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Egypt’s Female Lion Tamers Show the Men How to Do It

New Age Islam News Bureau

2 Apr 2020

Luba el-Helw is one of six female lion tamers currently working in Egypt. Credit...Heba Khamis for The New York Times


• Egypt’s Female Lion Tamers Show the Men How to Do It

• The First Saudi Female Filmmaker Talks About 'Going Her Own Way'

• A Female Saudi Doctor Tries to Heal Divisions in The Perfect Candidate

• Iran’s Women’s Football Team 70th In FIFA Rankings

• Turkey Neutralizes Top Woman Terrorist Of PKK/KCK

• Racist Coughed in Muslim Woman’s Face and Told Her He Had Covid-19 In UK

• Pakistan Government Urged to Do More for Female Drug Addicts

• AWS Webinar Brings Together Regional Women Leaders

• Sex Offenders May Walk As Lawmakers Mull Releasing One In Three Turkish Prisoners

Compiled By New Age Islam News Bureau



Egypt’s Female Lion Tamers Show the Men How to Do It

By Declan Walsh

March 29, 2020

GAMASA, Egypt — At her apartment in a seaside town, Luba el-Helw, a working Egyptian mother, faced multiple demands. She juggled business calls, prepared a chicken dish and parried the demands of her three sons, aged 4 to 8, who were stretched out before the TV.

By her own admission, she can be pushy. That was a factor in her divorce, when her second husband complained that she treated him “like a circus lion.” He meant it literally.

Hours later, Ms. el-Helw strode into a circus ring wearing a leopard skin body suit and black boots. Music boomed. Children cheered. Lions and tigers trooped out behind her.

Ms. el-Helw (pronounced hell-OU) strolled up to a perched tiger and nonchalantly stroked its face, drawing a roar. She made a theatrical grimace.

The struggle for women’s equality is lagging badly in Egypt, where only 25 percent of women are in the labor force. Egypt ranks 134 out of 153 in the Global Gender Gap, an index published by the World Economic Forum. But in one field, Egyptian women are dominant.

Ms. el-Helw is one of six working female lion tamers in Egypt, mostly from the same extended family, whose old-fashioned shows draw, and delight, legions of Egyptians every year. Wearing spangled outfits, and using stage names like “The Queen of Lions,” they coax big cats through rings of fire or allow them to stroll over their bodies.

“I feed them myself,” said Ms. el-Helw, between shows, as she dropped a side of donkey meat into a small cage occupied by Hairem, a 6-year-old lion. “And they look on me as their mother.”

Lions have always been symbols of prestige and power in Egypt. In ancient times, Pharaohs hunted the big cats along the Nile. The Great Sphinx guarding the pyramids at Giza, which features a human head on a lion’s body, is one of Egypt’s enduring emblems.

For Ms. el-Helw, though, lions are a family business. Her grandmother Mahassen was the Arab world’s first female lion tamer, and her father, Ibrahim, was a star of Egypt’s state-run National Circus during its heyday in the 1980s.

Her father, who married three times, had seven daughters but, try as he might, no sons. So he passed his skills, and his passion, to his daughters.

The once-proud National Circus, founded in 1966, has fallen on hard times. Based at a shabby tent by the Nile in Cairo, it sells tickets for $1.80 to $3.50, and draws mostly school groups and working-class families.

Its act — clowns, jugglers, snake charmers — has a tired feel, and performers complain about a lack of investment. Wealthier Egyptians prefer more innovative, expensive shows like Cirque du Soleil.

Like much else, Egypt’s circuses have closed as part of efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Last summer, though, a giant image of Ms. el-Helw adorned the entrance to a traveling edition of the National Circus, which had come to Gamasa, a working-class resort on Egypt’s north coast where women lounge on the beach in all-covering cloaks.

Egyptians are not used to seeing a woman in charge. According to the World Economic Forum, women occupy just 7 percent of managerial roles in Egypt.

But in her performances, Ms. el-Helw leaves no doubt about who’s the boss. She projects a macho persona, speaking in a booming voice and wielding batons or whips. “People expect to see a man with a potbelly and high boots,” she said.

That swaggering stage presence is mostly for show, not to intimidate the animals. In fact, she said, she induces the lions to obey her with affection and morsels of meat. When she has to scold them, it’s with a soft whack of her flip-flop, as an Egyptian mother might an errant son.

Still, the dangers are real. Ms. el-Helw produced a photo of her grandfather, Mohammed el-Helw, who was mauled to death at the end of a show in 1972. The photo showed a man in a gleaming suit, sitting proudly astride Sultan, the lion who killed him.

Family lore has it that Sultan so regretted the attack he refused to eat and died two weeks later. But at least seven more attacks by other lions followed, wounding family members and lion-taming colleagues.

In 2015, Ms. el-Helw’s aunt, Faten, suffered a vicious mauling that left her with a broken pelvis. A year later, a male lion tamer at a park in Alexandria was killed.

In between shows at Gamasa, her lions and tigers were confined to small cages, and doused with water to cool them during hot weather. After one nightly performance, Ms. el-Helw leaned over a 6-month-old white lion cub with a painful-looking heat rash on its chest, gingerly daubing it with a cream.

But Ms. el-Helw, who was raised alongside lion cubs at their family home, insisted that she loved her charges “like my children,” and said she could not even bear to watch animals attack one another in wildlife documentaries. “I look away,” she said.

The family’s circus story started in the Mediterranean port of Damietta, Egypt, over a century ago, she said. Her great-great-grandfather was so enthralled by the Italian acrobats that performed for passengers on passing ships that he learned their tricks and passed them to his sons.

Then, as the speakers blared the theme from “Jaws,” Ms. el-Helw balanced a skewer with meat between her teeth, and presented it to a lion who snacked on it, licked his lips and strolled away.

Ms. el-Helw’s younger sister, Ousa, who performed at a circus in Suez this winter, had a narrow scrape recently; a tiger clawed her neck during a performance. She didn’t take it personally.

As the coronavirus closed in on Egypt in recent weeks, Ousa el-Helw transported her eight lions and two tigers to a desert compound outside Cairo, where they will wait for the show to resume.

A far bigger blow, both sisters said, was the death this year of their father, Ibrahim, 74. He taught them how to love lions, how to punish them, and the importance of treating them with respect.


The first Saudi female filmmaker talks about 'going her own way'

Apr 1, 2020

In this month’s ‘Go Your Own Way’ issue, the Saudi filmmaker talks life, work and success.

I started to make short films, just as a hobby or as a kind of therapy, to deal with the frustrations I faced as a woman in Saudi Arabia. Making films for me was a place to find freedom, to liberate myself from the constraints of my conservative culture and connect with the bigger world. And I have loved film since I was little. As a working woman in Saudi Arabia I felt invisible, like I had no voice.  I was sick of being ignored but then I found a voice in film.

Filmmaking was just a hobby for a long time, more than anything else, but it gave me such satisfaction in the art of creation.  And I started submitting my work to all the regional film festivals and I was shocked that one actually invited me.  They were the ones that said: “Did you know you are the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia?”  That was really something to hear, and such a motivator for me to keep going in the field.

There were quite a few people who opposed my work at the beginning.  Unlike a lot of Saudi girls, I was very lucky to have the support of my parents.  Instead of trying to control me, my father told me to believe in myself and never let anyone limit my belief of what I can achieve. He never listened to anyone or compromised when it came to his daughters’ freedom.

He used to get letters from our extended family, his friends, his colleagues and the Imam of the mosque in front of our house asking him to get me under control and put a stop to my career as a filmmaker. But he was so proud and never cared. I feel really blessed that my father was not only liberal and encouraged me to follow my dreams, but that my mother was such a strong person and didn’t care about what other people thought. Most Saudis have this real, legitimate fear of being labelled as “different” or outside of the system, but my mother and father didn’t care.

I see my culture as an integral part of my work and could never separate myself from it. Of course it was incredibly difficult to make a film in 2011, and people were still very hesitant to embrace any public form of artistic expression, but the culture is really the heart of the story. For me, telling stories from the unique place that I am from is very rewarding.

Of course now a lot of the restrictions on art have been relaxed and everything is different, and we have cinemas going up all across the Kingdom, but the larger issue of a lack of infrastructure in the film industry remains.  We have a lot of work to do in building up the tools and resources necessary to make quality films.  We don’t have many people with experience in the field yet so putting together a crew and getting the right equipment is very difficult. Getting the proper training and education necessary to help craft and shape our stories is another key area that we need to develop.

I’m developing an animated film called Miss Camel, about a camel that wants to compete in the Miss Camel beauty pageant. It is a fun story that examines the perceptions women have of themselves in the Kingdom and the ways they form their aspirations.  I hope to continue making as many movies as I can in Saudi Arabia.  It is such a ripe environment for drama, and there are so many untold stories yet to be told.  The interplay between tradition and modernity creates just the right amount of tension for great stories.


A female Saudi doctor tries to heal divisions in The Perfect Candidate

Apr 1, 2020

Obviously, Maryam is going to change the world. A young Saudi doctor in a small-town clinic and heroine of the charming new film The Perfect Candidate, she is intelligent, articulate — and fearless. The story built around her (as played by Mila Al Zahrani) finds her running for office in municipal elections, facing down the oil state patriarchy. Naturally, the result will be filled with stirring rhetoric, enough to get us up on our chairs cheering the forward march of progress. Won’t it?

Yes, and, as it turns out, no. The most subversive aspect of Haifaa al-Mansour’s film may be the kind of change it puts in front of us: inching not sprinting, some way from perfect. Turn the clock back and the film could be an Ealing comedy, satire served wry. The tone is set from our first meeting, Maryam in white coat and black niqab so that only her eyes are visible, an old man arriving as a banged-up emergency. Elsewhere, there might be a life-or-death race to the operating theatre. Here, treatment is held up as the patient refuses at length to be treated by a woman, a stream of moaning chauvinism issued from the gurney. Such, we assume, is an average day at work for Maryam, at the end of the dirt road that leads to the hospital, churned into quagmire by an unfixed burst pipe.

Her campaign for the local council arrives by accident, after pinballing through a Saudi bureaucracy that treats unmarried women as children. Her signature policy? Simply getting that road to the clinic repaired. But of course, the election will feel seismic in a society where the divide between the sexes plays out in a thousand formal decrees and tiny condescensions. The senior doctor who overhears the furore at the start of the film bustles out from his office not to berate the old man — but to instruct Maryam to find him a male nurse. Later, a local TV host praises her for giving voice to the real concerns of Saudi women — such as gardens. If only other women were reliable supporters. “Showing off for the men,” sneers one, even after the candidate veils her whole face in her campaign video.

In the heat of political battle, Maryam’s silhouette makes a potent image, the kind another film might have found sweeping the nation. Al-Mansour is too honest for that. Throughout, the film nods to the stutter of Saudi modernity, competing with the nag of religious conservatism. (Like Maryam, the director is change personified — her 2012 film Wadjda was the first ever made by a Saudi woman.) Maryam’s big speech arrives eventually — duly interrupted by loud and hostile men, elbowing the moment into another near-farce. She keeps talking anyway. Sometimes, the film suggests, that much can be enough.


Iran’s women’s football team 70th in FIFA rankings

March 28, 2020

Australia remain Asia’s top-ranked women’s national team after a successful Olympic qualifying campaign, while three successive losses saw Japan drop out of the global top 10 in the latest FIFA World Ranking update.

The two-time defending world champion Americans, who won the recent SheBelieves Cup, accrued 2,181 points. Second-ranked Germany was next at 2,090, with France (2,036), the Netherlands (2,032) and Sweden (2,007) rounding out the top five.


Turkey neutralizes top woman terrorist of PKK/KCK

March 30 2020

Turkey neutralized a terrorist said to be a top-ranking woman member in the PKK/KCK in northern Iraq, according to security sources.

The intelligence and army-led operation successfully targeted Nazife Bilen – codenamed as Hacer Guyi or Hacer Hilal – in the Qandil region, the sources said, making it the most sensitive operation ever targeting a woman operative of the terror group.

Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) started gathering instant information about the target through the local network elements it established in the region months ago, the sources said.

MİT also carried out detailed works to prevent civilians from being affected by the operation and to destroy the target with a single shot.

She was among the founders of the PKK’s women branch after receiving political and military training from Abdullah Öcalan, now the jailed leader of the PKK terror group, in Syria and Lebanon.

Öcalan is responsible for the murder of over 40,000 innocent people and has a lengthy criminal record in drug and human trafficking, money laundering, child abduction, and other organized crimes.

Experts believe the absence of Bilen will affect the morale and motivation of the PKK/KCK’s women group at the first stage, adding that such a high level of loss for the first time in Iraq will have short and mid-term effects on the terror group.


Racist coughed in Muslim woman’s face and told her he had Covid-19

Apr 1, 2020

by TellMAMA

A racist man coughed in the face of a Muslim woman and told her he had the coronavirus (Covid-19) before calling her a ‘raghead’ after she challenged him.

She described how she did her best to avoid him when walking in the high street, but the man turned towards her and got in her face.

Following the assault, she informed him, that after already experiencing Covid-19 and that she could not catch it again, he swore at her and used the racial slur ‘raghead’ before leaving.

This assault demonstrates how the racialisation of Muslims and their religious clothing, harms all Muslims, irrespective of their ethnicity.

The gendered nature of this abuse and violence demonstrates the intersecting influence of misogyny, given the gendered stereotypes of Muslim women who wear the hijab (or other forms of religious clothing) as being ‘meek and submissive’, are themes explored in various Tell MAMA annual reports.

The assault has left the woman feeling anxious and fearful of a similar attack, though the lockdown has created a sense of safety.


Pakistan government urged to do more for female drug addicts


April 02, 2020

PESHAWAR: Today, Haseena Bibi, 43, is clean from substance abuse. But says she cannot recall any significant events in her life since 2014 — when she first became addicted to drugs.

“A time came when, without heroin, my entire body would feel paralyzed, and I would remain in bed for days because of the unbearable pain,” Bibi, a mother of two, told Arab News from her residence in Peshawar’s Pishtakhara Payan village.

According to a report published by the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) and Pakistan’s Ministry of Narcotics Control in 2013, 6.7 million people in Pakistan had taken drugs at some point in their lives, while 4.4 million were addicted and needed immediate attention. That report is the latest official information available on drug abuse in Pakistan.

The report added that women accounted for 22 percent of the total number of drug addicts, with the highest prevalence in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, of which Peshawar is the capital.

“Pakistan’s KP province shares a long and porous border with Afghanistan. A sophisticated network of smugglers use illegal routes to smuggle drugs into the country,” Mian Iftikhar Husain, a psychiatrist who runs a psychiatry and rehabilitation clinic in Peshawar, told Arab News.

“Easy availability of cheap drugs attracts young girls and women, as it helps them escape the worries and monotony of their lives,” Husain said.

Bibi agrees. She says she was living a healthy life before her husband became addicted to hashish. He was unemployed, meaning financial responsibility fell on Bibi’s shoulders.

When her husband ran away from their family home in 2013, Bibi says had to take on menial work to support herself and her two children. One day, in between jobs as a domestic helper at various houses, she was introduced to heroin with the promise that “one sniff will make you forget all your worries.”

“At the time, I didn’t know it was heroin. Slowly, I became addicted,” Bibi said, adding that she finally decided to seek help after realizing that she had been trapped by heroin smugglers who initially did not charge her for the drugs, but had made her “so dependable that I couldn’t function normally without taking two to three doses a day,” at which point, the dealers began to demand payment.

Help came in the form of a local doctor who referred Bibi to Peshawar’s Dost Welfare Foundation (DWF) where she met Dr. Parveen Azam Khan.

“Bibi was one of our most critical and chronic cases with a long history of heroin addiction. Her story touched a chord, and since she was from an impoverished background with no one to visit her, except her son, our team would give her special attention,” the 81-year-old doctor — and recipient of the Tamgha Imtiaz, the country’s highest civilian award, in 2004 — told Arab News. What followed was 15 days of rigorous treatment, with constant monitoring and support extended by DWF, which treated Bibi free of cost.

“We also provided aftercare and follow-up services for almost 18 months after the completion of treatment. The patients attend relapse prevention sessions at the center and are contacted by our staff at least twice a month,” Khan said.

Since being established in 1992 as KP’s first drug rehabilitation center, DWF has treated around 2,000 people every year. However, only about 25-30 of those are women, according to Khan.

“It is very unfortunate that despite 22 pecent of drug addicts being women, only 1 percent (of those women) opt for rehabilitation. This is due to social taboos and the fear of being ostracized by society,” she said.

Khan believes that the government should step in and devise a strategy to limit the spread of this social evil. She suggests supporting and allocating funds to Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) working for a reduction in demand for drugs as a priority.

“Drugs make individuals powerless. In this part of the world, women are already vulnerable, and drug-related issues are a social stigma, so people avoid talking about it,” she said, adding that it is essential to support and rehabilitate female drug addicts “as the foundation of an entire family depends on them.”

“For years, I kept my addiction a secret, hiding it from my family for fear that it might destroy the lives of my children,” she said.

In the time since her treatment, Bibi’s daughter has gotten married, and her son took a job at a factory to support the family.

“I hope I never go back to using drugs. Today, I’m finally free,” she said. “It seems as if a nightmare has ended.”


AWS webinar brings together regional women leaders

March 31, 2020

The Awal Women Society (AWS) celebrated its 50th anniversary by hosting a webinar — or virtual forum — bringing together women leaders from across the local and regional spectrum. Representatives of international civil society institutions, women’s groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also participated in the online event, which was sponsored by Finmark Communications and EMIC Training.

Necessitated by the global COVID-19 pandemic, while the AWS virtual forum falls in line with efforts mandated by the government of Bahrain to combat the spread of the coronavirus, it also highlights the leading role played by AWS in focusing on empowering women in the IT sector and using technology to further the cause of women’s rights.

The keynote speakers at the AWS virtual forum included: Nasser Al-Qahtani, executive director at the Arab Gulf Program for Development (AGFUND); Jihan Almurbati, UNDP representative; Abeer Daham, head of Women Support Center at the Supreme Council of Women; Yasmeen Al-Sharaf, head of fintech and innovation unit at the Central Bank of Bahrain; Nusrat Alnajjar, AWS chairperson; Abdul Rahman Sindi, general manager, IT, Transworld; Ahmed Alhujairi, CEO, Gulf Future Business; Dr. Naeema Al-Gasseer, WHO representative in Sudan; and Zahraa Taher, managing director, Finmark Communications.

AWS chairperson Alnajjar said: “Our 50th anniversary virtual forum focuses on empowering women in a high-tech environment, which is the barometer for success in any society nowadays.”

Al-Qahtani, executive director of AGFUND, added: “This unprecedented virtual forum showcased the role played by AWS over the past five decades and its great contributions in building sustainable partnerships that are paving the way for achieving the sustainable development goals outlined in Bahrain’s Economic Vision 2030 program.”

“AGFUND was one of the leading donors that recognized the significant role played by civil society entities such as AWS in Bahrain to empower women and serve our societies with the best developmental practices. Our long partnership with AWS consists of many projects that helped many Bahraini women to become successful entrepreneurs.”


Sex offenders may walk as lawmakers mull releasing one in three Turkish prisoners

Diego Cupolo March 25, 2020

ISTANBUL — As the coronavirus pandemic continues worldwide, Turkish authorities are drafting measures to reduce the nation’s prison population in an effort to stop the disease from spreading among inmates.

On Tuesday, lawmakers with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party and the allied Nationalist Movement Party submitted a law proposal to opposition party members that would release about 100,000 of the nation’s 300,000 inmates, switching select convicts’ jail sentences to extended probation periods to relieve overcrowded penitentiaries.

The measure has drawn sharp criticism from women’s rights groups, who note the draft law would reduce punishments for sex offenders and convicts of gender-based violence, potentially endangering women, children and victims of domestic abuse across Turkey.

Gulsum Kav, a spokesperson for the Istanbul-based We Will Stop Femicide Platform (Cinayetleri Durduracağız Platformu), said reports of domestic violence have increased in recent weeks as women are stuck indoors with abusive family members amid the coronavirus pandemic, and that releasing offenders would only worsen Turkey's circumstances.

“As we’re trying to take precautions to reduce violence against women in this pandemic, this draft law is doing the complete opposite and we find it absolutely unacceptable,” Kav told Al-Monitor.

A copy of the draft law obtained by Al-Monitor includes protocols that would conditionally release nonviolent offenders who have completed half of their sentences, though such measures were not extended to political prisoners or those convicted of terrorism and murder.

The proposal would release prisoners convicted of sexual assault, gender-based violence and drug trafficking who have completed two-thirds of their sentences, a shift from current laws that bar the release of such convicts before they complete at least three-fourths of their sentences. Those released would complete their sentences outside prison walls through an extended probation period.

“The reduction is legitimizing these actions by men and this draft law will increase violence against women,” Tuba Torun, a lawyer focusing on women’s rights issues in Turkey, told Al-Monitor.

She added, “I received many messages from women who say they are terrified because the fathers, brothers and partners that used violence against them will be released and they could come back and continue that violence.”

Coronavirus cases have surged in Turkey. As of Wednesday, 1,872 confirmed cases and 44 virus-linked deaths were recorded in the country, which has seen a steep rise in infections since the first case was announced two weeks ago. On Tuesday, Turkey's first inmate with the coronavirus was diagnosed in Ankara’s Sincan prison and has since been transferred to intensive care.

Citing health concerns, human rights groups and 14 Turkish bar associations have called for the release of political prisoners, such as former Peoples’ Democratic Party co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, journalist Ahmet Altan and human rights defender Osman Kavala. The Turkish authorities have yet to respond.

“The draft law will apply to certain crime groups. For example, mafia leaders like Alaattin Cakici will be released,” Eren Keskin, a prominent lawyer and co-chair of Turkey’s Human Rights Association, told Al-Monitor. “Whereas Demirtas, who is in prison for his opinions, will remain.”

Turkey has suffered a rise in femicides in recent years, punctuated by the murders of Sule Cet, Emine Bulut and Ceren Ozdemir. The spate of killings drew women’s rights defenders to condemn a judicial system they felt was negligent in prosecuting perpetrators of sexual assault and gender-based violence.

In response, Ankara has set in motion various judicial reform packages that seek to address various legal shortcomings. While some reforms improve protections for minor victims of crime, Kav said the draft laws introduced as part of the coronavirus response would undermine recent progress in the judicial system.

“In January and February, we started to see the possibility of a decrease in femicides and violence against women, and we were hoping to see an improvement in laws protecting women,” Kav told Al-Monitor. “But in all extraordinary times such as war, natural disasters or economic crises, women always pay the price, because violence increases in periods like this.”

Kav said there is no data regarding the impact of self-isolation measures on gender-based violence in Turkey, but figures from China showed domestic abuse rose threefold when families spent extended quarantine periods in their households.

Kav added that victims can report incidents to local support groups and encouraged women who feel threatened in Turkey to use digital applications such as KADES to report domestic violence.

Diego Cupolo is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Istanbul, Turkey. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Financial Times, Foreign Policy and The New Statesman, among other publications. On Twitter: @diegocupolo



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