Religious freedom from birth

 
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By Khaled Diab

Unlike eye colour and skin tone, religion is not hereditary. This reality must be reflected in Egyptian identity documents and personal status laws.

Monday 29 July 2013

In Egypt, like in many other traditional societies, the idea that religion is hereditary is so widespread that it is written into the law and children are stamped with the seal of their faith, on their birth certificates, from the very moment they are born.

But unlike eye colour and skin tone, children cannot naturally inherit their parents’ beliefs. Even the controversial idea of a ‘God gene’, if it were ever to be proven, does not predispose a person to a particular religion but to spirituality in general. In addition, it is a well-known worldwide phenomenon that youngsters reject and rebel against the beliefs of their parents and elders.

Yet millions of Muslims are entirely convinced that not only are the offspring of Muslims automatically Muslim but that the natural state of all newborns is Islam, presumably before the world ‘corrupts’ them.

But does Islam itself back up this belief? Well, the Qur’an, as on so many other controversial subjects, is actually silent on the matter. Those who advocate the idea of Islam as a birthright base their belief on a hadith which states: “There is none born but is created to his true nature.” The Arabic word used is “fitra” (“innate nature”), which is certainly so ambiguous as to possibly signify anything.

Moreover, the notion that a child is born a Muslim, even if the parents are Muslim, contradicts the Quran’s own injunctions guaranteeing freedom of belief. “There is no compulsion in religion,” the Muslim holy book tells believers. And following the same example, Mohamad’s own Constitution of Medina guaranteed equal political and social rights to non-Muslims, including pagans.

And what greater “compulsion” can there be than to force an innocent mind unready to make the most serious commitment in life, its greatest leap of faith: to adopt a belief system before (s)he has the intellectual, emotional and cognitive capacities to do so?

Of course, it is not just Islam that sees religion as hereditary. In many ways, Christianity does too. No child becomes truly a Christian until (s)he is baptised and undergoes the holy rite of confirmation, which suggests freedom of belief. However, since the Church expects every God-fearing parent to do this shortly after their child’s birth, then this innocent baby has also had a faith thrust upon it before it can fairly be asked to make its own mind up.

So, what is behind this phenomenon? It is partly a manifestation of the common instinct people have that their children should grow up like them. Just as individuals often want their offspring to inherit the family business, they also want their children to adopt their dearest and most cherished beliefs.

Collectively, it is a kind of numbers game. In the ideological arena, the number of followers a particular faith commands has significance in the eyes of believers, and what more effective way to guarantee “natural growth” than through the automatic passing on of the flame of belief from one generation to the next. For a growing religion, continued growth adds to its self-confidence, while for a shrinking or minority faith, it helps arrest the attrition, boosting the community’s confidence.

But is this fair to children, and to the eventual adults they become? Absolutely not. Religion is not a birthright, and suggesting it is wrongs both those who would have chosen this path of their own volition, by depriving them of agency, and those who would have followed another path, by robbing them of choice.

While there is a fair chance that a child raised in a particular belief system will adopt it voluntarily as an adult, there is no way of knowing if this is the case in Egypt. In addition, the current system makes no allowance for those who wish to live by another religion or none.

It would be far better for all Egyptians to be born without a formal religious affiliation and then to choose the faith system that suits them once they come of age. This true freedom of belief is not only good for individuals but also for Egypt’s various faith communities, and society as a whole.

As an Arabic expression suggests, numbers in and of themselves are as meaningless as counting lemons. What matters more is the quality behind these numbers. What good is counting X million believers if these believers did not choose their faith freely?

In fact, it opens the door to deceitfulness and hypocrisy, as those who do not truly believe are afraid to voice their doubts due to social (and sometimes even legal) censure. Rather than having the dead wood of uncommitted believers or even non-believers, would a religion not be far stronger and more robust if the community was made up of voluntary believers? Society is also far stronger and better off when citizens can live honestly and express their convictions without fear of stigmatisation or worse.

Moreover, rather than a sign of supreme confidence, forcing a belief system upon newborns can be interpreted as an indication of weakness. After all, if a religion is confident that it illuminates the true path and that its truth is self-evident, then surely it would prefer that its followers make a conscious decision to adhere to it. And those who choose the “false” path have only themselves to blame and, if proven wrong, will get their comeuppance in the afterlife.

So, how do we translate this freedom of conscience to a workable reality in the Egyptian context?

A good first step would be to remove the religion field in birth certificates and other identification papers. This would not only safeguard an individual’s freedom of belief, it would also protect citizens against arbitrary or systemic discrimination based on their religious convictions.

Like in many other parts of the former Ottoman Empire, Egypt’s personal status and family law is still largely based on the Ottoman millet system. While this system of confessional self-rule was once a leading example of religious pluralism and tolerance in action, it is showing its age in the 21stcentury.

Today, the array of beliefs goes far beyond the “three heavenly beliefs” recognised by Egyptian law. In addition to outright non-believers, you have those who belong to other faiths, such as Baha’is and Shi’a Muslims, those who wish to convert but find it hard to do so now and those who interpret their faith in a non-traditional fashion.

To accommodate all these groups and give them equal rights to Egypt’s conventional religious communities, I propose the creation of a parallel civil court system based on modern universal values to run in parallel with the three established family court systems.

Once these civil courts are in place, Egyptians, regardless of the religious affiliations of their ancestors, will have the freedom to choose which personal status system to follow based on their convictions. In order to avoid the risk of ‘shopping around’, a citizen must choose a single court system in its entirety, and not the part that suits him/her. For example, a couple should not marry under Canon law and then divorce under Shari’a.

Naturally, given the emotive nature of religion in Egyptian public discourse and the controversy surrounding apostates, we are probably a long way away from adopting such a pluralistic system. But if Egypt wishes to live up to its revolutionary commitment of equality in deed and not just in words, then it needs to find a fair way to deal with those who subscribe to other belief systems, even if they happen to be a minority.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 23 July 2013.

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A manifesto for Egypt’s future

 
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By Khaled Diab

As Egypt risks another disastrous transition, it is time to create a unique model for Egyptian democracy. No president, no parties, direct democracy.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

The past few days in Egypt have been filled with tension, uncertainty, ever-greater polarisation, growing violence and recrimination. The army’s handling of pro-Morsi protests, its arrest of leading  Muslim Brotherhood members and the killing of dozens of protesters is reprehensible and must be condemned unequivocally by all Egypt’s political and revolutionary forces.

Some have seen in the army’s disproportionate actions and excessive use of force confirmation of the gross miscalculation and hypocrisy of Egypt’s opposition and revolutionary forces by backing the forcible removal of Egypt’s “legitimate” and “democratically elected” leader.

But I see the army’s actions and the clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi supporters not as the product of political legitimacy undermined but as a symptom of illegitimacy compounded until the entire house of cards came tumbling down.

Morsi, as I argued in my previous article, lost any claims to legitimacy that he may have once had. But the problem runs much, much deeper than that. Egypt’s botched transition towards democracy excluded or sidelined most of the revolutionary youth movements due to restrictive and prohibitive conditions for party formation, which favoured the established and highly organised, such as the Brotherhood.

Over and above this, the transitional constitution was seriously flawed, as was the idea that Egypt’s new constitution should be drafted by parliament. This left Egypt in a ‘cart before the horse’ situation, in which the race was being run before the rules had been set. More importantly and surreally, the players, especially those on the winning side, were given the chance to write their own rules.

This, as critics pointed out, would favour whoever managed to come out on top in parliament and would enable them to load the rules of the game in their own favour. And so it came to bear, and the Brotherhood and Salafis created a document which declared that all Egyptians were “equal” but some Egyptians – middle-aged, conservative Muslim men, to be precise – were far, far more equal than others. More chillingly, it empowered the state to “safeguard and protect morality and public decency” and to “maintain a refined level of upbringing”.

Furthermore, next to nothing was done during the transition to reform the office of the president, which retained most of its powers, and to strengthen other institutions against it, in order to create the kinds of checks and balances that would avoid the emergence of another Mubarak.

This was amply demonstrated in November 2012 when Morsi, confusing himself for Superman, transferred to himself, with the simple flourish of a pen, unlimited powers to “protect” Egypt and legislate without any oversight, which he was later forced to repeal due to a massive wave of protests.

And then there is the murky, antidemocratic role of the military. Some mistakenly see the removal of Morsi by the army as a dangerous sign that the military had come out of its barracks to interfere in politics once again. But the point is that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had never withdrawn from the political arena; it just retreated tactically behind the facade of a subservient political system largely of its own making.

Revolutionaries had warned the Brotherhood against this and asked them to join in the struggle to push the SCAF out of politics, but the Freedom and Justice Party and Morsi chose ‘pragmatism’ and self-interest over principle, even as demonstrators and protesters were being killed and arrested by the military. They made a pact with the devil and the devil won.

Egypt’s political woes are not just structural and institutional. There is also the country’s leadership challenge. Six decades of dictatorship left Egypt without a clear pool of competent leadership material. That is not to say that there are no competent leaders but just that they are inexperienced, untested and often even unknown to the public.

Someone with Morsi’s obvious absence of calibre, who could have authored the Islamist version of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, is a sad manifestation of this. The disarray, division and disastrous infighting in revolutionary and opposition ranks is partly a symptom of this, and partly a manifestation of the dilemma of any mass revolutionary movement which unites disparate groups with ultimately divergent goals.

In addition, the disparity in organisational competence and reach between the Brotherhood and the so-called ‘official opposition’ is often attributed to the superior skills of this Islamist movement, undoubtedly good as they are, or is seen as a product of some kind of traditional affinity Egyptians have with religious conservatism.

However, it is often forgotten that the Brotherhood’s conservative religious agenda was once anathema to large swathes of the Egyptian population, even in the countryside. For example, in a rare film featuring former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser talking about the Brotherhood, a witty farmer suggests that the movement’s Supreme Guide should be the one to don a hijab, rather than Egyptian women!

Some argue that had it not been for Nasser’s repression, the Brothers would’ve ruled Egypt a long time ago. Personally, I’m not so sure. Nasser was an equal opportunities tyrant who, if anything, crushed his secular opposition, which represented a more direct threat to his rule, more ruthlessly and brutally than the Islamists, who at the very least had the mosque to retreat to.

And had it not been for the blowback of Nasser’s torture chambers, Sadat’s dangerous game of empowering the Islamists to crush his secular opponents, and Mubarak’s penchant for giving the Islamists some leeway to scare the outside world, the Brotherhood might have remained an effective charitable and social movement, rather than a dangerous and divisive political one.

But with their boundless reserves of creativity, Egypt’s young revolutionaries – who sometimes seem to be rebelling also against the very concept of leadership – turned a weakness into a powerful political weapon which decapitated the Egyptian regime three times in two and a half years. The leaderless protests created a hydra with millions of heads which the regime could not contain and keep down.

However, though leaderless mass uprisings can topple regimes rapidly, they are far less capable of building a viable and robust alternative. And we are witnessing this again, as the army steps into the void and shows signs of attempting to engineer the same kind of short-sighted “transition” that got us to this impasse in the first place.

So, how can we overcome this weakness and the other challenges outlined above?

The current situation provides a golden opportunity to reinvent Egypt’s political system and to create a unique model of Egyptian democracy that is tailored to this reality in which there is no clear leadership, institutions are weak and there is an overriding public desire for direct democratic participation.

And this new system should be shaped through an inclusive national conversation that involves not only all of Egypt’s political currents, but all interested citizens who wish to contribute their views.

As one of those citizens, here is my vision for creating a uniquely Egyptian democracy. First, given the abuse to which it has been put over the decades and the temptation for all its occupants to turn to dictatorship, I suggest that the Egyptian presidency be stripped of all its powers and transformed into a ceremonial position.

The shambled remains of Egypt’s first democratically elected parliament increase my conviction that Egypt should do away with parties altogether. Given that political parties are the cornerstone upon which most governments around the world, whether democratic or not, are built, this may sound radical, bizarre or even bonkers.

But not only does Egypt not have a strong party political tradition, abolishing parties will allow the country to create a democratic parliament in the truest sense of the word, and overcome the current destructive factionalism that sees people forced to choose sides in a polarised and explosive standoff.

Moreover, parties have certain antidemocratic tendencies, such as forcing members to vote along party lines, regardless of their individual convictions. Then, there is the ‘tyranny’ of the party system, which can concentrate power and hinder change, due to the antidemocratic inertia exerted by the mainstream parties. This is a particularly severe problem in the first-past-the-post system, such as in the United States and Britain, where voters may be hungry for change but will almost never vote for small parties because they believe they cannot win.

Little wonder, then, that some of America’s founding fathers warned against the dangers of party politics. “[Parties] serve to organise faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community,” George Washington cautioned in his farewell address.

For that reason, Egypt would be better served with a flexible non-party representative democracy in which individual candidates run, whether for parliament or the presidency, on their own merit and personal manifesto.

This will provide individual politicians with the flexibility to vote according to their conscience and the will of their constituents, while organising informally around certain issues of the day. For example, on certain key matters – such as youth unemployment, gender rights, social policy, trade, foreign policy questions, etc. – groups of politicians of similar conviction can form temporary, unofficial alliances, rather like the Egyptian opposition has already been doing for numerous years, such as with the Kefaya movement.

Over and above this, in order to avoid the emergence unrepresentative ‘representative democracy,’ politicians’ power can be kept in check through a hybrid direct democracy in which, like in Switzerland, the people are consulted directly on vital issues.

In addition, to move mass protest out of the streets and into the formal political arena, and to respond to Egyptians’ newfound hunger for direct political participation, concerned citizens who are unhappy with certain decisions taken by their representatives or wish to launch their own initiatives should have recourse to a formal mechanism that enables immediate action, if they gather enough signatures.

This also moves us away from the condescending idea in representative democracy that voters should be seen every four years at the ballot box but not heard the rest of the time, and towards the idea that every citizen is a partner and player in the political process.

Egyptians have a golden opportunity to put in place a true democracy of the people and for the people. And, above all, it will be created by the people.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 7 July 2013.

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Intimate strangers in a splintering world

 
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By Khaled Diab

Multiculturalism is enriching and as easy as child’s play. But as the winds of intolerance blow harder, it may become a liability for my son and his generation.

Monday 29 April 2013

You don’t need to belong to a place to have a sense of belonging and you can be a foreigner in your own land. Image: ©Khaled Diab

You don’t need to belong to a place to have a sense of belonging and you can be a foreigner in your own land. Image: ©Khaled Diab

As Iskander and I enjoy a rare sunny Sunday during this northern European spring that has not yet found its spring, our son quite literally sings the praises of multiculturalism, as he recites nursery rhymes and songs he likes in different languages.

While I bask in his sonshine, I marvel at how the intricacies of different cultures and identities become, in his tiny hands, quite simply child’s play.

Not only does he act at home in his two native cultures, Belgium and Egypt, he also took the complexities of the Holy Land, where he spent more than half his short life, in his, at first wobbly, stride. In that sun-kissed, trouble-drenched corner of the world, his blond locks went down a treat on both sides of the bitter divide, as did his nonchalance, charm and tenderness.

When we returned to Belgium recently from our 20-month stint in Israel-Palestine, we were a little concerned about how long it would take him to adjust to life back in Europe, especially the demanding task of starting pre-school.

But he took to it like a rubber duck to bubbly bathwater. Within a few short weeks, Dutch switched back to being his dominant language after a hybrid Palestinian-Egyptian Arabic had been during most of our time in Jerusalem.

Multilingualism, as researchers are increasingly discovering, enhances children’s cognitive abilities and helps them to do better in school. As the world continues to shrink, Iskander’s polyglottic childhood should place him in a good position to enjoy an international adulthood.

Although like any parents we hope that the future is bright for our son, there are a number of clouds on the horizon that trouble me. My wife and I take the benefits of multiculturalism as a given, as do most people in our circles. Not only is the microcosm of our family confirmation of this, but our own experiences back up this conviction.

For my part, I find that dividing my childhood, youth and adulthood between the Middle East and Europe has been a generally enriching experience, despite certain challenges – I feel both out of place and at home everywhere. My well-heeled Belgian wife developed a keen wanderlust early on which influenced her choice of studies, her extensive travels and her choice of careers.

Iskander is the next step along this evolutionary line. While both my wife and I grew up in monocultural families, Iskander has been born into diversity, with all its inherent richness and complexities.

My own personal experiences have taught me that in human interactions personal culture and disposition are more vital factors than collective culture. For example, my wife and I – both secular progressives with an inclusive, humanist outlook – have far more in common with each other than we do with our supposed cultural kin.

But as the winds of monocultural intolerance swirl evermore-menacingly overhead, not everyone sees the situation this way. A growing number of people (re)subscribe to the notion that there is an innate, cliquey cultural essence which unites a certain group to the exclusion of others.

This is partly a by-product of the social and economic alienation many people encounter, and the consequent desire to manufacture a sense of belonging. As I get older, I’m growing to understand better the attraction some people feel to having deep roots: the security derived from the familiar, the ability to read the various chapters of your life inscribed on every paving stone for miles around, and the convenience of being in the comforting proximity of family and lifelong friends.

But you don’t need to belong to a place to have a sense of belonging and you can be a foreigner in your own land. I know people who have lived in the same place their entire lives and feel alienated from their surroundings. I know others who move constantly but settle into each station as if it were their final destination.

With petty nationalism seemingly on the rise, partly on the back of the crisis afflicting global capitalism, this exclusiveness often manifests itself along nationalistic, even patriotic, lines. Given our aversion to nationalism, we hope that Iskander will grow up to become a proud citizen of the human nation.

But I appreciate that peer pressure, or rejection, may force him to jettison, or at least to underplay, one of his identities. And so, paradoxically, he may come full circle: returning to one of the monocultural roots of his multicultural parents.

Although balancing national identities can be done relatively painlessly, especially between societies that are not in conflict, a tougher nut to crack is religion. Of course, Iskander is still too young for religion to be a real issue, but we plan to raise our son to appreciate the beauty of his triple heritage – the secular, non-aligned humanism of his parents, his father’s Muslim and his mother’s Christian heritage – and to choose his faith for himself.

Even though the millet system, which gave a high degree of autonomy for recognized religious communities, was once an admirable expression of pluralist tolerance in action, its survival in much of what was once the Ottoman empire, including Israel and Palestine, grates against 21st century reality and aspirations. This outdated system defines faith as a birth right, no matter how wrongly or incorrectly this may describe a person’s actual convictions.

In Egypt, this means that my identity papers say that I am a “Muslim” – which I partly am, in the cultural sense of the word. In addition, given the legal assumption that the son of a Muslim man is also, by default, a Muslim, Iskander, regardless of his actual beliefs, would still be a Muslim in the state’s eye. If Iskander rejects Islam or religion in general, this could result in the surreal situation where two generations of non-believers are still officially defined as Muslim – a situation not unlike that of the historian Shlomo Sand in Israel, who is a third-generation non-believer, but cannot change his ID card to reflect this.

However, the sands may be slowly shifting: the well-known writer Yoram Kaniuk has won the right in the courts to be registered as “without religion”.

Our refusal to predefine our son’s convictions have made me so far reluctant to register Iskander’s birth in Egypt, in the hopes that one day the religion field will disappear from birth certificates and IDs, or until I find a legal means to keep it blank.

However, even if the state becomes more amenable to diversity – which seems unlikely under the current Islamist stewardship but is conceivable under new management given the  protection of personal freedoms guaranteed by the new constitution – society as a whole will not necessarily follow suit.

In Egypt, especially in traditional and conservative circles, the idea that religious identity is inherited runs deep, both among Muslims and Christians, and the traditional model of tolerance is to live as good neighbours and friends but not generally to intermarry. That said, I have met a number of conservative Muslims who accept the rights of other Muslims to convert and even to become atheists.

More troublingly, the increasing marginalisation of Christians in society and their targeting by Islamic extremists bodes ill if the country fails to rediscover its pluralism. For Iskander, this could be problematic if he decides to pursue his Christian identity or, worst, in the eyes of society, abandons religion altogether. And even if he chooses to become a Muslim, it would cause him to feel shame towards an integral part of his personal heritage.

But our son’s mixed heritage is not just potentially problematic in the Middle East, it can also cause him difficulty in Europe. Although European society has evolved into a multicultural kaleidoscope which, at its best, is incredibly tolerant and accepting of diversity, there are numerous worrying undercurrents.

Here in Belgium, the law guarantees equality regardless of background and people possess the legal freedom – both nationally and at the EU level – to choose the belief system that suits them. Moreover, the apparent unceremonious death of organised religion has left questions of faith almost completely in the private and personal sphere.

But even if Christianity has to a large extent fallen by the wayside, Christian rituals have been secularised, as reflected in the enduring popularity of Catholic sacraments, such as baptism and confirmation. Moreover, for some, old Christian prejudices have combined with secular distrust of religion or old-fashioned racism, to stigmatise Muslims. This manifests itself in the increasing mainstreaming of Islamophobia, as well as xenophobia in general.

The trouble with the push towards greater monocultural conformity, whether in Europe or the Middle East, is that the rolling boulder of intolerance gathers no nuance as it hurtles down the slippery slope to ever-greater rejection. Today’s “in” could easily become tomorrow’s “other”, as eloquently expressed by pastor Martin Niemöller in his famous “First they came for…” statement.

This is reflected in how certain salafist groups devolved from the rejection of the non-Muslim other to declaring Muslims who have a different interpretation of Islam to theirs as the enemy within. It can also be seen in how extremist settlers have widened their attacks on Palestinians, to target Jewish-Israeli peace activists and even the Israeli army, as well as the growing segregation between the religious and secular within Israeli society.

For the sake of my son, and all our children, I hope that multiculturalism prevails. In this, we can takea leaf out of Iskander’s book, who shares his affections indiscriminately, based solely on a person’s individual merit, without regard to nationality, religion, gender, ethnicity or creed.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 April 2013.

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Half-baked rules that take the biscuit

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Half-baked rules about homemade biscuits say a lot about the sort of society we live in and undermine community spirit. 

Friday 25 January 2013

Good-will gesture for firies sparks up home-baked brouhaha’ is the title of a recent story in The Age, an Australian daily. It’s tough for non-natives to understand, or hell anyone outside Australia, but basically it means that the townspeople responded to the good work being done by fire-fighters during the recent bushfires by baking cakes, cookies and other goodies. It’s a tradition in rural communities to rally together, with everyone doing their bit to beat back devastating natural forces like fire, floods and cyclones.

But in this case, their effort … their home-baked goods were rejected on the grounds that they were not prepared in industrial kitchens. This is the ‘brouhaha’ part. Indeed, it caused a stink and the fire authorities were forced to apologise for being overly “officious”, as they put it, about the regulations and not allowing people to cook something at home to support the brave fire authorities.

In the end, the ladies of Bairnsdale, a town in the centre of the fire-affected part of south-east Victoria, were told they could deliver their goods to the cricket club where anyone could enjoy them, including the fire-fighters! ‘Ridiculous bureaucracy in life-and-death situations’ could have been an alternative newspaper title for this sad state of affairs.

You have to wonder how we got to this. So many people in Australia … the whole world … are overweight from over-indulging in cheap processed foods. Wouldn’t a home-made alternative be a welcome change? Apparently not. Regulations are regulations, after all.

The pioneering spirit of the ‘new’ world meant that people banded together in times of need. Minor as it may seem, every gesture, every bit helped. Thanksgiving in the United States, as far as I understand it, calls up this sort of sentiment. It’s all part of a patchwork of acts that holds people together – a common decency that we seem to see less and less of until a major disaster strikes and we realise that the institutions governing society are merely a construct.

Laws and regulations, governing bodies … all the intermediary players in a working democracy are there for a reason. I get that. I’m not an anarchist. But when these authorities, these itsy-bitsy rules get in the way of humanity, of communities finding themselves again, they are no longer serving citizens; they become self-serving.

Let’s hope Australia – any nanny-state under the illusion that ‘more rules is good rules’ – can learn a valuable lesson from the Bairnsdale bakers.

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The hair that binds

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Despite its bonding potential, a trip to the hairdresser’s can inflict trauma on soap-phobic pre-adolescent boys and their mullet-phobic fathers.

Friday 11 January 2013

I can think of three traditional male-bonding rituals between father and son: fishing trips, the first football match together and that birds and bees chat. Today, I am reminded of another … going to the hairdresser together.

I’m sitting in an over-lit salon on a white faux leather couch flicking through magazines with my eldest son in search of a hairstyle that doesn’t make him look more of a Muppet than he currently does. It’s not going well. He’s all attitude and insists he just wants the fringe out of eyes and may be less hair on the sides.

As someone raised in the 1970s and 1980s, I can see that instructing the hairdresser to do this will result in only one thing … the dreaded mullet. Remember Bono in the 1980s, Billy Ray Cyrus in the 90s and, for those familiar with Australian Rules Football, the 21st century incarnation of this fashion travesty Richmond player Ivan Maric.

Failure to face this challenge today in an adult way, failure to overcome the fear of making a scene will have serious consequences. It will scar the memory of this landmark father-son bonding moment. The pointed finger of shame will be cast in my direction for months (until the mullet grows out) as parents recognise my salon failure, my inability to instruct the hairdresser on the appropriate length and style for a nine-year-old boy.

As I mull over the perils of this decision, an executive-looking guy walks in with his preteen son and says with authority to the hairdresser, “Can I leave my boy here to wait for a cut … make it short for school but perhaps not too much off the fringe!” The hairdresser flutters agreement to this alpha male and he walks out of the salon, leaving the boy to finger his smart phone morosely while he waits his turn.

“You see how lucky you are?” I say to my boy whom I clearly think shouldn’t care how his hair looks. “Some dads just tell the hairdresser how to cut it and that’s it.” After months of badgering him about the state of his hair, my wife decided it was time that I stepped up and did what fathers do … problem is, I’m not really sure what they’re supposed to do in this situation.

Fishing trips aside, my dad was not the most hands-on in these matters. For example, the birds and bees thing was a memo delivered via my mum along the lines … “Get him some condoms and make sure he uses them!” My mum obliged but her timing was a bit off. I was 14 and still very much a virgin. The procured box of condoms was met with some bemusement at first but that gave way to amusement for my friends and I who found a good use for them as water bombs.

So, here I sit 30 years later with my own son and sometimes I possess barely an inkling of the requirements that this entails. Next to me is a man waiting equally as uncomfortably on this white sofa, enduring the top ten R&B tunes of today on a mounted TV and humming some incessant tune of his own. Second thoughts … it’s a tick and it’s really starting to wind me up.

Two hairdressers work on three women at various stages of what appears to be their Saturday wash-and-dry routine, while a chatty woman with a red nose waits her turn. Builders bring in materials for renovations and the red-nosed woman takes up position as traffic cop opening and closing the door each time they return with planks and boxes.

Meanwhile, my son has narrowed down his choice of hairdos to two possibilities. I struggle to hide my envy that he has a choice at all. Hair loss is cruel. I like both cuts, but one could really work with his hair, and although it is ‘fashionable’ it is also boyish, so perfect for his age!

I’ve got Time magazine’s people of the year edition open in front of me, but as interesting as Obama, Cook and co. may be, it’s impossible to concentrate. Inane nattering, R&B warbling, coiffed madams complaining, builders bantering … Human suffering gets a makeover in the salon.

Finally, it’s my boy’s turn. He approaches the spray-tanned stylist and shows her the page with the look he wants. She seems impressed. He sits and she pumps the seat to the right height.

Mullets now safely behind us, fresh concerns bubble to the surface. Will she go too far and turn my innocent boy into a Dorian dandy? What will his mother say when I walk him in with a new romantic flick that would put Spandau Ballet to shame?

I take a seat next to him and my panic is palpable. She starts at the back. He says, “Don’t let her cut too much off’, in Swedish (his mother is a Swede) so the girl doesn’t understand. But all my own fears of making a fuss come back to me. I get a flashback of the times I sat in the salon chair saying nothing as I see the next three months of my life being destroyed until the tragedy she is creating on my head grows out.

I tell him it looks great. I can tell he’s not convinced, but he can’t see what she’s doing so it’s still safe. Then she starts on the sides and front. Hair piles up on the floor. With every chunk jettisoned he winces. I can picture him starting to cry and embarrassing the hell out of me when she finishes.

Then it starts to take shape. My dread subsides momentarily. My boy smiles as the fringe is tidied up. I say it looks great and really mean it because it does. No mullet, no new romantic. We think it’s all over when she pulls out another pair of scissors and starts cutting it all again. I say cutting but it looks more my scraping as she distresses the ends … and me … with every pull.

Next comes the razor and I think this is where I have to say enough is enough, but I remember her being so pleased to be able to work on a proper hairstyle, from a book and all. I don’t have the heart to take this creative moment away from her. I sacrifice my child to her tepid career in a provincial salon. I close my eyes and pray that it will be over soon.

“Umm, do you want me to put gel in it?” I open my eyes and see that the creation is finished. “Gel?” she says slower and louder like young people do when speaking to the elderly. I look at my son, and he screws up his nose.

“No, I think it’s fine the way it is,” I say with a measure of exhaustion creeping into my voice. She brushes the hair off his face and back and removes the smock. He turns to me, catching himself in the mirror on the way, and I’m just waiting for that look which means “Daddy, I’ll never trust you again”.

It doesn’t come. Instead I get a broad smile and glint of pride. It’s a cool cut from a magazine but it still makes him look like a boy … a beautiful nine-year-old boy. The stylist is pleased with herself. The customer, my son, is pleased with himself. The father, me, is relieved as hell. We leave the salon and he takes my hand as we walk back to the car.

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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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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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An ode to Arab love songs

 
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By Khaled Diab

Love is a universal theme in music, but there are good reasons for the Arab world’s preoccupation with romance.

24 August 2010

Love them or loathe them, love songs seem to be written into the DNA of just about every culture. One of the most private and personal of emotions is also, paradoxically, the most public. Although I’m of the conviction that being in love – not to mention making it – is far more pleasurable to hearing about it, I would hazard to say that most of the songs ever sung are about this ever-fascinating subject. Even the alternative forms of music I prefer, though they don’t quite wear their hearts on their sleeves, do deal with love, as well.

Despite the universality of love songs and certain common themes, each culture has its own peculiar way of going about it – and this can say a lot about the nature of the society behind the songs.

Whereas love is a regular theme in modern western music, in Arabic music – both modern and traditional – it often seems to be just about the only theme (with a few exceptions like some Algerian raï music, certain forms of sha’abi music and a new generation of alternative musicians). In addition, while modern Anglo-Saxon music expresses a wide range of forms of love and relationships, and has a tradition of challenging taboos, Arabic pop usually focuses on a safe range of socially acceptable emotions and feelings.

This fixation on love is partly practical, because singing about politics or thorny social issues – or even sexual attraction – can get you banned or land you in serious trouble, as was the case with sha’abi artists like Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Adaweyah.

On another level, the Arab obsession with love in music may reflect the large number of social barriers that keep the sexes apart, as well as the disempowerment and lack of choice many young people feel in their love lives.

The fact that in real life love often plays second fiddle to other considerations – such as social standing, class and familial cohesion – is mirrored in the large preponderance of dramatic (often melodramatic) songs that deal with the torment of romance, the large distances separating lovers, desperate longing, pain, separation, unrequited emotions and dashed hopes.

Arabic songs may often begin with a description of the beauty and inaccessibility of the object of the singer’s desires. The moon is often evoked to express the beauty, mystery and distant other-worldliness of the object of one’s desire, while eyes and eyelashes are weapons of not just seduction but also destruction. While innuendo is rife in Arab love songs, they rarely venture explicitly below the neckline. More bizarrely for the non-Arab, fruit can often be a marker of beauty.

The lyrics often don’t translate well, but here’s a verse I penned in English (along with some others below) to give you a flavour:

Hibiscus cheeks, pomegranate lips
You’re sweeter than any smoothie I’ve sipped
As beautiful and distant as the moon
I howl when you appear like a loon
I am your majnoon

[Chorus]

See me soon

Love, your majnoon

There is said to be a fine line separating pleasure from pain, and many Arabic love songs confirm this theory. In fact, the torture endured – sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, etc – by many Arab crooners is surely the kind of infringement on their human rights that should be referred to the international criminal court.

All day, I dream of you
All night, I scream for you
Your killer eyelashes slash me
Tormented by the smile you flash me

[Chorus]

Aloofness, reserve and remoteness on the part of the singer’s love interest are part of the painful reality of the parallel world of Arab love.

Every day, I send you love letters with my eyes
But your faraway, unlisted face betrays no reply
How about just a short postcard to say hi
Written in your glance as you walk on by

[Chorus]

Far-fetched and even impossible promises are a staple of Arabic lyrics.

Since we can’t afford to rent or buy
Because property prices are sky high
I’ll wrap you safe inside my eyes
And fly you to our castle in the sky

[Chorus]

Seas and oceans also regularly lap against the shores of Arab love songs, partly to express the bottomless depth of emotion the lover allegedly feels and partly to reflect the unseen emotional and societal rocks against which their love boat can crash and sink.

Before I could swim, I dived in your sea
With hindsight, I realise that was stupid of me
But when your swirling currents pulled me down
Why, ya habibi, did you just leave me to drown?

[Chorus]

This raises the question of why Arabic love songs so often navigate such narrow, cliched straits. Part of the reason is the “precautionary principle” that governs so much formulaic mainstream culture, which sees artists wanting to stick to the tried, tired and tested.

Beyond that, the reverence of tradition and “timeless” musical principles – as well as fear of the subversive nature of creativity and youth – remains strong in Arab societies, while in the west innovation and subversiveness elicit far less resistance and, up to a certain extent, have actually become part of the process.

But when all is said and sung, you have to admire the tenacity of Arab love lyrics, or pity their dedication to hopeless causes. Even if the deck is stacked against their impossible love, some refuse to admit defeat and may still harbour, in the devastated haven of their broken hearts, the dream of reunion.

Never again will I invite such pain
But meet me just this once, then – never again!

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 20 August 2010. Read the related discussion.

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Honour: Made in China

 
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By Osama Diab

The ‘Chinese hymen’ may make pre-marital sex safer in a patriarchal society but a woman’s honour should not lie between her legs.

25 September 2009

“Now you don’t have to worry about jumping into bed with the hot boy next door. You can have sex as many times as you want and restore you virginity in just a few simple steps. You’ll never lose your honour with us.” This is the only way I can think of to advertise the new virginity restoration product: the Chinese Hymen.

The Chinese never cease to impress me. A few years ago, there was a big fuss in Egypt about how Islamic products, such as fawanees (decorative lamps used during Ramadan), prayers rugs, and prayer beads are being made in China. Egyptians found it humiliating that they couldn’t compete with China in producing simple products that are at the core of our culture. The Chinese go to a place, study the culture, examine the needs and come up with products that are cheaper (and sometimes better quality) than the locally made ones.

Similarly, the Chinese have done their research and knew that if a girl loses her hymen (even if not through sexual intercourse), she will probably have little chance of getting married in a society where virginity is highly valued and is an indication of a girl’s ‘purity’. Therefore, they came up with the dazzling idea of making fake hymens that can be bought on the market. But would ‘virginity’ still be indicative of ‘purity’ now that it takes only a few pounds and a little effort to restore it?

If the hymen is an indicator of anything, it shows how men in patriarchal societies prefer ‘deception’ to ‘honesty’. It’s much easier for a girl who lost her virginity, for a reason that could be out of her hands, to buy one of those virgin restoration products than confront her man with the horrible fact that she has lost her purity.

It’s not just that, even women who haven’t lose their virginity and have no reason to use the Chinese product will still be harmed by its mere existence due to the doubts it is going to raise about women in society. One concerned father told the al-Youm al-Sabe’e daily newspaper, “I swear to God I’d kill my daughters. I trust them and I’ve raised them properly, but I’d be afraid of people’s talk and their perception of them.”

Even before the artificial hymen was launched, virginity still could be restored through a simple plastic surgery procedure. The operation has been outlawed except in cases of rape, which was allowed by the Grand Mufti. However, the operation can still be done underground by a doctor for quite a reasonable price. Men also ignore the fact that vaginal sex is not the only form of sex. A woman can have significant sexual experience while keeping away from this problematic area. This product, along with accidental loss of virginity,  just adds one more reason why virginity is not indicative of past sexual experience.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be a measure of a girl’s, or her family’s, worth. Women should mean more than their hymens. As much as I think this product is preposterous, I hope it doesn’t give men another reason to discriminate against women and think of them as a weak link in our ‘pious’ patriarchal society and the reason behind its ‘sleaze’.

I hope this product makes men reconsider linking honour to this thin fold since it can be bought on the market now, and think of other criteria for respecting women – like education, achievements or intelligence – things that can’t be imported from China.

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

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