Sunday, June 29, 2008

on being Egypt's first female marriage registrar

Amal Afifi, the first woman appointed as a marriage registrar, struggles to gain legitimacy. As one of her colleagues so eloquently put it:

"This job is unfit for women as it usually requires mixing with men for a long time, a requirement that is against Islam," said Anwar Dabour, a professor of Sharia.

"It is unwise to allow women to work as marriage registrars, especially as there are many qualified men around who can do the job," Dabour told this paper.

on the availability and frequency of abortions in the Middle East

Apparently both are increasing.

"people love jazz because they love freedom"

A piece reminiscing on the "Jazz Diplomacy" program of the Cold War, where Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and others traveled across the world (the article lists Athens, Moscow, Karachi and Cairo as a little sample) introducing non-Americans to the real American flavor of jazz.

The writer, Fred Kaplan, waxes nostalgic about the tour:

Jazz was the country’s “Secret Sonic Weapon” (as a 1955 headline in The New York Times put it) in another sense as well. The novelist Ralph Ellison called jazz an artistic counterpart to the American political system. The soloist can play anything he wants as long as he stays within the tempo and the chord changes — just as, in a democracy, the individual can say or do whatever he wants as long as he obeys the law. Willis Conover, whose jazz show on Voice of America radio went on the air in 1955 and soon attracted 100 million listeners, many of them behind the Iron Curtain, once said that people “love jazz because they love freedom.”

The anecdote he includes about Athens is particularly striking in the contrast between the way real ambassadors and so-called "Jazz Ambassadors" are received:

The band’s first stop was Athens, where students had recently stoned the local headquarters of the United States Information Service in protest of Washington’s support for Greece’s right-wing dictatorship. Yet many of those same students greeted Gillespie with cheers, lifting him on their shoulders, throwing their jackets in the air and shouting: “Dizzy! Dizzy!”

Kaplan's interpretation seems to be that we no longer do things quite the way we used to - America is no longer propogating its art and culture to its advantage so strategically. (He doesn't discuss the obvious implications that new technologies have for a tour like this, either - for example, anyone with YouTube can see a performance of an American musician in his own living room, so some of the work of this jazz tour is already being done without any government meddling).

But in today’s world what would “something like this” be?

Jazz was a natural for the cold war. Soviet citizens who hated their government found anything American alluring, especially jazz (and later rock), which was such a heady contrast to Moscow’s stale official culture. The same was true, to a degree, in some of the nonaligned nations, which were under pressure from both superpowers to sway toward one side or the other.

He seems to identify the content of the program - what kind of music is being sent abroad - as the big difference between then and now. But for me, the real crux of the difference was expressed in this bit:

Armstrong canceled a 1957 trip to Moscow after President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to send federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to enforce school-integration laws. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said. “It’s getting so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country.”

Administration officials feared that this broadside, especially from someone so genial as “Ambassador Satchmo,” would trigger a diplomatic disaster. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told Attorney General Herbert Brownell that the situation in Arkansas was “ruining our foreign policy.” Two weeks later, facing pressure from many quarters, Eisenhower sent the National Guard to Arkansas. Armstrong praised the move and agreed to go on a concert tour of South America.

The jazzmen’s independence made some officials nervous. But the shrewder diplomats knew that on balance it helped the cause.

I sincerely cannot fathom such a sequence of events taking place now. Perhaps that is just because of the reason Kaplan named - jazz just is not as famous now as it was 50 years ago, and the musicians don't have the following to force the government into taking any sort of action. It's possible. But there are other musicians who have their own brand - I am sure you can think of 2 without even blinking. Some of those musicians might not be admirable representatives of the United States, but others could very well be, and I still can't imagine the government putting those individuals in a position where they might have a platform to deliver a message other than the scripted government line. And maybe more importantly, it's possible they wouldn't want to represent the U.S. government.

Our government is, at this point, considered a lying organization. What musician would want to carry that torch? It is no longer a matter of reconciling the good things you see the government doing - e.g. fighting Communism - with the bad things - e.g. neglecting school integration - and ensuring that the balance is positive. It is now a matter of swallowing your objections to the government's infringing on civil liberties through new 'national security policies', mistreating and perhaps torturing detainees, starting an elective war in Iraq based on a fabricated narrative of WMDs, and doing all of it wrapped in the mantel of good warring against evil. The Bush administration itself recognizes this by now, I am sure, and chooses not to enroll popular figures to perform on its behalf. And those figures know that their popularity could only suffer if they represented the government.

The idea that people in foreign countries must learn to separate American culture from American foreign policy in order to develop a warmer attitude towards the United States makes sense. However, American music and styles and slang are being exported. You can watch Friends every day on MBC in Riyadh. The problem is not that "other people don't know enough about how likable Americans are". The problem is that we have bad policies. So, until the policies are updated, I think the bands can stay at home.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

speaking of 'Islam' being associated with 'jihad'

WSJ on the way that Obama is navigating his relationship with the Muslim community.

"If he were a Muslim, so what? That insinuates that if he were a Muslim, he's automatically a jihadist. That's incredibly insulting to people of the Muslim faith and Arabs who are Christian," says Tony Kutayli, a spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and a Christian.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

on Ian McEwan and Islamophobia

Novelist Ian McEwan (author of Atonement, On Chesil Beach and many many others - those are just my favorites) made a few comments recently on Islamism that weren't necessarily received, the most oft-quoted being that militant Islam seeks to "create a society that I detest". He drew a distinction between militant Islam and militant Christianity:

McEwan recognised that similar views [oppression of women, opposition to homosexuality] were held by some Christian hardliners in America.

"I find them equally absurd," he said. "I don't like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others. But those American Christians don't want to kill anyone in my city, that's the difference."

It may not be true that those American Christians don't want to kill anyone in his city. However, they haven't in the recent past, and McEwan certainly isn't the only one paying closer attention to the threat of terrorism from Muslims than from Christians - most governments use his hierarchy of threat. McEwan does appear to adopt a tone that implies he thinks himself courageous, and Adrian Hamilton in the Independent takes him to task for it.

Indeed, as a catalogue of the failings of Islamism, and by extension of all Islam, McEwan's enunciation of the despicable are pretty much the received wisdom of our time.

It is not that which I object to. What is objectionable is not the triteness of their views but the way that they present them as if they were somehow brave and outspoken, a courageous gesture against the norms of political correctness. In reality they are simply the mirror image of the views propagated by the worst of the mullahs, and playing directly into their hands.

I tend to think that the "define your terms" imperative could be accurately directed at both McEwan and Hamilton (and, I guess, Martin Amis - who McEwan was defending when he made the abovementioned comments. Although Amis' comments about strip-searching everyone who looks like they might be from Pakistan or the Middle East do define terms in a way that ... doesn't insulate him from accusations of racism, exactly). I was at a conference recently where one of the participants named the failure on the part of the counterterrorism community to clearly delineate who they considered a terrorist was, perhaps ironically, one of the motivating factors (granted, just one) mobilizing future jihadis against the West. Amis clearly thinks all Muslims need to suffer for the wrongs of a few; McEwan makes a small effort to restrict his criticisms to extremists (hence the use of the word 'militants') but doesn't do it heartily enough to distance himself from Amis. Therefore we have Hamilton saying things like this:

The more that the West demands change from outside, the more it makes such issues as women's rights the litmus test of reform, the more difficult it makes the task of those pushing for change from within. The more it resorts to terms such as "Islamofacism" and "mediaevalism", the greater its ignorance of the pressures and the possibilities of societies in flux today. There are no generalities, just particulars, specific to place, person and moment.

And so the conversation becomes nothing more than a tit for tat between the politically 'correct' and 'incorrect'. Of course we must be careful about generalities - but as a journalist, and particularly as a columnist, Hamilton must rely on generalities a good deal of the time just to fill his word quota. Does he not know this? A newspaper columnist slamming a novelist commenting on politics for using 'generalities' sounds to me like the pot calling the kettle black. And, to be frank, it has the potential to bring the dialogue even further afield from what is taking place in many Muslim communities, where making a sharp distinction between Muslims and Islamic extremists is necessary for their members' continued full participation in society. The association of all images of Islam with extremism contributes to the ire over McEwan's comment, I think - if he had just said he would detest a society where homosexuality was condemned and women were second-class citizens then no one would have called him racist, but tacking on 'Islamic militants' to his discussion made him a Muslim-hater. If our brains were not so hard-wired to make the connection between a whole faith community and one violent subgroup thereof, then Muslims would have had as little problem with it as I, a nonpracticing Christian, have with him saying that American evangelicals are extreme as well.

We have a long way to go in this conversation, to say the least.

more on al Qaradawi the moderate (?)

Some excerpts from the Peninsula (Qatar) on al Qaradawi's perspective on different issues, from women's role in society:

Turning to the status of women, Qaradawi said women must study and become great leaders, teachers and scientists.

"We support and promote equality of opportunity for males and females. In Qatar, there is equality between men and women, especially in terms of benefits and pay, they are the same in the employment sector and equality is evident; it does not discriminate by gender".

to the need for the Middle East to become agriculturally solvent:

Qaradawi urged Arab societies to promote agriculture, noting that this was something Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) had encouraged Muslims to do. He said there was enough land in Sudan which, if cultivated properly, could feed the entire ummah (Muslim society).

"This is an ummah not sufficient in agriculture," he said. Islam was not the reason for this problem, he added. "Religion is not what held us back, but it is the misunderstanding of our religion."

Clearly, he counts a wide range of issues in his purview; I am inclined to think that a policy wherein a government engages only with groups that it agrees with one hundred percent of the time could be called isolationist.

better yet, don't talk to the Islamists

FP has a piece from Steven Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, discouraging alliances with Islamist groups, regardless of how 'moderate' they may be. Of course he brings up the headscarf controversy in Turkey:

If there was ever a problem in defining moderate Islam, however, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) epitomizes it. The party seems to be the paragon of moderate Islamism, undertaking a wide range of reforms and staking its political legacy on Ankara’s entry into the European Union. Yet, Turkey’s archsecularists and a fair number of analysts in the West regard the party with deep suspicion. Citing the AKP’s recent effort to lift the ban on women wearing head scarves at publicly funded universities as only the most egregious example, they argue that the party’s real agenda is to Islamize Turkish society. Whose side should the United States take here?

I am tempted to be sarcastic about this. Does Cook really think that allowing women who wear headscarves to attend public universities is evidence of being immoderate in one's religious views?

He also places an emphasis on attitudes toward suicide bombing as a litmus of moderation - frequently a disqualifier. The example of Qaradawi serves to underline what seems to be his suggestion: that seemingly 'moderate' Islamists/Muslims still want to kill Israelis.

Take Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential TV star in the Arab world. His weekly Al Jazeera show, Sharia and Life, attracts millions of viewers. Qaradawi holds progressive positions on family law, the status of women, and political reform. He recently told Egyptian government employees to “pray less” to improve their productivity. Many Arabs regard him as staunchly moderate. Yet the sheikh has also placed his theological imprimatur on suicide bombings against Israelis, arguing that since all Israelis serve in the military at one time or another, they are all legitimate targets. For those analysts who call for support of moderate Islam, it is hard to believe Qaradawi is whom they have in mind.

As Cook uses attitudes toward Israelis as a test in his own calculus of moderation, he should be careful not to discount the role that it might play in Arab audiences' calculus of authenticity. Suicide bombing/rock throwing are considered by some the only means the Palestinians have at their disposal for retaliation against Israeli aggression, and to speak out against suicide bombing might sound in some cases like speaking out against the Palestinians, leading to the scholar or politician or whomever losing credibility with Arab/Iranian (Rafsanjani is another of his examples) audiences.

Maybe because it IS the week of the hijab!

My Vienna reader has definitely given me more hijab news than usual. The Pakistan Daily responds to a reader's question on whether the hijab is obligatory in the affirmative. So much for journalistic objectivity:

Woman’s liberalization mostly disguises exploitation of her body, degradation of her soul, and deprivation of her honor. Non-Muslim societies claim to have uplifted women via allowing them to expose their bodies, but on the contrary, this has actually degraded them to mere tools in the hands of pleasure seekers and sex marketers, hidden behind the colorful screen of “art” and “culture.”

Muslim women should be well aware of these facts. They should be aware that hijab protects them from evil glances and evil desires of those who are sick in the heart, as described in the Qur’an. Muslim women must adhere to Allah’s rules and not be persuaded or tempted by the media that opposes hijab or belittles its significance, as those who spread these ideas only desire evil for her. The Qur’an warns by saying what means:
*{But the wish of those who follow their lusts is that you should deviate away [from the right path], -far, far away}* (An-Nisaa’ 4:27).

on Muslim identity

Several 'new' magazines are targeted to Muslim-American audiences. I subscribe to one of them - Muslim Girl - the one in the fuzzy picture to the left, and I read it whenever it comes, which is I would say sporadically. (It's supposed to be every other month). The article of course brings up the question of whether and how often the models are pictured wearing hijab.

Contrast this with the Obama campaign's snubbing of women wearing headscarves. Why do I feel that this is the week of the hijab?

Monday, June 23, 2008

on the veil controversy in Turkey

Roger Cohen has an interesting op-ed today on the positive role that the high court in Turkey is now playing in reining in Islamism. After lauding Turkey for confounding all attempts by the elusive West at simplistically classifying it as "modern" or "Muslim", he then makes another valiant attempt to keep that specific binary alive:

The West should not be impatient, or complacent, in contemplating this fight [that is to say, between Islam and modernization/democracy/etc]. Hundreds of years, countless wars and myriad dead were required before church and state elaborated the legal architecture of their separation. Islam is the youngest of the world’s major religions. Its accommodation to modernity is a virulent work in progress.

Nowhere more so than in Turkey, a conservative country fast-forwarded to Westward-looking secularism in the 1920s by the founder-hero of the modern republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and now grappling with the place in that republic of an ascendant political Islam.

After instructing the West to sit back and watch the spectacle, he gives it an endorsement:

I like this fight. It has its crude, misleading labels — the “secular fascists” of the Kemalist establishment in one corner against the “Islamofascists” of the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party in the other — but it is open and vigorous. The crisis of Islam could use a broader dose of Turkish give-and-take.

Interesting how the use of a religious issue that affects primarily young women's education as a political ploy to bring down an ascendant non-establishment party is characterized as "open and vigorous", and something that Cohen says he "likes". If women were being excluded from higher education in a flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause here, and people were upset, would Cohen call the debate "open and vigorous"? and would that characterization then justify the wrong being done to those women who would like to both observe their religion and attend university? And would he then use a word such as "like" to describe his feelings on the subject?

He then goes on to explain how he views the headscarf case:

My reaction to this is twofold. First, women of college age should be allowed to wear what they like in accordance with their personal convictions. In that sense the court’s ruling is unacceptable.

Second, the secular foundations of modern Turkey have been essential to creating this most permissive of Muslim societies; they should not be compromised without a fight, especially in a Middle Eastern environment where democracy is rare and Islamism potent. In this perspective, the court’s ruling is a salutary challenge to the AKP to keep proving its liberal credentials.

On balance, I side with the court. I’m confident that in the medium-term, Turkish women will win the right to wear headscarves wherever. I’m less confident that the creeping Islamization fostered by the AKP is accompanied by an unshakeable commitment to secular democracy, as Erdogan insists.

Let the party pay its dues, if necessary in repeated confrontations with the court. Turkey is a laboratory of a moderate Muslim democracy; do not rush the experiment. It’s easier to don a veil than remove it. Reversibility is not Islam’s forte.

Let the party pay its dues. Fine. But is it really the party who is paying its dues? What about the young women now faced with the choice of compromising a practice that they may consider a religious obligation in order to obtain an education? It isn't de-veiling that makes one modern, I am sure, and though I won't venture to say what it is that makes an individual modern I will say that education probably has more to do with it than whether you choose to wear a headscarf or not. But of course, to Cohen, this isn't an issue of religious observance. It is an issue of what young women are wearing.

I am confident that if the Islamists in Turkey enforced a ban wherein only women who wore the veil could attend university, Cohen would feel quite differently. But since it's Islam being contained here, he seems to consider it a necessary evil. Isn't it interesting how our perspectives change.

on homosexuality in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi police have arrested 21 homosexual men.


I haven't been blogging much recently; I feel sort of like this puppy.

Efforts will resume this week.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

on al Aswany

Alaa al Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building and now Chicago, gives an interview to the Globe and Mail. He claims that his dentistry practice gives him insight into Cairo life, and so, though he's been very successful in his writing career, he will not give it up. Hmmm.

The writer alludes to an element of al Aswany's writing that I observed earlier on this blog - his unsparing inclusion of sex in his stories. (I haven't yet read Chicago, but it would appear from this interview that its treatment of sex is in the tradition of The Yacoubian Building).

Saudi and the Olympics

There is a conflict between young people and the establishment in Saudi over participation in sports.

more on Egypt's new child protection law

al Ahram has a summary of the recently-passed child protection law, which bans FGM, raises the legal age of marriage to 18 and allows mothers to obtain birth certificates for their children without the help of the children's father.

It portrays the Brotherhood as adopting a united front against the law on Islamic grounds - this may be true, but since the government (represented by the National Democratic Party and in this article by the speaker of the Parliament, A. Sorour) owns the paper, that is to be expected whether it's true or not.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

on women's rights in Kurdistan

There is some dispute right now in Kurdistan over those laws that deal with women's rights, particularly polygamy, inheritance, and marriage age. Women's rights groups have lobbied to expand the 5-member (all male) legal advisory council to include 5 women (so it is now 5M/5F). However, moves like that always seem a little puzzling when you get statements like this:

Shamsa Saeed, a member of parliament from the Kurdistan Islamic League list, a political Islamic party with six seats in the regional parliament, argued that polygamy helps widows to remarry. She also noted that women obtain financial security when they get married, which she argued lessens their need for inheritance.

Ultimately, she asserted that polygamy and inheritance cannot be changed because they are Islamic principles.

“The rights of women are determined in Islam, and any changes will be at odds with the jurisprudence of Islam,” she said.

Just being a woman doesn't make you a women's rights advocate. Which is not to say that I am against equal representation for its own sake - I supported Hillary Clinton's presidential run in large part because of the role she would play in that sense - I simply think that adding women to a conversation in an instance like this, as an attempt to re-route the dominant thinking on a particular policy once the process is already under way, may be unsuccessful.

Shirin Ebadi on human rights in Iran

Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, explains how the heightening tensions between Iran and the international community (particularly the US) have provided a space wherein the Iranian regime can continue infringing on the rights of its citizens. Giving the regime a scapegoat, i.e. the United States, offers a distraction from domestic problems like rising unemployment and poverty, not to mention the aggressiveness of the morality police, and if the US were to launch a military campaign then things would be even worse. Stopping the saber-rattling would make it easier for the democratic factions in Iranian society, which are energized and widespread, to draw attention to their agendas, like freedom of expression and economic reform.

She offers this anecdote to show what could be done:

Ebadi remains optimistic that reform is achievable. Her hope lies in Iran's youthful population – almost 70% aged under 30 – which is hungry for change and prepared to fight for its freedom.

She cites the example of one of her clients, 32-year-old Maryam Hossienkhah, a journalist and member of the One Million Signatures Campaign for equal rights for Iranian women.

Hossienkhah was arrested in November for writing articles demanding respect for women's rights under the Islamic constitution. Her bail was set at the equivalent of £75,000.

Ebadi says: "She told the judge, 'I refuse to do that. I'm innocent but I'll go to jail.' As soon as she arrived in the jail, she started giving advice to the women about how to defend their cases.

"She sent a message out to her friends and colleagues that the prison library didn't have a good book collection. So other members of the campaign brought in books and in less than 20 days the prison had a full library. Finally the judge said to the prosecutor, 'You'll have to get this woman out otherwise she will cause chaos!'"

Hossienkhah was released in January after her bail was reduced to just over £3,500. There are many similar cases before the courts, says Ebadi. "I'm glad to say that the more harsh women's lives become, the more determined they are to overcome them. The will of these women is very powerful and that poses a challenge for the government."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

from Nick Kristof

Thanks, buddy.

on the collective good brought by educating women

The Yemen Times has an article in defense of educating women. (It's Part I ... so I am not sure whether to expect a refutation or another perspective in favor. Time will tell).

The article raises the seemingly obvious but important point that educating women benefits families as well as advancing the women themselves.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

simple request

Says: Please, no discussion of religion or politics.

(Outside a shop in Baghdad, via Babylon and Beyond).

on women's agency and hymenoplasty

So there is an upward trend in hymenoplasty (restoration of the hymen, done to restore 'virginity') among Muslim women in Europe, according to this article.

My blood really started boiling after 9 sentences, right here:
“If you’re a Muslim woman growing up in more open societies in Europe, you can easily end up having sex before marriage,” said Dr. Hicham Mouallem, who is based in London and performs the operation. “So if you’re looking to marry a Muslim and don’t want to have problems, you’ll try to recapture your virginity.”
Easily end up having sex? As if it's something that just happens to you? Let's assume that if these women are having sex, it's not rape - if it is rape, let's call it that and not "ending up having sex". Please - these women are adults. They are in control of their own bodies. If they did have sex, that was in fact consensual, then it was their choice and not an accident caused by some male predator. Yes, this is sexist against men as well.

I cannot say that things improved as the article went on. The director of a soon-to-be released Italian film about hymenoplasty has this comment:

“We realized that what we thought was a sporadic practice was actually pretty common,” said Davide Sordella, the film’s director. “These women can live in Italy, adopt our mentality and wear jeans. But in the moments that matter, they don’t always have the strength to go against their culture.”

As if the reason that women continue to have hymenoplasties is because they are weak. The obvious victim-blaming ethos is upsetting. Also, the superiority attributed to Italian culture is unnecessary. Is there nothing Italian women do, that is perhaps not necessarily empowering, to make themselves more sexually attractive? This is an area in which I would like to see a more concerted effort toward intersectionality in the framing of the issue. The issue is not hymenoplasty, per se. The issue is the idea that female sexuality is constructed for the express purpose of meeting societal- primarily, but not exclusively, male - expectations. Every woman has to make her own call about which adaptations she thinks are degrading and which she chooses to undertake, and she should have the freedom to make those decisions free from the threat of punishment such as humiliation and rejection by her husband or his family. That is not the situation in which many women make the choice to have hymenoplasties. Please do not blame the women for this.

The article itself presents this viewpoint:

Those who perform the procedure say they are empowering patients by giving them a viable future and preventing them from being abused — or even killed — by their fathers or brothers.

“Who am I to judge?” asked Dr. Marc Abecassis, who restored the Montpellier student’s hymen. “I have colleagues in the United States whose patients do this as a Valentine’s present to their husbands. What I do is different. This is not for amusement. My patients don’t have a choice if they want to find serenity — and husbands.”

It is certainly different in the severity of consequences for failing to have the surgery (or, for girls without the means to pay several thousand dollars for a cosmetic procedure, for failing to remain a virgin). But how different are these plastic surgeries? How different is restoring one's hymen from augmenting one's breasts or 'tucking' one's tummy? (I am not arguing that every woman's experience of plastic surgery is the same ... of course it isn't ... but do the procedures themselves differ intrinsically? Is there something special about the hymen? I am inclined to think that it is in some ways different because it is so private and so temporary. The surgery enables one night's performance, not a change in appearance. And that performance signifies a man's exclusive right to his wife's body. The importance placed on the virginal blood seems to me like a metaphor for a conquest. However, isn't looking thin/busty/whatever another kind of performance? Is it different just because you repeat it indefinitely?

For a broader analysis of the idea of virginity being a deal-breaker in a wedding contract, I suggest reading Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a beautiful short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Perhaps I will blog about it in the future.

Nojoud, my hero

More on Nojoud, the Yemeni child bride who secured her own divorce.

I cried at this part:

She says she's had enough of marriage and domestic life, and looks forward to beginning third grade and pursuing dreams she never knew she had.

"I want to defend oppressed people," she says. "I want to be like Shada [her lawyer]. I want to be an example for all the other girls."

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

apparently Middle Eastern feminism has a split too!

Yesterday Linda Hirshman had an op-ed in the Washington Post on the travails of American feminism in the present; today, the IHT has one on the fissures in the Moroccan feminist movements.

I go back and forth on whether to use 'feminisms, plural' in these cases; although I think each of these pieces offer a pretty compelling argument in favor of adding the 's'.

on opposition to Egypt's banning of FGM

GulfNews has a write up on Egypt's new child law, which not only bans FGM but gives single mothers the right to secure birth certificates for their babies and raises the age of legal marriage to 18. (Previously it was 16).

Here is one father's position on the new law:

"This is nonsense," said Mustafa, a native of the south Egyptian city of Sohag who has been living in Cairo for around 20 years. "Circumcision for girls is a must as it protects their chastity," added the 48-year-old Muslim father. "Islam also encourages circumcision for girls as well."

on Islam and Christianity in Britain

There is a sentiment among some in the Anglican church that Islam receives more attention from the government than it deserves. Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, defended that practice on the ground that Islam-centered efforts are part of a national security strategy of minimizing the threat of home-grown terrorism.

Maybe this is the sort of thing they are upset about.

Monday, June 9, 2008

on defining jihad in textbooks

The American Textbook Council does not like the way Houghton Mifflin's middle school textbook, "Across the Centuries," deals with Islam. Gilbert Sewall, director of the Council, suspects that the Council on American Islamic Relations put pressure on the publisher to define jihad as a personal struggle and not as something violent in order to project a more flattering image of Islam.

Because a textbook that defines Islam as a violent religion would have been so much better.

Here is the actual article - too many links in that paragraph.

Egypt bans FGM

... but allows an exception in cases of medical necessity. I am curious - in what instance might a procedure like that be a medical necessity?

on taking off the hijab

Zainab Mineeia, an Iraqi and a former translator for the LA Times in Iraq, has an op-ed in the Sunday paper about taking off her hijab when she came to the United States. She talks about the pressures she felt on both sides - the pressure she felt in Iraq to wear a hijab because it was safer to blend in:

But even as the hijab kept me safe, it became a burden for many others. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, there was a dramatic increase in the number of women wearing the hijab. Since then, as religious groups have gained more power, it has become dangerous to be spotted without one -- so much so that even Christian women now wear the hijab when they go out. To me, that signified that something was wrong with my country.
And, in the United States, the pressure she felt not to wear it in order to be more normal. She shares a story about a friend of hers, who used to veil, and found that, when she moved to a new city, it was a struggle to find a realtor who would rent her an apartment.

We shouldn't have to hide the fact that we're Muslims in order to be treated like everyone else. In some ways, it's as bad to feel pressure to take off the hijab in the United States as it is to be pressured to keep it on in Baghdad. It's sad that people here do not always accept you for who you are.

Interesting that the hijab issue has become so complicated and so fraught with symbolism - or, I guess, not very interesting; it isn't as if using women's bodies and appearances as turf for culture wars is a new idea. It's an upsetting sort of irony, though - in seeking to 'liberate' Iraqi women, the United States has framed them in a way that's the opposite of liberating.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

on the veil and freedom of expression

Turkey's highest court has decided that one has nothing to do with the other.

Daughters as well as sons of Iraq

Women in Iraq are working in security jobs.

On prenuptials, Islam and virginity

A French court has annulled a couple's marriage because the wife claimed - falsely - to be a virgin. The man and woman are Muslim, so of course it has become a narrative about Islam. Here is the most hilarious part:

Critics ran out of superlatives to condemn what they depicted as a dangerous aberration.
Ran out of superlatives? Really? I was not aware that hyperbole was an appropriate part of journalistic style. I guess that is why I am not a journalist.

On the more pressing issues in this story, I certainly find things more complicated. Is this a breach of contract issue? A lawyer-friend described it to me as potentially fraud - the bride's failure to accurately represent herself gets the groom out of his agreement with her. If, for example, the groom had lied and said he had ten times the assets he actually had, would the annulment be so offensive? And let's not be naive ... virginity is currency for a woman in many cases. Is it a bad precedent for a judge to hold individuals accountable to the claims they make in a prenuptial agreement, or nikah, or whatever?

In cases like this, I tend to think that the law is a remedy of last resort. Sure, the judge may thing that caring whether a woman is a virgin when you marry her is silly/sexist/antiquated. But should his opinion on the relative importance of that particular stipulation have any bearing on the right of both signatories to the marriage contract to have recourse if the other party lies? This quote from the article seems to think that his decision is a blow to women's rights:

Elisabeth Badinter, a philosopher and pioneer of women’s legal rights, said that she felt shame for the French justice system. “The sexuality of women in France is a private and free matter,” she said. “The annulment will just serve to send young Muslim girls running to hospitals to have their hymens restored.”

It is possible that young Muslim girls will continue to run to hospitals to have their hymens restored in slightly greater numbers due to fear in the wake of this decision. However, it isn't the court that is the prime mover in that case. French police are certainly not going around and investigating young women's hymens. It is their husbands who make this demand and who are in the position to act if this demand is not met. As long as virginity is valued, men will find a way to guarantee it from their brides in unpleasant ways. The solution is not for the court to force this man to divorce his wife rather than to annul the (clearly unhappy) marriage - it is for the community/mothers/fathers/government/mosque/whomever it takes to elevate women to a level where their hymens are not the most important thing about them.

And, though of course my heart goes out to this woman, if she were a friend of mine I would certainly tell her she is better off without this jerk.

West Point is en route to being gender-neutral

... at least in their singing. The lyrics of some traditional West Point dirges have been updated to reflect the fact that not only men are losing their lives in the so-called Long War.

warm fuzzy: Official Huggers

A group of (mostly) moms that greets Marines when they return from Iraq.

LA Times dust-up: trading thoughts about the state of feminism

Amanda Marcotte and Katha Pollitt discuss what's good and bad about US feminism in the present.

on youth unemployment in Qatar

Qatar's first lady, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned (left), is sponsoring an initiative to combat youth unemployment in her country and the whole Middle East region. The Financial Times, who published this article, has a series (or 'special report?' who knows what the right word is for these newspaper gimmicks that I so dearly love...) on Youth in the Middle East that focuses on the economic future of the region and how the Arab states can ensure their youth are well-educated and employed in the future. So much to blog about, so little time.

Hillary's fans are disappointed

Older women in New York take Hillary's defeat hard. Excerpt:

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

on masculinity

From Robert Jensen of UT Austin. A little preview (but please do read the whole thing):

Human biology is pretty clear: People are born male or female, with a small percentage born intersexed. But how we should make sense of those differences outside reproduction is not clear. And if we are to make sense of it in a fashion that is consistent with justice -- that is, in a feminist context -- then we would benefit from a critical evaluation of the categories themselves, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

thinking of a Ph. D?

I am. But maybe I should reconsider?

on preventing Fulbright scholars from leaving Gaza

Nothing needs to be said.

on the Egyptian Carrie Bradshaw

LAT on Arab women writers.

Zeynab at MMW has this to say - much funnier and more eloquent than I would have said it.

on the daily lives of Iraqi women

Baghdad Bureau is doing a series of responses to readers' questions for Iraqi women. The first installment is ready for your perusal. They do these quorums from time to time - this one targets women specifically and of course will include a session on women's clothing. (Also it includes a little blurb about how expensive the clothes their first female interviewee was wearing appeared to be ... thank god. How can I visualize a woman if I don't know what she is wearing??? Oh wait, there is a PICTURE). It appears that they only asked questions submitted by women so far, we (I) will of course be following the session and will reserve comment on tokenism until all results are in.

The questions are unsurprisingly focused on stereotypically female issues, like what kinds of food the Iraqi women cook and how they feel about possibly having more children. Of course that is ... I don't need to say. It also offers a real window into what life looks like in Baghdad! The woman who is asked about whether she would have more children talks about how difficult it is to provide for the children she has now, the woman who is asked about food says that now they have Pepsi available and have started drinking less water. The nature of the questions, though, seems to indicate just how far away Iraq feels to most readers of the news. The video at the top shows a woman expressing her concerns for her daughter and how she behaves because of the negative influences of satellite TV; the questioner keeps asking her follow-up questions to clarify her point. I would put money on their being a comment thread on the Times website right now about TV and child rearing. This really gets you thinking about the links that exist between Iraqi society and American society right now - shouldn't we know more about things like how hard it is to wash clothes when you have no electricity?

Photo is of the market in Karada, a neighborhood on the south side of Baghdad where the interviews were conducted.

I went to Ko tonight!

I ate at Momofuku Ko tonight. I am sure you will be jealous until I tell you that I am up at 5:15 recovering from the excess of food and wine.

It's good for blogging time, though, yes?

on Facebook as a tool for activism

Facebook offers Egyptians a forum for gathering and consciousness-raising that isn't the Muslim Brotherhood. (LA Times analysis, not mine).

on Nafisa Shah, Pakistani MP

A profile of one of Pakistan's 72 female MPs (of 342), Nafisa Shah.

Ms. Shah sounds like an incredible woman. I got sort of a kick out of the headline - "female legislator takes on men". There was nothing in the article that indicated a specific instance in which she 'takes on' a man - although of course that could mean any number of things - but it's sort of implied that by participating in politics and working to curb honor crimes she is doing just that. My first impulse was to be all, you go, girl. It certainly is difficult to be in politics (I assume, never having had the pleasure of that experience) and being a woman can't make it easier.

On the other hand, though, it isn't really fair to men as a group to lump them together and label them 'honor crime perpetrators'. (The article discusses many of Shah's accomplishments but her work on honor crimes is emphasized). Categorizing all men as sexist by virtue of their gender is easy to do, but just as sexist as stereotyping women.

on the Sex and the City movie

The New Yorker review: not so funny.

I am one of those annoying people that considers all pop culture productions fodder for analysis and the SATC movie can certainly be watched as commentary on 'the modern woman' and what we expect her to do and to be. I will write about it in a week or two to minimize the spoiler action!

Help write the history of the Pill

This bleg (combination 'blog' and 'beg' - I learned it at Freakonomics) has been posted at Feministing and Feministe and I am reposting it here. Elaine Tyler May, professor of History at the University of Minnesota, needs our help writing the history of the birth control pill. Here is her request, c/p'd from Feministe.

The Pill is often considered one of the most important innovations of the twentieth century. As I investigate this claim for a new book—set for release on the 50th anniversary of the Pill’s FDA approval (Basic Books, 2010)—I’m looking to include the voices and stories of real people. I hope yours will be one of them. I’m eager to hear from men as well as women, of all ages and backgrounds.

· Have you or any of your partners taken the Pill? Why or why not? How did it work for you—physically, emotionally, and ethically? How has it compared with other contraceptive methods you or your partners have used?
· What has been the impact of the Pill on your sex life, relationships, political or social attitudes, and beliefs about the medical or pharmaceutical establishments?
· Do you have opinions about public policies related to access, availability, approval or limitations on the development and distribution of the Pill and related contraceptive products (the patch, the “morning after pill,” long-term injections, etc.).
· Anything else you think I should know?

Send me your most richly detailed answers to any and all of these questions (and don’t forget to include your age, gender, where you live, occupation, ethnic/religious/racial background, sexual orientation, marital status, political party affiliation, or any other biographical info you think is important). If you would like to participate in my study but would prefer to respond to a questionnaire, please let me know and I will happily send you one.
I’m interested in hearing from men and women who have used the Pill and those who have not, those who used it briefly or a long time ago, or who use it now. I am also eager to hear from people who work in fields that relate to the use and availability of the Pill (such as medicine, public health, social work, education, etc.). You will remain anonymous. I will use your contact information only to respond to you directly and to let you know when the book will be available for purchase (at a discount to contributors!).

And just one more thing. I not only want to hear your voice, but the voices of those you love, teach, preach to, learn from, and work with. Please pass this request on! The more responses I receive, and the greater the diversity of respondents, the more the book will reflect the wide range of experiences and attitudes that have shaped the Pill’s history over the last half century.
I hope to hear from you. Please write to me at
If you want to know more about me and my work, please click the link below.

Thanks very much!
Elaine Tyler May

Elaine Tyler May grew up in Los Angeles and now teaches at the University of Minnesota. She was twelve years old in 1960 when the Pill was approved by the FDA. Although not yet old enough for the event to have any personal significance for her, she was already interested in the subject because her father was one of the clinical researchers who helped develop the Pill, and her mother was a founder of free birth control clinics in Los Angeles. In spite of her later efforts at responsible use of contraception, she is the mother of three offspring.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

on women and jihad

LA Times piece about women asserting their importance to the jihadi movement.

The meat of the article deals with the ways that Zawahiri responds to female arguments that it is their right to participate in jihad as much as it is men's. (Basically he says that it is a woman's duty to care for the children of the mujahid she marries - for a first-person account of that experience, read I, Nadia, Wife of a Terrorist). There is a profile of a mujahida (?) in the IHT as well. (A colleague of mine refers to female jihadis as 'jihadistas' - offensive or just silly?)

This certainly offers a compelling counterargument to the idea that women are inherently more peaceful than men.

Back from Italy, here with a fluff article

Missed you, little blog!

And the universe conspired to give me some lovely media nuggets. Several op-eds about the Middle East, women and feminism are forthcoming, but first, my home state of New Hampshire was ranked No. 2 in the NYT's list of top 31 vacation destinations for the summer. (That is a beautiful NH vista on the left).

Those of you lucky enough to grow up in California or New York or Cape Cod may find this excitement a little silly, but I went through four years of college hearing people express confusion whenever I told them that I grew up in the Granite State. "Where is that?" they would say. "Is that next to Vermont?" I attended college outside Chicago - not exactly the backwoods.

Thank you NYT for recognizing New Hampshire!