Sarkozy’s Burqa Ban

Note: I will hereafter refer to the “burqa” as “niqab” which is the Arabic term for the face-covering. For more information see here.

That the niqab is not mandated by Islam has nothing to do with Sarko’s right to ban it. Many Muslims have expressed acceptance of or even outright support for Sarko’s move stating that the niqab is a bedaa (something that was not actually practiced by the Prophet Muhammad PBUH but is a later invention wrongly made in the name of Islam). Some Muslims also agree that the niqab is an imposition of extremists on our moderate religion in an attempt to control women. Those women who freely choose to wear it are dismissed by both Sarko and his supporters – Muslim or otherwise – as brainwashed, oppressed, extremists, or people who surrendered rather than fought for their rights and thus are unworthy of our support for their rights.

I happen to agree that the niqab is not mandated by Islam, the Qur’an and the sunnah (the Prophet Muhammad’s traditions and sayings) are clear on the hijab (head-covering) and say nothing about covering the face. An ongoing debate now is whether those women who choose to wear it get “extra points” for their devotion to God – for wanting nothing from this life and wanting everything from the next – or whether they are actually committing sin by isolating themselves from society and painting a negative misrepresentation of Islam. The latter argument may be true in a country like France, where niqabis are almost necessarily isolated and cannot work or participate in community acivities.

But in Egypt I know firsthand that the argument doesn’t apply.

Just 2 weeks ago I was on a work trip to Aswan to visit some youth centres and interview some of their participants. One of those I interviewed was a niqabi woman who used to be the head of the centre’s Youth Parliament – voted in the position by her colleagues (both girls and boys) – and after a few years was given a management role in the centre. Her daily work entailed working with and managing both men and women. During my interview with her we talked, we laughed, she was funny and clever and when one of her subordinates – a man – informed her that he hadn’t completed one of his tasks, she let him know he better get his act together. Not seeing her face was not a problem at all. I could see her eyes, I could hear her voice, and as Egyptians in general we like to talk with our hands, what more do I need to have a conversation? During the interview a male colleague of hers joined us, and they laughingly reminesced about their days together in the youth parliament (when she was leading him).

Granted, this type of story is not exactly probable in France, and women in France may choose to don the niqab for very different reasons than women in Egypt do. But that shouldn’t matter! People’s reasons for dressing a certain way is personal and completely irrelevant to the debate, which is a debate about RIGHTS. The point here is: Citizens have the right to wear whatever they want in public (minus walking around naked). Governments should not have the right to interfere in what people wear in public.

Sarko’s comments render the supposedly democratic French government no different than the Saudi Arabian or Iranian governments in their belief that government has the right to judge what people can and cannot wear. How can we in good concience argue so vehemently against Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s strict dress codes and then accept Sarko’s move just because we don’t like the niqab? Anybody noticing a double-standard here??

Many Sarko supporters are using the well-worn argument “if a woman wears skimpy clothing in Saudi Arabia or Iran they get punished for it”. Is that really what the French people aspire for their government to be?


June 30, 2009 Posted by | International Affairs, Islam | 7 Comments

Microcredit: Panacea for Poverty or Just Another Buzzword?

In 2006 Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus proclaimed that he had found the panacea that will cure the world of poverty whereby “the only place you would be able to see poverty is in the poverty museums”. This panacea was none other than the age-old concept of providing loans to those who need it, with one important addition: these loans would be exceptionally small in size, and would be provided to the poor. This type of loan ultimately became known as “micro-loans” or “microcredit”.

Microcredit in Egypt is said to range on average between EGP 100 to EGP 3000 and is generally provided by international donors (USAID and Ford Foundation being the largest), the Egyptian Social Fund for Development through NGOs and development banks, and commercial banks. Almost all of the NGO-based micro-lending offers other social services in conjunction with credit such as training for hygiene and health, literacy classes, and skills-building classes. Group savings, which are today formally known within the microfinance field as Revolving Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs), have been present in Egypt for decades. Local moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates and are known for their exploitation of the poor have also been present for years in Egypt’s informal economy. Overall, microcredit is nothing new to the Egyptian poor, but has been largely informal which may have contributed to its limited efficacy.

However, sustainable poverty-alleviation involves so much more than pushing people slightly above the poverty line; it implies a certain degree of independence and freedom. The non-poor have the freedom to obtain a loan should they wish to do so, which is a very different situation from relying on loans as a means of subsistence. Comparing this notion of poverty-alleviation to the actual benefits of micro-credit, an obvious gap can be seen. Poverty is a result of complex historical and economic processes; to even begin to tackle poverty one must look at the legacy of illiteracy, environmental degradation, dependency, economic exploitation, political marginalization and repression, and many other factors. Claiming that a slight increase in income will eradicate poverty is a wildly simplistic approach that views poverty through a strictly monetary lens.

Furthermore, claiming that the poor who obtain these loans will have access to markets and an ever-expanding enterprise is an incredibly naïve assumption. One can immediately see a problem with the assumption of zero-barriers to entry to markets and that micro-enterprises will be able to compete against multinational powerhouses. The idea of micro-credit being a sustainable mechanism for job creation is flawed, for most of these micro-enterprises are in the informal sector.

However, this criticism should not detract from its importance to the actual loan recipients. Many loan recipients – most of whom are women – truly rely on the income they make from the micro-enterprises they have started. They rely on this income to feed and educate their children. Many women are given literacy and budget-design classes in conjunction with the loans they receive. Economic theory portrays the free-market system as instantaneously efficient. However, reality always necessitates a time-lag between the “trickle-down” phenomenon and harsh day-to-day circumstances. Moreover, in environments of shallow poverty, a little extra income, while it may not remove poverty entirely, goes a long way. Micro-credit is definitely not a panacea for poverty, but its positive effects should not be ignored. Thus, micro-credit should not be used as a long-term poverty alleviation tool, but rather as a stop-gap measure to ease the burden of poverty, and to fill in development time-lags. Both its benefits and limitations must be taken into consideration when designing poverty-alleviation projects.

This article first appeared in the May issue of the Ibn Khaldun Centre’s Civil Society Newsletter.

June 24, 2009 Posted by | Development | Leave a comment

All Eyes on Iran

This is breathtaking. Estimates say that 1-2 million people were there. The protests are still going on and will probably continue despite the pro-Ahmedinejad Guardian Council’s agreement to re-count. CNN had only minor coverage until Twitter users shamed them but using the hashtag #CNNFail which became a top trending topic that day. Since then CNN has been covering the protests extensively and even set up a webpage just for the Iran election. People are speaking of a cyber-revolution and are marvelling at the active role Twitter users have played, some staying up all night just to desemminate messages coming from inside Iran. Iranian government has attempted to block almost every online information-dessemination tool, and protesters have managed to find workdarounds almost everytime with the help of tech-savvy twitter users.

The question of whether or not the election was truly rigged is not one that we can answer for sure at this point. I agree that it is “curious” that Moussavi lost in his hometown and lost Azerbaijan even though he’s Azeri. This in addition to the many irregularities that have been pointed out (lost ballots, speed of anouncing results, immense number and diversity of those protesting the outcome, etc.) But it is not impossible for Ahmedinejad to have won. That is up to the Iranian people to decide.

Which is why I am satisfied with Obama’s relative silence on this matter. This situation provided ample opporunity to sensationalize the situation using Bush-esque rhetoric along the lines of “the Iranian people are following our example of democracy because they want to be free like us, we must support them or else the scary Muslims terrorists will win”.  Expectedly, it is the right-wing neocon republicans (yes, I realize those are all somewhat synonymous) that are criticizing Obama the most for not speaking up.

I don’t know how this situation will turn out. Nobody knows, despite those who may claim otherwise. A line was crossed the day the conflict turned violent – with several videos emerging on YouTube of unarmed civilians being shot (reportedly by Basij militia) and killed for no apparent reason. There has been a sudden increase in overnight Iran experts, and predictions are as varied as they come (e.g. a ballot recount that forces protesters to accept Nejad as winner and stop protesting, a power-sharing agreement between Nejad and Moussavi, an all-out revolution toppling the current regime, etc.). A key point is that the protests are slowly shifting away from a pro-Moussavi affair and towards an anti-Khamenei movement. This raises the question of whether even a power-sharing agreement would be enough to quell the protesters.

Related reading:

You can follow Tweets coming from Iran in real-time through http://iran.twazzup.com/

Article by Ibrahim Eissa (Arabic) http://dostor.org/ar/content/view/25133/64/

Article arguing that the Iran situation is an intra-Islamist conflict, and not a struggle between Islam and Western Secularism (English) http://arabicsource.wordpress.com/2009/06/20/what-islamist-backlash/

Op-Ed in NYT by Roger Cohen describing his experience there (English) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/21/opinion/21tehran.html?th&emc=th

An overview of the Iran situation by al-Masry al-Youm journalist Joseph Mayton (English) http://bit.ly/148gXl

Videos of the protests http://www.mideastyouth.com/2009/06/20/round-up-of-todays-protests-in-iran-from-youtube/

Op-ed in NYT about use of Twitter in the Iran protests http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/21/weekinreview/21cohenweb.html?_r=2

June 16, 2009 Posted by | International Affairs, Media/Press | Leave a comment

On the 2009 6th of April protest (better late than never!)

The use of the internet for political mobilization and facilitating citizens’ access to information has been steadily increasing in Egypt. Several Egyptian bloggers have seen massive increases in readership after waves of arrests over the course of the past few years. International media organizations have taken an interest in the phenomenon of online activism in Egypt and profiled many Egyptian bloggers. Many have come to obtain the majority of their updates on current affairs from Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and online news services such as GlobalVoicesOnline.

The 6 of April Youth Movement has further reinforced the notion that the internet has become a foremost means of youth activism in Egypt. This especially rang true after the first 6 of April strike in 2008 which was by most accounts a success. According to al-Jazeera English, “the power of online activists reached its height in 2008 when they backed a call for a strike at a textile mill, urging nation-wide civil disobedience…which resulted in deadly riots”. Many agree that it is precisely because the strike originated with the textile workers, and only later gave birth to the online 6 of April Movement, that it saw such strong participation. In 2009, on the other hand, the call to strike was made by the 6 of April Youth themselves online and through posters, rather than backing an already existing citizen protest.

However, opinions as to the success/failure of this year’s strike vary widely. Egyptian writer Belal Fadl waxes poetic about the 6 of April youth, stating that that the mere attention this year’s strike received both in terms of media coverage and government mobilization of security forces is an indicator of its success. Others disagree, such as the Egyptian state press who gloat about the failure of the strike, and many in the opposition press who acknowledge the weakness of this year’s participation. Well-known blog “The Arabist” goes even further by advising Egyptian opposition activists to distance themselves from the movement, stating that “Egypt’s activists and opposition politicians are discrediting themselves if they make a big deal about a day of protests that most don’t even participate in – and no, joining a Facebook group does not count”.

It may be true that internet activism is becoming a central means for Egyptian youth to become politically and socially active. However, the weak participation in this year’s strike is a strong indicator of what internet activism is not: namely, the new form of activism for the Egyptian masses. In a country where it is estimated that only 15% of the population are regular internet users it is clear that merely issuing an online call for a nation-wide strike is not enough to gain broad citizen support. This year’s strike makes it unabashedly clear that it is not sufficient for a marginal disgruntled middleclass to claim to speak on behalf of the discontented masses. Rather, equitable social change is instigated only when all segments of society are equal participants with equal voice.

This is an edited version of the original article which appeared in the April issue of the Civil Society Nesletter published by the Ibn Khaldun Centre

June 12, 2009 Posted by | Egyptian Affairs, Media/Press | Leave a comment

The Revolutionary Jad Choeiry? I think not.

The first thing that came to mind when I started watching Jad Choeiri’s new video was “why is he rapping in English?” followed by, “why is he rapping at all?” Let’s set aside the fact that the song sounds how I imagine 50 Cent would sound if he were to attempt to sing a Celine Dion song: it just doesn’t work. The video screams “inferiority complex”.

What exactly is the point of including Logic, the rapper? Is that supposed to add some kind of credibility to Jad’s horrible rapping skills? FYI Jad, just because he’s African-American doesn’t automatically mean he can rap. Let’s get one thing straight: yelling “everybody, on your feet” doesn’t exactly make this guy Tupac, alright?

Jad sings oh-so-eloquently about how his song is going to provide “an Arabic touch with a modern sense”. So I guess by this logic then anything that is not shisha-smoking men staring at half naked women gyrating for their entertainment is not modern? Any Arabs who are not “sexy girls” or “funky Arabs turning you on” are, I guess, backwards and uncivilized.

Speaking of naked gyrating women, I’m willing to bet that Jad’s been receiving thank-you letters for fulfilling every Orientalist’s fantasy through that scene with the woman belly-dancing for a group of men. Apparently Jad sees women, or perhaps only Arab women in particular, as no more than half-naked, Botox-shooting, mindless beings? Sadly, the picture he paints of Arab men is no more flattering.

So the benevolent Jad is dispelling the bomber stereotype by replacing it with the harem stereotype, the rich-Arab-with-money-to-burn stereotype, and the inferior-Arab-grovelling-for-western-approval stereotype.
Keep up the good work, Jad.

June 9, 2009 Posted by | Media/Press, Personal | 3 Comments

Not Another Post on Obama’s Cairo Speech

Since I have been hearing/reading/talking about nothing but commentary and analysis on the infamous Cairo speech, I simply cannot bear to talk about it anymore. I will summarize my opinion by saying the following:

The speech was OK. To those saying it was amazing: it was not. To those saying Obama is going to make everything better: He will not. If you were listening with your emotions, you heard only the ubiquitous quotes from the Qur’an, the attempts to speak Arabic (success with “Salam Aleikum”, failure with “Hajeeb”), and Obama scratching our bellies with all the talk about Islamic civilization. But in case you hadn’t noticed, those amount to nothing but rhetoric. These sentences say nothing about practical steps or changes. I will, however, grant that the substantial changes in the rhetoric from the Bush administration are positive and downright refreshing. And I did get a few giggles from imagining Bush trying to say the word “rectitude” probably suffering a brain aneurysm in the process. I appreciated the mention of hijabis not being oppressed by their headscarves, but rather (some are oppressed) by lack of education, poverty etc. Even though this may not amount to much on the agendas of feminists (Islamic or otherwise), I appreciated this because I am sick and tired of the “we will save you from your oppressive environment by removing your headscarf ” mantra espoused by many feminists, and the “I removed by headscarf and was magically liberated” soundbyte repeated by Manji-esque “enlightened Muslims” who are giving the “inside scoop” because hey, they’re Muslims, so they know what it’s REALLY like. But I digress.

I like the use of the word “occupation” when describing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict just because it has never been used before by American government. But in terms of substance, Obama offered nothing that hasn’t been said before by Bush. Obama even gave us a history lesson on the Holocaust as if somehow that has something to do with us. As if because Jews in Europe suffered a terrible tragedy, Arabs in Palestine have to pay the price, and we’re supposed to not only let it happen, but see it as their right.

Well, I said that I wouldn’t write a post about my own sentiments and I went ahead and did just that. Since I don’t have the patience to write about this anymore (and I really should get back to work before they fire me), I provide the below links that give analyses of the speech:

Noam Chomsky http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/06/04-16

Robert Fisk http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-words-that-could-heal-wounds-of-centuries-1697417.html

Egyptian blogger Zeinobia http://egyptianchronicles.blogspot.com/2009/06/obama-speech-what-i-think.html

Ali Abunimah at the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jun/04/barack-obama-middleeast

BBC’s report on citizen coverage of the speech via Twitter http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8083476.stm

In the end, what bothered me most is the extreme reactions given by some people on either side. Those praising the speech for all its amazingness saying that finally the world will become a better place thanks to Obama, and those declaring the speech as complete rubbish and decrying Obama as a war criminal. Let’s keep in mind that Obama is part of a political machine, whether he is with it or against it. He is already being torn apart by right-wing neocons and Zionists. He’s a smart guy, he doesn’t want to get voted out in 4 years. Obama is a strategist, he knows what he can get away with and which battles are worth fighting.

June 8, 2009 Posted by | International Affairs | 2 Comments