Saturday, March 14, 2009

Romancing the Shoe Thrower: Misreading the Support for Resistance

There is often a romantic/idealized aura surrounding acts of resistance and/or resistance movements. This is possibly why the film industry (amongst other industries of culture) devote, at least in part, a fair amount of attention to narratives of resistance (and are often the focus of my recent postings). However, in this posting I want to focus on a particular New York Times article published yesterday, that takes, in a questionable way, the romanticizing of resistance (which here involve unlawful acts) to a whole different level.

The article, entitled "To Make Female Hearts Flutter in Iraq, Throw a Shoe" discusses, in particular, the reaction of female Iraqis to Muntader al-Zaidi, the journalist recently convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for having thrown his shoes at President George W. Bush during a press conference late last year. Zaidi's act was of course clearly unlawful and for many, particularly, in Iraq, it was likely seen as a justifiable act of resistance against a head of state who ordered the invasion and occupation of their country. However what is interesting about the article is how it frames and contextualizes the nature of female Iraqi support for Zaidi's act. If the title didn't give it away, then certainly the opening lines give you a striking impression of where the writers are heading (or at least attempting to contextualize/frame what is to follow):
What does it take for an Iraqi woman to fall in love with a man?
In parks and dress shops, in university halls and on picnics, Iraqi women are still smitten — three months and one new American president later — by the shoe thrower, Muntader al-Zaidi.
Do the title and opening lines perhaps imply/reflect/betray certain perceptions held about resistive acts committed by individuals in the 'developing world'? Perhaps. First, from this article's framing, Zaidi's (failed) act of resistance (whether you agree with the advisability of his act or not and whether there were more non-violent ways to demonstrate his disdain) ends up representing/serving a trivial purpose: throwing shoes at a foreign head of state as a mere attempt at enticing women or impressing them. Second, it reflects the limited notion/subtext that the principal way that the otherwise (and allegedly) 'repressed' Iraqi woman can experience falling in love in a simplistically constructed/imagined 'stifling, repressive culture' (here the Iraqi culture is the local stand-in for Arab culture regionally and 'third world' culture more generally) is through adoration of a man who has committed some violent (even if failed) act.

What do the writers base their ideas on? Conversations with twenty women over a few days. Of those twenty (and from what was included in the article), only one appears to have made any comments that resembled or matched the tenor of the title and opening lines of the article.
Atiyaf Mahmoud, 19, a student in her first year of medical school said, “I love Zaidi. I saw him in my dreams twice, the last one was after the trial, he was released and I went to congratulate him and shake his hand.”
“I was so excited in that sweet dream,” she said. “I wish to have that dream again.”
Interestingly, and to the writers' credit, the majority of article focused on the portions of the other interviewees' remarks that seemed to emphasize more sober points about the possible meaning(s) of Zaidi's act than of lovesick girls starving for a hero. For Hanan Mahdi, Zaidi's act was a manifestation of national pride and the source of respect in a neighboring state. She posits that “Muntader make [sic] us proud of ourselves as Iraqis.” Furthermore, Mahdi noted that while she was in Syria at the time Zaidi threw his shoes, she noticed the change in the way Syrian people treated them as Iraqis. She notes: “They treated us in a better way.” For another interviewee, it was an attempt to do that which no one else dared. Um Baneen stressed: “[n]o one dared to face Bush in the whole world, only Muntader al-Zaidi.” Lastly, one interviewee even disapproved of Zaidi's actions as a shameful act and his conviction as "a lesson to all Iraqis who are willing to do shameful acts and pretend that it’s democracy.”

Although it is questionable whether twenty individual women can be a representative reflection of the opinions held by the majority of Iraq women ("[w]hile Iraqi men have been divided over Mr. Zaidi’s gesture, it was hard to find a woman who wholeheartedly disapproved of him), the majority of the opinions featured in the article highlighted a range of opinions about the meanings of Zaidi's (resistive) act that did not resemble or substantiate the infantile, reductionist and tabloidesque framing that was applied to them at the outset. One ought to expect something better of a New York Times article - small or large.

Source consulted:
Abeer Mohammed and Alissa J. Rubin, "To Make Female Hearts Flutter in Iraq, Throw a Shoe" New York Times, March 13, 2009. Online:

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