Monday 30 August 2021

Is the Taliban’s treatment of women really inspired by Sharia?


According to Human Rights Watch, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group whose stated goal was to create a state based on the biblical 10 commandments, kidnapped and killed tens of thousands of people in the 1990s and 2000s.

Their practice of abducting boys to train them as soldiers and girls to force them into sexual slavery has been documented and put before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, resulting in an arrest warrant for Joseph Kony, the group’s founder, along with four of his senior leaders, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Although according to its leadership, the armed group was a Christian army acting in God’s way, few op-eds have had to be penned arguing that the LRA’s actions are not in congruence with normative Christianity. It is just (rightly) assumed.

Unfortunately, a completely different set of rules is applied when it comes to Muslims. The commentary surrounding the most recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is but one example.

Reports have emerged that Afghan women are being forced to marry Taliban fighters, quit their jobs and schooling, as well as endure public flogging.

Rather than call for expanding asylum programmes or even exerting political pressure on the Taliban to reform, right-wing politicians in Europe and the United States have instead weaponised the ongoing instability in this war-torn country to score political points against their Muslim citizens and immigration proponents.

As Muslim citizens of Western nations, we have yet again found ourselves defending our community and faith against those wishing to exploit this tragedy to propagate Islamophobic tropes – the same tropes that were used to justify invading Afghanistan two decades ago.

We are now, as we were then, expected to clarify, condemn and distinguish our faith from the actions of a militant group claiming to act in its name, an unfair and exhausting demand not made of our Christian compatriots, regarding any armed group or war criminal claiming to act in Christ’s name.

Still, despite the double standard, we must take these moments as opportunities to educate. So let me be clear: The normative teachings of Islam are antithetical to the Taliban’s reported treatment of women.

The teachings of Islam, in all their diversity, encourage a woman’s spiritual aspirations absent an intercessor between her and God and define her identity as first and foremost a servant of The Divine, whose rights constitute a sacred covenant. In seventh-century Arabia, Islam’s advance took a woman from being treated as property to a fully independent agent who had control over her financial decisions and possessions and who had the right to choose to marry and divorce.

What about women’s employment? From the first generation of believers, women served as everything, from medical workers to warriors. For example, Rufaida Al-Aslamia was a surgeon recognised by the Prophet for her care for the wounded, her training of other women as nurses, and her role in establishing the first field hospital for the community. Nusaybah bint Ka’ab was known as the “Prophet’s shield” for defending him in battle, even when many men fled.

Islam’s teachings also emphasise the importance of seeking knowledge, for both men and women. In fact, the first known university in the world, the University of al-Qarawiyyin in the Moroccan city of Fez, was founded more than 1,000 years ago by Fatima al-Fihri, a Muslim woman. It is the oldest existing and continually operating educational institution in the world.

Fatima and her sister, Mariam, were highly educated and devoted to their faith. Upon her father’s death and her inheritance of his fortune (yes, Muslim women could inherit property centuries before their European counterparts), she and her sister decided to use their wealth to build an institution of higher learning.

The al-Fihri sisters’ dedication to the pursuit of knowledge is far from an isolated example. Four years ago, while on a speaking tour of the United Kingdom, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Professor Mohammad Akram Nadwi, who authored an encyclopaedia of the Muhaddithat, the female scholars of Hadith, Islam’s collection of prophetic narrations.

He told me he had set out to write a short book about what he thought would be a handful of female Hadith scholars, and ended up completing 57 volumes (which he had to condense to 40 for publication) on about 9,000 of them. He continues his research and says there are thousands more women he could write about. I learned from him that many of the scholars we consider the pillars of our tradition had female teachers (not just students).

It is also worth noting that Dr Nadwi set out to study just scholars of Hadith. Many of these women also were scholars of fiqh (law), tafsir (scriptural exegesis) and other sciences along with Hadith. I remember wondering what the number would be had he set out to study Islam’s female scholars in general.

And yet these realities stand in sharp contrast to the image of Muslim women in the popular imagination, an imagination easily persuaded that the Taliban represents Islamic devotion, not deviance, in its treatment of women. According to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding’s Islamophobia Index, the stereotype of Muslim misogyny is the most pervasive anti-Muslim trope tested among Americans.

Western political figures have long instrumentalised the image of the oppressed Muslim woman in need of Western saviours to justify European, and then later American invasion and exploitation of Muslim lands. While this tendency can be traced back to the Crusades, in the modern context, it takes the form of biased media coverage of Muslim women.

According to a Stanford study conducted by Dr Rochelle Terman, who based her analysis on data collected from 35 years of New York Times and Washington Post reporting, US news coverage of women abroad is driven by confirmation bias. Journalists are more likely to report on women living in Muslim and Middle Eastern countries if their rights are violated, but report on women in other societies when their rights are respected.

Some may argue that this is simply a reflection of reality. Women in Muslim majority countries, they contend, are violated more often. But this is not the case. Terman writes, “Even if the nations rank more or less equally on the women’s rights index, women in Muslim countries are shown suffering misogyny, while women in Western countries are portrayed in more complex ways.”

Even when their lived realities are similar, Muslim women are depicted as more mistreated than their counterparts of other faiths, reproducing the false notion that misogyny is exceptionally and inherently Muslim.

We must become critical consumers of information, questioning double standards and challenging bias, and not allow anyone to use the actions of a militant group to propagate bigotry. This is the only way we will truly stand with the Afghan people, women and men, who must lead any effort to support them.


Tuesday 24 August 2021

Eight-year-old becomes youngest person charged with blasphemy in Pakistan

An eight-year-old Hindu boy is being held in protective police custody in east Pakistan after becoming the youngest person ever to be charged with blasphemy in the country.

The boy’s family is in hiding and many of the Hindu community in the conservative district of Rahim Yar Khan, in Punjab, have fled their homes after a Muslim crowd attacked a Hindu temple after the boy’s release on bail last week. Troops were deployed to the area to quell any further unrest.

On Saturday, 20 people were arrested in connection with the temple attack.

The boy is accused of intentionally urinating on a carpet in the library of a madrassa, where religious books were kept, last month. Blasphemy charges can carry the death penalty.

The Guardian knows the name of the boy and family members, but has chosen to protect their identities for their safety.

Speaking from an undisclosed location, a member of the boy’s family told the Guardian: “He [the boy] is not even aware of such blasphemy issues and he has been falsely indulged in these matters. He still doesn’t understand what his crime was and why he was kept in jail for a week.

“We have left our shops and work, the entire community is scared and we fear backlash. We don’t want to return to this area. We don’t see any concrete and meaningful action will be taken against the culprits or to safeguard the minorities living here.”

Blasphemy charges filed against a child have shocked legal experts, who say the move is unprecedented. No one this young has ever been charged with blasphemy before in Pakistan.

Blasphemy laws have been disproportionately used in the past against religious minorities in Pakistan. Although no blasphemy executions have been carried out in the country since the death penalty was introduced for the crime in 1986, suspects are often attacked and sometimes killed by mobs.

Ramesh Kumar, a lawmaker and head of the Pakistan Hindu Council, said: “The attack on the temple and blasphemy allegations against the eight-year-old minor boy has really shocked me. More than a hundred homes of the Hindu community have been emptied due to fear of attack.”

Kapil Dev, a human rights activist, said: “I demand charges against the boy are immediately dropped, and urge the government to provide security for the family and those forced to flee.”

He added: “Attacks on Hindu temples have increased in the last few years showing an escalating level of extremism and fanaticism. The recent attacks seem to be a new wave of persecution of Hindus.”

Footage circulating on social media appears to show an angry mob attacking and vandalising the temple with iron bars and sticks last week.

Ahmad Nawaz, a spokesperson for the Rahim Yar Khan district police, said: “Police are hunting the attackers and police teams are conducting raids to arrest the culprits but there has been no arrest made yet.”

Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, condemned the mob attack on Twitter and said he has ordered the provincial police chief to take action against anyone involved, including negligent police officers. He promised the government would restore the temple.

In New Delhi, India’s external affairs ministry summoned a Pakistani diplomat to protest the attack and demand the safety of Hindu families living in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

In December last year, a large violent mob of conservative Muslims demolished a century old Hindu temple in the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

According to a report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedoms, published last year, Pakistan reported the highest number of incidents of mob activity, mob violence, and/or threats of mob violence as a result of alleged blasphemous acts.

Four countries account for nearly 80% of all reported incidents of mob activity, mob violence, and/or threats of mob violence as a result of alleged blasphemous acts in countries with criminal blasphemy laws between 2014 and 2018.


Thursday 12 August 2021

I Don't Love Her!


Umar ibnul Khattab [رضي الله عَنه] said to a man who was thinking of divorcing his wife:
“Why do you want to divorce her?” He said, “I do not love her.” ‘Umar رضي الله عنه said, “Must every house be built on love? What about loyalty and appreciation?”
He went on:

'You men! When we marry, we give a serious promise to her. A woman gives birth to children and goes through hard times during her pregnancy. Then she suckles the baby and takes care all nights about her children, when they get sick or need anything. She sacrifices her beauty and youth for being a mother.
How fair is if, when her husband leaves her, when she is grown up? If she would have never take care of her home and family, instead of taking care of her body and beauty, her husband would say: “What a bad mother she is.” 

Where is integrity and loyalty? 

Fear Allah regarding your behaviour towards your wives.'

[Al-Bayan wa at-Tabayeen, 2/101; Fara’id al – Kalam, p.113]

Tuesday 10 August 2021

Murdered women: A history of ‘honour’ crimes

On a hot summer day in late May 1994, I drove to an eastern suburb of Jordan’s capital, Amman, to investigate the reported murder of a 16-year-old schoolgirl by her own brother.

With limited information, questions roiled my mind as I drove up the hill towards the neighbourhood. Why had this girl’s life been cut short by her brother? What had her final thoughts been?

My questions would soon be partially answered by a man who was walking through the neighbourhood when I arrived. “Yes, I know why she was killed,” he answered calmly as if talking about the weather: “She was raped by one of her brothers and another sibling murdered her to cleanse his family’s honour.”

I asked him again if what he was saying was really true.

“Yes, it is true. That is why she was killed,” the man answered me, before ushering me to the house where the murder took place.

The same “justification” was used by the girl’s uncles when I sat with them to discuss the murder. Her name was Kifaya (“enough”) they told me. “She seduced her brother to sleep with her and she had to die for that,” they said.

That sentence rang in my head throughout my career as a senior reporter at the Jordan Times and as an activist on this topic.

A few months later, I was assigned to cover court hearings on homicides in Jordan. Again, I came across dozens of stories of women who had been murdered by their male relatives for reasons related to so-called “family honour”. Some of these cases I investigated, including Kifaya’s.

To my surprise at that time, the majority of perpetrators would get away with little more than a slap on the wrist. Their sentences would range from three months to two years in prison.

But in Kifaya’s case, the court rejected the “rape excuse that was uttered by her brother and handed him a 15-year prison term for manslaughter”, as I wrote in my report for the Jordan Times. It was an unusually harsh sentence for its time.

But that sentence, like most of those relating to “honour” crimes, was later cut in half because the victim’s family dropped their legal claims against the defendant, who was, of course, also a family member. While sentencing has gradually become more severe over the years, it is still possible in Jordan for defendants to have their sentences cut in half if the victim’s family drops the charges.


Thursday 5 August 2021

Noor Mukadam's murder exposes toxic misogyny in Pakistan


Noor Mukadam, a 27-year-old woman and daughter of Pakistan's former ambassador to South Korea, was brutally killed in Islamabad on July 20. The alleged killer, Zahir Zamir Jaffer, was reportedly her acquaintance. According to police reports, he beheaded Mukadam after shooting her.

Violence against women is widespread in Pakistan, but the recent spate of women killings has shocked the South Asian nation.

On Sunday, a man burned his wife to death in the southern Sindh province, while another man shot dead his wife, his aunt and two underage daughters in Shikarpur city on the same day. A 30-year-old woman who was raped and stabbed on Saturday in Rawalpindi city succumbed to her injuries on Sunday.

On July 18, a woman was tortured to death by her husband in Sindh. Last month, a man killed two women, including his former wife, in the name of "honor" in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

The recent cases have triggered a debate about the state's failure to protect women, the culture of impunity, and the reasons behind society's tendency to curtail women's independence and inflict pain on them.

Pakistan ranks as the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women, and is currently witnessing a rapid rise in cases of sexual crimes and domestic violence.

Rights activists blame a culture of impunity for the recent spike in violence against women.

"A man who stabbed a young female lawyer more than 12 times was recently released by the court. What message does it send to the perpetrators of violence against women?" Yasmin Lehri, a former lawmaker from Balochistan province, told DW.

Mukhtar Mai, a women's rights activist and a 2002 gang rape survivor, shares the same view: "Those who commit violence against women are not afraid of legal consequences," she told DW, adding that for most Pakistani men, beating a woman is not even a form of violence. Pakistani society is still entrenched in feudal and tribal customs, she says.

Other activists also blame society's patriarchal attitudes . "Women are taught to obey men, as they have a superior status in the family," said Mahnaz Rehman, a Lahore-based feminist, adding that when a woman demands her rights, she is often subjected to violence.

Shazia Khan, a Lahore-based activist, believes that in certain cases, men feel emboldened by religious teachings.

"Islamic clerics interpret religion in a way that it gives the impression that it allows men to beat women. They also support underage marriages and tell women to obey their husbands even if they are violent toward them," she said, adding that these clerics actually encourage men to commit violence against women.

Many rights activists in Pakistan blame Prime Minister Imran Khan's "victim blaming" for the rise in violence against women in the country.

Last month, the conservative premier faced backlash following his comments that appear to put the blame for sexual abuse on women.

"If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on the men, unless they are robots," Khan said during an interview for documentary-news series Axios, aired by US broadcaster HBO. He proceeded to say that this was "common sense."

Earlier this year, he made similar remarks during a question and answer briefing with the public, suggesting that the rise in sexual violence in Pakistan was due to the lack of "pardah," the practice of veiling, in the country.

"PM Khan and his ministers continue to make anti-women remarks that encourage misogyny, and in a way violence against women, in Pakistan," said activist Shazia Khan.

Former lawmaker Yasmin Lehri believes that Khan's government hasn't done anything to protect women. Instead, she said, the government sent a bill to stop torture against women to Islamic clerics, who have stalled it.

Just like PM Khan, the country's conservative sections, too, blame the "Western culture" for sexual and physical violence against women.

Samia Raheel Qazi, a former parliamentarian, says the recent incidents of violence involve people who have drifted away from Islamic teachings.

"In Noor Mukadam's case, the alleged perpetrator is a Westernized atheist," she told DW, adding that the weakening of the family system amid an onslaught of Western culture in the country is responsible for these crimes.

Lawmaker Kishwar Zehra agrees. "We need to revive our family values to stop these crimes."


Tuesday 3 August 2021

Brutal killing spotlights violence against women in Pakistan

  Noor Mukadam’s last hours were terror-filled. Beaten repeatedly, the 27-year-old jumped from a window but was dragged back, beaten again and finally beheaded. A childhood friend has been charged with her killing.

The gruesome death last week in an upscale neighborhood of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, is the latest in a series of attacks on women in Pakistan, where rights activists say such gender-based assaults are on the rise as the country barrels toward greater religious extremism.

Mukadam was the daughter of a diplomat, and her status as a member of the country’s elite has shone a spotlight on the relentless and growing violence against women in Pakistan, said prominent rights activist Tahira Abdullah. But the majority of women who are victims of such violence are among the country’s poor and middle classes, and their deaths are often not reported or, when they are, often ignored.

“I could give you a list longer than my arm, only in one week” of attacks against women, said Abdullah. “The epidemic of sexual crimes and violence against women in Pakistan is a silent epidemic. No one sees it. No one is talking about it.”

Still, Pakistan’s Parliament this month failed to pass a bill that seeks to protect women from violence in the home, including attacks by a husband. Instead, it asked an Islamic ideology council to weigh in on the measure — the same council that previously said it was OK for a husband to beat his wife.

Data collected from domestic violence hotlines across the country showed a 200% increase in domestic violence between January and March last year, according to a Human Rights Watch report released earlier this year. The numbers were even worse after March, when COVID-19 lockdowns began, according to the report.

In 2020, Pakistan was near the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s global gender index, coming in at 153 of 156 countries, ahead of only Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, which held the last spot despite billions of dollars spent and 20 years of international attention on gender issues there.

Many of the attacks in Pakistan are so-called honor killings, where the perpetrator is a brother, father or other male relative. Each year, more than 1,000 women are killed in this way, many of them unreported, say human rights workers.

“The authorities have failed to establish adequate protection or accountability for abuses against women and girls, including so-called ‘honor killings’ and forced marriage,” according to the HRW report.

Rights groups have been sharply critical of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government, saying he panders to the religious right and excuses the perpetrators of attacks on women.

A former cricket star who has married three times, Khan once had a reputation as a womanizer but has now embraced a conservative Islam. He keeps close ties with a religious ceric who blamed COVID-19 on “the wrongdoing of women.” He once appeared to blame women for attacks by men saying, “if you raise temptation in society ... all these young guys have nowhere to go, it has consequences in the society.”

His information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, says Khan’s statements have been taken out of context and denied violence against women is on the rise, without offering evidence. He said his government encourages women in politics and sports and in provinces where Khan’s party dominates human rights legislation has been strengthened.

“I think this perception is not really close to reality, that in Pakistan women are not safe or maybe that there’s a misogyny in practice in Pakistan,” Chaudhry said in an interview.

Yet last week, one of Khan’s Cabinet ministers, Ali Amin Gandapur, told a rally of thousands of mostly male supporters, that he would “slap and slap” a female opposition political leader.

Last September, a senior police officer blamed a woman who was ambushed and gang raped in front of her two children, saying she should not have been travelling at night and without a man.

Such remarks reflect an increase in ultraconservative and even extremist religious values in Pakistan, said Amir Rana of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies.

The country has seen an explosion of religious organizations and religious political parties, many with extreme beliefs, said Rana, whose organization tracks and documents extremism in Pakistan.

These organizations have tremendous reach in most cities and towns, where they provide services from education to health care, and thus have extensive ability to influence social values, said Rana.

The history of religious extremism in Pakistan is complicated, and Chaudhry, the information minister, argued that America shares responsibility for the role it played in the region in the 1980s. At that time, Pakistan’s military dictator aided by the U.S. used religious fervor to inspire Afghans to fight an invading Soviet Union. Many of those Afghans ended up in Pakistan as refugees.

“And very conveniently now, the U.S. media and U.S. authorities ... blame everything on Pakistan and have left the region,” he said.

But Abdullah, the rights activist, said Pakistan cannot shirk its own responsibility, noting that same dictator, Gen. Mohammad Zia-ul Haq, introduced Islamic laws that, among other things, reduced women’s rights to inheritance, limited the value of their testimony in court and made reporting a rape almost impossible by requiring four male witnesses.

In Mukadam’s assault, police have charged Zahir Jaffar, the son of a wealthy industrialist, with murder. Initial reports say she was killed after spurning his marriage proposal. It’s not clear whether Jaffar has a lawyer.

The brutality of the assault — the attacker used so-called brass knuckles — and the fear that his high social status means he could be freed, galvanized many in Pakistan to speak out. They have held protests and a candlelight vigil and launched a social media campaign #justicefornoor to preempt attempts to use influence and money to whisk the accused out of the country.

In one petition circulating online, the author demanded the country’s judicial system “hold perpetrators of violence responsible. We demand justice. We demand it swiftly. We demand it for Noor. We demand it for all women.”

Zarqa Khan, a student who attended a candlelight vigil for Mukadam, bemoaned how religion now pervades so much of life in Pakistan and how today she fears walking alone on the streets.

“I just didn’t feel safe outside anymore,” said Khan. “And that shouldn’t be the scenario.”