Dear Lisa --
This afternoon taught me some lessons in what many people consider a contradiction in terms: Islamic feminism.
The education involved a conversation with Haifa Malij Jaafir, a reputedly feminist-minded member of Basra Province's Governing Council and the director of the Muslim Union of Women. I was particularly keen on meeting Haifa because she is the only GC member who wears an abiya and a veil, obscuring her entire face except for her eyes--and what kind of "feminist" wears that get-up, I wondered. After some driving and asking around for the Union (along with seat belts and trash receptacles, Iraqis continue to resist the use of street addresses), a small boy led Layla and I through the gathering dusk down barely-paved and debris-strewn streets to a low-slung house obscured by palms where, standing beside the half-open gate, was hejab'd Haifa herself.
After giving Layla a warm greeting (the girl seems to know everyone in town!), the GC member ushers us through the house into a rectangular room--furniture pushed, Arab-style, against the wall--and we sit on sofas beneath framed Koranic inscriptions and pictures of Imams Ali and Hussain, in addition to the late Ayatollah Hakim. A young boy pads in with the inevitable Pepsis (my sugar intake has tripled since I came here) and we begin to talk. It's rather...peculiar, I guess is the appropriate word...to converse with a human being who is essentially peering through a narrow gap in a fabric wall, but not half as strange as I find the woman seated beside Haifa, who is completely covered in black--face, hands, feet, not an centimeter of flesh exposed, looking for all the world like something out of Lord of the Rings.
Through Layla's translation, Haifa gives us the low-down on the Union: subsidized by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the two-year old organization has nine branches throughout Iraq and deals with some 1,400 women in Basra Province alone. It's main purpose, she says, "is to upgrade the condition of women through education." This includes offering classes in English and Arabic, first aid, computer skills, health, information on democratic elections and constitution-writing--they even contact lawyers to assist in domestic abuse cases. "Many men beat their wives and sisters and try to keep them in the home, not allowing them to pursue careers," she says. Layla, I notice, doesn't flinch.
Close your eyes, and you can hear a Western feminist articulating the nigh-universal language of equal rights and gender equity. Open them and, well...as for the shroud & veil, Haifa tells us she wears the outfit because 1) Allah demands it; and 2) she wants to prove that a woman can "make it to the top" without having to resort to "make-up, high heels and fancy dresses." She wants to run again for office in Basra (she claims her GC candidacy earned the most votes of any SCIRI member), prompting me to ask, if she veils her face, how will anyone know they are really voting for her? "They will elect my ideas, not my appearance," she replies.
Meanwhile, the Ringwraith sits through most of the conversation, silent and unmoving, except to rise when her cell phone began to chirp.
We wind up the interview and Haifa sees us to the door--she and I seemed to hit it off, and she welcomed me back any time to upgrade my knowledge of Islam and feminism--and soon Layla and I are in the thick of twilight traffic. As we pass down Jazar Street--Basra's main commercial thoroughfare--she points to a greenish building with a sign in English reading "BASRA CENTER." "Our new supermarket," she says.
Stop the car. Restaurant bills at the funduk are eroding my cash stash and I've been mulling over how to store some comestibles in my ghurfa (room), and this seemed a good opportunity to stock the cupboard and see what a Basran "supermarket" looks like. Turns out BC is a crowded, high-ceiling, very clean single room, about the size of the fruit and vegetable area of an American s-market, equipped with all the trappings of home: carts, hand baskets, aisles, freezers, cereals, soups, beans, soaps, shampoo, etc.--even a deli counter! There's no Point-of-Purchase musak, nushkur Allah, and most of the women shoppers are in hejab, with one or two veiled faces--but squint, and you could almost convince yourself you were standing in a pocket-sized Safeway, wondering what you did with the grocery list...
Anyway, Layla and I loop through the market, doing the sign language routine (remember, in public I have to be a deaf mute--kinda silly, since neither of us knows the digital lingo, but it seems to work), loading up a basket with various items (in case you're interested, I have a fridge in the room), then get in line. And what do I see when I step up to the cashier? Y'allah, it's a hand-held laser-operated bar code reader! Holy convenience store! (To be truthful, I was a little less than surprised: a couple of weeks ago, Zuhair Ali Akbair, manager of the city's Central Bank, told me that Basrans would soon have the privilege of using a consumer debit card, readable at machines set up in, among other places, Basra Center.)
I mention this bit of quotidian trivia to underscore a point. To many people--obviously, Haifa's one of them--"fundamentalist Islamic feminism" is not an oxymoron. By the same token, fundamentalist Islam and modern technology are also not mutually exclusive. This is a error people make when they claim that Salafists want to "drag us back to the Medieval age." Not quite. Rather, they want to "medievalize" modernity (or perhaps vice versa), keeping their mobiles and satellite dishes and computers and Internet, while frog-marching social relations (especially those dealing with women) back a millenium or so. One fascinating aspect of Basra is that by virtue of its relative stability, you can see the tug and pull of this process at work--debit cards and feminist unions on one hand, veils and alcohol-banning Islamists on the other.
Can they co-exist? That's the next chapter of the Basran saga. Most people I know (none of them fans of fundamentalism) think the religious parties are a passing phase, that Basra's fabled liberal-mindedness and port-city sensuality will reassert itself--in other words, the values implicit in a bar-code reader (not to mention the Internet and sat-TV) will eventually sweep away the shrouds and veils, and reduce the turbanned thugs to Friday rants before dwindling congregations. I'm not sure, but I certainly know where my hopes lie. With their charm and confidence and dedication, may women like Haifa grace the Basra political scene for years to come--make-up, high-heels, fancy dresses and all.
Yours from the land where a BLT is never on the deli counter's menu.
May 27, 2005