A jihad for sexual health and education


“Do not bring shame to the family,” warned Elham Mahdi al Assi’s mother before Elham died from internal bleeding due to days of sexual torment by her new husband. Abed al Hikmi had taken his new bride to Dr. Fathiya Haidar, who advised the groom to stay away from his bride for several days in order for her to heal. Instead of following the doctor’s orders, al Hikmi continued his assault, assuming his wife’s screams had to do with spiritual possession and not because of the pain or torment that he was inflicting on her.

While Elham Mahdi al Assi's case may seem extreme, it is not rare. Muslim societies attach great importance to male virility and even more to the virginity of young women and girls. The focus often leads to ignorance and hardship, mainly for females whose virginity rules even their earliest years. From not participating in sports or using certain kinds of feminine hygiene products to securing their virginity by opting for a surgical procedure that ensures tearing and bleeding on the wedding night, females bear the brunt of this sort of patriarchal traditionalism.

The very same traditionalism also limits the development of educational curriculum that answers questions about the basic anatomy and physiology of both males and females. Although the governments of some Muslim countries, such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Bahrain, have approved of basic sexual health education curriculum, most teachers shy away from providing this education due to lack of understanding coupled with embarrassment about the subject at hand (PDF). The teachers’ inhibitions are understandable and beg the question why don’t these governments facilitate the training of teachers expected to educate intermediate aged students on their bodies.

Some Muslim countries deserve credit for having taken the lead on sex education. The Indonesian government designed a sex education program after witnessing a rapid increase of teen pregnancies. Plus, the government discovered that the youth are eager to have their questions answered. Turkey has also permitted a limited educational program in response to teachers noting that girls wanted information about their bodies and how they function.

Sex education should not be seen as corrupting youth, but rather instrumental in building a healthy society; such honest dialogue was certainly a part of the early Muslim community. Critics often cite the perceived hedonistic societies of the United States and Western Europe as the failed models of sex education. Though most of these critics have little background in biological or reproductive health, they continue to guide the discussion. Often citing sexually deviant behaviors, they claim the need to protect the family unit and its morals. Ironically enough, many of the societal ills that these detractors fear—teen pregnancies for one—could, in fact, be resolved through kids making informed choices and decisions.

Early Islam, whether through the study of Qur'anic verses or the Hadith, taught Muslims about menses, sexual etiquette, fluids, discharges, and relationship problems that could lead to a miserable sex life. Muslims found it natural to educate themselves about healthy sexual practices and relationships because intimacy was seen as a beautiful gift from the Almighty. This gift was also the subject of Muslim literature, both allegorical and scholarly, for centuries, as sexuality was not seen as heretical or shameful.

Although this liberal attitude toward sexuality may have been the norm centuries ago, it is no longer part of the Muslim social fabric. Al Azhar University Professor Dr. Ahmed Ragab published a study (PDF) which examined the attitudes in Egypt and North Africa toward HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, and general sexual knowledge. According to the findings, Egyptian adolescents knew very little about the maturation of their bodies, even though some had already begun the awkward transition from childhood into puberty. In Tunisia, over 50% of male students and over 70% of female students believed that varying birth control methods caused serious health risks. Even more worrisome was the lack of testing for HIV/AIDS and STI's, as most did not understand how they are contracted or prevented.

In 2007,the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) released a comprehensive report (PDF) entitled Young People's Sexual and Reproductive Health in the Middle East and North Africa. The report painted a picture that is rarely seen due to the louder, although less informed, voices of the critics of sex education. Across the board, younger people wanted more information about anatomical and physiological functioning, along with the prevention of AIDS and STI's. Approximately 73% of female respondents wanted information about menses, physiological development, and reproductive health. Most felt that they could not talk to their mothers or were encouraged to not ask questions.

Although sexual education should be made available to both males and females, teaching girls/women about their bodies often stirs up more suspicion and opposition than does educating young men. This is likely due to the idea that a woman’s body and virginity are tantamount to her family’s honor. As a result of many governments’ and families’ stubborn refusal to offer sex education to Muslim women, we find a disturbing number of women suffering from reproductive health problems. Over 70% of Saudi Arabian women who are diagnosed as having breast cancer die because they could not seek treatment or the cancer went undetected in its early stages, due to lack of female-only services. Fifty-six percent of Egyptian women surveyed had some sort of reproductive tract infection (UTI, PID, etc) but assumed pain and discomfort were a normal part of the female experience and failed to visit the doctor.

Such ignorance does not honor Islam or the Muslim family. Critics must stand aside or offer solutions based on facts. The Muslim obsession with child bearing and sexual pleasure can only be seen as hypocritical if the Muslim population remains uninformed. Today's Muslim youth are bombarded with pornography, temporary marriages, and misinformation. If they continue to be ignorant, we risk both their physical health and their spiritual wellbeing.

Source: altmuslimah

HIV Infection on the Rise Among Men Who Have Sex with Men

By Mon Mon Myat

RANGOON, June 3, 2010 (IPS) - The only son in his family, Maung Maung Oo was forced to marry when he was 24 years old. By then he had been carrying on a sexual relationship with a man for four years – which he continued even after his marriage.

For the next 14 years, Oo led a double life. But in 2005, he finally decided to be true to himself: He left his wife and three children for his male partner.

"My wife was so shocked when she learned of my affair with a man," says Oo. "But I can’t change how I feel though I have the body of a man."

Oo, however, is still living a life in the shadows. Although he and his partner are now living together, their relationship remains a secret to most people. "My partner does not want people to know we are living together as a couple," Oo explains. "He wants to pretend that we are brothers."

According to Ko Aye, who conducted a pioneering study on men who have sex with men (MSM) in Burma in 2003, stigma remains against people like Oo in this South-east Asian country of 48 million people. Yet while he says there is "not a very serious or strong reaction" against MSM, many MSM themselves apparently think there is a need to keep their "true identity" secret.

This has complicated efforts to limit, if not stop, the spread of HIV among MSM in the country. According to official data, HIV prevalence among MSM in Burma was 29.3 percent as of 2008, or 42 times higher than the national adult prevalence rate.

Men who have sex with men include both those who may not identify themselves as homosexual, and those who do and include those in sex work as well. Estimates by the Department of Health and the World Health Organisation put the MSM population in Burma, as of 2007, at 280,000.

Aye says that the stigma against MSM in general stems from "religious principle or traditional beliefs." This has led to people like well known make- up artist Soe Soe to believe that having relationships with men could not possibly be called "fortunate."

"We end up in this kind of life because of karma in the past," Soe Soe told IPS. "This is not what we choose to be."

It is a viewpoint that persists despite Aye’s observation of an improvement in the public attitude toward MSM. Thanks to the "development of information technology," Aye says, "people usually accept it" nowadays.

"For example," he says, "students may know a teacher is gay, but they accept him as a teacher."

There are also several prominent members of the entertainment and fashion sectors who are gay, whether they are out in the open or not, but enjoy public acclaim and respect.

Yet, for sure, it has not helped to reassure many that the government continues to portray homosexuality as "evil" or at the very least deserving of public scorn.

Just in February, the prominent ‘Bi-Weekly Eleven Journal’ ran an article quoting supposed medical experts as saying that homosexuality could lead to mental illness and sexual crimes.

Section 377 of the Penal Code also prohibits homosexuality, with penalties ranging from 10 years to life, plus fines. (A travel advisory by the British government says that in June 2007, an "EU national" was sentenced to seven years in prison in Burma for "committing homosexual acts.")

As a result, many MSM would rather keep their sexual preferences – and obviously their sexual lives – tightly under wraps. Chances are, too, they are reticent in seeking treatment even if they suspect that they already have HIV.

Soe Soe, for instance, says that he does not even "dare to join an MSM network."

In truth, despite the official condemnation of homosexuality, there are dozens of local MSM networks in major cities such as Rangoon and Mandalay, with local community-based organisations providing these with information and counselling services.

One of these networks is called ‘Golden Queen’, which has as members 45 MSM, including several who are living with HIV.

Unlike Soe Soe, Myo Tun, a sex worker who has an entirely male clientele, apparently thought nothing of becoming one of Golden Queen’s members. He says, "Whether society accepts us or not, we have already ended up in this life."

"We need to raise awareness among our fellow (MSM) as we are at high risk for HIV infection," he adds. "We often face problems of condom tearing. That could spread HIV easily."

Maung Maung Oo now knows this all too well. Two years ago, he discovered that an illness his partner was suffering from was actually one that comes with having AIDS. Not long after, he found out that he himself had it as well.

Unlike many other MSM in Burma, however, Oo and his partner did not hesitate in seeking treatment. They have since been regularly receiving anti- retroviral treatment from an international nongovernment organisation. Every six months, they also have their blood checked to monitor the number of white blood cells that fight infection and that helps indicate the stage of the disease in their system.

Oo says that when he first found out that his lover had HIV, "it was like a flame in my heart."

"If he dies," he says, "I think I’d also die soon after from depression."

And yet Oo says that he has found his life more meaningful than it was when he was still with his wife and children. "I believe there is real love between us," he says of his relationship with his partner. "Without that, how can we keep this relationship for 23 years?"


Source: IPS

When the virtue police come a-pokin’


Whatcha gonna... whatcha gonna do… whatcha gonna do when the Virtue Cops come for you? Run? Hide? Feel guilt running down your face and drop to the ground asking for forgiveness in front of everyone? Or would you transform into a drop-kicking-iron-fisted UFC fighter and beat that officer to the ground? That’s what one Saudi woman elected to do when an officer from the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (known on the streets of Saudi as haia (pronounced haiy-ya)), stopped her at an amusement park in Al-Mubarraz to investigate her male companion.

The woman’s decision to pull out her karate-chop action “HAI-YA” against this officer highlights the public’s frustration with how “moral law” enforcement officers have corrupted the checks and balances system of moral behavior in Islam, leaving the public outraged and humiliated, rather than “morally cleansed” as planned.

The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice is an agency within the Saudi Arabian government, which oversees the application and enforcement of Islamic Sharia law. Dr. Fadhel Alha of the Department of Islamic Preaching and Communications at the University of Riyadh writes in an excerpt on the Committee’s website:

“There are those who say that we must leave people alone and not interfere in personal matters of virtue from which they refrain, because this conflicts with their individual freedom which is set out in Islam. Those preaching this approach quote the words of Allah in the Koran: ‘There is no coercion in religion…’”

Continuing with:

“Second, the personal freedom granted by Islam to the Muslims lies in [Allah's] liberating them from enslavement to men. This does not mean that man is liberated from enslavement to the God of these men…”

“Third, the verse 'There is no coercion in religion' does not mean that everyone can do what they want and refrain from doing what they don't want, or that no one is entitled to require them to do the good that they have abandoned or to refrain from the evil that they do. The meaning of the verse… is that a person must not be forced to convert to Islam…”

If morality and ethics could only be preserved through tactics of fear and intimidation, then there would be no space for mercy in the theology and practice of Islam. While actions and accountability are fundamental to Islam, so is mercy, in all its forms. Guarding and upholding morality is a main element of the religion, through methods of teaching and demonstration. Not only have the mutaween (religious police) neglected this deep-seated principle of Islam, but have over-stepped Islamic principles of reason and mercy in several instances, with shallow justifications for their actions.

The woman’s response was a reaction to a history of abuses of power by this religious force that consists of over 3,000 officers plus volunteers. Accompanied by a police escort, these officers patrol the streets to “correct” dress code violations, signs of homosexual behavior, and monitor the closing of shops during prayer times. They have the authority to order the arrest and detention of violators. In one of the most tragic events of the Kingdom that took place in Makkah in 2002, the mutaween were responsible for the deaths of 15 girls when they prevented their escape from a burning school building. They went so far as to “[beat] young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya (a long, loose robe)."

Another incident occurred last month, where a woman was assaulted by the mutaween when she was turned in to headquarters by a man who claimed that that she was a “runaway;” in fact, she was actually traveling from Jeddah to Tabuk to visit her son. The man who turned her in had offered a ride to the local bus station, but took her straight to the police station instead. Reports say that she was beaten in the station precincts, while the man was set free. The man’s own motives should have been questioned as Sharia-compliant however, as he was hoping to gain a financial reward- a common tool and weapon of madness favoring the religious police, who stand open to citizen’s reports of moral deviance. This type of “community policing” leaves wide discretion to ordinary citizens, and creates a strong incentive to profile people based on suspicion and misguided intentions.

Whispers of reform reveal a silver lining amidst a seemingly hopeless situation. Media outlets in Saudi Arabia have been drawing attention to cases that have come under the radar regarding abuses by the religious police. With the Saudi government’s decision to fire the National Director of The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and replace him with Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Humain, the people of Saudi Arabia can expect to see some improvement in this program.

It seems there is also an opportunity to change the image of The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Some in the public don’t mind the existence of the commission, but do feel that the actions are excessive and unjust most of the time. Even if there is a new director and revised training regulations set forth, incidents like the one described at the beginning of this article present a different picture happening on the ground. There is not only the question of whether tangible means can serve to correct actions guided by internal motivations, but also one of whether there is any “right way” to check people’s actions. The world has seen too much abuse of power and control by governments in Muslim countries in the name of Islam.

If there is room for reform, then there is an urgent need to go back to the basics – a return to literacy and knowledge about Islam – not just handing out a list of behaviors classified as “haram" (prohibited) to be handled by inept “protectors of the law.” Additionally, if the intention is to uphold Islamic tenets and values, then institutions like this agency must apply mercy, and keep in mind the words of an early Muslim, Hamdun al-Qassar: "If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.”

Source: altmuslimah

Why many opt to study abroad

SENDING students to study overseas is “not getting a good return on an investment”, so says a lecturer in a local university who asked what a typical overseas institution offered that we could not? (The Star, May 31).

This parochial view is not shared by many parents who, at great cost to themselves, send their children abroad to study. Even politicians choose that path for their children.

The reasons are obvious if we just look closely at the environment in which local graduates are trained. Here are just five of many considerations.

First, critical thinking is what university education is about. Yet for the past 40 years, local graduates go through an educational system unheard of in developed nations – it was illegal for a student at a local university to question or criticise any lecture or tutorial.

This is the effect of section 3 of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971. Several generations of local students graduated under this regime of university education.

Even after the 2009 amendments to this legislation, a student is still not allowed to join, deal with or express support for or sympathy with any political group or any other organisation that the Education Minister regards as “unsuitable to the interests and well-being” of the student.

Failure to comply may cause the student to be suspended from further university studies at any university without the Minister’s permission.

Second, Malaysian universities are apparently run like a huge government department. Lack of academic freedom may be seen in the fact that any university staff may be transferred to some other university so long as the Minister directs it.

Third, in local universities strict dress codes are imposed and enforced from time to time. It is indicative of how much freedom of expression is allowed in university campuses.

Fourth, English is the premier international language. It is used in global communication, science, aviation, business, entertainment, diplomacy and the Internet. Yet local graduates can hardly speak or write the language properly.

Fifth, leading employers seriously take into account which university a job applicant graduates from. Graduates from ivy league universities overseas are preferred.

Kuala Lumpur.

Source: The Star

Corporate, NGO speak: mutually unintelligible? — Dina Zaman

JUNE 2 — If there is one love-hate relationship that is evident, it would be between the non-profit sector and corporates/governments.

Corporate social responsibility projects, fundraisers, monitoring and evaluation working papers — very few come to fruition with both parties at loggerheads.

The non-profits decry capitalism and how corporations are just spending money to look good, while are extremely dependant on profit making multi-nationals per se, for their ‘charitable’ programmes.

For profit organisations think these:

(1) how will this enterprise benefit my company financially, and

(2) professionally?

It is understandable that NGOs see beyond money. They have communities to care for. Such endeavours revolve around behavioural change, emotions, psychology, and education. They are passionate, angry, and determined to see their communities thrive.

Unfortunately, many (not all) do not operate like a business, and expect corporates to fund their work without any explanation. They believe that a corporation will benefit almost instantly the moment money is handed out to them. This is what one calls the ‘Karma’ factor.

Corporates however view this differently. There’s a bottom line to meet. How does a proposed project fit with their corporate strategies and branding? Oh dear, this does not look sustainable at all, I’m not keen on this one!

Some NGOs manage to hoodwink MNCs, and then they disappear. No transparency, no paperwork is done. You hear of horror stories of how some members of a non-profit use money to buy German cars, to the detriment of the very people they say they are helping. Is it any wonder that business organisations shy away from NGOs then?

Of course not all NGOs work that way. However, there is a need for many non-profits to behave like a business, instead of viewing businesses as their personal bankers. This may sound rather strange, especially for an outfit concentrating on a particular cause, but non-profits would do well to study the business they wish to approach.

Handouts/welfare mindsets no longer work. Pushing one’s agendas and ideals also may not sit down well with a business entity.

Sometimes it is the very basics which actually become a barrier to funding: poor communications and presentation.

Letters asking for funding, sans information of the organisations and their causes. Angry NGO staff approaching corporates all set for war and refusing to negotiate. Wearing inappropriate clothes - yes, call this shallow, but one can still look decent and washed in cheap and presentable clothes. This has nothing to do with mercenary capitalism: take pride in one’s self. You’re representing a cause. Unless you’re a member of a long lost jungle tribe, and modern clothing is an alien concept to you, an even well-worn and yellowed but clean and pressed shirt works. And if you have a beard and represent a faith-based organisation, please brush out food matter from it. Some CEOS have weak stomachs.

Here’s a tip: read books on advertising, marketing and public relations. Yes, the scourge of NGOs who have better things to do than read about shallow people and businesses. This is, however, one ‘enemy’ an NGO must befriend.

In an increasingly image and marketing driven world, the pie is getting smaller. You want money? Nothing comes for free, baby.

Corporations must also communicate to NGOs what they want and the audience they are targeting. What could have been thought as an external CSR programme, would actually be an internal programme for the organisation. Sometimes, a corporate’s KPIs which may have changed along the way, are not relayed to the NGO outfit.

And many times, corporate and NGO jargon appear as mutually unitelligible languages. Both parties end up scratching their heads. At times, in sheer desperation a charity is sourced, and they realise that the match is not a heavenly one! So a break-up happens in the middle of a courtship. Time is wasted and the community needing support, is aggrieved.

Woman Says Citibank Fired Her Because She Was Too Hot

Courtney Comstock | Jun. 2, 2010, 7:49 AM | 415,416 | 288

Debrahlee Lorenzana is filing a lawsuit against Citibank because they fired her, she says, for the strangest reason: she's too hot.

She's 5'5'', 125 pounds and well, you've seen her photo.

"Where I'm from," she told the Village Voice, "women dress up—like put on makeup and do their nails—to go to the supermarket... I was raised very Latin. We're feminine. A woman in Puerto Rico takes care of herself."

Her bosses told her that "as a result of the shape of her figure, such clothes were purportedly 'too distracting' for her male colleagues and supervisors to bear," she says.

[Her two male] managers gave her a list of clothing items she would not be allowed to wear: turtlenecks, pencil skirts, and fitted suits. And three-inch heels.

From the Village Voice:

"As a result of her tall stature, coupled with her curvaceous figure," her suit says, Lorenzana was told "she should not wear classic high-heeled business shoes, as this purportedly drew attention to her body in a manner that was upsetting to her easily distracted male managers."

"I couldn't believe what I was hearing," Lorenzana told the Voice. "I said, You gotta be kidding me! I was like, Too distracting? For who? For you? My clients don't seem to have any problem."

As soon as Debrahlee started working at the Citibank branch in the Chrysler Building, she says, everyone there focused on her appearance.

She's working together a lawsuit to charge the bank for creating a sexually discriminatory environment with a lawyer, Jack Tuckner, who agrees that she's smoking hot, but thinks Debarah's case should stand up well with a jury.

"It's like saying that we can't think anymore 'cause our penises are standing up—and we cannot think about you except in a sexual manner—and we can't look at you without wanting to have sexual intercourse with you. And it's up to you, gorgeous woman, to lessen your appeal so that we can focus!"

But he also bizarrely told Debarah that she should come to his place (his office) for a photo shoot, because she should have pictures of herself in more conservative clothing to use at her court case ... and then (presumably) told her it was OK to take and let the Voice print the rest of the photos they have of her on their site.

Luckily, she has more evidence than just the conservative photos.

Her case also seems to cite:
  • A meeting during which her two managers told her that her pants were too tight.
  • An email to HR
  • A visit from HR to the Chrysler Building branch
  • Debrahlee took of other female employees dressing equally or more provocatively than she
  • An email to two Citi VPs
And a lot of verbal evidence from a vivacious Puerto Rican woman.

She'll tell the jury that when she looked too hot, they told her to dress down. But when she responded by not wearing makeup, they told her she looked "sickly" and when she left her hair curly instead of straightening it, they told her she should go ahead and straighten it every day.

"I could have worn a paper bag, and it would not have mattered," she told the Voice. "If it wasn't my shirt, it was my pants. If it wasn't my pants, it was my shoes. They picked on me every single day."

Citi can just add this one to the list of sexual-related misconduct lawsuits they have piling up. First there was the blog Fabulis' claim against them, then Dorly Hazan-Amir's, which is pretty ridiculous on Citi's part if true, and that's just in the past four month. We have an email out to a Citi PR rep and will update when we hear back. here is their response:

"We believe this lawsuit is without merit and we will defend against it vigorously. We respect the privacy of all of our employees and therefore cannot comment more specifically on this litigation, this former employee's overall performance, or the reasons for her termination- which an arbitration panel must resolve. Citi is committed to fostering a culture of inclusion and providing a respectful environment in the workplace. We have a strong commitment to diversity and we do not condone, or tolerate, discrimination within our business for any reason."

That's a strong defense! Debrahlee's story sounds like a good movie plot line. What would it be called? Add your ideas in the comments.

Source: Business Insider

Press Release: Drop action against the four UKM students

The Malaysian Bar deplores University Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)’s action in using the draconian Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) to institute disciplinary action against four political science undergraduates.

UUCA is unconstitutional, as it negates the freedoms of expression, assembly and association. It is anachronistic and has no place in any democratic society. Furthermore, the prohibition against legal representation for the students is unacceptable, in light of the potential penalties and the repercussions facing the students. By comparison, lecturers are permitted to be represented by legal counsel.

The four undergraduates – Muhammad Hilman bin Idham, Muhammad Ismail bin Aminuddin, Azlin Shafina Mohamad Adzha and Woon King Chai – have been asked to appear before the University’s disciplinary board to answer charges that they “expressed support or sympathies” for a political party during the recent Hulu Selangor by-election in an alleged violation of section 15(5)(a) of UUCA.

The Malaysian Bar views section 15(5)(a) of UUCA as being inconsistent with Article 10 of the Federal Constitution in that it renders the rights of students to express themselves, to assemble peacefully, and to form associations, ineffective and illusory. It is neither a reasonable restriction permitted under Article 10(2) nor a law proportionate to the democratic needs of Malaysia.

To bar Malaysian students from taking an active role in politics during the course of their tertiary education is repressive, unjust and illogical. The continued existence of the many stifling UUCA provisions denies university students the opportunity to fully participate in the nation’s democratic process, thereby serving to hinder valuable social discourse as well as the students’ intellectual and spiritual growth.

The Malaysian Bar calls for the formation of a credible Parliamentary Select Committee to conduct a comprehensive and meaningful review of UUCA with a view towards bringing it in line with current developments and repealing the many provisions that curtail the democratic freedom of students.

Pending such a review, the Malaysian Bar calls on UKM to drop the proposed charges against the four undergraduate students.

Ragunath Kesavan
Malaysian Bar

2 June 2010

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