By Eleanor J. Bader
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Devorah Hill is training Muslim and Arab girls in New York City to identify issues they care about--such as recognition of Muslim holidays in the public school calendar--and to make videos. Their work, started after 9/11, has weathered a major media tempest.
The slogan was widely misinterpreted, Hill says.
As the girls wrote on their Web site, "Intifada NYC is a call for empowerment, service, and civic participation in our communities, a shaking off of discrimination."
Although the school's principal had no connection to either AWAAM or the t-shirts, the fact that AWAAM rented office space from the Association of Yemeni Americans, where Almontaser was on the board, led to a intense campaign against Almontaser, the school and AWAAM.
The tempest--organized by a coalition of groups, including Citizens for American Values in Public Education--essentially charged that Kahlil Gibran International Academy was going to indoctrinate students in extremist Islamist ideology. This assertion captured headlines in the New York Post and the now-defunct New York Sun; Fox TV repeatedly featured the story, vilifying the three groups as anti-American.
Despite an outpouring of community support, Almontaser was forced to resign as principal and subsequently took an administrative position at the Department of Education. Kahlil Gibran International Academy, however, remains open, one of more than 65 dual-language schools within the city's five boroughs.
And AWAAM? "The girls were angry," Hill said. "Their parents freaked out and felt that it might be unsafe for their girls to attend our programs since the press was calling us terrorists. But we seized the bull by the horns and saw the incident as a teaching moment. Did they think what Fox and the Post were saying was true? I asked the girls. 'Are you learning terrorism here?' Of course, their answer was 'No.'"
AWAAM also held group discussions to help participants deconstruct and respond to the anti-Muslim messages they were hearing. They talked about journalistic integrity and told everyone who would listen what the word intifada meant to them.
A widely circulated five-minute video they produced, called Silenced by the Media, further responded to critics.
Part of the draw was Almontaser herself, Hill says. "Here was a first-generation immigrant, like many of them, who'd become a professional. She'd also gotten married, wore a hijab, raised kids and still managed to be contemporary. Debbie's example spoke volumes to these young women, even if they'd never met her. She was the embodiment of what they aspired to," she said.
In the two-and-a-half years since this incident, tempers have cooled, allowing AWAAM to return to its mission: Training young girls to become do-it-yourself media producers
Feminism--implicit and explicit--is at its core, Hill says. "These young women have gifts to give the world and it is incumbent on us to help them find a proper avenue for bringing this bounty out. The word feminist may or may not be used but it's always part of the program whether we're discussing socio-economic issues or gender equity."
What's more, AWAAM's focus on community organizing highlights the intersections of the isms--racism to classism, sexism to ageism.
Coupled with video production skills, AWAAM's young affiliates are being encouraged to use media to advocate policy shifts on issues they care about. They are currently focusing on better recognition of Muslim holidays by the city's Department of Education, which doesn't presently acknowledge any Muslim holidays.
Eleanor Bader is a freelance writer and teacher based in New York City. She writes the monthly Stroking Fire column at RHRealityCheck.org and contributes to Feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, the Progressive and the Brooklyn Rail.
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