The demographic dimension: The role of population growth in the Arab uprisings

 
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By Khaled Diab

Decades of unprecedented population growth have played a significant role in Arab regime repression, the two main waves of revolutions that swept the region, and the fierce counterrevolutions that followed.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 24 January 2020

Over the past century, the Arab region has experienced dramatic population growth, not only caused by high birth rates but also by drastically increased survival rates and life expectancy. This has resulted in the largest (and most educated) population the region has ever had.

The region, too often dominated by an ageing leadership and elite, has failed – due to a combination of internal and external factors – to take advantage of this population boom, resulting in millions of marginalised and disaffected citizens. With jobs and prospects in short supply and repression in overabundance, people are discontented, restive and angry. This essay explores the direct and indirect roles the region’s demographic dynamics have played in regime repression and neglect, and how this repression of the burgeoning population influenced the two main waves of Arab revolutions that swept the region, and the fierce counterrevolutions that followed.

Even though the rate of population growth has slowed, the region’s population is still expanding, which will  continue to affect Arab political, social, economic and environmental landscapes.

Population power

The Arab region has experienced unprecedented demographic growth in recent decades. This has had profound social, economic, environmental and political consequences. It played not only a significant factor in the revolutionary wave and uprisings that have rocked the region, but also in the repression that preceded and followed it.

This is not to suggest that demographic change is the only or the primary factor at play, nor is it to argue for the simplistic and deterministic theory that revolutions occur when there is a “youth bulge” or that the poor are the authors of their own destitution.

Revolutions are, after all, complicated events that occur during periods of enormous confusion. The motivating factors for which are poorly understood and disputed even by those involved in them or by those watching them closely. Revolutions occur at different places and times for an intricate web of overlapping and oft-contradictory reasons, and can be triggered by very different groups and involve a mindbogglingly diverse array of different players.

Having acknowledged the innate complexity of revolutionary movements and mass uprisings, it is my conviction – based on the evidence at hand – that the region’s demographic evolution was a major factor in sparking the mass revolts which began at the end of 2010, and in fuelling the current second wave of uprisings, though the exact role it has played differed markedly from one country to the other.

Fodder for frustration

As a starting point, we can examine the revolutionary slogans used during protests for evidence of the role of population growth in fuelling popular discontent. “Bread”, or some similar variant, was a common rallying cry across the region, from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, with the ongoing popular uprising in Sudan initially dubbed the ‘Bread Revolution.’

At one level, this constituted an almost literal call for bread. Food security for poor Arabs has worsened significantly in recent years. Already in 2007 and 2008, and again in 2010-2012, demonstrations and riots broke out in the Middle East and other parts of the world to protest rising food prices, which threatened to turn basic nourishment into a luxury for the poorest.

This was to a large extent due to factors external to the region, such as droughts in grain-exporting countries, rising fuel prices, growing global demand for richer diets, speculation in food commodity markets, and growing demand for biofuels.

However, one factor is firmly domestic: the region’s growing inability to feed itself. Rapid population growth, coupled with water and land scarcity, not to mention the massive loss of arable land due to the dual catastrophes of global warming and urbanisation, have combined to make Arab countries among the most dependent in the world on food imports. One exception is Sudan, which possesses enough arable land to feed itself. However, this land is underutilised while being increasingly seized by foreign investors, especially in the Gulf states, for their own food security.

For example, the region imports nearly three-fifths of the wheat it consumes, with some countries importing as much as 100%. Although malnutrition levels are low by the standards of developing countries, hunger levels are growing, mostly due to conflicts but also due to expanding poverty levels.

Take Egypt as an example. In ancient times, its consistently large food surpluses enabled it to flourish like almost no other civilisation of the time. A century ago, the country was still able to feed itself and produce an agricultural surplus. However, since the mid-20th century, when Egypt’s population began to explode, it became increasingly dependent on food imports, especially wheat.

Today, Egypt imports a large percentage of its population’s calorific needs. This makes the country, like the wider region, extremely vulnerable to weather events, climatic conditions and geopolitical dynamics outside its own borders, in a world where the food surpluses of recent decades are shrinking while the global population continues to grow.

This leaves millions of citizens barely able to subsist in the face of rising prices and tightening supplies, especially as the welfare state continues to be dismantled with the removal of most subsidies. It is no accident that two food price shocks occurring in quick succession in an import-dependent region should play a significant role in sparking mass unrest.

Demographic despair

The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the symbolic act of desperation that set Tunisia on fire in 2010 and resonated with people across the region, touches on another way in which population growth set the stage for revolution.

It is true that Tunisia’s population is growing more slowly (1.1% per year) than the rest of the Arab region, largely thanks to rapidly rising levels of education, especially amongst women, and the enormous empowerment Tunisian women have experienced in recent decades, not to mention successful family planning and reproductive rights programmes. Nevertheless, the population has grown considerably in recent decades. This is not just owing to birth rates but also to survival rates and life expectancy, which have risen dramatically over the past century in Tunisia and the rest of the region. A Tunisian born at the close of World War II could expect to live, on average, to only 37. A Tunisian baby born today can expect to live twice as long, with life expectancy at birth standing at 74 for men and 78 for women, according to the World Health Organisation.

This has resulted in a spectacular population boom, despite Tunisia’s decades-old status as an emigrant country. Between 1921 and 1966, the population doubled to around 4.5 million. Since then, it has more than doubled again, to reach the current 11 million.

Although the early years of independence were marked by fast-paced development that absorbed this rapid enlargement of the population, this eventually began to falter until, gradually, the ranks of the unemployed, underemployed and underpaid swelled to breaking point.

Naturally, rapid population growth was not the only reason why Tunisia was unable, like most of the region, to create sufficient opportunities for its citizens. Other factors included mismanagement, corruption, an ill-conceived industrialisation process, the neglect of the agricultural sector, neo-liberal reforms, as well as the rapid automation of the local and global economy. This was compounded by the pincer movement of competition from the old giants of the West, who dominate high value-added sectors, and the new giants of Asia, who dominate the more labour-intensive sectors on which the region traditionally relies.

The stagnation and even reduction in the fortunes of large swathes of the population coincided with a period in human history when material aspirations have never been higher or more visible to the average citizen, leading to a sense of relative deprivation even in cases where welfare has improved in absolute terms. Not only were the material basics of life expanding rapidly, people were being exposed to aspirational consumerism as never before, from their TVs, in films, on the internet and on the streets, as the gap between the haves and have-nots widened to become a chasm.

This made for a radioactive mix. The unemployed, who were stuck at home or sat at cafes watching their future vanish behind a pall of tobacco smoke, and the working poor who ran flat out on a treadmill that was dragging them downhill towards oblivion, had to put their aspirations on the shelves and their lives in the deep freezer, delaying – sometimes indefinitely – the greatest milestones of their lives, such as marriage, children or even their own place to live.

The Labours of revolution

On the dawn of revolution in 2010, the proportion of the labour force out of work hovered at around 13%, according to the International Labour Organisation. The unemployment situation was considerably worse for youth (30%), the highly educated (23%) and women (19%). This large idle capacity, along with the increasingly neo-liberal direction in which Tunisia was heading, led to the depression of wages for the average worker, which was reflected in the depressingly low official minimum salary of just 235 TND per month (The situation in the build up to the revolution in Sudan at the end of last year was even more acute. The ranks of the jobless swelled almost threefold, from 3 million to 8 million, over a period of just seven years, with the overwhelming majority of young people out of work, according to a recent report).

With the Tunisian political and business elites unable to create enough jobs for the continuously expanding labour force and unwilling to share more equitably the fruits of economic development, the path open to the regime to deal with popular discontentment was the bitter pill of repression with the added sweetener of occasional enticements and incentives.

During the Habib Bourguiba years, repression was high but the enticements were also significant: many subsidised goods, free quality education and a bloated public sector to absorb some of the surplus workforce. Under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the repression remained but the enticements were gradually stripped away, except for the incentive of playing the lottery of aligning oneself to the regime in the hope of getting a bite of its crony capitalist cake.

Fewer sweeteners from the state combined with bubbling resentment and discontentment from a well-educated and aspiring population led to what, in retrospect, turned out to be peak police state. The sense of fear, indignity and humiliation this caused produced the third pillar of the revolution, the quest for freedom and dignity.

Shrinking space for the individual

A similar dynamic prevailed in Egypt, at times more intensely. Since the end of the 19th century, the number of people living in Egypt has increased a staggering tenfold. Most of that exponential growth has been since the mid-20th century, with today’s population, which is approaching 100 million, more than five times that of Egypt’s population in 1947. In the decade between 2006 and 2016, the country’s population grew by 20 million people. Egypt’s rapidly growing population has caused it to climb up the global league table, from 20th largest population in 1950 to 15th in 2014. Egypt’s rapidly rising population is not only attributable to high birth rates but, like Tunisia, also to the dramatic decline in death rates due to the doubling of life expectancy since 1937. This population growth is reflected in Egypt’s intensifying population density, which stands at 1,137 people per square kilometre (2016), if Egypt’s vast areas of unpopulated deserts are excluded, making Egypt the 14th most densely populated country in the world.

The social and environmental effects of this overcrowding are immense. There is growing awareness of the desertification caused by human-induced global warming, albeit mostly elsewhere in the world. However, there is another form of desertification that has swallowed up vast tracts of Egypt’s most fertile arable land: rapid urbanisation. By the mid-1990s already, Egypt had lost 912,000 feddans of agricultural land (over 383,000 hectares) to urbanisation. Another study found that, in the quarter of a century between 1992 and 2015, 74,600 hectares of extremely fertile land in the Nile Delta alone had been destroyed by urbanisation.

Overcrowding also places extreme strain on Egypt’s severely stretched water resources. In the past, Egypt, one of the driest lands on the planet which has been described as the largest oasis in the world, was the gift of the Nile because the river’s abundant waters were more than enough to keep the country fertile and fed. Today the Nile, which experts warn is dying, has become Egypt’s curse. Although the Aswan Dam has been a blessing by storing and regulating water flow, enabling the growing population to quench its thirst even during droughts, it has come with an enormous environmental price tag. The extremely fertile alluvial silt from Ethiopia, which once renewed and regenerated Egypt’s Nile valley, is trapped behind the dam. Compensating for this has required vast amounts of chemical fertilisers, which pollute the land and the river. In addition, the decades-long absence of rejuvenating silt, combined with rising sea levels caused by global warming, has caused many coastal areas to become too salinated for agriculture and is threatening the very integrity of the Nile Delta, which is slowly crumbling into the Mediterranean Sea.

With Egypt’s inhabited area smaller than Switzerland, everywhere – from its smallest towns and villages to its largest metropolises – is teeming with people. Lacking sufficient infrastructure, capacity and willpower to deal with the waste produced by so many tens of millions of humans, the quality of the air Egyptians breathe has become toxic, rubbish overflows to pollute public and natural spaces, from empty plots of land to farmland, while many agricultural canals and streams have become open sewers.

Beyond public health and environmental damage, this extreme overcrowding has serious social and psychological consequences, especially in urban areas. In Cairo, people quite literally live on top of each other. Although this has some undoubted cultural and social advantages, the streets are a constant choking confluence of smog, dust, noise and people. Egyptians cope with this overcrowding differently than, say, the Japanese. The coping mechanisms of choice in Japan are orderliness and elaborate rules for personal space and interpersonal interactions. In contrast, Egyptians tend to embrace the involuntary intimacy imposed by overcrowding by being more intimate. People are casual and sociable in public and often attempt to dissipate the tensions caused by heightened physical proximity with humour.

Nevertheless, living in overcrowded housing in an overcrowded city with constant and intense sensory stimulation is stressful, limits the individual’s personal space and makes privacy a coveted but unattainable prize, especially for the poor. There is often no reprieve or escape from the cacophony. Whereas a couple of generations ago, Cairo abounded with pleasant gardens and parks, today, there are barely any green spaces in the city and almost nowhere to escape the madding and maddening crowds. With housing beyond the means of a large proportion of young people, it has become routine for Egyptians to live with their parents until their late 20s or early 30s, with all that involves in terms of frustration and infantilisation.

Containing and neutralising the seething frustration and popular dissatisfaction required, like in Tunisia, harsh repression combined with sweeteners. However, the abandonment of this unspoken social contract in Egypt was greater than in Tunisia, as almost every area of life was privatised, including healthcare and education, while public services, especially schools and hospitals, were neglected to near death. This, combined with a rapidly growing population, meant that the middle class was withering on the vine, while the ranks of the poor and destitute were continuously reinforced.

Although Egypt’s official unemployment rate in the final quarter of 2010 was 9%, the true unemployment rate was significantly higher, not to mention the working destitute, partly because the Egyptian government counts people who do occasional casual work as being fully employed. Nevertheless, the official figures cannot distort the fact that 40% of the unemployed were university graduates and half of jobless Egyptians were between the age of 20 and 24.

In the build up to the attempted revolution in 2011, Egypt had greater space for opposition, criticism and dissent than Tunisia. Despite this, Tunisia has, in a very short space of time, managed to construct a vibrant democracy. In contrast, Egypt, despite the consistently large mobilisation of protesters for an extended period of time, has slipped back into an even-more repressive form of military dictatorship, which tolerates no dissent and operates predominantly through coercion and oft extreme violence.

How did this transpire?

Two factors loom large here: the role of the military and that of Islamists. Tunisia is among the minority of Arab countries that does not possess a large and politicised army. This served it well in the wake of Ben Ali’s departure. The Tunisian army lacked the interest, culture, means and appetite to exploit the chaos and seize the reins of power. In Egypt, the politicised army, which has enjoyed massive political influence since the Free Officers military coup in 1952, had too much to lose and perceived the popular calls for freedom as an existential threat to its parallel economy and society.

Another factor was the nature of the Islamist movement in both countries. Egypt has a large and largely uncompromising Islamist movement. In Tunisia, mainstream Islamists are more pragmatic and secularised, and less influential, than their Egyptian counterparts. This led to Tunisia’s Ennahda party engaging in the politics of compromise and consensus, which helped facilitate the country’s relatively smooth transition to democracy.

Beyond these immediate factors, demography also played a role. Not only is Tunisia less crowded than Egypt, its birth rates declined sooner and are far lower than Egypt’s. Despite Egypt’s rapid population growth, the fertility rate of individual women has declined significantly in recent decades, more than halving since 1960 to reach 3.4 in 2017. Nevertheless, Egypt’s per-capita birth rate is nearly double that of Tunisia’s.

The relative stabilising of Tunisia’s population, as well as its higher level of average education and lower average levels of destitution, made the country fertile for positive change. In fact, political demographers were forecasting already in 2011, contrary to the gloomy predictions of many political pundits, that Tunisia stood a “good chance” of becoming a democracy within five years. Decent leadership in civil society, trade unions and politics, as well as a symbiotic culture of consensus and compromise, managed to capitalise on these favourable conditions and delivered democracy faster than even this short estimate predicted. Of course, Tunisia is not yet out of the woods; if it fails to deliver economic welfare and social justice, the progress of recent years can be rapidly undone.

The demography of things to come

The above illustrates how the dramatic demographic changes of recent decades have exercised profound direct and indirect influence on the socioeconomic and political reality of the Arab region.

Demographic change is likely to continue to play a strong role in the region’s future. Population change optimists point to the global trend of declining population growth rates and past human ingenuity to predict that we will be able to cope with the challenges of demographic expansion until we reach peak population around mid-century.

However, this is not a foregone conclusion for everywhere in the world, including the Middle East. Many Arab-majority countries continue to have a population growth rate above the global average. This is partly because, in my analysis, although a growing number of people have woken up to the advantages of smaller families, the pressure from tradition, parents and religious conservatives to have larger families remains difficult to resist for many.

Moreover, the aridity of the region makes it extremely vulnerable to food supply shocks in other parts of the world, which could potentially become more frequent and prolonged due to the combined effects of global warming and the continued enlargement of the world’s population in terms of absolute numbers. Moreover, global and local economic inequalities are likely to intensify any crisis that occurs. This is compounded by cross-border competition for scarce water, such as the brewing conflict between the Nile Basin states over the river’s water resources, especially between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, whose population today has overtaken that of Egypt.

Just as the potato famine in 19th-century Europe, particularly in Ireland, became a famine rather than a crisis due to the massive social and economic inequalities of the time, combined with the Malthusian propensity to blame the poor for the avarice of the rich, future food shortages could be intensified by unfair local and global distribution and consumption patterns.

Demographic and environmental change could potentially lead to a perfect storm, triggering humanitarian, political and social catastrophe in large parts of the Arab region. Alternatively, the region may continue to struggle and muddle through until its population peaks, after which welfare will improve. At present, Tunisia offers the greatest hope and model for the future of the region, as does Lebanon, which has a similar demographic dynamic to Tunisia, if the current protests trigger the right kind of momentum for change and the destabilising war in neighbouring Syria does not push this fragile and diverse country over the edge.

The most promising and hopeful possibility for the region’s demography is that increasingly empowered and aware citizens will engage in voluntary birth control, which would enable the population to even out sooner than current projections, while corrupt and repressive elites will be replaced by more enlightened political, economic and social leaders who will revive the region’s development potential by utilising its relatively young and talented populations for the greater collective and individual good of all concerned.

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This article was first published by Rowaq Arabi on 23 December 2019.

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The truth about Islamic reformations

 
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By Khaled Diab

Islam needs a reformation for Muslim societies to develop and prosper, is one of those rare convictions shared by both Islamophiles and Islamophobes. Tunisia has done just that: radically reformed its brand of Islam and established a vibrant democracy to boot, yet prosperity eludes it. Why?

This protester spray paints the question: “What are you waiting for?”
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

 Thursday 18 January 2018

Seven years after the downfall of Tunisia’s long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians have been out on the streets once again, in one of the most sustained waves of protest since the 2010/11 revolution.

Paraphrasing the calls demanding the removal of the president in January 2011, the demonstrators of January 2018 have been chanting: “The people want to topple the budget.”

The 2018 budget fuelling public anger led to spikes in value-added tax and social security contributions and a planned slashing of the budget deficit demanded by the IMF, which will cause Tunisia’s poor continued pain. In a bid to counter public anger, the government of President Beji Caid Essebsi unveiled plans to reform medical care, housing and increase aid to the poor.

But the upheavals in Tunisia should, by right, not be happening, according to the received wisdom. Public intellectuals and media celebrities in the West, as well as many Muslim reformers, have been informing us for many years that Islam desperately needs a reformation. This would enable Muslims to shake off benighted Islamic dogma and embrace democracy, heralding an era of freedom and prosperity.

For example, more than a dozen years ago, Thomas Friedman, the guru of hollow, superficial punditry, urged Muslims to embark on a Lutheranesque Reformation to create “an Islam different from the lifeless, anti-modern, anti-Western fundamentalism being imposed in Iran and propagated by the Saudi Wahhabi clerics” – never mind that Martin Luther was a fundamentalist zealot and his reformation plunged Europe into generations of war and conflict.

Friedman also believed that America could expedite this reform process towards an Islamic enlightenment by bombing Iraq and resurrecting it as a beacon of freedom, free markets and democracy –  and we all saw how well that worked out.

Although American ordnance and weapons, unsurprisingly, set Iraq back generations, some countries have found their own way towards democracy and a reformed Islam without the need for trillion-dollar American wars.

Tunisia has, over the past seven years, built up a vibrant and functioning democracy, which has not only avoided the nightmare counter-revolutions and wars which have consumed other countries in the region whose people dared to dream of a better tomorrow, but it also guarantees an impressive range of fundamental freedoms for Tunisian citizens.

Moreover, Tunisia boasts more female representatives than the United States: almost a third of seats in Tunisia’s parliament is held by women, compared with under a fifth in the American Congress. In addition, Tunisia possesses an essential plank of social democracy which has been almost completely dismantled in America: a vibrant trade unions movement.

As for reinventing Islam, Tunisia has been doing that for the past century and a half, which has led to a distinctly Tunisian brand of the religion. In the 19th century, numerous Tunisian intellectuals and activists sought ways to reconcile their faith with modernity and science. In the 1950s, the government led by liberation leader Habib Bourguiba secularised the country and introduced a radical reformist personal status law which equalised the relationship between men and women and banned polygamy.

Fears that reforms would be slowed or reversed by the revolution have proved unfounded. Rather than Islamise society, Tunisian society has secularised the country’s main Islamic party Ennahdha, which has gone from an overtly Islamist platform to reinvent itself as a party of ‘Muslim democrats’.

In recent months, Tunisia has rolled out an impressive package of reforms which will have profound implications on the local brand of Islam, and perhaps Islam in other parts of the Muslim world.

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.

In addition, the government has removed the bureaucratic hurdle that prevented Muslim women from marrying outside their religion. Most ambitiously of all, Tunisia is pursuing legislation that will grant women equal inheritance rights to men, which has provoked the ire of the conservative Muslim establishment elsewhere, including Sunni Islam’s leading institution, Al Azhar.

Despite this impressive political, social, cultural and religious progress, Tunisia’s economic fortunes have not kept pace, the treasure at the end of Friedman’s freedom rainbow has failed to materialise. The economy still grows, but more sluggishly than before, while inflation and unemployment remain high.

So how come Tunisia has not been able to cash in on its reforms?

In my new book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, I offer an explanation for this apparent paradox. At one level, this is because reformations do not lead to socio-economic development but are, instead, the product of it.

In addition, religious, social and political reforms are what you might call the software of development, and Tunisia has given itself a major upgrade in these areas. However, the software is useless without the appropriate hardware. What use is having the operating system for a supercomputer when you only possess a punch-card mainframe to run it on?

And the economic hardware requirements today are exponentially higher than they were when Europe had its Reformation, Counter-Reformation and Enlightenment. Whereas back then, when Christendom was pirating the latest software from Islamic culture and competing to smash Islam’s monopoly on global trade, the hardware requirements, in terms of resources and infrastructure, were relatively modest, today that is no longer the case.

As a small illustration, the OECD group of industrialised states spent, in 2009, $874 billion on research and development. To put that in context, the gross domestic product of Egypt, the most populous Arab country, was $336 billion in 2016, while Tunisia’s is a mere $42 billion, less than half Google’s annual revenue.

And that is just annual spending on R&D. That does not include the huge amounts the West and other advanced economies invest in education, not to mention the generations-long construction of legacy intellectual and technological capital.

Gaining Tunisia and the wider region, not to mention other poorer countries, access to the phenomenal levels of necessary resources will require both a pooling of regional wealth as well as radical policies to address global interstate inequalities. In the absence of enlightened mechanisms for wealth and knowledge sharing and redistribution, we are likely to see the burgeoning of regional and global conflicts that may make the current upheavals seem minor in comparison.

Of course, whether or not democratisation and enlightenment lead to prosperity, they are noble goals to pursue in their own right for the sake of freedom, fairness, justice, knowledge and human dignity. However, if they do not deliver on the economic bottomline, these advances are fragile and can quickly be shattered by popular discontent and populist authoritarian forces. If human enlightenment is to survive, let alone thrive, we need global solutions, not local illusions.

 

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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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FICTION: Escaping terror firma, Part 2 – Breaking out of the fish bowl

 
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By Khaled Diab

We live in a fish bowl. It would be more likely for a pink elephant to fall out of the sky than for me to get Faris alone somewhere. But the pink elephant somehow managed to land right next to me

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 1 September 2016

Read Part 1: Hell from the heavens and taking fin

I launch out, under the cover of the dimming light, but after just a few minutes of swimming the toes of one foot curl up in an excruciating bout of cramp. I float in place for a time, waiting for the spasm to pass, as it often does. “Focus,” I urge my scattered mind. Overriding the numbness in my extremities, I search out the rhythm where my body seems to move in perfect counterbalance to the waves, where my limbs beat in perfect time to one another.

Like an aquatic Icarus, I swim towards the setting sun, as it appears to head towards its marine bed on the dark seafloor, where it illuminates the lives of those merfolk and mythical sea monsters of ancient mythology for a few hours while we landlubbers slumber.

Will the salmon pink sunlight evaporate my delusion like it melted the wax binding Icarus to his feathers?

Only half an hour in and my limbs are already feeling tired and sore, leaving me longing for the oasis of my room, which doubles up as my capsule for travelling through time and space, thanks to my laptop, books, music collection and a hard-disk full of movies.

Being a hermit is not just for saints escaping the world’s trappings, it is also for the young trapped by the world seeking escape in the only place left to them, within themselves. Had I been a monk, my beard would have grown long and unruly by now – instead, my hair has. Once, I maintained my hair immaculately. I used to love to restyle regularly as a kind of barometer of my mood and as an unspoken rebellion against the pressure to cover up – while stylish hijabi friends went for different coloured scarves to cover their hair, I was more daring and rebellious, going for different hair colours and lengths, raising eyebrows on the streets and the occasional ire of the Hamas police. Although I have stopped caring about and styling my hair, I still raise the same eyebrows which had grown accustomed to my bright, rainbowy presence, but now out of concern and worry.

Even those who disapproved of me preferred me as the bright, colourful rebel who floated past on the cloud of her own confidence, though it was actually bravado, than this wild-haired depressive who trudges past, increasingly rarely, under a dark cloud. But I have not become a complete recluse. For social sustenance, I have become part of the electronic cloud, connecting with others like me around the world. In the digital age, I have discovered that great minds link alike. I also go out to pursue my passion of long-distance swimming.

Very early in the morning, I often make it first to el-Sadaqa, Gaza’s only Olympic-sized swimming pool, to do a couple of hours of laps, in peace, without anyone eyeing me up or commenting on whether or not my tight skinsuit is “appropriate”, to which I usually retort that it covers my entire body, even my hair.

I occasionally go swimming at a nearby club during the women’s afternoon hours. But I find that distracting. The better-off ladies who frequent the pool there come to flee the tedium of home and to socialise. This means I have to weave a beeline around the archipelago of clustered bodies standing in the shallower water or floating in the deeper parts like chattering, gesticulating islands in colourful burkinis, as they call them in the West. While I don’t begrudge them their precious moments of escape from their domestic routine, it does make it difficult, and annoying, to train seriously, especially when some of the older women seem perplexed by my constant to-ing and fro-ing, my changing of pace and stroke, but if they were soaking-pools, they’d be called that.

My true passion is training in the sea. Abu Halim, the fisherman who has been selling choice pieces from his catch to my family for as long as I can remember, was recruited by my father to help me train – and to compensate him a little for his inability to go out to fish like before. Abu Halim would take his fading turquoise and yellow boat out to a pre-agreed distance and wait for me to arrive. On the way back, he would row, instead of using the inboard motor, so we could chat like we did when I was a child and he would bewitch me with stories of his aquatic adventures, both true and imaginary. The way this gentle, almost mythical creature of the sea praised my swimming and stamina to the heavens made my heart swell with pride and my cheeks burn with embarrassment, even if he was exaggerating.

“Remember when I told you that you’d grow into a beautiful dolphin?” he once shouted as his boat accompanied me on a longer endurance swim. “See, now you’ve even grown dolphin skin,” he chuckled in his raspy way.

And with dolphins who routinely save humans and penguins who swim thousands of miles for annual reunions with their human friends, I sometimes feel that, despite its perilous reputation, the sea can be a friendlier and more welcoming place than land.

I try to conjure Abu Halim up now, to accompany me through the dark lonely stream to freedom. As my arms pound the water, my mind drifts towards his ageing boat, with his ageing face, weathered like an elephant’s and stubbled like a bandit’s, gazing over the starboard edge of his vessel.

“Don’t forget: swim like a dancer and dance like a swimmer,” I hear him giggle mysteriously, his face breaking into a tempest of wrinkles. “Ya eniee, ya leili (My eyes, my night),” he sings out repeatedly, in praise and to help me time my strokes and to help him time his rows. 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2…

But Abu Halim’s voice grows distant. It’s as if he has stopped rowing. Then his encouraging chant stops altogether. I’m all alone again.

I persevere. But after some time, I lose my rhythm and my arm and leg muscles suddenly feel on the verge of collapse. I realise that it is time to pause. I float in place and look back to assess the distance I’ve travelled. I estimate that I’ve done a couple of kilometres. “Only a few hundred to go, then,” I reflect grimly, as my heart sinks.

Gaza flickers in the distance like an electric eel on life support. A little to its north, I see Ashkelon, my ancestral home which I’ve never visited, and Ashdod burn bright like a fireworks display. Glowing in the distance, I see what I think is Tel Aviv. Israelis like to call it a “bubble” because it is disconnected and detached from its surroundings, and cushioned against the conflict. And as a Gazan, I am painfully aware of this bubble, this invisible screen, surrounding this city that makes many of its hip beach-loving inhabitants worry about the welfare of dogs they’ve never met but live oblivious to the bipedal feral dogs living amid the rubble and dodging missiles just 70km down the beach. But there are some Tel Avivites who try to escape the bubble and penetrate ours in Gaza, as the regular friend requests I get on Facebook show.

As I look back towards Gaza, I conclude that, yes, we too live in a bubble of sorts, albeit one made of concrete and barbed wire, not the silky, luxuriant chiffon surrounding Tel Aviv. Our bubble is stifling, suffocating, and binds our world tight, shrinking our horizons and minds. It is hard for me to conceive that older people were able to go freely to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or Egypt, let alone to dare to imagine the world beyond them… except in my books and online.

Like a restless sleeper, I turn on my back. And what a star-studded gala awaits me. The sky is even brighter than in the darkened neighbourhoods of Gaza City during the rolling blackouts.

“Looking up at the stars, I know quite well,” involuntarily flashes in my head, “That, for all they care, I can go to hell.”

The feeling is mutual for the most part.

Admirer as I think I am

Of stars that do not give a damn,

I cannot, now I see them, say

I missed one terribly all day.

And we city dwellers have certainly learned to live without them, though in cities like New York, the stars seem to have fallen to the ground to illuminate the skyscrapers and Times Square.

Were all stars to disappear or die,

I should learn to look at an empty sky

And feel its total dark sublime,

Though this might take me a little time.

But floating here on my own, I promise myself never to forget these twinkling stars again and pledge to seek them out and admire them, whether I make it to freedom or through the figurative window of my metaphorical prison.

WH Auden is one of the goldmines which made choosing to study English literature feel like the best academic decision I had ever  made.

He even helped me to wallow in eloquent self-pity following my break up. “The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,” I grunted, as Abdel-Halim Hafez sang Touba (“Never again”) in the background. “Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.”

“Pour away the ocean,” I was even willing to contemplate, despite my love of its mysterious depths, as the essence drained from my soul. “And sweep up the wood… For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

But it did come good, as my mother promised it would.

“You know, I’m not just a medical doctor,” she said, as if confessing to a secret vice. “At college, they used to call me Dr Ishq. And I had a cure for every broken heart.”

“Is that why you became a cardiothoracic surgeon?” I joked gloomily, my bloodshot eyes trying to smile.

“I like to mend every type of heart,” she quipped with her tongue, but her emerald eyes had lost their shine since the last war and looked like they’d been replaced by cheap imitations which were of the same colour but lacked none of the original’s lustre.

“Tell me what happened?”

I couldn’t bring myself to tell her. Mama is my confidante in everything… except boys. I suspected she’d understand and be cool, but I didn’t want to risk our relationship, especially as what use was a confidante if you couldn’t be entirely open and honest.

How could I tell her that I’d initiated sex? Well, tried to. After a lot of agony and soul-searching, I decided that I believed in sex before marriage. But like a secret convert, I was terrified to act on my new convictions. Because I was afraid. Of society. Of family. Actually, I wasn’t really scared of my parents. I was more afraid of what it would do to them. I didn’t want them to feel shame towards their daughter. I knew they wouldn’t kick me out or kill me to restore the family’s honour. But the wounded look of disappointment and disapproval I pictured would’ve killed me… a thousand times over… inside. And even if they turned out to be all right with it, I didn’t want them to be shamed by our neighbours and relatives.

But our bodies and rebellious souls move in mysterious ways. Just when I thought I’d contained my drives and urges, they somehow managed to break out of the siege I’d imposed and, like an insurgent army, brought me to my knees in a barrage of lethal hormones. Armed with the conviction that sex is my natural right, and prodded on by the unruly oestrogen masses dragging their testosterone partners to storm the bastille of my genitals, I mutated into a walking biological sex bomb who was bound to explode upon contact with my boyfriend.

Which I did. And despite the fallout, my lips couldn’t help but register a slight smile, puzzling my mother, who could not penetrate into my mind’s eye. Poor Faris, he didn’t know what had hit him. Reserved and just this side of shy, he’d only just started to surreptitiously touch my hands – discreetly, out of sight, during lectures. And I hadn’t a clue about what his views about sex were. But I was determined to find out.

But where? And when? We live in a fish bowl. It would be more likely for a pink elephant to fall out of the sky than for me to get Faris alone somewhere. But the pink elephant somehow managed to land right next to me, and I found myself alone with Faris in a study room. Don’t ask me how, but it happened. It was as though the stars were aligned or something. Filled with trepidation and a sense of urgency, even emergency, that the moment should pass unseized, I seized him.

Faris initially succumbed to my kiss, but when my hand drifted to the rising mound between his legs, he was jolted as if I’d applied electric wires to his genitals. Even here in the cooling night water, feeling like a damp squid, my lips and body recall with pleasure the heat of that short-lived embrace.

What happened next was not what I’d expected or pined for. “Forgive me God,” he yelped involuntarily. “What are you doing? This is haram.”

I hadn’t realised he was so religious. I was hoping he’d jump at the chance. Then, he did the worst thing possible. He unsheathed his tongue and impaled me with his words.  “Only a slut does that,” Faris screamed at me. “I thought you were a decent girl from a decent family. How many men have you tried this on? I never want to see you again, you prostitute,” he spat as he stormed out.

“Mama, I’d rather not speak about it,” I said finally. “Maybe I should be more like dad. ‘Love is a bourgeois invention,’” I added in my best baba voice.

Mama laughed. “Your father may not believe in love, but, like his hero, Marx, he lives love and does love, and that is far more important,” she said matter-of-factly. “He may be an austere communist on the outside, but inside he is a hopeless, poetic romantic. Why else do you think I love him so? Why else do you think he does all he does for me and for you? Why else do you think he has stuck with his Marxist buddies, even as their movement died, people misunderstood them, and the Islamists treated them with suspicion and disdain?”

A distant droning sound rouses me from my night-daydream. At first, my land legs make me think the humming is a drone. Then I begin to feel mild vibrations under the water, and I realise what it must be just as I see a hazy phantom of a shadow, luminous in the moonlight, slicing through the water and hurtling towards me as if it can see me.

To be continued…

Read part 3 – Shipwrecked delusions

Read part 1 – Hell from the heavens

Read part 4 – Drowning in a sea of dashed dreams

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Millet in the Middle East: Disunity in diversity

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Middle Eastern practice of assigning a faith to every citizen and a separate court system for each religion promotes division and sectarianism.

Tuesday 3 May 2016

In the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire, drawing inspiration from Persian and Islamic precedents, created what was known as the “millet” (nation or community) system which granted each recognised religion or sect a great deal of autonomy in managing its own affairs, from setting laws to collecting and distributing taxes.

In its heyday, the millet system – which was progressive by the standards of the time – enabled the Ottomans to prosper as a patchwork of languages and cultures.

However, under strain from imperial decline and growing nationalism, the millet system was creaking and seriously showing its age by the 19th century, prompting a series of reforms, known as “tanzimat”, aimed at creating a uniform and equal Ottoman citizenship.

Across the region today – even in Israel personal status and family laws are partially based on or inspired by the millet system. This means that, in the Middle East, we are destined – or doomed, depending on your perspective – to be born into a pre-determined religion or sect, regardless of what an individual actually believes.

With the exception of Tunisia, where identity papers do not mention religion and courts are civil, this accident of birth shapes the most intimate aspects of our lives, including marriage, divorce, inheritance and death.

If you happily belong to your designated community and are satisfied to live by its religious laws, then your life will be a contented one.

However, if you reject some of the traditional tenets of your faith, such as Christians who believe in divorce or Muslims who believe in equal inheritance rights for men and women, then life may prove difficult.

Women, who are discriminated against by pretty much every religion and sect, are particularly vulnerable when disputes arise, such as Christian women battling husbands who have converted to Islam for custody of their children.

In addition, if you belong to an unrecognised religious minority, such as Bahais, Hindus or Buddhists, then you may have trouble practising your faith.

Now if you don’t believe in God, you are still stuck with the religious label attached to you at birth, and face the risk of prosecution or even persecution in some countries.

Fortunately, in Egypt, there is no law against atheism and atheists are coming out of the closet, despite piecemeal attempts at repression. Syria once allowed complete freedom of belief, including atheism, though it severely restricted political expression. At the other end of the scale, in Saudi Arabia, atheism is classified as “terrorism”, despite the huge underground atheist movement there.

One curious effect of the millet system was that three neighbours and friends – for example, a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew – living in, say, Cairo might have shared the same language, culture and social reference points, yet they officially belonged to different “nations”.

Conversely, Christians, Muslims and Jews from opposing ends of the empire, who would not be able to comprehend each other’s speech and even culture, would have been members of the same “nation”.

In its early days, this system was workable in a vast and diverse empire confident in its variety, but in the contemporary, embattled nation-states of the region the modern vestiges of the millet system have proved an obstacle to forging a common national identity.

No matter how much nationalists insist that God is for the individual and the nation is for everyone, the confessional courts, even if they only deal with personal and family law, suggest otherwise, particularly in the minds of religious conservatives and radicals.

I would hazard to say that the religious and sectarian strife we are witnessing in the Middle East is, in part, down to these divisions. This is because defining a person’s religion and sect from birth, and providing them with differential treatment because of it, leads to social rigidity, identity politics and the difficulty in forming hybrid identities.

A classic example of this is Lebanon, where religion and sect do not just govern issues of personal status, but define the country’s political landscape, with its strict laws on which political positions go to which community. This perpetuates the small nation’s divisions.

The modern manifestation of the millet system also encourages institutionalised discrimination against minorities, by blocking minorities from the upper echelons of politics in many countries and enabling unscrupulous civil servants and security officials to mistreat those who are different.

In extreme cases, it even facilitates persecution. For example, the religion field on Iraqi identity cards has been misused by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and other militias to target citizens who belong to other religions and sects.

Fortunately, there are reformers who are striving for change, and they have scored a number of recent successes. This includes the introduction of civil marriages in Lebanon and the removal of the religion field fromTurkish ID cards.

It is time for Middle Eastern countries to remove all mention of religious and sectarian affiliation from official documents, and to abolish religious family courts.

This would not only be good for the freedom of belief – not to mention love and the equality of citizens – it would also reinforce a sense of common national identity among communities within a country, promoting a sense of unity in diversity.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 12 April 2016.

 

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Making halal sexy

 
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By Khaled Diab

Though halal sex may sound as logical as kosher bacon, it does make its own sense. Some Muslims are utilising the concept to break the taboo around sex.

Painting by Khoda-Dad Khan Zand, QAJAR IRAN, 1856-7. http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot/a-young-couple-in-a-garden-by-4580055-details.aspx?pos=5&intObjectID=4580055&sid=&page=7&lid=1

Romantic painting by Khoda-Dad Khan Zand, Qajar Iran, 1856-7. http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot/a-young-couple-in-a-garden-by-4580055-details.aspx?pos=5&intObjectID=4580055&sid=&page=7&lid=1

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Though Muslims attitudes to sex are as diverse as those found in any other global religious community, the image of contemporary Islam is certainly not sexy. This may explain why a news story about plans to open a halal sex shop in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city in one of its most conservative countries, went viral, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

While many assumed the misleading story actually meant that this was a concrete plan, or even that this shop had actually opened its doors, it remains only a wish – some critics claim wishful thinking – expressed by Abdelaziz Aouragh, the Moroccan-Dutch entrepreneur behind  El Asira, an erotic e-shop which describes itself as “halal”.

And El Asira is not the only erotic enterprise which carries such an Islamic label, quite a number have popped up in recent years. Over a year ago, Palestinian entrepreneur Ashraf Alkiswani launched Karaz, an e-store and online forum. “It’s not about just sex. It’s about love and the joy of expressing that love,” Alkiswani was quoted as saying at the time. “It’s about trying to build bridges across gaps that separate the husband from the wife by improving sexual harmony.”

Aouragh also described his motivations in similar terms, noting that “if couples don’t take the time to show the love for their partner nor themselves, they won’t be able to reach a deeper sensual, sexual or spiritual connection.”

Unlike Western erotic shops, neither El Asira nor Karaz sell sex toys but market various oils and creams which supposedly enhance foreplay and intensify pleasure during intercourse.

The notion that a sex shop can be “halal” – an Islamic concept similar to “kosher” – had many Muslims and non-Muslims bewildered.

At a certain level, describing erotica as “halal” is simply a branding exercise designed to tap the potentially lucrative and under-exploited erotic market in Muslim countries. “Considering we’re targeting a market of around 1.8 billion people, the potential is huge,” enthused Aouragh in a recent interview about El Asira’s new partnership with German erotica giant Beate Uhse.

But the “halal” label is not just about marketing, it is also about breaking the social taboo surrounding sexual pleasure prevalent in many conservative Muslim communities by demonstrating that sexuality is encouraged, not frowned up, in Islam. “I think Islam is more open [than Muslims are] to sex and issues surrounding sexuality,” Mohammed Abbasi, the co-director of the Association of British Muslims, the UK’s oldest Islamic organization, told me. “Islam is more about what people do in private is their business… whereas Muslims want to get involved in a person’s private life.”

To ensure that their products and sites are “halal”, both Aouragh and Alkiswani sought and gained the approval of numerous Islamic clerics and scholars. To the uninitiated and given the puritanism which pervades some current trends within Islam, this may sound weird and counterintuitive. “Religion or lack of it have nothing to do with sexuality,” Marwa Rakha, a prominent Egyptian relationship and dating expert, told me, noting that the main difference between many self-proclaimed “secular” and “religious” people is their attitude to pre-marital sex.

Historically, Islam possessed a relatively open attitude to sex. In medieval times, many Islamic scholars doubled as sex gurus. They penned countless manuals and guides, including one poetically titled The Perfumed Garden. Perhaps surprisingly, many highlighted the “importance of female fulfillment,” according to Kecia Ali, a professor of religion at Boston University, in her book Sexual Ethics and Islam.

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, the 11th-century philosopher and mystic whose opus is regarded by many as the “proof of Islam”, wrote widely about the importance of the female orgasm. “The husband should not be preoccupied with his own satisfaction,” the sage advised. “Simultaneity in the moment of orgasm is more delightful to her.” Likewise, the prophet Muhammad himself was reportedly a huge advocate of foreplay, urging his male followers to send “messengers” to their wives in the form of “kisses and caresses”.

Painting from Qajar Iran, 1850-1885. http://www.islamicpersia.org/2012/09/qajar-erotic-watercolor-art.html

Erotic painting from Qajar Iran, 1850-1885. http://www.islamicpersia.org/2012/09/qajar-erotic-watercolor-art.html

This traditional Islamic focus on the carnal partly explains, in the words of Kecia Ali, why “medieval Christian polemics against Islam viewed its sensualism as barbaric in comparison with the purity of Christianity”.

This view of Muslim society continued into the European colonial era. Many Orientalists from the straitlaced, uptight and prudish 19th century were of the view that “everything about the Orient… exuded dangerous sex, threatened hygiene and domestic seemliness with an ‘excessive freedom of intercourse’,” in the words of the late Edward Said, the Palestinian-American scholar who authored the groundbreaking Orientalism.

Paradoxically, this is how some Muslims, especially in the more conservative sections of society, see today’s West, while today’s Westerners, especially those who are unaware of the existence of liberal Muslims, often see Muslim societies as sexually repressed. While this is partly due to actual changes, such as the rise of political Islam and the setbacks endured by secularism, it is also a factor of the centuries-old tendency of Islam and Christendom (the West) to see each other as diametrically opposed, despite their enormous similarities.

Around the world, many Muslims are pushing back against the conservative and sexually repressive interpretation of their faith. “I think more Muslims are becoming more mature and open in their attitudes to sexuality, but at the same time there is a backlash from the more conservative sections of Muslims,” says Abbasi.

For instance, in Egypt, while many young people became more open and assertive about issues relating to sex, Salafists set up vigilante “morality” patrols in some parts of the country, which locals often defied robustly.

Islamic history, scripture and legal texts have become a major battleground between liberals and conservatives for the body, heart and soul of Islam. However, while helpful at certain levels, attempts to find an “authentic” version of Islam which is progressive enough to fit with modern norms is, like with other religious traditions, also problematic.

“The discourse of Islamic authenticity has had a stifling effect on intra-Muslim debates about sex and sexuality,” writes Kecia Ali, especially when it comes to sex outside of marriage, gender equality and homosexuality.

One side-effect of the reluctance to bring sex out of the closet is that many Muslims are left to their own devices, and must engage in a process of oft-discreet self-education. In addition to familial disinclination, there is also the poor quality of sex education in numerous Arab and Muslim countries.

“Education and awareness are weak in general in Egypt and many other Arab/Muslim societies,” explains Rakha. “Those in charge of the education process do not want generations of knowledgeable and curious children, teens, and adults… How can you control a population that understands its rights and freedoms?”

Rakha believes that, like charity, sexual awareness and maturity must begin at home. “The revolution has to come from the core of every family – otherwise it is not happening,” she maintains.

However, despite the existence of a rising number of open-minded families, many parents are unlikely to want to cede control of their offsprings’ love lives, either because this is what tradition demands or because governing access to sex is a powerful weapon of control. “Most families want their children virgins until they get married,” observes Rakha. “To fulfill this beautiful dream, they will minimize sexual education and awareness, lest the sex dragons awaken and ruin the plan.”

Some young Egyptians are rejecting these restrictions, but many do so behind their families’ backs. “They revolt in secrecy, adding a new number each second to the hypocritical population,” says Rakha.

But not everyone is revolting in secret, with some young people, intellectuals and activists openly calling for a sexual revolution. In Egypt, for instance, a vanguard of women intent on seizing their rights is playing a prominent role in this awakening, whether they are combating sexual harassment, insisting on dressing as they please in public, rejecting the hijab, fighting the stigma of being single, and even choosing to live on their own.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 May 2015.

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Sexual harassment and the medina

 
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By Mette Høyer Eriksen

In Egypt, sexual harassment is a largely urban phenomenon fuelled by a sense of male powerlessness, insecurity and unrealistic gender ideals.

Original image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/elhamalawy/293034937/in/photolist-rTT5v-rTXPY-rTTH3-rTUnw-rTWZS-rTU1w-rTVaV-rTSMB-rTVTc-rTWfw-9h3ZJT-dSKi5p-rU2xx-rU2fd-rU6Tw-rU6aF-rU5Qt-rU4w1-rU2TK-rU1WY-rU3dB-rU4bB-rU1AD-rU4Ph-rU6xB-rU5wT-rU3y5-rU3TJ-dSKeVz-soCuu-soCJV-soCoA-soCXt-soCjX-soCM9-soCzM-soCTF-soCwr-soCy6-soCVY-soCmM-soD1R-soCYL-soCPn-soD7W-soCDp-rUaj8-rU7Aw-nHR3jp-c9nYt7

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

Wednesday 5 November 2014

In Cairo, the problem of sexual harassment is so widespread that anti-harassment NGOs are now classifying the situation as an out-and-out epidemic. So serious is the issue that in June the Egyptian government stepped in and introduced a law criminalising sexual harassment – a law that to date has only had limited effect. Critics claim the new legislation does little more than treat the symptoms of a social problem – a problem which is unlikely to be solved through condemnation or by criminalisation alone.

“There’s an acute need for state intervention that tackles the challenges head on and that addresses the cultural and social dimensions of the issue. If the Egyptian state is serious about combatting harassment, it needs to acknowledge the full scale of the problem. Legislation by itself is not enough,” wrote Yasmin El-Rifae from the organisation Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment on the Middle East Institute portal.

An urban phenomenon

Whereas research has shown that women who are exposed to harassment feel less secure about walking about on their own and, to some extent actually choose to avoid public spaces, there have been few studies into the factors that motivate men to harass women.

“We know very little about the perpetrators. After all, no-one is going to put his hand up and admit that he’s done such things, let alone tell us why he did it,” explains Marwa Shalaby, a the director of the Women and Human Rights in the Middle East programme at Rice University’s Baker  Institute for Public Policy.

She adds that when it comes to determining why men commit acts of harassment neither age nor religion nor profession seem to be factors. However, evidence does show that harassment is more prevalent in the towns and cites than in rural areas.

But just what is it that drives men to accost and harass women? One person who has been trying to find an answer to this question is Shereen El Feki, who researched and wrote the book Sex and the Citadel – a factual novel about sex in the Arab world today.

An expression of impotence

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

When the so-called Arab Spring reached Egypt at the beginning of 2011, the fact that women and men could stand side by side demonstrating for the same rights was one thing that was highlighted as exceptional. During the protests, many women became the victims of violent assaults. However, during the first days of the uprising, Egypt witnessed a rare and unique coming together of the women and men who jointly took over Tahrir Square. Together, they were fighting for the same thing. In her book, El Feki argues that this sense of struggling for something meant that the men taking part in the protests felt less need to elevate themselves above the women. On the basis of her own experiences, she writes: “These events have clearly shown that when men have a sense of motivation and purpose they change the way they behave towards women.”

Shereen El Feki’s argument is backed up by Samira Aghacy, equality researcher at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. One of her areas of study has been masculinity, and she argues that the patriarchical social order prevalent in many places across the region also serves to oppress men – and this oppression is then reflected in the men’s behaviour towards women.

“Many men feel impotent, marginalised and incapable of doing something positive or contributing to the reconstruction of their country or the way it’s being run. It leaves them feeling very frustrated, and they often take their frustrations out on women,” explains Aghacy.

Patriarchy, performance and power

One of Samira Aghacy’s major studies in this area examined how Arabic literature has been portraying men since 1967. Here, she points out, it is clear that masculinity and manliness are associated with having power. Yet only a few Arab men have actually held power over the past decades, so men have also been victims of the patriarchical society. Men are oppressed in a similar way to women, but they have a different conflict because they have been brought up to be in control. They feel castrated and inadequate because they are unable to perform in the way they feel men are expected to perform.

“It all comes down to the way that we’re brought up. That’s the way power relations play out across large parts of the region. Men are brought up to hold the power, so if they don’t have any power, don’t earn enough, and don’t feel that they have anything to say, then they have to demonstrate power in another way,” explains Aghacy.

In other words, there is incongruence between what is expected of men and what men actually can live up to. According to Egyptian journalist and blogger Khaled Diab, the problem of sexual harassment is also linked to the polarisation that has been taking place in many Arab societies over the past years – particularly in Egypt.

“The Egyptian revolution has meant that the underlying polarisation between progressives and conservatives has transformed from cold war to active conflict. On top of this, huge differences in income, wealth and education have also played a role,” Diab observes. “When anger and resentment begin to flourish within a society, it’s often the most vulnerable who end up paying the highest price –whether they be women, children or minorities.”

Torn between tradition and modernity

When a woman student at Cairo University’s Faculty of Law was sexually harassed by a group of men in March, the university’s rector suggested afterwards that it was her own fault because she was dressed in such ‘unusual’ clothing: tight jeans and a pink hooded top. Khaled Diab reacted by posting a photo on Twitter taken around the 1950s or 1960s at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. In the picture, a group of young women who are not wearing headscarves are being taught by an Islamic scholar. “Women used to study at Al-Azhar without covering their heads, and now Cairo University is blaming this woman’s clothing for her attack,” wrote Diab on Twitter.

“Since the end of the 1970s, conservative forces have been steadily gaining ground. But over the past year, women and progressive men have begun refusing to be intimidated, and they’ve become more self-aware and more radical. This has provoked a violent backlash from alarmed and displeased elements within the conservative camp,” explains Diab.

“Right now, Egypt finds itself in a state of limbo, torn between tradition and modernity. This means that women have lost the protection of their bodies that a patriarchical honour system affords, but they have yet to win the protection that modern equality offers,” he adds.

For Mette Toft Nielsen, MA in culture, communication and globalisation, the reason men act the way that they do is the million-dollar question. In connection with a research project for Aalborg University, Denmark, she is currently spending two years living in Cairo studying the conditions of women in Egypt. As part of her studies, she has also been looking into the issue of sexual harassment.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that providing a clear answer as to what caused sexual harassment it’s simply too ambitious. There are thousands of hypotheses and assumptions out there, but most of them are just too difficult to prove or disprove,” she explains.

Conservative gender roles

According to Mette Toft Nielsen, sexual harassment should not be seen as an expression of how men regard women. “It’s interesting because that’s how we typically look at it – that the way men regard women is grotesque. That men are misogynistic pigs and women have a real tough time of things. But I personally don’t believe that that’s actually what’s going on,” she explains.

She continues that while it is clearly women who suffer most from male dominance, the responsibility for changing things does not necessarily lie with men alone. According to Nielsen, men’s attitudes towards women stem from the fact that the men are products of a culture that is governed by very strong gender-role expectations. There are traditions and expectations – and the women are also complicit in upholding these.

“In the West, we often have a subject/object approach to things: the subject – the person who acts and takes action – is the man; the object – the person who is affected by the action and who is seen – is the woman. In this way of thinking, the man can also be seen as the one who can change the situation he finds himself in. And this is something I disagree with strongly. I believe that there are a lot of men out there who really do want to change these things,” notes Nielsen.

One widely touted explanation for sexual harassment is that the heckling and accosting are a result of the men’s sexual frustrations from living in a culture where sex is only permitted within marriage, and is therefore something many young people cannot indulge in.  But Mette Toft Nielsen does not buy this theory.

“Fist of all, many of the men in Cairo who sexually harass women certainly don’t lack sexual experience. Secondly, I’m not at all convinced that sexual harassment has anything to do with sex in the first place,” she asserts.

“I see this harassment first and foremost as an issue of power. Not power as in control – but power as in preserving something that there once was,” she explains, and points out that this is purely based on her own experience and observations and not something based on scientifically proven facts.

“Perhaps this explains why sexual harassment is much more prevalent in the towns and cities than in rural areas. In urban areas, people are witnessing change – particularly economic change. Men are witnessing many women entering the labour market, taking on well-paid jobs and being professionally accomplished,” Nielsen describes. “Many students at the universities are women, and from a career perspective they pose a real threat to the men. So I could imagine that it’s a question of changing positions and changing power relations. After all, if the man loses his role of looking after the woman what is there left for him to do?”

____

This article first appeared in WomenDialogue on 21 October 2014. Republished here with the author and publisher’s consent.

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Gay marriage but no polygamy?

 
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By Khaled Diab

If we can have gay and interfaith marriages in the West, then why not polygamous ones?

Monday 13 May 2013

Marriage is such an ancient tradition that most people take it for granted. Yet, as the impassioned and polarised debate over gay marriage in the United States and elsewhere clearly reflects, when it comes to matrimony, not all humans are created equal.

In some countries, the restrictions go far further, and limit the rights of heterosexuals too. An Israeli NGO which promotes religious equality has created a global league map of countries based on the liberalness of their marriage laws.

As you’d expect Europe, the United States and much of the Americas top the chart, but so do many Asian countries. Propping up the bottom are conservative Muslim countries, as well as North Korea which, in a communist sort of caste system, prohibits marriage between people of differing class backgrounds.

According to Hiddush, the organisation behind the ranking, Israel, despite its proud self-image as bastion of secularism and freedom, is in the company of the likes of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan in terms of the restrictiveness of its marriage laws. Not only does Israel forbid interfaith marriages, the tight control the Orthodox rabbinate enjoys over personal status issues means that many Jews or nominal Jews cannot even marry fellow Jews – at least not in Israel.

Rather than reform the system and provoke the wrath of the religious establishment, Israel has opted for the path of least resistance and recognises any civil marriages brokered abroad, including gay ones. Although this provides people with a way out of the religious straitjacket and makes the system more inclusive than it appears at first sight, it comes at significant extra expense and hassle – and, by definition, is not an option open to people of limited means, placing a class divide in the access to marriage.

The Middle East as a whole fares pretty badly, as it does in so many other areas related to freedom, such as the media. Across the region, people are generally not allowed to marry out of their sect or religious community.

In my own native Egypt, Muslim men are permitted to marry non-Muslim women, but Muslim women may only marry from within their own faith community. Despite plenty of evidence to suggest that Islamic jurisprudence does not actually prohibit this, the only way for non-Muslim men to marry Muslim women is through conversion.

That said, some Muslim-majority countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tunisia, Turkey and Albania, allow full freedom of marriage.

So why is the Middle East so averse to interfaith unions? Part of the reason is wanting to keep religion in the family, so to speak. Another factor is that much of the region fell under the control of the Ottoman Turks who established a system known as millet, which Turkey itself abandoned under the reforms introduced by Ataturk.

Although the millet system gave a high degree of autonomy for recognised religious communities and was once an admirable expression of pluralist tolerance in action, its survival grates against 21st century reality and aspirations. This needs urgent reform, though with other pressing issues facing a region in revolutionary flux and the current ascendancy of Islamist forces, this seems unlikely for some time to come. However, change is slowly gaining traction.

Lebanon, like neighbouring Israel, only permitted the registration of civil marriages performed abroad, now Lebanese are free to carry out such nuptials on Lebanese soil, with the first ceremony taking place recently.

This opens the door for unions between the countries various sects. It also raises the interesting prospect that, while the parliament remains divided along sectarian lines, Lebanese families are likely to become increasingly mixed in the future. And this is no bad thing – perhaps mixing up the population through civil marriages can help prevent Lebanon from erupting into another civil war.

The West has a reputation for having complete freedom of marriage, especially those countries that allow same-sex couples to wed too. But are Western countries as free as they seem?

Well, yes and no. Of course, people of different faiths and none can marry each other freely, and gay marriage is becoming an increasingly accepted norm, both of which are great signs of tolerance and freedom. However, polygamy remains a crime – and I can see no rational reason for this prohibition.

While the Christian concept of wedlock as a lifelong, unbreakable bond has given way to divorce becoming an accepted component of the modern landscape, the Christian aversion to multiple spouses remains firmly in place.

Polygamy in most Westerners’ minds is a symbol of an outdated patriarchal order and a clear sign of gender inequality and is mostly associated with a benighted model of Islam, even though polygamous relationships are not exclusively Muslim, and many in Muslim societies reject or frown upon polygyny. Moreover, some lone voices have started demanding that women be allowed to enter into polyandrous marriages.

Traditional models of polygyny (and polyandry, in a minority of matriarchal societies) do, indeed, tend to reflect social inequalities, between genders, generations and classes. The alpha male sits on top of the social pyramid. And assuming a 50:50 gender divide, polygamy not only means that women in polygamous relationships receive a small fraction of a man, but also some unfortunate men lower down the pecking order will get no woman at all.

But modern, secular society is about personal liberty – even the freedom to live less freely – not moral judgment. People’s rights should not be limited because they offend mainstream society’s sensibilities, as long as their actions do not harm others. So if, for instance, a Muslim woman in the West wishes to become the second, third or fourth wife of another man, who are others to stop her, even if they disagree with her actions?

Besides, a show featuring an aged patriarch with one foot in the grave and his harem was a massive reality TV hit in the United States. Girls of the Playboy Mansion (The Girls Next Door), featuring the Sultan of Porn, Hugh Hefner, and his trophy girlfriends.

While many are likely to find off-putting the sight of an octogenarian living with women young enough to be his grandchildren, including teenagers, there is no law to stop them for cohabiting and broadcasting it on television. But if Hefner were to decide he wanted to marry his girlfriends, he’d probably have the police knocking at his door. Yet what exactly is the essential difference between the two situations, aside from a contract?

Moving away from the world’s various high-powered patriarchs, more equitable modern models of polygyny and polyandry are emerging in which men and women who are largely social equals enter into complex relationships that go beyond the nuclear family.

As the controversy over same-sex marriages clearly reveals, religion and tradition still cast a long shadow over human relationships in these secular times. But in this age of expressed equality and liberty, marriage, like friendship and love, should be open to all.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

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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.

___

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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