Archive for April, 2010

The hypocrisy of child abuse in many Muslim countries

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

Published in Guardian (Comment is Free) here

Child marriage and pederasty are tolerated in Muslim societies where homosexuality is strictly condemned.

Some Muslims are fond of condemning western morality – alcoholism, nudity, premarital sex and homosexuality often being cited as examples. But Muslims do not have a monopoly on morality. In the west, child marriages and sex with children are illegal. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Muslim countries.

I recently saw the documentary on the Dancing Boys of Afghanistan. It exposed an ancient custom called “bacha bazi” (boy for play), where rich men buy boys as young as 11 from impoverished families for sexual slavery. The boys are dressed in women’s clothes and made to dance and sing at parties, before being carted away by the men for sex. Owning boys is considered a symbol of status and one former warlord boasted of having up to 3,000 boys over a 20-year period, even though he was married, with two sons. The involvement of the police and inaction of the government means this form of child prostitution is widespread.

The moral hypocrisy is outrageous in a country where homosexuality is not only strictly forbidden but savagely punished, even between two consenting adults. However, men who sodomise young boys are not considered homosexuals or paedophiles. The love of young boys is not a phenomenon restricted to Afghanistan; homosexual pederasty is common in neighbouring Pakistan, too. In my view, repression of sexuality and extreme gender apartheid is to blame.

And in the Middle East, it’s young girls who are considered desirable and men are able to satisfy their lusts legally through child marriages. In Yemen, more than a quarter of girls are married before the age of 15. Cases of girls dying during childbirth are not unusual, and recently, one 12-year-old child bride even died from internal bleeding following sexual intercourse. In another case, a 12-year-old girl was married to an 80-year-old man in Saudi Arabia.

So why is the practice of child marriage sanctioned in Muslim countries? Unfortunately, ultra-conservative religious authorities justify this old tribal custom by citing the prophet Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha. They allege Aisha was nine years old when the prophet married her. But they focus conveniently on selected Islamic texts to support their opinions, while ignoring vast number of other texts and historical information, which suggests Aisha was much older, putting her age of marriage at 19. Child marriage is against Islam as the Qur’an is clear that intellectual maturity is the basis for deciding age of marriage, and not puberty, as suggested by these clerics.

Whatever one’s view on the prophet’s marriage, no faith can claim moral superiority since child marriages have been practised in various cultures and societies across the world at one time or another. In modern times, though, marrying children is no longer acceptable and no excuse should be used to justify this.

I find the false adherence to Islamic principles and the “holier than thou” attitude of some Muslim societies similar to the blatant hypocrisy and double standards of 19th-century Victorian Britain, where the outward appearance of dignity and prudishness camouflaged an extreme prevalence of sexual and moral depravity behind closed doors. In those days, too, there were many men willing to pay to have sex with children – until a plethora of social movements arose that resulted in changes in laws and attitudes in society.

A similar shift in social attitudes is also required in traditional Muslim societies. Having boy sex slaves or child brides should not be seen as badges of honour. Instead, Muslims need to do more to attach shame to such practices; otherwise, acceptance of this behaviour will make them complicit in the sexual exploitation of children. I fail to understand why Muslims are so vocal on abuses by the west in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Iraq and Afghanistan, but display moral blindness when it comes to children? It’s about time this silence was broken, so these violations of innocence can be stopped.

A too-passive attitude in dealing with child abuse has rubbed off on Muslim communities in Britain, too. I have heard many stories at first hand of child sexual abuse and rape, which show that the issue is not being addressed at all. Those who have had the courage to speak out have been met with reactions of denial and shame. Such attitudes mean that children will continue to suffer in silence. Sexual abuse of children happens in all communities, as has been revealed by the recent Catholic church scandal. At least, they have finally started to take action. Muslim communities should learn from this and also start being more open, instead of continuing to sweeping the issue under the carpet.

I am finding that more and more Muslims feel it is their duty to criticise others for actions they consider sinful – quoting the following popular saying of Muhammad to justify their interference:

“If you see something wrong, you should correct it with your hand and if you are unable to, then speak out against it and if you cannot do that, then feel that it is wrong in your heart.”

I wonder how, then, Muslims can remain silent when it comes to the sexual abuse of children?

Muslim Women are not political pawns

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Published in Guardian (Comment is Free) here

The National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group was little more than a tick-box exercise, which is why I had to resign

This week, I resigned from the government’s National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group (NMWAG), which was launched by the prime minister more than two years ago. We were supposed to influence policies by advising on empowering Muslim women; on issues affecting them; and on their role in preventing violent extremism. We did very little of this and instead were side-tracked into overseeing the delivery of projects, which was not our job. Whenever I raised concerns, my views were ignored by both the group and government.

My frustration turned to anger in recent weeks when NMWAG suddenly took steps to be more visible and active after a long period of inactivity. I felt that this move was linked to concerns over a new government disbanding the group due to its lack of impact. I felt extremely uncomfortable about the timing of this renewed interest to empower Muslim women.

I felt that I could no longer remain on NMWAG as a matter of principle. It was not an easy decision because I knew my resignation could mean my links to government being severed and damage my relationship with individuals on the group. However, I was compelled to stand up for what I believed in and sent a letter to the current minister for communities and local government, John Denham stating the reasons for my departure. My criticism was directed at NMWAG as an institution and at government policy rather than the individual women on the group. There will be relief that my dissenting voice will no longer pose a problem. However, the messages of support that have poured in since my resignation should tell the group it lacks credibility.

By creating a structure that served no purpose, except contributing towards a political agenda, the government have missed an opportunity to empower Muslim women which could have contributed to Gordon Brown’s election pledge on strengthening fairness in communities. Muslim women are one of the most disadvantaged groups in society, suffering the highest levels of economic inactivity, worst health and discrimination on multiple fronts. We were never consulted on these issues. I urge the future government to explore ways of genuinely consulting the wide array of women’s organisations and community activists through credible mechanisms and not restricting engagement through a particular group.

After initial interest in the group, the subsequent lack of enthusiasm should not have been a surprise. The government has always employed a strategy of elevating a Muslim organisation before replacing it with another and NMWAG suffered the same fate too. The government diverted its attention towards the Young Muslims Advisory Group (YMAG), which they launched a year after NMWAG. They were provided resources for a website, a national conference and will be launching a magazine. NMWAG was never promoted in this way.

The failure of this initiative highlights that the government is not serious about the role of women in influencing public policy. For example, initiatives are often launched to encourage women into public life, but are not matched with resources to support them. Women’s empowerment ends up becoming a tick-box exercise.

If NMWAG survives, mechanisms are needed to ensure that members are replaced, allowing an influx of other knowledgeable and talented women to constantly increase the diversity of women being engaged with. However, empowerment means giving away power, which may be difficult to let go when one has access to the corridors of power. It may not matter anyway because if David Cameron wins the election he has promised to reduce the number of quangos, so the writing could be on the wall for NMWAG.