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By Rahnuma Ahmed

It’s all about attacking Iran!

Of course, attacking Afghanistan is wrong and we should all condemn it but burkas are equally bad because they oppress women. Progressive writers should not support one in order to condemn the other. The burka is a symbol of growing religious fundamentalism and as no religion whether Islam, Christianity or Hinduism can ever liberate women, all religions must be opposed. It’s not a question of women’s choice or freedom. Surely by writing what you do, you don’t mean to say you support the burka? Shame on you!
How does one respond to such comments? Well, for starters, I’d like to state that European women who insist on wearing the burka, or their fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends or whoever force them to do so, will be facing legal consequences for their defiance. They are expected to abide by the `law’ of the land, regardless of whether it is just or unjust. But surely, their crime of wearing, or forcing someone else to wear, clothing `symbolic’ of oppression is not in any manner comparable to the actions of western world leaders, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Blair and Europe’s other leaders, who are guilty of breaching international law? Surely, the consequences of the actions of these world leaders?cluster bombs, depleted uranium, drone killings, fabricated WMDs, millions dead, thousands maimed, the birth of deformed babies, spread of cancer, greater numbers of women forced to turn to prostitution, lives ruined, homes wrecked, millions out of work?are more grave? Are oppressive actions which determine the conditions under which large numbers of people may be allowed to live, or die, to prosper, or perish.
Twentieth century’s religious wars?and by that I mean wars fought in the names of gods/deities/supreme beings?have killed far less people than have those which were waged for expressedly non-religious purposes (to maintain or overthrow colonial rule, ethnic cleansing, nationalism, imperial wars etc.) whether conducted by capitalist, communist or third world states. If you don’t believe me, just try and tally the figures. Of course, this doesn’t mean I am arguing that deaths caused by religious wars are preferable to those caused by non-religious ones.
Only some religious gods threaten to destroy humanity; their followers believe this threat to be real unlike non-believers who doubt the existence of god per se and hence have no reason to fear his malevolence. But some modern states?USA, Britain, France, China and the Soviet Union?have between them thousands of nuclear weapons, which are capable of destroying the planet a hundred times over; it would eliminate both believers and non-believers alike. The killing power of the military-industrial complex (re-named MISM, the military-industrial-security-media complex) which controls the US, reigns supreme; on its own, the US accounts for almost half the world’s military spending (46.5%).
Does not war stand in the way of women’s liberation since women have always borne the brunt of violence perpetrated by war? Are wars that are waged to save women, whether Muslim or not, cloaked as part of the west’s `civilising’ mission justified? Malalai Joya, like most Afghan women, doesn’t think so. Their problem is US-led occupation and the forces that it fosters; the US government and its allies, she says, consistently marginalise progressive and democratic movements because these are likely to mobilise Afghan people against occupation forces.
The West is secular?church and state are separate?and surely, this means that it stands for the elimination of coercion, death, destruction, torture, in other words, for progress? It is difficult for us, to find any shred of truth in this assumption as the US government, the West’s unchallenged leader, has consistently supported whichever government serves its interests, religious (Saudia Arabia) or non-religious (the Shah of Iran), regardless of how fascistic it is (for instance, Hosni Mubarak has been the president of Egypt for the last 29 years, ruling by means of a state of emergency). And, as Joya reminds us, it is the US, which installed the Taliban regime.
But, the comment above seems to say, why can’t you keep `religion’ and `imperialism’ separate, why can’t you stick to a simple story line which says Islam prevents girls from getting schooling, forces women to cover their faces, be confined to their homes, not earn a living or marry the men of their choice etc., etc. Why must you drag in all these other issues, geo-political strategies, divide-and-rule, imperial interests, oil, the new world order, US hegemony, war crimes…You mean, live in a fool’s paradise?
Many bloggers and commentators, including westerners, can see through official propaganda; they raise questions about eurocentricism, how “abstract” formulations of self and body, embedded in European political philosophy, have little bearing on Arab women’s own notions, how western ideas of freedom and liberation are equally cultural. I provide a smattering:
– But first, there are Muslim women who do choose to wear the burqa or niqab under their own volition. And second, and particularly given that fact, I do not see how an all-out ban on the burqa/niqab by a predominantly non-Muslim, male, white government will liberate Muslim women to make that choice for themselves.
– I live in a country where face veils are common; to the women who wear them, that’s not at all what they represent. If Westerners see some weird symbolism that isn’t inherent in it to the people who wear it, then whose fault is that? It’s not niqabi women’s problem that Westerners see some other message in them.
– Every culture has standards of which body parts are OK to show in public and which aren’t. In Western culture, the face is public. In the Arabic Peninsula culture, it’s not.
– So to us covering our faces seems weird and bad, and it’s hard to imagine that a woman would ever CHOOSE that for herself. But I would suggest that this is a failure in our imagination, not a failure in Arab culture.
– Looks like the French learned too well from the Nazis they surrendered to. How can they even think of legislating what people may wear?
– Finally, how does it affect us non-veil wearers? How many of those questioned about a ban are affected by someone wearing a burqa or niqab? We live in a multicultural society so what has their religious dress got to do with us? People are a bit ?creeped out?? The last time I checked, we didn?t have the right to not be ?creeped out? so there?s no need at all to ban one.
– The argument that SEEMS most credible (or maybe is just the most fashionable, because it allows bigotry to hide behind feminism) is the argument that the burqa is a ?symbol of women?s oppression.? For some people it might be, but that doesn?t mean it should be banned. It?s ridiculous. It would be like banning crucifixes to prevent paedophilia.
These bans remind me of The Incubator Baby Hoax which sold the First Gulf War (1990-1991) to the American public. A Kuwaiti girl claiming to be a nurse wept and told world audiences how she saw Saddam Hussein’s soldiers take babies out of their incubators, left them to die on the cold floor. ?Only to be discovered later that she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington; the story was concocted by a PR firm, audience surveys were carried out to make the Kuwaiti ambassador more likeable (clothing, hairstyle). Research undertaken had revealed that American people would be convinced if Saddam Hussein was portrayed as “a madman who had committed atrocities even against his own people, and had tremendous power to do further damage, and he needed to be stopped.” Less than a decade later, videos of Taliban beheading of a woman to cheering crowds spread virally, it helped to garner support for the Afghan invasion.
As the burka ban gains momentum, I hear the beating of war drums. So, I wonder, whose next?

The Incubator Baby Hoax:The daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington.

Is Orientalism over? Those who criticise my position, if at all bothered by this question, would seem to think so. But scholars argue that contemporary representations of Islam and Muslims across a wide range of social/political discourses including journalism, other mass-communicated media as well as academic research, is modern Orientalism. It impoverishes the rich diversity of Islam, it caricatures Islam. Orientalism is not a mere “mental phenomenon,” to view it thus sidelines its practical implications. It attempts to restore practices that ensure inequitable social systems of power, and behavioral manifestations such as discrimination, physical attack, extermination (John E. Richardson, MisRepresenting Islam, 2004). Stereotypes of Islam that exist in historic Orientalist writings of the 13th century by Christian polemicists recur in contemporary writings: sex, violence, cunning and the irrationality of Islam. But although the topics are constant, the argumentative position has shifted with changes in Western cultural values. When Western polite society found sex to be immoral, or at the very least something to be endured, Orientalists accused Islam of promoting and celebrating such licentious activity. But now that polite society valorises gender and sexual equality, neo-Orientalists argue that Islam promotes, at times, demands, the opposite.
I refuse to live in a fool’s paradise given current speculation (intelligent, well-researched) that several US nuclear bombs which went “missing” for 36 hours (2007) may be connected to US plans to nuke Iran. Given plans of setting up the regional counter-terrorism centre in Dhaka, second to the one in Indonesia (a US client state) . Who’s to guarantee that Bangladesh will not attract the attention of militants? What is happening? Are we deliberately being sucked into the US war on terror, about to become yet another battleground?
Let history not judge us as collaborators, or too stupid to look beyond their nose.
TEHRAN, IRAN - NOVEMBER 1979: A group of women participating at the demonstration in front of the U.S. embassy during the hostage crisis in Tehran which was a diplomatic crisis between Iran and the United States where 52 U.S. diplomats were held hostage for 444 days from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981, after a group of Islamist students took over the American embassy in support of the Iranian revolution. (Photo by Reza/ Webistan)


Speech at the Funeral of Sarah Bartmann

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By Thabo Mbeki

9 August 2002

Fellow South Africans:
The day should be a day of celebration and joy. After all, today is National Women’s Day as well as the historic day when we return the remains of Sarah Bartmann to the land she walked as a child and a young woman.
Difficult as it may be, we must still celebrate. But we could not be human and not be deeply saddened and weighted down with grief as we reflect on the short life of Sarah Bartmann who has, at last, returned to her people.
This occasion can never be a solemn ceremony in which we bury her remains and bury the truth about the painful circumstances of her death as well.
To this day, 186 years after she died, we feel the pain of her intolerable misery because she was on us and we, of her. When we turn away from this grave of a simple African woman, a particle of each one of us will stay with the remains of Sarah Bartmann.
We cannot undo the damage that was done to her. But at least we can summon the courage to speak the naked but healing truth that must comfort her wherever she may be.
I speak of courage because there are many in our country would urge constantly that we should not speak of the past, They pour scorn on those who speak about who we are and where we come from and why we are where we are today. They make bold to say the past is no longer, and all that remains is a future that will be.
But, today, the gods would be angry with us if we did not, on the banks of the Gamtoos River, at the grave of Sarah Bartmann, call out for the restoration of the dignity of Sarah Bartmann, of the Khoi-San, of the millions of Africans who have known centuries of wretchedness.
Sarah Bartmann should never have been transported to Europe.
Sarah Bartmann should never have been robbed of her name and relabeled Sarah Bartmann. Sarah Bartmann should never have been stripped of her native, Khoi-San and African identity and paraded in Europe as a savage monstrosity.
As the French Parliament debated the matter of the return of the remains of our Sarah to her native land, the then Minister of Research, Roger-Gerard Scwartzenberg said: “This young woman was treated as if she was something monstrous. But where in this affair is the monstrosity?”
Indeed, where did the monstrosity lie in the matter of the gross abuse of a defenceless African woman in England and France! It was not the abused human being who was monstrous but those who abused her. It was not the lonely African woman in Europe, alienated from her identity and her motherland who was the barbarian, but those who treated her with barbaric brutality.
Among the truly monstrous were the leading scientists of the day, who sought to feed a rabid racism, such as the distinguished anatomist, Baron Georges Cuvier, who dissected Sarah’s body after her death. It is Cuvier who said after he had dismembered her:
“The Negro race… is marked by black complexion, crisped of woolly hair, compressed cranium and a flat nose, The projection of the lower parts of the face, and the thick lips, evidently approximate it to the monkey tribe: the hordes of which it consists have always remained in the most complete state of barbarism…. These races with depressed and compressed skulls are condemned to a never-ending inferiority… Her moves had something that reminded one of the monkey and her external genitalia recalled those of the orang-utang.”
It was the distinguished Baron who wrote:
“The white race, with oval face, straight hair and nose, to which the civilised people of Europe belong and which appear to us the most beautiful of all, is also superior to others by its genius, courage and activity, (And that there is a) cruel law which seems to have condemned to an eternal inferiority the races of depressed and compressed skulls… and experience seems to confirm the theory that there is a relationship between the perfection of the spirit and the beauty of the face.”
Almost two centuries later, an honourable Member of the Parliament of France, Jean Dufour, sided with the truth and said:
“Enslaved, exploited, shown as an animal, (Sarah) was dissected by scientists who wanted first and foremost to confirm their theory of the superiority of a race over the others.”
A German predecessor of the Baron Cuvier, Johann Winckelmann, a priest and art historian, had stated the batter boldly, thus:
“The European, called by destiny to run the empire of the globe which he knows how to enlighten by his intelligence, tame by his abilities, is man par excellence; the others are nothing but hordes of barbarians.”
It was as one among these barbaric hordes that Sarah Bartmann was sucked into evil purposes pursued by those who defined themselves as a “man par excellence”, with a manifest destiny to enlighten and to tame.
When she died, Sarah Bartmann had indeed been enlightened about the ways and the barbarism of “man par excellence”. But she was not tamed.
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