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Friday, February 27, 2009

Lipstick Revolution: Iran's Women are Taking on the Mullahs

From the Independent - February 26, 2009

Iranian women, and not just the sporting queens or Nobel prize winners, are standing up to the mullahs


Iranian women, and not just the sporting queens or Nobel prize winners, are standing up to the mullahs

Lipstick revolution: Iran's women are taking on the mullahs

It started with a switch from hijabs to Hermès headscarves. Now, after 30 years of Sharia law, the fight for women's rights is gathering pace. Katherine Butler meets the Iranian rally drivers, bloggers and film-makers demanding change

Zohreh Vatankhah slides into the driving seat of her BMW X3, flicks a switch to some pulsating Persian pop and we're soon zipping along the narrow lanes near her home in northern Tehran, almost in the foothills of the snow-capped Alborz mountains. Most Iranians behave in traffic as if they are in charge of dodgems, not potentially lethal vehicles: the traffic is heart-stoppingly dangerous, but with this woman I can relax. A professional racing driver, she's used to competing, and winning, at speeds of up to 180mph.

She's glamorous, too, wearing high-heeled boots over her jeans (a controversial look in the eyes of the Iranian morality police) and a Rolex on her wrist. When she's not confounding stereotypes of Iranian women by beating men on the rally circuits, she's climbing mountains (she recently conquered Mount Damavand, the highest peak in the Middle East), or, here, in the axis of evil, sworn enemy of the United States, watching US (banned but tolerated) satellite TV channels; 24 is one of her favourite shows.

"I LOVE Barack Obama," she says, "and Michelle, she's so stylish and so smart."

At 31, Vatankhah was born a year before Iran's Islamic revolution. In February 1978, Tehran had nightclubs and dancing and girls-about-town who dressed as fashionably as their counterparts in Europe. A year later, the Shah had fled from his Peacock Throne; Iran was reborn as an Islamic Republic and women, many of whom supported the overthrow, were waking up to find their lives drastically changed. Not only obliged to cover up from head to toe, and banned from singing or performing in public to conform with Ayatollah Khomeini's narrow interpretation of Sharia law, they were also, as Shirin Ebadi, Nobel prize winner and Iran's first woman judge, found to her cost, sidelined from senior jobs. Women, "too emotional", were no longer employed as judges.

The woman in the driving seat next to me looks anything but downtrodden. Yet, the tension between modernity and tradition that weighs heavily on women's lives in Iran is never far away. At one point she leans over to say: "Please, your scarf," when the bothersome piece of cloth on my head slips down.

But then something happens that could be a metaphor for the revolution that may be quietly taking place in contemporary Iran. Our drive stalls when an irate male motorist, assuming she's trying to enter a one-way road, hogs the intersection and waves at her to go back. Vatankhah doesn't budge – she knows she's in the right. She holds her ground, presses on, but when he passes he shouts an obscenity. She rolls down her window calmly and tells him whatever the Farsi equivalent is of shut up and get a life.

Iranian women, and not just the sporting queens or Nobel prize winners, are standing up to the mullahs. And some of them are experiencing a frightening political backlash.

On our journey downtown, we pass within sight of a forbidding-looking building set back from the road, framed by the mountains, a reminder that we're in a country with an extraordinary recent history. This is Evin prison, Iran's biggest and most notorious jail, where unknown numbers of political prisoners are held.

This month, a woman called Alieh Egham Doost began serving a three-year jail sentence in Evin. Her crime was to attend a peaceful women's rights protest three years ago. Dozens of other women have been arrested and sentenced on similar charges, but Egham Doost is the first to be actually put behind bars. Her jailing has caused alarm abroad and raised suspicion that a crackdown on the nascent Iranian women's movement is under way, and that more women like Egham Doost could be thrown into the high-security cells.

Parvin Ardalan, a 39 year old Tehran journalist, could be one. She helped to set up a campaign with the aim of gathering one million signatures petitioning for a fairer deal for women under the law. Despite winning Sweden's Olof Palme human rights prize last year, she has been convicted by the revolutionary courts of "acting against national security". Now, she waits at home for the knock on the door. If her appeal fails, she will be serving six months in Evin prison.

"It was awful. We were five or six to a cell" she says of a brief spell on remand in Evin when she was first arrested. Thousands of "enemies" of the revolution were incarcerated and executed in the same prison in the early 1980s; Shirin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer as well as Nobel prize winner, was jailed here, and Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian photojournalist was so badly beaten up after being taken into custody at Evin that she died of her injuries. Ardalan's passport has been confiscated to stop her travelling. "There's no point in being scared," she says, in a matter-of-fact tone.

Iranians have "a fantastic talent for waiting" wrote Ryszard Kapuscinski in Shah of Shahs, his account of the 1979 revolution. "They can turn to stone and remain motionless for ever". And Iranian women have certainly shown extraordinary forbearance. It took 27 years after the Islamic regime was installed before they staged that first public demonstration in 2006. Police reacted by beating and arresting dozens of them. So Ardalan and a few others decided to change tactics. Now they fan out in ones and twos, to small towns and villages, going into shops, beauty salons, schools and offices, or stand at bus stops explaining "face to face" how the Iranian interpretation of Sharia law is stacked against half the population. They ask men and women to sign their petition. Those who refuse are asked to take a leaflet detailing the manifold forms of legal discrimination.

It explains, how, for example, a man can divorce on a whim, while a woman has to jump through hoops – and then custody of children over seven routinely goes to the husband; a woman can to be stoned to death for committing adultery, whereas a man can have up to four wives and any number of "temporary" wives; a 13-year-old girl can be condemned as a criminal but the age of legal responsibility for a boy is 15; a woman's life is deemed to be worth only half of that of a man or a boy. No woman can stand for the presidency. A woman must cover her head and body at all times in public, and if she refuses can be punished, sometimes in seventh-century fashion, by flogging.

Sitting next to Vatankhah in her $80,000 car, as she tells me about her new penthouse, the unfair laws certainly seem academic. She enjoys a fun-filled life and seems to have everything she wants within the limitations of Iran's global isolation. But the rich, like Vatankhah, have to find ways around the curbs on their freedom. She chose motorsports partly because so many other internationally competitive sports are off-limits to women. "I wouldn't like to try for swimming competitions in Iran. There's some sort of dress you have to wear". A Manchester United fan, she can only dream about ever seeing a real match. It is another of the petty strictures on women that in football-crazy Iran, women are banned from soccer stadiums.

When South Korea played Iran for a world cup qualifying match earlier this month, a small group of Iranian women football fans stood forlornly outside Tehran's Azadi stadium and handed Korean women (who were allowed in) a letter which read. "Dear Korean sisters, Could you please shout once, just once, for us in support of IRAN? Would you do it for us, sisters? While you are screaming, shouting, clapping for your team, we are prisoners in our homes, behind a damn television screen. We have to kill the scream in our throats; we just cry, even when we are happy, because our footballers cannot hear us encouraging them."

The headscarf – compulsory from the age of nine for any woman living in Iran or visiting the country – is the most obvious manifestation of how Iranian women are kept in check. The rules demand, too, that women wear clothes to conceal the natural shape of the body. These elements combine to produce hijab – a concept of modesty as much as actual garments. However, the compulsion to wear such coverings is not the biggest worry for Iran's feminists, explains Parvin Ardalan. That is because the hijab has become, in effect, the symbol of the revolution. Attacking it could lay the women open to charges of political activism aimed at toppling the regime.

In any case, most now appear resigned to covering up. "It's like a part of your body. It feels the same as your jeans feel on your legs," Afsaneh Ahmadi, Zohreh Vatankhah's friend and navigator told me.

To the Western visitor, a compulsory scarf around your head morning to night feels like anything but a part of your body. In Iran's overheated hotels and airports it becomes especially trying. It gets in the way when speaking on a mobile phone. Even some Iranian men find it oppressive. "It makes us feel like beasts," one confided, "as if we wouldn't be able to control our urges."

There is enough repression in the system to prevent open defiance of the hijab rule, but it should perhaps be more worrying for the authorities that many women wear their scarves and modest attire with so little conviction. Two middle-aged figures in black chadors (long cloaks that include head covering), the most severe form of hijab, stood as if on guard at Mehrabad airport as we returned on a domestic flight one day during my stay. "Welcome to Tehran" they announced in Farsi. The real purpose of these sentries, I was later told, was to prevent "bad hijab" among incoming female passengers.

But out in the streets, affluent north Tehrani princesses stay just within the law, while affirming nothing about their commitment to the values of the Islamic revolution. The resulting look can be sexy, if more Fifties-housewife than Angelina Jolie. The scarf, often Hermès and in bright colours, is knotted under the chin, and tilted back at a flattering angle to show a broad band of hair. Blonde highlights, beehives and carefully coiffed fringes seem hot this season. Huge sunglasses pushed up on the head, and a short, tight-fitting belted coat over narrow jeans complete the look. "It signals that we obey the law, but nothing more than that," remarks Ardalan.

Since eyes, nose and hands are the only features on show, eye make-up is applied with scientific precision – and Tehran has become the nose-job capital of the world, with 70,000 rhinoplasty operations a year. I lost count of the numbers of women I saw with post-operative plasters stuck on their noses like starfish. Women are also having tattoos done in increasing numbers, "on the stomach and other places", as one young Tehrani told me.

Appearance, then, is every bit as important as in the West, which is not exactly what the Islamic revolutionaries had in mind back in 1979. In the early years, red lipstick was "an insult to the blood of the martyrs". For men, too, the cadres of the revolution were discouraged from wearing ties (too Western, too reminiscent of the Shah). Many took to wearing plastic sandals to demonstrate their revolutionary credentials. For women, it seems, the clerics wanted the public space free of any trace of overt femininity.

Satellite dishes have put the nail in that coffin. Upper-class Persians were always stylish, but watching shows like Sex and the City or the music videos of Lebanese superstar Nancy Ajram has given women of all backgrounds an eye for fashion and fitness. Even this has its complications.

At the vast and impressively equipped Enghelab sports complex, formerly the Imperial Country Club, a playground for the Shah and his royal entourage, Marjun Massoudi trots in front of me at a brisk pace along a superb "health road" busy with joggers and walkers. She makes a left turn, and we find ourselves at the edge of a fairway on Iran's only golf club which, despite having only 12 holes, has 3,000 members, many of them women.

Disappointingly, there's nobody teeing off, as I had been curious to see how to swing a club in a chador. But Marjun assures me golf is ideally suited to the Islamic dress code.

Huge efforts go into maintaining sexual apartheid in sport, although I notice at the rifle range two girls in headscarves and slim-fitting "manteaus" are taking lessons from a man. Marjun issues me with a swimsuit in case I want to come use one of the women-only swimming pools. Cut low on the thigh area with bulky bra pads, it's not exactly Edwardian, but still pretty modest given that there would be zero chance of being seen by a member of the opposite sex. No wonder home fitness DVDs are so popular here.

There are women who profess to be entirely happy with the status quo. A dozen or so of them spoke at a women's round table organised by the Iranian foreign ministry. "In the name of God the merciful the most compassionate..." each of the speakers began her contribution, a reminder that Iran is, first and foremost, a theocracy. Every woman in the room, apart from a member of the Jewish community, had an ankle-length chador and a head covering that blocked out every wisp of hair. All were highly educated and held senior positions: there was a judge, an agricultural scientist, several university lecturers and academics.

Far from subjugating women, the Islamic revolution elevated them in the family, they claimed, and female life expectancy has gone to 75 years from 58 before 1979. Rather, it was in "liberal democracies" that women were oppressed. "I have seen myself in some countries women are cleaning the streets," one speaker said, "They choose these jobs so that they can say they have equality. We don't think like this."

The physical punishments we found barbaric were merely "theoretical". "You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of stonings carried out in Iran in the past 10 years," said Fa'eze Bodaghi, a lawyer and judge. And floggings? "Physical punishment might look harsh, but it is immediate," she said, adding that Iranian law is quite often "misunderstood". "I don't want to say there is no problem. Inheritance laws [a widow is entitled to only one eighth of her husband's wealth], for example, are under review. But generally I think these women collecting signatures are after Western human rights standards, and we don't think that can work in Iran."

Afterwards, I share a taxi with Farzaneh Abdolmaleki, a senior civil servant. "We don't believe in gender equality, you see," she tells me, shaking her head. "The family is what matters and we all have different roles in the family."

Even if these women wanted a different set-up, they would be fairly powerless to do much about it, despite their relatively privileged positions, since it is men who make and interpret the law. There are, of course, competing factions within Iranian politics, some more secular-minded than others, and reforms have at least allowed women back into the judiciary. But there are still only eight female MPs out of 290, and real power is wielded by the Guardian Council, an unelected body of clerics who can veto any proposed legal change they deem to be unconstitutional.

In the official narrative of Iran, the self-styled superpower, there is scant room for public dissent. In this Iran, there are no disgruntled women, only fulfilled mothers, daughters, wives. "These rumours are just hoaxes got up by foreign enemies," Zahra Mostafavi Khomeini, the daughter of Ayatollah Khomeini retorted when I asked her what she thought of Alieh Egham Doost and the jailing of the activists. Her father, the man who inspired the Islamic revolution, was a champion of fairness for women, she added. "He wanted women to play a full part in society, not just as typists or nurses. At home, he never asked his wife, even once, 'give me a cup of tea', or 'close the door'. He did it himself!".

Attitudes among some Iranian men are less enlightened. One writer and his wife were horrified when they learnt that a friend whose kebab restaurant had run into financial difficulties was pressurising his wife to sell one of her kidneys.

Why the dogmatists among Iran's clerics and politicians should be so eager to gag those women who are not even challenging the Islamic system of government, but merely articulating fairly modest demands for parity within the Sharia legal code, is in some ways puzzling. They must have seen it coming. In the 30 years since the revolution, women have flocked to schools and colleges, literacy rates have rocketed and birth-control programmes have freed them from big families.

The result is that degree and PhD courses are crammed with young women who in earlier generations would have been in rural villages weaving carpets, married off at the age of 13, unable to read or write (two thirds of Iranian women were illiterate in 1979) because their fathers would not countenance them sharing classes with men. By imposing a strict dress code, the revolution opened up higher education to women. Now nearly 70 per cent of university intake is female. Millions of high-achieving Iranian women are now postponing marriage or seeking divorces from husbands they outrank intellectually, while waking up to the cultural and legal obstacles they face.

Parvin Ardalan is adamant that the signatures campaign is entirely compatible with Islam, and has no political agenda. If anything, the women want to challenge patriarchal attitudes that have nothing to do with religion. "We're not out to seize power. I don't need power to achieve what we want. We want change, but without regime change. We have no interest in being a political opposition movement."

But reformists in Iran have been pushed into the background since 2005, and the hardliners know just how potent, and ultimately dangerous, a grassroots movement, such as the women's campaign, could prove. More so, since it hasn't spawned among the usual ranks, the clergy or the merchant classes, but rather in the universities, the legal profession and the blogosphere (women run many of the 70,000 Farsi language blogs that have sprouted in Iran).

If the feminists wanted to tap into a groundswell, the numbers are there: half of Iran's 34.6 million women are under 25. Many young people are more interested in flouting the strictures on dating by swapping mobile numbers with boys, or attending vodka-fuelled "gatherings" in private homes, than in fighting the women's corner. But others like Maryam and Tahminah, a devout-looking pair of students in chadors I bumped into at a museum, told me some of their friends didn't believe in God, want a lot more freedom and spend much of their time on Facebook. "Everyone has anti-filter," Tahminah laughed, when I asked about internet censorship.

After the women's conference, I take a taxi to the offices of Katayoon Shahabi, 43, who against all the odds has set up her own film production company and is a regular at the Cannes, Venice and Berlin film festivals. Over tea and dates she describes some of the battles she had to fight when she worked for the state: "I had no authority to sign letters and they fretted over whether I would have to shake a man's hand if I went on a delegation to the West." (Even touching the hand of a man you're not married to is forbidden.)

But Iran's complexities and contradictions are never-ending, as Shahabi reminds me. Its women are typically matriarchal characters, self-confident, pushy and seem uniquely ill-suited to being cowed into conformity. And its men, she pleads, are not particularly macho. That's when I recalled it was Zohreh Vatankhah, the daredevil racer, who had spoken excitedly about her forthcoming pilgrimage to Karbala, in Iraq, the holiest shrine for Shia Muslims, how she keeps a copy of the Koran in her glove compartment, and has been to Mecca twice. Go figure, as an American might say.

The film producer is pragmatic; perhaps she has to be if she is to stay within Iran's "red lines" and keep her annually renewable business licence. She praises Ardalan's campaign, but won't be signing the petition. Why not? "In Iran, direct confrontation doesn't work. I protest in my own way. All the films I work with are about the condition of women," she says, citing the furore caused by Red Card, Mahnaz Afzali's film about an Iranian sentenced to death for murdering the wife of her football coach lover.

Open criticism, meanwhile, is left to the daughters of the mullahs. Faezeh Rafsanjani, outspoken daughter of ex-president and cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has assailed the law that gives a woman's life only half the value of a man's, while a liberal granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini is open about her support for the petition.

That campaign may now be crushed if Ardalan and the other women are jailed. But Iran is also approaching a fork in the road. Economic stagnation and chronic unemployment means there is a growing impatience with the current hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Elections in June could see him replaced by the reformist Mohamed Khatami, and dialogue with the US is on the horizon.

If the thaw comes, it could intensify the internal pressure for the sexual revolution in Iran. Could that pressure in turn be the spark that ignites the one thing the mullahs dread: a velvet revolution? That fear is perhaps why they are cracking down so hard on the women. "They feel very threatened," says one analyst, "When it is just one woman, like Shirin Ebadi, they can contain it, but the idea of a mighty popular force rising up to challenge them, that is something they could not control."

But curiously, it is not only the mullahs who are fearful of insurrectionist talk. "The experience of revolution showed us that women were not necessarily the winners from violent change," says Ardalan, "We need to take one step at a time". Katayoon Shahabi agrees: "We saw the revolution and we saw war. We know that sudden change is not Iran's solution. But things are moving, like a river. And rivers, as you know, are unstoppable."

The Lipstick Revolution in Iran

From Reuters
The irate male motorist shouts an obscenity. Zohreh Vatankhah, a professional racing driver, rolls down her window and tells him to shut up and get a life

FW: U.S. Government Documents Trend of Severe Human Rights Abuses Against LGBT People – Responses Urgently Needed

Press Release
Contact:  Mark Bromley - Council Chair
For Immediate Release
February 26, 2009
U.S. Government Documents Trend of Severe Human Rights Abuses Against LGBT People - Responses Urgently Needed

Council for Global Equality Posts "Top Ten" List of Countries Where the U.S. Should Do More

Washington, DC - February 26, 2009 - On Wednesday, the State Department released a report to Congress that examines the human rights record of every country around the world.  Once again, the State Department report documents an unfortunate crisis in human rights abuse directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people worldwide.  Based on that report, the Council for Global Equality offers its own "Top Ten" Opportunities for the U.S. to Respond" to the abuses cited by the State Department.

The Council's list of the "Top Ten Opportunities for the U.S. to Respond" provides examples of how the U.S. could use its influence to make a critical contribution to human rights by reacting more assertively to abuses in each country.  The list includes Egypt, Gambia, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Lithuania, Nigeria, and Uganda.  Details on how the U.S. should respond to the human rights crisis in each country can be found at

This year's human rights report from the State Department is the most comprehensive to date with regards to sexual orientation and gender identity issues (referenced in 190 country reports) and points to a growing crisis in human rights abuse directed against LGBT people around the world.  LGBT-related incidents cited in this year's report include arbitrary arrest and detention, police abuse, rape, and even murder.  Many of the most egregious abuses have been committed in countries considered to be friends and allies of the United States, including those that receive sizeable U.S. development or security assistance.  In many cases, there sadly is evidence of either the complicit or direct involvement of police or other government officials.

Although the facts in some cases are unclear, the Council for Global Equality believes the State Department must move beyond a reporting agenda to an affirmative "protection agenda" that actively seeks to redress these serious and ongoing human rights violations. "The United States government should respond to LGBT abuses abroad with the same principled concern that we have shown for other international human rights concerns, including the trafficking in human beings," stated Mark Bromley, Chair of the Council.

"We have reviewed the 2008 report, and selected our 'top ten' countries to show where the United States could do more to end such horrific abuses of the human rights of LGBT people," added Julie Dorf, Senior Advisor to the Council.  "We saved an honorable mention for the United States on our list - because we still have much to do at home to restore our nation to its leadership position on these issues of fairness and equality," added Ambassador Michael Guest, also a Senior Advisor to the Council.

The Council's "Top Ten" list can be found on the Council's web site at, along with the entire compilation of sexual orientation and gender identity citations from the 2008 report. The Council for Global Equality can offer additional spokespeople for the media from member organizations to discuss the report, including regional specialists from Global Rights, Hartland Alliance, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
About The Council for Global Equality

The Council for Global Equality is a coalition effort that encourages a clearer and stronger American voice on international lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender human rights concerns.
Council for Global Equality
Mark Bromley          Julie Dorf              Michael Guest
Council Chair           Senior Advisor      Senior Advisor

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Iraq's Queer Underground Railroad

From the Guardian

Iraq's queer underground railroad

A secret network of safe houses and escape routes is saving gay Iraqis from execution by Islamist death squads

Peter Tatchell, Wednesday 25 February 2009 21.30 GMT

In the bad old days of slavery in the United States, there was the "Underground Railroad" – a clandestine network of secret routes and safe houses – which spirited thousands of southern slaves to freedom in the north.

Today, 200 years later in Iraq, a modern version of the underground railroad is saving the lives of gay people who are fleeing Islamist death squads. It is providing safe houses in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, and is smuggling lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people to neighbouring countries, where it helps them apply for United Nations humanitarian protection. This secret network, coordinated by Iraqi LGBT exiles in London, is saving dozens of lives.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, homophobia and the terrorisation of LGBT people has got much worse. The western invasion of Iraq in 2003 ended the tyrannical Baathist dictatorship. But it also destroyed a secular state, created chaos and lawlessness and allowed the flourishing of religious fundamentalism. The result has been an Islamist-inspired homophobic terror campaign against LGBT Iraqis.

You can watch two short videos, which show the terror of queer life in "democratic" Iraq here and here.

This campaign of terror is sanctioned by Iraq's leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In 2005, he issued a fatwa urging the killing of LGBT people in the "worst, most severe way" possible.

This is the same Sistani who was praised by President Bush as a "leading moderate". The British government concurred. We hosted him in Britain for medical treatment. He was anti-Saddam, so the west backed him, even after he issued his murderous religious edicts.

Although the general security situation has improved in Iraq, for LGBT people it has deteriorated sharply. Systematic assassinations of queers are being orchestrated by police and security agents in the interior ministry, many of whom are former members of the Iranian-backed Badr Corps militia.

Queers are being shot dead in their homes, streets and workplaces. Even suspected gay children are being murdered. They killers claim to be doing these assassinations at the behest of the "democratic" Iraqi government, in order to eradicate what they see as immoral, un-Islamic behaviour.

This programme of targeted murders has one aim, according to the death squads: the total eradication of all queers from Iraq. It is, in effect, a form of sexual cleansing. The killers boast that most "sodomites" have already been eliminated.

The interior ministry is, of course, a key ministry in the UK-backed and US-backed government of Iraq. Some democracy! In fact, there is no democracy or human rights at all for Iraqi queers. If the government in Baghdad is not actively encouraging the mass killing of LGBT people, it is definitely allowing rogue police and Islamists to do so.

To protect against this terror and save lives, the Iraqi LGBT organisation has created its underground queer railroad, complete with safe houses and escape routes.

"Since establishing the safe houses project in 2006 we have provided refuge for dozens of gay people who were being hunted by death squads," reports Ali Hili, coordinator of Iraqi LGBT.

"We have also assisted people to escape from Iraq to neighbouring countries, where we have established resettlement projects. Our efforts have got gay refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and we've already moved some of them a third safer country, in Europe or North America. These lucky ones are now beginning to rebuild their lives," Mr Hili said

K is a 33-year-old architect who escaped to Amman in Jordan. He now helps run the Iraqi LGBT support group there, aiding other LGBT refugees from Iraq. So far, seven out of 23 Iraqi LGBT refugees who have been smuggled to Jordan have had their applications for asylum approved by the UNHCR and been able to secure asylum in countries such as the United States, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany.

This heroic work is not without its risks and sacrifices. Many of the underground activists have been assassinated, in a series of grisly homophobic and transphobic murders.

Two lesbians who ran the safe house in the city of Najaf were butchered, together with a young boy they had rescued from the sex industry. Last summer, the coordinator of a Baghdad safe house, Bashar, was gunned to death in his local barber's shop by an Islamist hit squad. Previously, five gay activists who organised another Baghdad safe house were massacred.

The lack of funds is a perpetual problem. Three of the five safe houses in Baghdad had to close last year because of a lack of donations to keep them running. Two have since been reopened but it is a constant struggle to fund them. Money is needed to pay rent, electricity and food bills for the 10-12 LGBT refugees who are crammed into each house. Many more LGBT Iraqis still need a place to hide.

Iraqi LGBT can be contacted through its website

Malaysian TV Censors Oscar Speech

Gay Asians criticize Oscar speech's TV censorship

Network removed sound on words 'gay' and 'lesbian'

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) | Feb 25, 9:24 AM

Gay Asians voiced indignation Wednesday after television broadcasts of the Academy Awards in their region censored the words "gay" and "lesbian" in speeches that called for equal rights for homosexuals.

The speeches by actor Sean Penn and writer Dustin Lance Black — who won Oscars for their work in "Milk" — were shown in full during live broadcasts of the Oscars that were screened across Asia on Monday morning.

But viewers who caught recorded telecasts in the evening on STAR, an Asian satellite TV service that says it reaches more than 300 million viewers in 53 countries, noticed that the sound was removed whenever both men mentioned "gay" or "lesbian."

"As a gay man, I am truly offended," Pang Khee Teik, a prominent Malaysian arts commentator, wrote in a letter sent out to several media organizations. "Stop censoring the words that describe who I am."

Pang said the move "sent a message ... that gays and lesbians are still shameful things to be censored from the public's ears."

Users of Internet forums in Singapore and India also complained about the censored speeches.

Jannie Poon, STAR's Hong Kong-based spokeswoman, stressed that the company had no intention of upsetting any viewers, but said it has "a responsibility to take the sensitivities and guidelines of all our markets into consideration."

Poon said she was not immediately aware that the speeches had been censored, but noted that STAR's preliminary ratings for the Oscar broadcasts indicated "record-breaking" audiences, especially in India and Taiwan.

Viewers first noticed that the words were silenced when Black offered a tribute to slain American gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk while accepting the Oscar for best original screenplay for "Milk."

"If Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he would want me to say to all the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight ... that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value, and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you," Black said.

Penn, who was named best actor for playing Milk, commented in his speech on California's recent vote to ban gay marriage.

"For those who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight, I think it's a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect on their great shame and their shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that support," Penn said.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Love in the Time of Taliban

Burqa-clad Afghan women walk in the old city of Herat on Aug. 1, 2008. Afghan women are in a subordinate position in society, where conservative Islamic laws and traditions dictate what a woman is allowed to do in a male-dominated world. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

Love in the time of Taliban

The obstacles to romantic love in Afghanistan are numerous, but so too are the people who try.

By Jean MacKenzie - GlobalPost

Published: February 13, 2009 17:51 ET

KABUL, Afghanistan — It's reassuring to know that Cupid strings his little bow as often in Afghanistan as elsewhere.

And while love is never a simple proposition, the Afghans delight in making it as complicated as possible.

Here are four of their stories: 

Burqa no barrier

Aman, a 19 year old with good prospects and an attractive face, caught the eye of Fatima, the unmarried girl next door. Wrapped in her sky-blue burqa, she would arrange to linger by her gate when he left his house, and began passing him notes, which amounted to blatant seduction by the standards of the time.

Given Aman's romantic disposition and frustrated libido, it was not long before they were an item. There were more notes, and furtive meetings at the market, when Fatima could get out of the house. They even, shockingly, held hands sometimes when the Virtue Police were not around.

If caught, it would have meant disaster, dishonor, a beating or worse.

"Several times we passed her father on the street," Aman laughed. "He never knew. One burqa looks the same as another."

Fatima began pressuring Aman to marry her. Aman, a student, was in no position to take on a wife, and Fatima broke off the relationship.

A few years later, once the Taliban had gone, Aman was approached by a strange woman on the street. She was quite a bit older than he, perhaps 35 or more, with a plain face and a round, matronly body.

"Don't you know me?" she smiled. Her voice gave it all away. It was Fatima.

"I was shocked," he said. "This old woman was my former love!

"You see," he added wistfully, "In the three years we were together, I never saw her face."

Romeo and ...  Leili?

Afghans have a taste for tragedy, not surprising, given their history. Every child knows the story of Majnoon and Leili, star-crossed lovers who met, fell in love, and were separated by family squabbles. It ends of course, in death and madness.

Aziz was a modern-day Majnoon. He and Shukria fell in love in high school. She was a flashing, dark-eyed beauty, he a brooding Heathcliff type. They were both headed for medical school when the Taliban took over their northern city. Along with music, kite-flying and photography, the Taliban put an end to female education, and Shukria was closeted at home.

But the north was much more difficult to subdue than Kabul. Aziz went on to study medicine, and became something of a renegade. He and his classmates made moonshine in the X-ray lab, had secret music parties and continued their banned but beloved pastime, gambling.

Shukria's father also loved a good game of cards, until he lost a great deal of money one night to a very nasty man. He could not pay, so resorted to the time-honored Afghan tradition of baad — settling debts and disputes by giving away commodities like sheep, goats or girls.

Shukria became the wife of a man older than her father, and Aziz was in despair.

"I could not give her up," he told me one night, over an illegal bottle of wine. "I arranged to meet her secretly." The two began an affair – no more chaste looks and smiles, they became lovers. Aziz would go to her house at night, while her husband was out drinking or gambling. Under the Taliban, they would have been executed if they were caught.

For more than a year they continued their liaison dangereuse. Then Shukria vanished.

Aziz suspected that her husband had found out and murdered her. Honor killings are still frequent in Afghanistan, and are seldom punished.

He had no word for seven years. By then the Taliban had toppled, and the wonders of the modern age had come to Kabul. Aziz, who in the interim had become a doctor, learned English and turned into a computer whiz, was online late one evening when he received an e-mail from Shukria. She was in London, sans husband, and wanted to establish contact.

Yahoo became their motel room in cyberspace, and they chatted for hours. Sometimes he would arrive for work red-eyed and unshaven, having stayed up all night with his London lady love.

"So go and marry her," I suggested. He just shook his head. "She is not for me," was all he would say.

Perhaps the taint of scandal still clung to the pair, or perhaps Aziz had grown too comfortable with his role as tragic hero. They never saw each other again.

Childhood sweethearts

Sometimes things do work out, in an Afghan sort of way.

Rahman and Belquis were first cousins, and had grown up together. Childhood playmates, they realized when they reached puberty that they had also formed a deeper attachment.

First cousins marry all the time in Afghanistan. It cuts down on bride prices, and you know you're marrying into a good family. Doctors warn in vain of genetic consequences, but a hefty percentage of all marriages are between relatives.

Rahman could not say that he wanted to marry Belquis – such directness in matters of the heart is frowned upon. Instead, he began to make noises that it was time to find him a wife. When, as expected, his mother suggested Belquis, he pretended reluctance, but finally agreed. That was enough to seal the deal. They were duly affianced.

Then the trouble started. As cousins, they could meet, talk, even touch, but as fiances, they were not allowed to see each other or even to correspond for the next three years. Rahman's mother would make visits, and occasionally bring him a photo, but he could not so much as hear Belquis's voice.

Finally, the day arrived. Afghan weddings are almost invariably segregated. The men are on one floor, the women on another. The men dance the furious atan, the women sit and chatter about children, housework, or, of course, men.

Rahman and Belquis saw each other only late that night, when the mullah came to recite the nikaa, or blessing. They kissed the Koran, sat under a veil and looked together into a mirror, where their eyes could meet for the first time in three years.

The pair are happily married, with a healthy baby boy who looks just like both of them.

Love and other disasters

A final, cautionary tale: Be careful what you wish for.

Gul Ahmad was working in his father's fabric store in Kandahar when Fawzia came in. They began speaking. He made a bold proposition – could he see her face? So she raised her burqa, and a spark caught fire — the two were in love.

But soon after, Gul Ahmad was forced to join the Taliban — his family having been "taxed" one son for the cause. He spent several months with the group, until the American invasion set him free. He made a run for home, to marry Fawzia.

In the meantime, his father had arranged for his engagement to a cousin. He tried to refuse, but the deal had been made. His Gul Ahmad wanted Fawzia to become his second wife — Afghans by law are allowed four.

But Fawzia was heartbroken. Her family would not agree to the less prestigious second-wife position, and said no to the match. Fawzia refused to marry anyone but Gul Ahmad.

The standoff continued for more than six years. The two could not meet, but in the remarkable post-Taliban freedom, he was able to speak to her by phone, sometimes as many as 10 times a day.

Just a few months ago, Fawzia's father finally relented, most likely because the poor girl was getting a bit long in the tooth to fetch a good bride price.

Gul Ahmad scraped together the $20,000 needed for a wedding, and he now lives with both wives in his family compound.

"This is really hard," he said a few weeks after the wedding, shaking his head. "One wife is trouble enough."

Don't Try to Speak to the Muslim World; It Does Not Exist

From the San Francisco Chronicle - Open Forum

Don't try to speak to the Muslim world

Olivier Roy

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Obama administration must not try to speak to something called the "Muslim world." It does not exist!

To offer a dialogue with the "Muslim world" is precisely to play on the narrative of Osama bin Laden: The world is divided into two parts, the "West" and the "Muslims." This narrative allows bin Laden to cast himself as the best protector of such a virtual "Muslim world."

From Gaza to India, most of the conflicts where Muslims are involved have nothing to do with Islam. Hamas represents Palestinian nationalism under a thin Islamic garb. In Iraq, factions are competing over land and power, not Islamic law. The Mumbai attacks stemmed from the conflict between India and Pakistan, fueled by the Pakistani army.

Moreover, Muslims in the West want to be considered first as Western citizens, not as the bridgehead of a foreign influence. Speaking of a "Muslim world" means pointing to "our" Muslims as foreigners. By addressing the "Muslim world," do we mean to suggest that the West is defined by Christianity or by secularism?

President Obama cannot speak as the head of the Christian world. But to present the rule of law and human rights as typically Western secular values gives credence to authoritarian Arab leaders and Muslim conservative clerics, who are happy to present these values as "foreign." If Obama tries to open an official dialogue with them, he will effectively define these leaders as representative of the "Muslim world," thus pre-empting any change. Our policy must recognize the diversity of Islamic people, not assuming a monolithic world.

Olivier Roy is a visiting professor of political science at UC Berkeley and author of "The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East"(Columbia University Press, 2008). For other ideas from UC Berkeley, go to

Monday, February 23, 2009

Gruesome Killing Poses Another Test for US Muslims

In this photo made available by Bridges TV, Muzzammil Hassan, and his wife Aasiya Hassan of Orchard Park, NY, near Buffalo, pose in an undated photo. Police say Hassan beheaded his wife after she filed for divorce. (AP Photo/Bridges TV)

Gruesome killing poses another test for US Muslims

The crime was so brutal, shocking and rife with the worst possible stereotypes about their faith that some U.S. Muslims thought the initial reports were a hoax.

The harsh reality of what happened in an affluent suburb of Buffalo, N.Y. — the beheading of 37-year-old Aasiya Hassan and arrest of her estranged husband in the killing — is another crucible for American Muslims.

Here was a couple that appeared to be the picture of assimilation and tolerance, co-founders of a television network that aspired to improve the image of Muslims in a post 9-11 world.

Now, as Muzzammil "Mo" Hassan faces second-degree murder charges, those American Muslims who have spoken out are once again explaining that their faith abhors such horrible acts, and they are using the tragedy as a rallying cry against domestic violence.

The killing and its aftermath raise hard questions for Muslims — about gender issues, about distinctions between cultural and religious practices, and about differing interpretations of Islamic texts regarding the treatment of women.

"Muslims don't want to talk about this for good reason," said Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, a Muslim author and activist. "There is so much negativity about Muslims, and it sort of perpetuates it. The right wing is going to run with it and misuse it. But we've got to shine a light on this issue so we can transform it."

There is evidence of movement in that direction in the 10 days since the Hassan slaying. In an open letter to American Muslim leaders, Imam Mohamed Hagmagid Ali of Sterling, Va., vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, said "violence against women is real and cannot be ignored."

He urged that imams and community leaders never second-guess a woman in danger, and said women seeking divorces because of physical abuse should not be viewed as bringing shame to their families.

Muslim women's advocates consider the statement significant after years of indifference in a community which has seen only recent progress — for example, the opening of shelters for battered Muslim women in a few major cities.

"This is a horrible tragedy, but it gives us a window," said Abdul-Ghafur, editor of the anthology "Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak." "The next time a woman comes to her imam and says, 'He hit me,' the reply might not be, 'Be patient, sister, is there something you did, sister? Is there something you can do?' The chances are greater the imam will say, 'This is unacceptable.'"

At least nine mosques, imams and Islamic organizations also agreed to denounce domestic violence this week at the behest of a coalition of Muslims that organized on Facebook after Aasiya Hassan's death.

"What you have is a cultural problem our communities have been silent about too long," said Wajahat Ali, a journalist and playwright who helped drive the effort. "What people with an agenda are trying to do is say this is an example of a barbaric religion. This is an example of barbaric misogyny and domestic violence."

At the South Bay Islamic Association in San Jose, Calif., Imam Tahir Anwar said he preached at Friday prayer services about keeping peace in the family and denounced physical and emotional domestic violence.

"I wouldn't say (the problem) is particular to the Muslim community, but to the immigrant community whether you're Muslim or otherwise," Anwar, whose parents are from India, said in an interview. "Women don't speak up about it. It's a taboo that all immigrant communities sort of face."

Of Islam's potential role in the Hassan slaying, Anwar said: "All religions have texts that can be misinterpreted. Good people regardless of faith would never do something like this."

While sermons like Anwar's are encouraging, other Muslim clerics in the U.S. likely preached that Aasiya Hassan could have avoided her fate by being more obedient, said Muqtedar Khan, an associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware.

"The imam has to be enlightened enough to recognize this violence happens, to not hide in denial or somehow blame it on American culture," said Khan, author of "American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom."

"In order to essentially condemn violence against women, they will have to treat women with greater respect. Unfortunately, the level of enlightenment among imams in North America varies significantly."

Asra Nomani, a Muslim journalist, author and activist from Morgantown, W.Va., challenged Muslims who say the murder has no link to Islamic teachings. While Islam does not sanction domestic violence or murder, a literal reading of a controversial verse in the Quran taught in some mosques can lead to honor killings and murder, she said.

"It's sort of like the typical reaction to terrorism in the community, where people want to say, 'This had nothing to do with Islam,'" Nomani said. "Well, it doesn't have anything to do with your interpretation of Islam that teaches you can't kill innocent people. But terrorism, violence, honor killing — they are all part of ideological problems we have in the community we need to eradicate."

The passage — Chapter 4, Verse 34 — has been widely translated to sanction physical discipline against disobedient wives. There is disagreement about to what degree and whether it's punitive or symbolic.

The verse is cited "all the time" to justify domestic violence, just as people of other faiths cite scriptures to support oppression of women, said Salma Abugideri of the Peaceful Families Project, which offers training and workshops to combat domestic violence in Muslim communities.

"People will use whatever they can to justify their behavior," she said. "It just seems that people outside the Muslim faith just tend to buy that rationalization as true."

There also has been speculation — by the head of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Woman, among others — that the Hassan case involved honor killing, in which a person is slain by a relative who believes the victim has brought shame to the family.

Aasiya Hassan was killed six days after her husband was served with divorce papers and a protective order. Mo Hassan is a native of Pakistan; acquaintances said he was not overtly religious, and his lawyer has said neither religion nor culture played a role in what happened.

Marsha Freeman, director of the International Women's Rights Action Watch at the University of Minnesota, said honor killing is a cultural and not religious phenomenon. She said it's practiced in some Muslim countries but not others and is present in nations with people of other religions.

"I wouldn't go running around talking about honor killings without knowing more," Freeman said.

On Web sites and e-mail lists, many Muslims are rejecting the term.

"Calling it an honor killing, it sort of takes it out of the mainstream conversation and makes it a conversation about those people from over there from those backwards countries," said Abugideri, of the Peaceful Families Project. "In fact, in this country and in mainstream society there are many cases where domestic violence escalates to the point where a woman is killed."

Saudi Princess Says She's Ready to Drive

From the Associated Press

In this Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007 file photo, Saudi Princess Amira al-Taweel, the wife of Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, looks on during a ceremony at the Louvre museum in Paris, France. Amira, the wife of one of Saudi Arabia's most high profile and richest men, said she's ready to get behind the wheel if women are ever permitted to drive in the country, highlighting again a contentious issue authorities in this conservative desert kingdom prefer to play down. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)

Saudi princess says she's ready to drive

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — The wife of one of Saudi Arabia's most high profile and richest men said she's ready to get behind the wheel if women are ever permitted to drive, highlighting again a contentious issue authorities in this conservative desert kingdom prefer to play down.

Princess Amira al-Taweel, who is one global tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's wives, told the Saudi daily Al-Watan that she already drives when she travels abroad.

"Certainly I'm ready to drive a car," said al-Taweel, whose husband is a nephew of Saudi King Abdallah and is ranked as the world's 13th-richest person by Forbes magazine. "I have an international driver's license, and I drive a car in all the countries I travel to."

Her answer came after the interviewer noted that her husband had said in a previous interview he would be the first to let his wife and daughter drive if the ban was lifted.

Women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to drive. Saudi officials usually sidestep the question by saying the issue is a social and not religious one, but over the years a handful of princesses have spoken out in support of driving, including Princess Lolwah Al-Faisal, daughter of the late King Faisal, at the World Economic Forum two years ago.

"I prefer driving a car with my sister or friend next to me instead of being with a driver who is not (related to me)," al-Taweel said in her interview, referring to the drivers women are forced to employ.

The attention the issue receives from Saudi newspapers, which are government-guided, is intermittent. Readers and columnists have over the years debated the pros and cons of women's driving with no progress being made on the ground.

This kingdom is the only country in the world to ban women — Saudi and foreign — from driving. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers, and those who cannot afford the $300-$400 a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor.

But change will be difficult in this ultraconservative society, where many believe that women at the wheel create situations for sinful temptation. They argue that women drivers will be free to leave home alone, will unduly expose their eyes while driving and will interact with male strangers, such as traffic police and mechanics.

Saudi Tackles Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

From Alaswaat

Saudi Tackles Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat - Saudi Arabia is considering legislating laws aimed at tackling sexual harassment particularly in the work place, the punishment for which could be up to three years imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 Saudi Riyals [SR].

A specialized subcommittee within the Shura Council is engaged in issuing laws to curtail the phenomena of sexual harassment in the work place in light of draft laws that have already been prepared and are being studied by the Shura Council.

Dr. Talal Bakri, Chairman of the Committee for Social, Family and Youth Affairs within the Shura Council, told Asharq Al-Awsat that he expected the new subcommittee to help speed up legislation and that proper punishments will be decided via the Islamic Affairs subcommittee. The punishment will be equal to the violation and each case of sexual harassment needs to be studied in order to determine a suitable punishment. The Islamic Affairs subcommittee will name the authority that will undertake the implementation of the draft law. He added that new legislations would contribute greatly to curbing the phenomena of sexual harassment.

For his part, Dr. Mazen Abdul Raziq Belila, a member of the Shura Council told Asharq Al-Awsat that he had suggested discussing legislation to combat sexual harassment and this was approved by the concerned subcommittee. He presented the discussion once again to the Minister of Justice who said that his ministry would back the law once endorsed by the Shura Council.

"A draft law has been prepared to combat sexual harassment against women and it has been financed by the private sector, which undertook a scientific and legal study that looked at laws and legislations in Arab, Islamic and western countries concerning sexual harassment in order to come up with mechanisms appropriate for Saudi society that do not contradict Islamic Sharia," Dr. Belila said.

Dr. Belila added that several topics were discussed during a meeting such as sexual blackmail and how incidents of sexual harassment could be proved.

The draft law proposed that mechanisms to combat sexual harassment must be independent and not part of the labour law, as it is easier to issue a new law rather than amend an existing one. The law emphasized that the stronger the perpetrator is in comparison to the victim, the stronger the punishment will be.

Dr. Belila clarified that Article 1 of the draft law stipulates that any comments, actions or signs that clearly indicate that one party wants to sexually harass another, insulting, provoking, degradation or behaving in an immodest manner would be considered sexual harassment.

The punishment that one could face for committing sexual harassment is a minimum of six months imprisonment and a maximum of one year as well as a fine of between SR 20,000 and SR 50,000, or either imprisonment or a fine. In cases of repeated acts of sexual harassment, the punishment is doubled.

Dr. Belila pointed out that Article 2 of the draft law defines sexual harassment in the workplace as any of the acts described in Article 1 by an employer towards his employee or vice-versa or by an employee towards another employee regardless of the nature of work or the relationship between the two parties and regardless of whether the incident takes place during the work day or inside or outside of the work place as long as the professional relationship is the cause or reason for sexual harassment.

The proposed penalties for sexual harassment at the work place are stronger as the law stipulates that the perpetrator should be sentenced to no less than one year imprisonment and no more than three years and to pay a fine of no less than SR 50,000.

Dr. Belila added that Article 3 stresses that the chairman and directors at government corporations and business owners or their deputies should ensure that the work environment is free of sexual harassment. They should set effective rules and take all the necessary procedures to combat sexual harassment by raising awareness of the danger of sexual harassment with regards to religious and social values, ensuring that the work environment complies with Sharia law.

Dr. Belila stressed that Article 4 states that the chairman, director or the owner of the company is responsible for all cases of sexual harassment that take place in the company unless he is proven to have taken all the necessary precautions against sexual harassment.

Article 5 requests that the victim brings evidence of sexual harassment and states that the defendant has the right to refute the claim of harassment using any evidence. However, proving or refuting the claim will be the responsibility of the investigation authority.

A questionnaire entitled 'Sexual Harassment and Suffering that Saudi Women Face Working with Men,' was answered by approximately 1000 Saudi women working in different fields such as medicine, education, banking, media, administration and technology. It revealed that most female employees had no difficulty in convincing their families to let them work. Their personal statuses were as follows: 48 per cent married, 42 per cent single and 10 per cent divorced.

As for their reasons for wanting to work, the majority of women said that they wanted to achieve personal goals whilst others stated that they wanted to earn money or spend their time working. Some said that they consider work a social responsibility for which they would be rewarded as well as a way to gain independence from men. This gives them financial security in case of divorce.

The questionnaire revealed that 21 per cent of female employees had experienced inappropriate behaviour from their employers whereas 35 per cent suffered similar treatment from colleagues who were equal to them or occupied a lower position than them at work.

At least 68 per cent of the women included in the questionnaire worked with men in comparison to 24 percent who worked in separate departments for women. Men would use flattery to sense a woman's reaction before taking any further action. Nearly 28 per cent revealed that they were asked out on dates after office hours, 24 per cent received late-night phone calls from colleagues whereas 15 per cent admitted that they had been harassed verbally or physically.

Some participants explained that filing a complaint to bosses, supervisors or directors, or even ignoring men who harass women helps to deter colleagues. However, sexual harassment has caused a great deal of suffering to female employees as the questionnaire revealed that 32 per cent of employees have been harassed by employers or colleagues and have suffered negative psychological effects as these women would fear that if they took a stand against harassment they would be scandalized, dismissed from their jobs or denied promotions.

Nearly 22 per cent were subjected to more than just flirting, which is an indicator of lack of religious or moral restraints for some men as well as a lack of etiquette when talking to women.

The reactions to cases of sexual harassment differ: seven per cent of women stressed that they preferred to remain silent about the harassment they suffered out of fear that they would be scandalized, eight per cent also remained silent so that their families would not find out about harassment and force them to quit their jobs, whereas 24 percent filed complaints against the perpetrators. Most women took a firm stand against those who harass them and put a stop to it. However, two per cent said that they humoured the perpetrators out of fear whereas four per cent did so in order not to lose their jobs. Some employees quit their jobs to avoid seeing the perpetrators, according to some participants.

Approximately 83 per cent of the women who took part in the questionnaire called for tough laws including dismissal, imprisonment and fines to be imposed in order to deter sexual harassment whereas others requested that there should only be mixed work environments if absolutely necessary. Surprisingly, only eleven per cent of women stated that the work environment should be segregated.

Some of the women who took part in the questionnaire indicated that women could reduce sexual harassment by behaving respectably and wearing Hijab in the presence of men. They also supported the idea of female employees being made aware of their rights and encouraged to express their feelings, not to remain silent if they have suffered harassment. Some of the participants suggested following the example of Saudi Aramco, which has strict laws regarding sexual harassment.

Some 80 per cent of the female employees who participated in the questionnaire believe that improving social skills would decrease the number of cases of sexual harassment, which would help them excel in their work. Some participants suggested putting up posters in the work place to warn men against the consequences of sexual harassment and for women to be aware of their rights. They added that complete segregation between men and women would have a negative impact. They also called for tough laws to ensure that female employees could work in a harassment-free working environment.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Saudi Arabia Urged to Half Floggings, Give Women Rights

Saudi Arabia urged to halt floggings, give women rights

Fri Feb 6, 2009 7:25pm IST

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - Western countries called on Saudi Arabia on Friday to halt floggings and amputations, allow religious freedom and abolish a system of male guardianship sharply limiting women's rights.

Britain, Canada, Switzerland and Israel challenged Riyadh on issues including its high number of executions. Saudi Arabia executes murderers, rapists and drug traffickers, usually by public beheading, and judges sometimes give the death sentence to armed robbers and those convicted of "sorcery" or desecrating the Koran.

A Saudi delegation defended its record at the United Nations Human Rights Council, saying the country was cracking down on domestic violence by men who abused their roles as guardians and beat their wives and children.

Zaid Al-Hussein, vice president of the state-affiliated Saudi Human Rights Commission, told the forum much remained to be done to ensure that individual followers of Islam uphold human rights standards, as required by sharia law.

"Consequently, we do not claim to be perfect, nor do we reject criticism, which is welcome provided it is objective and intended to preserve human rights and dignity," he said.

The 47 member-state Council began regular reviews of all U.N. members last June in a bid to avoid charges of selectivity.

Hussein said non-Muslims could follow their faiths in private in the kingdom, but it would be difficult to allow non-Muslim houses of worship as "Islam is the final religion".

The oil-exporting Gulf country, a major U.S. ally, has paid $100 million compensation to people detained in terrorist cases who were later found to be innocent, he said.


Israel accused Saudi Arabia of "severe discrimination against women and minorities, corporal punishment, torture, forced labour, and the sexual exploitation of children".

It should "abolish corporal punishment, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in general, and public floggings, eye-gouging, flogging of schoolchildren, and amputation of limbs in particular," Israeli ambassador Aharon Leshno Yaar said.

British envoy Peter Gooderham urged the kingdom to "abolish the guardianship system which severely limits the rights of women to act as autonomous and equal members of Saudi society".

A U.N. women's rights watchdog said last year the system severely limited freedoms guaranteed by international law. It restricts women's rights in marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, property ownership and decision-making in the family, and choice of residency, education and jobs.

Canada recommended that Saudi Arabia "cease application of torture" and other cruel treatment.

The United States did not take the floor in the three-hour debate. The Obama administration is reviewing its policy towards the Council, which the Bush administration had essentially boycotted since last June citing its "rather pathetic record".

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Saudi Activist: Female Minister 'First Step' But More Needed

From CNN

Saudi activist: Female minister 'first step' but more needed

Saudi King Abdullah has appointed a woman to his council of ministers for the first time.
Saudi King Abdullah has appointed a woman to his council of ministers for the first time.

(CNN) -- The appointment of a Saudi woman as a vice minister in the country's government is a "first step" for women's rights in Saudi Arabia, but "more serious changes" are needed, an outspoken advocate said Sunday.

"It is something really great, and we are very proud of our king that he took this decision," Wajeha al-Huwaider told CNN. "And I think it's going to be the first step toward the reform that he promised."

King Abdullah on Saturday appointed Norah al-Faiz to serve as the newly created vice minister for women's education as part of a major Cabinet reshuffling. It is the highest rank a woman has achieved in the Saudi government.

"I'm very proud to be nominated and selected for such a prestigious position," al-Faiz told CNN on Saturday. "I hope that other ladies, females, will follow in the future."

Al-Faiz said she's confident her appointment is not simple tokenism.

"I think by being the second person after the minister, I think I have enough power to work in the improvement of girls' education," she said. Watch more on the shake-up in the Saudi government »

But al-Huwaider said it is unclear if al-Faiz will have any real power, or if she will follow the path of other Saudi women who had been appointed to lower councils but were never heard from.

She noted that Saudi women still do not have the right to drive and are still recognized under Saudi law as the property of men.

"Even this minister now ... she is not really in control of her life," al-Huwaider noted. "It is not up to her, it's up to her male guardian."

She said the "guardianship system" is the first thing that should be removed by the new Saudi government.

"This is the main thing that is controlling our life," al-Huwaider said. "We want to be able to drive our cars, you know, to feel like we are just like the rest of the world."

Other positions that were replaced were the head of Saudi Arabia's influential Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, as well as the ministers of health, justice, culture and education.

Khaled al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of Arab News, an English-language daily newspaper in Saudi Arabia, said that the entire Cabinet reshuffling "sends a clear signal that the King means business."

"King Abdullah has always been saying this for quite some time, that he would like to see the country progress," al-Maeena told CNN. "He has taken many initiatives, reforms, enhanced the power of women....

"And right now, by getting these people who are young -- some of them -- who have the right ambition and the right knowledge, to go ahead, I think it means that there is going to be a march towards progress."

Valentine's Day Across the Muslim World (2012)