Heart racing, Salihah lifted her nine-year-old daughter from the bed and clumsily carried her to the living room. Salihah’s legs nearly collapsed under the weight of the sleeping girl, but Salihah didn’t have time to wake Noor. They needed to leave—now.
Malik would be home any minute, and Salihah wanted to leave before her husband returned.
Outside in the car, Salihah’s hand trembled as she buckled Noor’s seatbelt. Salihah stepped back to close the door, but the sound of Noor moaning and stirring in her sleep halted Salihah’s movements.
For a moment, Salihah studied the soft, innocent features of her daughter’s face, and tears filled her eyes.What kind of mother am I?How could I have been so blind to what was happening?
Salihah sighed as she shut the back door and slid into the driver’s seat. Her heart was heavy as she pulled out of the driveway to her home and steered the car into the quiet street.
She had no idea where she was going, but she knew she had to get away. She felt terrible that she hadn’t left the day Noor told her what Malik had been doing—for more than a year.
“Tell her towear hijabat home,” the imam had advised a distraught and shaken Salihah three weeks after Noor had broken down and told her mother what had happened. “And it’s probably best if she doesn’t sing or dance in the home anymore.”
“Mommy, mommy, watch this!”In the car, tears slipped down Salihah’s cheeks as she recalled her daughter’s bursting energy two years before. At seven years old Noor was all laughs and giggles as she showed her mother a silly dance routine that she and her friends had thought of.
If Noor and her “girl crew” (as Noor called them) were feeling particularly energetic, they’d think of some silly lyrics to sing along to their routine as they showed it off to their mothers.
Salihah clinched her jaw as she recalled how stupid she’d been to think a childhood friend of Malik’s could give her “Islamic” advice.
“She’s an attractive little girl,” the imam had said, an apologetic grin on his face. “That’s not an easy situation for men, especially stepfathers.”
‘Oh Allah, Muslims Too?’
Growing up, I often heard stories aboutsexual abuseand oppression of women, and I always found them bizarre.
Their horrific reality was so far removed from my sheltered existence that I couldn’t fathom them beyond the plot of a chilling, fictional drama. But as I got older, I began to see the world around me for what it was: fragile, dangerous, and often terrifying. And I began to realize that the loving, spiritually-rich home that defined my childhood was not what defined that of thousands of other people.
As naïve as it sounds to me today, as a youth, the most incomprehensible reality for me to face was that Muslims were amongst the thousands of sufferers—and oppressors. I know now that this naiveté was born from a deeply rooted concept of Islam that I held in my heart and mind.
When I was a child, my parents—through word and deed—instilled in me and my siblings what it meant to be Muslim, and I innocently imagined that all Muslim parents had done the same.
‘But You’re a Fitnah to Men’
Years ago when my family moved from America to Saudi Arabia, I was in the new country only a short time before I experienced one of my first “spiritual culture shocks”. Though I was wearing the full, all-black, Saudi-styleabaya(veil) and face veil, I was told I should also cover my eyes.
“If a camel were to wear a face veil, it would be attractive,” someone told me, repeating what her husband had told her that a prominent sheikh had said (and apparently what he had told her to tell me so that I would be inspired to be a “better Muslim”).
Maybe it was the “American” in me, but when I first heard this, I had to suppress laughter. But I maintained my composure and told her that, as a Muslim, Icoverbased on the words of Allah and His Messenger, peace be upon him, not based on the words of a man—no matter how “knowledgeable” he is known to be.
“But it’s afitnah[a tremendous trial and difficulty] for men,” she said. “What if a man sees your eyes and gets attracted to you?”
“The only person I have to protect fromfitnahis me,” I said, hoping she could hear with her heart more than her ears. “And it’s afitnahformeto carry on my shoulders the burden of men’s desires. I fear for my soul if I were to believe that it’s my responsibility to make sure men never desire me. My Lord didn’t put that burden on me, and I refuse to put it on myself.”
‘They Don’t Know Islam’
It was after repeated encounters with Muslims who believed that I needed to cover my eyes (and went through great lengths to convince me of my “crime”) that I had the epiphany.
For years I had been confounded by incidents of oppression of girls and women (which many predominately-Muslim cultures were guilty of). And for the life of me, I couldn’t muster even a partial understanding of what led to such madness in people who professed to be Muslims.
They don’t have Islam in their lives.
It was something my parents had said repeatedly while I was growing up:Islam is a way of life, and any “Muslim” who doesn’t understand this—in word and deed—doesn’t have Islam in their lives.“No, I’m not saying they are not Muslim,” my father would say. “I’m saying they don’t know Islam.”
‘But She Looks So Good’
Allah says,“On no soul does Allah place a burden greater than it can bear…”—Al-Baqarah, 2:286.
Yet it is unfortunate that humans place on one another burdens greater than they can bear.
Amongst Muslims, some go as far as to teach something similar to that of the ancient Christian church: that females’ very existence is a perpetual curse—and that even Allah’s guidelines are not sufficient in protecting them from harming themselves and others.
A girl is sexually abused and is told to wear hijab at home…
A woman obeys Allah and is told she’s still in sin….
“Because she looks so good”
But this twisted thinking comes only from those whose lives have not been graced with the beauty of Islam. So it is our obligation to share with them Allah’s message…
And to let them know that it is not men’s desires that rule human life in this world.
It is the desires of Allah.
And the onlyfitnahthat should inspire anyone—man or woman—to make changes in life is thefitnahof ignoringthesedesires.
Women in Pakistan are being harassed and are encountering hostility via social networks on the Internet. At the same time, many women's rights activists see the web as a new way to further their work. By Marcus Michaelsen
If a Pakistani woman journalist denounces child abuse and sexual harassment on Twitter, it can happen that she is threatened with rape. "I've received vile, detailed messages from random strangers who decide to tell me my home address and then live out their rape fantasies online."
Another women's rights activist has experienced a similar response. "Almost every time I talk about taboo issues on Facebook, Twitter or my blog, I receive hundreds of hate comments. Most of these involve calling me an atheist, an evil woman and an agent of the West. Most of them tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about and should 'go back to the kitchen'."
Both women have published their experiences on the Pakistani 'Take Back the Tech' campaign website, which draws attention to the issue of violence against women and seeks to promote the active use of digital media by women. The campaign originated in 2006 as part of the Association for Progressive Communications, a network that promotes human rights and development with the help of new communications technologies.
Since then, branches have sprung up in more than 20 countries. Last December, the network launched an important activity that focussed on 'digital storytelling'. In a series of short videos and articles posted on the Internet, women spoke about their own experiences of violence and abuse, but also of self-assertion and personal maturity.
Attacks on women with strong opinions
Nighat Dad, managing director of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan, has observed that as use of the Internet becomes more widespread, more women are taking part in online debates about politics, religion, and sexuality. "All this is challenging the status quo and stereo types in an online space where there is a visible dominance of male internet users. When they see it is hard to win the arguments with women, they start abusing them and challenge their intellect and brain power," she says.
Besides attacks against women with strong opinions, there are also new forms of harassment and abuse on the net. Take Back the Tech documents the case of a Facebook profile, that was spreading stolen private photos of a young Pakistani woman on the web accompanied by offensive comments. The photos then appeared on websites with personal ads or combined with pornographic images.
Women are also being secretly photographed or stalked with the use of mobile telephones. The journalist Saba Imtiaz described in an article how many Pakistani women are besieged with text messages from unknown men. They obviously get the telephone numbers either through random calls or covertly from delivery services or the staff of mobile telephone providers.
Of course, the new media only reflect the realities of society. Sexual violence against women is widespread in Pakistan. According to a poll conducted by the Dutch Rutgers World Population Foundation, 66 per cent of Pakistani women have at some time or another experienced violence. This is primarily attributed to poverty, lack of education, and social tension.
An additional problem is that in Pakistan's conservative society, the behaviour of women is closely linked to questions of honour and morality. Professor Farzana Bari, women's rights activist, has demanded in the Express Tribune newspaper that the perceptions of gender roles must be fundamentally altered in Pakistan. In order to combat violence against women, women need to be given greater financial, social, and legal support.
Yet, it was only in 2010 that a law against the harassment of women in the workplace was introduced. A law against domestic violence, on the other hand, has been delayed due to opposition from Islamic organizations, who have warned of an undermining of traditions and religious values.
Lack of discretion
Correspondingly, the means to act against harassment on the Internet are also limited. A proposed law on cybercrime, which has been under discussion for years, is concerned only with crimes such as fraud and data theft. The organization Bytes For All, which champions freedom of opinion on the Internet in Pakistan, also complains that the police and judicial authorities seldom display the necessary discretion in cases of sexual violence, whether online or elsewhere.
It is therefore all the more important to alert users to the risks. Bytes for All has created an interactive map that documents incidents of violence and harassment. In addition, the organization offers courses in online security. A poster campaign carried out on social networks calls for the use of digital media without restrictions.
It is not only a matter of counteracting self-censorship, which, according to Nighat Dad, is how many women react to slander and aggression on the net. References to religion and morality also offer the pretext for state intervention in the digital sphere. In May 2010, the government shut down access to Facebook for two weeks because a competition involving Mohammed caricatures was being held on a member's profile.
YouTube has also been blocked in Pakistan since an anti-Islamic video provoked angry protests in September. Although the furore has long since died down, the Pakistani parliament recently recommended extending the blackout of the Internet platform. Shahzad Ahmand, director of Bytes for All, warns of the misuse of religion to further politically motivated censorship. After all, amateur videos documenting corruption and human rights abuses in the country have frequently been uploaded to YouTube in the past.
Strategies against state control
Last year, a minor victory was achieved against the state's need to impose controls. The government had announced a call for bids to set up of a national Internet filtering system. The justification was based on the need to combat pornography and blasphemy and to protect national security. With a clever campaign and international support, Pakistani network activists managed to force a provisional suspension of the plan.
Farieha Aziz took part in the campaign. Together with the blogger Sana Saleem, the journalist founded the organization Bolo Bhi (Speak Louder). Both women make use of their media experience to campaign for women's rights and freedom of expression. According to Farieha Aziz, Twitter and Facebook have opened new doors for activists to get their messages across to the public. If an issue garners sufficient attention on the net, then other media will sit up and take notice.
At the same time, social networks can help to correct reports from the press and television. When reports of rape were published including the names of victims, protests in social networks succeeded in bringing about a change to this unethical editorial policy, says Aziz. Internet users reacted similarly to a broadcast by the television presenter Maya Khan, who asked young couples in public parks on camera if they were married or not. Khan was forced to apologise and was subsequently fired.
There are many aspects to the struggle for freedom of expression and equal rights in Pakistan. As these women activists have shown through their experiences, digital media can serve both as a tool and a venue for action.
What happened to the Egyptian women who weregang raped and sexually tortured in Tahrir Square on 25 January 2013? Not much, other thanpower holders incriminating the victimsas being responsible for bringing the assault upon themselves. Consequently, four leading rights organisations – El Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and Violence, the Center for New Woman Studies, Nazra for Feminist Studies and the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Aid – have filed an official complaint on behalf of seven female clients.
They have provided evidence, in videos and testimonies, of women who were violently sexually assaulted, which they believe was undertaken in a systematic manner, and have demanded an investigation to reveal the identity of the perpetrators and call them to justice. The organisations believe that such violence is politically motivated, intended to intimidate women against engaging in activism against the government.
Farah Shash, a psychologist withEl Nadeem Centerargues that although politically motivated sexual assault was practised during the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), such incidents have increased in frequency and severity since theMuslim Brotherhoodtook over. The targets are both women and men who are either activists or bystanders in protest spaces. Thepolitical nature of many of these assaults is clear.
Yet many prefer to talk about the problem of sexual harassment more generally. To do so entails a public condemnation of society and government alike for failing women, but to talk of politically motivated sexual assault is to primarily hold the Muslim Brotherhood accountable for using it as a political strategy for eliminating opposition. Critics would argue that the opposition has also been engaged in violence against the government. However, this disregards the asymmetry of power between a ruling party that can resort to its national security apparatus and its militias, compared with the resources available to citizens.
Irrespective of whether the sexual assault is politically or socially motivated, a culture of fear threatens to obscure the iconic 2011 image of protesting women in Tahrir Square. In conversations with women living in Mo'assasset el Zakat, an impoverished shanty town in close proximity to El Marg, north of Cairo, the views are divided. Some argue that women should not go into Tahrir Square anymore, they should leave this kind of political activism to men and concentrate on their work and families. Others see it differently. They argue that this is a ploy to terrorise and intimidate women so that they do not go out to the streets, and the only thing to do is push back and not be deterred.
However, women do not always have the choice. Across many parts ofEgypt, families have been withdrawing their daughters from schools and universities because of the lax security situation. Culture is not to blame: it is not that men do not want to see their daughters educated, on the contrary, but they fear that the women and girls will be vulnerable to harassment and assault. Yet no one is talking about the immense human cost of a generation of women missing out on education because of government failure to ensure a safe and assault-free environment. Why?
There is a reason why the everyday realities of women and girls and their families are not featuring as prominently in the international policy arenas and the media: there seems to be an implicit policy of silence – almost to the point of censorship – of not criticising the Muslim Brotherhood too much for fear of appearing Islamophobic and orientalist.
No one, for example, is listening to the stories of Egyptian women in Qena, Fayoum, Cairo and elsewhere about their anger and despair at some of the religious leaders at the local mosques who are actively encouraging married men to take on Syrian women as wives. Sharing their husbands is not the kind of solidarity with the Syrian people women had in mind. Polygamy in Egypt has rarely been practised and when it has, it has been done in secret. Yet there has been very little talk about how religious leaders affiliated to particular Islamist movements are wreaking havoc in the homes of Egyptian families. All the while, many Egyptian women are suffering in silence, anguishing over the idea or the experience of having to share their husbands.
The irony is that while the international community is keen to show its political correctness by ignoring the voices of Egyptian women critical of the regime, many of the country's citizens are fighting against the Muslim Brotherhood's and Salafis' claim to be the sole guardians and representatives of Islam, and are resisting attempts to vilify them as traitors to religion.
The failure of the government to send strong signals to perpetrators of politically motivated assault and to those promoting practices and behaviour that undermine women's wellbeing can only be interpreted as complicity in these very acts. And saying those who critique the government are critiquing Islam is a way of using religion for political ends that many Egyptian Muslim women and men are not going to buy into anymore.
Shereen El Feki – a writer, broadcaster and PhD in molecular immunology – spent five years investigating the radical upheaval of Arab society: not in the political sphere, but in the bedrooms of the region. Sex, she believes, is deeply enmeshed with religion, politics and the economy. And learning about married life, dating, homosexual circles and sex education, to name only a few of the taboo topics she explored, can give us rich insight into everyday lives and dreams. Here, in an adapted excerpt from her bookSex and The Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World(out March 16), Ms. El Feki introduces us to a famous Arab sex therapist.
Lackluster lovemaking is positively un-Islamic.
“Let none of you come upon his wife like an animal, and let there be an emissary between them,” the Prophet Mohammed is reported to have said. “What is this emissary, O Messenger of God?” a clueless believer asked. “The kiss and [sweet] words,” he replied.
If those sentiments seem to be lost in contemporary Arab society, one woman is out to breathe that pioneering spirit back into marital relations: Heba Kotb, the Arab world’s best-known sex therapist.
“We don’t have a lot of time in this world. And we practise sex, so let’s practise it in a good way,” she enthused. “Let’s transform it into the dynamo of our life and our happiness.”
Kotb and I first met at her clinic in a trendy part of Cairo a couple of years before the recent uprisings. “For now, I’m booked three months in advance. Daily, I see between 10 and 20 [patients]. In the summer [when Egyptians living abroad, and Arabs from elsewhere in the region, visit Cairo], it’s usually a mess.”
Her Egyptian patients come from all classes, locations, and age groups; although women are traditionally expected to head into sexual hibernation at menopause (in Arabic, the “age of despair”), Kotb’s clientele also includes a sprinkling of those well past retirement.
Patients have not always been forthcoming. When Kotb first set up shop in 2001, the few people bold enough to seek help were wary about putting in an appearance. “The man would ask whether he would be seen in my office or not [and], if there’s another patient on the day, whether there would be a space so that they would not overlap,” she recalled.
Now, she says, “They are waiting outside. Things change.”
This change is in part due to Kotb herself. In 2006, she burst into Arab households withKalam Kabir(Big Talk), a weekly TV series on sexual problems broadcast by one of Egypt’s private satellite channels. The show’s dozen or so episodes openly ventured into areas where other presenters had feared to tread – online porn, oral sex, and wedding night jitters, among them. For just under an hour, a soberly suited Kotb, her hair and neck fully covered by a hijab, dispensed advice on various topics, her lengthy monologues relieved by the occasional guest expert and an imam giving an Islamic take on the issue at hand, be it masturbation or voyeurism.
For all the hardships Egyptians now face, there is a new freedom of expression, one Kotb sees in her patients: Earlier it was mainly husbands dragging in their wives for consultation; after the 2011 uprising, she found the situation reversed. “Women are more courageous now to accuse their husbands of not being good [in bed]. It is the spirit of the revolution – I have to reject, I have to refuse, I have to say no [I am not the one to blame],” she told me.
Kotb’s advice to couples is shaped by her faith.
“I love Islam,” she told me. “I admire the religion. In radical Christianity, sex is not a good thing, even within marriage. But this is not logic; people find themselves desiring something, and they couldn’t get attached to that religion, so they start to get out of that religion. In Islam, it’s the contrary: sex is something that is advised. … This makes people more religious and more loving to this religion, which is giving them all this space, which is giving them all this pleasure – and also the reward in this life and the hereafter.”
Kotb is in her 40s; like many Egyptians of her generation, she became interested in Islam at university. “I was brought up in a very liberal house; I was wearing a swimsuit until after I got married.” Her husband, whom she met at medical school, came from an even less observant background, but together, she said, “we decided to make ourselves and our future families better than our older families, so we started to read about religion, to study Koran, to get it by heart.” It was around this time that Kotb decided to put onhijab, much to her parents’ dismay – at the time, head scarves were something for servants, not aspiring surgeons.
Her career in sexology came later. As a working mother, Kotb decided to forgo a career in surgery for something less time intensive: forensic medicine. She began working on the sexual abuse of children – both victims and perpetrators – and it was through this that she developed her interest in sexuality. A doctorate from the United States on sexuality in Islam topped off her training, and in Cairo she began to build her patient roster, which now extends to several Gulf states, and a following among Muslims in Canada as well.
Kotb is obviously an inspiration to some; I’ve seen strangers come up to her in public to thank her for her show. How many of these fans are actually following her advice is another matter. “I like Heba Kotb,” one married woman in her early 20s in a working-class neighbourhood of Cairo told me, “because she explains everything in a modest and useful way. I watch it always, but my mother does not like her. I heard from her [Kotb] that I need to ask for my sexual rights. But I cannot apply that because my husband will not agree or will feel that I am rude.”
To be sure, Kotb’s advice seems daring to many by today’s standards.
Given recentfatwasforbidding oral sex or nudity between the conjugal sheets, her suggestions on how to spice up spousal relations have earned her conservative opponents. But on closer inspection, Kotb is hardly a radical – something that puts her in the crosshairs of other, more liberal sexologists across the region.
She is, for example, an implacable opponent of premarital sex, on psychosexual as well as religious grounds. And for all her talk of women exerting their God-given sexual rights, it’s still men first in Kotb’s book. “He is exposed to many temptations outside the home. Be available to please him and do not give him a reason to make a choice between you and hellfire.”
The advice of Kotb and other Islamically inflected sex therapists pales in comparison with the full-blooded approach of the past.
Take, for example, theEncyclopedia of Pleasure.We know little about its author, Ali ibn Nasr al-Katib, other than where and when he wrote: Baghdad in the late 10th or early 11th century. But short of cybersex and porn videos, its 43 chapters cover every conceivable sexual practice. “On the Advantages of a Non-virgin over a Virgin,” “On Increasing the Sexual Pleasure of Man and Woman,” and “Description of the Nasty Way of Doing It and Lewd Sex” give you some idea of its vast scope.
TheEncyclopediais also full of women with full-throttle sex drives. The sexual insatiability of women was a well-established theme long before Ali ibn Nasr came on the scene. The Koran tells the story of the wife of a Pharaonic court official, better known as Zuleika, who attempted to seduce the Prophet Joseph, then a young and handsome slave. When he refused her advances, she claimed that he was the seducer, but her lie was exposed when people noticed that his shirt was torn from the back, proving that he had been fleeing her, not the other way around.
It is tempting to contrast today’s close-mindedness and sexual hang-ups, to the freewheeling, fun-loving women of theEncyclopedia.
It is, however, important to remember that this is not some medieval Masters and Johnson; Ali ibn Nasr is telling tales, not taking a compass to female sexual response. His stories may be exaggerated, or even fabricated, but that’s not the point. What’s remarkable about his work, seen through 21-first-century eyes, is not whether women actually behaved in this way in the eleventh century, but the fact that it was considered desirable that they should express their sexuality – at least in private– and that it was socially acceptable to write about it in such a free, frank, and detailed fashion.