Why so afraid of a little education?

I was reading in the LA Times the other day an article on the rise of attacks against women in southern India perpetrated by the Hindu Taliban. The group of men in Mangalore who committed these acts of violence claimed that they did it out of a sense of duty and obligation to safeguard their culture and to counter the growing independence of women. How sad, I thought, as a woman, my independence of thought and education are invaluable to my being. I then thought about the Taliban in Afghanistan. Under their rule (from 1996-2001), women and girls were forcibly and violently silenced and made invisible in the public sphere. Girls were banned from receiving any education and women were barred from seeking employment. Girls who persisted in seeking out an education even in the shadows, even as recent as last fall, were attacked and sprayed with acid, permanently disfiguring them. (The sad irony is that Afghanistan was once a very progressive society in advancing the rights of women). Earlier this year, the Taliban fire bombed 180 schools in Swat Valley in the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan as part of their command to terminate the education of 125,000 young women.

This image of two Afghan girls studying Farsi was taken by Najibullah Musafer (www.ainaphot.org)
I then started to wonder why it was that educated girls and women seem such a threat to these people. I thought about other countries in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa where women's literacy rates lag so far behind men. According to the UNDP Arab Human Development report (2006) the Arab region suffers from the highest rates of female illiteracy in the world despite the fact that girls in the Arab region out preform boys in school. In African countries like Zambia, where the average life expectancy is 39, only one quarter of girls receive an education leaving them with little options or hope of much of a future.

Keeping women and girls uneducated may force them to be more dependent and thereby easier to control and it helps in perpetuating the belief that women are merely belongings. However, this extremely ignorant strategy is also one of the biggest barriers to social advancement and economic growth around the world. So much so, that in May of 2008, investment bank, Goldman Sachs said that it would invest US$100 million in the education of 10,000 women from developing countries.

Even Lawrence Summers, the current head of President Barack Obama's National Economic Council and the ex-president of Harvard University, who was fired from Harvard University for suggesting that women lack the natural ability and aptitude to succeed in math and science, wrote a comprehensive report as chief economist at the World Bank that stated that "hard statistical evaluations fairly consistently find that female education is the variable most highly correlated with improvements in social conditions." In his seminal paper titled "Investing in All People" (1994), Summers argues that "the benefits of education have multiplier effect because they empower women to bring about other necessary changes" - on health issues, social structure, the environment and the economy.

Gene Sperling, the former economic advisor to President Bill Clinton, also pointed out that two respective World Bank studies from 1999, clearly argue that reducing the education gender gap in south Asia and Sub Saharan Africa would have led to faster economic growth between 1960 and 1992 and dramatically improved the health of women and children, significantly reducing infant mortality.

As the evidence continues to build, the cost of not educating girls seems just too high a price to pay. There is nothing moral, cultural or religious in depriving girls the right to learn. The Taliban who claim to be propagating Islam seem to have overlooked that one of the first commands the Angel Gabriel gave the Prophet Mohammad was to "Read...Read, in the name of Thy Lord...." Well, it is rather tough to learn how to read when your school has been burnt down and you are a girl who has been threatened and blinded by acid - punished for your innate desire to learn.

So, to all those people who relentlessly and violently prevent girls from going to school - why are you so intimidated by education? Is it social progress you fear or economic development or improved health conditions?
Young girls in Djibouti (only 40% of girls go to primary school)
Image taken from http://hamptonroads.com/node/67441

For more on the information cited in this article refer to: "The New Class Struggle" by Caroline Daniel


Realizing Diversity

When you are a minority of sorts, let alone a person of mixed-race, it is not very often that you see someone who looks like you in television shows, commercials, movies, magazine covers. In fact there is such a small group that there are numerous websites that keep track of mixed race celebrities or models. This is nothing new. What is new however, is that this finally changing.

In the fall of last year, Time Magazine released a special Style & Design issue. In this specific issue was an article titled "Color Lines on The Catwalk." This article explored the rise of Asian models in high fashion. Last year, for the first time in its 27 year history, an Asian woman won the Ford Supermodel of the World competition. Up until the recent success of this South Korean woman, Asian models were only used in high fashion, when designers wanted to introduce a geisha theme. While there has always been a limited or sporadic use of Asian models in fashion spreads, it is not until now with the rise of China's economic power that impetus and momentum are building. With China and Japan being two of the world's largest economies, designers, advertising and public relation firms are taking note. There is finally an acknowledgment of world's diversity.

Du Juan, a 21-year old ballerina from Shanghai (see image above) was the first Asian woman to grace the cover of French Vogue. Up until that point, there was the blind assumption in the west that Caucasian features were the ideal and so regardless of where a certain product was marketed, the same white models were used. This same assumption however, has been rather predominant in many Asian societies. Skin bleaches and operations to create creases in eyelids, thinner noses are very popular in many Asian countries. In Singapore, Western models are used 73% of the time in advertisements; 50% in Taiwan. (I think it is due to a less conscious lingering effect of colonialism). However, with rising economic power, influence and confidence there is a cultural shift. More Asian women want to see themselves and their features represented as beautiful. Not only is there an increased appreciation for diversity, there is a demand for it and a backlash when that is ignored.

This new push towards the importance of diversity in representation just got a very powerful poster-man on January 20th, 2009. His extended family is very reflective of the growing diversity within the United States and the increased interaction between countries and cultures through travel, immigration and the global economy. In one fell swoop, Barack Obama, the most powerful man on earth, has challenged the white dominance of predecessors in his role. In the New York Times article, "Nation's Many Faces in Extended First Family," by Jodi Kantor, she writes that Obama's family is black, white and Asian and Christian, Muslim and Jewish. According to Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama's younger sister, "Our family is new in terms of the White House, but I don't think it is new in terms if the country."

I have always heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder - well I think it is time the giant media conglomerates finally grasped that beholder also comes from all cultures and colors.


The Inauguration of President Barack Obama

I watched President Barack Obama's inaugural speech earlier today and I felt my heart dance as my eyes welled up a little. At the close of his speech, as I was loudly cheering alone in my living room, I started to ponder why this moment, this inauguration was so very important and meaningful to me.

While I have been an Obama supporter for years now, this was something more. His brown skin, an obvious melding of races and cultures, his extreme self-awareness of the path that brought him here and his words demonstrating a more humane consciousness and encompassing understanding of the world represented for me a significant changing of the guards. The most powerful man in the world is fully aware not only of his responsibility as president to elevate the United States from some of its toughest and darkest times, but he is also fully cognizant of his role and obligations as a global citizen. For that reason, millions and millions of people around the world are watching this inauguration with special interest and anticipation of what could be. Nelson Mandela in his letter to Barack Obama on his inauguration eloquently expresses this sentiment. "People, not only in our country but around the world, were inspired to believe that through common human effort injustice can be overcome and that together a better life for all can be achieved.... Your election to this high office has inspired people as few other events in recent times have done.... Amidst all of the human progress made over the last century the world in which we live remains one of great divisions, conflict, inequality, poverty and injustice.... You, Mister President, have brought a new voice of hope that these problems can be addressed and that we can in fact change the world and make of it a better place."

Obama gives the Hawaiian 'shaka', the "hang loose" gesture to the Punahou High School's Marching Band (his alma matar) during the parade
Being in a particularly reflective mood today, I then thought of my own mixed heritage, and just days shy of burying my grandmother, I thought of the numerous people's shoulders that I stand on every day that allow me to live this blessed life. I have incredible opportunities and life experiences, a wonderful diversity of rainbow colored friends and family because I have grandparents who persevered through the oppression of colonialism, communism, war and economic hardship and who left me great lessons about life by demonstrating the best of their humanity. I have parents who believed that love and mutual support could overcome cultural and racial divides. I have parents, aunts and uncles and a grandaunt who pray for my well-being through the framework of multiple religions. And so because of all these people, I not only believe in the possibility but expect the eventual realization of a more hopeful and unified world, where racial, ethnic and national divides are only an afterthought, if a thought at all.

Obama, for me, embodies these weakening divides. His diverse family is not unlike mine. He is very conscious of the interconnection between the local and the global. He has written pages about it. We cannot demonize one people, without making ourselves the lesser. And so when President Barack Obama speaks that "we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it," he speaks to people like me. The global generation, people who have a limb in each corner of the world. People who need to believe that we can build a better world by drawing on our common humanity, and that we can work together by listening a little more and by being a little more just and fair and even handed.

Now I am also aware that one man no matter how powerful cannot move the world forward alone. We all a play a part. His ascendancy to the presidency gives me hope not only of a more encompassing, accepting world but it also encourages me to shrug off the despair and helplessness of the past eight years with a new awareness that here in the United States and around the world, there are many many people who to dream of a better more tolerant, kinder and just world. And maybe if we all dream that it is possible, we will work towards that goal and live it one day.


Excerpts from President Obama's Inaugural Address that resonated with me:

...On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and the worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness....

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child and seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more....

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christian and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, and drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace...."

For a transcript of the full speech click here.


Good Riddance W! And Helloooo Barack Obama!

Winter is far from over - especially for those in the northeast of North America, however, after a lengthy forced slumber of eight years, I can awake again. Farewell (to quote Maureen Dowd) to "the parody of a monosyllabic Western gunslinger who disdains nuance," and welcome to "a complex polysyllabic professor sort who will make a decision only after he has held it up to the light and examined it from all sides."

In just a couple days, careful thought, consideration, collaboration, nuance and the Constitution and human rights will once again be valued. I will no longer have to hear how all the world's ills are the result of an unending arch battle between the good and the 'evil doers.' I will once again want to watch the State of the Union address instead of rushing to press the mute button on the remote.
Americans and the global community have paid a very steep price for the past eight years. There is much that has to be fixed. And there needs to be a signficant shift from the atmosphere of hostility and distrust created by the Bush administration nationally and globally. The collapse of the global economy and the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza clearly demonstrates the high cost of a lack of U.S. leadership.

And so with bated breath, we wait for January 21, 2009, a day after the inauguration, when the first bi-racial/mixed heritage president of the United States starts his work in the Oval office.

But until then we party! WELCOME and GOOD LUCK PRESIDENT OBAMA!


The Egyptians We Met

When I told my friends and extended family last fall that I was going to Egypt for three weeks with my dad, they all said, "Wow! What a wonderful opportunity! Are you sure it's safe?" After I came back from my trip to Egypt, the same people said to me, "Welcome Back! I want to hear all about your trip. Did you feel safe?"

Well, perhaps, I am a little naive, but it never crossed my mind that I would not be safe. I had plenty of other friends, European, American, Arab who frequented Egypt often, some lived and worked there and they loved it. I was eager to see what they described.
My trip to Egypt started and ended in one of the great metropolises of the world - Cairo. It is undoubtedly one of the most intense cities I have ever visited. (Keep in mind I grew up in Hong Kong and Tokyo). During the three weeks, we went as north as Alexandria (which is located right on the Mediterranean) and as far south as Abu Simbel (close to the Sudanese border). That is a lot of distance to cover in three weeks, but a country like Egypt that has over 5100 years of history is crammed with sites, architecture, stories, people and artifacts and we wanted to see as much of it as possible. Even then, I know, we barely scratched the surface.
Now that I am back in Los Angeles and I have had time to ponder my trip and upload my 1000 digital images, whilst I remain in complete awe of the sites I saw, my fondest memories of this trip (aside from the precious time I spent with my father) were my exchanges with the people of Egypt. We met wonderful people.

That is not to say however, we weren't harassed by shopkeepers, felucca owners, horse carriage drivers and any other poor Egyptian desperate for foreign currency, we were. But you can't go to Egypt without noticing the poverty and once you realize that many of these people are just trying to survive, the occasional barrage becomes a little less exhausting. Plus, it gave me an opportunity to practice my Arabic. But the people I am talking about are the ones who so generously shared their lives, their time, their culture, their country with us, random strangers, expecting nothing in return. We loved their sense of humor. So many of the Egyptians we met simply loved to laugh and as much as they would tease, they were equally self deprecating. And while on occasion, there were language barriers, laughter is always universal.
Now, I ask that you indulge me my trip down memory lane, as I reminisce about some of the people we met:

There was Mohamed, an attorney by training, a incurable romantic, who thought he might be able to travel the world if he bypassed law and worked in the tourism industry. Months later, disillusioned and over-worked having only seen only the inside of the airport and every other hotel in Cairo, his dream was now only to save up US$10,000 and build a farm.
There was Yasser, who seemed much more happy-go-lucky, always with smile and a story rich with drama to share; who bragged about his girlfriend from China who was visiting him shortly. His face lit up when I told him I lived in Los Angeles, as if he could experience the city by my mere presence.

Mena was soft spoken and gentle, with curly black hair and glasses. He was proud to show his city of Aswan and so concerned about my and my father's ability to navigate the streets of Aswan that he almost got in his car to search for us, when we had not returned to our hotel room at 7:30PM one day.

Then there were the two men who worked on the boat we sailed down the Nile. I never got their names. Responsible for cleaning our cabins, they left towels folded in the shape of animals on our beds, hanging off the vents. And every day when I returned to my cabin, they rushed to my room, just to see my reaction. Content that I was pleased, they would leave and continue their 14 hour work day. When they realized that I was trying to learn Arabic, they started teaching me new words each day.
The Maitre D' at the Lotus Restaurant in Aswan, who repeatedly gave me and my dad freshly brewed cups of Egyptian coffee for free for no other reason than he knew we enjoyed them. (Egyptian coffee tasted to me like a hybrid of masala tea and an espresso).

There was the simple driver who was responsible for taking us to Aswan Airport. Upon learning that my dad is from Pakistan, he took down from his rear view mirror his prized rosary beads that he had acquired during his pilgrimage to Mecca and presented them to my father as a token of friendship.

Ahmed took a day off work to take us around Cairo. We were complete strangers, and yet he took the time to thoughtfully plan a day of unusual sites and experiences for us. He was so humble about his incredible depth of knowledge. I learned so much from him - not only about the 19th and 20th century architecture of Cairo, but he openheartedly shared his thoughts and frustrations about the state of Egypt and thus gave us insights we would not have had otherwise. And he also introduced us to Saleh.
Saleh is a 70 year old man who is the sole resident in an extraordinarily breathtaking jewel of a building. There are intricate centuries-old carvings on the facade of the building and beautiful stained glass windows, skylights and chandeliers on the interior. The first two stories of the building have been demolished by the owner of the building. Saleh lives on the fourth floor, alone, trying to save the building. Our visit was unannounced, but he welcomed us into his home like we were old friends. He offered us tea and peeled us oranges, insistent on demonstrating on the best of Arab hospitality. While he said his prayers, he opened his home to us, two complete strangers to wander around, to snoop, to photograph. So proud and generous he was to share his home, his life, his culture.
And lastly there was tiny combustible Dina, no more than 5 ft tall, yet bursting with energy and enthusiasm. She shared her life, her work, her knowledge, her neighborhood and her frustrations and hopes for Egypt. And when I came home, she emailed me to check if I was safe from the fires that swept through the Malibu.

While I have a exquisite copper lantern that hangs in my living room that I purchased from a young multi-lingual shopkeeper in Khan al-Khalili in Cairo, the memories of these people ultimately are my best souvenirs.