Monday, May 5, 2014

Admitted to a Mental Asylum for Disbelieving


I can’t remember what convinced me to trust my father when he claimed we were going to go take a walk, just days after we had a fight about me wanting to take off my veil. Before I knew it, I found myself in front of an insane asylum. Three large guys shoved me inside as I kicked, screamed, and cursed. Hours later, I met Dr. Ashraf, a rather stern-looking shrink with hatred written all over his face, which was covered with a messy, bushy beard that resembled a small, furry creature trying to devour his head. It was strangely amusing seeing him in a lab coat. It was like seeing a Neanderthal in a suit attempting a more civilized look and waiting for him to snap and reveal his true barbaric nature. “You will room with her” he said, pointing at an old skinny lady with heavy makeup and sticky semi-dyed hair who glanced from the Neanderthal to me, then back to the Neanderthal, “oh don’t tell me she’s crazy!” She said laughing hysterically. “My, what a pretty young thing! Tell me child, have you ever been eaten?” She asked as she stared at me hungrily. I pictured her tearing my flesh and consuming me till I vanished into thin air. “Oh no, you get me out of here! You get me out of here right now! I am not rooming with a cannibal!” I said fiercely to the Neanderthal. “Cannibal?! Damn it, the child really is crazy” shrieked the old lady. “You will do as you are told”replied the Neanderthal smugly. I gathered every shred of strength I possessed and punched him. Seconds later, I was surrounded by an invasion of injections that made everything turn dark.

I woke up and started observing the women in the ward. Apart from a schizophrenic girl named Marwa, I was the youngest person there. “Marwa! Marwa!” shouted a nurse while Marwa gazed into space. “Marwa you bitch, I am calling you!” said the cruel creature. Marwa fiercely locked eyes with the nurse, and said quite assertively, “My name is Maryam (Mary).” She then claimed she was the Virgin Mary while the nurse burst into laughter. I wondered what it must be like having little connection to reality. I thought it must be the worst thing in the world. I felt sorry for her not only because of her mental condition, but also for being thrown into such a vile and useless place. Instead of getting the treatment, she needs,she's turned into a form of entertainment for the sadistic nurses. The nurses tried to pick on me a few times, but every time they did I’d hit them with a clever comeback. They hated me, I ruined their fun, and I liked it.Desperately trying to hurt me one of the nurses said, “Wipe that smugness off your face. Tomorrow is your electroshock appointment.” It was painful pretending her words had no effect on me when in reality, I felt like she poured acid on my face. Breathing got harder, I told her that I was suffocating and that I needed a bit of fresh air.She told me to go back to bed with a cold indifference. I started screaming hysterically like a mad woman. Suddenly, I was attacked by what seemed like an army of nurses brutally injecting me with enough sedatives to put an elephant to sleep. But the sedatives had no effect on me, I was as sober and awake as I could get, and I continued screaming till they agreed to let me get some fresh air. I stopped screaming, and after awhile, the nurses were in deep conversation. They barely remembered I was there. I glimpsed the guard struggling to stay awake, so I quietly snuck off and went out the door. All of a sudden, the guard became as alert as a watch dog, and ran after me till he finally caught me. “Trying to escape, eh?!!” screamed the guard. “You know what I do to people who try to escape?! I break their legs with my bare hands” he said. He mercilessly started twisting my feet. The sound of my screams kept getting louder. He then pulled on my leg and violently dragged me back. I used my hand as a barrier between my face and the flesh-tearing ground. I was thrown into my room, and the nurse locked the door as she said with a glimpse of amusement, “You’ll never get out of here”. I struggled to move my legs, but it was too painful. I laid on the floor that night drowning in tears and blood.

I woke up to the sound of a loud nurse dragging me to get electroshock. I limped my way into the rape room.While lying and awaiting the lab coat wearing monsters to ruin my head, the most private and intimate part of me, the only thing that calmed me was how close I felt to Sylvia Plath. Instead of screaming or shouting, I recited “The Hanging Man” to the sounds of the nurses’ ignorant laughter. “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me. I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet. The nights snapped out of sight…”and suddenly everything went blank.After regaining my consciousness, I spent hours staring at the ceiling trying to think but not being able to.I felt someone’s presence in the room; I turned my head and saw a nurse standing there. I never really knew her name. Her face and figure were forcefully hidden under layers upon layers of thick sheets of cloth, and her actions for the most part, revealed no identity whatsoever. She followed the orders she was given, and remained silent and opinion less. I thought there would be no possible way of distinguishing her from any lifeless object in the room, but to my surprise she gave me a glimpse into a trait of her personality. “You haven’t eaten anything in days”. Even though, I couldn’t see her facial expressions, I heard a crack in her voice that revealed concern. “The food here is nauseating, I wouldn’t eat it if they paid me” I mumbled. As she was about to speak, I felt that she was about to unmask her true nature, and lose her robotic exterior. I wondered if she would turn out to be no different from all the other nurses, and say something along the lines of, “you ungrateful child! You should be glad you’re being fed a tall!” But to my surprise, all I heard was her saying, “I will buy you a bean sandwich” (in a soft, mother-like voice). I hated beans with every fiber of my being. Under any other circumstances, the idea of a bean sandwich would make me sick. But compared to the hospital food, a bean sandwich sounded like caviar.

That nameless nurse was the best thing that ever happened to me in that asylum; she befriended me and often to took me outside for fresh air. One day while we were outside she pointed her head to the direction of a woman and told me that creature named Amal was the head of the Asylum. Amal was the text book definition of a mid-life crisis, her gigantic figure struggled to rip through her blouse, which was obviously a few sizes too small, and a few generations too young. I saw a lady walking up to her who wore a Turkish scarf like my mother always did. As I took a closer look, I realized that it was, in fact, my mother. They both walked towards me, I was taken into Amal’s office. My mother told me that she had no idea where I was until she blackmailed my father into telling her. “Amal, the child doesn't belong here, and I am taking her home “yelled my mother. “If you do I will be forced to call the cops, your daughter has a bizarre form of mental illness. I am afraid it might be months before she’s even qualified for the evaluation which determines her eligibility to leave our institution” replied Amal. “You know she’s fine, it is no wonder you were always called a bitch in college” said my mother as I remembered who Amal was, she was a classmate of my father in college and rumor has it she had quite a crush on him which is enough incentive to do him whatever favor he asks even if it is to lock up his daughter. “Momma give me the phone” I said, I called my father and made up an elaborate story about how I met an angel who showed me apart of heaven, and that I will wear my veil again because I wouldn't want to miss the opportunity to go to such a wonderful place. Fifteen minutes later I was released from the Asylum. I was ecstatic and started skipping in the street. I felt a huge sense of freedom until I stopped in front of a scarf kiosk and I realized that I wasn't free. I wondered how much longer my spirit will remain shackled.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Forbidden Sound of Music

In my Islamist family only one kind of music was welcome: war songs about the triumph of Islam. 
“We’ll never accept an occupied part of our lands…the Earth will burst in flames and burn them…on Earth, volcanoes are boiling…” 
These are lyrics to an Islamist war song that played over and over again at our family place in Cambridge in the late nineties; this and similar songs were also quite popular at the homes of my extended family. I, a child of seven years, hummed war songs while eating breakfast cereal and watching PBS. One day, just for a change, I started singing the theme song of the children’s program “Arthur.”  As soon as I uttered “believe in yourself,” my father looked at me and said, “Believe in yourself?  Believe in yourself?! You’re not supposed to believe in yourself; you’re supposed to believe in God. This is what Iget for letting you watch American TV!  Ridiculous!”
“China is ours…Arabia is ours…India is ours…All is ours…Islam is our Religion and the earth our homeland…”
So I hummed the songs he liked again, the songs that made me a “good girl,” the songs that he believed built strength and morality, the songs I secretly detested.
I remember flipping through channels once while my mother was in the kitchen and accidentally coming in contact with opera for the first time. Even though it was in German and I had no idea what the woman was singing, I was enchanted by her vocals and her expressions. I stood there watching and listening until my mother turned off the TV and started yelling at me, “This is satanic, I don’t want to ever catch you listening to this again.”
Once more I went back to humming“non-satanic” music…
“The garden of Islam and its trees…Your land is watered by our blood…O gardens of Andalus! Do you remember those days…When our abode was the nest on your branches…”
In 2001, Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens), a convert to Islam gave my father his new CD, “A is for Allah,” an album of islamic songs for children. Finally, I thought, real music that they will let me listen to. I put in the CD and the first thing I heard was Yusuf Islam saying the songs were not accompanied by any musical instruments.  I took the CD out.
In 2005, three years after we moved to Saudi Arabia, my parents enrolled me in Al-Rowad International School, a private Islamic school in Riyadh. During a random search, the majority of my classmates were caught with music CDs and punished. In an effort to save our class from the “evils of music,” our English teacher suggested we do our end of the year play on how easy it is to work out to Islamic songs instead of regular workout music. Not before long we were all doing jumping jacks to Sami Yusuf’s “Ya Mustafa”.
After some nagging, my father provided a bit of leeway when it came to music. He gave me a CD of Cat Stevens’ greatest hits, first deleting all the songs about love. He said this was the only music I was allowed to listen to. I didn’t complain. To me, this was plenty. I listened to “Peace train.”  This was perhaps one of the most joyful experiences of my childhood. I listened to that one song over and over again, absorbing the lyrics, the guitar strokes, the vocals. Feeling serene, calm, liberated, and peaceful.
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But “Peace train” could only satisfy me for so long. I needed more. I went online and started downloading music of all genres. Back then, downloading music was a long and tedious process but I did not care.
I listened to Johnny Cash, the Beatles, Bing Crosby, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Doris Day, Britney Spears, the Black Eyed Peas, Evanescence…Old music, modern music, brilliant music, mediocre music, meaningful music, meaningless music, music that made me blush, music that made me cry, music that made me dance. After listening to so many different kinds, I started developing my own taste. I became a regular music listener. It was wonderful and I hid it, not because I was ashamed of it but because I was afraid it would be taken away.
But inevitably, my parents found out I was a music listener, and I must say they took it much better than I expected. Other family members did not take it as well. My aunt, a pillar of the Muslim Brotherhood, took me aside and said, “Look I am hoping this is just a phase.  Your father went through the same phase when he was your age: of course he didn’t go as far as listening to love songs or sharing music. I heard you have been letting your friends borrow your CD player: is that correct?” I nodded. She continued disappointedly, “I hope you are aware of the amount of sin you’re accumulating. Every time you share music with someone you get their sins in addition to yours.” She acted as if I were a hardcore drug addict ,not a fifteen year old who listens to love songs.
That night her daughter, my six year old cousin, climbed into bed with me.  She had a terrified expression on her face and tears in her eyes.  She looked at me lovingly and said, “Please, please take Satan out of your ears.”  I thought, please don’t grow up to be like them: don’t let your world be filled with bitterness, blood , sorrow and the lost glory of Andalusia. My music isn’t evil, my love, that music is.”

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Three Former Muslim Women Look Back on the Hijab

Could you introduce yourself briefly?
My name is Reem Abdel-Razek, I am a twenty-one year old Egyptian blogger and translator who lives in New York. I write the blog for the Centre for Secular Space, a transnational think tank which aims to strengthen secular voices, fight religious fundamentalism and promote universality in human rights. (I also can be found at Facebook.)
How long did you wear the hijab, and what did it mean to you at the time?
Hijab - Reem1I started wearing hijab at ten and took it off just before I turned eighteen. I wore it at my father’s request in a desperate attempt to win his approval. At the time that was all it meant to me, approval. I wasn’t aware how drastically it would change my life. Not long after wearing it at ten did my parents pull me from karate class, soccer practice, school plays, yearbook photos etc…  They said hijab is not merely a head covering but a lifestyle, and what a miserable lifestyle it was for me. Family members started coaching me on how to act shy, fragile, and dumb. Things like running and laughing started to become a distant memory. I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time but I was slowly disappearing.
Why and how did you stop?
I was severely depressed. I felt empty, like a robot or a zombie,  but not truly able to pinpoint the reason. One day I got an email from my father and aunt with an ad for hijab in which the hijab acted as a protective barrier between a lollipop and flies. And I had an epiphany, there it was, the reason I felt nonhuman. I was, according to the email my own family members sent me…a thing.
And it occurred to me that the only way I could take my life back was by unveiling, not only my hair but also my true nature.I would have to obliterate the persona that I was so carefully molded into in order to discover who I really was.
My father constantly ranted about how Islamophobic western media is when it comes to Muslim women, how they delude the majority in to believing these women are helpless, oppressed victims who have no agency over something like the hijab while they’re clearly wearing it by choice. During one of those rants I commented saying “wearing the hijab is my choice?” to which he answered “Of course it is”. I found myself saying” I don’t want to wear it anymore”. As soon as I uttered those words, my father’s expressions changed drastically, it was like a Pandora’s box had sprung open of every nasty, hateful and vile insult aimed at me. It took about six months of struggle from the time I mentioned that I didn’t want to wear it to actually taking it off.
Emotionally, what was the transition like?
Both I and a Muslim friend of mine planned to take it off and take a walk down the street regardless of our family’s disapproval. That day my friend woke up with an eye infection and her mother told her that it was God’s rage manifesting itself, if she goes through with this according to her mother, she would be taking the first steps towards losing her eyesight. My friend cancelled. I decided to go regardless, to explore this uncharted territory, even if I did it alone.
As I walked without a hijab for the very first time. I felt joyfully excited, but also apprehensive and a little naked. I was painfully aware of everything that surrounded me, which says a lot since I am quite the space cadet.
How did your family members react?
The initial reaction was sheer rage. My aunt called and said I was no longer welcome in her house, my father said that I was no longer his daughter and that he would never be seen with me in public again. They felt hurt and betrayed. I tried explaining that this had nothing to do with them, that I wasn’t trying to hurt them, that I was trying to find my self but they didn’t want to hear any of it.Hijab - Reem2
I once saw a comment from a former Muslim woman on Facebook who said, simply, “For ten years I never felt the wind in my hair.” Looking back, are there similar experiences that stand out for you?
Oh yes, after years of been hidden under layers upon layers of thick black cloth in the scorching heat of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, after many summers spent at the beach, sweating bullets and watching all the boys dive shirtless in the water, feeling the wind in my hair for the first time was an incredible experience.

Three Former Muslim Women Look Back on the Hijab

Could you introduce yourself briefly?
My name is Reem Abdel-Razek, I am a twenty-one year old Egyptian blogger and translator who lives in New York. I write the blog for the Centre for Secular Space, a transnational think tank which aims to strengthen secular voices, fight religious fundamentalism and promote universality in human rights. (I also can be found at Facebook.)
How long did you wear the hijab, and what did it mean to you at the time?
Hijab - Reem1I started wearing hijab at ten and took it off just before I turned eighteen. I wore it at my father’s request in a desperate attempt to win his approval. At the time that was all it meant to me, approval. I wasn’t aware how drastically it would change my life. Not long after wearing it at ten did my parents pull me from karate class, soccer practice, school plays, yearbook photos etc…  They said hijab is not merely a head covering but a lifestyle, and what a miserable lifestyle it was for me. Family members started coaching me on how to act shy, fragile, and dumb. Things like running and laughing started to become a distant memory. I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time but I was slowly disappearing.
Why and how did you stop?
I was severely depressed. I felt empty, like a robot or a zombie,  but not truly able to pinpoint the reason. One day I got an email from my father and aunt with an ad for hijab in which the hijab acted as a protective barrier between a lollipop and flies. And I had an epiphany, there it was, the reason I felt nonhuman. I was, according to the email my own family members sent me…a thing.
And it occurred to me that the only way I could take my life back was by unveiling, not only my hair but also my true nature.I would have to obliterate the persona that I was so carefully molded into in order to discover who I really was.
My father constantly ranted about how Islamophobic western media is when it comes to Muslim women, how they delude the majority in to believing these women are helpless, oppressed victims who have no agency over something like the hijab while they’re clearly wearing it by choice. During one of those rants I commented saying “wearing the hijab is my choice?” to which he answered “Of course it is”. I found myself saying” I don’t want to wear it anymore”. As soon as I uttered those words, my father’s expressions changed drastically, it was like a Pandora’s box had sprung open of every nasty, hateful and vile insult aimed at me. It took about six months of struggle from the time I mentioned that I didn’t want to wear it to actually taking it off.
Emotionally, what was the transition like?
Both I and a Muslim friend of mine planned to take it off and take a walk down the street regardless of our family’s disapproval. That day my friend woke up with an eye infection and her mother told her that it was God’s rage manifesting itself, if she goes through with this according to her mother, she would be taking the first steps towards losing her eyesight. My friend cancelled. I decided to go regardless, to explore this uncharted territory, even if I did it alone.
As I walked without a hijab for the very first time. I felt joyfully excited, but also apprehensive and a little naked. I was painfully aware of everything that surrounded me, which says a lot since I am quite the space cadet.
How did your family members react?
The initial reaction was sheer rage. My aunt called and said I was no longer welcome in her house, my father said that I was no longer his daughter and that he would never be seen with me in public again. They felt hurt and betrayed. I tried explaining that this had nothing to do with them, that I wasn’t trying to hurt them, that I was trying to find my self but they didn’t want to hear any of it.Hijab - Reem2
I once saw a comment from a former Muslim woman on Facebook who said, simply, “For ten years I never felt the wind in my hair.” Looking back, are there similar experiences that stand out for you?
Oh yes, after years of been hidden under layers upon layers of thick black cloth in the scorching heat of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, after many summers spent at the beach, sweating bullets and watching all the boys dive shirtless in the water, feeling the wind in my hair for the first time was an incredible experience.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

My Journey Towards Being Proud on Women’s International Day

As the daughter of an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood family, I, along with my female cousins, attended what is their version of the Girl Scouts every summer. My brother and my male cousins attended what is their version of the Cub Scouts. I assumed that we would come back to share somewhat similar stories and was surprised to find out that where I went and where my brother went were two completely different places. The boys were outside, camping, swimming, fishing, and playing soccer, while we girls went to Aunt Sabreen’s apartment.
Aunt Sabreen was one of the “sisters”—women members of the Brotherhood—who were in charge of our religious education.  In her apartment, we sang hymns praising the prophets of Islam, listened to lectures about Islamic history, and watched mediocre puppet shows. I was bored out of my mind. When my boy cousins and I started sharing our experiences, I was jealous. I wanted to do all the fun things the Cub Scouts did, not go to a slightly less gruesome version of school. I kept asking why the boys got to do things that were much cooler and more fun than anything we ever did and I kept getting the same answer over and over again: “These are boy things.”
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One day I saw a program on TV about a girl whose parents later found out she was a boy and transferred her to a boys’ school. I was thrilled.  I did not know this was even possible. My mother used to tell me that, if I wanted something bad enough, God would answer my prayers  He answers children and listens to them more than adults, she said, because they are innocent and pure. After I saw the program I began to pray every night for something that I felt, if granted, would change my life forever. I raised my hands towards the sky and spoke to God: “God, I have something else to ask today, something unusual, something that would make me happy. God, please turn me into a boy.”
Years later, when I was ten, my family moved to Saudi Arabia. With this change in location, my prayers asking to become a boy became more profound, more passionate, and  more tearful than ever.  At that point I did not want to become a boy because of the cool things the Cub Scouts did or how boring the “sisters” were, I wanted to be a boy because being a girl was scary and awful.
Almost a soon as we got to Saudi Arabia , my father was approached by Saudi men who said my running around playing with my brother was causing Fitna (temptation) and that I must cover up. I was forced to wear black from head to toe. I wish it had ended at that. My parents pulled me out of the karate class and soccer practice I had signed up for at school, saying those were male sports, My mother talked to the principal about banning me from the school play because it contained music, saying, “We don’t even allow her to listen to Beethoven at home, it is our right to protect her from corruption.”  I asked my father if I could go to a women’s only gym and he refused, stating that women only gyms might have hidden cameras that men placed to see women unveiled.
My father worked in Mecca while we lived in Jeddah.  Since my mother was not allowed to drive us anywhere, I had to stay home all the time when I was not in school. The only relief I felt came from knowing that one day I would be able to graduate college, get a job, move out and live life according to my own rules.  Then I found out that even that wasn’t an option. I went to my father and asked “Baba, if I get a scholarship to a good school somewhere, could I go study there?”
He said, “You can’t go anywhere without a mahram (male guardian) but hey, you might be married by then and be able to go with your husband, unless of course he doesn’t want to go or doesn’t want you to go to school.”
I spent my free time eating snacks, peeling vegetables and watching censored Mexican soap operas and Venezuelan telenovelas with the Sudanese maid, who had a habit of shouting at the TV whenever Luisa Fernanda was on. I thought: this is it, peeling vegetables and shouting at soap operas.  This is what I was doing yesterday; this is what I’ll be doing today and tomorrow; this is what my aunts are doing; this is what the “sisters” are doing; this is what my life is going to be like, just this, nothing more, forever.  That thought terrified me more than any adversity I would have to face if I strayed from that norm.
But as the years went by, I stopped wishing I were a boy and started seeing that as a girl I could do anything a boy could do; people could say otherwise all they wanted but they were wrong.  Girls are in no way less intelligent or capable or driven, and the only reason they are treated like invalids is because of how much some men fear them and fear not being able to control them. I decided to live life the way I wanted, The fact that nobody would let me became irrelevant because I stopped seeking their approval when I wanted to do the things my brother or male cousins could do so easily.  A lifetime of being controlled and treated like crap because I have no penis was not something I would tolerate!  So I made the decision and endured all the adversity that followed.  At first I felt alone; then I met women who were true sisters, who supported me as I supported them.  Driven by our demands for equality and our enormous faith in ourselves, we challenged social norms and anyone who said we couldn’t do things because of our sex. I am happy being a woman. I am proud of my sisters and I am proud of myself.  Happy International Women’s Day!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sexual Violence and Islamist Propaganda

A few weeks ago I received a message from a friend in Cairo about a horrible attack on her sister Esraa Mohamed. Esraa was walking in her own neighborhood at 3 PM when she realized she was being followed by a well-dressed, respectable looking stranger. He said, “I am not harassing you but don’t forget to wipe off your pants. She suddenly began to feel a burning pain in her backside and rushed into a cafe to see what was wrong. It was then that she realized she couldn’t remove her pants and took a cab home. By that time the pain was so excruciating that she almost fainted; her buttocks and the back of her thighs had been burned by acid that had eaten into her flesh. The doctor who examined her said she had second and third degree burns, with cell necrosis in some areas. The diagnosis was: chemical burn by an unidentified corrosive. Esraa described the attack to a journalist friend who wrote a story about it. After she spoke out, she received messages from other girls who said the same thing had happened to them, but they had not told anyone or come forward because they were so ashamed and embarrassed. She also received several attacks saying she deserved it for not wearing the veil.


Since the overthrow of Mubarak, there has been much commentary about sexual harassment and violence against women in Egypt. Many believe the attacks on women in Tahrir Square were initiated by mobs hired by Egypt’s security forces as a means of intimidation, similar to the “virginity tests” forced upon some of the girls who were arrested during a protest in March 2011. They see violence against women as a means of scaring them away from political activity. While this is true, it is only part of the explanation for violence against women in Egypt long precedes the revolutions of the last three years. It has been growing for decades. A study done in 2008 showed that 83% of women get harassed in Egypt. But numbers alone cannot show how scary the harassment is, how it makes women feel, and how their families usually blame them instead of the men who harassed them.


The role of Islamist propaganda in promoting the acceptance of violence against women often gets overlooked by those who are afraid of appearing “Islamophobic” or racist. But addressing the roots of violence against women is one of the most important steps in eradicating it. During the 1950s and 60s, this level of sexual persecution was unheard-of in Egypt. At that time time hardly anyone in cities wore the veil and Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, had virtually disappeared, due to the Nasser regime’s systematic attempts to eradicate them. When Anwar Sadat became President in 1970, he eased up on the Islamists because he wanted their support against leftist groups. Thus the 1970s witnessed a religious revival. By the 1980s and 90s, the Brotherhood’s influence and the social services it provided were entrenched in many villages and neighborhoods, and the number of women wearing the veil rose significantly as a mark of the influence of political Islam. I remember a conversation about the hijab between my mother and a woman who belonged to the Brotherhood. She said, “Every time I think about how uncomfortable it is, I remember that by wearing it I am promoting our ideology.”


Islamists launched campaigns pushing the veil. One showed a picture of a three legged chair and said it was like a woman without a veil. Another showed a lollipop wrapped in paper next to to an unwrapped lollipop covered with flies, which it compared to a woman who does not veil. These campaigns objectified women by comparing them to chairs and candy, and dehumanizing women is the first step in justifying violence against them. Radio and TV channels that catered to Islamist agendas (most of which have been shut down in the past few months) endlessly justified wife beating, Female Genital Mutilation, marital rape, and other forms of violence against women as well as promoted the idea that women are inferior to men and in need of constant monitoring and disciplining. Those on the receiving end of these messages aren’t just orthodox Muslims or Muslim Brotherhood members, but a much wider demographic.


While sexual harassment is against the law in Egypt , in many cases, when women try to file a complaint, the police won’t even talk to them. This is because both the violators and the police share the same cultural values. As Esraa Mohammed’s sister told me recently, “When you are living in a society dominated by people who abuse religious scripture in order to deny women their person-hood, it is no surprise to see women who seek independence and freedom being slut-shamed and abused.”

http://www.centreforsecularspace.org/sexual-violence-and-islamist-propaganda/

Friday, October 4, 2013

Violence and Secular Space

I remember walking down the exhausted streets of Port Said months after the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime. The Muslim Brotherhood’s posters covered the worn out walls, offering people a glimpse of hope and a promise of an era where the revolution’s spirit would live and thrive. Unlike many of those who trusted and believed in the MB, I remained cynical and suspicious mostly because I was bred to be one of them. Their motto, “Islam is the solution,” shamelessly exploited the one thing most Egyptians hold dearest: religion. The process began with this motto, then Friday sermons became a forum for praise for the MB, and, before you know it, the ballot became a choice of going to heaven or hell.


Soon after the MB gained the power it longed for, it showed its true colours. People began noticing that the promise of free speech was no more than a myth told by people who spoke on behalf of God. The Morsi government brought charges of blasphemy against numerous opposition bloggers, activists, and entertainers, including the famous Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, while freeing jihadi criminals like Abu El’Ela Abdrabu. Abdurabu made a number of TV appearances after his release where he showed an utter lack of remorse about murdering the prominent writer and human rights activist Farag Foda back in 1992.


During the Farag Foda murder trial, the court summoned Muhammed El Ghazzali, an Al Azhar scholar, to serve as a witness. El Ghazzali said, “The killing of Farag Fouda was in fact the implementation of the punishment against an apostate which the Imam has failed to implement.” This is a reference to the Islamist idea that the religious leader is obligated to kill aspotates. His powerful testimony resulted in the acquittal of eight of the thirteen accused in the murder. A friend of El Ghazzali recently said on TV that he privately said he gave false testimony in court in order to protect the lives of the jihadis, whom he called “those young men.” But why was it necessary to even ask about religious dogma in a murder trial in a secular court?


There are numerous accounts of human rights violators hiding their crimes behind religion and getting away with it. Some are well known cases that have been all over the news like Farag Foda’s murder; others are hidden from the eyes of the media. A good friend of mine knows a girl from a Coptic family who was forced into a mental asylum and subjected to electroshock even though she had no need for psychiatric care, and was later confined in a convent. In both places, she was subjected to violence, torture and insults because she was romantically involved with a boy from a Muslim family. When her boyfriend called one of the local human rights organizations, they said they would not get involved because they do not wish to adopt causes that could raise issues of religious sensitivities.


Human rights organizations have one crucial and obvious task, protecting human rights without distinction of race, colour, sex, language, or religion. The fear of criticism or violence from religious fundamentalists should not deter human rights organizations from doing their job. This is why organizations like the Centre for Secular Space are crucial to the human rights movement, because human rights cannot thrive in an atmosphere of religious intimidation.


http://www.centreforsecularspace.org/violence-and-secular-space/