Thursday, 25 March 2010

Saudi woman poet lashes out at clerics in 'Arabic Idol'

Abu Dhabi judges praise courage of writer who dared to criticise hardliners
By Archie Bland
Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Instead of Jon and Edward dressed as the Ghostbusters, it featured a single woman covered from head to toe in black, declaiming traditional Arabic poetry from a podium. And rather than Cheryl Cole or Dannii Minogue in a revealing designer outfit, the judging panel consists of five sober-looking men with bushy moustaches, and a similarly all-male audience.

The X Factor it isn't – but Abu Dhabi's live poetry talent contest, The Million's Poet, which is broadcast across the Arab world, features something far more subversive than its British equivalent could ever manage.

Tonight, Hissa Hilal, a mother-of-four from Saudi Arabia, takes to the stage in the last round of a competition that she has taken by storm with a scathing critique of the conservative clerics who hold sway in her country. Her poetry has earned her the praise of the judges, the acclaim of the viewing public – and more than a few death threats.

Ms Hilal earned her place in the final with a performance last week, which was seen as a response to a prominent Saudi cleric's call for those who advocated the mingling of men and women to be punished with death. In a 15-verse work, she railed against preachers who "sit in the position of power", "frightening" people with their religious edicts.

"I have seen evil in the eyes of fatwas, at a time when the permitted is being twisted into the forbidden," she said, with only her microphone and her eyes visible against the uniform black of her burqa. The clerics, she went on – and, by extension, suicide bombers who wrap explosives around their waists – "are vicious in voice, barbaric, angry and blind, wearing death as a robe cinched with a belt".

It was a bold message indeed, and in Saudi Arabia, where unmarried men and women are entirely segregated, a highly controversial one. But when she finished, the ranks of men listening erupted into cheers, and the judges sent her into today's final with compliments ringing in her ears.

"Hissa Hilal is a courageous poet," said Sultan al-Amimi, one of the show's judges. He praised her for "expressing her opinion" and "raising an alarm" against extremist clerics.

Ms Hilal herself, meanwhile, is uncompromising in the face of the threats that have emerged on militant websites. "My poetry has always been provocative," she told the Associated Press. "It's a way to express myself and give voice to Arab women, silenced by those who knock our culture and our religion."

The Million's Poet is a particularly remarkable venue for her message given the conservatism of its format. Whereas rivals like Superstar and Star Academy mimic the content of Western talent contests like American Idol and The X Factor, the introduction of traditional poetry has brought the show a wider audience that includes many who might normally dismiss Ms Hilal's message.

"The show is at the heart of cultural conversations in the Arab world," says Lina Khatib, an Arab media expert at Stanford University. "It's a hybrid of the modern and the traditional. So it's packaged within acceptable parameters. Because it's poetry, one of the most respected forms of expression in the Arab world, you can push the boundaries much further than you might with popular music."

In tonight's final, Ms Hilal plans to focus on the media; Jaza al-Baqmi, one of her rivals , will devote her performance to the role of women in Arab culture. The winner will pocket Dh1m (£900,000).

But despite the life-changing money on offer, Ms Hilal is a little taken aback by the sudden fame that the show has brought her. "I worry how I will be perceived after the show is over," she said. "I worry the lights of fame will affect my simple and quiet existence."

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Five Queen's Road

Online Islamic sex-shop opens for business

The sex products Dutch Muslims used to bring back from the Middle East soon available online.
By Hanina Ajarai and Joke Mat

Abdelaziz Aouragh is a Muslim, lives in Amsterdam, and deals in sex articles. His webshop El Asira, which is for Muslims, will soon be selling Pure Power capsules which "heighten male performance, desire and pleasure". Desire capsules for women will also be available, sensual stimulators for him and her and lubricants based on cocoa butter, water or silicon. El Asira calls itself "the first Islamic online webshop for sex articles and care products". Its webshop should be open for business starting this weekend.

At home in Morocco

There are 'Tupperware parties' in Morocco for women looking for sex toys, which are not on general sale. "But there are networks, very discrete and well organised, which fill the vacuum," writes the Moroccan journalist Vanessa Pellegrin on the website

There are cultural differences. Vibrators are not popular because women do not want to admit their husband's shortcomings.

A 25 centimetre surrogate penis is too obvious. But a vibrating plastic duck looks like a child's toy. Pellegrin says religion hardly plays a role. Even women wearing headscarves attend the meetings.

The combination of Islam and sex products is not an obvious one. When Aouragh's business partner, Stefan Delsink, suggested selling sex items, Aouragh was dubious. A day later he agreed. "I knew that Muslims do have a need for sex products. People bring them back from the Middle East and give them to young couples," he said.

Not knowing whether his religion would allow the trade in sex products, Aouragh visited an imam, who in turn consulted a Saudi sheik. It was allowed, he learned, as long as the products were halal and meant to improve sex within marriage. "There is even a fatwa on the subject." That just left the problem of how to tell his parents. "It's a forbidden subject for the first generation here,” he said. Whenever his parents bring the matter up, Aouragh tries to quickly change the subject. “I tell them: yes, um, could I have some more tea?”

Abdelaziz Aouragh (29) is an orthodox Muslim with a Dutch trading instinct. He was born in the east of Amsterdam to a Moroccan carpenter. He has a pointed nose, a tuft of hair on his chin and thin oval glasses. He works at Schiphol airport assisting disabled transit passengers. His wife was born in Morocco and they have a three-year-old daughter. Last year they went on their first hadj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.

Changing the image of Islam

As well as making money, Aouragh wants his sex shop to change the image of Islam as hostile to women. "The image of women in the kitchen, submissive, dressed in a burkah isn't true. There is a lot of love. Islam has a lot of respect for women. Our shop puts the woman at the centre of things." The webshop also offers information; people can find answers to their questions there.

The imam who advised El Asira is Boularia Houari, a 35-year-old glass fibre cable technician who gives Koran lessons and preaches on request at various mosques. He is with Aouragh for our second meeting. He has a beard, speaks poor Dutch and wears a black cap. He says he gives sexual advice to many married people. "People are afraid of Viagra; it's a medicine. In Islam there are herbs which help. Poppy seed oil, pure honey. Scholars recommend these too."

According to Islam, sex is simple: outside marriage it's forbidden, within marriage it's encouraged. With condoms?

Aouragh confers with Houari in Arabic. Then he says: "Yes, that is accepted. The contraceptive pill too, although it's better not to use this. Some women's physiology is such that the pill still has an effect after they stop taking it."

He asks Houari something, then explains that coitus interruptus is allowed but that condoms are preferred. "A condom is better for maximum sexual pleasure because the penis is not withdrawn when orgasm is reached. It's important in Islam that both men and women reach orgasm. If a woman is not satisfied, she will use impure methods like masturbation or vibrators."

Web design

Stefan Delsink (29) designed the website for El Asira, which means something like society, tribe, or village. The Surinamese-Dutch Delsink works in a care home and runs a graphic design agency with his brother. Aouragh says his partner respects Muslims. "About everything, he asks if it is permitted. For instance, you won't find pictures of men and women on the website. That's not allowed."

"I'm always deleting these. I had to build a site with an erotic and exclusive look. Try doing that without pictures," Delsink said.

Neither Delsink nor Aouragh had much knowledge of sex products. Aouragh searched the net for a supplier in halal products for sexual health without animal fats. He spoke first to a Dutchman but that fell through. "His products contained chemicals and he had some misleading photos on his packaging," Aouragh explained.

El Asira's products are halal. But what if a single person buys Pure Power capsules? Or a couple uses the lubricant in an un-Islamic way, for instance for sex during menstruation? "That was my question to the scholar," says Aouragh. "He said to forget that. It's not my responsibility. Sinful behaviour will be punished after death."

The true meaning of halal

Debates about halal slaughter miss the wider point of a concept that promotes purity and integrity in Muslims' whole lives

By Catherine Fildes

Half-reluctantly, I should "come out", despite having hidden it from most of my fellow PhD students in the Cambridge English faculty. I try to avoid identity politics but for this article it seems necessary. I'm a white Muslim girl who doesn't wear hijab or speak Arabic. Unlike that other white Muslim, Jihad Jane, I quite like the west. In fact I'm inspired by western-educated Muslims such as Gai Eaton, who died recently. Nevertheless, the glib Islams that have plagued British Muslims to date exhaust me.

Nesrine Malik's article on "The rights and wrongs of halal", which has been vigorously commented upon by Guardian readers, fits the shoddy bill. Its purpose, like many articles on British Islam, is to dig a great gaping gulf between "religious" values and the "secular ethical ones" (anyone reminded of the Rushdie affair?) Malik scaremongers by providing inept source evidence for the British secular reaction against halal meat, and by providing no source evidence whatsoever on the Islamic concept of "halal".

Referring to a seven-year-old BBC news story that documents the Farm Animal Welfare Council's governmental advice to outlaw halal slaughter, Malik seems to be under the impression that the debate between the "British" and the "Muslims" rages on this issue. Yet if you go to the FAWC website and look through recent reports, the organisation seems fairly inactive with regard to halal slaughter, because, as is made explicit in a May 2009 report, many officially-certified halal slaughterhouses have adopted electric stunning as a mechanism for placating the animals.

And, if you then go to the guidelines stipulated in one of the UK's largest regulators of halal foods, the Halal Food Authority (HFA), you will see an unexpected middle ground. The HFA maintain that scientific methods should be "considered with caution" (not ruled out completely), that they must comply with the "Islamic ethos", and that multiple forms of stunning are in fact acceptable.

"Halal" is an Arabic term that, in Islamic contexts, means "lawful, permissible". Muslims are supposed to live their lives by this concept, with its connotations of cleanliness, integrity and self-restraint. That Malik ignores this definition, and goes on to omit the more specific relationship between "halal" and slaughter, is encapsulated in her impoverished description of why Muslims want halal meat at all: "the logic behind this is that remaining blood in the body may become polluted and harmful to humans".

Yet the Qur'anic justification for halal slaughter states that "forbidden to you is carrion, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that over which any name other than God's has been invoked, and the animal that has been strangled, or beaten to death, or killed by a fall, or gored to death, or savaged by a beast of prey, save that which you [yourselves] may have slaughtered while it was still alive." (5:3). It's not about harmful blood, although this may be the rational interpretation of the opening lines. The deeper emphasis of this verse is on the "good" and "pure", as opposed to violent and careless. Pain is supposed to be minimised, the responsibility of the Muslim increased. Eating is an act of worship (ibadah).

I completely agree with Malik's emphasis on hypocrisy. I think it's something that we all suffer from with regard to personal ethics, and even more so concerning religious interpretation. The interpretations of the Qur'an and hadiths are a case in point, as Ziauddin Sardar beautifully demonstrates. For how can we explain a Qur'anic verse with certainty? And which practices are to be adapted for modernity? Certain rituals of seventh-century Islam have been codified and repeated, such as prayer, while others are often contextualised as activities for their time and place, which nonetheless are followed in spirit if not action.

Fortunately, Islam as a religion was founded on scepticism and antagonism – not blind acceptance. Unfortunately, if Muhammad's life was revolutionary, its aftermath has seen a monological recital of hadiths and inflexible analyses of Qur'anic verses, where historical context is taken up or ignored to suit the interpreter. Memories of early Islam have hardened into dogma, and many scholars have taken the hadiths as seriously as tablets of stone.

If diversity is feared, it is unavoidable when we are thinking through so-called "religious values". We must strive to recapture the multiple "spirits" of Islam instead. If we do, it will become immediately apparent that "halal" should stretch to every aspect of how we treat animals. Some halal butchers, such as Abraham Natural Produce, have rejected most Muslim slaughterhouses on this basis. No dead meat that has been factory-produced could be halal.

In contrast, if we make the Islamic spirit relevant to 21st-century British society, then we could argue that halal meat must be mass-produced in our late-capitalist times, especially if it is the only way of providing affordable meat to the relatively poor, mainly working-class African or South-Asian British Muslims in the UK. Modern-day "halal meat" could also mean that British practices that alleviate animal suffering are to be included in the definition.

Too much emphasis is wrongly placed, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, on the ritualistic outward show of Islam. It's telling that more verbal and political energies are being channelled into anxiety about female head coverings, a tired debate recently rejuvenated in France, than about cruelty to animals or exploitation of the natural world.

Aziz Mian: Challenging Intoxicated Spirituality...

Aziz Mian Qawwal (Urdu: عزیز میاں قوال) (April 17, 1942 – December 6, 2000) was one of Pakistan's most famous traditional Qawwals.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Son of Mary, let there be someone…

Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869)

Son of Mary, let there be someone;
Would someone cure my pain as well?

Given that the constitution and religious law bind us,
But what shall one do with a murderer like that?

The gait like an arrow shot from a fully strung bow;
In a heart like that, how could one create a place for oneself?

There is a rude interruption at everything said.
She would rather talk and everyone would just listen.

I do not know what I am babbling in my frenzy.
O! God, I only hope no one will understand it.

Listen not, if someone would call you bad;
Say nothing, if one does wrong to you.

Stop him, if one goes on a wrong path.
Forgive him, if one makes a blunder.

Who is there that is not a needy one?
Who can fulfill the needs of anyone?

What was it that Khizr did to Alexander?
Now whom can we accept as our guide?

When all hope is gone, Ghalib,
Why should one complain to someone?