Daily Dose of Casual Racism In My Cartoons: Rio

Watched Rio, the cartoon about the rare Brazilian birds, with the kids last night and woke-up disappointed not only about the blatant hueism, but also about how slow I am to catch these things when I catch them at all. There is always so much isms to discuss with kids when we watch any cartoons and with Rio the thing sticking out glaringly for me was the African American voices–dogs seem to commonly have Black-sounding voices, especially if they are the only dog in the movie and more so if they are naughty/naughtyish, such as the bulldog in Rio being played by Tracy Morgan. Really? A bulldog? Sigh. Likewise, a naughty blackish kind of bird I see is actually a Canadian Goose is played by Wanda Sykes. I smell a trope here. And George Lopez is a Brazilian-residing Toocan? Ok, like I said, always a lot to critique in my kids’ seemingly innocent little movie watching, but here in Rio the hueism is what I most pressingly need to rewatch the movie with my kids so that we can discuss it.

So in a Brazilian nutshell (yes, I did) the Good guy, a bird-loving and saving ornithologist, is so fair-skinned that I wasn’t sure if he was even supposed to be Brazilian–the kids watched the movie in French the first time around, so the accents were all, well, accented to me. And yes, I understand Brazilians come in a full spectrum of skin tones, including White, and that is why it is all the more upsetting that the Bad Guys were all noticeably darker than the Good guy. The three bird thieves, as well as the little orphan-like boy who is pressed into working for them are all darker-to-Black. This blatant racism seems especially hurtful because Brazil is always held up to this color-blind fallacy, as in “Look at Brazil, all the colors are co-mingled and getting along so well!”–not– and also the guy who made the film is from Brazil and in the features section of the video he is so very, very “excited” to share his “colorful” country with us, the viewers. Sadly, the background characters are all pretty white washed too.

I was happy to see the kids were doing some critical watching as well as self-correcting while viewing the film, they were being clear to differentiate between the US and South America in their discussion and my eldest son made a comment in which he changed “foreign countries” to “just countries.” Perhaps this is an earlier indicator that my kids will not be as insensitive to these issues as I was indoctrinated to be. Also, the eldest asked me about the poverty, specifically noting the metal-roofed shanties which we also see here in Morocco, without this connection I don’t know that he would noticed the poverty–the younger kids didn’t mention it. I’m sure they will be thrilled to watch it again with me sometime this weekend, so I’m doing a little pre-discussion preparation. I want to discuss with them the hueism problem, as well as the White Savior trope which comes up with the orphan-like kid being adopted in the end and also try to get them to discuss some of the roles played by Black voice-overs in order to see if they notice how those characters are much sillier compared to the others.

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The Hijrah Diaries #8 via SISTERS Magazine

Day 150: The culture shock books don’t say how long it should take me to stop bristling under my skin every time someone wags a “no” finger at me. This is perfectly acceptable, not-at-all rude and frequently used here, which is completely different from my own cultural training that dictates finger wagging as a very, very rude action only used to scold particularly naughty people. I’m pretty sure that I grimace each time someone wags at me, which must seem pretty weird.

Day 158: Today I negotiated to buy a fixer-up bicycle – fixed up. Well no, I’m not completely sure what I negotiated. We seemed to agree at 400 dirhams, but I’m not too sure what that includes. I think I’ll get a frame and new gears that the mechanic will transfer from the mountain bike we were both gesturing at, and I hope he puts on new tires because he kept saying “mzee’in,” meaning “good” – but what’s good? Ok, good, he’ll do it or no, the threadbare tires are good so he’ll leave them on? And I felt confident that the pick-up time was agreed upon for one week from now, but in hindsight, dude pointing at his watch and making rolling motions with his index finger and my response of counting off the days of the week in English on my fingers – that doesn’t seem very clear does it? I have no idea what was agreed upon!

Though it was a little rusty, the frame was nice, but purple –  which I don’t normally like, however I’m trying to get my preconceived aesthetics anyway. I am curious to see how he fixes it up for me, kind of like when I would go to a new hair stylist and say “do what you think is best.” I am so excited about having a bike and someone to occasionally watch my littlest people so I can actually go riding with the bigger ones.

Day 165: The bike situation is not going well. I got it. He seemed disappointed, perhaps I came back later than he expected – more pointing at his watch. I am really disappointed with the work and not sure how to proceed. He didn’t change the wheel and in addition to it being threadbare, all of it is warped. I peddled away feeling kind of wobbly, thinking wow, I was really rusty. Uh, no, it’s the tire! And some spokes are broken. The breaks do not work at all; found this out going downhill to the beach. He only put gears on the back, none on the front. Grr. Unsurprisingly, the husband is not happy that I adventurously handled this transaction by myself. Yeah, yeah haste makes waste, but I’m just not willing to wait a few more months for a bike, nor are the kids who are now expecting to go to the beach every weekend. I’m negotiating for every other weekend and holidays off. But first I need to go back to the mechanic and do a lot of pointing and fingering wagging. And I’m going to continue to try hard not to read into why the dude felt he could do such shoddy work on my bike. Female? Foreigner? Allahualim—my business is getting a rideable bike!

Day 170: The sister-in-law and I are going to try an organised cooking schedule. This forced meals at specific intervals is killing me, but I concede that it probably is best when you’re feeding eight to ten people at non-arbitrary times. I am very used to squeezing food in-between all the activities and stuff the kids and I were doing, but now the meals are central and squeezables are much more rare. We are going to try switching off for whole weeks at a time, she will be in the kitchen for one week, then me the next week and so on. Not only are we going to trade off the cooking, but it will be overall kitchen management, so also cleaning and shopping. The days of living like kings will now come to end for my boys, who will be back to regularly contributing to cooking and cleaning. They are huffing and whining about – gasp – having to wash dishes by hand! But they are looking forward to cooking and making their favorite dishes again. They are also plotting science experiments and have started a list of needs, including food coloring, cupcake wrappers, rock salt and cornstarch. These kids know their crafts and snacks!

I’m hoping to reduce production time in the kitchen. I could easily, and sometimes do, spend four to five hours a day cleaning, preparing and cooking food – plus sauces and vinaigrettes are made entirely from scratch, as most Moroccans do. It’s not uncommon for folks here to make mayonnaise from scratch – no way! Sometimes I feel like my sister-in-law and I are one upping each other, getting far too grandiose creating multiple dishes for each meal. Living in the Mediterranean is really a gourmet delight, but it’s just too wasteful to spend so much time pleasing our tongues. So, I want to find ways to satisfy eight to ten different preferences and dietary needs and not be too extravagant about it. And we are going to have to get some canned tomatoes in this pantry.

Day 177: The house next door has been sold, emptied and demolished in the past couple of weeks. We are now the last house on the block, and one of the few remaining houses in the neighbourhood, which is full to capacity of zone-allotted six-story apartment buildings. Actually, they follow the silly European protocol of calling the second storey the “first storey” so we are shadowed all around by seven storey buildings. And due to the unique, non-uniform shape of our block – we are now wedged between three concurrent construction sites. Two are immediately next to us on the north and south side of the house and another is just about five meters off of the east/back side. I could stick my arm out several of our windows and reach a construction worker. Nice. That’s three different angles from which we are hearing construction sounds all daylight hours, six and even seven days a week. And they occasionally drill and hammer holes into the outer walls of our house to do various things for their sites. We have new and bigger cracks in the plaster all the time. Whenever someone slams a door in the house or the Chergui winds swirling around the house slam the doors, a grandparent yells something about how the front balcony is going to fall off.

I’m trying to remain positive. After all, the construction sites are endlessly interesting for the kids to watch and learn from. The work is done quite differently from the States; much more is done with bare hands and even bare toes in sandals! Still, I can’t help but feeling the very literal encroaching of urbanism all around us and it is choking our dreams of a little land, a vegetable garden and some animals. The “BAM, BAM, BAM. DUHG, DUHG, DUHG. TUNK, TUNK, TUNK” is chipping away at my sabr, sabr, sabr.

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As originally published in the June 2011 issue of SISTERS Magazine–while you’re over there, check out their article “The Down Low, Let’s Talk Clinical Depression.”

Review of Beyond the Kitchen: Muslim Women on Balancing Life, Family and Work

 Being that I am one of those typical Super Sisters striving to juggle multiple roles while clinging to my deen, Huda Khattab’s latest book completely had me at the title-Beyond the Kitchen: Muslim Women on Balancing  Life, Family and Work. Khattab’s work—extensive research, interviewing Muslimahs and writing this book—grew from her personal search for practical education and career solutions for her own young daughters. Khattab, a British-born convert now living and working in Canada, has bound her findings on Muslimahs’ successes into “a celebration of the diversity of interest and skills to be found among Muslim women.” Sharing the experiences of dozens of sisters, Beyond the Kitchen offers insight and tactical suggestions for some of the challenges unique to Muslim women who must, as Katherine Bullock explains in the foreword, “balance our need to work with our obligation to live a lifestyle in conformity with what Allah (swt) has laid down for us.”

Amongst the book’s participants I found many sisters carving paths similar to sisters whom I have known, and there are even a few high-profile Muslimahs whom I have heard of who shared their experiences. A would-be opera singer who converted her creative energy and skills into developing Muslim media is an especially interesting and inspiring account, though even the most seemingly typical occupations and endeavors demonstrate the complexities and possibilities open to working Muslim women. Academic in its methodology, Beyond the Kitchen is thoughtfully revealing read. I love personal narratives, especially those of Muslim women, and delightfully Khattab includes along with these narratives a brief account of the kinds of “jobs” performed by early Muslimahs, such as trade, agriculture, medicine, animal husbandry, literature, and scholarship:

In an interesting vignette, it is reported from ‘Amra bint al-Tubakh that she went to the market with her slave woman and bought a fish that was so big that its head and tail appeared from the basket in which she carried it. ‘Ali passed by and asked how much it had cost, commenting that it would fee her family well.

These vignettes remind us that direct buying and selling (along with other occupations) have always been possible, practical and necessary options in the lives of many Muslim women. Being a housewife may be the Islamic ideal in some circles, but the sisters in Beyond the Kitchen are frequently either realistic, “As a convert, I also am aware that the ‘traditional’ ideas, that your family will always support you even if you are divorced or widowed, aren’t applicable in my case” or they have been hit with reality, “Some respondents were the sole breadwinners in their families, such as Naz whose parents’ health problems prevent them from working.”  Khattab also found that Muslimahs are drawn to work for non-financial reasons, such as “self-fulfillment, intellectual stimulation” and “to make a contribution to society.” For others, working beyond the domestic sphere simply enables their families’ lifestyles to go further than the barebones that only one income may provide.

Although Khattab attempts to reveal a varied cross-section of working Muslimahs, one commonality most share is higher education. Though some work in the fields they were trained for, others needed to return to school to obtain a skill set. Let it be a counsel to other sisters, insha Allah, that an education of some sort is invaluable for Muslim women to be hirable or effectively trained for self-employment, which can be an ideal situation giving sisters the kind of freedom they need to keep their earnings and their time uncompromised. In keeping with her own advice to “think outside the box,” Khattab offers practical and Muslim-friendly suggestions for obtaining skills other than the standard go-to-college route which, though ideal, is simply not an option for every sister. Mentorship is something few sisters encountered but, Mira, a nurse and midwife encouraged that, “We should think of how we as women and sisters can help each other. We need mentoring between each other, advice, support . . . We should really be supporting and nurturing and loving and give advice.” Absolutely. Mentorship is an Islamic ideal many of us can informally practice; certainly we say it all the time, “Want for your sister what you want for yourself.”

Flexibility is another commonality amongst the participants, and undoubtedly a trait that women quickly pick-up when they become mothers. Several of the participants, and even Khattab, parlayed their work and life experiences into wahm (work at home mom) situations when they had children. Adaptability is also a challenge for converts who must transition their new Muslim parameters into their (usually) secular workplaces or carve out any entirely new route in self-employment. As someone who has worked many jobs and attended university both as a Muslim and before being Muslim I know firsthand that being Muslim in non-Muslim work environments does make a difference in how I was treated as well as some difficulty in being hired in the first place. Khattab mostly avoids dabbling in the details and daleel of Islamic do’s and don’ts in the work place by allowing the sisters to explain how they approach issues, such as interacting with the opposite sex, transitioning to hijab, dealing with non-Muslim holidays and bigotry. There’s no whitewashing here, participants from outside The West also reported incidents of discrimination for being practicing Muslims in Muslim-majority countries and how they dealt with these challenges.

A thorough and well balanced demonstration of the particulars working Muslim women face, Beyond the Kitchen even takes a peek into the kitchen and domestic realms of sisters and offers sage advice and resources for better managing around the hearth.  I have come across some of these resources before when during times of my own domestic crisis I have frantically turned to Google for help—have we all heard of The Fly Lady?—but in staying outside the box, Khattab dispenses lots of more good sense. Beyind the Kitchen’s appendices are just as relevant and prudent as her narratives.

Although her participants glean a great deal of insight into their personal experiences of striving to balance work, life, family and deen, an area beyond the scope of Khattab’s book are the detailed practicalities of being self-employed and/or a wahm. Next month, insha Allah, we will look more closely at some of the myths and pitfalls around wahming and self-employment. Ideally Beyond the Kitchen would be a great resource for all parents of young Muslimahs and it would also be of immeasurable benefit to new(ish) converts who are trying to forge their way in balancing their new religious obligations with their worldly needs and responsibilities. The sisters in Beyond the Kitchen demonstrate that there is no one way to do it, but plenty of routes worth trying while looking for your own right way.

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This review originally appeared in the February 2011 edition of SISTERS Magazine. “Work at Home Muslimah: The Great WAHM Myths, Realities and Possibilities can be read here.