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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Gay pride (and prejudice) through the ages

 
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By Khaled Diab

Historical examples of homosexuality being tolerated by Judaism, Christianity and Islam can help overcome homophobia and reinvent these faiths.

Thursday 28 February 2013

Were the Christian martyrs Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus involved in a medieval "same-sex union"?

Were the Christian martyrs Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus involved in a medieval “same-sex union”?

It is almost spring, and love, of the gay variety, seems truly to be in the air. The last few weeks have brought a constant stream of good news for LGBT communities in Europe, not to mention encouraging developments in the United States and even within the Catholic Church.

British and French MPs spread the love in the run up to Valentine’s Day by giving non-heterosexual marriage a resounding vote of confidence, while Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled in favour of so-called “successive adoption” by same-sex couples.

Across the Atlantic, where same-sex marriage has faced stiff opposition from religious and social conservatives, a pro-gay marriage ad campaign featuring prominent Democrats and Republicans, including Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, has just been released, while there is talk that Barack Obama is planning to utilise the Supreme Court to push for same-sex matrimony.

Homosexuals, not to mention feminists, have toasted the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, who “made homophobia one of his battle cries”, according to one activist. This has left many in the LGBT community hopeful that the next and future popes will be more relaxed towards questions of sexuality, while activists have been urging the Vatican to wake up to reality.

“There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,”  wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, the Holy Father’s previous incarnation, in an opinion he wrote for his predecessor Pope John Paul II in 2003 on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Why? Apparently, because “marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law”.

Although the argument that homosexuality is unnatural is contrary to the available scientific evidence and undoubtedly angers gay communities and their supporters, this idea is common not only in the Catholic Church, but in other branches of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

However, despite Ratzinger’s protestations, deep, deep inside Christianity’s historic closet, there was greater tolerance of homosexuality than appears at first sight. Although the medieval and pre-modern church, especially during the various inquisitions, was well-known for persecuting and killing homosexuals, it may, at least at times, have been rather gay-friendly.

For example, though the modern clergy, with the exception of some reformist churches, tends to reject the idea of gay marriage, it appears that two men – but not women – could sometimes be joined in holy union in the Middle Ages.

In a practice known as Adelphopoiesis, two men would be joined in what American history professor John Boswell has controversially described as “same-sex unions”, although his contention has been challenged by the clergy and other scholars who insist that, though the practice walked and talked rather like a church wedding, the union in question was actually a spiritual and celibate one and closer to the concept of “blood brotherhood”.

Although the practice of Adelphopoiesis may strike the modern reader as surprising, once it is placed in the context of Greco-Roman culture, which had a profound impact on early Christian and Muslim ideals, it is not. In the male-centric classical view, men’s affection for each other was the most sublime form of love, while women didn’t really count for much, as attested to by the absence or belittling of lesbianism in classical, Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions.

This idea of the superiority of male love, and the tolerance thereof, can be seen in the odes to homoerotic passion of the camp and irreverent Abu Nuwas, the Abbasid court laureate who was believed to be the greatest poet in Islam, and whose work was not censored, strangely enough, until the early 20th century.

Moreover, medieval Islamic scholars tended to hold that male homosexual acts did not merit worldly punishment, rather like how ancient Jewish legal practices upheld such strict rules of evidence in cases of “sodomy” that it was near impossible to prove and secure a death sentence. This is a far cry from the contemporary puritanical attitude towards homosexuality in much of the Muslim world, where gay people often potentially face the death penalty

The sublimation of mutual male affection has been (re-)interpreted by modern scholars, commentators and even clergy as a sign of homosexuality in the most unexpected quarters. Not only have many interpreted Jalal al-Din Rumi’s love poetry, or ghazal, dedicated to his older spiritual master Shams-e-Tabrizi, as a sign that the legendary Sufi poet had homosexual tendencies, there have even been suggestions that none other than Jesus Christ was gay.

That a man in his 30s apparently had no wife or girlfriend, even though Jewish law would have allowed him to marry, but was friends with a prostitute, hung out with a dozen other blokes, including one “Beloved Disciple”, in the words of the Gospel of John, could be interpreted as repressed homosexuality by the modern secular ear. Needless to say, the very suggestion is rejected as outrageous and insulting by the church and the majority of Christians.

Although early Christianity and medieval Islam seemed to have adopted some elements of the classical tolerance of certain aspects of homosexuality, at least the male variety of it, all the Abrahamic faiths have inherited the Old Testament tradition which condemns as sinful homosexual acts (the idea of homosexuality or sexual orientation did not really exist until modern times, or was at the very least more fluid).

For instance, both Christianity and Judaism draw on the Book of Leviticus (18:22) which commands the believer: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”

One reason why homosexuality elicits such a disproportionate reaction in all three religions is because of its powerful potential to subvert the traditional patriarchal order. Traditional models of marriage, after all, are more about procreation than recreation, and about prescribing and cementing a strict gender hierarchy, in which man sits on the throne and woman washes his royal feet. “Same-sex marriage fundamentally challenges the basic sexual premises of marriage as a contract,” writes Kecia Ali, a professor of religion, in her taboo-shaking book Sexual Ethics and Islam.

The most common justification for the prohibition on homosexual behaviour in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is, of course, the allegorical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, two Biblical cities which were destroyed by fire and brimstone for their sinfulness. Although none of the scriptures spell out homosexuality as the nature of the sins committed by the Sodomites, who wanted to rape God’s angels, sodomy, or liwat (i.e. pertaining to Lot’s people) to Muslims, has for centuries been assumed to relate to anal sex, or more broadly, homosexual male intercourse.

This is not a valid connection to make, many contemporary activists claim. “Reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe murderer as being about an axe,” writes Jay Michaelson, the American-Jewish academic and activist.

But is such revisionism honest? I believe that, in the balance of things, the Abrahamic tradition is homophobic, as was the Greco-Roman tradition, though to a lesser degree. Nevertheless, though such revisionism may not be honest, it is useful and perhaps even necessary, to bring religion into the 21st century.

While I personally reject religion because of its intrinsic contradictions and inherent unfairness, I accept that faith can give a structure to the world for believers, and a perceived higher purpose to their lives.

That is why religion has been invented and reinvented endlessly over the centuries. What we call Judaism, Christianity and Islam today, for instance, bears little resemblance to their original counterparts. And just as no modern believer seriously accepts their religions’ ancient attitudes towards, for example, slavery and warfare, people will one day hopefully look back on the current debate over homosexuality and faith as archaic.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 February 2013.

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Sarah Palin v Queer Theory

 
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By Osama Diab

Which is more empowering or threatening for the gay community: the idea that sexuality is a lifestyle choice (unnatural) or an innate trait (natural)?

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Sarah Palin believes that homosexuality is a "lifestyle choice". Photo: Sarah Palin on Facebook

Homosexuality has featured high on the Republican primaries’ campaign trail, with candidates generally opposing gay marriage and homosexuals openly serving in the military, with candidates like Rick Santorum claiming that gay sex was not “equal” to straight sex and was not “healthy” for society.  Central to the entire debate is the question of nature versus nurture, i.e. whether a person’s sexuality is a “lifestyle choice”, as many conservatives believe, or whether it is biologically predetermined.

Newt Gingrich has opined that it is both. But other prominent Republicans disagree. In an interview with ABC News prior to her 2008 run on John McCain’s ticket, Sarah Palin controversially implied that homosexuality is a choice that her friend had mad, while she herself had reused to.

Her comments stirred controversy and caused an uproar among gay rights supporters in the United States, where multiple scientific studies have supported the idea that homosexuality is not a choice, but as natural as the colour of your eyes and skin tone. What is more, Sarah Palin’s church, the Wasilla Bible Church, promised to transform those “impacted by homosexuality” into heterosexuals.

An article published in The Independent in 1992 declared that “science may, it seems, be about to furnish proof that homosexuality has a biological basis – that it is part of the spectrum of normal human behaviour, as common or garden as being extrovert or left-handed”.. This proof brought hope that new laws would be passed outlawing discrimination against homosexuals.

It seems fair enough that gay rights activists should try to bring to the forefront any study which “proves” that sexual orientation is not something we can control or “choose”. A study carried out by the Pew Research Center reveals a link between an unfavourable opinion of homosexuals and those who think sexual orientation can be changed.
The study found that better-educated people are more likely to see homosexuality as innate and unchangeable rather than a lifestyle choice. And politically, twice as many liberals as conservatives say people are born homosexual.

In terms of religion, the gap is even bigger, more than half of highly committed white Evangelicals and 60% of black Protestants say that homosexuality is just a way that some people prefer to live, and just 14% say it is something that people are born with. Similarly, 73% of committed white Evangelicals think homosexuals can change their sexual orientation, and 61% of black Protestants agree.

The same study also suggests that “belief that homosexuality is immutable is strongly associated with positive opinions about gays and lesbians even more strongly than education, personal acquaintance with a homosexual, or general ideological beliefs”. This is the reason why the immutability of homosexuality has been central to gay rights narrative and campaigning. Studies like Pew’s are the reason why Palin’s comment were regarded as counter-productive.

The point of trying to prove that homosexuality is inborn, and make an analogy between sexual orientation and race is an attempt to reduce hostility and social stigma towards those who have sexual desires outside the widely-accepted definition of what is appropriate, and treat non-heterosexual individuals like people from different racial groups. It should be dealt with the same way it is widely-accepted among all sensible people that no one should be discriminated against based on their skin colour.

However, the notion that homosexuality, and more broadly sexuality, is a choice is not only an idea embraced by conservatives or those who oppose homosexuality. It’s a view also shared by some of our most radical contemporary postmodern thinkers.

Judith Butler, in her book Gender Trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity, which is considered a foundation stone for the critical field later known as Queer Theory, argues that identities are free and floating and describes gender as a social constructed performance rather than a biological trait. Queer theory suggests that nothing in your identity is fixed because it’s shaped by a pile of experiences reinforced through repetition and, therefore, people can change. Butler goes as far as calling for the challenging of traditional views of sexuality by causing “gender trouble”.

Queer Theory is widely considered in academic and intellectual circles as a highly progressive view on sexuality and gender. Judith Butler, seen as one of the developers of this field, is considered a prominent radical thinker. If anything, she is the antithesis of Sarah Palin on every single level. However, if we look close enough, they both share the same view that sexuality is a social construct and can possibly be changed.

Of course, the underlying message and the intent from Palin and Butler’s arguments are very different and belong to the opposite ends of the political and social spectra. When Palin says homosexuality is a choice, she means that if you’re homosexual you can return to heterosexuality (in her opinion a normative). Whereas Butler’s stance on fluid and changeable identity calls for a demolition of standards of behaviour and a gender shuffle where there is no longer clear boundaries between sexes, genders, and sexual orientations. Palin uses the “choice” argument to try and influence people’s sexuality, whereas Butler is trying to encourage people to freely chose their sexual identity in disregard of what has been predetermined for us by society using more or less the same argument: that things can change and that we can do things differently.

Change is often more possible than not, and is often very related to the notion of what is a choice and what isn’t. Sexual orientation is usually compared to race by black Republicans who normally vote against gay rights. Some might wonder how some African-Americans, who were once subject to institutionalised discrimination, could promote that sort of discrimination against another marginalised group. Their response is very central to the biological (nature) versus cultural (nurture) debate. One black man was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “I was born black. I can’t change that. They weren’t born gay; they chose it.”

But nowadays people can change or at least alter their skin colour to make it lighter or darker, using creams, make-up, natural or artificial tanning and sometimes surgery. Some people are mixed race, so it can be argued that racial divisions are not clear cut , which is what Butler hopes to see happen with gender roles.

Gay rights activism has been fighting to prove that homosexuality is an inborn trait rather than a “disease” that could be “cured” or changed, and when science came close to providing evidence that people’s sexual orientations are decided before they are born, Butler intervenes to say that nothing is fixed and people can change everything including the most ingrained of traits.

So despite Butler’s radically progressive views, her call to shuffle gender roles in the cause of stirring up “gender trouble” could actually backfire and cause the kind of trouble she did not intend for homosexuals.

As studies have shown, those who think homosexuality is innate tend to be more supportive of gay rights and marriage equality. So what seems to be Butler’s contribution to the field of gender studies, other than causing utter confusion with her idiosyncratic writing style, is proposing an unrealistic campaign to demolish the longstanding binary divisions, at least in the Western mind, between men and women, gay and straight, which obviously is a very slow process of social change that cannot happen overnight, while giving conservatives an excuse to carry on with their “project” to try and transform gays into “normal” people.

Whether nature or nurture forms our identities and to what extent will always be the subject of scientific and philosophical debate. It will also always be highly politicised, with every group and camp selecting bits and pieces of scientific evidence and social theory to back up their political position. But what is for sure is that Butler’s work on gender and sexuality offered very little to help the gay rights movement in the United States and elsewhere on a political level.

However, the lack of political impact and the failure to influence policy making does not at all mean Butler’s theories are a failure. After all, even if academic work does sometimes influence public policy, this should not be a measure of its success or failure. Academics are different from political activists even though in many cases they do overlap, but they still remain separate roles with different goals.

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Faith and desire in Albert Square

 
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By Khaled Diab 

EastEnders is breaking new ground on gay issues by exploring what happens when Muslim boy meets boy – but marries girl.

16 August 2009

Syed Masood, EastEnders' new closet gay Muslim.

Syed Masood, EastEnders' new closet gay Muslim.

When writing about TV’s desperate Muslim romantics for Cif last week, I never imagined the discussion thread would turn out as it did, with Sarka and other readers visualising a ground-breaking new detective series starring a “super-sharp, half cynical but still half-religious hijab-wearing female officer with feminist instincts” – a sort of Jane Tennison without the hard drinking, though other, more “Islamic”, forms of addiction are not out of the question.

The series could have our idiosyncratic heroine being taken out of her comfort zone to investigate the murder of a lap dancer, and how this challenges her to change her prejudices about sex workers, and the suspicious death of a Muslim girl and her Christian boyfriend both of whose bigoted families could easily have committed the double murder, either in isolation or as part of a dreadful alliance of convenience.

While Detective Chief Inspector Kamilah Hussein is still some way off, British television has recently veered off the beaten track to a place not visited since My Beautiful Laundrette by exploring what happens when Muslim boy meets boy.

Although EastEnders is not on my viewing list, our TV happened to be tuned in a couple of weeks ago when I switched it on and the unfolding scene caught my eye. It seemed that a touch of Bollywood colour had landed in Albert Square to offset its grey and grim exterior. The novelty of a British Muslim wedding would have worn off in a matter of seconds had an intriguing encounter not occurred in the kitchen between the groom (Syed, as I’ve since learned) and a big bloke called Christian.

Christian was reprimanding Syed for following his head and not his heart, and Syed was insisting that he was a Muslim and had to go through with this marriage. At first, I thought that perhaps this Syed was in love with a non-Muslim woman but had decided to marry from within the community to please his parents – but then suddenly Chris gently stroked Syed’s cheek. I scratched my head, and Syed swiped away the roving hand in anger.

BBC television’s first gay Muslim, especially his first kiss, has been causing quite a stir. Although the love affair has not created the expected level of controversy, it has upset some Muslims. “There’s a lack of understanding of Muslims already and I think EastEnders really lost an opportunity to present a normal, friendly Muslim character to the British public,” one community leader complained.

Syed may be brooding and troubled, but by all accounts he is “handsome, suave and sophisticated” and a “natural charmer” – so that’s the “friendly” bit covered. As for “normal”, well, Syed’s story is hardly uncommon among Muslim homosexuals torn between the accepted norms of their faith and their desires.

In Cairo, a gay acquaintance of mine came very close to succumbing to pressure from his family to enter into a similar sham wedding while another publicly leads the life of an ambiguous “bachelor”. This “discretion” mirrors very closely the western situation before the sexual revolution changed everything. Sadly, homophobia remains far more widespread than we’d like to admit. In fact, being both Muslim and gay turns you into just about the ultimate discrimination magnet – drawing flak from mainstream society, fellow Muslims and even the gay community.

“When an Arabic paper picked up the story of Imaan’s first conference, an extremist group issued a fatwa against us,” Farzana Fiaz told the Guardian. “After 9/11, we experienced Islamophobia, including from within the gay community.”

A gay Arab living in Germany once told me his hue didn’t really fit in the rainbow: “We run, sometimes sprint, towards a more liberal west only to find that the colour of our eyes, the shade of our skin and the tone of our names are the obvious hurdles we must overcome to survive.”

But it’s not just the outside world. The internal turmoil felt by gay Muslims can often be far harsher than that experienced by homosexuals from more supportive environments. When Fiaz realised she was a lesbian, she remembers: “I couldn’t stop crying for days, I had nightmares, I couldn’t sleep alone, I thought I was going to hell for feeling the way I did.”

This tension has caused some to abandon their religion. “I couldn’t reconcile my sexuality with their teachings, and so I lost my faith,” admits Javaid, who also spoke to the Guardian. Some choose their faith and either suppress their sexuality through marriage or celibacy. Others are reinterpreting their faith and drawing on Islam’s more permissive past and the Qur’an’s ambiguity and general silence on the subject to hold on to both their sexuality and faith.

An increasing number of Muslims are coming out of the closet, even to their families. “When my parents found out, my father did not really understand. But he tried hard to learn … He even went to a gay bookshop and bought a book about being the parent of a gay son. It really meant a lot to me,” said Javaid.

The mainstream Muslim view of homosexuality is still generally hostile or silent. Although the tragic executions in places like Iran capture the headlines, many Muslim countries, like Pakistan, have a vibrant underground gay culture, in the age-old attitude of “turn a blind eye to avoid change”.

But change is coming. For instance, despite and because of crackdowns on gay men in Egypt, more open debate on the subject and sympathetic treatment of homosexuality have found their way into mainstream culture and unapologetic gayness has reached the radical fringes, such as Maher Sabry’s Toul Omry (All My Life), produced by the enigmatically named Egyptian Underground Film Society.

This is an extended version of a column which appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 13 August 2009. Read the related discussion.

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