Speak Free Or Die

On her last day here, Kawkab al-Thaibani left me a gift of a blue, brown and beige striped ceramic cat, from a little boutique in Clinton. I'm a cat magnet, but I'm not one for hokey cat gifts. This cat statue is perfect, though—with confident mod stripes and wide-open eyes, it looks a tad Picasso staring at me quizzically from the corner of my desk.

My kind of cat.

Kawkab (pronounced "koe-cab") surfaced about six weeks before the end of the year. She was an international student at Jackson State, and a reporter back home in Yemen, and wanted to intern here. She didn't have a car, so Maggie, Ronni and fellow JSU intern Shaketta drove her back and forth.

Kawkab managed to stand out in a long line of diverse interns. Although a tiny thing, she was the first person to work here who wears an Islamic head covering every day. I was in constant admiration of her colorful silk scarves and long-sleeve jackets. She is chic.

She is also a talker—and even though English is her second language after Arabic, Kawkab can talk like a southerner when she gets going. In my writing class, she would explode into bursts of expression that left other students wide-eyed—especially since she was talking about stuff like being arrested for doing stories the government didn't like—and I would have to cut her off by telling her that I had the "proverbial talking stick." She would giggle in response and chew her lips until the next time she could explode with words.

Kawkab has a lot to say. She has years' worth of words and thoughts and stories and pain stored in her little Muslim body. She can't contain it all.

But this dynamic young woman and thinker has been told her entire life to contain it. She wrote in our last issue about growing up in a culture that did not allow mistakes or resistance. She wrote of being a first-grader, used by an adult to hurt another little girl who could not read an Arabic word on a blackboard.

Kawkab knows that the tragedy isn't just that individuals would do such a thing; it's that entire groups of people allow themselves to be silenced. She wrote: "I remember the hurt in her eyes and, even more, her helpless readiness to receive punishment."

She wrote of how she adjusted to the requirements of her culture initially—in order not to be hurt like the other girl, she said. She decided that she could not make a mistake. She could not be wrong. "For me, a mistake announces that I am not a good person," she wrote. "My upbringing makes it hard to believe that mistakes are a way to goals, that the more mistakes we make, the better we become."

If you cannot allow yourself to make mistakes, you do not take the risks it takes to become a great communicator or leader. You stay silent. You don't speak out. You become part of the problem. She made me think about self-silencing and censorship in a way I never had.

The first piece I edited of Kawkab's drew many red marks from me. I wasn't simply editing her broken English—how I admire someone who does journalism in their second language!—but I was looking for places where I could help identify and encourage the greatness that I sensed in Kawkab from the first time she walked into my office and talked my head off. I often confuse my interns and students when I tell them that the more marks I put on their pieces, the more I probably like it. If a piece doesn't interest me yet, I just give it back to them and suggest more work. But I refuse to stymie someone's potential by holding back on the criticism they need.

When Kawkab first saw all my marks, I could see the emotion on her face. I knew she feared criticism. Once I knew her better, I understood why.

What impressed me the most was how she fought her own cultural upbringing to face those "mistakes" and absorb the criticism, even though it was painful for her to allow herself to be human, to put herself out there in a way that could draw criticism.

I thought of Kawkab and her scarves and her passion this week when I saw that another beautiful, outspoken woman, Benazir Bhutto, had been brutally murdered. And for what? Speaking her mind and demanding freedom for others to do the same thing.

It is clear to anyone that Bhutto was a courageous woman. She could have stayed in America, but she went home to fight for democracy in a region where women aren't supposed to speak up about anything—much less how badly the current dictator sucks. Kawkab wrote: "Intolerance for women's mistakes is exaggerated 100 times in Yemen. ... Women are blamed even if we do not make a mistake. If a woman is raped or divorced, she is punished."

And if she leads a freedom movement, she is blown to bits in public. That is dramatic. That is horrifying. That might even keep some young Arab women (or men, for that matter) silent in the future.

I suspect it will inspire more than it will silence. For a moment, imagine the alternative. You don't speak up, you bite your lip, you watch a little girl humiliated or a woman hanged, or another beaten to death with a flashlight. You go through life with your hands clasped behind your back. You are seen, but not heard. Those who should not have the right to judge you measure your silence, not how strongly you stood up for yourself and others. You may not die a sudden violent death, but you slowly wither away and lose consciousness in a rising tide of acquiescence.

You don't have to live in Pakistan, or in Yemen, or in the Islamic world to suffer this fate. It happens right here in America, in Mississippi, where too many fear speaking up, taking risks, being ridiculed or criticized. They, too, are victims of being silenced, and allowing it to happen.

Kawkab is back home now, and I know that she is not sitting on her hands. "I am like a survivor from a wreck, but I do not want to run, leaving others stuck there, alone. I want to cure my past wounds, to help myself be stronger in order to stretch my hands out to my own country," she wrote.

Godspeed, Kawkab. Godspeed.

Previous Comments


Godspeed, Kawkab. Godspeed. I second that.



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