Wednesday, 31 March 2010
Tuesday, 30 March 2010
Marriage between relatives is seen as distasteful within some cultures, but it has been a common feature in many others for thousands of years.
However, growing evidence has shown that children born to parents from the same extended family face a higher risk of developing a range of health problems.
Research from 2008 shows that marriage between cousins in the US, Europe, Russia and Australia is less than one per cent.
In countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, more than half of the population marry a spouse who is considered a relative.
Some of these countries and a number of African and Asian countries have the world's highest rates of birth defects - up to 69 cases in every thousand people.
Some experts say the real figure is much higher. Like its Gulf neighbours, Qatar has now made pre-marital medical tests mandatory.
Khalid bin Jabor al-Thani, the chairman of Qatar's cancer society and former deputy director of its national health authority, told Al Jazeera that inter-family marriages are tolerated because they are the product of "tribal traditions".
"The tolerance comes from people who used to live in very remote areas and tribes would always want to keep their blood within the family and not go outside," he said.
"In Islamic religion it is always advisable to go outside the family. But since this has [been happening] for such a long time ago, and has been carried forward, it [is] one of the issues that people overlook."
Al Jazeera's Charles Stratford reports from Doha.
Monday, 29 March 2010
Governments intervene against the religious wishes of Jehovah's Witness families to give blood transfusions to save the lives of their kin. The Quebec government wants to intervene to deny health care to women whose religious wish is to wear the niqab.
In Saudi Arabia, Iran and parts of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, police or vigilante militias crack down on women not wearing the niqab or the burqa. In Quebec, authorities want to crack down on women who do.
Quebec officials have already chased down one niqab-wearing woman to oust her from a second French language class after she had been hounded out of her first. The bureaucrats are emulating the gendarmes of autocrats Kemal Ataturk of Turkey in the 1920s and the first Shah of Iran in the 1930s who persecuted women wearing either the niqab or the hijab.
It is scary when a state feels compelled to keep women either covered or uncovered.
It is scarier when majorities in democracies feel threatened by a minority – in this case, a tiny minority within the Muslim minority. Or feel the need to crush an isolated religious or cultural practice. Had such attitudes prevailed in an earlier era, we may not have been blessed today with Hutterites, Orthodox Jews, Sikhs and others in the rich religious tapestry of Canada.
Across Europe and now sadly in Quebec, populations and governments are in a tizzy over a few dozen niqabi women. Sadder still, Quebec is not only out of step with the rest of Canada but has taken a bigoted leap ahead of Europe, the historic home of Islamophobia.
In France – where out of 5 million Muslims, 367 wear the niqab (as counted by the domestic intelligence service, no less) – a parliamentary panel has pondered the issue for a year and suggested a ban from schools and hospitals but nowhere else.
In Denmark – where out of 100,000 Muslims, there are less than 200 niqabis (as estimated by the ministry of social affairs), the government is still mulling a ban.
In Quebec, less than 25 women are said to wear the niqab – of whom only 10 turned up last year at the Montreal office of the provincial health board out of 118,000 visitors.
Yet the obsession with the niqab continues. On the day Jean Charest tabled his anti-niqab bill, Hydro Quebec's $3.2 billion deal to take over NB Power and gain access to the lucrative U.S. market collapsed – with nary a public concern.
His bill calls not only for showing the face for the legitimate purposes of a photo ID and security. It also bans niqabis from working for, or even receiving services from, government and the broader public sector. These taxpayers may be denied all schooling, including French language instruction, and all non-emergency health care, including regular checkups.
Charest rationalized it on the basis of gender equity, the secular nature of the state, the need to integrate immigrants, and the importance of personal interaction. Except that:
The giant crucifix in the National Assembly will stay.
Property and other tax breaks given the churches will remain, including for the Catholic Church, where women must remain in the pews and not ascend to the pulpit.
Niqabi women will be driven out of the public sphere, end up with less personal interaction with others and be ghettoized. It is a strange way to advance gender equity.
It is argued, as by Nicolas Sarkozy in France, that banning the niqab is not anti-Islamic, since it may not be a religious requirement, as opined by a senior Egyptian cleric last year. We elect politicians not to propound fatwas but to implement secular, democratic laws in an equitable manner for one and all. As for those enamoured of the authoritarian ways of Egypt, they are free to move there.
We are witnessing collective hysteria, prompting even liberal governments to cave in. It was not a pretty sight to see Charest, a Liberal, competing for headlines with Ann Coulter, the Muslim-baiting neo-con from America.
That's democracy in action, it can be said. But we have seen many ugly manifestations of the popular will before. Targeting the niqabis may not be in the same league as past Canadian sins against some minorities but history should provide us with the perspective to pause.
Haroon Siddiqui is the Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears Thursday and Sunday.
Sunday, 28 March 2010
Saturday, 27 March 2010
Friday, 26 March 2010
St. Cloud, Minn. — The Facebook group, "I hate the Somalians at Tech High," didn't live online for a long time, but word traveled fast among high school students in the St. Cloud area.
While that page no longer exists, students of Somali descent say the attitudes expressed on that Facebook page have a strong presence on two of St. Cloud's public high schools.
Sahra Alin Ahmed, a Somali student and freshman at Apollo High School, wasn't surprised by the group's views as she regularly hears them on campus.
The atmosphere at the city's high schools is so hostile to Somali students that Alin Ahmed finds herself having to stand up for newly arrived immigrant students.
"They don't say anything to the people that know English, but the ones who just came from Africa, who don't really know English, you know, who don't really understand, those are the ones they get at most," she said.
Somali students now make up about 10 percent of the student population in the St. Cloud Area School District 742 and their numbers have been steadily growing. The entire district has about 10,000 students.
Alin Ahmed said white students make disparaging remarks about how they perceive their Muslim classmates to dress, speak, and smell.
Apollo sophomore Fadumo Adan said she's been the target of those comments ever since she moved to Minnesota from Somalia two years ago.
"They always make fun of us and they say, 'Go back to your countries,' and, 'You guys stink,' and, 'This is our country, and we don't need black people,' so it's every single day," Adan said. "It's not several times, it's all the time."
Adan said some of her classmates spray perfume as Muslim students exit classrooms. Although she has complained about that to teachers and her counselor, sometimes they won't do anything, she said.
But Alin Ahmed said that in her experience, school administrators do try to address racial tensions when problems arise.
St. Cloud Area School District 742 Superintendent Steve Jordahl said school administrators do follow district discipline policies when students report any kind of inappropriate behavior. When district officials receive complaints of bullying, racial, sexual or religious harassment, he said, they take action.
"Detention can happen [and] legal authority, the police, in other words, can be called in," Jordahl said. "Kids can be suspended or dismissed from school. Sometimes expulsion things can happen. Of course, that doesn't happen very often, but it does happen."
That's what happened to 18-year-old Kyle Adams, a senior at Area Learning Center Wilson, an alternative school. Adams used to go to Technical High School, but officials expelled him when he was in the tenth grade.
"I was young and dumb and saying some stuff and then a Somalian came up at swung at me and I ducked out of the way and then I said, 'you stupid, f'ing n----- and all of this,'" Adams said. "And then I got in trouble and got kicked out and there was nothing followed up on them for swinging at me or yelling at me and that really made me kind of mad."
This wasn't Adams' first altercation with classmates of Somali descent.
Though Adams now says he shouldn't have said the things he said, he still harbors resentment. He was one of the people who joined the Facebook group, "I hate the Somalians at Tech High." He's also a member of another Facebook group called, "I am a 'Rasist' [sic].. ok,, So Deal With It."
Adams, who grew up in Kentucky, explains he called his classmate a racial epithet because his beliefs about race are deep-seated.
"I was raised in believing that this country was founded upon a white Christian nation and the belief of racial separation," he said.
Adams said his family and friends think it's normal to use racial slurs. He said his attitude toward Muslim students is also common among many of his classmates.
His friend, 18-year-old Matt Mayavski, said a few people at the school call themselves "rednecks" on campus. Others make their views known by wearing Confederate flag belt buckles or belts or wearing certain brands of clothing, said Mayavski, a lifelong St. Cloud resident who also went to Technical High School.
Adams and Mayavski say they flash the Confederate battle flag -- an offensive symbol to many blacks -- because they believe in small government. They say it has nothing to do with race.
The resentment stems from feeling like Muslim students receive preferential treatment, Mayavski said.
"Towards the end of my junior year, I was in math class and the Somalians asked to go pray before lunch," he said. "Well, I went to ask my teacher for [a prayer break] and [she] sent me down to the office and I got written up for it. And I was like, 'Well, how can the school respect their religion, but they can't respect ours?'"
Nimco Ahmed, a policy aide to a Minneapolis City Council member, said it's understandable that white students in St. Cloud have such questions.
"Why can they go every Friday and step out of class and have a Friday prayer while I have to be in class is a good question," said Ahmed, who is from Somalia. "It is a legitimate question and somebody needs to answer these questions to them."
When Ahmed went to Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis ten years ago, the Somali population was growing rapidly, and cultural misunderstandings were common.
Ahmed said school administrators have to take extra steps to educate students about other cultures. That's how her school was able to overcome cultural tensions.
"They reached out to other people outside of our school. They had people come in and educate us and sit down with us and mediate us," she said. "That's exactly what is needed. And when we learned how to do it, we reached out to other schools that had the same problems. We didn't stop."
Ahmed said such challenges are typical of any area undergoing significant demographic changes. But the issues at St. Cloud schools need to be addressed quickly before they escalate, she said.
Superintendent Jordahl said he wants people to understand that his schools are doing what they can to address these problems.
"As adults in the system, we recognize that the issues exist and our job is to raise student achievement," Jordahl said. "We recognize that if kids don't feel good, feel safe, they are not going to do as well as if they did. So we want to make sure we are addressing this all the time."
But schools can't tackle them alone, he said.
"We really, really want our parents to understand that they have a huge role in this," Jordahl said. "In fact, I always say this, parents, you are the first and most important teacher your child has."
While Jordahl said St. Cloud schools are working hard to address racial tensions, critics in the wider St. Cloud community say the district isn't doing enough. They've called on the district to adopt a more aggressive anti-bias curriculum than what the district currently has.
Thursday, 25 March 2010
The staff sergeants in the Givati infantry brigade have been charged with acting "in breach of military norms" by forcing the child at gunpoint to open bags they believed might be rigged with explosives.
The child, identified only as "Majd R", said he feared for his life.
"I thought they would kill me. I became very scared and wet my pants," he said in an affidavit to Geneva-based children's group, Defence for Children International.
"There were two bags in front of me. I grabbed the first one as he stood one and a half metres away. I opened the bag as he pointed his weapon directly at me. I emptied the bag on the floor. It contained money and papers. I looked at him and he was laughing."
One of the defendants, who have not been identified, said in an army radio interview he felt he and his comrade were being made scapegoats in the face of international criticism of Israel's offensive, in which about 1,400 Palestinians were killed, among them 400 children.
"They were looking for someone to blame in front of the entire world," the soldier said. "Sadly it was people who really didn't do anything.
The military said that it began its investigation of the incident in June. It said the probe was unrelated to a UN fact-finding mission which was visiting the Gaza Strip at the same time.
The UN mission, headed by South African former judge Richard Goldstone, later filed a report which concluded that both the Israeli military and Palestinian militants committed war crimes during the 22-day offensive launched on December 27, 2008.
Thirteen Israelis were killed during the war, which Israel launched in response to rocket and mortar attacks from the Islamist Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Wednesday, 24 March 2010
Tuesday, 23 March 2010
Monday, 22 March 2010
During a recent visit to Paris, Princess Loulwah al-Faisal, a prominent member of the Saudi royal family, spoke to FRANCE 24 about the accomplishments and challenges women face in Saudi Arabia.
By Leela JACINTO
The most prominent princess in Saudi Arabia’s royal family, Princess Loulwah al-Faisal is a champion of women’s education. A vice chairman on the board of the Effat University in Jeddah, al-Faisal is the granddaughter of former Saudi King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud - the founder of the kingdom - and the daughter of the former King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz.
She spoke to FRANCE24 during a recent visit to Paris, where she, along with a delegation from Saudi Arabia, addressed the French Senate about the changes in modern Saudi life.
FRANCE24: In Davos 2007, at a World Economic Forum panel, you created a stir when you were asked what you would do if you were queen for a day and you replied, “I would let women drive”. It’s almost three years since that memorable admission. Has there been any progress on the issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia? Is this a topic that’s up for discussion?
Al-Faisal: This has always been an issue because everybody in the world keeps asking us about it (laughs). The government’s position is not against women’s driving but they have left it to the people to decide whether they accept it or not.
No representatives of the people in majlis shura – [the consultative council of Saudi Arabia, made up of 150 member appointed by the King, six of them women] for example, they have had no demands in that area. The majority, from what I know, is still against giving licenses to women. In some cases, I think because the driving is so bad in Saudi Arabia (laughs).
But personally, I think that a woman should be allowed to drive because there are more and more women in the workforce in Saudi Arabia and there are many families living on the pay that these women bring in. She has to spend a big percentage – I can’t say a big percentage, that depends – but quite a percentage of her salary, to hire either a driver or a limousine service that we have, where several women get together and they do a pool - they hire a car to take them to their jobs and bring them back. Or the husbands or the fathers or the brothers lose a lot of man-hours just to transport their female relatives.
So, it’s just not practical. Driving is a practical medium. It’s a transportation issue. People seem to put some sort of...I don’t know...extraordinary philosophies into driving. It’s not. The car is a tool. It takes you from one place to the other.
FRANCE24: So, you see this not so much as a women’s issue, but an economic one?
Al-Faisal: Certainly, that’s it. It’s no different from any other economic progress that we’ve had in Saudi Arabia.
FRANCE24: At the conference in the French Senate, some high-profile Saudi women talked about how they were encouraged by extraordinary parents and spouses. I’d like to ask you what happens to Saudi women who do not have progressive male relatives. I’m wondering about the system of male guardianship in Saudi Arabia. It often surfaces in human rights reports on the kingdom. Is this an issue that is being discussed or negotiated in Saudi Arabia today?
Al-Faisal: It’s always being discussed in Saudi Arabia since we entered, how do I put it, a new mode of living. In the cities, women are working everywhere, it’s always discussed. And it always comes back to the same thing. The government has encouraged all women to find any work to be able to put your child through school, to have your own bank account - you have to have an identity card of your own, not your husband’s identity card. In Islam, this is the law. Wealth is yours, no one has the right - unless you give them a legal document signed and witnessed that you give this person the right to do your work.
There are families, as you said, who accept it, there’s no problem. Other families don’t accept it. Until those families change their minds it will always be there. In Saudi Arabia if you wish, nothing is enforced, but it has to come from the people themselves. You cannot force a people to do something in spite of themselves. They have to believe in it.
FRANCE24: And is there a means to express the people’s will?
Al-Faisal: Oh yes. There is the shura, the King’s house is open to everybody, we have the ministers, we have women in responsible positions, there are no restrictions on conveying your wants. Believe it or not, there is consensus in Saudi Arabia, maybe we don’t go to the voting booth, but there is a system of consensus in Saudi Arabia, our own way of doing it.
FRANCE24: Let’s talk about your personal relationship with France. You’re here in Paris, you speak fluent French...
Al-Faisal: Well I finished my studies in Switzerland… so, I have a high school degree in French...I like Paris, I’ve always loved Paris. I have an apartment in Paris, and if you wish, this is my second home. When I’m traveling, I always have to come through Paris because I leave most of my winter clothes here as I don’t really need them in Saudi Arabia (laughs).
FRANCE24: Talking about clothes, there’s been a lot of discussion about Muslim women’s wardrobes here. I’m sure you’re aware of the ongoing discourse about the burqa in France and the recent moved to ban the burqa in public institutions. What’s your opinion about it?
Al-Faisal: I think this is a choice that has to be made by the French. No one can think for the French. It is their decision. If you’re asking me about us, for us, it’s the norm in Saudi Arabia.
The burqa for us is the veil that only the eyes show. As you see, this is the way we dress in Saudi Arabia, the veil and everything. In Islam, the veil is required to cover the head. The face is still under discussion in different countries, under different schools of thought, but I have the freedom to choose for myself whether I’m going to cover my face or uncover it. I think that’s up to the French to decide what to do amongst themselves.
Sunday, 21 March 2010
Saturday, 20 March 2010
The tension between gender equality and religious rights has flared into political debate again with two new rulings by Quebec's human-rights commission on the right to wear the niqab and the hijab.
A woman wearing the niqab cannot demand to be served by another woman when dealing with the Quebec Health Insurance Board, the commission ruled. Concluding that religious beliefs cannot stand in the way of gender equality, the commission found that when a woman wearing the Islamic face covering is required to identify herself and proceed with the photo session needed to produce a health insurance card, the Health Insurance Board has no obligation to accommodate her request to be served by a woman.
"Since freedom of religion was not significantly undermined, there is no obligation to grant an accommodation," the order states.
The health board had previously agreed to such requests. But last fall critics argued that the health board was acceding to religious fundamentalism.
The decision was greeted with approval in Quebec's National Assembly yesterday by MNAs of all political stripes.
"I am against the veil. I don't think the veil represents anything more than a symbol of submission of women to religious authorities," said Amir Khadir, an Iranian-born Muslim and Quebec Solidaire MNA.
Immigration Minister Yolande James suggested the ruling will form the basis of new guidelines on religious accommodation for public services, following on the action taken last week to bar a woman from attending a free French language class for immigrants unless she agreed to take off her niqab.
Another decision issued yesterday by the commission involved a client who refused to be served by a health board employee wearing a hijab - a traditional headscarf that does not cover the face.
The commission ruled that the garment had no bearing on the delivery of services and should be allowed to be worn. The incident reflected more a clash of values rather than an infringement on the client's freedom of religion or conscious, the commission stated.
"It cannot be concluded that the neutrality of the public institution was called into question because the service being delivered remained neutral."
The breadth of the debate over "reasonable accommodation" was reflected in a letter signed by more than 100 Quebec intellectuals and published yesterday in the Montreal daily Le Devoir. The letter argued that secular values should be enforced with no exception throughout the public service. The group argued that the time has come for Quebec to enforce its belief in a pluralist society by banning religious symbols from the public service - including the crucifix in the National Assembly.
Parti Québécois immigration critic Louise Beaudoin repeated her party's call yesterday for a charter that would reinforce Quebec's secular values, such as gender equality.