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Rebecca Kissel

Rebecca Kissel graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2012 with a degree in Culture and Politics. She wrote for the Junior Year Abroad Network from Amman, Jordan.

Rebecca Kissel on the Revolution in Egypt

February 12, 2011 | 2 COMMENTS

After three weeks of protests, the Egyptian people have finally been heard. Throughout these past few weeks, the whole world has been focused on Egypt, and Jordan, being in the Middle East, has been no exception. Every night after classes I sit with my host parents and watch the news, and every night pictures of Cairo flash across the screen. No matter where I go in Amman, every restaurant, cab driver, and home has the television or radio set to news of the protests. Tonight, though, my family finally breathed much more easily. With the celebrations playing on the background, they talked and laughed and drank tea in their own small celebration.

Amidst the fireworks and the footage of people hugging and cheering, though, the newscasters kept repeating the significance of this night and the decisions the Egyptian people face. After the celebrations are over, there are going to be many serious questions facing the populous country of Egypt. They have been victorious in ousting Mubarak, but they have run shortages on food and money, the country'’s economy sliding deeper every day. It is difficult enough to form a new government in the best of circumstances, let alone under these conditions.

Many in the West are concerned over the role the Muslim Brotherhood will be playing in the process, and they are right to believe that the Brotherhood will have a lot more power in free and fair elections than they have ever had before. The group’s members have previously been banned from Egyptian elections, running instead as independents and still winning many more seats than those candidates from approved opposition groups. Questions facing a Muslim Brotherhood with much more power include the Peace Treaty with Israel and also Muslim-Christian relations inside the country.

The media has covered all of this extensively, of course, speculating on what might happen and commenting again and again on the historic events. In my opinion, though, the most telling events of all were not covered on the primetime news like the political speeches and pictures of who the blood-soaked martyrs were. These protests which sent the Egyptian economy spiraling also brought out the true spirit of the Egyptian people. Mubarak in his speech constantly addressed the “youth” of Egypt, but there were people of all ages joining in the protests. Young and old walked the streets together, united in what they wanted. One of the older Egyptians joining in the protests was Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian feminist who had been exiled from the country for her radical views. Old and young, men and women, Muslim and Christian, people from all facets of Egyptian society were on the front lines of these demonstrations, calling for change, not just one group or another.

There are many unknowns right now, and a lot of people are speculating a lot of outcomes. One thing that we can know for sure, though, is that the spirit of the Egyptian people and of the whole Arab world has been present in these protests. The most inspirational photos from the demonstrations are the ones in which students are guarding a library, Christians are protecting Muslims praying, and a Muslim woman is kissing a soldier on the cheek. These pictures speak to Egyptians coming together to protect what is most important to them, and regardless of who ends up in charge, these are powerful images that cannot be forgotten so quickly. It is going to be a long and difficult road, but the Egyptian people have already accomplished the seemingly impossible tonight, and I have no doubt they can do it again so long as they keep that spirit and that sense of togetherness alive. We'’ll all be watching.

COMMENT FROM PROF. TERRY POTTER - April 22, 2011

Becky, you show us that the situation in Egypt has and continues to have wide-ranging effects. The belief in and desire for individual freedom that has been so apparent among those demonstrating in Cairo resonates with people in Amman, the Arab world and beyond. The expressed desire for freedom and the willingness to risk personal security may seem surprising to observers from the United States and Europe. It is through firsthand observations and posts from Becky that we can see just how real this aspiration is. I am looking forward to Becky's next post and gaining more insight from her splendid location in Amman, Jordan.

COMMENT FROM BEN JOHNSON - JUNE 6, 2011

Becky,

I really enjoyed reading your post—it reminded me of the emotions that were running through my head while I was in Cairo in January. I was lucky enough to be there at a watershed moment for Egyptians, and like you said, the scenes that unfolded on the streets with everyday Egyptians taking center stage were beyond inspiring. As Americans, we often hear stump speeches about what it means to be free, and how freedom is a cause worth placing yourself at great personal risk.

Unfortunately, I think it’s easy for many people to forget that freedom isn’t just a buzzword politicians use in campaign speeches, or an abstract topic that comes up in academic discussions about free speech or the Constitution. For the Egyptians who had the courage to rise up against a repressive government, and I think for everyone in the Middle East who was watching to see if the Arab Spring would take hold, freedom was a much more concrete objective. As I watched protesters running down the streets towards heavily armed riot police, with tear gas canisters flying all around them, I realized that the desire for freedom is a motivation more powerful than I could ever have imagined.

The incredible strength of this desire is exactly what drives people to remarkable acts—as you noted, some of the most memorable scenes from the uprising were Christians protecting Muslims praying, and civilians embracing soldiers in tanks. We all think of America as the land of the free, but during my brief stay in Egypt I learned a great deal about what it means to fight for freedom.

Still, I fear that Egypt’s hopes of achieving the political freedom that the protestors fought so hard to achieve are quickly fading. I was so inspired by the events I witnessed in Egypt that for weeks, I was convinced that a movement driven by such a powerful desire for freedom couldn’t fail. It’s hard not to be wildly optimistic when everyday people are performing extraordinary acts of bravery and kindness in the name of such a noble cause.

But more than four months after the protests started, I worry that the individuals in Tahrir square are increasingly revolutionaries without a revolution to show for it. When I first landed in Qatar, fresh off the plane from Cairo, one of my Georgetown professors warned me that revolutions take time, and that what was happening in Egypt was far from a revolution. While Mubarak may be gone, his institutions and his generals remain in charge. The military has complete power, and they hardly missed a beat before continuing the same manner of human rights abuses carried out during Mubarak’s rule. With a military junta calling the shots, political changes that would undermine the Army’s economic, political, or social status will be dead on arrival. Revolutions require a change in the very nature of the state, in a way that affects the political environment and the way the people interact with the government. But unless the military eases off on its suppression of protestors and allows real change to take hold, Egypt will simply have traded one undemocratic government for another.

Regardless of the final outcome, however, the events in Egypt have proven once and for all that, as Professor Potter said, the belief in and desire for individual freedom really is universal. No one can argue that the countries of the Middle East aren’t “ready for democracy,” or that they’re content to subsist under their authoritarian leaders. The events of the past 4 months show that the desire for freedom transcends geographic and religious boundaries. We can only hope that in the coming months, In Egypt and elsewhere, those desires will be realized.

Rebecca Kissel on Water Shortages in Jordan and the Middle East

March 16, 2011 | 1 COMMENT

The country of Jordan was once part of the Fertile Crescent, a diverse climate region home to some of the first humans and the beginnings of agriculture. Today, however, much the country shows the substantial affects desertification has had on its landscape and its fertility. Because Jordan is landlocked except for a very small strip of land along the Red Sea, it relies on its few water sources, such as the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, and some other rivers, to supply the entire country, as well as neighboring countries in the region, leading to a massive water shortage.

The Dead Sea, for example, is famous as the lowest point on Earth’s dry land and for its salt water so dense that it’s nearly impossible to swim or stay under water. Standing on the Jordanian shore, it is possible to see Israel on the other side of the beautifully blue water, making it a popular destination for both tourists and Jordanians alike. However, partly from pollution in the area but mostly from irrigation, the Dead Sea is quickly disappearing. Much of the water which would naturally flow into the sea from the north has been rerouted to serve other communities, leaving the water in the sea to fall well below its original level.

In fact, today the Dead Sea is approximately half the size it was just 60 years ago in 1950, and it is projected in the year 2400 to be approximately one quarter its size in 1950. When looking across the water, it is possible to see where the edge of the water used to be, and it is startling to think of the consequences of not preserving this body of water on both the livelihood of the community and the tourism industry of the region.

One area where preservation is well under-way, though, is in the Jordan River Valley, to the north on the edge of the border between Jordan and Israel. A few years ago, the land near the Friends of the Earth – Middle East (FoEME) campsite was brown and hard. Now, though, after lots of hard work by FoEME and the people who live in and care about the region, the area is filled with green and flowers and bugs and wildlife. An agricultural region, the land in the Jordan River Valley is a top priority, and its citizens have shown that with some effort, the effects of desertification can be reversed. It was also refreshing to see a compost system on the campgrounds and an innovative paper recycling process at the local public girls’ school. The girls took old papers and books and mixed the pages with a little bit of water to create a sort of mold, which they used for art projects and science diagrams, saving money and resources.
br> FoEME also has a “Good Neighbors” program for youth from Jordan, Palestine, and Israel to all come together on the campgrounds and learn about water preservation and environmental issues. Throughout the program, they learn how to better take care of the land and the water and also more about each other, fostering peaceful relationships between the youth from all three regions.

Despite these strides made in the more rural areas, this attitude of environmental consciousness is severely lacking in the nation’s capital of Amman. Here, the water shortage is also strongly felt, but there are very few initiatives to combat its effects. Each family is given a tank, which is filled up once a week with water. This water will last them the whole week for laundry, showering, cooking, and anything else.

This is a less-than-perfect system for two main reasons. Firstly, albeit according to my extremely Western standards, the tank holds an incredibly small amount of water. With only four people living in this apartment, if all of us are to shower a few times a week, it uses up a vast portion of the water allotted to us.

The second flaw in this system is that the water sits in this tank for up to a week, so that even though Jordanian water is cleaned initially (sometimes cleaned too much, also making it unhealthy to drink), it is not necessarily safe after sitting in the tanks which can be rusting or which may not be cleaned often enough.
br> While this system is effective in limiting the use of water, a necessary restriction in this region, there are still other measures which could be taken in Amman to ensure better environmental protection and preservation. For example, the only place I have ever seen a recycling bin was in a Starbucks coffee shop, and garbage litters the ground everywhere. This region has a long history, but without making more of an effort to stop the effects of desertification and water shortage, Jordan faces many tough years ahead of it.

COMMENT FROM PAUL MALANDRA - APRIL 4, 2011

Becky’s discussion of the danger of water shortages and the importance environmental protection highlights the critical role water conservation will play in the future of many societies in the Middle East and around the world. My experience in Chile also demonstrated to me the importance of protecting the environment, but from a different, cultural, perspective. In the south of Chile I visited Lake Budi, the only salt-water lake in South America. Today, the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous population, live in the areas surrounding the lake and maintain themselves largely through the agriculture and tourism industries. Nonetheless, to the Mapuche the value of this body of water is not merely economic but also cultural. The lake is fundamentally a part of their natural homeland, from which they derive their identity. This case demonstrates yet another dimension to the dynamic Becky has explained in her piece. The conversation of water, and more broadly environmental protection, are not only critical to maintain and improve the economic and social conditions of a community, but also, in many cases, to the maintenance of their very identity.

Rebecca Kissel on Women’s Rights in the Middle East and Islamic Feminism

April 20, 2011 | 3 COMMENTS

It can be seen in both the statistics found on development websites and in my every day experiences in Jordan that life for women in the Middle East is much different than in many Western countries. If you look at the websites, you will see how women’s literacy is lower, their unemployment rate compared with men in their countries is higher, and many parts of the region are plagued with honor crimes, child marriage, and female genital mutilation. As for my everyday experiences, I see fewer women walking in the streets than men (those I do see are often covered at least with a hijab, if not a niqab, the former covering just the hair and the latter covering everything but the eyes), and I have to be careful at whom I smile or what I say in a taxi so as not to send the wrong message. Many people in the West look at these issues and automatically blame Islam, citing them as evidence of the evils and backwardness of the most predominant religion in the Middle East.

The truth of the matter is, the prejudices behind these practices predate Islam and exist in every single society. While non-Muslim women in the United States may not wear a hijab, the same objectification and sexualization of women can be found in the media, on the streets, and apparently at Tombs Trivia Night, though definitely not as amplified as in the Middle East. Coming here has given me first-hand experience with the issues here, but when I think about why these issues exist and the prejudices behind them, I can see that these same ideas exist on a different scale at home in the United States. Islam is not the problem that these societies face, and in fact many women are proving that it could possibly be the solution.

Many Muslim scholars today are looking at the Islamic faith, specifically at the Qur’an to add a female interpretation to the long history of almost entirely men interpreting what the Qur’an says and how its words affect the law and society. They look at the specific wording of the Qur’an, determining when masculine versus feminine verbs and pronouns are used to figure out whether God was speaking about just men, just women, or both, in various passages. These scholars look at the hadith and research their sources and their context to disprove the validity of various hadith which people use to advocate against women’s rights.

Islamic feminism, though it only became a popular topic in the late twentieth century, is not a new concept. Fatima Baraghani lived in the first half of the nineteenth century, born into one of the most prominent families in Iran and later joined the Bab movement, which among other things fought for women’s rights. Baraghani is perhaps most famous for appearing unveiled among men, much like Huda Shaarawi, an Egyptian feminist pioneer who symbolically removed her veil on a return trip from an International Women’s Suffrage conference. The point of mentioning these two women is not to say whether veiling or not veiling is more in line with feminist principles, but rather that these women broke through patriarchal boundaries long before Islamic feminism became the scholarly topic that it is today.

In fact, the issue of covering deeply divides Muslim women and feminists. Some women believe the veil to be oppressive, the result of objectifying women to the point where they have to cover themselves so as not to seduce men who are not part of their family. And on the other hand, others will argue that they are not fully Muslim without the veil, and that they choose to wear the niqab both to show their devotion to God and to empower themselves so as to not be subject to the looks and catcalls on the street. At the University of Jordan, the vast majority of the female students veil, and a high percentage of those students can be found wearing the niqab. At first, this was surprising to me because of the reputation in the United States of university campuses being more progressive than most other parts of society, but it is not just those who are more conservative or more religious who wear the veil – there are many different reasons why women would choose to do so.

It can be easy to look at a society or a region or a religion and automatically make assumptions about it, especially when the correlation between the issues women face in the Middle East and the prevalence of Islam is so high. It is easy to look at a veiled woman and assume she is oppressed or to look at the other problems in the region and assume they are based on religion. These generalizations that I am making of course do not tackle the whole issue, since women’s concerns in Jordan are much different from those in its neighbor, Saudi Arabia. And in no way am I trying to make women’s concerns in the Middle East seem more trivial than they are by saying we experience the same types of discrimination even in the United States. The point is that before people in the West criticize the Middle East and Islam, they need to look at the very roots of the problems and then look to their own society, where I am sure they will find that the same types of prejudices exist around the world.

COMMENT FROM JULIE PATTERSON - MAY 3, 2011

I think it's very wise to see the gender restrictions in the Middle East as a cultural rather than religious difference. Comparing women in the Middle East to women in the West is a more accurate comparison than most would realize, I think.

We are oppressed in our own way; objectification, oversexualization, and marginalization are Western manifestations of perceived gender differences. I don't think that on the whole we as Americans can say we are any more progressive in our cultural treatment of women than many countries in the Middle East. We're simply accustomed to them, and for that reason we see them as 'normal' or even 'better.' A woman who regularly wears a niqab would certainly feel very out of place, uncomfortable, and probably even unsafe in many social situations in America. In a bar (if she ever were to go to one), walking down the street at night, or even in a coffee shop.

Our social milieu is remarkably different. We feel comfortable in our own culture, but that doesn't mean that we as women are necessarily better off. Perhaps we have an advantage in that there is a strong intellectual current in the West towards feminism, but as you pointed out, it's not as if Islam or the Middle East is without its own feminist voices. It's simply not certain what the best way to go about increasing gender equality really is, and it's going to be hard to come up with a solution that caters to both Western and Middle Eastern modes of thought.

COMMENT FROM AMY GUILLOTTE - APRIL 27, 2011

Becky, I really like how you stress that many different things motivate women to wear the veil, and not all of the reasons come directly from Islam. It seems like almost all Qatari women wear an abaya and shayla and many of them wear the niqab as well. However, many of them also wear stilettos, leggings, and glamorous makeup and it seems that for many women in Qatar, wearing the abaya is a cultural tradition rather than a religious one.

Qatar is a tiny place and from my impressions about how things work here, it seems that social reputations could be damaged if a woman chose not to wear the abaya, even if she and her family are not particularly conservative. Also, I definitely agree with you that thinking about women’s rights and feminism abroad has helped me think more about sexism and feminism in the U.S. At the same time though, the use of religion in shaping women’s cultural roles and behaviors in the Middle East is something that I struggle to find equivalents to in the U.S.

COMMENT FROM MARISA EDMONDS - APRIL 25, 2011

Your remarks on Islamic feminism and the politics of veiling really struck me, after a semester spent in Turkey with visits to Syria and Lebanon - three places where a majority of women veil, but in different ways and for a number of reasons. I think that so often in Western culture there is a dangerous temptation to immediately categorize all veiled women into a univocal oppressed group in need of liberation, largely a result of how mass society has processed Western involvement in the Middle East.

For a striking example, we need to look no further than the controversial headscarf ban in France. Debates about veiling were prevalent when I was in Turkey, especially because two-thirds of women do veil, but working in the public sector while veiled is banned, and until September, university students were forbidden from covering. To echo your comments, the rationale for veiling seemed to vary depending on the individual woman - while some did cite societal or familial pressure, for the vast majority veiling is an act of laying claim to their identity, and for many it is a political statement, and a push back against the government’s historical laicism. For many women who choose not to cover, including my host mother, the decision is largely entwined with their political beliefs. One woman told me that the aspect of Ataturk’s legacy she was most grateful for was her ability to dress as she pleased, and that she feared new reforms lifting the ban on headscarves would result in societal pressure to cover.

The issue of covering is clearly complex and multi-faceted: for every woman who sees bans as a way to ensure her perception of liberated womanhood, there is another who feels emancipated when she is allowed to veil. One text that does a great job of exploring the rising tide of Islamist feminism and issues surrounding veiling is Jenny White’s Islamist Mobilization in Turkey, which was really fundamental to my understanding of the politics that surround veiling. I really appreciate your piece, and the care you took in exploring feminist issues, as well as making the necessary but often overlooked point that many of the same issues plague us at home, thereby breaking down the dangerous us-them dichotomies that are so often put in place to protect less-than-ideal situations by putting ‘the other’ in an unfavorable light.