Category Archives: Hijab

International Women’s Day – 100 yrs.

On Sunday in the Ivory Coast women were massacred in an ambush while protesting peacefully in the streets. Last week in Libya women were gunned down while being used as human shields by mercenaries.

young women protesting in Libya (Yahoo)

Still, women are out in protest across the Middle East and beyond, asking insistently for change and fundamental fairness for their place in society. But women have taken part in revolutions before in the Arab/Muslim world and their plight has consistently remained unchanged with the change-of-the-guard. They are sent back home with few gains to impact their immediate lives and little to show for their sacrifices. Economic participation remains limited, social inclusion is inhibited, and a future involving full civic participation with rights and choices is no more a broad-based reality today, as we mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, as it was 100 years ago.

Why is there such resistance to women’s inclusion in civic life, along with rights and economic freedom, across the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa?

Some contemplate that it may be religion. Some think it must be the nature of the Eastern woman. Some have come to believe it is simply the eternal destiny of Arab/Muslim women to serve, rather than to be served. Truth be known, it is tradition…simply deep-rooted Tradition.

Muslim women protesting in Egypt

It has been long ingrained in mythology and legendry, that the good Eastern woman is to serve quietly, and to subserviently live out her days as her master and patriarch dictates. Today, as modernity would have it, many young women in the East are questioning the wisdom of this tradition, and its applicability to their emancipated instincts. After all, women across the Arab world and in Muslim Iran have increased their presence in universities and have attained levels of education previously unseen among women in generations prior. Today more than half the students enrolled in universities across the Middle East are women, although only a baffling 5% are represented in the work force.

Still, the state of women in Muslim countries across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia is worrisome. Not because they are battered and beaten just as the men are amidst the brutal crack-downs confronting protests, but because for as long as their emancipation is only in the minds of women, and not in the folklore that creates the Muslim lifestyle, women will continue to be battered and beaten at home as well as on the streets.

Reform must begin at home, and affect society from the bottom up. Women who live in societies where they are expected to cover their heads as a condition of being female, necessarily live in a society that expects them to be subservient. That is not to say that all women who choose to wear head-coverings are subservient. No. If that is a choice made of free will and not higher command, then it is independent of coercion and emblematic of a faith that is to be respected. The trouble presents itself when tradition compels the woman to look and be marked as separate and apart from the men, who remain uninhibited by a dress code that is necessarily debilitating. Hijab by its nature is debilitating. From its most basic to its most oppressive forms, Hijab hinders one or more of the senses and is part and parcel of a tradition to disable and debilitate women by limiting their power of movement and perception.

Contrast in Cairo

When I see pictures of emancipated women with free flowing hair and traces of make-up yelling in protest on the streets of the Arab world along-side their veiled sisters, I worry. I worry that the two sides are not hollering for the same kind of change. One is risking life and limb for change that she thinks will mean equality and emancipation for women and the acceptance of their full participation in civic society, while the other is taking part in an exercise to consolidate the power of religio-centered politics with an allegiance to fundamental Islam rather than to the rule of law and the influence of equality in civic life.

They stand next to each other, grudgingly smiling at one another in a civilized exchange that gives hope to the idea of respectful co-existence, thrusting their fists and voices into the sky as one – one voice for change. They both agree on the idea of rejecting the order they have now and can unite over a call for a new socio-political order. But the new order will not suit them both the same.

Modern women protesting for real change

To see change in the Middle East go toward fundamental fairness and equality for women, the vernacular of society has to change. The culture of domestic life must begin the change just as fundamentally as the politics do. Tradition has to shift from one that trumpets the subservience of women to one that champions their empowerment. Grass roots organizations have to begin in the villages and towns across wide swath of these regions to raise a collective howl against the prevalent but silent domestic exploitation of women. These organizations must begin to change hearts and minds and win people over to the idea that women are equal creations in the eyes of god and man, and that they must be bestowed the rights that make a human whole.

No government anywhere across the domino landscape of revolutionary Middle East today will step in and proclaim the equal rights of women, and actually proceed to bequeath those rights to them. Not without the sustained and committed pressure of regular men and women in society at large – who stand up and assert that fundamental fairness and not a skewed custom of conventions long out-dated should rule the land – will any revolution on the streets of the Arab/Muslim world translate into practical changes in the lives of women there.

These days, to celebrate 100 years of International Women’s Day, female talking heads and pundits in the West, who have attained the emancipated role of ‘role models’ sitting in the comfort of lawful lands, theorize about the plight of women in Arab and Muslim countries displaying the courage for change. They proclaim that until women attain educational and economic equality they cannot be truly empowered.  But to begin to attain that equality they must battle Tradition – and that tradition will be tightly held in place by strong willed men who loath to give up the power it gives them.

If ever there was a time for the emancipated institutions of women to come together for a cause it is now. Women across the Arab world have a chance to turn the corner and establish a pathway to fundamental change against business as usual for governments vis-à-vis the rights of women. Well funded, well connected, well networked organizations that aid, empower and represent the rights of women should come together, strategize and make a plan to establish grass roots efforts wherever possible and to introduce basic education to women and girls. Only this way can we help to change the landscape of civil society and the vernacular of mythology that feeds into a tradition which has historically ill-served the women of the Arab/Muslim world.

Starting this year, on the 100th anniversary of a long-standing global struggle, stand together. Make a difference. Change lives forever.

UN Women and Iran

I don’t mean to differ too starkly from my usual diatribe, but the hoopla about Iran joining the board of the newly formed UN Women, and comparing its track record to that of Saudi Arabia on women’s issues, is really misplaced.

Through my research, and personal experience, I’ve had to make note of the fact that women fare far better under the patriarchal control of Iranian laws than they do in Arab countries under the control of authorities that impose a tribal version of traditional Islam that, simply and unequivocally, dis-serves women.

Tehran - Summer 2010

Not to say that Tehran looks like Paris, but neither does it feel like Riyadh. To begin with, we in the West seem to believe we corner the ideological high ground on women. To be sure, we do intellectually. That is not to say that women everywhere are not as bright as those in the West, but that as women of the west we spearheaded (at least 1.5 generations ago) the movement toward empowering women intellectually, legally, culturally and constitutionally. As a result, women in the west began seeking college educations, entering the workforce, and succeeding in a manner that gave them credibility and by extension, the ability to speak out. It is by virtue of women’s achievements in the Western world that so many aid groups have cropped up in the Western hemisphere to help countless women in the East. I would list them, but there are too many to list. A “google” search will yield hundreds of pages with organizations large and small. Each is dedicated to the empowerment of women – from the ones with a global reach to the smallest grass roots movements that focus-in on intimate groups of women and lift them by sheer will and financing cobbled together by — well, women.

But the intellectual empowerment that led to financial strength, which enabled women to begin to spread the word does not equally apply to sexual empowerment. Western women are credible because they are educated and wealthy, by a global standard. The combination garners due respect around the world. But their sexual emancipation does not garner the same respect, nor does it lend us any credibility around the world. It is here that I scoff at the collective western cry against the inclusion of a country like Iran on the board of UN Women. Iran has proven not to be against the intellectual empowerment of women.

Saudi studentIran is not Saudi. To begin with, Iran was not a Muslim society. Islam was brought to Iran (Persia at the time) by the Arab conquests of 633-651AD, and foisted upon its people. Persians will pledge that Islam never really took root of their soul and that to this day, they separate themselves from its strictest scriptures. In fact, women in Iran have the undeniable right to drive, go to school and on to universities where they now comprise statistically more than 50% of the nation’s students, vote, inherit (although at half the rate of men if intestate), divorce, re-marry, work outside the home and even roam the streets without a burka or chador. Yes, they do have to cover their hair and can’t wear revealing clothes. But Iranian women constantly test those perimeters and live to tell about it.

Iranian women in protest in Tehran

 

To the Muslim eye, the “freedom” in the West that is defined by the freedom of thought is applaudible, but the freedom of sexual expression is frowned upon. Ask a Muslim and they will tell you that they treat their women better. I can’t agree. But I comprehend what they are trying to convey. They believe that the instinct to protect women from the male predator is a respectful thing, but that the forward impulse by western women to be with multiple men is a disrespect to the female entity. In Islam, the chastity of the woman is equivalent to the honor of the family, and by broader definition, society. For this reason, a raped woman is an embarrassment to her family. But again, by statistic, fewer raped women are shunned by their communities in Iran than in most of its Arab neighbors. I remember Sakineh Mohammad Ashtiani and her stoning sentence.  (see post at http://womenfound.org/2010/07/09/honor-stoning-stomach-turning/). That sort of state action cannot be condoned or qualified in any way. But  in relation to the area, Muslim Middle East, Iran is a sanctuary for women, dare I say it. Not that I propose Iran is an oasis of freedom and equality, but for every horrific tale of discrimination that comes out of Iran, there are plenty of instances of triumph for women. Today women in Iran occupy positions as scientists, lawyers, doctors, writers, artists, movie-makers, members of parliament, teachers and professors, as well as mothers, wives and daughters. The older they get, the higher they are held in regard as the matriarch of the family, and the ones with the greatest decision making power in the household. This is true of families who are poor with multiple children, to the more modern families who are educated and have fewer children. Across the board, the girls are expected to be as smart as the boys and if the resources exist, they are to study as hard as the boys and achieve as well as they do. The difference is that as a traditional society, the women are expected to marry earlier and bear children after marriage. ‘Stay-at-home Dads’ are still a non-starter. But that is a cultural referendum, not a legal one.

Iranian women in Iran

 

Saudi is a different matter. It is the only country in the world where women cannot drive, nor can they vote. They are rarely seen in the public sphere and when they do venture out, they must be accompanied by a male relative. They do not comprise a surprisingly large percentage of the university population in the country, nor can they be elected to public office. They are subservient to their men in far greater numbers than in Iran, particularly in the villages outlying the cities; and stoning as a form of punishment for immoral digressions are far more frequent. Even within the cities, abuse and beatings within the family nucleus are appallingly widespread and tragically tolerated by authorities and communities alike. Children are married off at an early age, and not much is expected of them other than reproduction.

Women on the streets in Saudi Arabia

 

So if there is protest against Saudi having a say in the global empowerment of women, perhaps it is well-placed. But in fairness, Iran is a respite for women in Muslim Middle East and certainly cannot be compared to Saudi Arabia – no matter how much we may prefer King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz to President Ahmadinejad. To the extent that UN Women; “The UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women” is looking to empower women, not sexually – but intellectually, emotionally, culturally and financially, they will be enriched by the participation of Iranian women who have succeeded in navigating a decidedly up-hill thoroughfare obstructed by a patriarchal system that could have impeded their progress, but ultimately didn’t. 

 

young Iranian women demanding equality

 

For perspective see also:

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2010/10/iran-saudi-arabia-women-united-nations.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/03/world/03nations.html

http://www.frumforum.com/iran-saudis-poised-to-join-un-human-rights-body\

http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_many_women_in_Iranian_parliament

http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2008/0305_education_salehi_isfahani.aspx

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women’s_rights_in_Saudi_Arabia

http://www.ideationcenter.com/home/ideation_article/47143812

http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=182

http://payvand.com/news/09/aug/1264.html

“Open Faced” Democracy…

“Democracy thrives when it is open-faced”

Michele Alliot-Marie French justice minister   

France's fight against the face-veil (bbc.co.uk)

The lower house of the French Parliament, today, voted overwhelmingly (335 to 1) to approve  a bill proposing to ban wearing the full Islamic veil in public. Both the Niqab and Burka would be banned under the proposed law – which still needs to pass the upper house of the French Parliament in September.   

Even now, opposition groups have vowed to begin a legal battle to claim the law as being unconstitutional in Europe. So far as the women in question have been heard to speak or address the issue in France, they have stated that they wear the Islamic head-dress willingly and voluntarily. Indeed, most practicing Muslim women who live under Hijab voluntarily will tell you that they do not perceive their coverage as a limitation.   

That said, it is undeniable that the full forms of the Islamic veil for women have struck and offensive chord with Westerners. France has just been the first to pick-up the gauntlet. Although the proposed bill banning the Niqab and Burka, Islam’s most debilitating covers, makes no reference to Islam, it has been compared to a “walking coffin or a muzzle”, by Andre Gerin of the Communist opposition party.   

The "Burka"

The "Niqab"

The Council of State, France’s highest administrative body, warned in March that the law could be found unconstitutional on the grounds of limiting freedom of religion. What proponents will likely argue is that the Niqab and Burka are only worn by an estimated 2000 women in France. This makes it a minority practice that does not reflect the standard practice of Islam. It does however, limit the state’s ability to identify the women when need be and it flies in the face of the principles of France and French living.   

I have to wonder aloud: why would people who feel the need to follow the strictest strictures of Islam want to live in the West where, although Islam may be welcome, its extreme form is not?    

The French, it seems to me, have worked and fought hard to create a secular society that they covet. Who can blame them for wanting to protect that secularism? For many French people, it is that secularism – that freedom – that allows, indeed enables, them to be on the forefront of technology, industry, economy and the arts. To them, limiting their secular ways is tantamount to limiting their progress and their life-style.   

Though Belgium and Spain are considering similar legislation, it seems for now that France’s Parliament has taken on one of the thorniest issues facing European countries today. These nations have offered generous immigration and asylum policies to the influx of Muslims in their midst, and while Europeans near and far will be watching to see where the trend takes them, the Muslim world will watch to see how to react. Likely, the Muslim world will not simply turn a blind eye to this law, once it passes.    

The Bill, as it is currently proposed, will levy a fine of 150 euros ($190) for women who break the law and 30,000 euros (roughly $38,000) and a one-year jail term for men who force their wives to wear the burka. Clearly, France wishes to put the onus on the men. According to a BBC report, France has determined that the majority of the estimated 2000-3000 women who wear the Burka or the Niqab in France are young women, and many are converts. The assumption is that the men are exerting a great deal of control over these young and perhaps vulnerable, newly minted, Muslim women and the State is stepping in to protect them. It can legitimately be argued that the State does have a duty to protect its citizens and that the control Muslim men exact over their women is a form of coercion and abuse. Under French law, as in most Western legal systems, that conduct – if proven – would be punishable by law.   

The battle is likely to wage for years. Muslims will not turn away from this as a battle lost and a chance to learn and move on. From faith-inspired men acting alone to State’s whose legitimacy rides on their ability to coerce women into coverage, the wheels of establishment Islam will begin to turn toward the undoing of a law legally passed by a sovereign nation’s Parliament. They will mount a virulent opposition campaign against the French and the Parliament, and they will likely issue Fatwa’s (recall Salman Rushdie) and call for the heads to roll (recall the Dutch Cartoonist who dared to satirize the prophet Mohamed). No doubt, this will only enrage the French, and indeed any other country that dares to take on the issue, and harden their stance against allowing full face veils in their communities and societies.   

…And once again, we will have a cycle of hatred and violence with no end in sight.