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The Month of Feasting

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A couple of years ago, I came across an online news article discussing a study that had found that Egyptian Muslims actually eat and drink more during Ramadan than any other time of year. I have been trying to find that article to share here with no luck, but this piece covers similar ground.

Now, I haven’t fasted in more than 15 years, but much of my family still does. Occasionally, the whole extended family will get together for Iftar, the nightly breaking of the fast. Once a modest affair (the early Muslims broke their fast with a couple of dates and a prayer), has turned into a veritable feast. Dessert consumption also goes through the roof at this time of year. Visit any Lebanese sweet shop in Sydney about one hour before sundown and you’ll know what I mean.

I always thought it ironic that a religious practice meant to encourage reflection, sacrifice and frugality has been so thoroughly distorted. Is there really anything to be gained from depriving oneself during the day, only to gorge like there’s no tomorrow the minute the sun disappears over the horizon?

 

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Written by Ruby

August 14, 2012 at 11:17 pm

Posted in Islam

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Misgoyny in the West versus the Middle East

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This piece was published in The Age last Thursday (May 3) and was a response to this essay by the incomparable Mona Eltahawy, who, unsurprisingly, has copped a huge amount of flak for her trouble. But back to me, it never ceases to amaze me how angry people get when I dare compare the treatment of women in the West to those in the Arab world. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that we have it just as bad. In fact I clearer state within the article that we do not. But, our own marginalisation and the oppression of Arab/Muslim women stem from the same place: the fear of female sexuality.

My only regret in this op-ed is that I fell into the trap of using the word ‘hate’ without clarifying what that word means to me. I think misogyny, and any sort of what we call ‘hate’, is really a manifestation of fear and a desire to control. Women’s sexuality is feared, both here and in the Middle East, and there exists in both realms, a desire to control it (often at all costs).

Anyway, here it is.

Misogyny has reduced women to headscarves and hymens.

‘WOMEN have very little idea of how much men hate them,” wrote Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch. So outraged were men that wives reportedly took to concealing their copies by wrapping them in plain brown paper.

More than 40 years later, Egyptian-American commentator Mona Eltahawy has caused a storm with her Foreign Policy essay, Why Do They Hate Us? ”They” being Arab men and ”Us” Arab women. Forget America’s so-called inequality, Eltahawy implores, ”The real war on women is in the Middle East.”

Women, she writes, have not benefited from the Arab Spring because they remain oppressed by the men in their lives who consider all is ”well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home”. ”Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.”

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Not surprisingly, Eltahawy has also sparked outrage. What is surprising is that so many of her detractors are Arab women. Gigi Ibrahim, a blogger and activist who came to prominence in the Egyptian revolution, called the essay ”disgraceful”. Samia Errazzouki, a Moroccan-American writer retorted, ”Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent ‘Us’.”

The consensus is that Eltahawy uses simplistic, Orientalist arguments to ”otherise” Arabs and drive a wedge between Arab men and women. ”Women in the Middle East are not oppressed by men out of male dominance,” writes Ibrahim. ”They are oppressed by regimes (who happened to be men in power).”

This is a facile argument. Men do not just ”happen” to find themselves in power. Men are in power because the patriarchal system that dominates the world favours men by systematically demeaning and marginalising women based on sex and sexuality.

Astonishingly, Eltahawy’s critics have managed to miss her central thesis: men hate women out of a deep fear of female sexuality, which has reduced women to ”their headscarves and hymens”, and it is up to women to wrestle control of their sexuality back from men.

Eltahawy made two vital errors leaving her open to those claims of Orientalism. The first was her decision to ”put aside what the United States does or doesn’t do to women”. The second was her failure to explore how women themselves also perpetuate patriarchy. Consequently, she divorces the struggle of Arab women from millions of others around the world, thus making misogyny appear a peculiarly Arab problem. In doing so, she unwittingly adds fuel to the myth that Arab men are more monster than human.

As an Australian woman of Arab Muslim background, I have often been struck not by how different but by how similarly women are treated in the West and in Arab/Islamic cultures. In both societies women’s sexuality is treated with suspicion and distrust.

Muslim women are required to dress ”modestly” to ward off attention from men. With the onus on women to alleviate male desire, victims of sexual assault are likely to find themselves blamed for their attack.

So too in the West. How many rape victims have had their sexual history and choice of clothing called into question? How many times have we wondered if ”she asked for it”?

They may not be required to cover their hair or faces, but Western women are derided for being sexually active in a way men never will be, as Sandra Fluke, the US college student who testified before Congress about the necessity of including birth control in health insurance, can attest. Fluke was called a prostitute and a slut by shock jock Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh is not known for his reasoned commentary but, sadly, women also joined in the attacks. Political pundit Michelle Malkin called Fluke ”a poster girl for the rabid Planned Parenthood lobby”, while Everybody Loves Raymond actress Patricia Heaton tweeted: ”you’ve given yer folks great gift for Mother’s/Father’s Day! Got up in front of whole world & said I’m having tons of sex – pay 4 it!”

The Fluke saga demonstrates how patriarchy isn’t just men oppressing women. It’s a system so entrenched in our collective psyche that it demands and acquires unconscious participation of both men and women in order to perpetuate itself.

Moroccan teenager Amina Filali swallowed rat poison after being forced, by the courts and her mother, to marry her rapist. Shortly after her death her mother pleaded, ”I had to marry her to him, because I couldn’t allow my daughter to have no future and stay unmarried.”

This mother is not a monster. She has simply internalised misogyny to where she honestly believed her daughter, no longer a virgin and thus doomed to a life of spinsterhood, would be better off married to her rapist.

Yes, the magnitude of Arab women’s suffering is greater because of the lack of laws protecting them. But, while their oppression is different in degree, it is the same in kind. It all comes down to sex. How can women ever hope to attain equality when an act as natural, and vital, as sex is regarded an acceptable means to devalue them?

Both Greer and Eltahawy are correct. But I would change ”men” to ”patriarchy”. Patriarchy hates women.

That some of Eltahawy’s fiercest critics are female only serves to show that many women continue to have very little idea of just how much.

Written by Ruby

May 7, 2012 at 12:45 am

Egypt: Toppling Stereotypes and Dictators

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A lot can happen in a month. When Egypt saw in the New Year with a suicide bomb attack that killed 24 Coptic Christians at a midnight mass, the symbolism was as clear as it was ominous. This is only the beginning.

For those of us who hail from the Muslim Middle East, whether we are religious or not, the escalating violence and intolerance that culminated in that attack, were a source of shame and grief.

With every death, the line between moderate and radical seemed to blur. How much longer could we implore not to be judged by the most extreme amongst us, when it appeared the extremists were leaving the moderate voices drowning in a sea of intimidation and fear?

For decades, Arabs have been offered a false choice: secular despotism or radical Islamism. For those of us who believed the Middle East deserved better, the future was looking bleak indeed. The circle seemed never-ending: the dictators held onto power by invoking the radicals causing the oppressed population to seek solace in religious-based organisations as the only organised opposition. The increasing persecution of Christian minorities and growing influence of fundamentalists were signalling an unstoppable march towards Islamism.

But that was before the death of Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian graduate who set himself on fire in a desperate protest against the authoritarian regime that made his life impossible.

If only he could have known what his death has done for the Arab world, both in the Middle East and those of us in the Diaspora. His act of desperation set off an unprecedented wave of protests across the region that finally put to rest the stereotype of the lazy, passive Arab. For decades, Arabs have been told they needed a ‘strong man’ in power to fight off the radical waiting in the wings.

Iran was the bogeyman, the warning of what would happen if the secular dictators lost their grip on power. Treating their citizens as if they neither longer for, nor deserved democracy, these strongmen have had the support of the West who, despite their professed love for freedom, decided that a ‘stable’ Middle East was preferable to a free one.

But the Middle East was never stable so much as stagnant, and such stagnancy can never last. In 18 days, the people of Egypt, led by the web-savvy youth have not only toppled the strongest dictator in the region, they have toppled stereotypes about Arabs themselves.

Hungry for freedom and yearning for a representative government they have changed the face of the Middle East forever.

 

Written by Ruby

February 14, 2011 at 12:11 am

Egypt, Israel and Omelas

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There is a short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, by American science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin that tells a faintly familiar tale.

Omelas is a Utopia. A warm, prosperous city of festivals, ringing with the sound of music and the laughter of children. The citizens are joyous. Negative emotions like guilt do not exist.

But Omelas harbours a dark secret, one on which its entire existence is predicated; the music, laughter, art and architecture all depend on one abominable thing. That a child, feeble-minded and with a body of festering sores, be kept locked up in a dark basement forever. To release the child, in fact to even speak one kind word would immediately destroy the city and it would never be able to rebuild.

The inhabitants know about the child. Upon being informed of its existence, many demand to see it whilst others, “are content just to know it’s there.” But they all accept that in order for them to thrive, the child must suffer.

I was recently introduced to this story by a journalist and blogger, Yuval Ben-Ami, who seeing in Omelas his own home of Israel, writes:

“Even as a teenager I knew that there were people whose lives were controlled by my nation’s army, and who didn’t even get running water in their houses. I knew that there were people imprisoned for years without fair trials. I knew…Israel was an Omelas, prosperous and happy while keeping children in a basement.”

But now, the revolution underway in Egypt has revealed an even greater extent of suffering. The intensity of the uprising has taken everyone by surprise, not least the Egyptians who protested with the exhilaration of those who have finally found their voice after years of being gagged, and whose exhilaration has just turned to dismay as pro-Mubarak supporters strike back.

The world watches on, not entirely sure what to make of it. Early reports out of the United States spoke of ‘chaos’ and ‘disorder,’ prompting New York based Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy to implore the media stop referring to it as such and call it what it is instead: an uprising, a revolt, an revolution. “Egyptians want to fix Egypt, they don’t want to destroy Egypt,” she told CNN.

Whilst some developments have been decidedly ugly, it was clearly a peaceful uprising until pro-Mubarak supporters struck back, opening fire and beating pro-democracy demonstrators. This has prompted calls from US President Barack Obama and British PM David Cameron for a peaceful and immediate transition.

However, this wasn’t the west’s initial reaction. US vice-President Biden, who stressed Mubarak’s status as a US ally as well as his “normalizing relationship…with Israel” declared that he would “not refer to (Mubarak) as a dictator,” best sums up America’s first response.

Clearly, the media, as they so often do, took their cues from the official, government perspective. So why was the west, and America, in particular so afraid of this revolution? So unwillingly to accept that after decades of despotic regimes the ‘Arab Street’ had finally had enough?

Could it be that, like the fictional city of Omelas, the status of Israel, as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ depends upon the misery and suffering of Arabs?

In the early days of the protests, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli government had sent messages to its allies, including the United States, to support Mubarak. To prioritise stability over the possibility of an Egyptian democracy.

For decades America, has been propping up the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East, whilst simultaneously portraying itself as a champion for worldwide democracy. Israel was deemed worthy of support, its survival imperative because it was a democracy. But what we weren’t told was that in order for Israelis to enjoy their democracy, millions of Arabs must be denied theirs.

Incredibly, Arabs have been blamed for the lack of democracy that was forced on them. For years, given a false choice of secular authoritarianism or religious fundamentalism, the world had come to believe that Arabs and democracy just don’t mix, because of course, “they hate us for our freedom.”

But this revolution has given us insight into the breathtaking hypocrisy that has underlined America’s relationship with the Middle East. As Ben-Ami writes, “Is this Jewish state such a fragile fantasy, that an entire region of the world must be kept imprisoned in order for it to thrive?”

Since the uprising began on Jan 25, Al Jazeera has reported a 2000 percent increase in hits to its English language website. Most tellingly, 60 percent of these hits are coming from the United States. Americans, disheartened by the coverage of their own media, and concerned by their government’s military and financial support for a dictator who denied his citizens the very rights Americans claim to be exporting to the world, are turning to the Middle East itself for answers.

In Omelas, not everyone was willing to accept the suffering of the child. They were “the ones who walk away.” No one knew where they were going, but once they knew the truth, they could no longer live in Omelas.

We don’t know what lies ahead for Egypt. But now that we all know the truth, its not enough for some of us to merely walk away.

It’s time to let the child out of the basement.

Written by Ruby

February 8, 2011 at 2:38 am

My Crikey piece in full

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As I mentioned yesterday, here is my Crikey piece in full. Published Tuesday Feb 1, 2011:

Muslims don’t fit into a simple left v right debate.

In an attempt to undermine Labor’s traditional stronghold with immigrant communities, Fairfax columnist Paul Sheehan has cynically taken up the cause of Middle Eastern Christians and their persecution by a portion of the Muslim majority.

Sheehan begins by waxing poetic about a rally held in Martin Place last Wednesday, recalling a, “medieval…forest of crucifixes sprouted among a sea of earnest faces that would look comfortable on ancient coins.” The rally, “drawn from a broader Middle Eastern Christian Diaspora,” was protesting the current wave of terrorist attacks targeting Christians in the Middle East.

Less a meaningful comment on the attacks or the rally itself, and more the opportunity to take pot shots at “the Left” (including “the broadcast arm of the Greens, the ABC”), Sheehan boasts of the three Liberal MPs who spoke whilst scorning Labor’s single attendee Greg Donnelly, who was representing Premier Kristina Keneally.

Referring to Labor as, “the party of appeasement of Muslim belligerence,” Sheehan chastises the PM for not preparing a statement, and calls the absence of a Greens representative “predictable.”

Accusing both the Gillard government and the Greens of siding “with Muslims” against Christians, Sheehan gleefully concludes, “support for Labor is showing signs of disintegrating among Australians who take discrimination against Christians seriously.”

Whilst making much of the recent attacks against Egypt’s Copts, Sheehan fails to mention that after the New Year’s Day attack in Alexandria which killed 23 people; thousands of Muslims marched with their Christian compatriots against the radical threat. Many even formed human shields outside churches to allow worshipers to celebrate the Coptic Christmas without the fear of attack.

Sheehan is correct in denouncing violence against Christians. But his failure to acknowledge the support that some Muslims are providing the Middle East’s beleaguered Christians is dishonest in the extreme. Apparently the fact that many Muslims also “take discrimination against Christians seriously,” is not worthy of mention for Sheehan. Ironic in an article whose reason d’ etre is to criticise the omissions and absences of others.

His purposefully inflammatory statements signify so much of what is wrong in the current debate about Islam. Namely that, lacking the nuances of Christianity, Islam is a monolithic entity that is fundamentally incompatible with western values. Proving however, the old adage that a broken clock is right twice a day, there is a grain of truth in Sheehan’s statements.

The accusation that all Muslims are anti-Western and anti-Christian is as offensive as it untrue, and as it almost always emanates from the right of politics many of those on the left seek to counteract the claims by shouting them down. However, by doing so they are also unwittingly contributing to the problem.

There is no doubt that much of the attacks on modern Islam are simple bigotry. However, by dismissing all criticism as such, many leftists are actually engaging in what they purport to be against: dogmatism that doesn’t tolerate an opposing point of view.

The furore over Park 51, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” is one example. With many denouncing it as an Islamist monument to victory on “conquered lands,” the squabbling between left and right became so loud, it drowned out the voices of Muslims themselves.

What could, and should, have been a legitimate debate about freedom of religion and cultural sensitivity, descended into a political melee, prompting Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, general manager of Al-Arabiya Television to complain, “(T)he mosque is not an issue for Muslims, and they have not heard of it until the shouting became loud between the supporters and the objectors, which is mostly an argument between non-Muslim US citizens!”

By reflexively denouncing everything from opposition to Park 51 to questioning the place of the burqa in modern society, western leftists are also treating Islam as a monolith and denying Muslims the opportunity to debate these issues themselves.

But when Sheehan simplifies a complex problem by saying, “the left sides with Muslims,” he simultaneously demonises all Muslims and undermines efforts by liberal Muslims to counter the extremism that threatens to engulf them.

His comments also diminish the efforts of those Tunisians who have forced a dictator from his lofty perch. Their revolution has ignited dissent in neighbouring Algeria, Yemen and Egypt, also struggling under authoritarian regimes.

These are not Islamist uprisings, in fact, these dictators held onto power largely by pointing to the radicals waiting in the wings. Like Iran’s failed Green Revolution they are protests by Muslims who don’t seek to replace a secular dictatorship with a religious one, but who crave freedom. Since when has freedom being incompatible with western values?

Those who denounce Islamic ideology as ‘medieval’ would do well to note that the golden age of Islam was actually in the Middle Ages, when art and literature flourished. Muslim women, not yet driven behind the veil, enjoyed rights that were unseen in the west until the 20th century.

While Muslims were excelling in science and mathematics, the Catholic Church was torturing heretics and burning ‘witches’ at the stake.

Fundamentalist Islam is a modern construct, a reaction to secularism and western hegemony. The way to counteract its growing influence is not by decrying Islam itself as evil, but nor is it by dismissing all criticism of it as racist.

It is time for secular and other liberal Muslims in this country to be a given a louder voice, for in the polarising Us v Them framework that Sheehan champions, they are the biggest casualty. Conservative Muslims far outnumber seculars and liberals, and the gulf between them- both in numbers and ideological position -is growing.

But as long as some western voices continue to assume Muslims are homogenous, and other western voices respond by defending fundamentalism at the expense of dissent, then the voices of progressive Muslims who seek to alter their negative image in the west, as well fight the growing radicalisation in their midst are marginalised into irrelevancy.

Written by Ruby

February 2, 2011 at 6:43 am

Posted in Islam, Media

Tagged with , , , , ,

Islam is not a left/right issue

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I have a story in Crikey today. It’s my first piece for them so I am quite excited. Unfortunately, you have to be subscribed to read it in full. I will link to it anyway, but first this excerpt. Will post the whole thing tomorrow.

The accusation that all Muslims are anti-Western and anti-Christian is as offensive as it untrue, and as this view very often emanates from the right of politics many of those on the left seek to counteract the claims by shouting them down. However, by doing so they are also unwittingly contributing to the problem.

There is no doubt that much of the attacks on modern Islam are simple bigotry. However, by dismissing all criticism as such, many leftists are actually engaging in what they purport to be against: dogmatism that doesn’t tolerate an opposing point of view.

The furore over Park 51, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” is one example. With many denouncing it as an Islamist monument to victory on “conquered lands,” the squabbling between left and right became so loud, it drowned out the voices of Muslims themselves.

What could, and should, have been a legitimate debate about freedom of religion and cultural sensitivity, descended into a political melee, prompting Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, general manager of Al-Arabiya Television to complain, “(T)he mosque is not an issue for Muslims, and they have not heard of it until the shouting became loud between the supporters and the objectors, which is mostly an argument between non-Muslim US citizens!”

Written by Ruby

February 1, 2011 at 7:24 am

Posted in Islam

Tagged with , , , ,

My first appearance on television…

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Well, after lots of thinking, and second-guessing it appears I shall be making  my television debut tonight on Insight, the forum program on SBS hosted by Jenny Brockie.

The producers read my article in the Herald about the burqa and why I think a ban will not resolve the issue and think I may have something to add. Now I am not entirely sure I will be heard above the din but one of my points was that this is an issue which needs to be discussed amongst the Muslim community so I am pleased that SBS is on board with that.

The audience will be mainly Muslim and the guests include Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, writer/comedian Tanveer Ahmed, a young woman who wears a burqa out of ‘choice’ and Cory Bernardi (0f course!).

Let’s hope I don’t get tongue tied! Though I imagine my role is going to be very minor since I am neither for a ban nor against it. Ah, moderacy, you are so inconsequential!

Ruby

Written by Ruby

September 21, 2010 at 2:39 am

Posted in Islam, Television

Tagged with , , , ,