Kathy Zeitoun and Muslim women as change agents

While author Dave Eggers gives readers a lot of insight into what Kathy Zeitoun faces and her incredible character and spirit, there really has been little attention given to her following the book Zeitoun’s release. This lack of interest is a part of a larger problematic trend when it comes to highlighting the power of Muslim women in effecting change and being change agents in their respective societies.
Much has been written about Abdalrahman Zeitoun (known to everyone by his last name), the protagonist of Dave Eggers new non-fiction book Zeitoun.

The story recounts Zeitoun’s efforts to save his neighbors after Hurricane Katrina pummels New Orleans and subsequent flooding devastates the city. It also describes how the Bush administration’s botched response to America’s largest disaster imperiled the lives and livelihoods of thousands of residents. Most importantly, though, it chronicles the horror Zeitoun and his family face after he is locked up in a Guantanamo-style prison camp, denied contact with the outside world (including his family), and accused of being a terrorist (after saving several neighbor’s lives).

The book has been hailed an “instant American classic” because it masterfully explores the trauma of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath not in the easy-to-pity “I’m a victim!” way, but with raw human emotion that strikes horror and awe. It was described in the New York Times Sunday Book Review as a “full-fleshed story of a single family … that hits larger targets with more punch than those who have already attacked the thematic and historic giants of this disaster. It’s the stuff of great narrative nonfiction.”

There’s a problem, though; not with the story or how it’s told, but the ensuing analysis of the book and its power in broadening the imagination of the American public as it relates to Hurricane Katrina’s imprint on the American psyche and our post-9/11 world where negative images of Muslims abound.

While Eggers gives readers a lot of insight into what Kathy faces and her incredible character and spirit, there really has been little attention given to her following the book’s release. This lack of interest is a part of a larger trend when it comes to highlighting the power of Muslim women in effecting change and being change agents in their respective societies. It also misses a key opportunity to give Americans unfamiliar with Islam and Muslims a different picture of the American Muslim female experience.

No, she’s not the one who paddled in a second-hand kayak through the filthy waters of New Orleans rescuing elderly residents and delivering water to thirsty neighbors. Nor is she the one who was detained in a Guantanamo-style prison confined to a concrete cell and cut off from the world. That’s Zeitoun’s experience.

But she did live for weeks without a single word from her husband. She wasn’t confined to a concrete cell, but she did live in a proverbial prison – limited in what she could do, what she could know about her husband’s whereabouts (was he alive, or should she prepare to cope with his death?), trapped by family constraints and responsibilities, unable to create definitive next steps because so much of her world depended on an unresponsive government apparatus made up of confused bureaucrats with little sympathy or empathy for Kathy and Zeitoun’s unbearable situation.

And for weeks on end, Kathy was not just consoling herself, trying to keep herself together. She had four children to comfort and not crack in front of so that their sanity and stress levels didn’t go through the roof. Her youngest daughter Aisha lost weight and while Kathy brushed her hair to comfort her, she found that it was coming out because of constant worry.

“You hear from him?” Aisha asked.
“No, baby, not yet.”
“Is he dead?”
“No, baby, he’s not dead.”
“Did he drown?”
“No.”
“Did they find his body?”
“Honey, stop.”
But after a half-dozen strokes of her brush, Kathy took in a quick breath. Aisha’s hair was coming out in clumps. The brush was full of it. Aisha’s eyes welled. Kathy bawled. There is nothing worse than this, Kathy thought. There can be nothing worse than this.

And it was not only her immediate family. She also had extended family members calling day and night asking what she was going to do next to get her husband back.

It was tough for Kathy. She says there were moments she was broken, where she cracked under all the pressure, where she felt helpless when official after official told her they didn’t know where Zeitoun was, if he was alive or dead, or where her husband’s court hearing was because it could not be publicly disclosed.

“I have always considered myself a strong woman, but at that time, I felt I lost my voice,” she told Altmuslimah.

But just as Zeitoun pushed through the struggles he faced, so did Kathy. She flew to New Orleans, made arrangements for her kids, found a lawyer, discovered important documents almost impossible to find, fought tooth and nail for officials to listen to her so that she could find out where exactly her husband was, and when she knew, how she could finally see him and get him out.

It was exhausting, physically and emotionally. Kathy was given the run-around as New Orleans operated in a haphazard manner with multiple federal agencies operating autonomously as if they were the only real authority in place to control a city reduced to a Waterworld.

It’s important, though, to remember that as her husband fought against despair in a prison cell, she pushed back against a dysfunctional system and never gave up until her husband was back.

And she says over and over, better her than someone else.

She repeats, “It’s good it happened to me and not someone else. And it could have been worse.”

That’s her mantra. She says better her than someone else because she was born in this country and raised in Louisiana, not the kind of person Joe the Nativist could yell at to “go back home,” nor the kind of person that can be easily ignored or looked past because of her head scarf.

But Kathy is not an anomaly. There are millions and millions of women in the U.S. and around the world who struggle everyday to protect their families and keep their governments honest. And that includes Muslim women.

But they are not necessarily identified as the heroine. Many times, it’s others who get the limelight, mostly men, rightly or wrongly. It’s women like Kathy who win the small victories standing up to a bigoted store clerk, writing letters to city officials and making phone calls to protest unfair treatment.

The story of Zeitoun is important and powerful, but it would be wrong if we only focused on Zeitoun and failed to mention more the story and power of his wife, and all of the women like her who remain confined to the shadow of the men in their lives even though they work day-in-and-day-out to ensure their communities and societies are healthier.

Mothers, wives, daughters — like their male counterparts and more — provide the next generation and society as a whole a positive and proud example of how the future can be made better.

And Kathy’s too good of an example of that to continue overlooking.
Jordan Robinson is Media Associate for the One Nation Foundation.

1 Comment

  • JAdil says:

    >> I find this quite unsettling. I expected the family to support her instead of making further demands, implying as if she wasn???t already doing enough. Perhaps its a symptom of devaluing what women already do. I can only imagine what country her in-laws were lounging around in while she was bearing all this??

    I think her family felt as helpless as she did, but being from countries with histories of political and social repression, they feared the worst, yet as non-citizens felt disempowered to do anything.

    The book documents in detail the lengths that Zeitoun’s brother went to, to reach out for help.

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