Saturday, 15 May 2010
Scapegoating Middle Eastern women
The other day, my wife related how one of the office "boys" at the NGO where she worked in Cairo had been alone in the building with a female cleaner. In itself, it shouldn't been an issue, but when the office's accountant confronted the office boy (who is actually a middle-aged Egyptian), he stated that this was unacceptable. The reason: the woman could have tried to seduce him.
In the Saudi city of Asir, women were recently banned from jogging and taking physical exercise in certain areas. The excuse was that the local government had to "guarantee their safety from criminals who frequently harass them as they walk in lonely places".
There are many examples of women being "protected" from men in the Middle East.
One would think that the rise of ultra-conservatism, namely the Salafi project emanating from Saudi Arabia, would be more tolerant of Islam's historical support for women's rights and their mobility in public – think of the era of the prophet and the openness of that society. The prophet was adamant that all people were welcome in Medina and that women were to be treated with the utmost respect. At the time, unlike today, there was no sexual apartheid in the mosque, with men and women praying together in a show of unity. Now, what we are witnessing is the rise of a movement that is as vehemently anti-women as it is anti-progress.
"Whenever the conservatives enter a society they don't talk politics or economics, they talk of the honour of women", said Hibaaq Osman, the founder and chair of the women's organisation El Karama. She argues, rightly, that what is important to these conservatives – and she is quick to point out this is not a problem limited to Islam – is that women are the key to society. She added that in all societies, women are the building blocks of forward thinking. She believes that once women have shaken off the need for a male guardian and have entered the workforce, then freedoms and laws against sexual violence can be implemented for the betterment and progress of society.
But, she added: "If the woman is being portrayed as the devil in Friday sermons in the mosque, then in public people are looking for confirmation of what they are hearing."
At the same time many Salafis and conservatives put the blame on society going awry; men are unable to take responsibility for their own actions. Osman says that evidence shows conservative religious folk the world over, including the Middle East, are the most sex-crazed.
This is shown by the large number of "temporary", urfi and mutah marriages. Urfi marriages have no formal contract, while mutah marriages have a defined period of "marriage". Often, this amounts to a form of prostitution where women are "purchased" for a period of time, from their families or pimps, to provide sex for wealthy gulf Arabs, who at the same time push an agenda that attempts to move women away from the public sphere and back into the home. All in the name of honour and moral uprightness.
Men are not the problem, they argue. It is the inherent inability of men to "control" themselves in the face of so much "temptation". It is OK for men to wear cut-off T-shirts and shorts, but for a woman to do so would be tantamount to "asking for it". If conservatives believe men are inherently "weak" in terms of sex, then why do the men remain in public if they can't handle it? It doesn't add up.
Women are objects in many conservatives' views. Things that can be owned and used for a man's pleasure when he desires and when he wants. This is why we have seen the growth of polygamy, the shoving aside of a woman's ability to choose her life's goals, and the unending "debate" over the causes of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Two years ago, one woman in Egypt attempted to challenge the belief that men would not be held responsible for their actions against women. When Noha Rushdi went to the police to press charges against a man who had groped her on the street, the police and bystanders, including women, attempted to talk her out of it. They asked what she was wearing, if she had been doing anything suggestive to "entice the man".
Rushdi, after numerous attempts to silence her, took her case to court and eventually won, seeing the perpetrator receive a $900 fine and three years in prison. Optimism abounded that times were changing, but in the two years since her case, little has improved. The Salafi grip on Egyptian society seems to be growing ever stronger, and with it the continued backlash against women who attempt to promote freedom and justice.
Cairo-based Sheikh Ramadan Mahmoud told me that if women were to get the "freedoms" of the west, "they would resort to promiscuity and this would damage the family and society. This cannot happen because men would not be able to control their behaviour and harassment and sexual abuse would continue."
Highlighting how deep the conservatism of Egyptian society has become, a recent United Nations study showed that the vast majority of men and women in Egypt believe that it is OK for a man to beat his wife if she refuses to have sex with him, if she does not do as he says or if she talks to a man on the street. They are simply objects that can be controlled and dominated. All in the name of faith and religion.
What should be happening is that women should not be blamed for what they wear, whether it is a full niqab or a bikini. There is no justification for harassment of any kind. By sexualising faith, the Salafis are trying to exonerate men. The fault lies with the women, who are presumed to be asking to be harassed, groped or worse.
But men are the ones perpetrating these crimes and making the streets unsafe, so it is about time men started taking action to end this reprehensible current continuing to foment in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia and across the globe.