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STATISTICS:
The number of international crises, often harbingers of war, fell by more than 70% between 1981 and 2001.
Women are the primary victims of war.
Yemen Dialogues
Paula Goldman, Director of Imagining Ourselves
United StatesGALLERYCONVERSATION
EDITOR'S NOTE
This story first appeared in the theme Culture & Conflict May 2006. We are reposting it in this section of War & Dialogue in Stereotypes because of the many voices and important points made during this dialogue.
Was I naïve?

In 2003, the US began its invasion of Iraq, just as we were in the middle of a global call for submissions for the Imagining Ourselves project. That spring, a group of young women artists in Yemen, with whom we were partnering, decided to cut off ties in an act of protest against US foreign policy.


Frustrated, and wanting to understand why our counterparts refused to deal with us, we initiated a dialogue between young women in the US and young women in Yemen. An edited transcript follows.

Reading this dialogue four years later, I am impressed by the raw honesty of the opinions we expressed to each other, and the ways in which we were able to open each other’s minds to the possibility of bridging our differences.

But I am also struck by my own naiveté in thinking that such connections could, in and of themselves, help change patterns of conflict in the world. As the bloodshed in Iraq continues, and as anti-Americanism grows daily, this dialogue feels like just a small drop of water in a vast, unfriendly ocean. Better than nothing, perhaps. But in the future, I will invest my time thinking of more powerful ways to ameliorate violent conflict, more effective ways to amplify the spirit of collaboration and creative problem-solving that this dialogue achieved.

***

* What are some stereotypes that Arab women have about Americans and vice versa?

Nada M. Al-Ariki:
The most common stereotype held by the Yemeni women about Americans in general is that they are not really concerned with what is happening around them in the world, and that the background and information they do have, about the Middle East in particular, is superficial.

I have been studying in Canada for the past two years and I found out that this stereotype that we have is true to some extent. Some people that I met do not know where the Middle East is or anything about Islam. Of course it is unfair to accuse all of Westerners of being ignorant in regards to this issue, on the contrary, I got to know so many people who surprised me with the amount of knowledge that they have. But in the end, they remain a minority in the university’s campus community. As for the majority, they are not really concerned with world issues as they are busy with their everyday lives. And if they are interested, they are usually only mildly aware of what is happening in the world through media that unfortunately transfers somewhat biased news, especially about the Middle East, while the news that we get through the Arabic media is usually more detailed.

Carla Cuevas:
I have to say that I feel really sad that the war did not at least contribute to free the women in the Middle East from their submissive role. So right there you have a stereotype. I saw in the biographies of the Middle Eastern participants that you have outstanding education credentials, and that you are in fact very active. But I had this image in my mind of women studying only for distraction and to free their minds from terrible oppression. I thought women were not able to work, always submissive, being forced into marriage and motherhood, afraid of showing a piece of flesh.

I think it is true that we frame ourselves as belonging to one group; for instance, I was tempted to present myself as a Mexican woman living in the US. But, does our feeling that we belong to a group necessarily mean that we become a part of it? I do not belong to just one group, and really everything that puts me into a group has to do with control: passport, identification card, working permit, college forms. So, if I choose to be a Mexican over many other things, does that make me as great as the Mexican civilization? If I choose to live in the US, does that make me as nasty as the war, or flamboyant as a Hollywood star? I see nationality, race and religion as labels that keep us apart and makes us weak.

Ahlam Abdo Al-Moraisy:
It is surprising that so many people in the West assume that we are oppressed or living in the dark. If there are women like that in Yemen, it is because they chose to live that way, although I myself I haven’t heard of any yet. If a woman is abused, it is true that she can’t just leave the house or her husband, but she will be able return to her family who will protect her, stand by her, and defend her rights. She may not have the same independence as American women, but she definitely has her rights safeguarded.

* How did the recent war in Iraq (as well as, more generally, US foreign policy in the Middle East) affect your day-to-day life? Can you help us understand the impact?

Adrianne Koteen:
I recall the days before the war.

At that point my attention was constantly focused on media updates, attending rallies, marches, protests and meetings. In the days before and after the war began, I, like so many other San Franciscans, lived on the streets protesting against this war. Sometimes these protests seemed futile. A part of me was and is so extremely sensitive to the privilege I feel as a white American woman. I walked through the rain with thousands of other Americans from a multitude of different cultural, racial, religious and economic backgrounds and felt an incredible sense of solidarity that I had never known before. We engendered a sense of hope and empowerment that we could stop this war, that at the very least our actions were highlighting that not all of America stands behind the policy of our government and that we would not be silent.

Yet I was superbly conscious of my privilege, that this was likely not a matter of life or death for me. That night I would be going home to a warm bed, a refrigerator with plenty of food in it, and a sense of safety, security and comfort known by relatively few in the world.

My day to day life has changed very little. That is my honest answer and a difficult to confront truth.

Ibtesam Hassan Mahdy:
I was not aware that there were protests in the thousands in the USA. I always assumed that all the American people were backing up their government and its actions. But through this dialogue with you in the states I was introduced to a whole new world that I did not really know much about. That was extremely sensitive of you Adrianne; it really touched me and showed me how wrong I was about American girls. I made a mistake by over generalizing and a worse mistake by judging you before knowing all the facts. This only encourages me to learn more before making assumptions and had shown me that I too have fallen in the same block of people that I always criticized; those who prejudge you before knowing you. When many people here in Yemen refuse to deal with Americans, it is prejudging and a mistake, but the problem is that I can’t really blame them, because although most don’t know much about Americans, and they know it, they just don’t want to deal with anything American because of the recent crisis.

* What could each of us do to remedy this situation and to create a better future? Are there any practical recommendations for how the Imagining Ourselves project could be used for such a purpose?

Nada M. Al-Ariki:
The fact that we come from different cultures might make it difficult for us to understand one another; therefore, we need to be cautious not to fall into the trap of misjudging one another because of not understanding the circumstances that both sides live in.

Adrianne Koteen:
Imagining Ourselves and The Yemen Dialogue sets an incredible precedent in that it makes real and tangible things that become lost between thousands of miles and distant, unknown voices. It is a remarkable opportunity to create a link between young women whose experience and opinion is often underrepresented, a link based on intellectual analysis and inquiry, and on personal communication of experience. It serves both to educate and to appeal to the heart, strengthening us all in our convictions. There is a fine and precious line between grasping our shared humanity, and appreciating, celebrating and respecting our difference. I hope that we can each negotiate this line with compassion, using the one another’s voices as threads to weave a better future.

Paula Goldman:
I know plenty of people here who are convinced that the US was justified in its attack of Iraq and therefore would not even give the time of day to a dialogue like this. I am sure there are even more people in Yemen who would never agree to participate in this dialogue. But what do we gain by insisting that our position is the right one? Imagine what amazing things could happen if we all started seeing each other as potential allies in the quest for a more humane world, rather than as the enemy.

Ahlam Abdo Al-Moraisy:
I think on the local level, efforts should be focused on narrowing the existing gaps between men and women, whether in education, health, or in providing greater chances for women to participate in political, economic, and social activities. Women should become full partners with men in carrying the burdens and harvesting the fruits of development, with a view towards realizing the principle of ‘women are the siblings of men’, without prejudice and with respect to the consistent gender differences legally and in accordance to the Islamic jurisdiction. This orientation aims for increasing the participation of the women in all facets of economic activity and to raise their participation rate in the labor force from 22.7% to 50% by 2025. This is the general strategy and vision of the government and we have female ministers now that work towards that goal.

* Post 9/11 Reactions:

Monica Sergott:
Why must dress or fashion cause us to judge or separate? It often seems that people (especially women) quickly comment on such exterior views. Post 9/11 every Arab or Muslim looking man and family in the airport seemed to be taken aside for a double search. Thankfully, now all of us must take off our shoes and racial stereotyping/categorizing has diminished.

Angham Ali Amman:
I recently visited London, and although there is a big Muslim community over there, I still felt that I was being singled out from the rest of the crowd. People were giving me looks, especially since I was wearing the scarf (hijab). I was shocked to find that a lot of people were simply ignoring me, as if I was invisible, they wouldn’t even look straight at me when I approached them and talked to them. I will never forget the times I overheard passersbys saying bad things about me and when I turned around they were not at all embarrassed that I had heard them, but would look at me straight in the eye with a hateful look as if challenging me.. How can some people be so cruel and racist? If I could only make them feel a tenth of the hurt they caused me then maybe they would reconsider what they are doing? So call me naïve if you want, but I would rather live in the hope of all these barriers will one day be removed and that hatred will be gone rather than face the cruelty of racism and misconceptions.

I myself would not want to belong to a specific group if that meant that I would be excluded from other groups as a result of that association. I would want to be in an inclusive environment, part of every group, a citizen of the world if there is such a thing. I hate it when people try to group me with some sector, community, or anything else, I would want them to look at me as me, my person, know me for who I really am before jumping to conclusions and pre-judgments.

Nada Shalaby:
Another thing I experienced that I would like to share with you is that after 9/11, while there was persecution of Arabs and Muslims happening across the country, my work colleagues in Oklahoma offered their help and protection to myself and my husband - even to the extent that if anyone threatened us in any way, they would come to our aid. Another man broke down in tears when speaking to my husband after 9/11, saying that what touched him the most was the story of a child victim of the Oklahoma City bombing sending the teddy bear she had received after the bombing to a child victim in New York after the attacks. These stories of kindness and sensitivity come to mind whenever I am reminded of the widely perceived notion of the "arrogant" American.

Monica Sergott:
I’ve heard immigrants, locals and those who have never lived here refer to America as a promised land. For me it is my place of birth, where those who are close to me reside, and where my home was established. I believe if we could establish a wider appreciation of a middle ground we should not have to resort to extremism and fundamentalism. Yes, ‘this country is going to shit’ and the world is in trouble. History cannot foresee what is happening, but people can use reason and wisdom while making decisions. We have hit more than a crisis point. I cross my fingers and toes that we will start moving in a more popular and positive direction.

Sometimes I do consider myself too liberal for my own good. This town, state, country, sphere, and world hold individuals and governments that seem to be more and more inward-looking/protectionist or outwardly dependent (on resources or funding... i.e. tourism, food and energy). But rather than working for the next generation or thinking critically about what our actions and decisions stem/come from, many are caught up with individual wealth and local issues. Maybe it is all they can afford to look at and consider. We’ve decided to cross so many boundaries with this discussion. Thank you for the emotions and realities that have been exposed.

Fatima Abdullah Al-Nahary:
There are a lot of things that I want to say but my thoughts are scattered and I find myself at a loss for words to use. I know that we never met or don’t know each other, but for the few days of the dialogue with my sisters in Yemen and the USA I feel closer to you and a bond created. We have gone deep and personal, a thing I don’t often do even with people I already know for a long time, let alone people I just got to know or across thousand miles. It has been heart-felt and really amazing. Thank you all for this opportunity, all the best and God bless.
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