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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Mid-life gardening… fertile futility

 
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By Christian Nielsen

You cut, trim, mulch, fertilise, spray, dig, weed, rake and tidy up for half your weekend. The other half you keep looking at what still needs doing as the futility of mid-life gardening grows deep within.

1 July 2011

I just want to sit in the garden on a reclining chair, smell the flowers, watch the kids play, and maybe drink a beer without feeling any guilt.

Guilt that the lawn needs cutting – again! Guilt that the hedge is getting unruly and it’s only a matter of time before the neighbour collars me about it. Guilt that the spring bulbs have come and gone, and stuff needs mulching.

Guilt that I’m 42 years old and only mildly successful at most things I take up; from new languages to guitar-playing and cardio-fitness programmes. The garden is just one more thing in which I’ll only have half-knowledge, half-interest, and no doubt half-arsed results. Is this the mid-life crisis I’ve been promised?

If so, then the next question is, do I get a BMW or Honda motorbike? And if so, can I get matching leather outfits and helmets for my wife and I?

I put this suggestion to her a couple of weeks back, and the answer was a firm ‘no’. ‘No’ to the matching outfits, and an even bigger ‘no’ to the motorbike.

So if big engines on two wheels are out, then how else can I express myself, purging my adolescent pangs and pains while building up my flaccid 40-plus ego? I guess a mistress or a fling would do the job – it’s text book, right?

So, I asked my wife what she thought about that option. And she said ‘no’ to that too. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was a big ask. But she is very sympathetic to my needs. Ever the supporting partner, she did offer a good reason for not allowing a fling … that it would just make me feel more guilty. Good point.

So, back to the guilt. I remember watching my brothers-in-law who are now exiting their 40s and marvelled at their inability to sit down when everyone else was chilling out. They’d be brushing dogs, high-pressure cleaning BBQs and, yes, mowing and trimming lawns with ever-more-impressive tools.

I thought, why can’t they just sit and relax?  And now I know. It’s ownership, it’s fatherhood, it’s decades of marriage, it’s mid-life (or should that be half-life?) … it’s gardening. No matter what you do, the garden keeps growing and you just have to tender it, with the hope that one day you’ll be able to enjoy it for what it is rather than what it should be.
It’s a form of fertile futility… you nurture it despite yourself. You’ve started this thing – you took up guitar, you had (lovely) kids and yearned for a house in a leafy suburb.

It’s Saturday today and hasn’t stopped raining all day. I can’t mow the lawn and the pile of cuttings will be too wet to move. Small mercies. But it’s mid-Summer in Europe right now, so the sun will come out again, and that means one thing … how the garden grows!

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الحب في زمن النزاع

 
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بقلـم خالد دياب

قرارات المحاكم الأخيرة في مصر وإسرائيل تُظهِر مدى الشك الذي وصل إليه اليهود والعرب الإسرائيليين

سبتمبر 2010

EN version

تماماً مثلما تعلّم روميو وجولييت الدرس بطريقة صعبة، فإن الحب والصداقة في زمن النزاع نادراً ما يكونا قصة بسيطة لشاب يقابل فتاة (أو أي خليط آخر يناسب توجهاتك). ففي أوقات كهذه، تصبح الأمور الشخصية أموراً عامة، وتصبح الأمور الرومانسية أموراً سياسية.

ورغم أن هذه سمة شائعة في النزاعات، إلا أن الحواجز التي تفصل بين العرب واليهود الإسرائيليين قد تكون، بطريقة ما، مرتفعة بشكل خاص نتيجة لطول فترة نزاعهم ومرارته. ففكرة الاتصال الإنساني العادي بين الجانبين، وخاصة تلك من النوع الجسدي الحميم أو العاطفي، تصل في أذهان الكثيرين من العرب واليهود الإسرائيليين إلى مصاف خيانة قضية وطنهم. لا تعاني علاقات كهذه من عدم الموافقة اجتماعياً ولكنها تستطيع أحياناً أن تحمل تداعيات قانونية.

خذ على سبيل المثال حالة صابر كشور، الفلسطيني البالغ من العمر 30 سنة من القدس، الذي اتهم مؤخراً بـِ “الاغتصاب عن طريق الخداع” لأنه، حسب الادعاء، كذب على امرأة يهودية إسرائيلية حول هويته الدينية حتى يمارس الجنس معها، رغم أنه يعترف فقط بأنه كذب حول وضعه الاجتماعي كمتزوج.

ورغم أن غالبية الناس يوافقون أن عدم الصدق ليس هو السياسة الفضلى، إلا أن الخداع يشكل تكتيكاً شائعاً في لعبة العشق والغرام. ولو كذب السيد كشور حول مهنته أو ثروته أو تحصيله العلمي أو عمره أو طبقته الاجتماعية أو نواياه على المدى البعيد، لكان الحادث قد مرّ وذهب طيّ النسيان دون خيبة أمل شخصية. بدلاً من ذلك، ولأنه في أبسط الحالات لم يكن صادقاً بشكل كامل حول هويته الدينية والعرقية، فقد أصبح الأمر قضية ذات اهتمام عام وتداعيات قانونية.

“المحكمة مضطرة لحماية مصالح الجمهور من المجرمين الأذكياء ذوي الكلام المعسول الذين يستطيعون خداع الضحايا البريئة بكلفة لا يمكن احتمالها: قدسية أجسادهم وأرواحهم”، حسب قول أحد القضاة الثلاثة الذين استمعوا للقضية، وقد أوجد من خلال ذلك سابقة خطيرة.

يثير الحكم تساؤلات حول ما إذا كان هذا الخداع العاطفي يشكّل فعلاً قضية ذات “اهتمام عام”، بدلاً من قضية تتعلق بمصداقية أخلاقية شخصية. وبناء على ذلك، إلى أي مدى يتوجب على الدولة أن تذهب في حماية مواطنيها من “المجرمين الأذكياء ذوي الكلام المعسول”؟

قد تجد امرأة أخرى على سبيل المثال كذب كشور حول كونه متزوجاً مزعجاً أكثر بكثير من كذبه حول انتماءه الديني. هل كانت امرأة كهذه، إذا تقدمت بشكوى شخصية للمحكمة، تحظى بنفس ردة فعل القاضي المعني؟

غني عن الكلام أن القضية أثارت ضجة ليست عالمية فحسب وإنما في الأوساط الإسرائيلية الليبرالية، ويجري الآن استئناف الحكم. “ماذا لو كان هذا الشخص يهودياً ادعى أنه مسلم ومارس الجنس مع امرأة مسلمة؟ هل كانت ستتم إدانته بالاغتصاب؟ الجواب هو: بالطبع لا”، حسب رأي جدعون ليفي، وهو معلق إسرائيلي ليبرالي.

ولكن إسرائيل ليست هي وحدها المذنبة بالمعايير المزدوجة عندما يعود الأمر إلى مضاجعة العدو أو الوقوع في حبّه. بالنسبة للكثير من الفلسطينيين والعرب فإن فكرة أن يعشقوا أو يعشق أحد يعرفونه يهودية إسرائيلية، أو أحياناً يهودية ببساطة، هو أمر يُنظَر إليه كلعنة محرّمة.

ويمكن في بعض الأحيان أن تحمل هذه “الجريمة الاجتماعية” نتائج قانونية، كما حصل مؤخراً في مصر. بعد ردّ استئناف حكومي لقرار محكمة سابق، حكمت محكمة مصرية في حزيران/يونيو الماضي بسحب الجنسية عن جميع الرجال المصريين المتزوجين من إسرائيليات وأبنائهم (بغض النظر عن قلة عددهم).

أثار القرار خلافاً في مصر، حيث أثنى كثيرون على “وطنية” المحكمة، بينما ثارت ثائرة الناشطين المصريين الليبراليين ودعاة حقوق الإنسان. “ينص القانون المصري على أنه لا يمكن سحب الجنسية المصرية إلا إذا ثبت أن المواطن يتجسس على بلده، لذا فإن هذا القرار يعتبر الزواج من إسرائيلية ضرباً من ضروب التجسس”، حسب قول نجاد البرعي، وهو محامٍ مركزه القاهرة وناشط في مجال حقوق الإنسان.

ما تظهره هاتان القضيتان بوضوح هو مستوى انعدام الثقة وجنون الارتياب والحقد بين العرب واليهود الإسرائيليين، الذي تعاظم مع تدهور الوضع في السنوات الأخيرة. وهو يشكّل على مستوى آخر أداة مناسبة لإطالة أمد النزاع. يجعل تحديد، بل وحتى منع التعامل والتفاعل مع الطرف الآخر من الأسهل بكثير كراهية “عدوك” بل وإضفاء الشيطانية عليه. من هذه الزاوية، ترتكز حقيقة أن معظم الدول العربية لا تسمح أو لا تشجع مواطنيها على السفر إلى إسرائيل، دعك من منع الإسرائيليين من السفر إلى المدن الفلسطينية في الضفة الغربية وغزة، جزئياً على الخوف من أن يُفشِل الحب الفردي الكراهية الجماعية.

جمعت المأساة التي وقعت لروميو وجولييت في نهاية المطاف أسرتيهما المتناحرتين معاً، ولكن القضايا المأساوية أعلاه من المستبعد أن يكون لها نفس الأثر. وبالرغم مما قد يؤمن به بعض الرومانسيين بسذاجة من أن الحب يتغلب على كل شيء، من المؤكد أن هذا ليس صحيحاً، ولا يستطيع الحب عمل شيء يُذكر لحل القضايا الحقيقية جداً التي تذكي نار النزاع.

بغض النظر، فإن جميع الصداقات وقصص الحب والزواج بين الإسرائيليين اليهود والعرب تتحدى ثنائية الـ “نحن” و”هم” المدمرة. ورغم أنها قد تكون علاقات شخصية، إلا أن العلاقات الخاصة بين العرب والإسرائيليين تثبت أن الذين يعيشون عبر خطوط العداء المفترضة قد يتشاركون أكثر بقضايا مع بعضهم مما يتشاركون به مع أناس من جانبهم، ويوفرن الأمل بمستقبل يسوده المزيد من التفاهم

This article, which was written for the Common Ground News Service, was originally published on 2 September 2010.

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Love in times of conflict

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arabs and Israelis tend to view personal relationships that cross the divide between them with suspicion, perhaps because individual love has the power to undermine collective hate.

14 September 2010

AR version

As Romeo and Juliet learned the hard way, love and friendship in times of conflict is rarely a simple story of boy meets girl (or whatever other combination suits your orientation). At such times, the personal so often becomes public, and the romantic, political.

Although this is a common feature of conflicts, in some ways, the barriers separating Arabs and Israeli-Jews may be especially high owing to the long duration of their conflict and the bitterness of the feud. In the minds of many Arabs and Israeli-Jews, the idea of normal human contact between the two sides, especially of the intimate physical or emotional variety, is tantamount to a betrayal of their people’s cause. Such relationships do not only suffer from social disapproval, they can sometimes carry legal consequences.

Take the case of Saber Kushour, a 30-year-old Palestinian from Jerusalem, who was recently convicted of “rape by deception” for having allegedly lied to an Israeli-Jewish woman about his religious identity in order to sleep with her, although he only admits to having lied about his marital status.

Although most would agree that dishonesty is not the best policy, deception is a fairly common tactic in the dating game, and had Kushour been lying about his profession, wealth, education, age, social class, or his longer-term intentions, the incident would have passed into the obscurity of personal disappointment. Instead, because he, at the very least, was not entirely truthful about his religious and ethnic identity it became an issue of public concern with legal repercussions.

“The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable price – the sanctity of their bodies and souls,” said one of the three judges on the case and, in so doing, set a dangerous precedent.

The verdict raises the question of whether such amorous deception is actually an issue of “public interest”, rather than one of individual integrity, and, if so, how far should the state go in protecting citizens from “sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals”?

For instance, another woman may have found Kushour’s lying about being single far more distressing than his religious affiliation. Would such a woman, had she also submitted a private claim, have had the same reaction from the judge in question?

Needless to say, the court case has caused an uproar, not only internationally, but in liberal Israeli circles, and the verdict is already being appealed. “What if this guy had been a Jew who pretended to be a Muslim and had sex with a Muslim woman? Would he have been convicted of rape? The answer is: of course not,” observed Gideon Levy, a liberal Israeli commentator.

But it is not just Israel which is guilty of double standards when it comes to sleeping with – or falling in love with – the enemy. To many Palestinians and Arabs, the idea that they or someone they know could get intimate with an Israeli-Jew, and sometimes even simply a Jew, is often viewed with anathema.

In some instances, this ‘social crime’ can carry legal consequences, as was recently demonstrated in Egypt. After rejecting a government appeal of an earlier verdict, an Egyptian court ruled in June that all Egyptian men married to Israeli women (however few they may be), and their children, should be stripped of their citizenship.

The verdict has sparked controversy in Egypt, with many applauding the court’s “patriotism”, while Egyptian liberals and human rights activists are up in arms. “Egyptian law says citizenship can only be revoked if the citizen is proven to be spying on his country, [so] this verdict considers marrying an Israeli [to be] an act of spying,” said Negad al-Borai, a Cairo-based lawyer and human rights activist.

What these two court cases clearly illustrate is the level of mutual distrust, paranoia and hatred between Arabs and Israeli-Jews which has intensified with the worsening situation in recent years. At another level, it is a convenient tool in perpetuating the conflict. Restricting, and even forbidding, interactions with the other side makes it a whole lot easier to hate and demonise your “enemy”. Seen from this angle, the fact that most Arab countries do not allow or discourage their citizens from travelling to Israel, not to mention the ban on Israelis travelling to Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza, is partly founded on the fear that individual love will undermine collective hate.

The tragedy that befell Romeo and Juliet eventually brought their feuding families together, but the tragic cases above are unlikely to have a similar consequence. Despite what romantics may naively believe, love certainly does not conquer all, and it can do little to resolve the very real issues fuelling the conflict.

Nevertheless, all friendships, love affairs and marriages between Israeli-Jews and Arabs challenge the destructive “us” and “them” dichotomy. Though they may at heart be personal affairs, private relationships between Arabs and Israelis demonstrate that people living across supposed enemy lines may share more in common with one another than with their own side, and provide hope for a future of greater understanding.

This article, which was written for the Common Ground News Service, was originally published on 2 September 2010.

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Love and loathing in the Middle East

 
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By calling Egyptians who marry Israelis traitors, Egypt has betrayed a group of vulnerable people who are guilty of little more than loving across enemy lines.

10 June 2010

Loving someone against the will of your family is tough enough for many people caught in such a predicament, especially in close-knit societies. Being in an international relationship can pose certain challenges, particularly if the couple do not keep an open mind and fail to live by a spirit of compromise and accommodation. But even when a couple live harmoniously and are completely compatible, the outside world may still not leave them alone, especially if their relationship bridges the unstable fault lines of a conflict.

I know of some Palestinians and Israelis, those most intimate of enemies, who have braved the risk of ostracisation and rejection by their respective communities for the sake of love. But I can imagine that keeping the toxicity of the bitter conflict between their two peoples from seeping into their private lives and poisoning their relationship can be a tough mountain to scale.

Although I know and have heard of a number of Egyptian-Jewish couples, I’ve never actually come across any Egyptians who are married to Israelis. This is hardly surprising as there is minimal contact between the two societies as a cold peace continues to reign between them.

But they do exist and, rare as they are, they’ve become the target of a high-profile hate campaign playing itself out in the Egyptian courts, instigated by Nabih el-Wahsh, that crusading Egyptian lawyer who has brought, mostly unsuccessful, morality cases against Egyptian intellectuals, including Nawal el-Saadawi, artists, religious leaders and government ministers.

The self-righteous lawyer turned his attention to this new demographic group  last year, and launched a law suit to demand that Egypt implement an obsolete 1976 article of Egypt’s citizenship law which revokes the citizenship of Egyptians married to Israelis who have served in the army (i.e. pretty much all Israelis).

A lower court had ruled in favour of el-Wahsh but the Egyptian government appealed the verdict. Last week, the Supreme Administrative Court rejected the appeal and called on the Ministry of Interior to take the necessary measures to strip Egyptian men married to Israeli women, and their children, of their citizenship. The judge who issued the ruling made an exception for Egyptian men married to Palestinian women with Israeli nationality.

The verdict has sparked controversy in Egypt, with many applauding the court’s “patriotism”, while others believed that the government does not and should not have the right to strip an Egyptian of his or her nationality.

Against the backdrop of worsening ties with Israel due to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza caused by the Israeli blockage and Israel’s ever-tightening grip on the West Bank, some were somewhat shrill in their applause of the verdict. Sahar el-Gaara, a secular Egyptian columnist, condemned every Egyptian married to an Israeli, even Arab Israelis, as a “potential spy, since he stamped his passport with an Israeli visa”.

By this flawed logic, although I am not married to an Israeli nor did I allow Israeli immigration to stamp my passport, the fact that I visited Israel and Palestine would also makes me a potential spy, even though I was there on a personal peace mission.

I always thought that the basic principle of the legal system is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. So, call me gullible or something, but I thought that, for someone to be guilty of spying, they have to actually be caught in the act of espionage – which, in this case, would be very difficult considering that most Egyptians married to Israelis don’t live in Egypt.

Besides, and more fundamentally, marriage is not a crime, and especially not one so serious that it would entitle the government to strip you of your most fundamental right, the right to nationality. A person’s choice of life partner is theirs alone to make, and society or the government, no matter how much they disapprove, should not have the power to limit that choice.

Of course, in reality, societies do limit that choice unfairly: for instance, gay marriages are not allowed in most countries, inter-faith marriages are completely forbidden in Israel (ironically due to an obsolete Ottoman system which allowed each religious community to set its own personal laws and the disproportionate power of the Israeli rabbinate in this hybrid secular society), and Egyptian Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men (which is presumably why this court ruling does not apply to them). But revoking someone’s nationality is taking this to another level.

Egyptian human rights activists are up in arms at this preposterous verdict. “Egyptian law says citizenship can only be revoked if the citizen is proven to be spying on his country, [so] this verdict considers marrying an Israeli an act of spying,” Cairo-based attorney and human rights activist Negad al-Borai told Reuters.

The head of the Egyptian expatriate community in Israel, Shokri el-Shazli, suggested that the verdict was hypocritical. “In Israel, there is an Egyptian embassy and consulate which welcome a continuous stream of visiting Egyptian delegations,” he told al-Masry al-Youm.

And I cannot help but think that these Egyptians – small and marginalised group that they are – constitute an easy and soft target to channel popular anger at Israel’s blockade of Gaza and Egypt’s complicity in it.

It is still unclear whether the verdict will be implemented, but el-Shazli doubts it will. “This will create social and political problems internationally, not just in bilateral Egyptian-Israeli relations,” he opined, noting that the Egyptian community in Israel was considering its options and may raise the matter to the United Nations, including the Security Council.

While I’m personally against normalising economic ties with Israel until a comprehensive peace settlement has been reached, I welcome grassroots contacts between Israelis and Arabs, and believe that, if they so choose, couples who straddle the divide can help build bridges between the two sides and aid the process of humanising that we need to replace the current demonisation.

But whether or not they can bridge the gap between enemies is beside the point. The bottom line is that, whether you love or loath thy neighbour, you must recognise that individuals are not responsible for the group and are free to marry anyone they like.

________

Are marriages between Arabs and Israelis tantamount to treason? Vote now

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Why do men leave?

 
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By Evo Steele*

Marriage and fatherhood bring out the best in some. But for many its an unbearable weight, and so they leave.Why is this?

1 April 2010

“Oh, you know your wife won’t be interested in anything apart from that little one,” the maternity nurse blurted out during my first solo newborn bathing lesson. “So, I may as well take off until he’s finished high school,” I joked back. The laughing promptly stopped. She excused herself and left.

My first lesson in the secret society that is motherhood. Had I touched a raw nerve? Is it that common for new dads to do a bunk after having kids? Some simple research reveals it may well be.

In his essay, Why men leave – a hidden epidemic, Dr John Travis suggests that the birth of a child can trigger a withdrawal by men with tenuous emotional relationships or poor bonds with – wait for it! – their mothers, that Oedipal elephant in the room.

He suggests an “unbonded” man like this can manage pretty well in marriages for a while, but when “mommy” gives birth and shifts her focus from her man-child to her newborn, the nurturing they need is lost. Jealousy and alienation kick in and you know what happens next.

There could be something to this Freudian stuff. But there could also be deeper biological answers. Look at all the mammal species where the male doesn’t share in the parenting. Powerful instincts urge them to sow their seed in pastures new. Sure, there are species, especially birds, that do pair for life and share the parenting admirably. But the point is still valid.

Now add to this cocktail of psychology and biology, sleepless nights, very short tempers, raging hormones and emotions, and you have a less than harmonious household. Men have gone to war and found peace in the quiet of the trenches. Jokes aside, some seek jobs abroad, or turn to booze, other women and assorted distractions – just leaving by another name.

Of course, we mustn’t forget sex, or lack of it. Modern men pretty much know the days of conjugal rights are dead. But for some, the weeks of abstinence become months, and the months drag into years of interrupted sex – when tiny feet will patter into the bedroom at an awkward moment.

At the opposite extreme, you get husbands who struggle to find the ‘mother of their child’ sexy like before. Memories of the birth, breasts-as-food-not-fun, physical changes… you get the idea.

It’s impossible to get into the head of every man who contemplates leaving his wife and young child. Surely, it’s never an easy decision. Yet the silver lining in the divorce statistics is that, for every man who leaves, there is another who stays. He may experience the above instincts, toils and emotions, but the laughter and love of a child – his child – makes it worth sticking around.

More info:

Divorce statistics: www.nationmaster.com/country/be-belgium/peo-people

Why men leave: http://wellness.thewellspring.com/WhyMen

Oedipal Complex: http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/Oedipal_complex

*Evo Steele is a Brussels-based journalist.

This article first appeared in the March issue of (A)way magazine. Republished here with the author’s consent. ©Evo Steele. All rights reserved.

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Polygamy for all

 
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By Khaled Diab

A Saudi journalist is demanding that women be given the right to four husbands. Should equality mean monogamy or polygamy for all?

6 January 2010

They say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. But it does: the roaring rage of injured male pride. This was amply demonstrated in Egypt when a female Saudi journalist had the audacity to apply logic and consistency to challenge an area of traditional male privilege.

In an article provocatively entitled My four husbands and I, Nadine al-Bedair quite sensibly posed the logical question: if Muslim men are entitled to marry up to four wives, why can’t women, in the spirit of equality between believers, have four husbands?

“I have long questioned why it is men have a monopoly on this right. No one has been able to explain to me convincingly why it is I’m deprived of the right to polyandry,” she complains.

The outspoken Saudi then goes on to deconstruct and question the traditional justifications for polygamy, including that, in a traditional patriarchal society, it is a shelter for widows, divorcees and women who can’t find a spouse; that men have greater sexual appetites than women and get easily bored; that women can’t handle more than one man; and that, if women could have multiple husbands, determining paternity would not be possible (an excuse made obsolete by modern science).

“They tell me that I, as a woman, can’t handle more than one man physically. I say that women who cheat on their husbands and the ‘sellers of love’ [ie prostitutes] do much more,” she counters.

Unsurprisingly, the article’s honest tone and irreverence has triggered a furious response from the traditional male establishment. Some Islamic clerics have denounced the article and promised the “blaspheming” author divine retribution, while an Egyptian MP has decided not to wait that long and has already brought a lawsuit against her.

While few have openly voiced support for al-Bedair’s call for this kind of equality in the Islamic marriage stakes, some Islamic authorities have defended her by saying that her true purpose was to highlight how badly some women are treated by their husbands, especially those who take on second or third wives, despite Islam’s demand that a man treats all his wives equally.

For her part, al-Bedair ends her article with a call that society either allows polyandry for women or comes up with a new “map of marriage”. One Cairo imam, Sheikh Amr Zaki, believes the way to go is to confine polygamy to the scrapheap of history. “In our world today, polygamy should be unacceptable. There is no need for it and, besides, no man can truly love more than one woman and vice versa,” he opined.

And his view corresponds with that of the Egyptian mainstream. Although Islam permits polygamy, most Egyptians are jealously monogamous, with men who take on more than one wife often mocked or marginalised by the community and the first wife often so full of shame that she requests a divorce. Nevertheless, the question remains: which is fairer and more equitable – monogamy or polygamy for all?

Even in monogamous societies, informal polygamy is a reality. In Europe, for instance, though most people, myself included, are serial monogamists, many men and women have multiple partners or lovers simultaneously, and there is a growing tendency to be open about this. However, the law has not kept up.

“A man can live with two women in Britain perfectly legally, but if he marries them both it’s a crime punishable by up to seven years in jail,” Brian Whitaker observed on CiF. “If a man wants to have more than one wife, or a woman to have more than one husband, and everyone enters into the arrangement openly and voluntarily, what exactly is wrong with that?” he asks.

Of course, traditional models of polygny (and polyandry, in a minority of societies) tend to reflect social inequalities, both between genders, generations and classes. And assuming a 50:50 gender divide, polygamy not only means that women in polygamous relationships not only receive a small fraction of a man, but that some unfortunate men lower down the pecking order will get no woman at all.

But there are perhaps more equitable modern models of polygamy and polyandry emerging in which men and women who are largely social equals enter into complex relationships that go beyond the nuclear family through which they hope better to fulfil their emotional and physical needs.

Of course, as my wife points out, marriage is becoming, in many ways, obsolete, as fewer and fewer people choose to take that path, and European largely have the freedom to choose the living arrangement that best suits them. But to my mind, it’s a question of principle. For example, gay people don’t need to marry to share a life together, but that should not mean they have no right to.

In my view, if the institution of marriage is to survive, it should not be so limiting and be made flexible enough to enable people to customise it to their unique needs.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 2 January 2010. Read the related discussion.

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