Good morning, Kathy,As a junior reading block teacher, I constantly search for books to appeal to the demographics of my classes. One boy, Tyron, has told me for two years that he doesn’t like to read. At first, he read the Bluford series for his daily independent reading, but as a junior I wanted him to broaden his horizons.He saw one of my copies of your book, Secret Storms, and I gave him a brief synopsis of your fascinating story. In three days, he has read nearly half the book, and he reads during any spare moment he has in the class!Thank you, for writing such an engaging, informative book. Thank you, for providing a wonderful catalyst to engage this student with a higher quality of reading material.
Michele ParentEnglish/Reader TeacherBrevard Public Schools
My granddaughter, Irene, is going off to college. Last night, at a family gathering to wish her well, conversation, as it often is when we’re all together, was lively and veered in quick succession from one exciting topic to another. Having recently traveled to London and witnessed some surprising fashion trends, I brought up the subject of the burqa. That’s when Irene shared with us this fascinating essay, which she’s given me permission to post for all to read. [Footnotes and Works Cited not included.]
Sitting poolside at a glamorous hotel in Abu Dhabi, Carrie Bradshaw, Charlotte Yorke, Miranda Hobbes and Samantha Jones observe a group of women clad in burqas eating lunch and chatting on cell phones. The woman on the phone, seemingly on a business call is dressed in a turquoise burqa with a gold sequin trim, while the woman next to her is eating French fries, lifting up the flap on the burqa that covers her mouth for each bite. What really calls attention to these two women in this “modern” Middle East setting is the way that the ladies from New York City observe them. They go about commenting upon their behavior by playing their regular character type roles from Sex and The City – Charlotte seems to be ashamed to look at them, Samantha is loud and outspoken, Miranda is reading them facts out of an Abu Dhabi guide book and Carrie is making punny jokes while reflecting on their cultural differences and similarities. This scene from Sex and the City 2 is one of many that reflect the viewing of women in the Middle East and predominantly Muslim countries. At play here is the “colonial gaze” of the SATC girls who have just touched down in a Middle Eastern country with which they are unfamiliar. The colonial gaze is a way in which Westerners view people of other cultures – it can either have undertones of superiority or fear of the “other” attached to it. They regard the women wearing burqas as oppressed by the patriarchal society in which they are “trapped.” But what also functions as some sort of colonial gaze, more predominantly for the audience watching Sex and the City 2, is the fact that the “modern Middle East” these Manhattan girls visit is a hedonistic Westerners’ paradise. This is a different representation of Middle Eastern culture that plays as equally into the colonial gaze as the oppressive patriarchal society that we have come to know.
There have been many representations of a rich and overflowing Middle East. In Sex and the City 2, the four friends’ journey to Abu Dhabi is an all-expenses-paid-for trip where servants in the hotel produce cocktails and food, glamorous lunches appear by the pool and even a full picnic with golden trays of dates under a gossamer canopy shielding the sun in the middle of the Arabian Desert. This scene appears when the ladies go on a camel ride where they meet a handsome, Danish architect. Samantha then references other depictions of the Middle East as a land of mystery and rich resources in the form of a sexual joke by swooning and crying “he’s the Lawrence of my labia!” Years and years before SATC2 was made, there were countless depictions in art (and later, in cinema) of the Western woman going to the Middle East or the “Orient”, to a land of mystery, sexual desire, exotic experiences and even magic. The Orient, or the East, was where the original colonies were established in the age of colonialism of Europe and the West. These colonies, when depicted as the Orient, were utilized to establish the West as the norm and the East as the “other” – the West and the rest.
This isn’t the only way that hedonism– seeking healing for your soul by means of the senses– has played into recent representations of the Middle East. In relation to women, rapper M.I.A.’s music video for the song “Bad Girls” portrays a hedonistic romp in the dessert. The imagery of the video alludes to the Saudi Arabian driving ban against women, and is arguably in favor of “liberating the women from the shackles of their patriarchal society”. The women in the video are dressed in the kind of garb you might find American rappers wearing today: silk Versace pants; white Nikes, and gold chains and jewelry. M.I.A. appropriates these images from U.S. rap culture and puts them on women with veils, and sticks them in a barren desert landscape. While this video, paired with the political commentary of the song, may seem to be liberating the women, it uses very Orientalized Arab stereotypes to prove its point. Another questionable fact about the video is the lack of actual Arab women cast. Many of the women who are put behind the wheel in the video are masked with silk, leopard print burqas, but there are also a number of androgynous men shown driving. The video plays on stereotypes of Arab males more so than it does females; all of the men in the video are wearing traditional Arab headscarves and white robes while the women are wearing burqas indicating Western influence, such as popular fashions attributed to U.S. rap culture. It has been argued that these Western fashion choices liberate the women from the Arab/Muslim bonds seeing that it is an “unequivocal and unabashed critique of Saudi Arabia’s well-known ban against women driving”. M.I.A.’s previous music videos have used these fashion choices to prove politically-charged points, maybe trying to harness the stick-it-to-the-man type of attitude that can be found in some hip hop music.
Though Western fashion influences are only used in a fictionalized music video, they are very reflective of many contemporary Muslim women and how they dress. “Dress serves as a discursive daily practice of gender,” and Muslim women today use dress as a way to exert their power. A 2004 study charted the practices of dress of Bosnian Muslim refugee women who had relocated to Vermont after the civil war. The way these women dressed borrowed highly from Western norms of dress and utilized “emphasized femininity” in their style of dress to liberate themselves. These Bosnians challenged the traditional Muslim styles of dress such as veils and baggy, shapeless clothing to harness a sense of “hyper femininity”as something liberating.
Many younger Muslim women have been utilizing Western styles in their own fashion, ever since the late 20th century and the early 21st century, to feel control of their bodies and as a means of self-expression. Since then, the trend has bled into the styles of older Muslim women as illustrated by a cross-cultural moment at the denouement of Sex and the City 2: a scene in an Abu Dhabi marketplace, where Samantha has just dropped her bag and a supply of condoms has fallen out. Samantha is then swarmed by Arab men yelling at her, to which she replies by holding up the condoms and her middle finger, screaming “YES! I HAVE SEX!” This scene is indeed a colonial look at the Arab and Muslim men in the Middle East, but the colonial gaze soon comes into play again just seconds later, when Samantha is rescued by a group of burqa-clad women. Samantha and friends are taken into a storeroom where the Manhattan women and the Abu Dhabi women bond over their love/hate relationship with men, menopause and finally, high fashion. The burqa-clad women then reveal that they are wearing the latest designs from Gucci and Prada underneath their black robes. This seems to be the first time that the SATC girls feel at home in this strange Arab country, and it is through Western fashions.
More than a movie scene, this trend of dressing in haute couture for pleasure underneath covering garments, is very popular amongst contemporary Arab and Muslim women. Many women in Arab countries who practice the hijab or the burqa will wear them out and take them off as soon as they are in their private homes. Western culture is highly received in the Middle East, the women see these Western fashions and images and scenarios that seem much more liberating than their current situation, though it may not seem like it works the other way around. This is where the other half, maybe the better known half, of Middle Eastern women’s roles comes in, the half dictated by the patriarchy of a traditional Muslim society, and where the Western colonial gaze plays a massive role.
Islamic governments and the powerful men who run them largely dictate the modes of representation of women. Most prominent is the Iranian government, which has gone back and forth in terms of women’s roles in society and how they are portrayed visually. During the Iranian revolution in 1979, there was a campaign to modernize Iran and cure it of its “backwards” ways. Part of this was having soldiers with batons tearing veils off the heads of Muslim women. Though this “modernizing” revolution may seem like it did a favor to the women of Iran, the women felt a different way. Some of the women this happened to felt like they were being violated. That they had something very special taken away from them unceremoniously. Modern day Iran, in wake of this modernization campaign, still goes back and forth between women’s rights advocacy and oppression. There exists, in contemporary Iranian society, a “fashion police” which enforces the dress code that Iranian women must comply with – loose clothing (preferably a black or white robe) when going out, as well as either a full-face veil or scarf.
If you ask women in Islamic countries whether the burqa is a religious or cultural construct, you will get a variety of answers. Some may say that the burqa is simply part of a religious practice and that by choosing it one is performing an act of worship. There is no direct mention of the burqa in the Quran; the closest mention to it would be “O prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters, as well as all believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments [when in public]: this will be more conducive to their being recognized as decent women and not molested.” This passage of the Quran only states that women dress in modest clothing; this same sentiment applies to Islamic men as well. This is where the burqa changes from a purely religious manifestation to one of Islamic culture.
The burqa has made its way into the laws and legislatures of Middle Eastern countries who hold the teachings of Islam as the supreme law of the land. The laws of the burqa can take on two different forms in terms of laws. Some countries (such as Turkey) take a more secular approach, giving the women the freedom to choose the way they dress themselves in terms of the burqa. However, the laws in some more conservative Islamic countries (such as Saudi Arabia) have punishments for failure to wear a burqa set as beatings, harassment, or worse.There has even been the creation of the so-called “Afghan burqa”, which is one of the more extreme constrictions of women’s dress codes– this is enforced by the Taliban.
An important component of the burqa and the decisions surrounding it has to do with self-expression and the kind of identity Islamic women wish to create for themselves. “My body is my business,” states Ms. Yamsmin, a 21 year-old Islamic woman living in Australia. “I shouldn’t have to defend what I wear to anyone. The burqa is part of my religion, and the fact that I choose to wear it does not make me any less human.” This is an argument that many Arab/Muslim women will use, whether it is defending a sacred part of their religion or the clothes they choose to wear on a day-to-day basis. The change and continuity in styles of dress reflect one thing of contemporary Arab/Muslim women: the way they wish to be perceived, the way they wish to build their own individual identity and the kind of individual they wish to be in the greater scope of their society. Even with this sincere motive, there is hardly any escaping the colonial gaze that comes with styles of dress.
The American colonial gaze tends to view the Muslim countries that oppress women as backward, foreign, medieval, etc. We may not only find the country oppressive but we ask why these women would let this happen because we cannot possibly see how anyone could put up with this kind of treatment. But sometimes we forget that not every culture has to confine to our own, though many cultures try. The American colonial gaze feels more comfortable cheering on the women who appropriate Western styles and calling it liberation. However, when we are confronted with the traditional Muslim experience of women, we feel uncomfortable and a feeling of superiority that comes with colonial gaze sets in. We sometimes fail to understand the cultural norms of other countries because we write them off as wrong. We hear so much of the wrong the Arab/Muslim patriarchal society is doing to their women, and in some cases it is very oppressive, but the styles of dress that go along with it, such as veils, hijabs and burqas, are decisions that these women can make about the way they wish to be portrayed. “Dress ‘tells us who we are, what we have been and what we are becoming,’” states William Keenan, and this statement holds true not only for the Arab/Muslim women but also for women all over the world. Getting caught up in issues of gendered dress finds us in a perpetual cycle of the colonial gaze, but the women will chose how they portray their liberation.
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” –Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
According to Patricia Irwin Johnston’s book, Adopting After Infertility, there are 14 common stereotypes about adoption:
1. Adoption is second best.
Birth parents don’t live up to their real responsibilities, children don’t live in real families, and adoptive parents aren’t real parents.
2. Birth parents are irresponsible.
Even though it’s completely acceptable for people to become pregnant out of wedlock, society says that those who do, and place their child for adoption are irresponsible.
3. The flesh and blood bond is sacred.
No civilized person would give up their own flesh and blood.
4. Family should come through.
If you’re too young to parent a child you birth, your family should accept the responsibility.
5. Birth parents forget about their child.
Not only do they forget, but they’re supposed to forget, according to the stereotype.
6. Real parents give birth.
People posing as parents adopt.
7. You can’t really love a child unless you birth him or her.
The love an adoptive parent has for a child is less than natural, less than complete.
8. The only logical reason to adopt is because you’re infertile.
9. Adopting is the easy way to have a child.
10. Real children were not adopted.
11. Adopted people are so lucky that saintly people adopted them.
12. Adopted people wouldn’t search for their birth parents if they were grateful to their adoptive parents.
13. When adopted people from open adoptions locate their birth parents, their adoptive parents become secondary.
14. Adopted people are less emotionally healthy than other people.
The mixed messages these stereotypes send boil down to one public image—or one single story—of adoption. However, the dangers of stereotyping does not just affect adoption. If you haven’t heard Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” I suggest you carve out 18 minutes of your day to imbibe this universal wisdom.
While Secret Storms is a story about a great deal more than just adoption, at bottom, it’s concerned primarily with family. And family is perhaps one of the broadest, most all-encompassing terms in our language. Its definitions are as many and varied as the people who define it.
In a world spinning maddeningly quickly toward ever more malaise and widespread strife, where problems are being identified at dizzying speeds, while their solutions and the resources required to implement them are always a step or two behind, it’s hard to blame anyone for being so overwhelmed as to throw up both hands and give up. And this is where wisdom steps in.
Wisdom (or a cliché, depending on your view) tells us that every journey begins with one step. That rather than take on the impossible task of envisioning an entire future, whatever that may mean, one should instead focus on a single tomorrow. That when you look out the window to your garden and see it has been trampled and left devastated, you bring it back to life one flower at a time. That when anxiety and pain overtake you and you find it hard to breathe, you concentrate only on the next breath. And then the next. And the next. Wisdom tells us to find the source. The lowest common denominator. The thing which you can hold in your hand and nurture and breathe life into, so that maybe one day that thing will grow and do the same for another. That “thing” is a child.
That “thing” is a family. That “thing” is loving in such a way that love becomes the meaning of one’s life. And when it is the meaning of one life, it can only spread to a second. Then to a third. And, eventually, one day, to billions. And what is “the world” if not the collective reality of those who live here? There are few nobler things humans were gifted with, than the ability to give a child a home. The ability to create a family. The ability to be what is often the only source of goodness, safety, and love, in a world otherwise occupied.
So today we’d like to highlight the work being done by Both Ends Burning, the makers of the documentary “Stuck”, an organization “dedicated to defending every child’s human right to a permanent loving family.” Theirs is a mission worth learning a little about. Because even a little knowledge is a step forward. And whether it is simple and short or harrowing and labyrinthine, with no end in sight… every journey begins with one step forward.
-Aida Raphael, Editor
On June 16, 1962, I came out to society on Philadelphia’s Main Line. That was fifty-two years ago, today. My mother had to actually register the date of my coming out years ahead, so no other debutante parties would be held on that particular Saturday evening. Nowadays, only one out of twenty girls comes out on the Main Line. It seems like it was just yesterday that I was presented, and I remember it as being one of the grandest nights of my life. The Philadelphia Bulletin described it as the most unusual and thrilling coming-out party in a decade. Colored flags flew from the circus tent tops. One thousand balloons floated in the air and the crème de la crème of Main Line society were all there. There were twelve dancing llamas, a baby elephant called Queenie, fortune-tellers, clowns, cotton candy and, of course, bottles and bottles of the best champagne.
Originally, coming out meant a young woman was now eligible to marry, and part of the purpose was to display her to eligible bachelors and their families—with a view to marriage within a select upper-class circle. Despite the fact that most of the first settlers of Philadelphia lived in caves dug out of riverbanks, by the mid-1800s Philadelphia was the financial center of the United Sates and was where the first United States Mint was located. The railroad helped create the Main Line towns, and they became home to sprawling houses and country estates belonging to Philadelphia’s wealthiest families. Over the decades, these families became a bastion of “old money”. Only the bluest of blood can be part of Main Line society. You could not buy your way into to it, no matter how much money you had. My paternal great-great-grandfather, John Armstrong Wright, was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Railroad. And that was the reason I was deemed acceptable. I was born into it.
In 1962, the anticipation for my debutante party and the preparations underway far surpassed the importance of anything else going on around me. I have to admit that anything outside of my beautiful bubble of brunches, lunches, tea dances, dinner parties and magnificent balls, was of little interest to me. Which ball gown I would wear and on what evening, were my major concerns.
John F. Kennedy was president that year, and the New York City Subway introduced a driver-less train. Two of The Flying Wallendas were killed when their famous 7-person high-wire pyramid collapsed during a performance, and the United States embargo against Cuba was announced. The first Walmart store was opened in Rogers, Arkansas. Marilyn Monroe was found dead at age 36. CBS broadcast the final episodes of Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, marking the end of the Golden Age of Radio, and Johnny Carson took over as permanent host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, a post he would hold for 30 years. The 1962 New York City newspaper strike began, affecting all of the city’s major newspapers, and lasted for 114 days. Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and the Single Girl, and the first Beatles recording, “Love Me Do” was released.
The average cost of a new house was $12,500. The average income per year was $5,556. The average monthly rent that year was $110. Tuition to Harvard University was $1,520. The cost of a new car was $3,125, and eggs per dozen were 32 cents. Gas per gallon was 28 cents, and a factory worker with three dependents took home $94.87 in pay. You could buy a fallout shelter for as little as $100, feeding your family radiation-free for up to two weeks.
Times have changed. The average cost of a house now is $300,000 and the cost of a car is $30,000. Average take-home pay is $12 an hour–that is, if your factory is still open. If it’s not, then you may have to get a job as a janitor for $10 an hour. Tuition to Harvard University is now a whopping $58,000.
As I said, on June 16, 1962, I came out to society on Philadelphia’s Main Line. That was fifty-two years ago, today. I’ve lived through a lot of changes since then. But one of those changes is particularly close to my heart. What once was meant by ‘being presented to society’ now means something different altogether. The words coming and out no longer bring to mind debutantes twirling in white billowy gowns. Coming out now has an entirely different meaning. Coming out has become a figure of speech for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, and is a phrase of self-disclosure. The words coming out today denote presenting yourself to society… but as you really are. How far we have come in just a few years. What once was for me the month of my debutante party is now the month of Pride.