Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Still Angry at the Hoax. And It is Not Just About Amina

Days after the Amina hoax came to light, and despite the reams of virtual ink wasted by the media on the story, I have found myself feeling furious each time I think of the way the story unfolded.

I got news of the story when it suddenly showed up on my twitter feed, with various activists and journalists being informed that “Amina” had possibly been abducted by Syrian security forces.  I re-tweeted the initial abduction tweet and then checked the blog in question.  And that is where things got messy!

While I am no Syria expert, I noticed some odd details, none of which made the story impossible but did stand out as improbable: “Amina” seemed to have a close, very physically affectionate relationship with her father, with a level of intimacy that seemed unusual. Perhaps, this was the Indian in me – and we share quite a few cultural traits with west Asian cultures – but the idea of a father writing on his daughter’s body – even if it were identifying details to prepare for a demonstration – seemed somehow culturally implausible.  Similarly, the idea of any father standing up to state security in a totalitarian state with impunity seemed fanciful.

The third and to me, most telling detail, was the lack of access and information “Amina” had to and about feminine cultural spaces.  Regardless of sexuality, and very much like India, most west Asian cultures continue to have numerous, intimate, powerful communal spaces for women.  In fact, as a teenager and young adult in New York and Boston, I had experienced this lack of shared feminine spaces as a distressing albeit hard to articulate aspect of culture shock. I still find myself seeking these in Europe, and often find them amongst friends from Africa and Asia, instead of amongst European or American women. As a result “Amina’s” lack of access to women and indeed, her lack of relationship with any women (even her mother) except lovers baffled me.

However, perhaps my own prejudices came through as I decided that these discrepancies were a result of “Amina’s” bi-national identity. Perhaps, I told myself, she was too American, much like the “diaspora” kids we see in India who have little understanding or knowledge of cultural codes.  This sense was heightened as some of the posts reminded me of the old French “harem” paintings, recognisable and yet somehow indefinably fantastic.

Yet I felt also guilty in doubting someone I knew little about. Perhaps it is a measure of my own location – from a former colony, with extensive personal experience as a racially marginalised other in many western countries – that I felt upset by my own doubts.  Accustomed to having my own experience and knowledge doubted and questioned on a regular basis by self-proclaimed “western,” “liberal,” generally white and male experts of India, and especially as I do not fit their accepted colonially-rooted stereotypes of a woman of colour, I felt acutely disloyal at doubting one of the sorority on such grounds.

And here again, is the continuing tragedy of our pasts: the powerful feel no need to question their lack of knowledge; while the historically dis-empowered and marginalised are hesitant to assert what we know to be true!

I also felt particularly hesitant in pointing this out as any doubts expressed about “Amina’s” identity were quickly shouted down on social media. A telling discrepancy showed up here: Arab bloggers and tweeple who were the first to express their doubts were shouted down by “Amina” supporters from Europe and north America. Those doubting her accounts, despite their greater knowledge of the Syrian culture and politics (and great potential risk to themselves as they looked for this fictional heroine in Assad’s prisons) were branded “homophobic” by primarily white liberal supporters from Europe and America.  Ugly prejudices of race trumped any kinship on sexuality, just as feminism(s) of women of colour has been clipped by white middle-class female condescension for decades past! 

Soon after the initial look at her blog, I stepped out of that debate, mostly refusing to comment or re-tweet the hysteria that built around the story. Still, I followed the story, all the while plagued by doubts: had this young woman built so many layers of anonymity that she could not be located? Were the cultural discrepancies intentional as part of the exercise of hiding from authorities? That perhaps she was indeed suffering in some prison and I was being unfair?

And perhaps this is what continues to make me angry about the Amina Hoax:  First, the apparently “new and equal” world of social media replicated the ancient colonialist dynamic of first, locating a cultural informer who fit “western” criteria of acceptability based on what should be long-discarded cultural stereotypes; second, other reliable cultural voices were doubted and drowned out as they neither pandered to nor fit the stereoptype of the reliable cultural informer; and finally, although many from the region (most notably Electronic Intifada) were involved in debunking the hoax, it finally needed western (and white) journalists to provide the weight of credibility to the debunking!

While Macmaster is a rather common example of a particularly reprehensible brand of ideologue and activist, the wider issues mentioned above are far more disturbing as they is go far beyond this particular hoax.  

Edward Said’s daughter Najla Said said her father would think the hoaxer “Tom MacMaster a perfect example of Orientalism itself.”  I can not but agree!  This works on two levels: first, there is little doubt that Macmaster feels he could portray the “subaltern other” better than she could himself, and indeed, shows little remorse or any moral compunction in self-righteously appropriating a trebly marginalised voice – that of a lesbian woman in Syria – despite or indeed perhaps because of his status as a privileged white straight man!

Second, much of the western media – as spiked has point out – actively colluded in the marginalisation of other voices and privileging “Amina’s” over them simply because she confirmed their own prejudices and agendas. (Here, hats off to the handful of dedicated journalists who first debunked the story and have since refused to insert themselves into the story as heroes!)  

While spiked does not mention the imbalance of power linked to race and ethnicity at the heart of the current hoax, this is worth considering.  Much of western discourse about the other continues to be filtered through a series of approved cultural informants, who are chosen not for their accuracy or veracity but for their ability to continuously re-affirm the accepted narratives about the “other.”

A look at a whole range of news stories, novels, films all point to this. The “immigrant” novel, the breathlessly narrated “behind the veil” accounts, the “save the natives from themselves” movies, all contain one or both of the following: a white authoritative privileged narrator whose race alone confers veracity to the account; and/or native informers whose veracity is conferred not by their own ability or story but because of a the white male narrator’s acceptance of it.

It was this dynamic that Macmaster embodies and exploited.  Sadly enough, much of the US and EU mainstream and social media actively participated in his game, and continues to do so.