Youth in Iran: Inside and Out

Here’s a very neat photographic journalistic piece on Iran in the New York Times. Mr. Fatemi has been covering the duality of Iranian culture for decades now, and he does a very good job of highlighting the difference between how Iranian citizens act in public when they’re being watched by the government, versus how they act inside their own homes. I’m including some of my favorite excerpts and photos here: 

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“If Iranian youth culture was portrayed in a BBC drama, it might be called “Inside, Outside,” or even “Righteous, Raucous.” That is the duality present in Hossein Fatemi’s “An Iranian Journey,” a series that shows young people’s public modesty and piety vanishing once they escape the wary gaze of authority. These youths play music, drink, smoke, commingle and enjoy other intemperate — i.e., regular — Western activities. They are online, on Facebook, and are politically engaged and simmering, craving freer speech but stifled by the ayatollah’s rules.

“Naturally, whatever you prevent a human being from doing, it makes them want to do it more,” said Mr. Fatemi, who is represented by Panos Pictures.

He sees his task as putting in the open what is shrouded in the dark. Whether it is alcohol consumption by Muslims or patronizing prostitutes, he seeks to photograph what is forbidden. When postelection protests in 2009 made it nearly impossible to be outside, Mr. Fatemi eagerly took to the streets and photographed as much as he could. Once the world got a sense of what washappening in the streets, Mr. Fatemi turned to photographing interiors.

In pursuing his expansive project to taboo corners, like more recent efforts to document the country’s L.G.B.T. community (homosexuality is against the law), Mr. Fatemi has not been so successful. Fear prevents many, and not just L.G.B.T. Iranians, from being comfortable sharing their stories or portraits, and with good reason. Iranian watchdogs, official or self-appointed, are vigilant and aggressive.

“Since the publication of this photo series, not only himself but the photo agency Panos, they’ve been receiving emails from an array of organizations including government agencies, religious folks, some of the hardliners,” said Ehsan, a filmmaker and friend who translated for Mr. Fatemi during a phone interview last week. Ehsan reported that Mr. Fatemi said that he hasn’t received any death threats, but that persistent pressure from Iranian authorities is intimidating enough. (In an email on Wednesday evening, Ehsan said that, as of Saturday, the Panos Web site had been blocked in Iran, what he called a “consequence of his recent Iran series,” adding that other “government factions” continued to warn Mr. Fatemi to take down the pictures. Ehsan, who has lived in the U.S. for 13 years, asked that his last name be removed from this story.)…”

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“…The recent election of Hassan Rouhani, has some people thinking a slightly more moderate era was coming — at least internationally, with the relations between Iran and the United States seeming to be thawing somewhat on issues like sanctions, the Syrian calamity or other geopolitcal strategies. But at home, young progressives lament that not more has changed since the days of Mr. Ahmedinejad’s fiery presidency.

“The youth in Iran, they didn’t want him to legalize discos and legalize booze — that’s not what they were expecting,” said Mr. Fatemi, speaking through Ehsan. “They just were expecting something as little as lifting some of their Internet bans or just letting them room to breathe. It seems as if the current Iranian government is just as vigilant about restricting Iranian’s youth access as before.”

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January 16, 2014 · 4:35 pm

How people in Muslim countries prefer women to dress in public

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UPDATE: Read our Q&A with the author of the Univ. of Michigan study for more information on survey methods and to see how responses differed by gender, age, education and religion.

An important issue in the Muslim world is how women should dress in public. A recent survey from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research conducted in seven Muslim-majority countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey), finds that most people prefer that a woman completely cover her hair, but not necessarily her face. Only in Turkey and Lebanon do more than one-in-four think it is appropriate for a woman to not cover her head at all in public.

The survey treated the question of women’s dress as a visual preference. Each respondent was given a card depicting six styles of women’s headdress and asked to choose the woman most appropriately outfitted for a public place. Although no labels were included on the card, the styles ranged from a fully-hooded burqa (woman #1) and niqab (#2) to the less conservative hijab (women #4 and #5). There was also the option of a woman wearing no head covering of any type.

Overall, most respondents say woman #4, whose hair and ears are completely covered by a white hijab, is the most appropriately dressed for public. This includes 57% in Tunisia, 52% in Egypt, 46% in Turkey and 44% in Iraq. In Iraq and Egypt, woman #3, whose hair and ears are covered by a more conservative black hijab, is the second most popular choice.

In Pakistan, there is an even split (31% vs. 32%) between woman #3 and woman #2, who is wearing a niqab that exposes only her eyes, while nearly a quarter (24%) choose woman #4. In Saudi Arabia, a 63%-majority prefer woman #2, while an additional 11% say that the burqa worn by woman #1 is the most appropriate style of public dress for women.

In several countries, substantial minorities say it is acceptable for a woman to not cover her hair in public. Roughly a third (32%) of Turks take this view, as do 15% of Tunisians. Nearly half (49%) in Lebanon also agree that it is acceptable for a woman to appear in public without a head covering, although this may partly reflect the fact that the sample in Lebanon was 27% Christian. Demographic information, including results by gender, were not included in the public release of this survey.

Even as publics in many of the surveyed countries express a clear preference for women to dress conservatively, many also say women should be able to decide for themselves what to wear. This attitude is most prevalent in Tunisia (56%), Turkey (52%) and Lebanon (49%) – all countries where substantial percentages are open to women not covering their heads in public. But nearly as many in Saudi Arabia (47%) also say a women should be free to choose how she dresses. Smaller, but sizable percentages agree in Iraq (27%), Pakistan (22%) and Egypt (14%). What the survey leaves unanswered is whether respondents think social or cultural norms will guide women in their choice to wear more conservative or less conservative attire in public.

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January 15, 2014 · 4:28 pm

Women’s rights top agenda as Egyptians vote on draft constitution

CAIRO – Egyptians were voting in a referendum on the country’s draft constitution on Tuesday and Wednesday, a document that would enshrine unprecedented gender equality for women.

Since the so-called Arab Spring shook Egypt and the region to its foundations in 2010, the roles and rights of women in the Middle East’s most populous country have been under the spotlight.  

Throughout the revolution that unseated the government of autocratic President Hosni Mubarak and led to the election of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi — who was deposed in a military coup last year — the country has debated rampant sexual harassment, and whether an Islamist government protects or endangers women.

The referendum, the military-backed government’s first electoral test since the Morsi’s ouster in July, has also come under fire for restricting personal freedoms of all Egyptians. For example, it states that citizens who have attacked the military in any way can be tried in military court, and would allow forced prison labor and require government permission for demonstrations.

A number of political parties, including Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, have called for a boycott of the referendum.

Artist Hanaa Safwat participated in demonstrations to overthrow Mubarak three years ago but told NBC News she is now disillusioned.

“I don’t think it’s worth my effort to drive and put any effort into voting ‘no,’ which would have been the other option,” the 26-year-old said.

“The referendum is stained in innocent people’s blood. It has been built on the dead bodies of 800 people in  Rabaa al-Adawiya,” Safwat said, referring to last summer’s crackdown on Morsi supportersthat led to the deaths of hundreds of Islamist demonstrators. 

The referendum and draft constitution do not echo the aims of those who unseated Mubarak in 2011, she said.

“People asked for economic equality, freedom, dignity [when they overthrew Mubarak]. I don’t think the constitution in the way it’s been written…guarantees any of that,” she said.

“It reflects the desires of the June 30 coup,” Safwat said, referring to the military’s ouster of Morsi.

In a case of unlikely bedfellows, a conservative housewife in her 50s is similarly fed-up. The older woman, who adheres to a strict interpretation Islam and dresses in all-enveloping black robes and scarves, agreed to speak but only on condition of anonymity because she fears retribution.  

Asked if she was planning to vote, she replied: “Of course not! I don’t accept anything around this.”

She also participated in the movement to overthrow Mubarak but has been disappointed by the turn of events.

“I am not asking for Morsi, I am asking for democracy.  If you want to come, you have to come through elections,” she said.

As an Islamist, she feels maligned under the current regime.

“We have no place in this society really. If you give me the choice, I would want to leave Egypt. You don’t feel free here. If you say your opinion, you go to prison…. What is this?!”

On the other hand, Afaf Marie, the director of the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, supports the referendum.

“I am definitely going to vote and I am going to vote ‘yes’,” said Marie. “This is going to be the first constitution in Egypt’s history that is recognizing women’s rights.”

Marie praised the provisions in the proposed constitution that protect women.

“An article says the state should ensure protection of women from all violence. That means family violence, state violence, street violence, and protection from sexual harassment at home, in the street in public places and transportation.”

With two days of voting, and an estimated 160,000 soldiers and 200,000 policemen expected to deploy across the country to guard polling stations, according to The Associated Press, some allege a culture of intimidation will force a “yes” vote.

A “yes” vote would pave the way for new presidential and parliamentary elections. 

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January 14, 2014 · 8:25 pm

People sometimes forget this:

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January 7, 2014 · 4:54 pm

Afghan girl says she was sent on a suicide mission

(CNN) — A 10-year-old Afghan girl alleges she was pressured to carry out a would-be suicide bomb attack on a border police station in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, officials said.

There were conflicting reports about how the bomb plot was foiled, but the fact that a young girl was caught up in the middle of it was shocking enough for President Hamid Karzai to quickly condemn the alleged attackers.

“Children are the future-makers of the country. They should be taken care of, and education opportunities should be provided for them,” he said in a prepared statement. “They shouldn’t be used as a tool for suicide attacks.”

Afghan and foreign forces have arrested many would-be suicide bomber children in the past.

Last year, Afghan police intercepted 41 children whom insurgents were planning to use as suicide bombers. They were between 6 and 11 years old.

According to Karzai, the girl, known only as Spozhmai, was forced to carry out the attempted suicide attack and is now under the government’s protection.

The girl’s brother, Zahir, is known locally as Hameed Sahib and is a local Taliban commander, the country’s Interior Ministry said.

After being taken into custody, the girl was made available to reporters.

“My brother Zahir and his friend Jabar forced me to wear the suicide vest,” Spozhmai told reporters.

They told her to cross a river and make her way to the police station, she said. The station is in the town of Khanishin, government officials said.

But the water was too cold and the girl shouted, saying she couldn’t cross it, she said.

“They moved me back home and (took) off the vest from my body. My father beat me. I had to run away from home in the middle of the night and spent the rest of night in a village nearby to our home,” the girl said.

She surrendered to police the next day, she said.

When taken into custody, the girl was not wearing explosives, Umar Zwak, the spokesman for the governor of Helmand province, told CNN after reviewing the initial investigation report.

The explosives are yet to be recovered, and authorities are continuing to investigate the girl’s claims. Zwak said authorities do not trust all of what the girl has said.

He gave CNN a summary of what Spozhmai told police, which turned out to be a slightly different version of the foiled suicide bomb plot.

She told police that she was dropped off at the river with a warning that “if you come back alive, we will kill you,” Zwak said.

She told police that she crossed the river, removed the explosives from her body and started screaming, the spokesman said.

Because no one heard her, she took shelter in an abandoned building and surrendered to police at the station she was supposed to attack, he said.

Karzai said he ordered the Interior Ministry to eventually give Spozhmai back to her parents after getting assurances from them that the girl will be able to continue her family life like other children.

 

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January 7, 2014 · 4:45 pm

Violence against Afghan women more frequent, brutal in 2013 – official

(Reuters) – Violent crime against women in Afghanistan hit record levels and became increasingly brutal in 2013, the head of the country’s human rights commission said on Saturday, a sign that hard won rights are being rolled back as foreign troops prepare to withdraw.

Restoring women’s rights after the Taliban was ousted by a U.S.-led coalition of troops in 2001 was cited as one of the main objectives of the war.

Under Taliban rule, women were required to wear the head-to-toe covering burqa and barred from leaving their homes without being escorted by a male relative. Schools for girls were shut down.

Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), told Reuters in a telephone interview that the brutality of attacks on women had greatly intensified last year.

“The brutality of the cases is really bad. Cutting the nose, lips and ears. Committing public rape,” she said. “Mass rape… It’s against dignity, against humanity.”

She attributed the increase in crime to a culture of impunity and the imminent departure of international troops and aid workers, leaving women more exposed to attack. In addition, more cases were reported as women became aware of their rights.

“The presence of the international community and provincial reconstruction teams in most of the provinces was giving people confidence,” Samar said.

“There were people there trying to protect women. And that is not there anymore, unfortunately.”

Most foreign forces are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year and it is unclear whether any will remain beyond 2014 as relations deteriorate between Afghan authorities and their U.S. backers.

An AIHRC spokesman said the latest figures for 2013 showed a 25 percent increase in cases of violence against women for March through September.

Samar said a deteriorating economy and growing insecurity had also contributed to the rise in reported incidents.

A leading advocate of women’s rights said improving the situation would be difficult as laws aimed at protecting women were notoriously hard to implement.

“Killing women in Afghanistan is an easy thing. There’s no punishment,” Suraya Pakzad, who runs women’s shelters in several provinces, told Reuters in her office in the western city of Herat.

She cited recent cases in which women had been publicly stoned as Afghan troops looked on.

“Laws are improved, but implementation of those laws are in the hands of warlords… I think we are going backwards.”

WORRYING INDICATORS

Another sign that rights for women have been rolled back in recent years is a rise in cases of self-immolation, a desperate last resort for women in abusive situations.

The burn unit of Herat hospital, one of two in Afghanistan, admitted a record number of women who had attempted to set themselves on fire in 2012. The head of the ward said he was reluctant to speak out because of threats from relatives.

“If they come with a high percentage of body surface burns… we cannot save them,” Dr Ghafar Bawar told Reuters during a recent visit to his ward. “After disfigurement, they have a very hard life.”

Bawar also treated patients who had suffered burns in attacks. He agreed there was a culture of impunity and that some assaults were not reported to officials for fear of reprisal.

For instance, a neighbour had brought in a woman and her four-year old child the night before. The father had thrown a burning blanket over them as they slept, setting them alight.

Both died of their injuries, but the neighbour was too afraid to report the case to the authorities.

(Editing by Ron Popeski and Rosalind Russell)

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January 7, 2014 · 4:40 pm

An End to Discrimination against Women in the Middle East

If something goes without saying, it goes even better for being said. A valuable survey of the second-class condition of women in Arab countries appears in the NGO Monitor Report that was issued on December 20, 2013. It makes the important point that the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, beginning in Tunisia in December 2010, aroused expectations of advances towards democracy in the Middle East once the autocratic and authoritarian rulers had been deposed in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. It was hoped that the mass demonstrations in those and other Arab countries would bring about major reform, especially adherence to human rights.

The bitter truth is that the Middle East is not, as Raymond Chandler said about his fictional Los Angeles, a very fragrant world. Part of the fetid odor emanates from the continuing discrimination against women and their resulting subordinate status in Arab and many Islamic countries. These countries have refused to abide by the international calls on them to eliminate the inequality of women. Almost equally objectionable is the refusal of many Western organizations and activists supposedly concerned to advance human rights, to recognize the bitter truth as a crucial problem and to demand real, systematic reform.

Those human rights activists should scrutinize the objective analysis in the valuable series of United Nations Arab Human Developments Reports (AHDR), prepared by Arab scholars. Since 2002 these studies have been affirming that undemocratic Arab regimes with their tradition and tribalism have combined to “curtail freedoms and fundamental rights.” The studies show the countries in the Arab Middle East region as suffering from three particular shortcomings: freedom, empowerment of women, and knowledge.

More specifically, Arab women suffer from inequality with men and are vulnerable to discrimination both in law and in practice. The AHDRs indicate that nowhere in the Arab world do women enjoy equality with men. Women experience discrimination and restrictions in most fields: lack of education; illiteracy (more than half of Arab women are illiterate); polygamy (in almost all Arab countries, including the region under the Palestinian Authority); divorce, child marriage or forced marriage (legally sanctioned in many countries starting at age eight in Yemen); severe control over dress; inheritance (women get about half that of men in a number of countries); legal testimony (again, worth half that of a man); and political activity.

The 2002 AHDR clearly states that if Arab countries want to develop they must strive for the complete empowerment of Arab women. The 2005 AHDR explains that one of the main reasons for inequality of women is that “the prevailing masculine culture and values see women as dependents of men.” Moreover, legal codes uphold this inequality by “claiming to be acting in defense of obedience or ‘honor’ of women.”

Further objective amplification of the status of women is found in the Global Gender Gap index, issued by the World Economic Forum in October 2013. Of the 136 countries studied, the Arab states are at the bottom of the gap in the fields of education, political participation, economic opportunity, and health. The lowest ranked country was Yemen, and close to the bottom were Syria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iran, and Egypt.

According to the general conclusion of the 2010 Freedom House no Arab country can be regarded as wholly free. Women face systematic discrimination due to report “deeply entrenched societal norms” and religious practices such as conservative interpretations of and judgments based on Islamic Sharia law. These factors explain the discrimination in personal status laws and family codes that regulate marriage, divorce, child guardianship, and inheritance.

Instead of benefitting from an Arab Spring, women have seen their problems worsen as extreme Islamists have become more influential in a number of countries. No major improvement has taken place in the lives of women. Gross inequality still exists largely because of the impact of Sharia law. Women are subordinated to their fathers and husbands. In some countries women can only marry with the consent of their fathers or male relatives. They are forbidden to marry non-Muslim men.

Domestic violence against them is rarely punished in any real way. Arab legal codes, such as those in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, allow men to use violence against women. Similarly, those guilty of rape are rarely punished. Female genital mutilation is common: 91% of women on Egypt have undergone such mutilation.

Honor killings, supposedly to defend “family honor” are prevalent in a number of countries, including the Palestinian Authority. The NGO Report and the country reports of the U.S. Department of State indicate the nature of some of those murders: beheadings, burning alive, forced self-immolation, torture, stoning to death for sexual or moral offences.

The role of women in public life is still limited or nonexistent. In some of the countries women are segregated in public institutions, and their freedom of movement is greatly restricted not only within a country but also abroad because women may need permission of a guardian to obtain a passport.

All this is contrary to international declarations that call for recognition of men and women as equals. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted in December 1966 and entered in force March 1976) Article 3, states that the parties “undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth in the Covenant.” Article 23 prohibits discrimination concerning marriage, divorce, and child custody.

A similar statement was made in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) that was also adopted in December 1966 and entered in force in January 1976. Article 2(2) says that the parties “undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social, and cultural rights set forth in the Covenant.”

The NGO Report discusses the issues concerning discrimination against women. It correctly blames Western human rights organizations, such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, for their lack of sustained advocacy on behalf of women’s rights and for their refusal to give the question of women’s rights the prominence it deserves. Instead of concentrating on issues of freedom and equality for Arab women these human rights organizations eagerly pounce on alleged abuses of democratic nations — the Western countries and the State of Israel.

Human rights activists have painted themselves as concerned with inequality in the Arab countries by focusing on relatively minor issues and bestowing excessive praise when minor reforms put in place. But they have not tried to tackle the elephant in the room, the elimination of systematic discrimination against women. The time is long overdue for them to do so.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.

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January 6, 2014 · 3:41 pm