Sunday, June 19, 2011

This Hijabi Has a Legitimate Complaint

Unlike the Iran Football Federation's political shenanigans to create controversy over FIFA's hijab regulations, a 15-year-old Montreal hijabi has a legitimate complaint.

You'll remember FIFA disqualified Iranian footballers from a 2012 Olympic qualifying match for violating the hijab ban. Much shouting and hurt feelings ensued, although two years ago Iran signed an agreement to the ban and to wear specially designed caps.

But Sarah Benkiran's case is different. She has been a football referee for two years before someone noticed she was wearing a hijab and complained. Lac St. Louis league officials fired Benkiran. Again, we see FIFA rules conflicting with religious obligations. In Benkiran's case, her hijab never posed a problem until someone whined about it. There was no safety issue or specific incident in which the hijab posed a hazard. Above all, nobody thought it was worth rushing to the rule book to see whether she was violating the guidelines.

The problem here is the inconsistency in which leagues operating under FIFA regulations apply the rules. I don't necessarily agree with Benkiran that caps not covering the neck are inappropriate, but that's me. I can't judge how other Muslim women practice their religion.

Giving a waiver for a referee making calls for a teen league doesn't seem like such a huge violation of FIFA rules.

Clearly this issue is coming up regularly now. Perhaps FIFA should revisit Rule 4 to provide leagues with some leeway in handling the hijab issue to minimize tossing every Muslim woman off the playing field.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Saudi Women June 17 Driving Guidelines

Saudi women planning to drive on June 17 should observe the following guidelines for their safety:

1) Islamic dress code

2) There won’t be any gatherings. Go out only to run important errands, visit the hospital, drop kids off at school, etc.

3) It is encouraged that you videotape the event and upload it on Youtube.

4) Drive within city limits only.

5) To reaffirm our patriotism, fly the Saudi flag and lift up a photo of Abu Mit’ib (the King).

6) No need to be scared. If the police arrest you, you’ll only be required to sign on a pledge.

7) It is preferred that whoever plans on driving to have an international driver’s license.

8) It is better if a male accompanies you to protect you and to guarantee your safety (since the ball would just be starting to roll).

9) Avoid driving into any empty plots or deserted or faraway areas because that might pose some danger to you.

10) Driving is not scheduled for one day only. Saudi women are starting Friday but will continue to take to their cars beyond that date until a royal decree is issued.

11) Any woman who fails to comply is responsible for any possible consequences.

12) Ensure notifying family and friends of your intentions to drive (in case you go missing they’ll have an idea how to act).

13) If you have a phone with internet connection, follow WOMEN2DRIVE on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Iran's Hissy Fit Over FIFA Hijab Ban Lacks Credibility

FIFA’s ban on women athletes wearing the hijab and its recent clash with the Iran Football Federation renews the debate about cultural and religious sensitivity in amateur sports competition.

However, using FIFA’s latest run-in with Iran as an example of religious discrimination is dumb. Iran president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ever the provocateur, called FIFA officials “dictators and colonialists” in a characteristically over-the-top news conference.

A FIFA official ruled that the Iranian women’s football team forfeited its match against Jordan for violating the ban on hijabs in competition. The rule has been in effect since 2007. The forfeit is a serious blow to the Iranian team’s chances to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics.

Iran’s Football Federation knew full well of FIFA’s hijab ban. Iran signed an agreement in 2010 accepting the ban and agreeing to wear caps to cover players’ hair. Iran broke its word with FIFA. It used the women’s football team as a pawn to gain political traction, hoping that Muslim countries will take the bait and raise a collective howl.

Make no mistake. FIFA’s hijab ban has little merit. There is no evidence the hijab poses safety hazard and the concern over religious symbolism is nonsense. The hijab is more of a modesty issue. Most Muslim women I know wear the hijab for both modesty and religious reasons, but not all of them. And by the end of the day, the hijab is worn to preserve modesty. To deny women this simple right is to exclude Muslim athletes from their rightful place in the sports world.

FIFA, however, found a solution by agreeing to permit Iranian female athletes to compete in the 2010 Youth Olympics if they wore the specially designed cap. The cap covers the head to the hairline, but not below the ears to cover the neck. I can live with this compromise if it means Muslim girls and women can compete without compromising their dignity.

In January, a 12-year-girl was prevented from playing in the first half of a Mid-Maryland Girls Basketball League game because she wore the hijab. At halftime, a league official gave her a religious exemption and she was allowed to play in the second half. Now the league requires an exception to the uniform rules by having parents give written permission.

The league quickly found a common sense solution to a thorny issue, but the same can’t be said for USA Weightlifting and the International Weightlifting Federation. The organizations said no to 35-year-old weightlifter Kulsoom Abdullah’s request for a religious exemption to wear a modified uniform that covered everything but her face, hands and feet. Abdullah had planned to compete in the American Open Weightlifting Championship.

IWF rules prohibit clothing from covering the elbows or knees because judges must see that the joints are locked to complete a lift. That makes sense, but there are clothing options that are tight enough to allow judges to determine whether the lift was successful without compromising the athlete’s modesty. USA Weightlifting, to its credit, said it would address the issue with the IWF later this month.

The IWF ban on modest clothing is not a case of simply failing to keep up with the increasing presence of Muslim women in sports. In the United States, the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act prohibits sports organizations from discriminating against athletes based on “race, color, religion, sex, age or national origin.” The act has been in effect since 1998, giving the IWF plenty of time to revise its bylaws.

Western and Muslim women’s right activists are focused today on Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. There’s been a great deal of international support for Saudi women who want the right to drive. By granting women the freedom to choose how to live their lives strengthens their relationship with the global community. Yet these same activists remain silent over the hurdles Muslim women athletes face to gain a foothold on the playing field or basketball court.

Few women in leadership roles appear willing to tackle the nuts and bolts of dismantling discriminatory bylaws of sports organizations. These women contribute to the marginalization of Muslims with their silence
There is a growing number of Muslim women that want to participate at the international level. Eighteen-year-old Saudi equestrian Dalma Malhas captured a bronze medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics. Saudi Lina Al-Maeena founded the Jeddah United women’s basketball team and she wants the team to play abroad. Yet full participation in sports for many Muslim women is beyond their reach because some organizations are unwilling to change the language in their bylaws to accommodate cultural and religious differences.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Another Pretty Arab Face Seduces the Media

During the Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, massive demonstrations erupted in the streets of Beirut. As I read about these demonstrations in newspapers and watched events unfold on television, I was struck by the obsessive media coverage of what I now can only describe as the “hot girls of Lebanon.”

Without fail, television cameras turned their attention not so much to speakers and rally organizers, but beautiful women — their faces painted red, green and white — waving Lebanon’s flag. One respected American with an expertise in Middle East issues couldn’t help himself and posted a photo gallery on his blog of only female Lebanese protesters.

Now we have a new hot face for the uprisings in Syria: Amina Abdallah Arraf, also known as, “A Gay Girl in Damascus” As AnonymousSyria recently twittered to his or her 3,300 followers, “#Amina is beautiful, hot & brave.”

A group of men, presumably Syrian security forces, allegedly abducted Arraf and is detaining her somewhere. She had gained considerable attention for her blog entries challenging the Syrian government. She reported on the violent clashes with police and the military.

Arraf’s kidnapping quickly elevated her to celebrity status. Activists mounted the “Free Amina” movement, much like the “Free Manal” campaign for Manal Al-Sharif following her arrest in Saudi Arabia for driving a car.

Now there is speculation that Arraf doesn’t exist and her abduction was a hoax. Journalists once enamored with Arraf are now considering that she may be a fraud. Not a single person has come forward to claim a face-to-face relationship with Arraf. Her parents have made public no statements. And there appears to be no documentation to support Arraf's claims that she is a Syrian-American raised in Virginia.

Still, Arraf possesses the key elements that make her the perfect image of a revolution. Arraf is a young pretty, non-hijabi woman who writes provocative blog posts. She does not have that otherworldly Middle East appearance and does not wear Muslim garb. Throw in the fact that she’s gay and has dual citizenship, and you’ve got a sexy story that appeals to the Western media.

Manal Al-Sharif never represented herself other than a hard-working single mom making a statement about the Saudi driving ban. Her life and her brief campaign are well documented. Arraf, or the people behind her blog, can make no such claim. Enough time has passed that proof of her existence should have surfaced by now.

Yet these persistent questions apparently have not dissuaded many journalists and rights activists that Arraf deserves to be the poster girl for the Syrian uprisings. One women’s rights activist went so far to say that Arraf’s identity doesn’t matter because she represents all Syrians imprisoned by the government.

Really? Amnesty International reports that Syrian authorities have jailed 10,000 people and killed as many as 750 since the uprisings began. Among those detained are children, including 13-year-old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, who was tortured and murdered.

It’s offensive that a fictional character, if indeed the alleged hoax turns out to be true, becomes the face of the uprising. Meanwhile, Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, who disappeared on April 29, fades from view as the media lose interest. Apparently, Hamza’s story pales in comparison to Arraf’s situation.

I hope that Arraf is an actual person and I pray for her safe return to her family. I want her to be real because if Arraf is a fake, then it’s simply cynical manipulation of the emotions of the Syrian people. It’s the last thing Syrians need. The media is responsible for perpetrating the fabrication through lazy reporting by not establishing her identity in the first place. Pro-democracy and women’s rights activists also share the blame for their eagerness to embrace a cause that was suspect. They, too, did not check their facts.

If indeed Arraf turns out not be real, then we all have been duped by a pretty face that managed to distract the world from the grievances of the Syrian people.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Lingerie Shop Jobs for Women a Hollow Victory

The Gulf News reported today that King Abdullah issued a decree permitting Saudi women to work in lingerie shops. The language of the decree apparently stipulates that only Saudi women could sell lingerie.

The King also ruled that Saudi women could work at some industrial jobs.

Women working in lingerie shops became an issue in 2004 when female customers complained they felt uncomfortable talking to strange men about their underwear. The Ministry of Labor attempted to force lingerie shops to hire women, but it lost a battle of wills with passive-aggressive owners who ignored the edict. The Ministry reversed its position about three years ago, and some sheikhs joined in by issuing a fatwa banning women from obtaining such jobs.

It’s all well and good that the retail job market opened a tiny fraction for Saudi women. But lingerie sales work will only create about 6,000 low-wage jobs.

The nagging problem with this development is that it took seven years for the Saudi government to resolve this issue. And while I believe it’s a small victory for Saudi women, I can’t help but feel it’s some sort of consolation prize for being denied the right to drive a car. The Shoura Council has agreed to consider the driving ban if someone suggests it (as if Abdullah Al-Alami hasn’t been asking to be heard for I don’t know how long).

Saudi women have been thrown bone. Creating jobs for Saudi women in lingerie shops is only meaningful if women receive all their rights guaranteed in Islam. I give thanks that women have finally received the opportunity to seek employment in such shops, but I’m not going to delude myself into thinking we achieved some great victory.

However, there is a glimmer of hope. The King also issued a decree to create 39,000 jobs for women in the public education sector. The jobs for women are part of the King’s requirement to develop 66,000 new jobs for trained healthcare professionals and graduate teachers.

Public education jobs for women is indeed good news, but it also is a step towards creating a ghetto for women in the education and health sectors. Surely, not all female graduate and post-graduate degree holders are looking for jobs in the education and health fields.