Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The Oversimplification of Syria

Published by The Islamic Monthly

Syria has become the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time that has claimed half a million lives and caused the displacement of more than 11 million people. In the last 48 hours, there was a “complete meltdown of humanity” in Aleppo — the most war-torn city in the world. The Syrian army was reported to have slaughtered 82 civilians, including women and children. Verbal condemnation flooded the media. Amid this horrendous mess, I received a message from a Syrian friend: “Only people on the ground know what happened.”

I immediately recalled the trip I made to Syria in 2012. The family who hosted me was torn apart over supporting President Bashar Assad’s regime. While the father wanted him dead, the children were not far from rallying for him. Caught between a rock and a hard place, even a 9-year-old-nephew had to make a decision. He chose to be a double-agent spy who eavesdropped on everyone, including me.

The fear and split I witnessed in this family was not uncommon. Friends and families clashed head-on over a civil war that is too complex and disastrous. While the whole world was harshly condemning Assad, in many parts of Damascus, shops that displayed Assad’s picture on their doors, windows, balconies dotted the streets and scattered around in the main squares. I was overwhelmed by the observation that a large portion of the population genuinely backed him. These are not just Alawites in the armed forces, but also an elite that is centered around the merchant classes of Aleppo and Damascus who are mostly Sunnis; upper middle and middle class enjoying social benefits and economic advantages; Christians and Druze who make up almost 20% of the population; and many educated women who have been enjoying a more liberal and equal stand in public life under a secular government.

I genuinely think we have a problem with the need to simplify the world into trivial forces of good guys versus bad guys. This defense mechanism helps us understand our terribly complicated reality without being inundated with information we can’t possibly digest. We are bound to take action, but before we do so, we need to make sure our investment goes to the side of righteousness. Hence, we instinctively have this dark desire to demonize some, victimize others and romanticize certain parts so that judgment and punishment come easier. In the end, killing bad guys is much less problematic than killing anyone else.

My experience in Syria and observation over the past four years have taught me that it is not useful to stratify the actors in Syria into contrasting forces of right versus wrong. If we do have to put a label on everyone, I would say that this war is a battle of devils. Let’s start with the rebels. How often have we been shocked with accounts of Western-backed freedom fighters committing war crimes, including abductions, torture and summary killings? Next, the Syrian regime has been ruthless in the past and inhumanly careless with collateral damage, yet it would be utterly wrong to assume that it does not have support from a large number of Syrians. We should be aware that even ISIS, despite its disastrous acts against humanity, has some members receiving respect from certain people on the ground of religious morality.

I have also learned that there is a great deal of diversity within this label. The three battling forces in Syria (regime, rebels and jihadist) are not unified within themselves. There are hundreds of rebel factions whose interests are anything but mutual. Jihadist groups compete with one another in gaining territories and attracting recruits. For Assad, more and more of his loyal co-religionist Alawites are distancing themselves from him. Last year, Assad’s cousin killed an Alawite officer, provoking intense protest. Many Alawites say they are being betrayed by a leader who will cling to power until the last drop of Alawite blood is shed and by a regime that is losing the war. Alawites — who in 2011 chanted “Assad! Or we set the country on fire!” — now chant a different tune: “God willing, we will witness the funeral of your sons.” The fate of Alawites, a majority of whom are in the Syrian army, is one of the most tragic stories in the history of the Middle East. They have always been part of an impoverished sect almost destined to attach to the regime for survival. In this war, one-third of Alawite men have died serving the army.

I was moved to tears when Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., unleashed a scathing attack on Assad and his allies: “Are you incapable of shame?” But when the emotion was subdued, I wondered whether the war in Syria had been reduced to a cold number, name-calling, finger pointing, shaming and bundling everything together for cursing and condemnation. Those days in war-torn Syria has told me that more than ever, we need to humanize the brute data and trivial side-taking sensation that flooding the media. We have too many headlines that boil the blood, and we lack stories that portray real struggling humans regardless of affiliation, such as a New Yorker review of the film Timbuktu, a story about two Syrian brothers and Humans of Syria. We need to go beyond the labels of “refugee,” “jihadist,” “freedom fighter,” “rebel” and “regime soldier” and consider their inner desires, their sadness, their own battles, their quest for dignity and mercy. Would we hesitate to call people devils if we can touch the complexity of their lives, if we can feel how they are torn between the different voices of their own soul?

I do believe that one of the many ways to deal with this tragedy of Syria is to find a way to know Syrians as those complex and dynamic fellow humans, with a name and not a stereotypical label. Judgments still might come, but at least they might be held back by a brake of compassion and empathy.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

From dressing up a child to building up a strong person

Published by A Family


Don't you think like I do? "Great pic, flying in the face of stereotypes: A little girl in blue, unisex clothes, and (gasp) aliens print of some sort. Who needs princess and fairies?"

A few days ago, Facebook CEO’s daughter turned one. I couldn't help but notice a consistent message from Mark and Priscilla. Baby Maxima often wears blue (stereotypically a boy’s color), unisex style, without gender abiding prints - aliens, in this picture. When Maxima was born, she was photographed with the book “Quantum Physics for Babies.”

We are all influenced by subconscious stereotypes, and in turn, project them onto our children. How often do we buy dolls, cooking and nursing toys for girls but cars, building blocks and superman costumes for boys? What really makes us praise girls as “pretty” and boys as “smart”? Why do we chastise daughters for being “unruly,” but feel that "active" sons as nothing short of natural? How often that girls are taught to do chores while son are free to play videogames? Why do we overprotect daughters to the point of near captivity but let boys roam around to gain experience? Why girls can't be girls but "boys will be boys"? How often do we expect our girls to focus on raising family and boys on becoming breadwinner? We say: "everyone makes a choice", but can we face the fact that all choices are influenced by the social environment, and the very choices of parents, friends, celebrities, and everyone else? Go to the very bottom of that question, is it a baby's own choice to be born, to be raised in a certain family and culture, to get the first toy, go to a certain school, read a certain book and uphold a certain value?

Upbringing and education are often characterized by cultural values and subconscious bias that will influence and weigh on children for life. Even when parents are conscious of stereotypes, it is hard to escape them from a society full of gender biases. Children take role models from friends in kindergartens, television, grandparents, and every single other adult around them. Humans are social animals. When a child sees boys playing with cars, girls playing with dolls, their mother busy with housework and their father with driving…etc., the child would slowly change their thoughts and behaviors accordingly.

The media surrounding children is full of biases and stereotypes. In movies and fairy tales, young pretty girls wait for their princes to come so their life can be fulfilled. Men should be rich, royal, or warriors to stand any chance to mate (!). Turn on the TV and most advertisements take advantage of lazy stereotypes to find way into consumers’ brain. If an ad for detergent features a husband, consumers may have a slightest chance of cognitive dissonance. And so, let’s avoid it.

Children are much more insightful. In a viral video, a girl points out the blatant gender bias. T-shirts for boys have “Be a hero” and for girls’ are “I need a hero”

However, companies are increasingly aware of this social change. Campaigns have been based on progressive values of equal opportunities to attract highly educated and liberal parents. For example, Toy R Us now has catalogus with girls playing soccer and boys cooking. In “Frozen,” both princesses are strong and confident women. A prince is not even the final goal of life, and the ultimate power is sisterhood.

The dangerous thing about gender bias is that it creates a terrible gap between being men and being women, so much that these two seem like completely different species. Popular books such as “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” or “Why Men don’t listen and women can’t drive”, or the whole gaga of “male brain” and “female brain,”… etc. completely miss the latest advance in neuroscience and the idea of "brain plasticity". It sells the simplified idea that biological gender identities are hardwired from birth, and if a girl grows up in forest, she would still like pink clothes and wait for a prince to come (fairy tale shows it). Well, truth is, if left in a forest, her best scenario is to be rescued by wolves, and to end up being a feral child who crawls in all four. Culture is the driving force of humankind. It is stronger than genes when it comes to behavioral adaption. In fact, the only thing that separates human and animal is that animal is guided by genes, and humans are mostly guided by a culture. A great book on this subject is Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel, praised by Nature to be the best book written on culture so far.

Evolutionary biology and neuroscience have shown us that there is no such clear biological borderline for gender. Male and female are only two lazy labels we put on to simplify a very dynamic interaction between biology and social environment. In fact, everyone has the potential to become a very complex being, with both male and female stereotypical traits.

Back to our story: So if humans are mainly guided by a culture, why don't we create a culture that has fewer stereotypes and prejudices for children? Instead of letting subconscious biases control us, we can consciously minimize the consequences. A child can play with dolls and learns to care for others, play cooking and learns to help parents with chores, play teacher and learns how to share knowledge and communicate effectively, or play superhuman to understand the value of compassion when having power. These qualities are gender-less. And progressive parents will understand that toys are crucial to carve personality.

Of course, our children will grow up and stereotypes-ridden societies will continue to influence them, just like us and everyone else. No one can escape subconscious bias totally, but we can definitely become AWARE of the fact that we are all under its spell. From then on, we would pay more attention to our words and habits. It can all start with the kind of clothes we dress our children up, or the first toy we put into their hands.
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