Young and futureless in Iraq under ISIS

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

Mosul’s youth are desperate, disillusioned and terrified because “ISIS will never let us have a future, we could die any second.” 

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Now we have reached the concluding part of this series about life under the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), though, in reality, the end is far from near for the people of Mosul. While writing these articles over the past few months, I held on to a dim hope – perhaps an unrealistic one – that things would change and a great transformation would take place, with the people of Mosul, backed up by the Iraqi army, regaining control of our beloved city.

No such thing is likely to happen soon, for reasons beyond my understanding but one thing is clear: what ISIS has built over the years cannot be combated and reversed in a matter of months. They have existed and operated within Iraq, in one form or another, for at least eight or nine years, first under the name of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Back then, they had already begun slowly to grow and expand, terrorising people to build an atmosphere of distrust and animosity, taking ransoms to finance their group and recruiting the marginalised and vulnerable into their activities, building a solid foundation for what would eventually become known to the world as ISIS. This was later strengthened when they took hold of Mosul in June 2014, where they tightened their grip by destroying and smuggling the city’ cultural heritage, tearing up its diverse and rich ethnic tapestry, introducing a new and distorted law and order – basically remapping and recreating a city that had existed for centuries.

To ensure the continuity of their power, ISIS targeted the vulnerable youth of Mosul – after all, this is the future generation of the city and the real threat to their dominance. When ISIS invaded Mosul, it was a week or so before the end-of-year exams for universities, colleges and secondary schools. All of these came to a halt, leaving the future of many of the city’s young in tatters. The enormous uncertainty of the situation made any decisions, especially those with life-shaping implications, extremely difficult.

I interviewed three young people, who all asked that their real identities not be revealed out of concern for their safety. I asked them what life has been like since ISIS took over Mosul last summer.

The youngest is 14 year-old “Muhammad” (not his real name). Prior to ISIS’s arrival, he had attended a prestigious school for top pupil. His outstanding performance that year had, impressively, exempted him from sitting the finals. Muhammad’s ambition was to become a doctor and travel the world. But these dreams were soon dashed when ISIS took over and the education system took one of its worse batterings in Iraq’s modern history. They began by dissolving all the university faculties, with the exception of the medical and maths departments because they regard anything else as un-Islamic and the “evil teachings of the Godless West”.  Muhammad, who has a real talent for learning new languages and a deep passion for exploring the outside world, suddenly lost everything he once loved and cherished. Like many of his generation, Muhammad has never known a peaceful or prosperous Iraq. He was born during economic sanctions and witnessed nothing but American-led wars, sectarian conflict and almost daily suicide bombings by terrorist groups. The only real hope for Muhammad was education – a path that could eventually take him out of Iraq.

For months after ISIS’s entry into Mosul, Muhammad stayed home, no going out, no school, no electricity for almost 18 hours a day, no water, no phone and, most recently, the internet was cut off. “What life have I got now? There is no escape… [ISIS] will never let us have a future, we could die any second, it is just a matter of time until there will be no city called Mosul and all its people will either be dead or displaced.” The young whizz went on to remind me that the “world will not end because of dead Iraqi people… but could be a solution to this long nightmare”.

It is heart-breaking to hear a teenager speak in such a defeated, crest-broken adult tone, but is it any surprise? These young people have not seen a single sign of hope for a country that has been embroiled in numerous conflicts and destructive wars since before they were born.

Despite the unwelcome changes made to the education system, Muhammad had no choice but to return to his school when ISIS issued a warning to all the city’s students that they would face serious consequences for absenteeism. Muhammad’s family considered leaving Mosul but they realised that, sooner or later, they would have to return when their money ran out. Moreover, people in Mosul are very family-orientated, so leaving your extended kin behind is not an option many are willing to entertain, even, or especially, under such dire circumstances. In addition, as I’ve noted before, many people who escaped regretted their decision as they experienced difficulties and discrimination for being from Mosul, with some labelled ISIS supporters or accused of being a burden. Moreover, those who left lost their homes which were overtaken by the jihadist group, which issued a law making it legal to confiscate abandoned houses.

Back at school, Muhammad discovered that he no longer had female teachers, and received no language, art or history classes. Instead, pupils receive instruction in ISIS’s doctrine and creed. It is a chilling thought that these children are being taught the draconian ideology of ISIS, sugar-coated under the guise of being “Islamic”. Eventually, some children are bound to believe and follow what they are being taught. Due to a shortage of teachers, some subjects, though approved by ISIS, are not being taught. For example, Muhammad does not have maths classes, as his previous teacher left for Baghdad out of fear for his safety and replacements are hard to come by.

The nightmare continues for Muhammad, who is not even sure whether this academic year will be recognised by Iraq’s education ministry. Students who stayed in the city may have to repeat the academic year or travel to other government-controlled cities to sit the exams, which carries many risks.

Muhammad’s brother, Zaid (also not his real name), is six years older than him, a third-year medical student at the University of Mosul, who was just starting his exams when ISIS descended on the city, demolishing any hopes of completing the academic year. Later on, the Iraqi government announced plans for university students to take their exams either in Baghdad, Kirkuk or in the Kurdish-controlled areas. Students who could afford the travel costs and were willing to take the risks involved opted for Kirkuk because it was the nearest city to Mosul and officially an Iraqi government-run city – which is less trouble that entering Kurdish areas where the government there has imposed strict regulations on Iraqi Arabs entering their territories.

Zaid travelled to sit his exams with his two cousins: one is a medical student, while the other is studying dentistry. Once they completed their exams, they arranged their return to Mosul with a trusted taxi driver. But before they reached their destination, they were stopped by ISIS fighters who wanted to know where the boys had been and the reason for their travels. One of the three fighters who spoke in a Mosulawi accent ordered the boys to get out of the taxi and strip off for a lashing. The taxi driver, scared of receiving a similar punishment, claimed he knew nothing about them and was merely driving the car. The three youths were speechless with fear and were shocked as to how a fellow Mouslawi could be so brutal and so zealous as to punish them for the crime of visiting an “infidel” state. Another fighter, who may have been from Libya judging by his accent, stopped the Mouslawi  from carrying out the lashing by joking that: “I may need a dentist or a doctor one day so I will let you go.”

This did not please his colleague who seemed eager to punish fellow Iraqis. The boys breathed a sigh of relief and eventually arrived home. When the result came out and they had all passed, Zaid did not let the harrowing experience deter him from going back to Kirkuk and enrolling at the local university that had reserved places for students in all the affected areas. Getting there was not easy but Zaid is a bright student who could not just give up, so he pretended to be a labourer and seized the chance. Thankfully, Zaid passed safely and is now into his second semester there. However, he had to leave his parents and only brother behind and since communications with Mosul were cut off on 30 December 2014, he has not spoken to them. His cousins, Nassar and Ali, stayed behind in Mosul and decided to attend the ISIS-run university of Mosul. They had figured that they would, at least, be with their co-students and taught by the same faculty. But they had not realised that ISIS would be monitoring the university closely. The female students were allowed to attend lectures but were obliged to cover themselves from head to toe and sit apart from the male students.

Nassar narrated one incident which occurred in front of him: one ISIS fighter yelled at a girl for not being “fully clothed”. She could not tolerate the pressure anymore and threw her veil at them, shouting, “Damn you all. What do you want from us?”

This did not go down well and the ISIS men commanded the teaching staff to contact her father and ask him to come. Everyone knew what that meant: the father would be punished for his daughter’s outburst. The situation was resolved when the faculty and staff persuaded the ISIS fighters to suffice themselves with an apology from the girl. Since that day, the young woman in question has not returned. Female students have generally opted to forego the harassment and humiliation by staying home.

Circumstances for female students are much worse than for their male colleagues. Girls who were studying subjects which were abolished by ISIS had two choices: to travel to other cities like the male students or to stay at home. It is much harder and less acceptable for a girl to travel alone without her family, especially in the current dangerous climate. Women who were studying engineering – a faculty that was deemed as “heretical” and dissolved – were given the option to transfer and study medicine instead. Many took this opportunity. A lecturer at the medical faculty informed me that: “These girls have no knowledge or grasp of the subject and are just avoiding being trapped at home by studying something that is alien to them.”

During a recent Friday sermon, ISIS ordered all the men of the city between 14 and 50 to be ready for the “big fight” or risk being executed. Nassar and his brother Ali were told by their parents to flee. The journey to Kirkuk, which normally takes three hours or less, consumed a massive 16 hours as the boys sought out alternative routes. They are now reunited with their cousin Zaid, but the nightmare is far from over. Arabs are facing discrimination in Kirkuk at the hands of Kurdish forces.

“There is a strange feeling in a city that once upon a time you thought you knew like part of your body,” admits Zaid, reflecting on life under ISIS in Mosul, as his voice began to crack. “It is hard to trust people and even harder to just walk down your own street.” He went on to tell me how, once, he was driving his mother to work when he was intercepted by ISIS members. “For a minute there, I thought how does this guy know my name. Then I recognised him, he was in my year at university, very studious and smart but I don’t know what happened. How they convinced him to turn against his own city, I just don’t know.”

Nassar took over from his cousin and offered his own analysis. “Life in Mosul is hell on earth,” he described. “You have to follow strict rules or face lethal consequences. That’s why so many youths chose to be the ones with power rather than the oppressed.”

He described the day the Iraqi national football team reached the semi-finals of the Asian cup and were facing Iran, a game which the whole country was excited about. Nassar was watching the match with his friends at a local café when ISIS members came and ordered them to leave and warned them against watching such things. Football, snooker, ping-pong, cards, backgammon, chess and volleyball are just some of the sports and leisure activities that have been banned, as have smoking and music. Nassar, frustrated, went up to the head of the hisbah (ISIS patrol) and asked him why ban sports, to which he received the reply: “We want to build an Islamic state that can combat the world and we need our youth to spend their time studying and thinking, not wasting their time.” Nassar informed me of another youth who was driving his car and listening to music when he was stopped, ordered to leave his car, had his CD player destroyed and his car confiscated. No one knew the young man’s precise fate.

Both Nassar and Zaid concluded the interview with a reminder of what the youth of Mosul are living. “Imagine no electricity for the whole day so you can’t watch TV, listen to music, play computer games… no proper education, no youth clubs, no activities, nothing – an empty life,” said Nassar. “There’s also no water and if you go to the river to get some ISIS will force you to pay a tax.”

I was left speechless, slightly ashamed of my life of luxury and saddened at how a whole generation has been stripped of the best years of their lives.

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Part III: The destruction of Mosul’s past, present and future

Part IV: ISIS’s war on women

____

* The author’s name is a pseudonym.

 

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ISIS’s war on women in Mosul

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

Before ISIS began targeting Iraq’s minorities and cultural heritage, it set to work veiling women in a new dark age, reversing decades of hard-won gains.

Despite ISIS' attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Despite ISIS’ attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

When I was growing up, the women of Mosul had the freedom to pursue whatever path they chose to follow. They had the right to work, study and dress as they desire. Women were empowered participants in the community. Growing up during the early 1980s in Mosul, I witnessed the freedom women had. Perhaps it was less than in the 1960s and 1970s, but certainly more than the current sorry situation. I was surrounded by female relatives who all worked after completing their university degrees. They drove cars, went out and travelled abroad alone and refused to get married, preferring the single independent lifestyle. Even at home, when I opened my eyes to the world, I saw my mother going to work everyday as a teacher. The stay-at-home woman was an alien concept to me as a child, and I assumed everyone had to go to work.

Mosul, unlike other Iraqi cities, was a blend of conservatism, tradition and modernity, a balance between the fairly modern and free Baghdad and Basra, and the strict and conservative Najaf and Karbala. Nevertheless, in all the years I spent in Mosul, I came across only one woman who wore a headscarf, one of my primary school teachers. I’m not sure whether the absence of the veil was down to Iraq’s secular rule or whether it reflected a more confident society not yet torn apart by economic sanctions, wars, occupation and sectarianism – all of which are contributing factors to the social change that began to take place in Mosul even before the ISIS invasion.

During the 1960s and 1970s, women were free to wear trousers, mini-skirts and sleeveless dresses. By the 1980s, this was beginning to change, and Mouslawi society started to be critical of such styles. Not everyone complied with the new conservative mores and some carried on wearing what they wanted but most decided not to become the talk of the town.

Just as the Islamic State (ISIS) has striven to destroy Mosul’s heritage and cultural diversity, the group has been working to devastate the position of women. Before the jihadist group began demolishing places of worship and archaeological landmarks, and before they started their campaign of ethnic cleansing, it issued new rules for women to follow, including a repressive dress code. ISIS recently imposed further restrictions on what women are allowed to wear – the new “Law” demands that women wear an almost tent-like cape which covers them from their eyes to their feet. There have even been reports of women falling and fracturing their legs as they struggle to walk in such attire.

Such codified restrictions were alien to a society where the long struggle for female emancipation scored many notable victories.  Iraq has always been at the forefront of female emancipation in the Arab world, with a wealth of famous women who have left a mark not only on Iraq’s history but on the world stage too. Figures like the writer and traveller Maria Theresa Asmar, who wrote a book in the early 19th century describing her travels through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Armenian-Iraqi Beatrice Ohanessian was Iraq’s first concert pianist and one of the few women to become a director of the Piano Department at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Other prominent Iraqi women include Nazik Al-Malaika, considered by many to be one of the most influential contemporary Iraqi poets who was the first poet to use free verse in Arabic, Zaha Hadid, the renowned international architect, who is in fact originally from Mosul, and many more.

It seems ironic today that Iraq in the 1950s had the first female cabinet minister in the Arab region.  This remarkable woman, Naziha al-Dulaimi, was probably one of the most respected and recognised Iraqi women. An early pioneer of the Iraqi feminist movement and co-founder and first president of the Iraqi Women’s League, she studied medicine at the Royal College of Medicine in Baghdad and, at the age of 19, she was one of few female students at the Medical College. During her government career, al-Dulaimi was instrumental in turning the vast slums of eastern Baghdad into a massive social housing project and helped author the secular 1959 Civil Affairs Law, which was way ahead of its time in liberalising marriage and inheritance laws to the advantage of Iraqi women. She was also a prominent member of the international feminist movement and an active participant in the Iraqi and world peace movements.

It is hard to imagine how a country that has made such progress can be expected to to return the dark ages where women who do not meet ISIS’s requirements are often sold into slavery or forced to marry one of its fighters. The rest of the women who are not targeted for sexual/slave trade are segregated from men in all aspects of daily life.

Anyone who contravenes ISIS’s draconian rules faces heavy repercussions, but some locals are defiant, despite the risks. One friend witnessed a so-called “hisbah” patrol stop a woman who was with her husband because she was not wearing the “right” clothes. Within minutes, an ISIS member raised his baton to strike the woman when, in a fit of rage, the husband shouted: “In ten years of marriage, I have never lifted a finger against my wife. Do you think I will allow a fanatical foreigner to degrade and hit her?” The man my friend witnessed wrestled the baton out of the patrolman’s hand and started beating him with it.

To avoid such situations, many women have opted to stay at home and not venture outside or go to work. But not everyone can afford this luxury, especially with the soaring cost of living. Even girls as young as 11 cannot escape these draconian rules. Fearing for their daughters’ safety, many families have kept girls home from their schools and universities. One mother had no choice but to stop her 14-year-old daughter from attending school after an ISIS patrol stopped the chauffer-driven car that was taking the girl and her younger brother to their school demanding to know why the girl’s eyes were not covered. Apparently, the fact that her entire face was veiled was not enough. When the ISIS militant started to question the girl as to why she was out with “strange men”, the driver explained that the young boy was her brother, which provoked the patrol to ask who the chauffer was. By this point, the girl was so scared that she lied and said he was her uncle. The girl was so frightened that she told her mother she never wanted to leave the house again, even though she had been defying her parents to pursue her education despite the ISIS presence.

ISIS members have also prohibited female students from attending classes because their attire was considered “un-Islamic”. The only accepted attire for female students is the one-piece black burqa. And it is not just girls who are dropping out in large numbers. Boys reportedly are too.

It should be pointed out that there is significant local divergence within Mosul, in terms of rules, and how strictly or leniently they are applied, which often depends on the ISIS militants in the area. “I witnessed several women in the market areas without niqabs,” one local said. “[This] appears to be a change in strategy following a number of attacks perpetrated by disguised men in niqab.”

Iraqis, particularly women, are resilient and adaptable. Iraqi womenhad to endure years of wars without a man in the house, as often they were on the battlefield and many never came back. Women also had to improvise throughout the long years of sanctions to ensure their children and loved ones got fed. With the arrival of the US invasion, women faced a new challenge of protecting their family from foreign invaders. Similarly, despite all the atrocities and savage acts ISIS commits, people try to get on with life in Mosul. Women still go out – provided they are covered from head to toe – they drive to work (though at work they are segregated from men) visit each other and go to the shops. Beauty parlours and hair salons have been banned, and various cosmetic and hair products are no longer sold in shops, driving women to find alternatives when caring for their appearance. Despite the restrictions, three weddings took place last month, two of which were hosted by my old neighbours in Mosul. And that is the contradictory nature of the city, while some women are fleeing, others are being defiantly normal.

There have been reports of public executions of women, notably ones who were politically active. For example, two former candidates for the Iraqi parliament – Ibtisam Ali Jarjis on the Watanya list and Miran Ghazi, who was a candidate for Arab List – were sentenced to death by ISIS’s Sharia court.

According to officials from Mosul, the two candidates had repented in one of the ISIS mosques in Mosul to spare their lives, but the Islamic judge overruled their repentance and the two women were re-arrested. Isis militants also publicly executed Samira Salih al-Nuaimi, a leading lawyer and human rights activist, after she was seized from her home for allegedly “abandoning Islam”, whereas in actual fact her kidnapping took place after she had posted messages on Facebook that were critical of the militants’ destruction of religious sites in Mosul. The militants then tortured al-Nuaimi for five days before killing her. Al-Nuaimi left behind a husband and three children. There are many more tales of women being publicly executed, such as the three female doctors who refused to treat ISIS militants. ISIS militants recently paraded two sisters and a man who were accused of adultery before stoning them to death.

Life under ISIS for the women of Mosul is unprecedented in Iraq’s modern history. But tough, patient and resilient as they are, these women will continue to resist.

 

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Part III: The destruction of Mosul’s past, present and future

____

* The author’s name is a pseudonym.

 

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Egypt’s other revolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

Revolutionary disappointment in Egypt has concealed the ongoing social revolution whose shifting sands are likely to result in a political earthquake.

Women are at the vanguard of efforts to subvert the established social order.

Women are at the vanguard of efforts to subvert the established social order.

Wednesday 28 January 2015

The fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution “brings back memories of what might have been,” a relative of mine remarked.

And for those who were there, on Tahrir Square and in pretty much every town and village across the country, those memories are precious and magical. “I’m proud. We did good, we did right,” said a friend who was active in the 2011 uprising. “True, we lost [and] the villains are back in power… but we were right, and we tried.”

At the time, Egyptians discovered their latent and long-dormant power to rock the president’s throne and unseat the pharaoh – all in just 18 days. In addition  to elation and euphoria, this led to a sense of near-invincibility, that the revolution could surmount any obstacle and transform Egypt into a vibrant, free and equitable society.

In light of the brutal and deadly efficiency of the counterrevolution, four years on, even the most optimistic are disillusioned and disenchanted, with people I know calling it the “cruelest joke”. Some even wonder whether the revolution was just a mirage, an illusionary oasis for the thirsty millions stumbling through Egypt’s dry desert of oppression.

But the political revolution was real, though it has been derailed and delayed, and I am convinced it is not over, not by a long shot, but it, like its French predecessor and others, will be a multi-generational project.

This is because, despite popular belief, the issues are not just political – they are social, economic and cultural too. Ever since the start of the revolution, I have warned that we must curb our enthusiasm because the uprising would not succeed without an accompanying social revolution, without the unseating of Egypt’s million “mini-Mubaraks” stifling society and without addressing the country’s centuries-old leadership vacuum.

And even at a time when the political revolution is fatally wounded, the social revolution, largely unnoticed and unappreciated, is, at many levels, in full swing. One area where revolutionary socio-economic change is visible is the organised labour movement.

The uprising of Egyptian workers actually predated the revolt in 2011 by a few years. In addition, Egypt’s independent unions, despite the attention lavished on middle-class youth activists, played a pivotal role in the revolution, organising thousands of strikes and mobilising workers.

Moreover, the al-Sisi regime’s efforts to contain and break the labour movement, and to co-opt some union leaders, have not succeeded. In 2014, despite the controversial anti-protest law, understated official figures show that Egypt witnessed 287 strikes, with independent estimates suggesting that the country was shaken by 2,274 incidents of industrial action. And continued failure to tackle this economic bottom line could well prove to be the current regime’s undoing.

Beyond Egypt’s workers, another long-marginalised group, which constitutes half of society, has also been up in arms. Tired of generations of having their rights deferred in the service of this or that greater cause, women are actively and muscularly agitating for change, both collectively and individually.

In a phenomenon I call Egypt’s “underground sisterhood”, women are fighting Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic, including support networks, challenging the social stigma associated with being single, and even struggling to become mosque preachers, not to mention the growing number of “feminist” men, even from traditional backgrounds.

In addition to the huge ranks of women involved in every line of activism, this is reflected in the rising number of women rejecting the hijab or headscarfed women choosing lifestyles previously associated with their “liberal” sisters, as well as those who break away from convention by living alone. Then there are the women intruding on traditional male domains, such as the traditional men-only tea houses, and even the iconic photograph of a public kiss between a girl in a hijab and her boyfriend.

Despite the risks involved, even previously unrecognised minorities, such as atheists, are beginning to demand attention and rights.

While the social ground shifts and quakes, political activists are digging in for the long haul and trying to learn from their mistakes. “That’s our homework: to prepare a substitute,” Mohamed Nabil, a leader in the now-banned 6 April Youth Movement, was quoted as saying. “At the end al-Sisi is lying, and the Egyptian people will react. You never know when.”

In fact, I sense that al-Sisi may find himself unwittingly presiding over Egypt’s transition to democracy. This is not because the Egyptian president is ready for democracy – none of them have been – but Egypt will be.

With the social ground rumbling beneath his feet and oppositions forces regrouping despite the repression, al-Sisi will eventually find himself faced with a stark choice: reform or perish. Given the weakness of the state and the fact that the repression machine is already working at full throttle, pragmatism and self-preservation would require al-Sisi to recognise Egypt’s pluralism and make major concessions.

Failure to reform could, at best, spark a third revolutionary wave or, at worst, push Egypt off the cliff into the abyss of full-out civil conflict. Today, as in 2011, the answer to Egypt’s woes remains freedom, democracy, and socio-economic justice.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 24 January 2015.

 

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The destruction of Mosul’s past, present and future

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

With ISIS’s destruction of Mosul’s heritage, it is no longer the “Pear of the North”. But it’s people will rise up and reclaim their ancient city.

Hadba-16207v

The leaning minaret of Mosul which stands at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri.

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Wednesday 24 December 2014

In my previous article, I focused on the social and ethnic changes that have been forced on Mosul by the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), which will undoubtedly have long-term repercussions on the whole of Iraq and not just Mosul. ISIS has sought to radically reconstruct Mosul in every respect, razing, in the process, the previous social, political and economic structure.

The destruction of churches, mosques and other holy sites understandably received huge media attention internationally due to their symbolic importance. However, ISIS has also been systematically destroying much of Mosul’s cultural heritage but this has not received the same amount of coverage.

Nineveh was the largest city in the world and the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire under King Sennacherib (705-681BC). Its ruins are located near the banks of the Tigris, where it once blossomed as an important trading city between East and West. It is believed to have first been settled in 6000 BC. Various conquerors — Persians, Arabs, Turks and others — have come and gone, each leaving an imprint that remained for centuries until the day ISIS chose to launch their operation of  “cultural and historical cleansing” in Mosul.

Major historical sites that stretch back millennia are being systematically wiped away. The determination to destroy the cultural and religious heritage is not enough for ISIS. There are also reports of looting of archaeological sites and the imposition of a “tax” on smugglers moving stolen artefacts. According to the head of the Baghdad Museum, Qais Hussein Rasheed, who was speaking at a UNESCO conference in Paris last September,  the largest example of looting so far took place at grand palace of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II which dates back to the 9th century BC. “Assyrian tablets were stolen and found in European cities,” he said. “Some of these items are cut up and sold piecemeal,” he added, in references to a tablet of a winged bull.  ISIS took over Mosul’s Monuments Museum which fell under their full control and has been shut to the public. Some locals have claimed that ISIS militants destroyed archaeological monuments at Mosul (Nineveh) Museum, including the famous winged Assyrian bull.

It is a frightful thought that such an ignorant and violent group are in charge of one of the world’s richest archaeological treasures. With at least 8,000 years of continuous habitation, Mosul is considered a jewel that embraces many heritage sites belonging to numerous religions and sects, with almost 2,000 of Iraq’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites being located there. In the first month of their invasion of Mosul, ISIS arrested the head of the Archaeology Department, Musa’ab Muhammed Jasim, for unknown reasons, though sources claim that he tried to defend the department from looting while some local residents have said that he was only detained for questioning and was released a few weeks later. These acts are clearly part of the same strategy of redefining Mosul’s cultural identity whilst profiting from its rich heritage. How ironic it is that ISIS, which demolishes historical and archaeological sites and artefacts for being heretical and supposedly against Islam, have no qualms about profiting from them.

ISIS has a unit called Katayib Taswiya (the Demolition Battalion) whose job is to identify what they view as ‘heretical’ mosques and sites for destruction. The battalion razes to the ground any mosques or churches built on tombs. If a graveyard has been built after the mosque’s construction, then they will destroy the graves. Even this was not enough for ISIS. Graves that have headstones that are not level with the ground have all been bulldozed, and even the dead did not escape these atrocities. The demolition battalion unit drew up a list of sites and statues that were deemed unsuitable for an ‘Islamic state’ and were to be destroyed. Among them were the much-loved statue of a figure representing an old Mosul profession: a man selling a liquorice drink, for which the city is famous. Until a few months ago, men walked the streets with a pouch of the drink slung over their shoulders and clanged copper goblets to advertise their presence, and sell the drink to people. This was soon stopped by ISIS as they forbade the practice of selling the drink, declaring the consumption of liquorice a sin. Naturally, the statue also had to go. The sculptor who made the statue in 1973, Talal Safawi, was distraught to see the liquorice seller statue, whom he regards as part of his body, destroyed.  This statue had survived four decades during which there had been three wars, a US invasion and wide-scale looting, yet it finally succumbed to the brutality of ISIS.

Other statues destroyed by ISIS included Mullah Othman al-Musili, a beloved 19th-century musician and poet, and the famous statue of a woman carrying a urn. Another was Abu Tammam, the famous Abbasid-era Arab poet, born in Syria who then lived and died in Mosul in the year 845AD, who ironically was a Muslim convert born to Christian parents. Another important shrine which was levelled to the ground is the much-talked-about ‘Girl’s Grave’ or ‘Ibn al-Atheer’s grave’. The ‘girl’s grave’ again is a very important feature of Mosul and for centuries it has been the subject of widespread speculation concerning the story behind it, as no one can be certain of the events that led to its creation. There are claims that the grave is that of the famous historian Ibn al-Atheer who died in Mosul in 630AD. However folktales say that centuries ago a pious girl in Mosul would go out caring for her goats and lambs, and one day she was surrounded by thieves and street bandits who wanted to rape her. After resisting their advances and calling out to God to take her and save her honour from being tarnished, the ground suddenly opened to swallow the girl as happy tears rolled down her face. People tried to pull her out but failed and she died instantly. The ‘girl’s grave’ became a symbol of God’s miracle and the piety of Mosul’s women. Perhaps ISIS did not want a monument that symbolised resistance, especially that of women. But no matter what they do or how far their brutality reaches, the people of Mosul will revolt and fight their tyrannical leaders.

The signs of resistance are slowly emerging. When ISIS indicated that it would be toppling the city’s ancient leaning minaret, which is older than the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy and is pictured on Iraq’s 10,000-dinar bank note, the people of Mosul were outraged. “The leaning minaret has no religious significance and is not a statue to be regarded as a heretical idol, so why are these foreign militants determined to wipe away Mosul’s cultural identity?” asked a local medical student who cannot be named for his own safety.  Residents gathered at the minaret and confronted ISIS, which has put a stop to the demolition of the minaret, at least for the time being.

Many have wondered why it took the people of Mosul so long to finally reject ISIS’s orders and why they defended the Leaning Minaret yet failed to do so with all the other mosques and churches. It is puzzling but I think the speculative climate of swirling rumours that Mosul has been living under for the past four months prevents them from knowing what is fact and what is fiction. Furthermore, they never would have imagined that a group that calls itself “Islamic” would ever destroy places of worship.

The biggest shock to the people of Mosul which signified a turning point in their attitude was the day ISIS destroyed the Prophet Jonah mosque (Jonah’s tomb). The imam of the mosque pleaded with ISIS to give him time to donate the rugs, fans and refrigerators to the poor people of the city rather than have blown up but he was met with firm refusal.  Residents treading through the ruins of the building found torn and burnt pages of the holy books, which they had been unable to save, scattered amongst the rubble. “They claim that having graves inside mosques is heretical but what about the Quran, why did they not remove the Quran from the mosque before destroying it?” a local resident asked.

What international media failed to understand is that the Prophet Jonah mosque is of vast value to all the people of Mosul and not just Muslims. It is more than a mosque but a place visited by all sects and religions. A Christian man who had to flee Mosul was in tears when he heard that ISIS had demolished the mosque: “When my wife and I were trying for a baby and failed, we visited Prophet Jonah’s tomb and prayed for a child. A few years later, we were granted a son. They have destroyed a place that gave me hope when I was at my lowest.”  The mosque was a place that almost every resident of Mosul had visited or contributed to. It was like a grand house which gathered everyone, regardless of their differences.  My own family had donated rugs to the mosque, as well as regular financial donations to help maintain it.

One of the names that are given to Mosul is ‘the city of the whale’ in reference to the Prophet Jonah, whose tomb has now been destroyed. Other names given to Mosul are al-Faiha (“the Paradise”), but now it has become a hell on Earth, and al-Hadbah (“the Humped”) due to the leaning Minaret. It is also known  al-Khaḍrah (“the Green”) in association with al-Khidr , a mystical figure (possibly St George) who is described in the Quran as a righteous servant of God possessing great wisdom or mystic knowledge and is  believed to have been last seen in Mosul.  It is sometimes described as “The Pearl of the North”, which helps explain why ISIS invaded the city in order to exploit its riches.

All these names are no longer indicative of the city’s reality. Sadly, it seems that ISIS have succeeded in redefining Mosul to the loss of its inhabitants and the world.

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

____

*The author’s name is a pseudonym.

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Sexual harassment and the medina

 
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By Mette Høyer Eriksen

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

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

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

Wednesday 5 November 2014

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

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

An urban phenomenon

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

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

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

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

An expression of impotence

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

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

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

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

Patriarchy, performance and power

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

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

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

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

Torn between tradition and modernity

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

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

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

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

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

Conservative gender roles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

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The caliphate illusion: “Restoring” what never was

 
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By Khaled Diab

The tyranny of Arab secular dictators and destructive Western hegemony combined to enable ISIS to “restore” a brutal caliphate which never existed.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has "restored" is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has “restored” is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Monday 7 July 2014

The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) – or simply, the Islamic State, as it now prefers to be called – is well on the road to achieving its end goal: the restoration of the caliphate in the territory it controls, under the authority of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Islamist militant leader since the early days of the American occupation of Iraq.

The concept, which refers to an Islamic state presided over by a leader with both political and religious authority, dates from the various Muslim empires that followed the time of Muhammad. From the seventh century onward, the caliph was, literally, the prophet’s “successor.”

The trouble is that the caliphate they seek to establish is ahistorical, to say the least.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

For instance, the Abbasid caliphate centred in Baghdad (750-1258), just down the road but centuries away (and ahead) of its backward-looking ISIS counterpart, was an impressively dynamic and diverse empire. In sharp contrast to ISIS’s violent puritanism, Abbasid society during its heyday thrived on multiculturalism, science, innovation, learning and culture, including odes to wine and racy homoerotic poetry.

The irreverent court poet of the legendary Caliph Harun al-Rashid (circa 763-809), Abu Nuwas, not only penned odes to wine, but also wrote erotic gay verse that would make a modern imam blush.

With the Bayt al-Hekma at the heart of its scientific establishment, the Abbasid caliphate gave us many sciences with which the modern world would not function, including the bane of every school boy, algebra, devised by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Even the modern scientific method itself was invented in Baghdad by the “first scientist” Ibn al-Haytham, who also made major advances in optics.

With the proliferation of sceptical scholars, even religion did not escape unscathed. For example Abu al-Ala’a Al-Ma’arri was an atheist on a par with anything the modern world can muster. “Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true,” he thundered. “The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.”

And he uncharitably divided the world into two: “Those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

And it is this tolerance of free thought, not to mention the “decadence” of the caliph’s court, which causes puritanical Islamists of the modern-day to harken back to an even earlier era, that of Muhammad and his first “successors” (caliphs).

But the early Rashidun (“rightly guided”) Caliphs bear almost no resemblance to Jihadist mythology. Even Muhammad, the most “rightly guided” Islamic figure, did not establish an Islamic state, at least not in the modern sense of the word. For example, the Constitution of Medina drafted by the prophet stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and even pagans all have equal political and cultural rights. This is a far cry from ISIS’s attitudes towards even fellow Sunni Muslims who do not practise its brand of Islam, let alone Shi’a, Christians or other minorities.

More crucially, the caliphates in the early centuries of Islam were forward-looking and future-oriented, whereas today’s wannabe caliphates are stuck in a past that never was.

How did this ideological fallacy of the Islamist caliphate come about?

To understand the how and why, we must rewind to the 19th century. Back then, Arab intellectuals and nationalist wishing to shake off the yoke of Ottoman dominance were great admirers of Western societies and saw in them, in the words of Egyptian moderniser and reformer Muhammad Abdu, “Islam without Muslims”, hinting at the more secular reality of the Islamic “golden age”. Another Egyptian moderniser, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, urged his fellow citizens to “understand what the modern world is”.

Interestingly, many of these reformers were educated as Islamic scholars but were enamored of modern European secularism and enlightenment principles. Taha Hussein, a 20th-century literary and intellectual trailblazer, started life at Al Azhar, the top institute of Islamic learning, but soon abandoned his faith.

Many Arab nationalists not only admired Europe and America but believed Western pledges to back their independence from the Ottoman empire, the “sick man of Europe”.

The first reality check came following the Ottoman defeat in World War I when, instead of granting Arabs independence, Britain and France carved up the Middle East between them, as if the region’s people were the spoils of war.

Disappointed by the old powers, Arabs still held out hope that America, which had not yet entered Middle Eastern politics in earnest, would live up to its self-image as the “good guy” and deliver on its commitment to “self-determination”, as first articulated by Woodrow Wilson.

But following World War II, America filled the void left by France and Britain by emulating its imperial predecessors, though it steered clear of direct rule. Instead, it propped up unpopular dictators and monarchs as long as they were “our son of a bitch”, in the phrase reportedly coined by Franklin D Roosevelt. This principle was eloquently illustrated in the same person, Saddam Hussein, who was an ally against Iran when he was committing his worst atrocities, such as the al-Anfal genocidal campaign and the Halabja chemical attack of the 1980s.

This resulted in a deep distrust of Western democratic rhetoric, and even tainted by association the very notion of democracy in the minds of some.

Then there was the domestic factor.  Like in so many post-colonial contexts, the nation’s liberators became its oppressors. Rather than dismantling the Ottoman and European instruments of imperial oppression, many of the region’s leaders happily embraced and added to this repressive machinery.

The failure of  revolutionary pan-Arabism to deliver its utopian vision of renaissance, unity, prosperity, freedom and dignity led to a disillusionment with that model of secularism. While the corruption and subservience to the West of the conservative, oil-rich monarchs turned many against the traditional deferential model of Islam.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

This multilayered failure, as well as the brutal suppression of the secular opposition and moderate Islamists, led to the emergence of a radical, nihilistic fundamentalism which posited that contemporary Arab society had returned to the pre-Islamic “Jahiliyyah” (“Age of Ignorance”).

The only way to “correct” this was to declare jihad not only against foreign “unbelievers” but against Arab society itself in order to create a pure Islamic state that has only ever existed in the imaginations of modern Islamic extremists. These Islamists misdiagnose the weakness and underdevelopment of contemporary Arab society as stemming from its deviation from “pure” Islamic morality, as if the proper length of a beard and praying five times a day were a substitute for science and education, or could counterbalance global inequalities.

The wholesale destruction of Iraq’s political, social and economic infrastructure triggered by the US invasion created a power vacuum for these “takfiri” groups – first al-Qaeda and then the more radical ISIS – to make major advances.

In an interesting historical parallel, the man considered “Sheikh al-Islam” by many radical Salafists today, Ibn Taymiyyah, also emerged during a period of mass destruction and traumatic upheaval, the Mongol invasions. He declared jihad against the invaders and led the resistance in Damascus.

Despite ISIS’s successes on the battlefield, there is little appetite or support among the local populations for their harsh strictures,  a dact reflected by the 500,000 terrified citizens who fled Mosul. Even in the more moderate model espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist dream of transnational theocratic rule appeals to a dwindling number of Arabs. Only last week, Moroccan women showed their contempt for the conservative prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, by converging on Parliament armed with frying pans after he’d argued that women should stay in the home.

Rather than a caliphate presided over by arbitrarily appointed caliphs, subjected to a rigid interpretation of Shariah law, millions of Arabs strive simply for peace, stability, dignity, prosperity and democracy. Three turbulent years after the Arab revolutions, people still entertain the modest dream of one day having their fair share of “bread, freedom, social justice,” as the Tahrir Square slogan put it.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in the New York Times on 2 July 2014.

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A successful caliphate in six simple steps

 
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By Khaled Diab

ISIS really doesn’t get what restoring the caliphate means. Here’s how in six simple steps, from Caliphornian wine to cultural melting pots.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

Tuesday 17 June 2014

To the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS),

I understand you wish to restore the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But are you sure this is really what you want? As a secular, liberal Arab living in the 21st century, I’m not keen on turning back the clock in this way, but I think I’m better prepared for it than you.

Judging by your brutal and bloodthirsty behaviour and the twisted rulebook you’ve released, I have this sneaking suspicion that you have no idea what bringing back the caliphate actually means or involves. Let me give you a clue, it would entail thriving in diversity, penning odes to wine, investing in science, patronizing the arts… not to mention appointing a gay court poet.

For your benefit and other jihadist novices, here is my guide to how to build a successful caliphate – or “bring back glory of the Islamic Caliphate”, to quote you – in half a dozen simple steps:

  1. Caliphornian wine and Caliphornication

In spring if a houri-like sweetheart

Gives me a cup of wine on the edge of a green cornfield,

Though to the vulgar this would be blasphemy,

If I mentioned any other Paradise, I’d be worse than a dog.

Omar al-Khayyam (translated by Karim Emami)

ISIS has banned alcohol, as well as drugs and cigarettes, in the domain under its control. But what these fanatics seem to misunderstand is that alcohol may be prohibited religiously (haram) in Islam, but there was plenty of full-bodied Caliphornian wine around,  as the above verse by Omar al-Khayyam illustrates, which follows in the tradition of khamariyat, or wine poetry.

“Commanders of the faithful” they may have been but Caliphs were known to indulge in the unholy grape. These included the Umayyads and the Abbasids. Even Harun al-Rashid, who is regarded as the most “rightly guided” of the later caliphs, is reputed to have drunk. And even if al-Rashid himself did not partake, his court did, as mythologised in many stories of the 1,001 Arabian Nights, especially his gay court poet Abu Nuwas, who definitely preferred wine to girls.

Don’t cry for Leila and don’t rejoice over Hind

Instead drink to the rose from a rosy red wine.

A glass which, when tipped down the drinker’s throat,

Leaves its redness in both the eye and the cheek.

Camp, outrageous, irreverent and witty, Abu Nuwas was considered the greatest poet of his time and is still up there among the greats, despite the more puritanical age we live in, where his odes to male love would make a modern Muslim blush.

Come right in, boys. I’m

a mine of luxury – dig me.

Well-aged brilliant wines made by

monks in a monastery! shish-kebabs!

Roast chickens! Eat! Drink! Get happy!

and afterwards you can take turns

shampooing my tool.

During to the apparent jealousy of his mentor in Harun al-Rashid’s court, Ziryab, the Sultan of Style, fled to the rival Umayyad court in Cordoba, where, among other things, he taught Europeans how to become fashion slaves.

  1. Strength in diversity

Diversity and multiculturalism were the hallmark of Islam’s most successful caliphates and caliphs. In fact, the lightning speed with which the Arabs were able to conquer a vast empire was partly faciliated by the greater freedom and lower taxes they offered local populations compared to the bickering former imperial masters. This was coupled with an early form of welfare state established by the second caliph, the austere Umar Ibn al-Khattab who lived in a simple mud hut to be close to the poor and believed in social and economic equality.

Under the Umayyads, whether centred in Damascus or Cordoba, and the early Abbasids, Islam’s “golden age” was characterised, rather like today’s America, by a complex synthesis and symbiosis between the cultures which fell under Islamic control as well as neighbouring civilisations. It incorporated Christian, Jewish, ancient Greek, Byzantine, Persian and even Chinese ideas and added to them to create a new, dynamic whole. The Ottomans were also at their most successful when they tolerated and promoted diversity.

This is a far cry from the uniform puritanism ISIS seeks to impose on its self-described caliphate.

  1. Tolerance is a duty

The ISIS advance has resulted in the mass flight of Christians from northern Iraq. And the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul fears they will never return, while the ancient Assyrian community of Bartella wait in terror.

This fear is hardly surprising given the treatment ISIS has meted out on fellow Muslims, such as the mass executions of Shi’a soldiers, not to mention the oppressive rules ISIS has outlined for Muslims in its conquered territory.

This is very different from the ideals of religious tolerance which Islam’s various caliphates often aspired to, with probably the Umayyads and Ottomans in their heydays winning top prize in this category, and qualifying as the most enlightened of their age.

Even the traditional notion that non-Muslims are dhimmis (protected minorities) who are free to practise their faith but are inferior to Muslims contradicts the principles of equality embedded in Islam. This is amply illustrated in the Constitution of Medina drafted by Muhammad himself which stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and pagans all have the same political and cultural rights. So it would seem that Islam, as practised by its prophet, gave Muslims an advantage in the hereafter, not the here and now.

Moreover, the Quranic injunction on “no compulsion in religion” also means that ISIS has no right to force Muslims to pray, whether in the mosque or otherwise.

  1. Ijtihad and the greater jihad

ISIS and other violent jihadists not only conduct “holy war” incorrectly, inhumanely and for the wrong reasons, they also ignore the “greater jihad”, the struggle to build a better self and society.

In addition, their fixation on implementing “sharia” is baffling. This is partly because their interpretation of it is at odds with traditional scholarship. Moreover, sharia has differed significantly over time and place.

More fundamentally, the bulk of what is regarded as Islamic law today was reached through the reasoning of early Islamic scholars. Since we live in radically different times, it is high time to reopen the gates of ijtihad – which were sealed by the Abbasids in a bid to cement their authority – and to rethink and reinvent the Islamic legal system.

In its heyday, the Abbasid Caliphate’s capital Baghdad – which ISIS are perilously close to conquering – was a centre of science, culture, philosophy and invention. This was epitomised by the Bayt al-Hekma, which was a world-leading institute of learning until the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, devastating Abbasid society to a similar degree as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

  1. A woman’s place is in… public

ISIS has informed women that their place is in the home and that outdoors they must wear “full, wide Islamic dress”.

Well, they should start with themselves and wear the hijab too, since, if it is an obligation at all, it is one that applies to men too.

Although Islam is a typical patriarchal society, women’s place has never been solely in the home, except in a minority of cultures. It might shock ISIS to learn that the idea of cloistering women out of the public eye may not have been an Islamic idea at all but one borrowed from the Byzantines.

Women played a key role in the spread of Islam by the word, such as Khadija and Aisha, and by the sword, such as Hind bint Utbah and Asma’a bint Abi Bakr – sort of Kill Bill characters of the medieval world – who were instrumental in the defeat of the Byzantine forces in one of the most decisive battles in history.

In addition, women made important contributions to science, philosophy and society throughout Islamic history – a role that has been under-researched but is eliciting more interest today. They even ran empires, albeit discretely.

Most importantly, Islam’s attitudes to women have varied according to local culture. Iraqi and especially Syrian women have been on a long road towards emancipation, and even the faithful among them see no contradiction between their religion and gender equality.

  1. Secularism is the solution

Muhammad never nominated a successor (caliph) nor spelt out a method for identifying one, hence Islam does not prescribe, nor does it need a caliphate. In addition, the caliphate often led to instability due to the absence of clear rules for the transfer of power, and contributed to the absolutists attitudes the region’s leaders traditionally have to power.

In addition, the prophet never established an “Islamic state”. In fact, his rule of Medina was incredibly secular. Moreover, Islam’s greatest successes were achieved by rulers who were largely secular, especially when compared to their times.

In fact, it could be argued that the only truly Islamic state, is a spiritual state, a state of mind.

Contrary to what Islamists tell us, secularism is the solution – but I don’t mind if you call it a “caliphate”.

In fact, if you build a caliphate like this, I can guarantee you, judging by the interest on Twitter, that you’ll be drawing immigrants from all over the Muslim world.

____

This piece was republished on BuzzFeed on 20 June 2014.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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Special focus: The new Arab man

 
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The articles in this section are dedicated to the new Arab man who believes in and lives gender equality. These men champion women’s rights and/or challenge traditional ideas of masculinity. Although these progressive men are still, sadly, a minority in the Arab world – they exist and their ranks are growing.

Nevertheless, they too often fly undetected under the radar, even though there is nothing new about them and they have been around for decades. The Arab patriarchy fears them because they undermine the current male order from within. In the West, they lack visibility out of ignorance, intellectual bias and the reductionist political need by some for binaries: Arab woman, oppressed; Arab man, oppressor.

But progressive Arab man need to raise their voices and be heard, not only to help the emancipation of women, but also to empower the average Mo, as it were, by providing him with positive role models of a new and confident masculinity that is not threatenend by strong and equal women.

If you would like to contribute an article or ideas to this special focus, please drop us a line at info@chronikler.com

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.

الرجل العربي الجديد

ابريل 2014 – لوحظ في الأونة الأخيرة تزايد الرجال المناصرة لحقوق المرأة عربياً، مقدمين مثالاُ رائعاً في تحدي المعنى التقليدي للرجولة الشرقية.

The new Arab man: The Middle East’s male awakening

April 2014 – In the first of a Chronikler series on the new Arab man, we meet men who champion women’s rights and challenge traditional ideals of masculinity.

The battle for the soul of the Arab man

May 2012 – The polarised debate over Arab women overlooks the fact that men can be victims of the patriarchy too and their identity is a cultural battlefield.

International Women’s Day: Empowering the average Mo

March 2012 – Arab men who do not fit the traditional ideal of manhood are often regarded as inferior, and this stereotype holds back the emancipation of women.

The Arab man’s burden

November 2010 – Some in the west are more likely to believe in elves in Middle Earth than in Arab men in the Middle East who are secular and do not oppress women.

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الرجل العربي الجديد

 
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بقلم خالد دياب

   لوحظ في الأونة الأخيرة تزايد الرجال المناصرة لحقوق المرأة عربياً، مقدمين مثالاُ رائعاً في تحدي المعنى التقليدي للرجولة الشرقية.

Sexual harass protest

Photo: Maged Tawfiles

Read in English

الأربعاء 2 ابريل 2014

قد بلغ التحرش الجنسي في مصر مستويات وبائية حتى وصل الى الحرم الجامعي لأقدم الجامعات العلمانية في البلاد بصورةٍ فجة. وراء هذا الوباء نماذج غير واقعية ومضرة للرجل المثالي والمرأة المثالية.

في السنوات الأخيرة، وخاصةً منذ اندلاع الثورة المصرية في عام 2011، بدأت النساء تتمرد ضد التيارات المتشددة التي اجتاحت مختلف أنـحاء البلاد منذ أواخر السبعينيات من القرن الماضي.

وقد أثار هذا رد فعل ضخم من التيارات المتشددة، مما جعل التحرش الجنسي يزداد عنفًا وإذلالاٍ كأحد ظواهر هذا رد الفعل. غير أن بعض الرجال قرروا أن يسبحوا ضد التيار، ليسوا فقط منادين يحقوق المرأة، ولكن أيضاً متحديين المفاهيم التقليدية للذكورة.

وهذه الصحوة من بعض الرجال لم تتركز فقط على النُخب الفكرية والاقتصادية، لكنها أيضًا قد صنعت فروقاً في جميع أنـحاء البلاد وكل طبقات المجتمع.

(ديفيد عصام)، شاب نشأ في أسرة تقليدية في المنيا في صعيد مصر، وهي من أكثر المحافظات المتحافظة في مصر.

في بداية الأمر يعترف (عصام) قائلاً: “في البداية، لم أكن أعتقد أن المرأة لديها حقوق. كنت فقط أراها كمُكمل لحياة الرجل”.

ولكن تضافرت عدد من العوامل التي صنعت تحولاً كبيراً في أفكار ومواقف (عصام). أهم تلك العوامل هو أخته الوحيدة، وعلى وجه التحديد حين رفضت القيود المفروضة عليها من قبل الأم، والتي بطبيعة الحال في الصعيد كانت تقيد حريتها في الكثير من الأمور.

وثمة عامل آخر وهو انخراطه في القراءة خاصة لبعض الكُتاب النسويين وعلى رأسهم الكاتبة (نوال السعداوي)؛ ولكن ربما كان العامل الأكثر أهمية في تغير أفكار (عصام) هو بعض الصداقات التي اكتسبها من بعد قيام الثورة المصرية، والتي تسببت في زلزال في وعي وضمير (عصام).

يضيف (عصام) “توجهات بعض الشباب والشابات المهتمين بقضايا المرأة جعلني أكثر وعيًا، وقادراً على تحدي الظروف المحيطة”، مشيراً إلى أنه الآن يتطوع دائماً في  فعاليات تعزيز الحقوق الاجتماعية والقانونية للنساء، وفعاليات مكافحة التحرش الجنسي.

على الرغم من أن الثورة قد صنعت جيل جديد أكثر وعياً، إلا أن ثقافة الرجل العربي الجديد ليست جديدة على الاطلاق، حقيقةً أول الأفكار النسوية في العالم العربي كانت، وليس مفاجأ في مجتمع يسيطر عليه الرجال في ذلك الوقت، حيث أن أول من نادى بتلك الأفكار كان رجلاً.

“على مر الأجيال كانت المرأة تابعة لحكم القوى الذكورية، ومُسيطر عليها من قبل طغيان قوة الرجال،” هكذا كتب قاسم أمين في تحرير المرأة في عام 1899م؛ مضيفاً “إن موقف الإسلام المُقلل من شأن المرأة هو أكبر العقبات التي تمنعنا من التقدم نـحو ما هو مُفيد بالنسبة لنا”.

كثير من الرجال ممن لهم أفكار علمانية والذين ظهروا قبل انتشار التيار الإسلامي المتشدد تعتبر المساواة بين الجنسين أمرًا مفروغًا منه، على الأقل من حيث المبدأ. وهناك أيضاً من ينفذه فعليا.

“لدي طفلان، صبي وفتاة، اعمالهما بأقصى درجات المساواة، من حيث النشأة، مصروف الجيب، والمسؤوليات، والواجبات، والتعليم، وتعليمهما احترام الذات”، هكذا بدء سعيد السعيد كلامه، وهو موظف فلسطيني في القطاع الخاص متقاعد وقد سافر إلى سويسرا منذ أكثر من 35 عامًا. ويضيف أيضًا “لقد تحدثت إلى كل منهما عن المسؤولية الجنسية، وقدمت كل علبة من الواقي الذكري عندما شعرت أن الوقت قد حان”.

قد ينسب البعض مواقف (السعيد) إلى مكوثه طويلاً في أوروبا، وهو يستبعد هذا الرأي تماما، قائلا “بفضل والديا، وتحديدا والدي، لم أكن أتقبل ابدا كيف تُعامل النساء في الشرق الأوسط”.

هذا هو حال الكثيرين من أبناء جيله، خاصةً من نشأوا في أسر يسارية، فلديهم ذكريات مماثلة؛ تحكي (سعاد العامري) وهي مهندسة وكاتبة فلسطينية بارزة، كيفية تعامل والدها معها ومساواته بينها وبين جميع أشقائها على حدٍ سواء بصورة تخالف الأعراف المتوارثة حينها.

تقول (العامري): “أنه يطلق على نفسه اسم (أبو أروى)، حتى أن بعض الناس لم يكن يعرفوا أن لدي ابن اسمه (أيمن)”، وأضاف “انه أطلق على نفسه هذا الأسم نسبةً لأبنته البكر (أروى)” منافياً التقاليد المتعارف عليها في التسمية باسم الولد وليس البنت.

بالطبع بلاد الشام، وخاصة لبنان، لديها موقف مستنير نسبيًا تجاه قضايا المرأة. ولكن حتى في أكثر المجتماعات تحفظا في العالم العربي تمر أيضا بصحوتها الخاصة، ولكن من نقطة بداية اقل.

في ضوء القيود الشديدة المفروضة على المرأة السعودية، المتمثلة في نظام الوصاية القمعي، انه ربما من المتوقع أن يكون من أبرظ الداعين بحقوق المرأة هناك رجلاً.

في ما يُعتبر نقطة فاصلة في قضية حقوق المرأة في المملكة العربية السعودية، استطاع المحامي والناشط الحقوقي (وليد أبو الخير) أن يحصل على حكم بالافراج عن (سمر بدوي) والتي كانت قد سُجنت بتهمة عصيان والدها رغم أنه كان يسيء لها.

خلافا للرأي السائد والصورة الإصلاحية التي تحاول العائلة المالكة السعودية أن تُظهرها للعالم الخارجي؛ فإن (أبو الخير) يُحمل النظام مسؤلية الأوضاع المزرية للنساء في السعودية.

“الملوم في هذه القيود جميعها هي السلطة السياسية بالتأكيد، والتي بدورها تلقي باللوم على المجتمع وتصفه بأنه عصي على الإصلاح،” يقول (أبو الخير). “بينما الحقيقة وعبر تجربة على الأرض أن السلطة تريد من المجتمع أن يبقى محافظاً وأن يظل الرجل مسيطر على المرأة لأنها بذلك تعطل نصف المجتمع ليبقى النصف الآخر يسهل قياده”. لهذا السبب، يرى (أبو الخير) أن الصراع على حقوق المرأة ذا صلة وثيقة وجزء لا يتجزء من الصراع على حقوق الأنسان كافة. “الجميع هنا مقموع ولا نريد أن نساوي مقموعاً بمن هو أخف قمعاً منه،” يصف الناشط السعودي. “والمرأة ليست مشكلتها كما أعتقد مع الرجل في السعودية وإنما مشكلتها مع السلطة أولاً وأخيرا”.

يعتقد (أبو الخير) أنه إذا اتخذت المؤسسات الوهابية موقفًا محايدًا تجاه الحقوق الشخصية وتركوا للناس الحق ليقرروا بأنفسهم، فإن هذا سيساعد على صنع نقلة كبيرة وإنجازاً في قضية حقوق المرأة في المملكة العربية السعودية، وخاصةً في الغرب؛ ويضيف (أبو الخير) ” وفي مجتمعي حيث أعيش، أي في الحجاز، الأغلبية يؤمنون فعلا باحترام المرأة وحفظ حقوقها وكان هذا الإيمان واضحاً أكثر قبل تغلغل الوهابية في مجتمعنا بفعل السلطة “.

كان من الطبيعي أن يثير نشاط (أبو الخير) عدم رضاء التيار المتشدد عنه، وبالتالي الدخول في مصادمات حادة مع السلطات السعودية؛ ورغم جميع المعارك القانونية والتي تسببت في اعتقاله العديد من المرات ومنعه من السفر وتحديد أقامته، إلا أنه وجد من تشاركه في حروبه وآلامه، (سمر بدوي) اختارت أن تشارك (أبو الخير) في قضاياه وحياته كزوجةٍ له. بعد أن كان (أبو الخير) هو محامي (سمر البدوي)، أصبحت هي ناشطة بارزة في مجال حقوق المرأة في بلدها، فهي من قدمت أول دعوى قضائية في المملكة لمنح المرأة حق التصويت، كما شاركت في الحملات المطالبة بحق المرأة في قيادة السيارة.

على الرغم من كل التحديات والصعوبات التي تواجه قضايا المرأة في المجتمع العربي، إلا أن (أبو الخير) متفائل بشأن المستقبل؛ ويوضح قائلاً ” والمعطيات الحالية تؤكد أن المرأة في طريقها لكسب حقوقها، نظراً للتحولات الكبيرة التي يشهدها المجتمع”.

في البلدان العربية التي اكتسابت فيها المرأة حصة كبيرة من حقوقها، يخاف البعض من التراجع النسبي.

“بشكل عام، فإن وضع (المرأة الفلسطينية واللبنانية) قد تراجع، مع صعود التيارات المتشددة دينياً؛” يعتقد (سعيد السعيد)، حيث يلوم على الأمهات نظراً لتبنيهم ثقافة”(الصبي الأمير على حساب أخوته البنات”.

وتعكس تجربة (ديفيد عصام) الخاصة في هذا المجال التحدي الذي يتماثل في التعامل مع دور المرأة بوصفها هي الداعم للنظام الأبوي في بعض الأحيان؛ ويصرح قائلاً “والدتي سعيدة من شكل علاقتي بأختي لما فيها من حب ورعاية واهتمام؛ لكنها تعترض على مساندتي لها في التفكير للسفر والعمل، وتكوين صداقات في الجامعة”.

وهناك آخرون ممن خالفوا التقاليد الاجتماعية تمامًا، متجاوزً المساواة البسيطة وصولاً لمرحلة الانعكاس التام؛ وهذا هو حال (عمر وهبة)؛ بعد فترة من الانفصال القسري من زوجته التي كان تعمل في جنيف، قرر أن يرمي بجميع التقاليد المتوارثة عرض الحائط، وترك عمله في القاهرة ليتفرغ لتربية طفله، على الرغم من اعتراض عائلته  التي تؤمن بأن دور الرجل انه يقود والمرأة دورها ان تتبع زوجها.

“كانت أول مرة لي ان اكون رب المنزل”، كما يعترف “لقد استمتعت بجوانب عديدة منها كتعلم طهي الطعام، والقراءة أكثر، التأمل في حياتي، التفكير في اقامة عمل خاص، والبقاء مع طفلي أوقات أطول”.

على الرغم من أن (عمر وهبة) أستطاع الحصول على وظيفة في جنيف، إلا أنه الوقت الذي قضاه في الاهتمام بالشئون المنزلية غرس فيه المزيد من التقدير والاحترام للادوار التقليدية المسندة للمرأة، ويقول أنه لا يزال يُسهم في الاعمال المنزلية وتربية الاطفال.

على الرغم من الاضطرابات التي تمر بها مصر ووسط تصاعد حدة التيارات المتشددة منذ قيام الثورة، إلا أن (وهبة) متفائل ويأمل في وضع أفضل للمساواة بين الجنسين في المستقبل.

“أنا متفائل بشأن الجيل الصاعد من الشباب، فهم أكثر مرونة وقابلية للتغيير” ويكمل قائلاً “أعتقد أن الكثيرين أصبحوا لا يؤمنون بالأدوار التقليدية للرجل والمرأة، وأنهم يدركون أن الأفضل هو أن يعملا سوياً لتحسين مجتمعهم وتحريكه للامام”.

نشكر ديفيد عصام لهذه الترجمة.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in Your Middle East on 30 March 2014.

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The new Arab man: The Middle East’s male awakening

 
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By Khaled Diab

In the first of a Chronikler series on the new Arab man, we meet men who champion women’s rights and challenge traditional ideals of masculinity.

Sexual harass protest

Egyptian men protest sexual harassment in solidarity with women. Photo: Maged Tawfiles https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151910105340644&set=a.10151910085410644.883325.538750643&type=3&theater

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Sexual harassment in Egypt has reached such epidemic proportions that it has eveninfiltrated the campus of the country’s oldest secular university. At the heart of this plague, I have argued, are toxic, unrealistic and demeaning gender ideals and stereotypes.

In recent years, and especially since the eruption of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, women have been rebelling against the conservative current that has swept across the country starting from the late 1970s.

This has provoked a massive conservative backlash, of which increasingly violent sexual harassment and humiliation are one manifestation. But what is lost, even drowned out, by this tidal wave of misogyny are the men who have chosen to swim against the current, and not only champion women’s rights but also to challenge traditional concepts of masculinity.

And this male awakening is not just focused among the intellectual and economic elite but has made in-roads across the country and in every strata of society.

Take David Esam, who was raised in a traditional household in al-Minya, which lies in Middle Egypt, the entry point to ultra-conservative Upper Egypt.

“At first, I didn’t think that women had rights. I just viewed them as complements to a man’s life,” he confessed to me.

A number of factors combined to set in motion a major shift in Esam’s attitudes. One was his sister, and specifically a quarrel they had over the restrictions his mother imposed on his sister’s freedom.

Another factor was the books he started reading, including the writings of Egypt’s foremost living feminist Nawal al-Saadawi. But perhaps the most critical factor has been the friendships he has made since the Egyptian revolution, which triggered an earthquake in Esam’s consciousness and conscience.

“Encountering young women and men interested in the women’s cause made me more self-aware and critical of my surroundings,” observes Esam, noting that he is now active in promoting social and legal rights for women and volunteers in the movement combatting sexual harassment.

Although the revolution has awoken the consciousness of a new generation of men, this new Arab man is actually not new at all. In fact, possibly the Arab world’s first feminist, which was unsurprising in the male-dominated society at the time, was a man.

“Throughout the generations our women have continued to be subordinate to the rule of the strong and are overcome by the powerful tyranny of men,” Qasim Amin wrote in The Liberation of Women in 1899. “The inferior position of Muslim women is the greatest obstacle that prevents us from advancing toward what is beneficial for us.”

Many secular men raised before the spread of Islamist conservatism actually take gender equality for granted, at least in principle. And there are some who implement it almost religiously.

“I have two children, a boy and a girl, whom I treated equally, in terms of upbringing, pocket money, responsibilities, duties, schooling and self-respect,” says Said El-Said, a retired Palestinian professional who has been based in Switzerland for more than 35 years. “I talked to both of them about sexual responsibility and gave each a box of condoms when I felt the time was right.”

Some are bound to attribute El-Said’s attitudes to his long sojourn in Europe, but he insists that nothing could be further from the truth. “Thanks to my parents, specifically my father… I never accepted how women were treated in the Middle East,” he explains.

And others of his generation, especially those raised in leftist households, have similar recollections. Suad Amiry, the prominent Palestinian architect-turned-author, recalled how her father treated all her siblings equally to the extent that he bucked even the most deep-rooted conventions.

“He called himself Abu Arwa, so many people didn’t think we had a brother called Ayman,” Amiry remembers. “He named himself after his eldest daughter and not after the boy.”

Of course, the Levant, especially Lebanon, has a relatively enlightened attitude to women. But even in the most conservative quarters of the Arab world are experiencing their own version of a male awakening, albeit from a lower starting point.

It is perhaps unsurprising in light of the severe restrictions on Saudi women, such as the repressive guardianship system, that one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent advocates of women’s rights is actually a man.

In what was a watershed case for women’s rights in the kingdom, the lawyer and human rights activist Waleed Abulkhair successfully secured the release of Samar Badawi, who had been imprisoned for disobeying her abusive father.

Contrary to popular opinion and the “reformist” image the Saudi royal family attempts to project abroad, Abulkhair holds the regime responsible for the poor status of women.

“The political establishment is to blame for all these restrictions, but it blames society which it describes as ‘unreformable’,” he says. “But in reality, the establishment wants society to remain conservative and for men to continue to dominate women, thereby neutralising half of society, while making the other half easier to control.”

For this reason, Abulkhair sees women’s rights as intimately, and holistically, connected to the wider struggle for human rights.

“Everyone here is repressed and we don’t want an equality of repression,” he claims. “In my view, the Saudi woman’s problem is not with men but with the system.”

Abulkhair is convinced that if the Wahhabi establishment would take a neutral stance towards personal rights and leave people to decide for themselves, then women’s rights would take a giant leap forward in Saudi Arabia, especially in the west of the country. “Where I live, in Hijaz, the majority believes in respecting women and upholding their rights, and this was more apparent before the spread of Wahhabism at the hands of the authorities.”

Unsurprisingly, Abulkhair’s activism has not endeared him to conservatives and has got him into hot water with the authorities. Throughout all his legal battles, detentions and the travel ban still in force, he has found a willing accomplice, defender and champion in the form of his wife, Samar Badawi. Since Abulkhair represented her, Badawi has become a prominent activist in her own right, filing the kingdom’s first lawsuit for women’s suffrage and involved in the women’s driving campaign.

Despite all the challenges and difficulties, Abulkhair is upbeat about the future. “The current situation indicates that (Saudi) women are on their way to gaining their rights due to the enormous changes society is undergoing,” he concludes.

Some fear that the reverse may be true in Arab countries where women have already wrested significant rights.

“In general, the status (of Palestinian and Lebanese women) is regressing, with the rise of religious fervour,” believes Said El-Said. “I blame mothers for perpetuating the tradition of the ‘boy prince’ at the expense of their daughters.”

And David Esam’s own experience reflects the challenge of dealing with the role of women as gatekeepers of the patriarchy.

“My mother is happy with the love, care and attention in my relationship with my sister,” he explains. “But she does not approve of some of my positions encouraging my sister to pursue her interests in work, travel and friendships at university.”

There are others who, bucking social convention altogether, have moved beyond simple equality to engage in role reversal. Omar Weheba is a case in point.

After a period of forced separation from his wife who was working in Geneva, he decided to throw tradition to the wind and quit his job in Cairo to become a trailing spouse, despite his family’s conviction that “it was important that the man take the lead”.

“Being a stay-at-home dad was a first for me,” he admits. “I enjoyed aspects of it like learning how to cook, reading more, reflecting more on life, thinking of doing my own business, staying with my kid more.”

Although Weheba has now found a job in Geneva, his time as a home-carer has instilled in him a greater appreciation and respect for the traditional role ascribed to women, and he still shares in the child-rearing and housework.

Despite the turbulence Egypt is going through and the conservative and religious backlash unleashed since the revolution, Weheba is hopeful about the future of gender equality.

“I am optimistic about the younger generation… They are more flexible and malleable to change,” he argues. “I believe many realise that there is no clear-cut traditional role anymore for a man or a woman. What they know is that it’s best to work together… to better their society and move it forward.”

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in Your Middle East on 30 March 2014.

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