The freedom of non-expression

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By Osama Diab

Advocates of banning the face veil want to take away the only choice some women have – the choice to conform.

28 July 2010

She used to love to sing, dance and swim. She used to daydream of summertime when there was no school and when she could spend the entire day at the beach swimming and building a castle out of sand. She used to do this every year until she was 11 when her mother told her she couldn’t wear a swimsuit anymore. When she requested an explanation, her mother simply told her that she was “a big girl now”. Puzzled by her mother’s words, she thought there was something wrong with her or with her body.

However, they still went to the beach, but the women would sit there mostly covered while the men (her father and younger brother) would enjoy their time in the water. Through this experience, she learned that boys and girls are different. She grew to understand that her actions are not just going to affect her but her entire family.

A few years later when she grew breasts, her mother stopped allowing her to buy certain clothes because they were “too tight” or “too transparent”. “You have the entire shop to choose from and you choose this,” her mother would chastise her. Her brother would come from the men’s section with a pile of clothes which the mother wouldn’t even glance at.

The girl was very attractive as a teenager and drew the uninvited attention of men and boys. Since this was new to her, she thought there must be something wrong with the way she dressed or acted. When her family found out about one of the harassment incidents, instead of showing sympathy, they were angry at her.

She eventually chose to wear the hijab and act very seriously, believing that this would keep men away from her. She also knew that she could be a great source of pride for her family if she behaved like a “good girl”, or a source of shame if she didn’t. So the other reason why she decided to cover her hair was the positive feedback she was expecting from them. She didn’t want to be perceived as immoral, useless and a source of disgrace.

After she told her mother, her mother called her friends and siblings and proudly boasted to them about “what a great daughter she has”  who chose “voluntarily” to wear the hijab at just 16.

After high school, she wanted to study acting, but knew that wasn’t realistic. Her mother told her, “Out of all the schools in the world, you choose acting. What’s wrong with engineering, business, or even languages.” She “chose” to study English instead.

At college, she fell in love for the first time in her life. The man had a Muslim name, but was from a Bahai’i family. She was too afraid to tell her mother about it, but when she had the courage to do so, her mother screamed, “Out of all the men in the world, you choose a Bahai’i. I really wish you would die. You need to stop seeing this guy immediately.”

The next guy was Muslim and fitted most of her family’s criteria. Her family blessed the marriage. One day before her wedding, her mother gave her advice on how to act in bed: “Men get very suspicious really easily. Act like you know nothing and have no experience. Men like innocent girls.”

She considered telling her husband about her sexual needs and what she would like to experience, but she was too afraid of his reaction or what he might think of her. She decided to live with no sort of sexual communication and even tried to get these ideas out of her head because these things are just not right.

Despite these disappointments, she didn’t quite notice that she had little influence over the course of her life, and that it was all predetermined and designed by both her parents and society. She never really dwelt on how social rules and taboos were such a powerful force that she had little option but to abide by them.

She heard on the news that Syria had decided to ban the niqab in schools and that a general ban was being discussed in some European countries. She found that this was s unfair and believed that it should be the woman’s choice whether or not to cover her face. The government should simply have no say in it. Even though she agrees that it has nothing to do with Islam, she is still very angry that some people would ban somethingthat enabled women to exhibit their modesty.

Her mind became more accepting of the idea that the West is at war with Islam. She became more appreciative of her values and how she was brought up, and refused to question either.

As a sign of that appreciation and conviction, she decided that when she turns 40, she would don the niqab. She informed her husband and parents and they praised her decision and told her that it would make her a great role model for her daughters.  On her 40th birthday, she celebrates by covering her face, firm in the belief that it was all her own choice.

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

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The bold and the brilliant

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An Arab-American Miss USA may have put Muslim beauty on the western map, but let’s also recall all those women of courage and talent.

It surprised me that my previous article was the most read on CiF on the day of its publication. But equipped with the wonders of hindsight, I should’ve realised that it had all the ingredients of a ripping yarn: a dastardly conspiracy (theory), beautiful but dangerous undercover (or is that uncovered?) double agents armed with sexy bombshells, and mad neo-cons hatching far-fetched plots.

Quite a number of readers found that Miss USA, Rima Fakih, dependent as she is on her looks, was not the most rousing role model for Muslim female empowerment and asked why no similar attention was accorded all those successful and inspirational Muslim women who have made inroads into what is still largely a man’s world.

So, in tribute to the many remarkable women in the Muslim world (including non-Muslims) throughout the centuries – both remembered and forgotten, loved or ridiculed – here’s a list of 10 mould-breaking women. They appear in chronological order.

1.      Mother of the faithful

Khadijah bint Khuwaylid (555-619), “Ameerat Quraysh” (the Princess of Quraysh), Mecca’s wealthiest and most powerful woman, was Muhammad’s first wife. She has the distinction of being the world’s first convert to Islam.

2.      Battle of the sexes

The battleground is one oft-forgotten theatre of the battle of the sexes. Although women have fought alongside men ever since the earliest days of Islam right down to the modern struggle for Algerian and Palestinian independence, their direct contribution to the defence of the community is regularly overlooked because it does not conform to the subdued image of the woman as wife and mother.

Muhammad’s youngest wife Aisha bint Abu Bakr (died 678) is a controversial figure, particularly in the west, because of the young age at which she appears to have been betrothed to the elderly prophet. Less well known is that she was not only a central figure in spreading Islam after his death, earning the title Mother of the Believers, but that she also led  an army into battle.

But the title of the fiercest Arab woman of all must go to Hind bint ‘Utbah – despite her demonisation and unfounded rumours of her commiting cannibalism on the battlefield – who was as daring in her opposition to Muhammad before her conversion as she was in his defence after it. 

3.      Universal woman

At 12 centuries old, the University of  al-Qarawiyyin in Fes (Morocco) is reportedly the world’s oldest academic degree-granting university in the world. This esteemed establishment was set up by Fatima al-Fihri (died 880) in 859.

But medieval Muslim women were not only patrons of academic establishments, they were also prominent scholars. According to the 12th-century Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir, girls and women could study and earn ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars (ulema) and teachers. He, himself, studied under 80 female teachers. In the 15th century, the Egyptian scholar al-Sakhawi devotes an entire volume of his 12-volume of his biographical dictionary Daw al-lami – an early Who’s Who – to over a thousand female scholars.

However, things got progressively worse for women until the modern emancipation movement began in the late 19th century. Today, female enrolment in universities is as high, or even higher, than male enrolment. However, the number of top women scientists is relatively small due to the ‘glass ceiling’. Nevertheless, there are award-winning women scientists who are at the top of their field.

4.      Around the throne in 80 days

From modest beginnings as a slave of probable Turkic origin in the royal household, Shajaret al-Durr (died 1257 ), whose name means Tree of Pearls, rose to become the wife of the Ayyubid Sultan as-Salih Ayyub. When her husband died at the most inopportune moment possible – during the landing of the Seventh Crusade in Damietta on the Nile Delta – she decided to conceal his death until the successful completion of the campaign to repel the crusaders. 

Amid the political turbulence that ensued, the former slave girl was chosen by the elite slave warriors known as “Mamluks” as Egypt’s Sultana, the first and only female ruler of Egypt in Islamic times. After only 80 days as queen, she passed the throne to her new husband, but continued to rule by proxy, despite her husband’s better efforts to contain her. After she had him murdered, she was confined to a tower and then brutally murdered herself.

Shajaret al-Durr left a profound legacy on her adoptive land: she not only helped defend it against the crusaders but she also established the prosperous and dynamic Mamluk era of Egyptian history when the country underwent the unique experiment of being ruled by elite slaves.

Another prominent woman ruler and contemporary of Shajaret al-Durr – who also happened to be a former slave of Turkic origin – was Razia Sultana who sat on the throne in Delhi from 1236-1240. 

In modern times, many Muslim-majority countries – including Pakistan (Benazir Bhutto), Indonesia (Megawati Sukarnoputri), Bangladesh (Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina) and Turkey (Tansu Çiller) – have been led by women.

5.      Forgotten feminist pioneer

Hoda Sha’rawi is widely considered to be the founder of the modern feminist movement in Egypt and probably the entire Arab world. Given how she rebelled against the male order and placed women at the forefront of the struggle for Egyptian independence, she certainly deserves her place in the history books.

However, she was by no means the first, and she has plenty of predecessors who have been lost to the mists of time. Thanks to the posthumous efforts of her younger brother, the memory of one of these early ‘unknown soldiers’ was rescued from, quite literally, the ‘no man’s land’ of collective oblivion. History, after all, is not only written by the victor, but usually by men.

Malak Hifni Nassef (1886-1918) scored a number of impressive firsts in Egypt: the first woman to get a degree from a government school, the first woman to lecture publicly, and the first to publish poetry in a mainstream journal – and at the age of only 13. We know little about her life, but the list of major figures at her funeral attest to the esteem she was held in during her lifetime. And, in contrast to other early women reformers who tended to be from the upper class, Nassef was from the middle class.

Inspired by events in Egypt and the Egyptian Renaissance, women in the Levant also took up their cause. One prominent figure was May Ziade (1886-1941), a Palestinian-Lebanese Christian poet, essayist and translator. 

 6.      A mighty pen

Despite being a physician and psychiatrist by training, Nawal el-Saadawi (born 1931) describes herself as “a novelist first, a novelist second, a novelist third”. She  has, in more than 50 novels, revolutionised the treatment of Egyptian women in fiction, and wielded her pen as her mightiest weapon in the battle for female emancipation.

Her writings have covered numerous controversial feminist themes, including women’s inferior position in religion and female genital mutilation, and their author has endured imprisonment, death threats and attempts to forcibly divorce her from her husband.

Luckily for Egypt, which is in danger of seeing certain gains scored by women reversed, the fight has not died in Saadawi, despite being almost 80. “I am becoming more radical with age,” she recently told the Guardian.

 7.      Bright and constant star

Known as ‘Ambassador to the stars’, Fairuz is not only the national pride of Lebanon but is the most famous living singer in the Arab world. She was born with the name Nouhad Haddad into a poor Maronite Christian family in 1935, and Arabs may have been deprived of her beautiful voice had her conservative father not relented and allowed her to attend the Lebanese Conservatory, albeit with her brother as chaperon.

Her breakthrough into the big time came in 1957 and throughout the 1960s she was the “first lady of Lebanese singing”, although she was overshadowed on the Arab stage by the giant Umm Kalthoum. Widely regarded as the enchanting voice of Arab nationalism, her output has been prolific and has included hundreds of songs and musical operettas.

Throughout her long career Fairuz showed enormous courage: she refused to give private concerts to Arab leaders (for which she once got banned) and never left her country during its tumultuous civil war.

 8.      Across enemy lines

Everyone recalls, whether approvingly or critically, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s audacious trip, in 1977, to Jerusalem to talk peace at the Israeli Knesset. But he was actually beaten there by a fellow Egyptian woman, though history has condemned her to oblivion.

More than three years earlier, at a time when the only Arabs and Israelis who met were soldiers or spies, Sana Hasan, a PhD student in her mid-20s, went to Israel as the Arab world’s first, albeit unofficial and ostracised, peace envoy and probably its most unusual. Her six-week trip turned into a three-year sojourn, from 1974 to 1977, in which she seems to have met, well, just about everyone in Israel, in an attempt to understand her people’s enemy and build bridges to peace.

9.      Scholar and state-builder

When it comes to the Palestinian struggle, one should not forget Hanan Ashrawi (born 1946), who played a pivotal role in the First Intifada and subsequent peace process, where she served as the Palestinian delegations spokesperson.

She has also been elected numerous times to the Palestinian Legislative Council and established the Department of English at Birzeit University. She currently runs Miftah, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy.

10.  The right fight

Across the Arab and Muslim world, courageous women are active as human rights activists. One prominent example is Asma Jahangir (born 1952), the prominent Pakistani lawyer who has built a career defending the rights of women, children and religious minorities. 

During her long career, Jahangir has put herself in the firing line defending Muslims and Christians who have fallen foul of Pakistan’s controversial and intolerant ‘Hudood‘ ordinance and blasphemy laws which were put in place as part of Pakistani dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s ‘Islamisation programme‘.

Jahangir is currently the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 25 May 2010. Read the related debate.

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Een verbod om te vieren

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Badra Djait

Het zogenaamde ‘burqaverbod’ is een vrouwvriendelijke wetvoorstel.

3 mei 2010

English version

België zou het eerste land ter wereld worden met een wetsvoorstel dat personen bestraft die in het openbaar ‘het gezicht geheel of gedeeltelijk bedekken’ zodat ze niet langer herkenbaar zijn. Hoewel het breder is dan dat, wordt deze wet ook wel het burqaverbod genoemd. Met andere woorden, wie voortaan een burqa draagt die het hele lichaam bedekt of een niqab die de ogen vrij laat, kan bestraft worden tot zeven dagen cel.

Als Vlaamse vrouw van Algerijnse herkomst kan ik dit voorstel alleen maar toejuichen. Hoe kan je nu als westerse islamitische vrouw zorgeloos een burqa dragen, het internationaal gekend symbool bij uitstek van Afghanistan, en tegelijkertijd verklaren dat dit niets te maken heeft met de ultieme minderwaardigheid en onderdrukking van de vrouw?

In het land van mijn ouders, Algerije, zijn de “burqa’s” niet welkom en wordt de typische zwarte lange niqab, geïmporteerd uit Saoudi-Arabië, niet graag gezien. Terwijl in Brussel vrouwen met een burqa of een niqab worden nagestaard, worden ze in Algiers getreiterd. Enkele jaren geleden stapten op de openbare bus in Algiers een vrouw met een zwarte lange niqab en haar bebaarde man. Na enkele minuten stapten ze al snel van de bus af. Ze werden letterlijk buiten gepest door de Algerijnse medereizigers. Ik veronderstel dat Algerije in deze kenmerkende gezichtssluier het symbool zag van de angst voor en de terreur van het religieus fundamentalisme dat het land heeft geteisterd in de jaren negentig. Zij weten wat deze sluier die een religieus-politieke boodschap uitstraalt, kan betekenen.

Ik ben dan ook telkens verwonderd dat verscheidene organisaties klaar staan om zich te kanten tegen dit wetsvoorstel. Volgens Amnesty International is een algemeen verbod op gezichtssluiers in strijd met de mensenrechten, meer bepaald met de godsdienstvrijheid en de vrijheid van meningsuiting. Weet deze organisatie dan niet dat de religieuze fanatici – voornamelijk voor 11 september – politiek asiel kregen in het westen en hun strijd voor een religieuze staat in het land van oorsprong verder zetten, onder het mom van godsdienstvrijheid en het recht op vrijheid van meningsuiting? Soms denk ik dat deze organisaties eerder bezig zijn met een zuiver theoretische ideologische strijd.

Een andere organisatie, Human Rights Watch, is tegen het burqaverbod omdat men de keuzevrijheid van de vrouwen moet beschermen. Volgens deze organisatie is een individuele aanpak noodzakelijk in de bescherming van deze vrouwen. Dient de overheid dan de klederdracht van elke vrouwelijke burger op te volgen en na te vragen of ze al dan niet gedwongen is om een burqa of een niqab te dragen?

Ook islamitische organisaties kantten zich tegen het voorstel. Baas Over Eigen Hoofd (BOEH!) meldt dat er geen specifiek wetsvoorstel moet komen voor de enkele vrouwen die hier met een burqa rondlopen. De opmerking dat dit probleem zich weinig stelt, en dus niet dringend is, heeft veel van de struisvogelpolitiek. De situatie in andere Europese landen tonen aan dat het probleem zich binnenkort ook bij ons duidelijk zal stellen.

De moslimexecutieve, de officiële gesprekspartner met betrekking tot de islam in België die een aantal jaren geleden nog in de media verklaard heeft dat de burqa geen religieus symbool is en dat het niet past binnen de islam, noemt het verbod vandaag ‘vrijheidsberoving’ en ‘discriminerend’. Ook zij beroepen zich vandaag op de godsdienstvrijheid.

Aanvankelijk dacht ik dat de strijd van enkele islamitische organisaties eigenlijk niet gaat om het recht op de niqab of de burqa, maar dat het eerder gaat om een strijd voor aanvaarding, de aanvaarding van de moslimburgers als medeburgers. Alhoewel. Ik geloof eigenlijk niet meer in deze nobele beweegreden van sommigen. Denken we aan de organisatie Sharia 4 Belgium dat recentelijk publiekelijk heeft verklaard op te komen voor een islamitische rechtsstaat in België.

The English version of this article first appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 23 April 2010. Read the full discussion here. Republished here with the author’s consent.

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A ban to celebrate

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By Badra Djait

Belgium’s effort to ban the face veil is a statement of female empowerment and a vote against religious fundamentalism.

3 May 2010

Nederlands versie

Belgium is on the verge of becoming the first country in the world to pass a law which would punish people who, in public, partially or fully cover their faces in such a way that they are no longer recognisable. Despite the broadness of the law, it has been dubbed the “burqa ban” because anyone caught wearing a burqa, which covers the entire body from head to toe, or a niqab, a face veil which leaves the eyes exposed, could face up to seven days imprisonment.

As a Flemish woman of Algerian origin, I can only welcome this bill. How can any western Muslim woman bring herself to wear the burqa, the internationally recognised symbol of exclusion in Afghanistan, and say that this has nothing to do with the oppression and the undervaluing of women?

In my parents’ homeland, Algeria, the burqa is not welcome and people don’t appreciate the typical black niqab imported from Saudi Arabia. Whereas women in a burqa or niqab are stared at in Brussels, in Algeria, they are tormented. A few years ago, a woman in a black niqab and her bearded husband boarded a bus in Algiers and, a few minutes later, they were hounded off by their fellow passengers.

I think Algerians see the face veil as a symbol of the fear and terror they experienced in the 1990s at the hands of the religious fundamentalist that swept the country at that time. They know well the religio-political message hiding behind this veil.

I am bewildered that various human rights organisations are against this ban. According to Amnesty International, a general ban on veils is a human rights infringement that contravenes people’s freedom of religion and their freedom of expression.

Is Amnesty not aware that, mainly prior to the 11 September attacks, religious fanatics gained political asylum in the west, under the banner of freedom of religion and expression, and from here carried on their struggle to create theocracies in their homelands? Sometimes, I suspect that human rights groups are more occupied with theory and ideology than the reality on the ground.

Human Rights Watch is against the ban because society is obliged to protect women’s freedom of choice. According to HRW, an individual approach is necessary when dealing with these issues. Does that mean that the government needs to assess the wardrobe choice of every woman and ask her whether or not she was forced to wear the burqa or niqab?

Baas Over Eigen Hoofd (BOEH!), a broad-based platform of Belgian Muslim and non-Muslim women’s organisations whose name means literally “Boss of my Own Head”, believes that no specific law is necessary because this issue only affects a handful of women. The notion that we should ignore this problem because it is so insignificant has something of the politics of the ostrich about it. The situation in other European countries indicates that the problem in Belgium is likely to get worse.

Muslim groups are also against the ban. The state-appointed Muslim Executive, which a few years ago declared that the burqa was not a religious symbol and that it was contrary to Islam, now calls this proposed ban “discriminatory”. They, too, are labelling this a freedom of religion issue.

I once thought that the struggle waged by various Muslim organisations was one for acceptance, the acceptance of Muslim citizens as fellow citizens. I did not realise it was about the burqa or the niqab. Now, I’m beginning to doubt the noble intentions of some of these groups. Take, for example, the extremist group Sharia4Belgium which recently publicised its wish to turn Belgium into an Islamic state.

This article first appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 23 April 2010. Read the full discussion here. Republished here with the author’s consent.

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We don’t need no segregation

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By Osama Diab

Sexual harassment in Egypt is leading to calls for gender segregation. But is hiding women really the solution?

24 April 2010

Gender segregation is increasingly being viewed as a solution to widespread sexual harassment in Egypt. Signs of segregation have been apparent all over the country. In recent years, the government has designated two carriages in each metro train for women. Also, private women-only beaches, coffee shops and restaurants have been created to cater for women who want to remain beyond the reach of curious virile eyes (and sometimes hands).

A study on sexual harassment titled Clouds in Egypt’s sky was carried out by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) as part of its Safer Streets for Everyone campaign. The study surveyed a total of 1,100 Egyptian and non-Egyptian women. The results were shocking: 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women in Egypt reported being sexually harassed.

The most recent reaction to this “social cancer” (as it is described by the ECWR) came last month when a Cairo taxi company allocated some of its fleet to female customers with women drivers. There was also a proposal endorsed by the late Grand Imam of al-Azhar to introduce pink taxis driven by women drivers for women passengers.

Some form of segregation has always existed in Egypt in places like government schools, mosques, hairdressers and funerals. However, it was never really as brutal as segregation in Saudi Arabia, where schools and colleges and even private and foreign institutions, such as the British Council are gender-based.

Even on the individual level, women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to be in the company of non-relative males. A few years ago, a Saudi girl was sentenced to six months in prison and 90 lashes after being gang-raped just for being alone with a non-relative man at the time of her kidnap.

However, in Egypt, segregation is still done voluntarily and it is mostly the woman’s choice to stay away from men. It is understandable why women would use their women-only facilities to escape sexual harassment. If I were a woman in Cairo, I would definitely jump in the no-men carriage in the metro instead of rubbing shoulders with men who, at best, are going to check me out from head to toe. But is this really the right way to combat this negative phenomenon?

Gender segregation seems like the easy way out. How would someone harass a woman if she’s not there? But an honest approach to the problem is essential, and isolating women would be merely be treating the symptoms, not curing the disease.

There are many reasons behind sexual harassment: poverty, bad education, unemployment, sexual frusturation due to the social unacceptance of premarital sex and the difficulty of marriage due to economic reasons and a patriarchal society where women don’t enjoy equal rights just to name a few.

Ahmed Salah, the founder of a campaign called “Respect Yourself”, designed to target sexual harassers, believes that sexual harassment is a form of violence and anger at the current economic and political conditions that men bring against what they perceive as a “weaker” creature.

“People are unemployed, poor, and even if they’re not; they still suffer from the country’s bad conditions and want to bring their anger against someone, and this someone is the creature they perceive as weaker,” says Ahmed.

Hamdi Abdul Azim, an Egyptian economist, said in a conference last year: “Economic conditions and culture don’t allow people to satisfy their sexual needs in a legitimate manner and by mutual consent. Therefore, they sexually harass women in the street because this is where their only interaction with women takes place.”

We should rethink our strategy of fighting sexual harassment because segregation itself is one of the reasons behind it. The more the sight of a woman becomes unusual, the more harassment women will suffer. Additionally, segregation would make women feel more alienated and marginalised in society.

Al-Azhar’s approval to have taxis with women drivers might be well-intentioned, but it is policies like this that partly led to the situation we suffer from now. If we isolate females more from society, chances are it will be harder for them to get their voices heard, let alone fight for their rights.

Gender segregation would also increase the communication gap between males and females, creating more social problems such as sexual harassment and domestic violence. Running away from sexual harassment in women-only taxis, beaches, metro carriages and coffee shops might sound like a good short-term solution, but would only lead to more long-term gender-based troubles.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 29 March 2010. Read the related discussion.

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

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In the name of equality

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By Khaled Diab

Society is becoming more equal but our surnames – borrowed from fathers and husbands – lag behind. Is there a fairer system?

November 2008

According to Arabic naming practices, my name reveals a fair bit about my family history. In fact, a casual observer can trace my ancestry back three generations – not to mention the nth generation in which the original Diab lived. However, this only applies to my male ancestors. My name keeps a discreet silence when it comes to my female forebears.

In Europe, middle names are generally chosen and, so, often reveal little about intermediate ancestors (unless they are the names of grandparents). Nevertheless, names here still carry the patriarchal seal of the male founder of the family.

It is still common practice, at least in Anglo-Saxon society, for women to adopt their husbands’ surnames. And a wife’s identity can be so subsumed by her husband’s that she takes on his full name, especially in official correspondences or more traditional ceremonies.

Luckily for my wife and I, given our belief in equality, this is not the practice either in Belgium or Egypt, where a woman keeps her maiden name. I don’t know if this is a sign of greater equality in this particular aspect, an accident of history, or simply reflects a different patriarchal emphasis, i.e. that of a woman’s father rather than her husband.

Nevertheless, children still take on their father’s name. Of course, the practice may have originated partly for practical reasons – my wife speculates that it may have started off as a simple acknowledgement of paternity, a way for a man to say to society that I recognise this child as mine, too, and the way for a woman to ensure that he does his share of the caring.

Nevertheless, I find this inherently unfair to the mother. Because I am a Diab, that means I am labelled and pigeon-holed in society’s consciousness as belonging to my father’s family but not my mother’s.

Where is the mother acknowledged in all this? Barack Obama illustrates this conundrum well. Although his father had little role in raising him, the president elect bears his name – whereas his mother and her family get little acknowledgment, in his name, for their far greater role.

Personally, I have previously toyed with the idea of taking on my mother’s surname, Khattab, at least informally, in order to acknowledge the greater role she has played in my upbringing and my closer affinity to her family.

Intriguingly, there is a tribe in Indonesia in which, contrary to most of humanity, children’s family names follow the matriarchal line. In fact, with a population of up to 7 million, the Minangkabau are the largest group of people to use a matronymic naming system. And it is not only names that are passed down along the mother’s line – property, too, is matrilineal. Men’s role is to handle affairs of state and religion.

It will probably surprise many to learn that the Minangkabau are ardent Muslims. However, they have striven to preserve their native matriarchal culture and strike a balance between it and Islam’s more patriarchal worldview. And this women-friendly society, which reveres the importance of learning, has not done at all badly for itself, over-represented as it is in Indonesia’s professional classes and top government offices. Unsurprisingly, the country’s first female minister was a Minang.

That said, replacing patronymic names with matronymic ones is still not an ideal solution, since they replace one inequality with another. My wife and I have mused over how children could be named in a way that would be fair to both parents. There’s the option of merging family names.

But, here in Belgium, that’s no longer possible – apparently it creates confusion regarding people’s identity – while, in Egypt, the bureaucracy is so rigid as to rule out such flexibility. Besides, given their profusion among the aristocracy, double-barrelled names carry a certain pomposity that can be lived without.

Another option is to give alternate children alternate surnames. The drawbacks are that you need to have at least two kids and, ideally, an even number of sprogs. It would also prove confusing to outsiders, particularly the authorities, in terms of ascertaining parent-child and child-child relations – which could actually be rather entertaining.

It seems there is no easy way to make naming practices egalitarian (i.e. both patronymic and matronymic) without each of us being given a name as along as the Channel Tunnel. But is showing lineage really that important, at least when we become adults? Perhaps the only truly fair solution is to let everyone invent or choose their own surname when they come of age. That way, we’ll be celebrating the individual and sending out a message that family is a private affair.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 16 November 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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What’s love got to do with it?

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By Osama Diab

For Egyptian marriage offices, the search for profit has replaced the search for a perfect union.

June 2009

It was a story of would-be love gone horribly wrong. Alaa El Din Mahmoud went to Al-Alamiya marriage office to find a suitable wife. The office made him a match, Mahmoud proposed and she said yes. He bought her gold, he bought her gifts, but every time he tried to talk about actually getting married, she evaded the topic. Finally the suitor sought help from lawyer Mohamed Konsouh. Together, they discovered that the woman was already married to the owner of the marriage office.

“The owner of the office listed his own wife as a potential partner for his customers until one of the customers got involved in a relationship with her,” Konsouh says.

Matchmakers, both formal and informal, have existed for as long as the concept of marriage has been around. But modern marriage offices have seemingly strayed far from the path of traditional matchmaking, often arranging temporary summer marriages for wealthy Arab tourists, or serving as a sort of immigration service by promising to match clients with partners of dual citizenship.

Aside from diminishing the sanctity of the act of marriage, it seems that the profit potential in this industry has led many businesses to take advantage of their more socially and economically vulnerable clients. Given the somewhat secretive nature behind this business, it can be difficult to determine which offices are legitimate and up front about exactly what services or partnerships will be arranged and which are promising something they can’t deliver in an effort to make a quick profit.

In the Al-Alamiya case, the misdemeanor court of Heliopolis sentenced the marriage office owner Abdel Naser Attia Abdel Kawy and his wife Thoraya Ref’at Hamed to one year in jail for fraud and using fraudulent means to achieve material gains; the victim was awarded LE 5,001 in compensation.

Other potential clients have had similar experiences with matchmakers. A 26-year-old journalist, looking for a husband who would be understanding of her long hours and occasional nights away from home, says she turned to a marriage office because it is difficult to find a man who shares her passion about her job.

The journalist, who declined to give her name because her job is in the public eye, says that she thought a marriage office would function like an online dating website or the matchmaking offices in American and European countries. “My only criterion was that I wanted to set rules for the person I am going to marry, demanding [that he] never comment or disagree with my work requirements,” she says.

It turned out that the matchmaking service was more interested in their own criteria than in hers. “I went into this office and found a [male] reception[ist] interrogating me with bizarre questions and getting trivial, insignificant data from me that they’re going to use in God knows what. It turned out to be a scam.”

al-Waleed al-Adel is the owner of Universal Marriage Office, the only marriage office that is closely supervised by the government and certified by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. Universal has been in business for 14 years and also has the approval of the Grand Mufti of Egypt. al-Adel advises people to scrutinize the way the offices advertise their services to avoid scams.

“We show all the applicants our official documents and give them receipts with an official stamp,” says al-Adel. “They should feel okay to ask for the documents that show the legal status of the marriage office.”

Also an English literature professor and radio and TV host for shows addressing social topics, Al Adel says Universal Marriage Office tries to provide a social service rather than simply make money.

“We are a charity organisation and we, for example, help single mothers, among other services, by giving them skills that would help them make money legally rather than resorting to crime or stealing to survive.”

Since economic difficulties are often a barrier to marriage, Universal teaches poor men willing to get married skills that will enable them to make money and support their future families.

“Our scope of work is family welfare, but one might ask what does matchmaking have to do with family welfare. The answer is that we care about the family’s welfare even before the family starts,” explains al-Adel. “Therefore, we do our matchmaking from a socially conscious approach and we do everything that is in our power to facilitate marriage, to reduce the unaccepted forms of marriages that have spread in society lately.”

A good last resort?

Within a few seconds of the doorbell ringing at al-Nil for Marriages, a young woman opens the door and once the visitor cites the reason for coming, she invites the client inside and explains how to apply for a partner. The marriage seeker pays an initial application fee of LE 100 and then an additional LE 25 per match. al-Nil promises to find the applicant a life partner on his or her first visit to the office.

Some clients are looking for a partner, but not necessarily for life. Islam not only prohibits premarital sex, but also encourages marriage as early as possible to prevent Muslim youth from fornicating. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “when a man marries, he has fulfilled half of his religion, so let him fear Allah regarding the remaining half” (narrated by Anas).

Articles 274 and 275 of Law no. 58 of 1937 criminalises adultery (sex between a married person and someone other than their spouse) for both men and women, punishable by a sentence of up to two years in prison, says Konsouh. The religious punishment for fornication or adultery can be a lot more severe than the civil punishment: the Qur’an says unmarried women and men who have sex should be flogged with 100 stripes in front of a group of believers; the prescribed punishment for adulterers is death by stoning.

In addition to being prohibited by Islam, premarital sex and relationships are also considered extremely taboo, especially for women, by society as a whole. With such societal and religious constraints, marriage is the only acceptable means of having a partner or engaging in a sexual relationship.

Economics also plays a factor. Marriage offices capitalise on this by advertising potential partners who have both wealth and dual citizenship: highly attractive qualities to those trying to travel or work abroad.

“Marriage to foreigners is a fraudulent behaviour to obtain legal documents that would allow the person to travel, [and escape his] daily suffering,” says Nabil Abdel-Fattah, head of the Sociological Research Unit at the al-Ahram’s Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. He adds that deteriorating standards of living have led to a return of the ‘khawaga complex’, where people perceive anything foreign as better than anything Egyptian. “This has happened because of the feeling of being held back and the wide gap between us and the developed world,” says Abdel-Fattah.

Not all applicants use marriage offices to find a wealthy mate, a ticket out of the country or a temporary summer arrangement; some really are hoping to find a compatible life partner. Zeinab Abdel-Metawakel, a 45-year-old government official, tried to consult a marriage office in hopes of finding an “understanding husband” after a divorce.

“I’m a woman and I have needs. I have been divorced for 12 years and that’s a very long time for a woman to stay without a man,” she says. “It’s not easy to find a partner here in Egypt, especially when you are divorced, and I thought that a marriage office that could arrange for me to meet a decent man would be the best idea.”

The kind of marriage she wanted was apparently not what the office was offering. She was quick to change her mind after being asked questions such as whether she was a virgin (and if not, if she would have an operation to restore her virginity). Another question put to her: If her husband requested a divorce, would she agree to it peacefully, without legal trouble?

“Once the [woman in the office] started asking me these questions, I felt disgusted, denigrated as a woman,” Abdel-Metawakel says, “and I regretted going to that place.”

Contemporary ‘el-khatba’

A rise in Islamic conservatism that restricts interaction between men and women may be at least partially responsible for the growing popularity of marriage offices, says Abdel-Fattah. Before 1980, the country was arguably, at least in urban areas, considerably more liberal.

“The emergence of the new political radical Islamic movements in the late 1970s, the Egyptian mass migration to conservative oil-producing countries of the Gulf, [and] the spread of the veil changed Egyptian values regarding family and marriage,” says Abdel-Fattah. “The focus of these groups was on the female body and veiling it. Then, instead of love, friendship and respect, marriage became a means of reproduction and a legitimate framework for sexual relations.”

Abdel-Fattah compares marriage offices to the bygone role of ‘el-khatba’ (matchmaker), a woman who would find suitable partners for people, usually from the same neighbourhood or area. She would keep a small database of ‘good’ men and women willing to get married, carrying around their pictures to show to potential partners. The matchmaker’s role, the analyst says, was more limited during the 1950s to 1970s, when a liberal society allowed women greater freedom to mingle with men at universities and work.

While some may view modern marriage offices as society taking a step backward, others point to matchmaking services in the West, especially those based on the internet, as positive examples of companies helping people fill social needs. Gihan Abou Zeid, a human rights researcher and consultant for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), cautions against this sort of comparison, saying that marriage offices may also exist in the West, but the reasons that people there use them are quite different.

“In Egypt, such offices are taking advantage of the conservative climate, while in the West [they serve] people who may be [busy] and don’t have time for meeting others, or people who have psychological issues and are not able to take the initiative themselves,” Abou Zeid says. “Another difference is that such services in the West don’t arrange marriages. They just bring people together and then they decide how it goes for themselves.”

Summer loving

Lined with shops, restaurants, cafes and hotels, Gameat el-Dowal el-Arabia Street in Mohandiseen is a summer haunt for Gulf tourists. At 2am, it’s not uncommon to hear the giggles of teenage girls playing with fireworks while adults sit smoking shisha and watching the crowd. Away from this family setting, nightclubs in five-star hotels and on the Pyramids Road cater to Arab men who prefer to spend their vacation throwing cash at belly dancers and who often seek temporary wives to entertain them.

This spells profit for matchmaking services, which post ads directed toward local women on lampposts and walls, in public transportation and newspapers, offering Arab men for marriage.

“Style for Serious Marriages: Find the best life partner in the only office in Egypt where 22 marriages and six marriages to Arabs and different nationalities have been completed successfully in just one month,” reads a classified ad in Al-Waseet advertiser. “We are the future of marriage and matchmaking between people from all over the world.”

While these ads imply that the arrangements are lifetime commitments, they are often seeking to provide their rich Arab clients with a legal and religiously permissible cover for summer sex. Although prostitution exists, it is illegal, so those who want to engage in sexual relations need a front to keep the eyes of the authorities away and avoid (technically) violating Islamic law.

Marriage offices have gained a reputation for arranging informal unions that provide temporary, legal partnership status. One of the most common is the ‘urfi marriage, in which the couple signs a secret marriage declaration. Most hotels and many landlords demand proof of marriage before allowing an Egyptian to stay in the same room with a partner; the urfi contract gives the couple just enough legitimacy.

These summer flings are not as harmless as they sound. Since urfi marriages are unregistered, and thus not legally recognised, women have no rights to protect themselves or their children from being left to fend for themselves. “Urfi marriage is a way of satisfying needs in a way [the couple] thinks is legitimate,” says Konsouh. “[But] what if the urfi marriage results in pregnancy? Will the man bear the responsibility and acknowledge the child or just evade the problem and escape, which is what happens in most cases?”

The Combating Violence Against Women project, a survey carried out by the National Council for Women and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), looked at the ramifications of temporary unions. Among them is the “summer marriage, where a low-income family marries a young daughter off to a wealthy Arab tourist in return for a bride price. In the typical scenario, the man divorces the girl at the end of his visit.”

Abou Zeid, who contributed to the study, calls summer marriages “despicable”. She explains, “It is usually arranged by the family without the girl’s consent, [as] a deal between the old Khaleeji man and the brother or the father of the girl. This is almost a case of body selling, and it’s usually a short-term marriage with a decided price.”

For impoverished families, the financial payoffs are often more attractive than the sanctity of their daughters.

Marriage offices are well aware of this allure of escaping poverty through marriage. El-Maleka (Queen) Marriage Office advertises in the Giza-Shubra metro cars frequented by masses of young, underprivileged men on the way to their schools or jobs. “We find you a suitable life partner on the first visit, all ages and all levels,” the El-Maleka sticker reads. “Unmarried, divorced women and widows with a house for living. Ladies and businessmen holding two nationalities for traveling and residency.”

Matchmaking ads emphasise promises of wealth or better living conditions with words such as “businessmen”, “Arabs”, “aristocrats” and “civilised”, reflecting how marriage today is increasingly perceived as one of the few means of mobility in a society where social class is very significant.

In the process, the rite of marriage has lost much of its sanctity. These days, rather than finding a loving relationship meant to last a lifetime, it appears more important to check off the boxes: find a willing partner for sexual relations, gain access to money and status, and achieve a desirable level of mobility and social acceptance. While some offices may legitimately offer the opportunity to find love, it appears that many companies are taking advantage of their more vulnerable clients’ dreams, marketing a service that often ends up being nothing more than a scam.

This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of Egypt Today. Republished with the kind permission of the author. © Copyright Osama Diab.

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