Open mind, open heart

Roxanna Azari’s Watson Fellowship inside out

Roxanna “Roxy” Azari ’10 spent last year as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow traveling to study the religious, political and personal meanings ascribed to the veils worn by women in many Islamic countries. Fellowships are awarded to college seniors of unusual promise for independent exploration outside the United States. In France, Morocco, Turkey, India, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates, Azari explored her interest in the stories of women behind the veil and the ways in which political, social, economic, historical and religious perspectives shape the meaning of their clothing. A double major in women’s studies and English with a concentration in creative writing, she led poetry workshops to engage Islamic women in conversation about the veil and their lives. Here, she shares the inspiration behind her exploration and her experiences abroad.

I was raised in the skirt of poetry, taking naps in my grandmother’s lap while she recited her latest poem in Farsi. When I was 7 years old, she bought me my first notebook, and somewhere between Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Rumi, Maya Angelou, Sylvia Plath and high school English class, I realized that poetry was my calling.

It was in high school when I first learned that poetry could be used as more than something kept hidden in my notebooks. Through poetry slam competitions I had found a medium to combine my two passions: writing and social justice. Many of the poems that I performed in national and international competitions were about women’s rights. Thus, it was only natural that when I applied for a Watson Fellowship that my subject matter would encompass all that inspires me—poetry, social justice and women’s rights.

A scene captured in Merzouga, Morocco.
A scene captured in Merzouga, Morocco.

When I started my Watson year my goal was to challenge the mainstream portrayal of women living in Islamic societies. I set out to shed light on the Islamic feminists, women activists, and political movements happening globally that often get overshadowed by a Western narrative that depicts Muslim women who wear veils as oppressed and in need of help.

However, interestingly, what quickly became clear to me throughout my travels is that while I did meet countless groups of women who defied the Western stereotype, there also were some women who did identify with the narrative I was trying to stray away from.

I found myself very torn in those moments, but I would come back to the original notion that my Watson was not about disproving a myth. It was about disproving the static notions in which we understand culture, religion, women’s rights and tradition. It was about showing the diversity in choice, freedom and activism happening in areas where people wrongly assume women are helpless. There is no one-person narrative of women’s struggles with patriarchy, culture and religion, but instead a diversity of narratives.

My own personal narrative and relationship to the veil is a multifaceted one. Although I was born and raised in the U.S., my family is from Iran. Because of my Iranian background, the veil has had a very complex history throughout my personal life. I have gone from thinking the veil was the coolest dress-up invention at age 7, to thinking it was cruel torture at age 14, to thinking at age 20 that context matters when thinking about its meaning. (Within the context of Iran, because the veil is a mandatory requirement of being in the public sphere, I as a teenager had established quite the resentment for the concept of forced veiling.)

Young women in Morocco perform poetry they wrote about the meaning of the veil.
Young women in Morocco perform poetry they wrote about the meaning of the veil.

It’s funny how life works out, how opinions contain this elasticity that can change with just a flick of the mind. I knew I was not seeing the whole picture when I looked only at Iran. I knew there must be something powerful about the veil when worn in situations where there was no force or when the force was coming from the other extreme, for example, countries with laws against veiling.

When my Muslim-American friends chose to veil, I would feel respect for them. I thought their actions in a post-9/11 world were very daring and brave. How could it be possible that one tangible object could make me so angry and frustrated when worn in one country but proud in another? For many years, I could not bring myself to understand what that meant.

In the midst of all these internal tensions, I decided to study abroad in Egypt my junior year at Wheaton, which greatly influenced my decision to travel to other countries and explore the meaning and symbolism of the veil during my Watson Fellowship. The experience of traveling alone to Egypt was life altering. It was the first time I felt the magic of what it was like to leave the familiar and immerse myself into a new world.

A view of Chefchaouen, Morocco
A view of Chefchaouen, Morocco

Wanting to know more about women’s movements in Islamic countries and women’s interpretations of the Islamic veil, I spent a semester at the American University in Cairo. Part of this experience included two graduate-level courses that greatly impacted my understanding of the Islamic veil and women’s movements in the Middle East/North Africa. My women’s studies classes in Egypt introduced me to women’s groups in the Middle East that I never even knew existed.

I became aware of just how much context matters in understanding what the veil symbolizes. I also realized that my perception of the veil does not have to be static. The veil, like society, is constantly transforming, and yes, oftentimes as a tool to meet the political agenda of men in power. But what many casual observers do not recognize about the veil—and what I discovered during my Watson year—is that the veil can also be an indicator of piety, a symbol of political resistance, as well as the power of a woman’s choice.

I sought out and encouraged dialogue regarding the current global veiling controversy in poetry workshops designed to engage women in in-depth discussions on a global level. The goal was to move beyond what the veil symbolizes and to get at what it means to various women across various regions. Moreover, the goal was to learn about the women’s movements that receive no media attention within the U.S., because the controversy of veiling has served as a tool to veil our own eyes from seeing the progressive movements and political involvement of women within Islamic societies.

Gili Islands, Indonesia
Gili Islands, Indonesia

To do this I created a curriculum for workshops and designed writing prompts catered to social issues and feminist poetry from each of the countries I visited. Most of the workshops were run in the native language of the women, and I worked with translators. These workshops were a safe space for young women to discuss how the personal is political, and a place to debate, critically question, and write about injustices. The groups of women I found who participated in the workshops came through the help of various women’s organizations, NGOs, schools and word of mouth. Some of the women were activists, some were feminists, some were religious, and some were all three. Some had never thought about anything political before.

Each of the groups met in workshops two to three times a week over the course of two to three months. I gave the women writing prompts, such as asking them to think about their first memory of becoming aware of their gender or a political issue happening within their country. After every writing prompt, the women shared what they wrote and discussed it. It was through these discussions that we women would become a family. Our words, feelings and trust in one another functioned as a needle and thread that pieced together our magical carpet rides to future utopian societies, where other people’s laws and expectations were not imposed on our bodies.

After the first six to eight sessions of offering my prompts, I opened up the sessions to welcome the women to initiate their own topics for discussion, which included “taboo” topics such as religion, sexuality, divorce, body image, world politics, Islamophobia and domestic violence.

Roxanna Azari and some of the women who participated in her workshops in Indonesia
Roxanna Azari and some of the women who participated in her workshops in Indonesia

Toward the end of the workshops, they edited their writing and rehearsed performing their poems in order to showcase their words and thoughts in front of all of their loved ones at a final performance. By the end of all the workshops, I, along with the women I met on my journey, had organized six international events (one of which was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy) to showcase their inspirational work.

The shows were especially moving for me, because I would witness the women who had become my extended family share their political and personal opinions in front of whoever was willing to hear. The most touching moment was when the shiest girl from my workshops in India stood up and belted her heart out into a microphone. None of us could believe that this was the same soft-spoken girl whom we had to beg to speak in workshops.

The workshops and shows truly inspired me, but I’m most moved by the fact that the magic we women created and witnessed has yet to dissipate. For instance, the organizations and schools where I facilitated workshops in Morocco, India and Indonesia all published anthologies of the women’s poetry. And currently, the women in Morocco and India who participated in the workshops are continuing to conduct them with other women and organizations. And word of our work has been spread far and wide through the media and YouTube.

Working as the social justice intern for three years for Dean Vereene Parnell in Wheaton’s Office of Service, Spirituality and Social Responsibility, I had learned very early on that temporary change and sustainable change are two very different approaches to social change. I’m hoping that our work together made way for the latter.

My Watson Fellowship was focused on global engagement in women’s rights through poetry. The curriculum for my workshops would have been incomplete without the knowledge I gained from my undergraduate degree at Wheaton. My coursework in English literature, creative writing and women’s studies opened a gateway into the limitless possibilities that language and theory can hold for social change. In particular, my “Transnational Feminism” and “Feminist Theory” courses at Wheaton were extremely influential in shaping my Watson year.

Azari with participants from her workshops in IndiaThe most valuable aspect of my undergraduate degree in women’s studies and creative writing was that the combination of disciplines provided me with a language to discuss social inequalities, an outlet for the knowledge obtained from my literature and gender courses, and most importantly, a tool to examine and challenge the societal norms of everyday life.

While the various ways my Watson journey has shaped my personal future are still taking form, I’m certain that I’ll make something cohesive out of all of the interviews I gathered by creating a documentary to showcase all the voices and stories.

My year as a Watson Fellow fueled my passion for equality and justice. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is that when you approach something with an open heart and mind, you open the doors for discussion. For me, poetry and dialogue have always been—and will continue to be—more than fancy word play. They are apparatuses for creating new worlds, articulating catharsis, and generating social change.

Roxanna Azari ’10, who is planning to go to graduate school, has been working as a youth coordinator and academy teacher/counselor at a YMCA program. She also has been a research assistant for two NYU professors who are working on a book, and she has been a guest speaker for spoken word workshops and university events throughout the U.S.