Let’s Change The World Together, Instead of Hurting it Divided

My writing and contributions to the Ohio University Interfaith Youth Core chapter as programming director:

For more on the OU Interfaith campaign visit the full blog

Although I do not consider myself to be a religious individual, I do find myself to be extremely passionate about helping others. In my college career I have had the privilege to learn and partipate in organizations and events that help with both international and local issues. Over this time I have learned a lot about the missunderstandings that lead to global conflicts and atrocities. I have learned these past three years that my goal in life is to work with international human rights issues, and I feel a strong pull toward Africa specifically. I have had the privledge to be a part of organizations such as Invisible Children, UNICEF, and Amnesty International. I also got to experience local poverty issues first hand when I interned for Good Works’ Walk for the Homeless. Through these I have found myself to be very sensitive and open-minded to many different people.

Although I don’t participate in a religious practice, I always remain open to learning about different affiliations that are out there. I think it’s important for them to be able to properly communicate to eliminate missunderstandings and conflicts, and therefore act collectively to do good for those in need. I find it ridiculous that there are so many wars that go on relating to religious differences.

I wanted to be a part of the interfaith movement because I’ve seen first hand, even in my own family, how religion can tear people apart.

If a diverse group of people can work together, share their beliefs and experiences, and learn from each other a lot more would be accomplished. An overarching theme among different religions is to follow what you believe in to give you morals and guidelines for how to be a good person in the eyes of what you might be worshipping. That is a great theme. That common interest should be remembered as a starting point for how to colaborate with those who may be different from yourself.

My vision for Ohio University would be to see people learning from one another, and becoming more open minded. From there they can take what they’ve learned and the new relationships they build to make a more effective change in our world for the better both at a local and international level.

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Unveiling Muslim Women at Ohio University

written and photographed by MARYBETH BOGNAR

My latest and final story for the InterActivist:

http://athensinteractivist.com/spring11-stories/muslim-women.html

On Saturday, April 23, the Muslim Student Association at Ohio University held an open house at the Islamic Center. The event encouraged OU students and Athens community members to learn more about Islam through speakers, videos, and presentations that occurred throughout the afternoon, and also offered Middle Eastern cuisine. The open house cleared up misconceptions about many aspects of Islam, one being women’s role in wearing various headscarf apparel.

The controversial topic of Muslim women’s headscarves is common in discussions about women’s rights. Around campus, people who are misinformed often speak about how they feel sorry for women who are “oppressed” or “forced” into these practices. However, this is far from the truth. During the open house, women who wore different types of the headscarf encouraged their guests to ask questions about what headscarves mean to them personally and to their fellow Muslim women.

Muslim WomenOne woman who spoke at the open house was Heather Irwin, an international studies graduate student from Portsmouth, Ohio. Irwin first chose to wear a headscarf with a face covering when she converted to Islam about eight years ago after growing up with a non-religious background. She wears it for different reasons, but decides to always have a scarf over her head and neck as well as being covered down to her wrist and ankles. “It varies on the situation,” Irwin said. “When I’m gardening I’ll wear a top and jeans, but if I’m on campus I’ll always wear the overgarments.” Although Irwin chooses to cover her face, this is not a requirement of Islam. “I like the protection, privacy and freedom,” Irwin explained.

Irwin found herself looking for religion several years ago. She believed in God, but did not belong to a religious community. She was attracted to Islam because of its simple and basic beliefs, prophets, and the community that it brought to her. Once she converted, she tried different apparel to find the most comfortable choice.

A more common scarf worn by Muslim women is the hijab, which is what Maha Alsaeed chooses to wear. Alsaeed is working to receive her Ph.D. in math education at OU. She has been Muslim her entire life and continued the religion when she moved to the United States from Saudi Arabia. “I feel comfortable covering my head and body. I try wearing skirts, but I’m just more comfortable when I have very loose clothing everywhere,” Alsaeed said at the open house. Her husband also encouraged her to do what she felt most comfortable with, which helped her try different styles and find what worked best for her.

These traditions are not just about appearance. Irwin and Alsaeed both feel that they are far from oppressed, and are actually taken more seriously by and get more respect from those around them. “I’m able to practice my right to be judged by character. My hijab helped me do that and caused people to think about what’s in my mind,” Alsaeed said.

Irwin agreed and added, “I receive much more respect in Athens.” She feels like liess of an object because “men won’t often check you out in these loose clothes.” Irwin also found that she pays attention to her behavior more since she is less anonymous and commonly recognized by her appearance.

Unfortunately, Irwin and Alsaeed’s choices in clothing do not come without scrutiny in today’s society. Alsaeed found one form of negative opinions toward Islamic practices in a Parkersburg, W.Va. coffee shop. She said that an elderly woman worker there seemed to dislike her and one day, the woman asked about Alsaeed’s scarf. After hearing why she chooses to wear it, the woman simply replied, “Strange; here is your coffee.”

Irwin had a scarier experience when she spent two years in Indianapolis, Ind. She faced aggressive comments every day. “People would get in my face and call me ‘wrong, evil and bad,'” Irwin said. “It was very frightening.” She sometimes heard comments such as “look at that thing.”

Both Irwin and Alsaeed have found that people in Athens are very accepting, and will even ask questions about their traditions that they are happy and willing to answer.

“More conversation on the subject of Muslim women and headscarves has stemmed from ongoing legislation changes in France, in which certain forms of Muslim overgarments are being banned. President Nicolas Sarkozy has cited resolving security issues and liberating Muslim women as two of the primary goals of the legislation.”

Both Irwin and Alsaeed shared a look and a quick laugh in response to this statement. “People seem to be scared that France will be an Islamic country,” Alsaeed said. Irwin finds the law flawed for many reasons, one of which has to do with procedures in international airports within France. “The law applies to anyone passing through the country, including its airports,” Irwin said. She expressed her concern of having to take off her overgarments and headscarf even if she was just switching planes in the airport. Alsaeed spoke about her experience outside of the U.S. while she was growing up in Saudi Arabia. “You cover your face or people will look at you in Saudi Arabia,” Alsaeed said when talking about smaller towns in the country. However, in larger cities people commonly wear the scarf but do not cover their faces. “It is not required by law, but it is more a social norm,” Alsaeed said. Irwin added, “In Afghanistan it is not legally required, but there is a strong social pressure. In Iran the policy changes a lot.”

Although policies and traditions vary throughout the world, these women show their choice through what they wear for their religion. Alsaeed and Irwin, along with other women at the recent Islamic Center open house, encourage questions and conversation to help create understanding and cooperation within the Athens society and to help these ideals spread throughout other communities in the U.S.

A Deadly War Funded By Your Cell Phone: Conflict Minerals and The Congo (Interactivist, fall 2010)

written by MARYBETH BOGNAR

photo illustration by RACHAEL LEMKE
photographed by SARA SALMAN

My story from the InterActivist.  For more information about how to make a difference visit enoughproject.org

What if you found out that purchasing your next cell phone, iPod, laptop or video game was funding one of the most violent and deadly wars to date? The war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) currently has claimed over 5.4 million lives, with that number growing each and every day. Such a large number can be hard to imagine. Consider Ohio University being completely wiped out 315.35 times. That is the impact this war is having on one African nation. Congo

Patrick Litanga is a Graduate Student at OU earning his degree in African Studies. Litanga lived in Kinshasa, the capital city of the DRC, until 2000. He has had first-hand experience with the violence that is still going on there. “I met with child soldiers and was arrested twice. It was extremely frightening,” he said. “I was lucky they let me go because the child interrogating me spoke my language.”

The children that had captured Litanga were between 8 and 10 years old. Litanga was 21 at the time. These children carried large weapons and dressed in their war clothing. “I remember seeing an 8-year-old boy carrying an AK-47 that was covered in Mickey Mouse stickers [while] riding a BMX bike with a hip-hop necklace on—these kids were the ones deciding who will live and who was the enemy,” Litanga said.

There are four main minerals that technological agencies are purchasing from the DRC to use in electronics: tin, tantalum, gold and tungsten. These four materials are not only funding the war, but are giving it the incentive and means to continue to claim lives.

CongoAccording to Litanga, the areas where these minerals are found are located in a very dangerous corner of the DRC. In this corner, rebel armies from Burundi, the DRC and Rwanda (including exiled Hutu tribe members), as well as the Lord’s Resistance Army, are primarily located. In these areas, children are exploited and forced to work in mining, and women are raped. Everybody is at the mercy of the rebels. The minerals being mined are then shipped to a refinery in Australia. United States’ businesses purchase such minerals from this refinery because it is very cheap compared to minerals coming from other areas such as Canada. However, the U.S. isn’t the only country funding this war by buying conflict minerals—other countries, like China, are doing the same. Litanga believes there needs to be “international pressure” in order to make an effective change and have a chance at ending a war that has been going on since 1998.

Ohio University is giving its students a chance to step up and make their campus conflict-free. Ellie Hamrick, a student at OU, is an anthropology major who has taken the initiative to spread the word and inform her fellow students of this crisis that she is extremely passionate about. She urges students to pledge themselves to be conflict-free by going to the Enough Project webpage (www.enoughproject.org) and joining the national campaign called Raise Hope for Congo. Hamrick says that by joining this campaign, students will be pressuring electronic companies to purchase from suppliers who aren’t getting conflict minerals from the DRC. This marketing will hopefully cause companies to fall into the conflict-free cycle.

CongoIt is not an impossible task. “Stanford University has already become a conflict-free campus. It’s our turn to do the same,” Hamrick said.

Hamrick has a plan for OU since she has already had a great deal of success. Her first initiative was to start a Facebook group to spread awareness and keep students informed of her plan. The Facebook group, called “Bobcats for a Conflict-Free Campus,” already has over 200 members and is still growing. Hamrick’s first piece of advice for those wanting to participate in this movement is to “join the Facebook group to not only stay informed, but publicly show others how many people are committed to supporting this cause on Ohio University’s campus.” Hamrick’s next step was presenting a resolution for the cause to OU’s Student Senate. She said the resolution is “urging OU to alter elect by changing its purchasing policy, monitoring its supply chain and tracing the regions that their supplies come from.”

On Oct. 13, 2010, the resolution passed at the Student Senate meeting. Although Hamrick was the leader, others also contributed to the resolution, like Anna Weisheimer, a business major who is also an East Green representative for Student Senate. At the meeting, after many questions were asked, the resolution passed unanimously. Many of the student senators spoke in support of the bill.

This resolution was passed during the open dialogue portion of the meeting. “Student Senate makes the cause more legitimate by writing up a resolution and bringing it to students and possibly even Ohio University’s President Roderick McDavis,” said Weisheimer. She also mentioned that though the resolution passed, the administration will continue to communicate with the Information Technology department (OUIT) to spread even more awareness.

CongoWeisheimer thought it was important for the student body to know about this weekly opportunity to present ideas to Student Senate—especially for all student activists, like Hamrick, who are trying to make a difference for a cause they are passionate about. Those who are interested in taking an idea to Student Senate should use the Student Senate webpage, contact the office in Baker Center, or schedule a presentation at the speak-out section of their meetings. “They rarely have anyone participate in this section, and it would be nice to see students more active and involved to help Student Senate increase their visibility,” Weisheimer said. “This year’s Student Senate is very open to taking radical ideas seriously.” These meetings take place at 7:15 p.m. every Wednesday in Walter Hall, Room 235.

Passing the Student Senate resolution was the first step in the right direction to being a conflict-free campus. Hamrick’s next step is setting up meetings with the OUIT so she and other delegates can pressure them to keep track of where their electronics are coming from. Hamrick also plans to start a public pressure campaign on campus and use petitions, flyers, speakers and protests to raise more awareness. She believes that if more students show their support, it will show administrators how important this issue is to OU students and sway them to pledge their support as well. This would officially make OU a conflict-free campus.

According to Hamrick, “Older people [in their 60s and 70s] talk about our generation seeming inactive and unmotivated. I’m excited to see this movement develop on campus and affect our daily lives. It is huge and emotional, and something we have control over. Passing something like this because we have leverage gives hope for ending conflict and provides motivation.”

Litanga thinks that awareness and communication on campus are very important. Such communication helps students know which companies to purchase electronics from. Maybe those companies will eventually offer a student discount for supporting electronics that don’t use conflict minerals.

Hamrick urges people wanting to get involved to join the Facebook group and to contact her directly. A member can serve as a delegate, help advertise, participate in demonstrations, and pledge to be conflict-free themselves.

“There is no price for human rights,” Weisheimer said. Purchasing minerals from an area that is murdering millions, raping women, and recruiting children soldiers in order to get a cheaper product is an unethical practice. It’s time for this issue to be exposed. If OU students, as well as people around the world, pledge their support, they can help bring an end to the war that has caused death, pain and suffering to millions of people.

Originally published in the Fall 2010 issue of The InterActivist.