Aisha Bhutta, also known as Debbie Rogers, is serene. She sits on the sofa in big front room of her tenement flat in Cowcaddens, Glasgow. The walls are hung with quotations from the Koran, a special clock to remind the family of prayer times and posters of the Holy City of Mecca. Aisha's piercing blue eyes sparkle with evangelical zeal, she smiles with a radiance only true believers possess. Her face is that of a strong Scots lass - no nonsense, good-humoured - but it is carefully covered with a hijab.
For a good Christian girl to convert to Islam and marry a Muslim is extraordinary enough. But more than that, she has also converted her parents, most of the rest of her family and at least 30 friends and neighbours.
Her family were austere Christians with whom Rogers regularly attended Salvation Army meetings. When all the other teenagers in Britain were kissing their George Michael posters goodnight, Rogers had pictures of Jesus up on her wall. And yet she found that Christianity was not enough; there were too many unanswered questions and she felt dissatisfied with the lack of disciplined structure for her beliefs. "There had to be more for me to obey than just doing prayers when I felt like it."
Aisha had first seen her future husband, Mohammad Bhutta, when she was 10 and regular customer at the shop, run by his family. She would see him in the back, praying. "There was contentment and peace in what he was doing. He said he was a Muslim. I said: What's a Muslim?".
Later with his help she began looking deeper into Islam. By the age of 17, she had read the entire Koran in Arabic. "Everything I read", she says, "was making sense."
She made the decision to convert at16. "When I said the words, it waslike a big burden I had been carrying on my shoulders had been thrown off. I felt like a new-born baby."
Despite her conversion however, Mohammed's parents were against their marrying. They saw her as a Western woman who would lead their eldestson astray and give the family a bad name; she was, Mohammed's father believed, "the biggest enemy."
Nevertheless, the couple married in the local mosque. Aisha wore a dress hand-sewn by Mohammed's mother and sisters who sneaked into the ceremony against the wishes of his father who refused to attend.
It was his elderly grandmother who paved the way for a bond between thewomen. She arrived from Pakistan where mixed-race marriages were evenmore taboo, and insisted on meeting Aisha. She was so impressed by thefact that she had learned the Koran and Punjabi that she convinced the others; slowly, Aisha, now 32, became one of the family.
Aisha's parents, Michael and Marjory Rogers, though did attend the wedding, were more concerned with the clothes their daughter was now wearing (the traditional shalwaar kameez) and what the neighbours would think. Six years later, Aisha embarked on a mission to convert them and the rest of her family, bar her sister ("I'm still working on her). "My husband and I worked on my mum and dad, telling them about Islam and they saw the changes in me, like I stopped answering back!"
Her mother soon followed in her footsteps. Marjory Rogers changed her name to Sumayyah and became a devout Muslim. "She wore the hijab anddid her prayers on time and nothing ever mattered to her except her connections with God."
Aisha's father proved a more difficult recruit, so she enlisted the helpof her newly converted mother (who has since died of cancer). "My mumand I used to talk to my father about Islam and we were sitting in the sofa in the kitchen one day and he said: "What are the words you saywhen you become a Muslim?" "Me and my mum just jumped on top of him." Three years later, Aisha's brother converted "over the telephone - thanks to BT", then his wife and children followed, followed by her sister's son.
It didn't stop there. Her family converted, Aisha turned her attentionto Cowcaddens, with its tightly packed rows of crumbling, gray tenement flats. Every Monday for the past 13 years, Aisha has held classes in Islam for Scottish women. So far she has helped to convert over 30. The women come from a bewildering array of backgrounds. Trudy, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow and a former Catholic, attended Aisha's classes purely because she was commissioned to carry out some research. But after six months of classes she converted, deciding that Christianity was riddled with "logical inconsistencies". "I could tell she was beginning to be affected by the talks", Aisha says. How could she tell? "I don't know, it was just a feeling."
The classes include Muslim girls tempted by Western ideals and need ingsalvation, practicing Muslim women who want an open forum for discussion denied them at the local male-dominated mosque, and those simply interested in Islam. Aisha welcomes questions. "We cannot expect people blindly to believe."
Her husband, Mohammad Bhutta, now 41, does not seem so driven to convert Scottish lads to Muslim brothers. He occasionally helps out in the family restaurant, but his main aim in life is to ensure the couple's five children grow up as Muslims. The eldest, Safia, "nearly 14, alhumidlillah (Praise be to God!)", is not averse to a spot of recruiting herself. One day she met a woman in the street and carried her shopping, the woman attended Aisha's classes and is now a Muslim.
"I can honestly say I have never regretted it", Aisha says of her conversion to Islam. "Every marriage has its ups and downs and sometimes you need something to pull you out of any hardship. But the Prophet Peace by upon him, said: 'Every hardship has an ease.' So when you're going through a difficult stage, you work for that ease to come."
Mohammed is more romantic: "I feel we have known each other for centuries and must never part from one another. According to Islam, you are not just partners for life, you can be partners in heaven as well, for ever. Its a beautiful thing, you know."
November 11, 2007
Two Faiths Divided on Women’s Ordination Ceremony
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ST. LOUIS, Nov. 10 (AP) — The Archdiocese of St. Louis and the Central Reform Congregation are on the same side when it comes to advocating for immigrants and the poor, often finding common ground in a zeal for social justice.
But when the Jewish congregation offered its synagogue for an ordination of two women in a ceremony disavowed by the Roman Catholic Church, it drew the ire of archdiocese officials, who vowed never again to work with the congregation.
The two women, Rose Marie Dunn Hudson, 67, of Festus, and Elsie Hainz McGrath, 69, of St. Louis, are scheduled to be ordained Sunday by a former nun as part of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, a small movement that began in 2002 and is independent from the Roman Catholic Church.
The Reform congregation’s rabbi, Susan Talve, informed the Rev. Vincent Heier, director of the archdiocese office for ecumenical and interreligious affairs, of the decision.
Mr. Heier told her it was unacceptable. “It’s not appropriate to invite this group, to aid and abet a group like this, which undercuts our theology and teaching,” Mr. Heier said he told Ms. Talve.
The Roman Catholic Church is framed in hierarchy, which sets rules and offers guidance for the faithful. The Jewish tradition has no centralized leadership, and congregations operate autonomously, answering to their own mission statement.
It was that mission that Ms. Talve and her congregation’s board relied on when considering the issue.
Ms. Talve said the women approached her this fall. “They said they were looking for a sanctuary, and that got my attention,” she said. “As Isaiah said, we are a house of prayer for all people.”
The congregation’s board voted unanimously to serve as host.
But the ceremony defies Catholic Church doctrine that allows only men to be ordained as priests and deacons.
The women are ignoring the warnings of Archbishop Raymond Burke, who said they would be excommunicated if they proceeded with the ceremony.
Of the roughly 100 women who have been ordained as priests or deacons worldwide in the Womenpriests movement, including 37 in the United States, only the first seven were officially excommunicated by the Vatican, said a spokeswoman for the group, Bridget Mary Meehan.
Mr. Heier and Archbishop Burke pressed Ms. Talve and the board to withdraw their offer, saying the act would “cause pain” to the church.
“It’s akin to us inviting a group that is contrary to Jewish life,” Mr. Heier said.
Ms. Talve said she regretted that the church was pained by the decision, but added that denying the women would have hurt others. She said hundreds of practicing Catholics have called to thank her for taking a stand.
But the archdiocese has clearly drawn a line with Ms. Talve and her congregation.
“This is not a lack of forgiveness,” Mr. Heier said, “but we have to stand for something. It’s a matter of principle.”
Upwardly mobile Afghanistan
By Lyse Doucet
Special Correspondent, BBC News
The mobile phone has boosted the incomes of African women farmers and
empowered poor Muslim women in Bangladesh. But can it also change
women's lives in a conservative country where, only six years ago, a
Taleban government confined women to the home?
"Absolutely," insists Shainoor Khoja, who heads social programmes for
Roshan, one of the biggest mobile telephone networks now operating in
But she admits it is still a "monumental task" to get women into the
In a country with few landlines, nearly four million Afghans now have
mobile telephones and the number keeps rising.
It is big business and there are now four mobile phone companies in
All have social programmes including projects to distribute telephones
free to women, especially in even more conservative areas outside Kabul.
Suhaira, 27, is one of the success stories. Married at 14, and now
mother to five children, she runs a fruit and vegetable stand in her
Inside her crowded shop, there is a phone box, essentially a
pay-per-call mobile telephone for public use.
"I wanted to be the first woman shopkeeper in Afghanistan," she declares
as she serves customers wearing a black scarf that covers her head and
half of her face.
Her eyes shine with conviction. A sympathetic government official agreed
to give her a licence. Roshan helped - through its programme to
subsidise phone bills for women's businesses. And her husband gave her
That did not stop rumours circulating at the local mosque about her
talking to men outside her family circle. "At the beginning people would
come and warn my wife, 'We will kill you'," says her husband Meraj.
"But the government of Hamid Karzai says women can work... we do not
care what people say about us."
Shahnaz says the mobile telephone has changed her work "100%."
She sits on the floor of her dark two-room concrete block of a home in a
Kabul slum, stitching goods on an old hand-operated sewing machine.
By night, it is also the bedroom for her and her children, plus three
She and her daughter Najla have both been abandoned by their husbands. A
mobile phone lies on the thin carpet next to the sewing machine.
It has brought more customers, more orders, and more income.
Call centres run by the mobile companies, who are now some of
Afghanistan's biggest employers, also provide new opportunities.
At the Roshan call centre in Kabul, young men and women work side by
side, answering calls from customers across the country, including from
southern provinces where the Taleban remain strong.
"Taleban call in and the women talk to them," says Zermina with a
giggle. At only 23, she is the call centre's operations manager and says
that even in her dreams, she would not have imagined Afghanistan would
have opportunities like this for women.
Many women at the Call Centre, including Zermina, are Hazara, a less
conservative community than some of Afghanistan's other major ethnic
And many Hazaras are Ismaili Muslims, a moderate Shiite sect headed by
the Aga Khan whose worldwide business empire includes companies like
Roshan which have a strong social mandate.
Shainoor Khoja denies claims Roshan is favouring this community. She
points out that in call centres outside Kabul, the ethnic balance is
different, but concedes Hazaras have been easier to fit into a Western
business model because they are relatively more open to change.
So are all these brave women exceptions in their society? "Everything is
setting an example in Afghanistan," says Meryem Aslan, who has headed
the UN's Development Fund for Women in Afghanistan for the last five
"We should use these successes to change attitudes and behaviour, but it
is going to take a very, very long time."
Drive down most streets in Kabul, and you will see huge billboards with
smiling Afghans hailing the magic of being connected by telephone in a
shattered country struggling to overcome the legacy of a quarter century
With women's illiteracy at around 86%, and with many still confined to
their homes, connecting them is still a struggle.
But even in this closed world, technology is widening horizons.
"Fifteen years ago, Dubai was nothing," points out a determined Zermina,
who is now able to dream. "Now Dubai is a business centre and we hope
our country will grow like that."
November 23, 2007
Careers Give India’s Women New Independence
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
BANGALORE, India — Not long ago, an Indian woman, even a working Indian woman, would almost always have moved from her parents’ house to her husband’s. Perhaps her only freedom would be during college, when she might live on campus or take a room for a year or two at what is known here as the working women’s hostel.
That trajectory has begun to loosen, as a surging economy creates new jobs, prompts young professionals to leave home and live on their own and slowly, perhaps unwittingly, nudges a traditional society to accept new freedoms for women.
The new opening has hardly rubbed away old restrictions. As they wrestle with new uncertainties and new choices, many young Indian women are embracing the changes tentatively, tinkering for the time being with the customs of the past.
The changes are sharpest in the lives of women who have found a footing in the new economy and who are for the most part middle-class, college-educated professionals exploring jobs that simply did not exist a generation ago.
High-technology workers and fashion designers, aerobics instructors and radio D.J.’s, these women in their 20s are living independently for the first time, far from their families. Many are deferring marriage for a year or two, maybe more, while they make money and live lives that most of their mothers could not have dreamed of.
Bangalore, also known as Bengaluru, the capital of India’s technology and back-office business, is the epicenter of these changes. Once a quiet, leafy city favored by retirees, it now crawls with young people, with more than half of its 4.3 million residents under the age of 30, according to the 2001 census.
Posters advertise rooms for men and women living solo. Coffee bars are packed in the evenings. Vegetable vendors ply their wares late into the night.
So when Shubha Khaddar, 23, trudges home from work and stops to pick up something for dinner, she rarely finds herself alone. “You’ll find 10 other girls like you coming back with sabji,” Ms. Khaddar said, sabji being Hindi for vegetables.
As she left one recent morning for the public relations firm where she works, her parting words to Pallavi Maddala, 23, her roommate and a software engineer, were to bring back some idlis, or steamed rice cakes, for dinner. She would be home late. Besides, idlis would be a low-fat option.
Ms. Khaddar had been on a diet, partly egged on by her mother, who is trying to improve her marriage prospects from across the country, in Delhi. On the refrigerator, she had pasted a snarky yellow note to herself: “Lose Weight, You Fat Pig.”
In November, Ms. Khaddar gave notice at work, because she could no longer stand the job. She said she was stressed out at the prospect of finding nothing in Bangalore and having to return to life with her parents in Delhi. “I don’t think I’m prepared to go home,” she said.
Both women were trying to stave off their mothers’ intervention in the marriage department, though not entirely. Ms. Khaddar had been seeing someone but had yet to tell her parents, nor completely closed the door on her mother’s plans.
Ms. Maddala, for her part, welcomed the prospect of having a husband chosen for her but not now, and not the overseas Indians for whom her mother has an affinity.
Not long ago, Ms. Maddala showed Ms. Khaddar a photograph of one such prospect, a young man living in the United States. “The picture just freaked me out,” Ms. Khaddar recalled this morning, while getting herself ready for work. “I said, ‘Dude, you’re not getting married to that.’”
Ms. Maddala laughed at the memory. She agreed that he was too big and tall for her tastes. A couple of months later, another marriage prospect fell through because the young man’s family demanded a hefty dowry that gave Ms. Maddala pause.
More than anything, Ms. Maddala said, she wanted to savor her independence a bit longer. She moved here from Hyderabad, about 300 miles away, earlier this year. She described the lessons of freedom this way: “What is me? What is myself? How can I manage? We come here, we realize we are strong.”
“Confidence,” she went on. “As a woman nowadays, really it is a must.”
In this deeply traditional society, accustomed to absorbing influences of all kinds over the centuries, change comes slowly, if at all. And so the new economy, and the new lifestyle it has engendered, has hardly wiped away the old values, particularly with respect to marriage.
Public opinion polls in recent years routinely have revealed that young people, men and women both, still cling to ideas of virginity before marriage, and fairly large numbers say they prefer to marry within their own caste and community. The great big Indian wedding is bigger than ever. Dowry — and deaths at the hands of women’s in-laws who consider their dowries to be inadequate — prevails.
Yet, for women like these, freedom has brought new choices, new problems and as Ms. Khaddar puts it, new guilt.
Should she stay here and enjoy her independence for as long as she can? she sometimes asks herself. Or should she return home to Delhi, find a job, and allow her parents to fix a match with a young man from a north Indian Brahmin family like her own?
She is in transition, she said, between being “completely independent” and “a homely chick,” meaning, in Indian English, a life of domesticity.
Ms. Khaddar knows what her parents know, and it makes her nervous: that finding a match will be difficult for a woman like her, a student of philosophy, who thinks for herself, lives apart from her parents and likes classic rock.
A bigger fear, she confesses, is not being married at all.
“I’m torn about this whole independence thing,” Ms. Khaddar said.
Indian women are marrying later, though still relatively young compared with the West. The mean age of marriage inched to 18.3 in 2001 from 17.7 years in 1991, according to the census, and as late as 22.6 years for the college-educated.
Nearly a third of the work force is female, with rural women employed mostly in agriculture and urban women in services. Although their ranks are minuscule at the top rungs of corporate India, it is common to see women in jobs that either did not exist a generation ago, or in jobs that would rarely be filled by women, whether gas station attendants or cafe baristas, magazine editors or software programmers.
Every now and then, a high-profile crime against a woman prompts new hand-wringing and outcry over women working at night. But the young working woman living on her own is now firmly part of the urban mainstream.
Apartments are easier to rent, unlike when accommodations were limited to a room in the home of a nosy landlord who would cluck her teeth if a boyfriend spent the night, and radio talk shows feature callers talking about the pros and cons of a live-in boyfriend.
“I think it’s a very significant shift,” said Urvashi Butalia, publisher of Zubaan Books, based in New Delhi, which promotes women’s writing. “It signals a kind of change and acceptability. It testifies to women’s desire and wish to be economically independent, to be able to interact in public space and be in the same world as men.”
Equally important, she said, is the attitude adjustment among elders. “For families to accept that women will remain single, that they will live on their own, that they will work and defer marriage, is a very, very significant shift,” she said. “Even if it’s very small, it’s beginning to happen in a society where before, if you wanted to do that you’d be out on a limb.”
Ms. Butalia, 55, went out on that limb herself. Thirty years ago, she joined a New Delhi publishing house where she recalls being told that women were not welcome in executive positions because they inevitably married and quit. As it happened, she remained single, becoming one of the best known figures in Indian publishing.
Women in the younger generation, like Cauvery Cariappa, find themselves still bucking their elders on the subject of living alone. She broke the news to her parents after graduating from a Bangalore college in 2000 that she would not be returning home to Ooty, about 180 miles away. Instead, she would work and rent a place here.
“People will talk,” was her parents’ first reaction. They coaxed her to come home. Then they threw what she called “emotional tantrums.” Then they asked her to meet prospective husbands. She refused.
“The trend is once you’re 21, once you graduate, if you’re not doing something productive, you get married,” she said. “‘Productive’ according to your parents is very different from your own terms. For them, back then, it was a doctor or some other known job.”
Ms. Cariappa, now 28, went through a gamut of jobs, all of them fruits of the new economy: first at an advertising agency, then a call center, a bank, and finally she decided she would try her hand at designing clothes.
The apartment she shares now with two roommates is mostly bare, with a shelf loaded with shoes in one corner, cushions on the floor, and empty liquor bottles lined up smartly on a ledge, which made her mother gasp on her first visit. Ms. Cariappa said she assured her they had not all been consumed in one go.
Here, her boyfriend can come and go without anyone asking questions. She can go out with friends. For safety, she carries mouth spray as a substitute for mace. One of her roommates carries a long dog chain, which she once had to use to repel a man.
“I get to live how I want,” she said. “There’s nobody telling me I can’t.”
But after fighting so hard for her independence, even she could not resist the pull of tradition. In November, Ms. Cariappa announced that her freewheeling days were coming to an end.
She and her boyfriend of seven years had decided to marry. That, too, was a break with her family’s tradition, because he is from another community, from another part of the country.
She would soon move out of the apartment. “Yeah, eventually most of us get there!” she said in a text message. “The same thing’s happened 2 my roomie, hence the msg. R u or any of your friends looking 4 a place 2 stay?”
The building is only six weeks old, but already the burn unit in Herat is saturated with the dizzying smell of antiseptic and charred human flesh.
A single gruesome scream is heard from a side room as nurses change a woman's bandages. Other patients occasionally cry out "Allah" as they stare up at the ceiling.
Beside a sunny window in the women's section lies Afsana, 16, who says she was burned when kerosene splashed out of a lamp she was passing to her sister-in-law. Her burns are so deep her nerve endings are damaged.
"I don't have any pain," Afsana insists in a weak whisper to her mother and the doctor.
She has been in the unit for almost a week, and the doctors didn't think the teen would survive this long given the extent of her injuries. They also don't believe that Afsana is telling the truth about what happened, and in fact think she set herself on fire -- a shameful but not uncommon act among young women in Afghan society.
Why do they suspect a self-inflicted burn? Because Afsana is scorched all over her legs, torso and neck -- more than 60 per cent of her body is affected. The watchful burn unit staff presume that the wider the area of burns, the more likely that it was on purpose.
"When an accident happens, they try to stop it," said Dr. Ghafar Bawar, a Canadian citizen who has lived in Ottawa for more than a decade, and has recently returned to his home country of Afghanistan to work as a plastic and reconstructive surgery consultant.
"In self-inflicted burns, a high percentage of the body surface area is affected. When it is more than 40 per cent of body surface area burnt . . . it's usually self-inflicted."
Herat in western Afghanistan has the only dedicated burn unit in the country, in part because this is where the need is greatest. Setting oneself on fire, or self-immolation, is the preferred method of suicide for the women of Afghanistan under 20 -- it's increasingly seen in Kandahar in the south, but it's especially common in Herat.
This year alone the Herat unit has seen about 70 cases of women setting themselves alight. Self-inflicted burns make up about 20 per cent of the cases the unit doctors see.
A burn unit at the Herat Regional Hospital has been up and running for four years, but just last month the new building opened. It was an international effort -- built with U.S. government dollars, furnished by Italians and operated and supplied by the French organization HumaniTerra. The Afghan government pays some of the staff.
The new facility is clean and bright, with three storeys and three dozen beds, and is a significant improvement over older, cramped facilities where doctors did their operations in the washing room.
But the pleasant new surroundings can't soothe the worst human suffering.
Self-immolation is commonly seen among girls and women who have a forced engagement to a man they don't want to marry, or have married into a family where they are beaten or intimated.
Across the country almost three in five Afghan girls are married before the legal age of 16, according to statistics from the Ministry of Women's Affairs and Women's Organizations. And between 60 and 80 per cent of all marriages are believed to be "forced."
"The accessibility of fuel or petrol, the high incidence of women suffering post-traumatic stress and the apparent lack of alternatives are some of the causes which drive these women to commit this violent and excruciatingly painful act," said a recent report from Medica mondiale, a German-based international nongovernmental organization.
First MicroFinance Bank’s Client Wins "Best Micro-Entrepreneur" Award
Islamabad, Pakistan, 27 November 2007 – The First MicroFinance Bank’s client, Ms. Sifat Gul from Gharam Chashma, Chitral won the “Best National Micro-Entrepreneur Award Female” at the recently organised Citi-PPAF Micro-entrepreneurship Awards 2007 ceremony in Islamabad. Dr. Ishrat Hussain, former Governor State Bank of Pakistan was the Chief Guest for the occasion where Sifat Gul was awarded a cash prize of Rs. 115,000. The objective of the Citi-PPAF Micro-entrepreneurship Awards Programme 2007 is to illustrate and promote the effective role that micro-finance plays in poverty alleviation. It recognises the extraordinary contributions that individual micro-entrepreneurs have made to the economic sustainability of their families as well as their communities.
The award winner Sifat Gul, faced with economic problems, began her journey a couple of years ago by approaching The First MicroFinanceBank Ltd (FMFB) for a loan to purchase a sewing machine and become a tailor. However, she was soon able to diversify her small home-run business into a full training institute to harness the sewing and embroidery skills of the young women in her community. Today, she plans to construct a separate building for her training institute and has partnered with other organisations that purchase her products and exhibit them in city centres.
Her association with the Bank not only helped her in increasing her own household income and savings and but also empowered her to play a positive role in mobilizing her community to bring about a social change in their surroundings. Today, not only does she have the basic amenities of life including good quality access to education, housing and health facilities for her entire household but also trains and empowers many young women to earn their livelihoods. Coming from the remote, mountainous area of Chitral, hers is a story of true woman empowerment as she stepped up to earn a livelihood and was later elected as a female councillor revolutionizing the surroundings by playing a pivotal role in mobilising common interest projects such as Community Based Schools, village pipeline repair and road repair projects. Initially faced by strong resistance and opposition from her family to start a business, Sifat Gul with the support of The First MicroFinanceBank and her sheer commitment, confidence and hard work succeeded in bringing a positive change in her household and continues to be a social change agent.
The First MicroFinanceBank, a part of the Aga Khan Development Network, has played an instrumental role in reaching out to the poor segments of society by enabling individuals to strengthen their entrepreneurial base and build capital for a sound and secure future. The Bank strives to alleviate poverty through sustainable economic development by offering credit, savings and life insurance services and an efficient and low cost funds transfer service to its target populations. With over 70 fully automated branches all over Pakistan, FMFB has disbursed 170,000 loans and has achieved 64% rural outreach in a short span of six years.
The Saudi king has pardoned a female rape victim sentenced to jail and 200 lashes for being alone with a man raped in the same attack, reports say.
The "Qatif girl" case caused an international outcry with widespread criticism of the Saudi justice system.
The male and female victims were in a car together when they were abducted and raped by seven attackers, who were given jail sentences up to nine years.
Press reports say King Abdullah's move did not mean the sentence was wrong.
Quoted by the Jazirah newspaper, Justice Minister Abdullah al-Sheikh said the king had the right to issue pardons if it served the public interest.
Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to mix with men who are not close family members.
The custodial sentence plus 200 lashes was imposed after the woman, who has not been named, appealed against an earlier sentence of 90 lashes.
The Saudi king frequently pardons criminals at the Eid al-Adha festival which takes place this week, but correspondents say that is usually announced by the official press agency.
The BBC's Heba Saleh says the king's decision to pardon the woman victim is already arousing controversy with some contributors to conservative websites, who say he has breached the rules of religion in order to appease critics in the West.
The US had called the punishment "astonishing", although it refused to condemn the Saudi justice system.
Human rights groups had been calling on King Abdullah, who has a reputation as a pro-Western reformer, to change it.
The justice ministry recently rejected what it saw as "foreign interference" in the case and insisted the ruling was legal and that the woman had confessed to having an affair with her fellow rape victim.
Earlier, the woman - who is a Shia Muslim from the Qatif area - had reportedly said she met the man in order to retrieve a photograph of them together, having herself recently got married.
She says two other men then entered the car and took them to a secluded area where others were waiting, and both she and her male companion were raped.
The woman's companion was sentenced to 90 lashes. It is not known if his sentence was also lifted.
December 18, 2007
The Mourning After
By CHERIE BLAIR
LIKE many people nowadays, I’m the product of a single-parent family. My sister and I were brought up by my mother after my father deserted us when we were young. It must have been very tough for my mother but we children thrived because of a huge amount of support from a big extended family.
When I reflect on the plight of millions of widows across the world, I realize just how fortunate we were. Although we were surrounded by love, widows and their children in many societies are shunned, abused and exploited.
The centuries-old practice of suttee — a widow burning herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre — has all but vanished. But the few cases of self-immolation that do occur are a reminder of how bleak the future is for many widows. After a shocking case just five years ago in rural India, a sociologist in Delhi, Susan Visvanathan, explained that the widow who set herself on fire “would have assumed her life would be one of isolation and despair and shame and suffering.”
In rural areas of Nepal and India, widows may still be expected to shave their heads, sleep on the floor and hide from men for the rest of their lives.
In Afghanistan, where two million women have lost their husbands in decades of fighting, widows are prevented from working and have no way to provide for their children. In Tanzania, among other countries, the legal system makes it difficult for widows to inherit their husband’s property.
The result is that many widows and their children are kicked out of their homes, forced to live in abject poverty on the fringes of society, and are prey to abuse, violence and sexual exploitation. With no money to pay for education, the children of widows are pulled out of school. With no education, these children are doomed to spend their lives in the most menial of jobs, if they can find work at all.
This is a huge problem. In India alone, there are estimated to be some 30 million widows struggling to bring up children. Across the developing world, there may be as many as 100 million in a perilous state. Conflict, ethnic cleansing and AIDS are increasing these numbers by the day and creating younger widows. In countries where disease or conflict are most rife, half of all women can be impoverished widows.
Given the scale and nature of this injustice, it’s disturbing that this problem has remained largely invisible. Statistics are too often not kept by national governments. And despite the United Nations’ welcome focus on tackling global poverty and gender inequality, there is no specific mention of widows in its Millennium Development Goals — an oversight that makes it that much more difficult for the international campaign to work.
Improving the situation of widows and their children, however, won’t be easy. A much greater effort is needed from national governments, including, where necessary, an overhaul of legislation to protect the inheritance rights of widows. It would help as well, where possible, to raise the minimum age for marriage. Children of 14 or even younger should not be married off to men as many as 40 years older, not least because they will soon join the ranks of widows.
Governments must be prepared as well to stand up to cultural pressures, however strong, to enforce existing legislation. Many of the countries where widows are treated worst have good laws in place to protect them. The problem is that they are routinely ignored by local communities and seldom enforced.
Any government efforts will have to go hand in hand with a sustained education campaign, letting women know their rights, explaining to local elders the legal protections that exist and informing communities of the long-term damage these injustices are causing to the health and wealth of their societies.
In the end, it is not just widows who lose out because of this damaging prejudice and discrimination. We all do. Only with determination and courage will we be able to save widows and their families from lives of stigma, harassment and humiliation.
Cherie Blair, a human rights lawyer, is the president of Loomba Trust, a charity that campaigns for the rights of widows and their children in the developing world.
More women losing battle with the bottle
Higher incomes and stress levels feed addictions
CanWest News Service
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Second in a CanWest News Service series
- - -
The last thing V. remembers of the night she hit bottom was calling 911. She came to tied to a stretcher in an emergency ward.
She climbed down and disconnected the tubes, "because I'm a nurse, I know how to do it." Then she saw the patient chart next to her bed. What she read astounded her: It had taken six orderlies to hold her down so a tube could be put down her nose to pump her stomach.
B. played games. She knew her limit was a litre of wine, so she would buy a 750 ml bottle on the way home from work, and then drink it within an hour and a half. Finished, she would think, "I'd like another glass of wine," then drive, immaculately dressed, and drunk, to the liquor store.
J.'s shyness drained away with that first drink. She felt gregarious, at ease. She never had more than a few drinks with friends, and then she would go home and finish drinking until she passed out. If it was a good drinking day, she could make it to midnight. By the end, it took 12 bottles of beer and whisky or bourbon to get there.
V. has a management position with the federal government. B. is a recently retired school administrator. J. is a former navy officer. All are smart, capable women who on the outside looked as if they were winning in life, while inside, their lives were coming undone.
Their realities were nothing like the images in the glossy ads, the pictures of gorgeous women sipping martinis, with captions like: Cocktails, anyone?
Women raised in wealth. Women raised on reserves or high-crime neighbourhoods. Mothers who wait to drink until their children are in bed then drink until three in the morning.
Experts say more women appear to be drinking, and drinking heavily.
"Women are drinking more. They're drinking more like men, sadly, and they're drinking more often and heavier when they do drink," says Tim Stockwell, director of the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.
Stockwell attributes the number of women under the influence to rising stress levels and broad social changes sweeping modern societies. "The workforce is much more gender balanced. The divisions and distinctions that used to apply -- the classic stereotypes of the passive, feminine female and the macho, hunter-gatherer male -- don't apply so much."
Women are earning more, and have more to spend on alcohol, the female drug of choice. There are more professional women in their 20s and 30s who have high disposable incomes and no children to rush to pick up at day care. Bars, offering designer drinks, have become more female friendly.
"I treat a lot of women who are affluent businesswomen and they're increasing the business dinners they're going out to, they're getting into wine tasting, they're starting to get into martini bars. They're telling me stories, 'I went to a luncheon or dinner and I drank too much,' " says Harris Stratyner, an associate professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and vice-president of Caron New York, an addiction treatment centre in New York City that has treated Canadians.
He sees women who use alcohol as a social lubricant, a mood disinhibitor, and a way for newly single women to cope with the stress of dating.
"And then I'm hearing, I had too much to drink. I slept with him the first night," Stratyner says.
"I'm hearing about blackout sex, which is very, very disturbing. When you're in a blackout, you literally have no recollection of what went on. You could be raped and not have a recollection of it."
Sue Lingl hears it, too.
"It's not uncommon here for women to say they've never danced or had consensual sex clean and sober," says Lingl, a counsellor at Aurora Treatment Centre for women at BC Women's Hospital and Health Centre in Vancouver.
Women drink to feel better, faster -- whatever "better" means, she says.
"It doesn't matter whether it's an anxiety attack or insomnia, or to have the courage to become angry."
Women quickly learn it's not socially acceptable to show anger. The message instead: Suppress. Internalize. Deny.
Alcohol addiction in women knows no socio-economic boundaries. There are single mothers on welfare, sex-trade workers and physicians' wives, trust-fund babies and lawyers, and women from the suburbs who've lost jobs, partners and children to alcohol.
"The old stereotype used to be, 'I'm not a wino if I'm not drinking out of a brown paper bag in the alley,' " Lingl says.
In reality, little separates the woman "who stands at the corner of Main and Hastings at 11 o'clock at night and gets into a car and exchanges sexual favours for money, and the woman who lives in an emotionally bankrupt marriage who only stays to have a roof over her head and money," Lingl says.
There’s a quiet revolution going on in the Middle East, and it’s being driven
by women. When Asma al-Akhras married the president of Syria in December 1999, she joined an elite group of first ladies who are educated, glamorous and prepared to stand up and be counted. They are ardent campaigners on humanitarian and social issues, and for them, taking a back seat is not an option. It is a group that includes Queen Rania of Jordan, Suzanne Mubarak of Egypt, Andree Lahoud of Lebanon and Queen Salma of Morocco, and together they are sending out a message to the rest of the world that the modern Arab woman
is intelligent, independent and at the cutting edge of fashion to boot.
Mrs. Assad, now 29, was brought up in London but spoke only Syrian at home – “I didn’t realise until I was seven that my parents could actually speak English,” she says – and spent each summer in her home country. She kept a low profile for the first few months of her new, married life, not, she insists, because she was in hiding, but because it gave her a chance to get to know her people before they knew her. “I was able to spend time meeting other Syrian people,” she recalls. “Because people had no idea who I was, I was able to see what their problems were, their hopes and aspirations.”
Incognito, she joined up with various United Nations-backed programmes being implemented in the rural areas of Syria. Thus, she was able to get a good grasp of the real issues affecting the Syrian people – and no doubt report her findings back to her husband. Three months later, her face would be instantly recognised by everyone, everywhere. “To be honest,” she says, “I wanted to meet ordinary citizens before they met me. Before the world met me.”
And when the world did meet her, in March 2000, it was a groundbreaking moment. Mrs. Assad stepped out in public for the first time with her husband to meet the president of Bulgaria. She was without a veil and wore an above-the-knee skirt. This was not the first country in the region to witness a president’s wife asserting herself as a modern, working woman, but it was not what Syria was used to. In the past four years, however, they have embraced their first lady, who has become a symbol of the efforts of her husband to modernise and reform the country.
Like her counterparts elsewhere in the region, she quickly espoused
humanitarian and social causes and has since been a tireless campaigner on various issues, not least education and, most particularly, the advancement of women. Understandably for a woman who herself has a degree in computer science from Kings College London, Mrs. Assad’s interest in the development of her country went straight to the very heart of its potential future. In February last year, to mark Arab Woman Day, she hosted a forum in Damascus, Women and Education – The Development Of A Nation, at which she declared that a woman’s
education and work were “an integral part of her identity and national duty. They are not just a fulfilment of economic needs.”
“I WANTED TO MEET ORDINARY CITIZENS
BEFORE THEY MET ME. BEFORE THE WORLD MET ME”
The conference, drew an impressive turnout from the region’s first ladies, many of whom are also educated to degree level – Queen Salma of Morocco, for example, has a degree in engineering and Suzanne Mubarak has a masters in sociology. The forum gave these women a chance to exchange expertise, as well as discuss the means to enhance the role of women in the educational process and in the overall development of their communities. Mrs. Assad’s commitment to improve education standards was further emphasised during her first visit back to the UK as the president’s wife in December 2002, when she discussed literacy
programmes with ministers from the department for education and skills.
Economic issues have also been a major focus for Syria’s first lady, inspired by her own experience working as a financial analyst for global institutions such as JP Morgan in London. For example, she took the opportunity on the same trip to the UK to visit a Prince’s Trust scheme for business start-ups. Her conviction that women can and should play a major role in boosting the country’s economy has resulted in her setting up a non-governmental organisation to introduce microfinance to Syria. In June last year, her efforts came to fruition in Yarmouk, in the southwest near Jordan, where she met local entrepreneurs to launch the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa)’s microfinance and microenterprise programme, which loans working capital to
small businesses, to give a financial boost to Syria’s least well-off.
The way the loan programme works is to provide credit for those who would not ordinarily be eligible for it – largely because they do not own land that can act as collateral – to start or improve existing businesses. The aim of the programme is to improve the quality of life of these small business owners, sustain jobs, decrease unemployment, reduce poverty, empower women and open up new income-generating opportunities.
Mrs. Assad is also working closely with other development organisations, such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which has built on the framework of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) of the '90s to help small businesses get off the ground. Her early excursions 'tagging along’ incognito around the country with development agencies have obviously stood her in good stead and she continues
tirelessly to campaign, with her husband, for modernisation and greater
opportunities for the average Syrian.
Mrs. Assad shares these goals with her fellow first ladies across the region, and together these women are helping to modernise their countries. But they are doing more than that – they are building bridges with the West in terms of culture and understanding, as well as forging closer links between their own countries. The first ladies frequently attend forums to discuss regional issues, most recently in Beirut at the Women and Armed Conflict conference in March.
It was a two-day meeting, attended by the first ladies of Lebanon, Syria,
Egypt, Sudan, Jordan and Bahrain, as well as the sister of King Mohammed VI of Morocco. During the proceedings, the Syrian minister of emigrant affairs Buthaina Shaaban – one of two women appointed to the cabinet by President Assad – called upon women in decision-making positions to play a leading role in spreading peace. The conference concluded with several motions demanding that women be granted an active role in the Arab League and trained to plead for the Arab cause in international organisations. It also called on governments to set up programmes that raise awareness on the destructiveness of wars and how they affect women, children and families.
Amazingly, in the midst of all this activity, Mrs. Assad has had time to start
a family: Hafez, named after his grandfather, was born in December 2001. And it is not just Asma who has adopted
“I WAS BORN IN LONDON. I SPENT 25 YEARS IN LONDON.
BUT I ALSO KNOW I’M SYRIAN. I AM BRITISH AND
I AM AN ARAB. I AM PART OF BOTH WORLDS"
a modern approach – her husband is right there with her. The lifestyle they lead in Damascus could not be more different from that of his father. For example, the couple do not live in the presidential palace, but have a modest home in the city centre. And in terms of equality, Asma is said to have her own office in the palace and attends ministerial meetings.
The couple had been friends for years in London, where they were both students, although, Asma insists, it was never anything more than friendship. Bashar was studying ophthalmology until the tragic death of his older brother Basil in a car accident in 1994, when he returned to his homeland to be groomed for presidenthood. Asma’s evolution from
West London girl to Syrian First Lady could not have been speedier. When asked how soon she knew that Bashar intended to marry her, she replied: “The day before.” Since his accession to power, President Assad has been a keen advocate of women in public service, and as well as appointing two female ministers, he has also overseen 24 women legislators arrive in the 250-member parliament. Neither does he underestimate the importance of women in the private sector – no less than nine businesswomen accompanied the couple on their official trip
to the UK.
These efforts to promote the role of women in Syria’s future are not going
unnoticed. Leading businesswoman Khulud Halaby – who runs the franchise for DHL in Syria, the first company in the country to receive ISO certification – recognises Mrs. Assad’s contribution: “Thanks to all her support, women today have an opportunity to build a solid basis for themselves and their daughters in the business world.”
Mrs. Assad continues to exercise huge influence on both the regional and
international stage, and her role is crucial in terms of the development of
women at home, as well as in strengthening ties with the west. On her last
official visit to Britain, she emphasised her status as First Lady of Syria by
travelling under her Syrian passport, despite the fact that she holds a British one, too. “I was born in London. I spent 25 years in London,” she says. “But I’m also Syrian. I am British and I am an Arab. I am part of both worlds.”
By SAM DOLNICK, Associated Press Writer Sun Dec 30, 3:02 PM ET
ANAND, India - Every night in this quiet western Indian city, 15 pregnant women prepare for sleep in the spacious house they share, ascending the stairs in a procession of ballooned bellies, to bedrooms that become a landscape of soft hills.
A team of maids, cooks and doctors looks after the women, whose pregnancies would be unusual anywhere else but are common here. The young mothers of Anand, a place famous for its milk, are pregnant with the children of infertile couples from around the world.
The small clinic at Kaival Hospital matches infertile couples with local women, cares for the women during pregnancy and delivery, and counsels them afterward. Anand's surrogate mothers, pioneers in the growing field of outsourced pregnancies, have given birth to roughly 40 babies.
More than 50 women in this city are now pregnant with the children of couples from the United States, Taiwan , Britain and beyond. The women earn more than many would make in 15 years. But the program raises a host of uncomfortable questions that touch on morals and modern science, exploitation and globalization, and that most natural of desires: to have a family.
Dr. Nayna Patel, the woman behind Anand's baby boom, defends her work as meaningful for everyone involved.
"There is this one woman who desperately needs a baby and cannot have her own child without the help of a surrogate. And at the other end there is this woman who badly wants to help her (own) family," Patel said. "If this female wants to help the other one ... why not allow that? ... It's not for any bad cause. They're helping one another to have a new life in this world."
Experts say commercial surrogacy — or what has been called "wombs for rent" — is growing in India. While no reliable numbers track such pregnancies nationwide, doctors work with surrogates in virtually every major city. The women are impregnated in-vitro with the egg and sperm of couples unable to conceive on their own.
Commercial surrogacy has been legal in India since 2002, as it is in many other countries, including the United States. But India is the leader in making it a viable industry rather than a rare fertility treatment. Experts say it could take off for the same reasons outsourcing in other industries has been successful: a wide labor pool working for relatively low rates.
Critics say the couples are exploiting poor women in India — a country with an alarmingly high maternal death rate — by hiring them at a cut-rate cost to undergo the hardship, pain and risks of labor.
"It raises the factor of baby farms in developing countries," said Dr. John Lantos of the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, Mo. "It comes down to questions of voluntariness and risk."
Patel's surrogates are aware of the risks because they've watched others go through them. Many of the mothers know one another, or are even related. Three sisters have all borne strangers' children, and their sister-in-law is pregnant with a second surrogate baby. Nearly half the babies have been born to foreign couples while the rest have gone to Indians.
Ritu Sodhi, a furniture importer from Los Angeles who was born in India, spent $200,000 trying to get pregnant through in-vitro fertilization, and was considering spending another $80,000 to hire a surrogate mother in the United States.
"We were so desperate," she said. "It was emotionally and financially exhausting."
Then, on the Internet, Sodhi found Patel's clinic.
After spending about $20,000 — more than many couples because it took the surrogate mother several cycles to conceive — Sodhi and her husband are now back home with their 4-month-old baby, Neel. They plan to return to Anand for a second child.
"Even if it cost $1 million, the joy that they had delivered to me is so much more than any money that I have given them," said Sodhi. "They're godsends to deliver something so special."
Patel's center is believed to be unique in offering one-stop service. Other clinics may request that the couple bring in their own surrogate, often a family member or friend, and some place classified ads. But in Anand the couple just provides the egg and sperm and the clinic does the rest, drawing from a waiting list of tested and ready surrogates.
Young women are flocking to the clinic to sign up for the list.
Suman Dodia, a pregnant, baby-faced 26-year-old, said she will buy a house with the $4,500 she receives from the British couple whose child she's carrying. It would have taken her 15 years to earn that on her maid's monthly salary of $25.
Dodia's own three children were delivered at home and she said she never visited a doctor during those pregnancies.
"It's very different with medicine," Dodia said, resting her hands on her hugely pregnant belly. "I'm being more careful now than I was with my own pregnancy."
Patel said she carefully chooses which couples to help and which women to hire as surrogates. She only accepts couples with serious fertility issues, like survivors of uterine cancer. The surrogate mothers have to be between 18 and 45, have at least one child of their own, and be in good medical shape.
Like some fertility reality show, a rotating cast of surrogate mothers live together in a home rented by the clinic and overseen by a former surrogate mother. They receive their children and husbands as visitors during the day, when they're not busy with English or computer classes.
"They feel like my family," said Rubina Mandul, 32, the surrogate house's den mother. "The first 10 days are hard, but then they don't want to go home."
Mandul, who has two sons of her own, gave birth to a child for an American couple in February. She said she misses the baby, but she stays in touch with the parents over the Internet. A photo of the American couple with the child hangs over the sofa.
"They need a baby more than me," she said.
The surrogate mothers and the parents sign a contract that promises the couple will cover all medical expenses in addition to the woman's payment, and the surrogate mother will hand over the baby after birth. The couples fly to Anand for the in-vitro fertilization and again for the birth. Most couples end up paying the clinic less than $10,000 for the entire procedure, including fertilization, the fee to the mother and medical expenses.
Counseling is a major part of the process and Patel tells the women to think of the pregnancy as "someone's child comes to stay at your place for nine months."
Kailas Gheewala, 25, said she doesn't think of the pregnancy as her own.
"The fetus is theirs, so I'm not sad to give it back," said Gheewala, who plans to save the $6,250 she's earning for her two daughters' education. "The child will go to the U.S. and lead a better life and I'll be happy."
Patel said none of the surrogate mothers has had especially difficult births or serious medical problems, but risks are inescapable.
"We have to be very careful," she said. "We overdo all the health investigations. We do not take any chances."
Health experts expect to see more Indian commercial surrogacy programs in coming years. Dr. Indira Hinduja, a prominent fertility specialist who was behind India's first test-tube baby two decades ago, receives several surrogacy inquiries a month from couples overseas.
"People are accepting it," said Hinduja. "Earlier they used to be ashamed but now they are becoming more broadminded."
But if commercial surrogacy keeps growing, some fear it could change from a medical necessity for infertile women to a convenience for the rich.
"You can picture the wealthy couples of the West deciding that pregnancy is just not worth the trouble anymore and the whole industry will be farmed out," said Lantos.
Or, Lantos said, competition among clinics could lead to compromised safety measures and "the clinic across the street offers it for 20 percent less and one in Bangladesh undercuts that and pretty soon conditions get bad."
The industry is not regulated by the government. Health officials have issued nonbinding ethical guidelines and called for legislation to protect the surrogates and the children.
For now, the surrogate mothers in Anand seem as pleased with the arrangement as the new parents.
"I know this isn't mine," said Jagrudi Sharma, 34, pointing to her belly. "But I'm giving happiness to another couple. And it's great for me."
January 4, 2008
Saudi Arabia’s Promised Reforms
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia did the right thing when he pardoned the “Qatif girl.” The perfect injustice of the case, in which a young woman was gang raped and then sentenced to 200 lashes for being alone in a car with a man to whom she was not married, left him no choice. Now another ugly face of Saudi justice has been revealed, one that cannot be explained by religion, ancient tradition or culture. The detention last month of an outspoken blogger, Fouad al-Farhan — only confirmed by the Interior Ministry this week — is an act of thoroughly modern despotism and one the king should immediately overrule.
Mr. Farhan’s Web site, www.alfarhan.org, has posted a letter from him in which he said he was being investigated because of his writings about political prisoners. If King Abdullah is really serious about reforming his kingdom’s legal system, as he has indicated that he is, then he must change not only the Sharia-based courts but also the organs of state security that silence critics in his name.
King Abdullah’s announced reforms include the creation of a Supreme Court as well as specialized courts for criminal, commercial, labor and family matters, and the training of legal staff. These plans have been especially welcomed by foreigners doing business in Saudi Arabia, who have been hamstrung by the capriciousness of the religious judges.
The case of the woman from the Eastern town of Qatif should make clear to the king that his reforms cannot stop at making life easier for businessmen. They must also make life far better for women, who are denied basic legal and social rights, and they must give more legal protection to those who criticize the government.
Defenders of the existing Saudi system argue that change in this traditional society must come slowly. Many Saudis are clearly eager for more and faster change. A Gallup poll conducted last year showed that a majority want more freedoms for women. King Abdullah has demonstrated a laudable desire for reform. He must understand that cruelty, sex discrimination and censorship cannot be part of a modern legal system or a country that wants to participate in the modern world.
When President Bush visits Saudi Arabia this month, he should remind the king of that.
January 20, 2008
A Cutting Tradition
By SARA CORBETT
When a girl is taken — usually by her mother — to a free circumcision event held each spring in Bandung, Indonesia, she is handed over to a small group of women who, swiftly and yet with apparent affection, cut off a small piece of her genitals. Sponsored by the Assalaam Foundation, an Islamic educational and social-services organization, circumcisions take place in a prayer center or an emptied-out elementary-school classroom where desks are pushed together and covered with sheets and a pillow to serve as makeshift beds. The procedure takes several minutes. There is little blood involved. Afterward, the girl’s genital area is swabbed with the antiseptic Betadine. She is then helped back into her underwear and returned to a waiting area, where she’s given a small, celebratory gift — some fruit or a donated piece of clothing — and offered a cup of milk for refreshment. She has now joined a quiet majority in Indonesia, where, according to a 2003 study by the Population Council, an international research group, 96 percent of families surveyed reported that their daughters had undergone some form of circumcision by the time they reached 14.
These photos were taken in April 2006, at the foundation’s annual mass circumcision, which is free and open to the public and
held during the lunar month marking the birth of the prophet Muhammad. The Assalaam Foundation runs several schools and a mosque in Bandung, Indonesia’s third-largest city and the capital of West Java. The photographer Stephanie Sinclair was taken to the circumcision event by a reproductive-health observer from Jakarta and allowed to spend several hours there. Over the course of that Sunday morning, more than 200 girls were circumcised, many of them appearing to be under the age of 5. Meanwhile, in a nearby building, more than 100 boys underwent a traditional circumcision as well.
According to Lukman Hakim, the foundation’s chairman of social services, there are three “benefits” to circumcising girls.
“One, it will stabilize her libido,” he said through an interpreter. “Two, it will make a woman look more beautiful in the eyes of her husband. And three, it will balance her psychology.”
Female genital cutting — commonly identified among international human rights groups as female genital mutilation — has been outlawed in 15 African countries. Many industrialized countries also have similar laws. Both France and the U.S. have prosecuted immigrant residents for performing female circumcisions.
In Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, a debate over whether to ban female circumcision is in its early stages. The Ministry of Health has issued a decree forbidding medical personnel to practice it, but the decree which has yet to be backed by legislation does not affect traditional circumcisers and birth attendants, who are thought to do most female circumcisions. Many agree that a full ban is unlikely without strong support from the country’s religious leaders. According to the Population Council study, many Indonesians view circumcision for boys and girls as a religious duty.
Female circumcision in Indonesia is reported to be less extreme than the kind practiced in other parts of the globe — Africa, particularly. Worldwide, female genital cutting affects up to 140 million women and girls in varying degrees of severity, according to estimates from the World Health Organization. The most common form of female genital cutting, representing about 80 percent of cases around the world, includes the excision of the clitoris and the labia minora. A more extreme version of the practice, known as Pharaonic circumcision or infibulation, accounts for 15 percent of cases globally and involves the removal of all external genitalia and a stitching up of the vaginal opening.
Studies have shown that in some parts of Indonesia, female circumcision is more ritualistic — a rite of passage meant to purify the genitals and bestow gender identity on a female child — with a practitioner rubbing turmeric on the genitals or pricking the clitoris once with a needle to draw a symbolic drop of blood. In other instances, the procedure is more invasive, involving what WHO classifies as “Type I” female genital mutilation, defined as excision of the clitoral hood, called the prepuce, with or without incision of the clitoris itself. The Population Council’s 2003 study said that 82 percent of Indonesian mothers who witnessed their daughters’ circumcision reported that it involved “cutting.” The women most often identified the clitoris as the affected body part. The amount of flesh removed, if any, was alternately described by circumcisers as being the size of a quarter-grain of rice, a guava seed, a bean, the tip of a leaf, the head of a needle.
At the Assalaam Foundation, traditional circumcisers say they learn the practice from other women during several years of apprenticing. Siti Rukasitta, who has been a circumciser at the foundation for 20 years, said through an interpreter that they use a small pair of sterilized scissors to cut a piece of the clitoral prepuce about the size of a nail clipping. Population Council observers who visited the event before the 2003 study, however, reported that they also witnessed some cases of circumcisers cutting the clitoris itself.
Any distinction between injuring the clitoris or the clitoral hood is irrelevant, says Laura Guarenti, an obstetrician and WHO’s medical officer for child and maternal health in Jakarta. “The fact is there is absolutely no medical value in circumcising girls,” she says. “It is 100 percent the wrong thing to be doing.” The circumcision of boys, she adds, has demonstrated health benefits, namely reduced risk of infection and some protection against H.I.V.
Nonetheless, as Western awareness of female genital cutting has grown, anthropologists, policy makers and health officials have warned against blindly judging those who practice it, saying that progress is best made by working with local leaders and opinion-makers to gradually shift the public discussion of female circumcision from what it’s believed to bestow upon a girl toward what it takes away. “These mothers believe they are doing something good for their children,” Guarenti, a native of Italy, told me. “For our culture that is not easily understandable. To judge them harshly is to isolate them. You cannot make change that way.”
Morning Edition, January 25, 2008 · France is Europe's most rigidly secular society, relegating religion to the sidelines.
Paradoxically, of all the Muslims in Europe, it's the French ones who most closely identify with France's values, despite widespread social discrimination.
And it's French Muslim women who are in the forefront of grassroots political activism and in forging their own interpretation of Islam.
Muslim Women Leading the Charge
After taking office, President Nicholas Sarkozy announced the appointment of the first Muslim — who is also a woman — as justice minister. Rachida Dati, 41, was the 12th child of a Moroccan laborer and an Algerian mother.
And she is not the only Muslim woman with a senior portfolio.
The foreign undersecretary for human rights is Senegal-born Rama Yade. The undersecretary for urban affairs is Fadela Amara, an activist from the immigrant housing projects.
Amara is visiting Epinay Sur Seine, one of the many immigrant ghettoes that encircle Paris. Here, poverty, unemployment and youth violence are endemic.
Amara, 43, known as the ghetto warrior, organized the first town hall meeting in this desolate, graffiti-laced project. Facing a mostly female audience, Amara lashed out at sexist patriarchal cultures that, she says, harm young women.
She tells the audience members that they must speak out and denounce violence against women in the ghetto — and against the growing number of forced marriages. And, Amara warns, they must be more vigilant against Islamist preachers who pollute the heads of young men with fundamentalism.
The daughter of Algerian immigrants, Amara was a political activist as a teen.
After a young Muslim girl was burned alive by a Muslim thug who thought she was too independent, Amara founded a movement with a provocative name: Ni Putes Ni Soumises, or Neither Whores Nor Submissives.
It put the spotlight on abuse of women in the high-rise ghettoes.
Searching for Inclusion
Amara is a firm believer in the secular values of mainstream French society, and she demands that France live up to its ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood for all its citizens.
One young woman echoes the challenge.
"Nouveau Francais" is the latest hit single by 22-year-old Amel Bent, the French-born daughter of North African parents who became famous on the French version of the U.S. reality television program American Idol.
Her tune echoes the national anthem and describes the desire of immigrants to be accepted under the same flag.
"We don't ask for special recognition," Bent sings. "We're neither more nor less a child of France."
In fact, rioting ghetto youths don't brandish religious symbols but rather their French ID cards.
This desire for inclusion was also expressed by French Muslims surveyed in a major Pew poll in 2006, in which 78 percent said they want to adopt French customs.
And the 2004 law banning headscarves in schools was much more sharply criticized abroad than by French Muslims.
Today, the presence of minority women in Sarkozy's cabinet shows young Muslim women it's possible to make a mark in France.
Gap Between Aspirations and Reality
But Sihem Habchi, the new president of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, laments the wide gap between aspirations and reality. None of the ministers were elected. There's only one Muslim representative in parliament and no Muslim mayors.
Habchi says discrimination against men and women of foreign origin is widespread.
"We don't understand why they want to build this wall between us and the rest of society," she says. "I can represent all the French. I am French since long time, and I can defend the values of progress also."
Habchi believes the only outlet for women in the ghettoes is political activism.
Empowerment Through Religious Study
But some French Muslim women are following another path.
Nadia, a young woman whose head is covered with a tightly folded black headscarf, glides over the smooth marble floor in the grand mosque of Paris toward the woman's gallery.
She says she does not feel better represented now that there are three minority women in the cabinet.
"It is a real choice of faith to be Muslim, and it is not enough to be just of Arab origin," Nadia says.
Nadia is among a growing number of French Muslim women who are seizing the Koran for themselves.
The grand mosque made an unprecedented move five years ago. Courses were introduced to train young Muslim women as spiritual counselors for hospitals and prisons.
Today, most students in France's Islamic studies institutes are women.
One graduate is Noura Jaballah, mother of five and spokeswoman for the French League of Muslim Women.
She wears the Islamic headscarf, but she has no patience with certain traditional interpretations of Islam.
"I don't know how in the world they came up with the claim that women were created to stay home and take care of household chores and cooking. It's absolutely false," she says. "Women, like men, have the responsibility to make order reign on earth."
Jaballah is proud of her achievements and the fact that, at home, she's the one who leads family prayers.
The 'New Female Islamic Consciousness'
Dounia Bouzar, a sociologist and a Muslim, studies the new female Islamic consciousness, in which, she says, the Muslim woman has discovered her individuality and learned to say "I."
Bouzar believes that by growing up in a secular society, French Muslim women have shared experiences and blended with the rest of the French population.
"By working side by side with men, with non-Muslim women, with people who do not believe in God, by being friends with an Elizabeth who might be Buddhist … well, this totally contradicts traditional teachings," Bouzar says. "No preacher or father can convince you that your close friend Elizabeth is an infidel. This kind of argument just doesn't carry weight anymore."
Bouzar says it's not religion but social and economic discrimination that threatens this society's cohesion.
France's immigrant suburbs are social, economic ghettoes, she says, not separate Islamic enclaves such as those that exist in Germany and Britain.
This has enabled France's high intermarriage rate between Muslim women and non-Muslim men, which is taboo under strict Islamic practice.
Bouzar believes Muslim women can become the engine of integration.
Related NPR Stories
Jan. 21, 2008
Muslim Women Behind Wall of Silence in GermanyJan. 22, 2008
Muslim Activist Critical of 'Multicultural Mistake'Jan. 23, 2008
Many British Muslim Women Embrace Political IslamJan. 24, 2008
British Warn of Growing Female Islamic RadicalismDec. 13, 2004
Europe, Islam's New Front LineNov. 20, 2006
Europe's Right Turn
US Muslim women seek active faith role
By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News
See the Akhtar family at a weekend lunch, and the renewal of Islam in America seems inevitable and irresistible.
Shahid and Mino Akhtar were born in Pakistan and, like their son and three daughters, they are devout Muslims who attend the mosque regularly.
Meeting them at their house in a quiet tree-lined street in Emerson, New Jersey, it soon seems clear that they, and their progressive Islam, are as perfectly adapted to life in modern America as their Christian neighbours.
Shahid is a hands-on dad. While his wife pursued a career as a lawyer he took charge of raising the children. His son Reza, a hospital doctor, is following his example by being the one who cooks dinner and does the dishes as his wife, Amna, also works.
The Aktar daughters are pursuing careers as a lawyer, businesswoman and dentist. Their emancipation has not diluted their sense of being Muslim, but it has changed it.
Sheema wears shorts to play soccer, but sees no conflict with the duty to behave modestly. They feel bound by the duty to pray, for example, but not at five set times each day.
Mino Akhtar says connection with God is what counts.
"In terms of the daily practices, when I travel on business I don't get to get to pray five times a day," she says. "It's my connection with the creator that's more important than how I do it."
"Absolutely," says her daughter Sheema. "We're just adapting to the surroundings. As long as you have the basic principles, and you abide by them and remember Allah every day."
Women 'reclaiming Islam'
American Muslims' determination to grasp the basic principles of their religion - rather than the sometimes harsh rules contributed by other cultures during its long history - grew out of the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers.
We've been working with a variety of organisations on really taking the teachings of Islam and delivering them without the baggage of tradition
Shahnaz Taplin Chinoy stands on Brooklyn Heights and surveys the southern tip of Manhattan. She recalls the events of 11 September 2001, and the moment she made it her mission to reclaim the Islam of her childhood.
"I was bombarded by questions from friends," she says. "They kept saying, 'why does Islam suppress women? Why does Islam condone violence?' I was flabbergasted at the Islam of the hijackers which was so disconnected with the Islam of my youth - which was not extremist at all."
'Baggage of tradition'
Lena Alhusseini, whose origin is Palestinian, runs a family support centre for Arab-Americans in Brooklyn. She says women are leading the renewal of Islam because they have the most to gain.
"Oftentimes we get women who are illiterate. They come from tribal societies and in their understanding of Islam it's okay to be beaten by a man. Their role is to be subservient and that's the mark of a good Muslim woman - which is very different from what Islam teaches.
"So we've been working with a variety of organisations on really taking the teachings of Islam and delivering them without the baggage of tradition. And telling them this is what Islam is all about - Islam gives you rights, Islam doesn't allow you to be treated this way."
Laleh Bakhtiar is a Muslim scholar who has translated the Koran, making controversial changes in standard translations which she says more accurately reflect the original spirit of the religion.
Dr Bhaktiar's English text has removed derogatory references to Christians and Jews. It changes many of the most important words, even substituting the word "God" for "Allah", which she says is more inclusive. Most controversially, her Koran rejects the idea, in Chapter Four, verse 34, that men may beat their wives.
"The word for "beat" has 25 meanings", she says. "We need to look therefore at what Muhammad did. He didn't beat but walked away. So why are we saying 'beat' when we can say 'go away' - which is what he did."
Muslim women have also been demanding changes in the way mosques are run. Daisy Khan was among the designers contributing to the plans for Long Island Mosque in Westbury, a suburb of wide roads, trees and clap-boarded houses. She quickly discovered that the draft design confined women to a basement.
"Women were out of sight... the design was done in such a way that women were supposed to be downstairs with no access to the main prayer space," she says.
You're talking about a country [the US] which is based on the principles of freedom and democracy, equality, justice - all these are Islamic
Imam Shamsi Ali
Now women worship in the prayer hall behind the men, a step that seems radically modern to some new immigrants.
"There's no provision in Islam which says women can't pray in the same space," insists Ms Khan. "These are just traditions we've adopted over the years because of the practice in certain countries."
Among the Sufi Muslims of the Nur Ashki Jerrahi order at their meeting in Yonkers, men and women mix freely. The spiritual director is a woman. Shaykha Fariha occasionally leads both men and women in prayers, an act which has scandalised traditionalists but which she says is appropriate in America.
"In the West I'm more free about leading prayers" she says. "I think the tendency against it is mainly a cultural one."
At the New York Islamic Cultural Centre, a group of high-spirited girls is studying alongside boys on a Saturday morning. The mosque's imam, Muhammad Shamsi Ali, says educating girls is vital to developing Islam in the West, and is true to Islam's original purpose.
"Prophet Mohammed stated clearly that women must learn - they must be equal to the male intellectually, they have to improve themselves intellectually," he says.
Imam Shamsi Ali says he sees no incompatibility between the US and Islam. "You're talking about a country which is based on the principles of freedom and democracy, equality, justice - and all these are Islamic."
Shaykha Fariha says that apart from these shared principles, Islam has what the founder of her order described as the ability to behave like water - taking on the shape of the vessel into which it is poured.
She says Muslims in many parts of the world are shedding the cultural restrictions inherited from male-dominated and conservative societies.
"Islam is undergoing a huge reformation and self questioning, and certainly 9/11 has [led to] people looking at their religion and asking what has led to this," she says. "So I think what we're seeing today within the Islamic tradition is comparable to the Christian reformation in the sense of the dimension of its impact on the religion, its impact on individuals and its impact on the world as a whole."
Traditionalist critics say those who seek revolutionary change in Islam are diluting its teaching. They say that adapting the religion to contemporary mores progressively undermines its ability to give moral guidance to society.
But the Akhtar family insist that their modern lifestyle in secular America does not stop them practising what they call "the beautiful values of Islam".
Mona Akhtar, a lawyer, bubbles rose-flavoured smoke through an after-lunch shisha, and contemplates her emancipated sisters.
"We're living examples of the importance of women taking a more active role in Islam," she says. "We're following the spirit of the Koran."
Global prayer day nears
Christians in 170 nations taking part
Sunday, March 02, 2008
When Meta Lynas ponders what will happen around the globe next Friday, she smiles.
"What we'll be thinking and praying about in our Calgary churches, they will have prayed about in England seven hours before us. In Asia and Africa . . . the same message will be getting out there," says Lynas, a member of Valleyview Presbyterian Church.
Calgarians will gather in 17 area churches Friday for the World Day of Prayer, a Christian, interdenominational initiative that will be held in 170 nations. While each nation and individual church will put its own particular brand on the day, the same essential message will be repeated in an estimated 90 languages throughout the 24-hour cycle.
In Canada, more than 2,000 cities, towns and hamlets are scheduled to hold services.
World Day of Prayer gatherings are open to all, but they have been nurtured and powered by Christian women since the first Canadian event of its kind was held in 1920. The movement eventually went global in scope, with the first Friday in March chosen as the annual date.
"It was originally called the Women's World Day of Prayer and was developed as a response to the human toll of the First World War," says Kathy Chapman, who has been co-ordinating the Calgary and area program for the last five years.
"The movement's pioneers believed that prayer was an integral element of the work needed to build lasting peace in the world." Every four years, an international gathering of participating faith groups designates countries to create the service for a particular year and develop the overriding spiritual themes.
Women from the small South American nation of Guyana have written the 2008 service on the theme God's Wisdom Provides New Understanding. The service includes prayers, Bible readings and hymns, including one penned by a Guyanan musician.
Chapman says local committees like Calgary's receive an outline of the service the previous fall. A series of grassroots meetings then fleshes out the list of churches which will host World Day services, offering a variety of locations and times to cater to as broad an audience as possible.
Host churches then reach out to women from other neighbourhood denominations to join them on the day as active participants. Members from more than 80 congregations will be involved in local services Friday.
"That's one of the great attractions of the World Day for me, the camaraderie that develops," says Chapman.
"We tend to get so wrapped up in our our individual congregations and our internal issues. With World Day of Prayer, we get many women volunteering year after year because they truly enjoy this chance to meet and work with other Christians in this common cause," Chapman adds.
Kate Reeves of Wild Rose United Church says learning about the collective dreams and concerns of women around the world through their creation of the service is inspiring.
"The sisterhood is what drew me to this movement," says Reeves.
"Through the service, they are telling their story of what their daily life is like in countries like Guyana. And by praying together, we are making this spiritual effort to make things a little better in the world." World Day of Prayer services also focus on social justice issues confronting the particular nation. Chapman notes Guyana is struggling with poverty in the wake of devastating coastal flooding in 2005 and 2006 as well as the spread of HIV-AIDS and its links to violence against women.
Chapman says she's been surprised at the number of participating local churches reporting they have members who hail from Guyana, a nation with a population smaller than Calgary's.
Proceeds from collections taken at World Day of Prayer services go to social action projects in Canada and dozens of other countries.
Chapman admits she rarely gets through a World Day of Prayer service without a tear or two.
"It's a very spiritually moving experience. We're praying with and for women from around the world."
Let's use China's Hui to build our Muslim model in Canada
From Thursday's Globe and Mail
March 6, 2008 at 7:40 AM EST
"Seek knowledge, even if in China, for the seeking of knowledge is
incumbent upon every Muslim."
While Muslim scholars dispute the origin of this narration (or
hadith), often attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, they are
unanimous about its essence: Muslims (male and female) are obliged
to seek knowledge, even if it entails extensive travel. Incredibly,
this narration may point toward a successful integration model of
Muslim communities in the West.
Recent tensions prompt these questions: Can secular democracies
successfully integrate Muslims keen on asserting their religious
identity? Can Muslim minorities successfully adapt to their host
societies without compromising cherished values? The answers,
according to Umar Faruq Abd-Allah of the Nawawi Foundation in
Chicago, may be found by seeking knowledge in China.
In his view, the integration of China's Hui Muslim minority offers a
valuable template for Muslim diasporas in the West. For centuries,
the Hui enjoyed independence and economic strength, rooted in a
confident, indigenous Islamic culture. They have played an important
role in their country's history, while maintaining social solidarity
and a deep sense of being simultaneously Muslim and Chinese.
The Hui are culturally distinct from their Uighur co-religionists of
western China; their ingenuity lay in their ability to think outside
the Semitic Abrahamic box. Armed with deep knowledge of Islamic
tradition and ancient Chinese civilization, they found common ground
with Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. By doing so, they developed
language, cultural paradigms and institutions that bridged the two
worlds, thus paving the way for a vibrant culture that was wholly
Chinese and Muslim.
Notably, Hui scholars did not deconstruct Chinese ethos; rather,
they built on the best of Chinese traditions.
The 16th century saw the emergence of a unique institution: the
nusi - mosques for women, run by women. These continue to thrive
today, as do the ahong - Muslim female clerics (or imams) who
provide spiritual and educational guidance to men and women. The
ahong are trained in both Islamic knowledge and Chinese culture.
The evolution of the Hui reflects the cultural diversity of Muslims
worldwide. Wherever they went, Muslims formulated distinctive
indigenous forms of culture rooted in the teachings of their faith.
Some Muslims incorrectly assume that the only authentic form of
cultural expression is Middle Eastern.
The example of the Hui should impel Canadian Muslims to reflect on
the evolution of their institutions - many of which reflect the
mentality of "hislam" and autocracy prevalent in the Arab world and
South Asia. There are already signs of an impending collision
between gender equity and the authoritarian patriarchy entrenched in
many of the country's Muslim institutions.
Many Muslim women have embraced self-empowerment offered by Canadian
society, finding it wholly compatible with Islam. They are not
content to be shut out of community affairs. Some women are fighting
back with knowledge and research of Islamic tradition to demand a
more egalitarian practice. Others are turning away from institutions
that are dismissive, if not hostile, to their concerns.
The issue of gender equity is but one cultural value that will play
a key role in the establishment of an indigenous Canadian Muslim
culture. Freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, critical
inquiry and pluralism must be incorporated by Muslims if they are to
thrive in Canada. So must a respectful appreciation of the best
Canadian traditions. The good news is that classical Islamic thought
already provides the foundation to incorporate these fundamental
values into a paradigm that is Muslim and Canadian. The question is:
Who recognizes the urgency to do so?
A Saudi woman activist marked this year's International Women's Day by defying a ban on women driving in the ultra-conservative kingdom and posted a video of her act on YouTube.
Wajiha Huwaidar, a leading activist in a campaign to allow women to get behind the wheel in the desert kingdom, confirmed to AFP on Sunday that it was her in the video posted on the popular website.
She said she recorded the video while she drove in a deserted area in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and posted it on the Internet on Saturday to mark International Women's Day.
In the video, Huwaidar appeared driving calmly as few cars passed by along the almost empty road.
"Women can drive in the countryside. There is no problem with that. Some women do the school run everyday without being obstructed," she claimed. "What is important is to allow women to drive in urban areas."
In September, more than 1,100 Saudi men and women signed a petition to King Abdullah urging him to lift the controversial ban on women driving in the kingdom.
A group of 47 women defied the ban on driving by roaming the streets of Riyadh in 15 cars in November 1990.
Published on National Catholic Reporter Conversation Cafe
The world's greatest, untapped alternative resource: women
By Joan Chittister
Created Mar 6 2008 - 05:30
From Where I Stand by Joan Chittister, OSBMarch 6, 2008
Vol. 5, No. 22
[Editor's Note: Sr. Chittister is in Jaipur, India, March 6-10, for the first international conference of the Global Peace Initiative of Women.]
I heard about a conversation last week that I thought explained just about everything we need to know about the current state of human affairs.
"Old woman," the young woman asked, "what is the heaviest burden a woman has to bear." And the old woman answered her, "Young woman, the heaviest burden a woman has to bear is to have no burden at all."
Whether or not that conversation really happened, I don't know. But I do know that the point of the story is all too true.
In a world where billions are poor and hungry, the world is now full of conferences intent on resolving problems that are crippling people's development.
Symposiums, think tanks and forums on global issues are being hosted everywhere.
A world whose favored thesis just a few years ago read, "the personal is political" is now chasing the idea that "the global is local." Conferences on global change, global development, global needs, global politics, global economics and global agendas swirl around the planet.
And yet, little changes.
The question is why? And the answer is hiding in plain sight.
These conferences will never solve the major problems facing the human community because half the human community is being left out of the conversation. Half the wisdom of the world is being ignored. Half the concerns of the human race are not even being taken into consideration. Half the resources of the world, women, are not being tapped to solve the problems that face us all.
Both halves are suffering from our failure to approach both problems and solutions from the vantage point of the entire human race.
The fact is that the experience and insights of women are glaringly and regularly absent from global conferences that purport to be concerned with both the problems the world faces and their possible solutions.
We are not going to change the world by repeating old and ineffective answers over and over again while leaving new ones out of consideration.
And yet we persist.
But not everywhere and not everyone.
Here in India -- the land of banyan trees whose roots speak of depth and endurance, of lotus flowers that speak of survival and beauty under the grimmest of circumstances, and of goddesses like Lakshmi who is concerned with human enrichment, both material and spiritual, of Durga who protects the righteous and of Sarasvati who brings learning and wisdom to the ignorant and superficial -- here the other half of the human race is gathering to be heard around the globe.
More than 450 women from more than 45 countries have come to Jaipur, India, to make a difference, to unmask the woeful absence of the other half of the human race in the resolution of the greatest issues facing the human condition -- to be the launching ground for another kind of reflection -- on the human condition, to raise the ideas of the invisible in clear cadence, and loud voice -- to give this eagle wings!
Have no doubt about it: This first international conference of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, "making way for the feminine for the benefit of the world community" is a potentially life-changing enterprise.
No matter what else happens as a result of this conference, it will transform each of us here in ways that touch the soul, if only to make us even more aware and more resolute, in our desire to awaken this world to the ideas, insights, energy, care, compassion, concern, intelligence and intent of women than we were before we came.
But we have the potential to transform many others, if we band together and trust in the support of one another. We can give others:
-The courage to speak because they will know someone has spoken for them;
-The strength to endure the heat of the public arena because they will know someone has stepped into the light before them.
-The freedom to think and trust those thoughts because they will know someone -- like us together -- has spoken first.
Indeed, such a gathering of women as this has the potential to change the world for women everywhere if we will only try, if we will only persist, if we will only risk raising the questions and concerns that remain unasked and unattended to by systems that ignore women.
Depending on your criteria and definition of a country, the current count of nations in the world ranges from 189 to 266. Of these self-governing bodies of people, only 13 have women presidents or prime ministers. The lack of emphasis on feminine concerns for equality, compassion, nurturance and community building is at the base of every major social problem on the planet.
Over 90 percent of those killed in war are now, in our century, civilians -- and most of those are women and children. Technology and power do not bring either peace or protection of the innocent when nations fight for dominance. What kind of protection of the righteous is that?
Over 1 billion people, 20 percent of the population of the globe lack access to clean drinking water and 2.6 billion, almost half the people of the world, lack adequate sanitation. As disease and dehydration spread illness and death, no amount of government concern for political power will be able to suppress the spread of wars for water.
Of the world's 781 million illiterate adults, 64% are women. the implications of figures like that for the education of children, the advancement of families and the development of nations is resoundingly negative, deeply depressing. but those figures, those concerns, seldom if ever get to the decision-making arenas of the male world where male control counts for more than female literacy. what kind of wisdom is it that refuses to educate half the world?
Two-thirds of children not attending school are girls. If women were to receive the same education as men, agricultural productivity would increase by seven percent to 23 percent. Families could grow; countries would thrive; emigration would decline and the strain on global resources and multiple national economies would decrease. What kind of material and spiritual enrichment is that?
Selective abortions, despite national laws to the contrary, continue because men are valued and women are not. So the world loses the very gentleness and care, the very compassion and concern for others that is the ground of world peace. We are literarily depriving ourselves of the intellectual and spiritual resources the world desperately needs to develop if we are to survive.
Clearly the world needs the presence and participation, the perspectives and vision of women to bring us all back from the brink of human degradation and extinction. But to do that, we need women of courage as well as men of conscience who are able to understand the world's need for women's insights, education, equality and voice.
The first international conference of the Women's Global Peace Initiative is not convened for the sake of celebrating femaleness for its own sake. It is to offer the world the missing resource of our time, the power of the feminine.
Most important of all, perhaps, this conference is not an exercise in anybody's chauvinism, national or local, female or male. This conference will raise women's voices in international affairs for the sake of the whole human race. Without an increase in the feminine qualities of compassion, care, human community and human support in both women and men in a world that gives power preference over preservation, we are all in danger.
Women from all over the world are coming to India, the home of the goddesses, to take their responsibility in bearing the burdens of the world -- whether anyone else yet has the sense to invite them to do their share of it or not.
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March 26, 2008
Many Muslims Turn to Home Schooling
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
LODI, Calif. — Like dozens of other Pakistani-American girls here, Hajra Bibi stopped attending the local public school when she reached puberty, and began studying at home.
Her family wanted her to clean and cook for her male relatives, and had also worried that other American children would mock both her Muslim religion and her traditional clothes.
“Some men don’t like it when you wear American clothes — they don’t think it is a good thing for girls,” said Miss Bibi, 17, now studying at the 12th-grade level in this agricultural center some 70 miles east of San Francisco. “You have to be respectable.”
Across the United States, Muslims who find that a public school education clashes with their religious or cultural traditions have turned to home schooling. That choice is intended partly as a way to build a solid Muslim identity away from the prejudices that their children, boys and girls alike, can face in schoolyards. But in some cases, as in Ms. Bibi’s, the intent is also to isolate their adolescent and teenage daughters from the corrupting influences that they see in much of American life.
About 40 percent of the Pakistani and other Southeast Asian girls of high school age who are enrolled in the district here are home-schooled, though broader statistics on the number of Muslim children being home-schooled, and how well they do academically, are elusive. Even estimates on the number of all American children being taught at home swing broadly, from one million to two million.
No matter what the faith, parents who make the choice are often inspired by a belief that public schools are havens for social ills like drugs and that they can do better with their children at home.
“I don’t want the behavior,” said Aya Ismael, a Muslim mother home-schooling four children near San Jose. “Little girls are walking around dressing like hoochies, cursing and swearing and showing disrespect toward their elders. In Islam we believe in respect and dignity and honor.”
Still, the subject of home schooling is a contentious one in various Muslim communities, with opponents arguing that Muslim children are better off staying in the system and, if need be, fighting for their rights.
Robina Asghar, a Muslim who does social work in Stockton, Calif., says the fact that her son was repeatedly branded a “terrorist” in school hallways sharpened his interest in civil rights and inspired a dream to become a lawyer. He now attends a Catholic high school.
“My son had a hard time in school, but every time something happened it was a learning moment for him,” Mrs. Asghar said. “He learned how to cope. A lot of people were discriminated against in this country, but the only thing that brings change is education.”
Many parents, however, would rather their children learn in a less difficult environment, and opt to keep them home.
Hina Khan-Mukhtar decided to tutor her three sons at home and to send them to a small Muslim school cooperative established by some 15 Bay Area families for subjects like Arabic, science and carpentry. She made up her mind after visiting her oldest son’s prospective public school kindergarten, where each pupil had assembled a scrapbook titled “Why I Like Pigs.” Mrs. Khan-Mukhtar read with dismay what the children had written about the delicious taste of pork, barred by Islam. “I remembered at that age how important it was to fit in,” she said.
Many Muslim parents contacted for this article were reluctant to talk, saying Muslim home-schoolers were often portrayed as religious extremists. That view is partly fueled by the fact that Adam Gadahn, an American-born spokesman for Al Qaeda, was home-schooled in rural California.
“There is a tendency to make home-schoolers look like antisocial fanatics who don’t want their kids in the system,” said Nabila Hanson, who argues that most home-schoolers, like herself, make an extra effort to find their children opportunities for sports, music or field trips with other people.
Lodi’s Muslims also attracted unwanted national attention when one local man, Hamid Hayat, was sentenced last year to 24 years in prison on a terrorism conviction that his relatives say was largely due to a fabricated confession. (Had he been more Americanized, they say, he would have known to ask for a lawyer as soon as the F.B.I. appeared.)
Parents who home-school tend to be converts, Mrs. Khan-Mukhtar said. Immigrant parents she has encountered generally oppose the idea, seeing educational opportunities in America as a main reason for coming.
If so, then Fawzia Mai Tung is an exception, a Chinese Muslim immigrant who home-schools three daughters in Phoenix. She spent many sleepless nights worried that her children would not excel on standardized tests, until she discovered how low the scores at the local schools were. Her oldest son, also home-schooled, is now applying to medical school.
In some cases, home-schooling is used primarily as a way to isolate girls like Miss Bibi, the Pakistani-American here in Lodi.
Some 80 percent of the city’s 2,500 Muslims are Pakistani, and many are interrelated villagers who try to recreate the conservative social atmosphere back home. A decade ago many girls were simply shipped back to their villages once they reached adolescence.
“Their families want them to retain their culture and not become Americanized,” said Roberta Wall, the principal of the district-run Independent School, which supervises home schooling in Lodi and where home-schooled students attend weekly hourlong tutorials.
Of more than 90 Pakistani or other Southeast Asian girls of high school age who are enrolled in the Lodi district, 38 are being home-schooled. By contrast, just 7 of the 107 boys are being home-schooled, and usually the reason is that they were falling behind academically.
As soon as they finish their schooling, the girls are married off, often to cousins brought in from their families’ old villages.
The parents “want their girls safe at home and away from evil things like boys, drinking and drugs,” said Kristine Leach, a veteran teacher with the Independent School.
The girls follow the regular high school curriculum, squeezing in study time among housework, cooking, praying and reading the Koran. The teachers at the weekly tutorials occasionally crack jokes of the “what, are your brothers’ arms broken?” variety, but in general they tread lightly, sensing that their students obey family and tradition because they have no alternative.
“I do miss my friends,” Miss Bibi said of fellow students with whom she once attended public school. “We would hang out and do fun things, help each other with our homework.”
But being schooled apart does have its benefit, she added. “We don’t want anyone to point a finger at us,” she said, “to say that we are bad.”
Mrs. Asghar, the Stockton woman who argues against home schooling, takes exception to the idea of removing girls from school to preserve family honor, calling it a barrier to assimilation.
“People who think like this are stuck in a time capsule,” she said. “When kids know more than their parents, the parents lose control. I think that is a fear in all of us.”
Aishah Bashir, now an 18-year-old Independent School student, was sent back to Pakistan when she was 12 and stayed till she was 16. She had no education there.
Asked about home schooling, she said it was the best choice. But she admitted that the choice was not hers and, asked if she would home-school her own daughter, stared mutely at the floor. Finally she said quietly: “When I have a daughter, I want her to learn more than me. I want her to be more educated.”
Calgary woman becoming priest
Campaign for reform feels 'prophetic'
Sunday, May 04, 2008
On May 29, Monica Kilburn Smith of Calgary will be welcomed into the small worldwide community of female Roman Catholic priests.
Her ordination ceremony will take place in a United Church in Victoria and, of course, will not be recognized by the global Roman Catholic Church. However, Kilburn Smith and local supporters of major reform within the world's largest Christian church say it will be one more small step in a campaign to bring up questions, start discussion, open eyes and, eventually, win hearts.
"Many Catholics, both women and men, have been working for change within the church for centuries," says Kilburn Smith, a chaplain with the Calgary Health Region.
"But the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement is doing something tangible about it. It seems prophetic and courageous, something I feel called to be a part of."
The first ordinations of Catholic women as priests were held in 2002 in Europe. More than 50 women, including two other Canadians, have taken the bold step since then.
Kilburn Smith says she's eager to play a pastoral role for what she believes is a growing community of people who feel disconnected from the current church, but who remain Catholic at heart.
Local members of a group called Friends of Vatican II, who are working for reform within the Catholic church, say they don't hide their opinions when talking to other Catholics, but they don't actively try to proselytize.
"It comes up in conversations after church and in other settings," says Shelagh Mikulak.
"I think there are a lot of Catholics who wouldn't have a problem with female priests, but they don't feel comfortable to come out in the open with their support."
Those actively seeking reform have been holding silent vigils across the street from St. Mary's, the Calgary Catholic diocese cathedral, for the past few years during holy week.
Some women who have been ordained as priests have been excommunicated from the Catholic fold. Reform supporters say they're not looking to pick a fight with the Vatican, but they steadfastly maintain their position is an elemental matter of conscience and justice deeply rooted in their faith.
"It's not about being contentious, but we believe there's a need for reform within the church to welcome both women and married male priests," says Fred Williams.
"Clearly the law is unjust. These people want to follow their conscience and their spiritual calling and to deny that is wrong."
Kilburn Smith says she and other Roman Catholic women priests value the sacramental tradition of their church, but are practising a non-clerical, non-hierarchical form of ordained ministry.
"It's leadership modelled on Jesus' example of inclusivity and non-judgmental love," she says.
Kilburn Smith says her concept of a priest's role is, among other things, one who is "the holder of the sacred space" and who, like many, feels moved to use his or her God-given gifts in compassionate ministry.
"Jesus says the Kingdom of God is within you, and that statement doesn't just apply to men. We are each called to minister in our own way. I believe being a priest is my way."
Kilburn Smith says the historic Catholic rejection of
a female priesthood is akin to "gender apartheid" and amounts to a tragic waste of human potential at a time when many Catholic parishes worldwide are without priests.
Supporter Angelina Waldon draws a comparison to the American civil rights movement and its early pioneers who faced entrenched attitudes with courage.
"It's like Rosa Parks; someone, somewhere has to be the first to stand up for what is right," says Waldon.
Kilburn Smith says she and other Catholic women who aspire to the priesthood are often asked why they don't simply move to another Christian denomination, such as Anglican, United or Presbyterian, where female clergy are welcomed.
"I'm Catholic in my bones," she says. "If you want to bring about change, you have to stay within, not walk away and give up. If we didn't care about the church and its future, we wouldn't be doing this."
Supporter Catherine Williams adds, "We the people are the church, not the buildings or the hierarchy."
Will supporters of a female Catholic priesthood see their vision embraced by the church in their lifetime?
"I have to believe it will happen," says Mikulak. "Gender equality is now established in so many other segments of society. But it took courageous women, and courageous men who supported them, to make it happen."
As the spring sun warms the earth and thoughts turn to the leafy renewal of spring, Kilburn Smith is convinced a more inclusive Catholic Church will bloom in the years ahead.
"This is a transition time in the Catholic world. We've been a long time in that moist soil," Kilburn Smith says of those advocating for renewal.
"But now we are starting to sprout up. There is nothing that lives that does not change."
Pope Benedict thanked consecrated women virgins gathering at the Vatican on Thursday for their "total gift" to Christ, praising a holy rite he recognized was difficult for some non-Catholics to understand.
"(Live your lives) in such a way that you always irradiate the dignity of being the wife of Christ," the pope said in an address to hundreds of consecrated virgins from dozens of countries meeting in Rome.
Consecrated virgins are women who take a vow of lifelong chastity in service of the Church. The Vatican says they are "betrothed mystically to Christ" through the holy rite.
Committed virgins were the forerunners of nuns in the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican revived the rite, not practiced for centuries, in 1970.
The pope said the womens' vocation was deeply meaningful, even if it may be seen as "dark and useless" by some of those who don't share the Catholic faith.
A U.S. group which attended the conference estimated there are more than 3,000 consecrated Catholic virgins worldwide.
Al-Qaida's stance on women sparks extremist debate
By LAUREN FRAYER, Associated Press Writer2 hours, 21 minutes ago
Muslim extremist women are challenging al-Qaida's refusal to include — or at least acknowledge — women in its ranks, in an emotional debate that gives rare insight into the gender conflicts lurking beneath one of the strictest strains of Islam.
In response to a female questioner, al-Qaida No. 2 leader Ayman Al-Zawahri said in April that the terrorist group does not have women. A woman's role, he said on the Internet audio recording, is limited to caring for the homes and children of al-Qaida fighters.
His remarks have since prompted an outcry from fundamentalist women, who are fighting or pleading for the right to be terrorists. The statements have also created some confusion, because in fact suicide bombings by women seem to be on the rise, at least within the Iraq branch of al-Qaida.
A'eeda Dahsheh is a Palestinian mother of four in Lebanon who said she supports al-Zawahri and has chosen to raise children at home as her form of jihad. However, she said, she also supports any woman who chooses instead to take part in terror attacks.
Another woman signed a more than 2,000-word essay of protest online as Rabeebat al-Silah, Arabic for "Companion of Weapons."
"How many times have I wished I were a man ... When Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahri said there are no women in al-Qaida, he saddened and hurt me," wrote "Companion of Weapons," who said she listened to the speech 10 times. "I felt that my heart was about to explode in my chest...I am powerless."
Such postings have appeared anonymously on discussion forums of Web sites that host videos from top al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. While the most popular site requires names and passwords, many people use only nicknames, making their identities and locations impossible to verify.
However, groups that monitor such sites say the postings appear credible because of the knowledge and passion they betray. Many appear to represent computer-literate women arguing in the most modern of venues — the Internet — for rights within a feudal version of Islam.
"Women were very disappointed because what al-Zawahri said is not what's happening today in the Middle East, especially in Iraq or in Palestinian groups," said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that monitors militant Web sites. "Suicide operations are being carried out by women, who play an important role in jihad."
It's not clear how far women play a role in al-Qaida because of the group's amorphous nature.
Terrorism experts believe there are no women in the core leadership ranks around bin Laden and al-Zawahri. But beyond that core, al-Qaida is really a movement with loosely linked offshoots in various countries and sympathizers who may not play a direct role. Women are clearly among these sympathizers, and some are part of the offshoot groups.
In the Iraq branch, for example, women have carried out or attempted at least 20 suicide bombings since 2003. Al-Qaida members suspected of training women to use suicide belts were captured in Iraq at least three times last year, the U.S. military has said.
Hamas, another militant group, is open about using women fighters and disagrees with al-Qaida's stated stance. At least 11 Palestinian women have launched suicide attacks in recent years.
"A lot of the girls I speak to ... want to carry weapons. They live with this great frustration and oppression," said Huda Naim, a prominent women's leader, Hamas member and Palestinian lawmaker in Gaza. "We don't have a special militant wing for women ... but that doesn't mean that we strip women of the right to go to jihad."
Al-Zawahri's remarks show the fine line al-Qaida walks in terms of public relations. In a modern Arab world where women work even in some conservative countries, al-Qaida's attitude could hurt its efforts to win over the public at large. On the other hand, noted SITE director Katz, al-Zawahri has to consider that many al-Qaida supporters, such as the Taliban, do not believe women should play a military role in jihad.
Al-Zawahri's comments came in a two-hour audio recording posted on an Islamic militant Web site, where he answered hundreds of questions sent in by al-Qaida sympathizers. He praised the wives of mujahedeen, or holy warriors. He also said a Muslim woman should "be ready for any service the mujahedeen need from her," but advised against traveling to a war front like Afghanistan without a male guardian.
Al-Zawahri's stance might stem from personal history, as well as religious beliefs. His first wife and at least two of their six children were killed in a U.S. airstrike in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar in 2001. He later accused the U.S. of intentionally targeting women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I say to you ... (I have) tasted the bitterness of American brutality: my favorite wife's chest was crushed by a concrete ceiling," he wrote in a 2005 letter.
Al-Zawahri's question-and-answer campaign is one sign of al-Qaida's sophistication in using the Web to keep in touch with its popular base, even while its leaders remain in hiding. However, the Internet has also given those disenfranchised by al-Qaida — in this case, women — a voice they never had before.
The Internet is the only "breathing space" for women who are often shrouded in black veils and confined to their homes, "Ossama2001" wrote. She said al-Zawahri's words "opened old wounds" and pleaded with God to liberate women so they can participate in holy war.
Another woman, Umm Farouq, or mother of Farouq, wrote: "I use my pen and words, my honest emotions ... Jihad is not exclusive to men."
Such women are al-Qaida sympathizers who would not feel comfortable expressing themselves with men or others outside their circles, said Dia'a Rashwan, an expert on terrorism and Islamic movements at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
"The Internet gives them the ideal place to write their ideas, while they're hidden far from the world," he said.
Men have also responded to al-Zawahri's remarks. One male Internet poster named Hassan al-Saif asked: "Does our sheik mean that there is no need to use women in our current jihad? Why can we not use them?"
He was in the minority. Dozens of postings were signed by men who agreed with al-Zawahri that women should stick to supporting men and raising children according to militant Islam.
Women bent on becoming militants have at least one place to turn to. A niche magazine called "al-Khansaa" — named for a female poet in pre-Islamic Arabia who wrote lamentations for two brothers killed in battle — has popped up online. The magazine is published by a group that calls itself the "women's information office in the Arab peninsula," and its contents include articles on women's terrorist training camps, according to SITE.
Its first issue, with a hot pink cover and gold embossed lettering, appeared in August 2004 with the lead article "Biography of the Female Mujahedeen."
The article read:
"We will stand, covered by our veils and wrapped in our robes, weapons in hand, our children in our laps, with the Quran and the Sunna (sayings) of the Prophet of Allah directing and guiding us."
Associated Press writer Pakinam Amer contributed to this report from Cairo; AP writer Diaa Hadid contributed from the Gaza Strip; and AP writer Zeina Karam contributed from Beirut, Lebanon.
Education and sex
May 29th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Girls are becoming as good as boys at mathematics, and are still better at reading
TRADITION has it that boys are good at counting and girls are good at reading. So much so that Mattel once produced a talking Barbie doll whose stock of phrases included “Math class is tough!”
Although much is made of differences between the brains of adult males and females, the sources of these differences are a matter of controversy. Some people put forward cultural explanations and note, for example, that when girls are taught separately from boys they often do better in subjects such as maths than if classes are mixed. Others claim that the differences are rooted in biology, are there from birth, and exist because girls' and boys' brains have evolved to handle information in different ways.
Luigi Guiso of the European University Institute in Florence and his colleagues have just published the results of a study which suggests that culture explains most of the difference in maths, at least. In this week's Science, they show that the gap in mathematics scores between boys and girls virtually disappears in countries with high levels of sexual equality, though the reading gap remains.
Dr Guiso took data from the 2003 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment. Some 276,000 15-year-olds from 40 countries sat the same maths and reading tests. The researchers compared the results, by country, with each other and with a number of different measures of social sexual equality. One measure was the World Economic Forum's gender-gap index, which reflects economic and political opportunities, education and well-being for women. Another was based on an index of cultural attitudes towards women. A third was the rate of female economic activity in a country, and the fourth measure looked at women's political participation.
On average, girls' maths scores were, as expected, lower than those of boys. However, the gap was largest in countries with the least equality between the sexes (by any score), such as Turkey. It vanished in countries such as Norway and Sweden, where the sexes are more or less on a par with one another. The researchers also did some additional statistical checks to ensure the correlation was material, and not generated by another, third variable that is correlated with sexual equality, such as GDP per person. They say their data therefore show that improvements in maths scores are related not to economic development, but directly to improvements in the social position of women.
The one mathematical gap that did not disappear was the differences between girls and boys in geometry. This seems to have no relation to sexual equality, and may allow men to cling on to their famed claim to be better at navigating than women are. However, the gap in reading scores not only remained, but got bigger as the sexes became more equal. Average reading scores were higher for girls than for boys in all countries. But in more equal societies, not only were the girls as good at maths as the boys, their advantage in reading had increased.
This suggests an interesting paradox. At first sight, girls' rise to mathematical equality suggests they should be invading maths-heavy professions such as engineering—and that if they are not, the implication might be that prejudice is keeping them out. However, as David Ricardo observed almost 200 years ago, economic optimisation is about comparative advantage. The rise in female reading scores alongside their maths scores suggests that female comparative advantage in this area has not changed. According to Paola Sapienza, a professor of finance at Northwestern University in Illinois who is one of the paper's authors, that is just what has happened. Other studies of gifted girls, she says, show that even though the girls had the ability, fewer than expected ended up reading maths and sciences at university. Instead, they went on to be become successful in areas such as law.
In other words, girls may acquire an absolute advantage over boys as a result of equal treatment. This is something that society, more broadly, has not yet taken on board. Mattel may wish to take note that among Teen Talk Barbie's 270 phrases concerning shopping, parties and clothes, at least one might usefully have been, “Dostoevsky rocks!”
Asmaa Waguih / For the Times
Columnist and editor Amy Mowafi, shown with an assistant at Enigma magazine, is the Muslim version of the Carrie Bradshaw character in “Sex and the City.”
Many have become opinion makers and talk openly about sex, politics and other topics.
By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 1, 2008
BEIRUT -- The censors didn't quite know what to do with Lina Khoury's play about sex, rape, menopause and a visit to the gynecologist, but Islamic hard-liners were pretty specific: One wanted to stone the 32-year-old writer; others accused her of being an Israeli agent planting immoral ideas in the Arab world.
The characters in "Women's Talk" share secrets only uttered when men aren't around. Riffs on pubic hairstyles and sexual desires may be a predictable story line in Hollywood, but here Western-influenced portrayals of women in the arts are condemned by clerics and conservatives as devil-inspired liberalism.
Khoury and her sharp-tongued alter egos are part of a coterie of real-life and fictional women across the Middle East who are pushing boundaries as political talk-show hosts, hip-hop divas, war correspondents, a defiantly divorced columnist and characters such as Vola, the red-haired eccentric of the Lebanese film "The Bus" who slips into an affair without any care of what society thinks.
They are at once liberated and repressed, devout and rebellious. Borrowing from Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce and even Hillary Rodham Clinton, they move between tribal and Islamic customs and media markets that are often layered in sexual innuendo.
In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive or vote, glimpsing equality only during vacations away from the kingdom. But many women in Islamic countries long ago broke through the image of the black-veiled wife peeking from behind courtyard walls. Venture beyond the scrim of conservatism to the film studios of Lebanon, where the diva pose, seductively articulated by Haifa Wehbe, a Shiite Muslim model-actress-singer, is calculated down to the curl of an eyelash.
The crosscurrent of cultures is apparent in Khoury's "Women's Talk," a Middle East version of the Broadway play "The Vagina Monologues" that has turned the diarist into an unwitting Dr. Ruth for women who wear low-cut blouses and slit skirts and also for those draped in niqabs, or face veils, and abayas.
"In the Arab world, I've suddenly become an expert on women and sexuality. It's insane, hilarious. I write plays. I'm not a therapist," said Khoury, whose play closed in February after a two-year run. "Some men are saying that I'm breaking the rules of society and religion. . . .
Sexuality and women's freedoms are threatening to men. Some actresses I wanted for the parts wouldn't take them. They were scared of what their husbands or boyfriends would say."
Tempering Western attitudes with Muslim sensibilities becomes a question of how far to push the Middle East's patriarchal societies. This is still a region, after all, where in some countries a wife can be stoned for committing adultery and women make up 9% of lawmakers in Arab parliaments and 33% of the workforce, the lowest percentage in the world.
The candor in Khoury's play is comical and acerbic; one character says her parents would handle an Israeli invasion of Lebanon better than news of her divorce. A more salacious take on women's rights and sexual freedom is Beirut's music-video market that beams seduction into Arab living rooms.
The tension underlying both sides can be spotted on this city's streets where posters of Kalashnikov assault rifles and martyrs for the militant group Hezbollah peek out amid billboards of women who appear as though they've slipped off the pages of Vanity Fair.
"The sexy look in Beirut is provocative and plastic," said Khoury, who was born into a Christian family during Lebanon's civil conflict in the 1980s. "It all grows out of a restricted society of sexual repression. And when this freedom finally does come out, it comes out very dramatically in a concentrated, almost pornographic look."
Out of the shadow
But if you turn off the "bimbos, you see a lot of positive women role models in the media," said Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, head of the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World at Lebanese American University in Beirut. "Lebanon's July 2006 war with Israel was covered by women television correspondents in their 20s. They were going everywhere. They were braver than men."
Women have become important opinion makers in news and talk shows that borrow heavily from Western programming. In 2003, the Algerian newscaster Khadija Ben Ganna became the first anchor on Al Jazeera to wear the hijab on air, a gesture denounced by secularists as a symbol of Islamic revival. In Cairo,the unveiled Mona El Shazly has risen in the ratings with "Ten O'Clock," a show that asks tough questions on politics, social unrest and other sensitive topics.
The cultural terrain between the veil and free-flowing hair has led to contentious debate within Islam over virtue and image. Many Muslim women choose to wear the hijab as an emblem of their religion, a sign of humility to God. Others regard it a fashion accouterment. But growing Islamic devotion in countries such as Egypt has led to an increase in the number of women wearing hijabs, and those who don't often feel societal and family pressures.
An illustration of this dilemma is the cover of Amy Mowafi's new book, "Fe-Mail: The Trials and Tribulations of Being a Good Egyptian Girl," which features a drawing of an unveiled woman in stiletto boots with a halo and a devil's tail. An editor and columnist in Cairo, Mowafi is the Muslim version of the Carrie Bradshaw character in "Sex and the City." Mowafi is not as explicit as the TV show's foursome in New York, but she is unabashed as she stumbles, if not in Manolo Blahniks, "along that precarious line between East and West."
She writes: "And so now I find myself a divorcee, with that big dramatic D word marked upon my forehead. I find myself stranded in this sort of weird wasteland between virgin and whore. I was married, I've obviously been there and done 'it' and enough times to have had the innocence which Arab men so desperately crave thoroughly wiped away . . . or sullied . . . or whatever."
'Good girl syndrome'
The daughter of an Egyptian investment banker and businesswoman, Mowafi was raised in a moderately religious home in England. Her 2002 move to Egypt, where she writes for the lifestyle magazine Enigma, led her to an Islamic society of nosy doormen, evangelical preachers and encounters with men who proclaimed to be pious but used professional meetings as a chance to flirt. In Britain, she could date and not worry about where it would lead; in Cairo, the rules were different.
"We're out on a date and it's fun, but is he going to marry me? I'm in Egypt. I'm a Muslim. He just can't be my boyfriend," Mowafi said the other day over coffee in a haunt that clicked with computers and the whispered buzz of young love.
June 11, 2008
Operation Lets Muslim Women Reclaim Virginity
By ELAINE SCIOLINO and SOUAD MEKHENNET
PARIS — The operation in the private clinic off the Champs-Élysées
involved one semicircular cut, 10 dissolving stitches and a
discounted fee of $2,900.
But for the patient, a 23-year-old French student of Moroccan
descent from Montpellier, the 30-minute procedure represented the
key to a new life: the illusion of virginity.
Like an increasing number of Muslim women in Europe, she had a
hymenoplasty, a restoration of her hymen, the vaginal membrane that
normally breaks in the first act of intercourse.
"In my culture, not to be a virgin is to be dirt," said the student,
perched on a hospital bed as she awaited surgery on Thursday. "Right
now, virginity is more important to me than life."
As Europe's Muslim population grows, many young Muslim women are
caught between the freedoms that European society affords and the
deep-rooted traditions of their parents' and grandparents'
Gynecologists say that in the past few years, more Muslim women are
seeking certificates of virginity to provide proof to others. That
in turn has created a demand among cosmetic surgeons for hymen
replacements, which, if done properly, they say, will not be
detected and will produce tell-tale vaginal bleeding on the wedding
night. The service is widely advertised on the Internet; medical
tourism packages are available to countries like Tunisia where it is
"If you're a Muslim woman growing up in more open societies in
Europe, you can easily end up having sex before marriage," said Dr.
Hicham Mouallem, who is based in London and performs the
operation. "So if you're looking to marry a Muslim and don't want to
have problems, you'll try to recapture your virginity."
No reliable statistics are available, because the procedure is
mostly done in private clinics and in most cases not covered by tax-
financed insurance plans.
But hymen repair is talked about so much that it is the subject of a
film comedy that opens in Italy this week. "Women's Hearts," as the
film's title is translated in English, tells the story of a Moroccan-
born woman living in Italy who goes to Casablanca for the operation.
One character jokes that she wants to bring her odometer count back
down to "zero."
"We realized that what we thought was a sporadic practice was
actually pretty common," said Davide Sordella, the film's
director. "These women can live in Italy, adopt our mentality and
wear jeans. But in the moments that matter, they don't always have
the strength to go against their culture."
The issue has been particularly charged in France, where a renewed
and fierce debate has occurred about a prejudice that was supposed
to have been buried with the country's sexual revolution 40 years
ago: the importance of a woman's virginity.
The furor followed the revelation two weeks ago that a court in
Lille, in northern France, had annulled the 2006 marriage of two
French Muslims because the groom found his bride was not the virgin
she had claimed to be.
The domestic drama has gripped France. The groom, an unidentified
engineer in his 30s, left the nuptial bed and announced to the still
partying wedding guests that his bride had lied. She was delivered
that night to her parents' doorstep.
The next day, he approached a lawyer about annulling the marriage.
The bride, then a nursing student in her 20s, confessed and agreed
to an annulment.
The court ruling did not mention religion. Rather, it cited breach
of contract, concluding that the engineer had married her after "she
was presented to him as single and chaste." In secular, republican
France, the case touches on several delicate subjects: the intrusion
of religion into daily life; the grounds for dissolution of a
marriage; and the equality of the sexes.
There were calls in Parliament this week for the resignation of
Rachida Dati, France's justice minister, after she initially upheld
the ruling. Ms. Dati, who is a Muslim, backed down and ordered an
Some feminists, lawyers and doctors warned that the court's
acceptance of the centrality of virginity in marriage would
encourage more Frenchwomen from Arab and African Muslim backgrounds
to have their hymens restored. But there is much debate about
whether the procedure is an act of liberation or repression
"The judgment was a betrayal of France's Muslim women," said
Elisabeth Badinter, the feminist writer. "It sends these women a
message of despair by saying that virginity is important in the eyes
of the law. More women are going to say to themselves, `My God, I'm
not going to take that risk. I'll recreate my virginity.' "
The plight of the rejected bride persuaded the Montpellier student
to have the operation.
She insisted that she had never had intercourse and only discovered
her hymen was torn when she tried to obtain a certificate of
virginity to present to her boyfriend and his family.She says she
bled after an accident on a horse when she was 10.
The trauma from realizing that she could not prove her virginity was
so intense, she said, that she quietly borrowed money to pay for the
"All of a sudden, virginity is important in France," she said. "I
realized that I could be seen like that woman everyone is talking
about on television."
Those who perform the procedure say they are empowering patients by
giving them a viable future and preventing them from being abused —
or even killed — by their fathers or brothers.
"Who am I to judge?" asked Dr. Marc Abecassis, who restored the
Montpellier student's hymen. "I have colleagues in the United States
whose patients do this as a Valentine's present to their husbands.
What I do is different. This is not for amusement. My patients don't
have a choice if they want to find serenity — and husbands."
A specialist in what he calls "intimate" surgery, including penile
enhancement, Dr. Abecassis says he performs two to four hymen
restorations per week.
The French College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians opposes the
procedure on moral, cultural and health grounds.
"We had a revolution in France to win equality; we had a sexual
revolution in 1968 when women fought for contraception and
abortion," said Dr. Jacques Lansac, the group's leader. "Attaching
so much importance to the hymen is regression, submission to the
intolerance of the past."
But the stories of the women who have had the surgery convey the
complexity and raw emotion behind their decisions.
One Muslim born in Macedonia said she opted for the operation to
avoid being punished by her father after an eight-year relationship
with her boyfriend.
"I was afraid that my father would take me to a doctor and see
whether I was still a virgin," said the woman, 32, who owns a small
business and lives on her own in Frankfurt. "He told me, `I will
forgive everything but not if you have thrown dirt on my honor.' I
wasn't afraid he would kill me, but I was sure he would have beaten
In other cases, the woman and her partner decide for her to have the
operation. A 26-year-old French woman of Moroccan descent said she
lost her virginity four years ago when she fell in love with the man
she now plans to marry. But she and her fiancé decided to share the
cost of her $3,400 operation in Paris.
She said his conservative extended family in Morocco was requiring
that a gynecologist — and family friend — there examine her for
proof of virginity before the wedding.
"It doesn't matter for my fiancé that I am not a virgin — but it
would pose a huge problem for his family," she said. "They know that
you can pour blood on the sheets on the wedding night, so I have to
have better proof."
The lives of the French couple whose marriage was annulled are on
hold. The Justice Ministry has sought an appeal, arguing that the
decision has "provoked a heated social debate" that "touched all
citizens of our country and especially women."
At the Islamic Center of Roubaix, the Lille suburb where the wedding
took place, there is sympathy for the woman.
"The man is the biggest of all the donkeys," said Abdelkibir Errami,
the center's vice president. "Even if the woman was no longer a
virgin, he had no right to expose her honor. This is not what Islam
teaches. It teaches forgiveness."
Katrin Bennhold contributed reporting from Paris, and Elisabetta
Povoledo from Rome.
The following article written by Seyedeh Dr. Nahid Angha is taken from the journal Sufism: An Inquiry.
In the west, the common picture of a Muslim woman is the stereotype of a woman hidden behind a veil, a voiceless, silent figure, bereft of rights. It is a picture familiar to all of us, in large part because this is invariably how the western media portrays women in Islam.
Islam covers many lands with many diverse cultures. From the borders of Arabia to the coasts of Africa, from Bosnia to Indonesia, large groups of people practice Islam. Islam is growing in European and American countries. Each one of these Islamic nations has its own distinct culture; there is a great diversity of cultures within Islam. One cannot bring all these cultures, political systems, national heritage, belief systems, geographical locations, historical backgrounds, and the peoples who embody them under one uniform category or think of them as one system. Islam is practiced in each nation according to those nations characteristics. And nations are, by existing as nations, distinct and different from one another. No two cultures are alike.
Nations in the Middle East, among many other Muslim countries, have long been notorious for their unequal treatment of women especially among the Western nations. Catching a glimpse of a special on Middle Eastern women while channel surfing or reading from the Middle Eastern chapter in history books is the furthest most people have gone to research the role of women in Islam. Images of submissive, timid women covered in black veils are there to be found -- and, with such a unanimity of popular information, what point could there be in understanding the subject more thoroughly? What I will provide here is just an outline, a brief summary, as Islam is, in fact, more than just a name, a religion, a social movement. It is recognizing the essence of Divine permeating all there is; it is timeless, priceless, beyond cultures, traditions, and all human limitations. There are few scholars who have described women in Islam without prejudice or some inclination towards either side of the extreme. In order to understand the role of women in Islam and to learn how the rules of Islam apply to them, we need to become familiar with Islam, apart from politics practiced in Muslim nations, and to examine the place of women in the pre-Islamic era, the rules and regulations of Islam, and the cultural backgrounds of the countries that are the base of our research, and finally to compare the position of women in the Muslim world with the position of women in western cultures.
Position of Women Before the Advent of Islam
Islam was born in the Arabia Peninsula, now Saudi Arabia, in the seventh century AD. The pre-Islamic era dates back to more than 1400 years ago. Many cultures, nations and countries, other than Arabia, existed during that time. Let's begin with a review on the Arabian culture. In that era, in the tribal culture of Arabs, women were not equal to men with respect to many social and personal conditions and systems, such as marriage, inheritance or education, among other areas. Women did not have businesses, own property, or have independent legal rights. Even though we read about Khadijeh (who later became a wife of the Prophet (swa), and the first Muslim woman) who owned her own business, which is an indication that there are always exceptions in any recorded history. In Arabia, female infants were often abandoned or buried alive; and the practice of polygamy was common. The position of women, in countries other than Arabia, in the 7th century, was not much different. In Europe, it was not until the turn of the century (13 centuries later) that French women became legally able to sell property without the permission of their husbands. In many nations, sons would inherit the name, wealth and position of the family and daughters were hoped to marry rich. In many western or eastern countries, women could not chose their husbands, and, widows were expected to mourn for their husbands until the end of their lives (still practiced in some countries).
Standards Set by Islam
One cannot emphasize enough the influence of the teachings of the Prophet (swa) and the verses of the Qur'an upon the advancement of civilization. In the history of humankind, none worked so much to protect human rights, especially women's, with such integrity, strength, strategic genius, beauty and divinity, or to honor humanity, by freeing it from the chains of prejudice, manipulations, personal and social injustice. His teachings regarding education, social and political rights, property rights, and ultimately human rights, are among the most valuable chapter in the book of civilization. Education: "The pursuit of knowledge is a duty of every Muslim, man and woman", said the Prophet (swa). With this instruction it became a religious duty of Muslims to educate themselves, their families, and their societies. Education and learning became a religious duty, no Muslim could prevent another human being from the pursuit of knowledge. Gender or race, culture or tradition could not become the cause for prohibiting a person from educating one's self. Pursuit of knowledge became a religious law, therefore necessary to attain. With such instruction, the Prophet (swa) not only created an equal right to education, but also opened the door to a better understanding.
Social and Political Rights
"Paradise lies under the feet of mothers", announced the Prophet (swa). With this instruction, a Divine law, it became a religious responsibility, a praiseworthy act, to respect and honor women. "Men are support for women," "Among the praiseworthy acts to Allah is to treat your mother with honor and respect," "Be just among your children, daughters and sons, provide them good education and proper upbringing." Narrated from the Prophet (swa). With these Divine laws, it became religious duty for every Muslim, male or female, to honor women, treat sons and daughters justly, and for male to provide support, not obstacles, for women and their achievements.
There are many recorded historical references that at the beginning of Islam, at the time of the Prophet (swa), Muslim men or women chose to join the Prophet's army to fight against his enemies, leading wars after his passing. There are also recorded in the history of Islam that men and women, equally, would take bayat (agreement) with the Prophet, voting and choosing him as a political leader. Such positions, rights and equality among all were the result of the support and the teachings of the Prophet (swa). Women could take part in social, political, and military affairs. The result of his teachings was not only promoted human rights but also encouraging individuals to stand for their own rights.
Fatima, daughter of the Prophet (swa), was well educated and highly respected. It is said that whenever Fatima entered the room, the Prophet would stand and give his seat to her. Her sacrifices to protect and support human rights were among the most praiseworthy acts.
Under the laws of Islam, women have obtained the right to sell and buy properties, own business, take legal actions, vote, and participate in political affairs. Inheritance law was/is also among the most important rights. According to Islam, a woman inherits, half the share of her brother. At the same time a daughter, can chose but has no the obligation to support her parents or children, while her brother does. A man, a brother, has the obligation, by the rules of Islam, to support his mother, wife, children, sisters, and the children of his sisters if necessary. If a woman, a mother, a sister did not have the wealth or the desire to support her children, it would become the duty of her brother to support them. The Prophet (swa) has introduced the rules and the laws for humanity, some honor the rules and some chose not to. Under Islamic law, women also have control not only over their property but also dowry claims. Once she is married, she may demand her dowry from her husband at any time, and in the case of divorce, she would receive her share of the property.
Marriage and the Right to Divorce
According to the laws of Islam a man and a woman have the right to choose their partner and they should not be forced into marriage. Fatima, the Prophet's daughter was educated, beautiful and respectful. It is narrated that when Amir al momenin Ali asked for Fatima's hand in marriage Prophet (swa) did not respond to Ali until he asked Fatima for her decision. Divorce is permitted in Islam under specific terms and conditions. According to the laws of Islam one may end a marriage by divorce if there is a definite cause for such an action.
Polygamy is a tradition practiced in many cultures, yet Islam restricted it by setting regulations. These regulations are very severe, and a very few can practice it. Quran (IV:3) reads: "If you feel that you will be able to deal justly with orphans, marry the women of your choice one, two, three, or four. But if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then marry only one." The verse emphasize being just not only to the women but also to their children, who would, otherwise, remain fatherless after their mothers became widowed -- a frequent occurrence during the early centuries of Islam, when men were often killed in wars. "Deal justly" refers to equal treatment, not only emotionally but also financially. The particular historical context of polygamy in Islam followed one of the harshest wars, where many men were killed, leaving a multitude of women widowed, fatherless, and without support. Also a Muslim man cannot marry a second wife without the permission of the first wife. With all these restricted regulations, according to the Islamic law, polygamy is possible but rare in practice.
Post Islamic Expectations Set by Political Entities
A few centuries after the Prophet (swa) many of these rules changed into cultural, national, or political regulations.
Islam entered different cultures and each culture embraced it according to its own traditions. Even in its homeland, rules and regulations changed according to the political rulers and the traditional culture of the land within one or two centuries after the passing of the Prophet (swa). Let us examine a few of these changes: Prophet had said (Quran, XXIV:30, 31): "Tell believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty, that will make for greater purity for them and say to the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty and they should not display their beauty and ornaments...." In the course of time, this law changed into the rule that women should wear veils, covering themselves from head to toe. Being modest changed into a dress code. Yet this dress code was not applied to the "believing men", and did not become a cause for their social or economical oppressions. Women, who at the beginning of Islam, were leading armies and making political decisions, were now, a few centuries later, expected to sit separately from men in mosques and in prayer ceremonies. A similar situation also obtain in non-Islamic countries. For example a century ago, when the World Anti-Slavery Association met in England, the women delegates were refused seats. They had to sit silently behind the curtain in the balcony. That, of course, led to Seneca Falls Convention that eventually gained a few rights for women such as becoming able to sell properties, the right to education, and the like. The Prophet instructed that women have the right to own property, to choose their own partners, and have equal rights to education. In accordance with prevailing culture, these rights became transformed into the duties of women to take care of children and remain in the house. This is not all that different than a century ago in America where women were expected the duties of "Republican Motherhood," which did not take them beyond the household sphere.
To justify the prejudice held against women, we can blame a religion, we can blame a culture, we can blame a system, and we can even blame women themselves. Yet these superficial "making you feel better" justifications will not remove the responsibility from generations of humanity. While it is true that the media misleads people, political leaders mislead people, and superficial ideology misleads people -- yet people remain in a state of being misled. The guilt of the oppressor is not lesser that the guilt of the oppressed, said the Prophet.
Islam is a religion where the standard for superiority is the level of ones knowledge, where human being was created in the best figure, and thus where advancing knowledge is a duty. According to Islam, the human being has the potentiality to ascend to the level of the Divine, knowledge of the law of the existence is the right of every human being.
Islam is a religion where your temple is not a building but your heart; your preacher is not a priest but your intellect; and if your religion is founded upon mere imitation, you are a blasphemer. In Islam, ignorance is an unforgivable sin, so is your evasion of responsibility for yourself as well as towards all the members of the living world, past and present. It is incorrect to blame such Islam for the shortcomings of its followers, which are the failings of most of mankind. A religion that is centered on the rights of human being, and sets both men and women free from the chains of bondage should not be used in propaganda for the sake of condemnation.
It is not Muslim women as such, but women everywhere who have been imprisoned by prejudice and cruelty. This form of prejudice that goes beyond simple racial or national boundaries, is sexual in nature. Whether women are constantly being held to an impossible standard, or subject to discrimination solely based on the fact that they are not equal to men, they are, by far, the group most affected by this form of prejudice. Depending on the society women may be seen as having the wrong weight, the wrong height, the wrong level of intelligence, or the wrong religion. We can conclude that women have yet to be welcomed with open arms into countries that they have been a part of from the beginning. True equality becomes a characteristic of Utopia and seems almost impossible to achieve in the society in which we live in. The question that remains is one of personal morals. Do we, as small pieces of society, have the capacity to interlock and form a beautiful mosaic? I have to say it takes more than just a few to fulfill a dream that is centuries old.
July 5, 2008
Despair Drives Suicide Attacks by Iraqi Women
By ALISSA J. RUBIN
BAQUBA, Iraq — Wenza Ali Mutlaq walked a bit uncertainly up the long street near the main government offices here on June 22, the hot wind stirring her heavy black abaya. She passed the concrete barricades put up to ward off suicide car bombers and made her way alone, almost haphazardly.
Suddenly, a police car zoomed in. A policeman got out to talk with her. And then their lives were over — torn apart, along with 14 other people, by the huge blast of fire from her concealed explosive vest.
Ms. Mutlaq, who was in her 30s and whose attack was captured on a security video, was the 18th female suicide bomber of the war to strike in Diyala Province, which has been hit by female attackers much more frequently than any other province of Iraq, according to Iraqi police records and the American military. So far, 11 of the 20 suicide bombings carried out by women in Iraq this year have occurred in Diyala.
Why so many women? Why now? In a particularly painful twist, the phenomenon seems to have arisen at least in part because of successes in detaining and killing local members of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a homegrown Sunni insurgent group that American intelligence officials say is led by foreigners.
The women who become suicide bombers often have lost close male relatives — a husband, a brother, a son — in fighting, because they became suicide bombers themselves or because they were detained by American or Iraqi security forces.
Ms. Mutlaq was no exception: her older brother had already taken the same path, detonating a suicide vest on June 10 during a shootout with Iraqi government forces.
“If there’s one single trend that I see, it’s the women’s relationship with the male figures that were members of A.Q.I. and were captured or killed,” said a senior military analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing information that had not been released publicly.
The subordinate role of women in conservative, rural Sunni families in Diyala makes them particularly vulnerable to pressure, said Sajar Qaduri, a member of the Diyala Provincial Council and the only woman on its security committee.
“Although she is bombing herself and aiming to kill people, I feel these women are really victims of terrorism,” said Mrs. Qaduri, who is a Shiite and whose husband was kidnapped two years ago and has not been heard from since. “Only women in despair, in desperate situations, would do this. Dealing with such a phenomenon is not easy.”
She added: “Our Oriental society is not like your Western society. It seems in many of these cases the women have had their husband killed or sent to prison and she feels she has no choice, she is very depressed.”
Female suicide bombers are not a new phenomenon in Iraq or elsewhere, but they have been relatively rare. Since 2003, 43 women have carried out suicide bombings in Iraq, a tiny percentage of the total, according to the United States military. Though the first two cases came in the first year of the war, suicide attacks by women did not really become a trend until 2007, when there were eight such bombings in Iraq. All but one of the female bombers have been Iraqis and most are young, between the ages of 15 and 35, according to the police and American military analysts. Almost all the attacks have been attributed to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which is also known as Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Diyala has been a stronghold for the group since it was chased from Anbar Province in the west in 2004. The province’s attraction was clear: it offers easy hiding places in its palm groves and orchards, and a Sunni-majority population that includes many people who supported Saddam Hussein and are sympathetic to the insurgency.
But in the past year, American and Iraqi forces have had much greater success in killing and detaining the group’s members in the province, as well as thwarting many of its bigger attack plots. The rise in female suicide bombings has directly coincided with the timing, and the locations, of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s biggest loss of manpower in Diyala, Baghdad and Anbar.
“Al Qaeda is always innovating: finding new ways to work,” said Ghanem al-Khoreishi, the police chief of Diyala. “When we destroyed them in fighting, they started to use new methods. And because they knew that women are treated more gently than men, they began to use them.
“The people don’t search them so well even at checkpoints.”
Interviews with police officers and politicians, American military analysts and Iraqi women yield different views of the phenomenon. But many agree that the province’s traditional, conservative and still largely rural society is a factor.
In Diyala’s countryside, most women cannot imagine the world beyond the date palms they see on the horizon. It might be an hourlong walk to the next village, there are no telephones, and cellphones often do not work. Most of the women cannot read.
“Most of the women who have killed themselves are from the villages,” said Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim al-Rubaie, the head of the Iraqi Army operations center in Diyala. “She is living a very traditional life. She has no rights.”
“For that reason,” he added, “her ideas are very small.”
During Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s big push to take over Diyala villages, starting in late 2004, many families yielded to the extremists to protect themselves. Wide networks of villages that support Al Qaeda were created when subtribes, and sometimes even whole tribes, embraced the movement.
“In these families, they are terrorists: the conversations at dinner are about suicide bombs, about explosives, about improvised explosive devices,” said Col. Ali Ismari Fateh, a police commander who has been involved in hundreds of interrogations of people suspected of being insurgents.
Mrs. Qaduri, the provincial council member, said she believed that an element of sexual abuse may be involved as well. Many families marry their daughters off to local Qaeda leaders, known as emirs, at age 14 or 15. In some cases the girls are forced into marriage contracts in which they are married to a local emir, but if he dies or is captured, they are obligated to marry his successor and if he is captured or killed, that one’s successor.
At the same time, Diyala residents and officials say, militants from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia have worked to instill their radical Islamist vision in the population. Almost immediately after moving in four years ago, they began holding religion classes for men and women.
“Even in Baquba, my niece went to some; she was shaken,” said Shamaa Abad al-Kader, the headmistress of a school for girls in Muqdadiya who also serves on Diyala’s provincial council.
“They gathered people in the villages; they brought women into Baquba and gave them lectures on how to behave,” Ms. Kader said. “These Al Qaeda men were going into the schools, into the mosques and they forced people to listen to them. My niece said the man who came to her school had a long beard and a sword with him.”
Insurgent recruiters and religion instructors add promises to the threats, too, assuring people that they will go to paradise if they die fighting for Islam — a sometimes alluring dream for many in their largely poor, uneducated audience, said police officials and politicians in Diyala.
In some cases, it may not just be a matter of co-opting or persuading vulnerable women. In one case in April recounted by Police Chief Khoreishi, a woman came to the station asking for protection; she was being forced to become a suicide bomber and trained to use an explosive belt by two members of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, one of them a close relative. The police now have her in protective custody, and two people suspected of being group members are in detention.
Iraqi police officials also say that a few of the bombings involved women wearing vests that were exploded by remote control, though it is unclear exactly how many because explosions usually destroy telltale design details about the detonators.
“There are two ways a suicide vest can work: there is a button they can push themselves and there is a remote control detonation,” Colonel Fateh said. “They follow her and if they think she is afraid to do it, then they will do it for her.”
Mrs. Qaduri believes that knowing the basic profile of the women who tend to become suicide bombers can inform policing: if a woman has a male family member who kills himself or is killed in the name of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia or one of its sister organizations, it should be a warning sign that she or other close female relatives are at risk of becoming bombers.
Her dream is to start an intervention program that would take the women out of their homes and put them in shelters where they could not harm themselves or anyone else.
“We can predict that such a woman is ready to be used as a suicide bomber,” she said. “But at the same time, we don’t have any concrete proof that we can use to detain these women.”
Ms. Mutlaq’s life and death track the profile described by Mrs. Qaduri and others.
A native of the rural area south of Buhriz in southern Diyala, about 40 minutes northeast of Baghdad, she grew up in a landscape of date palms and orange orchards fed by irrigation canals.
Her tribe aligned itself early on with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and her brother and husband became influential emirs, officials said. Buhriz was one of the most violent areas of Diyala in 2005 and 2006, with periods when there were nearly weekly bombings.
Last June, her husband was killed while fighting in Baquba, the province’s capital, around the time that the American offensive in the city began, according to Baquba police officials. Almost exactly a year after that, her brother detonated his suicide vest during fighting with government forces.
Twelve days later, she walked alone past the barricades.
An Iraqi employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Diyala Province.
Birth control vital to poor nations
Education of girls, women key to long-term health
Agence France - Presse
Friday, July 11, 2008
Giving women in poor nations better access to birth control and education would help prevent millions of unwanted births in the developing world, the World Bank said Thursday.
"Fifty-one million unintended pregnancies in developing countries occur every year to women not using contraception," the World Bank said on the eve of World Population Day.
Birth rates have fallen in the past 30 years. But in 35 countries -- 31 in sub-Saharan Africa and East Timor, Afghanistan, Djibouti and Yemen -- birth rates are more than five children per mother.
A global approach encompassing not only contraception, but also better access to education, is needed to bring down the fertility rate in countries where it is still too high and puts the lives of women at risk, said Sadia Chowdhury, senior reproductive and child health specialist at the World Bank.
"Girls' and women's education is just as important in reducing birth rates as supplying contraception," said Chowdhury, a pediatrician.
"Women's education provides life-saving knowledge, builds job skills that allow her to join the workforce and marry later in life, gives her the power to say how many children she wants and when.
"These are enduring qualities she will hand down to her daughters as well," said Chowdhury, co-author of a World Bank report on contraception and unintended pregnancies in Africa, Eastern Europe and central Asia.
Countries with a high birth rate also tend to have high maternal mortality, infant mortality and poverty, and poor education, health care, and nutrition, Chowdhury said.
Women who have poor access to contraception often turn to abortion as a means of birth control, the report said.
But according to the report, around half the 42 million abortions performed annually are unsafe and some 68,000 women die each year. Another 5.3 million suffer temporary or permanent disability. Abortion also costs more than contraceptive services, the report says.
"Findings from . . . Nigeria suggest that the annual cost of post-abortion care (estimated at $19 million) is approximately four times the cost of contraceptive services (estimated at $4.5 million) to prevent induced abortions; and it consumes about 3.4 per cent of total health expenditures," the report says.
"If contraception were provided to the 137 million women who lack access, maternal mortality would decline by 25-35 per cent ," it says.
Among the benefits of readily available, correctly practiced birth control would be fewer maternal and infant deaths and a reduction in the transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, the bank said.
Female to lead Anglicans: cleric Former Edmonton bishop triggers uproar at gathering
Canwest News Service
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Canada's leading female Anglican cleric has courted controversy at a major church conference in Britain by predicting the eventual rise of a woman as Archbishop of Canterbury.
"The signposts are pointing in one direction," former Edmonton bishop Victoria Matthews told Reuters on Tuesday during a global gathering of Anglican bishops at the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference. "I would be very surprised if it wasn't accepted worldwide."
Matthews, whose recent selection as bishop of Christchurch sparked an uproar among conservative Anglicans in New Zealand, also shot back at Vatican officials who have complained the Church of England's July 8 decision to begin appointing female bishops poses "a further obstacle for reconciliation" between Catholics and Anglicans.
"With the greatest respect, the Vatican has to understand the Anglican communion is not synonymous with the Church of England," she said. "The Anglican communion has had women in the episcopate for about 20 years. They really need to do their homework and realize that the communion is 38 provinces and not one with satellites. That is a pretty significant error."
More than 650 bishops, including Archbishop Fred Hilz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, are attending the conference hosted by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams -- the symbolic head of the world's 77 million Anglicans.
Matthews, 54, said "it would be difficult to say the timeline" for when a woman might lead the church. Archdeacon Michael Pollesel, general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, told Canwest News Service it's conceivable a Canadian woman could become Archbishop of Canterbury one day.
August 2, 2008
Behind the Woman Behind the Bomb
By LINDSEY O’ROURKE
FOUR more Iraqi women carried out suicide bombings in Iraq this week, bringing to at least 27 the number of such attacks this year in that country involving female terrorists. Anyone reading the newspapers or watching television has been treated to a flurry of popular misconceptions about the root causes of female suicide terrorism.
Women, we are told, become suicide bombers out of despair, mental illness, religiously mandated subordination to men, frustration with sexual inequality and a host of other factors related specifically to their gender. Indeed, the only thing everyone can agree on is that there is something fundamentally different motivating men and women to become suicide attackers.
The only problem: There is precious little evidence of uniquely feminine motivations driving women’s attacks.
I have spent the last few years surveying all known female suicide attacks throughout the world since 1981 — incidents in Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, India, Lebanon, Pakistan, Russia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Uzbekistan. In order to determine these women’s motives, I compared the data with a database of all known suicide attacks over that period compiled by the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism.
This research led to a clear conclusion: the main motives and circumstances that drive female suicide attackers are quite similar to those that drive men. Still, investigating the dynamics governing female attackers not only helps to correct common misperceptions but also reveals important characteristics about suicide terrorism in general.
To begin with, there is simply no one demographic profile for female attackers. From the unmarried communists who first adopted suicide terrorism to expel Israeli troops from Lebanon in the 1980s, to the so-called Black Widows of Chechnya who commit suicide attacks after the combat deaths of their husbands, to the longtime adherents of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatist movement in Sri Lanka, the biographies of female suicide attackers reveal a wide variety of personal experiences and ideologies.
Likewise, while stories of young, psychologically disturbed women being coerced into their attacks makes for compelling news (and rightly emphasizes the barbarity of the terrorist organizations), they represent a small minority of cases. For example, female suicide attackers are significantly more likely to be in their mid-20s and older than male attackers.
Additionally, claims of coercion are largely exaggerated. For instance, the well-publicized claims that two women who killed dozens in blowing up a Baghdad pet market were mentally retarded were later revealed to be unfounded.
Blaming Islamic fundamentalism is also wrongheaded. More than 85 percent of female suicide terrorists since 1981 committed their attacks on behalf of secular organizations; many grew up in Christian and Hindu families. Further, Islamist groups commonly discourage and only grudgingly accept female suicide attackers. At the start of the second intifada in 2000, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, claimed: “A woman martyr is problematic for Muslim society. A man who recruits a woman is breaking Islamic law.” Hamas actually rejected Darin Abu Eisheh, the second Palestinian female attacker, who carried out her 2002 bombing on behalf of the secular Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
So, what does motivate female suicide attackers? Surprisingly similar motives driving men to blow themselves up on terrorist missions.
For one, 95 percent of female suicide attacks occurred within the context of a military campaign against foreign occupying forces, suggesting that, at a macro level, the main strategic logic is to create or maintain territorial sovereignty for their ethnic group. Correspondingly, the primary individual motivation for both male and female suicide bombers is a deep loyalty to their communities combined with a variety of personal grievances against enemy forces.
Terrorist organizations are well aware of the variety of individual motives for male and female attackers. As such, recruitment tactics aimed specifically at women often involve numerous, even contradictory, arguments: feminist appeals for equal participation, using a suicide attack as a way to redeem a woman’s honor for violations of the gender roles of her community, revenge, nationalism and religion — almost any personal motive that does not contradict the main strategic objective of combating a foreign military presence.
All secular organizations that employ suicide bombings have used female attackers early and often. For instance, 76 percent of attackers from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey have been women, as have 66 percent of those from Chechen separatist groups, 45 percent of the Syrian Socialist National Party’s and a quarter of those from the Tamil Tigers.
Religious groups only came to realize the strategic value of female bombers after seeing secular groups’ success. For example, in a 2003 interview, a female Al Qaeda agent calling herself Um Osama told a Saudi newspaper that “the idea of women kamikazes came from the success of martyr operations carried out by young Palestinian women in the occupied territories.”
Why use women?
Paradoxically, the strategic appeal of female attacks stems from the rules about women’s behavior in the societies where these attacks take place. Given their second-class citizenship in many of these countries, women generate less suspicion and are better able to conceal explosives. Moreover, since female attacks are considered especially shocking, they are more likely to generate significant news media attention for both domestic and foreign audiences.
In a similar vein, my research showed that women were much more likely than men to be used for single-target assassination suicide attacks. Perhaps the most famous of these was the 1991 assassination of India’s prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, by Thenmuli Rajaratnam, a Tamil Tiger. Although women make up roughly 15 percent of the suicide bombers within the groups that employ females, they were responsible for an overwhelming 65 percent of assassinations; one in every five women who committed a suicide attack did so with the purpose of assassinating a specific individual, compared with one in every 25 for the male attackers.
Yes, many female suicide terrorists are motivated by revenge for close family members or friends killed by occupation forces. But so too are males. Indeed, there are so many known instances of personal revenge driving both sexes to strike, and so much missing data about the friendship and extended family circles of suicide attackers, that it is simply impossible to say one sex cares more about others.
So, how can we defend against the spate of female suicide attacks in Iraq? The logical first step is to better screen women at key security checkpoints. Coincidentally, American officials recently started a “Daughters of Iraq” program to train Iraqi women to search for female attackers. However, the program is unlikely to have a substantial effect for three reasons: First, the program is very small; only about 30 women initially graduated from the course, and each is expected to work only a few days a month. Second, since the root cause of suicide terrorism appears to be anger at occupying forces, we risk blowback if we are seen as trying to buy loyalty from Iraqi women. Third, the fact that religious groups changed their position on employing women attackers illustrates their willingness to develop new tactics to overcome security measures — thus efforts like the Daughters of Iraq are probably stopgap measures at best.
In the long run, decreasing female suicide attacks depends upon an American strategy that minimizes the presence of United States troops in what Iraqis consider their private sphere, while simultaneously providing material support that will improve the quality of life for all Iraqis. For now, however, given the strategic desirability of female attackers, we’re likely to see an increasing number of Iraqi women killing themselves and their countrymen in an effort to end what they see as the occupation of their nation.
Lindsey O’Rourke is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Chicago.
Break from tradition: Shia woman Performs Nikah of Sunni Bride & Groom
14 Aug 2008, 0327 hrs IST, Manajri Mishra,TNN
LUCKNOW: A Shia woman solemnizing marriage of a Sunni couple. If that was not enough, the nikah that made Lucknow sit up in disbelief, was to have only women as witnesses. Twenty-nine could be a trifle young to make history, but then Naish Hasan, an economics post-graduate and a woman rights activist managed to do it within half-an-hour on Monday night by opting for an "all- women" nikah even as maulvis scoffed and scowled in the background.
"Someone has to make a beginning and break the shackles of male dominance in Islam. I have volunteered," Naish told TOI. "I consider myself fortunate for there are not many who can practise what they preach," she added. "This is a message I want to send across to young girls and a protest I want to lodge against subjugation of women."
Her conditions were no less unusual. "I have told Imran I will not dress up as a traditional bride. There will be no vidai; there will be no barat and no dowry will be given," she said. The nikahnama she proudly displayed, categorically mentioned that the husband will not have the right to pronounce triple talaq at a sitting and the wife will also have a right to pronounce talaq if she so desired. "My humble attempt to demolish the patriarchal mind set," she smiled.
"Don't expect any frills. It will be a simple ceremony," she had forewarned. So the only concession Naish made for the occasion was donning an embroidered maroon sari. Surrounded by co-workers from Tahrir and Indian Muslim Women Movement, she looked a little edgy when Sayda Hamid, member, Planning Commission and her role model who was to double up as a maulvi for the D-day got a little delayed. Groom Imran, a PhD from Aligarh Muslim University, looked a little lost yet contented. And some of the guests were betting if Naish would cover her head or not at the ceremony.
Hamid began by reading out Qoranic verses about equality among mates and sanctity of the union. All murmuring stopped and in the pin-drop silence she asked the man and the wife to be if they accepted a 'meher' set for Rs 51,000? They both loudly declared their acceptance as cameras rolled and flashbulbs popped. The only deviation was adding a male witnesses to all women club. This was necessitated with the clerics pronouncement that the nikah would be null and void if not witnessed by a man.
As per her conditions, Naish will not leave her city and keep working. Having a woman officiating at the nikah is "impractical and therefore not advisable", said Maulana Khalid Rahsid, a cleric from Firangi Mahal of Lucknow.
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