Saturday 30 June 2012

'Rape-law' triggers fury in Jordan

The ordeal of a 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped and raped repeatedly for three days has infuriated Jordanians, especially when her attacker agreed to marry her to avoid going to jail.
In conservative Muslim societies like Jordan, rapists can walk free thanks to penal code Article 308, known as the "rape-law."
In April, the unidentified girl was shopping in the northern city of Zarqa when a 19-year-old man kidnapped her, took her to the desert where he had a pitched a tent and raped her for three consecutive days, judicial sources said.
Police found the girl during a routine patrol, drove her back to her family home and arrested the man.
Within days news emerged that the boy had agreed to marry the girl, while all charges against him have been dropped.
Earlier this month, another girl, aged 15, was talked into following a young man to an empty apartment in Amman where she was also raped.
Judicial sources say the young man is now desperately trying to work out an arrangement with her family to marry her, to avoid going to jail.
Article 308 allows rape charges to be dropped if the perpetrator agrees to marry the victim. He cannot divorce the woman for five years.
"This article of the law not only helps perpetrators walk free, it rewards them by allowing them to marry their victims, who get punished ... for God knows what," Nadia Shamrukh, head of the Jordanian Women's Union, told AFP.
"By applying this law, another crime is committed. How can this 14-year-old girl, who is a minor anyway, marry her rapist? Can you imagine this?"
The rape of a child under the age of 15 is punishable by death in Jordan, which recorded 379 cases of rape in 2010, according to court documents.
"In one case, we tried so hard to prevent a rapist from marrying an 18-year-old girl, who did not want to end up being his wife," said Eva Abu Halaweh, a lawyer and human rights activist who heads law group Mizan.
"But the girl's father struck a deal with the unemployed rapist, who was already married to another woman and had six children. He was unable to provide for his family and his wife was a beggar."
Abu Halaweh said the law is "inefficient anyway."
"It should be scrapped. What if a girl gets raped by more than one man? In this case, Article 308 will fail to address the problem," she said.
"Even if the victim does not resist marrying her rapist, he should not walk free ... The penalty could be reduced."
But Israa Tawalbeh, the country's first woman coroner, sees "nothing wrong in Article 308 as such."
"The problem is how some local and international human rights groups interpret the law," she told AFP.
"Actual rape cases are rare in our society. Sometimes, girls under 18 lose their virginity to force their families to accept marriage to their boyfriends. The law categorises this as rape."
Tawalbeh said the law "solves problems for some."
"Accepting marriage under Article 308 is better than leaving girls to be killed by their parents or relatives," she said.
"I think the law fits our society and reality. It protects the girls by forcing attackers to marry them."
In Jordan, between 15 and 20 women are murdered annually in the name of "honour" and at least six such killings have been reported so far this year, according to authorities.
Murder is punishable by death, but in "honour killings," courts sometimes commute or reduce sentences.
But Hani Jahshan, who is a forensic pathologist and physician at the health ministry and the Family Protection Directorate, has a quite different view of Article 308.
"This law is a stark violation of rights of women and children," he said "Sexual violence has a deep impact on victims that could last for a long time, and if a raped girl marries her rapist, her suffering will only be aggravated."
Jahshan blamed social misconceptions.
"Society believes that a female's virginity must be preserved until marriage. This forces girls to marry their rapists in order to protect her reputation and avoid social problems," he said.
Jordanians, particularly women activists, have held several street protests against the law.
"This issue must be effectively addressed," Nadia Hashem Alul, Jordan's first state minister for women's affairs, told AFP. "I think Article 308 should be amended to ensure justice to rape victims." source

Friday 29 June 2012

UK ready to take on Israel over fate of children clapped in irons

The Foreign Office revealed last night that it would be challenging the Israelis over their treatment of Palestinian children after a report by a delegation of senior British lawyers revealed unconscionable practices, such as hooding and the use of leg irons.

In the first investigation of its kind, a team of nine senior legal figures examined how Palestinians as young as 12 were treated when arrested. Their shocking report Children in Military Custody details claims that youngsters are dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, have their wrists bound behind their backs, and are blindfolded and made to kneel or lie face down in military vehicles.
Children from the West Bank are held in conditions that could amount to torture, such as solitary confinement, with little or no access to their parents. They can be forced to stay awake before being verbally as well as physically abused and coerced into signing confessions they cannot read.
The team – led by Sir Stephen Sedley, a former Court of Appeal judge – heard that "every Palestinian child is treated like a potential terrorist". In a damning conclusion, the report points out repeated breaches of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
"We were sitting in court and saw a section of a preliminary hearing when a very young looking child, a boy, was brought in wearing a brown uniform with leg irons on. We were shocked by that. This was a situation where we had been invited into the military courts for briefings from senior judges," explained one of the report's authors, human rights barrister Greg Davies. "To hold children routinely and for substantial periods in solitary confinement would, if it occurred, be capable of amounting to torture," the report said. Last night the Foreign Office, which backed the report, said it would be taking up the claims with the Israeli authorities:

"The UK government has had long-standing concerns about the treatment of Palestinian children in Israeli detention, and as a result decided to fund this independent report. While recognising that some positive recent steps have been made by the Israeli authorities, we share many of the report's concerns, and will continue to lobby for further improvements."
While the legal team said it was in no position to prove the truth of the claims of cruelty made repeatedly by Palestinian children, but denied by the Israeli authorities – which offered unprecedented access to the delegation – it pointed to the disparity in the law.

Israeli children must have access to a lawyer within 48 hours and cannot be imprisoned under the age of 14. But Palestinian children as young as 12 are jailed and can be kept for three months without legal representation. Between 500 and 700 are jailed each year.
"The other shocking thing is they are incarcerated in breach of many conventions. The practical effect is parents can't get there because they can't get permits," said Marianna Hildyard QC.
While the investigating team welcomed improvements introduced by the Israeli authorities, both Palestinian and Israeli lawyers on the ground insisted much of it was "rhetoric ra ther than real change".
Last night, Israeli Embassy spokesperson Amir Ofek said the country appreciated the efforts of the delegation but blamed Palestinians who "glorify terrorism". He said: "As a result [children] are frequently involved in lethal acts. With the Palestinian Authority unable or unwilling to meet its obligation to investigate and prosecute these offences, Israel has no choice but to do so itself.
"Israel notes the detailed recommendations in the report and will study them closely as part of its ongoing efforts to find the most appropriate balance between preventing violence and treating perpetrators with humanity."  Source

The report details claims children are dragged from their beds, bound and blindfolded:

Wednesday 13 June 2012

The War on Palestinian Soccer: Free Mahmoud Sarsak

On June 3, Palestinian national soccer team member Mahmoud Sarsak completed 80 days of a grueling hunger-strike. He had sustained the strike despite the fact that nearly 2,000 Palestinian inmates had called off their own 28-day hunger strike weeks ago.

Although the story of Palestinian prisoners in Israel speaks to a common reality of unlawful detentions and widespread mistreatment, Sarsak's fate can also be viewed within its own unique context. The soccer player, who once sought to take the name and flag of his nation to international arenas, was arrested by Israeli soldiers in July 2009 while en route to join the national team in the West Bank.

Sarsak was branded an 'illegal combatant' by Israel's military judicial system, and was since imprisoned without any charges or trial.

Sarsak is not alone in the continued hunger strike. Akram al-Rekhawi, a diabetic prisoner demanding proper medical care, has refused food for over 60 days.

At the time of writing of this article, both men were reportedly in dire medical condition. Sarsak, once of unmatched athletic built, is now gaunt beyond recognition. The already ill al-Rekhawi is dying.

According to rights groups, an Israeli court on May 30 granted prison doctors 12 more days before allowing independent doctors to visit the prisoners, further prolonging their suffering and isolation. Physicians for Human Rights - Israel (PHRI), which has done a remarkable job battling the draconian rules of Israeli military courts, continues to petition the court to meet with both al-Sarsak and al-Rekhawi, according to Ma'an news agency.

Sadly, the story here becomes typical. PHRI, along with other prisoners' rights groups, are doing all that civil society organizations can do within such an oppressive legal and political situation. Families are praying. Social media activists are sending constant updates and declaring solidarity. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is merely looking on - not due to any lack of concern for human rights, but due to the selective sympathy of Western governments and media.

Think of the uproar made by US media over the fate of blind Chinese political activist Chen Guangcheng. When he took shelter in the US embassy in Beijing, a near-diplomatic crisis ensued. Guangcheng was finally flown to the US on May 19, and he recently delivered a talk in New York before an astounded audience.

"The 40-year-old, blind activist said that his lengthy detention (of seven years) demonstrates that lawlessness is still the norm in China," reported the New York Post on May 31. "Is there any justice? Is there any rationale in any of this?" Chen asked. Few in the US media would contend with the statement. But somehow the logic becomes entirely irrelevant when the perpetrator of injustice is Israel, and the victim is a Palestinian. Al-Rekhawi is not blind, but he has many medical ailments. He has been in Ramle prison clinic since his detention in 2004, receiving severely inadequate medical care.

Sarsak, who has been a witness to many tragedies, is now becoming one. The 25-year old had once hoped to push the ranking of his national team back to a reasonable standing. If Palestinians ever deserve to be called 'fanatics', it would be in reference to soccer. As a child growing up in Gaza, I remember playing soccer in few minute increments, braving Israeli military curfews, risking arrests, injury and even death. Somehow, in a very crowded refugee camp, soccer becomes tantamount to freedom.

Palestine's ranking at 164th in the world is testament not to any lack of passion for the game, but to the constant Israeli attempts at destroying even that national aspiration.

The examples of Israeli war on Palestinian soccer are too many to count, although most of them receive little or no media coverage whatsoever. In 2004 Israel blocked several essential players from accompanying the national team out of Gaza for a second match against Chinese Taipei. (Palestine had won the first match 8-0.) The obstacles culminated in the March 2006 bombing of the Palestinian Football Stadium in Gaza, which reduced the grass field to a massive crater. Then, in the war on Gaza (Cast Lead 2008-09), things turned bloody as Israel killed three national soccer players: Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshtahe. It also bombed their stadium again.

Sarsak was a promising new face of Palestinian soccer. In times of Palestinian disunity and factionalism, it was the national team that kept a symbolic unity between Gaza and the West Bank - and indeed Palestinians everywhere. These young men exemplify hope that better times are ahead. But Sarsak's star is now fading, as is his life. His mother, who hasn't seen him since his arrests, told Ma'an that she thinks of him every minute of each day. "Why is there no one moving to save his life?" she asked.

Writing in the Nation on May 10, Dave Zirin wrote, "Imagine if a member of Team USA Basketball-let's say Kobe Bryant-had been traveling to an international tournament only to be seized by a foreign government and held in prison for three years without trial or even hearing the charges for which he was imprisoned...Chances are all the powerful international sports organizations-the IOC, FIFA-would treat the jailing nation as a pariah until Kobe was free. And chances are that even Laker-haters would wear buttons that read, 'Free Kobe.'"

Sarsak is the Bryant of his people. But ask any political commentator and he will tell you why Mohmoud Sarsak is not Kobe Bryant, and why Al-Rekhawi is not Chen. It is the same prevalent logic of a powerful Washington-based pro-Israel lobby and all the rest. Even if the logic was founded, why are international sports institutions not standing in complete solidarity with the dying Sarsak? Why don't soccer matches include a moment of solidarity with killed Palestinian players, and the dying young man aching to join his teammates on the field once more? Why is Israel not fully and comprehensively boycotted by every international sports organization?

"As long as Sarsak remains indefinitely detained and as long as Israel targets sport and athletes as legitimate targets of war, they have no business being rewarded by FIFA or the UEFA, let alone even being a part of the community of international sports," wrote Zirin.

It would be a belated step, but an unequivocally urgent one, for Palestinian sportsmen are literally dying.

Monday 11 June 2012

The top ten towering 'fatwas'

A spectre is haunting Muslims—the spectre of fatwas. All the powers of old Islam have entered into a holy alliance: to issue more and more fatwas, each as ridiculous as the other, and thus drown the Islamic earth in a pestiferous flood of fatwas. Muftis and Mullahs, on-line clerics and television preachers, bearded bovines and senseless Sheikhs—they are all at it.

So gather around, O believers! Here is a list of our all-time favourites.

1. The earth is flat

The top place must go to the former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Bin Baz. In April 2000, the Sheikh, an authority on the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, issued, after considerable study of the sacred sources, a fatwa entitled ‘The Transmitted and Sensory Proofs of the Rotation of the Sun and Stillness of the Earth’. The learned Sheikh declared that the earth was flat and the sun revolved around it. Numerous Muslim scientists, who had measured the circumference of the earth correct to three decimal places way back in the eight century, immediately turned in their graves.

2. "Hello, can you hear me? I'm leaving you..."

The Mullahs in the Deoband seminary in India are never far behind their Saudi colleagues. They have, however, introduced an innovation, and are now involved in a ‘cash for fatwa’ scandal. The going rate is said to be 5000 rupees per fatwa. Literally dozens of fatwas are issued by Deoband every week, like pork sausages coming down a conveyer belt, on a variety of topics—ranging from the use of credit cards to watching films (both are haram, strictly forbidden, if you must know). But their divorce by mobile phone fatwa takes the biscuit. Issued in November 2010 by Darul Ifta, the fatwa department of Dar-ul Uloom, Deoband, it reads: ‘Talaq (the word ‘divorce’) uttered thrice over a cell-phone by a Muslim man will be considered valid even if his wife is unable to hear it due to network or other problems’. They could have added: ‘or if she is hard of hearing’.
3. Keep it short, in 160 characters!

But why bother speed dialling that number in the first place? You could send a text instead. In March 2007, the Grand Mufti of the UAE issued a fatwa urging the faithful to divorce their wives through SMS. ‘Divorce through modern facility does not differ from divorce written on paper’, the Mufti declared. He did not clarify whether you had to send three text messages or if simply one would do. However, he did emphasise that no one but the husband was allowed to send such a message. We hear that divorce by text has now become a popular pastime in Tajikistan.

4. Type no evil 

But make sure you don’t include those evil Emoticons in your text message. Emoticons, says Multaqa Ahl al Hadeeth, an Indian Internet forum for devout Muslims—that is, those who hate deviants and ahl bidah(people of innovation)—is the work of the western devils. The site, which describes itself as a ‘meeting place for students of knowledge’, asserts: ‘Emoticons are forbidden because of its imitation to Allah’s creatures whether it is original or mixture or even deformed one and since the picture is the face and the face is what makes the real picture then emoticons which represent faces that express emotions then all that add up to make them Haram’. That’s devout logic for you.

5. "Honey, you shrunk the kid!"

Devout husbands must be eternally vigilant and careful, lest they accidentally and unintentionally nullify their marriage. One way such misfortune could befall you is by accidently seeing your wife naked during sex. According to a fatwa issued in January 2005 by Rashad Hassan Khalil, one time Dean of Sharia at that great citadel of Islamic learning Al-Azhar, ‘being completely naked during the act of coitus annuls the marriage’. So cover yourself, O ye faithful!

6. Till death unite us again?

What if the wife is dead? Well, that shouldn’t stop you from having sex with her, at least according to the highly regarded Moroccan Islamic Scholar and a member of the country’s religious hierarchy, Abdelbari Zemzami. He justifies his ruling, issued in May 2011, through an age old source of "Islamic" law—analogy. ‘Since a good Muslim couple will meet again in Heaven, and since death does not alter the marital contract it is not a hindrance to the husband’s desire to have sexual intercourse with the corpse of his (freshly) deceased wife’. So stop mourning and get on with it. [Ed's note: a recent claim that Egypt was mulling such a law is false.]
7. Thou shall not be a man

Dead or alive, do make sure that your wife is a real woman and not a ‘tomboy’. Women who wear trousers, or behave in a ‘manly manner’, according to an edict issued in October 2008 by the National Fatwa Council of Malaysia, are ‘tomboys’ and not women; and therefore haram (forbidden). So do make sure, O believers, that your wives do not have short hair, wear jeans, or speak too loudly.

8. ... or do yoga

Or do yoga. A month later, in November 2008, the National Fatwa Council of Malaysia identified Yoga as ‘an aberration’. The Iman (faith) of a Muslim is already too weak, declared Abdul Shukor Husin, the Chairman of the august Council, to stand the onslaught of Hindu spiritual elements and chanting. Yoga ‘can destroy the faith of a Muslim’ completely! The Council is now working on a ‘halal Yoga’ so that ‘more compliant Muslims would not be confused’. Presumably it involves halal necrophilia.

9. The 'breast buddy'

However, if your Yoga-practising tomboy of a dead wife wants to go out and work there is a handy solution to your problems. According to a fatwa by Ezzat Attiya, another genius from the Al-Azhar factory and head of its hadith department, issued in May 2007, the rules forbidding unrelated men and working together can be easily overcome. The women should breast-feed their male colleagues. That, on the authority of some hadith or other, would make them kin, nearest and dearest who can work and hang out together.

10. Woman, you don't belong in that seat

In the end, as in the beginning. We return to Sheikh bin Baz, the late, lamented Grand Mufti of the Kingdom of unsoiled Muslims with perfect faith. Thanks to WikiLeaks we now know that it was none other than the blind Mufti himself who decreed, in a famous fatwa in 1991, that women should not be allowed to drive. The Sheikh declared, reads a cable, that ‘allowing women to drive would result in public “mixing” of women, put women into dangerous situations because they could be alone in cars, and therefore result in social chaos’.

The man was right. The Islamic earth is really flat.

Friday 8 June 2012

Turkish women join pro-choice rally as fears grow of abortion ban

Thousands of women joined a pro-choice rally in Istanbul on Sunday amid growing fears that Turkey's Islamist government intends, in effect, to ban abortion.
Terminations are legal in Turkey until the 10th week of gestation but the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) is reportedly working on a bill to ban them after four weeks, except in emergencies.
The bill has not been published, but fears that it could substantially curtail a woman's right to choose have been stoked by comments from senior government officials. Speaking last month at a conference on population and development, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said: "There is no difference between killing a baby in its mother's stomach and killing a baby after birth." He said abortion and elective caesareans were "secret plots" to slow Turkey's growth.
The health minister, Recep Akdag, said that the government would present its abortion bill by the end of June, adding that women pregnant as a result of rape should let the government take care of the baby.
The mayor of Greater Ankara, Melih Gökçek, said on TV that a mother who considered abortion should "kill her herself instead and not let the child bear the brunt of her mistake".
The remarks have pushed abortion to the top of the political agenda – and spread a chill among activists. Tugba Özay Baki, of the Istanbul Feminist Collective, said: "If abortion is banned in Turkey, women will still have them, but under unhealthy and dangerous conditions. Shady characters will start to make money off their desperation."
At the demonstration on Sunday, marchers carried banners reading "We are women, not reproduction machines", "AKP – take your hands off my body" and "We don't discuss our right to abortion."
"We are here to protest against the government's attempts to use women's bodies for their political goals", Behal Yazgan of the Turkish Women's Party Initiative told the Guardian. "The prime minister tries to force his views and his morals on the whole population but we will not let him."
The demonstration was met with spontaneous applause by some bystanders. One man said: "Abortions were never a subject of political discussions in Turkey until [the AKP] came, and it should under no circumstances be illegal."
Dr Mustafa Ziya Günenc, a gynaecologist in the German hospital in Istanbul, said the government's proposal to cut the legal limit for abortions to four weeks would in practice be a ban: "Abortions simply cannot be performed at that stage, both for technical and health reasons."
"Before abortion became legal in 1983, 250 out of 10,000 pregnancies ended with the mother's deaths, and 225 of these deaths occurred because the women they tried to abort using wire, chemical substances or bird feathers," said Günenc. "Abortion was legalised for that exact reason."
Activists fear that these concerns might not deter Erdogan, a devout Muslim who has campaigned for population growth, urging Turkish couples to have at least three children. More than 25% of Turkey's 75 million population is under 14 and many activists argue that the country urgently needs to improve sex education.
"Sex education simply doesn't exist in schools, universities or even in the media here," Günenc said. "What children learn about sexuality and sexual health mostly depends on what they are told in their families, by doctors or, on what they see on the internet." He added that unwanted pregnancies and STDs were one consequence. "And to my knowledge, there are no government efforts to improve this situation."
Specialists say they have not been consulted about the abortion bill. The Turkish Gynaecologist and Obstetrics Association, the country's largest umbrella organisation, has not been invited to participate in a commission preparing a report on the planned legislation, according to Professor Ismail Mete Itil, the association's president.
"No woman wants to have an abortion," said Günenc. "But every woman needs to have that choice, no matter what the circumstances are."

Wednesday 6 June 2012

After Rochdale. Asian women are suffering too.

There is a line in the film Four Lions where one of the terrorists suggests bombing Boots the Chemist because “they sell condoms and make you want to shag white girls". Everyone in my local cinema laughed, yet I know that abhorrent perception exists among some Asian men and women.  The furore over whether race, religion or culture played a part in targeting vulnerable white girls in the Rochdale "grooming" case, has failed to address a broader issue. The views of women who come from those northern towns has been absent in this debate. As a Bradford-born and raised Muslim woman from the Kashmiri/Mirpuri community, I understand the cultural complexities. Let’s be clear: it’s not just white women that are viewed as inferior: many from these Pakistani rural villages believe all women are second class citizens. The culture of the conservative Kashmiri/Mirpuri community has at its root a deep seated misogyny with the aim of controlling every aspect of a woman’s life and reducing her into subservience. 

This misogyny manifests itself in different ways. “They ripped away my dignity, my self-esteem,” said one of the victims of the grooming ring. Another stated that “she was persistently coerced or forced into submission by them”. Although the context is different, I have heard many Kashmiri/Mirpuri women in Bradford and other towns express similar sentiments about the men and families who control every aspect of their lives. White or Western women are viewed as promiscuous, are "up for it" and are objectified as sexual objects. A small minority can take this view alongside multiple factors such as criminality, to the ultimate extreme as in cases of grooming and sexual exploitation. 

There is a false and puritanical idea that all Pakistani women are "protected" at home and treated with respect. The reality is that many from this community also believe that their own women are inferior, their purpose in life is solely confined to the home serving their husbands and in-laws. Education and careers are unnecessary in a life of servitude as was the view before the early feminist movement and like white women, can also be objectified and viewed as sexual objects. 

There is a cultural attitude that women are singularly and disproportionately responsible for maintaining the honour of the family and that they carry the burden of preserving morality in society. They should therefore not do anything that would destroy this honour. Mirpuri women have endured abuse within families, yet because families want to be viewed as upstanding pillars of the community, many of these women are forced into silence. 

As a society we are losing out when bright girls from this community are denied the opportunity to pursue an education or career because of cultural restrictions. The psychological impact of being confined to the home for most of their lives is immense, as I was told by a woman who lived with her mother in-law and her husband, who would never let her out of the house. “I can’t even attend a women’s only sewing class,” she told me, crying. In many cases it is the older women in these communities who are perpetuating and maintaining these patriarchal attitudes. Some are still deciding third-generation first-cousin marriages and are prohibiting women from participating in public life.

In this debate, some commentators have not been able to differentiate between culture and religion. Women of my generation aspired to have an education and a career and saw Islam as an escape route. For some of these women, Islam offered freedoms to pursue an education, a career, the choice of choosing their own marriage partner, the opportunity to participate in British public life and, importantly, take control of their own lives. Moreover, the concept of rape in Islam should not be misunderstood: many of the early classical jurists, such as Ibn Hazm and Ibn ‘Arabi, viewed it as so abhorrent that it was defined as a form of terrorism. 

Misogyny exists within all communities and societies.  As Julie Bindel rightly says, there is no culture in the world where girls are valued on par with boys. Pakistani communities and Muslim leaders however can no longer deny the misogynistic attitudes that exist at the very heart of some of these communities. Young Pakistani boys and girls, and indeed all of our young people, need greater education about sex and women’s rights. Practical efforts that promote integration and social mobility will tackle attitudes and support women who want to play a positive contribution to our country. The enforced invisibility and subservience of women can be challenged through collective action to help dismantle the traditional and negative view that all women, whether white or Asian, are inferior.
Sara Khan is director of Inspire, a British Muslim women's human rights organisation

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Girl brides in Yemen: the fight for the right to say no

"A mother of a 13 year old girl in the rural north of Yemen contacted us, asking for help after her daughter died due to bleeding on the marriage night." Normally, you would expect to encounter such stories in NGO reports, but it is the Yemeni Minister for Human Rights, Hooria Mashhour, who is disarmingly forthcoming about the problem facing girls in her country.
"Child marriage is happening across the Arab countries, but it is more widespread in Yemen, based on the cultural tribal traditions", she explains. "During my work with the Women National Committee I've encountered many sad cases. Even within the office, the cleaner said that she was forced to get married at the age of 12, which caused her medical complication in the urinary system and she needed treatment to recover."
In a country that has recently ousted its president after 33 years in power, surprisingly little has changed for girls who are forced to get married before they reach adulthood. According to a 2008 study by the Gender Development Research and Studies Centre in Sana'a, just over half of girls are married before their eighteenth birthday - some as young as eight. Admittedly, the problem is not unique to Yemen: in May 2012, the Grand Mufti of the neighbouring Saudi Arabia suggested that girls can be married aged 10. However, in a recent report, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown notes that Yemen has the second highest number of mothers under the age of 15, out of the 16 countries where child marriage and pregnancy is most prevalent.
Unlike other developing countries who have raised the minimum age for marriage,Yemen has, in 1999, scrapped it altogether. Attempts by MPs to re-instate it in 2009, as well as protests on the streets and campaigns by the Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman, have not succeeded. Meanwhile, the fragile political situation and the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has overshadowed human rights issues. "The war on terrorism has affected child rights by preventing them from being top priorities of the national agenda, and generally has put security ahead of development and human rights issues", says Mashhour.
Child marriage affects primarily young brides, but it also exacerbates many of the social and economic problems in Yemen, hindering the country from making further progress. Married girls often drop out of school, leaving them illiterate and unskilled, thus prevented from ever achieving self-sufficiency.
Aisha, a 25 year old Yemeni now living in the UK, tells the story of her mother, Bushra, who was forced to marry aged 13. Bushra's husband forbade her to attend secondary school or seek work. Aged 20, she already had four children, while her husband had married an additional wife.
Today, Bushra continues to suffer from health problems caused by her pregnancies, but she considers herself lucky compared to many others. Early teenage pregnancy carries a high risk of life threatening obstructed labour due to the undeveloped narrow hips, in addition to other conditions, such as fistula. In a country with one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the region, early marriages have cost many girls their lives.
Some would argue that legislation is the answer. In Ethiopia, for example, the legal minimum age for marriage was raised to 18 in 2005. However, Jeffrey Edmeades of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) says this has had "very little effect on marriage rates".
Experience from other countries offers alternatives. Initiatives at the grassroots level used to tackle similar problems in Africa "can be adopted by Yemen" says Naana Otoo-Oyortey, the Executive Director of Forward, an African Diaspora women's charity. Forward has set up income-generating schemes for existing child mothers, as well as girls' clubs in schools, dispensing information and advice. In India, a programme called Apni Beti Apna Dhan ('Our Daughters, Our Wealth') works on the basis of cash incentives: a girl and her family can withdraw a sum of money if the girl turns 18 unwed. This initiative, reports The Daily Beast, saw an 18 percent drop in the practice between 1992 and 2006.
Similar ideas are being developed in the Yemeni diaspora. Lubna Maktari of the UK based Independent Yemen Group describes an initiative to educate and empower those outside of the main cities. "Over 70% of the Yemeni population lives in the rural areas, with limited or no electricity" The group wants to broadcast educational programmes on wind-up radios, providing basic skills, as well as support and information.
Laura Dickinson of 'Girls Not Brides', a new global partnership of organisations committed to ending child marriage, says that such initiatives are "definitely helpful" and have already been successfully used in places like Pakistan and Nepal. "This shatters the silence that has long existed around the subject of child marriage. In turn, girls feel there is support out there that they can access". The educational impact is also key - as well as providing girls with more choices, Dickinson says "it helps generate a change in the families' attitudes, removing the idea that girls are a burden."
A shift in thinking is also necessary, says Mashhour. In Yemen, "the main actors that could play a significant role are open-minded Muslim scholars because of their influence on communities. The new leaders and journalists that emerged during the revolution also have an important role in steering public opinion and resisting the radical rhetoric."
Paradoxically for Aisha, it was her father who pushed her towards education rather than marriage. "He insisted that I not only finish primary and secondary schools, but go on to university and study abroad. I think it was because he didn't want me to go through what his wives had experienced." Aisha now has a daughter of her own. "I remember my mother's lack of choice. Today, when my daughter says 'no' to me, I feel so proud of her."

Monday 4 June 2012

Mr Owl Explains The Trinity

I thought this was a fun and light-hearted video and it is how many people feel about the trinity and come to Islam, no offence meant to anyone!

The horror of female genital mutilation

"After the pain, it was the screaming that I'll never forget. It wasn't just mine and my sister's screams, there were so many other girls there - all being cut. I've never heard screams like that again and I don't think I ever will."
Aissa, from Mali, West Africa was just six years old when she and her one year-old sister were told: "We have to go somewhere". The sisters were taken on a journey by the female members of their family, oblivious to the torturous destination that was waiting for them. Aissa and her sister were then forced to endure a depraved ritual, scarring them for perpetuity: female genital mutilation.

I ask Aissa, now 29 and living and working as a midwife in London, what she can remember of that day when she and her little sister arrived at the place they were taken to by their step mother. "Isn't it ironic?" says Aissa, "That I can remember everything so clearly, like it happened yesterday, but that is only because the memories of the blood, the pain, the screaming will always haunt me, like a re-occurring bad dream".

Aissa describes how her sister was taken away by a woman to "wait for her turn" while Aissa's stepmother instructed her to lay down on a bed. Aissa did as she was told, as four women stood over her pinning her to the bed as another woman began to cut her. No anaesthetic was used to remove Aissa's clitoris with a razor blade. Aissa explains that it doesn't matter how tightly you are held down, your body instinctively convulses, which results in deeper and longer incisions.

"The pain is, well, it's so difficult to describe to you what it is like. Imagine when you cut your finger, it's a million times worse than that. But that doesn't even begin to describe the type of pain that takes over when the part of your body that has the most nerve endings in it is cut away. Only girls who have been cut will ever know what that level of pain is like. I honestly thought I was going to die, and then everything went black."

Aissa then tells me there is another reason why she will never ever forget that day. Almost whispering, she says: "It was the first time I had ever slept in a real bed; we had always slept on the floor before. I can't remember how long I stayed in the bed, maybe one or two weeks until I was able to walk again."

As you read this, vulnerable young girls (children in the majority of cases) across the world are being led to a place by their mothers, stepmothers, aunts and grandmothers where they will be subjected to physical and emotional pain like no other. That physical and emotional pain inflicted on them, on so many levels, will be and will stay at such an intensity, there are just no appropriate words to attempt to describe the young girls' ordeals. To listen to another woman reflect back to the time she was betrayed by those whom she loved and trusted the most, through the most invasive, barbaric and brutal treachery, is only comparable to torture so extreme it just can't be real, except it is.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also referred to as Female Genital Cutting (FGC), is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. The World Health Organisation says FGM also violates a person's rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death. The United Nations, Amnesty International and UNICEF are just three of many organisations across the world working tirelessly to 'consign FGM to history'.
The World Health Organisation has classified FGM into four types:

1.Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris, and in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).

2.Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia (lips) minora, with or without excision of the labia majora. 

3.Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris. (The seal is then cut open and stitched up again to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth; hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, increasing immediate and long-term risks.)

4.Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes

Latest figures show around 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM. The latest statistical exploration from UNICEF states it is most common in western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa. It is also prevalent in many countries in South-East Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. Despite it being illegal in Canada, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, France, Sweden, Switzerland, the US, Kenya, Egypt and the UK, Female Genital Mutilation is still widely practiced.

An utterly useless UK government

The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, introduced to close the loophole of the Prohibition of FemaleCircumcision Act 1985 (which permitted parents to take their daughters out of the UK to undergo FGM abroad before bringing them back) does not scare or stop those intent on mutilating our future generations. This act tragically fails to uphold the UK's zero tolerance to FGM. There has not been one single prosecution of FGM in the UK, despite thisabhorrent crime being outlawed in 1985.
Like any illegal practice, thriving ferociously deep and dark underground, it is impossible to be precise regarding the number of girls in the UK who have suffered and are currently suffering at the hands of this brutal and barbaric ritual. The UK charity FORWARD estimates from their research that 66,000 girls in the UK have been mutilated, while 24,000 girls under 16 are at risk from the most severe form of FGM in England and Wales. One would assume then, faced with this alarming calculation, that the British government would swiftly take action and act as a matter of uttermost urgency. That sadly though is just an idealistic aspiration of what should be happening. Our government, whose duty it is to protect its citizens, have adopted what can only be described politely as a pitiful and pathetic 'attempt' to safeguard and protect the thousands of children at risk in the UK. Utterly useless bureaucrats are depriving vital funding, resources, information, care and support to those desperately gasping for it.
If you search FGM on the Home Office website, the search results give little comfort or re-assurance to  its victims, merely  facts, figures and three telephone numbers. The Home Office re-directs most of the responsibility for the charity FORWARD to deal with. On the Department of Health's website there are just seven search results for this ignored and neglected crime - none of which have been updated for over a year. The Home Office and the DofH refused to put anyone forward for interview to answer my questions on what exactly the British government's approach is in dealing with the illegally practiced and prevalent FGM in the UK. They also refused to provide details on what measures have been and are being put in place to safeguard and protect the victims, how the illegal underground networks plan to be broken and how much funding has and is being allocated to fight FGM in the UK.

Quite why no minister is able to speak out to re-assure British citizens that the government are doing everything in their power to tackle the illegal practice of FGM in the UK is just mystifying. A standard statement  was sent from both departments to attempt to provide a response. From the Home Office, Minister for Equalities and Overseas Champion for Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls, Lynne Featherstone says: "Female Genital Mutilation is an abhorrent crime and we are very clear that those found to practice it should feel the full force of the law. As a government, we are also working with UK and international agencies on the ground to help prevent women and girls being subjected to this practice." 

From the Department of Health, a spokesperson says: "We have written to the Royal Colleges of Midwives and Obstetricians and Gynaecologists about making sure we are doing everything possible together to eliminate this abusive and abhorrent practice and protect future generations of girls and women from harm. The current professional guidance highlights that NHS professionals have a clear duty of child protection if a doctor is approached to perform a mutilating procedure or if it becomes known to them that a child is to be taken abroad for that purpose." Neither the Home Office nor the DofH provided details about the type of work they say is happening to protect future generations of girls and women in the UK from harm.

Saria Khalifa, the Youth Programme Officer for FORWARD, tells me the charity is extremely concerned about the British Government's patchy approach to tackling FGM, which is failing to safeguard all children at risk of FGM who reside in the UK. She says: "The UK government has a duty to develop effective primary prevention measures particularly in London where FGM has become a growing concern. Additionally there is need for protection strategies that offer safety nets and specialist support to women and girls. There is no national action plan on FGM nor a strategy in place to engage key communities and key opinion makers on ending FGM. More importantly, the Government funding cuts which have hit the women's sector very deepy, coupled with lack of a comprehensive strategy is making our work even more difficult and a greater struggle."

The poisonous power of patriarchy 

Female Genital Mutilation is without a doubt powered by the poison of patriarchy. In a FGM affected community, there is a fundamental belief that mutilation is the only way to initiate a girl into becoming a "good woman" ready for marriage and childbirth. The bitter irony is that the very process of FGM is achieving the exact opposite. Removing part of a girl or a woman's anatomy, disturbing and forcefully changing the way her body is intended to function not only takes away her femininity, but biologically changes the composition that makes her into the woman that she naturally is intended to be. Women across the world are torturing other women to accommodate and appease an ideology and disorted history of male supremacy. FGM is practiced to satisfy the wishes of a patriarchal family structure, but in reality the men distance themselves from the procedure of the practice, maintaining a dominating presence in the "background" and are not concerned enough with the consequences to stop inflicting this depravity onto their daughters.

Despite the "cultural justification" that FGM "turns a girl into a woman" there is also the assumption that when she does become a "good woman" she needs to be appropriately controlled and oppressed. It is widely believed that removing parts of her genitalia reduces her libido and in turn makes her less sexually demanding, supressing the level of pleasure she is "allowed" to receive and sustain. It is not uncommon in some cases for a woman's vulva to be stitched up, leaving just a small opening for urine and menstrual blood to pass through, before the woman is then re-opened for sexual intercourse and childbirth. 

Aissa says it is not only the damaging physical effects that victims are forced to endure for the rest of their lives:"I still need to work on myself psychologically because of all the feelings of self-loathing I have towards my body. I am different and I look different - for a very long time I didn't even feel like a woman. It was impossible to have sex, the pain was horrific and I have suffered with lots of urinary infections. Still now I find it so difficult to have any medical appointments, which is part of the reason why I wanted to become a midwife to help others who are like me."
There are no cultural or religious justifications ever for mutilating another woman's body. There is no endorsement of FGM in the Bible, the Tanakh or Quran. Charity Forward has published a research on FGM and Islam as many Muslim (as well as non-Muslim) communities tend to associate FGM with Islam. "Words like 'sunna' and 'tahur' used for FGM by Muslims erroneously endorse the link of Islam to FGM and brings the great religion into disrepute. All religions say God created human beings in the best forms and wanted them to keep the nature in which they were created. It is forbidden to make changes in God's creation unless there is a compelling reason ie for medical reasons."
Aissa recently returned to Mali to take the brave step of explaining to her father how the life she dreamt of living was cruelly snatched from her through the destructive and devastating consequences of the Female Genital Mutilation she endured. She tells me she wanted to make the visit to protect future generations of her family - to make sure they never ever have to suffer like she has. After many difficult and emotional discussions with her father, he has now promised Aissa that no other girls in her family will ever be mutilated again.

"And do you believe your father's promise?" I ask. 

 Aissa pauses, then responds slowly: "Yes I do, what other choice do I have, but to have faith in those whom I love and trust the most"?