Should men-only Muslim teams be barred from the Olympics?

Saudi Arabia’s all-men team at the opening of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games,13 Aug 2004/Wolfgang RattayShould some Islamic countries be barred from the Beijing Olympics? The question came up in an interesting op-ed piece this week arguing that countries that ban women from competing in sports events violate the Olympic Charter and thus should be excluded from the Games. As Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, wrote in the International Herald Tribune:

The procession of the Olympic torch drew protests from Paris to San Francisco over China’s treatment of the Tibetan people, but no one has protested another tragedy that is afflicting millions of women in Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Muslim countries. Many Muslim women dare not even dream of the Olympics because their countries ban female sports altogether or severely restrict the athletic activities of the “weaker sex.”

The International Olympic Committee charter states that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

Iran’s Maryam Toosi competes with head covering and sweat pants at Asian Athletics Championship in Amman, 26 July 2007/Muhammad HamedBut the Olympic Committee is failing to adhere to its own standards. While the hypothetical example of participating countries barring black athletes from the Olympic Games would have rightly caused international outrage, the committee continues to allow the participation of countries that do not allow women on their Olympic teams.

Countries with men-only Olympic teams include Brunei, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. According to their respective governments, women are barred from Olympic participation for “cultural and religious reasons.”

Sect raid raises questions about polygamy in U.S.

“Sister-wives” Valerie (L) and Vicki serve breakfast to their children in their polygamous house in Herriman, Utah, 12 June 2007/stringerFor most readers outside the United States, and probably many living there, the recent stories about the polygamous sect raided in Texas in early April raised several basic questions about multiple marriage and the law in America. Like any other Western society, the United States bans polygamy. Mainstream Mormons officially banned the practice in 1890, but several breakaway groups continued it. While informed readers may know that, it still came as a surprise to see there was a polygamous community of several hundred Americans living in a large compound right under the noses of the local police and politicians. And they were not the only ones — once-hidden polygamists are now pressing to have “plural marriage” decriminalised. What’s going on here?

Andrea Useem, author of the interesting blog Religion Writer, has come up with a fascinating look behind these recent polygamy headlines. She’s got links to blogs with names such as Polygamy Now and Introspection of a Plural Wife (at Heart). The most interesting part, though, is the long interview she has with John Witte, the director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory Law School in Atlanta. As she puts it: “He explains why polygamy laws are rarely enforced, how “moral repugnance” is one of the last arguments against polygamy, and why having a concubine is still legal.”

Read it all here.

Useem also has a link to one of several interviews with women in polygamous marraiges on YouTube. Here it is:

Abortion debate rages in Britain on 40th anniversary of law

23-week-old foetus in ultrasound scan, 23 April 2008/Create Health Clinic handoutBritain passed its law legalising abortion 40 years ago today. But the controversy has not died down. Parliament is again besieged by two camps of activists, one keen to stop what they say is murder and the other defending what they see as a women’s right. Judging it too difficult to have the law overturned, the anti-abortion camp aims to lower the 24-week limit for the termination of pregnancy to 20, 18 or even fewer weeks.

For more, read Kate Kelland’s feature here. We also have a factbox on abortion laws around the world and the story of a boy born at 22 weeks — probably the most premature baby to have survived in Britain — and now thriving.

The factbox shows a wide spectrum of legal positions, with differing rationales producing different conditions, especially on the time limits. Britain is clearly in a minority with its 24-week limit; many other countries set the bar at 12 weeks, with possible exceptions.

Turkey’s covered women fed up with politics over their headscarves

It started as a women’s protest for the right to wear Muslim headscarves at university, in this case at Marmara University in Istanbul. Then the men showed up with their banners and megaphones, lined up in front of the cameras and began speaking in place of the women. That left the ladies standing demurely on the sidelines or in the crowd, all decked out with their bright silk scarves with nothing to do but clap at what the men said.

It was just another case of what women here often complain about — that the headscarf has been hijacked by politics for decades, leaving ordinary women to suffer the consequences. Some have sacrificed an education for their faith, preferring not to go to university if it means uncovering, and they feel like little more than a political football in this very masculine power struggle.

Check out our video from Marmara University, especially the protester who says “We want freedom to wear headscarves!” Hmmm … do you think he’ll ever wear one?

Afghan journalist in blasphemy case says trial took only four minutes

sayed-perwiz-kambakhsh.jpgSayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, the 23-year-old Afghan journalist sentenced to death for blasphemy and other crimes against Islam, has told the London daily The Independent in his first interview since the verdict that his trial for downloading a report on women’s rights from the Internet was over in only four minutes. Independent correspondent Kim Sengupta spoke to Kambakhsh at his prison in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sherif. Here is the interview and an editorial by the newspaper, which has launched a petition for Kambakhsh’s release that has got 88,500 signatures so far.

“Burkini” banned from Dutch swimming pool

Trainee lifeguard Mecca Laalaa runs along a Sydney beach, 13 Jan. 2007/Tim WimborneRemember the “burkini”? This cover-all swimsuit made a big splash in Australia last year when its introduction allowed Muslim women to stay covered but swim and even become lifeguards. The lycra suit looked like an ingenious adaptation of tradition and technology that could help integrate Muslim women more into Australian society. Our story from January 2007 said about 9,000 had been sold so far.

Its debut in the Netherlands has not been as successful. A young woman was ordered out of an indoor pool in the northeastern city of Zwolle last Thursday after only five minutes in the water with her two-year-old son. The pool manager said users found burkinis objectionable so the woman — a convert named Liselotte Buitelaar — should swim only in special hours set aside for separate groups. Like the obese, who have their own special hours, he told the daily Dagblad van het Noorden (English here). The manager said he was afraid other swimmers would stop coming if they saw a burkini there. “It costs me clients. Money is money,” he told the daily Trouw. Woortman Sportswear burkini ad

Trouw said the burkini figured in The Hague’s parliamentary question time last month and Jet Bussemaker, state secretary for sport, said he thought it helped integration. In the Zwolle local council, the Socialists and Greens have protested against the ban, saying people should be able to decide themselves what kind of swimsuits they wear.

Muslim student group adapts to life in the U.S.

MSA U.S. & Canada logoThe New York Times has an interesting article about how the Muslim Students Association (MSA) there is adapting to life in the United States. Founded in the 1960s by foreign students who wanted to pray together, the chapters “were basically little slices of Saudi Arabia. Women were banned. Only Muslim men who prayed, fasted and avoided alcohol and dating were welcomed. Meetings, even idle conversations, were in Arabic.” The MSA was largely financed by Saudi Arabia and Wahhabi views presumably came along with the cheques.

The local culture and the growing number of American-born Muslims have over time influenced even an organisation like this. Now some MSA chapters have held barbecues, dodge ball games and other events where men and women could mingle freely. There are debates about whether this is proper, but the events happen. “As American Islam gets its own identity, it is going to have to shed some of these notions that are distant from American culture,” said Rafia Zakaria, a student at Indiana University. “The tension is between what forms of tradition are essential and what forms are open to innovation.”

(The article doesn’t say whether the funds still flow so freely from Riyadh, but after 9/11 that seems unlikely.)A Secular Age

Catholics, sex, abortion, libel, a cardinal — what a story…

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor

UPDATE: The trial ended in stalemate on Feb. 29 and a retrial is due in a few months. Murphy-O’Connor was not called to testify.

The British papers are all over the story of the libel suit brought by former spokesman for London’s Cardinal Cormac Murphy- O’Connor against the Daily Mail. The tabloid wrote in 2006 that Austen Ivereigh, 41, had pressured one former girlfriend into having an abortion and wanted another to abort twins she was carrying (she later miscarried). He flatly denies the charges and accuses the Daily Mail of making him lose his job and his reputation. The story broke at a time when Ivereigh was an active Church campaigner against abortion.

The case opened in court on Monday and Ivereigh has been on the stand giving his side of the story. He admitted he did not always live up to Church teaching (on sex before marriage, for example) but strongly denied that he proposed abortion and insisted that he, as a practising Catholic, opposed it.

Sharia comments debate details of Williams’s idea

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 11 Feb. 2008/Luke MacGregorComments on Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s speech about sharia are starting to explore some of the ideas in more detail. Opinions are still mostly against the idea, but there are some defenders and there are more balanced arguments than the first wave of reactions. Here are some of the latest items we found interesting:

First of all, documentation — Ruth Gledhill came up with Williams’s Q&A after the speech, including the full text and the video. Note he insists he is talking about “supplementary jurisdiction” and not “parallel systems.” argues in Shariah ‘Courts’ and Freedom of Contract that the issue is simply one of arbitration, something already allowed under the law: “The fact that the parties are choosing to settle their commercial or social disagreements by reference to the Qu’ran is therefore of no more consequence to society than if they decided to settle the same dispute by tossing a coin, asking a neighbour to decide, or any of the other myriad of ways in which human beings settle disagreements peacefully.”

U.N. watchdog disappoints Saudi women journalists

Yakin Ertürk at her news conference in Riyadh, 13 Feb. 2008/stringerThe U.N. Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on violence against women, Yakin Ertürk, was in Saudi Arabia last week. She has just issued a report (official text here) that calls on the government to create a legal framework based on international human rights standards, including a law criminalising violence against women. It listed severe limits on women’s freedom of movement and ability to act in a whole range of family and social areas, from marriage, divorce and child custody to inheritance, education and employment. Her committee gave the Saudis a grilling at a hearing in Geneva last month. Yet, when she met the media in Riyadh at the end of her visit, the young female Saudi journalists there left the room muttering about how disappointed they were with her approach. “She didn’t say anything. This was just general stuff that people are aware of,” one complained. What’s up?

What they noticed in Ertürk’s comments was the degree to which she seemed to accept the official argument that Saudi society had “special characteristics” — khususiyya in Arabic — that constituted a valid frame of reference for assessing the country’s rights record. Khususiyya is a well-worn term that anyone who tries to criticise Saudi values hears in response. It’s used elsewhere in the Arab world as well, either by religious figures facing down liberal trends in society or governments opposing calls for political reform. Reformers throughout the Arab world see the term as a kind of a blanket “cultural exclusiveness” argument that seeks to shut down all serious discussion of political or religious change. It was once mocked by Saudi liberals themselves in the popular television comedy show Tash Ma Tash.

A Saudi woman doctor, 23 Oct. 2007/Ali JarekjiInternational pressure over Saudi women’s rights has been growing. Ertürk’s visit was part of an effort by Riyadh to persuade outsiders the situation was improving. She was able to announce that officials had promised to allow a couple forced to divorce by a religious court to live together again. There apparently was no movement on other issues such as the ban on women driving cars, which has become a kind of litmus test of reform in the country.