What Don't You First See?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 8:42am
What Don't You First See?

There's more than meets the eye in this photo. Stop and peer beneath the surface.

Commentary by:
Trent Gilliss (@TrentGilliss),  Head of Content / Executive Editor for On Being
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35 ReflectionsRead/Add Yours

Indian Muslim girls recite the Qur’an in their classroom at Madrasatur-Rashaad religious school in Hyderabad.

Credit: Noah Seelam License: Getty Images.

I love this photo.

It's relatable. It's humanizing. It's neighborhood. The photographer has captured an image with layers of meaning and connectedness.

At first glance, one's eye is drawn to hijab and hands. It's what we Americans have been trained to do — to look for the extreme, the other, the different, the enemy training their children to be Islamic fundamentalists. This lens, even for an editor and producer who spends most of his days breaking through the stereotypes to discover the humanity in the other, is difficult to shatter.

But stay with the image for a split-second longer and you'll start to see something different. The image is more inclusive than it first appears. Included in the framing of this photograph is a backdrop of a variety of backpacks, including a pink backpack very much like the Hello Kitty bag a young schoolgirl in my Minneapolis neighborhood carries off to elementary school each day.

This framing contextualizes, and I might say normalizes, this scene and makes it special. As a Western observer, I relate in an entirely different way rather than easily focusing in on the religiosity on the surface. Seeing others in this way takes discipline, and a deep pause. If you do, worlds will open to you. And people too.

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Trent Gilliss is the driving editorial and creative force behind On Being. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on "The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi" and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent's reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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35Reflections

Refreshing, insightful, honestly real. Nadia's humor and insight made me rethink my idea of spirituality. She made me realize how my own spirituality is embeded with rituals, even though I like to view myself as being spontaneous. Her path was a true journey in discovering herself. I will trust my own peaks and valleys more in the future and rise up again. I loved the statements from her nonconforming church folks on how they needed so called parent-like figures to love and accept them. Having worked with teen church groups, I see the connection that is so important when people are evolving. Thank you for sharing this interview as I'm about to take a giant leap in my own life.

I saw people studying. Then, because of their veils, I had hopes on what they were studying. Let's hope it's not endoctrination. What about the backpack? They're not assidic jews, it's nothing special that a consumerist symbol fell into that picture. It doesn't make them more or less human.

I first saw children reading together as it should be no matter the country. Period!

Marvelous interview. I have been a Spiritual Director for 30 years and found the mutuality in this interview a great metaphor for how we are to be with each other. God supposedly has us tatooed in the palm of her/his hand. Thank you

I see all these women are using their right hands, and their left hands are not on the table. I wonder if any Indian Muslims are left-handed, and what happens to them. I also see one or two women with their heads very near the text. I wonder if they are near-sighted, and notice there are no eyeglasses in the picture.

I believe in some parts of the world, in the Mideast and North Africa in particular, the left hand is reserved for bathroom duties so that the right hand is saved for eating, etc.

I see concentration, discipline, wanting and willingness to learn. I see girls studying. Backpacks at the back neatly lined also indicates the eagerness of the parents that want their girls to learn, which is what every parent wants for their child and will do anything to make that happen. What they are learning is immaterial to a point. Doubts of whether they are being indoctrinated are only due to the collective fears of society based on current happenings. The first point of observation is that girls are learning and educated girls make huge difference to their families and the society they live in.

I see literate girls in a part of the world where that may be a growing minority. I'm relieved to see them reading-- knowing that they have a chance at an education and can find the freedom of thought within their own minds. The second thing that stands out to me is the girl with a hennaed hand and arm. I believe this signifies her recent betrothal to a man... so young...and how very little we understand about cultures other than our own.

I first noticed young women leaning towards a document, all in different places in the document following along with the right hands. I celebrate young women reading knowing that their moms were probably never were given the opportunity to learn how to read.

I see little girls studying hard, but they probably are not being taught in a way that allows them to be open to the beliefs and values of others. It is likely they are bright and inquisitive as many children are, and I feel a bit sad to think they may not be allowed to fulfill their full potential and go after their life dreams.

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