Nov 21, 2013

Who decides how to rank Arab women?

It took Western media a few weeks after the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to bring up the question of women’s rights in relation to the Arab revolutions. The question is certainly not innocent considering the deployment of women’s issues in war propaganda and the presumed image of Arabs as incapable of intellectual revolutions that can bring about values of equality and freedom, presuming these values exist elsewhere.
The recent poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation does not diverge from this discourse. On social media, women and men have been debating the methodology and outcomes of the poll. Although the status of Arab women did not witness any significant developments, a critique to this report is necessary to highlight how problematic these polls are, particularly when measured on “human rights.”

Sep 9, 2013

في فوائد الحداثة

قد أكون سلحفاة، 
تقودني بحقيبتك 
بينما يغزو دخانك نصف المدينة..

السلحفاة وحدها قادرة علي رؤية كل شيء
الفتاة التي ارتدت حجاباً 
لأنها تعبت من تسريح شعرها، 
الشاب الذي يجمع الفقه بالهب هوب، 
والدولة العميقة التي نستمني في حفرها..

أمي تعّرف غربتي بفقدان رائحتي التي تتوهمها، 
أنا أعّرف غربتي في علاقتي مع غسالة الملابس..

وحدها المغاسل العامة في أمريكا 
تحترم التعددية الثقافية،
فقد تغسل ملابسك بعد عدوك
واهماً بأن العرق لم يختلط!
أنا أحب المدينة،
وأحب الحداثة فعلاً، 
فقط لأنني لا أطيق الحشرات

* نشرت في أخبار الأدب

Jul 8, 2013

The Question of State-Feminism in the Gulf

The question of how the Arab uprisings have and will affect the lives and rights of women in the region is particularly significant in the Arab Gulf states.
Women in this part of the region find themselves faced with two challenges: the efficiency of state-driven feminism on one side, and their struggle to push for their rights in the public arena on the other. Both the state and social forces often fail to prioritise women's rights with the result that women are compelled to negotiate their rights within these two spheres.
In Kuwait, educated women of the upper and middle classes have fought for decades for their rights to vote and to run in parliamentary elections. In 2005, they were granted those political rights despite opposition from Islamists. Throughout their struggle, those activists recognised the state as their supporter.

The Gulf-West Alliance and Dehumanizing Bahrainis: A Conversation With Ali Abdulemam

Ali Abdulemam is a Bahraini blogger whoseBahrain Online Forum was blocked in his country. For his activism, Abdulemam was imprisoned in 2010 and tortured. In an attempt to calm the protesters of the February 14 movements, the Bahraini regime released Abdulemam. He immediately resumed his activism, calling for the end of the regime during the 2011 Pearl Roundabout protests. When the Saudi-led forces of the “Peninsula Shield” invaded Bahrain, he went into hiding to avoid living the nightmare of imprisonment and torture once again. When tried in absentia, he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for “attempting to overthrow the regime.” Last May, Abdulemam arrived in London after being smuggled across the Bahraini-Saudi border. What follows is an interview with the activist on how he sees political developments and online activism in Bahrain.
Since you escaped from Bahrain, we have been reading heroic scenarios about you “gaining freedom.” Do you feel free?
To me, freedom does not mean exiting through that brown door that I was trapped behind during my time in hiding. Freedom has a more complex definition: to be able to object; to oppose; to think and move freely; and to be myself and not someone else. I could have been free in Bahrain, with a comfortable job, but I would not have been myself. I would be the person that the regime wants me to be and the person that the economic, political, and media elites want me to be. I, however, do not feel free because Al Saud occupies my country, and the regime—with regional and global support—has conspired against its people. My real freedom would come when Bahrainis have the freedom and ability to make their own decisions.

Jul 3, 2013

O Stones, Listen to the Music

Riyadh Alsalih Alhussain
Translated by Mona Kareem

[Riyadh Alsalih Alhussain (1954-1982) was born in the Syrian city of Dara’a on March 1954 to a poor family. Growing up as a deaf-mute, he struggled with his education and decided to quit school. He worked as a journalist from 1976 until his death in Damascus in 1982. He published three poetry collections and this poem is from his third collection “Simple as Water, Clear as a Bullet.” (Basitun kal-Ma’, Wadihun Katalqat al-Musaddas)]

The beginning is tomorrow
And tomorrow is neither a tie nor a pair of fancy shoes,
The beginning is tomorrow
And tomorrow is neither a crossword puzzle nor the Havana Conference.
The beginning is tomorrow
And tomorrow, under the guillotine or in chains,
I will call for the new life;
For the life they talk about in books,
The life we see in TV ads,
The life that sleeps on the sidewalks
Is not the life we want.

Jun 22, 2013

Politics of Saudi Street Art

Prior to the Arab uprisings, street art in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait was seen as a funky, yet westernized, form of expression. Over the past two years, street art has become the new wave of expression, after photography and graphic design became too popular. There is a certain power to this emerging phenomenon as it gives visibility to certain issues and shows discontent among the youth.
In Kuwait, street art targets issues of undocumented migrants and gender tensions, but there’s also plenty apolitical, individualistic works. In Saudi Arabia, pictures of street art circulate and are feverishly documented before they are erased by the state.
The works in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were clearly influenced by Egyptian street artists. The figure of Sad Panda, for example, appears inJeddah. The images of celebrities are used to send messages, most famously Um Kulthoum as a feminist figure. A few years ago in Beirut, the Mashrou’ Leila singer did the widely-known Um Kulthoum “Boos al-wawa” graffiti. Similar depictions of Um Kulthoum illustrated the clash between eras.

Jun 11, 2013

The Untold Stories of Kuwait's Palestinian Refugees

Samah Hijawi and Diala Khasawnih – A Journey
As Kuwait was being ‘liberated’ in 1991, angry nationalist ghosts were hunting Palestinians and Iraqis. The United Nations went searching in police stations, though they forgot to search the basements of schools. Alongside the scores of individuals tortured and murdered during the Kuwaiti invasion and the Second Gulf War was the displacement of thousands of Palestinians. In the smallest houses rented by Palestinians in every Kuwaiti neighbourhood, cars were seen loaded with bags and possessions. Mass deportations happened not only after Kuwait’s liberation, but also during the first months of the Iraqi occupation. As a result, many decided to flee in fear of the coming war. They were never welcomed back, nor were their stories seen as deserving to be told.

May 28, 2013

Raids on Gulf Migrants: Pictures and Thoughts

In the western Yemeni town of Haradh, on the border with Saudi Arabia, Ethiopian migrants sleep out in the open near a transit center where they wait to be repatriated. Source: Reuters.
In the past few weeks, 200,000 undocumented immigrants were deported from Saudi. Arrested in raids, left to sleep in the open air, piled in front of migration offices, and shown every kind of discrimination and abuse, those immigrants continue to be deported by the country that is home to King Abdullah’s Interfaith Dialogue Center.
Simultaneously, Kuwait follows its “big sister,” deporting hundreds in the past few weeks. Pictures of those migrants are taken without their permission, while policemen pose proudly as they fulfill their national duties. Racism is a living legacy in the Gulf, softened by Western powers and overlooked by media that would prefer to cover the story of a handsome man being deported from Saudi rather than those of the tens of thousands deported.
* Continue reading this article in AlAkhbar

May 16, 2013

Egyptian Men: The New Savages?

Since the first days of the Egyptian revolution, sexual harassment was a focus for Western media. Although the issue is important, it was dismissed and denied for a long time in Egypt. Yet a lot has happened since last year, with more activism and work being done in that regard. Egypt finally acknowledges the existence of this phenomenon and the denial of the state is no longer effective as women go on TV and narrate their stories as victims of harassment or rape.
When it comes to Egyptian women, the state often blames them for the sexual violence. They are asked to fit the mold of an “ideal” woman, one removed from public and political spaces. When football Ultras were protesting against the military junta, they segregated women from men and commanded women not to smoke cigarettes. Those football Ultras, who are foolishly called “the revolutionary army,” represent just one of the macho faces of society.
With foreign women living in and visiting Egypt, the equation differs to some extent. Egypt is now not only promoted as a country that provides zero security for tourists, but also as a misogynist space. The 99 percent figure keeps coming up in the conversation on sexual harassment in Egyptian streets. This is a street-phenomenon that keeps growing as the state ignores it and blames it on women. It is also a complicated performance of masculinity. 

Mar 24, 2013

Arab is Not the New Black

Having lived in upstate New York for the past two years, racial discrimination has become the center of my life. Back in Kuwait, the discrimination I faced as a stateless individual was harsh, but different. In the US, I’m either discriminated against for looking like a Latina, meaning “an immigrant who is taking THEIR jobs,” or as an Arab and Muslim, meaning a potential terrorist or a victimized brown woman who escaped hell.
In Kuwait, legal procedures were my nightmare, but I faced stereotypes, rejections, and police harassment. I’ve written before about the legal and everyday discrimination that a stateless person faces in Kuwait, so my aim here is to focus on my recent experiences in New York.
For the first part of my residency as a student here, I tried to escape the labels imposed upon me. However, after several incidents of discrimination in public places, sometimes by police, I felt I was forced into those labels. Here, I am not stateless or Kuwaiti or just an Arab Muslim. Most importantly, I am an immigrant woman of color. This is the reality for me, and I can only negotiate within this frame. Accepting this reality has helped me see through tensions around me.

Remembering the Stateless Women

Writing this post on the International Women’s Day, I thought of speaking about stateless women. I feel obligated to make the disclaimer that those ‘international days’ are indeed problematic to practice as they further ‘other’ all those ‘celebrated’ groups. In other words: Why would we discuss women issues and celebrate their struggle, if we do so every day?

Those days highlight the irony of our realities in relation to gender issues. However, I will use this ‘ritual day’ to speak of stateless women. By stateless women, I do not only mean women I grew up around as a stateless person from Kuwait, but also other stateless women around the world. This includes Kurdish and Palestinian women in the region, and also women in refugee camps around the world.
Around the Arab world, the middle class women leading women rights movements are still obsessed with integrating themselves into the body of citizenhood. Considering how most of women rights movements started with fighting for voting rights, women issues have been centered on the system and regulations.

Feb 20, 2013

Sexual Violence in Egypt: Can Men Protect Us?

This is an anti-sexual harassment artwork made by Egyptian graffiti artist Ganzeer. The artwork represents a typical male narrative of sexual violence. The sentence reads: “Are you a man or an assaulting animal?”
Many of the so-called revolutionaries thought it was not the right time to talk about gender equality, that women gain rights as the political struggle proceeds, and that the gender-related issues raised are pushed by western-liberal propaganda. Many times, I thought the incidents of sexual harassment in Egypt were exaggerated or too few.
When I first read reports on ‘gang rape’ in Tahrir square last year, I dismissed them thinking they are only rumors by the many weird Egyptian websites and ‘yellow newspapers.’ In the past few months though, Egyptian women screamed loudly enough to mobilize themselves and others around the world to protest sexual violence.
Last year, the anti-sexual harassment march was attacked in Cairo and it was discouraging to organize another one. This year, harassment is no longer the appropriate word because it is rightly replaced with sexual violence as we see videos of gang rapes happening on the margins of massive marches.
Weeks ago, Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas tweeted a scene of Egyptian women getting searched before entering the book fair. Many of them turned in knives; a scene that tells us about the kind of reality Egyptian women have adapted themselves to. Shortly after, we saw women marching with knives in Cairo threatening to play the game of violence if necessary.

Targeted by Kuwaiti Police, Stateless Video Blogger Calls it Quits

A video blogger known for documenting violence against stateless protesters in Kuwait has quit, writing on Twitter that authorities beat and coerced him to do so.
Under the nickname “حمقان البدون” meaning the “Angry Bedoon“, (Arabic for stateless), the blogger made a name for himself in his community for using footage of violence by riot police against stateless protesters to make videos on YouTube subtitled in English. Many of his videos were used by TV channels, being the only footage available documenting violence against stateless protesters.
His story was first reported by Alaan online newspaper with the title “The Bedoon's Minister of Information Resigns.” The move comes nearly three months after the arrest of activist Abdulhakim al-Fadhli, who is currently on hunger strike.  Al-Fadli has been sentenced to two years in jail for using Twitter to organize and mobilize protests.

* Continue reading here

Jan 18, 2013

Nudity as an Intervention

Since Alia al-Mahdi stripped off in the Swedish winter to protest the sexist laws of the new Egyptian constitution, the debate over nudity and feminism has not stopped. There are two main camps critical of Alia’s acts for different reasons. Those in favor of conformance with social norms do not have to think twice before labeling her a whore for not dealing with her body the way she is supposed to, while the other opinion labels her a neo-liberal feminist, especially after she became a member of the FEMEN group. The smallest camp, though, can be described as the typical self-hating Arab liberal who praise any controversy that can provoke our backward-sexist-beast societies.
When Alia first posted naked pictures of herself on her blog last year, the visitor-counter did not stop ticking. Having written about the reactions to her pictures, I received tens of disgusting messages from Egyptian men, as if I were Alia herself. When she showed up in front of the embassy in Stockholm, her message, this time, included a context that was lacking in her past controversies. What triggers me to write this is the after-debate that is raging on one of the extremes.
First, we might want to look at the reactions to Alia’s naked photos last year and her subsequent naked protest. I see a person like Alia normalizing an individual and personal practice (whether we agree or disagree) by breaking a taboo. Last year, the mainstream spoke of Alia for weeks and attacks against her continued. The reactions were less tense this time, not because she was less controversial but because the taboo is being challenged continuously. Last year, “the elite” criticized Alia for defaming the image of the Egyptian revolution. There was this sense of a Utopia from which they wanted to expel a woman for her form of expression.
I do believe that what FEMEN does can promote Islamophobia among other things. This is where having a world-wide feminist movement becomes problematic because one act is being imposed upon different contexts. In the Ukrainian example, FEMEN came radically to overturn the sexualized and objectified image of the Ukrainian woman who is portrayed in the mainstream as a whore. The group is growing worldwide and targets all religions for their sexist and homophobic views. In Alia’s case, thousands were protesting near Mursi’s palace in Cairo when she decided to pose naked in front of the embassy in Stockholm. Alia drew attention to what she cares about: women’s rights in the new constitution.
Feminist voices of different ideologies, just like the voices of minorities, have been subdued since the revolution. They have been considered secondary in priority because what matters most is achieving justice against the criminals of Mubarak, SCAF, and now the Ikhwan. The unquestioning nobility of this goal is used to silence others. It is fine to disagree and criticize Alia but it is not fine to exclude her from this entity called ‘the revolution.’ A young woman like her took part in the revolution believing it would bring greater gender equality. She and her boyfriend, the blogger Kareem Amer, posted a video after the revolution challenging public space by being intimate openly in a park. A person’s need from the revolution might not be focused on an individual need, but this should not criminalize the importance of interventions made by those who care for their personal freedoms. Both discussions should enrich a post-revolution project.
Alia’s choice would not be my own. Alia can be used by western media and liberal feminism for political propaganda. FEMEN’s attacks on Islam are outrageous as they target a religion of minorities in Europe, which faces hate speech every day. Yet, Alia is making an intervention for women’s rights in Egypt and for personal freedoms to be considered part of the discussion, regardless of form and content. Whether her intervention will create space for women or not, her acts do not need not be suppressed and labeled as the acts of a traitor, “the native informant,” or the ‘feminist whore.”