Kacem El Ghazzali writes: When we say that nowadays to call for sexual freedom in Arab and Muslim societies is more dangerous than the demand to topple monarchies or dictatorial regimes, we are not playing with metaphor or attempting to gain sympathy. We are stating a bitter and painful fact of the reality in which we are living.
In Arab and Muslim milieus, sex is considered a means and not an end, hedged by many prickly restrictions that make it an objectionable matter and synonymous with sin. Its function within marriage is confined to procreation and nothing else, and all sexual activity outside the institution of marriage is banned legally and rejected socially. Innocent children born out of wedlock are socially rejected and considered foundlings.
This situation cannot be said to be characteristic of Arab societies only, but we experience these miseries in far darker and more intense ways than in other countries. This is especially so because of the dominance of machismo, which considers a man’s sexual adventures as heroics worthy of pride, while a woman who dares to give in to her sexual desires is destined to be killed — or at best beaten and expelled from home — because she has brought dishonor upon her family. [Continue reading…]
Carla Power writes: When I told a Muslim friend of mine that I was to be studying the Koran with a sheikh [Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi], she had one request. “Ask him,”she said, “why Muslim men treat women so badly.”
When I did, he said it was because men weren’t reading the Koran properly.
All too often, people read the Koran selectively, the Sheikh explained, taking phrases out of context.
“People just use it for whatever point they want to make,” he shrugged. “They come to it with their own ideas and look for verses that confirm what they want to hear.”
In 1998, I went to Afghanistan to report on life for women under the Taliban. During their five-year reign in Kabul, the Taliban’s major policy initiative was to ban anything that they deemed to be un-Islamic, including kites, nail polish, and the public display of women’s faces.
The most devastating of the Taliban edicts, however, was the ban on women’s education.
At one point during my trip I asked the father of a ten-year-old girl whether she ever went out. His answer: “For what?”
In the years that the Taliban were busy keeping women at home and uneducated, Akram was uncovering a radically different version of Islamic tradition. Its luminaries included women like Ummal-Darda, a seventh-century jurist and scholar who taught jurisprudence in the mosques of Damascus and Jerusalem.
Her students were men, women, and even the caliph. Another woman in Akram’s research discoveries: the fourteenth- century Syrian scholar Fatimah al- Bataihiyyah, who taught both men and women in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, drawing students from as far away as Fez.
It had begun by accident, he explained. Reading classical texts on hadith (the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), he kept running across women’s names as authorities. He decided to do a biographical dictionary—a well-established genre in Muslim scholarly culture—that included all the women experts of hadith.
“A short book, then?” I teased.
“That’s what I thought, too,” said Akram. “I was expecting to find maybe twenty or thirty women. I was planning to publish a pamphlet. But it seems there are more.”
“Really?” I said. “Well, like how many more?”
Akram’s work, al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, stands as a riposte to the notion, peddled from Kabul to Mecca, that Islamic knowledge is men’s work and always has been. “I do not know of another religious tradition in which women were so central, so present, so active in its formative history,” Akram wrote. [Continue reading…]
Ayesha S. Chaudhry writes: Since the days of colonialism, Muslim women have become hyperpoliticized pawns in larger ideological struggles, and women’s bodies bear the burden of marking which “side” a society belongs to, by either donning the veil or removing it. Europeans are not the only ones politicizing women’s bodies – Muslim-majority countries have engaged in similar tactics, expressing their commitment to Islamism (e.g. Iran today, Saudi Arabia) or secularism (Iran under the Shah, Turkey) through forced veiling or de-veiling.
Neither forced veiling nor de-veiling actually serves the interests of women, though secularists argue that de-veiling “saves” women from patriarchal oppression, and Islamists argue that veiling “saves” women from an objectifying male gaze that turns them into sex objects. In both arguments, a woman’s emancipation or subjugation is measured by the amount her body is covered or uncovered. Both arguments infantilize women, expressing a profound mistrust in their ability to make decisions in their own self-interest. Caught in the middle, Muslim women simply cannot win.
In this context, it is especially important to put women first, to give women space to chart their own journeys, and to allow the veil and lack thereof to have meanings beyond their patriarchal origins. [Continue reading…]
A correspondent for Tehran Bureau writes: Every day I take a stroll on my way to work. From Tehran’s bustling Vanak Square, buzzing with traffic and commuters, to Jordan Street, a popular two-way avenue parallel to Valiasr, Tehran’s main artery. This is the heart of north Tehran, where cabs leave at every hour of the day and night. Adjacent to Jordan is Gandhi Street, boasting brand new shopping malls and western-style cafes.
I take a small, relatively quiet street lined with the offices of insurance brokers and doctors. Tall trees, planted at irregular intervals, shield me from the blazing sun. Just a few metres away from the honking, throbbing melody of the city, Sanaei Street is charming.
Save for the relentless sexual harassment.
Sometimes it is just stares. As I am walking down the street, I see him coming across me. He is several metres when I am already cringing. I lower my stare, or look away.
I want to close my manteau – the medium-length, light jacket worn by some Iranian women instead of chador – to avoid his snooping glare, but it’s too late. As I walk past him, I feel his piercing eyes looking for my breasts under my thick cloak, sizing up my figure with acute intensity. Riveted to my body, they follow me up until I feel them burning my back as he is already behind me. There isn’t even the slightest pretence of hiding: the ogling is unabashed, both nonchalant and full of aplomb.
Every so often, there are sounds. As he walks by, he turns his head towards me and slams his tongue against his palate. Or kisses the air loudly. There are so many shades of whistling, hissing, smacking, licking, puffing that I am amazed at the capacities of the human mouth. Sometimes it comes from behind me: a hiss directly in my ear. Sometimes it’s a last-second move as we walk past each other, like a snake suddenly sticking out its tongue. Every time, it is the same hideous expression of unhindered lust sending shivers through my spine. [Continue reading…]
Kim Ghattas writes: “Why do they hate us?” That is the question that Mona Eltahawy asked in a much-discussed 2012 article for Foreign Policy. “They” were the men of the Arab world; “us” were the Arab women who, as she writes in a new book that grew out of that essay, “live in a culture that is fundamentally hostile to [them], enforced by men’s contempt.”
The question, as you may remember, is the same one that President George W. Bush asked in a speech in Congress in September 2001 about the men who flew planes into towers. The lack of nuance in Bush’s proclamation framed a debate that amplified stereotypes and “otherness.” Eltahawy’s book, Headscarves and Hymens, a radical feminist manifesto, risks doing the same for the battle over Arab women’s rights.
While Eltahawy rightly rejects the patriarchal system that tramples on women’s rights, she reduces men to a monolithic bloc with which women are at war, instead of seeing them as potential partners for change. She ignores the historical, political, and economic context that has produced the current darkness in the Arab world for women and men alike. Instead, she focuses mostly on issues that are in essence just the façade of the problem, like the veil that many women wear, and overlooks the systemic changes needed to truly improve women’s lives. By doing so, she reduces Arab women to a downtrodden mass, awaiting liberation from a piece of cloth. [Continue reading…]
Jomana Qaddour writes: This decade has revealed the scores of women leading protests in Egypt, insisting on constitutional freedoms in Tunisia, and supporting Syrian families when men have joined armed groups. It has become an unspoken rule in the international aid and policy community that resilient societies in the Middle East are guided by strong women. The reality is that even if the international community has only just taken notice of Middle Eastern women and their capabilities, it does not mean those women have been absent. On the contrary, women in the Middle East have always been dynamic actors in their communities; and since the Arab Spring women have facilitated significant societal change that has forever altered the region.
My grandmother is an illiterate, petite, 70-year old Syrian woman living on the outskirts of Damascus, yet she is the heart of her family — the lifeline — and what has kept the family together in the midst of a war that has uprooted and displaced over 11 million Syrians. She, like many Syrian women, has planted a garden big enough to feed her extended family, ensuring that they are not dependent on international aid groups to survive. She rushed to seize my uncle from a checkpoint in Damascus — arguing with regime soldiers — moments before the Syrian army shipped him off to Aleppo to fight against the rebels. My maternal aunt is the sole breadwinner in her immediate family, working as an accountant and traveling almost four hours a day to and from work because her family’s survival depends on her. [Continue reading…]
Khaled Hosseini writes: I recently returned from Jordan with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, meeting Syrian refugees and hearing about their experiences. Each encounter reminded me anew of the role of stories, why sometimes they can be more useful than numbers, why we need the tale of a Tom Joad to understand a Great Depression, why Rudyard Kipling said: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
Let me introduce you to Khalida, a bespectacled 70-year-old woman with jutting cheekbones and a schoolgirl’s laugh. Before the war, she lived a Syrian mother’s dream, surrounded, loved and supported by her nine grown children. But then war broke out, and Khalida learnt that armed groups were forcing young men to fight for them by threatening to assault and abuse their mothers. Khalida made a painful, and to me, stunning choice. She decided to deny the militants this leverage.
“I didn’t want to be the reason my sons had to fight,” she says, “so I left everything I had.”
She left her children, her home, her city. Alone and illiterate, Khalida tore herself from Syria and now lives on the outskirts of Amman, renting a nearly empty one-room apartment at the bottom of a steep hill.
In this new, tabula rasa existence, she is forced to fend for herself entirely. Her greatest expense is rent, and she pays for it with help from a kind Jordanian woman – though soon Khalida will be receiving help through UNHCR’s cash assistance programme, an initiative targeting the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.
Every day, Khalida climbs steep, battered steps uphill to the main road. She travels to a community centre in Madaba, a 40km trip taking over an hour, requiring her to hitch two car rides and board two buses, where she takes literacy classes in a room full of other Syrian women and young girls.
Khalida is the oldest and most enthusiastic student in the class, because for her, literacy is now an indispensable survival skill. She needs to read street signs, bus destinations, her medication labels. Despite a marked hand tremor, she has diligently filled entire notebooks.
Khalida misses Syria. She misses her home, and most terribly, her children. But she would rather live alone, with nothing, in a foreign country, than go back to Syria and put her sons at risk. [Continue reading…]
In Egypt and across much of the Middle East, Mother’s Day is celebrated at the Spring Equinox, which was March 21 this year.
Most of us take for granted that we can read, say, the street signs outside of our house. But for an overwhelming number of women in the Arab world, basic literacy is not a given. That’s why in 2009, photographer and TED Fellow Laura Boushnak began “I Read, I Write,” a series that documents the state of women’s education across Arab states. Having struggled to be able to attend college herself, the Palestinian refugee sees education as the key to a woman’s financial independence.
Alev Scott writes: On Monday, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, made headlines by announcing at a summit on women and justice in Istanbul that women are not equal to men “because it goes against the laws of nature”.
Understandably this caused some outrage around the world but in Turkey it was outflanked by weary cynicism. We’ve heard it all before, you see, most recently in July when the deputy prime minister told Turkish women not to laugh in public. “Don’t rise to the bait, ladies,” said one (female) journalist on Twitter. Another Middle East observer called the story a “waste of news space”.
Here’s why it isn’t: Erdoğan is neither a lone madman in a padded cell, nor a Victorian uncle caught in a time warp. He’s the president of a country of 75 million people where only 28% of women are in legal employment, an estimated 40% of women suffer domestic violence at least once in their lives, and where millions of girls are forced into under-age marriage every year (incidentally, Erdoğan’s predecessor, Abdullah Gül, married his wife when she was 15). Exact figures on domestic abuse and rape are hard to come by because it is socially frowned upon to complain about husbands, and police often tell women and girls who have been threatened with murder by their partners to go home and “talk it over”. [Continue reading…]
Kamila Shamsie writes: Malala Yousafzai says she’s lost herself. “In Swat [district], I studied in the same school for 10 years and there I was just considered to be Malala. Here I’m famous, here people think of me as the girl who was shot by the Taliban. The real Malala is gone somewhere, and I can’t find her.”
We are sitting in a boardroom on the seventh floor of the new Birmingham library, the glass walls allowing us a view of a city draped in mist, a sharp contrast to the “paradise” of Swat, with its tall mountains and clear rivers which Malala recalls wistfully. It should be desperately sad but the world’s most famous 16-year-old makes it difficult for you to feel sorry for her. In part, it is because she is so poised, in a way that suggests an enviable self-assurance rather than an overconstructed persona. But more than that, it is to do with how much of her conversation is punctuated by laughter.
The laughter takes many forms: self-deprecating when I ask her why she thinks the Taliban feel threatened by her; delighted when she talks of Skyping her best friend, Muniba, to get the latest gossip from her old school; wry when she recalls a Taliban commander’s advice that she return to Pakistan and enter a madrassa; giggly when she talks about her favourite cricketers (“Shahid Afridi, of course, and I also like Shane Watson”). And it’s at its most full-throated when she is teasing her father, who is present for part of our interview. It happens during a conversation about her mother: “She loves my father,” Malala says. Then, lowering her voice, she adds: “They had a love marriage.” Her father, involved in making tea for Malala and me, looks up. “Hmmm? Are you sure?” he says, mock-stern. “Learn from your parents!” Malala says to me, and bursts into laughter.
Learning from her parents is something Malala knows a great deal about. Her mother was never formally educated and an awareness of the constraints this placed on her life have made her a great supporter of Malala and her father in their campaign against the Taliban’s attempts to stop female education. One of the more moving details in I Am Malala, the memoir Malala has written with the journalist Christina Lamb, is that her mother was due to start learning to read and write on the day Malala was shot – 9 October 2012. When I suggest that Malala’s campaign for female education may have played a role in encouraging her mother, she says: “That might be.” But she is much happier giving credit to her mother’s determined character, and the example provided by her father, Ziauddin, who long ago set up a school where girls could study as well as boys, in a part of the world where the gender gap in education is vast.
It is hard to refrain from asking Ziauddin Yousafzai the “do you wish you hadn’t …?” question about his daughter, whose passion for reform clearly owes a lot to the desire to emulate her education-activist father. But it’s a cruel question, and unfair, too, given my own inability to work out what constitutes responsible parenting in a world where girls are told that the safest way to live is to stay away from school, and preferably disappear entirely.
It is perhaps because of criticism levelled at her father that Malala mentions more than once in her book that no one believed the Taliban would target a schoolgirl, even if that schoolgirl had been speaking and writing against the Taliban’s ban on female education since the age of 12. If any member of the family was believed to be in danger, it was Ziauddin Yousafzai, as much a part of the campaign as his daughter. And it was the daughter who urged the father to keep on when he suggested they both “go into hibernation” after receiving particularly worrisome threats. The most interesting detail to emerge about Ziauddin from his daughter’s book is his own early flirtation with militancy. He was only 12 years old when Sufi Mohammad, who would later be a leading figure among the extremists in Swat, came to his village to recruit young boys to join the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Although Ziauddin was too young to fight then, within a few years he was preparing to become a jihadi, and praying for martyrdom. He later came to recognise what he experienced as brainwashing – and was saved from it by his questioning mind and the influence of his future brother-in-law, a secular nationalist.
The information about her father’s semi-brainwashing forms an interesting backdrop to Malala’s comments when I ask if she ever wonders about the man who tried to kill her on her way back from school that day in October last year, and why his hands were shaking as he held the gun – a detail she has picked up from the girls in the school bus with her at the time; she herself has no memory of the shooting. There is no trace of rancour in her voice when she says: “He was young, in his 20s … he was quite young, we may call him a boy. And it’s hard to have a gun and kill people. Maybe that’s why his hand was shaking. Maybe he didn’t know if he could do it. But people are brainwashed. That’s why they do things like suicide attacks and killing people. I can’t imagine it – that boy who shot me, I can’t imagine hurting him even with a needle. I believe in peace. I believe in mercy.” [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: An explosive call for a sexual revolution across the Arab world in which the author argues that Arab men “hate” Arab women has provoked a fierce debate about the subjugation of women in countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
Women are deeply divided over the article, entitled “Why do they hate us?”, by the prominent American-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, which fulminates against “the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East” and builds to an early crescendo by stating: “We have no freedoms because they hate us … Yes: They hate us. It must be said.”
Eltahawy is not alone in stressing that a revolution has come and gone, but done little for Arab women. There are only eight women in Egypt’s new 500-seat parliament – and not one female presidential candidate. Domestic violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation are still part of the status quo across a region covering more than 20 countries and 350 million people.
“Even after these ‘revolutions,’ all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing – or divorce either,” Eltahawy argues in Foreign Policy. “An entire political and economic system – one that treats half of humanity like animals – must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.”
Eltahawy draws on anecdotal and empirical evidence for her tirade: 90% of women who have ever been married in Egypt “have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty”; not one Arab country is in the top 100 nations as ranked by gender equality; Saudi women have been prosecuted for daring to drive a car. Eltahawy nails the paradox that it is women who must cover up – because of the sexual impulses of Arab men.
But plenty of women across the Arab world have taken objection to Eltahawy’s blanket condemnation of men.
“I agree with most of what she said but I think that the one thing that she might be reluctant to admit is that it’s not about men hating women, it’s about monotheistic religions hating women,” says Joumana Haddad, a Lebanese author and journalist. “They continually reinforce patriarchal standards and patterns that have existed long before. There is no harmony possible between monotheism and women’s rights. The teachings deny women their dignity and rights.”
Dalia Abd El-Hameed, a researcher on health issues at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, added: “It is oversimplistic to say Arab men hate Arab women; it presents us as needing to be saved. I don’t want to be saved, because I am not a victim. We can’t put all Egyptian women in one category, let alone Arab women. My problems are not the same as a rural woman from Upper Egypt.”
Sarah Naguib, a political activist in Egypt, said: “I honestly think it’s almost offensive to be asked if Arab men hate Arab women. That’s like saying all Muslims are terrorists and all Jews are evil and the American dream still lives on.” [Continue reading…]
Sarah Carr reports: It was an image that shocked Egypt and within hours went viral: the woman in the exposed blue bra being beaten and kicked by a gang of soldiers during an attack on Tahrir Square protesters.
In a press conference on Sunday, General Adel Emara, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), downplayed the incident, telling reporters that “they should consider all the circumstances” before judging.
On Tuesday, women responded. Some 4000 took to the streets in a march organized by the Mohamed ElBaradei Campaign and the April 6 Youth Movement.
Later on Tuesday evening, the SCAF issued an apology to the “women of Egypt,” in its statement Number 91.
“The SCAF reaffirms its upmost respect and admiration for the women of Egypt and their right to protest and of positive participation in political life on the path of democratic change Egypt is currently witnessing,” the statement reads. “All legal measures have been taken to hold officials accountable for transgressions,” it continues.
In Tahrir Square, women gathered, surrounded by men whose linked hands formed a cordon to protect them. One of the men, Mohamed Fathy, said he supported the idea of a women-only march because “they are here defending their rights and have to have their say.”
After circling the square once the march proceeded through downtown Cairo — the scene in 2007 of horrific mass assaults during the Eid vacation when packs of youths sexually assaulted women.
Their chants, “Girls of Egypt are a red line” — a variation on the now-abandoned “The Egyptian army is a red line” — echoed around the street. From balconies, office workers clapped and cheered. The women chanted for them to join them saying, “Come down from your houses, Tantawi undressed your girls.” Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi is the head of the SCAF.
There was pervasive anger against the army, with frequent chants for the SCAF to leave power and condemnation of violence by military “riff-raff”.
“Tantawi is the supreme commander of harassment and violation of honor,” one placard read. Other posters declared that the military consists of “liars” — a reference to the Sunday edition of independent newspaper Al-Tahrir, the front page of which made the accusation next to a picture of the woman in the blue bra.
Naglaa Talat marched carrying her two-year-old daughter.
“I had to come after I saw the picture of the naked girl in the newspapers — the images were enough to make any respectable person come. I have daughters and I came for them,” Talat told Egypt Independent.
Like many of the protesters, Talat insisted that Tantawi must leave power and the SCAF hand over power to civilian rule.
Mara Revkin writes: Millions of women were among the 52 percent of eligible voters who cast ballots in Egypt’s parliamentary elections this week, but preliminary results suggest that Egypt’s first popularly elected legislature since the revolution might not include a single female face. Despite anecdotal reports of massive female turnout in Cairo and the other eight governorates that cast ballots in this first of three rounds of voting, women may very well be the biggest losers of an election that has been hailed as the freest and fairest in Egypt’s recent history. Although 376 female candidates are running for parliament, not a single woman has won a seat so far in the 508-seat People’s Assembly after the first two days of voting on November 28 and 29 and this week’s runoff races. And there is good reason to believe that women will fare just as poorly in subsequent rounds of voting.The second and third stages of elections, slated for December and January, will include Egypt’s most rural and conservative districts where gender biases are more deeply ingrained than the urban centers of Cairo, Alexandria, and Port Said that voted this week. Faced with the possibility of an entirely male parliament, many Egyptians are wondering: Were women left behind by the Revolution?
Women have been on the frontlines of protests in Tahrir Square since the earliest days of the uprising and were instrumental in mobilizing the grassroots groundswell on Twitter and Facebook. But as activist youth movements like the Revolutionary Youth Coalition struggle to define their role in the post-revolutionary system — pondering if and how they should convert the momentum of the street into formal political representation — women are increasingly being left out of the conversation. While it’s true that the forty some-odd parties launched since last January have welcomed women as members and in some leadership positions, when it came time to nominate candidates for the parliamentary elections, women were conspicuously absent from the party lists. In late October, as parties began lining up their candidate rosters for the two thirds of parliamentary seats that will be allocated by closed-list proportional representation, Gameela Ismael, one of Egypt’s most prominent political activists and the ex-wife of presidential candidate Ayman Nour, publicly defected from the Democratic Alliance — a primarily Islamist coalition dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party — just weeks before the election, citing the coalition’s discriminatory stance against female candidates.