Saturday, 11 July 2009

In Egypt, Invoking Islam to Combat Sexual Harassment

Friday, Jul. 10, 2009
TIME Magazine By Abigail Hauslohner / Cairo

Doaa Kassem, like most Egyptian women, is used to being catcalled and grabbed at by men in the crowded streets of Cairo. The 24-year-old executive secretary is well versed in women's rights, having studied the subject in Sweden, and she is bolder than most when it comes to dealing with her harassers. "I'm brave enough to stop them and tell them [what they're doing is wrong]," she says. Sometimes she even chases them down.

Kassem may be brave, but she's under no illusions about the Egyptian government's attitude toward the issue. "The government has always denied sexual harassment [happens] in the street," she says. So when Kassem is shown the new government-issued pamphlet titled Sexual Harassment: Causes and Solutions, her eyes widen.

Last week, Egypt's Ministry of Endowments, the government division responsible for the administration of mosques, distributed the informational booklet to mosques across the country in what appears to be one of the first serious government responses to a problem that has become impossible to ignore. While Egypt's sexual-harassment epidemic has earned the country a reputation as one of the worst harassment locations in the Middle East, the government has gained notoriety among bloggers and human-rights groups for denying the very existence of a problem. Then, in 2008, the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, a Cairo-based NGO, released the first extensive report on the issue. Out of 1,010 Egyptian women surveyed, 83% said they had experienced sexual harassment. Nearly half reported being subjected to harassment on a daily basis, with abuses ranging from lewd comments to violent molestation.

The report, which also documented the widespread belief that women are largely to blame for their harassment woes, set off a debate in the Egyptian and foreign press over who is at fault and what steps — if any — to take. The government decided that one way to tackle the problem was to address it through the teachings of Islam. Sexual Harassment: Causes and Solutions, which was distributed to 50,000 imams nationwide, lists five causes of harassment, including weak religious awareness and mental and cultural emptiness. It also suggests ways to tackle the problem. "When the imams realize that sexual harassment is a social hazard, and they understand the reasons behind it, then they start spreading the message," says Salem Geleil, Egypt's Deputy Minister of Endowments and the booklet's editor. "Egyptians are very religious ... So when you approach a cause from a religious point of view, the response is very strong."

It's not the first educational pamphlet of its kind. In the past, the ministry has offered mosques similar guidebooks on issues ranging from terrorism to women's dress. And the solutions proposed in the booklet — which range from a greater adherence to religious and family values to better law enforcement — don't necessarily match the advice preached by women's groups, which focus primarily on drafting formal legislation on the matter and promoting female empowerment. Nevertheless, the ministry's decision to address the issue at all, and on such a scale, may indicate a marked shift from the government's stance just last year: that sexual harassment is the problem of just a few individuals. "It's a big change," says Rasha Hassan, the main researcher at the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR). "Of course, the government still needs to do a lot. But nowadays we can see some change in the ministries."

And there have been other indicators of change as well. Last fall, an Egyptian man was sentenced to three years in prison in the first known conviction on sexual-harassment charges in the nation's history. In November, the police initiated a harassment crackdown, arresting more than 500 men in a single day — although since then, action to combat the problem has been inconsistent. Women's rights groups are urging that more women take matters into their own hands and file formal complaints — a daunting task, especially as women point to police as being among their daily harassers. "There is a culture here: when someone goes to the police to file a report, it is considered scandalous, so for that reason, women stay home to avoid scandal," says Geleil.

But tackling sexual harassment also means addressing the wider issue of Egypt's social malaise. When looking for the roots of the problem, sociologists and community leaders point to a generation of underemployed, frustrated young men struggling against the backdrop of a worsening economy, in a culture that frowns upon premarital relationships and demands that a man reach a certain level of economic stability before considering marriage. "We have been discussing the issue of harassment for years, because it's an old phenomenon," says Sheik Ahmed Turky, an imam who leads a congregation of several thousand at one of Cairo's largest mosques, Masjid al-Noor. Still, he says, "the pressures of living and the costs of marriage" have added to it.

There are calls for the government to draft a law specifically aimed at curbing sexual harassment, but even that may not be enough. "I think that any law against sexual harassment in the streets or in the workplace is a good step forward," says Nadya Khalife, a Middle East expert in the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch. "However, [it] still requires the government to effectively enforce the law by creating mechanisms to ensure that women do report sexual-harassment incidents and that these incidents are dealt with appropriately."

Change may be slow to come, but in Egypt some activists are encouraged by the small signs of progress. "We can't change the culture or the people in one day," says ECWR's Hassan. "But we are trying to do a lot of things ... We try to make changes with the government first, and then the people."

Says Kassem, examining the pages of the government's first-ever sexual-harassment pamphlet: "It's a step."

INCLUSIVE DESIRE - Homosexuality was seen as an aberration in Hindu society

The Telegraph: Calcutta, India
Friday 10th July 2009
Swapan Dasgupta

The subversive potential of homosexuality has been the theme of endless sermons from the pulpit and countless drawing-room tittle-tattle. But few expressions of mirth and righteous indignation can match the intriguing hypothesis proffered by The Times in an editorial on the occasion of the formal unmasking of Sir Anthony Blunt as a lapsed Soviet spy in November 1979.

Alluding to the social milieu of the upper-class homosexuals who embraced communism in the 1930s, the newspaper observed that “theirs was largely a homosexual culture, with necessary dependence on ties of friendship rather than on the functional ties of family, and defiance of conventional sexual morality leading to a broader moral relativism. Even in the case of Maynard Keynes, perhaps the finest product of this culture, there may be a parallel between his emotional resentment of the monetary rules which prevented inflation, and particularly the gold standard, and the need to reject the conventional sexual morality of his period. He did not like rules”.

At a time when the disregard for fiscal prudence has become the hallmark of ‘inclusive’ development in India, it would be fascinating to see a connection between the Manmohan Singh government’s economic profligacy and the Delhi High Court’s judgment de-criminalizing consensual homosexual sex. In ruling that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code violated the fundamental rights of gays, their lordships deemed that the principle of inclusiveness warranted the negation of existing rules.

Whether this unshackling will lead to a rash of creativity, creating windows of opportunity for an intellectual wizard like Keynes, a treacherous aesthete like Blunt and a dissolute spy like Guy Burgess, is a matter of conjecture. In the short term, there is certain to be a fierce battle between the upholders of faith-based morality and the advocates of unlicensed personal freedom which is calculated to leave at least one side bruised. In the long run, however, the outcome of this (as yet judicial) conflict may well determine the parameters of India’s future social development.

The issue at stake is not the letter of Section 377 of an IPC, which was drafted by noble Victorians as a carbon copy of existing English law. There wasn’t anything specifically colonial in the criminalizing of homosexuality in India. That same-sex relationships were sinful was conventional wisdom in Europe ever since the New Testament declared it a “perversion”. “Make no mistake,” Paul proclaimed colourfully in his first Letter to the Corinthians, “no fornicator or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanderers or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God.”

The process of limiting homosexuality to being a disqualification for entry through the pearly gates rather than a criminal offence on earth took a long time coming. Those who rant mindlessly about Section 377 being an insidious colonial legacy should note that the British parliament put homosexuality — involving consenting adults of 21 and above — outside the purview of criminal law as late as 1967. It should also be noted that the inclusion of homosexuality in the general lowering of the age of consent to 16 in 2000 was fiercely resisted by the House of Lords and the Christian churches. As late as November 2005, the Roman Catholic Church reaffirmed that “the Tradition has constantly considered them (acts of homosexuality) as intrinsically immoral and contrary to the natural law. Consequently, under no circumstance can they be approved”. It is incidental that Rome has the added problem of deviant clergymen ready to skirt the trauma of celibacy with violations of the natural law.

Field Marshal Montgomery offered his own quirky way of disentangling the knotty conflict between morality and an increasingly permissive social environment. In 1965, during the debate on the sexual offences bill, he proposed an amendment putting the age of consent for homosexual sex at 80. Even his fellow peers couldn’t agree.

Last week, the conservative Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, reignited the debate in the church of England. “The Bible’s teaching shows,” he said, “that marriage is between a man and a woman. That is the way to express our sexual nature. We welcome homosexuals, we don’t want to exclude people, but we want them to repent and be changed.” In a similar vein, the Roman Catholic Cardinal of Latvia has recently warned of an emerging “era of sexual atheism”.

What is significant about this ongoing tussle between theology and culture is that disapproval of gays stops short of moves to restore homosexuality as a criminal offence. Among the Christian clergy, there is a broad acceptance that homosexuality is on a par with adultery, a sinful act in the eyes of god, but not an offence that warrants criminal prosecution. This is also the position of a minority of Muslim theologians who argue that while Islam is categorical in its disapproval of homosexuality, it doesn’t stipulate the exact punishment for the offence. The death punishment for homosexuality in Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran apparently flows from man-made Islamic jurisprudence.

Since the Hindu way of life is neither an ideology nor governed by texts whose acceptance is obligatory, there is no such thing as a Hindu view of homosexuality. There are divergent views in ancient texts and there are many social practices that highlight the Hindu penchant for accommodation. However, the absence of rigid theological prescriptions doesn’t distract from the fact that homosexuality was seen as an aberration in Hindu society. It was accepted as an awkward reality but never celebrated.

India may not have experienced the virulent homophobia that was a feature of many Western and Islamic societies but there was no social acceptance of homosexuality. It was, at best, seen as a fringe phenomenon which had to be tolerated as long as the “deviants” kept their sexuality private and didn’t disrupt society. There was a special status and role for hijras, the “third sex”, but this institutionalized accommodation on the fringes of society wasn’t extended to gays. The IPC superimposed a law on an unwritten social code marked by both passive intolerance and generosity. In any case, it is important to note that the law existed merely on paper. Actual prosecution under Section 377 had ceased long before the Delhi High Court judgment.

In justifying the decriminalizing of gay sex, the high court argued that “Constitutional morality” must take precedence over theology and public opinion, “even if it be the majoritarian view”. The point was well made but is fraught with a wider significance. Can gays now plead for a redefinition of marriage on the grounds that a man-woman arrangement is inherently discriminatory towards those who prefer a same-sex bonding?

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. If the criminal ban on homosexuality violates the fundamental rights and dignity of some individuals, it follows that all personal laws must be tested against this principle. If equality becomes the litmus test, can the existing Muslim personal laws relating to divorce and polygamy withstand impartial judicial scrutiny? Can the principle of inclusiveness extend to gays but not to Muslim women? Can the government enact Shah Bano-type legislation if it violates a fundamental right of the Constitution? The Supreme Court will have to consider these questions when it hears Baba Ramdev’s appeal against the high court verdict.

The Times may have been prescient after all. Eschewing the rules (of nature) may well open the floodgates of a wider churning. Why confine the legacy of Keynes to the fiscal deficit alone?

Help on way for Pakistan's Eunuchs

Pakistan's Oldest English Newspaper
By Nasir Iqbal Wednesday, 17 Jun, 2009 | 10:12 AM PST |

ISLAMABAD: Transgendered people in the country can hope for justice as the Supreme Court has ordered a survey of eunuchs to save them from a life of shame.

A bench of the court, comprising Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, Justice Chaudhry Ijaz Ahmed and Justice Mahmood Akhtar Shahid Siddiqui, issued the order to the provincial governments on Tuesday while taking up a petition seeking the establishment of a commission to emancipate effeminate men who are ostracised by the society for no fault of theirs.

Islamist jurist Dr Mohammad Aslam Khaki filed the petition for the welfare of the unfortunate and vulnerable people left by the society to live by begging, dancing and prostitution. He took up their cause after police raided and arrested several eunuch-transvestites in Taxila recently.

Dr Khaki researched about the conditions of the ignominious merrymakers and discovered them to be the most oppressed and deprived segment of the society, subjected to humiliation and molestation.

On a query he told the court that there are about 80,000 eunuchs in Pakistan. Parents give their gender-confused children into the care of gurus (leaders of eunuchs) at a very tender age. They get no opportunity to education and instead are trained to beg, dance or forced into prostitution, according to the petitioner.

The court required the advocate generals of all the provinces to arrange a survey through provincial social welfare departments to compile facts and figures about eunuchs. The departments would also evaluate facilities available to hermaphrodite children and determine the offence their parents commit in handing them over to gurus (eunuch leaders) at the time of their birth.

Transgendered people are misunderstood and ridiculed for being born in the wrong body and are condemned to exist at the bottom rung of Pakistan’s social ladder. The court order requires the social welfare departments to register particulars of the eunuchs, learn about the children living with them and find out the circumstances or compulsions that forced the parents to give them into the care of gurus.

‘Practically such children are under constant habeas corpus since they cannot leave their gurus and compelled to do whatever ordered against their will,’ Dr Khaki said while talking to Dawn. They live in sizeable communities, divided into clan groups, and mostly in slums, he said.

Such people are even denied their right to inheritance and civil rights. They cannot travel freely in trains, buses or use facilities available to common citizens of the country. The court asked the provincial governments to submit detailed report and decided to take up the matter again after four weeks.

Saudi woman activist demands right to travel

From Mohammed Jamjoom and Tricia Escobedo
July 10, 2009 on CNN

(CNN) -- Wajeha al-Huwaider picked up her passport, got in a taxi, and headed from her home in eastern Saudi Arabia to the nearby island kingdom of Bahrain -- a 45-minute drive that many Saudis take to get away for the weekend.
Wajeha al-Huwaider says women face too many controls in Saudi Arabia.

Wajeha al-Huwaider says women face too many controls in Saudi Arabia. Despite having a valid passport, Saudi authorities at the border sent al-Huwaider home. That's because in Saudi Arabia, a woman needs permission from her male guardian before she can leave the country.

Al-Huwaider -- a vocal women's rights activist in Saudi Arabia -- knew before she left that she would be turned away at the border. Her attempted trip was simply to make a point about the Saudi guardianship system that she says "controls all aspects of women's lives."

"Either you treat us like mature citizens or let us leave the country (permanently)," she told CNN. She's urging all Saudi women who are tired of "being oppressed" to go "to any border and try to cross it without permission from their male relative."

She wants to end Saudi Arabia's strict guardianship laws in which women must get permission from their husband, father, or closest male relative before doing the most mundane of tasks -- including working outside the home, going to school, maintaining a bank account, or leaving the country for a weekend getaway.

Saudi Arabia is conflicted when it comes to women's rights. Women are not allowed to vote or drive, but earlier this year Saudi King Abdullah appointed Nora al-Fayez as the kingdom's first female deputy minister of education as part of a massive Cabinet reshuffling.

Many consider Abdullah to be a reformer and the move was hailed within Saudi Arabia as a great step forward for women's rights. But al-Huwaider sees it differently, claiming even a woman as powerful as al-Fayez "isn't really in control of her life." "If she wants to travel is not up to her, it's up to her male guardian," she said.

Human Rights Watch has criticized the Saudi government for not living up to commitments it made to the United Nations Human Rights Council. HRW issued a report last year detailing the negative impact of the guardianship system on Saudi women. It said Saudi officials have asserted that such guardianship requirements do not exist.

"The Saudi government is saying one thing to the Human Rights Council in Geneva but doing another thing inside the kingdom," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director. "It needs to stop requiring adult women to seek permission from men, not just pretend to stop it."

Efforts to reach the Saudi government for comment were unsuccessful. HRW issued a report last year detailing the negative impact of the guardianship system on Saudi women. It said Saudi officials have asserted that such guardianship requirements do not exist.

Last month, al-Huwaider tried three times to cross from Saudi Arabia into Bahrain on her own and without permission from a male guardian. She was turned back each time but she said she'll continue going to Saudi's land borders and its airports in an attempt to gain "her rights."

She has even protested on the side of a major road, the King Fahd Causeway that connects Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. Al-Huwaider insists this campaign is different from previous ones she's been involved in.

"It's not about just sending messages and petitions anymore," she said. "We're not going to send any letters to anyone. Saudi women have to find someone who will take them to an airport or a border and say that they don't approve of the system and that they want to leave." She said that her mission is more than just an act of civil disobedience. "Most of the people think I'm doing it just to allow women to travel without permission," says Al-Huwaider. "But I keep telling women that it's the whole system that needs to be changed."

Thursday, 9 July 2009

7th July London Bombing Memorial: Gone but not forgotten...may God rest their souls...

If only the Uighurs were Buddhist and China was Israel

By Mona Eltahawy
July 8, 2009

NEW YORK - Pity the Uighurs - the wrong kind of minority, the wrong kind of Muslims, fighting the wrong kind of enemy.

For years, Uighurs - a Turkic people who are largely Muslim - complained of economic, cultural and religious discrimination under the harsh fist of Beijing. The latter made sure the Uighurs were outnumbered in the western Xinjiang province by Han Chinese migrants.

In the worst ethnic unrest in China in years, Uighurs took to the streets of the provincial capital Urumqi on Sunday, apparently after a protest at government handling of a June clash between Han Chinese and Uighur factory workers in southern China, where two Uighurs died.

At least 156 people died in weekend riots. The Chinese government quickly blamed exiled separatists and Muslim militant groups, arrested dozens and tried to curb information by stifling the internet. On Tuesday, Han Chinese armed with iron bars and machetes went looking for revenge on Uighurs.

Following the news that did make it out of Xinjiang, I thought if only the Uighurs were Buddhists like the Tibetans with whom the Uighurs share almost mirror grievances against Beijing.

If they were Buddhists, Bjork, Sting, Bono and all those other one-named saviors of the world's poor and oppressed would have held "Free Xinjiang" concerts already. But the West continues to largely ignore the Uighurs. Maybe they're not as cuddly as the Tibetans or their leader the Dalai Lama.

Perhaps the U.S. State Department would issue stronger words in their defense if only the Uighurs weren't the wrong kind of minority in a country that produces half the goods we use and which currently lends the wobbly global economy enough money to keep it just this side of total collapse.

The Uighurs aren't Buddhists but are instead Muslims and us Muslims don't get much love these days. You'd think the U.S. at least would be paying a bit more attention to Uighurs after locking up four of their brethren at the prison camp at Guantanamo without charge for seven years. They were released earlier this year to Bermuda.

If the West seems deaf to Uighur complaints, then where are their fellow Muslims? Surely this is a chance for Muslims across the world to march in protest at the stranglehold the godless Communist Chinese keep over the Uighurs?

Think again. The Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas put it bluntly on the micro-blogging site Twitter - where thousands follow him - when he asked why no one was paying attention to the Uighur "intifada", the Arabic word for uprising that is usually associated with Palestinians fighting back against Israeli occupation.

That's precisely the problem - the Uighurs are no Palestinians and the Chinese are not Israel. Many Muslims - Arab Muslims especially - pay attention only when the U.S. and Israel are behaving badly. Palestine followed by Iraq always take precedence leaving little room for other Muslim grievances.

Look at Darfur, where the suffering goes ignored because those who are creating the misery are neither Americans nor Israelis but instead fellow Arab Muslim Sudanese.

China is coincidentally one of Sudan's biggest trade partners and sells Khartoum plenty of weapons which Darfuris complain are used against them. So it's unlikely Sudanese President Omar Bashir, who declared himself the guardian of Islam in 2007 by putting on trial a British teacher for insulting Muslims when she named a class teddy bear "Mohammed", will condemn Chinese oppression of Uighurs.

Perhaps Israel can save the day and invade Xinjiang. Xinjiang and its Muslim inhabitants are almost complete unknowns in the Arab world, much to China's relief, I'm sure. During a visit in 1995 to attend the United Nations conference on women in Beijing, I tried to visit Xinjiang. But not a singly airline office would sell a ticket to a "radical lesbians", as conference attendees were seen. No "restive regions" for us.

Further afield from the Arab world, Shaaz Mahboob, a British Muslim friend of Pakistani descent, wondered on Facebook "Where are the Pakistani emotions which rage whenever there is an issue to do with Muslims anywhere on this planet (thank God there aren't Muslims being persecuted on the Moon or Mars - yet!)?"

He asked Imran Khan, the former Pakistani cricket superstar, and other Pakistanis who have supported militant groups why "they would not even support the militant Uighur groups who have allegedly initiated this chain of violence?

"They remain mysteriously silent over the plight of Chinese fellow Muslim.. Or is it that the "friendship" with China takes precedence over helping fellow Muslims this time?"

As I said - wrong enemy. The Chinese government quickly boosted security to crush Sunday's Uighur uprising and arrested dozens of men, leaving many women to demonstrate on Tuesday, waving their the identity cards of male relatives they say were arbitrarily detained.

Those women just might be the Uighurs' best hope of getting the world's attention. Or at least one of them and no, I don't mean Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled Uighur businesswoman and activist whom Beijing blames for orchestrating the violence from her home in the U.S.

Reuters' photographer David Gray took a picture of a lone Uighur woman in a headscarf leaning on a crutch and facing off with two Chinese security vehicles behind which stood dozens of security personnel.

It was reminiscent both of the picture of the lone Chinese student facing off with the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and of the ubiquitous images of Iranian women from that country's recent demonstrations,

So now they have an iconic image, here's hoping the Uighurs start to register on our radar.