Forgotten Countries and their Real Story: Middle East

The Middle East is a transcontinental region. When people think of the term “Middle East”, a host of thoughts come to mind such as deserts, burkas and Saudi Arabia. However, whether they are accurate is a completely different story. Most countries in the Middle East are often forgotten about, ignored, or misconstrued.

Location

One of the most interesting questions to ask people is: Where is the Middle East located? Most people don’t even know what countries consist of the Middle East. One of the reasons why is, in the United States, geography is a dying subject. In fact, about three-fourths of the eighth graders in the United States test below average in geography. Furthermore, in most schools, geography is not required in middle school or high school. Out of the fifty states, only seventeen actually require geography in middle school and only ten in high school. The Middle East consists of fourteen countries shown in the picture below. What surprised me was how I found numerous websites that differed on what countries they thought were actually in the Middle East.

 

Middle East Map. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Arab vs Muslim

What does it mean to be an Arab? An Arab is defined as someone who identifies as being an Arab and whose native language is Arabic. On the other hand, someone who is Muslim practices the religion of Islam. Being an Arab and being a Muslim are not synonymous. For example, you could be an Arab who is not Muslim or you could be a Muslim but not an Arab. Furthermore, about 60% of people living in the Middle East are considered Arab. There are other ethnicities such as Persians, Turks, Kurds, and Jews.

What most people don’t realize is that there are over one billion Muslims in the world, the second largest religion in the world, and the majority are not in the Middle East. In fact, the country with the largest Muslim population is Indonesia. Also, the majority of Muslims live in Asia. While the majority of the Middle East does practice Islam, there are other religions practiced such as Judaism, Christianity, Baha’i, and Zoroastrians. Furthermore, there are different sects of Islam such as Sunni and Shiite.

Another misconception is that all the countries in the Middle East are considered Arab countries. However, that is not the case. For example, Saudi Arabia is predominantly Arab. This misconception may stem from the fact that much of the Islamic faith is written in Arabic. So regardless of which country you reside in, you would have some knowledge of Arabic.

Diverse Societies

There’s a certain stereotype in regards to the Middle East called orientalism that generalizes the region as deserts with roaming camels with olive-skinned people wearing robes, turbans, and garments that completely cover women from head to toe. The fact of the matter is that the style and environment depends on the area of the Middle East. We must also consider other factors such as education, socioeconomic status, and individual preference.  The veil is looked at as a form of modesty. The concept of modesty is meant to be applied to both genders and not just on women, and how each person interprets its meaning is different. Some countries such as Iran and Yemen do require veiling to go out in public; however, most people who wear a veil add their own twist to it. When considering the environment, the Middle East is geographically diverse. The Middle East seems to be defined by its deserts but there are also mountains ranges and rivers. One section of the world should not be defined as one thing. Many people see the Middle East as a backward “country” when it is, indeed, the contrary. Some of their cities rival those in the United States such as Lebanon, Iran, and Turkey. Demographic trends show that the Middle East has the “youngest population and it has the second highest urbanization rate in the world”.

Source: Creative Commons

“Disregarding the complexity, diversity, vibrancy, and humanity of people in the region leads to this ‘othering’ of the Middle East that is really damaging.”

One dimensional portrayal of women

A common misconception is that Middle Eastern women are oppressed and denied their basic rights because of their religion. Also, it is assumed, they must cover themselves with a veil because they are weak and passive. However, the concept of the veil actually came from Christian Byzantium, not Islam. Surprisingly, Islam gave women more rights than Western women, until the 19th century. In England, women were considered the property of their husband until 1882. However, Muslim women have always been able to keep their own assets. A more current example is when Muslim women are married they tend to keep their last name, while most Western women do not. Notably, in the Quran, Islam’s sacred book, it “states that men and women are equal in the eyes of God.” As you can see, Islam is not the determining factor behind women being oppressed. While religion can affect women’s rights, culture is the main factor driving the question of gender roles. As a result, you cannot assume all of the Middle East is the same and deem it as such. Depending on the region, women have different statuses and rights. While it is true that in Saudi Arabia women cannot drive cars, that is not true in other Middle Eastern countries. Women do have political and social rights in the Middle East, they just vary depending on the country. In fact, women have served as ministers in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan and as Vice President in Iran. That is not to say that the Middle Eastern women do not have problems, just that it is not as extreme as Western countries seem to think.

The Middle East deserves to be seen as diverse. By discussing location, religion, society, and gender people can gain a more open outlook on the Middle East. It is easy to let fear, ignorance, or the media dictate one’s perception; however, to change the cycle conversations must be created.

 

Crazy Rich Asians: The Double-Edged Sword

Crazy Rich Asians, a film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 book, was released on August 15, 2018. This movie has generated discussion in the representation for the Asian community through gender, class, and race. However, these efforts have been deemed controversial. The point of this film is to get people talking about the topic of representation and simply there is no way to make everyone happy. However, this film will lead the way to an industry that has been recently revived by the likes of movies such as Coco, the Big Sick, and Hidden Figures.

How Crazy Rich Asians is different

The film is based on the first book of the trilogy that covers Nick and Rachel’s journey. Interestingly enough, the film is a romantic comedy. When I think back to my childhood, that was all the rage. Unfortunately, in the past couple of years, rom com’s have faded into oblivion. Thankfully, it seems over the past couple of months that a number of new rom coms, such as Set it Up, To All the Boy’s I’ve Loved Before, and Love, Simon are on the rise.

Heart hand. Source: Max Pixel, Creative Commons

In the film, the two main characters, Nick and Rachel, fall in love, so Nick decides to introduce Rachel to his family in Singapore. What Rachel does not know is that they are one of the richest families in the country. In the beginning, the movie seemed like any other rom com with your basic love story. However, what took me by surprise was the multidimensionality of the characters. While Nick’s mom, Eleanor, can be seen as the stereotypical “villain”, this story takes a different route and adds more elements to her character. Instead of simply being portrayed as evil, the movie shows other sides to her character such as her dedication and hard work for her family. This movie provides us with the reasons behind her “evil” traits, which makes it harder to dislike her. Humans are not one-dimensional beings; we have numerous traits that come together to make us who we are. A person is not just evil, but instead has multiple traits.

Another innovative idea is how this movie portrayed stereotypes. The movie begins with Nick’s family entering a fancy hotel in London during a storm, which made the floor muddy. The manager claims they do not have any room for her. In retaliation, Eleanor convinces her husband, Philip, to buy the hotel and in doing so makes the manager clean the floor. This scene causes the audience to feel sympathy toward the protagonist. What is genius about this scene is how they made a character who is normally not seen as relatable into someone we care about and sympathize with by showing their vulnerability. Another important concept was the fact that Rachel was given the majority of power, not Nick. Usually, the male decides between his mom or his girlfriend. However, in this movie, it is Rachel who makes the decision. This movie challenged gender stereotypes about who should have power and control.

Dark reality of Singapore

This film, for the majority of time, is set in Singapore, a small island nation in Southeast Asia. While the movie does not go in depth on the struggles of Singapore, such as their strict government and criminal justice system it provides a place for conversation to occur for those who wish to learn more about the country. Intentionally or unintentionally, the world will be talking about Singapore.

The author, Kevin Kwan, is wanted by the Singapore government for not participating in their mandatory military service which sheds some light on the harsher realities of what it is like to live in Singapore. It is a parliamentary representative democratic republic, meaning their President is the head of state, while their Prime Minister is the head of the government. Compared to the United States, there are numerous surprising, strict rules in Singapore such as it is illegal to smoke in public, feeding pigeons, or even connecting to someone else’s Wi-Fi which has $10,000 fine. There are restrictions on who can say what and what information is published through blogs or articles.

On the other hand, Singapore has one of the most diverse populations, both ethnically and religiously. Most of the populations in Singapore are Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian. While there are a variety of ethnicities with different languages, most Singaporeans speak English. Moreover, Singapore is the world’s most religiously diverse country because their society encourages people to follow their own culture and traditions while respecting others. Singapore is also a fairly small country and there are surveillance cameras on every street corner. Thus, it is quite safe and has a low crime rate and zero-tolerance policy relating to drugs and other crimes.

Singapore Black & White. Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

Making a splash in the Western world

Currently, in Western movies, there is a disproportionate amount of white actors and actresses compared to non-white actors and actresses, especially as the main character. The main reason why Crazy Rich Asians is groundbreaking is because it contains a cast of Eastern Asian actors and actresses. It is dismal to think that having casts of different races and cultures is not the norm. The only other movie produced in Hollywood that has an all-Asian cast is The Joy Luck Club, a 1973 film about Chinese women who meet up and play Mahjong and discuss stories about their family. Hence, it took 45 years for another all-Asian cast film to make the headlines.

A lot of the controversy with hiring different races comes with assuming what people want to see. Many people presume that Americans want to watch an American movie with actors that look like them, which means mainly “white”, so they can relate. The irony is that it is predicted in 2045 that most Americans will not be considered white, so why do producers think that most movie actors should be predominantly white?  Many of the presumptions emerge with culture and what we are used to seeing. However, in the past years, there have been more films created to show the diversity of underrepresented communities such as Black Panther and Get Out. However, even with the rise of more diverse casts, 1.4 actors out of every 10 people are people of color. That is the startling reality.

The reason this story is refreshing is because of how the movie has a new take on a common story plot, although we see different people than we normally would. In fact, there are certain parts in the movie where they poke fun at Americans. In Western movies, occasionally, they throw in people of race to “diversify their movie”. However, you can usually tell they did it just to fill their quota; personally, it never quite feels real. In this movie, they rarely include white people and they do only to fill their requirement. For example, one of the scenes that stood out to me was when a man told his kids to eat his food because of all the starving kids in America. Also, when they include beauty queens in a bachelorette party, instead of looking at other countries and how different they are from the United States, we get a role reversal of how different it is from Singapore. Another unique aspect of this film is how it focuses on the second generation of immigrants. In the past, we have seen trite storylines on an immigrant coming to the United States and chasing the American Dream. This movie stands out because it is not afraid to poke fun at things we consider our “norm”, which leads to new possibilities of what the future will hold for the big screen.

No film is perfect

On the other hand, while this movie is groundbreaking, it is not without its weaknesses. One of the major shortcomings that people were quick to mention was the misrepresentation of the Singaporean population. Singapore is culturally diverse and includes people from other places such as Indonesia and Malaysia. People were looking for brown or non-Eastern Singaporeans among the cast; however, they were depicted as the working class. Based on a person’s skin color, they are treated and perceived differently. In fact, this movie plays into the stereotype that Asians are thought to have lighter complexions. The film had an all-Asian cast, but they were all East Asian. The film could have had more diversity. Especially, since one of this film’s biggest pillars is “the inversion of racial expectation”. It is paradoxical to say it is an innovative movie, when in fact it plays to some of the same stereotypes they are fighting against. To be fair, the focus of the movie is on an extremely wealthy Chinese-Singaporean family; thus, this movie is not trying to depict the entire Singaporean population. It is important to consider that regardless how great of a movie this is, there will always be some backlash. However, this may even be why it is such a great movie whereas it creates dialogue on topics that are often ignored or not noticeably addressed.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the United States

A mural of diverse faces on the gateway into Chamizal National Memorial
National Park Gateway: Chamizal National Memorial. Source: National Park Service, Creative Commons

Every four years, the US Department of the Interior releases a strategic plan highlighting their mission and future goals to best serve the American people. As the current plan spanning the 2014-2018 cycle is now drawing to a close, the updated 2018-2022 strategic plan has been created, but was leaked early online. Outside Magazine drilled deep into its content, and on November 2nd published an article addressing the fact that while there were significant changes in terms of National Park fees and regulations, “few took notice that the new administration has deleted the entire diversity, equity, and inclusion mandate from its plan.”

Political discussions about the outdoors usually focuses on the health of the environment or land usage rights, but a movement has been growing to confront what has been described as “The Adventure Gap“, or the underrepresentation of people of color in outdoor spaces. Grassroots efforts have been established to try and address this, such as the organization GirlTrek to get black women outside and walking to increase the health of their communities, but with many state and national parks being located outside of a city’s public transportation network and the entrance prices for popular parks being on the rise, the government for the last several years has been developing ways to extend access to those who would not have had the opportunity to participate in the park system through programs like Every Kid in A Park, an initiative that offers free admission to all fourth grade students across the country. Yet by excluding the mandate on diversity, “the inclusion of individuals representing more than one national origin, color, religion, socioeconomic stratum, sexual orientation”, equity, “freedom from bias or favoritism”, and inclusion, “the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure”, it is unlikely that initiatives to promote participation by minority groups within America’s public lands will be supported.

This is the latest in a string of decisions in which previous protections, mandates, and initiatives concerning diversity have been deconstructed or removed under the current administration. For example, in January following the inauguration of President Trump the new whitehouse.gov website was found to not only have dropped the page on climate change but to have also discarded the Obama-era page affirming the executive branch’s commitment to supporting the LGBTQ community. This was followed in October by an announcement from the Justice Department that protections from discrimination in the workplace under Title VII (“prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin”) would no longer apply to transgender workers. An easy argument to latch onto is that it is not the government’s place to be forced to affirm the identify of various groups, but after the January ban on refugees, the July ban on transgender military service personnel, and the September announcement of the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, it is no longer assumed that the government will issue protections for those who have been historically marginalized. However, the United States has wrestled with similar moral and legal debates over the last 200 years, and as preached by 19th century minister Theodore Parker and echoed later by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Since the establishment of the United States, there has a been constant tension concerning who is allowed to claim certain rights. In 1868, a first step of progress was made by introducing the 14th Amendment into the constitution, granting US citizenship to former slaves and declaring that all people are to be seen as equal under the law. At the time this amendment was a revolutionary statement, and throughout the country’s history this amendment has been the foundation for many of the most well-known civil rights cases the United States’ court system has ever seen.

Ninety years after the 14th Amendment had been ratified, challenges on the nature of equality were still being debated and put to the test as measures such as Jim Crow laws were enacted. Separation between blacks and whites was enforced in many public spaces, and education, marriage, and healthcare for the black community were all impacted negatively as a result. Yet in 1954, these policies were brought to court under the title of Brown vs Board of Education. Through the success of the plaintiff’s argument, schools across the country would soon be desegregated over the following years.

A display board from the Rosa Parks Collection Library of Congress about Equal Employment Opportunity
Equal Employment Opportunity – Title VII. Source: Ted Eytan, Creative Commons

Moving into the Civil Rights period of the 1960’s, the next phase of striving towards diversity, equity, and inclusion was the implementation of Affirmative Action in 1961. The history of the action is summarized on the National Conference of State Legislators website, recounting that

“In 1961, President Kennedy was the first to use the term ‘affirmative action’ in an Executive Order that directed government contractors to take ‘affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.’ The Executive Order also established the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, now known as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).”

Affirmative Action still stands today and has been joined by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but much like the decisions preceding them, these acts are still hotly contested. Critics argue that the actions lower standards and may force an employer to hire candidates unfit for the job, while supporters counter that the actions succeed at allowing underrepresented applicants such as ethnic minorities, women, those over age 40, racial minorities, and those who are disabled an equal chance to compete for white collar positions instead of being weeded out at the beginning of the process due to negative biases. Regardless of the controversy, Affirmative Action was another step in laying the groundwork for future actions, codes such Title IX (“prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.”), and eventually the incorporation of diversity policies and statements into modern organizations.

After the implementation of Affirmative Action and Title IX, some organizations decided to go beyond the minimum and make diversity a core aspect of their operations.  Through diversity statements, organizations and businesses make it clear that they stand for the promotion of a diverse workforce and that diversity in background, skills, and life experience breeds a healthy work environment. Universities have taken the lead on this front, and UAB has incorporated these ideals in two ways. First, any group who wants to become an official club on campus must make sure to include the UAB Nondiscrimination Clause within their constitution before being approved. Secondly, the university has created the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to specifically promote this cause. On the office’s website, a Statement on Diversity is included that reads

“Diversity is a defining feature of Birmingham’s past, present and future. At UAB, we are committed to capitalize on what makes Birmingham and the University trailblazers in moving inclusion forward. We are invigorating conversations, fostering civic engagement, widening perspectives, stimulating innovation and connecting people. Every day, we seek ways to actively promote and recognize principles of fairness and equity, in relation to, and across, intersections of race, age, color, disability, faith, religion, ancestry, national origin, citizenship, sex, sexual orientation, social class, economic class, ethnicity, gender identity, gender expression, and all other identities represented among our diverse communities.”

These type of statements work as a positive sentiment, but it is important to note that by making an organization-wide commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion also serves as a protection for people underrepresented in certain industies. In August, Google faced an incident that sent waves through Silicon Valley as one of their employees, James Damore, sent out an “Anti-Diversity Manifesto” to other employees across the company. In it he stated that “Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership” followed by “discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”

The google team marches in a gay pride parade
Google Gay Pride. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

The response from those both inside and outside of Google was one of outrage and condemnation, although it should be noted that Damore did have supporters behind him and that these beliefs were not new development to the field. In the April 2017 Issue of The Atlantic, it was reported that within the tech industry most women have had to combat issues ranging from demeaning remarks to fending off repeated instances of inappropriate sexual advances. The article also referenced a number of studies reporting that women “are evaluated on their personality in a way that men are not. They are less likely to get funding from venture capitalists, who, studies also show, find pitches delivered by men—especially handsome men—more persuasive. And in a particularly cruel irony, women’s contributions to open-source software are accepted more often than men’s are, but only if their gender is unknown.”

This put Google in a difficult situation, for if they kept Damore as an employee others would see that as condoning his points and continuing the cycle of discrimination against women, but if they fired him as a gut reaction Google would be confirming his “echo chamber” criticism of the company. However, because of Google’s proactive steps to address this type of issue should it arise, a statement rejecting the manifesto was issued by their Vice President of Diversity, Integrity & Governance, Danielle Brown.

“We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company, and we’ll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul… Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.”

Through the embedding of diversity into their values, Google was able to swiftly respond by referencing their company policies and showing that those who disagree do so against the whole of the company’s standards and practices.

The Google incident is one of many demonstrating the importance of developing and including diversity statements and mandates within institutions and organizations. While used mainly to voice solidarity and commitment, the statements have the power to protect those who are underrepresented should a situation arise. The recent dismantling of these mandates and protections by the Department of the Interior and the Justice Department have left minority groups far more vulnerable to exclusion up through the highest levels of government; yet when viewing these decisions through the historical lens of diversity advocacy in the United States, the current blockages may only be temporary stumbling blocks on the road to further and deeper acceptance of inclusion across the nation.

We, too, are America

a picture of a microscope
microscope. Source: milosz1, Creative Commons.

We see you. More specifically, I see you. I see you and I understand your fear. Your fear, though, is not of our ascent and overthrow of your supremacy. Your fear is that we–those for whom you believe yourself superior in gender, race, ability, intelligence and religion, but equal to under the law—will treat you as you have treated us. This is your actual fear.

For so long, you have hidden behind your power to give and take at will and random, without accountability. You believed might and standing would continually protect you as you abused, assaulted, and harassed us behind closed doors, in elevators, at parties, or in cars. You assumed your strength would guard against numbers because silence remained your closest companion until it revealed you. Now, silence is your betrayer and light is shining into the darkness. With light comes freedom.

However, not for you.

Finally, thanks to the unfaithfulness of silence, the light that comes with freedom will change you, as the nullifications of uneasy interactions, creepy glances, and videotaped confessions that “boys being boys” and “locker room talk” conclude what we have known all along: you are an insecure predator.

You always have been.

For centuries, you employed power to mask your insecurity while building empires and corporations upon the backs of those “under your feet and purview”. You made rules and assured yourself they did not apply to you. The rules are changing, and you are afraid. You shudder at the possibility of the enforcement of an unjust law you created, applying to you. You are fearful that you will rot in jail for a crime you may or may not have committed, based upon the verdict of 12 who are not truly your peers because they do not look like, live like, or know what it like to be someone like you. You will know what it is like to tell your side of the story and find yourself defending your participation in and motives about the situation that caused you to end up here. Identified as you truly as a perpetuator of trepidation .

You always have been.

Your taxonomy and modus operandi, whether on the forced labor field of terror, in a Las Vegas hotel room or Charleston church, or behind a “news” desk or podium, remains hiding in plain sight because the condition of many is blind submission. The conditioning served us well too, for a while. However, now we are woke. Eyes wide open and aware of the insidiousness of your nature. This scares you, so you label us a threat because we discarded the previously employed labels you doled out. Threat, in your mind, encompasses all manner of challenges you have not experienced during your time in authority. We are a threat to your domination, to your supremacy and privilege. This is what frightens you. The poisonous fruit you provided opened our eyes to the facts about who you are and what we have known all along: you are an idol worshipper.

You have believed the lies told to you and by you for so long, that in many ways, the facts cannot penetrate the walls around your heart and mind. You contrive revisionist history as a method to mask the brutal reality of your ancestors, unwilling to yield to handwritten letters, photographic and videotaped evidence that counter your claims, and absurdly ask us to disbelieve what we see what our eyes, hear with our ears, and experience over time. The words you employ are not for freedom of expression but an expression of your hate, leaving us to wonder if you know how to express yourself in a manner to prove your point without resorting to vileness. You are not out to institute unification, rather everything about you proceeds from an inner core of division. You are in an identity crisis.

You always have been.

Conflicted on one hand about the creation of humanity as made in the image of an unseen God, while on the other, using some as cattle and unpaid laborers, burdened by cherry-picked scriptures applied to build a theology of exclusion. You claim to seek the facts through the reading of words written in years past but systematically avoid anything that may shatter the illusion of grandeur created in the ivory towers which redlining amassed. You proclaim belief in gender equality, except when it comes to leadership, reproduction, sexual experience, and wages. You defend colonization and imperialism due to a misapplied belief that those demonized and dehumanized are ignorant and incapable of civilization; however, pyramids, irrigation systems, and social order existed before the feet of your ancestors stepped on this, and that land. You balk at peaceful solutions and challenges to your authority by responding with insults and name-calling as though life and death are games played in a schoolyard. Even when you are wrong, you are uncompromised in your steadfastness to show your superiority, while marketing yourself as a humble follower of God. You want to be a mirror without looking in one.

I see you.

We see you.

We know the facts.

The fact is, change has arrived. For we, too, are America.

 

Additional readings:

Langston Hughes

The Color of Law

America’s Original Sin

Nations and Nationalism

Jessica Valenti