Be an Armchair Activitst

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In 2001, the world turned its attention to Afghanistan.  In the wake of 9-11, everyone suddenly wanted to know more about this small country in Asia where Osama Bin Laden had planned and orchestrated the attack on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon.  All of a sudden the media was full of experts who wanted to explain the Taliban to us, explain what dangerous crazy extremists they were, and why we needed to go over there and take them out.

Here's the thing-some of us already knew about the Taliban.  Some of us had been urging the US government to intervene in Afghanistan for years.  The loudest voice came from the Feminist Majority Foundation, which educated people about the horrific conditions that existed for women under Taliban rule.  Because I found the FMF, I was able to explain to my confused, grief-stricken friends exactly who it was that had let Bin Laden find a safe haven.

There is a whole 'nother post in the question of why the US did nothing to help the women in Afghanistan until aafter 9-11, but the question I want to pose is whether things in Afghanistan would have happened the way they did if A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini had been published in the 1990s instead of after 9-11. If more people had known about the conditions for women and girls in Afghanistan, would more have been done to remove the Taliban before Bin Laden moved in?  I realize this is a fairly simplistic view of geopolitics, but as someone who believes in the power of reading to create understanding across cultures, I have to believe that increased knowledge of world issues would somehow lead to different results.

Teachers will tell you that reading opens doors in your imagination, that by reading you can explore new worlds and escape to exotic places.  And that is certainly true.  But there are authors who are out there writing truth to power, authors who have written works that hold up injustice and demand us to look, not to turn our heads.   And because reading is transactional, those of us who read those authors and those books can't help but be changed by the experience.

This may seem a fairly passive way to participate in social justice.  After all, there are people doing good works in our communities all the time, people who volunteer, who protest, who lobby, who take to the streets in an effort to make peace and justice a reality for all people.  But if you are like me, with a spouse, a child, a job, a mortgage, chances are that the best you can do is write that check to the charity of your choice.  While this is an important act, allowing people who can to do the work, it might leave you with a thin patina of guilt, a small voice in your heart telling you that there is more you can do.  It might seem like a gross over-rationalization, but I argue that by reading, you can do something to change the state of the world.

Obviously non-fiction seems like a good place to start when talking about books that can lead to social  change.  And to be sure there are plenty of thoughtful, passionately argued non-fiction books that can lead to greater insights about the issues of human rights and justice.  Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen is an example of non-fiction that is both informational and emotional.  But what about those of us that prefer fiction?  Well I say that sometimes, fiction is the best way to highlight social issues.  Fictional narratives on the scale of A Thousand Splendid Suns do more than tell us the facts and figures about oppression-they allow us for a period of time to live the lives of those affected by injustice.  They give us a cultural context for the what we see on the news.  And making connections with characters that lead such seemingly different lives can bring home to us just how similar the human experience is, regardless of place or time.

So, what should you be reading?  I've added a new page to the blog, where I've listed some recommendations of books that I have read or read enough about that I can attest to their worth.  If anyone has other titles, just put them in the comments.  All of the blurbs come from Goodreads or Amazon.  Some of them are difficult to read, some are joyful and uplifting, but all highlight issues affecting people somewhere in the world.  As that prolific author Anonymous said, "Nobody's free until everybody's free."


  1. What a wonderful post. I agree with you that educating ourselves through reading is a form of action. I believe the book Beyond the Veil was what educated me on the treatment of women in Muslim countries where there is no separation between church and state. I am a teacher, so I read and then teach what I learn to my students or recommend the book and keep it available on my classroom bookshelf. I like your social justice page. I would recommend, I am Nujood, Age 10 and divorced. Excellent book.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion-I read a similar book this summer for my YA literature class, called Keeping Corner, about a 12 year old widow in early 20th century India.


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