Thursday, September 17, 2009

A fashionable martyr

In Sudan this July, twelve women were arrested for being “inappropriately” dressed. According to news sources, they were wearing trousers, which is a violation of Sudan’s strict sharia dress code. That code – which applies to Muslims AND Christians, to the disgruntlement of many – has relaxed in recent years, but now they’re seeing a crackdown again.

Of the twelve women arrested, ten agreed to their crime, paid $100, and received 10 lashes each. (Yes, with a whip.) But one of the women, Lubna Hussein, a journalist and all around shit-disturber, not only refused to admit that she’d broken the law, she sent out 500 invitations to her trial and flogging. She quit her UN job so that they couldn’t provide her with legal immunity, and she went to war with the courts.

I love that she’s causing a stir so that people will hear her message: she believes that persecuting women because of their clothing choices is un-Islamic. Nowhere does the Quran say that women should be punished for their fashion choices. The law itself is vague and leaves the definition of “indecent” dress up to the individual police officer. Very scary.

Last week, the court found Lubna guilty of indecency for wearing pants in public. They fined her $200 but decided not to lash her – probably because, at this point, it would be too embarrassing for them.

These old fashion arguments are beginning to feel a little bit like the Arab-Israeli conflict: is it ever going to end? On the one hand, Muslims argue that the dress code, which in theory applies to men and women, is not just about “decency,” it’s about tradition and cultural identity. But plenty of other Muslims think that argument is bogus and say you can be a good Muslim no matter what you’re wearing.

I remember how weird it was to meet women in Saudi Arabia who were totally preoccupied with the hottest fashion trends from Milan, Paris, and New York. They put fashionistas in the West to shame – not only did they know everything about the latest runway trends but the Saudi women at least could actually afford them.

But their display of those fashions was severely circumscribed, because every time they left the house, they were still wearing the same big black cloaks and head coverings. You might argue that some of those runway styles actually look better under a black cloak, but still, who spends hundreds of dollars on clothing items that almost no one is going to see?

Well…let’s see: everyone who shops at Victoria’s Secret? My mother once got her hands on my VS credit card bill and practically exploded: you spent ____ dollars on UNDERWEAR?!! Well, it’s not all underwear, but yes. There is a secret thrill to wearing hidden, beautiful things. And Saudi women don’t wear cloaks all of the time – most of the women in their lives will get the chance to see those new designer jeans. And, let’s admit it, women dress up to impress women as well as men. HOWEVER --

When someone's going to put you in jail for going public with Gucci or YSL or just plain old trousers, something is very wrong. Especially when that law is directed against women with such exclusivity. What would happen if Sudan started arresting men for wearing trousers in public? It's not about upholding moral standards at that point, it's about upholding moral standards for women only. And that is simply indecent.

Monday, June 22, 2009

An Unpleasant Welcome

Welcome to the blog! You are reading the first entry on my official blog that you can link to from my official website. Yes, bureaucracy is the source of much evil, but there IS something satisfying about that moment: STAMP! – it’s official. And you walk away from the DMV or the courthouse flooded with gratitude that your life isn’t over, that you can still drive your car or walk around in a free country.

And, sadly, this brings me to the subject of Homeland Security. A very good friend of mine, whom I shall call Mr. E, and who is originally from Saudi Arabia, has lived in San Francisco for 18 years. A few years ago, his children, who grew up in Palestine and Saudi Arabia, decided to come live with him in America. All went well – they came, they saw, they continue to conquer their surprise – until one of his sons, whom I have to call K, was stopped at the airport.
K was carrying a laptop with images of the war in Chechnya. Old images from public news sources. Feeling suspicious, the FBI interrogated him, decided he was fine, and let him go. Then Homeland Security stepped in.
HS interrogated him, and K, being young and eager, answered all of their questions, specifically: have you ever donated money to a mosque? Yes, he said, he had donated a little bit. He didn’t have much money. But apparently this was enough for HS to justify arresting him and putting him in jail, where he has been for the past year and a half, hung in bureaucratic hell, awaiting this or that injunction from this or that judge, or lawyer, or whatever. Dickens is ROLLING OVER IN HIS GRAVE. Kafka is laughing in his. Mr. E, warm and wonderful, lover of all things American, feels angry, shattered and betrayed. 100K in court costs later…well, most of us would be kissing our bankruptcy lawyers and vowing vengeance on the federal government. But Mr. E is soldiering on, because for him, this thing with America has always been more than an affair. Yeah, they might get divorced, but that doesn’t mean it’s over.
Arrested in the first place is kind of surprising, if you knew K. On what charges, you ask? On the charge of “being likely to commit a terrorist act.” Yes, you heard me. Their evidence? About ten years ago, he donated a few bucks to a mosque that was run by Hamas – which, about ten years ago, wasn’t even an official terrorist organization. But now it is. So officially, he has admitted to sponsoring terrorism.
All of this I have learned from his father. I keep thinking there must be more to the story, dark secrets that the government can’t divulge, and that naturally K’s father would deny. But I also worry that Mr. E won’t ever be allowed to know the full story, because there is no story. Or rather, it has little to do with the man being held in prison.
I think that bureaucracy can ruin the best of intentions just as easily as it can disguise true malice in the bright, clean setting of officialdom. Whatever is going on here, K, I want you to remember that you and your family have the right to the truth, and that we’re all behind you.

image credit:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009