All’s Fair in Love and War

NewsWeek’s cover story“Love and War” explores the hope and sadness surrounding the relationships between Iraqis and Americans.

In Baghdad in May 2003, amid the chaos, fear and hope (it is easy to forget how much hope there was in those early weeks when Americans and Iraqis began meeting face to face after years of tyranny and war), Jimmy and Lena were among the first to fall in love. He was a career officer in the U.S. Army—Capt. James Michael Ahearn from Concord, Calif., winner of two Bronze Stars, veteran of tours in Korea, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. She was from a middle-class Baghdad family that had seen better days.


Such romances have been part of the American way of war for as long as anyone alive can remember. In the 1940s, wherever U.S. troops were deployed, whether among steadfast allies or recently conquered enemies, and regardless of culture, language, religion or the best efforts of the military hierarchy to prevent “fraternizing,” soldiers and locals got married. “War brides” (and a handful of grooms) came to the United States from Britain and Australia, Italy, France and eventually Germany and Japan. Their stories were the stuff of comedy (“I Was a Male War Bride” with Cary Grant) and tragedy (James Michener’s “Sayonara,” about thwarted love in occupied Japan in the early 1950s). A reasonable estimate of the total number approaches 1 million from 50 different countries. Certainly there were hundreds of thousands. War brides from Japan, the Philippines, China and Korea, for instance, increased the population from those countries in the United States by 20 percent in just 17 years from 1947 to 1964. By the 1970s, thousands more spouses had been brought to American shores from Vietnam and, sadly, like Miss Saigon, many other partners were left behind.

What is striking about the Iraq War is not that couples have met and fallen for each other and succeeded like Jimmy and Lena in getting married. It’s that so few of them have.

The feature details several couples’ struggles and James and Lena Ahearn’s tragically cut short marriage. James converted to Islam to marry Lena, but had a real interest in the religion. As a convert to Islam, married to an Iraqi, he had hoped to build bridges between Americans and Iraqis. His life was cut short by a roadside bomb.

More on James Michael Ahearn here.

Sagging

I followed this curious news headline the other day:
Several U.S. cities snapping over baggy pants. It seems that the logic is that if they prevent sagging, they will reduce crime.
I am still suprised to see that sagging is still in, being that it really rose in the late 80s and early 90s. Looking back embarrassingly on my own high school years and fads. I admit that I sagged on occassion. The next generation have taken sagging to new lenghts. But I think it is pretty pathetic to see a 40 year old man dressed like a teenager. But, then again, who am I to enforce dress codes? The truth is that by banning sagging in libraries, parks, and municipal buildings, you are preventing a lot of good kids (who just happen to sag) from using public services and staying out of trouble. I am really tired of bandaid solutions to real social ills in underserved communities. If they really want to address youth crime, they need to consider economic development, job training, after school and conflict resolution programs. Importantly, I think that they developing services that deal with the emotional and spiritual void that our youth are experiencing due to collapsing communities and families and the traumatic life experiences that no young person should have had to witness witness.

When Life isn’t Fair…

I don’t think I’ve passed by a single pharmacy or beauty supply section in any corner store or hypermarket without encountering some skin lightening creams, soaps, powders, lotions, or treatments. It makes me acutely aware of one thing in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa—Black is NOT beautiful for many of these communities. There are skin lightening creams in the states, for sure. I remember on my way back from abroad, I stopped by a Queens shop to get my eyebrows threaded and henna. The lady next to me stopped in to get some brightening. She went in the back of the salon and underwent the uncomfortable chemical process. She happily walked out the salon a hint of a shade lighter. Several times I’ve seen flyers featuring skin brightening/whitening treatments at halal stores in the Bay Area. During the year I took a summer class in Berkeley, I discovered an Indian owned spa/salon right on the halfway mark between my dorms and Cal. I grew up with sistas who used to slather on Black and White creame everyday. My family never thought there was anything wrong with being brown. In fact, my mother used to put my sister in the sun when she was a little in hopes that her porcelein white skin would pick up a little tan. It took years before my sister tanned, as opposed to just burn and freckle. Now she has a peachy complexion of a southern California girl. The other day, she said her friend told her she was still to pale. It was funny to have that conversation considering the recent controversy over a skin bleaching product. Normally skin lightening creams have been marketed to women. But it took a campaign designed to appeal to men that finally drew controversy. Shahrukh Khan endorsed “Fair and Handsome,” a bleaching creme designed for men. The BBC reported on the criticism he received in an article titled, Beyond the Pale?

But there are many in blogistan who have written insightful posts about colorism and skin bleaching. Two of my favorite entries are “Ultra Brown” and The Right Shade. In addition to recent coverage of the controversy, I pulled up a few articles about the health risks of skin bleaching. I was suprised to see the prevalence of bleaching creams in Africa’s most populous nation. The article, Whitening Skin Can Be Deadlyreveals:

So, the prevalent medical evidence of high levels of mercury poisoning among women of Saudi, African, Asian and Mexican backgrounds reflects a common and prevailing belief that whiter skin has greater currency and appeal.

The article, African women risk all in quest for lighter skin colour, reports:

In Nigeria, where the use of skin-lightening creams is widespread, an estimated 77 per cent of women use them. In Senegal, the figure is 52 per cent, in South Africa 35 percent and in Mali 25 per cent.

Researchers in South Africa have pointed out that, “Society has a significant impact on the misuse of skin-lightening agents. It is known that during slavery years, light-skinned people were often given preferable treatment…and in modern times, studies have indicated that the majority of black men prefer light-skinned women as partners, girlfriends or wives.”

I walk past those pale women in black abayas who look like they never stepped outside in the sun a day in their lives. They add to their achievement by caking on the finest, whitest face powder.I wonder how they see me. And sometimes I see the disdain in their eyes. Even in societies where you see all sorts of shades, milky moon white to rich mohaganey browns, I find those bleaching creams offend me. They send a not so subtle message, that life is so much better when you’re fair. But you cannot be fair enough. Each time I see those creams, I feel like it is taking a jab at me and the beautiful brown people that I love so much.

Eid Mubarak and Why I still Get Excited about Turkey Day and Christmas

In some ways Ramadan passed by quickly and in other ways it seemed like it would never end (or at least I would not be able to make it to the end). I guess I try to be festive, but I have to make a painful confession as a proud Muslim. My Eids have sucked in comparison to Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family. Don’t get me wrong. My family does not celebrate it for nationalistic reasons or religious. But it is a time when my mom cooks special foods and a time when we eat and catch up. There are lots of Muslims who are against celebrating the Pilgrims getting saved by Native Americans and then turning around decimating Native American populations. But even more than that, many Muslims are against celebrating a holiday that has pagan roots. But believe me, it is not like I’m going around praying to a Christmas tree. I’m just happy to be home and see my family and eat some soul food.

Last year, in my blog entry, Ramadan Around the Corner, I wrote this:

The Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadan is by no doubt a relief. But I hate the anti-climatic end to my month long process of food and sleep deprivation. Usually I have to go back to work. Everything goes to normal, nothing changes, no visiting friends and family. It is about as much fanfare as, secretary’s day sometimes. I know, no one in my family celebrates Eid. I think I received an Eid gift maybe once in like 13 years. It is a struggle to feel part of a community during that time. In the large crowds I’m usually grateful to find a familiar face and give quick salaams. My Muslim friends are off doing their family thing. If I go hang out with them, I’m sort of like a fifth wheel. So, I just go home and dream of a time when I could have my own Muslim family and we can make up some traditions of our own.

l think either Eid al-Adha or Eid al-Fitr for single converts can have the same effect as Christmas and Thanksgiving on single people who live far from their family. I remember having a conversation about the loneliness converts experiences with someone who was born into a Muslim family. She stated she doesn’t fit in and has felt lonely sometimes, especially when she went to grad school. But the simple fact is that she now lives near her parents, siblings, and in-laws, has a growing family of her own, and everybody seems pretty close-knit. She has people she can visit during Eid, and they’d be happy to see her, or visiting is an obligation, a duty. I remember a few years ago I asked a Desi friend what did they do after the Eid prayers. They got a little uncomfortable. I wasn’t supposed to know this. Like I didn’t have the secret handshake or password. After some prying they said their families had a function, normally with other Desi families. I don’t recall being invited to one of the Eid parties, or even the hajj welcome back parties. However, I’m invited to weddings and the parties where everyone from the entire Muslim universe is invited. But often I feel awkward as that one weird Black chick that people see around occassionally.

This Eid was better than my previous Eids. I’m not going to go into detail about why my Eids on the East Coast, with my now ex and now former in-laws. But they those three Eids sucked just as much as my miskeena Eids in California.
For years Eid traditions were a mystery. I mean, I know what you’re supposed to do before Eid prayers eat some sweets, (wear perfume if you’re a guy, but not if you’re a woman cause the pleasant odor of a woman will cause disorder and disruption), drive different routes there and back. But every culture has something different that they do in celebration of Eid. They have special sweets, traditions to delight children, clothing, and customs of visiting grandparents and family members. One of my friend noted that even though she would like to experience a Kuwaiti Eid, she has never been invited to a Kuwaiti Eid gathering. Normally they say, “See you after Eid!” So, we still don’t know what Arab, South Asian, or what ther Muslims really do for Eid, outside of what we hear on radio specials. Perhaps the imprenetable nature of the eid private family gathering over the past 14 years represented my outsider status. Many of the international students experience this when they study in the states. So, organizaitons like the ISSU at Stanford organize specially events to bring people to together. They are nice, but I’m like wow after 14 years I am still transient. Every year I feel like that poor undergrad who doesn’t have any money to buy a plane ticket home for Thanksgiving break. You know those undergrads who don’t have anywhere to go off campus, there’s nothing like cafeteria turkey to warm the heart.

I just gave up going to Eid prayer. But I still go to Eid functions with the other long-way-from-home Muslims. I still felt a bit dissapointed one Eid because I signed up for the secret Sheikh/a (kinda like secret Santa). So I was all excited that I’d get an Eid gift for the first time in like 9 years. But my secret Sheikha forgot me. It wasn’t about the gift, but just about the thought. Then, another Eid, I missed a funny presentation because of a 20 minute long argument that I had with an international student who insisted that Black people didn’t give a damn about Darfur and how that was so hypocritical considering what African Americans been through. I mean, Eid Mubarak! Nothing like other Africans in the Diaspora making you feel like crap during Eid. Maybe some of us grad students are so analytical and outraged by injustices we see, that we can’t find a way to be festive. I dunno. I’m trying to not let the festive holidays depress me or let crowded gatherings make me for lonely. I think that’s why I became excited when I found out that I didn’t have to attend Eid prayers as long as there were enough people to fulfill the obligation. But this time in Kuwait, I did want to go to Eid prayer. But I fell asleep late and didn’t wake up in time. I guess I have to catch the sea of black abayas and chadors next during the next Eid (that’s the big Eid al-Adha). There were several kid centric things going on for Eid. But I have always wondered if there were special bazaars, performances, and street food that people eat during Eid. And not all the time is Eid about children. Eids were also the big mixed gatherings that medieval Muslim scholars in Andalusia condemned because the young single people of opposite sexes could see each other. Gosh, the threat of social collapse due to young men and women intermixing and possibly flirting. Watch out now!

Seeing how scandal follows a single Muslim woman like doo doo draws flies, I decided to pass on the kid-centric picnick on an Island on Friday. After the kids came back from picnicking and spending money at an amusement park, they returned home. I sat with them to exchange gifts and unwrap Eid presents. I realized that this was the first time I ever really saw kids excited about Eid and doing Eid-like things. It was one of the more pleasurable moments. Since Thursday morning, several members of the family I’m staying with have come down with some stomach bug. So, no big celebratory feasts. Who has the energy for all that? But in order to alleviate my cabin fever, I I went to an Eid open house at the AWARE Center (Advocacy for Western Arab Relations). I was nice getting out, I ran into some students from Kuwait University. But still, more of an open house than the warm feeling of a holiday. Don’t get me wrong some people have fun during Eid. I think especially when you part of a family or have strong bonds with people who share the day with you, it can be really nice. Eid is less materialistic than Christmas, there is all the stress similar to Christians–the crowds, the rush to buy presents, clothes, and food. It is not the material things about Christmas or the feast of Thanksgiving that draws me to it. But it is the sense that I am sharing precious time with loved one. It is a sense that belong somewhere, as opposed to being a lost person in the crowds of communalism, that makes me want to make my Eids like Christmas.

Female Genital Cutting

FEMALE GENITAL CUTTING

“In the world today there are an estimated 100 million to 140 million girls and women who have been subjected to the operation. Currently, about 3 million girls, the majority under 15 years of age, undergo the procedure every year.”
–World Health Organization


Waris Dirie, supermodel and UN advocate for the abolishment of female circumcision.

When I was a teenager, I believed a number of negative stereotypes associated about Islam. One was that all Muslim women were circumcized (a euphemism for Genital cutting or mutilation that ranges from removing the outer hood of the clitoris to the cutting all external female genitalia). As I learned more and more about Islam my own pressumptions melted away. I learned that women had rights. I read Islamic legal books which detailed women’s rights to sexual gratification during intercourse with her husband. Also, I learned that Islam forbid the mutilation or alteration of the body (outside of the male circumcision). As I spoke to more and more Muslims, I learned that the vast majority of Muslims I knew considered the practice abhorrent and backwards. As I investigated it further, I learned that some Sham in bilad al-Sham and Palestine were either given the sunna symbolic circumcision or had a minor procedure splittng the hood. But it wasn’t until recently that Muslim scholars have spoken openly in the West about the practice. Yet, for years there have been Muslim scholars working against cultural traditions and practices that harmed women. These were largely grass roots campaigns and they rarely garner the same public attention that people as figures like,Alice Walker (author of the Color Purple and Possessing the Secret of Joy) and Nawal Sadawi (author of Woman at Point Zero and The Fall of the Imam).

I want to clearly state from the outset that I am not trying to impose a Western view of feminity on the African and Muslim women who have undergone the procedure (whether forcibly or with consent). I do not believe that a woman’s wholeness rests on her clitoris. Nor do I think that Muslim and African women are helpless victims. I have argued elsewhere that women take active part in this practice and promote the norms and standards that not only condone the practice, but bake it desirable. As a writer, I try to write thought provoking and well informed pieces. For over a decade I have been passionate about this issue, but am increasingly aware of the complexities that surround the controversy of Female Genital cutting. This essay is not an exhaustive exploration of the subject. Nor do I a comprehensive list of resources on the subject. But what I intend to do is to raise this issue in support of the grass roots activists who are trying to curb a practice that is harmful to the minds and bodies of underage Muslim women. As an issue piece, I will first describe FGM (without showing any pictures that may offend my readers) using selections from the World Health Organization and UNICEF. I will also include some facts about the procedure in order to bring to light how widespread it is. I will then provide a few recent cases that have gained media attention. Finally, I will explore some of the controversies surrounding Western women’s focus on FGM and the negative outcome. This may be a choppy ride. But please read the block quotes because they detail very important information.

FGM comprises a range of procedures. The World Health Organizationstates:

Female genital mutilation (FGM), often referred to as ‘female circumcision’, comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons. There are different types of female genital mutilation known to be practised today. They include:

Type I – excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or all of the clitoris;
Type II – excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora;
Type III – excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation);
Type IV – pricking, piercing or incising of the clitoris and/or labia; stretching of the clitoris and/or labia; cauterization by burning of the clitoris and surrounding tissue;
scraping of tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice (angurya cuts) or cutting of the vagina (gishiri cuts);
introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina to cause bleeding or for the purpose of tightening or narrowing it; and any other procedure that falls under the definition given above.
The most common type of female genital mutilation is excision of the clitoris and the labia minora, accounting for up to 80% of all cases; the most extreme form is infibulation, which constitutes about 15% of all procedures.


Depending on the severity of the operation and health precautions taken during the procedure, there can be serious health consequences. Some studies have shown that women who have been genitally cut are more vulnerable to getting HIV. This is opposite of the effect of circumcision reducing HIV transmission for men. WHO goes on to list the negative effects of FGM:

Health consequences of FGM

The immediate and long-term health consequences of female genital mutilation vary according to the type and severity of the procedure performed.

Immediate complications include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region and injury to adjacent tissue. Haemorrhage and infection can cause death.

More recently, concern has arisen about possible transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) due to the use of one instrument in multiple operations, but this has not been the subject of detailed research.

Long-term consequences include cysts and abscesses, keloid scar formation, damage to the urethra resulting in urinary incontinence, dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse) and sexual dysfunction and difficulties with childbirth.

Psychosexual and psychological health: Genital mutilation may leave a lasting mark on the life and mind of the woman who has undergone it. In the longer term, women may suffer feelings of incompleteness, anxiety and depression.

Proponents of the procedure claim that it increases sexual pleasure for their partners, reduces promiscuity and is cleaner. In Africa is is a right of passage and a tradition that cannot be broken. New Study on Female Genital Mutilation Dismisses Proponents’ Justifications Two claims about circumcision were proven incorrect in this study that compared circumcised and uncircumcized women. One, it did not reduce sexual pleasure. Two, circumcized women were more likely to have urinary tract infections.

Outside of accounts in books, documentaries, and internet. I have not had a conversation about this subject with a woman who has undergone this procedure. But I have spoken with people who have known women who have struggled after undergoing the procedure. I have heard accounts of Muslim convert men who married East African women only to find them infibulated. In one case it lead to a divorce. I have also spoken with a mixed Arab/West African who has known women who have undergone the procedure. He stated that the woman had no sensation during sexual encounters. One of my friends recounted stories about an East African woman who suffers from bouts of depression, continually bleaches her skin and wears foundation shades lighter than her actually tone, and has rejected Islam because the religion as a primary source of their gender oppression..

FGM is farely widespread in Africa and in Southwest Asia. UNICEF Reports:

Estimates of the total number of women living today who have been subjected to FGM/C in Africa, range between 100 and 140 million. Given current birth rates this means that some 3 million girls are at risk of some form of female genital mutilation every year. Most of the girls and women who have undergone FGM/C live in 30 African countries, although some live in Asia. They are also increasingly found in Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA, primarily among immigrants from Africa and southwestern Asia.

I found these alarming statistics on the prevalence of FGM from the State Department:

Guinea 98.6 percent
Somalia 90-98 percent
Djibouti 90-98 percent
Mali 93.7 percent
Sierra Leone 80-90 percent
Eritrea 90 percent
Sudan (northern) 89 percent
Egypt 78-97 percent
Ethiopia 72.7 percent
Burkina Faso 71.6 percent
Gambia 60-90 percent
Chad 60 percent
Guinea-Bissau 50 percent
Benin 30-50 percent
Cote d’Ivoire 44.5 percent
Central African Rep 43.4 percent
Kenya 37.6 percent
Nigeria 25.1 percent
Mauritania 25 percent
Yemen 23 percent
Senegal 20 percent
Liberia 10-50 percent
Ghana 9-15 percent

The State Department goes on to say that inn Indonesia there are no national figures that reveal the extent of the practice. But I have heard of cases in Anatolia, Pakistan, and Central Asia. But I have not learned of information on Malaysia, Syria, Lebanon, or Palestine/Israel. World health reports state that there are almost no cases of women undergoing the practice Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Iran. But African immigrants to the gulf may or may not practice the procedure. However, with growing immigration from AFrica and the Middle East, the practice has spared to United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. With the growing number of cases in the West, legislators seek to ban the practice. For example, UK passed Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003making it illegal to perform the procedure, assist a girl perform the procedure on herself, or go abroad to perform the procedure.

As we can tell from the statistics, FGM is not some dying practice. In fact, the debates surrounding FGM have become prominent in the news. I wanted to briefly discuss two cases, one in Burkina Faso and one in the center of the Arabo-Islamic World–Egypt. Before we take a brief look at these cases. I wanted to point out that FGM is often practiced secretly in the Muslim world. The procedure done contrasts markedly from the male circumcision ceremonies in the Muslim world.

In counries like Turkey boys are circumcised between 2 and 14. They dress up and are given gifts in celebration of this major step in the transition from boy into manhood. Female cutting on the other hand in Muslim countries is secretive. It does not have the same right of passage ceremonies as in Africa.

So, with the cultural differences in mind. I wanted to reflect on two recent deaths.

Last month 15 FGM procedures were done in a village of Burkina Faso, which resulted in the death of one girl and several hospitalized for infections and hemorrhaging. Many African countries have stepped up efforts to eliminate the practice. One article explained that the rate of FGM in Burkina Faso had been reduced by half. The government is hoping to step up cammpaigns to reduce resistance to the measures.

Years ago when I was in Morocco there was a Moroccan author who was criticizing Tahar Ben Jelloun. One of the things that bothered me about the novel was that it promoted negative stereotypes about Islam, plus it seemed as if he got things wrong (having not lived in a Muslim society for years or practiced. In Sand Child he wrote that a woman living as a man prostrated during janaza prayers. But no one prostrates during janaza. The other mistake was that the main character wondered if his wife was circumcised. FGM is not known to be practised in Morocco. It is considered abhorrent by Muslims in Saudi Arabia and man reform minded Muslims. For many of us Muslims in the West, nothing is more troubling than the continual prevelance of FGM in Egypt.

(AP Photo/Al-Masry Al-Youm)
Badour Shaker, the 10 year old whose death at the hands of a doctor performing female circumcision at an illegal clinic has sparked a national outcry. Health and religious authorities banned teh practice June 28, 2007, a ban on the practice. In July Egypt’s Muslim religious authorities issued a fatwa decreeing that female circumcision was un-Islamic.
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance’s article, “Debates about FGM in Africa, the Middle East & Far East” lists the various decrees given by Egypt’s top clerics on FGM over the years:

1949-MAY-28: They decided that it is not a sin to reject female circumcision.
1951-JUN-23: They stated that female circumcision is desirable because it curbs “nature” (i.e. sexual drive among women). It stated that medical concerns over the practice are irrelevant.
1981-JAN-29: The Great Sheikh of Al-Azhar (the most famous University of the Islamic World) stated that parents must follow the lessons of Mohammed and not listen to medical authorities because the latter often change their minds. Parents must do their duty and have their daughters circumcised.
2007-JUN-24: the Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gum’s announced that: “… this custom is prohibited.”


Alhumdulillah, Egypt’s top religious scholars are taking a stand. But the outright ban on FGM has given rise to a backlash. A recent New York Times article,
“Voices Rise in Egypt to Shield Girls From an Old Tradition”, reports:

Circumcision, as supporters call it, or female genital mutilation, as opponents refer to it, was suddenly a ferocious focus of debate in Egypt this summer. A nationwide campaign to stop the practice has become one of the most powerful social movements in Egypt in decades, uniting an unlikely alliance of government forces, official religious leaders and street-level activists.

The Times article points out that there are many who don’t see the ruling as legitimate. In addition state aligned ‘ulema are discredited (well unless they are ruling in support of commonly held beliefs and practices).

One of the things Western scholars are challenged with is the desire to respect the culture of the subjects we are studying and the desire to end practices that we see as impeding upon the freedoms and well being of weaker members of society. Before I go any further, I wanted to make a point that there are people in the West who are neither Muslim nor Africa, or even traditional in any time of way who do Female Genital Cutting. There are some women who have liposuction and labia reductions . Outside of the women who have enlarged labias that may cause pain during intercourse, there are women who want in order to make their vaginas more attractive. Part of this growing trend is due to the prevalence of pornography where regular women compare themselves negatively air brushed images and plastic surgery enhanced nude models and porn actresses. I found this one website for Clitoral Reduction and Clitoral Hood Removal at a Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery Clinic. Some proponents of FGM have argued that type I, removal of the clitoris head increases sexual pleasure. This plastic surgeon also supports that claim. If that is the case, then I would argue that only adult women who are willing to take medical risks should undergo the procedure–and not little girls.


There are several controversies about FGM. One, the intense scrutiny Western women place on non-Western women’s sexual organs. Two, the backlash against Western efforts at eradicating FGM. And Three, the comparison of FGM to male circumcision. I am only going to focus on the first two. Caroline Scherf writes in British Medical Journal“Female genital mutilation must be seen as one of many harmful practices affecting women in traditional societies, and the planning of programmes for its abolition must involve the women concerned and their own perception of wellbeing and improvement… Women in developing countries are facing a multitude of suffering; we need a more wholesome approach in order to reach the ultimate goal of a dignified and healthy life for all women, everywhere.”
A review for Ellen Gruenbaum’s book states, ” Western outrage and Western efforts to stop genital mutilation often provoke a strong backlash from people in the countries where the practice is common…Gruenbaum finds that the criticisms of outsiders are frequently simplistic and fail to appreciate the diversity of cultural contexts, the complex meanings, and the conflicting responses to change.” I suppose this is why I differ from Alice Walker’s accounts of FGM and Nawal Sadaawi (who had undergone infibulation). If we truly want to help women eliminate the procedure we have to shed some of our western assumptions about FGM. We have to let the women who are subject to these procedures speak for themselves.

But I do not believe in a cultural relativist approach, especially when we have women who have spoken about the harm it has caused them. But instead of just supporting international NGOs, we should also find ways to support local grass roots movements. This is where us Muslims in the West can help. We are part of international networks. Many of us have roots in these countries where it is practiced. We should find ways to support local organizations that have little funding but do the real work supporting society’s most vulnerable members.

You Don’t Know Me From Adam–Maids in Kuwait Part 2

This is a continuation of the discussion on maid. In my previous post, I compared live-in maids with other servile positions–specifically slavery. This post is about the motivations that drive the institution and the types of maids.

There are many motivating factors to getting domestic help in Kuwait. One, it is relatively easy and inexpensive to get unskilled labor in Kuwait. Kuwait to get help legally than it is in the states. There are Kuwaiti citizens on top, then Westerners, then Arabs from other countries, and then South Asians on the bottom of the social ladder. Located in the Persian Gulf, Kuwait is relatively close to Africa and South Asia. There are dozens of undeveloped nations in close proximity, making flights relatively cheap in comparison to travel to America or Canada. Cheap labor, and especially cheap domestic labor is predicated upon the economic inequality between oil rich nations and undeveloped nations. With foreigners consisting of 80% of the workforce, Kuwait is a highly stratified society. Kuwait also has a large population of immigrant male workers in skilled and unskilled positions. Maids, janitorial staff, retail clerks, hostesses, and waitresses are some of the few job opportunities that women from poor nations have in Kuwait. Kuwaitis and westerners, on the other hand enjoy a high standard of living. Part of the standard of living includes maids and domestic help.

So what motivates someone to get a live-in maid? Several factors drive the demand for maids. There is a higher premium on the home as a center of socialization in Kuwait. In addition to the burden of housework and child-rearing on women, women play a large part organizing family gatherings and diwaniyyas (gatherings of men who sit in large room and drink tea, coffee, and other manly stuff). Women’s time is often spread thin between child rearing, house-hold errands, social obligations outside the home, religious duties, and receiving guests displaying elaborate hospitality. A social visit can take hours and socializing is not just limited to week-ends. In addition, Ramadan is a month long. For the non-Muslims out there, Ramadan is like 30 days of Thanksgiving (including the hours you don’t eat so you can stuff yourself). A family may not be able to make excuses for not allowing company over or visiting friends during special holidays and special events. The husband may have impromptu guests. In addition, hospitality is very elaborate. While catering can be an option, preparing meals for guests can be overwhelming for a female head of household. This includes various time-consuming dishes, and elaborate deserts and intricate coffee and tea ceremonies. Add room set up, cooking, serving, clean up, to the normal household work and child rearing equals means that one 4 hour event can equal more than two days of preparation.

In addition, childcare for young children is often inside the home under the supervision of the mother. Women are expected to have many children and breast-feeding is encouraged. They often do not have family members living with them to help out. In addition, from what I have seen, children spend less time in front of tv or playing video or computer games. I don’t see too many walkers, playpins, or blockaded areas where infants and toddlers can sit unattended for periods of time. This means children are less zoned out and require more attention. Who watches the children while you cook? This is an especially important question in places where gas stoves explode or there are carbon monoxide leaks.

While there are many hardworking mothers who really need extra support to fulfill all the household work, there is also the laziness factor. Some children are closer to the maids than they are their own mothers. Some women may need maids to clean and babysit while they shop to they drop at one of the high end malls. Maids may take over the messy work of child rearing, feeding the baby, burping the baby, getting the baby throw up all over their maid uniform. That way, the mother can keep her nice rhinestone embellished black abaya looking really sharp. Some people want to be served hand and foot. I have heard of a family that has three children and three maids, one for each child. For some women, live-in maids free them from mundane domestic work, the kind that makes your hands hard or ruins your manicure. There is also a prestige to being able to afford maids, while the servile position is looked down upon.

For the maids not only is there a stigma to being in a servile position, but also domestic work does not offer upward mobility or career growth. What would motivate someone to come to a Kuwait without speaking a lick of Arabic and put themselves at the mercy of an agency and some random family? Women in developing countries have limited opportunities to join the work force in their own communities. This limitation is especially for women without education backgrounds. For numerous women, work in places like Kuwait is an opportunity to send money to support their families and children. There are some maids who are well educated and join a maid placement agency but are really looking for other opportunities. They figure that by getting to Kuwait, they can pursue better opportunities. Rarer cases seem to involve single women hoping that they can find a well-to-do husband in Kuwait. There are cases where maids do get married and become heads of households themselves. I personally don’t have the statistics.

There are live-in maids and part time maids. Part time maids are actually more expensive. Some households require maids to work long hours. The longest I’ve heard shift for a live in maid was from 5 am to 3 am the next day. Others allow their maids the evening off. Some households don’t give their maids a day off. But many give their maids Friday off. Some maids are given separate sleeping quarters or their own rooms outside the home. Other maids are given only a mat to roll out and roll up (later in this article I will talk about why do families not allow separate sleeping quarters or give their maids a day off). From what I know, starting salaries for live-in maids is around 45 Kuwaiti Dinars (KD = 3.5 dollars). But a part time maid is 120 KD. Part time maids come to your home for set shifts and leave by evening. Most of these maids have husbands who are working in Kuwait. One of my friends noted that part time maids are efficient and have professional attitudes and demeanors. Part time maids often have ambitions and demand a certain amount of respect. She pointed out that many of the live-in maids on the other hand, are often not trained and often act slavishly. They often have emotional baggage (suffering from fits, fainting spells, endless crying, weeping when told how to do a job correctly). Part of the baggage comes from the culture shock arriving in Kuwait, or from a negative experience with a former boss. Part time maids may take the job because they can use the extra cash.

Maids can fulfill a range of jobs, from cook, servant, housekeeper, launderer, to babysitter. The jobs can range from labor intensive to relatively light. Some families can have several maids, each with set duties. There may be a maid assigned to cook, a maid who focuses on laundry, and a maid whose only job is to care for children. Some families travel with their maids because they need extra help with children. Despite the multiple duties they fulfill, maids are given little training such as language training, customer service, kitchen safety, janitorial and housekeeping skills, child development, or CPR. I have also heard that some agencies train maids in rudimentary Kuwaiti Arabic and housekeeping skills. These agencies charge a lot more than the ones I have visited so far Maids can range in various levels of efficiency in performing household duties.

People often talk about maids like their countries are brand names. It is not uncommon to go to an agency and say, “I’m looking for an Indian maid.”Formerly, Filipino maids were popular until their country demanded salaries that reached close to a teachers salary. Now Kuwait is boycotting the Philipines. But there are still many Filipino maids whose visa have not expired and want to continue to work in Kuwait. In addition to Filipino maids, there are Indonesian, Indian, Nepalese, and Ethiopian maids. Filipino maids often speak English, so that is a benefit for American families. Often people will argue the merits of the maids from a particular country. Sometimes there are different fads. I have heard that right now, Ethiopian maids are in. Some countries have reputations, for example an Ethiopian maid said that Indonesian maids eat wiiiiiiiiiide (Kuwaiti for a lot). Other countries have reputations for being promiscuous. Filipino maids get that honor. I heard that after getting a few accounts of Filipino maids sneaking men into the house or running off with the KFC delivery guy from Egypt. Basically, maids are essentialized in their ethnic categories.

One of the things that makes it difficult to understand a live-in maid’s human experience is that there is a language barrier. As I stated earlier, there are many maids who cannot speak Arabic or English. Even if they do, few speak it well enough. But some Kuwaiti families prefer their maids to not speak an Arabic. I have heard accounts that say it is best to get a maid who had no previous experience, or worse, a returned maid. One Lebanese family living in Kuwait had an Ethiopian maid who didn’t speak Arabic when she started but within a year she was fluent, plus she learned to cook and clean just like, “madam.” But this is rarely the case. If a multi-lingual woman who has a smidgen of education comes to Kuwait as a maid, it is likely she has higher aspirations.

In the next section I will talk about the ways in which maids are in vulnerable positions and how people have abused maids. I will draw from stories I have heard and from news reports.

On Single Muslim Women Traveling and Working

I have written before about forbidding wrong and judgmental people. I have found some of the social pressures and moral judgments from our community quite oppressive. Things many people in the West may consider quite normal become bastions of inequity. Things like two couples going out for dinner ((gasp!)) or hosting a female language student in your home ((gasp!)). I am aware that there are a wide range of social practices and mores. I try not to judge those who are more rigid or fluid in their interpretations of Islam, but that favor is rarely returned in kind. This is especially the case when it comes to sociological and cultural practices, as opposed to religious and spiritual practices. Gender segregation is a sociological practice that has a cultural basis. For some Muslims who practice gender segregation, the free mixing between the sexes is tantamount to an all and out orgy. As a single woman living in the Muslim world (both in America and the Middle East), I have been on the receiving end of a lot of negative judgments.

I know that there are many Muslims who do not believe that women should live on their own, let alone travel without a close male relative or husband. There are Muslims who won’t have a conversation with an unrelated man or even have a business related meeting alone with an unrelated man. I know for one graduate student, this caused serious problems. I’ve been Muslim for 14 years and for all but 2 ½ years, I’ve had to navigate things on my own. I guess I have a more pragmatic take. I’ve preferred to live as a “loose woman,” working outside the home, traveling by myself , choosing a career as a western trained scholar rather than choose a circumscribed life. I have seen too many vulnerable women who are abused by their spouses and feel helpless to change their situation. I know relatively happy women, who in their youth had ambitious career plans but decided to live conservative lives. A number of my college friends are now stay at home mothers who are deeply involved in their children’s education and community life. I am proud of them and admire their efforts. I have a lot of respect for women’s work. But, I could not limit myself to being only a wife and mother, but also a scholar in order to make a contribution to my community. Finding that balance is difficult, but I think it is possible.
But women who have not given up their career paths in order to get married are looked down upon. I don’t think I’m taken as seriously as a man in my position. I guess in their mind they are like, “How cute, she can write papers!” Perhaps that is the reason why I have gotten little support from my community.

I experienced my first major dose of judgment when I was 18. It had to do with my living situation and the fact that I didn’t live with my parents. People would tell me that I should move back home without understanding my family situation. Nor did they understand how much the family I stayed with helped me stay in school and pursue my education aspirations. At that time, there were few Muslim women living on their own or even renting rooms together. And there is no real community support for convert women. No aid for finding housing, few jobs in the community that offered competitive pay, and definitely no social services for any sisters who had a hard time finding work because she wore hijab. Instead, they encourage new convert women to get married right away. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that our Ummah has really not created a space for women like me.

I suppose the dilemma for a Muslim woman traveling in the Middle East is to pick which scandalous living arrangement she’ll have. If you live by yourself, you’re a loose woman (without a mahram) with no one moderating your behavior, if you live with a family you are inviting scandal (living with a non-mahram man). Perhaps if you live in a commune of ultra-religious women you might escape stigma. But then again, who knows? You can still draw controversy. Basically, you have no business having any ambitions outside of being married.

I am aware that people are often well intentioned in their judgmental behavior. But I do think that it is important that they be aware of how their imposing views can be seriously detrimental to the emotional and spiritual well being of others. There’s nothing more lonely than being part of a community. Just to get by, I have had to make a lot of fluid interpretations of my religion. I would never have been a doctoral student if I followed the Fiqh books like a manual for life. And because of that, I am judged. But getting the same message—“you are not in line”—pounded down my throat turns me off from wanting to engage with this community. I guess we should be reminded that it is easy to judge whether someone is in line with some social norm or cultural practice that may or may not reinforce spirituality. But we cannot judge what is in someone’s heart or know their spiritual station. And because of that, we should be humble and reflect on our own intentions when we tell someone what they are doing wrong and why they should change some aspect of their lives.