a cool and attractive place, the US a compassionate hegemon, and the world a beautiful place. There was so much love in the air that evening I could have kissed the visiting fellow from Tokyo University who sat right next to me. On his cheek.

The cynic in me says that he was being diplomatically disingenuous that night, but I would like also to think that he is an idealist who believes in his vision of a bright future for Afghanistan so deeply that it often gets in the way of him telling the harsh but necessary truth. Even when I got exasperated with the reporters giving him too much of an easy time and asked a somewhat distasteful question myself (containing a suggestion about a “special cabinet within the cabinet,” at the time a worrisome trend in Afghanistan’s politics) it neither dampened his spirit nor scathed his optimistic style. (To read his response, refer to page 8 of the transcript for that event here.)

I decided to let go and allow myself to bask in the optimism that he radiated that evening. And so did the standing audience who also forgave him the half an hour late arrival. Given all the bad news, he came across unmistakably reassuring and confident about a brighter future. He probably exasperated a number of realists, Democratic policy-makers, and a few Afghans, but they were in the minority and they dared not be party-poopers.

At one point the person introducing him turned to the audience and said: “I hope you realize you’re looking at the equivalent of George Washington, the kind of man that has to build a new country…” The analogy was clearly inapt and historically incorrect. But it did not matter. We were in the presence of greatness, and he was glowing -literally, after he took off his Qaraqul hat. At one point I even got the feeling that I was in a huge rock concert and the president was a living legend, a rock superstar -and it occured to me how it must feel to moshpit and crowd-surf with the business-attired audience who were galvanized and spell-bound by the performance.

Lately, the going has gotten tough for the president. In fact, since the beginning of the new year in Afghanistan, there has been an rising tide of bad news out of the country that has cast a shadow on the government’s achievements and has even opened its performance over the past five years to doubt and cynicism. Last week, Newsweek International reported: “Urbane, dapper Hamid Karzai has always come off well in the international spotlight. But the Afghan president looked decidedly uncomfortable last week as he addressed his own nation following a riot in Kabul…”

So what is a person like Mr. Karzai to do when surrounded with more and more bad news? With the bitter pungency of failure poisoning the air around? And coming face to face with that old enemy of all idealists everywhere: reality?

Two words: Leave Town.
Change of atmosphere does wonders for clearing up a troubled mind.

Take the example of friend and comrade in the war on terror, President Bush: when the small-mindedness and political bickering of Washington becomes too much to bear for him, President Bush retires to the peace and quiet of good old Crawford, Texas. A peaceful and unconfusing southern town where things are what they seem, and a person can relax and not worry about a thing in the world. Cherishing southern wholesomeness and hospitality.

South and hometown are two places Mr. Karzai cannot possibly associate with wholesomeness and hospitality. His own southern hometown of Kandahar is where Mr. Karzai would do best to steer clear of. Too much noise and explosion and stuff blowing up there.

So what does Mr. Karzai do?

Well, aware of his darling status in the international limelight, when times are low, Mr. Karzai emigrates. He leaves country. He opts for the hagira option. Exodus. With a sumptuous entourage of his aides and favorite cabinet ministers.
And that is exactly what Mr. Karzai did right after the Kabul riots. He went to China, and looked adorable in this photo-op:

Jogo Bonito: Believing in the Beautiful

June 16, 2006

Slug, of the Sluggishly Sluggish Slug Blog, whom until recently I thought was somebody else and not my own wittier alter ego (silly me, how else could our backgrounds, views, and posting timelines agree so much?) has reminded me -and I am profoundly grateful for this reminder- that burying myself neck-deep in the sand of miseries that surrounds Afghanistan is not right. It is a good excuse for the sort of depressive mode that I can easily slip into and not get out of for months, and hence the perfect recipe for laziness – laziness of the kind that is often paraded as philosophical-intellectual concern. And there is far too many good things happening all around to be myopically concerned only with doom and gloom.
Take, for instance, the FIFA World Cup games underway in Germany!

Look at those colorful, smily faces! This must be the nicest World Cup logo I have ever seen, and all too much needed at a time like this. Kudos to the designers who could not have come up with a more untimely and irrelevant -and hence more artistic- design for the tournament logo (I have not seen a better definition of art than that provided by that indispensible prophet of our own darker sides, Nietzsche, who said that “art sanctifies lies,” and that the profession of the artist, that is, professional lying, is a necessary one.)
OK, back to the World Cup: it’s amazing how once every four years this event distorts all political, cultural, social, economic, religious, and civlizational alliances and antagonisms. It trumps conventional loyalties (well, with the exception of national ones) and organizes the world along completely different lines. Ronaldhino becomes a household name in Afghanistan, and Brazilian football wins fans from Kabul to Kuala lumpur. Iran gets to beat the US in the game that incorporates art and finesse, and does not rely on size (always a plus for the Americans) and annual military spending. Togo and the Ivory Coast vie for the same prize as Japan and Germany. And colors fly! It is a new-age bacchanalia of sorts, where emotional outburst -which has been frowned upon for roughly the past two millenia- is regarded as good and beautiful. My first fond memories of watching the World Cup are those of Coupe de Monde ’98, which the roosters took home. I woke up at ungodly hours to watch the Korea-Japan games with family and friends, and I suspect I might have disturbed the neighbors on a few occasions over the past couple of weeks as well.
My favorite team?
The Canarinhos, the little canaries, the Os, in their yellows and blues, the Brazilians, the believers in the “Jogo Bonito”, the beautiful game. Now I know that lately “I am sick of Brazil” is in vogue. And I admit that a sixth victory would be unfair to the rest of the world and to the Germans in particular. What I like about the Brazilians -aside from the obvious, that is, their superb technique, creativity, an ever-changing roster of young talents, sportsmanship, and their natural grace in stardom- is that they play the game with ideology. They have helped football transcend, from a sport of brawn and bruises to an art with finesse. The canarinhos encapsulate this aspect of the game. Their ideology in football, which has annoyed the heck out of many a European commentators, is that they “believe in the beautiful”, and you just have to respect those who think of sports in those terms.
And they are immensely entertaining. Brazilians are confident enough on the field to not be afraid of taking risks, and as we all have come to learn, no game can be more boring than one in which the sides play it safe, do not take chances with the ball, afraid of giving it away. I am not generally favorably disposed to the superiors, and at times unwittingly support underdogs, but the Brazilians do not wear their supremacy on their sleeves. God forbid is any European country won the cup three times in a row: they would probably institute their own standards for the game and figure ways to extract political and economic juice out of their superiority in the game. I think the fact that so many people support the Brazilians around the world (I read somewhere recently that they are “everybody’s second favorite team, after that of their own country) is because many of the players epitomize the rags to riches profile, as does the country, arguably.

And so my fellow believers in the beautiful, join me in celebrating the canarinhos over the next few weeks, and enjoy the games.

And yes, Slug is my online alter-ego and if I (writing, of course, under the pseudonym of Slug) tell you otherwise, don’t believe it. It is a case of cyberzophrenia and I might just be denying it.

Some Reassuring News Out of Afghanistan?

June 15, 2006

In my last post I referenced the Washington Post article that reports of an increasingly desperate Afghan government “mull”ing about arming tribal militia in the south of the country in order to combat the Taliban. It is needless to rehash here again that such policies would be tentamount to repeating a disastrous experiment that threw Afghanistan into chaos in the 1990s as an increasingly desperate (foreign-backed) government then also resorted to arming the tribal militia. To cite a more contemporary case in point, take the example of Iraq where militia forces attached to one or the other political party have engaged in human rights abuses and sectarian violence.

In light of all this, the recent news out of Afghanistan about the government sanctioning the formation of tribal militia had really pre-occupied my mind. In fact, when an occasion arose today to ask about this from a well-placed source in the Afghan government (whose identity I cannot disclose without giving away my own too) I nearly jumped out of my seat at the end of the presentation and asked what the deal was with the government arming the militia.

I was glad to hear the speaker’s reassuring answer that all of this was the media’s usual misrepresentation of events in Afghanistan and that the government was in no way planning to arm the tribal militia. What the government is considering instead is to seek the help of villagers in defending southern provinces from the Taliban, and form squads in various locales in the south that would work closely with the local police forces to defend against the Taliban.

Great. So that’s what the big hoopla was all about?
I am just baffled by how the media can twist things around so much.

Kabul Riots A Wake-Up Call

June 14, 2006

In springtime, Afghanistan comes to life: the snow melts, the green sprouts, the bugs wake up from their winter-long slumber, and the farmers get to work.

So do the Taliban.

And that is reason enough to dampen the spirit of Nawrouz, the celebration on the first day of spring with which the people of Afghanistan welcome their new year -because this has been one bloody spring for the people of Afghanistan. Since the beginning of the new year on Afghanistan’s solar calendar, there have been several suicide attacks, foreign and Afghan National Army troop deaths, kidnappings, beheadings, a bloody citywide riot in Kabul, and several large-scale operations mounted by the US and coalition forces -all with the attendant “collateral damage” that the public conscience has come to accept as normal in such events.

There have been many attempts to explain away the significance of last week’s riots in Kabul. The usual banter of the central government responding to anything undesirable has stood in this case too: that this is the work of that formless, nameless, mysterious, and amorphous entity that can only be referred to using the codeword “enemies of Afghanistan.” This constantly-evolving monster can apparently accommodate within its cavernous belly varying and even antagonistic forces: from the Taliban in the south to supporters of their arch-nemesis the Northern Alliance who were mostly behind the Kabul riots. But then we are speaking about Afghanistan, and here the same could be said of the government itself. (The new parliament being a case in point.)

To the US government and an American public used to seeing Afghanistan only in the same context as the much sorrier state of Iraq, the rioting and its flagrant anti-Americanism has been somewhat of a shock. This ought to strengthen the image of people of Afghanistan (and Muslims at large) in the American mind as an ungrateful and unpredictable bunch given to momentary frenzies of flag-burning and stone-throwing. I suspect, however, that there are also those out there who are realizing that not all the good news they have been fed about Afghanistan since 2002 has been true.

One of the people who has taken clear note of the rapidly deteriorating situation of Afghanistan is Susan Rice, Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. and an expert on security matters. Dr. Rice, who was speaking recently at an event about Global Attitudes Toward US Foreign Policy, cited Afghanistan as a “serious” concern for US foreign policy. In answer to a question I posed to her about recent developments in Afghanistan, Dr. Rice described the situation there as “extremely fragile” and “arguably on a steeper downward trajectory …than Iraq.” (Read transcript of the event, comments appear on page 34.)

All of these developments have clearly alarmed the authorities in Afghanistan, and particularly in the aftermath of the riots, they have embarked on a new course of action. This includes a sweeping overhaul of the interior ministry and the country’s famously incompetent police force. Furthermore, the Defense Ministry recently announced plans to expand the size of the Afghan National Army from the initially planned 70,000 force to over 200,000. (It goes without saying that there is also an evident need to make both the police and the armed forces more ethnically inclusive.) Such changes reveal that despite its rhetoric about “enemies of Afghanistan” orchestrating the riots, the authorities are realizing that the riots were partly also a vote of low confidence in the government, and particularly in what many people perceive to be an ethnic imbalance and the domination of the governmental apparatus by Afghanistan’s historically dominant ethnic minority. Alleviating such fears and addressing these perceptions, therefore, ought to be among the government’s top policy and public relations priorities.

Shockingly enough, the latest announcement from the government does the opposite. The Washington Post reports that out of desperation with the deteriorating security situation, the government is considering the formation of an ethnic militia in the Pashtun-populated south of the country. If actualized, this decision will prove extremely divisive and will inflame members of Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups who have been systematically disarmed under the DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration) program over the past few years. While the DDR program is still ongoing in other parts of the country, legitimizing ethnic militia and sanctioning weapons possession in the south and east will further erode public support for a government that is fast losing the hearts and minds of the rest of the populace.

The Washington Post report correctly points out that similar tactics of arming ethnic militia in the north adopted by Afghanistan’s last central government eventually led to its downfall, as most of the northern militia turned against the government. The open-handed arms distribution to the militia (along with massive US-financed imports from China, Pakistan, and Egypt) also helped make AK47 a household item in the most remote of Afghanistan’s villages. Eventually the tribal militia and various other anti-Soviet forces soon organized along ethnic lines and turned on each other, so that by the time the Taliban rose as a force in the south promising a return to order, most people in Afghanistan welcomed them.

A glance at Afghanistan’s history since the colonial era reveals a surprising number of occasions where history seems to have repeated itself. But I have never been a fan of historicism, and still believe that we can be optimistic. I am hoping that this time around the new government of Mr. Karzai has learned the lesson that is still fresh in the mind of most people of Afghanistan. Arming tribal militia, distributing weapons, legitimizing weapons possession outside the country’s armed forces, and adopting policies that are widely perceived as motivated by the interests of one ethnic group as opposed to the milieu of Afghanistan’s peoples are proven mistakes that this government cannot afford to make at this point. Nor can the US government, as a major stakeholder in Afghanistan, let the government of Mr. Karzai make these mistakes.

While they are still publicly in denial about it, the new government has taken the riots as a wake-up call. But distributing weapons left and right is the wrong thing to do first thing in the morning while still rubbing your eyes.


June 12, 2006

Originally uploaded by Hamesha’s Afghanistan.

Riding the parallel lines
half awake,
ear to the monotonous clicks,
-intermittent, unfailing-
Every morning is a losing battle
against the gentle rocking motion that invites me back to sleep.