Tuesday, 30 November 2010
Majed Rabah, nine, who has been left 'traumatised' by the incident. Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters
Two Israeli soldiers who used a nine-year-old Palestinian boy as a human shield were given suspended sentences and demoted after being convicted of "inappropriate conduct".
The unnamed soldiers, from the Givati Brigade, ordered Majeh Rabah, from the Tel al-Hawa neighbourhood in Gaza City, to check bags for explosives in January 2009, towards the end of Israel's three-week offensive.
The pair, who completed their compulsory military service 18 months ago, were convicted last month after a closed military trial that became a cause celebre among soldiers who claim they are being victimised following international criticism over Israel's actions during the war.
The Israel Defence Force handbook forbids the use of human shields, known as "neighbour procedure" .
Both soldiers were given three-month sentences suspended for two years and were demoted from staff sergeant to sergeant. They had faced a maximum of three years in prison. The military judges said the soldiers did not have immunity for their actions but the court could not "ignore the difficult conditions in which fighters sent by the State of Israel had to operate".
The sentence – described as "light" by Army Radio – was criticised by the boy's mother, Alaf Rabah. "This is a scandal that just encourages others to continue in this behaviour which sends a negative message to both the victims and the soldiers," she told the Ynet website. The family is considering a civil action.
The soldiers' lawyer, Ilan Katz, said he was satisfied with the outcome, adding that it showed a criminal trial was inappropriate.
"We could have reached a settlement without having to put the [soldiers] through this ordeal ... We need people like these in the military," Katz said.
Majed was among dozens of men, women and children who were sheltering in a basement when the soldiers forced him to open a bag at gunpoint, according to the boy's affidavit, given to Defence for Children International (DCI), which filed a complaint against the Israeli army.
"I thought they would kill me," Majed said. "I became very scared and wet my pants. I could not shout or say anything because I was too afraid ... 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."
The boy said he was grabbed by the hair and slapped across the face by a soldier when he could not open a second bag. "He then shot at the bag ... I thought he shot at me, so I shouted and put my hands on my head ... Another soldier said: 'Go to your mother.' I ran to my mother and hid in her arms. 'I wet my pants,' I said to her. 'It's fine,' she said."
The child has been traumatised since the incident, according to his family, and has been demanding that the door of their home is locked at all the times.
Gerard Horton, of DCI, said: "The sentence shows that the army and military justice system does not take its obligation to protect civilians seriously."
He said the case was brought under pressure following the UN's Goldstone report into the war, which accused both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes. "If there's a lot of pressure, and people are looking, [the army] will do something but there's no substance to it."
Sarit Michaeli, of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, said: "Although individual soldiers do bear responsibility if they have violated rules, this has to be accompanied by systematic examination of issues of policy – such as what constitutes a legitimate target, open fire regulations, types of weapons used and the targeting of public buildings. The main issues of concern that we have raised have not been dealt with."
The ruling was welcomed by Israeli politician Otniel Schneller. "The judges showed the appropriate level of balance between meticulously following IDF orders and Jewish moral values and the responsibility for maintaining the initiative and decisiveness of IDF soldiers when in battle," he told Ynet.
Scores of people, including soldiers, demonstrated outside the court during the trial wearing T-shirts saying "We are all victims of Goldstone."
Around 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed during the Gaza war.
Monday, 29 November 2010
Anyone walking on the streets of Egypt will notice a phenomenon that wasn't so evident only a year ago: the increasing numbers of little girls (and by "little", I mean as young as eight years old in some cases) wearing headscarves and abayas. While this sight was previously confined to third-class trains and rural areas, it has now become increasingly common in cities and among well-to-do families.
In general, the age at which Muslim girls in Egypt begin to wear the scarf has dropped. Back when I was in high school, very few female students wore headscarves. Today, my younger brother (who is 15) tells me that almost all the girls in his middle school wear a scarf. It hasn't stopped there either, having caught on in primary schools.
The very sight of a little girl in a scarf is both disturbing and confusing. Adult Muslim women are expected to dress modestly so that men outside the family cannot see their bodies. But what is the point of a child or pre-pubescent girl wearing a hijab? It hints at what may be a disturbed (one is tempted to say diseased) concept of sexuality in the mind of the father who thinks his little girl should be covered up. What exactly is tempting about the body of an eight-year-old that needs to be covered?
Some suggest that I am overanalysing, and that the reason parents like their little girls to don the scarf is simply so they can "get used to doing the right thing from a young age". They compare it to how Muslim parents teach their children to fast until noon during Ramadan so that when they are older it won't be so hard to fast until sunset, or how fathers take their kids to the mosque on Fridays to get them used to it. We all know how hard it is to kick habits we were taught in early childhood. Getting a little girl "used to" the hijab effectively obliterates the "free choice" element by the time the girl is old enough to think.
The hijab is aggressively marketed as the proper attire for a respectable woman. That isn't new. What is new is that now even children are targets of this marketing. One need look no further than Fulla, the Middle Eastern version of Barbie, designed to suit Muslim values. When I recently stepped into a Toys R Us store in Cairo, it was quite shocking to see a Fulla doll clad in a headscarf and a full length abaya, the box proudly proclaiming "Fulla in her outdoor clothes", in effect telling little girls that there is only one proper way to dress outside the house.
Many defenders of the hijab point to the influence of "decadent western culture", endlessly criticising how western TV sexualises and objectifies women, though they fail to understand that they are doing they exact same thing to little girls when they constantly promote the hijab. If it is so important to cover up, there must be something worth covering up and hiding from men. Inevitably, little girls are taught to view themselves as sexual objects that must be covered up from an early age – and it is this culture permeating the minds of our younger generations.
To make matters worse, what about the brothers of these girls? Will they not grow up with the same mentality? If they see that their sisters have to be covered up from a very early age to avoid being exposed in front of men, it is only natural that they grow up with the concept that women have to be covered, controlled and restricted.
I once heard the naive suggestion that dressing your daughter modestly would ward off paedophiles. On the streets, though, it seems more likely that it will simply lead to increased harassment. A 12-year-old in a scarf could pass for 16 to the casual observer, making her "woman" enough to be harassed.
On a more sentimental level, making a little girl wear a headscarf deprives her of her childhood. While other girls will be doing their hair or playing with Barbie or wearing cute dresses, she'll be doing what grown-ups do – wearing a headscarf and full length abaya.
Her parents will defend her right to wear it, saying that the girl chose it herself because some of her friends were doing it and she wanted to fit in, or to be grown up like mummy, much in the same way as a boy asks his father for a cigarette so he can be like daddy. But parents usually know better in the latter case.
Finally, I am sure that when this article is translated into Arabic and posted on Egyptian websites, the usual flood of comments will ensue; how I am anti-hijab, how I want to strip Egyptian and Muslim women of their modesty, how I want Muslim women to "walk around naked like western women", and so on. I tell them my view on the hijab is irrelevant. The issue at hand is: what exactly is the point of imposing a scarf on a little girl, and why is it becoming more common?
Sunday, 28 November 2010
The Spectator and contributor Melanie Phillips today published an online apology to a prominent British Muslim they falsely accused of antisemitism.
Today's apology, published on the Spectator website, follows an out of court settlement in which the magazine and Phillips agreed to pay Mohammad Sawalha "substantial" compensation and his legal costs.
Sawalha, president of the British Muslim Initiative, took legal action over a blog post by Phillips published in July 2008 in which she accused him of calling British Jews "evil/noxious".
The apology stated: "On 2 July 2008 we published an article entitled 'Just look what came crawling out' which alleged that at a protest at the celebration in London of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, Mohammad Sawalha had referred to Jews in Britian as 'evil/noxious'.
"We now accept that Mr Sawalha made no such antisemitic statement and that the article was based on a mistranslation elsewhere of an earlier report. We and Melanie Phillips apologise for the error."
Solicitors acting for Sawalha said he was "delighted" to be cleared of the false allegation.
Sawalha, a long-time campaigner for community cohesion in Britain, took the dispute to the high court after the Spectator initially refused to correct Phillips blog post, which alleged that he had referred to Jews in Britain as "evil/noxious" at a protest in London of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.
Instead, the Spectator published a second story by Phillips, titled "Taking the airbrush to evil", repeating the false allegation and casting doubt on the suggestion that the "evil/noxious" quote was the result of a mistranslation of the transcript of an interview.
They continued to defend the claim even after an independent expert commissioned by both sides had confirmed that the phrase in the original transcript could not be translated as referring to Jews as "evil/noxious", before finally settling shortly before the case was due in court.
In October, the Spectator paid substantial damages and legal costs to the campaign group IslamExpo, of which Sawalha is a director, for an article it also published in July 2008. Matthew d'Ancona was editor at the time, replaced by Fraser Nelson in August last year.
The article, written by Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard, called IslamExpo a racist, fascist and genocidal organisation.
Saturday, 27 November 2010
A white extremist organisation is forging links with Jewish, Sikh and gay communities to fuel prejudice and fear and hatred of the Muslim community, it was claimed today.
The English Defence League (EDL), which was formed last year in protest at Islamic extremist activity, has also reached out across the Atlantic to build close ties with the American right-wing group, the Tea Party.
Hundreds of EDL members are planning demonstrations in Nuneaton and Preston today to protest at the building of mosques and what they claim is the growing influence in the UK of Sharia law.
But a new report, written by Professor Nigel Copsey of Teesside University, warns that the growth of EDL membership will spread Islamophobia in communities sharing a perceived "historical angst" against Muslims.
New branches of the League, such as the Jewish Division, could exploit the existing religious hostilities caused by territorial disputes in the Middle East, says Professor Copsey whose report was commissioned by the organisation Faith Matters.
It claims that these inter-faith tensions were brought into sharp focus last month when the senior US Jewish leader and Tea Party activist Rabbi Nachum Shifren denounced Islam at a EDL rally outside the Israeli Embassy in London. Israeli flags have also been spotted at several EDL demonstrations across the UK.
As well as aggravating religious tensions, the EDL has established a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Division to "defend" gay people from Sharia law. There are also specialist divisions for women, soldiers and disabled people. The report warns these communities to be vigilant against "selective racism" and the EDL's attempts at manipulation.
Contributors to the EDL Facebook site confirm that the group wants to work with other minority organisation including those which promote women's rights. One members writes: "After all, leftists have portrayed themselves for decades as the only ones really interested in promoting a progressive and inclusive agenda: homosexual rights, women's equality, minority rights, reproductive rights, immigration, world peace, among others."
One member added: "Remember there is a difference between being anti-Muslim and anti-Islam. We are against the ideology not the people. Let's not forget that many Muslim women and children are victims of their own religion."
But Professor Copsey warned: "True to the spirit of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the EDL is targeting other ethnic communities. These communities need to guard against approaches by the EDL."
Founder and director of Faith Matters, Fiyaz Mughal, said: "The EDL's main aim is to increase tensions, raise hate and divide communities. Their attempts to portray themselves as a legitimate and open movement cannot disguise their violent, anti-Muslim agenda. This hate can easily mutate against another community."
The EDL membership claim that they are not a racist group. In guidance issuedto its members attending today's rallies the EDL leadership warns: "Violence and racism will not be tolerated. If you are found to be doing this, you will be ejected from the demonstration."
On Monday, EDL founder Stephen Lennon denied assaulting a police officer during clashes with Islamic protesters in west London. He was granted bail and a trial date was set of 12 January. About 30 supporters gathered outside the court, some with EDL placards.
The Faith Matters report is entitled The English Defence League: Challenging Our Country and Our Values of Social Inclusion, Fairness and Equality.
Friday, 26 November 2010
An old friend of mine here fights terrorists, but not the way you’re thinking. She could barely defeat a truculent child in hand-to-hand combat, and if she ever picked up an AK-47 — well, you’d pray it was unloaded.
Roshaneh Zafar is an American- educated banker who fights extremism with microfinance. She has dedicated her life to empowering some of Pakistan’s most impoverished women and giving them the tools to run businesses of their own. The United States should learn from warriors like her.
Bullets and drones may kill terrorists, but Roshaneh creates jobs and educational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people — draining the swamps that breed terrorists.
“Charity is limited, but capitalism isn’t,” Roshaneh said. “If you want to change the world, you need market-based solutions.” That’s the point of microfinance — typically, lending very poor people small amounts of money so that they can buy a rickshaw or raw materials and start a tiny business.
Roshaneh grew up in elite circles here in Lahore and studied business at the Wharton School and economics at Yale. After a stint at the World Bank, she returned to Pakistan in 1996 to start her microfinance organization. She called it the Kashf Foundation.
Everybody thought Roshaneh was nuts. And at first nothing went right. The poor refused to borrow. Or if they borrowed, they didn’t repay their loans.
But Roshaneh persisted, and today Kashf has 152 branches around the country. It has dispersed more than $200 million to more than 300,000 families. Now Roshaneh is moving into microsavings, to help the poor build assets, as well as programs to train the poor to run businesses more efficiently. She is even thinking of expanding into schools for the poor.
Microfinance is sometimes oversold as a silver bullet — which it’s not. Careful follow-up studies suggest that gains from microloans are often quite modest.
Some borrowers squander money or start businesses that fail. Some micro-lenders tarnish the field because they’re incompetent, and others because they rake in profits with sky-high loan rates. Microfinance has also generally been less successful in Africa than in South Asia.
Yet done right, microfinance can make a significant difference. An outside evaluation found that after four years, Kashf borrowers are more likely than many others to enjoy improved economic conditions — and that’s what I’ve seen over the years as I’ve visited Kashf borrowers.
On this trip, I met a woman named Parveen Baji, who says she never attended a day of school and until recently was completely illiterate. She had 14 children, but five died.
Ms. Parveen’s husband, who also never attended school, regularly beat her and spent the family savings on narcotics, she says. The family’s only possessions were four cots on which they slept, crammed three or four to a cot, in a rented apartment.
“One night all my children were hungry,” she remembered. “I sent my daughter to ask for food from a neighbor. And the neighbor said, ‘you’ve become a beggar,’ and refused.”
Then Ms. Parveen got a $70 loan from Kashf and started a jewelry and cosmetics business, buying in bulk and selling to local shops. Ms. Parveen couldn’t read the labels, but she memorized which bottle was which. As her business thrived, she began to struggle to learn reading and arithmetic — and proved herself an ace student. I fired math problems at her, and she dazzled me with her quick responses.
Ms. Parveen began to start new businesses, even building a laundry that she put her husband in charge of to keep him busy. He no longer beats her, she says, and when I interviewed him separately he seemed a little awed by her.
Eventually, Ms. Parveen started a restaurant and catering business that now has eight employees, including some of her daughters. She bought a home and has put some of her children through high school — and a son, the brightest student, through college. She has just paid $5,800 for a permit for him to move to London to take a health sector job.
Ms. Parveen tried to look modest as she told me this, but she failed. She was beaming and shaking her head in wonder as she watched her son speak English with me, dazzled at the thought that she was dispatching her university-educated son to Europe. “Microfinance has changed my life,” she said simply.
That’s an unusual success story. But the larger message is universal: helping people start businesses, create jobs and support education is a potent way to undermine extremism.
We Americans overinvest in firepower to defeat extremism and underinvest in development, and so we could learn something useful from Roshaneh. The toolkit to fight terrorism includes not only missiles but also microfinance and economic opportunity.
The antonym of “militant” is often “job.”
Thursday, 25 November 2010
KARACHI, Pakistan, Nov 18 , 2010 (IPS) - They are young, educated, urban women who frequent cafes, shop at ritzy fashion outlets, and go to yoga classes whenever they have time off work.
But they also wear the ‘hijab’ or Muslim headdress, which even in this mainly Muslim South Asian country makes them a target for derision in far too many instances.
Indeed, while more conservative clothing like the ‘burqa’ – which leaves only a woman’s face (though at times even the eyes and hands) uncovered – have been worn here for centuries and accepted as South Asian garb, modernists consider the ‘hijab’ as a dress more in keeping with Arab culture. Both however are for the same purpose of purdah, or the shielding of women from public observation by means of concealing clothing and separate physical spaces.
Unfortunately, too, what some Muslim women wear as reminders of their choice to be modest and humble have been associated instead with extremism, even though they feel that covering themselves and being modern are not necessarily in conflict with each other.
As a result, Pakistani women who don the veil and also the ‘abaya’ (a black outer garment that also covers a woman from neck down), have been called derogatively as "ninjas", "fundos", "Taliban", or "mullani" (female version of mullah).
Many seem uncomfortable around them. One hijab-wearing journalist says that when she applied for a job at a media company, her interviewer looked at her from head to toe while asking if she would be able to fit in the firm’s "liberal" environment.
Ansa Khan, 40, says that a bank refused to let her open an account there because she had her face covered. According to Khan, the manager said the bank policy demanded that the person opening the account must reveal his or her face, and there were no female staff at the branch at the time.
Farahnaz Moazzam, who covers her head and wears the abaya, observes, "People are more conscious and cautious when I am around. They laugh less and whisper more." And unless she smiles first, she says, she is bound to be surrounded by serious faces.
Says Moazzam, who gives Koranic lessons to women: "It’s interesting how, over the years, people have asked me questions like, ‘Do you crack jokes?’, ‘Do you make mistakes?’, ‘What do you and your family talk about?’, ‘Do you ever get angry?’, ‘Do you watch TV?’"
For sure, these women find such an attitude ironic in a country where females are expected to dress modestly in the first place. But some like Khan concede that their choice of clothing may remind people of unpleasant events.
Among these is a 2007 incident in Islamabad in which about 6,500 hijab- and abaya- wearing women of Jamia Hafsa, a seminary attached to the Lal Masjid, had challenged the government’s authority. A bloody army operation ensued, resulting in the death of many students.
At the same time, the incessant images in media of women clad in abayas and burqas in more conservative societies like Saudi Arabia and Taliban-era Afghanistan seem to have led many people here to associate such clothing with ultra- conservative views.
The mildest expectation of women like her, says the hijab-wearing journalist, is that they are "as perfect as (angels)". Moazzam agrees, saying, "They think too highly of me because I am trying to follow one command of my religion that is outward."
Touba Naeem, who has been wearing a hijab for the last eight years, says that people take one look at her attire and assume that she is "not fun". Single at 27, she adds, "Hijab can be a potential detriment (to) good marriage proposals."
Interestingly, most of these women say their worst critics are not strangers, but members of their family. One woman says that her father and older brother "opposed initially" her decision to don a hijab. Another says that when she started wearing a veil, "my older brother would pull it off my head in gatherings".
One young socialite who began wearing a hijab after her marriage says that her husband at first was hesitant in accepting her veil. But all hell broke loose when she started to wear the abaya, she says. "He refused to introduce me to his friends or sit with me at social gatherings, as if he was ashamed," she recalls. Over the years, she says, her husband has accepted both her hijab and abaya.
Yet for all their hardships that have come their way because of what they want to wear, these women remain adamant about their dress of choice. Aside from considering it as an offering to Allah, the women say dressing the way they do liberates them from worries about their looks and allows them – and other people – to concentrate on more important things.
Comments Moazzam: "I don’t feel like a product or an object anymore. Now people notice my smile, my conversation, and take me more seriously."
The socialite, for her part, says that she did weigh the pros and cons of wearing a hijab and concludes: "The discomfort of not wearing it outweighed the joys of showing off. I am happier doing it."
Moazzam does say, however, that women who cover themselves up should not treat life as "a prolonged bad hair day".
"You should look your best and maintain yourself," she says, "for your family and most importantly, for yourself."
"Fashion, why not?" says Moazzam. "I am as normal as any other woman. I have, however, come to a point where I am covering up my fashion statement, jewellery, haircut, in front of the crowd. But I still do it and enjoy it."
Wednesday, 24 November 2010
A MUSLIM religious leader has been jailed after he was found guilty of sexually assaulting a young girl.
Members of Portsmouth's Muslim community have spoken of their shock after Hafiz Rahman, a former Imam of the Southsea mosque, was convicted at Portsmouth Crown Court.
Rahman, 67, molested the teenager in Portsmouth while he was supposed to be teaching her about the Qur'an.
A jury of eight men and six women took less than two hours to find him guilty sexual activity with a child.
Jailing him for a year, Judge Roger Hetherington said: 'Given your position in the Muslim community and the respect with which you were accorded as a result by the family that you were visiting, this was as bad a case of breach of trust as it is possible to imagine.'
Muhammed Badruz Zaman, who helped found the Jami Mosque in Victoria Road North, Southsea, said: 'For someone like him to do that it is unbelievable. He was well known and respected.
'It's sad. It will shock every Muslim to hear what has happened.'
Rahman, of Northern Road, North End, is a Hafiz – a term for someone who has memorised the entire Qur'an.
After stepping down as Imam he was being paid by families across Portsmouth to teach their children.
On December 27 last year he went to the 15-year-old's home and molested her after they were left alone.
Judge Hetherington said the attack would have carried on if the girl's father had not unexpectedly come home.
The judge said: 'The parents of the child came to retain your services because they understood that you were a respected and indeed revered member of the community who had until recently been an Imam to the mosque.
'On the jury's verdict and on abundant evidence, for whatever reason, you took advantage of that situation for your own sexual gratification.
'It must have been a very frightening experience for that girl.'
Stephen Smyth, defending, said Rahman had lost his standing as a respected member of the community.
'This means it will be over for him and he will be deported,' he said. 'Everything goes and he has to go back to a Muslim country convicted of what he is convicted of, which will be very seriously regarded. He has nothing to look forward to in his life.'
Judge Hetherington told Rahman: 'I accept that for all your life apart from this incident you have behaved properly and you may well have done many good things to other people during your life. Nevertheless this was a terrible lapse on your part.'
Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Monday, 22 November 2010
For Gillian Amin, a trip to the supermarket can often mean abuse. Last week, a passing shopper called her a "f*****g Paki" and she is regularly told to "go home to Arabia".
In fact, Gillian is a Scot and has no desire to go to Pakistan or Arabia.
It is eight years since the 29-year-old student nurse converted from Catholicism to Islam - and, although she tires of the hostility, it is a decision she doesn't regret.
Gillian said: "The white converts are stuck in the middle.
"I see us as a bridge between the Muslims and non-Muslims. You form a community in itself because you know what you are up against on both sides.
"You won't always be accepted on the Muslim side and on the non-Muslim side there can be racism, but I have never regretted becoming a Muslim."
New research has shown more women convert to Islam than men - in fact, they account for 60 per cent of conversions.
One of the most high-profile examples is Tony Blair's sister-in-law Lauren Booth, who recently announced she had adopted the faith after a trip to Iran.
For Gillian, like Lauren, there was no bolt of lightning and no vision of a deity that made her want to convert.
Instead, she had been working in a computer factory when she saw a male Muslim colleague kneeling in prayer in a side room.
She said: "I saw him out of the corner of my eye as I passed. It was something that just touched my heart.
"When I saw his forehead touching the ground, to me, it was the most humble position for any human being to be in. To do that - to pray to someone you can't even see - just stirred so much emotion in me."
A week later, she decided she wanted to convert.
She said: "It seems so absurd. I hadn't read a Koran. I knew nothing about Islam but I absolutely knew that I wanted to become a Muslim."
Gillian insisted she didn't conform to a stereotypical tale of a lost soul searching for fulfilment.
She said: "It's not as if something bad was happening in my life. I was 21 and it was a happy time.
"If there was something missing, then it was Islam. When I converted, there was an overwhelming feeling of peace and contentment."
She asked the man she had seen praying to guide her through her conversion.
He taught her one of the first important steps, reciting the oath called Shahada, which is a public declaration of faith that there is only one God, Allah.
Later, as she spent more time with him, an attraction grew between them.
Gillian said: "It wasn't as much love but more a deep care.
"Perhaps I was vulnerable and felt that it would make me more a part of the Muslim community to marry a Muslim."
They did marry and have three children together.
Her mother was no longer alive but the rest of her family were fiercely against her conversion and refused to accept her decision.
Her grandmother believed: "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic."
Gillian said: "They didn't really want to know me any more."
After a year, she adopted the headscarf, aware that it would provoke racist comments.
She said: "A lot of it was telling me to go back to Pakistan or Arabia. They called me a terrorist and Bin Laden's cousin."
The windows of their home in East Renfrewshire were smashed and graffiti was sprayed across the wall.
She said: "A lot of people just see the scarf and don't see the person. They think I am an Arab because I'm white.
"Last week in the supermarket, a man called me a 'f*****g Paki'. I told him he was wrong, actually, and he heard my accent and scurried off.
"I would never be rude back but just because we have a headscarf on doesn't mean we are little women with no voice."
Whenever there is a well-publicised terrorist attack by Muslim fundamentalists, the aggression intensifies.
Gillian said: "There is an expectation that all Muslims should apologise. These people are extremists. I condemn what they have done but why should I apologise? "I would never have apologised before for the actions of some crazy Catholic."
And she has never hesitated to fight sexism in the Muslim community.
Gillian said: "Women are hugely respected in Islam.
"The Prophet Mohamed cleaned the house and he swept the floors, so it is unfortunate that a lot of the men forget that and don't follow the teachings of Islam."
Her marriage didn't last but her relationship with Islam did.
When she divorced, her grandmother contacted her, assuming she was "going to dump the scarf and stop this nonsense".
Gillian said: "It hurt a lot. It is a very lonely feeling when your family departs from you.
"I felt low but I never once considered leaving my faith after my marriage broke up. A lot of Muslims and non-Muslims assumed I would.
"A lot of people do become Muslims to get married but I think it is a decision that needs to come from the heart."
Gillian maintains a bond with her ex-husband's family, even though she has got married again - to an Egyptian Muslim, a PE teacher called El Sayed.
She said: "It's ironic that they still have a relationship with me and my own family don't."
She believes the conversion of Lauren Booth will have a positive impact, despite claims that it is just attention-seeking.
Gillian said: "I don't think it will encourage people to convert, unless they idolise her, but I think that it will educate people and make them more interested in learning about Muslims."
Gillian gives talks at schools - not as a conversion exercise but to dispel some of the myths surrounding Islam.
And she has many friends, from all religions, who accept her for who she is.
Gillian said: "They don't see the scarf. They only see me. I am still me. I am still Gillian."
Sunday, 21 November 2010
Just over 10 years ago, I was beginning my 3-11 PGCE teacher training, specialising in Early Years (3-8). My first teaching placement was at an Early Years Unit where the children were 100% Muslim. About two thirds of the children were from families originating in the Mirpur district of Pakistan (Barelwi Muslim), about one third were of Gujerati origin (Deobandi), with just one child born in Bosnia. Most children in the Unit spoke English as an emerging language (E2L). The two brilliant and beautiful Nursery Nurses were bilingual in Gujerati, Urdu, Pothowari, but not Bosnian!
During the several months I was based at the school, I witnessed a good deal of anti-Muslim prejudice from the Head and some of the teaching staff, who were 100% white, although I was never the target of such prejudice myself. One PGCE student assigned to the school alongside me, and not one of the Guardianista brigade, asked to be moved after she met the Head, who assured her children in his school couldn’t be expected to behave as well as white children “because of their culture”. My mentor would unblinkingly talk about her local “Paki shop” in front of the Nursery Nurses. Not a day went by when I didn’t hear my faith abused or insulted by teachers at the school.
Naturally, there was considerable tension between school and community. Yet to my astonishment, staff and Head all claimed to be committed anti-racists. Not surprisingly, this manifested itself in tokenistic ways. For example, Three Little Pigs became Three Little Sheep, and children’s educational videos were carefully screened for pictures of pigs, after several children were seen covering their eyes when a pig popped up during one programme. Yet unlike the Early Learning Centre, no one ever thought to remove pigs from the Early Years Unit’s play farm.
This is not to say members of the local Muslim community were not offended by pigs – a few were. Interestingly, such complaints came universally from the more conservative (and middle class) Deobandi community, at a time when a group of ultra-conservative Deobandis were seeking to open a private Muslim primary school in the locality. Some welcomed the exclusion of pigs from the Unit, because they didn’t want their children to learn about an animal they personally found revolting. Others didn’t care. A small number, including the Nursery Nurses, were quietly contemptuous of these concerns: “I thought we were forbidden to eat pork. Where in the Qur’an does it say we should hide from pictures of pigs?”
In the end, these changes amounted to very little in the scheme of things, and certainly presumed no special Muslim entitlement of the kind implied by tabloid headlines. Like the Head of this school and his friends, the media loves to present such token changes as evidence that we’ve gone to far in accomodating to Muslim immigrants. The BBC and the posh papers might not always say as much, but right wing columnists and the more ghastly tabloids scream it on their behalf. Yet the racist staff were among the keenest supporters of the piggy ”accomodations” because they provided a smokescreen behind which to hide their bigotted attitudes.
I measured teacher racism thus: I listened to them talking, and substituted the word “black” for “Muslim”, and “race” for “culture”. Did it then sound like old fashioned racism? 99% of the time, it did. The experience permanently politicised me. Had the teachers simply treated the children like children, with due sensitivity to their Muslim faith, school results would have hurtled upwards. I wouldn’t have witnessed the absurdity of a teacher celebrating a child with ADHD aged 8 learning to write his name, completely ignorant of the fact the same child could recite large sections of the Qur’an, thanks to a Madrassa tutor with nothing more than a Dars-i-Nizami.
One amusing story illustrates the complexity of these issues. One day, I was approached by a parent who, via translater, tried to demand that children in the Nursery no longer learned that pigs went oink. She insisted that this was in accord with the Islamic faith. I replied that I was a Muslim, with a degree in Religious Studies, and as far as I was aware, saying oink was perfectly permissable for Muslim children! She immediately capitulated.
“I’m sorry,” she explained, “but I’m desperate. My son keeps making oinking noises round his grandfather, and he refuses to stop. I don’t think he likes his grandfather very much, and when his oinking upsets the old man, he laughs!”
Saturday, 20 November 2010
Friday, 19 November 2010
Thursday, 18 November 2010
Monday, 15 November 2010
Saturday, 13 November 2010
"And proclaim the pilgrimage to humankind. They will come to thee on foot and (riding) on every kind of lean mount from every distant quarter; that they may witness the benefits (provided) for them and celebrate the name of God."
The Holy Quran, 22:27-28
Magda Amer walks in Haj Ahmed Uthman mosque, where she teaches. By preaching in a mosque, Magda chaleenges 14 centuries of Islamic tradition, which tends to relegate women to small side rooms for prayer and exclude them from leadership roles.
Friday, 12 November 2010
Men in polygamous relationships find it difficult to meet the needs of all their wives and children, and the result is unhappy and cash-strapped families, according to a landmark Malaysian study.
Polygamy is legal for Muslims, who make up more than 60 percent of Malaysia's population, allowing Muslim men to take up to four wives.
But activists and women's groups say polygamy is cruel and has deviated from its original purpose in Islam, which was to protect widows and orphans.
A study by advocacy group Sisters in Islam (SIS) found that the majority of first wives and children in polygamous families were unhappy with the arrangement.
Husbands and junior wives gave a more positive response, according to the study which backed activists' views that first wives are often forgotten after a man creates a new family.
"The husbands are the most advantaged in terms of fulfilling his desire and satisfaction in life. He has access to more than one sexual partner every day or night while the wives take turn," the study said.
According to preliminary data, more than 90 percent of the 523 children in households interviewed vowed not to enter into polygamy themselves, and two-thirds of first wives were against the practice.
"Generally, it is due to the fact that their right to demand (time and money) from their husband has decreased because their father now has another family," SIS researcher Syarifatul Adibah Mohamad Jodi told AFP.
"Despite some women saying they are not happy in the marriage, they have to accept it and they are resigned to it. They are in a vulnerable position -- financially or emotionally," she said.
SIS estimates that up to five percent of marriages in Malaysia are polygamous, a figure that has risen as rules limiting multiple marriage have been watered down over the years.
However, husbands were not entirely happy with the situation, either. Many of those surveyed said they found it "most difficult to fulfill the needs of the first wife and their children".
The study, which involved extensive interviews with 1,235 individuals from polygamous families, will be formally published next year.
SIS hopes it will trigger a change in legislation that allows the practice to flourish in Malaysia.
Adibah said that reforms should include ensuring that first wives are not cut off financially and that their consent is required before their husband enters into a second marriage.
Critics of polygamy say that such laws, where they exist, are frequently ignored in Malaysia.
Polygamy is illegal for non-Muslims in the multi-ethnic nation, which is also home to large ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.
Thursday, 11 November 2010
When the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) left an assembly of people, he would often say: "Oh God...let not worldly affairs be our greatest concern or all that we know about, and let not those who do not show mercy rule over us."
Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 783
Wednesday, 10 November 2010
Every morning when I leave for work, I feel uncomfortable. The constant nagging of recent (and increasing) news items of rapes in Pakistan makes me feel insecure. I fear for the vulnerability of my sisters in different parts of the city, attending lectures in college halls, making rounds in hospital wards, traveling in school vans, waiting at the bus stop or spending an evening with an aunt or uncle.
And my fear is not just confined to my sisters. It expands its ugly claws for every woman, all over the country. It takes the shape of a pitying monster whenever I wonder about the fate of the victims and the consequences that they will have to live with, and in most cases, die for.
Though the annual number of women raped in Pakistan is far greater than the statistics given in different survey reports by various organizations, the settings in which these rapes have started taking place is frightening. The old notion that perpetrators are only found in certain sections of society and that they are far away from our day to day lives, no longer holds true. It seems as if they are everywhere, plotting to get their target, as and when they wish.
Women are therefore safe nowhere. Whether in hospital wards or girls’ colleges, there are abductions or gang-rapes in the name of ‘honour.’ It is a wild, wild world out there, pregnant with silence and dampened with indifference.
Sadly, those who are responsible for providing safety to citizens are themselves involved in this heinous act. The recent confession of Constable Javed Bhatti in Lahore for having rapped a handicapped woman by taking her three children hostage is just one example of the larger picture. A similar fate was met by an 18-year old resident of Bahawal Nagar, who was raped in police custody. Another mother of a three-year old was held hostage for two days while she was repeatedly gang-raped in police custody. Once considered safe, even homes are no longer so for women in the country today. The rise in reported cases of incest which is still believed to be far less than the real number, is alarming.
Rape is a grossly unreported and legally distorted human rights issue in Pakistan and given the nature of our social structure, combined with the status of women in society, the above examples should not be very astonishing. What should concern us more is the ugly culture of silence and shame that confronts us.
Women are assaulted in the name of ‘honour’, often paying the prize for disgrace brought about by male member(s) of the family; a punishment mostly inflicted by panchayats or through brutal force. Yet, our very own ministers take pride in the ‘cultural norm’ or make insensitive statements. Take for example, former President Pervez Musharraf’s statement:
“A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.”
Even more shocking are reports of recorded videos of the victims, used to blackmail the victim’s parents either in a bid to discourage the woman’s family from prosecution or to earn extra money by posting it on the internet.
And the injustice just does not end here. The future of these ill-fated women hangs in the balance. They become social outcasts by none other than their own families, judged, thrown out and most often, domestically abused, for bringing a “bad name” to the family/biradari. This patriarchal mind set, which has ruled our society since time immemorial, castigates women into further oppression, from where they never seem to return. In Sindh alone, more than 100,000 students, who make up over 70 per cent of the total number of female students, have stopped attending schools, colleges and coaching centres across five districts this year, following a shocking gang-rape incident in Khipro town, in which a student of class XI was allegedly drugged, criminally assaulted and filmed, whose video was shared online.
Where does the solution lie? Does it come with speedy justice or the quick implementation of law? If yes, who decides which law is correct? Unfortunately, the issue of women rights in Pakistan has often been underestimated and not given its due importance. Ours is a nation where the concept and understanding of sexuality is highly distorted, which combined with weaker status of woman strengthens false beliefs and claims.
This situation worsened thanks to Zia’s Hudood Ordinance, which required a woman alleging rape to provide four adult male witnesses of good standing to prove that she has been a victim. In case she failed, she was liable to be prosecuted for adultery, for which the maximum punishment is stoning to death. However, contrary to the morals of Islam, the Hudood Ordinance further deteriorated the status of women in society, where most of the victims were routinely jailed for adultery on flimsy evidence. It led to thousands of women being imprisoned without being proven guilty. According to a report by the Pakistan National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) “an estimated 80 per cent of women” in jail in 2003 were there because “they had failed to prove rape charges and were consequently convicted of adultery.”
Though the Hudood Ordinance was revised with the Women’s Protection Bill in 2006, the fate of the implementation of the law loiters in the cobwebs of our deeply divided society. It has become a source of contention between politicians, human rights activists and Islamic scholars. Each has their own version, which fails to go beyond a single point of view. Deeply entrenched in the Shariah law vs. civil law debate, the status of the reforms is not very encouraging.
While the developed world today is engaged in a highly controversial debate about legalising prostitution to ensure the well-being of sex workers, the eradication of STDs, controlling human trafficking and bringing brothels under the umbrella of taxation, we are still faced with a dilemma based on our distorted beliefs and ugly prejudice. We need to come to terms with the concept of basic human rights and the protection of our women in our society.
And while we continue chanting slogans against Dr Aafia’s sentence, ashamed for not being able to protect our ‘Muslim sister’ from the clutches of the ‘evil west’, the humiliation that our women have to face at the hands of our own people is nothing short of barbaric. While I cannot comprehend the pain that assaulted women have to live with, I wonder why dignity in Pakistan is confined to one gender only. I am reminded more of it every evening as I return from work, where on the bus stop I pray for every wish to be a horse to keep me away from preening vultures.