A Middle Eastern friend of mine recently took a working vacation to the San Francisco Bay Area. With some business to complete east of Oakland, he chose to use public transit to get from his hotel to various meetings and appointments. When I called to see how his visit was going, he informed me of a harrying experience at a San Francisco transit terminal.
Apparently, while walking through the terminal, my friend encountered numerous homeless people who tend to frequent the terminals, asking for handouts and seeking shelter from the elements. The experience was near traumatizing and my friend explained how he literally feared attack by one of these transients. He described their shabby attire, offensive body odor and staring gazes.
Now being accustomed to the problem of homelessness in San Francisco, it was no surprise to me that he came across such people. His reaction however, was a surprise.
But when I considered his background and life in the Middle East, I began to understand. In his country, the rate of violent crime is extremely low. Walking the streets of his city late at night can be done without fear of being raped, mugged or attacked. Many places in the United States however, are not so safe. And the perception of many Middle Easterners is that the streets of America are lawless, violent boulevards of crime, poverty and prostitution. And this perception of his was no doubt reinforced each night he watched the news at 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.
The important thing to remember is that my friend's fear and anxiety were shaped by what he learned of America in his country and by what seemed readily apparent in his first glance at some homeless people. Perceptions.
Now let's reframe the discussion.
In the past year, there has been an inordinate amount of attention given by the American media to crimes against women in the Muslim world. There have been reports of "honor killings" in Pakistan, news pieces on acid mutilations in Bangladesh, accounts of female genital mutilation in Sudan and even a fictional portrayal of cloistered female life in Afghani family structure.
Why is this the case? Perceptions.
It is a fact that domestic violence is as prevalent in the United States as it is in any other part of the world. Men beat their wives just as mercilessly in Chicago as they do in Cairo. But it is human nature to project the perpetration of such horrendous acts onto someone else, some other class or nationality of people.
So in the United States, there is the perception that domestic violence runs rampant amongst lower-class peoples. Jokes are even made about beer-guzzling, "poor white trash," who shuffle around the house in white t-shirts or tanktops, "slapping some sense into their womenfolk." But this belies the fact that Mr. Joe Corporate in his Armani suit is just as likely to lash out violently at his wife.
An even easier projection for Americans is to focus on peoples completely foreign to them. And unfortunately Muslims have been all too accommodating in providing bizarre tales of torture for the American media to exploit. Just as the concept of "car-jacking" must turn the world upside-down for a Muslim in Tunisia, the idea of tossing acid in a woman's face must absolutely floor an American.
There are two solutions for changing peoples perceptions of these instances of domestic violence that seem to titillate the American public. Here in the United States, groups can work with media to help educate them concerning the facts and figures of domestic violence. By showing them the relative infrequency of such acts and by framing it in the larger picture of general domestic violence, the direction of discourse can be altered. But this is but a Band-Aid, a stopgap measure.
The real solution is to work to stamp out all acts of violence against women, Muslim or non-Muslim. If one takes away this object that seems to indict Muslims as a whole, as a violent, barbaric people, then not only will perceptions be changed, but lives will be saved.
It's not enough to finger-point, saying, "You're worse than us on this issue." Muslims must strive to be better than others, so that we can say, "We've fixed our problem. Our house is in order."
Ali Asadullah is the Editor of iviews.com