Saturday, 17 July 2010

From liberals and feminists, unsettling silence on rending the Muslim veil

Washington Post
By Mona Eltahawy
Saturday, July 17, 2010

The French parliament's vote this week to ban full-length veils in public was the right move by the wrong group.

Some have tried to present the ban as a matter of Islam vs. the West. It is not. First, Islam is not monolithic. It, like other major religions, has strains and sects. Many Muslim women -- despite their distaste for the European political right wing -- support the ban precisely because it is a strike against the Muslim right wing.

Some have likened this issue to Switzerland's move last year to ban the construction of minarets. On the one hand, it is preposterous to compare women's faces -- their identity -- to a stone pillar. Minarets are used to issue a call to prayer; they are a symbol of Islam. The niqab, the full-length veil that has openings only for the eyes, is a symbol only for the Muslim right.

But underlying both bans is a dangerous silence: liberal refusal to robustly discuss what it means to be European, what it means to be Muslim, and racism and immigration. Liberals decrying the infringement of women's rights should acknowledge that the absence of debate on these critical issues allowed the political right and the Muslim right to seize the situation.

Europe's ascendant political right is unapologetically xenophobic. It caricatures the religion that I practice and uses those distortions to fan Islamophobia. But ultra-conservative strains of Islam, such as Salafism and Wahhabism, also caricature our religion and use that Islamophobia to silence opposition. Salafi ideology, which is unapologetically misogynistic, has left its imprimatur on Islam globally by convincing too many Muslims that it is the purest and highest form of our faith.

The strains of Islam that promote face veils do not believe in the concept of a woman's right to choose and describe women as needing to be hidden to prove their "worth." Salafism and Wahhabism preach that women will burn in hell if they are not covered from head to toe -- whether they live in Saudi Arabia or France. There is no choice in such conditioning. That is not a message Muslims learn in our holy book, the Koran, nor is the face veil prescribed by the majority of Muslim scholars.

The French ban has been condemned as anti-liberal and anti-feminist. Where were those howls when niqabs began appearing in European countries, where for years women fought for rights? A bizarre political correctness tied the tongues of those who would normally rally to defend women's rights.

There are several ideological conflicts here: Within Islam, liberal and feminist Muslims refuse to believe that full-length veils are mandatory. In Saudi Arabia, where the prevalence of face veils is great, blogger Eman Al Nafjan wrote a post on Saudiwoman supporting the French ban: "I have heard Saudi women, who are conditioned to believe that covering is an unquestionable issue, sigh as they watch uncovered women on TV and say, 'They get this world, and we get the afterlife.' These are the women 'choosing' to cover, brainwashed into living to die."

But the problem is not just "over there." Feminist groups run by Muslim women in various Western countries fight misogynistic practices justified in the name of culture and religion. Cultural relativists, they say, don't want to "offend" anyone by protesting the disappearance of women behind the veil -- or worse.

For example, French women of North African and Muslim descent launched Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives) in response to violence against women in housing projects and forced marriages of immigrant women in France. That group supports the ban and has denounced the racism faced in France by immigrant women and men.

Cultural integration has failed, or not taken place, in many European countries, but women shouldn't pay the price for it.

Europe's liberals must ask themselves why they have been silent. It is clear that Europe's political right -- other countries have similar bans in the works -- does not care about Muslim women or their rights.

But Muslims must ask themselves the same question: Why the silence as some of our women fade into black, either as a form of identity politics or out of acquiescence to Salafism?

The pioneering Egyptian feminist Hoda Shaarawi famously removed her veil in 1923, declaring it a thing of the past. Almost a century later, we are foundering. The best way to support Muslim women would be to oppose both the racist political right wing and the niqabs and burqas of the Muslim right wing. Women should not be sacrificed to either.

Let's move away from abstract discussions and focus on the realities of women. The French were right to ban the veil in public. Those of us who really care about women's rights should talk about the dangers in equating piety with the disappearance of women.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born writer and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. Her e-mail address is

Thursday, 15 July 2010

US Power Seduced Blair and Goldsmith Into Iraq War

Huffington Post, USA
Posted: July 6, 2010 01:09 PM
An invasion of Iraq without the green light from the UN Security Council would be a crime of aggression.

That was the verdict of Sir Michael Wood, senior legal adviser at the Foreign Office in 2003. And that is what he wrote to then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. So how did he, and Tony Blair, come to believe that it would be not just not be a crime of aggression, but that it would be perfectly legal?

This week, the release of legal advice by then-UK Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, shed some light onto this mysterious 180-degree shift in the government's opinion on the legality of the Iraq war.

What happened after Sir Michael offered that advice was this: Jack Straw noted the advice, but disagreed with it. Advice was then sought from the most senior legal adviser to the government, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith. The documents show that he was initially skeptical that an invasion of Iraq without a Security Council resolution authorizing it would be legal. But he, along with a slew of other figures at the top of government, eventually changed their mind. Goldsmith ruled it was lawful, and the rest is history.

I believe that there is an under-appreciated aspect as to why so many figures at the top of government changed their mind: they went to America. Goldsmith changed his mind about forty-eight hours after visiting Washington. Why did this make such a big difference?

I believe that there are three main reasons.

Firstly, because they were dazzled by the pomp and power of the government of the world's last remaining superpower. They would have seen the widescreen-style buildings and accouterments of US Power and felt the reverence with which a popular President is held, as head of State as well as head of government. I believe that this is also the reason -- a bad reason -- why Tony Blair did not cut a better deal with George Bush.

But they would have also sensed something else -- the sense of determination in the ruling circles in Washington that an invasion was a done deal. The question in the White House was not 'will it happen', but 'will we have to go it alone?'

But I think there was another factor which would have made the US trip change Blair and Co.'s minds. The culture amongst most of the ruling Republicans at the time (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bolton), was particularly scornful of international law. They represented that significant constituency in the US which regards international law as a flimsy construct subject to the political manipulation of world leaders, the UN as an aid agency with ideas above its station, and the idea of the legality or illegality of a war as at best, a misguided nuisance, and at worst, a liberal conspiracy to check American power.

Goldsmith and Blair had grown up with the cozier, more mainstream, European view which imbued the idea of international law with the spirit of a Wilsonian aspiration towards a world governed by rules, not might. When Blair, Prescott, got off the plane and found themselves in the embrace of the hardliners of the Bush administration, they found themselves not just in a foreign land geographically, but also in a foreign land intellectually as well. It is very doubtful that any government lawyer would have ever advised Goldsmith, as attorney general, that the invasion of Iraq without a second UN resolution could have been anything other than an illegal war of aggression. But suddenly, his boss found himself in an environment which was not just emotionally openly scornful of international law, but which backed up their scorn with arguments too.

They are arguments which fail, of course. Just because a lawmaking procedure is imperfect, doesn't mean that countries are allowed to pretend it's not there. And especially when that system of international law is endorsed by most of the rest of the world, and the world's sole superpower only opts out when it is to its advantage.

But the wider point is that I believe that exposure to the debate in the US changed the question in Blair's mind from 'would it be illegal?' to 'does legality matter'? And exposure to the pomp of the superpower changed his answer from 'yes' to 'no.' Blair let himself be dazzled, and I believe that history will judge him more harshly for it.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.

Imams urged to condemn domestic abuse

Exclusive by Jasper Hamill
Herald Scotland
20 Jun 2010

SCOTLAND’S leading Islamic scholar is launching an unprecedented campaign to place anti-domestic violence messages in Friday prayers at every mosque in Scotland.

Shaykh Amer Jamil, right, the country’s most prominent and respected Muslim thinker, is to meet every imam in Scotland over the coming months. Jamil will ask the imams to tell their congregation about Islam’s stance opposing domestic violence, and give the clerics advice on dealing with the police.

According to police, there is a problem in the Muslim community of families failing to report domestic abuse. Scholars like Jamil also say that some Muslim men use incorrect readings of the Koran to justify beating their wives.

Jamil added: “When police or social work got involved, some men were saying: ‘Look, this is allowed in my culture and religion, you don’t understand’. That’s rubbish.

“Half the problem is that imams don’t understand the reality of domestic violence and how bad it is. I think that if we can get the information to them, it will motivate them to do something about it.”

As well as the messages in Friday sermons, there will be 30,000 leaflets distributed around the country in English, Urdu, Arabic and Bengali.

Jamil added: “Islam has no religious justification for this kind of behaviour. If this goes on in families, and someone knows their cousin, uncle or brother is doing it, they have a responsibility to speak up. If they don’t, it’s sinful.”

Jamil has also campaigned against the dangers of forced marriage, terrorism and ‘DIY Islam’ – incorrect versions of the religion learned over the internet often with a hardline twist.

His latest project has the backing of Strathclyde Police, the Association of Chief Police Officers Scotland and the Scottish Government.

Amar Shakor, chair of the Scottish Police Muslim Association, is backing Jamil. “We support this initiative that will provide education to the community on how to report domestic violence,” he said. “One of the issues we do have in the Muslim and Indian sub-continent community is in regards to the honour of a family if they report domestic violence, because shame is said to be brought onto the family as well. That’s a hurdle we need to cross.”

Shakor also wants Muslim men to know they can report domestic violence. “It’s not just women that suffer,” he said. “Some male victims that come over from the sub-continent suffer from domestic violence and there is under-reporting amongst men too.”

The Scottish Government sees the project as a strand of its own campaign against domestic violence.

A government spokeswoman said: “The project will make it very clear that Islam does not tolerate domestic abuse of any kind or under any circumstances. By working closely with imams and the community the project will challenge the misconceptions and empower more women to come forward for help.

“We support this initiative, in partnership with ACPOS, and will continue to do everything we can to tackle domestic abuse in Scotland.”

Half the problem is that imams don’t understand the reality of domestic violence and how bad it is

Harrods offers fashion for Muslim women

Qatar fund bought retailer in May

The Boston Globe

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Fashion designer Hind Beljafla makes abayas to match the Gucci shoes and Hermes handbags of high-spending women in the Gulf.

Now these women can buy her elegant versions of the black Islamic robes, which obscure the contours of a woman’s body, when they head to London this summer to escape the Arabian Peninsula’s sweltering heat. Harrods started selling abayas by Beljafla’s DAS Collection in June, a month after Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund bought the landmark store.

“Muslim women are like any women around the world: They love fashion and love shopping,’’ Beljafla, 24, said in her store here.

Fashion houses in Milan and Paris are waking up to the commercial potential for Muslim women’s clothing that respects religious values and sets new standards for style.

Gas exporter Qatar ranks among the world’s wealthiest nations, with a gross domestic product per capita of $121,000, while Saudi Arabia sits on a fifth of the planet’s oil reserves.

Last year, John Galliano was among 21 designers who participated in a Paris show at Hotel George V, owned by Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. The made-to-measure abayas displayed there were worth up to $10,000.

Saks Fifth Avenue, which hosted the event, then put designer abayas on sale for as much as $12,000 at its stores in the Saudi cities of Riyadh and Jeddah. The abayas are displayed alongside designer evening gowns on the women-only floor of a shopping mall in Riyadh’s glass skyscraper, the Kingdom Center, owned by Alwaleed.

Saudi Arabia, which follows a strict interpretation of Islam, forbids mixing in public between unrelated men and women.

Clients have asked DAS to make abayas to match the color of their designer bags and high heels by brands such as Christian Dior, Hermes, Channel, and Gucci, Beljafla said.

Four years ago, Christian Dior SA had one store in the Middle East, in Dubai. It has since opened 10 in the region, in locations including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Kuwait.

Paris-based Jean-Claude Jitrois has made abayas for several Saudi princesses as well as a collection of 40 for sale at Saks Fifth Avenue.

“There is no contradiction between the modernity of European fashion and modernity of Middle Eastern women,’’ he said. “Every culture has its traditions, and you have to respect this while giving it a twist.’’

Abayas have proved popular at Harrods in London, where summertime visitors from the Gulf throng the streets of the upscale Knightsbridge district.
© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.