Can the eternal victim ever be empowered?

This article was originally published at BikyaMasr.com

In the intellectually bankrupt world of dichotomies we seem to be living in, the issue of empowerment of women is caught in the middle of a reductionist whirlpool just like every other complex multi-layered issue. Women are either eastern or western (posing interesting identity politics for those of us who are both), they are either oppressed or liberated, and when they are oppressed, they are either eternal victims or they are themselves to blame for their own oppression.

The world has had a strange victim fetish for as long as injustice has existed, and it is by no means exclusive to the realm of the portrayal of women. During the recent Egypt/Algeria scandal we saw this fetish manifest itself in the opinion that the thugs who vandalized and bullied others are just poor Egyptians who have no other outlet for their frustration. As if they are so victimized that they have contracted some irrepressible urge to act as hooligans. The same pattern can be detected when analyzing rhetoric surrounding economic development. For years the dominant development paradigm was based on a theory called “dependency theory”. This theory posits that many nations are underdeveloped because they have been victims of colonization, which is true, but the theory takes it one step further by claiming that their victimization is so extensive that they are no longer capable of even participating in their own development.

When it comes to women, this pattern of thought is alive and stronger than ever. Whether its the cliche Hollywood damsel in distress, or the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim women by the media as oppressed downtrodden souls, the world is always looking for someone to save, liberate, or enlighten. This worldview becomes especially problematic when speaking of women’s empowerment because a belief in chronic victimhood directly conflicts with the notion of self-empowerment. And there is not an issue that stands in the way of women’s empowerment today that can be solved without their own initiative.

The issue of sexual harassment in Egypt provides a prime example. Those who aren’t busy denying sexual harassment usually explain it using one of many predictably simplistic approaches. There’s the camp that feels sorry for the male perpetrators of harassment and blames the female victims for somehow bringing on this abnormal behavior. And there’s the camp that acknowledges the issue, but sees women as the silent victim who can do nothing but wait for the problem to be solved by somebody else.

I am not pointing this out because I am against providing explanations for such a phenomenon. Quite the contrary, I believe that understanding the root causes of any problem is crucial before we can find a solution. What worries me is that such a simplistic perception of a complex phenomenon necessarily results in ineffective solutions.

Consequentially, the “blame the victim” camp, rather than advocating for the education of men, advocates to place restrictions on women so as to avoid posing any temptations to potential perpetrators. On the other side of the coin, the “eternal victim” camp believes women should not speak up against harassment but should rather suffer in silence and wait for somebody else to do the talking. Interestingly, many (and I dare say most) women subscribe to these opinions just as often as men do.

It is important to acknowledge and admit the sad state that many women find themselves in today before we can ever hope to alleviate these horrible circumstances. The problem is that oftentimes the victimhood of women is talked about, and then talked about some more, and then it turns into a kind of obsession. By the time we begin to talk about solutions it’s time to go home.

Any strategy for long-term empowerment must have two wings: the outcome wing and the process wing. Even though the intended outcomes may be economic, social, or cultural, the process must necessarily be political in order for it to be sustainable, and this can never be achieved without the full commitment and active participation of women.


January 22, 2010 Posted by | Development, Egyptian Affairs, International Affairs, Media/Press | Leave a comment

Really Interesting Film: White Girl

Bafta award-winning White Girl is about a white non-Muslim family that moves to an area in the UK populated by Muslims. Really interesting, watch it!

October 5, 2009 Posted by | International Affairs, Islam, Media/Press | 1 Comment

Random Thoughts on History Repeating Itself

From the book “Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes” by Tamim Ansary, describing the spread of Islam during the Ummayad dynasty:

Another shadow haunted the conscience of the Islamic world as well. Muslim sacred history was problematically rich with anecdotes about the simple, rugged lifestyle of the founders. Their simplicity and humbleness went to the very essence of their appeal as religious figures. Inevitably, therefore, a feeling started percolating in the lower reaches of this new society that something about all this splendor wasn’t right. This prosperous, pleasure-plump society could not be what Allah had meant when he charged Mohammad with establishing a just community devoted to worship of the one God. Of course, the richer you were, the less likely that such considerations would trouble your dreams. For the poor, however, tales of luxury at court and the sight of perfumed Arab noblemen riding through the streets clad in silk had to evoke comparisons with Mohammad’s simple blanket folded four times to provide both mattress and cover, and Khalifa Omar at his cobbler’s bench, mending his own shoes. Add to all this the odor left by the way in which the Ummayad’s came to power, a process that had generated two enduring opposition movements, the Shi’a and the Kharijites….

Inevitably, the one mapped onto the other. Persians began to embrace Shi’ism, and Shi’ite agitators began looking to the Persian east for recruits. When the two currents mingled, rebellion began to bubble. It bubbled ever harder the further east one traveled, for Umayyad police power ran ever thinner in that direction, while anti-Arab sentiment mounted ever higher. One day, around 120 AH, a mysterious man blew into the city of Merv … almost fifteen hundred miles east of Damascus… He went by the handle Abu Muslim… In truth, Abu Muslim was a professional revolutionary, dispatched to Merv by a secretive underground group based in Iraq, a group called the Hashimites. This group was a cross between a cult adn a political party, whose core membership probably never exceeded thirty. …This was just one of many angry little hard-core bands of antigovernment conspirators active at this time, all preaching some version of the same message: the comunity had fallen off the track, history had gone off course, the Mesenger’s mission had been subverted, and toppling the Umayyads and empowering a member of the Prophet’s family in their stead would set everything right again. Let me note that this narrative has been reinvented again and again in the Muslim world over the course of history, and some version of it is being recited even today, by revolutionaries who have substituted “the West” for “the Umayyads”.

The above passage made me think:

1) Muslims have been a burden on Islam pretty much since the end of the Khulafaa Rashidun (or some may argue since the end Sayyidna Omar’s rule). Classism, decadence and corruption have been rampant ever since and the true message of Islam is slowly getting lost among the mass of Muslims.

2) History has a scary way of repeating itself – whether it’s the decadence and corruption of Muslim regimes in the East or Western colonial ambitions coupled with orientalist fantasies and ideas about an imminent clash of civilizations in the West. They say one of the definitions of madness is repeating the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Anyone notice a pattern here?

3) According to a Sheikh I was speaking with recently, this pattern of the Muslim community consistently “falling off the track”  has led to the many Islamic scholars accross history who believed that the poor condition of the Muslim ummah can only be a sign that something must be fundamentally wrong with the Aqida (creed) of the Muslims. Instead of seeing things for what they are – that a corrupt Muslim is simply a Muslim who has stopped practicing the Sharia the way it should practiced – these scholars sought to “reinvent the wheel” so to speak, by revisiting some of the core issues in the Islamic creed, such as Ibn Taymiyyah and later Muhammad Abdel Wahab (who led to Wahhabism).

I have only recently started reading about Ibn Taymiyyah so I can’t say for sure whether I agree with this Sheikh’s theory or not, but it is definitely an interesting point.

Another passage from the book, describing the same period in history:

Mainstream Western histories usually praise this process. The Umayyads introduced that wonderful quality called stability to the civilized world. Stability enabled farmers to plan next year’s crop. It enabled businessment to invest in long-term projects. It encouraged students to enter upon long courses of study with confidence that what they learned would still apply by the time they graduated. Stability gave scholars the freedom to lose themselves in study and dig deep into the mysteries of nature without having to worry that their families were meanwhile getting killed by thugs. All this came at a price however, the usual price of stability, which ensures that whatever is the case one day is even more the case the next day. The rich got richer. The poor increased in numbers. Cities with magnificent architecture sprangup, but so did vast slums sunk in squalid poverty. Justice became a commodity only the rich could afford.

(Emphasis mine.)

This particular situation is being repeated today almost word for word. So-called stability in Egypt is often praised for allowing for long-term investments and businesses to open up. Politicians point to the rise in foreign investment, trade, services (for the rich only, of course), and magnificent suburban communities (mostly gated, of course, so as not to be disturbed by the slums across the street). The rich are getting richer, and poor are getting poorer and increasing in numbers. “Justice is a commodity only the rich can afford” only the rich would dare dispute the truth of this statement. The West praises these “successes”. In fact, stability has been probably the main argument used by the Egyptian regime to dissuade Western governments from pushing for democracy: If you want democracy, you just might get another Hamas or Hezbollah in Egypt. You have to choose: democracy or stability in the Middle East.

The Prophet (Salla Allahu Alaihi Wa Sallam) said:

“When the most wicked member of a tribe becomes its ruler, and the most worthless member of a community becomes its leader, and a man is respected through fear of the evil he may do, and leadership is given to people who are unworthy of it, expect the Last Hour”

August 21, 2009 Posted by | Egyptian Affairs, International Affairs, Islam | , , , | 12 Comments

Islam in America: Great Series by al-Jazeera

August 10, 2009 Posted by | International Affairs, Islam, Media/Press | Leave a comment

American Christian Spends 30 Days as a Muslim

Very interesting series!

Of course there were some ridiculous parts, like the way the narrator kept saying “they must follow the rules of halaal” which literally means “they must follow the rules of permissible”. I mean, that’s just bad grammar!

Also, when David was on the radio show and the host said something like “you’re now living in an Arab household” and David nodded, although the narrator at the beginning clearly said that the Haques were of Pakistania descent.

And that Imam that David first went to was just useless! I am so glad he found another one who was much better at explaining things. I have heard from many American Muslims that they often feel there is a communication gap between immigrant Muslims and those who are born and bred Americans. I have also been told that most Imams are immigrants, and so many born and bred Americans, especially youth, find turning to the Imams for advice or guidance to be trying.  That seemed to be exemplified by that first Imam, versus the second Imam who was able to actually have a conversation with David.

I’ve always been fascinated with American Muslims, and with Dearborn because I’ve heard so much about it. So I really enjoyed watching this.

August 8, 2009 Posted by | International Affairs, Islam, Media/Press | 5 Comments

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

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

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