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),  Executive Editor / Chief Content Officer 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

I see angry gods spelling beauiful words. where its children vs children and pencil vs lead.

I looked. I smiled. There is inherent beauty in children. The contrast between light and shadow and the colors of their clothing held my attention. As I looked more closely, I wondered: What is it like to live in a culture with "western" book bags and traditional dress? Why does the room they are in look like a prison cell with bare cement-like walls with a high window letting in light? Why are they being educated in a multi-age classroom, and where are the boys being educated? What does it feel like to be taught to cover your body - to hide yourself because of your gender? Are they pointing because they've been taught to read that way - they must read that way? Where are their feet? Are they kneeling? If so, how do they endure sitting in that posture for any length of time? Are they punished if they move or try to reposition themselves for comfort? Who painted the arm of the child second from the right and why? Is it a source of pride or privilege for her? Do their souls find comfort in what they are reading? Are their spirits enlarged? What prior knowledge and experience are they connecting to the words? There is a tattered cloth on the floor - seemingly a carpet. Are these girls living in poverty, and do they consider the opportunity to be in school a blessing?

No matter the complexities of their situation, they are girls, and they have been taught to read. Within that skill lies the potential for knowledge, freedom and hope. My prayer is that they will be granted the grace to soar in continued beauty and light as a gift to our world.

I think that's actually a tom and jerry backpack. Most of my students prefer my little pony, and disney princesses as the prices on hello kitty are higher and she doesn't have her own tv show.

I saw the girls' enthusiasm, the studiousness the oblivion to their surroundings on hard floors and benches. I saw the backpacks of normal schoolchildren, and possibly the need of glasses for some of them, also that one of them appears to have a skin disease. Here is a group of girls being allowed to at least learn the Quoran.

Girls literacy= education= critical thinking & freedom from oppression and domination. These girls want what all girls want, the world over, education and equality. Nice photo!

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