Mercedes White | Dare to Choose

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Mercedes White has an MA in Islamic Studies from Columbia University.  For her thesis project, she examined the meaning and role of references to Islam in the modern Middle East.  Examining Islamist interpretations of Qur'an, she argued that Islamic theology is a vehicle for expressing socio-political ideas, not religious ones, at least not religious in the protestant sense.  While patiently awaiting her green card she enjoys practicing yoga at Baptiste Power Yoga Institute, sewing, Milton Friedman, posting on her blog, lemon bars and Axis and Allies. 

After you read through her post, will you leave a comment, sharing your thoughts and ideas, giving her the gift of being heard?


Daring to dream has never really been my problem.

When I was little I wanted to be a cleaning lady, then a synchronized swimmer.  As a teenager I wanted to be a lawyer and thought it would be really cool to design wedding pantsuits for women (in my defense Christie Brinkley wore one in the 1990s).  These days I dream of being a professor, a journalist, a cook, a crafter, a librarian, an anthropologist, a filmmaker…

I can go on, and quite frankly, I think it’s starting to be a problem…

I identify with Esther Greenwood’s dream about the fig tree in the novel The Bell Jar. In the dream each piece of fruit on the tree represents a different version of Esther’s life: mother, doctor, and writer.  Esther wants to choose something, but hesitates, overcome by a sense of loss believing that in choosing one you lose all the rest.  To afraid to make a decision, the fruit in Esther’s dream withers up before her eyes and falls off the tree.

 Sophie-adde-fig-tree(2)

So it’s kind of a depressing dream, but I identify with it.  I’m also scared to choose.  Dreaming is fun.  Dreaming seems more interesting then committing myself to one thing; one thing that will occasionally be boring, hard, and unfulfilling.

Just dreaming is safe.

One of the lessons from the The Bell Jar dream seems to be: if you want a life, you have to choose it.  Right now my challenge isn’t so much to dare to dream, my challenge is to dare to choose.

So this is what I choose:

Ever since learning about honor killing in graduate school, the murder of a woman by her family for dishonorable actions, I have wanted to learn more about the cultural and religious justifications for the practice.  Honor killing is particularly common among Pashtuns in Afghanistan where tribal codes and popular interpretations of Islam justify violence towards women as socially appropriate and necessary.

I became interested in this practice after one of my classmates (a pashtun from Afghanistan) shared her family stories of with me.  Three women in her family were honor killed:  one for running away from home, one for trying to initiate a divorce, one for refusing to marry the man her family had chosen for her.  My friend was surprisingly (at least to me) unemotional about what had happened.

Some afternoons while holed away in the stacks of Butler Library my mind would start to wander and I’d start dreaming of going to Afghanistan, interviewing women on the topic of honor killing and making a documentary film about the things I’d learned from them.

The fact that things are a little out of control in Afghanistan has always been my excuse for not doing anything about this bohemian fantasy.

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Source:  istockphoto

Present violence notwithstanding, I can’t get the idea out of my mind. This is the piece of fruit I want.  This project is the synthesis of many of the things I am interested in.  There won't be a war in Afghanistan forever.  When more peaceful times come to the region I want to be prepared to tell the stories of the women and men who live there.

In the meantime I need to prepare myself to do the work I want to do.  My options are limited by my geographic location.  We are moving from New England to Utah in the fall.  Additionally because I am a Canadian citizen in the process of applying for permanent residency, I won’t be able to work for pay for about nine months.

Given those constraints my plan of action is as follows:

1.     Learn documentary filmmaking.

I need to learn everything from filmmaking technology, to editing, to ethnographic story telling.  An Internet search for documentary film in Utah proved fruitful.  Here are some organizations that I found:

  1. Center for documentary arts
  2. Alvey Media Group
  3. Sundance Institute

I plan to approach these organizations with an offer to volunteer my services.  I’ll answer phones.  I’ll run the photocopier. I’ll order office supplies. In short, I’ll do what it takes to have a chance to be in an environment where I’ll be exposed film making or at least meet people who know about it and might be interested in working with me.

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Source:  istockphoto

2.    Develop contacts in the South Asian community.

This will be trickier since there isn't a large South Asian population in Utah, but there are national groups.

  1. Indus Women Leaders
  2. The Committee on South Asian Women
  3. National Asian Pacific Women's Forum

All hold yearly conferences, publish online magazines and do charitable work in South Asia.  By participating to the extent I can, I will be able to learn more about this community and I hope to be able to build a network of people that can help and direct me when I am ready to go to Afghanistan.

3.     Write an initial paper on the topic of honour killing.

Because I'm fairly familiar with what the literature has to say about honor killing, Pashtu tribal codes, and Islamic discussions on domestic violence, honor and women, I think it's probably time to write an initial paper, telling of my experience, and most importantly, asking my questions.

My friend saw violence against women as a way their culture reinforces norms and correct behaviour and in fact not a bad thing because it brings about socially desirable outcomes.  I was so shocked by her response, I wondered what other women from her culture would think?  Are their other ways of interpreting the practice?  Were my friend's opinions characteristic of women's opinions or is she an outlier?

In summary, I'm choosing to:

  • Learn about documentary filmmaking.
  • Develop contacts in the South Asian community.
  • Write a paper laying out my initial thoughts and questions on honor killing.

I'm not just thinking it, I'm inking it.

Daring to choose.

Do you have any advice for a fledgling fig fruit picker?

Are there organizations you know of whose goals correspond with my project?  

Any thoughts about people I should meet?

I’d love any and all of your feedback. 

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