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Friday, August 1, 2008

Christians Protest Muslim Mistreatment in Pakistan

From - July 31, 2008

In Muslim-majority Pakistan, Christians and Hindus work in sub-human conditions and are arbitrarily force to vacate their shantytowns. A Christian, accused of theft, was beaten to death by Pakistani troops.

Due to lack of opportunities for education and jobs, a considerable number of Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, who are among the poorest of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, are forced to work as sanitary workers. This means descending into underground pipes bearing sewage to conduct repairs and remove obstructions: a labor spurned by  most in Pakistan. Christian, Hindu, Sikh and other religious minorities are only 3 percent of the total population of the country. Their salaries are very low even while working under sub-human conditions, reported Aftab Alexander Mughal of Minorities Concern of Pakistan.

Religious minorities not only serve as sanitary workers in the municipalities and other jurisdiction but also serve as domestic workers. Minorities Concern of Pakistan, a human rights advocacy group, asserts that their Muslim employers treat them badly. Non-Muslim servants in the average Pakistani household, according to Minorities Concern, are not allowed to eat or drink from the same utensils as Muslims.

"Christian domestic help's job description was limited to cleaning of bathrooms and sewers. They could not be hired as cooks or dishwashers. They were commonly referred to as "chooras" (a derogatory term for people of the Christian faith)," Shazia Rafiq, a Muslim, as quoted by Minorities Concern from the "Weekly Pulse" of Islamabad.

Due to their poor economic conditions, sanitary workers are forced to live in "katchi abadies" (shanty towns) surrounding cities and villages. Many have been living there for decades but they do not know when they will be suddenly forced to vacate. In two recent incidents, about 350 Christian and Hindu men, women and children were made homeless by the local authorities. Although some families have gone to live with their relatives in the other parts of the cities, many are still living on the roadside without proper shelter.

On July 11, the Rawalpindi Cantonment Board (RCB) sanitary workers of RCB were forced to leave their homes along the Haider Road in Saddar, Rawalpindi, twin city of Pakistan's capital Islamabad, where they had lived for more than 40 years.

According to RCB, the action was a part of an anti-encroachment operation, while the residents were allegedly not served with any prior notice. Around 300 Christians were living in the locality and had been paying rent (Rs.1,400, $20, for each family) to RCB which was deducted from the salaries.

Minorities Concern of Pakistan learned that the residents got very limited time to remove their household goods. The workers say that they have do not know where to go.

In another incident, non-Muslims' homes in Rani Bagh, Sindh province, were pulled down by municipal administration. The families of 10 scheduled-caste Hindu sanitary workers are still homeless despite the Rs. 20,000 ($28) compensation they received. "The sanitary workers, who were employed by TMA city and Qasimabad, had been living in Rani Bagh since the days of defunct Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (HMC)," according to the daily "Dawn." The TMA issued them notices a week before carrying out demolition operation on July 12 asking them to vacate the quarters after the government put into practice a beautification plan for Rani Bagh under the Hyderabad Development Package (HPG).

As a result of their low income, almost all sanitary workers live below the poverty line. Generally, they live in un-settled areas without clean drinking water or electricity.
Not only these workers' salaries are very low but also in many cases, their salaries are not paid in time by the authorities. On June 22, 2008, about 700 Christian workers demonstrated against the Municipal Administration of Sargodha, Punjab, because the administration did not pay their salary for two months' work.

Sanitary workers face the worst working and living conditions in the country. According to a report of daily Dawn, some 3,000 (out of 7,500) or so sanitary workers of the Solid Waste Management wing of the city district government Lahore have tested positive for hepatitis B and C. In another case, four Christian sanitary workers of the Haveli Lakkha, Okara, became unconscious on April 30, 2008 while clearing choked sewerage pipelines. In many cases, sanitary workers die during cleaning the sewerage in various parts of the country.

According to a study carried out in a hospital from Dec. 5 – 19, 2003, the sanitary workers handling waste in hospitals continue to work without adequate protective devices.

Christian and Hindu sanitary workers are accused of theft and subjected to severe punishment. For example, Nadeem Menga – a Christian – was tortured and murdered by Pakistani soldiers seeking to determine whether he had stolen a motocycle. Led by Rev. Anjum Nazir, a Roman Catholic priest, Christians on June 28, 2008 protested the extra-judicial killing.

According to Shehzad Menga, the victim's younger brother, also a low-paid "sweeper" at the same school, some people on June 27 tried to steal a motorcycle parked outside the nearby house of an army captain, but the officer's wife foiled the attempt. As reported by UCAN news, "The next day 35 people, 30 of us Christians, were detained." "When we failed to name the culprits, they started beating us with batons and kicking us with their army boots."

Menga's brother recounted how he saw his brother badly beaten and, though injured, managed to pick him up and flee to the nearby Combine Military Hospital, where doctors pronounced Nadeem dead. However, they refused to hand over the body to the family until Rev. Nazir, pastor of Holy Rosary Church, spent the night at the hospital negotiating the release.

Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America.

The Hijab Goes High Fashion

Younger muslim women are seeking cutting edge hijabs

Autumn trends are already appearing on the pages of glossy magazines, but for some fashionistas an important question remains unanswered. What will be autumn's key hijab look?

Muslim women anxious to keep their style cutting-edge are turning to an ever-expanding number of blogs, Facebook groups and YouTube videos to discover the hottest way to tie their headscarves.

Jana Kossaibati, whose blog, Hijab Style, claims to be the UK's first style guide for Muslim women, says women are getting more experimental. "Muslim girls are very conscious of the way they dress. When you wear a headscarf you stand out as a Muslim, so what kind of message are you also sending out if you look drab or messy?" Kossaibati started her site because there wasn't another like it in the UK, "but since it began 10 months ago a lot of others have appeared," she says.

Although older Muslim women often choose a style of headscarf that reflects their cultural heritage, younger women are mixing techniques from all over the Muslim world with newly created styles to complement Western clothes.

On sites such as Hijabfashionista and The Hijab blog, classic "Spanish", "simple braid" and layered styles are studied and copied by women who want to make sure their scarves turn heads. Other sites advise on the best scarves to wear for sport and even under a baseball cap.

With complicated knots and multiple layers, some of the most popular looks could take hours to create, but Jana advises fashion-followers to try her favourite, the flower hijab wrap: "It's fairly simple - you tie the scarf behind your head and then bring it over again to tie at the side like a flower."

As for the question of which headscarf will be the hot trend this autumn, Jana plumps for the "Turkish" style - tied under the chin and wrapped around the neck, which she thinks "signals a return to more grown-up, sophisticated dressing and the end of the summer holidays".

Summer Fashion for Muslim Women

Summer fashion for Muslim women

By Kiran Ansari

Special to the Chicago Tribune

July 3, 2008

For the many Muslim women who choose to wear modest clothing outside their homes, summertime fashion can be a challenge. Religious guidelines that suggest women wear head scarves, long-sleeved shirts and pants or long skirts are easy to follow during Chicago's long, cold winters. The challenge comes when the weather heats up and the store shelves are filled with shorts and tank tops—pieces that, without longer layers, don't work for many Muslim women.

Clothing designer Sarah Juman-Yassin found that young women who wanted to wear modest clothing on hot days had to borrow an oversized shirt from their brother's closet or wear something more suited for older women.

Too many of the lightweight long shirts sold in the summertime are meant as swimsuit cover-ups and are too transparent for women trying to be modest, she said. So, the Toronto-based designer launched her own designs on in 2003 and now caters to a great mix of customers.

"There are many Jewish and Christian and Orthodox women who also want to dress conservatively but were having a hard time finding modern yet modest shirts," she said.

For three Chicago-area women we talked to, finding appropriate—and fashionable—outfits is really a matter of knowing your style and choosing individual pieces that are versatile.

Tabassum Haleem, executive director of the Organization of Islamic Speakers Midwest, wants to dress fashionably yet modestly because she regularly gives presentations on Islam. The 43-year-old who lives in Naperville believes she is also representing the Islamic faith when she speaks to churches, schools and other organizations.

Haleem started covering her hair and wearing long sleeves six years ago and found designers who have the look she wants, with Ralph Lauren and Jones New York her favorites. She often opts for twin sets so she can sport the shell at home and throw on the cardigan when she goes out.

"People have this misconception that Muslim women are mandated to wear black from head to toe," she said. "When they see me in business suits with colorful head scarves it really throws them off."

Islam Ali, 22, a recent graduate of the fashion marketing program at the Illinois Institute of Art, said that the most essential pieces for a Muslim woman are solid long-sleeve shirts and tank tops in all colors. "And if a tank has a low-cut neckline," she said, "just wear it backward."

Ali, who lives in Oak Lawn, loves to shop at Forever 21, H&M, Carson Pirie Scott and Old Navy. "I don't hesitate to buy something that catches my fancy. I will make it work with my hijab [head scarf]."

Her sister, Amal Ali, 32 of Homer Glen, also loves to shop at H&M and Old Navy, in addition to Ali, the youth outreach coordinator at the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, prefers to call her clothing style "dignified."

"You might have to dig a little deeper, but dignified clothes are out there," she said. "I don't like the term modest as it has negative connotations of being timid, insecure, voiceless—none of which I am!"

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Iran may broadcast women at Olympics

From Radio Free Europe - July 24, 2008

Few Iranians expect their religious leaders to allow state
television to air footage of women who do not obey Iran's Islamic dress

For years, Iranian women have been active in regional and international
sports competitions, but religious laws in Iran prevent women from
being seen on television without an Islamic hijab. While Iranian women
play sports dressed in the traditional hijab, their international
competitors do not -- and therefore cannot be shown in Iranian

For this summer's Olympic Games
in Beijing, however, Iranian authorities might allow state television
to broadcast the women's events. Ali Asghar Purmohammadi, who is
responsible for broadcasting sports programs for Iran's state-run
television, has said he is pressing Iranian authorities to give special
permission to show women competing in the Olympic Games next month.

There are just three women among the 53 Iranian athletes who will compete in the Beijing Olympics from August 8-24, with one woman each competing in rowing, archery, and tae kwon do.

Millions of Iranian viewers would no doubt like to cheer on their
female athletes in Beijing. But few Iranians expect their religious
leaders to allow state television to air footage of women who do not
obey Iran's Islamic dress code, which requires women to cover their
heads and hair, and to disguise the shape of their bodies. Iranian
television and print media largely avoid broadcasting or publishing
pictures of female athletes because of the dress code violations by
their international opponents.

Fatemeh Sepanji, a Tehran-based sports commentator, tells RFE/RL's
Radio Farda that the Iranian media are forced to pretend that women
athletes in Iran do not exist.

"They obey all the rules. They are allowed to take part in sports. So
why shouldn't they be shown on television?" she asks. "Obviously they
will be shown [on TV] all over the world [when they compete in the
Olympics]. What is the point of showing them in one country and hiding
them in another?"

The restrictive dress code has prevented Iranian women
from participating in many sports, such as swimming, diving, and other
water sports, along with gymnastics, running events, and cycling.

Many Iranian sportswomen say they find it difficult to move in heavy,
loose clothes -- especially in hot weather. Besides, they have to pay
close attention to make sure that their hair or the skin on their arms
or legs does not unexpectedly show while they are competing. Such
"mistakes" in the heat of competition can result in a heavy price being
paid by the women athletes.

Ramoneh Lazar, a member of Iran's rowing team, was expelled from the
national team after her ankles were seen inside her boat during a
competition in Bangkok.

Additionally, representatives of Iran's intelligence services follow
the women athletes everywhere -- including at international
competitions -- to ensure they don't violate any Islamic rules.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government actually tried to promote
greater female participation in sports during the early days of his
term. However, after facing vocal opposition and fierce criticism from
religious leaders, his government gave up on the initiative.

Indeed, the pressure from religious leaders on the issue is strong.
Ayatollah Alam Alhoda is one of many influential clerics who virulently
oppose women's involvement in any sports activity. During a sermon
after recent Friday Prayers in the Mashhad city mosque, the ayatollah
said it is "unlawful" for women to participate in sports.

Another Iranian mullah said that women should not ski because "during
skiing they have to move their knees and it looks more like dancing
than sport."

Faced with dress restrictions and vociferous opposition, Iranian women
participate in those sports that are compatible with the dress code,
such as archery, rowing, soccer, and other events where the hijab and
loose clothing might be uncomfortable and disadvantageous, but still
allow them to compete.

Tae kwon do and kickboxing are hugely popular among Iranian women, but
some mullahs say they are bothered by the fact that at the end of a
match the male referees must hold the female competitors' hands in
order to raise the hand of the winner.

Male coaches of women's teams also have difficulties, and their role
has often been the subject of debate. When a female team has a male
coach, the team members have to obey the dress code even during
training because of the presence of the male coach or trainer.

And to make their jobs even more difficult, male coaches are required
to keep a clear physical distance between themselves and the female
athletes they instruct.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mumbai's Gay Community Rallies for Freedom - "Queer Azadi" To Be Held on August 16, 2008

Mumbai's gay community rallies for freedom

Keith J Fernandez
Tuesday, July 15, 2008  03:54 IST

August 16 will see Mumbai's largest gay pride parade ever

Weeks after three other metros stole a march on Mumbai to commemorate the anniversary of 1969's Stonewall riots in New York, our own city's gay community plans to come out in a show of national pride on August 16.

Singing, dancing and walking under banners screaming Queer Azadi, gays, lesbians, eunuchs, bisexuals, kothis, transsexuals and a several others of alternative sexual orientations will don pink Gandhi topis and other fabulosities in their own long walk to freedom.

The event kicks off at 4pm at August Kranti Maidan and ends with a candlelight vigil at Chowpatty. It is being described as an attempt to cast off the shackles of an outdated legal system. Queer is an inclusive term that unifies people of alternative, or non-heterosexual, sexualities, and this event brings together nearly a dozen disparate human rights and advocacy organisations towards a common goal.

"This is pride as it relates to India's freedom struggle," says gay activist Ashok Row Kavi, of the organisation Humsafar. "We may be free from the British, but we are not free from their outdated laws."

The timing of the event and its route - August Kranti Maidan is where Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement in 1942 - have been specifically chosen to highlight the fact that India's queer community is still largely marginalised.

Even as the story of a resurgent, booming India gets retold time and again, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code punishes those indulging in carnal intercourse 'against the order of nature' with up to ten years in prison. "This is purely a British law, the British corrupted traditional Indian culture by introducing homophobia into our society," adds prominent gay blogger, Nitin Karani.

A petition by NGO Naz Foundation to declare the statute unconstitutional is currently being heard by the Delhi High Court.

Organisers hope the Queer Azadi event will serve to raise awareness and sensitise the community at large, says event co-ordinator and lesbian rights activist Geeta Kumana, of the organisations Aanchal and Infosem. "We want to show we are visible and to send out the message to people in small cities and towns that they are not alone," she told DNA. "We're also going to be talking to heterosexuals about the problem homosexuals face."

Besides queers from across the country, Row Kavi says some heterosexuals will even be lending their support, including trade unions and workers' groups.

The date is already prominent on the city's gay calendar: Humsafar and other organisations have been holding similar events, albeit on a much smaller scale, on August 16 every year for the past four years.

Mumbai's queer leaders have supported and even helped kick-start pride events in other cities, says Row Kavi, who promises that from next year, the city will host two pride events.

The writer is a Gulf-based journalist

Saudi Arabia: Stalemate on 'Mahram' (for Education Abroad)... Continues

From Arab News - July 28, 2008

Monday 28 July 2008 (24 Rajab 1429)

Stalemate on 'mahram' condition continues

Najah Alosaimi | Arab News

FINAL CHECK: A student applying for scholarship checks her documents. (AN photo)

RIYADH: Manal Al-Quais, a 23-year-old Saudi, won a scholarship from the King Abdullah Scholarship Program to study nursing in Canada. There's only one problem: She can't find a close male relative to go with her for the entire duration of the study; they have their own families and responsibilities to attend to.

Recently, two key governmental departments have initiated a debate on how women in Manal's situation can take advantage of Saudi Arabia's national scholarship program.

The Higher Education Ministry will not lift the requirement that these students bring a guardian (a close male relative or husband) in order to study abroad, while the governmental Human Rights Commission (HRC) disagrees on the importance of the "mahram" accompanying the students.

"This would help hundreds of women who don't have male guardians available or ready to go with them to pursue higher education outside," said HRC spokesman Zuhair Al-Harithy.

In a recommendation sent to the Council of Ministers, the HRC argues that the permission of a guardian should suffice, just as it is done for allowing women to travel unaccompanied.

But for the time being, Higher Education Ministry will stick to the existing policy. Saudi women who go abroad to study at their own expense are exempt from this requirement.

"Any woman student whose guardian leaves the country where she studies will immediately lose financial support," said Abdullah Al-Moussa, general supervisor of scholarships at the Ministry of Higher Education.

Some guardians prefer to accompany their relatives for a couple of months and return to work and family. And some Saudi women, like Maram, who in her late teens dreams of going to college abroad to study events management, simply do not have any close male relatives.

"The rule expects that every house has a man," Maram told Arab News, adding that the rules don't allow her mother to accompany her.

The way the government ensures that Saudi women receiving these scholarships follow the requirements is simple: They don't give the allowance money to the woman, but rather directly to the guardian whose passport is submitted along with the prospective student during the application process.

"The complaints (on the policy of requiring "mahrams" to accompany these young women) also come from parents," said Al-Harithy. "They object to the rules that prevent their daughters from studying abroad when they have given their full approval for them to do so."

Contrary to a popular misconception, women in Saudi Arabia are allowed to travel abroad alone (or without their male relatives) if their guardians give permission. The permission slips are affixed to the passports to show to the authorities.

Al-Harithy pointed out that the HRC efforts in this regard are not only because of individual complaints, but also because of the impact of this rule on society and the economy.

With approximately 30 percent of these scholarships going to women, according to official figures, there are many families with college-bound daughters who can't afford to send a male relative with them, or the male relatives have their own lives and responsibilities that prevent them from being able to take this time off.

According to media reports, the problem has even led some women to seek out marriages of convenience with men willing to become "temporary husbands" and therefore guardians of these women during their stay abroad.

Sociologist Wafa'a Taibah, a professor at King Saud University and HRC member, expressed concern about these short-term marriages. "Such marriages are based on selfish interests," she said. "They raise the rate of divorce and adversely affect any children born out of these marriages."

The guardians themselves are affected. Should they decide to accompany their women relatives, they can end up spending years outside the work force and return to Saudi Arabia jobless.

Abdullah, 31, who did not want to provide his family name, is an example. He works in a legal office, but will soon resign to go to Brisbane, Australia, to act as his sister's guardian while she earns her Ph.D.

"I will have to resign from my work because the management refused to give me three years' leave," he said.

Furthermore, in many cases these men will not be able to legally work in the countries where they reside temporarily. Guardians abroad receive monthly allowances from the ministry for staying with their student relatives.

In some countries, such as the United States and Britain, the guardians receive monthly stipends of SR4,000.

Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a Saudi women's rights activist, said this policy should change and that there is no legitimate religious basis for prohibiting women from living alone in general.

"If we look around us we will find a number of Saudi women living alone with their kids after divorce, or after their husbands pass away," she said. "Tribal customs and traditions must not interfere in education because it will slow women empowerment."

Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Condemns 'Malicious' Turkish Soap Operas

From Arab News - July 28, 2008

Kingdom's grand mufti condemns 'malicious' Turkish soap operas

Hassna'a Mokhtar | Arab News

JEDDAH: The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, has condemned Turkish soap operas, which have charmed millions of people across the Arab world, and prohibited people from watching them, Al-Watan daily reported yesterday.

"It is not permitted to look at these serials or watch them. They contain so much evil; they destroy people's ethics and are against our values," said the mufti during the closing ceremony of a forum, which took place in Riyadh on Friday. He added that these "malicious" Turkish soap operas corrupt individuals and spread vice in society.

"Any TV station that airs them is against God and His Messenger (peace be upon him). These are serials of immorality. They are prepared by people who are specialists in crime and error, people who invite men and women to the devil."

Al-Asheikh was referring to two Turkish soap operas, "Noor" and "Lost Years," which have become extremely popular in the Arab world over the last couple of months. The soaps are dubbed in colloquial Syrian Arabic and are currently being shown on channels run by the MBC Group.

The soaps are proving such a big draw in the Kingdom that many people plan their day around the programs, which have also become popular dinner table conversation.

According to, "Noor" has become "a turning point in the lives of its Arab audience and the way Arabs view Turkish dramas."

"The TV series is awaited daily by millions of eager Arab viewers from the Atlantic to the Gulf who follow the latest developments in Muhannad and Noor's love story. It has opened the door for Arab viewers, especially since it contains an area of romance, which Arabic dramas have recently lacked," says MBC's webpage.

Sana, a 25-year-old mother of two, is crazy about the Turkish family, their culture and their love story. "What infatuated me with 'Noor' is that, unlike other love stories, we get to see what happened after the happy ending when the couple got married," said Sana, adding that she feels the dramas have much in common with Saudi lifestyle.

"I love the portrayal of human feelings, and their everyday struggles in life," she said.

As a result of the soaps, Turkey expects the number of Saudi tourists this year to top 100,000. "From 41,000 (tourists) last year to 100,000 this year — the same year this soap became phenomenally successful," said Turkish diplomat Yasin Temizkayn. "It's more than just a coincidence."

But do people know what it is that attracts them to watch soap operas everyday?

Nisreen Bukhari, a family therapist and marriage counselor, said that the producers of such programs succeeded in invading the minds of their audience and getting them addicted to them.

"Watching soap operas brings the viewer some mental contentment... Women who have an emotional void find fulfillment in watching this romance on a daily basis. It makes them run away from unhappy realities," said Bukhari.

"Another factor that draws people to their favorite soap opera is that in the real world, they acquire a sense of self-existence and self-awareness, while they are able to experience the characters' every different emotion: joy, fury, sorrow, or happiness," she added.

Bukhari said that in recent counseling sessions, women complained to her that husbands compare Noor's attitude and problems to theirs. On the other hand, women accuse husbands of not being like Muhannad who is sensitive and loving.

Maha Al-Hujailan, a Saudi columnist and a medical researcher at King Khaled University Hospital in Riyadh, wrote that the women's attachment to male characters in "Noor" and "Lost Years" cannot just be attributed to their good looks.

"What really attracts women and gets them attached to these characters is the romance and the way they show their genuine love to their loved ones... Saudi women miss something important in their men: the feeling of love and security," wrote Al-Hujailan.

A Saudi grandmother in her mid-70s told Arab News that, although she usually watches Arabic dramas, "Noor" has turned her life upside down.

"I couldn't sleep the night when Noor was kidnapped. Her image haunted me. I just want to see what is at the end," she said.

(Turkish) Soap Opera Shakes Customs of Arab Married Life

From the Associated Press - July 28, 2008

Soap opera shakes customs of Arab married life


RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Every evening for the past four months, a tall young man with soulful blue eyes has been stealing hearts across the Middle East, from the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip to the gated mansions of Riyadh.

But it's not just the striking good looks of Mohannad, hero of the hugely popular Turkish TV soap "Noor," that appeal to female viewers. He's romantic, attentive to his wife, Noor, supportive of her independence and ambitions as a fashion designer — in short, a rare gem for women in conservative, male-dominated surroundings.

"Noor" delivers an idealized portrayal of modern married life as equal partnership — clashing with the norms of traditional Middle Eastern societies where elders often have the final word on whom a woman should marry and many are still confined to the role of wife and mother.

Some Muslim preachers in the West Bank and Saudi Arabia have taken notice, saying the show is un-Islamic and urging the faithful to change channels. But all the same, the show may be planting seeds of change.

"I told my husband, `learn from him (Mohannad) how he treats her, how he loves her, how he cares about her," said Heba Hamdan, 24, a housewife visiting the West Bank from Amman, Jordan. Married straight out of college, she said the show inspired her to go out and look for a job.

"Noor" seems particularly effective in changing attitudes because it offers new content in a familiar setting: Turkey is a Muslim country, inviting stronger viewer identification than Western TV imports. The characters in "Noor" observe the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and Mohannad and Noor were married in a match arranged by his grandfather.

But it also upholds secular liberties: Protagonists have a drink with dinner and sex outside marriage. Mohannad, while faithful to Noor, had a child with a former girlfriend, and a cousin underwent an abortion.

The nightly soap opera "shows that there are Muslims who live differently," said Islah Jad, a professor of women's studies at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University.

The show's Turkish producer, Kemal Uzun, added: "We are a little more open, not as conservative as some of these countries, and I think this might have some appeal for the audience."

Even though some of the racier scenes are sanitized for Arab consumption, clerics have been sermonizing against "Noor." "This series collides with our Islamic religion, values and traditions," warned Hamed Bitawi, a lawmaker of the Islamic militant Hamas and preacher in the West Bank city of Nablus.

But the purists seem powerless to halt the "Noor" craze.

In Saudi Arabia, the only country with ratings, about three to four million people watch daily, out of a population of nearly 28 million, according to MBC, the Saudi-owned satellite channel that airs the show dubbed into Arabic for Middle East audiences.

In the West Bank and Gaza, streets are deserted during show time and socializing is timed around it. In Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and in Hebron, the West Bank's most conservative city, maternity wards report a rise in babies named Noor and Mohannad. A West Bank poster vendor has ditched Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein for Noor and Mohannad.

Jaro's Clothing Store in Gaza City is doing brisk business in copies of blouses seen on the show, including a sleeveless metallic number adapted to Gaza standards by being worn over a long-sleeved leotard.

Producer Uzun said the Istanbul villa on the Bosporus, fictional home of Mohannad's upper-class clan, has been rented by tour operators and turned into a temporary museum for Arab visitors.

A recent cartoon in the Saudi paper Al-Riyadh showed a plain-looking man marching into a plastic surgeon's office with a picture of Mohannad with his designer stubble. (Kivanc Tatlitug, who plays Mohannad, is an ex-basketball player who won the 2002 "Best Model of the World" award.)

In the West Bank city of Nablus, civil servant Mohammed Daraghmeh said he had MBC blocked at home so his kids couldn't watch, but the family vowed to watch it at an uncle's house and he backed down.

In Hamas-ruled Gaza, keeping up with "Noor" is a challenge.

Power goes out frequently because of a yearlong blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after the violent Hamas takeover. When a blackout disrupts viewing, many set their alarms to catch the pre-dawn repeat.

In the Shati refugee camp, several teenage girls huddled around an old TV set recently, trying to follow the action despite overflights by pilotless Israeli aircraft that can scramble reception.

Ala Hamami, 17, wearing a black robe and head scarf, said she looks up to Noor because she is independent.

"This series gives strength to women in the future," said Hamami, although she was set on a very traditional path — she had just gotten engaged in an arranged match.

The cultural divide between modern Turkey and traditional Gaza became apparent in a scene where Mohannad and Noor, played by Songul Oden, both end up hospitalized. The girls giggled and Hamami quickly changed channels when Mohannad entered his wife's room and lay beside her to comfort her. The display of physical contact clearly made her uncomfortable.

Whether the "Noor" effect will be lasting is not known. The season finale falls Aug. 30, the day before Ramadan begins and religious fervor intensifies. Next up on MBC will be "Bab al-Hara," a Ramadan favorite that looks nostalgically at traditional Arab life.

Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey; Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem, Barbara Surk in Dubai and Donna Abu Nasr in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia contributed to this report.

outh Africa: Women in Polygamous Marriages Can Now Inherit

A court judgment giving women in polygynous marriages equal rights of inheritance to their husband's estate was welcomed by the Women's Legal Centre on Friday.

"This is a groundbreaking judgment which extends the right to inherit from a deceased husband's estate to women in Muslim marriages where there is more than one wife," the centre said in a statement. "The effect of the judgment is that the wives will be treated equally and their rights recognised for purposes of inheritance where the husband does not leave a will."

From This Day Online - July 28, 2008

The case centred on a claim by Gabie Hassam who had applied for an order that polygynous Muslim marriages should be recognised for the purposes of the duty of support between spouses. Polygynous marriages are when a man has more than one wife or female partner at the same time.

Similar marriages conducted under the auspices of African custom are  already recognised under the African Customary Marriages Act. but Islamic marriages are not recognised in South African law.

Hassam had to approach the courts as the executor of her late husband's estate refused to allow her claim because she is his second wife.

The centre believed the order would give women access to assets acquired during unrecognised marriage relationships. "Before this judgment, many women and children have lost out on the right to maintenance and to inherit in the absence of a will." In 2004 the Constitutional Court gave the right to inherit to monogamous spouses married in terms of Islamic law so the centre asked the High Court to extend this to polygynous Muslim marriages. "With just under a million Muslim people in South Africa, the judgment will have a profound impact on the community."

Op-Ed: Escape - or Betrayal? Why Muslim Women Who Are Oppressed... (Don't) Break Free

Escape – or betrayal?

Why Muslim women who are oppressed by their families are often reluctant to break free

From The Guardian - July 24, 2008

Whenever another honour killing hits the headlines or another Muslim female is vaporised into a forced marriage, the question I get asked more than any other is: "Why don't these women just leave?"

Even though the sense of intimidation and menace these women are subject to may be palpable, the answer to this question is not a simple one. There are many reasons why women who live in non-Muslim societies in the west and have the ability to leave their families in search of a better life do not do so. First and foremost however, what needs to be identified is that most Muslim societies exist in cultures where the authority of the family is overarching.

When a woman flees a forced marriage, a threatening brother or even the risk of death, as far as she is concerned she also leaves behind not only that but sisters, aunts, cousins, an entire culture, a belief system and closely interwoven units. The burden of honour, the shared ownership of the ramifications of her choices, stretches out across the lattice of her family and renders every move she makes magnitudinous, sending waves rippling and tainting hapless family members on the fringes of the epicentre.

The thought of escape conjures up images of innocent younger sisters shamed and abandoned, growing up in the shadow of her dishonour, and mothers who did their best to provide more freedom than her father would have allowed, crushed – their faith and trust in her flung back in their faces. To that she will add the vision of countless family members and friends who invested in her, gave her succour with a kind word or a gesture of understanding.

Emotionally blackmailed, it is difficult for her to view an escape as a heroic brave leap; the huge number of those she hurts and the dearth of those she benefits make it seem a selfish, cowardly endeavour. Surely, she thinks, it is more commendable to sacrifice oneself on the altar and at least elicit some satisfaction from one's martyrdom, than it is to bolt?

Besides, what is on the other side? The liberal ideals of a western culture do not a family make. She might have her freedom but who to share it with? She may fall in love, but who to rejoice with? From within the cultural outlook of a traditional family, it is difficult to envision the friends, colleagues and significant others who would potentially, eventually, come to be a comforting network. She thinks about the fact that by leaving behind her family, she truncates their existence in her life, freezing them out and precluding her children from the pleasure of maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles.

But it does not occur to her that their presence in her life may guarantee her daughters the same fate and that raising children within the same value system would predestine them to the very same dynamic she strove to escape. Bereft of all links to her prior life, she alone must impart her own genesis to her offspring, a heavy burden under which to traipse into womanhood.

The prospect of succumbing gradually thus becomes less daunting and is not necessarily an either/or. Muslim women more often than not are allowed, indeed encouraged, to get an education, a decent job as long as it is within the confines of the respectable parameters prescribed by family and milieu – not always a fate dire enough to warrant or justify a wholesale uprooting.

A cousin of mine once rejected a suitor to whom she had already been promised by her family. As her mother wept in anticipation of the perceived disgrace, an aunt gently whispered to her that she should "marry him, become a doctor, have children and buy some pretty curtains". And so she did. Was she forced? No. Not in a classic honour-based, violent way. But little enforcement comes in the way of physical violence; most is psychological and hence more insidious.

This dictatorship of the family is a result of a complex interplay between social pressures, cultural heritage and religious observance and is not a Muslim issue as much as it is a cultural one. The elders of a family are victim to these structures almost as much as their daughters, forced to choose between powerful parental instincts and their perception of themselves and their offspring as part of a tightly woven fabric, the rupture of which assails their very identity and self-perception.

In contrast to societies where individual opportunity and achievement are championed, Arab culture in particular subscribes to a more sober view of individualism, even more so in women, and is suspicious of all endeavours that do not run in tandem with the values of the group. This contributes to a way of life where the suppression of individual desire is likely and one's personal feelings, preferences or fears shrink in comparison to the grandeur of powerful existing structures, where these values have been so internalised that the injured party may even have sympathy for his/her oppressors, cognisant of their helplessness against their indoctrination, seriously believing no one person is evil or fully culpable. This ring fence applies to men as well as women, granted with a larger circumference for male members of the clan.

Of course, it is not just a religious issue; the pull of the eternal deep-rooted institution is omnipresent – be it religion, nationality, race or class. Only a few decades ago, inter-racial marriage came with the threat of familial excommunication, and if none had raised their heads above the parapet it would have stayed that way.

This conflict between the temporal and the ostensibly eternal is what is important. Whether it is campaigns to combat forced marriage in Muslim and non-Muslim Asian communities or honour killings in Arab regions like Jordan and Iraq, efforts need to be made to not only identify girls and women at risk but to provide mentors, sponsors and look to create alternative networks to make a break less daunting.

Evidently, not all Muslim women are oppressed but many are, and the high-profile stories in the media are only the most extreme manifestations, the tip of an iceberg of a silent mass of women living lives of quiet desperation.

Bahrain Clergymen Issues Fatwa Against Turkish Soap

From AHN - July 28, 2008

Sandeep Singh Grewal - AHN Middle East Correspondent

Manama, Bahrain (AHN) - A Turkish soap opera has caused such a shakeup in Arab customs that religious leaders are calling for a complete ban on the serial, saying it is against Islamic principles.

Top Shia clergymen Shaikh Isa Qassim issued a fatwa here calling for a ban on the soap opera "Noor," and urged people to refrain from watching it. He said in his fatwa that Noor was affecting the religious sentiments of the people and labeled it "demeaning."

On Monday, the Grand Mufti of the Islamic world, Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh, from Saudi Arabia also condemned the content of the Turkish soap on the same grounds. He was quoted saying in Saudi media that the serial corrupted individuals and spread adultery in society.

The serial is followed by viewers in millions of Arab homes who are eager to know about the love story between the two main characters, Noor and Muhannad. The characters portray a practical married couple who are caught between the traditional customs in the Middle East where elders have the last say. Saudi-owned MBC telecasts the serial and also dubs into Arabic for their audiences in the region.

Muhannad is played by Turkish actor Kivanc Tatlitug, who has become the new heartthrob for Arab women. There have been several reported cases of divorce in Saudi Arabia because of him.

A regular viewer, Bahraini Lathifa Sanad, a mother of three, told AHN, "I never missed a show and eagerly wait for a new episode daily." However, she admitted shunning her responsibilities during the one-hour show.

The soap fever has also gripped the woman's maid, Sharweena, who has to be regularly called and reminded to do her work as she is busy glued to the TV screen, noted Sanad.

"Noor" has also helped tour operators in the country, who are now promising special packages with a chance to meet the stars in trips to Turkey. According to reports, tourism in Turkey is at an all-time high with Saudi visitors thronging in large numbers to catch a glimpse of the stars.

This is not the first time a TV serial or show has come under the attack of Islamists. In 2005, some lawmakers here threatened to launch constitutional procedures to stop the staging of a Pan-Arab concert featuring the lead singers of the reality show "Star Academy 2."

MP Mohammed Khalid from Al Menbar bloc (Muslim Brotherhood) said the concert offended Islamic traditions and negatively influenced young men and women.

In 2004, Islamists MP forced the cancellation of the filming of an Arab version of the reality show "Big Brother." More than 1,000 people staged a demonstration followed by a sit-in against the show, which was eventually taken off the air by MBC.

Islamist MPs recently gave another blow to the entertainment and tourism industry here after they threatened to ban Lebanese pop diva Haifa Wahbe from performing in May. Al Asala (Conservative Sunni) bloc in parliament threatened to conduct rallies and use all means to stop Haifa's show, which they considered provocative.

Similar actions were also taken by lawmakers in Kuwait against the singer.

Saudi Commission Argues for Letting Women Study Abroad Without a Guardian

From the Chronicle of Higher Education

July 29, 2008

Saudi Commission Argues for Letting Women Study Abroad Without a Guardian

As Saudi Arabia continues to send thousands of students abroad on government scholarships, some in the government are questioning the requirement that female students be accompanied by a male guardian. Arab News reports that the country's Human Rights Commission has asked that the rule be waived if the student's family permits it.

"This would help hundreds of women who don't have male guardians available or ready to go with them to pursue higher education outside," the commission's spokesman, Zuhair Al-Harithy, told Arab News.

The commission has submitted its request to the Council of Ministers, which determines government policy.

So far, though, the Higher Education Ministry has refused. The government's decision affects thousands of women. In 2006 King Abdullah established a scholarship program for 80,000 students to study abroad. More than 13,000 were in the United States in 2007, about 20 percent of them women, according to Saudi government figures.

The requirement to bring a guardian, or mahram, applies only to women who study on government scholarships. Women who study abroad at their own expense are allowed to travel alone as long as they have the permission of their guardians to do so. —Beth McMurtrie

Yemen Women Anger Over Virtue Committee Announcements

[23 July 2008]

SANA'A, July 23 (Saba) – The Yemen Women's Union YWU has voiced anger over statements by the scholars of the Virtue Committee regarding the Yemeni Women's political participation and fixing the quota in the forthcoming parliamentary elections for 15% of seats.

Chairwoman of the YWU Ramzia al-Eryani, general secretary of the Arab Women's Union said she, on behalf of the Yemeni women, handed over to the parliament speaker Yahya al-Raei a note calling for a parliament approval for legislations that deal with women's participation and other issues.

The note also included proposals linked to constitutional amendments suggested by president Ali Abdullah Saleh and that concern women.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Muslim Women (in France) Resist Stereotyping

From the Washington Post

Muslim Women Resist Stereotyping
In France, Many Try to Balance Their Faith's Traditions With Secular Society

By Elizabeth Bryant
Religion News Service
Saturday, July 26, 2008; B09

PARIS -- Like most young French women, Wafa Ben Salem goes out to movies and dinner, dates men, albeit usually with a chaperone, and is an avowed fashion maven.

But it's not hard to see how she stands out with her form-covering clothing, a headscarf tied under her chin and her pledge not to engage in pre-marital sex.

"I'm Muslim, and it's been taught to us in our religion, and I believe in this," said the 24-year-old university student from the southern French town of Cagnes-sur-Mer.

Like many young Muslim women here, she is trying to strike a balance between personal empowerment -- "I'll meet men before I get married to decide which one is right for me" -- and tradition -- "But I'll keep my virginity until marriage."

A series of highly publicized incidents involving Muslim women has reinforced popular perceptions that an intolerant, sexist brand of Islam is on the march in France, home to Europe's largest Muslim population.

Yet religion experts, and many Muslims, caution against easy stereotypes. Far from submissive, they say, Muslim women are looking for a fit between their faith and the highly secularized society around them.

Nonetheless, recent incidents have fed the perception that women are living under the thumbs of men.

Last month, a court in the northern city of Lille annulled the marriage of two Muslims after the husband alleged that his wife was not a virgin. People were outraged when Justice Minister Rachida Dati initially supported the ruling.

More recently, the Council of State, the country's highest administrative body, upheld a ruling that denied citizenship to a Moroccan woman who wears a burqa, contending that her "radical practice" of Islam was incompatible with French values. Urban Affairs Minister Fadéla Amara, a practicing Muslim, called the veil a "sign of oppression of women."

There were also widespread media reports about a surge among Muslim women seeking surgery to reattach their hymens to give suitors the illusion of virginity and a Muslim husband who refused to allow a male doctor to perform an emergency Caesarean section on his wife.

Yet the reality, some say, is different from the perception.

"The large majority of Muslims tinker," said Franck Fregosi, a sociologist who has written extensively on Islam in Europe. "The girls will try to go out with boys but hide it from their families. And most of them have a normal life. Some will have sexual relations before marriage. But they will still try to preserve appearances so their families won't know."

Young women, Fregosi said, also struggle to break free from the cultural traditions of their immigrant parents, including shunning arranged marriages.

"Their priority is to have a pious husband, not a cousin or another man chosen by the family," he said. "And that is something new."

Religious anthropologist Dounia Bouzar sees two factors at work: a "return to belief" but also a "questioning of the Western model, of the woman who knows what she wants with her body. A lot of young girls are wondering whether that really means more liberty."

Most French Muslims are hardly pious practitioners of their faith. A 2006 survey by the CSA polling agency found that although nearly nine in 10 Muslims observe the holy month of Ramadan, only 17 percent go to mosque regularly. Separately, the CSA poll found that 91 percent approved of equality between the sexes.

The dress and habits of France's Islamic community of 6 million, many of them immigrants from Turkey and North Africa, strikes a particularly sensitive chord in France.

In 2004, the French government banned students from wearing conspicuous religious symbols in schools. Although the edict included large Catholic crosses and Jewish skull caps, it was the Muslim headscarves that sparked the most controversy.

More recently, town officials in the village of La Verpilliere forced Mayor Patrick Margier to rescind his decision to allow separate swimming pool hours for women, after the matter stirred local furor. Amara, the French urban affairs minister, called the pool rules a "dangerous" reflection of pressure by religious fundamentalists.

But the mayor said he stands by his original decision.

"This wasn't about a threat to secularity," he told Le Monde newspaper. "The 50 women who participated were of all ages and nationalities, in swimsuits without any distinctive (religious) signs. We wanted to reach out to them, and I regret people aren't more tolerant."

Valentine's Day Across the Muslim World (2012)