There is an great, wide-ranging discussion about The Weight of a Mustard Seed on the New Yorker’s website. (The Way of the Mustard Seed sounds like a great book; I look forward to reading it. Here is George Packer’s review in The National. It’s a narrative non-fiction book that focuses on the life of Saddam-era general Kamel Sachet.) The discussion takes place between war correspondents George Packer and Jon Lee Anderson and New Yorker editor Amy Davidson. Part three (of the three part discussion) deals with gender in the Muslim world.
The three participants sound like thoughtful liberals. They speak from a distinctly Western perspective, but they remain fully aware of that fact. It’s a really interesting conversation. Here’s an excerpt:
Davidson: Jon Lee, George, how have each of you, reporting as men in countries where women lead, in some sense, separate lives, dealt with that? Were you ever frustrated by your inability to interview women, or to get their real perspective? And without those voices, did you ever feel that the stories you told were in some way incomplete?
Anderson: Wars tend to be men’s domains. Not exclusively, of course. But men do tend to be the primary actors, the perpetrators, as well as the decision-makers. Yes, there are frustrations to be found operating in different cultural environments. The barriers to gaining access to women in the Muslim world are real, but, on the other hand, because I had spent so much time in Iraq, gotten to know people, and was accepted into their homes, I usually found women to speak to when I needed. I wasn’t conscious of it as a limitation.
In my last assignment in Iraq, in fact, a woman named Um Jafar played an important part, by helping to confirm for me that her son, whom I called Amar in the story, was indeed—as he had told me—taking revenge for the recent murder of his brother Jafar, her eldest son. As his revenge, Amar had sworn to kill a hundred men connected to the militia that had taken Jafar’s life. At the time we spoke, he had killed around twenty. Um Jafar confirmed this and her own complicity in the murder-revenge spree, explaining it to me from a grieving Iraqi mother’s point of view.
George Packer: The separateness of men and women is always the thing that strikes me, and disturbs me, most deeply about working in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Nothing else about the conservative Muslim world comes close to providing such a stark contrast with the modern West, such an undeniable demonstration of cultural and political difference. I must say that it always feels like an entirely negative contrast. The muffling or outright sequestration of half the population drains the variety and vibrancy from public life, makes men less interesting and sometimes less sensitive, removes from the visible scene and the field of journalism one of the crucial aspects of human life.
I might struggle briefly with an attempt at anthropological relativism, but I soon give in and admit that the drastic limits imposed on women in public—I was just in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the limits are almost total—seem like a confession of some cultural failure, perhaps even the failure, the heart of the reason that war and oppression and intolerance are daily afflictions and, therefore, that I and other journalists keep visiting.
I’ve never gotten used to this fact of daily life; though I keep my thoughts mainly to myself, I think about it constantly. And though I don’t agree with the French and Turkish policies of forbidding the hijab in certain areas like schools or government jobs, I can’t help seeing it as an instrument of oppression, rightly or wrongly—even when it’s the voluntary and self-imposed kind. Watching a woman at the airport in Jakarta trying to drink coffee under the veil of her niqab, an act that required all of her focus and dexterity and was almost impossible to do without spilling, reminded me of the images I saw as a child of Chinese women with tiny, bound feet.
This separation inevitably affects the work. I spent enough time in Iraq, and the country still has enough of a hangover from its period of modernization, that it wasn’t difficult for me to talk to women, especially ones over thirty or forty. What we could talk about—that’s another matter. I’m certain that colleagues who are women got a lot closer to the truth in matters of the body and the heart. And because war and politics are the magnets that draw my reporting in these countries, my notebooks overflow with the words of men; women’s voices are much harder to hear.
Packer’s discourse–whether he realizes it or not, I have no idea–smacks of postcolonial theory and–dare I say it–postmodernism, at least of the kind espoused by Richard Rorty. (Read one of my earlier posts about Rorty here.) This indicates that Packer is a thoughtful journalist (and human being), the kind of writer we are only lucky enough to encounter every once in a while these days.
Anyway, check out the discussion.