The battle against brutality
In her new book, Nadje Al-Ali shows how the US invasion has set Iraqi women's rights back as much as 70 years. She speaks to Sara Wajid
The Guardian, Wednesday 28 January 2009
'Women [in Iraq] are being killed simply for being women," says Nadje Al-Ali when I meet her at her home in south London. "In Basra in 2008 a reported 133 women were killed for not 'being Islamic' enough. And these are only the ones that made it to be officially counted. I saw the police photos - they were horrific."
Al-Ali's new book, What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq, analyses how Iraqi women have fared since the US invasion of March 2003. The news, unsurprisingly, is grim. Written with the political scientist Nicola Pratt, the book is based on interviews with 120 women, including Iraqi women's rights activists, NGO workers and international policymakers. The climate that they describe in Iraq is one of lawless "hyper-patriarchy", and with this evidence in tow, Al-Ali and Pratt take aim at a wide range of targets. These include the occupying powers, extremist Islamist militias, Iraqi leaders and "imperialist feminists" (those who claim solidarity with women from developing countries while stereotyping their cultures as barbaric).
Al-Ali, 42, is a second-generation Iraqi immigrant whose extended family has seen the sharpest end of both Saddam Hussein's regime and the post-invasion chaos. An established author and academic at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, she is staunchly "anti-imperialist and anti-war" but finds herself regularly at odds with some of her natural allies, who object to her speaking out against Iraqi resistance fighters. Still, Al-Ali believes it's important to take this stance. "A significant proportion of Iraqi groups engaged in armed resistance against the occupation are also harassing, intimidating and even murdering ordinary Iraqis," she says, "particularly women and vulnerable groups."
In her book she highlights the fact that, as a result of consecutive wars, the Iraqi population is now disproportionately female - with some estimates putting the ratio of women to men at 65/35. There are 300,000 impoverished widows in Baghdad alone, forced to run their households on two hours of electricity a day. As early as July 2003 a Human Rights Watch report highlighted "the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual violence and abduction", and kidnaps that target women (often related to sex trafficking) have increased since the start of the war, as have female suicide rates and honour killings.
According to Al-Ali's interviewees, women are being bullied back into the home. So, for instance, she focuses on the story of Sarwa Abdul Wahab Al Darwish, a 36-year-old television journalist from Mosul whose high profile led her to receive death threats. Then, last May she was dragged from a taxi and killed with a shot to the head in front of her mother. Overall, the book backs up the opinion of an Iraqi journalist I met in London, who says that "occupation has put women's position back to the 1930s".
The fact that George W Bush depicted the invasion of Iraq as a path to women's empowerment makes the situation even more outrageous. In her book, Al-Ali meticulously explains how Condoleezza Rice and Laura Bush were deployed to reassure the world that the US was concerned with women's liberation - Laura Bush being wheeled out for photo-opportunities with US organisations such as Women for Free Iraq.
How has such posturing in Washington affected women's lives in Iraq? "It helped to legitimise the invasion in the first place," says Al-Ali. But surely no one really believed that the war was about liberating Iraqi women? "There's an imperialist brand of feminism that's very widespread in the States," she says. "When I give talks there, women's rights [in Muslim culture] are always the one big 'but' for anti-war peace activists." Al-Ali feels that the cynical use of the women's rights discourse by the US has also led to a backlash against feminist activists in Iraq, who can be easily undermined, or even vilified, by being accused of supporting an American agenda.
Does she see the establishment of a 25% quota for women in the Iraqi parliament as a sign of progress? "Yes," she concedes, "but who are the 25% in practice? They are the sisters, daughters and wives of the male conservative leaders. They've no political background and when there's a vote they look around to see what the men are doing before they lift their hands. However, yes it is a positive because it has allowed six to eight secular women's rights activists into parliament who wouldn't have got in otherwise."
The book repeatedly suggests that extremist Islamist groups are forcing Taliban-like conditions on Iraqi women - surprising given the cultural differences between Afghanistan and Iraq, where women have typically been well educated. How real is this threat? "It's very real," says Al-Ali. "In 2004, it was simply leaflets telling women to veil, and many of the women I spoke to said, 'If this is the only thing I have to do to go on with my life as normal, OK.' Soon it moved on to students at Basra university being threatened if they didn't agree to gender-segregated classes." Now, article 41 in the new Iraqi constitution effectively repeals the existing, and relatively progressive, laws governing marriage and divorce.
When I point out that throughout the book Islam only ever appears as a destructive force Al-Ali is rattled. Her use of the slippery term "Islamists" at times seems interchangeable with "terrorist insurgents", and progressives are invariably tagged with the approving "secular" but never "Muslim". She defends herself by saying that in the past she has "clashed with fundamentalist secular groups [in the anti-war movement] who say the problem in Iraq is Islam. Most of the secular women activists we refer to are practising Muslims."
Al-Ali was born to a German mother and an Iraqi father who had moved to Europe to study. She grew up in a non-religious household in Germany, and it wasn't until she attended university in Tucson, Arizona - where she met a circle of confident second-generation Arabs - that she began to think about her roots. On graduating, she moved to Egypt and became involved in the women's movement, before starting a PhD in London. By chance, she rented a room from the feminist sociologist Cynthia Cockburn and for the next few years found herself at the hub of an international network of peace activists.
In 2000, she established Act Together - Women's Action for Iraq - a group opposing economic sanctions against Iraq, and then against the invasion. This was followed, in 2007, by her book Iraqi Women - Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present, a social history of the women's movement. Al-Ali dedicated the book to her aunt Salima, a cancer patient who died in May 2003 after she developed severe breathing difficulties and a curfew in Baghdad prevented her from getting to hospital.
The short description of the night of Salima's death - when one of her male relatives went out into the neighbourhood, risking his life to find oxygen - fizzes with fury. The family had already coped with one of Al-Ali's uncles being executed under Saddam, and they remained in Baghdad until the murder of her nephew and another uncle in August 2007 at the family home, for what she now believes to be either political or sectarian reasons. "They thought they were safe, knowing all their neighbours, so they were just sitting in the kitchen when they strolled in and shot them." The rest of the family fled from Iraq to Jordan, thereby joining the two million Iraqis abroad. They put the three young men of the family on a plane to Syria for safety but they were turned back, forced to return to Baghdad. "We were very, very scared," says Al-Ali, "and there's only so much one can do from the outside."
Al-Ali treads a difficult path with caution. Like many, she believes that Iraqi women can never be "liberated" by western military intervention, but by speaking out against the Iraqi resistance, she has often alienated those in the anti-war movement. Ultimately, she doesn't know how much difference her work can make - she tells me that she often feels impotent watching atrocities in Iraq unfold on the news. But she is adamant that the future of Iraq depends on the energy and fearlessness of the grass roots women's groups that were much in evidence just after the invasion. It was they who went into hospitals and schools to salvage them and who have managed to co-operate across sectarian battle lines. "I hate the picture of Iraqi women as passive victims of honour crimes and bombs," she says. "I really want to break this".
He loves me, he loves me not...
By Diana Al-Jassem
Sunday, 01 February 2009
IF anecdotal evidence is to be believed, a large number of Saudi women are visiting psychologists’ clinics complaining of “a lack of love” on the part of their husbands. Their proof? Their husbands have never said “I love you” to them.
Apparently, a lot of Saudi women think only Saudi men don’t express their affection verbally, but this is a ‘problem’ that afflicts marital relationships across the world.
“I feel Saudi husbands are either not aware of their wives’ emotions and feelings or they simply don’t care. They are only interested in taking their marital rights,” said Zakiah Ahmad, a 29-year-old Saudi woman who has been working in marketing for five years.
“I would prefer it if my husband told me the truth when I ask him whether he loves me or not. I can understand if he says “no”, because matters of the heart are really not in our hands. He cannot force himself to love me, especially when here in the Kingdom most couples have arranged marriages, where the choice of a spouse depends on the family’s opinion and not on his personal likes and dislikes,” she said.
While talking to women from different nationalities, it emerged that they were divided on the issue: Some women prefer to hear the sentence “I love you” even if it is not the truth, while other women prefer to know the truth even if it is bitter.
“My husband used to say “Insha Allah” (if God wills) when I asked him whether he loves me or not -- I think that is a very rude thing to say. I prefer my husband to say that he loves me even if he does not,” said Khawla Abou-Asal, a Palestinian housewife.
She added, “Some time after he spoke to me in this rude manner, I discovered he was actually in love with one of his relatives. I destroyed all the letters that she had sent him in the past five years, then I spoke with him openly about the reason that made him seek an extra-marital relationship.
He changed the way he treated me after that. Now when I ask him whether he loves me or not, he says, “Yeah, I love you”. Although I am not sure about his emotions, but I still feel it is better to say “I love you” even if it is a lie, instead of “Insha Allah”.
Many women said they are ready to change their lifestyles in order to make their husbands love them -- but only after they make sure that their husbands are not involved in an extra-marital relationship.
“If my husband told me that he does not love me, I would try to mold myself according to his preferences. But if the reason stopping him from loving me was another woman, I would hate it,” said Areej Salem, a divorced Saudi woman.
“Women in general are emotional in their approach to life and are more affected by words, so they feel it is important for a spouse to verbalize his thoughts,” said Dr. Mohammed Al-Hamed, Head of the Psychology Department at Bakhsh private hospital in Jeddah.
According to Dr. Al-Hamed, “Women prefer to hear verbal expressions of appreciation from their husbands, for example for their looks, elegance and even their cooking. However, men generally find it difficult to express their emotions in words and show their feelings in intimate moments and by taking care of their family’s needs. Women should understand that saying “I love you” is considered trivial by men, which is why most men rarely say these words in real life, outside of movies and TV serials.”
In certain Arab communities men are raised to believe that expressing love for their wives openly is a kind of “weakness”. “A lot of men in this part of the world prefer to hide their emotions and never express their love to their wives, because they think she will take him to be a ‘weak’ person.
Men who get involved in pre-marital or extra-marital relationships don’t mind showing their love to their girlfriends because their relation is ‘unofficial’ and does not fall under social rules,” said Dr. Al-Hamed.
Interestingly, Sheikh Asem Al-Hakim, Imam of Jafer Al-Taiyyar mosque in Jeddah, said, “In Islam, men are recommended to talk gently and lovingly with their wives to strengthen love in a marriage. Even if the man has to lie to his wife by saying “I love you“, it is not considered an untruth, since he may really love her one day.” “‘Lack of love’ in a marriage may not be a man’s fault alone, since many women stop paying attention to their physical appearance after marriage, making their spouses lose interest in the ‘romantic’ aspect of married life. “Some women never wear make up, or attractive clothes or use perfume unless they are visiting friends.
If they can’t be bothered to make an effort to look good for their husband, how do they expect their husband to act lovingly towards them? the divorce rate is so high nowadays because spouses don’t pay attention each other’s emotions and to the importance of keeping love alive in their marriage,” said Dr. Al-Hamed. – SG
When will women find love in Turkish cinema?
by Emrah Güler
ISTANBUL - Last year’s Turkish movies were less than generous in giving Turkish women a happy ending in love. Here’s a look at how sad relations in some of the movies reflect a broader picture of Turkey.
Relationships have always been the heart and soul of cinema, and conflict and complications are essential parts of a good story, but when will women in Turkish movies find a loving man, a fulfilling relationship or even just some fleeting happiness? Is it too much to ask for happy endings or at least a hint of happiness in Turkish cinema?
True, most of the love stories that resonate long after we have watched them are tragedies. What can we say about a 25-year-old girl who died of cancer? Or a man who froze to death in the middle of the Atlantic? But in Turkey, relationship problems cannot simply be attributed to poor luck or bad karma. The doomed relationships on screen reflect bigger problems in real relationships between the sexes in Turkey. They are, most of the time, sad pictures of complications that open up to sad relationships, sometimes with fatal results.
Sad in the city
Istanbul is a filmmaker’s dream city. Its unnerving yet fascinating blend of beauty and chaos, inspiration and danger makes the city a haven for storytelling. Istanbul is the perfect setting to express the anxieties of our time and our society. Class differences, economic upheaval and urban chaos take a new dimension in this city.
Istanbul has been the ideal place to tell stories about urban relationships in crisis. Two critically acclaimed movies of last year, "Issız Adam" (The Isolated Man) and "Ara" (Between), offered perhaps the gloomiest pictures of urban relationships.
In Çağan Irmak’s "Issız Adam," the protagonist tries filling the void in his single, upper-middle class life with mindless sex and collecting vinyl albums. He meets the right girl in a world where it’s almost impossible to spot your potential soul mate. The relationship opens up to possibilities of something genuine and real, but eventually threatens the man’s freedom. This typical story hit a chord among strong women living in big cities, reminding us again about the harsh reality of keeping healthy relationships in a new age.
"Ara" was an even harsher portrayal of marriage, sex and sexual identities constantly in flux. Two couples, intoxicated by the bohemian lifestyle in Istanbul, journey toward their inevitable destruction as neither are able to find a guiding hand to help in their transition from traditional, conservative lives to modern, open ones.
Since 2000, more than 1,000 people in Turkey died from honor killings. It has been a large problem in rural and eastern Turkey, but lately it has become an increasing problem in big cities among people who have migrated from those parts of Turkey where a feudal structure still defines sexual relations.
Tragic stories of young love cut short by honor killings continue to fascinate Turkish directors. Prominent writer, director Zülfü Livaneli’s adaptation of "Mutluluk" (Bliss) by director Abdullah Oğuz, released more than a year ago to critical success, had a more hopeful look at honor killings. However, last year’s "Saklı Yüzler" by female director Handan İpekçi, and Murat Saraçoğlu’s "O... Çocukları" (Children of Whores) were not as hopeful, exposing their protagonists to medieval honor killings. While honor killings shaped one of the many stories in "O... Çocukları," "Saklı Yüzler" took a unique and controversial look at these tragedies, focusing on the men, killers, and how they dealt with killing their sisters, mothers or aunts.
Turkish society has never been comfortable allowing boys and girls to socialize with one another, making sure that men and women don’t mix until they marry. Although the situation is different in cities, in rural Turkey most boys and girls get to know the opposite sex only when they marry their designated spouses.
This awkwardness is often reflected in Turkish cinema, mostly as a source of comedy. Last year’s "Avanak Kuzenler" (Dumb Cousins) or the box-office hit "Recep İvedik" played on the social blunders of men when interacting with women. The former movie aspiring to be a Judd Apatow comedy and failing at that, the second film being a crude imitation of Sacha Baron Cohen’s hilarious persona, Borat. Even "Osmanlı Cumhuriyeti" (The Ottoman Republic), a mediocre look at what would happen if the Ottoman Empire hadn’t fallen and the Sultan still ran the country, portrayed the Sultan like a teenaged boy when flirting with women.
The lack of communication was not as funny in veteran director Erden Kıral’s "Vicdan" (Conscience) when a lower-middle class couple found themselves in a love triangle that led to tragic, fatal results for the women.
Turkish cinema was not generous in portraying happiness in love last year. Hopefully, 2009 will be the year of love for women (and men).
Empowerment through photography
By: Nadia Al-Sakkaf
Satisfying a conservative culture that does not want its women exposed to men, a photo studio managed by only women was the creation of a talented female artist that wanted to prove that if a man can do it, so can a woman.
It started with a native talent and a social need, and after one year of research, the first photo studio run totally by women came to life. Salwa Al-Sarahi, the owner and operator of ‘Best Photo Studio,’ was designated as the family’s photographer since early childhood, as she loved to create art through photography. Although she studied English for her bachelor’s degree and did her masters in the USA in American literature, she could not get the idea of professional photography out of her mind.
“After some years of working I wanted to do something with my savings, and at the same time, cultivate my talent in photography,” said Al-Sarahi. “So I did some research and realized that none of the existing studios have an all women cadre. Even the ones in which a woman stands behind the camera to take photos, a man usually develops the photos and does the computer software finishing touches.
“At first, clients were doubtful that women can do a good job in what was until recently a man’s field in Yemen. When they saw the results, they were impressed that we can use photoshop or develop film on our own,” she said.
Best Photo Studio was established in January 2008 as a joint venture between Salwa and her sister Khadija who was drawn to the idea. The project required a total capital of USD 60,000 just to take off, especially since photography equipment such as the proper camera set-up and a film development machine had to be imported from abroad.
The idea of men laying eyes on their women’s photos is very unnerving to Yemeni men, not just because of the religious aspect involved but also because of deep-rooted Yemeni traditions. However, many times people have to compromise on pictures when it comes to special occasions such as weddings or engagements. Although it is usually a woman behind the camera, it is always a man doing the other processes, such as developing the images or doing the finishing on computers.
“I came here because my friend told me Best Photo Studio is really good and I have seen their work. My husband welcomed the idea with great enthusiasm when he came to know that women will be handling the whole process,” said Ms. Al-Muntasir, a new mother who came to the studio to have a family photo with her husband and newborn child Mohammed.
The staff was trained by Salwa who is mainly self-taught, although she did get training in Dubai by professionals. She uses her talent and the internet to come up with new ideas and to explore the possibilities of making photography fun and useful.
At first, the project was run by Salwa and Khadija while assisted by her two younger sisters Azhar and Angham. Today they have two more staff members: Enas Al-Mahdi and Afrah Hassan who work full time as well as freelance assignments on the side.
They divide the developing process between them, and while Angham is more into photoshop and designing, Azhar likes to handle the camera. The art of image development is mostly handled by Enas, while Afrah usually covers weddings and graduation ceremonies or parties.
The advantages Best Photo Studio has over many other existing similar businesses include a very family-friendly atmosphere that makes clients at ease while they prepare and take the shots. The management has designated a small playground area for children who either accompany their parents or who have come for their own photos to be taken. This facility has encouraged mothers to come as well as the children, as they see taking their photo could also mean having fun and not merely having to sit still.
In addition to video and still images, Best Photo also creates customized one-page calendars on which a photo of choice is used to decorate the calendar. There is also the option of having the photos developed in an intriguing style of black and white. Full color is also of course available.
“One day a father came and said he wants a photo of him surrounded by his girls in various stages of their lives. It was an interesting experience and the result as wonderful,” commented Salwa.
She and her staff try to provide creative facilities and interesting services in order to find a foothold in the photography business in Yemen. So far they are still creating their brand and trying to reach out to as many people as possible. They vary their services and create new products every now and then to keep their niche and their customers coming back.
The reasons why her sisters supported Salwa were their trust in her talent and because they didn’t want to disappoint her, although both Azhar and Angham admit that they really did not think such a project would make it.
“There are so many photo studios in the city, and it didn’t seem like we will be able to compete,” said Azhar. She acknowledged the stereotypical impression in Yemen is that a man’s work is more professional than a woman’s, especially when it comes to a job that usually men do.
As they gained customers’ trust, the word spread, and now they are getting customers who were referred to the studio by satisfied clients.
Azhar thinks that covering weddings would be the main source for such a business because brides usually are flustered during their wedding day and do not have much time to pose in front of a camera and get many professional photos taken. This is why sending a professional photographer to follow the bride and create a wedding day album is good for business, in her opinion.
The marketing techniques used to promote the business are usually through talking about the studio in social events or through word of mouth, especially from satisfied customers.
Salwa admits that it is very tough, especially because of logistics such as rent, salaries, equipment, furnishing, and image development materials that she needs to constantly worry about.
But pursuing her ambition to develop and build the capacity of local female photographers and creating job opportunities for women through this profession has kept her going.
She dreams of using photography as means of advocating for social, political, and health causes to make a difference, while at the same time providing a socially acceptable environment for women to enjoy being photographed.
To Salwa, Best Photo Studio is not just a business or an example of women’s empowerment. She also realizes that so far the power of photography has not been explored to its full potential in Yemen. Many local and international development organizations depend on written messages or campaigns, even though the illiteracy rate in Yemen is high and not many people outside the main cities know how to read and write. Her ambition goes as far as using photography in raising awareness about education, health, and democracy reforms in Yemen.