2019
May
08
Wednesday

For the first time in history, there are more people over age 65 than under age 5. For economists, this presents a problem. As a population ages, growth generally slows. So, as people live longer, are we facing chronically lower growth?

In examining this question, the Economist magazine comes to an interesting conclusion: Age matters far less than flexibility and liveliness of thought. In other words, being old is not a significant economic impediment. “Thinking old” is. “If older societies grow more slowly, that may be because they prefer familiarity to dynamism,” the Economist writes.

Older thinking might be less committed to new technologies or longer-term decisions that return benefits after careers are over. “At least anecdotally, greying industries do seem more averse to change,” the Economist adds.

But must it be that way? Maybe not. Scientists also chronicle something they call the “paradox of aging.” Basically, as many people get older, they get happier, choosing to dwell on things that are more meaningful and enriching. Take Tao Porchon Lynch, who at 99 still was teaching yoga, still was driving, and still employed two assistants, according to a profile in Big Think. “I never thought about age,” she says.

What is really happening, perhaps, is a redefinition of aging. How we think about aging can influence how we age, the Big Think article argues, citing studies. Says one Florida State University gerontologist: “Fighting those negative attitudes, challenging yourself, keeping an open mind, being engaged socially can absolutely have a positive impact.”

Now here are our five stories today. They look at the deficit of hope in South African elections, questions of fairness in North American citizenship debates, and one Monitor reporter’s unique insight into China’s darkest corner.

Share this article

shadow

1. With Barr in crosshairs, a look back at last time Congress cited contempt

The U.S. House of Representatives is moving toward holding the attorney general in contempt over refusal to release a sensitive document. Seven years ago, the same thing happened. Looking back offers a different – and deeper – look at today’s news.

Mark

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

It was a battle that played out in slow motion. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress over withheld documents. The president intervened. The Justice Department handed over the documents in question – six years later. That battle between the GOP-led House and then-Attorney General Eric Holder began on June 28, 2012, and wasn’t resolved until March 7, 2018.

In a moment of political déjà vu, the House is once again considering holding the attorney general in contempt. This time, it’s House Democrats who are threatening to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt over the unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

The question now is whether Democrats should take the same road Republicans did in 2012. A contempt citation followed by a lawsuit would show their voters they took steps to combat the administration’s stonewalling. In the Holder case, the legislative branch eventually triumphed. But is it worthwhile if the process takes so long that by the time the case is resolved, the reason for oversight is moot?

“Even if they ultimately win in court, it doesn’t result in effective congressional oversight,” says Cornell law professor Josh Chafetz.

Collapse

With Barr in crosshairs, a look back at last time Congress cited contempt

On June 28, 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to hold then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over withholding documents relating to Operation Fast and Furious, a failed Obama-era gun sting program.

Six years, two attorneys general, and one White House turnover later, the Department of Justice finally announced that it would release the documents to Congress.

That’s right, six years. A few months after the contempt citation against Mr. Holder, the GOP-led House Oversight Committee filed a civil lawsuit against him over withholding the documents. The case then wound its way through federal court, with each side filing motions and appeals. It wasn’t until March 7, 2018, that the Justice Department – by then under the Trump administration – agreed to hand over the documents.

Now the tables have turned, and it’s House Democrats who are threatening to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt over the unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump asserted executive privilege over the report and its underlying documents.

The question now is whether or not Democrats should take the same road Republicans did in 2012. A contempt citation followed by a lawsuit would make headlines and show their voters they took steps to combat the administration’s stonewalling. And in the Holder case, the legislative branch eventually triumphed, because they did get the documents they wanted.

But is it still worthwhile if the process takes so long that by the time the case is resolved, the reason for oversight is moot?

In the Holder case, if the point was to oversee the Justice Department under President Barack Obama, says Cornell University law professor Josh Chafetz, then letting the fight drag into the Trump administration kind of undercuts the argument.

“Even if they ultimately win in court, it doesn’t result in effective congressional oversight,” he says.

The Holder contempt citation came as a result of Fast and Furious, a 2009 operation led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) that allowed federal agents to “walk” guns into Mexico to trace where they wound up. The scheme failed. More than 2,000 guns made their way to Mexican drug gangs, and two were linked to the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in 2010.

The DOJ at first denied signing off on the operation, but later walked back its statement, saying instead that the program was “fundamentally flawed.”

The House Oversight Committee brought in Mr. Holder to testify in February of 2012. By June, House Republicans were calling on him to resign. Mr. Obama then claimed executive privilege over some of the documents the committee wanted, and weeks later, the House voted mostly along party lines to hold Mr. Holder in contempt.

Then, as now, the move made sense politically: 2012 was an election year, and there was plenty of political hay to be made of a public push to censure the attorney general of an opposing administration. Democrats today likely have a similar calculus in mind, with 2020 around the corner.

There are some key differences, though. Republicans today say there was a case for action against Mr. Holder – that he had tried to cover up federal agents’ misdeeds in a botched operation. “Bill Barr’s following the law, and what’s his reward? Democrats are going to hold him in contempt,” said ranking member Jim Jordan of Ohio at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday. The committee voted 24-16 Wednesday to recommend the House hold Mr. Barr in contempt. The full House will now vote on whether or not to cite him.

Others point out that Mr. Obama did not adopt the kind of blanket dismissal of congressional oversight that the Trump administration has so far adopted. Although both Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush, like other administrations before them, fought Congress on investigations, they for the most part picked their battles. By contrast, Mr. Trump’s “rejection of Congress’ legitimate oversight function threatens to undermine this tenuous, but critical, check on presidential power,” Doug Kriner, professor of government at Cornell, said in a statement.

But the drawn-out conflict over the Fast and Furious documents did little to prove lawmakers could meaningfully check the executive branch when it mattered, says Professor Chafetz, who recently wrote a book on the separation of powers. “They cost themselves power vis-a-vis the executive by deciding to go to court.”

There are other ways to give congressional oversight efforts some bite, says Kevin Kosar, congressional scholar and vice president for policy at the R Street Institute in Washington. They could hold up confirmations for appointees or block bills that administration officials have an interest in. Even starting impeachment hearings could move the needle in Congress’s favor, even if there’s no expectation the president would ever be convicted.

“There are a lot of possibilities for those who want to put the energy in to try to change the behavior of the executive branch or any individual within it,” Mr. Kosar says. “But it requires grit. You have to use the tools at your disposal, stay consistent, and stay on them.”

Some House Democrats seem to be taking the lesson to heart. On Tuesday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings of Maryland sent letters threatening to dock the salaries of Trump administration officials who block ongoing committee investigations.

“The Government Accountability Office has reported to the Committee in the past when an agency official has violated this provision by preventing agency staff from being interviewed by Congress, and a portion of that official’s salary was ordered to be returned to the federal government,” Congressman Cummings wrote.

“Congress ought to be thinking about, ‘What are the institutional [options] that are best for us?’” Professor Chafetz says. “Going to court is one step in that political game, but we shouldn’t think it’s this obviously right step.”

shadow

2. Not just apathy: Why young South Africans are skipping a big election

Their parents thought they’d left apartheid behind. But how does growing up in a time of hope shape your views and your political participation, if change is incomplete?

Mark
Sumaya Hisham/Reuters
An Electoral Commission official checks the identity document of a voter as she arrives to cast her ballot in South Africa’s parliamentary and provincial elections, in Cape Town, South Africa, on May 8. South Africa is no exception to the global tendency for older voters to be more active at the polls than younger ones.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

South Africans are voting in a crucial election, but Jabu Simelane isn’t having it. Nor will a majority of South Africa’s young people. “The rot in this country goes so deep, it’s hard to believe voting will change it,” says Mr. Simelane, an instructor at a youth training center in Johannesburg.

Globally, low turnout among young voters is not uncommon. But for young South Africans, not voting isn’t always just an expression of political apathy. It’s a decision tangled up in their experiences growing up in apartheid’s shadow, and, often, a critique of a political system they believe has failed to live up to its lofty promises. Indeed, while the standard of living here has risen since the end of apartheid, the country is now more unequal than ever before.

Yet protests and social movements are also a vibrant part of political life, and young people have been key players. “When you look deeper than voting, you see that many young people are engaged in the political system in a variety of ways,” says Tasneem Essop, a researcher in Johannesburg. “What they’re saying now is that maybe this electoral system isn’t representing them in the ways they want.”

Collapse

Not just apathy: Why young South Africans are skipping a big election

For Jabu Simelane, things were supposed to be different.

Yes, when he was born in 1994, his mother still mopped the floors and scrubbed the toilets of white people. Yes, his father still laid the bricks to build their houses.

But Jabu, their youngest son, was going to grow up in a different world from what they had. A world where Nelson Mandela was the president instead of being a prisoner. A world where the people in power looked like them, and spoke for them.

Apartheid was over, and as the couple rocked Jabu to sleep in their tiny Johannesburg cottage, a new South Africa was rushing in to take its place.

Suddenly the son could go to the same posh suburban public schools as the family his mother worked for, because they lived in an old servants’ quarters behind her employer’s house.

That meant that unlike his parents, Jabu would get a white education. He would learn the rules of rugby and how to shave the Zulu edges off his English accent. He would live up to the name given to his generation of South Africans: the born frees.

But 25 years later, Mr. Simelane, like many young South Africans, is profoundly disenchanted with that title, and the country he’s grown up alongside.

And so, as South Africa voted Wednesday in a crucial national and provincial election, he wasn’t a part of it. Nor were a majority of the country’s young people. More than half of eligible voters ages 18 to 29 in South Africa, or about 6 million people, aren’t registered. And among those who are, another third said they were unlikely to vote at all.

“The rot in this country goes so deep, it’s hard to believe voting will change it,” says Mr. Simelane, who works as an instructor at a youth training center in downtown Johannesburg.

Post-apartheid expectations

Globally, low turnout among young voters is not, in and of itself, uncommon. Less than half of eligible Americans under 30, for instance, voted in the 2016 presidential contest.

But for young South Africans, not voting isn’t always just an expression of political apathy. For many, it’s far more complicated than that. It’s a decision tangled up in their experiences growing up in apartheid’s shadow, and, often, a critique of a political system they believe has failed to live up to its lofty promises to their generation.

“When you look around this country, it often feels like nothing has changed for young black people [since the end of apartheid] except having the right to vote,” says Pearl Pillay, director of the think tank Youth Lab, who has been outspoken about her own choice not to cast a ballot. “What we’re saying now is, that’s not enough.”

Indeed, while the standard of living in South Africa has risen since the end of apartheid, the country is now more unequal than ever before. On average, a white South African today has five times the income of a black South African. Meanwhile, more than half of young South Africans, most of them black, are unemployed – by some counts the highest rate in the world.

Ben Curtis/AP
South Africans line up to cast votes in the mining settlement of Bekkersdal, west of Johannesburg, on May 8. National and provincial elections pit President Cyril Ramaphosa's perennial winning African National Congress party against its top opposition – the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, 25 years after the end of apartheid.

Among young people here who are registered but didn’t plan to vote, nearly two-thirds are unemployed, and the same proportion thinks the economy here is unlikely to improve in the next year, according to a survey conducted by the South African Citizens Survey earlier this year.

“You vote for someone and then at the end of the day, nothing changes,” says Monde Gama, a 28-year-old who sells pirated DVDs in downtown Johannesburg. “After they get the job, they forget about working for the people and just go work for themselves.”

Since Mr. Gama was 3 years old, exactly one political party, Mr. Mandela’s African National Congress, has won national elections in South Africa. And although its grip on the electorate seems to be loosening – in 2016 local elections it lost control of several major cities, including Johannesburg – the ANC is almost universally expected to win Wednesday’s contest handily. That will mean a new five-year term for President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has promised to clean up a party tainted in recent years by major corruption scandals under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.

But despite the ANC’s woes – and they are many – its challengers still struggle to lure voters away from the one-time liberation movement. The next largest party, the Democratic Alliance, is often branded as the “white” party – a nod to the race of its founders and core membership – and is seen by many as out of touch with the lives of the black majority. Its share of the vote is expected to shrink in Wednesday’s polls.

The ANC’s fastest-growing challenge, instead, comes from a breakaway party formed by a disgruntled leader of its own youth league, Julius Malema, in 2013. Mr. Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who wear the outfits of manual laborers to Parliament and demand that the country’s major industries be nationalized to redistribute money to the poor, should considerably outdo their 2014 performance Wednesday, rising from 6% to an estimated 10% of the total vote.

For young people, the EFF has been blunt in its assessment of South Africa’s woes, from inequality to racism to corruption, and more than any other party, it has also made a point of reaching out to voters like them. Several candidates on its party list, for instance, are former activists in the massive student movement that rocked South African universities in recent years.

But the EFF’s aggressive tactics, coupled with corruption scandals among its own leaders, have also slowed its rise.

“I love the EFF. They are young and radical and pro-black,” says Boipelo Bogatsu, a student and friend of Mr. Simelane’s, who also did not vote in the election. “But it is hard to trust they are going to do what they say they will do.”

“Right politics, wrong delivery,” adds Ms. Pillay of Youth Lab.

Not voting, but politically active

In a country where protest is stitched into the national identity, however, voting has always been only one of many ways that people express their political leanings. Protests and social movements are also a vibrant part of political life here, and in recent years, young people have been key players in those demonstrations.

“When you look deeper than voting, you see that many young people are engaged in the political system in a variety of ways,” says Tasneem Essop, a researcher at the Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

“What they’re saying now is that maybe this electoral system isn’t representing them in the ways they want.”

For Mr. Simelane, deciding not to vote itself was his act of protest. And it was a protest, he says, not just against the country’s ruling elites, but also against the world they allowed to flourish beneath them.

He grew up, he knows, in a world materially better than his parents’. But it was still a world where race counted for too much, where his white classmates always seemed to have less trouble finding jobs, buying houses, getting ahead. Where no matter how much money he made, there would always be countless people in his personal orbit in dire need whom he had to share it with – what South Africans commonly call the “black tax.”

And it was still, above all, the ANC’s world.

“We’ve equated freedom with the ability to vote,” says Mr. Simelane. “But what does it mean when you vote and you still can’t get rid of the people holding you down? We know that as long as our parents are voting, the ANC will still win, so as long as that’s the case, what’s the point in trying?”

Thabang Shongwe contributed reporting.

shadow

3. When does birthright citizenship become citizenship for sale?

Offering citizenship to anyone born in a country is closely tied to American and Canadian traditions. Now those nations are having very different debates about how birthright citizenship fits their notions of fairness.

Mark
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Activist Kerry Starchuk stands on top of a map of the world by the airport in Richmond, British Columbia, on May 3. Ms. Starchuk is waging battle against 'birth tourism,' where wealthy mothers pay to arrive in Canada to give birth, get citizenship for their babies, and return home.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

Granting citizenship based on place of birth is deeply rooted in Canada and the United States, but it is in fact otherwise a rarity among developed nations. And the practice has come under debate across North America in recent years. But unlike in the U.S., where President Donald Trump's threats to end the practice have come amid a context of illegal immigration, Canada's rethink arises over a different concern: birth tourism.

“Birth tourism,” where wealthy mothers from abroad pay to give birth in Canada, thus getting citizenship for their babies, and then return home, is an increasing phenomenon in Canada. While federal statistics show only 313 births by nonresident mothers in 2016, new research using hospital financial data puts the number at 3,223 that year. One of 5 births at Richmond Hospital in Richmond, British Columbia, an alleged center for birth tourism, is to nonresident mothers, those figures show.

“It’s an abuse of the system,” says Joe Peschisolido, a Liberal lawmaker in Richmond. “It’s a business where people are making money off of the goodness of Canadians.”

Collapse

When does birthright citizenship become citizenship for sale?

Kerry Starchuk’s activism begins with homemade granola cookies – specifically, when she took a plate to her new neighbors.

Except the man and a toddler boy who she heard bouncing a basketball outside, and the two pregnant women with them, hadn’t moved into the house next door to hers, where she has lived since 1988. Visitors from China, they were residing in her neighborhood only temporarily and didn’t respond to her greeting. After they awkwardly accepted her cookies, she never saw the group again.

It wasn’t the first time she’d seen pregnant women coming and going in her neighborhood or heard about why they were there. But the meeting began her personal battle against “birth tourism,” where wealthy mothers like the ones she encountered next door pay to give birth, get citizenship for their babies, and return home.

It is an issue gaining prominence across North America, where jus soli, or rules by which citizenship is determined by birthplace, is the standard practice (yet otherwise rare among developed countries, as in Europe where citizenship is more restricted and often granted along bloodlines). An online petition that Ms. Starchuk started against the practice last year, garnering some 11,000 signatures, was supported by a federal Liberal lawmaker representing Richmond. Meanwhile, the federal Conservatives, in opposition during an election year, voted on a motion last summer to tighten laws around birthright citizenship. In the United States, President Donald Trump has said he will end it by executive order.

Mr. Trump’s threat drew widespread criticism by critics who call it anti-immigrant pandering. But concerns about citizenship rules span partisan lines. In Canada, a poll from the Angus Reid Institute in March showed that while more believe birthright citizenship is a good policy than a bad one (40% versus 33%), 60% believed rules needed to be tightened to counter abuse of the system.

Ms. Starchuk, a part-time housecleaner, insists her position is not anti-Chinese or anti-immigrant but is about rules and values, especially in a region where foreign wealth and capital have changed the face of communities. In Richmond, the mothers hail mostly from China, lured by advertisements that sell all-inclusive packages including a stay at a “birth hotel.” Other hospitals in Toronto and Montreal have seen increases in mothers from Eastern Europe or Africa. A recent data analysis showed Richmond’s local hospital with the highest percentage of births to mothers residing outside Canada.

“It does undermine me, because I’m trying to build community and welcome my neighbors to the neighborhood,” she says. “And then I find out it’s not a single-family home where there’s going to be a new family but an international, underground birth-tourism hotel. ... It’s like selling citizenship.”

An abuse of the system?

The issue under debate in Canada, which established citizenship rules under the 1947 Canadian Citizenship Act, is largely about the power of foreign money and how it devalues citizenship. The debate in the U.S., on the other hand, sometimes targets so-called anchor babies but revolves around undocumented migration. It was rekindled last fall with Mr. Trump’s threat, which has been highly polarizing.

The national conversations converge around questions of fairness and the changes people fear and perceive around them.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Joe Peschisolido, a Liberal lawmaker, says birth tourism is an abuse of the system. 'It's a business where people are making money off of the goodness of Canadians.'

Martha Jones, who wrote “Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America,” says that citizenship is always an evolving political question. In the U.S., questions about birthright citizenship arose in the early 19th century around the status of former slaves, which culminated in the 14th Amendment in 1868.

But that didn’t settle the issue, and in some ways the debate today is analogous to the one around former slaves because it leaves an entire class of people in a legal limbo. “It is a tragic example of the ways in which American lawmakers have failed in my view to fulfill their obligation to extend to people some basic sense of who they are,” Ms. Jones says.

In Canada, the Conservatives last summer voted that the party should support the position that a baby born in Canada should receive citizenship only if one parent is a Canadian or permanent resident.

Not all Conservatives agree with their party. Deepak Obhrai, a Tory lawmaker from Calgary, says that birth tourism abuses could be addressed with immigration procedures that target the parents but not the child. “It takes away the fundamental right of the child,” he says. “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”

Those fighting birth tourism have been accused of overexaggerating the problem. Federal statistics show only 313 births by nonresident mothers in 2016. But new research using hospital financial data puts the number at 3,223 that year. One of 5 births at Richmond Hospital is to nonresident mothers, those figures show.

Joe Peschisolido, the Liberal lawmaker who sponsored Ms. Starchuk’s petition and is awaiting a government response, says it might not be illegal, but that doesn’t make it right. “It’s an abuse of the system,” he says at his offices in Richmond. “It’s a business where people are making money off of the goodness of Canadians.”

And it’s something that many in the community care about, he says. His next meeting is with a constituent who, on his way in, says he’s here to talk to Mr. Peschisolido about ending “birth tourism.”

Among some of the fiercest critics of birth tourism are Chinese immigrants in Richmond.

“Why would the parents want to get their children Canadian citizenship if they themselves don’t want Canadian citizenship?” says one mother, who didn’t want to share her name. She’s at Parker Place, one of several shopping centers catering to the Chinese community.

She emigrated to Canada in 1990 from Beijing and says she had to work hard to learn English. But today, Richmond is 54% Chinese, compared with 34% in 1996. And now newer Chinese immigrants don’t learn the language as she had to, she says, and Mandarin is increasingly heard in town. 

‘It’s the unfairness of it’

It is easy to dismiss Ms. Starchuk, who also ran a campaign against Chinese-only signage in Richmond, in a country that embraces multicultural tolerance. But, as a fourth-generation resident of Richmond that has always been diverse, she says her fight is about inclusion and maintaining a healthy community.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A strip mall in Richmond, British Columbia, has Chinese writing on all the signs.

This battle is, in fact, amplified by the backdrop of larger changes taking place around her in Greater Vancouver. Foreign money has pushed up housing prices and displaced locals, including her own grown children, who she says haven’t been able to purchase homes and instead rent in Richmond.

She says she probably wouldn’t have gotten involved in the birth tourism fight if it had not been in her backyard, literally.

“This is not ‘a nothing issue,’” says Ms. Starchuk, who has binders full of letters, petitions, and news clips she’s collected about her efforts.

She says not everyone will agree with her. “Some will say, about birth tourism, that they will do whatever they can to get to Canada, even if I have to cheat. Others will say, ‘I paid for it. Why shouldn’t I be able to get what I want?’”

Ultimately, though, it violates her sense of what it means to be Canadian.

“It’s the unfairness of it,” she says. “Citizenship is not partisan, Liberal or Conservative, but about Canadian values. When you’re an immigrant, you take and you contribute.”

“This,” she says, “is a free-for-all.”

shadow

4. Reporting in Xinjiang: ‘A war zone with no war’

China’s crackdown on the Uyghurs is unlike anything else going on in the world today, our new Beijing bureau chief says in our audio story. But the world’s attention keeps turning elsewhere.

Mark

The Monitor’s new Beijing bureau chief Ann Scott Tyson knows how to report in extreme circumstances. She spent a decade as a war correspondent. But she’s never experienced anything like China’s surveillance in its Xinjiang province.

Listen as Ann discusses what it’s like to be followed by plainclothes police and the impacts of that surveillance on the Uyghur population.

LISTEN: Reporting in Xinjiang

Loading the player...
shadow

5. How SI burkini is shaping gender debate

Media depictions of Islam are often stereotypical. Is a Muslim model in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition a case of that, or a way to understand the range of views on gender in the religion?

Mark
Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Model and former refugee Halima Aden poses during a shoot in New York City in 2017. Ms. Aden is breaking boundaries as the first hijab- and burkini-wearing model on the pages of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition is not where people typically go looking for modesty. But this year the magazine features a fully clothed Muslim model.

Though her inclusion helps break down stereotypes of Muslims as a monolithic group, followers of the faith and Western feminists are divided over the merits of the move. To some, the swimsuit worn by the model, a burkini, transmutes traditional garments into a welcome form of individual expression. Others believe the magazine is helping to normalize a body-covering garment that they associate with restricting the rights of women. Still others wonder whether the images of the burkini – in the context of a magazine designed to titillate – advance or hinder the Muslim ideal of modesty.

“This photoshoot will function as a Rorschach test, as all Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim, will see their own identities and politics reflected in how they interpret the images,” says Perin Gurel, assistant professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame. “If you are inclined to think Islam is oppressive, you will continue to think so; if you believe it is not oppressive, you will also find your view confirmed by this model’s choice.”

Collapse

How SI burkini is shaping gender debate

For decades, the swimsuits in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue have been receding from view. Ever since Cheryl Tiegs infamously wore a sheer mesh bathing suit in the 1978 edition, models have bared increasingly more skin each year. Sometimes the “bikinis” are merely illusionary body paint on naked bodies.

This time, Sports Illustrated has gone in the complete opposite direction.

Somali-American model Halima Aden, a Muslim, appears inside the magazine in a colorful hijab and a neck-to-toe neon-blue burkini. It’s intended as a bold statement.

“Whether you feel your most beautiful and confident in a burkini or a bikini, YOU ARE WORTHY,” proclaimed SI Swimsuit editor MJ Day last week.

But in some quarters the photoshoot has sparked more controversy than the flesh-to-fabric ratio of Kate Upton’s cover photos.

Though her inclusion helps break down stereotypes of Muslims as a monolithic group, followers of the faith and Western feminists are divided over the merits of the move. To some, the swimsuit worn by the model, a burkini, transmutes traditional garments into a welcome form of individual expression. Others believe the magazine is helping to normalize a body-covering garment that they associate with restricting the rights of women. Still others wonder whether the images of the burkini – in the context of a magazine designed to titillate – advance or hinder the Muslim ideal of modesty.

“This photoshoot will function as a Rorschach test, as all Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim, will see their own identities and politics reflected in how they interpret the images,” says Perin Gurel, assistant professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, who studies gender and race in popular culture. “If you are inclined to think Islam is oppressive, you will continue to think so; if you believe it is not oppressive, you will also find your view confirmed by this model’s choice.”

Professor Gurel adds that she liked Ms. Aden’s statement about the photos in which she hoped her participation will encourage more young women who dress conservatively to pick up swimming and other sports. But, the professor wryly observes, Ms. Aden doesn’t appear to be doing any athletic activity in the photographs.

Indeed, there’s about as much swimming in the swimsuit issue as there is shooting in Garden & Gun magazine.

Cynical or savvy? 

At a time when print magazines are struggling and pornography is accessible on phones, the swimsuit edition has endeavored to keep its soft-core content in the cultural conversation. In 2017, it featured a plus-size model on the cover. Last year’s issue included women with #MeToo-inspired slogans painted on their naked bodies. Feminist writer Sarah Marian Seltzer views Sports Illustrated’s Muslim photoshoot as a savvy marketing ploy.

“Intersectional feminism and diversity and tolerance are trendy and people see it as a way to be on the cutting edge of culture and make news and even reach markets,” says Ms. Seltzer, an editor for Lilith magazine. “But that being said, you can never know whether it’s 100% cynical. I think that there are also good intentions.”

As much as Ms. Seltzer welcomes a broader diversity of cultures and body types in the magazine, she says that it’s impossible to divorce images of women in swimwear from patriarchy.

Similarly, Kira Davis, a columnist for Townhall.com, sees SI’s burkini as “just another form of female objectification.” Ms. Davis recalls how her hippie, bra-burning women’s lib mother railed against sexual modesty and the belief that women had a set role and place. She worries that celebrating a burkini on a magazine cover only serves to enforce a similar conservative attitude in Muslim culture.

“It’s still a woman wearing what is acceptable, or desirable, according to certain males. So it’s still a male-driven fashion choice. I think it’s just as problematic as the woman who poses with barely anything on,” says Ms. Davis. “We’re going to normalize this as empowerment when it’s just the same kind of oppression. It’s just with more clothes not less.”

There’s also the question of whether Ms. Aden is expressing the Islamic principle of modesty – which applies to both men and women – if she appears in the sort of magazine that features bikinis made of guitar picks. Nervana Mahmoud, a prominent commentator on Muslim issues, is among those who feel Ms. Aden’s reclining poses on the beach are too provocative and immodest.

She has another objection to the photos based on personal experience. When she was growing up in Egypt, her mother wouldn’t allow her to swim because she feared they would be harassed by conservative Muslims if they did so. It was only as an adult, now living in Britain, that Ms. Mahmoud learned to swim.

“I had one lane for myself and a private swimming instructor,” she says. “Every mother with her little 3-year-old was watching me. It wasn’t pretty. But this was the price I was willing to pay.”

Ms. Mahmoud objects to the photos because she associates the burkini with a restrictive dress code enforced by what she calls ideological Islamists.

“The fact that both non-Muslims and some Muslims find the photos inappropriate represents the double bind that hijabis suffer within the grasp of Muslims’ patriarchy, and the ‘West’ neo-imperialist narratives that placed Muslim women as the poster girls of oppression against women,” writes Lailatul Fitriyah, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of theology at Notre Dame and coordinator of the Notre Dame Islamic Studies Colloquium, in an email. “No matter what they say, the critics do not see Halima Aden as an agentic self who is capable of making her own decision.”

Covered by choice

Indeed, countless Muslim women embrace the burkini and hijab as a free choice that has nothing to do with patriarchal restrictions. Western Muslims, such as Ms. Aden, are showcasing their independence. Her outfits may cover her skin and hair, but they’re a long way from the “beach burqa” style of burkini (some of which have been banned).

“This image is almost a reinvention of the hijab by American Muslim women and in a way that is very different from what the hijab was originally intended to be, which was a preservation of modesty and a kind of desexualization of women,” says Cathy Young, a columnist for Newsday. “It’s almost like a cultural appropriation of a hijab in a liberated way, arguably, where you can sort of take this garment and view it as something sexy, as something that arguably is empowering.”

Many young Muslims in the West have embraced the hijab as a cultural marker. That’s exemplified by Mona Haydar’s 2017 hip-hop anthem “Hijabi,” which encourages feminist Muslims to affirm hijabs as cool. That millennial attitude is embodied in the lyric “Me and my hijabi ladies/ We was born in the eighties/ So pretty like the Euphrates/ and party like some Kuwaitis.” (The music video channels Beyoncé – but with women in headscarves in hip-hop formation.)

Other Muslims recoil at the trend. In her article “American Culture and the Liberalization of Hijab,” Butheina Hamdah expresses concern that the hijab is losing its theological essence as a religious symbol.

“This is perhaps most evident in the ‘trendy’ and ‘sexy’ ways hijab is talked about and visually portrayed,” writes Ms. Hamdah, a research fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs. “An increasingly ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ iteration of Muslim identity is emerging.”

Those individual, fashionable versions of the hijab may help transform how Westerners view Muslims. Mustafa Akyol, a senior fellow who focuses on the intersection of public policy, Islam, and modernity at the Cato Institute, believes that the Sports Illustrated images will help break down stereotypes of Muslims as a monolithic group. Ms. Aden’s colorful swimwear is also a reminder that the Quran’s suggestion of modest dress should be contextualized according to the era, the country, and the culture, says Mr. Akyol. Conservative Muslims still interpret that tenet in a similar way to 10th-century medieval scholars.

“I’m very much in favor of reinterpreting these laws,” says Mr. Akyol. “Conservatives may resist those reinterpretations. It’s their right to do so, but they should then preserve it for themselves but not force other Muslims to abide by their understanding.”

Ms. Mahmoud, the commentator from Britain who now swims regularly, agrees.

“I personally have no problem with the burkini, providing that those who advocate for the burkini will allow Muslim women to wear a bikini,” she says. “I should choose what I like. It’s between me and God to judge me.”

shadow

The Monitor's View

Why Sudan is a pivot for democracy

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

One of the more inspiring news items has been the thousands of pro-democracy protesters camped out – peacefully – in front of Sudan’s military headquarters. Nothing has deterred them from their demand for civilian rule over the army now in charge of Africa’s third-largest nation.

Nor has the $3 billion promised to Sudan’s generals by the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to make sure this mostly Arab country stays a dictatorship.

Nearly a month after popular protests against longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir led to his ouster by the military, Sudan is at a crossroads between democracy and autocracy. Yet that cliché is putting it mildly. Because Sudan sits at the crossroads of sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world, the protests reflect a tectonic divide between the two regions. If civilian rule does prevail in Sudan, it will affirm the relative progress toward democracy in Africa.

A survey of 45,000 Africans found 68% prefer democracy. And 42% strongly “demand democracy.”

That last group can be seen on the streets of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.

Collapse

Why Sudan is a pivot for democracy

One of the more inspiring and yet least-noticed news items in recent weeks has been the thousands of pro-democracy protesters camped out – peacefully – in front of Sudan’s military headquarters. Extreme heat, threats of violence, and fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan have not deterred them from their demand for civilian rule over the army now in charge of Africa’s third-largest nation.

Nor has the $3 billion promised to Sudan’s generals by the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to make sure this mostly Arab country stays a dictatorship and does not inspire another Arab Spring.

One chant heard among the protesters is this: “We do not want Saudi aid even if we have to eat beans and falafel.”

Nearly a month after popular protests against longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir led to his ouster by the military, Sudan is at a crossroads between democracy and autocracy. Yet that cliché is putting it mildly. Because Sudan sits at the crossroads of sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world, the protests reflect a tectonic divide between the two regions. If civilian rule does prevail in Sudan, it will affirm the relative progress toward democracy in Africa.

This point was made clear on Monday when United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres met with Moussa Faki Mahamat, head of the 55-nation African Union’s governing commission. The two leaders endorsed “a consensual and civilian-led transition” in Sudan.

It would be rare for the U.N. chief to do something like that in the Middle East. In Africa, by contrast, democracy is frequently nudged along despite many setbacks. Since 2012, for example, the African Union has defined one of its roles as punishing member states whose leaders cling to power after losing an election or by changing a constitution. That role is difficult to implement but it at least acknowledges widespread support for democracy.

A survey of 45,000 Africans in 34 countries, released in March by Afrobarometer, found 68% prefer democracy. Just over half see their country as a functioning democracy. And 42% strongly “demand democracy.”

That last group can be seen on the streets of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Their inspiring stamina could mean that, as Africa zigs and zags toward democracy, so might the Arab world.

shadow

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

When life defies our efforts to plan

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 4 Min. )

When her “on-track” life took an unexpected turn, today’s contributor panicked. But through prayer she came to realize that “when we humbly listen for God’s direction, the voices of fear and doubt are quieted, and we come to see the future as not a void of uncertainty but a promise of abundant blessings.”

Collapse

When life defies our efforts to plan

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
Loading the player...

I’ve always been someone who likes a plan. The problem? Encountering many experiences that defied my efforts to plan. And often these changes in plans weren’t just inconvenient; they were a source of overwhelming anxiety.

This came to a head several years ago. My life seemed to be “on track.” My husband and I had a comfortable home. He had a good job; I had taken steps to pursue a career path that I loved. Our young son brought joy to each day.

One day, however, my husband unexpectedly told me that he felt called in a new direction professionally. The path was one that would require several more years of school, demand that he be away from home more frequently, and hold a future that would be, it seemed, defined by uncertainty.

I panicked.

It was tempting to dig my heels in and refuse, but I respected my husband’s sense of calling, and it didn’t sit well with me to stand in the way of that. While I was uncertain of this new direction, one thing I knew for sure was that I could not continue to be crippled by fear each time things seemed to go off course.

Through my study of Christian Science, I have seen the value of turning to prayer whenever I feel afraid or in pain, so that’s what I did. The kind of prayer I’m talking about is not pleading with God to fix a problem but instead acknowledging God’s ever-presence and desiring to understand and feel it more clearly in my life.

As I prayed, I thought about the Bible story of Christ Jesus on the eve of his crucifixion. Knowing what was to come, he first prayed that he would be spared from going through that experience. But on the tails of that plea was this humble statement: “Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42).

Although I longed to feel this sense of surrender to God’s will, I squirmed at the thought of it. I realized that the anxiety I felt was rooted in the concept that I was at the mercy of forces that were maybe good, maybe not so good. This would mean that either God was not all-powerful or that God was not, by nature, good.

Christ Jesus’ teachings and healing ministry, however, proved both of these premises to be untrue. He knew that he was the dearly beloved Son of God and could trust this all-good God to meet his every need. He assured people that they too were the loved children of God, worthy of wholeness and freedom. It’s not surprising, then, that Christ Jesus could trustingly pray “Not my will, but thine, be done” as he faced the crucifixion.

While Jesus would not avoid the experience of the crucifixion, it did not prove to be the end of his life’s work, but instead his resurrection was the highest possible proof of life as spiritual and inseparable from God – the spiritual fact of being for him as well as everyone.

Needless to say, the circumstances in my life were nowhere close to what Jesus experienced. But I found a really helpful lesson in this account. It helped me be resolute in my conviction that God is good and that divine goodness is inevitably expressed in me and everyone as God’s divinely loved sons and daughters.

In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” a book that offers an inspired spiritual sense of the Bible and Christ Jesus’ teachings, Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, writes, “To those leaning on the sustaining infinite, to-day is big with blessings” (p. vii). This idea of a God who blesses all, together with Christ Jesus’ prayer before his crucifixion, constantly inspired my prayers.

Over the course of the next few weeks, my fear gave way to a calm, steady trust in the promise of God’s goodness inherent in each day. My husband and I did decide to go forward in this new direction, and along the way we have encountered so much good and had exactly what we needed, even in the more trying times.

I still love to have a plan. But through this experience and others since, I’m learning to trust God’s unfolding of good more than my own plans. When we humbly listen for God’s direction, the voices of fear and doubt are quieted, and we come to see the future as not a void of uncertainty but a promise of abundant blessings each step of the way.

shadow

Viewfinder

Shadows and light

Willy Kurniawan/Reuters
A Muslim man reads the Koran as people rest at the Cut Meutia mosque during the month of Ramadan in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 8. Muslims celebrate the holy month with fasting from dawn to dusk as well as with prayer and good works.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
shadow

In Our Next Issue

( May 9th, 2019 )

Thank you for joining us today. We hope you’ll come back tomorrow when correspondent Martin Kuz unravels the narrative of the “troubled veteran.” A vast majority of vets are never diagnosed with PTSD, and even among those who are, most find ways to live healthy, well-adjusted lives.

Monitor Daily Podcast

May 08, 2019
Loading the player...

More issues

2019
May
08
Wednesday

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.