Verge Magazine: The Struggle for Feminism in the Middle East

As featured on Verge Magazine’s website:

After eight months living in the Middle East, I’ve experienced and witnessed countless adversarial and discriminatory acts against women simply because they are female.

Trying to make your way in a career as a female in the Middle East is a lot harder than anywhere else in the world. There aren’t the legal protections against these acts that typically exist in the Western world. And, most terrifying, it’s not just the locals taking advantage of this—it’s the expats working for well known international organizations, too.

During my time here, I’ve grown comfortable with the “can’s” and “cannot’s” of being a woman in the region. I’ve made my share of mistakes, swapped horror stories with female coworkers and adjusted my behaviour. I no longer feel strange keeping my eyes on the ground when I walk through town. I don’t question whether or not I’m supposed to sit at the dinner table with men; I know to wait until after they have finished and left the room to fill my plate. I’m finally comfortable with my position in society and the day-to-day routine I’m restricted to.

Now, the problem has become just how comfortable I am being second best to any male. Recently, I travelled home to visit family in the United States, and realized how much this behaviour has affected me. I naturally make these adjustments, even at home where I don’t need to.

In light of this realization, I embarked on a research binge into whether or not these “cultural adjustments” that I and other expat women in the Middle East have had a negative impact on overall gender equality in the region. It may come as no surprise, but they definitely do.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, more women attend university than men in two-thirds of Middle Eastern countries. Access to education and overall literacy has increased significantly over the past decade. This is something that has been and should be celebrated. However, this progress in education equality has not translated into participation in the labor force. In the Middle East, only 20 per cent of women participate in the workforce. This is the lowest level of female workers of any region in the world.

Expat women are also restricted and treated differently. Female friends have reported being leered at, insulted and even groped during professional meetings.

If a woman consciously makes the choice to stay at home, raise a family, and tend to the household, she should be supported in the decision. But the problem occurs when the decision is not so conscious. A lot of the women I’ve met in my travels espouse an inability to do anything without the guidance of a man. Widowed female refugees can not stand in line to get documentation without a male companion. Others can not find work and therefore settle for the stability of marriage.

According to the Guardian, laws in 100 countries around the world restrict the type of job a woman can do. In 18 of those countries, men can stop their wives from accepting a job offer.

Unfortunately, writing it off as a tragedy known only to the citizens of those countries is—as I and my female coworkers have sadly found out—inaccurate. Reporting in the field with some of my male colleagues has shown me this repeatedly. If our interviewee is a male, he will only address the man in our group. We expat females are also restricted and treated differently.

While my male colleagues plunge into the field concerned about getting the right quote or the perfect shot, I’m constantly held back by fear for my safety. More than once, I’ve conducted an interview that went from professional to flirtatious without any invitation. That would never happen to a man. I’ve also had female friends who have been leered at, insulted and even groped during professional meetings.

Worse, I’ve pushed my way into professional conversations about promotion with American and European male managers, only to be turned away when I refused to take the conversation back to their apartment. If we were on American or European soil, they wouldn’t dare be so cavalier about a solicitation for fear of a lawsuit.

It’s not a “local” problem if expats take advantage of the disparity too. It’s not a local problem if foreigners turn the other cheek when it happens to their female colleagues. Then, it’s a gender equality problem. Around 70 per cent of the 1.5 billion people in the world living in poverty are women. In both developing and developed countries, women earn 60 to 75 per cent of a man’s income on average around the world.

We are not exempt from the discussion or fight for equality based on where we’re from or who we are, and it will only ever be eradicated with a united front from people of all nationalities and genders.

The Cambridge Mosque: A Community Contributor

(As appeared on JSONs)

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  The sharp contrast between Cambridge’s colonial style homes and the blue mosaic walls of the Prospect Street mosque draws attention from blocks away.  However, the mosque continues to draw more and more attention for reasons other than aesthetics.  

  Some news outlets have reported that up to 10 alleged terrorists have worshipped at the Islamic Society of Boston’s Cambridge mosque. Despite mosque leaders trying to dispel their alleged connection with extremism, a recent wave of attacks connect the mosque with Ahmad Abousamra, a man tied to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and charged with providing and attempting to provide material support to terrorists; conspiracy to kill in a foreign country; conspiracy; and false statements.

 In a written statement, the mosque states, “The Islamic Society of Boston mosque unequivocally and strongly condemns ISIS. The barbarism with which they have treated innocent civilians, is contrary to all norms of civilized behavior and a deep affront to the teachings of our faith… We have and will always continue to fight against such extremism.”

 Many of the articles refer to FBI reports connecting the mosque to known terrorists.

  “No such report exists… Let’s be clear, we don’t investigate houses of worship. In fact we have an ongoing dialogue with community organizations and multicultural organizations that include mosques,” said Kristen Setera, FBI Boston spokesperson.

  When confronted about the allegations, mosque leaders refer to their long history in Cambridge as proof of sincerity. Founded in 1981, the Islamic Society of Boston formed as an association of different Muslim student organizations at seven local universities. However, as the Muslim population in Boston grew, the Islamic Society of Boston became its own organization located in a renovated Knights of Columbus Hall on Prospect Street in Cambridge.

  “Back in the early 90s there were not that many mosques around. In all of Boston, this was the most convenient for people to come and worship,” explained Imam Ismail Fenni.

  Imam Ismail Fenni has served as the ISB’s Imam for about a year. Having lived in Massachusetts since 1981, he has watched the mosque grow over the years.

  Today, the mosque serves approximately 50,000 Muslims in the Boston area, according to Deirdre DeBruyn of Harvard University’s Pluralism Project. This becomes apparent on prayer day in the back parking lot, where worshippers attend service on an overflow tarp no matter the weather.  Over the years the mosque’s staff has expanded and shrunk, but its role as an contributor to the community has remained.

  “It used to be very active until we had some understaffing issues; we’re just getting out of that,” said spokesperson Nichole Mossalam.

  Mossalam has worked at the Islamic Society of Boston for almost two years, rising through the ranks from her original position as a part time secretary. She helps organize mosque events, run weekly programs, and handle media requests.

 One of the programs Mossalam helps run is the mosque’s Islam 101 class. “It’s actually the first of its kind, geared toward non-Muslims, and teaches people who aren’t aware what Islam is all about. It’s really a catch all class for anyone who’s interested,” she said.

  Aside from the class, the mosque offers tours and tailors each tour to the group’s needs. Groups consist of university students, interfaith groups, and most recently even a school for the blind.

  The Islamic Society of Boston has also been extremely involved in the Cambridge community. They partner with the International Conference of Police Chaplain to participate in the Cambridge Police Chaplain Program. The program works to ensure there’s a police chaplain for all spiritualities in case of any crisis situations.

  “The Cambridge Police Department started the program a year ago. We’re working to get the Imam certified as an official part of the program, hopefully next week,” said Director of the Cambridge Peace Commission Brian Corr.

  The Islamic Society of Boston also works to put on a Ramadan Iftar at City Hall each year, a way to celebrate the break of fasting and bring the community together. This past year the event brought together people of many different faiths and political figures including the mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh.

  “I’ve been to a few different services there, and the message is always one of peace,” said Brian Corr.

  The Islamic Society of Boston is currently working to bring back one of its most successful community outreach programs in the past, an Interfaith Roundtable. Mossalam said the monthly social would be open to the public and feature key local clergy leaders.

     “It will give people a chance to see what’s unique about each faith, but also what’s the same,” said Mossalam.

  “We want to be contributors. We want to reach out,” said Imam Fenni.

  Through the years, the Islamic Society of Boston has worked with different ethnic and religious groups to bridge diversity and find ways to coexist peacefully. Rev. Christian Broccato of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church has worked with the Islamic Society of Boston on numerous projects.

  “We’re all in this together. It’s not that different from what we do here. We pray, we work in the community, we educate, and we try to help people live good lives,” said Reverend Broccato.

  In his response statement to the articles connecting the mosque with ISIS, Broccato writes, “As a member of the Cambridge community, I have no knowledge whatsoever of any wrong for which the ISB in Cambridge can be held responsible. If that were not true, I would not have invited the Imam and Nichole Mossalam to St. Peter’s to give a presentation and to lead a discussion on life at the mosque and the many opportunities they offer for prayer, education and service last year. I fully support them.”

  As one of the largest Episcopal parishes in the neighborhood, the partnership with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church has been a strategic relationship for the mosque. The Islamic Society of Boston focuses on dynamic relationships such as these to further integrate with the community, according to the Imam.

  “We’re hoping a day will come soon that Islam will be part of the mosaic of the ethnicity of this country,” said Imam Fenni.

  The relationship between the houses of worship extends as far back as the inception of the Islamic Society of Boston. Before moving to Prospect Street, Muslims used to use St. Peter’s Episcopal Church to worship. These ties carried over through strenuous times like the Boston Marathon bombing, during which church members attended the peace vigil held by the mosque.

“Lots of us went to be in solidarity with them because they were getting hate mail, nasty phone calls, and all kinds of things, but it’s very easy for people to be mistrustful and to sort of lash out at innocent people,” said Broccato.

  St. Peter’s Episcopal Church wasn’t the only community organization that stepped up to show support during a difficult time. Other community organizations, government officials, and everyday citizens reached out to the mosque.

  “People were calling ahead of when news crews would land to give us warning. We got a lot of letters from people saying we know you’re hurting too,” said Mossalam.

  Mossalam and other mosque members took those letters and placed them on the walls to show their constituents that the community was with them. She saved every note, and keeps them in their records to this day.

  Imam Fenni reiterated how accommodating the city of Cambridge has been to the local Muslim faith. On Fridays, the holy day of prayer in Islam, the city doesn’t ticket overflow cars parked on the street with an Islamic Society of Boston ticket in the window.  

  Dr. Hussein Dayib, President of the Islamic Council of New England frequents the mosque for prayer when he has business in Boston.

  “The mosque in Cambridge has become almost a second home for me here in the city. I always make it a point to pray here when I’m in town but that’s not the norm. I see a lot of new faces every time I go. Their constituency is somewhat fluid,” he said.

   The Islamic Society of Boston has an open door policy. Due to the sheer size of their congregation, they do not track worshippers.

  “The concept of congregation with Muslims is not the same. There is no concept of ‘members’ per say. There is no way to record the personal information or contact information. I may pray here one week, in Allston the next, and move on,” explained the Imam.

  Mossalam claims a lot of those media reports repeat the same allegations reworded for copyright purposes. She says the push for those types of news stories come from anti-Islamic groups behind the scenes.

  “For us, we just have to deal with it. People will have to come and know us and we will have to go and show them,” said Imam Fenni.

  When asked about reporting suspicious behavior, Mossalam said the mosque has a policy in place. If someone displays seemingly dangerous behavior that crosses the line, they report it.

  “It’s a tough call. And we leave that up to the Imam. If someone needs to be spoken with. The moment it crosses into a danger to themselves or the community, we report it to the authorities,” she said.

  “We are ready to participate and stand by the city,” said Imam Fenni.

The Search for the True Dominican Republic

March 2015

Traveling to the Dominican Republic was a very different kind of trip. Almost purely a vacation destination, my plane was packed with tourists. It was an unusual thing to be a part of, and I found myself searching for the local culture during my trip.

After falling into the tourist trap of a trip to an “open market”, or rather San Juan Shopping Mall complete with it’s own food court and Victoria’s Secret, I realized the only connection to the true Dominican Republic I would find would be the resort workers.

These are some of the beautiful, friendly, and surprisingly content locals I got the opportunity to speak to.

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