Blog - 2011

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Recollections of my visit to Canberra

21 December 2011

Last week I attended a conference entitled ‘Honour Killing Across Culture and Time’ (7–9 December 2011) at Australian National University. I was keen to attend the conference because I have occasionally addressed the issue of ‘honour killing’ in my writings on Muslim identity.

This was my fourth visit to Canberra. My first visit to Canberra was in 2000 when I interviewed some Muslims for my PhD and visited the National Archives of Australia. My second visit to Canberra was in March 2007 when I was an invited panellist at ‘Australia Deliberates – Muslims and non-Muslims in Australia: Building Relationships’ at Old Parliament House in Canberra. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke chaired our session. It was televised and received extensive media coverage. In August 2007 I visited Canberra again as an invited panellist at the National Security for a Diverse Community Forum. These visits to Canberra were constructive. I met many people from diverse backgrounds, and we had dialogues to understand each other better. So this time, too, I was looking forward to my visit to Canberra. But did I gain much from the ANU ‘Honour Killing’ conference?

The positive side of my attendance was that I met academics and activists of diverse backgrounds, for example, American, Australian, British, German, Indian, Indonesian, Italian, Pakistani and Turkish. They have dedicated their research to an important issue: violence against women, and more precisely ‘honour killing’ of Muslim women. Yet as I listened to a few papers I became somewhat sceptical because I have been arguing that honour killing is not specific to Muslims. This horrendous practice against women is cultural, for example it is also practised by some non-Muslim families. But at the conference ‘honour killing’ was presented as a ‘Muslim problem’ because examples of such crimes were drawn from Muslim families.

Niilofur Farrukh spoke about her art exhibition (and also showed some of the images) that she held after the dreadful Nasirabad incident in where five women were buried alive in 2007 under the rhetoric of ‘honour’. Of course, Farrukh had noble intentions but a few questions came to my mind: are such images really helping victims of so-called ‘honour crimes’? Are the messages really reaching the grassroots level?

I also watched the premiere of the Mary Ann Smothers Bruni film, Quest for honor. Once again I became sceptical. The film was about honour killings in the tribal regions of Kurdistan. It commenced with a woman being shot on the road in Iraqi Kurdistan in the context of Shia–Sunni conflict. It told stories of women as victims of ‘honour killing’ or violence. At the end of the movie, it was noted that every day in the United States four women are victims of domestic violence. Again my ‘researcher’s self’ kept pondering: since domestic violence is a global issue, why didn’t the film Quest for honor show violence against women in mainstream American society.

In the UK ‘honour killing’ is not specific to Islam. In 2007, a non-Muslim Indian mother-in-law was found guilty of honour killing her daughter-in-law, whose adultery she claimed had brought shame on the family. In 2009 the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission found that every year an estimated three million women experience rape, domestic violence, stalking or some other kind of abuse. Yet some media outlets prefer to associate ‘honour killing’ with Islam. By focusing on honour-related crime among Muslims are we not silencing the non-Muslim women who have been victims of such horrendous crimes? It’s time we addressed violence against women (both Muslim and non-Muslim) within the global framework!

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

Where to begin and where to end

21 December 2011

In early December I went to Canberra to attend a conference, ‘Honour Killing across Culture and Time’, at Australian National University. On the plane I was reading Nietzsche’s Genealogy of morals, which made me think about how meanings come into being, and how their origins are related to historical pointers. So I looked forward to the conference, to see how the term ‘honour’ originated, and how over time it came to be related with murder.

I had been to Canberra before and really did not think much of it then and to my surprise didn’t think much of it now; it was so quiet as though no life existed there. On the brighter side at least one doesn’t have to wait long for a cab. I got into a cab within a few minutes of arriving and started talking to the driver who was from Punjab in India. I spoke to him in Punjabi, asking him about Canberra and the Sikh community there. He said something that puzzled me: he said that in Canberra many Sikhs don’t like to say that they are Sikh; in fact they try their hardest to hide it. Here, he continued, the Sikh community bond is weak compared to England where you have Sikhs celebrating their roots, religion and tradition. In some way I could relate to what he was saying. Being a Sikh from the UK I can see the links to being Sikh here in Australia are really quite loose, thus one can feel out of place, compared to the UK where one feels at home due to how rituals are celebrated. But then again one would think that we would try our hardest to build that community link, rather than shy away from our roots.

Before the conference I introduced myself to the first speaker, Pakistani activist Niilofur Farrukh. She presented her paper on an art and poetry exhibition that she and other activists, male and female, put together after the horrendous Nasirabad incident where five women were buried alive in 2007 under the rhetoric of ‘honour’. The talk was very informative and much lively discussion followed; however my concern was how that information was being used by other sources outside Pakistan, and how such images and poetry were being used when discussing violence against women in ethnic minorities.

The following day the film Quest for honor was shown. This American-made film was a documentary about ‘honour’ crimes in Kurdistan. It was very passionate and it successfully emphasised the determination of a Kurdish activist when dealing with women’s abuse under the name of ‘honour’. The film had an interesting twist; it showed a clip of the female activist having a conversation at the end of her busy day with her husband, who supported her a hundred per cent. He questioned her about the notion of honour and spoke to her about how he understood honour. I found this useful for my research, as my PhD research is to seek how violence comes into being and becomes racialised. If this film also documented crimes of this nature around the globe it would have been fantastic, although disturbing; it would have shown that women around the world are oppressed. But the whole thrust of the film was orientalist, exorcising this form of domestic violence and terming it an ‘honour crime’. Does all this really help emancipate the brown woman?

Most of the papers presented at the conference came from this perspective apart from one or two that tried to discuss the notion of honour and the problems related to murder performed under the banner of honour. At the end I came away feeling pleased that I had attended. I felt that most of the discussions and the film were more for the use of the other, i.e. officials, media and parliament, rather than the victims of such abuse, which I find problematic. I enjoyed returning to Adelaide, a more vibrant city than Canberra. I can’t believe I’m saying this about Adelaide!

By Kam Kaur

US terror legislation blurs traditional political boundaries

7 December 2011

A proposed amendment to legislation concerning the detention of terrorism suspects was defeated in the US Senate this week. Under current legislation, terrorism suspects can be imprisoned for life without being charged on the basis of just one military court hearing. Supporters of the amendment made for strange bedfellows: aligning himself with the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the Senate’s most conservative members Rand Paul said that he was 'very, very concerned about having U.S. citizens sent to Guantanamo Bay for indefinite detention'. Opinion among Democrats was divided, with 16 Senators voting with Republicans on the issue.

See the Huffington Post for more.

By Chloe Patton

Public anthropology occupies Wall St

21 October 2011

What on earth does the anthropological study of a little-known Madagascan community have to do with the Occupy Wall Street movement? Plenty, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. While recent visits of academic heavyweights such as Slavoj Zizek to the occupation in New York and Naomi Wolf’s arrest have made international headlines, less is known about the intellectual roots of the movement’s organisational strategies. Read the CHE article to discover how the work of David Graeber, a Goldsmiths anthropologist studying decision making in the context of an absent state in Betafo, Madagascar, has shaped the occupation.

This convergence of anthropology and grassroots political action might well represent what public anthropology looks like in a globalising context. In the last decade or so, numerous academics have called for the social sciences to 'go public', that is to engage audiences beyond the confines of the academy by directing social scientific inquiry towards pressing public issues. This does not mean simply publishing outside the usual academic channels or applying social scientific empiricism to the problems of the day. It involves, as Craig Calhoun has argued, looking at how and why problems of public concern are shaped in particular ways, as well as engaging and forming strategic alliances with non-academic public constituencies including policy makers, activists, professional practitioners and journalists. While the work of cultural anthropologists is very often public in the sense that scholars frequently act as advocates for the communities they study and/or are called upon to provide expert evidence in policy-making processes, it is less common to see anthropological knowledge applied to public issues that are not directly related to the cultural context from which that knowledge derives. Whatever impact the Occupy Wall Street movement will have on the wealth disparity that is its core concern, it is heartening to see political practices that emerged in the global South taking centrestage in an action directed at the very heart of global capital.

By Chloe Patton

Work on spaces outside politics

19 October 2011

Working on a paper on the politics of the boundary in Malaya, I glimpsed what it might have felt like for an 1890s colonial administrator to peer over the frontier of the British Empire and witness what lay beyond. For Hugh Clifford, a senior official, looking beyond the British sphere was like peering into a void. In pursuit of ‘dacoits’, Clifford crossed the British frontier into Terengganu and Kelantan: two Malay states that remained outside both Britain and Siam. In his memoirs and short stories, Clifford later referred to these states as the ‘Benighted Lands’.

What was Clifford saying when he called these lands benighted? Clifford was mapping colonial notions of law, government and politics on to the Malay peninsula’s geospatial surface. The Benighted Lands lay outside the reach of projects of colonial governmentality. To Clifford, they were unreformed, illegible and governed by a travesty of Syariah law and a conduct of politics whose rules he found corrupt and malign.

Indeed for Clifford the Benighted Lands represented a space beyond politics as he understood it: a region of refuge for insolent rebels driven by corruption, venality and ‘Muhammadan fanaticism’. Clifford could find no other explanation for why, particularly in Terengganu, anti-British rebels would be recast as anti-colonial holy warriors. Indeed, as he recalled his 1895 journey through Terengganu, Clifford described a space in which the politics of being Muslim and anti-colonial were imagined in ways that he, encumbered by coolies, rations and rifles, simply could not grasp.

By Amrita Malhi

Little Mosque on the Prairie

15 September 2011

No, it’s not Michael Landon in a kefiyeh. But Canadian television program Little Mosque on the Prairie has managed to cause a minor stir in a diplomatic teacup over its ‘insidious negative’ portrayal of US immigration authorities, with even Hilary Clinton weighing in. The producers of the sitcom based on the daily lives of a Canadian Muslim family in a predominantly Christian town hope that it will help improve community understanding of Muslim identities. Sitcoms have long been recognised for having a significant effect on how minorities are popularly imagined and understood. This is perhaps because they are one of the few genres that privilege the mundane world of day-to-day life, which in real world experience is where intercultural understanding is most often rooted. In the US the long-running 1980s sitcom The Cosby Show was consistently praised for its portrayal of a successful, upper-middle-class African-American family in contrast to more common racist stereotypes. But is the US ready for its own version of Little Mosque on the Prairie? Click here to to find out.

By Chloe Patton

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