The freedom of non-expression

 
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By Osama Diab

Advocates of banning the face veil want to take away the only choice some women have – the choice to conform.

28 July 2010

She used to love to sing, dance and swim. She used to daydream of summertime when there was no school and when she could spend the entire day at the beach swimming and building a castle out of sand. She used to do this every year until she was 11 when her mother told her she couldn’t wear a swimsuit anymore. When she requested an explanation, her mother simply told her that she was “a big girl now”. Puzzled by her mother’s words, she thought there was something wrong with her or with her body.

However, they still went to the beach, but the women would sit there mostly covered while the men (her father and younger brother) would enjoy their time in the water. Through this experience, she learned that boys and girls are different. She grew to understand that her actions are not just going to affect her but her entire family.

A few years later when she grew breasts, her mother stopped allowing her to buy certain clothes because they were “too tight” or “too transparent”. “You have the entire shop to choose from and you choose this,” her mother would chastise her. Her brother would come from the men’s section with a pile of clothes which the mother wouldn’t even glance at.

The girl was very attractive as a teenager and drew the uninvited attention of men and boys. Since this was new to her, she thought there must be something wrong with the way she dressed or acted. When her family found out about one of the harassment incidents, instead of showing sympathy, they were angry at her.

She eventually chose to wear the hijab and act very seriously, believing that this would keep men away from her. She also knew that she could be a great source of pride for her family if she behaved like a “good girl”, or a source of shame if she didn’t. So the other reason why she decided to cover her hair was the positive feedback she was expecting from them. She didn’t want to be perceived as immoral, useless and a source of disgrace.

After she told her mother, her mother called her friends and siblings and proudly boasted to them about “what a great daughter she has”  who chose “voluntarily” to wear the hijab at just 16.

After high school, she wanted to study acting, but knew that wasn’t realistic. Her mother told her, “Out of all the schools in the world, you choose acting. What’s wrong with engineering, business, or even languages.” She “chose” to study English instead.

At college, she fell in love for the first time in her life. The man had a Muslim name, but was from a Bahai’i family. She was too afraid to tell her mother about it, but when she had the courage to do so, her mother screamed, “Out of all the men in the world, you choose a Bahai’i. I really wish you would die. You need to stop seeing this guy immediately.”

The next guy was Muslim and fitted most of her family’s criteria. Her family blessed the marriage. One day before her wedding, her mother gave her advice on how to act in bed: “Men get very suspicious really easily. Act like you know nothing and have no experience. Men like innocent girls.”

She considered telling her husband about her sexual needs and what she would like to experience, but she was too afraid of his reaction or what he might think of her. She decided to live with no sort of sexual communication and even tried to get these ideas out of her head because these things are just not right.

Despite these disappointments, she didn’t quite notice that she had little influence over the course of her life, and that it was all predetermined and designed by both her parents and society. She never really dwelt on how social rules and taboos were such a powerful force that she had little option but to abide by them.

She heard on the news that Syria had decided to ban the niqab in schools and that a general ban was being discussed in some European countries. She found that this was s unfair and believed that it should be the woman’s choice whether or not to cover her face. The government should simply have no say in it. Even though she agrees that it has nothing to do with Islam, she is still very angry that some people would ban somethingthat enabled women to exhibit their modesty.

Her mind became more accepting of the idea that the West is at war with Islam. She became more appreciative of her values and how she was brought up, and refused to question either.

As a sign of that appreciation and conviction, she decided that when she turns 40, she would don the niqab. She informed her husband and parents and they praised her decision and told her that it would make her a great role model for her daughters.  On her 40th birthday, she celebrates by covering her face, firm in the belief that it was all her own choice.

Published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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The bold and the brilliant

 
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An Arab-American Miss USA may have put Muslim beauty on the western map, but let’s also recall all those women of courage and talent.

It surprised me that my previous article was the most read on CiF on the day of its publication. But equipped with the wonders of hindsight, I should’ve realised that it had all the ingredients of a ripping yarn: a dastardly conspiracy (theory), beautiful but dangerous undercover (or is that uncovered?) double agents armed with sexy bombshells, and mad neo-cons hatching far-fetched plots.

Quite a number of readers found that Miss USA, Rima Fakih, dependent as she is on her looks, was not the most rousing role model for Muslim female empowerment and asked why no similar attention was accorded all those successful and inspirational Muslim women who have made inroads into what is still largely a man’s world.

So, in tribute to the many remarkable women in the Muslim world (including non-Muslims) throughout the centuries – both remembered and forgotten, loved or ridiculed – here’s a list of 10 mould-breaking women. They appear in chronological order.

1.      Mother of the faithful

Khadijah bint Khuwaylid (555-619), “Ameerat Quraysh” (the Princess of Quraysh), Mecca’s wealthiest and most powerful woman, was Muhammad’s first wife. She has the distinction of being the world’s first convert to Islam.

2.      Battle of the sexes

The battleground is one oft-forgotten theatre of the battle of the sexes. Although women have fought alongside men ever since the earliest days of Islam right down to the modern struggle for Algerian and Palestinian independence, their direct contribution to the defence of the community is regularly overlooked because it does not conform to the subdued image of the woman as wife and mother.

Muhammad’s youngest wife Aisha bint Abu Bakr (died 678) is a controversial figure, particularly in the west, because of the young age at which she appears to have been betrothed to the elderly prophet. Less well known is that she was not only a central figure in spreading Islam after his death, earning the title Mother of the Believers, but that she also led  an army into battle.

But the title of the fiercest Arab woman of all must go to Hind bint ‘Utbah – despite her demonisation and unfounded rumours of her commiting cannibalism on the battlefield – who was as daring in her opposition to Muhammad before her conversion as she was in his defence after it. 

3.      Universal woman

At 12 centuries old, the University of  al-Qarawiyyin in Fes (Morocco) is reportedly the world’s oldest academic degree-granting university in the world. This esteemed establishment was set up by Fatima al-Fihri (died 880) in 859.

But medieval Muslim women were not only patrons of academic establishments, they were also prominent scholars. According to the 12th-century Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir, girls and women could study and earn ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars (ulema) and teachers. He, himself, studied under 80 female teachers. In the 15th century, the Egyptian scholar al-Sakhawi devotes an entire volume of his 12-volume of his biographical dictionary Daw al-lami – an early Who’s Who – to over a thousand female scholars.

However, things got progressively worse for women until the modern emancipation movement began in the late 19th century. Today, female enrolment in universities is as high, or even higher, than male enrolment. However, the number of top women scientists is relatively small due to the ‘glass ceiling’. Nevertheless, there are award-winning women scientists who are at the top of their field.

4.      Around the throne in 80 days

From modest beginnings as a slave of probable Turkic origin in the royal household, Shajaret al-Durr (died 1257 ), whose name means Tree of Pearls, rose to become the wife of the Ayyubid Sultan as-Salih Ayyub. When her husband died at the most inopportune moment possible – during the landing of the Seventh Crusade in Damietta on the Nile Delta – she decided to conceal his death until the successful completion of the campaign to repel the crusaders. 

Amid the political turbulence that ensued, the former slave girl was chosen by the elite slave warriors known as “Mamluks” as Egypt’s Sultana, the first and only female ruler of Egypt in Islamic times. After only 80 days as queen, she passed the throne to her new husband, but continued to rule by proxy, despite her husband’s better efforts to contain her. After she had him murdered, she was confined to a tower and then brutally murdered herself.

Shajaret al-Durr left a profound legacy on her adoptive land: she not only helped defend it against the crusaders but she also established the prosperous and dynamic Mamluk era of Egyptian history when the country underwent the unique experiment of being ruled by elite slaves.

Another prominent woman ruler and contemporary of Shajaret al-Durr – who also happened to be a former slave of Turkic origin – was Razia Sultana who sat on the throne in Delhi from 1236-1240. 

In modern times, many Muslim-majority countries – including Pakistan (Benazir Bhutto), Indonesia (Megawati Sukarnoputri), Bangladesh (Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina) and Turkey (Tansu Çiller) – have been led by women.

5.      Forgotten feminist pioneer

Hoda Sha’rawi is widely considered to be the founder of the modern feminist movement in Egypt and probably the entire Arab world. Given how she rebelled against the male order and placed women at the forefront of the struggle for Egyptian independence, she certainly deserves her place in the history books.

However, she was by no means the first, and she has plenty of predecessors who have been lost to the mists of time. Thanks to the posthumous efforts of her younger brother, the memory of one of these early ‘unknown soldiers’ was rescued from, quite literally, the ‘no man’s land’ of collective oblivion. History, after all, is not only written by the victor, but usually by men.

Malak Hifni Nassef (1886-1918) scored a number of impressive firsts in Egypt: the first woman to get a degree from a government school, the first woman to lecture publicly, and the first to publish poetry in a mainstream journal – and at the age of only 13. We know little about her life, but the list of major figures at her funeral attest to the esteem she was held in during her lifetime. And, in contrast to other early women reformers who tended to be from the upper class, Nassef was from the middle class.

Inspired by events in Egypt and the Egyptian Renaissance, women in the Levant also took up their cause. One prominent figure was May Ziade (1886-1941), a Palestinian-Lebanese Christian poet, essayist and translator. 

 6.      A mighty pen

Despite being a physician and psychiatrist by training, Nawal el-Saadawi (born 1931) describes herself as “a novelist first, a novelist second, a novelist third”. She  has, in more than 50 novels, revolutionised the treatment of Egyptian women in fiction, and wielded her pen as her mightiest weapon in the battle for female emancipation.

Her writings have covered numerous controversial feminist themes, including women’s inferior position in religion and female genital mutilation, and their author has endured imprisonment, death threats and attempts to forcibly divorce her from her husband.

Luckily for Egypt, which is in danger of seeing certain gains scored by women reversed, the fight has not died in Saadawi, despite being almost 80. “I am becoming more radical with age,” she recently told the Guardian.

 7.      Bright and constant star

Known as ‘Ambassador to the stars’, Fairuz is not only the national pride of Lebanon but is the most famous living singer in the Arab world. She was born with the name Nouhad Haddad into a poor Maronite Christian family in 1935, and Arabs may have been deprived of her beautiful voice had her conservative father not relented and allowed her to attend the Lebanese Conservatory, albeit with her brother as chaperon.

Her breakthrough into the big time came in 1957 and throughout the 1960s she was the “first lady of Lebanese singing”, although she was overshadowed on the Arab stage by the giant Umm Kalthoum. Widely regarded as the enchanting voice of Arab nationalism, her output has been prolific and has included hundreds of songs and musical operettas.

Throughout her long career Fairuz showed enormous courage: she refused to give private concerts to Arab leaders (for which she once got banned) and never left her country during its tumultuous civil war.

 8.      Across enemy lines

Everyone recalls, whether approvingly or critically, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s audacious trip, in 1977, to Jerusalem to talk peace at the Israeli Knesset. But he was actually beaten there by a fellow Egyptian woman, though history has condemned her to oblivion.

More than three years earlier, at a time when the only Arabs and Israelis who met were soldiers or spies, Sana Hasan, a PhD student in her mid-20s, went to Israel as the Arab world’s first, albeit unofficial and ostracised, peace envoy and probably its most unusual. Her six-week trip turned into a three-year sojourn, from 1974 to 1977, in which she seems to have met, well, just about everyone in Israel, in an attempt to understand her people’s enemy and build bridges to peace.

9.      Scholar and state-builder

When it comes to the Palestinian struggle, one should not forget Hanan Ashrawi (born 1946), who played a pivotal role in the First Intifada and subsequent peace process, where she served as the Palestinian delegations spokesperson.

She has also been elected numerous times to the Palestinian Legislative Council and established the Department of English at Birzeit University. She currently runs Miftah, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy.

10.  The right fight

Across the Arab and Muslim world, courageous women are active as human rights activists. One prominent example is Asma Jahangir (born 1952), the prominent Pakistani lawyer who has built a career defending the rights of women, children and religious minorities. 

During her long career, Jahangir has put herself in the firing line defending Muslims and Christians who have fallen foul of Pakistan’s controversial and intolerant ‘Hudood‘ ordinance and blasphemy laws which were put in place as part of Pakistani dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s ‘Islamisation programme‘.

Jahangir is currently the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 25 May 2010. Read the related debate.

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Hating the ‘world’s smartest woman’

 
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By Khaled Diab

Linda De Win is clever, competitive and middle-aged – would Belgians respect her TV victories if only she were male too?

12 January 2009

At first sight, any quiz show that claims to be a contest to find the “smartest person in the world” should be dismissed as delusional. But anyone who has watched Belgian TV’s De Slimste Mens Ter Wereld will quickly realise that the declared aspiration is very much tongue-in-cheek.

Unlike highbrow quiz shows – such as University Challenge and Mastermind (which I enjoy watching just for the entertainment of getting lost in obscurity and the sense of achievement when I get some answers right) – De Slimste Mens does not deal much in arcane niche knowledge.

Instead, each episode’s three celebrity contestants must make rapid fire knowledge and word associations pitted against one another and the clock, with the winner being crowned the “smartest person in the world” for a day. In addition, humour is provided by a celebrity jury whose role is to mock the contestants and their answers.

Now into its eighth season, De Slimste Mens is so popular that it has won the prize for best entertainment programme on Flemish television two years running. In recent weeks, this easy-viewing show has been at the heart of a controversy centring on one of its contestants: political journalist Linda De Win, who became its joint most successful participant ever, having survived 11 episodes in a row.

The victories of appropriately named De Win, whose day job is grilling politicians and parliamentarians on the political show Villa Politica, sparked a hate campaign of an intensity unknown in the programme’s history.

On Facebook, numerous groups cropped up attacking De Win and calling for her removal from the show. The most popular of these groups counted a peak membership of about 23,000, an enormous figure for tiny Flanders. Comments ranged from the mild, with some claiming that they opposed her because she was “boring”, “arrogant” and “charmless”, while the more vindictive stated opinion of the sort that “woman + ambition = bitch”, that De Win is a “cow” and the most extreme believed that she “must die”.

“I thought I kind of understood how the media worked,” the seasoned journalist said in an interview with De Standaard. “But I watch with dismay what is occurring on Facebook: shocking, what hatred!”

She blames the tabloid press for setting the tone. “That a newspaper like Het Laatste Nieuws has engaged in character assassination of this kind is outrageous.”

As no male candidate has ever elicited such a reaction, though there have been a number of obnoxious and arrogant men, and that beautiful young actresses and models routinely elicit admiration – mostly for their looks – when they appear on the show, De Win’s supporters and fans believe that she has been the victim of machismo and sexism. “The makers of De Slimste Mens think that it is mostly because I am a woman, and one who likes to win,” says De Win. “It seems that the Flanders of 2010 is not ready for a woman that comes across as competitive.”

Many members of the Facebook groups set up against her claim that their hatred of De Win has nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with her personality. Some even point to the fact that there are women members of the group. But that’s neither here nor there, since women have traditionally been some of the most ardent upholders and defenders of the patriarchy.

In addition, many people may believe that they dislike someone like De Win – a hard-as-nails 50-something political journalist – because of her personality, but this is partly because, while uncompromising toughness and abruptness, à la Jeremy Paxman, are widely admired in men, such characteristics are often still seen as unbecoming in women, despite decades of female emancipation.

Moreover, age is more of a challenge for women, as highlighted by the controversy surrounding the jettisoning of older female journalists at the BBC. As one former BBC executive put it, “as male presenters got older they become an authority and as female presenters got older they became a problem”. And older female television journalists face a similar challenge in Belgium. “As an [older] woman in the media, you know that you will elicit vicious responses,” notes De Win.

Despite the presence of some last bastions and strongholds of male chauvinism, we must recognise and acknowledge how far things have progressed in recent decades. Last year, Gail Trimble, the grand boffin of University Challenge, became a veritable media sensation, despite the predictable grumbles from the tabloids about her alleged smugness and superiority. The BBC is also seeking to set right its patchy record by attracting more older women presenters to the Beeb.

In Belgium, the intensity of the vitriol targeted against De Win has prompted an outpouring of popular sympathy for her, and she has had her mailbox jammed with messages of support and a number of fan groups have emerged to voice their support for the “smartest woman in the world”.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 7 January 2010. Read the related discussion.

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Labouring under a false premise

 
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By Khaled Diab

Barring men from the delivery room will not make giving birth any easier. In fact, it is a case of throwing out the father with the bathwater.

14 December 2009

Iskander, shortly after his birth.

Iskander, shortly after his birth.

Saturday 28 November was the best birthday I have ever had. The sight of our son, Iskander, breathing his first, after a long and taxing journey for both mother and child, has to count as the single most emotional and moving moment of my life.

The memory of his cries mixing with our tears is one neither my wife nor I are ever likely to forget. But this magical moment, this three-way bonding experience, this blind date with our new life partner is apparently one I shouldn’t have savoured, according to French obstetrician Michel Odent, who is against what he bizarrely derides as the “masculinisation of the birth environment”.

The eminent obstetrician even links the rising number of emergency caesarean sections to the presence of fathers in the delivery room. While this, at first sight, appears to be a troubling side effect of our modern lifestyle choices, I find it does not stand up to scrutiny. Pregnancy and birth are complex biological processes and so linking a rise in C-sections to the possible inhibition of oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone”, caused by the presence of a nervous male strikes me as somewhat tenuous.

If this were true, then one would expect fewer emergency C-sections in societies where men are barred or discouraged from attending the birth. But this does not appear to be the case. C-sections, including emergency ones, are on the rise not just in rich, liberal societies, but across the globe, including in China (where men are generally not welcome in the delivery room), Iran (where some husbands have only just been allowed to attend), Saudi Arabia and India.

And what about all those other factors? Surely, one of the reasons why more caesareans are performed is largely thanks to the massive advances in medical technology that have transformed what was once a potentially lethal intervention for the mother to a relatively low-risk life-saver.

In addition, not only can doctors better monitor what goes on during labour for danger signals and react rapidly when they are exhibited, the medical community is rightly averse to putting the lives of the mother or child at undue risk. Also, the increasing levels of obesity are making natural births more difficult, while the growing stature and head size of babies has not really been matched by pelvic size.

My wife was forced to undergo an emergency C-section, but the reason for it had little to do with my presence. It was due to pre-eclampsia and foetal distress caused by a loosening of the placenta, leading our baby’s heart rate to fluctuate dangerously, reaching worrying lows.

Had we not been there for each other, the endless, agonising crawl of the clock as the surgeon on weekend call dashed to my wife’s aid would have been unbearable torture – Katleen, alone, hearing Iskander’s weakening heartbeats and me, outside, wearing away the floor with my apprehension. Instead, we gave each other strength and took it in turns to offer reassurance when one of our spirits flagged.

My presence in the operating theatre was also useful. Katleen, whose anxiety for the baby had completely eclipsed any possible concerns about her own wellbeing, as she admitted to me later, was somewhat reassured by the fact that I could see what the surgeons were doing and could communicate that everything was going okay to her with my eyes.

I was also able to hold the fort while the surgeons performed the more laborious post-op procedures. Instead of our newborn son spending that time in an impersonal neo-natal unit with minimal human contact, I held him to my bare chest to give him some of that essential, reassuring skin contact he needed at the start of his life. In return, he gave me one of the most extraordinary feelings I’ve ever experienced. When his mother was ready to take him to her breast, the moment was overwhelming for her and for me, out of both joy and relief.

Although Odent may be wrong to link the presence of men in the delivery room with the rising rate of emergency C-sections, he does have a point when he says that nervous dads are a hindrance.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 12 December 2009. Read the related discussion.

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Stilettos: career boosters for the down at heel?

 
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By Zandra Culliford

Just because I want to wear high heels to work, that doesn’t make me a brainless bimbo.

21 September 2009

The biggest news from last week’s Trades Union Congress in Liverpool struck a chord with the nation’s workers. Well, half of them at least.

A call for fair and transparent pay, perhaps? Or maybe support for affordable, convenient childcare? Nope. The hot topic of conversation amongst the unionistas was high heels in the workplace, with a motion tabled describing them as demeaning to women and demanding that no one be forced to wear them.

Aside from the issue of whether the role of trade unions should be to discuss what we put on our feet, this does beg the question of why we wear high heels in the first place.

To simply make us taller? If that’s the case, then why was Nicole Kidman so thrilled to dig her heels out after her divorce from Tom Cruise given that lack of stature clearly wasn’t the problem?

To attract the opposite sex, then? According to my male colleagues, the sound of heels on floor is more of an irritant than an aphrodisiac. Truth is, some of us just like wearing them. Whether the choice is for aesthetic, power or height reasons, there’s just something irresistible about the perfect pair.

Of course, high heels in the workplace aren’t just an issue for women. Comedian Eddie Izzard became known for his stand up in stilettos and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy would be, if not lost, then certainly shorter without his stacked heels.

Historically, the high heel is thought to have been developed for men and for a practical purpose – to prevent feet slipping out of stirrups when riding. Kings and queens alike then popularised the style for fashion purposes. Over time, though, they became almost exclusively the preserve of women and branded a tool of male oppression.

Some feminists have argued that women are held back and objectified when they choose to cripple themselves in a pair of wedges, stilettos or kitten heels. The transfer of this debate into the workplace is one that goes further than footwear.

The fact is that women have a wider variety of sartorial choices in general each morning before they head off to work. Even in offices where suits and ties aren’t required, men are likely to stick to the traditional trousers-shirt/t-shirt combo, teamed with a pair of unexciting, and almost invariably, flat shoes. Short of turning up topless, they’re unlikely to be accused of being sexually provocative, whatever they wear.

For women, a slightly low-cut blouse or skirt above the knee, on the other hand, can lead to disapproving (or worse, lecherous) looks and aspersions cast on a woman’s character.

Some have called for a work ‘uniform’ for women to become the norm, to make them as bland-looking as their male colleagues. Personally, I don’t think that such a move would make any difference. Women can, and do, customise their uniforms at the first possible opportunity.

When I was at school, it was amazing how many combinations of our conservative, ‘appropriate’ uniform could be seen in the halls. Prim, knee-length skirts were hitched up to crotch height, shirt buttons mysteriously came undone, and interpretations of ‘mid-height’ heels were liberal, to say the least.

But as grown-ups should we know better? Are we demeaned by putting on a pair of heels to go to the office? It is less than a hundred years since women were given the right to do most jobs, let alone to make choices about what to wear when we get there. Are we therefore undermining our right to employment equality by turning up in a pair of stilettos?

As far as I’m concerned, my right to wear six-inch heels is based on the same grounds as my right not to have to cover up in a burqa or to walk the streets without fear of being raped. I can do this because I believe that men are intelligent enough to realise that, just because they can see my ankles, I don’t necessarily want to sleep with them. Just as wearing high heels doesn’t make me a brainless bimbo.

With women’s continuing lack of complete equality in the workplace still a sticking point, is the answer to force women into Crocs? Of course not.

The height of my shoe has no more bearing on my ability to do my job than does the colour of my skin or my sexual preferences. By tabling motions on this issue, the Trades Union Congress does nothing more than reinforce stereotypes and draw attention to irrelevant differences between the sexes. If it wants true workplace equality in the shoe stakes, however, perhaps the answer, instead of getting women out of heels, is to get more men into them…

This article is published with the author’s permission. © Zandra Culliford. All rights reserved.

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In the name of equality

 
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By Khaled Diab

Society is becoming more equal but our surnames – borrowed from fathers and husbands – lag behind. Is there a fairer system?

November 2008

According to Arabic naming practices, my name reveals a fair bit about my family history. In fact, a casual observer can trace my ancestry back three generations – not to mention the nth generation in which the original Diab lived. However, this only applies to my male ancestors. My name keeps a discreet silence when it comes to my female forebears.

In Europe, middle names are generally chosen and, so, often reveal little about intermediate ancestors (unless they are the names of grandparents). Nevertheless, names here still carry the patriarchal seal of the male founder of the family.

It is still common practice, at least in Anglo-Saxon society, for women to adopt their husbands’ surnames. And a wife’s identity can be so subsumed by her husband’s that she takes on his full name, especially in official correspondences or more traditional ceremonies.

Luckily for my wife and I, given our belief in equality, this is not the practice either in Belgium or Egypt, where a woman keeps her maiden name. I don’t know if this is a sign of greater equality in this particular aspect, an accident of history, or simply reflects a different patriarchal emphasis, i.e. that of a woman’s father rather than her husband.

Nevertheless, children still take on their father’s name. Of course, the practice may have originated partly for practical reasons – my wife speculates that it may have started off as a simple acknowledgement of paternity, a way for a man to say to society that I recognise this child as mine, too, and the way for a woman to ensure that he does his share of the caring.

Nevertheless, I find this inherently unfair to the mother. Because I am a Diab, that means I am labelled and pigeon-holed in society’s consciousness as belonging to my father’s family but not my mother’s.

Where is the mother acknowledged in all this? Barack Obama illustrates this conundrum well. Although his father had little role in raising him, the president elect bears his name – whereas his mother and her family get little acknowledgment, in his name, for their far greater role.

Personally, I have previously toyed with the idea of taking on my mother’s surname, Khattab, at least informally, in order to acknowledge the greater role she has played in my upbringing and my closer affinity to her family.

Intriguingly, there is a tribe in Indonesia in which, contrary to most of humanity, children’s family names follow the matriarchal line. In fact, with a population of up to 7 million, the Minangkabau are the largest group of people to use a matronymic naming system. And it is not only names that are passed down along the mother’s line – property, too, is matrilineal. Men’s role is to handle affairs of state and religion.

It will probably surprise many to learn that the Minangkabau are ardent Muslims. However, they have striven to preserve their native matriarchal culture and strike a balance between it and Islam’s more patriarchal worldview. And this women-friendly society, which reveres the importance of learning, has not done at all badly for itself, over-represented as it is in Indonesia’s professional classes and top government offices. Unsurprisingly, the country’s first female minister was a Minang.

That said, replacing patronymic names with matronymic ones is still not an ideal solution, since they replace one inequality with another. My wife and I have mused over how children could be named in a way that would be fair to both parents. There’s the option of merging family names.

But, here in Belgium, that’s no longer possible – apparently it creates confusion regarding people’s identity – while, in Egypt, the bureaucracy is so rigid as to rule out such flexibility. Besides, given their profusion among the aristocracy, double-barrelled names carry a certain pomposity that can be lived without.

Another option is to give alternate children alternate surnames. The drawbacks are that you need to have at least two kids and, ideally, an even number of sprogs. It would also prove confusing to outsiders, particularly the authorities, in terms of ascertaining parent-child and child-child relations – which could actually be rather entertaining.

It seems there is no easy way to make naming practices egalitarian (i.e. both patronymic and matronymic) without each of us being given a name as along as the Channel Tunnel. But is showing lineage really that important, at least when we become adults? Perhaps the only truly fair solution is to let everyone invent or choose their own surname when they come of age. That way, we’ll be celebrating the individual and sending out a message that family is a private affair.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 16 November 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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A brief history of brainy women

 
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By Khaled Diab

Where does Gail Trimble fit in the brainy women’s hall of fame?

February 2009

Some men define themselves by which part of the female anatomy they prefer: breasts, legs, arse, etc. Personally, I’m more a brains and face kind of guy. I’ve always been attracted to intelligent women with beautiful facial features, and my wife ticks those boxes for me.

Gail Trimble, the grand boffin of University Challenge who seemed to have a Google implant in her brain, has ventured into relatively uncharted territory for brainy women: she has become a media sensation. Not only have her lightening reflexes and her supercomputer brainpower won her a legion of admiring fans, she has even become something of a sex icon, complete with an offer to pose for a lads’ magazine – which goes to prove that there are lads out there who appreciate brains and not just ‘booty’.

However, not everyone was impressed, with some bloggers and tabloids railing against her for being “smug” and “superior”. Shockingly, the Daily Mash reported that, despite the protective shelter of the body of Christ (Corpus Christi), Trimble was to be burnt as a witch, apparently because she recites “the periodic table backwards in Aramaic while dancing naked in a circle with a murder of gigantic, two-headed crows”.

Of course, that’s far-fetched satire today, but this fate was a real occupational hazard for some of the brainiest women of yesteryear. Take Hypatia of Alexandria, who has the dual distinction of being the first and last great female philosopher of the classical era.

The Hellenic polymath must have been well pleased with herself when she became the first woman to head Alexandria’s Platonist school and, in that great Greek philosophical tradition, donning her scholar’s robes, she toured the town engaging in public debate and interpreting the works of other philosophers.

However, trouble was a-brewing for Hypatia. Although she was well-admired across the Hellenic world, she had amassed powerful enemies in the nascent Church, especially in the shape of Alexandria’s bishop Cyril. Eventually, her “pagan” ideas and gender were to cost her her life as an angry Christian mob waylaid her chariot and brutally murdered her. It is ironic that the first notable female scholar of the Greek tradition also became the last.

Hypatia is one of numerous brainy women through the ages whom I have become familiar with as part of a fascinating project – at least for me – I am co-operating on which explores the contribution women have made to science over the centuries.

Based on the women I have researched, a certain pattern is discernible in their quest for success and recognition: they often had to become honorary men, they were forced into marginal areas of learning (which ironically often put them at the cutting edge of new knowledge), and they quite literally felt compelled to be second to nun in their morality, foreswearing carnal pleasures and embracing chastity.

Hypatia, for instance, reportedly rejected a suitor by showing him her menstrual rags (tampons to us), claiming that this showed there was “nothing beautiful” about carnal desires.

Of course, it wasn’t all black and white. For instance, the German philosopher, physician and composer Hildegard von Bingen, who was saintly in her ways although she never quite became a saint, was an abbess and, hence, a virgin, yet she was possibly the first European to have described the female orgasm (albeit in medieval terms).

In order to advance her career, Hildegard quite literally needed divine intervention: the visions she claimed to experience helped her to get around the medieval Church’s restrictions on women preaching and practising philosophy and the sciences. Of course, I use the term ‘science’ here loosely.

Although she was at the cutting-edge of learning for her time, the bulk of her work could only be described as superstition. For instance, a remedy she proposes for a hangover in one of her medical works involves dunking a bitch in water and drinking the resulting murky liquid. If any readers feel brave enough to try this, please report back on your findings.

Starting in the 19th century, things started to get decidedly better for women, although they still had to swim against a tide of prejudice. Believe it or not but the world’s first computer geek was not a bespectacled, socially inept male teenager, but an English aristocrat of the female persuasion.

Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron who never met her erratic father, was a mathematical whiz-kid and the mother of all computer nerds. She is credited with having written the world’s first ‘computer programme’ for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine (the ‘first computer’). Babbage called her his “enchantress of numbers”.

In the 20th century, women played pivotal roles in many of the newest areas of physics and chemistry. The most legendary is probably the Marie Curie, the only woman to win two Nobel prizes.

Despite advances in the status of women, however, some did not get the recognition they deserved. Rosalind Franklin is a prime example: her images of DNA were essential to the cracking of its now famous double-helix structure, but she did not receive a Nobel prize for it. Even James Watson, despite his dodgy views on race, agreed that she should have also got one. Unfortunately, Nobels are not awarded posthumously.

Even today, the glass ceiling is still around to a certain degree, but it is far smaller and more permeable and, at least in principle, it does not exist anymore.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 28 February 2009. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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