For Hundreds of Years, Papier-Mâché Has Lent a Surreal Face to Catalan Culture

Rarely is the inflation of cultural icons as literal or striking as it is in the festivals of Catalonia, a region of northeastern Spain. There, in a tradition that dates back to Christian processions of the late 14th century, and that evolved across generations in response to industrial, political and social pressures, some citizens take to stilts and don majestic giant costumes while others dress more coarsely and wear caricatural “big heads.”

The interplay of giants (gegants) and big heads (capgrossos) is a focus of this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where native Catalonians are showing off a colorful assortment of the stately giant costumes and humorous papier-mâché heads.

Two of the giants on display, topped with gold crowns and clad in flowing red and deep green raiment, are region-specific. They were made by a group of artisans hailing from the small Catalonian municipality of Oliana, and one of the Olianan performers on site, Jesus Bach Marques, regards them with great pride.

“These two are called Andreu and Àngels,” he says, “like Andrew and Angels. They are one of the two couples of giants that we have in Oliana.” Àngels extends a bouquet of roses with a warm half-smile, while Andreu, her stern-faced partner, proffers a furled scroll suggestive of knowledge and power. “They honor the patron saints of our town,” says Marques.

The other two featured giants, while less overtly regal in their dress and demeanor, command reverence and attention in their own way. These represent Catalonia as a whole. A pale blonde giantess dressed in earth tones and holding a stem capped with flowers is a personification of “Culture,” while her black-haired bearded companion, holding a book under his arm, symbolizes “Work.”

“Since they represent the whole” of Catalonia, Marques says, “they were given names of values it is thought Catalonians have.”

These giants embody the Catalonian ideals of Culture and Work. Male-female couplings of giants are a hallmark of the tradition. (Donny Bajohr)

A patron saint portrayed in big head form in a tricorne hat with arched brows and mouth agape provides a comical contrast to the two resplendent Olianan giants. The other big head on view, a bereted and bespectacled depiction of celebrated Catalonian artist Domingo Umbert Vilaseró, also wears an amusing look, part critical and part nonplussed. “Big heads are usually to make fun,” Marques says. They’re not straight-up insulting so much as endearingly irreverent, though. And the history of their relationship with giants—and the symbology underlying each—is quite complex.

Ohio State University folklorist Dorothy Noyes is delighted to delve into the history of these whimsical festival practices. She says the giants of Catalonia—as well as related festival staples such as beasts, devils and live mules—can be traced back to a religious march in the late 14th century. Catalonia had come under scrutiny from the Spanish Christian establishment, and was eager to assert its merit both spiritually and culturally.

“There was a suspicion that the Catalans were heretics,” Noyes says. “So they really had to do a big Corpus Christi procession to show that they had their theology right and understood what the body of Christ is.” The festivities kicked off in Barcelona but soon spread to cities all over Catalonia. A spirit of one-upmanship took hold, and a wide assortment of labor guilds decided to try to make a statement by designing elaborate giant figures.

“One guild had a David and Goliath representation,” Noyes recalls. “They made a giant who was Goliath. And the giant was fun, people liked the giant. So eventually they made the giant a wife.” As the giants of Catalonia proved to be a giant hit—both as a means of signaling Christian devotion and hometown pride—they often were paired off in male-female couples.

In time, the Christian establishment of Spain, displeased with the wild popularity of the devils and beasts also involved in the giant parades, attempted to put the kibosh on the whole thing, banning the costumes from churches and heartily discouraging their use elsewhere. Right up to the dawn of industrialization, however, communities across Catalonia continued to draw visitors from the countryside with the grace and wonder of their giants.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, giants were strongly associated with members of the noble class, who could gaze straight at them from their balconies while the common rabble massed in the streets below. This symbolism took a somewhat sinister turn with the rise of industry in the 19th century. As powerful businesspeople established acres of factory sprawl, they endeavored to frame their activities in a quaintly medieval way, cementing via the vocabulary of feudalism—and the imagery of giants and dwarfs—the subservient role of the worker in Catalonian society.

Giants and big heads are lively dancers. Marques says that the long life of the tradition is closely tied to the sociable, communal lifestyle the Catalonian people are known for. (Donny Bajohr)

“This new bourgeoisie, who were making the textile factories and coal mines and so on, were creating a new ideology called ‘industrial feudalism,’” Noyes explains. “It was totally like company towns in America”—the grim corporate compounds in which laborers worked, lived, and bought employer-supplied groceries. “But in Catalonia, they had the Middle Ages as a symbolic resource for this. So they made company towns that looked like medieval walled cities, with a kind of castle in the middle, which was the house of the factory owner.”

Giants, and the big heads—also known as “dwarfs”—that emerged in this period to complement them, played a vital part in illustrating the new social hierarchy. The potentates of industry co-opted these symbols, Noyes says, to send a message: “This is our natural relationship—between giants and dwarfs, between an orderly, controlled upper class that stands as a kind of example and those below making efforts to improve themselves.”

Following that darker period, however, giants and big heads began to return to their roots of good cheer and regional pride. The raunchier aspects of festival fun, like the prank-playing devils and firecracker-munching mules, bubbled back to the fore, and big heads started satirizing folks from all social classes, rather than simply serving to keep commoners in their place. “There were both festival practitioners and political moments in Catalonia that were more democratic, more egalitarian,” Noyes says.

The giants, big heads and all the rest largely disappeared during the years of the mid-20th century when Gen. Francisco Franco ruled Spain; what giants were present were strictly royal symbols. “But then in the democratic period, with the revival of the festivals in the beginning of the 1990s,” Noyes says, “Catalonians started making giants that were not kings or queens, but that were celebrating local industry or famous local people.” A warmth and lightheartedness came back to the papier-mâché craft tradition—a warmth reflected in the performers on hand for the 2018 Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.

Jesus Bach Marques thinks that the improbable longevity of the giant and big head traditions in Catalonia can be explained by their deep connection with the welcoming, free-spirited attitude of the Catalonian people themselves. “In Catalonia, we have many associations,” he says. “We like to associate, we like to make groups—to make dances, giant dances, cultural dances, everything.”

“Instead of going to the cinema, instead of going to another place,” Marques says, “you just meet your friends, and do these kinds of things. And then you travel around Catalonia, meeting new people with your friends, together with your friends, and it’s real nice. This is the essence of the culture, and what has made it last to today.”

The Folklife Festival will conclude after a final run from July 4 through July 8.

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Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Can #MeToo Change the Toxic Culture of Sexism and Harassment at Cybersecurity Conferences?

Camille Tuutti can’t remember all the times she’s been harassed. A prominent information technology journalist and editor, Tuutti feels that her friendly and outgoing personality — a necessity in her line of work — has often been misinterpreted by men in her field as an invitation for inappropriate behavior, especially at top cybersecurity conferences, where binge drinking is encouraged. Drunk men have often put their arms around her and her colleagues. She has been asked out “a million times.” Someone tried to kiss her the first time she met him.

This April, at RSA, a leading cybersecurity conference held in San Francisco, she was walking the showroom with a male colleague when a male stranger asked her what she was wearing to bed. She noticed, too, that vendors at the show assumed that she didn’t know what she was talking about and that her colleague did. And despite organizers’ previous attempts to implement a dress code, many of the booths featured “booth babes” — scantily clad models hired to attract men to vendors’ wares. “It was so tone-deaf, especially in 2018 and especially in the wake of #MeToo,” Tuutti said.

The casual sexism Tuutti encountered at RSA is not atypical of big-league hacker and cybersecurity conferences. While there are no precise statistics available about harassment at these events, anecdotal reports like Tuutti’s have been widespread and documented for years.

The Intercept spoke to nearly two dozen women across the industry who recounted experiences ranging from uncomfortable to traumatic at conferences such as Def Con and Black Hat, held each year in Las Vegas, and RSA, held worldwide. The women who spoke to The Intercept had encountered a variety of offenses, from suggestive commentary and drunken come-ons to groping and assault. Some of the women, among whom are renowned journalists, CEOs, diversity advocates, and hackers, said that even if their own status had shielded them from some of the worst behavior, they had all heard troubling stories from younger colleagues, peers, and friends.

The women who spoke to The Intercept had encountered a variety of offenses, from suggestive commentary and drunken come-ons to groping and assault.

Troubling new stories surface every conference season, said Kasha Gauthier, director in residence for Community Engagement at the Advanced Cyber Security Center, and yet little seems to change. Gauthier and others see the harassment at conferences as part of a systemic problem in the field of cybersecurity. “To me, it’s just even more of what I see in a boardroom,” she said.

“I know many women who have attended Def Con and have experienced some form of harassment,” said Chenxi Wang, a leading expert in cybersecurity. “A lot of women will tell you, ‘I just brush it off and do my own thing.’ That’s fine. But the question is, should we put young women through that? Should we tell them, ‘Oh just toughen up, this is the industry?’”

Even within the field of technology, which is known for its gender bias, cybersecurity remains a particularly striking example. At companies like Google and Facebook, women make up about 30 percent of employees — and there are notably fewer of them the higher up the ranks one goes. Cybersecurity is much worse. According to the widely cited Global Information Security Workforce study, women compose around 11 percent of the industry and, at every level, earn less than their male peers. More than half of women working in cybersecurity have reported discrimination.

The major cybersecurity conferences are more than just massive parties and prankish sideshows. The events are crucial for networking, talking to recruiters, and learning new skills. Sometimes conference presentations become news events themselves. In 2015, hackers at Def Con demonstrated that they could remotely take control of a Chrysler Jeep’s transmissions, leading the company to recall 1.4 million vehicles. Last year, the conference’s report from its Voting Machine Hacking Village sparked a national dialogue on the security vulnerabilities of electronic voting.

As the leading gatherings for key speakers and cutting-edge products, conferences set the tone for what the field can and should look like. All-male lineups of keynote speakers — which have recently been termed “manels,” rather than panels, on social media — are still a frequent occurrence, as they were this year at the RSA Conference. And even as event organizers claim that they are taking steps to address sexism and harassment, many women still perceive a general indifference to their complaints, which they say sends a message about what kind of behavior is considered appropriate.

“When it comes to conference season in Vegas, there’s all of this folklore about getting hurt and that people shouldn’t come,” said Jessy Irwin, head of security at Tendermint, a blockchain tech company. Irwin said she always goes to conferences with a pack of women and makes a point of ensuring that those who are new to the industry aren’t traveling alone.

In the months since #MeToo took off, women’s whispers about sexual harassment and abuse have been transformed into vocal demands for systemic change — in some cases, with material consequences. Not long before #MeToo began, so-called cybersecurity rock stars Jacob Appelbaum, a former developer at the Tor Project and WikiLeaks collaborator, and Morgan Marquis-Boire, a cybersecurity expert, were asked to resign from leadership positions following multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and rape. (Appelbaum has denied the allegations against him. Marquis-Boire admitted to rape and assault of multiple women in private messages with an acquaintance. Marquis-Boire was the director of security for First Look Media, The Intercept’s parent company, and sometimes a contributor at The Intercept. He left the company for unrelated reasons before the allegations against him came to light.)

Some women are hopeful that the growing legitimation of women’s experiences may pressure conference organizers to take more pointed and effective steps to address abusive behavior at their events. “I think people are more vocal after #MeToo and feel more inclined to speak up and speak out if they or somebody they know are experiencing harassment,” Wang noted.

Others, however, are more skeptical about the possibility of a culture change. “There’s been no reckoning that I’ve seen,” said Gauthier. “I think there should be, and I think women are having those discussions, but that’s not where money is and not where power is.” Some women told The Intercept that they are not willing to risk yet another season of harassment to find out whether anything feels safer. As women seem to be attending these events in decreasing numbers, there is one matter in which they are all in agreement: Change is impossible so long as the men in charge don’t step up to address the issue head-on.

Las Vegas, Nevada, July 28, 2017. Hackers examine a voting machines during DEF CON a gathering of info security professionals.

Hackers examine a voting machine during Def Con, a gathering of information security professionals, in Las Vegas on July 28, 2017.

Photo: Mark Ovaska/Redux

Def Con, the world’s largest and most famous hacker conference, started in 1993 as a goodbye party for a hacker network. It has since grown and professionalized, drawing crowds of close to 22,000 people to a Las Vegas hotel every August. Celebrated computer security experts mingle with NSA agents and civil liberties lawyers. Attendees register by paying $ 250 in cash at the door. There are around nine men for every woman in attendance. Other conferences, such as RSA and Black Hat, have a more corporate vibe, charging registration fees over $ 2,000.

Women describe an overall conference culture that promotes a “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” mentality, with after-parties where attendees are encouraged to drink as much as possible. They explained that there are often few networking alternatives to the alcohol-heavy after-parties.

Take Def Con’s Hacker Jeopardy in 2016. The late-night game went viral on Twitter after a cybersecurity expert posted about a request that contestants guess the size of a porn star’s penis to within half an inch. Women dressed in skimpy clothing served beers to an all-male group of contestants. In the Double Jeopardy round, they removed pieces of clothing each time a contestant got a question right. The next day, after conference organizers heard about online pushback, they changed the rules so that contestants who answered correctly could have the choice between sending a donation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation or continuing to call for a woman to undress. Progress, in other words, has felt incremental.

At Hacker Jeopardy, contestants who answered correctly could have the choice between sending a donation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation or continuing to call for a woman to undress.

Founders of these four conferences include both black-hat hackers, who work outside the industry, and sometimes outside the law, to expose flaws on their own, and white-hat hackers, who work within governments and corporations. Over the years, when faced with complaints, some organizers have responded by describing their events as harmless fun. Jeff Moss, the founder of both Def Con and Black Hat, has defended Hacker Jeopardy by appealing to tradition and the distinction, in his eyes, between “sexy” and “sexism.”

After Gauthier, a veteran infosec worker, heard about Hacker Jeopardy, she spoke to one of the workers at the conference for over an hour. “The answer that I got was that it was anybody’s choice to attend or not to attend, and can’t I lighten up because it’s good fun?” she said. “People don’t understand that as industry evolves, this is a professional environment, and this is not inclusive behavior.”

These problems are self-reinforcing: So long as conferences celebrate and reflect the sexist status quo of cybersecurity, expanding the ranks of women in the field will be a problem. Some conferences are reported to still feature more “booth babes” than actual female attendees. One woman remembered attending a conference with so few women that when she walked into the ladies’ room, she needed to turn the lights on. Another recalled entering the bathroom and seeing only booth babes in miniskirts and go-go boots.

And yet for years, some organizers have kicked the problem down the road. Instead of organizing the conferences to reflect a positive vision of what the field could be, they’ve defended their choices to have all-male keynotes by arguing that such talks are just a reflection of the way things are. A statement that RSA organizers released about their 2018 “manel” reads: “A diverse speaking program starts with increasing diversity within the technology sector, which needs to be addressed by the industry as a whole.”

The stakes for more inclusive representation are high. Women are leaving the technology sector in greater numbers than they are entering it. Computer science is one of the fastest-growing fields in the United States, and yet, every year since 1984, the number of women in technology in the U.S. has decreased. Attrition is typical. Forty-one percent of women quit the tech industry mid-career compared with just 11 percent of men, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. The cybersecurity industry has been projected to have 1.8 million unfilled jobs worldwide by 2022. To address this shortage, companies will need to recruit and retain women, the Global Information Security Workforce study found.

That may be easier said than done. When conferences exclude women speakers, they send a “clear message” that women are still not welcome in the security field, wrote Access Now, a nonprofit focused on human rights, about the keynote roster for the RSA Conference USA 2018. “This is a message that will be heard not only by the attendees but by organizers of other conferences that look to RSA Conference as a source for guidance,” the letter reads. “The bigger danger is that we could see this message — and the mindset behind it — reflected in hiring, development, and operational decisions across the sector.”

Audience members at the RSA Conference at San Francisco's Moscone Center, March 1, 2016. Security experts now worry that if Apple is forced to create software to bypass its password system, it will be a precursor to many more government requests. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

Audience members at the RSA Conference at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, March 1, 2016.

Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times/Redux

The absence of women at conferences only strengthens the self-serving perception for the majority-masculine field that there is a “pipeline problem” — that the reason there is a gender deficit is because there are simply no talented women to hire. It ignores the fact that talented women have already been pushed away.

Many women say the problem begins as early as recruiting. Cybersecurity classes use masculine language — militaristic talk of enemies, penetration tests. Partly emerging from army and intelligence communities, hackers can be prone to hazing and competitive one-upmanship, according to Sarah Clarke, a security adviser. “It’s a culture of just being mean to new people and needing to ‘prove yourself,’” Clarke said.

Rebecca Long, a software engineer and diversity advocate, says that it’s not a stretch to see a connection between the goals of hacking and its particular culture of harassment. “The whole idea of hacking is compromising someone’s system and having power and control over someone else’s computer or network,” she said. Some women have recommended that the field might seem more welcoming if it moved away from the adversarial language of warfare and instead, framed its goals as a matter of safety.

Women told The Intercept that the tacit norms of the industry can make it seem as though harassment is a problem of female sensitivities, rather than male behavior. The unspoken rule is that women must learn to shrug it off and accommodate themselves to inappropriate actions.

Many women interviewed said that the accumulation of minor incidents over the years leads to their dissatisfaction with — or departure from — the field. They recalled stories of inappropriate touching, lewd remarks, and business meetings leading to sexual propositions. Nearly every woman interviewed said that, at some point, they had been mistaken for a male conference-goer’s girlfriend, even if they were one of the keynote speakers. When not being singled out for sexual attention, they were ignored, dismissed, or asked where their boss was. Like many of the women who spoke to The Intercept, infosec researcher Sarah Lewis said it was not a single experience, but the buildup of small brush-offs that drove her away from industry conferences where she wasn’t being paid to speak. “Numerous times, I’ve been asked if the food is coming out. At conferences I’ve keynoted at, I’ve been asked if I was one of the student groups there. Most of the sexism I tend to see is people who mean well, but who have an assumption that I don’t have experience and I don’t belong,” she said.

“There are a lot of cases of overt hostility,” said Amie Stepanovich, who manages cybersecurity policy at Access Now. “I think what is more insidious sometimes are the less overt cases: These are conference sessions where there are people of color or women represented, but they aren’t asked many questions. Or audience questions are only accepted from men. It’s not always overt examples that drive people away. Oftentimes, it’s little things that send the message that people aren’t welcome.”

“It’s not always overt examples that drive people away. Oftentimes, it’s little things that send the message that people aren’t welcome.”

Many women don’t have the privilege of being able to choose whether to leave their jobs if and when harassment occurs. But when it comes to voluntary conferences, it’s not surprising that after years of experiencing such incidents, women have simply stopped showing up. Many told The Intercept that there were certain conferences they would never consider attending again because of their experiences there.

Yet while not showing up may be the safest and most sensible option for one’s personal well-being, it can put women at a disadvantage professionally. As the programmer and feminist activist Valerie Aurora has written, “When you say, ‘Women shouldn’t go to DEFCON if they don’t like it,’ you are saying that women shouldn’t have all of the opportunities that come with attending DEFCON: jobs, education, networking, book contracts, speaking opportunities — or else should be willing to undergo sexual harassment and assault to get access to them.”

In 2011, on the second night of Def Con, Emily Maxima, a programmer, and her wife, who does not work in infosec, were inside the Caesars Palace Hotel waiting for a DJ set, when a Def Con security guard — typically male and known as a “goon” in conference slang — asked them how their “bribe card” was going. Bribe cards are played like bingo: Attendees perform scavenger hunt favors for the goons in exchange for prizes. “I only had one hole punched in mine,” Maxima wrote on her blog years later. The goon turned to her and said: “‘We could punch ‘boobs’ for you.’ One of these volunteer security guards had literally just solicited to see my wife’s breasts right in front of me in exchange for a hole in my bribe card.” Maxima has not returned to Def Con since.


The Grace Hopper Celebration, a long-running conference named for a pioneering programmer, on Oct. 5, 2013.


Women working across all sectors of technology have been fighting back against the field’s entrenched gender bias. In 2014, along with a few other female cybersecurity experts, Chenxi Wang started a social media campaign to ban booth babes. One year later, RSA instituted a dress code in response. Wang said it was a small victory: “They took a step in a positive direction, so we don’t see overt sexualized displays. Even though you still see the occasional booth babes, the overall tone of the show floor has become a lot more professional.”

In response to the booth babe ban, Deidre Diamond, a veteran technologist, was inspired to start a company called Brainbabe, which tackles sexism and the skills shortage in the industry at the same time by providing vendors with students from diverse backgrounds to work at booths.

Women in tech have their own gatherings — from the Grace Hopper Celebration, a long-running conference named for a pioneering programmer that draws around 18,000 people a year, 90 percent of them women, to Our Security Advocates Conference, or OURSA, founded this April in response to RSA’s sexist lineup. In 2016, women began to organize a special event known as TiaraCon, separate from Def Con’s main show, for networking, lock-picking (a popular conference extracurricular), and resume-writing. Year-round, groups like the Diana Initiative, Future Ada, and the Ada Initiative provide support for women in tech.

Leigh Honeywell, CEO of the anti-harassment technology startup Tall Poppy, has hosted a workshop in a Caesars Palace room apart from Def Con for the last four years known as “Ally Skills,” which teaches attendees how they can work to improve diversity in security. “There are folks in the field who do want to see it become a more hospitable place for underrepresented people, and I feel fortunate to be able to share tools and tactics for making that happen,” Honeywell explained in an email. The open source workshop, which was originally created by the Ada Initiative, teaches attendees the tools to call out misogyny and bias. Slides ask attendees to brainstorm how allies might respond to situations such as: “A woman you don’t know is standing near your all-male group at a conference in your field. The conference attendees are more than 90 percent men. She is alone and looks like she would rather be talking to people.”

But some women say that separate events, while valuable, do not force the main conference organizers to directly address gender bias. In fact, some say that such events reinforce the message that harassment is a problem for women to deal with on their own. Events that are separate cannot, by their very nature, be equal, Irwin said. While she is glad to have a focus on diversity, she said, “I don’t want the ‘girls’ version.’ I want the big stuff we do for everybody to already have diversity in it.”

“What I want to see is men calling out other men.”

Several women emphasized that until conference management puts the kind of allyship promoted by Honeywell and others at the center of their programming, it will be difficult to effect change. Men need to step up too, Diamond argued: “I tell men this all the time: They’re the ones who are going to solve the problem. There are nearly 90 percent of them. What I want to see is men calling out other men.”

One of the most successful and effective initiatives undertaken to change conference culture has been the development and implementation of written policies that explicitly ban harassment. As the Ada Initiative explains, the most effective policies publicly specify what kinds of behaviors are not acceptable, establish a reporting procedure with contact information for violations, and document how the staff will respond to reports.

In the last several years, responding in part to the organizing work of feminist technologists like those at the Ada Initiative, Def Con, RSA, and Black Hat have each instituted clear codes of conduct that prohibit harassment and reserve the right to expel and banish attendees engaging in unacceptable behavior. The latter two have the most detailed of the four conferences’ policies, spelling out the nature and scope of harassment prohibited.

ARCHIV - Der US-amerikanischer Internetaktivist Jacob Appelbaum spricht am 06.05.2014 bei einer Keynote auf der Internetkonferenz Republica in Berlin. Photo by: Britta Pedersen/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Internet activist Jacob Appelbaum gives a keynote address in Berlin on June 5, 2014.

Photo: Britta Pedersen/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Last year, Def Con became the first hacker con to provide a transparency report of incidents, which it posted online this month. According to the report, at the 2017 event, there were “7 harassment events,” including two people “banned for life for harassing women.” The report also noted that Appelbaum and Marquis-Boire were banned. (Even in its transparency report, the conference kept things a little tongue-in-cheek, noting that there were also “3 adorable dog reports.”)

Experts on anti-harassment policies say that the policies are still insufficient: They do not specify channels for anonymous reporting of incidents, give a deadline for how quickly the conference will respond to reports, or explain what happens if someone in the group charged with enforcement is accused of harassment.

It is also not clear whether the code of conducts’ enforcement mechanisms prioritize the safety of those who have experienced abuse. “It’s been my personal experience that event staff are simply not equipped or qualified to be first responders on these issues,” explained Melanie Ensign, a press lead for Def Con and director of security at Uber, in an email. Outside of her official capacity at the conference, she has been working with experts in the community to expand resources available to survivors of assault.

Black Hat general manager Steve Wylie told The Intercept that the conference’s policy was developed in 2014 and continues to be a “live document.”

“Clearly our industry has some issues, and we’ve developed programs to highlight the issue,” Wylie said. The conference has been attempting to recruit and encourage more women to apply to speak; new diversity initiatives include partnerships with Queercon, a scholarship program for women, peer-to-peer mentoring, and a series of presentations that address human (rather than technical) issues.

RSA declined to respond to detailed questions for this story and sent a link to a blog post addressing this year’s controversy regarding speaker diversity. Def Con, which has not updated its code of conduct since 2015, wrote in an emailed statement: “We are committed to being proactive rather than reactive in the areas of representation and safety. This includes being available to hear all concerns, making it easy for attendees to share those concerns, and having a clearly defined, ongoing process for addressing those concerns. We’ve invested in a reorganization of our volunteer staff, new training, and the creation of an independent department for reporting incidents. … We will continue to do what hackers do — make changes, see what gets better, and iterate on the results.” For this year’s conference, the statement said, Def Con will be introducing a dedicated crisis support line that attendees could access by phone, text, or chat.

Jessy Irwin of Tendermint often feels surprise that in an industry that prides itself on finding patterns and addressing vulnerabilities, the response to decades of harassment has been slow-going. “How the hell can we claim to be good at our jobs at work when we can’t get any of the people in our communities to follow our best practices of knowledge?” she asked. “I want to see the response process get better. I don’t know how we can call ourselves experts at security if we can solve problems with code, but we can’t do it when it comes to people.”

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“An Ordinary Muslim” and the Clichés of Culture Clash on Stage

Representation matters, on the stage as in the rest of the arts and popular culture, and both the United States and the United Kingdom desperately need more Muslim playwrights telling stories about Muslim families and Muslim experiences on stage. But representation alone isn’t enough, as shown by a new play that reifies, rather than troubles, the Islamophobic myths that undergird the war on terror.

Hammad Chaudry’s “An Ordinary Muslim,” which runs through March 25 at the New York Theatre Workshop, is about a British-Pakistani couple living in London. Directed by Jo Bonney and set in 2011, the play attempts to explore the tensions and conflicts that shape the lives of British (and presumably American) Muslims growing who’ve grown up in the shadow of 9/11. But in fixating on the idea that second-generation Muslims are “trapped” between two worlds, and writing a Muslim male protagonist whose life is derailed by his anger and trauma, Chaudry’s characters fall into the same stereotypes that they purport to challenge.

Although it has been praised as “timely,” I had my suspicions about “An Ordinary Muslim” from the promotional materials, which described the play as “about married couple Azeem Bhatti and his wife Saima as they attempt to balance their Pakistani heritage and their British upbringing … balancing the high expectations of the previous generation, the doctrine of their Muslim community, and the demands of secular Western culture.”

It’s a framing that takes for granted that Muslim/South Asian cultural and religious norms stand at odds with British/Western values – an assumption that scholars and political thinkers have been contesting for decades. Second (and third and fourth) generation immigrant Muslims and South Asians aren’t merely assimilated into British culture – they create and co-constitute it. “The emphasis on ‘culture clash’ disavows the possibility of cultural interaction and fusion,” writes the now-retired British sociology professor Avtar Brah in her seminal 1996 text, “Cartographies of Diaspora.”

The play’s framing takes for granted that Muslim/South Asian cultural and religious norms stand at odds with British/Western values

Journalists writing about British and American Muslim experiences post-9/11 also tend to structure their reporting around the same dated stereotypes. For instance, in “How America Is Transforming Islam,” published in The Atlantic this past December, Emma Green begins with the pronouncement that “American culture often presents two opposing paths for young Muslims”: to “assimilate” or not, using clichéd storylines about arranged marriages and the presumed shame of being an unmarried Muslim woman. Writer Ayesha Siddiqi argued in a Twitter thread about the Atlantic piece that these stories about diasporic South Asian Muslims were being used to dehumanize, rather than the reverse. “Muslims experience love and have sex, this should not be a sentence I have to emphatically share as if its new information,” she tweeted.

Similarly, in “An Ordinary Muslim,” our interest in Azeem isn’t rooted in his ordinariness when it comes to white Brits, but his presumed difference. That’s the narrative we’ve bought tickets to consume – and it’s not one that allows for much nuance about the Bhatti family.

Some of the actors in the play give commanding and convincing performances, but the acting was mixed overall, and many of the main characters seem more like composite stereotypes than complex figures. The mother, Malika, is defined only in terms of her (apparent) complicity with patriarchal values (“You don’t know what it means to be a wife. No, you don’t have it in you,” she tells her daughter-in-law, Saima, in one scene.) The father, Akeel, is a violent man who appears to dominate his family as a result of the marginalization he endures in the rest of his life. His abuse of his wife, and its ripple effects on the family, are at the heart of the play’s narrative.

Azeem is the very much the wounded boy from the troubled home – insecure, self-serving, and in desperate need to protect his ego. When his wife starts to wear hijab at work, he vociferously objects, since he fears doing so might endanger her job. He has had to quit his job at a bank because of an altercation with his boss over a racist joke, forcing Saima to help support the family.

“You can make me go to work and take my hijab off, carry this family on my shoulders … but you can’t apologize? That’s how little I mean to you?” Saima asks her husband in the second act of the play.

Azeem responds coldly and callously. “Why are you takin’ it like this? For fuck’s sake, I’m not down and out, I’ll get back on my feet, then you can wear the whole fuckin’ burqa for all I care.”

What drives the plot in “An Ordinary Muslim” isn’t Islamophobia or white racism, but Azeem’s volatile, juvenile, and sometimes nonsensical modes of moving through the world. It’s a structure that defeats the most risky moments in the play, casting Azeem as a potential source of danger, instead of a man alienated by the U.K.’s racist past and present. His personal experiences of discrimination all appear offstage. When he does make a political point, it’s undermined by the way he’s scripted, as someone impulsive and erratic to the point of incredulity.

For instance, Azeem yells at his friend David in a fight in a pub, “You robbed my land killing anyone who got in the way, doing it all to make your own country richer. … Is it any wonder that people such as those British Muslims, with their British passports, have finally woken up and decided to start killing you back?” But the framing of the exchange doesn’t enable the audience to take Azeem’s sentiments seriously. At the end of the play, after Saima leaves him, Azeem decides to escape England for somewhere, though he’s not sure where, and his decision reads as more hapless than political.

“An Ordinary Muslim” reflects how the British and American security apparatus have come to understand the “problem” posed by Muslim men and women.

Rather than enable the mostly white audience to recognize themselves (or broader structural or political forces) as the drivers of Azeem’s pain, the play locates his suffering in his emotional life. In that sense, “An Ordinary Muslim” actually reflects how the British and American security apparatus have come to understand the “problem” posed by Muslim men and women.

Today, in Britain, public sector workers – including teachers, doctors, and social workers – are required by law to assess and report their charges for being at risk of “extremism,” which is defined by statute as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values.” Under the Prevent program, people are supposed to be assessed for their “vulnerability to being drawn into terrorism” based on a range of possible factors, including “a need for identity, meaning and belonging”; “need to dominate and control others”; “desire for political or moral change”; “being at a transitional time of life”; “relevant mental health issues”; and “‘Them and Us’ thinking.” As an recent Open Society report explains, expressing “anti-British” political views or taking on certain religious practices make people particularly susceptible to being labeled “extremist.” It’s easy to imagine Azeem’s fight with David leading to that, if it had occurred in another setting.

Programs like Prevent, and its U.S. corollary, Countering Violent Extremism, frame the answer to radicalization in terms of national security policy, rather than attempting to address the political roots of many young extremists’ grievances.

“We like to think our violence is rational, reactive and normal, whereas theirs is fanatical, aggressive and exceptional,” writes scholar Arun Kundnani in an essay published by openDemocracy just after the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris. “But we also bomb journalists, children and hospitals. A full analysis of radicalization needs to account for us radicalizing too, as we have become more willing to use violence in a wider range of contexts – from torture to drone strikes to proxy wars.”

“An Ordinary Muslim” could have easily been called “An Angry Muslim,” and that’s the problem with the play. It sells us the story of the irate, irrational Muslim man, rather than troubling the way that white people living in the West conceive of his subjectivity. Stories like these may actually subtly justify national security policies of the United States and Britain: the surveillance, the prosecutions, the restrictive immigration measures. Where are the stories that speak back to these dated and flawed ideas about contemporary Muslim life across the West? I want to see those on stage.

Top photo: Rita Wolf, Purva Bedi, Ranjit Chowdhry, Sanjit De Silva, and Harsh Nayyar in Hammaad Chaudry’s “An Ordinary Muslim” at the New York Theater Workshop, in New York, Feb. 7, 2018.

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Russia must become leader in knowledge, intellect and culture, Putin tells supporters

Vladimir Putin has told a forum of his supporters that he sees the main objectives of his new presidential program as maintaining Russia’s freedom, social stability and leading place among world nations.

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© Moskva

Speaking at the Tuesday session of the “Forum of Actions” organized by the All-Russian Popular Front movement incumbent president Vladimir Putin said that Russia had to fulfill the principal historical tasks of the moment, such as population growth, creation of a new economy and development of its Arctic and Far East regions.

Putin also emphasized the importance of keeping up with the ongoing revolution in production technologies, healthcare and education. “Shielding ourselves from these international tendencies or trying to keep up with someone is definitely not our choice, it cannot be our choice,” he said, adding that Russia had all opportunities to restore the spheres of economy where it used to be a world leader.

We will definitely break through to new competences that we need for our development; there is no doubt about it. We must become leaders in knowledge, in intellect, in social and cultural development,” Putin told his supporters.

The president also warned against drifting from the set course of development, saying that if such thing happened the nation might be forced to start everything from scratch again.  

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Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during an interview with five Russian TV channels on the round-up of the government's work over the year, November 30, 2017 © Alexander Astafyev

We all must remember that Russia, our people, all our families have gone through a very difficult and extremely hard period in their history. Today we must maintain our statehood and freedom, stability and social accord, we must maintain everything we have managed to achieve, even the modest things. This way our achievements and changes for the better would become irreversible and all our strength serve for the benefit and development of the Motherland. I see this as a common task for us all and also as my personal duty and civil responsibility as an incumbent head of state and as a presidential candidate,” Putin said.

Founded in 2011, the All-Russian Popular Front is a broad-based public movement with a centrist, pro-Putin agenda. At the start of its existence the movement was closely associated with the parliamentary majority party United Russia, but the connection weakened over time. In mid-2013 Putin accepted an offer to become the leader of the All-Russian Popular Front, saying that he saw the group as a major promoter of the dialogue between different political forces in the state.

Earlier this month Putin announced that he planned to run for another term in 2018 as an independent candidate, which means that he would have to collect and present 300,000 supporters’ signatures to become registered. It is most likely that the All-Russian Popular Front will become the incumbent’s main tool for this task, though other political forces – not least the United Russia party – have already pledged their support to the president.

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