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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I did notice the pink backpack first. Then I looked at where the hands were. If they are reciting then they are all reciting what appears to be from a different section of the text. Also, there appear to be multiple versions of the text. The girl on the left might need glasses.

I saw children.

First I saw books open. Then I saw scarved girls read Arabic. Then I saw backpacks & briefcases -- one from HP.
It's a small world and getting smaller.

The first thing I see is five little girl's freedom taken away by years of patriarchy. Then I'm taken back to my formative years in Tehran, when education was based on memorizing and learning by rote...no thinking, curiosity crushed, shamed if you question....I'm Iranian, Minnesotan, feminist, mother of two boys, in love with freedom of expression and above all a parent and teacher of inclusiveness of all cultures, religions. Curious about all perspectives. Renaissance hasn't reached the fabric of middle east....

To see more deeply, beyond the "religiosity on the surface" and to the humanity within an individual is indeed a gift and at the moment, a rare one in Quebec's minority government, the Parti Quebecois. Today, they are "unveiling" a proposal to ban the wearing of hijabs, kippas, turbans, and visible crucifixes for those who work with the public, which includes doctors, teachers, and day-care workers. A troubling mindset and a step backward... http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/story/2013/09/09/montreal-quebec-parti-quebecois-charter-of-quebec-values.html

As a quebecker, this is the way I see the current situation:
Beyond the apparent will of stigmatizing worn religious symbol is the desire to address the public's frustration upon wearers of veils and generalizing to other similar cases to avoid accusations of racism. Also, as the public keeps asking governments to address all sorts of trivial issues and because of the ensuing dissilusionment when laws are not voted at the snap of a finger, the government needed to answer... if only to keep the public interested in politics. I think it is a great idea to incorporate a chart of values as our people feel like their culture is constantly diluting. Even if said chart is refused by most/all institutions as suggested by the chart itself, it's going to mean that as a people, we have a culture and we have the same right as everyone else on this planet to feel awkward around cultures conveying things we do not agree with. Such as, to close the circle, the inherent insulting aspect of veils. From the point of view of quebec's culture, veils are condemnable as much as not wearing them is condemnable from the point of view of their culture. Medias and competing politicians are yelling out loud right now that it is impossible to agree to disagree, THAT is the step backwards. I salute my government for its courage.

To answer the picture:
I saw people studying. Because of their veils, I had hopes that they were really learning, as opposed to being endoctrinated.

Of course our glance goes to the humanity set in the fore, but the pack wasnt far behind. reminds me in someways of Rania Matar's work. She photograph's young women in their room and has spent considerable time in the middle east. in many, they show the shared global pop culture that helps to "normalize" as said.

The first thing I saw was that they were reading. Period.

My first thought was girls. Good to see them in class. Also using the hands to read - I was shamed in 2nd grade several times of using my hands to read - it was wrong to read that way.

What interested me is that all these girls are also trying to read, although four of the five texts are from different books. Using their fingers to point to the words they are reading also suggests that they are new to the work of reading. Literacy brings empowerment, but it takes a facility with reading to achieve.


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