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."
You cannot post new topics in this forum You cannot reply to topics in this forum You cannot edit your posts in this forum You cannot delete your posts in this forum You cannot vote in polls in this forum