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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 5 Jan 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Violence against Arab women in Gaza increases?

Indonesia's religious police on hemline frontline:

Citizens stopped for wearing "un-Islamic" clothes

Female Afghan police: good sign of progress

Saudi women at the forefront in all fields: Expat educationist

Hamas encourages Gaza women to follow Islamic code

Iraqi women: A story of injustice through decades

Israeli feminist issue or excuse for anti-Zionism?

The caged and the saved: finding feminism in the Islamic world

Monash: Muslim girl power in the gym

SAUDI ARABIA: 'Polygamy for women' article sparks public row in Egypt, Muslim world

Compiled by New Age Islam News Bureau

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Jeans not for women: Furore over pants ruling


Sunday January 3, 2010

Aceh’s Morality Police (Wilayahtul Hisbah) have taken to hauling up women for wearing tight trousers. In one district, they plan to make women hand over their tight trousers and cut the offending attire up on the spot.

CLAD in dark jeans, a long-sleeved top and headscarf, Henny is exasperated.

“Why is it that it is always the woman’s body that is subject to this or that regulation? It’s a pity our freedom on how to dress is being taken away from us.

“And what about the men? What regulations do they have to shield their eyes?” she adds pointedly.

Henny who works at Beujroh, a woman’s NGO, believes that the focus on personal matters like a woman’s style of dressing is actually to take attention away from urgent issues like corruption.

Most would agree that Henny, who is covered from head to toe with only her face, hands and feet exposed, is dressed in proper attire for a Muslim woman.

But not, apparently, for the Wilayahtul Hisbah or “WH” (pronounced “wee ha”) – in short, the Acehnese Morality Police.

For them, Henny’s jeans – or for that matter any jeans for women – is a no-no. Jeans, they say, are “men’s clothing”.

So women in Aceh should only wear trousers made of non-jeans material and these have to be loose and not made of thin fabric.

Those wearing fitting trousers or tight tops can expect to be hauled up and scolded by the Morality Police.

In Meulaboh, West Aceh, it goes a step further.

From Jan 1, women caught wearing fitting trousers will be given long skirts (for free) by these Morality Squads and the “offending” trousers will be cut to pieces.

And government offices too are to refuse service to women wearing tight trousers!

“Celana ketat ngak tutup aurat. Itu balut aurat. (Tight trousers do not cover the body. They wrap the body),” explains M. Kassim Idris, who is second-in-command of the WH in Banda Aceh where the Morality Squad too has been stopping girls wearing what they see as figure-hugging clothes.

They have been reprimanding the girls and taking their personal details like their ID number and home address.

But unlike their counterparts in Melauboh, they do not have the power, as yet, to compel the girls to hand their tight trousers over and cut them to shreds.

Kassim, though, is very eager for Banda Aceh to follow Melauboh’s example because “girls in tight trousers can rosak moral anak lelaki muda (damage young men’s morals).”

What then, you might ask, is the man’s role in safeguarding his own morals? And why punish women for men’s weakness in not being able to rein in their lust?

Kassim says the men are being “helped” too through religious guidance and sermons after Friday prayers.

“We are instilling stronger faith in men (so that they will be spiritually stronger),” he adds.

Flowering of democracy

Aceh, a Muslim majority province, is known as Serambi Mecca (The Verandah of Mecca) because Islam first came to Indonesia through this province. Some here have even taken the massive tsunami on Dec 26, 2004, which killed over 200,000 here, as a warning from God.

They point to a beach party on Dec 25 night by Brimob (Indonesia’s Police Special Operations Force Unit) where there were lots of music, dancing, free flow of booze and a free mixing of the two sexes till morning as the reason God sent down the tsunami on Aceh.

All the party revellers died when the gigantic waves struck and swallowed them up.

People, too, look at the fact that mosques were about the only structures that survived the tsunami as yet another sign from God that people have to mend their ways.

Hence, they say, there is this renewed emphasis on Islam, including going after those in tight trousers.

But law lecturer Saifuddin Bantasyam from Kuala Syiah University disagrees. He stresses that Aceh’s focus on the Syariah (Islamic law) is not directly related to the tsunami.

After all, he says, the Syariah Law started in Aceh in 2001 (three years before the tsunami) when the Indonesian central government agreed to give Aceh autonomy, or even earlier than that in 1999 when Aceh (which has been fighting a guerilla war against the Indonesian government for 30 years) was accorded privileges in matters of education, religion and customary laws.

“So the idea for the Syariah was already there. But don’t forget at that time we were still in an armed conflict situation and many institutions and groups did not dare speak up, including on the formalisation of the syariah law,” he says.

But months after the tsunami, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and Indonesia managed to come to a peace agreement and with it a new autonomy law for Aceh (Law 11, 2006) which again endorses the idea to formalise the Syariah.

Saifuddin believes what is happening in Aceh now is simply that with the conflict over, there is a flowering of democracy again and “everyone, including religious groups, is starting to speak up or is speaking louder”.

Thus, bodies like the Morality Police are free to be set up and their squads can move about checking the conduct of the people.

Kassim says the role of the Morality Squad is geared towards building up society and getting people to adhere to the right path, and warning them against committing transgressions.

Other than tight trousers, the moral squad goes after those who gamble, drink alcohol, skip Friday prayers and unmarried couples who are in lonely places together. Those holding hands are let off with a warning but those found hugging, kissing or in other compromising positions will face the shame of having their photos taken, and their parents, village head, and religious leader in the area will be informed of their misdemeanour.

Serious offenders, male or female, could be whipped.

But the squad does not have the power to prosecute. That lies in the hands of the Syariah court.

In September, new regulations were introduced in Aceh that would allow the stoning to death of adulterers. However, this has not been made into law because the Aceh Gover­nor, who is said to oppose this, has refused to sign it thus far.

“We need to give faith and understanding to society about all these laws so that society will not be shocked. We need to ready society first to understand,” says Morality Police’s Kassim.

Call for reason

Coming back to the regulations on tight trousers, when Didiya, Henny’s youngest sister, was stopped for wearing tight trousers, she simply refused to co-operate. And the Morality Police could do nothing.

They demanded for her ID but she claimed she didn’t have any. When they asked her to get into their truck, she refused.

“They insisted but she stood her ground, saying she had covered her aurat and in her book she has done nothing wrong. In the end, they let her go,” says Henny.

Her sister is still going around town dressed in the same manner and is just as defiant, she adds with a laugh.

Henny says the men see women as weak and easy to intimidate.

“In West Aceh, men see women as weak and the women themselves also think of themselves as weak so they are further disempowered,” she points out.

Women, she says, have a right to voice out what they think, especially when it comes to regulations that affect them.

But the unfortunate thing, she adds, is that those who dare to speak out are quickly labelled as deviants who are not keeping to the true teachings of Islam, and this scares off people.

Henny says she plans to continue wearing her jeans and riding her motorbike in Banda Aceh regardless of the regulations.

“Making women wear long skirts is not only an inconvenience but also dangerous for those on motorbikes (normal mode of transportation here). It can get us into accidents,” she says.

For Henny, the chances of women exposing their aurat (all parts of the body for the female except for the hands, feet and face) is more likely when someone wearing a skirt rides a bike. The skirt would be hiked up, exposing the leg and calf.

She also says the Morality Squad once mistakenly stopped a woman on a motorbike because they thought she had tight trousers on. “But she was actually wearing a long skirt but had leggings on underneath it.”

Saifuddin says the people here are divided over the issue.

“Syariah is not about jeans, clothes or tight trousers. The government should try to be more comprehensive and broad in its scope of the Syariah law,” he says.

“What I can see is that the district government in Aceh is very narrow in interpreting the values of Syariah, as if the Syariah does not deal with corruption or human rights violation. All aspects can be covered and the government should try to be equal and not just go after these private things.

“When it comes to legislation, the government has to be careful and listen to the views of parliament and voices of the people. If you just go after private things of the people, I think they will oppose this,” he adds.

While chatting with Amir, our driver in Aceh, about the tight trousers regulation, he commented on some Malaysian women studying religion in Aceh who wear the burqa (the loose black garment worn by women in Arab countries where only the eyes are exposed), which you don’t see Acehnese women wearing.

Amir wanted to know if these women in burqa wear panties. “Some of my friends said they don’t!” he says, laughing.

As Henny rightfully points out, even when a woman uses the burqa, men’s minds still wander.

“They wonder what lies underneath the burqa. They think she must really be beautiful, that’s why she is all covered up. Or maybe she is disfigured, or maybe it is actually a man pretending to be a woman.”

It seems that however women are dressed, be it in loose-fitting burqa, tight trousers or long flowing skirts, women can’t win either way.


Violence against Arab women in Gaza increases?

Richard Shulman

January 4 2010

The Palestinian Women’s Information and Media Center is located in Gaza, where it finds increased violence against women since June 2007 and the advent of Hamas control.  The Center’s study depends on interviews of 350 women.

How much violence?  Men inflict it upon 77% of the women in Gaza, the Center alleges.  Why so much?  Financial strain, suggests the study.  Many men are divorcing their wives because of financial difficulty.  They take out their financial frustrations against their wives.  During the two-year study period, 31% of the women were divorced or threatened with it.

How much violence?  The study has different figures for it from the ones above:  “67 percent of those surveyed said they had been subjected to verbal abuse, 71 percent had suffered mental cruelty and 52 percent experienced physical violence.  More than 14 percent had been sexually assaulted.”  Almost half of the victims were abused in more than one way.  A fourth of the women do not feel safe in their own homes.

The study exhibits some other confusion, as by asserting that women two-thirds of the women are the family breadwinners, but, self-contradictorily, that two-thirds of the women depend on international donations of food, and only about 10% of the women work.  The study or the news brief about it do not state by how much violence has risen since Hamas took over Gaza.

The study points out that laws against domestic violence are scanty, police rarely are interested in it, and shelters are scarce.  “Honor killings” incur lesser punishment.

Hamas denies that it is imposing Islamic law on Gaza.  It does force women to dress more in line with Hamas views of Islamic modesty.  Men there more often quote Quranic verses to justify brutality against women, such as “Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women).  So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them...and scourge them.”  (, 1/3.)  A scourge is a whip.

An implication is that Hamas rule makes men feel more comfortable in reverting to a more brutal role, by giving it religious sanction.

Noted feminist leader, Phyllis Chessler experienced being wife of a Muslim. In a speech touching on Muslim brutality to women, I heard her explain that American feminist organizations sometimes are more wedded to leftist ideology than to upholding feminist rights for Muslim women.  Hypocrisy and conspiracy seem more integral to human nature than many idealists understand.


Indonesia's religious police on hemline frontline:

Citizens stopped for wearing "un-Islamic" clothes

Saturday, 02 January 2010


She wears a helmet and drives her scooter slowly through the capital of Indonesia's Aceh province, but Yuli is still stopped by the sharia police. Her crime: wearing tight jeans and a blouse deemed "un-Islamic".

The 20-year-old lowers her eyes and doesn't argue with the khaki-clad male officers who summon her to the side of the road.

"I promise to buy a more Muslim outfit," she says, showing enough contrition for the police to wave her on her way.

In one hour, 18 women are pulled over because the guardians of morality decide their slacks are too tight or their shirts reveal too much of their feminine curves.

Only three men receive the same treatment, for wearing shorts.

"We have to respect sharia (Islamic) law, which has been adopted by the provincial government and which stipulates that women can only show their faces and their hands," sharia police commander Hali Marzuki told AFP.

Perched at the end of Sumatra island about 1,000 kilo meters (620 miles) northwest of the Indonesian capital Jakarta, Aceh is one of the most conservative regions in the mainly Muslim archipelago.

Most Muslims in the country of 234 million people are modern and moderate, and Indonesia's constitution recognizes five official religions including Buddhism and Christianity.

But Aceh has special autonomy, and one of the ways it has defined itself as different from the rest of the country is through the implementation of sharia law and the advent of the religious police.

The force has more than 1,500 officers, including 60 women. However, they do not seem to cause too much concern among citizens.

Officers are relatively cheerful, they carry no weapons and they almost always let wrongdoers off with a warning.

"Punishment is not the objective of the law. We must convince and explain," says Iskander, the sharia police chief in Banda Aceh, who goes by only one name.

He has the power to order floggings but has found no need to do so since he was promoted to his current position a year ago.

Less than a dozen people have been publicly caned since 2005, for drinking alcohol, gambling or having illicit sexual relations.

Advocates say the force is having a good effect on society.

"The message is getting around and there are less and less violations," says senior officer Syarifuddin, adding that most of the people arrested under sharia law had been denounced to the police by fellow citizens.

It was thanks to one such tipoff that police busted a group of men gambling over dominoes in a cafe earlier this month.

Another preoccupation for the sharia police is the "sin of khalwat", when a man and woman are found alone in an isolated place, such as a beach.

Young Acehnese lovers, or any man and woman for that matter, need to watch their backs if they want to sit together with the sand between their toes and take in one of Aceh's beautiful seaside sunsets.

"You have to learn quickly with these police around," said 17-year-old student Fira, who says she likes to "have fun".

"We know how to take precautions to avoid the checks. And anyway, if you're caught you only risk being reprimanded."

But this game of cat-and-mouse could take an ugly turn if a new regulations allowing the stoning to death of adulterers and the flogging of homosexuals is signed into law by the provincial government.

The law was enacted by the outgoing Aceh Legislative Council on September 14, but it has been under review by the newly elected assembly and has not been signed into effect by Governor Irwandi Yusuf.

Lawmakers in jakarta have expressed their opposition to such draconian punishments, which could be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and re-open old wounds about Aceh's hard-won autonomy.

"We have to be very careful in the face of such radical pressures," said Khairani Arifin, an activist for Acehnese women's rights.

"Aceh could look like Pakistan one day," she warned.


Female Afghan police good sign of progress

January 2, 2010

I am really happy that there are now armed women in the Afghan police forces ("Afghan Police Need More Women," Dec. 27 Register).

Because of the Muslim religion and tribal attitudes, Afghan/Muslim women are often treated as very second-class citizens and subject to violence from the Taliban, religious leaders, and warlord groups. In addition, these men order their own women to attack these police women and send assassins to kill them.

As women around the world take baby steps to gain some equality, power and safety for themselves and their families, violence against them is escalating. I hope the addition of these police women in Afghanistan will provide a needed balance to the power base in that country.

After the United Nations troops leave, the Afghan people will have to decide if they will keep any new balance in power that might come because of the presence of women in the police forces.

- Helene F. Mahler, Des Moines


Saudi women at the forefront in all fields: Expat educationist

By Rumi Sayeed

Sunday, 03 January 2010

Having spent 34 years of her life as an educationist in the Kingdom, Dr. Chaman Rahim, a Bangladeshi national living in Jeddah, says her experience here has been more than rewarding. She has witnessed the gradual development of the education sector, especially with regards to girls’ education.

“Education for girls was officially proclaimed by King Saud in 1959 on Saudi radio. Later, King Faisal and his wife, Queen Effat, made great contributions to girls’ education,” said Rahim.

“However,” she continued, “the process was slow at first and progressed gradually. Girls always seize any opportunity to study, and today women are at the forefront in almost all fields of work. This is indeed a great achievement.”

Rahim completed her post-graduate program at Dhaka University. She was then awarded a merit scholarship by the French government. She obtained a second master’s degree, and later, a doctorate from France.

She started her career in the teaching profession in 1975 at King Abdulaziz University (KAU) in Jeddah and is currently working as an assistant professor at Dar Al-Hekma College.

“Though I came here in 1975, my family’s association with the Kingdom started long before that. My father served as a British diplomat in Jeddah in 1946. Back then, a friend suggested that I visit KAU. I did and I was offered a part-time teaching job. I was told I would be hired as a fulltime lecturer to teach Social Science when I finished my doctorate. Thus started my new journey in a new country,” she said.

Rahim was then offered a job by the UN, which she refused because, “I was so involved in this country that I deferred that opportunity to a later time. A colleague of mine recently commented that this place is addictive. How right she is!”

She said she joined the teaching force in Saudi Arabia at a time when female teachers were a rarity.

“When I joined the University, it had only three buildings, and now when I left, it has 22 buildings!” she proudly said.

Girls had not yet forayed into sports then and Rahim, who won several sports-related accolades at her university, saw it as an opportunity to make a start in this direction.

“When I started working at KAU, there were no sports for girls. With the permission of the Dean, I encouraged the girls to play and trained them to keep fit. I have always enjoyed and played sports. I was overjoyed when the then Vice Dean of Student Affairs, Dr. Bilquis Nasser, declared that an indoor stadium in the girls’ premises would be constructed, and that SR50,000 had been allocated to buy equipment. That was big money in those days,” she said.

Rahim has written two books: One, A Glossary of Muslim Names in 1986, and two, Geography of Saudi Arabia in the nineties, which she said is the first such work on Saudi Arabian geography in English.

Recently, she was awarded a fellowship in UNESCO’s International Institute of Education and Planning (IIEP), in which the topic of her research was ‘Female Education in Saudi Arabia’.

“Don’t believe it when people tell you women here are unhappy and restricted. I spent more than half my life with them, and I can assure you that Saudi women are just like any other women, with similar aspirations and dreams,” said Rahim. – SG


Hamas encourages Gaza women to follow Islamic code

Jan. 3 2010

Aya Rachi, a 11-year-old girl from Gaza, did not pay much attention to the female preacher's speech. Wearing a worn-out sweater, she seems to be only interested in receiving robes and headscarf for free.

"I want to receive a veil just like all the other girls, and I will wear a Hijab (headscarf) with it," said Rachi, one of the girls and women who get veils and robes for free under the Hamas Islamic veil project.

"I came because I can't afford new garments," she said.

Rachi's case is very common in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Having been under a tight Israeli blockade for more than three years, people living there are suffering from poverty.

Hamas movement has recently initiated a project in cooperation with the Association of Young Muslim Women, to give away free robes to girls in secondary schools according to their residence areas.

Since the Islamic Hamas movement has seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, and routed secular President Mahmoud Abbas security forces, Hamas has been trying to implement the Islamic law in the Gaza Strip, mainly at schools, institutions and courts by imposing the Islamic dress or Hijab on women.

The first two neighborhoods that Hamas began with, were al-Tuffah and Sheja'eya in eastern Gaza City, where girls gathered and were taught about the necessity of wearing the Hijab to conceal their bodies.

Within brief moments, al-Tuffah sports hall was packed. Middle aged women came with their young daughters to receive long robes and dresses promised by Hamas.

Safaa Shallah, a board member of the Young Muslim Association affiliated with Hamas, said that "the goal of this project is to disseminate the Islamic dress code and effectively eliminate the wanton behavior."

She said that the project will be implemented at two stages, the first stage which started this week, would include the distribution of 600 Islamic uniforms in the two neighborhoods, adding that next week another 600 uniforms will be distributed forfree at al-Daraj neighborhood in central Gaza city.

Huda N'eim, a Hamas activist told Xinhua that "wearing the Hijab will be the first step towards implementing the Islamic law," adding that "the Western communities disapprove women who wear the Hijab in a bid to prevent women from wearing it in their own countries."

However, the deposed government of Hamas movement has officially denied that it is trying to implement the Islamic law in the Gaza Strip. But the campaign of Islamic virtue carried out and supported by officials in Hamas government had drawn concerns over the Islamization of Gaza.

Asmaa al-Ghoul, an activist in women's rights in Gaza, said that "human beings have the freedom to express their opinions and beliefs."

Al-Ghoul, who had faced troubles with Hamas security officers last summer when she walked on Gaza beach without covering her head with a scarf, went on saying that "if religion is used to exploit one's mind and impose certain policies on individuals, then it is unacceptable."

Nour el-Masri, who also lives in Gaza city and wears a veil, said governments and institutions should not impose certain values on people.

"If the government or any benevolent society wants to help the people, they should do it without expecting political returns," said el-Masri.


Iraqi women: A story of unjustice through decades

January 2nd, 2010

Wamith Al-Kassab (Iraq)

The Arab communities and even non-Arab Islamic had left us a legacy of customs and traditions against the female, and had subsequently generated a series of consequences of the process of discrimination between human beings on the basis of gender, ie, discrimination between women and men because of masculinity and femininity, both in pregnancy, adoption or name. The division went further to roles in jobs and to benefit from civil and political rights.

This is unacceptable morally, legally and civilly and needs to be changed, the change came in the last decade in an international movement all over the world to justify the women’s affairs. The United Nations highlights the issue of women and the great human suffering, and exploitation of women and trade in human organs from poor countries and regions, prejudices, differences in wages between women and men and others.

Till today a requirement for a study on legislation for women’s rights in Iraq still needed to take part , for justice for women in Iraq and the elimination of gender discrimination in the rights, duties and modify the disparity of legal protection in Iraqi legislation in force and to avoid manifestations of violence against women, including so-called crime of murder, or honour killings money honour, which are an indication of a flagrant and serious waste of women’s rights and damage to human and its identity in order to activate the role of women in the future Iraq.

Women have occupied the position of social, economic, political and religious distinct in different times and played an active role in the affairs of life as varied forms of this importance and the role and status of these different times in the early stages of the history of women’s status in the ranking gods worshiped by human beings, and ask them forgiveness, mercy and form of existence as a symbol of the best production and fertility and as such was a close relationship between women and creation. Also associated with the presence of women with fertile land, which feed the people from the industry.

Many texts governing the family and the reservation status and role of women in the Babylonian ancient Iraq was the right of women to divorce her husband and has custody of the children their right to engage in business and are entitled to legal and financial liability separate from those of her husband and has the right to care and maintenance.

Has also established severe penalties on the person who mistreat women or violates the rights of the really hard in the Act. Women also occupied a prominent place in the Covenant of Samothrace, in the Republic of Plato, however, this position were not as well as when the Arabs before Islam, where they found the problem of female infanticide at the time in fear of falling with families during invasions and wars, this was the task of the social values at the time, which is that, not of women Sbaya or prisoners of war, which indicates the weakness of the group, which is the captivity of women from the time of invasions.

Which is, disgraces and degrades the value of the group and because the socio-economic status was based on men’s role in agriculture and war until the advent of Islam, which tried to alleviate the social problems that existed then generally the one who concerns us here is the reference to the loss of pictures of women’s rights in Iraq for the purpose of a summary of recommendations to modify the status of women in Iraqi society.

Retweet Share on Face book Civil Rights, General, Iraq, Women


Israeli feminist issue or excuse for anti-Zionism?

December 31, 2009

Richard Shulman

A coalition of Israeli feminist groups criticized the Israel Land Council for having only Ashkenazi men on it.  [Many of these articles are not worded clearly.  I think they mean only Ashkenazi men and women.]  They demanded that Sephardic and Arab women be appointed to it, too.

The demand was countered by the Zionist Women’s Forum.  It calls this an anti-Zionist issue masquerading as a feminist one.  The Forum accused the coalition of seeking to “use the status of women as a means of advancing their political views but in reality, their goal is that the State of Israel's lands will be transferred on an ethnic bases.  Their aim is to help non-Zionist ethnic elements to take over the lands of the State of Israel.”

Judge the sincerity of the coalition’s feminist groups, the Forum suggests, by the absence of Arab women in most of them  (

One would have thought the Forum would suggest appointing Sephardic women.  (I am awaiting clarification of this issue, before evaluating it.)  

Americans reading this story probably would evaluate it from the perspective of their own society.  We try to treat groups equally, and they contribute to society.  In Israel, many Arabs call themselves the people “of 1948.”  They thus identify themselves with their past attempt to take over the country, in concert with foreign Arabs.  Israel has to take care not to let subversive elements grasp certain levers of power.  Survival is at stake.  On this particular issue, we need more information.


The Caged And The Saved: Finding Feminism In The Islamic World

Faisal al Yafai

January 02. 2010

Pep Montserrat for The National

Like most ideas, this one did not have a single genesis. I’ve been thinking, and to some extent writing, about feminism for many years and in many guises.

The word itself is controversial, with some damning it as the force that destroyed the family and others defending it as the movement that freed a gender.

It is one of those terms that starts simply and rapidly gets tangled: if you look around the world and think there are inequalities between the genders, and that those inequalities are not biological and are unfair, you are probably a feminist. And that’s where the arguments begin.

But definitions are only useful for what they illuminate, and the language of feminism, like the languages of democracy or freedom, has often been used to obscure.

So much of the discourse around the West’s relationship with the Muslim world has been framed through the language of women.

It was around women that early Christian Europe framed its opposition to the pleasure palaces of the “Mohammedans”, the barely disguised yearning for the exoticism of the Orient. The role of women in Egyptian society was cited by Napoleon as a wedge through which to enter the country; was cited again as a justification for the Anglo-American invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan, and is regularly cited as apparent evidence of a lack of commitment to equal rights in Muslim communities.

Within the Muslim world, discourse around women’s roles and rights remains highly charged. As much as some point to the treatment of women in Europe as evidence of the vanishing of the West’s moral compass, it is also the case that, across much of the Muslim world, women’s dress has become a way to impose a religious vision upon the society, even as Muslim women use the veil to reclaim their own identities.

And, still, in too many countries, internal social and cultural wars are fought on the battleground of women’s bodies.

So the question of what counts as feminism, as liberation, in the Arab and Islamic worlds is complicated and intricate. To try and answer it, I am leaving London next week for Beirut, the first stop on a journey that will take me thousands of kilometres across Arab and Islamic lands, through Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and to the very edges of Indonesia.

Through interviews, experiences and research, I hope to come close to an answer, and I’ve been immensely privileged to be awarded a Churchill Fellowship, the living memorial to Britain’s wartime leader, to fund this exploration.

What do I hope to find? Not easy answers, for sure. Even the idea of what counts as liberation is mixed.

I have called the introductory chapter of the book I am writing about this journey “The caged and the saved”, reflecting the two ways people think of what the Muslim veil does.

In it, I tell an anecdote of encountering these contrasting attitudes in real life, when, walking around London with a friend, she asked me, of a woman wearing a Saudi abaya, “How can she think she is liberated when she dresses like that?” It occurred to me another woman might ask the same question about the women around her displaying acres of flesh.

Nor is there a clear dividing line between political and religious perspectives. Earlier this year in Morocco I interviewed Nadia Yassine, of the banned Islamist group Al Adl wal Ihsane. As much as she spoke the language of women’s rights and of female liberation, she was reluctant to be pigeonholed as a feminist in the western understanding of the term. Her perspective, she said, stemmed from her faith. The imam and the activist can sometimes reach the same conclusions.

Within the Muslim world, as within the West, the idea of what feminism is, where it comes from, how relevant it is, what form equality ought to take are real, live debates. They come to us in snatches: harassment of women on the streets of Cairo, the wearing of trousers in Sudan, unsegregated university campuses in Saudi Arabia, the burning of girls’ schools in Pakistan.

And threaded through these snatches are less-regular glimpses of clear successes: the leadership of women such as Queen Rania, Benazir Bhutto and Lubna Olayan. And there is the immense lived experience of millions of women, who assert their own independence daily through their work, relationships, devotion to their family and faith.

The Arab and Islamic worlds are going through a period of immense change and the ideology that holds nations and regions together is altering. The big –isms of the world – nationalism, capitalism, Islamism – affect women in each country differently.

The outward symbols of faith are obvious illustrations of this, but the framework of the society is equally important.

The professor in Tehran and the village-woman in Indonesia will not only dress differently, they may also have different conceptions of the relationship between men and women. I expect to meet those who espouse feminism from a purely secular perspective, and those who say that Islam has provided a clear manifesto for women’s rights.

So I am not setting out with preconceived notions. I don’t begin from the assumption that one way of living is better than another, nor do I go in with the assumption that what occurs to one person in one country is indicative of a nation or a faith. But I do think it is possible to delineate between ways of organising a society: that if you look closely enough at a society’s history and people, it is possible to make fine, sensitive judgements. Though I expect differences, I also hope for some common ground.

The Arab world is a complex place; nations of Arabic speakers who think they are one but act like they are many. It is a place that defies easy categorisation.

I have lived, travelled and reported across many Arab countries over many years, but there are still times when I come across something – an event, a conversation – that makes me think I have barely scratched the surface.

Such has been the case with my conversations about feminism: I’ve often understood the word in terms of equality of laws, education and employment. But it is astonishing how varied people’s perceptions are around the Middle East.

If that is the case with the Arab world, with all its many commonalities, imagine the complexity of the Islamic worlds that stretch across Asia and Africa. That’s the reason I have broadened the journey out to encompass the vast non-Arab Islamic world: the Shia customs of Iran, the South Asian experience in Pakistan and the newer Asian traditions in Indonesia.

The exploration of these places will be a key theme, because no idea lives in isolation; all are shaped by the experience of their societies. I want to go beyond a purely intellectual discussion to understand the lived experiences of women in these societies.

I admit there have been times these last few weeks, as I prepare to leave London and skim through old books on the subject, that I have wondered if it is perhaps an overwhelming one. I have been incredibly lucky so far to have friends and colleagues who have helped me get started – I know I will meet many more over the next few months. What I don’t know is if I will find any answers, or even if there are any: that’s why I am going.

Follow Faisal al Yafai’s journey at His book will be published by IB Tauris in 2011.


Monash: Muslim girl power in the gym

05 Jan 10

YOUNG Muslim women in Ashwood, Chadstone and Ashburton can now exercise in a “girls-only” environment.

Chadstone resident Ismahan Abdulkadir recently received a $2000 grant to run the Girls Only Gym program at the Ashburton YMCA to give young Muslim women an opportunity to exercise comfortably.

Due to their religion, Ms Abdulkadir said women of Muslim faith could not exercise in front of men with ease as they had to wear clothing that covered all but their hands and face.

“But in this group they can just wear normal clothes,” Ms Abdulkadir said.

“When you’re wearing everything to cover you, you get a bit sweaty and it’s hard to exercise properly.”

The university student applied for a grant through Youth Foundations Victoria - - a partnership initiative of the State Government and Bendigo Bank - - which offers funding to youth-orientated community activities in the three Neighbourhood Renewal suburbs.

Ms Abdulkadir said she was “thrilled” to be running the 20-week course this year.

“I feel like I’m giving the girls I know a great opportunity,” she said.

“Most of my friends come from Muslim backgrounds and I just wanted to make an environment where we were comfortable and could work out.”

A female instructor will lead the girls through weekly gym sessions and Ms Abdulkadir said any young women who wanted a female-only exercise class could join.

“It is open to anyone,” she said.


SAUDI ARABIA: 'Polygamy for women' article sparks public row in Egypt, Muslim world

January 5, 2010

"Allow me to choose four, five or even nine men, just as my wildest imagination shall choose. I’ll pick them with different shapes and sizes, one of them will be dark and the other will be blond. ... [T]hey will be chosen from different backgrounds, religions, races and nations.”

So reads the first paragraph of Saudi journalist Nadine Bedair’s controversial article, recently published in the Egyptian independent daily Al Masry Al Youm, that raised the question of why only men are allowed to practice polygamy in Islam but not women.

As expected, the daring article, entitled "My Four Husbands and I," has stirred the pot among various groups.

Comments and criticism on the article continue to trickle in at a steady pace nearly a month after its publication, especially in Egypt, from where it originated. There, some Muslim authorities and lawmakers have attacked Bedair, condemning her writings as inflammatory and sexually provocative.

One of those who reacted with fury to her reflections on the alleged unfairness of polygamy in Islam was Sheikh Mohamed Gama’i. He lashed out at the Saudi journalist in an article published on an Egyptian news site, saying that “no woman has the right to attack our traditions in this manner” and said that Bedair ought to be “stopped.”

The article has also irritated some in Egyptian political circles, with one member of parliament reportedly filing a lawsuit against Al Masry Al Youm on accusations of promoting vice.

In her argument, Bedair suggests that either both men and women be permitted to take several spouses or that it’s time to make the rules more fair and come up with a new "map of marriage" in which men can’t marry more women just because they’ve gotten bored with the old one.

Islam allows men to marry up to four women at the same time, but only if they can treat the wives equally.

While Bedair's article has been met with a storm of criticism from some conservatives, there are those who believe she has a valid point and that her commentary has opened the door to an important, and long overdue, debate.

One Egyptian imam, Sheikh Amr Zaki, said the concept of polygamy simply doesn’t fit in with today’s societal structures and that the world would be better off if the practice was banned.

"In our world today, polygamy should be unacceptable. There is no need for it and, besides, no man can truly love more than one woman and vice versa," he was quoted as saying by the Guardian newspaper.

Heated discussions on the female polygamy article and polyandry in general have also surfaced in the Arab blogosphere and in Web forums in the region.

Echoing Sheikh Zaki’s argument for scrapping polygamy, one female commentator writing in online Muslim youth culture magazine Elan argued that there is just no need for the centuries-old practice in today's world.

“Back in the seventh century, men married multiple wives for practical reasons -- to forge alliances and strengthen communities, save widows from squalor, etc. But things are different now. I really don’t think single women need to be rescued anymore. If a woman remains unmarried at 30, I think she’ll survive. And if a man is so bored by one woman, then maybe he shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place,” she wrote.

Some clerics insist, however, that male polygamy provides social security for widows and divorcees.

Then there are also those who believe that the article is not so much about polygamy as about highlighting women's rights issues in traditional Arab nations.

Saudi blogger Ahmed Al-Omran, who runs the popular blog Saudi Jeans, is one of those who takes on Bedair’s article from a different perspective, saying it does not so much argue for women's right to practice polygamy as it does to serve as a stinging criticism of the practice.

“People who attacked Nadine [Bedair] missed the point entirely. ... She was just trying to criticize polygamy by putting men in the shoes of women who accept to be part of such marriages. ... I think one of the good outcomes of Nadine's article is that it has rekindled the debate on women's issues in the country, especially those concerning how judges, and the legal system in general, treat women,” he told The Times in an e-mail conversation.

Women living in some conservative Arab countries are left with few rights, in principle, if their husband suddenly decides to marry an additional woman.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

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