Books By Women: The Terrorists of Irustan

The Terrorists of Irustan has literally everything I’m interested in. It’s feminist science fiction. It has Middle Eastern influences. The central conflict questions the difference between terrorism and activism.

It was difficult to accept how this novel disappointed at every turn.Written in 1999, the novel can, at best, be described, as a knock-off version of The Handmaid’s Tale, but set in space. And unfortunately,, the novel simplifies Islamic and Arab culture.

577258On the planet Irustan, due to pervasive religious structures women cover themselves from head to toe and have no power or presence in the public space. Men cannot speak to them and they cannot speak to men. Our hero, Zara, is a doctor (on this planet, the profession of women) who begins to use her medicinal knowledge to poison men who harm women, specifically women she knows and loves. I was expecting nuance and cultural critique from this premise. I was expecting a massive underground uprising of female resistance fighters who pledged their lives to activism (or terrorism) to demand their rights.

Though the novel draws on Islamic culture, the author, Louise Marley, becomes entangled in the singular narrative that women who cover themselves are oppressed, look at how this other culture (read Islam, but in space) oppresses their women! Female characters who claim the veil as a symbol of their power do not have a voice in this story. The singular reading of women who cover themselves for religious reasons alienated me from any feminist message. It did not offer a plurality of voices in the text. Furthermore, I felt the structure of those women over there lifted the blame off Western misogyny and gave Western culture a free pass on our own sexism. If we’re not as sexist as these other guys, then we’re doing alright, no problems here. The one character who’s background offered push back, is a Chinese person working on Irustan, who describes the plight of future women in China, which was a fascinating cultural comparison and pretty well explored.

Yet, I wish this book were stronger and lived up to my expectations because it’s one of the few books I can think of where there are no (or almost no) white characters. Everyone is a person of color and regardless of any issues I have with the narrative, I have to give Marley credit for her diversity in this regard.

It’s a shame that the characters are pretty one–dimensional and the narrative does not grip you emotionally. I appreciate what Marley tried to do with this novel, and I know she’s won awards for her science fiction before, but for me, this novel fell pretty flat. If I decide to give another of her novels a try, I will let you know.

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I’ve been meaning to write on the Trayvon Martin case since the final verdict of the Zimmerman trial was announced. I haven’t yet written though because I didn’t know what to say that hadn’t already been said. Even now I don’t think I can speak about the trial itself, but I can speak about my own experience.

Although I was born and raised in Connecticut, a state which claims to be very democratic, liberal and open minded, my home town was full of racism. We were-and still are if I were to go back-a place of hypocrisy. Most of my home town voted for Obama and therefore they feel they are free of racial bias. It doesn’t matter that out of 5,000 students in my high school barely ten percent (maybe) were people of color. No one noticed or thought to question that the upper level AP and honors level classes were only filled with white students. This was the natural order of things, we told ourselves. Of course, we never bothered to analyze our privilege at all.

White privilege was not a concept because it was a lifestyle. It was everything I grew up surrounded by. My brother filled my head with football statistics of how white players are discriminated against for being white, how more black men are in jail than in college and commenting on the lower intelligence of black men as evidenced by some test to get into the NFL. I never bothered to check his facts and I half heartedly debated him because I knew there was something wrong with his logic, but could never put my finger on it. Or I was too afraid to call him out as being racist when I was just as guilty. We never thought to question why the world appeared to us through such a white lens.

My mother never spoke of race. It was somehow known to me that I shouldn’t have black friends, watch black tv shows like the Proud Family for instance, or listen to music by black artists. It was never outright stated, but if I didn’t get it from my mom then I got as if through osmosis by living in a majority white and insulated town.

Is it so difficult to believe then that even though I attend an open minded liberal arts college where a primary focus is diversity and tolerance, that I packed my bigoted views in my suitcase along with my clothes?

When Trayvon was first shot, I had the opportunity to attend a student held event by the Black Student Association on our campus discussing Trayvon’s murder and it’s racial implications. I was on the staff of the newspaper and was given the option to cover this campus event and I declined. I didn’t even go to the event. My excuses were many: I didn’t know enough about the issue, it was an event for black students I wouldn’t be accepted, it was an event for black students why should I care?

At the top of my list though was the most brutally honest and terrible reason: I didn’t care. All I knew was that a black teenager had been shot. Everything I grew up knowing screamed at me that this was a common occurrence because black people get shot every day living their hoodlum gang lifestyles. Trayvon’s death was therefore not only natural, but expected. It would be somehow immoral of me to attend an event when I already knew what side I stood on: the white side.

A year and a half later though and I’m able to see that there isn’t a white side and a black side. There is a racist and bigoted side and there is the side of equality. Perhaps this simplifies things too much, but from where I stand right now you are either pro-human rights or against them. I do not see how there can be a middle ground. If I am going to have the courage to stand up and say that women should be equal in all ways to men, then I better have the courage to look at my own privilege as a white woman.

Oppression is oppression is oppression. I know that I will never need to deal with racism in the same way people of color do and I do not claim that my experience fighting for feminism can ever give me the insight to speak on racial oppression as someone who experiences it first hand. But I do see my privilege and I know that it is wrong for me to be treated better by the color of my skin. I know that things will only change if we rid our minds of white vs colored and focus on opening up our minds to look at ourselves and what we can accomplish.

I know that I can’t do anything for Trayvon. I know that I can’t say anything here which will make up for his death or for the white privilege America prescribes to which allows his murderer to walk free. But I also know that I can look back on my past and see my mistakes and know how to change them so I can fight on the side of human rights. I know where I stand now.

You Know Your Country’s Racist When…

Though this sounds like the opening to a bad joke, or a top ten list you might scan through to get a quick laugh, I think it’s time people stopped laughing at racism. Even people who still admit racism exists won’t always stand up to stop it, or will laugh along with the crowd. I’m just as guilty of this myself, but my experience as a canvasser this summer is opening my eyes to see that racism isn’t always as simple as hateful words or scornful thoughts and glances. A lot of the time, racism is the system of oppression which perpetuates the verbal and non-verbal hate that is deemed worthy of media attention as true racism.

But I’m out canvassing in areas of Atlanta like Virginia Highlands or East Atlanta and I’m seeing first hand that hate speech is a by-product of economic injustice and social inequality. When I was in Virgian Highlands, the houses would alternate between three tiered miniature mansion houses where people could freely write out checks for $60, and broken down shacks of unmowed lawns, broken screens to cover their front doors, and people who are out of work. 

This wasn’t every experience-I did run into a lot of white people who were also out of work, and some black families who were well off-but a majority of the time, the white people lived in the fancy houses and the people of color lived in the shacks. This was described to me as a mixed income neighborhood.

These are not people you can reasonably ask for money and a few weeks ago I was called out as being racist by a black man who asked why I skipped his house on my way down his street. He asked me flat out, “Do you just not go to the houses of colored folks?” His house was on my list and I did skip over it because I knew I would not be able to get a contribution. I was being racist and falling into this system of oppression because it was easy to do so. Though I was mortified and angry at being called out on my behavior I’m glad someone was willing to tell me my actions were complete bull shit. No one else was going to do it so I’m glad someone had the guts to.

I can’t pretend to speak from the experience of a person of color, but from my own experience, even just as a specatator, I know this is wrong. This is why racism exists: people see the poverty of black people and other people of color and think that because it is so prevalent in certain areas that therefore it is natural. White supremacy has to come from somewhere and I see it as stemming from the economic injustices that appear so mundane it’s sickening.

The past few days I’ve been in Ansley Park and this is an area of mansions. In the two days I’ve been there, I have spoken to one black family who told me that they didn’t own the house but were renting it. Every other person I spoke to or encountered on the street was white. Aside from the mansions this reminds me of my own home town and how ignorant I was of other cultures and the sytematic oppression which keeps white people at the top. If you grow up in an all-white neighborhood you don’t even think about racism and this is perhaps the most dangerous pit fall: ignorance that the problem exists at all.

And it is a problem! This is not just what I’ve seen demographically going from house to house, but that if the police get called on our organization for soliciting, there is a much higher chance the call will be in regards to a black male canvasser.

There is an irrational fear of people of color and fear is just another form of hatred. I know people who claim that because they don’t actively insult people of color they are not racist. But they are racist because they treat people of color differently and there is never any justification for it.

Any push for economic justice-living wage jobs, equal pay for equal work regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation-will wake people up to the fact that poverty is no one’s natural state and never will be.  When people of color are given the right to the same opportunities as white people that’s when white neighborhoods will expand to include other races and mixed income areas will no longer mean rich white neighborhood speckled with colored people in poverty. People need to see the injustice  and recognize that there is nothing natural about racism or oppression.

Gender is Not the Only Box

I had a conversation today with a Native American friend of mine which illuminated the idea that oppressive constraints of identity are not limited to gender or sexuality. This wasn’t news by any means, but the parallels between our experiences was incredible and definitely worth sharing.

He told me how he had wanted to buy  me a Batman ribbon for my birthday but that the ribbons were divided up between those for boys and those for girls. He didn’t want to get me the boys’ ribbon because he didn’t want to be rude, but he didn’t want to get me the girls’ ribbon because he knows I “hate pink”. I explained that I didn’t hate pink, but it ticks me off when marketing companies gender products. A thing does not need to be gendered. A boy should be able to wear the pink ribbon just as easily as the girl should be able to wear the blue. Items of clothing don’t have gender, so why do we assign the labels of “boys’ clothes” and “girls’ clothes”? I continued that it’s all just a way to enforce heteronormativity and traditional gender roles.

He began to talk about how frustrating being put into a box is. He made the point that if he listens to country music, for instance, people will come up to him and say “What are you listening to that for? That music’s not for you.” It’s as if his dark skin and traditional choices in dress and appearance are rigid markers of identity. Native Americans don’t listen to country music, what he is trying to do? He said that when he used to wear his long hair pulled back in a pony tail (instead of the double braids he wears now) people would ask him “why are you trying to look like a Chinese man?” And I know these were not the only stories, though these were the ones he decided to tell.

It reminds me of standardized tests: you check a nice little box next to your gender, your race and your religion. You are then wrapped, and shipped off to belong to someone else’s perception of your gender, your race and your religion. You suddenly represent what your identity markers say you should act like, talk like, or enjoy. You either fit the mold and perpetuate stereotypes or become an outlier to critique.

It can seem like there is no way to win when the world holds up a checklist and controls the pencil saying “yes, you’re a woman so you must be…” and “no, you’re not black, so you can’t be…” or “you’re transgender that means…”

Boxes are more than the over used figure of speech. They’re a real concept that damages people of every identity and are always oppressing with preconceived notions of who you should be by someone else’s definition. Gender and sexuality are not the only means of oppression.