‘I live in a lie’: Saudi women speak up

Mona El-Naggar reports: “We’re not allowed to even go to the supermarket without permission or a companion, and that’s a simple thing on the huge, horrendous list of rules we have to follow.” — DOTOPS, 24

“The male guardianship makes my life like a hell!! We want to hang out with our friends, go and have lunch outside. I feel hopeless.” — JUJU19, 21

“I don’t mind taking my dad’s approval in things he should be a part of. These very strong social bonds you will never, ever understand.” — NOURA

These are three of the nearly 6,000 women from Saudi Arabia who wrote to The New York Times last week about their lives.

We had put a call-out on our website and on Twitter in conjunction with the publication of “Ladies First,” a Times documentary I directed about the first Saudi elections in which women were allowed to vote and run for local office.

Saudi Arabia is an incredibly private, patriarchal society. While I was making the film, many women were afraid to share their stories for fear of backlash from the male relatives who oversee all aspects of their lives as so-called guardians. We wanted to hear more about their fears, their frustrations, their ambitions.

Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest rates of Twitter use, and our posts rocketed around. We were overwhelmed by the outpouring.

Most of the responses focused on frustration over guardianship rules that force women to get permission from a male relative — a husband, father, brother or even son — to do things like attend college, travel abroad, marry the partner of their choice or seek medical attention. Some women talked about the pride they had in their culture and expressed great distrust of outsiders. But many of them shared a deep desire for change and echoed Juju19’s hopelessness. [Continue reading…]

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Muslim. Black. Women

Engy Abdelkader writes: As anti-Muslim violence persists during a volatile presidential election cycle, at least one Muslim woman recently won our nation’s hearts and minds: Duke grad and Olympian fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.

By now, everyone knows Ibtihaj as the first American to compete in a headscarf at the Olympics. But, not everyone may realize how incredibly representative this newest spokesperson is for the Muslim American community.

“Muslim” and “Arab” are often used interchangeably, with many mistaking Saudi Arabia as the largest Muslim country; it’s actually Indonesia (the Kingdom doesn’t even make the top ten list). At home, at least one in three Muslims in America are actually African American. And, Muslim American women are the second most educated religious group in the country, exemplified by Ibtihaj’s Ivy League credentials. [Continue reading…]

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The fatwa hotline: ‘We have heard everything’

Hamida Ghafour writes: Sheikha Naeema lifts her glass to take a sip of water, but the large grey telephone on her desk blinks again, red and insistent. It is only 9am and she has already spoken to 11 callers. The woman on the other end of the line is in distress.

“Peace be upon you, blessings be upon you,” Sheikha Naeema says in a soothing tone. The woman tells her she has given birth twice and that both babies were stillborn. Now she is pregnant again. Her doctor has said the foetus is showing signs of severe complications and will probably die. The woman wants to know if Islam will permit her to have an abortion. After clarifying a few other details, Sheikha Naeema issues a fatwa. “If the foetus is severely ill and will not survive, you may have an abortion,” she tells the woman. “You must take advice from your physician, he will guide you. Religion does not conflict with medicine.”

She explains that abortion is allowed under certain circumstances: within 120 days, or 17 weeks after conception if doctors believe the baby has life-threatening defects. The fatwa – a non-binding religious ruling – is justified on the basis of a hadith, a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, which states that at 120 days a baby is given a soul, or spirit. When Sheikha Naeema finishes the call, she swivels in the office chair and makes a note. “Normally it’s quiet on Thursday mornings,” she says.

We are in the small, cramped office of the fatwa hotline on the eighth floor of the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments in Abu Dhabi, better known by its Arabic acronym, the Awqaf. [Continue reading…]

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Erdogan warns Muslims against using birth control

Middle East Eye reports: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that Muslim families should refrain from birth control and have more children.

Erdogan said it was the responsibility of mothers to ensure the continued growth of Turkey’s population, which has expanded at a rate of around 1.3 percent in the last few years.

“I will say it clearly … We need to increase the number of our descendants,” he said in a speech in Istanbul.

“People talk about birth control, about family planning. No Muslim family can understand and accept that!

“As God and as the great prophet said, we will go this way. And in this respect the first duty belongs to mothers.”

Erdogan and his wife Emine have two sons and two daughters. Earlier this month, the president attended the high-profile marriage of his younger daughter Sumeyye to defence industrialist Selcuk Bayraktar.

His elder daughter Esra, who is married to the up-and-coming Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, has three children.

The Platform to Stop Violence Against Women, which campaigns to stop the killings of hundreds of woman every year, condemned Erdogan’s comments as violating the rights of women.

“You [Erdogan] cannot usurp our right to contraception, nor our other rights with your declarations that come out of the Middle Ages,” the group said in a statement on Twitter. [Continue reading…]

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The time has come for a ‘Sexual Spring’ in the Arab world

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…]

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Social media lifts Saudi women in vote

The Wall Street Journal reports: After Lama al-Sulaiman became one of Saudi Arabia’s first elected female politicians over the weekend, she celebrated her landmark victory through her Twitter account.

She expressed thanks to her supporters and said she hopes to meet their expectations. “Words of gratitude are not enough,” she tweeted.

As with many other candidates who had to campaign under restrictive rules in this absolutist monarchy, Ms. al-Sulaiman bet heavily on social media to promote her political program and to hear from voters.

Ahead of Saturday’s historic election — the first in which women were allowed to participate as voters as well as candidates — she combined face-to-face campaigning with social-media outreach to secure a seat in the local council of her hometown, the coastal city of Jeddah.

“Saudi Arabia is ready for women in politics,” said Ms. al-Sulaiman, the entrepreneur behind a woman-only fitness club and one of at least a dozen women who won a seat in Saturday’s nationwide municipal election.

That Saudi Arabia has one of the highest rates of social-media use in the world — there are an estimated five million Twitter users in the country — helps explain the ease in which candidates promoted their campaigns and articulated their priorities. [Continue reading…]

Michael Stephens writes: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s recent municipal elections is not usually a story most international observers would spend an awful lot of time on. But the election of 19 women from some 2,100 candidates has focused attention for the first time on the role of women in a country which has over the years received much criticism for its perceived imbalance of gender.

While fewer than one percent of the successful candidates were female, make no mistake, this is a big moment for Saudi. Thirty women already sit in Saudi Arabia’s 150-member parliament, known as the Shura Council, but they are appointed directly by the king. So the election of women by the public is a welcome step which in the eyes of many commentators – indeed many Saudis – is long overdue.

There is much more to be done, the next most likely step being the normalisation of driving for men and women. But as with all things in the kingdom, change happens slowly and at its own pace. [Continue reading…]

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What the Koran really says about women

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?”

“Thousands.”

Thousands?

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…]

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Don’t politicize women’s bodies

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…]

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Iran: Living in the shadow of men

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…]

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Lifting the veil

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…]

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Resilient societies in the Middle East are guided by strong women

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…]

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What’s your mother’s name?

In Egypt and across much of the Middle East, Mother’s Day is celebrated at the Spring Equinox, which was March 21 this year.

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