Tuesday, 3 February 2015


“I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” - Mohandas K. Gandhi

Last week I saw a highly disturbing video on YouTube. Even in this day and age where we have become inured to the harshest of images, where we hardly bat an eyelid at the horrors that assail us every time we turn the news on, this item made me sick and I had to question our humanity, the humanity that still allowed such acts to be carried out.  The video is available on YouTube, but I do not suggest that you watch it if you are sensitive, as it quite distressing!

It is a video of the public stoning to death in Iraq of Du’a Khalil Aswad. This was a 17 year old Kurdish woman of the Yazidi faith who was brutally killed (while many watched on), for having converted to Islam to marry a Muslim boy that she had fallen in love with. Although the video taken with a mobile phone is blurry and indistinct, the barbarity of the scene is gut wrenching and the muffled cries of the victim as she is crouching and trying to protect herself against the hate surrounding her is enough to make your flesh creep. The incident sparked off reprisals by Muslims who killed many Yazidis and the violence keeps on escalating and is never ending. The full story is to be read here.

I put myself in the place of those watching on while the stoning took place and could not imagine standing by and allowing such a thing to happen. Some may say that I am a Westerner and an infidel, one who does not understand the religious law that commanded this act to occur. I am horrified as a human being - independently of religious or legal issues. As a human being I question any religious teaching that preaches death instead of life. I abhor a religion that does not allow its adherents the right to question their own beliefs, that does not allow its followers the free will to believe in it or not to. I do not support a religion that allows things like this woman’s death to occur under the circumstances that it did. I do not recognise a religion, as a religion, one that encourages hate and violence and death under any circumstances. This is a crime against humanity, something uncivilised, inhuman.

This incident brought to mind a novel that I read some time ago by the writer Nawal El Saadawi (b. 1931). She is an Egyptian novelist, essayist and doctor, whose feminist works have widened the scope of the novel in the Arabic language. Nawal El Saadawi’s theme in most of her work is the oppression of women and women’s desire for self-determination and freedom of expression. Her non-fiction writing raised her to international prominence but still, her books are banned in many Arab countries. She also writes in English and is an active supporter of women’s issues and pacifism throughout the world.

The novel I am referring to is “The Fall of the Imam” (1987). Soon after its publication in Cairo, El Saadawi started to receive threats from fundamentalist religious groups. “The threat of death seemed to give my life a new importance, made it worth writing about… Nothing can defeat death like writing.” She wrote when she received these death threats. In 2004 Al Azhar in Cairo (Islamic University) banned this novel but it is widely (and illegally) available both in Arabic and in the English translation (the latter by Dr El Saadawi’s husband, Sherif Hetata).

The novel is about the confrontation of an Imam and his illegitimate daughter, Bint Allah. It is set in a fictitious, imaginary land (as thinly disguised as this is...) and is written in a beautiful poetic style whose dream-like atmosphere is disrupted by the nightmarish events it describes. The Imam is a religious leader and represents the collective male who has been empowered by God and State to subdue and rule over woman. The Imam who projects a public image of rectitude, piety, God-fearing religious feeling, is revealed through his actions and interaction with his daughter as a man with weaknesses, self-doubts and unworthy of his religious leader’s role. His daughter is the image of womanhood, resistant and blameless, and a threat to the paternalistic system that he stands for.

Here is an extract from the book that reminds me of the unfortunate young Du'a Khalil Aswad, the 17-year-old stoning victim, who in her quest for love and freedom found death instead:
“On the night of the Big Feast while the drums were beating and the pipes were blowing in celebration of victory, they came upon her body where it lay on the way leading from her house to the front, just where the hill starts to climb midway between the river and the sea. She was lying on her back and her eyes wide-open and black looked up at the sky steadfastly. Her face was still and the world was still, as though everything had stopped to look at her there where she lay. Not a hair moved on her head in the night breeze, not a tremor touched the down on edge of her nose or over her neck. Under the moon her skin which was as brown as silt had turned pure white like that of a maiden in Paradise or a mermaid rising from the sea. Nothing covered her naked body, neither robe nor blouse nor slip. Her nakedness was stark, complete, so revealing of every detail that in death it seemed to speak of sin. For what woman living or dead would go stark naked like that?”

The novel is a powerful and beautifully written castigation against the injustices that many women in fundamentalist regimes have to cope with on an everyday basis. We take too many things for granted in our society and we do not often pause to reflect on the many millions of people worldwide to whom basic human rights are denied.

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