Human Rights: It’s all for one or none for all

Life is but a lesson of learning… The more issues you explore, the more people you meet, the more you learn about them and about yourself. In light of a recurring lesson of mine, I’d like to share with you a beautiful, simple yet oh so powerful poem. You may know it. Take a look…

First They Came

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

Pastor Martin Niemoller

This short but very poignant poem refers back to the era of Nazi Germany and the failure of German intellectuals to stand up to the Nazis. Dating back to the middle of the last century, it is as relevant as ever in an era of rising hate crime, neo-Nazi/far-right groups and religious extremism to name a few, despite the public awareness of human rights, the availability of resources to learn about each others’ rights and the wide range of means/mediums to speak out (social media, lobbying organisations etc.).

This poem in fact highlights a few very serious key points, which can be summed up in the following famous quotes:

  • “Love for others what you love for yourself” (Prophet Muhammad, pbuh)
  • “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem” (Eldridge Cleaver)
  • “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” (Edmund Burke)
  • “I am not free while any women is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own” (Audre Lorde)

What is the overall message you may ask? Well, put quite simply it’s this: you cannot be free whilst someone else is oppressed. You cannot advocate for peace whilst hating others and you cannot call for the rights of one group, whilst advocating hatred or intolerance for another. No one is saying we all have to have the same beliefs or opinions, but common decency and universal rights are not exclusive. Where human rights are concerned it’s in the famous words of the three musketeers (!) that things go: “It’s all for one, and one for all!”.

Imagine this: you want others to accept and accommodate your religious beliefs but you won’t do the same. Not very logical is it? Or you want women to have the freedom to wear what you want them to wear but not what they may or may not want to wear. Not a simple pick and choose is it? Bearing that in mind, I’d like to lay out the following scenarios. For simplicity sake, we’ll use the names “Mr A” and “Mrs A”:

  1. “Mr A” advocates for the rights of Muslim minorities in Europe but perpetuates anti-Shia, anti-Sunni, anti-Ahmadi rhetoric.
  2. “Mrs A” is outraged at the discrimination hijabis face but forces her daughter to cover and won’t accept difference of opinion related to covering within Muslim circles.
  3. “Mr and Mrs A” are campaigning for the rights of Palestinians yet victimise the Jewish community, refusing to separate faith from politics and fail to stand up to rising anti-Semitism
  4. “Mr A” is outraged about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but doesn’t put pen to paper and seek genuine dialogue
  5. “Mrs A” expresses concern for UK foreign policy in the Middle East yet stays silent about the famine in Yemen caused by the Saudi led war, the abuse of women in Saudi law and Iran, the suffering of the Uyghurs in China, the cause of the Tibetans etc.
  6. “Mr and Mrs A” stands up for the religious/cultural/ethnic rights of their personal communities but stay silent about the abuse and difficulties that others face.

What is the message in all of these cases? Well, the message is quite clearly this: they’ve got it wrong! They’re missing the point. If it’s human rights you want, if it’s justice, freedom and equality, then it’s all for one and one for all! So when you’re advocating for a specific cause, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I advocating a message of peace, non-violence, tolerance and unity? (Unbiased educated criticism is allowed but violence is counter-productive!)
  • Am I utilising the correct tools, networks and organisations which advocate peace and tolerance? (Giving/sharing a platform with an intolerant, bigoted group is also a counter-productive no-no!)
  • Is my message inclusive or exclusive? (Am I alienating or spreading hatred of others?)
  • What is my ultimate message and purpose? (Am I aiming for a positive outcome which will resolve conflict and abuse?)

Remember: calling out abuse is always going to ruffle a few feathers. That’s not the problem! The problem is when your method goes against the principles and purpose of what you’re fighting for – or if you’re cause is exclusive in the rights and aims you’re fighting for.

Think about this and remember, when we’re talking about rights: it’s all for one and one for all!

Salam

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Misogyny in North Africa: My experiences as a British Muslimah

In a previous post I talked about sexism in the British workplace and in keeping with the theme of sexism, I’d like to talk about my experiences as a British Muslimah in relation to North African culture. I’m married to a North African man and I’ve travelled to, worked and lived in a variety of North African countries both pre- and post-conversion and before and after getting married. In this post, I’d like to look at the issues I’ve really noticed since converting to Islam and travelling to the region including first, second and third hand experiences of blatant discrimination, sexism, hypocrisy and misogyny that women in the area face. Now, I’m not saying these things happen across the board and I’ve certainly not included examples from very traditional circles but I’d like to talk about some experiences which I’ve found difficult, confusing, frustrating, upsetting and in some cases have made me feel utterly trapped and powerless – all of which are against (moderate) Islamic teachings. For more on the issue of sexism and Islam, see my previous post on gender jihad which has already touched on what is and isn’t Islamic when it comes to women and the unfortunate way some are treated.

Primarily, the overriding problem and any example of misogyny I can think of (mostly) seems to be related to the following overarching concept:

“A woman’s place is in the home”

First of all, not all women in the region are at home every second of the day. However this concept really underpins the problems I’ve encountered. It affects every aspect of women’s lives. There are many many women with jobs – most of the doctors I’ve met are in fact women and many women do hold roles outside the home. What’s more, women and girls can also enjoy being at home relaxing in their free time but the reality is that I’ve faced gossiping, backbiting and criticism for “leaving the house too much” (women sadly do this too folks!). Whilst on holiday, being busy organising and getting married and taking my father out so we could enjoy a holiday, I’ve been subjected to wagging tongues trying to control  my life. The manipulation of Islam to the extent that women are told they need to stay at home in safe places to extreme lengths (for obscene periods of time) is wrong and unhealthy yet it is used to perpetuate a deeply ingrained misogyny.

Inside the home: no need for a man’s input

On a practical level, this means that the home is the woman’s domain and most men don’t lift even a finger at home. The kitchen is out of bounds to male guests who may want to cook as the kitchen is for females – of all ages – and females only. No men allowed! Men generally will not learn to cook but will boil an egg, fry chips or make an omelette if hungry and their wife/sister/mum is not around. In restaurants however, all the waiters and chefs are male. It is generally seen as shameful for women to serve men in public but to serve men in the home is viewed as normal. If a man does cook, this will be kept quiet to save face.

If a husband works full time and his wife is at home with the kids, you’d expect that she would take care of domestic matters but that shouldn’t exclude men from helping out and taking responsibility. For women who work full-time – let’s not forget that we all need a decent standard of living and many many many girls go to university and want a job – she can generally not expect the housework to be divided. I’ve been told that women are apparently “happy” to have a full-time job and do all of the housework (and essentially have two jobs). Of course, if you live with in-laws/parents, there is help but domestic duties – cooking, cleaning etc. – are carried out by women/females only. ONE thing however: men will often do the shopping. Some markets are also off limits to women due to apparently “dodgy behaviour” in such areas fully saturated with men, which are deemed inappropriate for women. To be fair, by the sounds of it I’d not want to go but there’s something ironic there about only men being able to buy food that they’re never going to cook themselves…

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In the home, cooking is seen as a woman’s job – even if she works full time (Photo: Elizabeth Arif-Fear – CC)


Outside the home: ignoring women’s needs 

What does all of this mean outside of the home? As I’ve already explained, it means being judged based on your movements and being subject to gossip for being “outside the house too much”, even if you’re simply shopping, meeting friends, eating out etc. This concept of a women’s place being the home really does have much wider ramifications. It essentially dictates to society that the public sphere is male – in other words: “leave it to the males” as “things are best run by men”. This translates to needing men’s permission to do anything and women’s issues requiring male validation. Here comes the unfortunate dichotomy of public (male) and private (female) spheres. We’ve heard it all before but it’s true!

On a social level, I found this meant I was often excluded within my own personal circles – even when I was with men. Imagine you’re in a busy tourist agency and as the only female you’re ignored in a three person conversation. Out of respect due to culture/religion? Well…the man in question booking your trip is told you speak French in an attempt to include you in the conversation. You have to butt in and take charge in order to be included in your own activities, obviously feeling very very frustrated. Or, in another scenario: a male stops talking to his wife without a word of warning to hold a conversation with an incoming male. She’s the second class invisible third party…

This also means that facilities prioritise men and that there is a severe lack of public facilities for women. For example, the local coffee shop is the men’s “palace”. Yes, everyone needs a place to chill out with their friends or to get some time on your own but why are there no coffee places for girls? The Gulf for example has plenty of women-only facilities. The response is “girls belong at home” and “girls want to stay at home”. One question comes to mind though: all the time…? In terms of dividing public money, I’ve seen male sports facilities but nothing for girls. If money is an issue, why not scale down the buildings? It would appear that women don’t need and/or deserve a gym and that men come first. This is no trivial matter folks. If the public sphere is dominated with men, then half the population are both under- and misrepresented. If there’s a problem, the women tend to suffer and I have indeed found that it seems to put the women at a disadvantage. Imagine this: “illegal sexual activity” is going on in public toilets. What action is taken? The women’s toilets are closed. So, we have functioning male toilets but nothing for the ladies. Whilst the men have toilet facilities, ladies are left with nothing. Not exactly ideal during that time of the month…

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Local cafés: a men’s world… (Photo: Xuoan Duquesne – CC)

This leads to another point. The lack of female representation also means that the women are not only under-represented in terms of opinions and facilities but that women’s specific needs are not met. Who understands women better than women themselves? For example, going back to the topic of toilets – do not expect there to be a sanitary bin in a public toilet. If you need to dispose of used personal sanitary items you need to take a mini plastic bag and your own pads (no vending machines). This may sound like a small issue to some guys out there but it really shows a complete lack of thought and understanding of women and women’s needs. As a foreigner, when you’re faced with all the frustrating other “norms” and you’re missing simple basic sanitation facilities, it just gets too much!

Whilst there is plenty of room for women in the public sphere to shop and buy shoes, scarves, handbags etc. (no problem with that – I love shopping!), what about recognising their needs and giving them real outlets to have a voice? Even when buying underwear, you should also never expect to a female sales assistant. Lingerie is often sold amongst other generic items of clothing in clothing and accessory shops. I don’t know about you but I’d not want to buy intimate items from male sales personnel with no women around for sizing advice. Women need the care and assistance of other ladies when buying their undergarments. In short, women need to be more visible and taken into greater consideration.

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Don’t expect to find sanitary towel bins in the ladies’ toilets… (Photo: Wrote – CC)


Public and private spheres: Male attitudes dominate

On a more serious note, the above really points to a deeply ingrained patriarchy that goes beyond an inability to go out for a coffee or find a female shop assistant when you want one (they do exist though btw!). No, what it means is that women have to accept the social standards set by men – which are hypocritical and clearly point to a double standard in favour of men. For example, divorced women are “a thing”. The stigma is decreasing from what I’ve heard and whilst divorce should never be taken lightly, neither should a woman be defined/pointed out as “divorced” in a conversation… A woman is actually “left on the shelf” when she’s “past her younger years” but for men this is not a problem. When a slightly older lady does marry, she is seen as a very lucky exception!

Such sexist double standards also translate to the way in which men feel they have the right to regulate women’s clothing, as well as overall general behaviour. Extreme interpretations of Islam have led me to be told I should not even talk on a mini-bus. Yes, women should remain modest but they do not need to (and must not) be silenced. Women in earlier Islamic years were scholars, teachers and architects – and still are! The men often shout and bellow down the phone but a woman cannot sit and talk on a bus. It also makes me so sad and angry to have to say this but some women and girls are forced to cover their hair and bodies. This is totally un-Islamic but happens. Parents and spouses have been known to force their daughters/wives to wear a headscarf (khimar/hijab) and other longer outer garments (jilbab). This is an insult to God, our right to free will and the women who freely choose to cover themselves in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, risking Islamophobic hate crime and discrimination in the workplace, street and even within their families. Yes, sadly it works both ways. Some girls in the Muslim community also face difficulty in wearing a scarf or face veil. Why can’t women just be left to make their own choices? What is in the heart is personal.

If we look at men’s behaviour though, there are clear double standards and hypocrisies. Smoking is haram (forbidden in Islam) but many many men smoke. I’m not here to judge though. My point is this: fathers, husbands and brothers would have a fit if their daughters, sisters and wives started smoking yet they carry on and puff away…

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The home: “a women’s place” (Photo: Groundhopping Murseburg – CC)


Social brainwashing: male and female perpetrators

So, I’ve given you a few of my experiences and insights. When I’ve expressed some of my frustration and disbelief at these issues, my concerns have been acknowledged. Women themselves have agreed that this is down to culture, not religion. However, women – as well as men – also perpetuate these habits and enjoin in gossiping about women who “go against the grain” in perfectly moral, decent ways. The fact that some women acknowledge that restrictive norms are cultural (not Islamic) but also enjoin in or do not stand up to this this is what makes the reality of such misogyny really truly tragic. Many women have been brainwashed to follow these sexist norms which deem women and girls who are outside of the home more than deemed acceptable etc. as “behaving inappropriately” and the top end could seem them branded as “wh****”. By gossiping and backbiting away about the social activities of other women and girls, such females are “accepting” and keeping alive such outdated misogynistic values which can mean that any girl who does fight back or ignore these rules, risks her reputation and that of their family and ultimately her (and even her family’s) ability to marry and live a happy socially integrated life.

If you don’t believe in the poisonous power of social brainwashing in leading women to accept sexism and misogyny watch this video, showing one Algerian woman’s attitude to domestic violence. As you can see, women – as well as men – in believing in and accepting, rather than standing up and speaking out against these issues, are perpetuating sexist outdated and dangerous gender norms, stereotypes and even violence. From gossiping about women, to the very top end of the scale where some are even “happily accepting” domestic violence, it’s the same problem. On the one hand the report was made by an Algerian TV channel shows that awareness has been raised from the inside but if you watch the video, you’ll see that there is some severe social brainwashing and normalising of immoral sexist practices. Looking at the statistics in the video, domestic violence is a huge issue in itself, accepted by a large section of women.

These women are victims but will live on to victimise future generations of women and girls if things don’t change. Such men and women will be teaching their sons and daughters to carry and accept these practices. Misogyny in North Africa exists on micro and macro levels but remember this: no matter how small the incidents or examples are, do not underestimate the negative impact they can have on the lives of women and girls – it all comes from the same source…

Photo credits:

Babak Fakhamzadeh (feature image) (CC)

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