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By Rahnuma Ahmed

It’s all about attacking Iran!

Of course, attacking Afghanistan is wrong and we should all condemn it but burkas are equally bad because they oppress women. Progressive writers should not support one in order to condemn the other. The burka is a symbol of growing religious fundamentalism and as no religion whether Islam, Christianity or Hinduism can ever liberate women, all religions must be opposed. It’s not a question of women’s choice or freedom. Surely by writing what you do, you don’t mean to say you support the burka? Shame on you!
How does one respond to such comments? Well, for starters, I’d like to state that European women who insist on wearing the burka, or their fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends or whoever force them to do so, will be facing legal consequences for their defiance. They are expected to abide by the `law’ of the land, regardless of whether it is just or unjust. But surely, their crime of wearing, or forcing someone else to wear, clothing `symbolic’ of oppression is not in any manner comparable to the actions of western world leaders, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Blair and Europe’s other leaders, who are guilty of breaching international law? Surely, the consequences of the actions of these world leaders?cluster bombs, depleted uranium, drone killings, fabricated WMDs, millions dead, thousands maimed, the birth of deformed babies, spread of cancer, greater numbers of women forced to turn to prostitution, lives ruined, homes wrecked, millions out of work?are more grave? Are oppressive actions which determine the conditions under which large numbers of people may be allowed to live, or die, to prosper, or perish.
Twentieth century’s religious wars?and by that I mean wars fought in the names of gods/deities/supreme beings?have killed far less people than have those which were waged for expressedly non-religious purposes (to maintain or overthrow colonial rule, ethnic cleansing, nationalism, imperial wars etc.) whether conducted by capitalist, communist or third world states. If you don’t believe me, just try and tally the figures. Of course, this doesn’t mean I am arguing that deaths caused by religious wars are preferable to those caused by non-religious ones.
Only some religious gods threaten to destroy humanity; their followers believe this threat to be real unlike non-believers who doubt the existence of god per se and hence have no reason to fear his malevolence. But some modern states?USA, Britain, France, China and the Soviet Union?have between them thousands of nuclear weapons, which are capable of destroying the planet a hundred times over; it would eliminate both believers and non-believers alike. The killing power of the military-industrial complex (re-named MISM, the military-industrial-security-media complex) which controls the US, reigns supreme; on its own, the US accounts for almost half the world’s military spending (46.5%).
Does not war stand in the way of women’s liberation since women have always borne the brunt of violence perpetrated by war? Are wars that are waged to save women, whether Muslim or not, cloaked as part of the west’s `civilising’ mission justified? Malalai Joya, like most Afghan women, doesn’t think so. Their problem is US-led occupation and the forces that it fosters; the US government and its allies, she says, consistently marginalise progressive and democratic movements because these are likely to mobilise Afghan people against occupation forces.
The West is secular?church and state are separate?and surely, this means that it stands for the elimination of coercion, death, destruction, torture, in other words, for progress? It is difficult for us, to find any shred of truth in this assumption as the US government, the West’s unchallenged leader, has consistently supported whichever government serves its interests, religious (Saudia Arabia) or non-religious (the Shah of Iran), regardless of how fascistic it is (for instance, Hosni Mubarak has been the president of Egypt for the last 29 years, ruling by means of a state of emergency). And, as Joya reminds us, it is the US, which installed the Taliban regime.
But, the comment above seems to say, why can’t you keep `religion’ and `imperialism’ separate, why can’t you stick to a simple story line which says Islam prevents girls from getting schooling, forces women to cover their faces, be confined to their homes, not earn a living or marry the men of their choice etc., etc. Why must you drag in all these other issues, geo-political strategies, divide-and-rule, imperial interests, oil, the new world order, US hegemony, war crimes…You mean, live in a fool’s paradise?
Many bloggers and commentators, including westerners, can see through official propaganda; they raise questions about eurocentricism, how “abstract” formulations of self and body, embedded in European political philosophy, have little bearing on Arab women’s own notions, how western ideas of freedom and liberation are equally cultural. I provide a smattering:
– But first, there are Muslim women who do choose to wear the burqa or niqab under their own volition. And second, and particularly given that fact, I do not see how an all-out ban on the burqa/niqab by a predominantly non-Muslim, male, white government will liberate Muslim women to make that choice for themselves.
– I live in a country where face veils are common; to the women who wear them, that’s not at all what they represent. If Westerners see some weird symbolism that isn’t inherent in it to the people who wear it, then whose fault is that? It’s not niqabi women’s problem that Westerners see some other message in them.
– Every culture has standards of which body parts are OK to show in public and which aren’t. In Western culture, the face is public. In the Arabic Peninsula culture, it’s not.
– So to us covering our faces seems weird and bad, and it’s hard to imagine that a woman would ever CHOOSE that for herself. But I would suggest that this is a failure in our imagination, not a failure in Arab culture.
– Looks like the French learned too well from the Nazis they surrendered to. How can they even think of legislating what people may wear?
– Finally, how does it affect us non-veil wearers? How many of those questioned about a ban are affected by someone wearing a burqa or niqab? We live in a multicultural society so what has their religious dress got to do with us? People are a bit ?creeped out?? The last time I checked, we didn?t have the right to not be ?creeped out? so there?s no need at all to ban one.
– The argument that SEEMS most credible (or maybe is just the most fashionable, because it allows bigotry to hide behind feminism) is the argument that the burqa is a ?symbol of women?s oppression.? For some people it might be, but that doesn?t mean it should be banned. It?s ridiculous. It would be like banning crucifixes to prevent paedophilia.
These bans remind me of The Incubator Baby Hoax which sold the First Gulf War (1990-1991) to the American public. A Kuwaiti girl claiming to be a nurse wept and told world audiences how she saw Saddam Hussein’s soldiers take babies out of their incubators, left them to die on the cold floor. ?Only to be discovered later that she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington; the story was concocted by a PR firm, audience surveys were carried out to make the Kuwaiti ambassador more likeable (clothing, hairstyle). Research undertaken had revealed that American people would be convinced if Saddam Hussein was portrayed as “a madman who had committed atrocities even against his own people, and had tremendous power to do further damage, and he needed to be stopped.” Less than a decade later, videos of Taliban beheading of a woman to cheering crowds spread virally, it helped to garner support for the Afghan invasion.
As the burka ban gains momentum, I hear the beating of war drums. So, I wonder, whose next?

The Incubator Baby Hoax:The daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington.

Is Orientalism over? Those who criticise my position, if at all bothered by this question, would seem to think so. But scholars argue that contemporary representations of Islam and Muslims across a wide range of social/political discourses including journalism, other mass-communicated media as well as academic research, is modern Orientalism. It impoverishes the rich diversity of Islam, it caricatures Islam. Orientalism is not a mere “mental phenomenon,” to view it thus sidelines its practical implications. It attempts to restore practices that ensure inequitable social systems of power, and behavioral manifestations such as discrimination, physical attack, extermination (John E. Richardson, MisRepresenting Islam, 2004). Stereotypes of Islam that exist in historic Orientalist writings of the 13th century by Christian polemicists recur in contemporary writings: sex, violence, cunning and the irrationality of Islam. But although the topics are constant, the argumentative position has shifted with changes in Western cultural values. When Western polite society found sex to be immoral, or at the very least something to be endured, Orientalists accused Islam of promoting and celebrating such licentious activity. But now that polite society valorises gender and sexual equality, neo-Orientalists argue that Islam promotes, at times, demands, the opposite.
I refuse to live in a fool’s paradise given current speculation (intelligent, well-researched) that several US nuclear bombs which went “missing” for 36 hours (2007) may be connected to US plans to nuke Iran. Given plans of setting up the regional counter-terrorism centre in Dhaka, second to the one in Indonesia (a US client state) . Who’s to guarantee that Bangladesh will not attract the attention of militants? What is happening? Are we deliberately being sucked into the US war on terror, about to become yet another battleground?
Let history not judge us as collaborators, or too stupid to look beyond their nose.
TEHRAN, IRAN - NOVEMBER 1979: A group of women participating at the demonstration in front of the U.S. embassy during the hostage crisis in Tehran which was a diplomatic crisis between Iran and the United States where 52 U.S. diplomats were held hostage for 444 days from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981, after a group of Islamist students took over the American embassy in support of the Iranian revolution. (Photo by Reza/ Webistan)


Great Female Artists? Think Karachi

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by Alexandra A. Seno

‘Geometric Landscapes and the Spectacle of Force’, Seher Shah.
Seher Shah / Courtesy of artist and Bose Pacia, New York
?Why have there been no great women artists?? asked American art historian Linda Nochlin in a landmark 1971 essay.
Four decades later, her question still stands: while a handful of Western female painters, sculptors, and performance artists?Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Marina Abramovic?have achieved the same level of fame as their male counterparts, the West?s elite art world continues to be dominated by male artists, curators, dealers, and collectors.
Look elsewhere around the globe, however, and women are thriving in some of the most dynamic up-and-coming art scenes. They?re even achieving widespread success in a country not exactly known for women?s rights: Pakistan. Female artists from the developing Muslim nation have been recently feted in exhibits like last year?s Hanging Fire at New York?s Asia Society and the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial in Japan.
Women also hold prime positions of influence in Pakistan?s art system, running prestigious galleries such as Karachi?s Canvas and Poppy Seed, and heading key art institutes such as the School of Visual Arts at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore (under the direction of Salima Hashmi), and Lahore?s National College of Arts, which is overseen by Naazish Ataullah.
One reason for the unusually high ratio of female artists in Pakistan has to do with the fact that the art industry has not traditionally been viewed as a lucrative business by men, says South Asian art historian Savita Apte, who administers the internationally renowned Abraaj Capital Art Prize. Until very recently, creatively inclined males tended to focus on fields such as advertising or illustration, leaving the art field wide open for some very talented women.
And these women have been taking the art world by storm: for last year?s inaugural Jameel Prize, an award given to Islamic artists at London?s Victoria and Albert Museum, both finalists from Pakistan?Hamra Abbas and Seher Shah?were female. (The winner, Afruz Amighi, is an Iranian woman.) And at the Hong Kong International Art Fair this year, Pakistani painter Shahzia Sikander won the SCMP/Art Futures award.
Female Pakistani artists may also be drawing international buzz because of the way they defy gender stereotypes about their country. ?Because of the perception in the Western press, which often portrays [Muslim] women as covered, when the world looks at Pakistan, they want to go into the minds of women,? says Amna Naqvi, a former investment banker, founder of Karachi?s Gandhara-Art gallery, and an important collector whose work has been lent to museums around the world.
One of Naqvi?s favorite artists is Aisha Khalid, a painter in her 30s who is married to the prominent artist Imran Qureshi?although Khalid is considered to be the bigger name. Khalid?s Birth of Venus paintings depict fully veiled figures against a backdrop of Islamic symbols. Another work combines grandmotherly embroidery with pointed sexual commentary, such as sewing pins stuck through a coat, with sharp needles exposed on the inside.
Even for artists whose work does not deal with overtly feminine symbols, the link between their creative drive and their place in Pakistani culture is evident. Sikander, who was awarded a MacArthur ?genius? grant in 2006, says: ?Women in Pakistan in general wield a lot more power than what is perceived from abroad. In Pakistani society, women are less coddled, which makes them much more resilient, resourceful, and original.?
For Sikander, her art is a means for her to ?question the social and political values of [my] time.? This places her with-in an emerging tradition of trailblazing international female artists, alongside Japanese sculptor and painter Yayoi Kusama, photographer Miwa Yanagi, video artist Tabaimo, and Iranian photographer Shirin Neshat. As artists from developing countries explode into the global art scene, these women will be leading the way.

Here Sleeps A Gentle Giant

He was clearly a peasant, and appeared to have travelled a long way to get to the photography museum. But unlike other visitors to the museum, he didn?t make his way to the exhibits or marvel at the splendour of the site. It was an officer he wanted, and finding his way through the labyrinthine corridors, he entered the office of the curator and took out his tattered prints.
Tea was brought in for the visitor along with the sugar cubes Iranians plop into their mouth, as they sip the liquid. The curator went through all the prints. Treating each with the gentle care only a lover of photography has for original prints. With a broad gentle smile, he beckoned the man to a more quiet room. They began to talk. They were now old friends.
It is this love for photography, this passion for the medium and the generosity of the man that has characterised Bahman Jalali. The show he had organized for me at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts, was done at a time when I was relatively unknown. I was surprised that a curator in Iran had searched out a photographer in Bangladesh, to judge their international contest, and to show work at one of their most prestigious venues.? The friendship and hospitality of Bahman and his photographer wife Rana, was the foundation for the love for Iran and its arts that has stayed with me.
After the tragic death of Kaveh Golestan, Bahman had been instrumental in the setting up of the Kaveh Golestan Awards. I was humbled at being asked to give away the prizes at the first award ceremony.? Again, it was Bahman, who had insisted that a photographer from Bangladesh, rather than a big western name be asked to be the chief guest at this important ceremony. Rahnuma had joined me on this trip. She rarely accompanies me on my trips abroad, but for Iran I didn?t have to do too much convincing. Once in Tehran, she soon found her own circle of friends. Bahman and Rana we shared. Later, when Shadi and Omid, came over to participate in Chobi Mela, Shadi became Ma?s adopted daughter.
My later trips involved meeting many other Iranians I was proud to consider my friends. The unpublished manuscripts Abbas Kiarostami showed me in his house, Ruchira and Sunil taking me to the gallery para of Tehran, the long chat and the exclusive view of ?sensitive work? by the ever provocative Parvaneh Etemadi at her studio, bumping into Isabelle Esraghi in a back street in Isfahan, meeting my old friend Satish Sharma at my talk in Tehran, were all moments to savour, but it was the long conversations with Bahman and Rana, where we shared dreams about photography and fiercely argued the merits of our favourite images, that has made Iran so special for me.
I had often wondered why Iran had given birth to so many great photographers. It was while Abbas was chairing Magnum, that I had taken two young photographers, Shehzad Noorani and Mahmud to visit the Magnum office in Paris. I remember the star struck youngsters soaking everything in, as Abbas walked them through the corridors that have heard the footsteps of so many of the greats of photography. Reza Deghati, had made three visits to Pathshala. We had featured his work in Chobi Mela, and felt proud at having featured him in one of Drik?s calendars. His brother Manoocher had also spoken to Pathshala students. A DrikNews photographer had the privilege of assisting him as a fixer. Being close to a great Ustad is still one of the finest ways to learn. My attempts to get Kiorastomi to Bangladesh had met snags with scheduling, but it was my failure to get Bahman to Chobi Mela that had vexed me the most. Before Dr. Hashemi of the Iranian Cultural Centre in Dhaka left, he had promised to arrange it via SABA, the Iranian Art Academy. It was to be a highlight of Chobi Mela VI.
Chris Rainier had just written about the new National Geographic Awards. I was to help him identify the ?Peter Magubanis of photography?, the few individuals who had been the mentors, the inspiration and the driving force in shaping the photography of today. National Geographic will miss this giant amongst giants. Chobi Mela will miss the celebrated artist. I have lost a dear friend. The man who brought in the prints to Bahman?s museum so many years ago, will miss an unusual man who made sharing a cup of tea with a peasant, in a big government office, seem as natural as light passing through a photographer?s lens.
Shahidul Alam
Taipei. 23rd January 2010

Iranian Photographer and Artist Bahman Jalali: 1944-2010

By?Syma Sayyah, Tehran

Bahman Jalali
Ustad Bahman Jalali was an internationally acclaimed photographer and renowned artist. ?He had a gentle manner that touched all of those that came to know him, he was good hearted, observant, a private and simple man, but an expert in his field.

He was liked and respected as a teacher and photographer by his colleagues, contemporaries and by his many students and without a doubt has influenced many young photographers deeply.? He was known as a war photographer and covered the Iranian Revolution, and published two books Khorramshahr and Days of Blood, Days of Fire.? He was also involved in making documentaries but he is mostly known for the time and devotion that he bestowed on his students and as a real good?ustad (teacher) to photographers, photojournalists and his students at the universities that he has taught for many years. He was easily the most popular professor as many students desperately wished to have him as their tutor.

He had collected a large collection of glass negatives from Golestan Palace, and published these in a very interesting book of his, ‘Visible Treasure’.? ?He was curator of Iran’s first photography museum and he exhibited internationally – currently he was participating in an?exhibition in Milwaukee.?? In 2007 he was honoured by the Fundacio AntoniTapies in Barcelona by a retrospective exhibition.
I worked with Bahman Jalali during the three years of the Kaveh Golestan Photojournalism Awards for which he was head of the jury as well as a member of the steering committee. ?I came to know his gentle yet interesting sense of humour during our many committee meetings and later during less formal dinners and time we all spent together along with our mutual good friend Mrs Golestan. ?I always found him calm and serene – he spoke his mind, never insisted but let the logic of his point reveal itself.

Bahman Jalali and Rana Javadi
With his wife, my good friend the photographer Rana Javadi, he lived in a beautiful house in the centre of Tehran where we all went to pay our respects this afternoon.? From what I saw today, the pain and sorrow of his students was overwhelming, one of them said to Rana, “I do not know if we are to express our condolences to you or you to us”? – this made everybody there watery eyed as this young man let out his emotion and cried his heart out along with all of us present.

Bahman had arrived back in Iran from Germany late last night, saying that he wanted to be under his own?lahaf (blanket). On Friday morning he did not feel well and so they went to the Tehran Clinic, where everything seemed under control until suddenly at about 3 in the afternoon, he kissed his wife’s hand and smiled and thanked her and a few minutes later left this world for the next, as calmly and quietly as he was famous for.

He will never be forgotten by all those who loved and respected him and I am sure that he will be looking after loved ones and his students from high above.
His funeral will take place on Sunday morning, 17th January, commencing at Artists Forum and he will be buried in the Artists plot at Beheshte Zahra.
Please join me sending his soul a prayer and we hope that his loved ones and Iranian photography will be able to bear this loss.? We are all surrounded by our memories of him.
May he rest in peace.

The Silences We Maintain

11th September 2002. I was at Heathrow Airport, flying home to Dhaka. Friends had warned me against flying that day, but I wasn’t too bothered and looked forward to the empty seats I could stretch out on. In place of the flight notices, the loudspeakers made an unusual announcement. It was a call for a minute’s silence for the people who died at the World Trade Centre and year ago. A minute’s silence, and then it was business as usual.

A boy holds his dead father's trousers as he squats beside the spot where his father is to be buried, surrounded by soldiers and villagers digging graves for victims of an earthquake. The earthquake, measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, struck on June 23. Dozens of villages were destroyed and hundreds of people killed across the province. 23rd June 2002. Qazvin. Iran. Photo Eric Grigorian/Polaris Images
A boy holds his dead father’s trousers as he squats beside the spot where his father is to be buried, surrounded by soldiers and villagers digging graves for victims of an earthquake. The earthquake, measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, struck on June 23. Dozens of villages were destroyed and hundreds of people killed across the province. 23rd June 2002. Qazvin. Iran. Photo Eric Grigorian/Polaris Images

The piece that follows was written in February 2003, in the week following the judging of World Press. Before the invasion of Iraq, before the advent of embedded journalism. Later at the award ceremony at the Oude Kurk, I was impressed by Wolffensperger’s speech (Chairman of the Board, World Press Photo), made in the presence of the Dutch Prime Minister, where he clearly stated his position regarding the attack on journalists and the media coverage during the invasion. I was left wondering however, why we as a community have never called for that minute’s silence, for those killed in Afghanistan or in Iraq, or the industry’s silence on the killing of its workers. We are responsible for the words that we speak, and the images we produce. Who will take the responsibility for the silences we maintain?
Much is made of the figures, but this is not a numbers game. While the sheer volume of photographs is daunting, it is still in the end a qualitative choice. How does one weigh one photograph against another? What makes one compelling image more special than another? What criteria do juries use to determine which one is best?
The parameters for the World Press Photo of the year are known; a photograph showing outstanding visual qualities and representing a news situation of global importance. News photographs are often taken on the run, in situations of extreme stress, often in situations of danger. Only outstanding photographers are able to create powerful, moving, beautifully constructed images even under such conditions. But their qualities need to combine with outstanding news-value to create the most talked about press image of the year.
2002 was a year of waiting. Waiting for UN resolutions to be applied equally to all. Waiting for aggressors to be punished. Waiting for a war that the world abhorred but seemed unable to stop. Missing were the moments that news networks paid millions to cover. Disasters in western countries lacked significant death tolls. Nothing significant had happened in the countries that mattered.
That is not to say that nothing had happened, or that the world was at peace. In a world where all lives are not equal, some lives are easily forgotten. Their daily plight does not count. Their struggles are insignificant. No war machines come to their rescue. Unless material interests intervene.
But riots, earthquakes and indiscriminate bombings have taken place, and occupation continues. And there have been photographers who have been there. At a time when defence pools, restricted access, and editorial policy define the perimeters of journalism, some photographers have gone against the grain and covered stories which should have been news but weren’t, about people who should have mattered but didn’t.
Clinging to the trousers of his dead father, a young boy cries for a loss that is as universal as it is personal. The image talks of humankind’s eternal struggle against nature, and a community’s ability to stand by the afflicted. Yet, amidst all these people, the young man is alone in his misery. The death he mourns might not matter to a world that doesn’t care, but to him, the world might well have stopped. And one photograph preserved that moment, a silent witness of an emptiness that speaks to us all. One photographer takes on the challenge of questioning our definitions of news.
As for the judging itself, it was a complex, passionate, fervent affair. Time and time again, we were humbled by someone’s insight into a moment, that had completely passed us by. Again and again, our zone of comfort was invaded. We were shaken into responding to an argument that questioned the values that we had always considered unshakeable. Our tools of measurement were cast aside. We stood naked, our prejudices exposed.
The photographers too stretched us. Images that explored the gaps in our visual spaces, played with our sense of balance. War was presented through lingering traces. Political systems presented through emptiness and solid structures. Consumerism and decadence exposed through garish images, unashamedly rejecting the classical norms of image construction. Tender moments rendered without sentimentality. And of course those stark images, where the photojournalist, at the right place at the right time, but hopefully for not too long, returned with the horrors of what man does to man.
When the credibility of our media, shrouded in propaganda, struggles for survival, a few brave women and men continue to report the news that is no longer newsworthy. This contest salutes their courage.
Shahidul Alam
21st February. Oldham.
Chairman of the Jury 2003