Muslim women in short skirts and the Tunisia paradox

 
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By Khaled Diab

Bombing Afghanistan will not bring back women in short skirts, rather it will only empower men in short skirts (beards and long trousers). The path to gender equality lies in internal reform, as Tunisia demonstrates.

Tuesday 5 September 2017

While not quite the face that launched a thousand ships, a photo of Afghan women in miniskirts in 1970s Kabul helped convince Donald Trump to commit more troops to Afghanistan rather than to pull out of the unwinnable war, according to information revealed by The Washington Post.

National security adviser HR McMaster had wanted to show Trump that “Western norms had existed there before and could return,” according to the report. That the national security adviser would choose this means of persuasion and that the president would be convinced by it betray a profound misunderstanding of Muslim women, their status and how to liberate them.

Bombing Afghanistan will not bring back women in short skirts, rather it will only empower men in short skirts (and long trousers), i.e. the Taliban. Regardless of what an invader professes to offer, people tend not to take kindly to being maimed, killed and occupied for their ‘liberty’, which strengthens the hand of those fighting the occupier.

More importantly, Muslim women do not need American (mostly) men with guns to empower them. The reverse is usually true, as reflected by the worsening status of Iraqi women since the US invasion in 2003, which occurred long before ISIS came on the scene. In contrast, the most successful experiments in female emancipation in the Muslim world have been organic and internal, drawing inspiration, not imposition, from the West.

A case in point is Tunisia. In the cosmopolitan capital Tunis, where I live, you do not need to consult grainy black-and-white photos, women dressed in short skirts, shorts, sleeveless tops and tight jeans abound on the streets, while many of the beaches are filled with local women sunbathing or swimming in bikinis, who often share the water with their burkini-clad conservative compatriots – even if they do often view one another with mutual contempt.

Of course, clothes are only fabric-deep and are an unreliable bellwethers of a woman’s religious beliefs and of how empowered she is, as I highlight in my new book Islam for the Politically Incorrect. There are women who dress in revealing clothes but are religiously conservative and pious, and there are women who wear a hijab but barely practise their faith and are sexually liberal.

What is far more significant is the progress Tunisian women have made. In some respects, they are ahead of many of their western counterparts. For instance, abortion was legalised in Tunisia several years before it was in the United States. Today, almost a third of seats in Tunisia’s parliament is held by women, compared with under a fifth in the American Congress. However, despite being highly educated, Tunisian women make up a far smaller fraction of the labour force than their western peers.

While Tunisian women established an actual feminist movement almost a century ago and it has been two centuries since some Tunisian men started advocating for women’s rights, it was not until their country gained independence that women’s rights began to advance in earnest. Freed of their French overlords, Tunisians were finally liberated from the equating of religious conservatism with authenticity during the struggle for independence and could pursue a progressive programme of reform and modernisation in earnest.

Habib Bourguiba, leader of the liberation movement and the country’s first post-independence president, is often credited with putting in place the enlightened and progressive legal framework which has so benefited Tunisian women in comparison with their Arab neighbours.

But Bourguiba did not emerge in a vacuum, nor did he operate in one, even if he was a dictator. Bourguiba took over the reins of the nationalist movement at a time when women (not to mention women-friendly men) were playing an increasingly prominent role in civil society, journalism, anti-French activity and in demanding gender equality. This long tradition of hard battles and hard-won gains, underpinned by the foresight of the early codification of equality in law, can be seen today.

The received wisdom among many observers was that the revolution of 2010/11 would spell disaster for women’s rights in Tunisia, that dictatorship was the only way to impose modern secular values on a society presumed to be steeped in religion and tradition.

While a significant percentage of Tunisians are, like many Americans, deeply religious and conservative, the country’s founding vision has proven remarkably durable, despite recent economic hardship and the uncertainty of revolution, thanks to the robust activism of Tunisian women and secular forces, as well as to the relatively enlightened pragmatism of the country’s mainstream Islamist party, Ennahdha.

More impressively still, it seems that the cause of gender equality is progressing, rather than regressing – which would appear paradoxical, especially when compared to the much of the wider region. In fact, recent weeks have seen frenzied activity in this regard. Backed by civil society and cross-party support, Tunisia’s parliament pushed through landmark legislation to outlaw all forms of violence against women, from street harassment to domestic violence, as well as the scrapping of the controversial practice of allowing a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim.

A couple of weeks later, on Tunisian Women’s Day, President Beji Caed Essibsi unveiled plans to annul an unconstitutional circular or decree barring Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men and called on the government to review Tunisia’s archaic and unequal Islamic inheritance laws, which grant men double the inheritance of women.

The proposed marriage reform has met with little opposition from mainstream Islamists, even if some conservative men I have encountered have been outraged and baffled by the move. Speaking on a popular FM music channel, Ennahdha’s vice-president and co-founder Abdelfattah Mourou called the question of whom a woman chooses to marry one of “personal choice” – though he did hint that if she wanted to please her God, she would not marry out of the religious fold.

However, the issue of inheritance has proven far more thorny, as anything relating to money tends to be. While men safeguarding male privilege would be unsurprising, many of the staunchest opponents to the proposed inheritance reform are reportedly conservative women. “I have spoken with so many women who feel strongly about this,” Ennahdha’s Mona Ibrahim was quoted as saying.

Secular women feel just as strongly about the issue, albeit from the opposite direction. For instance, a friend, Shiraz, is married to a French man who was obliged to ‘convert’ to marry her, but this is, at the end of the day, a simple procedure that, for the pragmatist, is neither here nor there. In addition,

“What bothers me the most is the question of inheritance. Why should a man get double what a woman gets?” Shiraz asks. “It is just so unfair.” At times the injustice is multiplied, Shiraz points out, in the case of, say, rural women who go to the city to work and send back large chunks of their earnings to their parents who use the money to buy land or build a house. When the parents die, they are entitled to half of what their brothers receive.

The controversy over inheritance has sparked a heated but civil debate in Tunisia, with religious and secular voices falling on both sides of the debate. However, President Essibsi’s proposal has whipped up a storm of protest, as well as a wave of support, for Tunisia and Tunisians across the region, both in the real world and on social media, with one nutty and fanatical Egyptian columnist proposing the Arab world declare a holy war against Tunisia’s ‘apostasy’.

Further illustrating how hell hath no fury like middle-aged conservative men scorned, clerics at Egypt’s al-Azhar, traditionally considered the highest seat of Sunni learning in the world, expressed the kind of outrage and fury one normally associates with mass murder at how their Tunisian counterparts had broken with orthodoxy, not to mention al-Azhar’s theological hegemony, to back equal inheritance rights.

Tunisia’s Grand Mufti Othman Batikh’s response to the attacks, in contrast, was measured and dignified, pointing out that Islam was not set in stone, and that past interpretations that suited one age needed to be reinterpreted in light of the changing circumstances of another age.

Whether or not the ambitious inheritance reforms, which civil society has been advocating for some years, succeeds is uncertain, but it has opened up a necessary public debate and provided liberals and progressives with much-needed momentum.

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The mirage of the meek Muslim woman

 
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By Khaled Diab

Incurable misogynist Donald Trump has Muslim women all wrong. They are not silent and submissive.

Ghazala Khan

Ghazala Khan

Wednesday 10 August 2016

George Washington once opined that “offensive operations, often times, is the surest, if not the only… means of defence”.

In his campaign to become president of the United States, Donald Trump seems to have been inspired by Washington’s idea – common in modern warfare – but, with his questionable command of the English language, has misinterpreted the word “offensive”.

Ever since he began his bid for the presidency, the Republican nominee has managed to offend an untold number of individuals, not to mentions groups as diverse as women, Muslims and Mexicans – and yet, somehow, stay ahead.

The latest victims of his outrageously offensive campaign are Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the bereaved parents of Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed while serving in Iraq.

In response to Khizr Khan’s criticism of Trump’s politics of hatred and division at the Democratic National Convention, all the Republican candidate could rouse himself to say was “I’d like to hear his wife say something.

“If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say,” he elaborated in a later interview. “She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.”

Unsurprisingly, such a callous attack against a grieving “gold star” mother, in a country where the military is regarded as sacrosanct, sparked outrage, even amongst conservatives.

In a moving article, Ghazala Khan explained that her silence was not because she was some kind of downtrodden Muslim woman but was down to grief. “It has been 12 years, but you know hearts of pain can never heal as long as we live,” she wrote. “The place that emptied will always be empty.”

Offensive and insensitive as Donald Trump’s comments were, he was bringing nothing new to the table. Tapping into what seems to be his family’s penchant for “borrowing”, Trump was recycling one of the most common stereotypes about Islam in Western Islamophobic circles: the notion that Muslim women are silent, submissive, subservient creatures living under the thumb of their menfolk.

Earlier in the campaign, Republican hopeful Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who was out to prove, but failed, that running for president wasn’t brain surgery, made a similar point:  “[Muslim] women must be subservient,” he insisted.

I wondered if Carson would have the guts to tell Hend Wagih, Egypt’s first female bodyguard, that she is subservient to men to her face – I should warn him that she is a champion martial artist and a bodybuilder.

While Islam, like all major world religions, is patriarchal, Muslim women – who come in all shades of conformity and rebelliousness – are far from silent and submissive.

Were my maternal grandmother around today, she would have shown Trump and Carson just how coy and obedient Muslim women are with a few deft, well-targeted lashes of her tongue.

Although my grandmother was raised in a traditional Egyptian milieu, she was a formidable character who was queen of her castle, and woe betide anyone who trespassed on her turf.

My gran raised birds on her rooftop. One time, a burglar had the audacity – and misfortune – to land on my grandmother’s roof. Sensing that her precious birds were in mortal danger, my grandmother grabbed a knife from the kitchen and a stick. Looking out of the window, she ordered the burglar to stay where he was because she was coming to teach him a lesson. The terrified man leapt to a neighbouring rooftop and ran as if his life depended on it.

Her daughter, my late mother, perhaps partly inspired by this role model of strong womanhood at home, and how it belied the idea that men were superior, grew up to become a firm believer in gender equality.

A promising young writer and activist, my mother, in the 1960s, was inspired by the leftist, pan-Arabist dream of female emancipation. My mother’s was the first generation of Egyptian women to gain equal access to higher education, employment, the right to vote, meaningless as that was in Nasser’s Egypt, and the right to run for public office.

Slain blogger Qandeel Baloch. Source: Her Facebook page

Slain blogger Qandeel Baloch.
Source: Her Facebook page

While many Western critics of Islam are convinced that Muslim women must either choose Islam or feminism, for my mother, this was a false choice. Although I believe that all religions are intrinsically sexist, mum was convinced that the essence of Islam was one of egalitarianism and equality between men and women.

She attributed the gender inequalities in Islam to centuries of male scholars being the main interpreters of the faith. “Why do they ignore the stories of the prophet Muhammad darning his own clothes and helping out with the housework?” mum was fond of asking.

The high hopes of full women’s liberation entertained by my mother’s generation hit the rocks of a conservative backlash and an Islamist cultural counterrevolution. Nevertheless, women have been fighting hard, in recent years, to regain the momentum and press for complete equality – in every walk of life and profession, even if it occasionally costs them their lives, as it did the Pakistani blogger and activist Qandeel Baloch.

Donald Trump’s snarky, ignorant, bigoted remarks are an insult not just to Ghazala Khan but also to the millions of Muslim women around the world bravely fighting for their rights every day.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 2 August 2016.

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Smashing the Arab world’s glass ceiling

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arab women are not waiting for others to empower them, they are doing it for themselves. Over 40 are on the list of the most influential young Arabs.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Despite Arab revolutionaries’ dream of equality and empowerment for all, the cause of female emancipation has taken such a battering that the dream has turned into a nightmare for many women across the region. This is nowhere more poignantly illustrated than with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Fortunately, there is some cause for hope amid the despair. This was dramatically demonstrated this week with the release of a list of the most powerful Arabs outside of politics under the age of 40. Of these young movers and shakers, more than 40, by my count, are women.

All highly educated and ambitious, the women who appear on this league table have found success in a dizzyingly wide array of fields, including science, technology, political activism, the arts, the media, entertainment, entrepreneurship, business and finance. In a region notorious for its neglect of science and research, these high-flying women count a certified mathematical genius, IT whizzes and leading scientists in their ranks.

One interesting pattern is the large number of women from the Gulf, especially the UAE (16), who appear on the power list, though quite a number are not native to the Gulf. This conflicts with the widely held perception in the West and the traditional liberal centres of the Arab world that Gulf women are the most marginalised and disempowered in the region.

This is an encouraging sign that, despite the entrenched power of the patriarchy and regressive legislation on the Arabian peninsula, women there are fighting back and carving out a niche for themselves.

However, it would be a mistake to read this as evidence that Gulf women are necessarily the most influential in the region. Other factors play a role in their dominance of this list. One is the inevitable subjectivity of such an exercise. The league was compiled by ArabianBusiness.com, a Dubai-based financial publication. Whether intentionally or not, this is bound to introduce both geographical bias and a tendency to skew the list more towards business and finance, where the Gulf has a huge advantage.

This would explain some of the unclear choices, such as Nayla Al Khaja. Though as the UAE’s first female film producer and director, she is undoubtedly a trailblazer and pioneer, that is not the same as being influential. What about those legion female directors from the Arab world’s more-established cinematic centre who make ground-breaking films which reach wider audiences?

Regardless of where they come from, the prominence and sheer number of these successful and influential young women seem to stand at odds with the image of the Arab woman as oppressed and repressed.

Part of the reason is the warping effect of the media and public consciousness, where those who scream the loudest or commit the worst atrocities capture the most attention, while those who quietly get on with the business of life only receive footnote-sized attention.

"I believe that women have always been powerful." - Reem Khouri

“I believe women have always been powerful.” – Reem Khouri

“I believe women have always been powerful, but today they have a better chance to be recognised for their amazing work,” says Palestinian-Jordanian social entrepreneur Reem Khouri, citing the example of her Palestinian great-grandmother who bucked social convention in the 1920s to send her daughter to school.

And, indeed, Arab history is replete with powerful and successful women. “The fact that we, as the rest of society, have failed to see that is our shortcoming, not theirs,” contends Mohamed El Dahshan, a young Egyptian economist and activist who also made the list.

Beyond this, and counterintuitive as it may sound, there is actually a quiet social revolution taking place largely under the radar in which women, tired of waiting to be granted their own rights, have taken their causes into their own hands, in a phenomenon I call the “underground sisterhood”.

“I think that women aren’t waiting for someone to give them their rights to dream and achieve, rather they are doing it,” Khouri told me.

This is reflected in, for instance, how many of the women on the list achieved their success against the odds, in spite of, not thanks to, the prevalent order. “I owe this to my mother,” Afrah Nasser, the prominent young Yemeni journalist and blogger, admitted to me with disarming simplicity. “[She] managed to fight an abusive husband, fight a patriarchal Yemeni society which did not accept her as a divorced woman, and struggle financially to feed her two daughters.”

“I owe this to my mother. [She] managed to fight an abusive husband, fight a patriarchal Yemeni society which did not accept her as a divorced woman, and struggle financially to feed her two daughters.”  - Afrah Naser

“I owe this to my mother. [She] managed to fight an abusive husband, fight a patriarchal Yemeni society which did not accept her as a divorced woman, and struggle financially to feed her two daughters.” – Afrah Naser

As someone raised by a tough, dedicated, no-nonsense and selfless Arab mother, I totally appreciate what Nasser means.

But it would be a mistake to believe that it is only women who stand by women in their pursuit of success and equality, many fathers and brothers do too – what you can call the “new” Arab man, who is actually not new at all.

In addition, in Arab societies, where family is a mighty force, open-minded families are a great help in creating a conducive environment for women’s success. “I was brought up by parents who never differentiated between my brother and I and who continuously supported me in anything I wanted to pursue,” admits Khouri.

The fact that two-fifths of the 100 most influential under-40s are women is also a sign of a generational shift in gender attitudes among millions of young Arabs. One important factor in this regard is the emerging importance of meritocracy in many Arab circles, according to El Dahshan. “And a meritocracy, conceptually, is gender-blind,” he explains.

Beyond that, though sidelined by the established order, the youth who propelled the Arab revolutions also tend to believe in gender-blind meritocracy.

And, in part, the counterrevolutions and Islamist insurgencies gripping the region are a backlash against the equalising power of the region’s youth. The regime and jihadist violence we are witnessing, especially against women, is not a sign of the strong flexing their muscles but of the weak lashing out in panic as their bankrupt ideologies and political experiments fail the test of reality.

But as the largest and youngest demographic group in Arab society, the young have time and numbers on their side.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 April 2015.

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ISIS’s war on women in Mosul

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

Before ISIS began targeting Iraq’s minorities and cultural heritage, it set to work veiling women in a new dark age, reversing decades of hard-won gains.

Despite ISIS' attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Despite ISIS’ attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

When I was growing up, the women of Mosul had the freedom to pursue whatever path they chose to follow. They had the right to work, study and dress as they desire. Women were empowered participants in the community. Growing up during the early 1980s in Mosul, I witnessed the freedom women had. Perhaps it was less than in the 1960s and 1970s, but certainly more than the current sorry situation. I was surrounded by female relatives who all worked after completing their university degrees. They drove cars, went out and travelled abroad alone and refused to get married, preferring the single independent lifestyle. Even at home, when I opened my eyes to the world, I saw my mother going to work everyday as a teacher. The stay-at-home woman was an alien concept to me as a child, and I assumed everyone had to go to work.

Mosul, unlike other Iraqi cities, was a blend of conservatism, tradition and modernity, a balance between the fairly modern and free Baghdad and Basra, and the strict and conservative Najaf and Karbala. Nevertheless, in all the years I spent in Mosul, I came across only one woman who wore a headscarf, one of my primary school teachers. I’m not sure whether the absence of the veil was down to Iraq’s secular rule or whether it reflected a more confident society not yet torn apart by economic sanctions, wars, occupation and sectarianism – all of which are contributing factors to the social change that began to take place in Mosul even before the ISIS invasion.

During the 1960s and 1970s, women were free to wear trousers, mini-skirts and sleeveless dresses. By the 1980s, this was beginning to change, and Mouslawi society started to be critical of such styles. Not everyone complied with the new conservative mores and some carried on wearing what they wanted but most decided not to become the talk of the town.

Just as the Islamic State (ISIS) has striven to destroy Mosul’s heritage and cultural diversity, the group has been working to devastate the position of women. Before the jihadist group began demolishing places of worship and archaeological landmarks, and before they started their campaign of ethnic cleansing, it issued new rules for women to follow, including a repressive dress code. ISIS recently imposed further restrictions on what women are allowed to wear – the new “Law” demands that women wear an almost tent-like cape which covers them from their eyes to their feet. There have even been reports of women falling and fracturing their legs as they struggle to walk in such attire.

Such codified restrictions were alien to a society where the long struggle for female emancipation scored many notable victories.  Iraq has always been at the forefront of female emancipation in the Arab world, with a wealth of famous women who have left a mark not only on Iraq’s history but on the world stage too. Figures like the writer and traveller Maria Theresa Asmar, who wrote a book in the early 19th century describing her travels through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Armenian-Iraqi Beatrice Ohanessian was Iraq’s first concert pianist and one of the few women to become a director of the Piano Department at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Other prominent Iraqi women include Nazik Al-Malaika, considered by many to be one of the most influential contemporary Iraqi poets who was the first poet to use free verse in Arabic, Zaha Hadid, the renowned international architect, who is in fact originally from Mosul, and many more.

It seems ironic today that Iraq in the 1950s had the first female cabinet minister in the Arab region.  This remarkable woman, Naziha al-Dulaimi, was probably one of the most respected and recognised Iraqi women. An early pioneer of the Iraqi feminist movement and co-founder and first president of the Iraqi Women’s League, she studied medicine at the Royal College of Medicine in Baghdad and, at the age of 19, she was one of few female students at the Medical College. During her government career, al-Dulaimi was instrumental in turning the vast slums of eastern Baghdad into a massive social housing project and helped author the secular 1959 Civil Affairs Law, which was way ahead of its time in liberalising marriage and inheritance laws to the advantage of Iraqi women. She was also a prominent member of the international feminist movement and an active participant in the Iraqi and world peace movements.

It is hard to imagine how a country that has made such progress can be expected to to return the dark ages where women who do not meet ISIS’s requirements are often sold into slavery or forced to marry one of its fighters. The rest of the women who are not targeted for sexual/slave trade are segregated from men in all aspects of daily life.

Anyone who contravenes ISIS’s draconian rules faces heavy repercussions, but some locals are defiant, despite the risks. One friend witnessed a so-called “hisbah” patrol stop a woman who was with her husband because she was not wearing the “right” clothes. Within minutes, an ISIS member raised his baton to strike the woman when, in a fit of rage, the husband shouted: “In ten years of marriage, I have never lifted a finger against my wife. Do you think I will allow a fanatical foreigner to degrade and hit her?” The man my friend witnessed wrestled the baton out of the patrolman’s hand and started beating him with it.

To avoid such situations, many women have opted to stay at home and not venture outside or go to work. But not everyone can afford this luxury, especially with the soaring cost of living. Even girls as young as 11 cannot escape these draconian rules. Fearing for their daughters’ safety, many families have kept girls home from their schools and universities. One mother had no choice but to stop her 14-year-old daughter from attending school after an ISIS patrol stopped the chauffer-driven car that was taking the girl and her younger brother to their school demanding to know why the girl’s eyes were not covered. Apparently, the fact that her entire face was veiled was not enough. When the ISIS militant started to question the girl as to why she was out with “strange men”, the driver explained that the young boy was her brother, which provoked the patrol to ask who the chauffer was. By this point, the girl was so scared that she lied and said he was her uncle. The girl was so frightened that she told her mother she never wanted to leave the house again, even though she had been defying her parents to pursue her education despite the ISIS presence.

ISIS members have also prohibited female students from attending classes because their attire was considered “un-Islamic”. The only accepted attire for female students is the one-piece black burqa. And it is not just girls who are dropping out in large numbers. Boys reportedly are too.

It should be pointed out that there is significant local divergence within Mosul, in terms of rules, and how strictly or leniently they are applied, which often depends on the ISIS militants in the area. “I witnessed several women in the market areas without niqabs,” one local said. “[This] appears to be a change in strategy following a number of attacks perpetrated by disguised men in niqab.”

Iraqis, particularly women, are resilient and adaptable. Iraqi womenhad to endure years of wars without a man in the house, as often they were on the battlefield and many never came back. Women also had to improvise throughout the long years of sanctions to ensure their children and loved ones got fed. With the arrival of the US invasion, women faced a new challenge of protecting their family from foreign invaders. Similarly, despite all the atrocities and savage acts ISIS commits, people try to get on with life in Mosul. Women still go out – provided they are covered from head to toe – they drive to work (though at work they are segregated from men) visit each other and go to the shops. Beauty parlours and hair salons have been banned, and various cosmetic and hair products are no longer sold in shops, driving women to find alternatives when caring for their appearance. Despite the restrictions, three weddings took place last month, two of which were hosted by my old neighbours in Mosul. And that is the contradictory nature of the city, while some women are fleeing, others are being defiantly normal.

There have been reports of public executions of women, notably ones who were politically active. For example, two former candidates for the Iraqi parliament – Ibtisam Ali Jarjis on the Watanya list and Miran Ghazi, who was a candidate for Arab List – were sentenced to death by ISIS’s Sharia court.

According to officials from Mosul, the two candidates had repented in one of the ISIS mosques in Mosul to spare their lives, but the Islamic judge overruled their repentance and the two women were re-arrested. Isis militants also publicly executed Samira Salih al-Nuaimi, a leading lawyer and human rights activist, after she was seized from her home for allegedly “abandoning Islam”, whereas in actual fact her kidnapping took place after she had posted messages on Facebook that were critical of the militants’ destruction of religious sites in Mosul. The militants then tortured al-Nuaimi for five days before killing her. Al-Nuaimi left behind a husband and three children. There are many more tales of women being publicly executed, such as the three female doctors who refused to treat ISIS militants. ISIS militants recently paraded two sisters and a man who were accused of adultery before stoning them to death.

Life under ISIS for the women of Mosul is unprecedented in Iraq’s modern history. But tough, patient and resilient as they are, these women will continue to resist.

 

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Part III: The destruction of Mosul’s past, present and future

____

* The author’s name is a pseudonym.

 

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Angela’s angels and the political patriarchy

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite the “Merkel miracle”, the political patriarchy remains strong. However, more women are exploiting and even defying it to lead their countries.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

The Merkel miracle and redefining charisma.

The Merkel miracle and redefining charisma. Image: German government

Angela Merkel has made it to a third term in office. Not being a fan of her conservative austerity politics and feeling that Germany, not to mention the EU as a whole, needs an injection of progressive radicalism, I had half-wished that the protest Pirate Party would,against the odds, force Germany to change political course.

Still, I have some reason to rejoice. Merkel, as the leader of the EU’s largest member state, remains the “most powerful woman” in the world. Merkel is the first woman in Germany to become chancellor, and now she’s done that thrice over, in what has been described as the “Merkel miracle.”

This achievement is all the more impressive when you consider that Merkel – a scientist and not a politician by training – started off at a severe disadvantage in Germany’s post-reunification politics, hailing as she does from East Germany. Often dismissed as “dour” and “too boring for Germany“, some are now talking of the need to redefine “charisma” in light of her understated “charm”.

Like that other poster girl of conservative Europe, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel also has the distinction of being one of the few female heads of government to have made it to the very top of her country’s political game on her own steam, and not thanks to being the member of a patriarchal political dynasty, as many others have proven to be.

Take Indira Gandhi in India. She was the daughter of Indian independence leader and the country’s first premier Jawaharlal Nehru. Prime ministerial surrenderer Sonia Gandhi, wife of assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, was also connected to the Nehru dynasty.

In neighbouring Pakistan, the late Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of the popular but disastrous Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri was the daughter of independence leader Sukarno. There were also Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh.

China’s Soong Ching-ling was married to Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the 1911 revolution. The parents of Sri Lanka’s Chandrika Kumaratunga both served as prime minister in Sri Lanka. In fact, her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was the world’s first female prime minister.

Nevertheless, even if these woman did receive an initial leg up from the men in their families, their rise to the very top of the political game required talent. It also highlights an interesting reality, not to mention an intriguing paradox. The West prides itself on being the world leader in female emancipation, yet developing countries, especially in Asia, including quite a few Muslim-majority countries, have apparently delivered significantly more women heads of government.

Despite the fact that Western society is generally more gender egalitarian, the political, as well as the corporate, upper echelons have remained largely an old boys’ club. In the United States, for instance, the only woman who has come within dreaming range of becoming president is Hillary Clinton, who ended up losing the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, but may yet become president in the future.

This sole woman has also risen in the political game as her husband’s successor. Of course, there’s long been talk that Hillary was Bill’s de facto vice president, or co-president even, and had a significant unofficial role in running the country, rather like the “Sultanate of Women” in the Ottoman empire of yore. But this notion is also partly fed by the discomfort the patriarchy feels towards a strong and outspoken woman.

Fortunately, there are exceptions to this dynastic rule – and, as female emancipation advances, these exceptions are gradually becoming the rule.

In addition to Merkel and Thatcher – who made it in male-dominated politics by becoming honorary members of the patriarchy and not by advocating the cause of gender equality and female emancipation – there were a number of noteworthy women, usually in small countries, who managed to circumnavigate the boys’ club by themselves.

These included self-made lawyer Eugenia Charles in Dominica, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, Israel’s Golda Meir, Australia’s Julia Gillard, New Zealand’s Helen Clark and Jamaican incumbent Portia Simpson-Miller.

In Europe, there has been Gro Harlem Brundtland in Norway whose presumptive new premier is also a woman, Hanna Suchocka in Poland, the controversial Tansu Çiller in Turkey, and Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine.

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, former prime minister of Iceland, had the distinction of being the world’s first openly lesbian head of government.

What this reveals is a promising trend in which a growing number of women are leading their countries, and they are doing so solely on their own merit.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 27 September 2013.

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Egypt’s underground sisterhood

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egyptian women are under attack from a failing patriarchy. But what is overlooked is that they are fighting back through grassroots emancipation.

10 September 2013

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Surveying Egypt’s political landscape, you might be excused for thinking that women are a minority. Only five members of the Committee of 50 tasked with revising the constitution are women.

Unsurprisingly, this 10% ratio falls far short of the true proportion of the population women constitute, which in Egypt is just shy of 50%. Although women are politically under-represented everywhere in the world, in Egypt, the problem is particularly acute, as reflected in the pathetically low number of women in the first post-Mubarak (dissolved) parliament.

Egyptian women have been divided on how unfair this is. The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights – which advocates the use of quotas to balance the gender disequilibrium in Egyptian politics – criticised this “lean” representation, which is only 3% higher than the committee formed during the Muslim Brotherhood-led constitution drafting exercise.

Others have drawn consolation from the apparent quality of the women involved. But no matter how high the calibre or how strong the mettle of these five women, can they truly advance the cause of female emancipation and gender equality?

Of course, that is probably the entire point. Male politicians generally want to preserve male privilege, and excluding women from the political process is the most effective way of doing so. That would explain why the draft constitution still claims that all Egyptians are created equal, but some – namely middle-aged, Muslim men – are more equal than others.

So, while Article 11 ostensibly guarantees gender equality, much of what it giveth, it taketh away with the qualification that this should not get in the way of a woman’s “duties towards her family” and should adhere to the “principles of Islamic Sharia”.

Although many women and advocates of gender equality are rightly depressed and demoralised by these developments, I feel this post-revolutionary conservative backlash is less a function of the patriarchy flexing its muscles and more a sign of a weakened traditional male order desperately trying to reassert its shaken and failing authority.

With Egyptian women increasingly equalling and even surpassing men in the academic and professional spheres over the past few decades, the patriarchy has sought to hold on to the vestiges of its ever-shrinking spectrum of privilege and to control women in the only areas left: at home and sexually.

This manifests itself in how many Egyptian women may be managers or doctors in the public sphere, but at home they still have to behave like, or pretend to be, obedient housewives. It is also embodied in the excessive focus on “virtue” in which women have traded greater socio-economic freedom for ostensibly less sexual freedom, again at least openly.

This can partly explain the horrendous level of sexual violence that has been witnessed since the revolution began. The security vacuum created by the collapse of the Mubarak regime not only enabled men with sick attitudes to women to roam the streets with relative impunity, it also unleashed the use of sexual violence as a political weapon to intimidate women from joining the uprising.

This weapon of mass degradation has been employed to varying degrees by Egypt’s various leaders over the past two and a half years, from assaults and rapes on Tahrir Square to “virginity tests”.

Although this has succeeded to some extent, many women have refused to be cowed and admirably still continue to play prominent roles in Egypt’s revolution, both for collective freedom and their own. Women have even braved further assault to protest against sexual harassment, while a number of campaigns have been launched to protect women attending demonstrations, such as OpAntiSh, and to monitor and combat the phenomenon, such as HarassMap.

One recent attempt to reclaim the streets, ‘Hanelbes Fasateen‘, urged women to go out in dresses in defiance of harassers. Using old black-and-white images of elegant young Egyptian women in summer dresses strolling unharassed down the street, the campaign employed a certain amount of nostalgia for a lost Egypt of greater social freedom.

Once upon a land in a time not so far away, the overwhelming majority of Egyptian women went around with their hair uncovered and many dressed in revealing western fashions. Interestingly, in the 1950s, even the daughter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s general guide, who wanted to force all Egyptian women to cover up, did not wear a headscarf.

While there is some validity to this sense of loss, there is a danger of over-sentimentalising the past, Although Egypt until the late 1970s was freer in some ways than now, in others, it was just as conservative or even more so.

Egypt’s modernising secular elite may have seen female emancipation as a crucial component of development and progress, but wider society was still largely traditional and agrarian. This meant that modernity was often fabric deep and did not extend far beyond the emulating of the latest Western fashions.

Women of my parents’ generation were still making the first tentative steps into higher education and the workplace, with all that entailed of battles against entrenched traditionalism. In contrast, today, despite increasingly conservative attire, Egyptian women have succeeded in just about every walk of life. Moreover, young women have plenty of role models to look up to, and female education and employment is taken for granted by millions.

Unsurprisingly, liberal Egyptian women want to protect what hard-won gains, relatively few and precarious as they may be, the feminist movement has made, and to try to build on them. However, they have to contend against not only the reactionary voices of Islamists and other conservatives, but also against those sympathetic to their cause who claim now is not the time, we have bigger fish to fry.

But if not now, when, if ever? Never? Since the 1919 revolution, Egyptian women have shared the pain of the struggle for freedom but have reaped few of the gains. Instead of being rewarded for their sacrifices, they have seen their cause constantly relegated, in the battle against imperialism, neo-colonialism, dictatorship, etc.

In addition, the West hasn’t helped by exploiting women and their cause to mask its hegemonic ambitions in the region, which has enabled Islamists to smear female emancipation as a “Western import” designed to tear apart the fabric of society.

While there may be some credibility to the notion that women cannot be free if the rest of society is not, I believe the inverse is far more true: society cannot free itself if half of the population lives in relative subjugation. A country wishing to prosper, resist internal repression and foreign domination cannot do so without gender equality.

As prominent feminist Nawal El Saadawi recently put it: “Democracy means economic equality, social equality – you cannot have democracy under a patriarchy when women are oppressed.”

In fact, the subjugation of women is partly a product of these ills – when politics is closed off to the masses, the vulnerable suffer. Moreover, the Ottomans, the British and Egypt’s domestic tyrants had an unspoken hierarchy of repression: the elite runs the public domain while men will run the private sphere.

This means that Egyptian revolutionaries looking to free society cannot postpone women’s liberation to an undefined “better” future, but need to make it a central and integral pillar of the collective struggle for “bread, freedom and social justice”.

More importantly, with the Muslim Brotherhood project discredited by Morsi’s presidency and its divisive politics, many Egyptians are questioning their former faith in Islamism. This provides a golden opportunity to advocate more muscularly for women’s rights.

Sadly, this seems unlikely in the political mainstream, which will continue to exclude not just women but also the young for some time to come. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that Egyptian women are not taking this passively and are engaging in grassroots action to change their reality.

Though pioneering Egyptian women lack the safety net of a progressive legal system which safeguards their rights against regressive traditions, they are not waiting for their rights to trickle down from on top.

Every time I have visited Egypt since the revolution, I have been impressed by the increasing number of women I encounter who are defying social norms to live their individual and collective aspirations. These range from the political activists who risk life and limb for the cause to the growing number of women who pursue unusual careers, travel abroad or defer being married off (sometimes indefinitely).

When I first decided to live alone in the Cairo of the 1990s, this was unusual even for young men to do. When I was in Egypt a few weeks ago, I was impressed by the surprising number of women who are choosing to live alone.

And not all of them are from the “elite”. One young woman I met was born and raised in a small, conservative village outside Fayoum. University enabled her to escape the stifling atmosphere of rural Egypt. Not only does she live in her own apartment in Cairo, she has worked in China and the Gulf.

“The status of women has deteriorated a lot,” she admitted. “If the civil [Egyptian for ‘secular’] current gets its way, things will get better. I hope to one day see the first female president.”

While such an aspiration seems like wishful thinking today, I believe that it is entirely possible as grassroots change climbs gradually upwards. After all, if the Islamist counter-culture of the 1970s managed to mainstream its values, why can’t the secular current do the same? Political revolution needs social evolution.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated and extended version of an article which first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 7 September 2013.

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