Giving Neda and Iran’s Women Honor

Malika Saada Saar

Malika Saada Saar writes in her reader diary, "I write these words to give honor to Neda and the other Iranian women who dare the brutality of the Basij and military forces, and fearlessly raise their voices against crushing tyranny."

Because Neda Was Not Given a Proper Burial:

I write these words to give honor to her and the other Iranian women
who dare the brutality of the Basij and military forces, and
fearlessly raise their voices against crushing tyranny. In the horrific
images of Neda that the world now bears witness to, I know who she
is–her  color, the almond shape of her eyes, the raven black hair.
She resembles so many of the women and girls in my father’s family.
And, in truth, I have not always seen those women and other women in
Muslim countries as the embodiment of feminism, or female defiance, or
warrior women. Perhaps I have bought into the rampant Western imagery
of Muslim women as woefully oppressed, or the constant victims of
patriarchy.

But Neda’s life and the lives of
the other women marching and protesting in Iran
show me otherwise.  Because of them, I see the hjiab, not as a sign of
submission or subordination, but as the symbol of women’s strength.
Neda and her sisters have unveiled to us all the depth, complexity and
steely strength of being female and Muslim.  

Neda, if words
alone could give you a proper burial, my words would cover over the
bullet holes left in your chest, wash the blood off your olive-skin,
place a shroud around your too young body, and sing praises to the
angels to open heaven’s gates to a young warrior woman.

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Assalamu alaikum. Peace be to you.

Culture & Conversation Violence

‘Eclipsed’ Brings Liberian Women’s Choices—and Choicelessness—to Broadway

Kanya D’Almeida

While the play shines with moments of resilience and sisterhood, it is at its core about the brutal choices women are forced to make in wartime.

There is a bullet-pocked shelter. There are colorful baubles hanging on a wall. A lamp on a rickety table in the corner. And an Oscar-winning actress under a dirty plastic tub in the middle of the stage.

A devastatingly simple set, subtle touches of everydayness, and a powerful ensemble cast are just a few of the elements that combine to make Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, now on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre, an absolute sensation. While the play shines with moments of resilience and sisterhood, it is at its core about the brutal choices women are forced to make in wartime: how to make it through another day, how to salvage a scrap of dignity when all sense of decency is gone from the world.

The play opens with the seemingly unremarkable act of one woman braiding another’s hair, but we quickly learn that their ragged clothes and shabby surroundings are not just marks of poverty but of conflict: the tail end of Liberia’s second civil war (1999-2003). The women on stage are the “wives” of the ubiquitous but never-seen “C.O,” the commanding officer of a rebel army who routinely rapes his captives. “Number 1” (Saycon Sengbloh) and “Number 3” (Pascale Armand) are sheltering a young girl (Lupita Nyong’o) who has escaped a marauding band of rebels in the hopes that she will not become “Number 4.” This hope is quickly dashed when the girl is raped one night as she ventures outside of the bunker to “do wet.” With that, she is initiated into life in “the compound,” as they call it, which the characters believe is a safer place for a girl than the lawless world “out there,” where she might be raped by multiple soldiersinstead of just one.

It is this vicious logic, and the illusion of choice, that carries the audience through an exploration of survival tactics women are forced to adopt in wartime, such as speaking in a coded language that dulls the sting of reality. The “wives” never use the word “rape”—instead they talk of “laying with the C.O.” They don’t use real names—either an attempt to avoid memories of life before confinement, or a mark of internalized dehumanization—referring to one another throughout as Number 1, Number 3, and Number 4. They develop a degree of intimacy that is perhaps crucial to sharing a small space and daily horrors: They use the same sodden rag to wipe themselves down after each ordeal. And they bicker, as sisters might, over chores, clothes, and the pecking order in their little world.

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Each time it ventures too close to an impossibly dark abyss, the play rescues itself with moments of lightness and biting comedy—a testament both to Gurira’s skillful script-writing and Liesl Tommy’s direction. The trio’s discovery of a romance novel (which turns out to be a biography of Bill Clinton) brings frequent reprieve from the fog of war, especially their penchant for referring to Monica Lewinsky as Clinton’s “Number 2” wife. And even Number 3’s unwanted pregnancy—the result of one of her many forced encounters with the C.O.—offers moments of humor as her belligerence grows along with her belly and her increasingly frantic attempts to style her hair. But we are never allowed to forget. Just as the banter begins to lull the audience into the illusion of comfort, the lights dim and the women scramble to stand to attention, hands behind their backs, facing the wings where, presumably, the C.O. is deliberating whom to spend the night with. Silently, one or the other points a finger at her chest to verify that she is the chosen one, and walks off stage toward the commander’s quarters.

The mood changes with the arrival of the elusive wife Number 2 (Zainab Jah), a gun-toting, jeans-wearing firecracker of a character—based on the Liberian freedom fighter Black Diamond—who has escaped the compound by joining a rebel faction. She comes bearing gifts (cassava, clothing), which Number 1, as the ruler of the roost, rejects on account that they are the spoils of war acquired by stealing from, or perhaps killing, their former owners. The recalcitrant Number 2, who has chosen the nom de guerre Disgruntled, is unfazed by Number 1’s hostility and succeeds in luring Number 4, who in the script is simply named “The Girl,” away from the compound and onto the front lines of war with promises of freedom and power.

While The Girl and Disgruntled take the audience through the terrible motions of raiding villages believed to be loyal to “the monkey Charles Taylor” (the then-president of Liberia whose ouster became the stated goal of two rebel groups), we are introduced to Rita (Akosua Busia), a peace activist dressed in blinding white garments ushering in news that the conflict’s end is near. Her character appears to be a composite of the Liberian women who campaigned for an end to the fighting and played a key role in stemming the 14-year conflict that claimed some 200,000 lives in the West African nation. Nicknamed Mama Peace, Rita heralds change—the entire set rotates with her arrival—and attempts to prepare the women for the coming ceasefire. It is through her efforts to do so that we learn how attached the women have grown to the war: Number 1 to her place at the top of a miserable pyramid; Number 3 to the C.O.—“he’s the father of my baby”; and Disgruntled to her gun and the glamour of armed militancy.

At one point, when she is ordered to leave the compound, Number 1 remarks while bundling up her scarce belongings: “I don’ know what GO means.” It is one of the most powerful lines in the play, symbolizing both the entrenchment of captivity and the enduring impact of trauma, from which there is seldom any escape, in the play as in real life.

The war grinds to an end in a crescendo of fighting in Act II. We see it through The Girl’s eyes as she stands alone on the stage reciting the Lord’s Prayer, omitting the word “heaven” from her supplication, as though she has forgotten the word exists (or is perhaps unable to invoke it in such hellish circumstances). She then delivers a shattering monologue about witnessing a fatal gang-rape and personally tossing the dead girl’s body in a river. It is the climax of one of the play’s major themes, the severing and re-forging of bonds between mothers and their children: We see it in The Girl adopting the name “Mother’s Blessing” as her combat title, even though her actions as a rebel make her wonder if she is cursed, rather than blessed. We see it in Mama Peace’s search for her own daughter under the guise of campaigning for a negotiated settlement to the conflict. And perhaps, most poignantly, we see it in Number 3’s early motherhood: “I never felt a love like [this] before,” she tells The Girl toward the end of the play, while rocking her newborn close to her chest. “I kill and curse for her.”

Just as the play opens with the notion of choice—with Number 1 and Number 2 deciding to offer The Girl protection—so too does its conclusion mirror this theme. For Disgruntled, even as she is rounding up young girls as sex slaves for soldiers, the choice is simple: Feed the hunters, rather than be eaten. For the “wives” in the compound, starvation and routine sexual abuse represent a better option than being “out in the bush” at the mercy of Liberia’s notorious rebels. By the final scene we have learned the names of all but one of the “wives” (Number 1 is Helena, Number 2 is Maima, and Number 3 is Bessie) and—for the time being, at least—the paths they have chosen. Helena throws in her lot with the peace activists, hoping to start fresh in a new camp; Maima remains convinced that only weapons and ruthlessness can save her; and Bessie will stay with the C.O., her tormentor and now the father of her child. Only Number 4—The Girl, Mother’s Blessing—is torn. Nameless and choiceless, she is the last face we see as the lights dim and she stands suspended at a crossroads, a gun in one hand and a book in the other.

As a production, Eclipsed has broken several important barriers. In an interview with Access Hollywood, Nyong’o claims this is the first time a play written by, directed by, and starring all Black women has been on Broadway. It took its time arriving in New York: In a conversation with the New York Times last month, Nyong’o explained that the show stalled at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2009 because, “Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined was on then. And there was a feeling that there wasn’t room for two plays about Africa and war to exist at the same time.”

Now that it is here—on a limited Broadway run through June 19—Eclipsed is making room for itself by transcending all historical, political, and gendered boxes and presenting a deeply empathetic and even universal tale of resilience. Asked by the Times back in 2009 whether her play was a political one or a feminist one, Gurira reportedly declined to choose. “In very many ways, my focus as an artist is about getting African women’s voices out there,” she said. “If that ends up having a label attached, I don’t mind, but that’s not how I approach my work.”

Commentary Media

Let’s Talk About Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Gender, and Sexuality

Erin McKelle

If Kimye can show us anything, it’s that we still have a long way to go when it comes to smashing gender roles.

Erin McKelle is a student studying at Ohio University and one of Rewire‘s youth voices.

If you aren’t living under a rock, you’ve probably heard the big news that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West got married, following on the heels of being featured on the April cover of Vogue, with Kardashian wearing what seems to resemble a wedding dress.

There is a lot to celebrate about Kimye’s relationship. They are not playing by society’s traditional rules for relationships and don’t seem to care what anyone thinks about it. For example, they not just became pregnant but had a baby before their wedding and yet avoided the stigma that often goes along with premarital pregnancy. Further, they are both successful entrepreneurs in their own right.

I’ll admit it: I’m a huge Kardashian fan. I’ve been following the family, watching their many TV shows, and wishing that I’d been born with a name that starts with a “K” since 2009. So, I’ve closely watched the relationship between Kardashian and West unfold since they became a couple, and I’m interested in how their relationship as viewed through the public eye reveals that society has enduringly negative approaches to gender and sexuality.

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One of the first things I noticed after they started dating was Kardashian’s drastic wardrobe change. You might remember her in the past having worn a lot of body-conscious dresses, belted tops with leggings or jeans, and bright colors and patterns. Soon after she started dating West, she was seen wearing almost all neutral colors, a lot of leather, and different cuts and fits. Her makeup also became subtler, as her previously signature smoky eye all but disappeared from her look. On Keeping Up With the Kardashians, there was an episode that featured the inner workings of this change, as West and his stylist threw away most of the contents of Kardashian’s closet and brought in new, high-fashion designs. She was so upset that at one point she started crying. While I understand that as a television show this was probably staged, it just really didn’t seem like a change that she wanted in her own right. In fact, the way it was staged, it seemed to me like Kanye West was making her his personal Barbie doll.

This is not to say that the clothes she wears (or doesn’t wear) define Kardashian; from what we can gather about her in the media, fashion has always been a huge part of her life and her career. Before her fame, she owned a clothing store with her sisters (that now has expanded to include sister stores) and was a wardrobe stylist for celebrities. Now, she has her own clothing line with her sisters, owns jewelry companies, and recently launched a kid’s collection. Fashion is a massive part of her image and something she’s clearly passionate about. What she wears is a big deal to her, or especially her public persona. The public persona distinction is important because Kardashian is a reality TV star, which means that everything she chooses to put on camera is not necessarily who she is but rather a carefully curated image presented for the consumption of others.

As the relationship has progressed, Kardashian seemed to show less of her pre-Kanye personal identity to the public. She was noticeably not as active in her career, and West was noticeably not on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. I almost cringed when his name was brought up on camera, since every other partner she has had appeared on the show, and it seems reasonable to expect she probably wanted West to be a part of it. After she gave birth to their daughter North last year, she took leave from her career (although she had a few brief appearance on the show), later joining West in touring around the country. I saw Kardashian putting West’s career ahead of her own, which is not at all like the Kim Kardashian of a couple of years ago.

While Kardashian was briefly married to Kris Humphries, it was reported that he wanted her to move to Minnesota with him and stay home to raise any children they were going to have. She vehemently disagreed and ensured Humphries that she was never going to move to Minnesota and that her career came first. At the very least, this was the perception she chose to present to the public on her reality show. 

Kim Kardashian seems to have changed. Now, if these are things Kardashian wants to do, or are just a part of her personal evolution, more power to her. But there’s something about this that feels … strange.

She has in many ways highlighted (even if not intentionally) the ways in which her relationship with West reflects traditional, sexist ideas about marriage and parenthood. She recently said on Ellen that West “is not a diaper changing kind of guy.” And although she insisted he would in an emergency, she made it very clear on the show that she is the one doing the care-taking. This sort of declared helplessness is a gendered behavior that contributes to sex segregation at work and home, since men are viewed as ignorant and above doing “women’s work.”

During West’s Yeezus tour last year, she joined him for a radio interview he was doing with Angie Martinez. She said she was tagging along to be “wifey for the day,” to which West responded that she was “wifey for the life, now.” That’s fine, but why isn’t West showing up to support Kardashian’s ventures and business dealings? It seems that being “hubby for life” has a different set of rules and criteria—rules that reflect patriarchal ideas about gender and sexuality. It also seems like she’s trying to simultaneously appear as a businesswoman who is in control of her brand and image, while also being a loving partner and mother. This metaphorical pull-and-tug comes across as a bit confusing to her audience.

West raps about Kardashian in many of his songs, mostly in sexually explicit and misogynistic ways. A recent example of this is in the remix of “Drunk in Love,” in which West says he knew Kardashian could be his spouse when he “impregnated” her mouth. His valuation of Kardashian as a potential spouse based on sexual performance is an example of objectification.

In his new song that will be featured on Future’s album, he calls her his “number one trophy wife.” He also says about Kardashian’s sisters, “You could look at Kylie, Kendall, Kourtney and Khloe. All your mama ever made was trophies, right?”

You don’t have to read too much into that to see the sexism. West is turning Kardashian into an object, while also erasing all of her and her families’ accomplishments. Let’s not forget all the reality stars that have been discarded by the public. It takes some skill to build a multimillion-dollar reality TV empire. So with this savvy, it’s curious that Kim does not address Kanye’s lyrics about her or other things Kanye-related, beyond him being her partner. Clearly there is more happening than meets the eye.

This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to celebrate when looking at their relationship, however. They are an interracial couple in a nation where only 15 percent of new marriages are interracial (this represents some progress since interracial marriages weren’t even legal in all 50 states until 1967). I think their relationship represents working against what is still considered “the norm”—they’ve faced some public racism against their pairing, with one man harassing Kardashian in a parking lot, allegedly called her a “n- lover.”

It’s also important to note that Kardashian represents a woman using her sexuality for her own gain. Most women who are objectified and praised for their beauty and sexuality (like Kate Upton, for instance) are in industries run by and for men, which is part of a system of exploitation. They are a part of a patriarchal society that treats women as sex objects, that tells them to be sex objects, while simultaneously shaming them for being too sexy. Kardashian has been in control of her own career, and while her sexuality has been a central component of it, she’s always been in the driver’s seat. No one can argue that Kardashian has been a victim of the industry. She’s reinvented it.

West similarly has become one of the most popular rappers of this generation. He clearly has a lot of musical talent and didn’t come from money or prestige. He’s a self-made man who became a household name in music.

They are two people who have made a name for themselves in their respective industries.

This brings me to their recent Vogue spread and cover.

Looking at the photos from that photo shoot critically, a few distinct patterns emerge. For one, in every photo that includes their baby, West is the one holding her, which is a welcome change from the traditionally gendered nature of their relationship. The photos create a transgressive narrative of gender and sexuality, as fathers typically aren’t seen as primary caregivers in society, and pictures tend to act as symbols for wider cultural conditioning. I can’t think of many pictures that feature a heterosexual couple with a baby in which the father is holding the child.

The spread also features Kardashian in a variety of white gowns, seemingly representing wedding dresses. Importantly, the outfits don’t appear particularly sexualized. This is a rarity in a culture of objectification.

The interview itself focused on the dynamics of their relationship. Kardashian was definitely where the interviewer focused though, which was refreshing to see, since the dynamics with heterosexual couples usually place focus on the man, because of our culture’s implicit emphasis on masculinity. Usually the audience is reminded that the woman is feminine—and femininity is devalued in our broader culture even if it is exalted in fashion magazines like Vogue. Interviews that aren’t inherently based in sexism, but reinforce gender, place women in a bind, so that the audience devalues them because of their femininity, and doesn’t respect them. It is, in a word, misogyny.

Kimye’s relationship as represented in the public eye offers fans some possibilities for new models of relationships, but ultimately reenacts many of the traditional dynamics of heterosexual relationships. They are both presented in very gendered ways and they themselves are seen acting out assigned gender roles. For Kardashian, this interacts with misogyny as she is scrutinized in ways West will never be. Gender roles are becoming increasingly destabilized, but if Kimye can show us anything, it’s that we still have a long way to go.