Thursday, August 16, 2012

My First Indian Iftar

After I graduated university, I moved to Indonesia where I was lucky enough attend a number of iftar dinners. Although I wasn’t fasting during Ramzan, I loved how every meal was a celebration to be enjoyed with family, friends, and even strangers. I also appreciated learning that for Muslims Ramzan is a time spent becoming a better person by overcoming your desires, and it is a period spent reaching out to your neighbors and those less fortunate than you. Although most Americans think of Ramzan and Islam when we think of fasting, the idea of fasting isn’t unique to Islam. I’ve heard from Hindu colleagues that fasting during a specific time of a month or during a festival is common. Growing up, I saw some of my Catholic family members give up certain food items for the duration of Lent. So although Ramzan is an Islamic holiday, much of the world has similar traditions.

Iftars are not just celebrated in Islamic countries, but worldwide. As I mentioned, I attended many iftars in Indonesia, but I was also invited to a few in Washington, DC. Just last week President Obama hosted a dinner at the White House for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In his speech he mentioned that the very first iftar dinner at the White House was organized by America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, and took place over 200 years ago! Even a country as young as America has a long history of iftar dinners.
I arrived in Hyderabad a few weeks ago – just in time for this year’s Ramzan.  The consulate sponsored an iftar dinner at MESCO Grade School in the Old City.  When we first arrived at the school we split up and I distributed an American quiz – a worksheet with ten questions about the U.S.  Many of the students had never talked to Americans before, but they knew a lot about the U.S. I was impressed by their enthusiasm and their curiosity. I answered a lot of questions about my background and American culture, food, and geography, and I learned more about how Indian schools and classes are organized. It was a learning experience for all of us.

My husband is originally from Tunisia and he is Muslim-American, so he gave a presentation about his experiences as a Muslim in America. Not only did he show slideshows of all the beautiful mosques in the States as well as present information about the great things Muslim-Americans are doing, he was also able to talk about some of his personal experiences. I hope that some of the younger students understood that America isn’t composed of one type of people, but many races, religions, cultures, and languages.

Afterwards we all went upstairs to break the fast with fruit and dates and I got the opportunity to talk to some of the students at the school. Most of the kids had been fasting all day, and I was impressed that they had all been so enthusiastic during our interactions before dinner. After breaking the fast the students went to pray, and when they came back we all had a dinner of haleem, biryani, and khubani ka meetha for dessert.  Although the students were young, a lot of them expressed interest in travelling to the U.S. for travel or to study. I hope that if they do, they will feel as welcome in the U.S. as I did during our iftar dinner.  After Eid-al-fitr next week it will be another eleven months before the next Ramzan, but I hope that the same spirit of community and generosity continues throughout the year.

Courtney Kline is a Vice Consul at the U.S. Consulate General, Hyderabad

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Defining Diversity

I’ve had wonderful opportunities to serve at a variety of Embassies and Consulates during my career, but one thing I’ve sacrificed is time at home in the U.S.  I haven’t lived in my own country since 1998.  I visit regularly, and in fact the State Department requires that diplomats spend at least a month on holiday in the U.S. between assignments, but because I’m not there on a day-to-day basis, changes in public attitudes and public mood that occur gradually may be more evident to me than they would be if I lived at home.  Some changes are likely temporary—like the current polarization of our political space, or the sense of insecurity and pessimism caused by the current economic slowdown.  But others are clearly fundamental, long-term trends, such as the incredible growth of visibility and influence of Indian Americans, or the reduced tolerance for cigarette smoking. 
Looking back through U.S. history, one clear, long-term trend is our increasing acceptance of diversity, and with it the extension of equal rights and protections.  Our founding fathers in the U.S. Declaration of Independence said “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Americans are proud of this philosophical legacy, but we also recognize that we did not, in fact, provide all men with equal rights for most of our history.  The Constitution of the U.S. acknowledged slavery by apportioning representatives to the states through a formula that added to the number of “free Persons” another number representing three-fifths of “all other Persons.”  It was only in 1866 that the sixteenth amendment to the Constitution provided equal protections to African American men, and only in 1920 that the nineteenth amendment extended constitutional protection to women.  It took almost a century after the sixteenth amendment for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion or sex.  When John F. Kennedy ran for office in 1960, the election of a Catholic was considered revolutionary, just as President Obama’s election was a watershed moment for racial equality. 

This trend of broadening U.S. legal protections and social acceptance continues to this day.  Since the Civil Rights Act was signed, we have enacted legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, age, and, most recently, genetic information.  An area of focus today involves gay rights.  The U.S. has not yet enacted legislation specifically prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but President Clinton signed an executive order in 1998 banning discrimination in federal employment, and many states have broader protections, including recognition of same-sex marriage.  The Consulate recently sponsored a Rainbow Film Festival to celebrate LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) pride month.  The four films screened included documentaries and docudramas; all were based on true stories, highlighting the history of the gay rights movement in the U.S.  One of the things that they made clear was that America’s acceptance of homosexuality is relatively recent and remains incomplete.  In 1969, when the raid that is featured in the film “Stonewall Uprising” occurred, homosexual conduct was illegal in most of the U.S.  Today, a majority of Americans favor permitting same sex marriage.  Demonstrating how far we have come, on the occasion of Human Rights Day last year, President Obama and Secretary Clinton announced that promoting acceptance of gay rights around the world would be a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.

A 2007 global attitude survey ( asked people: “Should homosexuality be accepted by society?”  80 percent or more of citizens in most European countries said yes, and 49 percent of Americans said homosexuality should be socially accepted.  South Asia, the Middle East and Africa had the lowest acceptance levels, with India at only 10 percent.  In this context, it’s not surprising that some groups here in Hyderabad opposed the showing of films about the gay rights struggle in the U.S.  Fortunately, we were able to go forward despite efforts to force a cancellation.  The Consulate is respectful of those who hold different views, and will seek to avoid confrontations.  But we will continue to treat LGBT issues as a human rights issue and engage actively to build respect for the rights of LGBT persons, and to show solidarity for those suffering from stigma and discrimination.