Sunday, March 10, 2013

Samira Ibrahim: Bigotry in the face of Courage

Time Magazine publishes an annual list of the "The World's 100 Most Influential People." In the 2012 version--the most recent one--one of the names on it is none other than that of Samira Ibrahim, Egyptian activist for women's rights, who became something of an icon in 2011 because of what happened to her and other women during protests at Tahrir Square. The military forcefully ended many of these protests, including the one on March 9th, 2011, the one attended by Ms. Ibrahim. She was--along with other women there--reportedly beaten, strip-searched, and then subjected to a "virginity test," supposedly to prevent her from later crying rape.

She was around twenty-four years old at the time of this humiliating, degrading, and unjustifiable experience. And she spoke out about it. She sued the military; her case was actually heard in court. But the military "doctor" who performed the test was ultimately acquitted. No surprise there. Nonetheless, Ms. Ibrahim vowed to pursue the matter in international courts.

This is courage. There's no way around it. This is why Time selected her for the list. Her write-up for Time's piece on the list was penned by Charlize Theron, Hollywood actress, frequent political activist, and UN Messenger of Peace. Ms. Theron writes:
When I first heard Samira's story, it moved me. Not simply because of the abhorrent injustice she experienced but also because of her bravery to speak the truth and to face those who would tell her to stay quiet. It takes a strong person to stand up for what is right in the face of ostracism and public scrutiny. Samira represents the model of how to stand up to fear, and the impact she has made reaches far beyond Egypt. It takes just one woman to speak out, and thousands of others around the world will listen and feel inspired to act.
It's a strong statement and, I believe, factually and editorially correct. To stand up and speak out in a country ruled more often than not by martial law, in a culture where women are routinely treated as second class citizens is no small thing, is no common thing. Ms. Ibrahim--at the time--was rightfully praised, justly compared to past historical figures whose bravery inspired others and sometimes represented a touchstone of change.

Fast-forward to 2013 and the annual International Women of Courage Awards (a annual award presented by the U.S. State Department). The awards were established in 2007 by Condoleezza Rise and are given out on International Women's Day (March 8th) every year. Ms. Ibrahim was originally scheduled to receive one of these awards, along with nine other women. But at the last moment, the State Department decided to postpone hers, even thought she has already been flown in to Washington, DC (at taxpayer expense, of course). Why?

Because she's a bigot, a full-bore anti-Semite. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (which I have just recently written about) was informed that Ms. Ibrahim had some "questionable" opinions on her blog and on her twitter feed; it subsequently notified State, who said the matter would be investigated and who temporarily postponed issuing the award to Ms. Ibrahim. As the NYT story above notes, Ms. Ibrahim initially claimed her accounts had been "stolen" (hacked), but ultimately admitted the truth:
I refused to apologize to the Zionist lobby in America for previous comments hostile towards Zionism under pressure from the American government so the prize was withdrawn.
Some of her comments from her Twitter account include Hitler quotes, praise for 9/11, and generally hateful/racist references to Jews. The temporary postponement by State has been made permanent, Ms. Ibrahim has been flown back to Egypt, and the Obama State Department has been made to look foolish, yet again. Why foolish? Because it's obvious that no one at State did their due diligence on Ms. Ibrahim. Her opinions on Jews and 9/11 were out there in public, ready to be found.

All that said, there is something of a conundrum here, with regard to who we choose to celebrate, to honor with awards such as this one. Again, there is no question in my opinion that Ms. Ibrahim was courageous in her stand against Egyptian authorities. There's also no question that she's a pretty serious anti-Semite and anti-American. When do flaws like the latter become fatal ones? There's obviously a point where bigotry trumps courage. If Ms. Ibrahim had not cheered for 9/11, but only made some anti-Semitic remarks, would she have received the award? How about vice-versa?

What about all of the other recipients of this award, this year and in the past? A quick look at them reveals many from countries where both anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism are commonly found. How many of them have twitter accounts, Facebook pages, blogs, or the like? Some do, I am sure. Others, maybe not. But without Ms. Ibrahim's outbursts on the web, she would have received the award, even though she would still be a serious bigot, someone whose views on Jews are every bit as despicable as the views some in her country have with regard to women.

Perhaps the lesson here is to stop with these kinds of silly awards (and lists), altogether. Ms. Ibrahim's action--with regard to her treatment in Egypt--stand on their own. An award doesn't make them any more meaningful; neither does her inclusion on a list designed primarily to sell magazines. At the same time, her other actions and words stand on their own, too. One can rightly credit her bravery, yet still find her other views objectionable, if not heinous. And in that regard, her own neolithic opinions make her a poor spokesperson for peace, for women's rights, or for any other noble cause, in my opinion.

Cheers, all.


  1. I think social media is becoming the newest outing tool next to DNA testing. With technology comes identification, not only of who you are, but how you feel.

  2. Lol, very true. People need to think before they tweet...