Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Changing Administrative, An Unchanged Hope

Warning: sappy, semi-political post ahead.

Last week, Michelle Obama gave her final speech as the incumbent First Lady of the United States. Tonight in Chicago, Barack Obama will give his Farewell Address.

In Summer 2011, I had the privilege of serving in The White House for a brief time, working with correspondence in the Office of the First Lady. I went intending to study the American political system and the culture of Washington, D.C. What I received was professional mentorship from an amazing staff of career staffers and political appointees, a look into the work-life balance of postroom sorters and world leaders alike, and insight into the American public.

I read letters that summer. A *lot* of letters. Some of them contained policy advice, cries for help, statements of blame. But many of them told stories of hope and thankfulness.

Regardless of where you stand politically or how you feel about Obama's Adminstration (and please believe that I have plenty of complaints - as, I'm sure, does the man himself), you should know that there is a generation of American young people who are growing up feeling empowered because of this couple and the positions they've held. Time and time again, I read statements from children to the effect of "I used to feel I couldn't go to the top because of who I am. Now looking at you, I know I can be anything - even the President."

And that matters. Representation matters. Role models matter.

It's very unlikely that anyone whose letter I read will become the President - but they don't need to. What they need is to grow up knowing it's possible and that the adults in their lives have their backs. FLOTUS emphasised how much she does in her final public words.

I'll carry the words of those encouraged children with me for the rest of my life. Their voices of gratitude and belief have gotten me through some dark days. I will cling to their hope in the days ahead, come what may.

So thanks to the Obama family, and thanks to the country that elected them. Thanks to the incredible team that worked alongside them. And thanks especially to the amazing career staffers who work in administrative and logistical positions in The White House and on Capitol Hill - those who have served and will serve their country under any number of presidential administrations, no matter how much they agree or disagree with the leadership. It is those career staffers who make sure the country's basic systems are able to keep running even as political figures come and go and shuffle things around. You are an inspiration to me and I appreciate all that you do.

The times they are a changin', folks. But hope lives. And role models continue to stand and uplift. And children are growing up in a world that has seen glorious things. May we celebrate, and give each other a hand up, and move ever forward.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Marshall and Rhodes: Building Relationships

This holiday season, many people seem to be welcoming the end of the year more than the beginning of a new one.

After all, 2016 took David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Anton Yelchin, and Prince. As if that weren't enough, Ron Glass - the much loved Shepherd Book from Joss Whedon's "Firefly" - passed away the day after Thanksgiving.

Then, of course, there's the outcome of certain votes in the UK and the US - to say nothing of various political upheaval and pain in other parts of the world.

As a viral Tweet so eloquently asked: "Has anyone tried unplugging 2016, waiting for ten seconds, and turning it on again?"

We're struggling, friends. We're struggling. And many of us are rather worried 2017 is set to be worse.

But it's Christmas. And Christmas means hope.

The world, at times, seems a mess. As a species, we're awfully good at screwing up. And yet...we're also the species that birthed Shakespeare, that landed on the moon, that cries when a kitten is hurt. We are capable of being open-handed, heart-warming, awe-inspiring. We just have to remember it.

In a time when insularity seems to be synonymous with security in many people's minds, relationships are more important than ever.

My current work as a PhD Scholar at King's College London is the product of one such relationship - one between the UK and the US that goes back to the world's struggle to recover from World War II (another set of years that likely felt broken and, at times, hopeless). In 1953, the Marshall Aid Commemoration Act was passed, establishing a scholarship for young Americans to pursue postgraduate study in the United Kingdom. Today's Marshall Scholarship community includes Supreme Court Justices, a Nobel Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winners, Oscar nominees, and NASA's youngest astronaut.

Beyond - and more important than - the prestige, the Marshall Scholarship is about making the world a bigger yet tighter community. It is about Americans meeting other people, seeing new sights, comprehending the complexity of our world. It is about relationships.

2016 seems broken? A few good things have happened lately that are going to help fix it.

This Monday, Alok Sharma (the United Kingdom's Foreign Office Minister) announced a 25% increase in the number of Marshall Scholarships offered for 2017. In September, I'm getting forty (rather than the usual thirty-ish) new friends as the Marshall Scholar Class of 2017 begins their tenure. I am hopeful that this increased number of Scholarships will help bolster the Commission's ongoing efforts to empower underrepresented communities, widening participation and improving diversity in academia and politics.

On that note: a few weeks ago, the Rhodes Trust announced its expansion to underrepresented countries in the Middle East. My beloved friend and AMENDS Colleague, Hashem Abu Sham'a, has been named Palestine's first Rhodes Scholar. Hashem will join the University of Oxford in September 2017 to continue his battle for peace and justice in the world.

And there, my friends, you have it. 2016 wasn't all bad. So long as we can continue to invest in relationships and value collaboration, focusing on our shared humanity and seeking new things to discover and create, I have faith in us.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Response to the ‘domestic violence makeover’ on Moroccan TV

Last week, Moroccan TV channel 2M made international headlines after airing a segment teaching women how to cover up the bruises left by domestic violence. After reading my piece on gender-based violence that appeared last year in The Conversation, the comments editor of i News emailed me asking for a statement. Hardly an expert myself, I asked some of the young people I work with at Dar Si Hmad, my Moroccan research partner, to reflect on the issue of violence against women, how they have experienced sexual harassment, and what they think the media should be doing. Check out their responses in an op-ed published on i News and read the longer version below. Thanks to Jade Lansing, Dar Si Hmad's former Ethnographic Field School Manager, and Souad Kadi, Project Coordinator, for their help in compiling this piece!



Sabhiyat, a daily programme on Moroccan national channel 2M, recently featured a segment teaching women how to disguise domestic abuse injuries. “Unfortunately, this is how things are,” the host mentions before outlining tips for how foundation can hide bruises. The segment ends dismissively, telling viewers “We hope these beauty tips will help you carry on with your daily life” – as though domestic violence can and should be easily ignored by its victims.
As has been well documented, violence against women is not a new issue in Morocco. 55% of its married women experience domestic violence. A few years ago, Amina Filali killed herself after being forced to marry her rapist. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch remain concerned by the limited legal protections available to victims. See more about this and preventive actions in a piece that appeared last year via The Conversation.
Given the statistics, this news segment sadly was not news. What was shocking, however, was its open acknowledgement of the problem even as it flagrantly dismissed it. The presenter apparently “considers this taunting experienced by women as normal” (see The Concerned Moroccan Citizens campaign). Rather than supporting abuse victims, this kind of reporting legitimises the violence and all but removes blame from the abusers.
Dar Si Hmad for Development, Education and Culture is a local non-governmental organisation working in Southwest Morocco. Our work includes women’s empowerment and capacity building, girls’ science education, and intercultural exchange through study abroad. In the wake of the 2M segment, we asked some of our young partners to respond. Here’s what they have to say:

Nadia, age 25
I have enormous concerns about this topic. We are in a country that considers girls the main problem causing sexual harassment. I will never forget my first time in a grand taxi (public transit cars) between Agadir and my hometown. I had just spent two weeks away from home for the first time in my life. I viewed the taxi driver as a father or brother, like anybody else doing his job and helping people get home safely. I knew something was wrong when I started getting weird vibes from his glances in the rear-view mirror. Immediately, I started to question myself. How could a man his age act this way with a teenage girl? Maybe I am his daughter or his sister’s age? I was afraid, uncomfortable, and shocked. I was also blaming myself for getting in an empty taxi and wondering if my hair or my outfit had encouraged this. He was smiling, and asking me questions. I was pretending to listen to music, but he wouldn't look away or stop talking to me. I put on my sunglasses to hide tears, and I wanted to scream. I was squeezing myself smaller in hopes he wouldn’t try to touch me. When we arrived in Agadir, other people got in, and I got out. I have never felt such feelings in my life. I was in his cage, and he enjoyed looking at me stressed. Through this experience I learned that while we still have stereotypes about girls in our societies, I will never trust bosses, taxi drivers, workers, or teachers, until we stop blaming the victim.

Zahra, age 21
Being beaten by your husband or anyone is inappropriate. What's worse is that the media makes it into a makeup tutorial, which makes it seem like this behavior permissible. We don’t just paint a wall covered in cracks, because no matter how many layers of paint you put on, the cracks will appear again sooner or later. Wives are not punching bags for husbands to take out their anger on. We have all experienced some sort of sexual harassment, but the bigger issue is that often nobody intervenes, because this has become so normal.
For instance, once I was riding a crowded bus, and I noticed that something strange was happening between a couple standing near me. The guy seemed like he was trying to do something, but the girl didn’t speak up. She looked so embarrassed. I made a fuss about it, and even when it seemed like he was going to hit me for saying something, NO ONE SAID ANYTHING. They just watched. There are places to go if these things happen to you, but unfortunately married women don’t go because they are afraid of shouha (shame). Of course norms, traditions, family views, illiteracy, play a big role in the spread of this phenomena.

Abdelkrim, age 26
As a young man I think domestic abuse is a gendered crime which is deeply rooted in the societal inequality between women and men. It takes place “because she is a woman” and happens disproportionately to women. I also think that women are more likely than men to experience multiple incidents of abuse. Domestic abuse exists as part of violence against women and girls, which also includes different forms of family violence such as forced marriage. This kind of abuse is very popular in Morocco, which is a shame for our society. I believe that the last show in 2M normalizes violence against women, and helps them cover it with makeup. Instead, it is very important to raise victims’ awareness and orientate them to get the help they need from authorities. However, I also see this show as a step forward, since it launches discussions worldwide about this issue and will certainly push the authorities to get the attention needed for the victims.

Jamila, age 20
The media creates a false image for women: either she is well educated and elegant or manageable and traditional. The media is not fair with these women. Instead of spreading their success and informing the audience of changing dynamics, it misshapes their real image into a false and bad one. It tells women they have to obey their husbands instead of defending their basic rights.

Salma, age 20
The fact that domestic violence is still an issue around the world, when we are getting ready for 2017, puts a great deal of responsibility on the media’s shoulders to spread anti-domestic violence messages. Unfortunately, the daily morning 2M TV program is portraying domestic violence as a given and morally accepted behaviour. It acts like a woman’s bruises are her responsibility to cover. In fact, the bruises are the alarming sign of the society’s failure to stand up for her.

Sara, age 26
We live in a patriarchal society that still believes that it is the wife’s responsibility to keep her family in harmony. We teach women they need to keep being patient or they will destroy her family. It is very weird to know that being beaten is a normal act. The weirdest thing is to cover up abuse instead of voicing your opinion and talking about your right of being respected.

Abdelhaq, age 23
‘Woman’ is a very priceless word for me. She’s my mother, my first love, the person I’ll do anything to keep alive. I won’t accept anyone saying things against or hurting her. Woman is my sister, my auntie, my friend, my everyone. Nobody has the right to touch a woman because of her gender or because the world gives her fewer chances. A woman is a human before she is a woman. She has rights we are obliged to peacefully respect. She has dreams of success and gifted hands, just like men do. As such, I totally respect and support her.

Souad, age 22
Seeing this show reminded of the conclusion I came to in my bachelor's thesis. I discovered that the media is a way of reinforcing dangerous stereotypes about women. I analyzed two Moroccan advertisements. In both, women are obedient, naive and almost always silent. These assumptions are transmitted between generations. If we don’t change something, the next generation will perceive women the same way their parents’ generation did.

Sara, age 20
I have never personally experienced violence, because I am lucky to come from a peaceful, honest home. We’re a patriarchal society, and violence is not only linked to husbands; it also comes from big brothers and uncles. Unfortunately, I have encountered sexual harassment, mostly verbal, and it’s upsetting to see that my favorite TV programs are giving make up tutorials on how to cover beatings. It’s really a shame to see how a serious issue has become so normal. Instead of covering it up, they should be talking about how to address the roots of this issue. Husbands need to control their anger and respect their wives.

Oumhani, age 21
Like many others, I encounter sexual harassment in the streets and it is mostly verbal. It is very offensive and insulting even when only verbal – and I wish the Moroccan government would criminalize that act. This should be a free country where men as well as women are free to wear whatever they want without being harassed. To help protect that freedom sexual harassment of any kind should be met with extreme sentences
The 2M TV segment is actually no surprise to me – the channel isn’t very good. Instead of wasting five minutes making a senseless beauty tutorial, they should have taken this dangerous matter into real consideration. They could have brought a legitimate coach, psychologist, or lawyer to teach us how to take action and not be afraid.
And however the bruises may look, women will always be strong and beautiful. No make-up necessary.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Bach Project

Guitar nerd?

Interested in the philosophy of harmony?

Fascinated by history?

Love The Beatles and Abbey Road?

Enjoy seeing unusual instruments?

Like pretty music?

Want to spread more love in the world?

If you answered 'yes' to any of the above, I encourage you to check out (and, if you're able, donate to) a very cool project. World-renowned classical guitarist Michael Poll has been working on an incredibly academic yet beautiful project reinvigorating some music written by Bach for the lute with a seven-string guitar. Which he'll be recording in Abbey Road.

As a bonus, I appear in the audience in one of Michael's selected promo pics. ;)

Check it out:

Monday, November 21, 2016

Teaching, teaching, and teaching, oh my!


In the course of two days last week, I taught literature to nine-year-olds; maths to thirteen-year-olds; agricultural water policy to undergrads; and hydro-diplomacy to master’s students. It was quite the whirlwind!

I’m teaching with The Brilliant Club this term. They needed coverage of some subjects I don’t usually teach, and I guess they’re feeling confident with me…here comes Becca leading a mathematical physics course for Years 8 and 9 on ‘Would the stars float in the bath?’ The first day we played with density; today we worked on significant units, conversions, formulas, and finding the gradient of a chart. Meanwhile the younger students are exploring what creation myths tell us about the relationship between humans and nature. It’s been really great to relive my maths and science days from high school…but I’m definitely enjoying the social-natural stories as well.

Other than the load of teaching, my foot is properly on the mend and I’m feeling much more energetic. So it’s now time for a desperate attempt to get back into actual levels of PhD productivity. So much transcribing and typing to do!! :)

Monday, November 14, 2016

À Bientôt, Maroc!

Ta ta for now, Morocco...once again, it's been a delight!

I've spent the last week at COP22 observing Dar Si Hmad's incredible environmental diplomacy. They've been showcasing fog technology, environmental education, and climate change adaptation. I've been helping to staff the booth and work with our incredible Environmental Youth Ambassadors - urban students who are producing multi-media, multi-lingual content about environmental issues in Southwest Morocco.






After waving at camels and goats, being sprayed by young students pretending to be 'fog' with our interactive teaching net, and meeting some friends from around the world also here for COP, it's time to head back to London.

While I don't recommend being on crutches for 2 months, it does make security queues at the airport much faster to navigate! Let's hear it for a quick and easy immigration experience...




Wednesday, November 9, 2016

After the Election, A Letter to You


To the 59,165,778 persons who voted for Donald Trump: you are loved. I am sorry that your views, opinions, and struggles are being demonised by the media and many individuals. I am sorry that we have created a world in which Trump feels like a solution to your struggles. I hope that you are willing to work alongside those with whom you disagree to make life better. I will stand with you. I will fight for you.

To the 59,333,856 persons who voted for Hillary Clinton: you are loved. I am sorry that your candidate was not elected and you are frustrated by the result. I hope that you will channel your hurt and anger into continued action for justice, equality, and understanding rather than attacks on those who voted differently than you. I will stand with you. I will fight for you.

To the many persons who voted for another candidate or did not or could not vote: you are loved. I am sorry that you are poorly represented by a two-party system that continues to make the voting process a difficult one. I hope that you will find ways to make your voice heard in the coming years. I will stand with you. I will fight for you.

To the persons of colour, LBGTQ individuals, Muslims, immigrants, women, and others who are terrified about the prospect of losing their rights, dignity, and freedom: you are loved. I am sorry that the future is a frightening one for you. I hope that you will take comfort in the knowledge that many people are concerned and will not be silent. I will stand with you. I will fight for you.

To the millions of persons around the world who had no say in this election but whose lives will be dramatically impacted by the result: you are loved. I am sorry that a decision made without you can hurt you so much. I am sorry that my country so often fails to be what it can and should be. I hope that you will not be harmed by this vote. I will stand with you. I will fight for you.

To you: you are loved. I will stand with you. I will fight for you.