Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The hypocrisy of child abuse in many Muslim countries, by Shaista Gohir

Shaista Gohir says that child marriage and pederasty are tolerated in Muslim societies where homosexuality is strictly condemned. She discusses this chilling phenomenon here.

Some Muslims are fond of condemning western morality – alcoholism, nudity, premarital sex and homosexuality often being cited as examples. But Muslims do not have a monopoly on morality. In the west, child marriages and sex with children are illegal. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Muslim countries.

I recently saw the documentary on the Dancing Boys of Afghanistan. It exposed an ancient custom called "bacha bazi" (boy for play), where rich men buy boys as young as 11 from impoverished families for sexual slavery. The boys are dressed in women's clothes and made to dance and sing at parties, before being carted away by the men for sex. Owning boys is considered a symbol of status and one former warlord boasted of having up to 3,000 boys over a 20-year period, even though he was married, with two sons. The involvement of the police and inaction of the government means this form of child prostitution is widespread.

The moral hypocrisy is outrageous in a country where homosexuality is not only strictly forbidden but savagely punished, even between two consenting adults. However, men who sodomise young boys are not considered homosexuals or paedophiles. The love of young boys is not a phenomenon restricted to Afghanistan; homosexual pederasty is common in neighbouring Pakistan, too. In my view, repression of sexuality and extreme gender apartheid is to blame.

And in the Middle East, it's young girls who are considered desirable and men are able to satisfy their lusts legally through child marriages. In Yemen, more than a quarter of girls are married before the age of 15. Cases of girls dying during childbirth are not unusual, and recently, one 12-year-old child bride even died from internal bleeding following sexual intercourse. In another case, a 12-year-old girl was married to an 80-year-old man in Saudi Arabia.

So why is the practice of child marriage sanctioned in Muslim countries? Unfortunately, ultra-conservative religious authorities justify this old tribal custom by citing the prophet Muhammad's marriage to Aisha. They allege Aisha was nine years old when the prophet married her. But they focus conveniently on selected Islamic texts to support their opinions, while ignoring vast number of other texts and historical information, which suggests Aisha was much older, putting her age of marriage at 19. Child marriage is against Islam as the Qur'an is clear that intellectual maturity is the basis for deciding age of marriage, and not puberty, as suggested by these clerics.

Whatever one's view on the prophet's marriage, no faith can claim moral superiority since child marriages have been practised in various cultures and societies across the world at one time or another. In modern times, though, marrying children is no longer acceptable and no excuse should be used to justify this.

I find the false adherence to Islamic principles and the "holier than thou" attitude of some Muslim societies similar to the blatant hypocrisy and double standards of 19th-century Victorian Britain, where the outward appearance of dignity and prudishness camouflaged an extreme prevalence of sexual and moral depravity behind closed doors. In those days, too, there were many men willing to pay to have sex with children – until a plethora of social movements arose that resulted in changes in laws and attitudes in society.

A similar shift in social attitudes is also required in traditional Muslim societies. Having boy sex slaves or child brides should not be seen as badges of honour. Instead, Muslims need to do more to attach shame to such practices; otherwise, acceptance of this behaviour will make them complicit in the sexual exploitation of children. I fail to understand why Muslims are so vocal on abuses by the west in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Iraq and Afghanistan, but display moral blindness when it comes to children? It's about time this silence was broken, so these violations of innocence can be stopped.

A too-passive attitude in dealing with child abuse has rubbed off on Muslim communities in Britain, too. I have heard many stories at first hand of child sexual abuse and rape, which show that the issue is not being addressed at all. Those who have had the courage to speak out have been met with reactions of denial and shame. Such attitudes mean that children will continue to suffer in silence. Sexual abuse of children happens in all communities, as has been revealed by the recent Catholic church scandal. At least, they have finally started to take action. Muslim communities should learn from this and also start being more open, instead of continuing to sweeping the issue under the carpet.

I am finding that more and more Muslims feel it is their duty to criticise others for actions they consider sinful – quoting the following popular saying of Muhammad to justify their interference:
"If you see something wrong, you should correct it with your hand and if you are unable to, then speak out against it and if you cannot do that, then feel that it is wrong in your heart."
I wonder how, then, Muslims can remain silent when it comes to the sexual abuse of children?

This article was originally printed in The Guardian as an op-ed. You can find it here. Shaista Gohir was a founding member of SAVE in 2008, and until recently served as a member of the National Muslim Women's Advisory Group in the UK. She recently resigned from that post to protest its ineffectiveness. She wrote an op-ed about her decision and the reasons behind it, which you can read here.

For more information about SAVE and Women without Borders, please visit our website at www.women-without-borders.org or send us an email at office@women-without-borders.org.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Power-Hungry Few Exploit Students and Faculty in the Name of Religion, by Arshi Saleem Hashmi

On April 1, students from Punjab University and members of the Islami Jamiat Tulaba attacked Professor Iftikhar Baloch, beating him with metal rods and hitting him over the head with a giant flower pot. Baloch had expelled those students earlier in the month for disruptive activities, and it is assumed that they were taking revenge. Arshi Saleem Hashmi is a Senior Research Analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the National Defense University of Islamabad, and she shares her thoughts regarding this event here.

What happened at Punjab University campus was shameful, and Pakistanis felt insulted and humiliated when a few hooligans under the patronage of the Islami Jamiate Taliba (IJT), a student wing of Jamat-e-Islami seriously injured Professor Baloch on April 1, 2010 because he was against their highhandedness and was vocal against the abuse of university campus for malicious objectives.

There are two important aspects to this unfortunate incident: one, it shows the “power” of the very few radical beings who still believe in a very narrow interpretation of Islam. They feel that they would transform society according to their version of Islam, thus working as the custodians of morality in the Pakistan.

Second, Pakistani society is going through a battle of ideas, between lawlessness and democracy. Intolerance towards different ideas is yet another reason for this kind of behavior, where a minority group using aggression tries to make others accept their ideas—the choice is to accept them or else be ready to face the music. In the past, minority groups like these have been used by the regimes, not just General Zia’s military regime but later on, when democracy arrived in the country in the 1990s, the power and exploitation of these so-called Islamists was not contained by any administration. No substantive effort was taken to control aggression in the name of religion. It was only when Taliban took over Swat and Pakistan had to take a decision whether to continue ignoring this creeping threat of intolerance and extremism or to take action. Only in 2009 did the Parliament approve the motion in favor of military operations in Swat and tribal areas.

A ban on student politics on campus provided the opportunity to utilize this opportunity. Islami Jamiate Taliba posed as an Islamic group so only they remained active on campus while all other student bodies were banned on the pretext that they were affiliated with political parties. IJT’s political affiliation with Jamat-e-Islami was always ignored and nobody dared to ask the legality of their presence on the campus, fearing this might turned the opinion against them. Anybody criticizing an “Islamic organization” was easily branded anti-Islam. I still remember in the 1990s, when I was a student in the Department of International Relations at University of Karachi and Islami Jamiat Taliba was the only organization allowed operating on campus for unknown reasons, I used to loudly criticize the members of IJT for interfering in our personal life, how to conduct ourselves was none of their business. During a student trip to northern areas, when some of the sympathizers tried to separate girls and boys during the outing, I protested and told them not to make this trip a Jamat-e-Islami tour. If the parents of the girls and boys allowed them to go and explore the country for a week, live in hotels and youth hostel, trusting them completely, who were these so called custodians of Islam to check! Moderate Pakistanis, who are the majority of this country, have been fighting for many years now for their right to live peaceful, moderate, and tolerant lives. They are not at all interested in extremism of any kind, but unfortunately we are made hostage of the ideas of the few.

The issue here is that change does not come when a presidential system changes into parliamentary system or a military dictatorship is rejected in favor of democracy. It does mean a lot, but real change only comes when the society at large accepts the very basic ideas of tolerance, interfaith harmony, pluralism and moderation. Enlightment is nothing but having these ideas accepted by every individual of a society; it does not mean that people have to give up on their faith or belief system, but it rather provides an environment to give space to others.

Pakistani society is still confused. Although the majority believes in pluralism and religious harmony, the impression of the past three decades are so deep that it will take time for the majority to break their silence and any religious or political notion based on narrow interpretation will be completely rejected. Right now, there is no support for the radicals, but still—when religion enters the debate, people tend to remain silent rather than raising their voice against wrong interpretation of Islam. Pakistan will get back to its real self, i.e. a moderate Muslim state, when a forceful, collective voice against the abuse of religion in politics will emerge by the people.

Arshi Saleem Hashmi is a founding member of SAVE Pakistan, and she also works as a Senior Research Analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the National Defense University of Islamabad. To read more about the incident with Iftikar Baloch, see the full story published in the New York Times at the following link. The Nation, Pakistan has also been covering this story extensively. You can find their website here. The Dawn Media Group has also followed this story from the beginning. 

To learn more about Women without Borders / SAVE, please visit our website at www.women-without-borders.org or email us at office@women-without-borders.org. You can also find us on Facebook or on Twitter, at www.twitter.com/SAVEalerts!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Yemen as a House, by Nadia al-Sakkaf

Imagine a house that is literally falling apart. The windows are broken, rain leaks through the ceiling, and the furniture is worn out.

Imagine that this house is the responsibility of a man who cares only about himself. He has a nice room in this house which is air-conditioned and maintained very nicely. He has no idea about who is in the house and who is not. He does not even know the number of children who live there or their names. He does not care whether they go to school or not, whether they have eaten or gone to sleep hungry. He could care less about their health or wellbeing. He isolates himself in his nice room and interacts with the neighbors as if everything is fine.

But the children are tired, distressed, and some of them have gone astray. Some have dropped out of school, and some become drug addicts. Some have become bullies and are terrorizing the younger ones to obey their orders. Some are trying to live a decent life and are trying to keep it together, but they are fragmented and lack resources. They are afraid if the man of the house sees that they are grouping the children around them that he would feel threatened and think that they want to take his place and his very nice room.

Now imagine that this man has a rich next door neighbor. The neighbor sees that this house is falling apart and suspects that through the cracks a terrorist has entered this damaged house and is lurking among the poor children, waiting for an opportunity to jump into the rich man’s house and influence his own children.

The rich man cannot risk having a terrorist living next door, and he is haunted by this threat. He can’t sleep and his family repeatedly reminds him that he should do something about this problem.

The rich man goes to the neighbor and says:

“I have reason to believe that your house is a haven for a terrorist. My sources and intelligence show that he is among your children. I am concerned that this terrorist will come and threaten my interests or blow up my house. I need you to get rid of it.”
The selfish man says:
“But I am poor. I can’t do it. Look... I have too many children. I don’t have time for this. I have to feed them, and I have too many broken chairs I need to repair and we have no water and the power will be disconnected soon as we have not paid the bill…”
The rich man responds:
“I will give you money, you just make sure you get rid of this terrorist or I will!”
So the man goes inside the house. He looks around and starts to shout at his children: “One of you is a terrorist and I will find out who.” He turns the children against each other. He promises that the person who tells on the “terrorist or thief” will get a nice reward from the many treasures hidden in his room. He also beats them up to make them speak, and he destroys what little furniture is there. He disrupts the life the children were trying to make for themselves, but eventually he does find the terrorist and hands him over to the rich neighbor with a grin.

In the process of hunting down the threat, this man has terrified and angered many of the children who were not involved in this issue. They decided they don’t like how they are treated. Someone from inside and others through the window start saying that they should do something about it. And although the head of the house has captured one terrorist, he has created many more in the process.

The children are unhappy, the neighbor is unhappy, and the man is using their mutual annoyance to make more money.

The riddle is: What should be done to make things right? Please send me your suggestions. I really want to know.

Nadia al-Sakkaf is the Editor-in-Chief of the Yemen Times, the most widely-read English language newspaper in Yemen. She is an active advocate for SAVE, and has been instrumental in exposing the issue of child brides in Yemen to international  media. Al-Sakkaf was awarded with the first Gebran Tueni Award for journalistic integrity and demonstrated excellence in leadership, managerial, and professional standards. The Yemeni Times is considered one of the strongest forces in Yemen today for checking government corruption and influencing public policy. 

For more information on news from Yemen, please visit the Yemen Times. To learn more about SAVE and our role in Yemen, please email us at office@women-without-borders.org.

You can follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SAVEalerts and join us on Facebook at
Women without Borders and Sisters Against Violent Extremism.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mothers as Counterterrorism Agents, by Fahmia al-Fotih'

Fahmia al-Fotih', the SAVE Yemen coordinator, wrote this essay to explain the role of SAVE Yemen in combating violent extremism in her country. Even though Yemen has recently received international criticism for its high rate of child brides, Fahmia sees women, and especially women as mothers, as vital agents against radicalization in the home. For more information, email the SAVE Global team at office@women-without-borders.org.

I always meet people who are skeptical about women’s role to stand against violent extremism, and they cannot comprehend the mission of SAVE: having women combat terrorism and extremism thinking. The first thought that comes to most of them that SAVE aims to have combatants or women in military to fight terrorists on the ground. In fact, the Yemeni government already has a Counter-Terrorism unit that consists of a number of qualified female soldiers, which greatly help in capturing terrorists who are disguised in women clothes.

However, when I explain the innovative idea of SAVE to counter terrorism via women (educated and uneducated alike) from their homes and their immediate surroundings through spreading peace, tolerance, and non-violence culture while raising up their offspring, a kind of relief could be seen then on their faces. The idea of working from home and with children just fits the mentality of majority of Yemeni men who do not prefer to see women working in public life. Therefore, many have already expressed their readiness to join and support SAVE work in Yemen.

Keeping in mind that Yemeni women might not discuss politics much, and their attitudes and opinions might be greatly shaped by the male figures in their lives (like their fathers, husbands, or brothers) as well as the fact that the majority of them are illiterate (which in turn excludes them from the public domain), I myself was skeptical about talking to uneducated mothers who might not have an ability to discuss terrorism and extremism or comprehend the threats posed by extremism and terrorism. Yet having conversations with simple uneducated women proved that I was wrong!

Meeting with uneducated ordinary women, I have found out that there are women who are well aware of extremism and terrorism as a phenomenal threat to us and the ways that extremists utilize to trap the very young people into their ideologies. Better than any counterterrorism expert, those women have well explained the techniques of the extremists and the attractions they have, and those women have highlighted the reasons that make the young people vulnerable to falling in their hands.

Needless to say, a mother is usually the closest person to her kids, which enables her to have a great influence on them. She is the one who could first closely observe the early warning signals of change in her kids’ behavior that might result in traveling down into the path of extremism and terrorism. If we aim to defeat extremist thinking in the bud, it would be very wise and essential to empower and work with those uneducated Yemeni mothers.

It is true that the public domain is confined for Yemeni men yet women have a lot to do in their private sphere. Here in Yemen, the majority of women are full-time housewives whose work centers basically around household chores and taking care of their children. Unlike fathers, who are either emigrants or spend much time working outside, mothers have chance to have more time with their kids and have more influence too. Hence the women have more opportunities to shape their kids’ attitudes among which accepting the other, tolerance and rejecting violence and terrorism. Yet, more support and empowerment should be provided for these women in order to arm them with the necessary skills and knowledge that enable them to adequately and effectively challenge the extremism ideologies.

More importantly, due to the unique Yemeni social structure where social relations are remarkably very strong, woman has an ability to spread the foundations of peace and tolerance beyond her home. She can freely move from a neighbor’s house to another, an advantage that Yemeni man does not have (for instance, that’s why in most population census, women are preferred to go and knock on the households’ doors). For example, it is normal to see a daily crowd of women sitting in one house chatting, chewing Qat, or attending a religious lecture, wedding party, or any social occasion.

To put it in a nutshell, if the counterterrorism experts just recognize the potential and the capabilities that women possess, which then could be effectively utilized in countering terrorism, uprooting, and drying its sources, they would save more money, time and energy in their efforts.

Last but not least, unquestionably no one competes with the mothers in their worries and fears about their kids. Hence, protecting and preventing the young people from travelling down into the path of radicalization is placed in the hands of these loving, committed mothers.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Our Lost South Asian Identity and the Roots of Present Day Extremism in Pakistan, by Arshi Saleem Hashmi

Pakistan is undoubtedly going through tough times; many of the troubles that Pakistan is facing are due to the policies we adopted deliberately and unwillingly as they were imposed from the outside. The remnants of the “jihad” which began after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and appeared as the modern global jihad in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan’s border areas near Afghanistan have made the whole world hostage to the irrational agenda.

With the “Islamization” of Pakistan in 1980s, we have become an increasingly ideological state. However, at that time there was no single definition available to explain what Islamization was or what it would look like in Pakistan. With a number of sects and varied types of “Islam,” the Deobandi school of thought became the official theology to consult for theoretical explanations. With its close resemblance to Saudi Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia became a major patron and ideological influence, even though a majority of Pakistanis were and still are adherents of the Brelvi/Sufi tradition of Islam.

The Arabist shift from Pakistan’s Indo-Persian culture was confused with Islamization process, which in turn led to a monolithic world view derived from Islamic orthodoxy, and soon after became the guiding principle for radical young minds in Pakistan. Domestic and international politics as well as societal issues are articulated in purely religious idioms. Instead of emphasizing the notion of Pakistan as a nation-state based on cultural and religious pluralism, ideas like Islamic universalism, militancy, and “Islam versus the other” are highlighted by radical religious groups. This process has affected the psyche of the whole nation.

The Zia regime linked Arabism with Islam, not realizing or deliberately ignoring the fact that Islam is a religion, while “Arabism” is more of a cultural notion. “Islamization” of the society through “Arabization” was considered the right policy, however. Ignoring Pakistan’s South Asian culture and imposing Arab culture instead created both confusion and a vacuum, and that vacuum was filled by radical ideas and extremism. Pakistani society got confused about its identity and in its bid to link itself with Arab culture, it lost its own South Asian identity.

A little example is the head cover or scarf. Pakistani women traditionally wear a big shawl—some cover their head, and some don’t. In undivided India, there was a culture of wearing the Burqa (veil), but the typical Arab head scarf has never been the practice. With the Arabist shift, women started to show their links with Arab culture by wearing a head scarf. Similarly, many men started growing a Middle Eastern-style beard, like the style of beard that most men in the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries sport.

There is nothing wrong in one’s personal choices regarding culture or head scarves, but when they are imposed from the top down and do not evolve at the grassroots level, these policies create confusion and lack social acceptability. That is why once the Islamization process stopped and Pakistan decided to become an ally of the US after 9/11, Pakistani society suddenly accepted their “freedom” and immediately started expressing the traditional norms and cultural practices from before, including religious pilgrimages to the shrines of Sufi saints.

When people see cultural activities that are Islamic in nature but culturally-specific, they assume that these are new phenomena emerging now in Pakistan. No, actually until the 1970s we were happy with the way we were—culturally, religiously, and politically. It was in 1980s that our identity was crushed and a foreign identity was imposed upon us, and at that time we were told that we had to abandon our links with South Asia if we wanted to achieve the highest level of religious purity. Similarly, the culture of civil society, like literary clubs, sports, art, theater, music, movies and literary clubs, has all been there in Pakistan previously. It is not as though we never tasted these things before and are now being introduced to these things. For a period of more than 20 years in our history, we were denied our right to feel proud of being South Asian.

Pakistan at present faces the challenge of reinventing itself both at the state and societal level. But more so, it needs to have a top down approach to reform, reconstructing the conceptual and ideological orientation of Pakistan to undo the official enforcement of a particular sect of Islam. If the society appears indifferent about the nature of religiosity, it is not because people want it the way things are today, but there is a great deal of confusion about Pakistani culture and religion. This confusion can only be removed if steps are taken officially to de-radicalize our society through an education syllabus, media programs, and the growth of free intellectual discourse on religion and cultural nature of the society in Pakistani context.

The real clash in Pakistan is not between Islam and the West as projected, but between the orthodox and the moderates. The key question is, “How far will the new generation change our society from the one lost to orthodoxy and militancy?” Pakistan’s inability to control radicalization limits its capacity to engage in a sustained effort to control extremism and terrorism, and we must struggle to revive the pluralist and tolerant spirit of Pakistan.

I believe that when people are given the right and the space to express their cultural identity, it contributes to the evolution of the society in general and keeps a balance between various ethnic, religious, and political groups.

Now the small minority who calls itself the “best of the best Muslim,” and hence wants to purify the society from the “ills” of non-Muslims, are very small percentage of our society. But they have made a hostage of our society because they are brutal and they have weapons—they do not care if they kill a child, a woman, or an old person. We all hope, however, that with the military operations in our country and a newly-adopted government policy against extremism of all kinds, we will soon regain our lost identity which is very dear to all of us, which is the identity of Pakistan, a moderate, South Asian Muslim country.

For more information on Pakistan’s culture, Arshi suggests that you visit the following website:  

Arshi Saleem Hashmi is a Senior Research Analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the National Defense University of Islamabad. Arshi is also a member of SAVE, Sisters Against Violent Extremism, and is helping create a chapter there to mobilize and empower women to fight violent extremism and radicalization.

For more information about SAVE or its parent organization, Women without Borders, please visit our website at
www.women-without-borders.org or write us an email at office@women-without-borders.org

Flash Points: Edit Schlaffer presents SAVE on CBS