Rejected by the right, Western Muslims are only left with the left

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By Osama Diab

No Muslim in their right mind would support far-right Christian groups in the West, though they may well symathise with their Muslim equivalents elsewhere.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

I can still remember the excitement on the faces of many of my Egyptian friends when they learnt that, in 21st-century America, some still believe in abstinence and, despite all the freedom at their disposal, they choose to keep themselves ‘pure’ for their future spouses.

Many young Egyptian dream of an opportunity to start a life in an affluent Western society, but they are always worried about the cultural differences. Muslims are often concerned with what to expect if they tie the knot with a Westerner who might belong to a different faith or even to no organised religion at all, especially when it comes to the thorny question of raising children. Most importantly, many are concerned  about the discrimination they may face or how they may be made to feel like unwanted members of society amidst all the unfortunate events that have unfolded over the past decade, culminating with the recent attacks in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, which were carried out by a far-right fundamentalist Christian who was angry at Europe for accommodating so many Muslims who, in his view, threaten the continent’s Christian identity.

With so many questions running through the average pious Muslim’s head, it is understandable that many find the idea appealing that some in the West share the same values, especially regarding sexuality, gender roles, abortion, marriage and premarital sex.

However, what many don’t realise is that those who seemingly share the same values would probably belong to the far-right on the political spectrum. They are at best not particularly amused by the fact that they live side by side with Muslims, Arabs and immigrants in general, and some even resort to more violent means of expressing their hatred towards non-white and non-Christian minorities, such as Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator of the Oslo attacks.

Ironically, Breiviks’s views are in a way identical to those of conservative Muslims, the very same group he and his ilk are fighting. “Ladies should be wives and homemakers, not cops or soldiers, and men should still hold doors open for ladies. Children should not be born out of wedlock. Glorification of homosexuality should be shunned,” wrote the Norwegian terrorist in his 1,500-page manifesto, which he sent by e-mail to a mailing list of about a thousand addresses shortly before he carried out his attacks.

In contrast, those who defend multiculturalism, uphold the rights of minorities including Muslims, and express support for the Palestinian cause, are more left-leaning in their political views.

For conservative Muslims, the dilemma, again, is that these minorities, marginalised or vulnerable groups that leftists defend include – alongside Muslims – homosexuals, women, adherents of non-Abrahamic faiths and atheists. Likewise, for leftists – especially gay rights activists, feminists and atheists – the dilemma is that many of the Muslims they stand up for do not approve of their lifestyle choices or beliefs.

So should a conservative Muslim relate more to the camp that shares her/his values but cannot tolerate their presence, or with the camp that holds a fundamentally different set of morals but sees Muslim as a necessary thread in the colourful fabric of a multicultural society?

The US president, Barack Obama, a radical liberal by US standards, is a sign of shifting allegiances for at least American Muslims. US Muslims, who traditionally voted Republican, overwhelmingly voted for Obama, probably as a reaction to the acts and deeds of the George W Bush administration during their eight-year rule which involved two wide-scale wars against Muslim countries and the growing tension between “them” and “us”, as the former American president liked to put it.

In Sweden, it is believed that 80-90% of Muslims vote left-wing despite the fact that many of them do not hold leftist views. In the UK, Muslims have for long been more likely to vote Labour than Conservative and, despite the war in Iraq which was launched by a Labour government, most Muslims still see the centre-left party as the most friendly to Muslims in Britain.

Voting left is only normal since most far-right wing groups, as well as some more centrist right parties, have long been openly hostile towards Muslims. In May, the far-right group Ataka attacked Bulgarian Muslims performing their Friday prayers in the country’s capital, Sofia. British extremist right-wing white-only parties, such as the British National Party and the National Front, have been hard-line critics of non-European immigrants in general and the Muslim minority in particular, and always adopt programmes that have at their centre the “repatriation” of non-white immigrants.

This implies that most people would agree to make concessions in return for co-existence, especially when they are a vulnerable minority. Since most Muslims approve of liberal politics, despite not necessarily holding liberal views, when they are a minority, they would only be able to avoid accusations of hypocrisy if they apply their implicit approval of liberal politics in their Muslim-majority home countries. They should support the treatment of all minorities in Muslim-majority countries the same way they like to be treated as religious minorities in Western democracies.

This is not only common sense, but the Qur’an also confirms this concept. “Woe to those… who, when they have to receive by measure from men, they demand exact full measure, but when they have to give by measure or weight to men, give less than due.”

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism. Published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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No revolution for Egyptian women

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By Marwa Rakha

Despite the political earthquake that has rid Egypt of its patriarch-in-chief, attitudes to gender remain largely the same. Now women must stand up for their rights.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

As a woman, I would like to be realistic about my expectations after the revolution. Nothing changes overnight or over a few months. People’s perceptions, attitudes, and behaviour are very difficult to change.

Yes, we had an iconic revolution where a corrupt regime was toppled, but did that affect how men view women? No, it did not. Despite the fact that women stood next to men on Tahrir square chanting against corruption, men still do not see women as their partners – I do not like to use the word ‘equal’ to describe the ideal relationship between men and women.

Before the revolution, women were objectified and treated as things that should be covered up or eye-candy that should be exposed to please men.

Before the revolution, women were the victims of sexual harassment on the streets and on public transport. It is ironic how they were also blamed for it.

Before the revolution, your average Egyptian would not trust a political opinion voiced by a woman. “Women know nothing about politics and should stay out of the political arena,” they advocated.

Before the revolution, female political and public involvement was kept down to the bare minimum – in the parliament and in the judiciary system, for example.

Before the revolution, young girls were still subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) – even though there is a clear law against the practice.

Before the revolution, a mother’s most important concern was marrying off her daughter “before it is too late”.

Before the revolution, married women were subjected to emotional and physical abuse in the name of “obeying God”.

Economic factors cannot be ignored when talking about Egyptian women – many of them are dependent on ‘a man’. Social factors also play a role – no one wants to be the single spinster or the divorcee.

The secularists and the conservatives are two faces of the same coin when it comes to women. Most of the politicians in both currents objectify women – one side want to cover us and lock us up, while the other wants to strip us naked and show us off. Show me a party that does not focus on gender and I will listen to them with more interest.

During the revolution itself – those three weeks that made history – such points were eliminated. They just disappeared. Men and women stood together, hand in hand – as Egyptians regardless of their gender – and won the battle against corruption.

Now the revolution is over and everything is back to normal. Attitudes towards women have not been affected by the historic victory. After the revolution, how many girls decided to move out of their family homes and become fully independent? How many abused women ‘revolted’ against their abusive/negligent husbands? How many more women decided to pursue further education? How many additional women decided to join the workforce? How many men were able to link their personal revolution against a dictator in power and a potential revolution at home from their wives?

On 8 March 2011, many women’s rights activists marched through Tahrir Square – the same place where men and women stood together for three weeks – and demanded equality. They were attacked. Men chanted slogans against them like: “Men want to topple feminists” and “Since when did women have a voice?” They were asked to go home and obey God.

They were let down by the average Egyptian man and woman alike. Their demands simply did not ring any bells with the ‘submissive’ women who got used to being used and abused. Personally, I was against this march. I am against fighting for women who would not lift a finger to fight harassment or abuse.

As for sexual liberation, political and economic uprisings are in one box and social and cultural revolutions are in another box. The two boxes are so far apart that you can barely see one when you are standing on the other.

Patriarchal values, religion, and traditions are not as easy to topple. It was easier to break free from Mubarak’s regime than to break away from decades of preaching. Virtue, honour, and integrity lie between a woman’s legs – this is the subliminal message that propagates through sermons, movies, songs, novels, or shows. The woman who has premarital sex is doomed and we get to see her suffering in whatever medium that message is disseminated.

Men, on the other hand, are reprimanded gently for their promiscuity and when they repent, they are rewarded by getting married to the pure, untouched, innocent virgin. Such hypocrisy and duality is a fact of our society and it will take more than a revolution to bring about sexual liberation, autonomy, and freedom of choice.

For real change to come about, it must come from within … from a woman’s own self-respect and self-esteem. Change will only happen when women have more faith in themselves, get a better education, have goals and interests other than men, and become more involved in the community.

This article is based on an interview with Marwa Rakha. Published here with her consent. ©Marwa Rakha.

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Sexual harassment: Dreaming of a harassment-free Egypt

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By Rasha Dewedar

Efforts to break the silence and taboo surrounding sexual harassment will eventually lead to a harassment-free Egypt.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

To my mind, sexual harassment is a very humiliating experience which causes long-lasting psychological trauma.

 I’m from Egypt, a country where statistics indicate a threatening trend in which more than 80% of Egyptian are harassed. I attribute this phenomenon to negative attitudes and weird mentalities. Some people have an intrinsic cultural attitude that whoever dresses in a ‘provocative’ way deserves the consequences! This results in a warped duality in which the victim becomes the predator and the predator the victim.

A woman should wear whatever she likes and feel secure in her choice. Unlike some other experiences, harassment is not easy to forget or get over, and it is really sad how even the closest people to a woman who has fallen prey to harassment can behave at times.

 It is very painful when a woman has this huge psychological pain and she cannot talk about it honestly and openly with her husband to release this negative energy. Instead of being held and reassured, a woman can find herself at the receiving end of her husband’s anger or distance.

Another common negative reaction among family and friend is to act as though nothing has happend. And this SILENCE is the worst possible reaction.

 Being able to talk about the problem in private and in public is very important for people to understand more about the causes and consequences of harassment so as to be able to deal with it like any other problem, instead of sweeping it under the carpet as a taboo. Transforming the whole issue into a taboo blows it out of all proportions and complicates matters more.

 With the revalation that sexual harassment was on the rise and had reached crisis proportion, the entire community received the unprecedented opportunity to bring the issue out of the closet for the first time.  So far, this has not led to new laws, but it is leading to new attitudes.

 Last December saw the releas of a film, ‘678’, which dealt directly with the roots of the problem and the negative attitudes of Egyptians towards sexual harassment. The film touchingly and convincingly featured three women living in very different circumstances and explored how harassment had almost ruined their lives.

 In a country like Egypt, this is the best way to address a problem like harassment and, with time, this will lead to real change. Although the movie didn’t offer any solutions, it attempted to reshape people’s consciousness by viewing the pain and humiliation of harassment from the victims’ perspective. It also presented role models who said ‘no’ to harassment.

The Egyptian revolution arrived to empower almost all Egyptians and restore their dignity which will have an impact on everyone and every aspect of life. It is worth noting that during the Egyptian revolution, no single incident was reported, and the reaction of both men and women to harassment now is completely different.

I’m very happy and proud that many Egyptian women now react positively when being harassed which puts the predators at greater risk and lead thems to think twice before starting their assault. I’m also confident that society will grow more supportive and open minded.

This article is part of a special series on sexual harassment. Published here with the author’s consent. © Rasha Dewedar. All rights reserved


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Special report: Making harassment history

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This Chronikler special report examines, through personal testimonies and analyses, the causes and consequences of sexual harassment and what can be done about it.

Some blame women for sexual harassment, saying the way they dress and act "invites" unwanted male attention. Both statistical and anecdotal evidence show this to be a myth. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Some blame women for sexual harassment, saying the way they dress and act “invites” unwanted male attention. Both statistical and anecdotal evidence show this to be a myth.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

This special focus section was launched on 20 June 2011, which Egyptian activists had declared as a day for blogging against sexual harassment. Since then, The Chronikler has sought to shed light on this troubling social phenomenon, its causes and consequences, the pain and distress it causes women, the insult it represents for men who do not harass, and its ramifications for society as a whole.

Though many of those who harass and humiliate women in this way dismiss sexual harassment as little more than a bit of fun and harmless ‘teasing’ (‘mua’kasa‘), sexual harrasment, despite being a universal phenonmenon, has reached crisis proportion in Egypt and some other parts of the Arab world, making going out in public a living hell for millions of women: conservative or liberal, young or old, educated or uneducated, rich or poor.

In Egypt, the situation has gone from crisis to catastrophe since the Egyptian revolution. Some blame the victims, saying the way women dress and act “invites” unwanted male attention. Both statistical and anecdotal evidence show this to be a myth. This intensifying of the situation is partly due to the breakdown in law and order, the deployment of sexual harassment as a political weapon, the increasing assertiveness of women and the accompanying backlash from the threatened male order.

The articles below relate the personal trauma and humilation harassment causes, the socio-economic and cultural factors behind it, and what can be done to combat it.

Sexual harassment, Islam and the politicisation of women’s bodies

January 2016 – Sexual harassment in Cologne and elsewhere is not about Islam. It is about the patriarchy and the politicisation of women’s bodies.

Sexual harassment and the medina

November 2014 – In Egypt, sexual harassment is a largely urban phenomenon fuelled by a sense of male powerlessness, insecurity and unrealistic gender ideals.

The antidote to Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic

March 2014 – The cure for Egypt’s sexual harassment crisis is to liberate society from outdated and toxic gender ideals and to rethink notions of “honour”.

Sexual harassment: Undressing naked prejudice

March 2014 – To those who believe the way a woman dresses invites harassment, hear this: she is not to blame – her harassers are, reiterates Nadine Marroushi.

I was harassed and I’m stupefied!

June 2011- Until the revolution in social attitudes comes, women should face their harassers with a loud voice and a shebsheb (a slipper), insists Yosra Zoghby.

No online way out

June 2011 – Blogging won’t raise awareness about sexual harassment more than it already has. We must focus our efforts on lobbying the government to do more, argues Osama Diab.

18-day social revolutions do not exist

June 2011 – Tackling harassment requires much more than a political revolution: it needs a social movement that restores people’s dignity and promotes equality, says Kholoud Khalifa.

Dreaming of a harassment-free Egypt

June 2011 – Efforts to break the silence and taboo surrounding sexual harassment will eventually lead to a harassment-free Egypt, believes Rasha Dewedar.

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Sexual harassment: 18-day social revolutions do not exist

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By Kholoud Khalifa

Tackling harassment requires much more than a political revolution: it needs a social movement that restores people’s dignity and promotes equality.

I sometimes wonder if the 18-day Egyptian revolution would ever have a positive impact on the problem of sexual harassment in Egypt. Is it so hard to imagine that crude impropriety, which is endemic in today’s society, can perhaps perish the same way that Mubarak, along with his embezzling wife and his corrupt sons have?

Unfortunately, the answer is ‘yes’.

This time around public disobedience and a million-man march won’t get rid of the problem. Inevitably, people will realise that curing this social disease will prove to be much more difficult than the toppling of a 30-year old dictatorial regime. While the political setting may have changed, many aspects of Egyptian lifestyle, including the reality of sexual harassment, still persist.

Some have argued that Mubarak was the reason these molestations existed and sexual harassment was a direct result of his leadership. Ask any Egyptian mother  and she will tell you that back in the 1970s women used to wear mini-skirts and received no uninvited attention for it, even in the poorest of neighbourhoods.  Deteriorating living conditions under the Mubarak regime meant that men were unable to get married, which resulted in their sexual frustration and effectively gave them, what they saw, as a god-given right to cat-call, grope and intimidate women on the streets of Egypt. While this argument may have some truth to it, it doesn’t explain why boys who haven’t hit puberty yet and married men with children are guilty of the same crimes.

The main reason why it may be harder to remedy the situation and may take longer to bring about social change, as opposed to the recent political changes, is simply because human nature is quite intricate and old habits are hard to break. The lack of education is perhaps one key social aspect that explains the rise of sexual harassment in Egyptian society.

Education doesn’t just mean schooling. I would also hold women, particularly mothers, accountable for these harassments, not because they dress chic or stay out late at night, but because many of them fail to teach their sons what it means to respect oneself and respect women.

With a society that churns out millions of harassers and pours them on to the streets, in malls, on busses and in your own private university, no recipe for political change can be applied to abolish this social problem.

However, there have been many initiatives on both a national and international level to end these assaults on women. Media outlets have published stories exposing the dire situation in Egypt, social media platforms have encouraged tweets and blogs and designed polls to monitor the relationship between sexual frustration and sexual harassment, and the American University in Cairo has gone as far as to stage plays that address this very issue. While these are all positive approaches and create awareness in different parts of the world or on campuses, they aren’t reaching the majority of offenders. 

It is imperative that the new government restore the concept of human dignity in order to stop the men who commit these deplorable deeds. But until then, if you fall into the category of ‘woman’, you’re likely to be approached and unwillingly harassed for a while to come, regardless of your social background or how you dress.

This article is part of a special series on sexual harassment. Published here with the author’s consent. © Kholoud Khalifa. All rights reserved.

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Sexual harassment: No online way out

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Blogging won’t raise awareness about sexual harassment more than it already has. We must focus our efforts on lobbying the government to do more.

 Monday 20 June 2011

Today is a day dedicated to blogging about sexual harassment. The idea is for all the bloggers in Egypt and outside it to raise awareness about the issue by writing about it – all on the same day. However, I always ask myself, does the average sexual harasser who would hiss at and follow a high school girl in Dokki or grope a tourist walking down Tala’at Harb Street read these blogs (many of which are written in English) or even hear about them? The answer is an obvious ‘no’.

Internet usage in Egypt is still largely confined to educated circles. If you surf the web for knowledge (other than pornographic knowledge) in Egypt, read blogs and have a Facebook account, then you are most likely a university student/graduate and probably a member of at least the middle class and most likely wouldn’t around groping that high school girl around the corner. 

So how could we avoid turning this event into ‘people who think sexual harassment is bad’ writing for ‘other people who also think sexual harassment is bad’ in an infinite loop, where everyone is exchanging similar information, knowledge and opinions in our beloved political blogospheric circle, instead of trying to think and act outside this circle.

At the end of today, we will all feel quite good about our contributions and think we must be on the right track, but even though I hate to be the bearer of bad news, we really aren’t. In fact, sexual harassment is just so ingrained that even the toughest stain-removal blogging won’t be able to wash it off.

In order to combat sexual harassment, a consensus among those who blog about it today needs to be reached that there are a complicated and inextricably intertwined mix of social, economic and political reasons behind it.

Let’s take a quick look at the economic factor. It’s not only extreme poverty and inhumane living conditions that lead people to sexual harassment; many poor societies don’t suffer from this social cancer the same way Egypt does, after all.

It is this weird urban mix of dire poverty and extreme wealth which creates this immense feeling of social frustrations and anger at rich people. The victims of this kind of poverty-driven sexual harassment are usually the wealthy western-dressed girls driving around the city in their luxury cars, who embody, in the eyes of their tormentors, the lack of social justice, while their perceived physical and social vulnerabilitymakes them easy prey to these economic and social frustrations. So here, the magic ingredients of this distasteful dish of sexual harassment are poverty and social injustice, mixed in with a potent dose of misogyny. 

Part of being a ‘Man’ in our patriarchal society is to be sexually explicit by showing sexual interest in everything that even hints at femininity. If a group of teenagers hanging around a street corner see a girl passing by and one of them refrains from oogling her out or making a remark about her, let alone ask the other guys to stop it, he would probably end up on the receiving end of their derision and mockery. Victims of this type of harassment are usually the less fortunate girls who are forced into commuting their way around the city and rubbing shoulders with hundreds, if not thousands of men, on a daily basis.

This kind of male peer pressure also increases the chance of sexual harassment. This again is combined with economic reasons; a high unemployment rate and poor economic conditions increase the number of young guys wandering aimlessly around the streets of Egypt. They have endless hours on their hands, due to the lack of work, and little financial ability to do anything meaningful to kill time.

The conservative solution of enforcing gender segregation is not working either but could be possibly increasing sexual harassment. Gender segregation would only widen the communication gap between men and women, creating more gender-based social problems, such as sexual harassment and domestic violence. We should not give up on trying to solve a long-term problem through short-term ‘comfort ‘ measures, such as women-only metro cars and beaches.

As for the political aspect of the problem, it is simply the political system that allowed for these economic and social misfortunes to flourish and control our lifestyle. Additionally, it is the authoritarian political system that stripped many citizens off their dignity to the extent that they see no problem in infringing on someone’s privacy and personal space without invitation. The slightest sense of self-respect would stop any individual from doing that out of embarrassment, even if they continue to harbour misogynistic beliefs.

Even though I see the nobility of the intentions behind calling the 20 June a day for blogging about sexual harassment, this unedifying phenomenon cannot be blogged away as long as the reasons behind it are not tackled. Even if we reach a million blog entries today, there will still be a zillion sexual harassment incidents tomorrow.

A more holistic approach is needed when combating sexual harassment, and the only entity that has the ability to address this inter-connected complex situation comprehensively and put a framework for solving it on the political, social, economic, legal and security levels is the government. Therefore, the Egyptian blogosphere’s main duty should be to lobby the government to do more through its education programmes, media apparatus, poverty alleviation schemes and the establishment of a more socially just atmosphere, rather than trying to address the harassers because they are simply not listening.

This article is part of a special series on sexual harassment. Published here with the author’s consent. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Where ‘no’ means jail time

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 Ray O’Reilly

Though Dubai may be the Middle East’s self-styled party capital,in the UAE, women who say they have been raped can find themselves behind bars for adultery.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

A Brisbane woman, Alicia Gali, is suing Australian embassy staff for failing to warn the 29-year-old that a complaint of rape in the United Arab Emirates could mean she ended up in jail for adultery of all things.

And that is exactly what happened. She was hauled off by police, held and eventually sentenced to 12 months in prison. She served eight months of that before being “pardoned” and released. Gali returned to Australia in March 2009 and, according to reports, has been trying to pick up the pieces of her life.

When informed of the incident in June 2008, the Australian embassy staff reportedly advised Gali to simply “reconsider her need to be in the country” and it was also suggested she not contact the media once it became apparent that making the complaint would land her in as much trouble as the rapists.

Gali has since criticised her employer, Le Meridien, for not being more clear that, without coroborating statements from four adult male witnesses to the crime, she could be charged with adultery and face prison if she filed a complaint.

“These countries don’t have the same laws as us,” Gali told following her ordeal. She warned women against going to the UAE. “I was the victim. I’d had something wrong done to me and I was being punished,” she lamented.

The UAE was set up in 1971 as a federation of seven emirates – Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaima, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain. It occupies the area previously known as the Trucial Coast. UAE has a federal judicial system as well, but Dubai and Ras Al Khaima chose to maintain their own.

The UAE follows a form of civil law jurisdiction which is heavily influenced by French, Roman, Egyptian and Islamic (or Sharia) law. Islamic courts work alongside civil and criminal courts primarily concerning civil matters between Muslims. Sharia courts hear family matters, such as divorce, child custody, child abuse cases and inheritance disputes, and the principles of Sharia are applied when the UAE’s codified law doesn’t cover the situation at hand.

“The Sharia court may, at the federal level only (which … excludes Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah), also hear appeals of certain criminal cases including rape, robbery, driving under the influence of alcohol and related crimes, which were originally tried in lower criminal courts,” according to the US Consulate website for Dubai/UAE.

It should be noted that more secular Arab countries recognise and prosecute rape as a punishable crime for the perpetrator, although the social taboo attached to it leads many victims to remain silent. For instance, in Egypt, men found guilty of rape (though marital rape is not illegal) face sentences ranging between three years and life, though it is estimated that only 10% of rapes are ever reported. Tunisia, where marital rape was made illegal in 2008, probably has the most supportive legal system for rape victims in the Arab world

Punishing the victim

Gali, a salon manager at Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort in Fujairah, said the last thing she remembered about the incident was having a drink at the staff bar when another employee put ice in her drink. Later that night, hotel security staff were alerted that screaming could be heard from Gali’s room. Investigating the noise, they found the woman naked and unconscious with several men in the room.

Gali says she woke up the next day confused and in pain. She took herself to hospital and was informed by medical staff that she had been sexually assaulted. When she was discharged from hospital she was asked to go to a police station to make a statement.

That’s when it started going all wrong.

“I realised when I was put in a police car that I was being taken to jail,” she is reported to have said. “I didn’t even know what the charges were until five months into my sentence!”

Fast-forward a couple of years and today Gali is looking to understand what happened and is keen to get answers from the Australian government and her employer as to why she didn’t have more information and warnings about the treatment of women in rape cases in the UAE.

If not ill-advised Gali was certainly ill-informed about the world that she was entering. A world where men make and (apparently) break the rules. The UAE, and especially Dubai, appears to be suffering from a split personality. Considered by many of its neighbours as the ‘liberal and tolerant’ emirate (interpret that as you wish), Dubai seems to have a love-hate relationship with the West. Love the women, Dunkin’ Donuts, Palm Island parties … hate the women, Dunkin’ Donuts, parties!  

According to a blogger on Escape-Artist, Dubai is setting itself up as the tourism and party town of the Middle East, but with the party comes the party people and inevitably the sleeze: “It’s already the prostitution capital of the Middle East. Brazen Russians in short skirts and halter-tops frequently solicit right on the street. There are thousands of girls who have come from the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe to ‘work’. Then there are the fun-loving girls who fly out from Europe (and the States) to hook up with affluent guys,” the blogger comments in a post entitled ‘Sex in the city’.

“What’s interesting – and a little irritating – is that a lot of local guys have no problem with being married and having girlfriends on the side (not an attitude restricted only to local guys). Local women, on the other hand, are not even allowed to chat on the telephone with a man outside the family,” the writer continues.

On the Australian embassy’s UAE site, under ‘Services for Australians’ emergency contact information is provided and a statement that: “One of the main functions of the Australian embassy is to provide a range of services (within limits) to Australian citizens.”

The ‘within limits’ is linked to a page on its website which spells out what the limits are: “Consular staff cannot use their position to influence unduly or bypass local laws or processes, even when these would appear by Australian standards to be unfair or unnecessarily arduous. While consular staff can sometimes use their knowledge and understanding of the local environment to facilitate support, they must work within the legal and administrative constraints applying in their host country.”

The UAE embassy site has assorted information about passports, travel information, some tax and repatriation information and a section called ‘Living in UAE or Qatar’. No obvious or apparent mention of how to deal with UAE customs and laws or warnings to young female travellers about the risk of sexual abuse.

However, if you follow the link to the ‘Latest travel advisories and other traveller hints’, then the ‘Travel advice’ page, then scan down to the ‘United Arab Emirates’ and on that page under the ‘Local laws’ section it states: “When you are in the UAE be aware that local laws and penalties, including ones that appear harsh by Australian standards, do apply to you. If you are arrested or jailed, the Australian Government will do what it can to help you but we can’t get you out of trouble or out of jail. Custodial sentences would be served in local jails.”

It continues: “The UAE is a Muslim country and its local laws reflect the fact that Islamic practices and beliefs are closely applied. Legal and administrative processes may be substantially different from those in Australia. If you are arrested, you may face a significant period of detention before your case comes to trial. You should familiarise yourself with local laws before you travel. […] Common law relationships, homosexual acts and prostitution are illegal and subject to severe punishment. Adultery is also a crime.”

It also states: “It is illegal to harass women. Harassment includes unwanted conversation, prolonged stares, touching any part of the body, glaring, shouting, stalking or any comments that may offend.”

In the ‘Travel tips’ section of, under the ‘Sexual assault overseas’, the Australian governments offers a number of tips to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault. And the site states: “Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. Try not to blame yourself. The perpetrator is the only one responsible for the assault. No one deserves to be raped or assaulted.”

(That’s one for the books, then!)

And after some further research and surfing, your reporter could not find an express mention that filing a complaint for rape without four male witnesses to back up your story may well land the victim in jail for adultery.  

Gali’s story highlights something of a disconnect in this part of the world between materialism and Westernism. It is a poignant reminder that the swish hotels and (fake) beaches can lull a visitor into thinking they are in a Western land. But this can be illusionary, and travellers and guest workers may quickly fall foul of UAE laws. Dubai’s party and glitz blitz can never mask what lurks beneath.

Note: This article was updated to clarify the location of the incident.
This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Ray O’Reilly. All rights reserved.
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Not so simply red

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By Christian Nielsen

The Simply Red lead singer’s admission that he slept with thousands of women shatters one longstanding ginger stereotype, but discrimination against redheads goes way back.

10 December 2010

“A red-headed man,” Simply Red’s lead singer Mick Hucknall told the Guardian last week, “is not generally considered to be a sexual icon.” But he admits to bedding severalwomen  a day during a three-year, well, purple patch between 1985 and 1987.

Married now with a young daughter, the 50-year-old singer is doing some soul searching, and perhaps a bit of guilt purging while he’s at it.  He regrets the philandering and admits to getting caught up in the pop-star lifestyle.

“When I had the fame, it went crazy,” he said. “I was living the dream and my only regret is that I hurt some really good girls.”

Hucknall describes his sexual adventures as an addiction, a surrogate for the love of his mother who abandoned him at a young age. But the story here is not the middle-aged fading pop singer who gets the girls – truck loads of them – but that the oft-maligned gingers of this world really are something special.

Hucknall’s revelation has inspired me to follow up a story idea I had about what it means to be a redhead. Red hair appears in people with two copies of a recessive gene on chromosome 16 which causes a mutation in the MC1R protein. According to our friend Wikipedia, it is associated with fair skin, lighter eye colour and sensitivity to ultraviolet light. Cultural and societal reactions to the simple fact of having red hair range from ridicule to admiration.

Different is as different does

Delving a little deeper, I confirmed my suspicion that gingers really are super-human – though not in a red-cape kind of way. They apparently have different tolerance and sensitivity to pain than the rest of us mere mortals.

Research suggests that while people with red hair are more sensitive to thermal pain – something to do with lower levels of vitamin K – they are less sensitive to pain coming from multiple modalities, including “noxious stimuli such as electrically induced pain”. It has also been found that people with red hair respond to anesthetic and analgesics differently.

[Can you picture a battery of redheads hooked up to the mains for a series of lab tests  followed by hits of morphine? No. Okay, just me then.]

The scientists put this unexpected relationship between hair colour and pain tolerance down to a genetic mutation in a hormone receptor that responds to melanocyte-stimulating hormone (the skin pigmentation hormone) and endorphins (pain-relieving hormone), and possibly others. This doesn’t mean redheads are mutants. We all have mutations (genetic or other) which give us our physical characteristics, like curly hair. [Mick Hucknall got the double-whammy mutation of red, curly hair.]

The number of talented ginger sportsmen and women belies the total number of redheads in the world – estimated at 1-2 % but as high as 6% in northern and western European populations. What separates the top 10 from the many others trying to make it in top-level sports is not necessarily raw talent. It boils down to mental strength and physical endurance or the ability to fight through pain and recover fast.

It’s pure speculation on my part, but the super-human pain tolerance trick could be useful in today’s physically demanding sports regimes [I’d be happy for the more scientific readers out there to blow this out of the water].

Fascination and prejudice

Red hair has had it’s good and bad times in history. During the reign of Elizabeth I, it was quite fashionable and regal to be a redhead. Many painters have depicted their red-headed women as alluring subjects in the vein of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Titian’s red ladies, which were so prevalent the term titian stuck for redheads.

But the redheaded were less favoured by history.  In the Middle Ages, red hair was thought to be a mark of what’s been described as beastly sexual desire and of unearthly beings. The Brothers Grimm speak of a savage red-haired man in Der Eisenhans, while other fables and stories attribute red and green eyes to be the mark of a witch, werewolf or vampire.

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift paints the redhead in Hucknallesque terms: “It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity.”

Even today, you’ll hear a comment or aspersion almost every day in the media, with terms like ‘ginge’ and carrot-top aimed squarely at the hapless redhead. It’s like a long-running joke perhaps going all the way back to English resentment of the Celts (red hair is more prevalent in Ireland and Scotland) following centuries of independence battles. Again, this is all pure speculation.

It seems even with modern science on their side, the myths, lies and prejudices directed at redheads will not go away. Any wonder they’ve got such fiery tempers!

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Learning tolerance

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By Barry van Driel

Islamophobia is common in western society, so the classroom is a good place to start combating it.

25 November 2010

If ever a book was overdue, Teaching against Islamophobia is it. This edited volume of very diverse contributions deals with a phenomenon that I would want to describe as the first real obsession of the 21st century:  the unease of Western societies with Islam and Muslims.  Unease is perhaps too mild a term for the mudslinging, accusations, fears and sheer paranoia that seem to have taken hold of large swathes of the public and media across North America and Europe. The vitriolic attacks on everything Muslim have been unleashed from both the right and the left side of the political spectrum.

This book represents a committed and comprehensive attempt to remind those in society who define themselves as educators that embracing issues of social justice and equity implies taking sides in the Islamophobia debate. The editors rightfully view Islamophobia through the lens of racism. In the UK, this has led to the use of the term anti-Muslim racism instead of Islamophobia.

Though the authors claim in their forward that the book is aimed at teachers, the contributions make it clear that it is intended for a much broader audience and that it has been especially written to make all of us (the non-Muslims primarily) reflect on our attitudes and misconceptions and to rethink many of our assumptions.

Living in Europe, I was pleased to see a primarily American book provide a North American perspective on the issue of Islamophobia, while also bringing in European issues in a few key places. In that sense, the book truly has an international character.

The 20 chapters in this book cover a wide range of topics, and it moves from more theoretical and socio-political discourse to a discussion of more practical issues.

In chapter 1, Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg set the theoretical tone for the rest of the book. Their comment that “learning from difference means that teachers are aware of the histories and struggles of colonized groups and oppressed  peoples” signifies how the authors reject the very common approach in multicultural and intercultural education that avoids discussing historical injustices and controversial issues so as not to upset people. References to empathetic understanding, solidarity and valuing of differences help position their pedagogical approach.  Their deconstruction of the propagandistic arguments being used by, for instance, the Fordham Foundation to promote the West as enlightened and majority Muslim nations as inherently inferior and a threat.

Chistopher Stonebanks builds on this analysis by looking at the manner in which intolerant attitudes towards Muslims and Islam are promoted by popular culture and are not considered, by and large, to be prejudicial. He also discusses the controversial concept of Islamophobia. Any treatise on the topic is enriched by looking at alternative and perhaps more accurate concepts. For instance, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes some 67 countries from Canada to Russia, speaks of ‘intolerance against Muslims’.

The last two chapters of Part 1 have been written by several Muslim teachers and address the misconceptions they encounter among their students regarding the core principles of Islam, the role of women, perceptions of violence, the spiritual meaning of the concept of ‘jihad’, and more.

Screen villains

Part 2 of the book looks at public, media and political discourse related to Islam. Shirley Steinberg returns to the topic of media discourse by examining 17 films where there is a significant presence of Arabs and/or Muslims. Her analysis shows that the overwhelming majority of Muslims/Arabs depicted in films – for most films the two are interchangeable categories – are viewed as barbaric, dangerous and uncivilised. They are somewhere between human and animal. White men are viewed as the heroes who will save locals and the West from these evil, stealing, cheating people. Arab and Muslim women are almost exclusively portrayed as oppressed and/or fanatical.

Steinberg also traces how Arabs and Muslims are portrayed in television programmes in the United States and finds that though there a few positive depictions of Muslims, they are, by far, in the minority and becoming less common in recent years. Steinberg especially deconstructs popular television shows, such as Cable TV’s Sleeper Cell and 24. On the whole, Muslims are perceived as potential threats and especially as the ‘enemy within’.  Given their evil demeanour and the threat to the United States they do not deserve the same rights as others in society.

Jehanzab Dar looks at the demonisation of Muslims and Arabs in mainstream American comic books, which tend to be poorly developed caricatures of the ugly Arab stereotype. The author does devote some attention to several more recent positive cartoon depictions.  The series The 99 is especially mentioned as an example of how popular media (in this case comic books) can provide more accurate depictions of Muslims and Arabs.

Michael Giardina, moves away from analyses of popular culture somewhat and looks at how political individuals can be demonised through associations with Islam. He focuses on the rhetoric and imagery used to discredit US President Barack Obama by right-wing conservatives.

Nations of Islam

Part 3 shed light on “Muslims you never knew” by covering topics outside the main discourse relating to Islamophobia.

Several essays examine a topic often forgotten in the discourse about Islam and Muslims in the United States – the relationship of the African-American community to Islam. Preacher Moss, who refers to himself as an ‘undercover Muslim’, takes a somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at African American perspectives on Muslim identities.  The more serious essence of his treatise is that “African American Muslims are marginalized as African Americans and ignored as African American Muslims”.

Samaa Abdurraqib provides highly insightful information about the historical relationship of the African-American community in the United States to Islam. She explains, right from its inception, Islam has been present in the United States – citing that perhaps 10%-15% of slaves brought to the United States were Muslim. She goes on to explain how this dimension of black history in the United States has been ignored in education and in the media, as has the diversity among US Muslims. The author’s main point is that Islam is not a foreign religion in the United States, as frequently claimed, but that it has long-established roots.

In a chapter that is bound to lead to significant discussion and debate among educators of all stripes, Younes Mourchid examines the contested relationship between alternative sexual orientations and traditional Islamic values. Mourchid builds his chapter on interviews with 20 LGBT Muslims. The author shows how such individuals, in often complex and contradictory ways, almost always struggle with their identity formation.

Some tend to internalise homophobic attitudes, blaming themselves for causing friction in the family, for instance, while others might internalise Islamophobic attitudes, blaming Islam for rejecting this core part of their identity. The campaign to make homosexuality acceptable in Muslim communities faces many challenges and is an uphill struggle. Mourchid closes with a discussion of whether those who hold traditional religious attitudes and reject homosexuality can be labelled ‘homophobic’.  His answer might surprise some readers.

Awad Ibrahim also seeks to provoke debate by examining the role of atheists and other non-believers within Islamic societies and ends with what he calls ‘The St Petersburg Manifesto’. This Manifesto is directed at both Muslim and non-Muslim faith communities and argues for a number of freedoms to be implemented in predominantly Muslim societies, such as freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, and the separation of religion and state.

Back to school

Part 4 brings us closest to the title of the book by providing some very concrete suggestions for materials that can be used in classrooms at all levels to combat Islamophobia, while also examining these materials critically.

Carolyne Ali Khan takes a critical look at a variety of educational programmes and materials that students in US schools are exposed to. In a very insightful discussion of several organisations and programmes that claim to promote understanding and ‘tolerance’, Ali Khan shows how they do the opposite.  She critically assesses, for instance, the messages and approaches promulgated by the New York Tolerance Centre and the American Textbook Council. The author’s discussion of these and other respected sources shows to what extent anti-Muslim bias has penetrated mainstream and even ‘tolerance’ education.  She ends her chapter by presenting some ‘uncommon knowledge’ about Pakistan and Pakistanis. Khan comments that many in Pakistan “are not the lunatic fringe. They are intelligent, complex and rational; they sing, dance and read and (perhaps most shockingly) they laugh, merrily poking fun at themselves and at the world”.

Anastasia Kamanos Gamelin looks at the intersection of gender and education in Saudi Arabia, a country known for denying women a number of fundamental rights and with a very traditional view of gender roles.

Fida Sanjakdar focuses on sex education in Australia and the view of Muslim communities regarding this always contested topic.  She notes that, in Islamic school curricula, almost no attention is devoted to sex education and this omission, in her view, represents a violation of the Islamic principles of a holistic and democratic education.

Krista Riley looks at the ways that literature, in particular young adult literature, can be used to “address themes of oppression and to promote critical reflection and social justice activism”. She does this by analyzing the book Bifocal, a fictional story about the arrests made of young Muslim men in Toronto in 2006 and the racist backlash at a high school after the arrests.

In the book’s final chapter, Melanie Stonebanks presents three potential classroom resources – illustrated picture books with Muslim main characters – that could be used as first steps to combating Islamophobia.  She concludes that, though the texts are far from perfect, they could be useful if used appropriately and with a critical eye.

This article is published with the author’s permission. © Barry van Driel. All rights reserved.

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The Arab myth of Western women

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By Khaled Diab

Unflattering as some Western stereotypes are of Arab men, Western women also get a bad press in conservative Arab circles.

16 November 2010

My previous article explored unflattering Western stereotypes of Arab men. As if to confirm the popularity of this archetypal image, many commenters betrayed so obvious a fondness for the Arab baddie that they could hardly bring themselves to admit that there were other alternatives.  Amid this polarised debate, a number of commenters, including WeAreTheWorld, suggested that Arab stereotypes of Western women would also be a worthwhile subject to explore.

Just as Arab men are stereotyped and pigeonholed in the west, Western women hover somewhere between myth and fantasy in the Arab world. “We’re loose, obsessed with sex, batter our men, are bad mothers, and can’t cook,” my wife joked, summing up pithily some common Arab prejudices. Then she cracked her whip as I cowered in the corner, huddled over my bowl of wood shavings.

Like the traditional orientalist image of the harem, Arab views of the contemporary Western woman are also highly sexualised. In fact, many Arab men, particularly those with little contact with the West, have this fantasy of Western women that comes straight out of Playboy magazine or the grainy images of pirate pornos.

In this view, Western women are oversexed, promiscuous and have revolving doors in their knickers. “A typical Egyptian male is a firm believer that any Western woman is an easy catch and would not mind at all having sex with complete strangers,” observes Ahmed, an old college friend.

This can lead to hassle and harassment for Western women travelling or living in Egypt and some other Arab countries, although in places like Yemen men will either just stare or the Western woman will become invisible like the local women, as my wife found while travelling alone through the country. Of course, given the potent mix of sexual repression, poverty, ignorance, the growing disappearance of the traditional model of respect for women and the failure to replace it with a modern equivalent, you don’t have to be Western to be harassed on the streets.

Some men will hit on Western women out of the conviction Ahmed described, while others who understand the West better will do so out of simple opportunism, hoping that they will “get lucky” with a woman from a society where sex does not carry the same heavy restriction for her as it does for her Arab sisters. In fact, some men want the best of both worlds: a bit of fun with Western women, then settling down with a traditional local woman.

Another form of opportunism is the allure of escape. “I think sometimes it’s not the Western woman who’s so attractive, as the lure of her passport. It sometimes seems to spell freedom,” observes Angela, a Jerusalem-based acquaintance.

Among certain men, this myth of the Western Aphrodite is complemented by another delusion: that Western women find the men in their own countries too emasculated and weak and so prefer a ‘real man’. In fact, some blokes I’ve met entertain the belief that Egyptian men have a good reputation among Western women for their virility and sexual prowess.

This misperception is reinforced in their minds by the fact that some women do come to Egypt for sexual tourism or get caught up in whirlwind relationships filled with old-fashioned romance, expressions of undying love, passion and charm. “He swept me off my feet with his sweet words, compliments, attentive gestures, romance, and warmth,” said one European woman who got drawn to a charmer with a darker side.

So, which Arabs have the most negative views of Western women? Well, probably those from the most conservative societies. “From my personal experience, the worst Arab men I found were the ones from Saudi Arabia,” a journalist with a leading Portuguese newspaper told me. “They think that all foreign women are prostitutes and they try to treat them like that.”

What is behind this belief that Western women are somehow sex-crazed? Part of it relates to the conservative Arab fixation on women’s sexuality in general. According to this outlook, women’s sexual appetites are so insatiable that, if they are left to their own devices, they turn into uncontrollable nymphomaniacs and temptresses luring men to crash into the rocks of lust.

As every woman is carrying a volatile sex bomb that will explode upon contact with freedom, in Arab societies where women have entered the workforce en masse and reached the highest academic and professional echelons, they have often done so by emphasising their ‘virtuousness’, that their independence hasn’t made them ‘bad women’.

A similar phenomenon is occurring in other modernising patriarchal societies, such as India. Even in the West, the pioneering women in academia and the professions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often lived like nuns.

It should be pointed out that many religious Arabs, including women, do not believe that Arab women are oppressed, but that they enjoy a different, and superior, kind of liberty. In an interesting turning of the tables, conservatives are reciprocating the western interest in the position of Arab and Muslim women by examining the “oppressed” status of the western woman.

In an apparent bid to answer the charges of Western orientalism, the Saudi-based conservative Islamic thinktank, al-Medinah Centre for the Study of Orientalism, which has developed its own brand of ‘occidentalism’, has a section dedicated to Western women. Another conservative Islamic site targeted at women asks “who will end the injustice against Western women?”

“How can they [the West] demand the ending of what they see as injustice against Saudi women, when their own women are drowning in seas of injustice?” asks the author, pointing, paralleling his Western counterparts, to the prevalence of domestic violence and rape in the west – as well as pointing to questionable surveys which show that the majority of western women actually wish to return to the home.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 10 November 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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