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…]


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…]


How America failed Afghan women

Musa al-Gharbi writes: The U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan was justified in large part by highlighting the plight of women under Taliban governance. Within the first weeks of the campaign, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Cherie Blair helped spearhead a highly-effective propaganda effort to convince the public that the U.S. and the U.K. were engaged in a moral war — one which was fundamentally about human rights rather than merely advancing geopolitical or security interests — thereby necessitating a massive ground invasion and state-building enterprise to transform Afghan society, rather than a more limited venture to dislodge and degrade the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Of course, the U.S. bore significant moral responsibility for the plight of Afghan women, given the central role that the CIA played in sponsoring mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Cold War — before, during, and after the Russian occupation. Leaders trained in these programs would go on to found the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda — groups which were not only responsible for the widespread oppression of the Afghan people, but also for planning and executing the suicide bombings of September 11, 2001.

And so, the moral implications of the war were extraordinary: had Operation Enduring Freedom been successful, it would have not only liberated Afghan women, but avenged 9/11—and in the process, helped to rectify a particularly dark chapter in U.S. foreign policy. And this, it was held, would go a long way towards winning the “hearts and minds” of people around the world. [Continue reading…]


In Saudi Arabia, social media is helping reveal the harassment of women

Huffington Post reports: In recent years, an increasing number of women in Saudi Arabia have used social media as a resource to document and confront the ongoing problem of harassment. As Noura bint Afeich wrote in Al-Monitor last year, “Posting photos and videos documenting certain events has shed light on sensitive topics that the kingdom wishes to avoid dealing with.”

Women are harassed at workplaces, in malls and on city streets. Yet in Saudi Arabia’s conservative society, instances of physical harassment are rarely reported to authorities, for fear it will bring shame or embarrassment. In a national survey conducted in 2014 by the Riyadh-based King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue, 80 percent of participants attributed sexual harassment in Saudi Arabia to women’s “deliberate flirtatious behavior.”

Amid this climate of shame and underreporting, the data reveal a pressing problem. Six sexual harassment cases are reported every day, as statistics published by the country’s Ministry of Justice have shown. In 2013 and 2014, a total of 3,982 harassment cases made it to Saudi courts, with the largest share of offenses taking place in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

But the growing outrage throughout the country — prompted in large part by social media — has had an effect, leading the very conservative kingdom to consider legal measures to combat the problem. [Continue reading…]


Stoking a women’s sexual revolution in the Middle East

Connie Schultz reviews Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy: In the early 1990s, Mona Eltahawy walked into the women’s section on the metro in Cairo wearing a beige-and-red headscarf that framed her young face. A woman covered in a black veil that revealed only her eyes bristled with disapproval. “Why aren’t you wearing a niqab?” she asked Eltahawy.

Eltahawy had always found the niqab “terrifying” in its ability to render a woman invisible. “Isn’t what I’m wearing enough?” she asked.

“If you want to eat a piece of candy,” the woman said, “would you choose one that is in a wrapper or an unwrapped one?”

Eltahawy’s reply: “I’m a woman, not a piece of candy.”

A bold response for an encounter with a stranger in a public space in Egypt, and an early glimpse into the life of activism that has culminated in her new book, “Headscarves and Hymens.”

Divided into seven essays and an epilogue, this is a small but packed manifesto, incendiary by design. Eltahawy is calling for a “revolution of the mind,” which is where she insists the battle for women’s bodies must begin. She takes on any and all Arab customs that serve to imprison women not only in their countries and in their homes but, just as dangerously, within the confines of their own psyches. [Continue reading…]


Women in military cite retaliation after assault complaints

The New York Times reports: Nearly two-thirds of women in the military who filed sexual assault complaints last year said they faced retaliation, according to a Pentagon report released on Friday.

The study found that the number of sexual assaults in the military declined last year, echoing the conclusion of a Defense Department report released in December. But the new study said that the number of attacks in the fiscal year that ended in September may have been slightly higher than the figure in the December report.

Even as sexual assaults were reported to have declined, the Pentagon said that more service members filed assault complaints, and that about a third of attacks were now being reported. The study attributed the rise in reports of attacks to a “greater confidence” among victims that their complaints would be properly handled.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter outlined steps that the military was taking to reduce the thousands of sexual assaults that occur each year. The initiatives include updated training, a new strategy to prevent retaliation and a biennial survey of sexual assault and harassment throughout the military.

But he appeared well aware of past criticism of the Pentagon’s portrayal of the increase in assault reports as a sign that victims were more comfortable filing complaints. Critics say that previous studies did not fully substantiate the military’s conclusion, and that rising reports of attacks could mean that assaults are increasing. [Continue reading…]


American academia — liberal in name but conservative in practice

The Daily Beast: The academy might seem like a bastion of American liberalism but an extensive database of faculty salaries compiled by The Chronicle of Higher Education paints a damning picture of gender inequality at U.S. colleges and universities.

Not only does the data reveal a substantial gender pay gap at both private and public schools, it also shows that male-dominated college faculties disproportionately rely on the labor of women in instructor and lecturer positions.

Women may keep our colleges running but the American university is still an old boys’ club.

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s new tool displays faculty and staff salary data from over 4,700 colleges and universities stretching from 2003 to 2013. The federal data powering the database isn’t brand new but it provides the starkest and most accessible visualization yet of the gendered distribution of labor in the American academy.


Lured by marriage promises, climate victims fall into trafficking trap

Reuters reports: When the handsome young man came courting her, Sunetra could not believe her luck.

Born into a desperately poor family in India’s southern Sundarbans region – one of the parts of the world hardest hit by climate change – the lanky 18-year-old had few prospects. A flood the previous year had destroyed her home and left her family struggling financially.

A new start was what she needed, and her out-of-town suitor’s offer of marriage seemed ideal. He was content to wed without her family providing a dowry, and the pair quickly eloped.

But soon after their marriage, on a visit to Hyderabad, her new husband locked her in an apartment, in preparation for handing her to sex traffickers from Dubai. It quickly became apparent that the marriage had been a ruse.

“I had lost my face having ran away from my family, trusting this man,” she said, weeping at the betrayal of her “husband,” who she had believed was an insurance agent in Baruipur, a town about 30 km from Kolkata.

Sunetra is just one of more than 5,000 people who went missing in 2012 from the state of West Bengal, where the Sundarbans sits on a low, shifting delta where South Asia’s great rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, crime records show.

The forested islands of the Sundarbans are increasingly considered a trafficking hotspot as climate change impacts – such as worsening cyclones, sea level rise and loss of land to erosion and saltwater – mean worsening poverty and living conditions, and more desperation. [Continue reading…]


For these women, reading is a daring act

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.


Female jihadis publish guide to life under ISIS

The Guardian reports: Girls can marry at the age of nine, should ideally have husbands by 16 or 17 and should not be corrupted by going to work, according to a treatise published by female Islamic State supporters in Iraq and Syria.

The document, Women of the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study, says women must stay behind closed doors and leave the house only in exceptional circumstances.

“It is always preferable for a woman to remain hidden and veiled, to maintain society from behind this veil,” the English translation says. Fashion shops and beauty salons are denounced as the work of the devil.

The semi-official Islamic State manifesto on women – believed to be the first of its kind – was published on a jihadi forum in Arabic last month and is purported to be by the media wing of the al-Khanssaa Brigade, an all-female militia set up by Islamic State (Isis).

It has now been translated into English by the London-based counter-extremism thinktank Quilliam Foundation. [Continue reading…]


The burden of being female in Saudi Arabia

Bayan Perazzo writes: In an interview with the LA Times, Haifaa al-Mansour (director of the first Saudi film, “Wadjda”) made a very simple comment about being a woman in Saudi Arabia that rang very true for me. Al-Mansour said, “for me it’s the everyday life (in Saudi Arabia), how it’s hard…things like that can build up and break a woman.” Despite what many in the international community may believe, there are no women being stoned to death in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, those outside the country are absolutely right to criticize the state of women’s rights in the Kingdom though they may not realize how subtle the oppression can be.

Yes, women in Saudi Arabia are banned from driving, subjected to an oppressive male-guardianship system and living on the unfortunate side of gender segregation. While these are major obstacles for women’s progress in the country, such an innately oppressive system naturally trickles down into smaller aspects of everyday life. These little indignities can indeed break a woman, and I confess I am a woman extremely close to being broken.

I never thought much about my gender identity until I moved back to Saudi Arabia as a young adult. Small instances of gender discrimination would take place regularly, but at some point in time those experiences built up to leave me feeling something I had never felt before: that being female is an absolutely exhausting burden to bear.

What exactly were these small everyday events that pushed me over the edge? [Continue reading…]


Inequality among women is rising much faster than inequality among men

Alison Wolf writes: Feminist cries for action have seen a resurgence of late, notably in calls for quotas on company boards. Large numbers of very successful women feel that life is profoundly sexist and unfair. Feminism has always and inevitably been driven by the educated and well-connected, but today’s feminists are also obsessed with their own elite, metropolitan lives. This is deeply depressing. It is also having a pernicious effect on politicians and policy-making.

Take the 30% Club – the campaign for at least 30% of board members in large public companies to be female. This has attracted huge publicity and traction. Top women campaign for it, politicians line up to sing the importance of such “diversity”. It is received wisdom that this policy is good for women in general, and important to them – and also good for the benighted companies themselves.

This is simplistic, and it is nonsense. A number of countries have introduced quotas for large public companies; but only one, to date, has enacted major sanctions for miscreants, and has a good many years’ experience with quotas. That is Norway, where 40% representation is required and enforced.

And the result? The policy has done nothing whatsoever for the female labour market generally. It has had no impact on female pay and promotion prospects in the companies concerned. It has had no positive impact on company profits either: replacing privileged men with privileged women doesn’t seem to pay any “diversity” benefits. [Continue reading…]


2014: A year of feminist insurrection against male violence

“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” [Source]

Rebecca Solnit writes:

I have been waiting all my life for what 2014 has brought. It has been a year of feminist insurrection against male violence: a year of mounting refusal to be silent, refusal to let our lives and torments be erased or dismissed. It has not been a harmonious time, but harmony is often purchased by suppressing those with something to say. It was loud, discordant, and maybe transformative, because important things were said – not necessarily new, but said more emphatically, by more of us, and heard as never before.

It was a watershed year for women, and for feminism, as we refused to accept the pandemic of violence against women – the rape, the murder, the beatings, the harassment on the streets and the threats online.

Further into her essay, Solnit says:

Sometimes at big political demonstrations – against the war in Iraq in early 2003, for example – the thousands of placards with handwritten statements, jokes, and facts, for all their brevity, constitute a cumulative critique that covers a lot of angles. Social media can do the same, building arguments comment by comment, challenging, testing, reinforcing and circulating the longer arguments in blogs, essays and reports. It’s like a barn-building for ideas: innumerable people bring their experiences, insights, analysis, new terms and frameworks. These then become part of the fabric of everyday life, and when that happens, the world has changed. Then, down the road, what was once a radical idea becomes so woven into everyday life that people imagine that it is self-evident and what everyone always knew. But it’s not; it’s the result of a struggle – of ideas and voices, not of violence.

Strangely, in a piece that runs close to 5,000 words, the women who have been the targets of ISIS’s violence and the women who have been fighting against ISIS earned not a single mention.

Silence leaves a vacuum that can only be filled with speculation, but the reason for this omission seems to be spelt out in the terms by which Solnit describes effective political activism: it is defined by the absence of violence.

But did this Yazidi girl betray feminism by picking up an AK-47?

Since the battle for Kobane began and due to its convenient location right next to the Turkish border gained several weeks of intense international media attention — the battle continues but the media has mostly lost interest — the heroism of Kurdish women has been highlighted.

Zîlan Diyar, a Kurdish guerrilla fighter, wrote last month:

The whole world is talking about us, Kurdish women. It has become a common phenomenon to come across news about women fighters in magazines, papers, and news outlets. Televisions, news sites, and social media are filled with words of praise. They take photos of these women’s determined, hopeful, and radiant glances. To them, our rooted tradition is a reality that they only recently started to know. They are impressed with everything. The women’s laughter, naturalness, long braids, and the details of their young lives feel like hands extending to those struggling in the waters of despair. There are even some, who are so inspired by the clothes that the women are wearing, that they want to start a new fashion trend! They are amazed by these women, who fight against the men that want to paint the colors of the Middle East black, and wonder where they get their courage from, how they can laugh so sincerely. And I wonder about them. I am surprised at how they noticed us so late, at how they never knew about us. I wonder how they were so late to hear the voices of the many valiant women who expanded the borders of courage, belief, patience, hope, and beauty.

The fact that Solnit is not talking about Kurdish women, seems to imply that for her and perhaps many other activists in the West, the use of violence can never be defended.

If this interpretation is correct, this dedication to the principle of non-violence seems to me less a matter of principle than a luxury only available to those whose own lives are not under immediate threat.

I also have to wonder whether those who have chosen to ignore the Kurds, failed to notice that in Rojava — the Kurdish-controlled part of Syria — a political experiment has been underway for the last three years that deserves the interest and support of anyone who believes in the creation of an egalitarian and truly democratic society.


Saudi women drivers to be tried in terrorism court

BBC News reports: Two Saudi women who were detained for defying a ban on female drivers are to be tried in a terrorism court, activists say.

Loujain al-Hathloul, 25, and Maysa al-Amoudi, 33, have been in detention for nearly a month.

The women’s cases had reportedly been transferred over comments they had made on social media – rather than for their driving, according to activists.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s only country to forbid women from driving. [Continue reading…]


Erdogan calls birth control ‘treason’ and says role of women is to be mothers

AFP reports: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described efforts to promote birth control as “treason”, saying contraception risked causing a whole generation to “dry up”, reports said Monday.

Erdogan made the comments on Sunday, directly addressing the bride and groom at the Istanbul wedding ceremony of the son of businessman Mustafa Kefeli, who is one of his close allies.

He told the newly-weds that using birth control was a betrayal of Turkey’s ambition to make itself a flourishing nation with an expanding young population.

“One or two (children) is not enough. To make our nation stronger, we need a more dynamic and younger population. We need this to take Turkey above the level of modern civilisations,” Erdogan said.

“In this country, they (opponents) have been engaged in the treason of birth control for years and sought to dry up our generation,” Erdogan said. [Continue reading…]


It’s impossible to laugh off the appalling sexism of the Turkish president

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…]


The unsafety net: How social media turned against women

Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly write: In December 2012, an Icelandic woman named Thorlaug Agustsdottir discovered a Facebook group called “Men are better than women.” One image she found there, Thorlaug wrote to us this summer in an email, “was of a young woman naked chained to pipes or an oven in what looked like a concrete basement, all bruised and bloody. She looked with a horrible broken look at whoever was taking the pic of her curled up naked.” Thorlaug wrote an outraged post about it on her own Facebook page.

Before long, a user at “Men are better than women” posted an image of Thorlaug’s face, altered to appear bloody and bruised. Under the image, someone commented, “Women are like grass, they need to be beaten/cut regularly.” Another wrote: “You just need to be raped.” Thorlaug reported the image and comments to Facebook and requested that the site remove them.

“We reviewed the photo you reported,” came Facebook’s auto reply, “but found it does not violate Facebook’s Community Standards on hate speech, which includes posts or photos that attack a person based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or medical condition.”

Instead, the Facebook screeners labeled the content “Controversial Humor.” Thorlaug saw nothing funny about it. She worried the threats were real.

Some 50 other users sent their own requests on her behalf. All received the same reply. Eventually, on New Year’s Eve, Thorlaug called the local press, and the story spread from there. Only then was the image removed.

In January 2013, Wired published a critical account of Facebook’s response to these complaints. A company spokesman contacted the publication immediately to explain that Facebook screeners had mishandled the case, conceding that Thorlaug’s photo “should have been taken down when it was reported to us.” According to the spokesman, the company tries to address complaints about images on a case-by-case basis within 72 hours, but with millions of reports to review every day, “it’s not easy to keep up with requests.” The spokesman, anonymous to Wired readers, added, “We apologize for the mistake.”

If, as the communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said, television brought the brutality of war into people’s living rooms, the Internet today is bringing violence against women out of it. Once largely hidden from view, this brutality is now being exposed in unprecedented ways. In the words of Anne Collier, co-director of and co-chair of the Obama administration’s Online Safety and Technology Working Group, “We are in the middle of a global free speech experiment.” On the one hand, these online images and words are bringing awareness to a longstanding problem. On the other hand, the amplification of these ideas over social media networks is validating and spreading pathology. [Continue reading…]


The whole world needs feminism, but the Middle East needs it acutely

Elif Shafak writes: After a talk I gave in London a woman in the audience approached me: middle-aged, tall, and wearing a designer dress. Although she agreed with me on various issues she could not understand why I was critical of military takeovers. “In the Middle East a coup d’état is the only way forward,” she said. “If it weren’t for [Egypt’s president] General Sisi, modern women like me, like yourself, would end up in a burka. He’s there to protect the likes of us.”

As I listened to her, I recalled scenes from my childhood in Turkey. I remembered my mother saying that we should be grateful to General Kenan Evren, who led the coup d’état in 1980, for protecting women’s rights. After the military seized power, a number of pro-women steps were taken, including the legalisation of abortion. Yet the coup would eventually bring about massive human rights violations and systematic torture in police headquarters and prisons, particularly against the Kurds, maiming Turkey’s civil society and democracy for decades to come.

Female adulation of male autocrats is widespread throughout the Middle East. I have met Syrian women who have tried to convince me that Bashar al-Assad is the best option for modern women. The Syrian regime seems aware of this rhetoric, recruiting hundreds of so-called Lionesses for National Defense , who are said to be fighting against Islamic fundamentalism and defending women’s freedom. [Continue reading…]