Thursday, July 21, 2005

Thinking against terror

As some sink into a post-modern mush, it's refreshing to once more read Unite Against Terror.

Good to see this links to Iraq's war on women by Lesley Abdela (although Barefoot and Pregnant should be in the list of links).

Today's NYT editorial, Off course in Iraq, also picks up on concerns about the impact on women.

And the battle of ideas aspect is usefully alluded to by Hamayun Ansari in his FT piece Identity struggle leads to radicalism:

"The reluctance of Muslims to examine the Koran historically and contextually" [my emphasis added] "prevents them from challenging Islamist extremists' interpretations of the word of God to suit their political agendas".

While on women and politics, few are more sensible in their advice than Lesley Abdela herself, in a message to Isabel Hilton the key conclusions of which she has circulated:

"The challenge is to make extra space for women's voices and perspectives without making a women's ghetto. I always think it falls roughly into 3 categories:

1. Make sure you add the extra (often invisible) gender dimension on every discussion topic - for example in a discussion on Constitutions, electoral systems or on tax policies - how might different aspects of a draft constitution, electoral systems or a tax policy impact differently on women's lives from men's lives?

2. Issues that are of specific importance to women (although some men should be interested too) issues such as implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 or women's participation in politics etc

3. Making sure that women's voices and women writers are seen and heard equally contributing ideas on to all mainstream democracy debates".

1 comment:

Caspar Henderson said...

Fear and clothing
By Noha Mellor
Financial Times
Published: July 22 2005
(23 July magazine)

Muslim women

The images and meanings of Muslim womanhood are a focus of world attention, an attention quite different from that which they have received before. On the one hand, veiled women from Arab and Muslim countries have been deployed as symbols of national and religious identity, defying the powerful west that seeks radically to change this identity. On the other hand, veiled women in the west have been the target of several public campaigns - as in France and Denmark - which support a ban on wearing the hijab in schools or in the workplace, seeking to modernise Muslim citizens in the west and thus eradicate the threatening roots of fundamentalism.

It’s fantasy to believe that all Muslim women perceive their religion as an oppression clamped upon them by fathers, brothers and husbands. Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out and Na’ima B. Robert’s From My Sisters’ Lips are both fervent defenders of Islam. On the other hand - almost at the other extreme - Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam accuses Islam of being an inflexible religion that needs to be reformed.

Between these two conflicting poles, other women prefer to focus not on Islam and Muslim women in general, but on the everyday problems of Arab women in particular. These voices are channelled through Dalya Cohen-Mor’s edited collection: Arab Women Writers.

One thread connects all these voices: they seek a reinterpretation of the context in which they were born. Above all, they want to clarify the whole issue of their rights and duties as Muslim women without the mediation of a male voice - and not by a means that is either “biased” or “politically correct”.

Afzal-Khan’s collection of essays, poetry and stories has one mission: to defend Islam. The book asserts that Islam, the authors’ religion, is not the direct reason for the oppression and lack of development of women; rather, it is the power of the capitalist system that subtly uses Islam as rhetoric to hide its “global injustice”. In her introduction, Afzal-Khan describes a world of escalating power, hegemony and injustice: in her opinion, “religious fundamentalism... is but a symptom of this deeper malaise of unequal power-sharing and unbalanced access to the world’s resources.”

Na’ima Robert - a black woman of South African descent who was born in Leeds and grew up in Zimbabwe - converted to Islam as an adult. Her curiosity about the religion began on a trip to Egypt where she met a veiled woman and asked her why she was covering herself when she was so pretty. She was taken aback by the woman’s answer: “Because I want to be judged for what I say and what I do, not for what I look like.”

Throughout the book, Robert presents Islam less as a religion and a holy book than as an ideology and a lifestyle. For her, Islam is a liberating ideology offering a challenge to the consumer “culture of celebrity” promoted so ardently by the western media. “Our society,” she writes, “teaches us to be obsessed with appearance. As long as someone is beautiful, thin, wealthy, fun-loving or talented, we are happy to accept him or her at face value. We are not ever taught to look for - or care about - what lies beneath the surface.”

Islam, in her view, is a new kind of female empowerment that sees the wearing of the veil not as a sign of oppression but of liberation from the insistence that image is everything (though the society of the spectacle is not so easily cheated: the veiled or partly veiled woman is now a modern image). She writes: “The first effect that the hijab, the headscarf, seemed to have on us was to encourage modesty - in dress and in conduct. After a lifetime spent showing off our clothes and our bodies, we suddenly felt shy to flaunt ourselves in public.” She noticed a change in men’s attitude towards her and her sisters, for now “they would no longer observe our movements, watch the way we walked, size us up or compare us. The old ways of relating to women’s bodies were no longer applicable because our bodies were not on display.”

Cohen-Mor’s collection is in a different register. Her anthology of stories written over the past half century is literature deployed as a means to rebel, to assert authority through a voice equal in importance to that of a man, deliberately using the short story as a means easy “for women to access, and to print in newspapers and magazines”.

Cohen-Mor grasps what I’ve written about in my own book on the Arab media: that, as she puts it, “the impact of television, of the technological and communication revolution and of the process of globalisation, transcends linguistic and geographic boundaries, making inroads into all areas of life in Arab society.” The short stories provoke a mix of contradictory emotions; of fulfilment versus frustration, oppression versus liberation.

The rather idealised world of Na’ima Robert is contrasted with another, practical world where Muslim women face many hardships. Robert tells of the kindness of a Muslim man whose deep desire to follow the Prophet’s path in treating orphans well led him to embrace a new life with a widow who had a child from a previous marriage. Contrast this with Najiya Thamir’s story “The Slave” in Cohen-Mor’s anthology, an account of an orphan girl who grew up in a stranger’s house only to serve them as a maid, or slave, deprived of her basic rights to learn and even marry.

In Cohen-Mor’s collection, the Emirates writer Zabya Khamis, arrested in 1987 in Abu Dhabi and jailed for publishing “transgressive poetry”, portrays the dilemma of a young Arab woman from the Gulf returning home after six years of study in the west, accustomed to wearing western clothes and indulging in western lifestyle, only to be stopped and humiliated at her country’s airport. “In the past,” Khamis writes, “the authorities had not feared women as they do now. Seized by an overwhelming fear, they have started to search, arrest, and even torture them. They have also cancelled study-abroad programmes for many female students.” The virtue of premarital chastity and a woman’s virginity, whose violation may provoke crimes of “honour”, is explored in the story “Questioning” by Bahraini Fawziya Rashid. The converse, polygamy as a man’s right, is skilfully described as a young woman’s ordeal in the short story “Sun, I am the Moon” by the Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh.

Irshad Manji is not just in a different register, but on a different planet from these women. High-profile, ambitious to be noticed, bravely provocative, her best-seller The Trouble with Islam pushes the instances of aggression towards women with detail and incident. The Nigerian girl who was punished with 180 lashes after being raped by three men, for example - or the fact that in Tunisia and Algeria, Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men (and I have to correct her here: not only there - this applies to several other Arab states). In Pakistan, an average of two honour killings - the murder of young women, often by their family, for “dishonourable” behaviour such as having a boyfriend - are registered daily. In Mali, Mauritania and Sudan, slavery is still practised; in Bangladesh, artists have been arrested for propagating the rights of minorities; in Yemen and Jordan, of those working for aid agencies, only Christians were killed.

Manji goes deep into forbidden territory by taking on the attitude of Muslims towards Jews. At the age of 14, she asked her teacher for proof of the “Jewish conspiracy” against Islam and bluntly posed the question: “If the Koran came to Prophet Mohammed as a message of peace, why did he command his army to kill an entire Jewish tribe?” If this marked the end of her days at the Islamic school in Canada (she was dismissed from the school), it was the beginning of her intellectual journey to debate Islam freely. Manji - ironically her first name means “guidance” in Arabic - calls for ijtihad (not to be confused with jihad or holy war) or the reinterpretation of the Koran, based on critical thinking as opposed to literalism. She defines herself as “a Muslim Refusenik” and she justifies this title with her refusal “to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah”. Being lesbian made her wonder: “How can we be sure that homosexuals deserve ostracism or death when the Koran states that everything God made is ‘excellent’?”

The real imperialism for Manji is not that of the west, but of the Arabic tribal culture. She wonders, for example, why Arabic has become the legitimate language of Islam, when 80 per cent of Muslims are non-Arabs? Or why should Muslims turn to the direction of Mecca when praying, when God is said to be everywhere? Or “Why are we all being held hostage by what’s happening between the Palestinians and the Israelis?” “Honour killing”, she says, is a phenomenon closely related to the Arab culture, but not to Islam as a religion. Manji’s mission, therefore, is twofold; to liberate Islam from the Arabic cultural context (or “desert Islam” as she calls it), and to question the holy texts and their relevance for the modern times. She sees this, however, not as a battle of Islam versus secularism, as many in the west may do, but as the Islamic world being in need of a Martin Luther to lead a new “protestant” movement among Muslims and reintroduce the notion of ijtihad, which stopped towards the end of the 11th century for political reasons.

One thing is missing from the books reviewed: it is, as Cohen-Mor puts it, referring to the privileged background of most women writers, the absence of attention paid to the “plight of women from the poorer classes of society”. Education is one concrete solution, as well as economic independence. But political and social pressure should accompany efforts to educate and liberate women, regardless of their religious background. It does not help, for instance, to exercise political pressure on some Arab states to release dissident prisoners, as Condoleezza Rice did in her latest visit to the Middle East, while turning a blind eye to female oppression in the same societies.

The debate raised by these writers has no winners or losers - and it has certainly not ended here. Manji thanks God for the west, where it is possible to practise the freedom of speech: perhaps we should rather thank the globalisation that has indeed made our world more interconnected than ever. It is now impossible to ignore the plight of women anywhere in the world as if we don’t know about them. “Honour killing” is a crime that does not only occur in some faraway lands, but takes place in the heart of the west - in Germany, France, Sweden and Denmark.

A free debate with native voices from east and west will be Osama bin Laden’s real nightmare. For what matters is that we will, hopefully, end up with a fear-free debate that transcends geographical limitations and which questions, challenges and seeks solutions for these dilemmas.

Noha Mellor is a journalist at the BBC World Service and author of “The Making of Arab News”.

edited by Fawzia Afzal-Khan
Arris £15.99, 338 pages

by Na’ima B. Robert
Bantam Press £12.99, 286 pages

THE TROUBLE WITH ISLAM: A Wake-up Call for Honesty and Change
by Irshad Manji
Mainstream £12.99, 254 pages

ARAB WOMEN WRITERS: An Anthology of Short Stories
edited by Dalya Cohen-Mor
State University of New York Press $24.95, 305 pages