Monday, February 27, 2012

Let’s get sporty, the devil can wait…

Reading a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report last week on the “denial of women’s and girl’s rights to sport in Saudi Arabia,” had me shaking my head and reviewing a lifelong love of sports and physical activities.

Was I on my way to hell? Indeed not. Sport has always been a big part of my life. It has helped me understand teamwork, sportsmanship and adopt a healthy lifestyle.

HRW’s 51-page report, ‘Steps of the Devil’: Denial of Women and Girls’ Right to Sport in Saudi Arabia, published on 15 February 2012, documents “discrimination by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education in denying girls physical education in state schools, as well as discriminatory practices by the General Presidency for Youth Welfare, a youth and sports ministry, in licensing women’s gyms and supporting only all-male sports clubs. The National Olympic Committee of Saudi Arabia also has no programs for women athletes and has not fielded women in past Olympic Games,” and the upcoming Games in London this summer.

Could I live without sports? Definitely. But would I have the same quality of life? Absolutely not!

With dad, mom and sister Asma at the beach in Jeddah
My mom, Vicky, used to say I learned to swim before walking. First in Jeddah where I was born, then in Baghdad where we moved, swimming was my first and favored sport. I got into it wholeheartedly and collected a good number of small trophies.

Dad Esa in his tennis whites and on the tennis court
Sports were always a drive in the family. My dad, Esa, was a football champion in Palestine and then switched to tennis. His name is engraved on the walls of St. George’s School in Jerusalem. Every trip we made back to the Holy Land, he would take us to visit his school and proudly show us the plaques bearing his name on the walls of the famous institution.

In primary school in Tunis and then at the Lycée, the two hours of physical education per week were my favorite classes. But the one thing I never got around was rope climbing. I just couldn’t coordinate the simultaneous hands and legs movement. The physical education exam helped boost my Baccalauréat grade in my continuing appreciation for all things physical and outdoors.

Happiest in the sea and preparing to dive
We got our first black and white television in 1966 to watch England play, and win, the FIFA World Cup. There was no turning back after that. The TV was switched on at weekends for the football games, mostly the Italian Serie A matches aired then in Tunisia.  Wherever we were, we would rush home on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, whatever we were doing, to watch the games with dad. Friends would join us and the weekend would kick off.

My first bike
My parents always encouraged outdoor activities like walking, cycling and swimming during summer vacation. Any activity we chose was always encouraged, even when I took up fencing for a while. Dad shook his head, but for months still took me to my fencing class. He must have been pleased when that phase died out.

During the 15-year civil war in Lebanon, there was hardly a day I missed going to the beach. Often we would swim while bullets were raining down on the Sporting Club. I continued swimming in London. Luckily the gym was minutes away from my home and office, making it easy to break up the long days with an hour of laps. Living and working in Chelsea, a stone’s throw away from Stamford Bridge, I adopted Chelsea FC as my football team more than 25 years ago.

At the Dubai Marathon
In Dubai, I found gyms expensive so took to the streets, where apart from the past few months, I run in the open air. This led to my participation in the 10K run at the Dubai Marathon in 2009 (see Why I run? – August 13, 2010).

That’s why I find it hard to understand how sports could be “steps of the devil.”

HRW has called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make ending discrimination against women in sports in the kingdom a condition for Saudi Arabia’s participation in Olympic sporting events, including the 2012 London Games.

“‘No women allowed,’ is the kingdom’s message to Saudi women and girls who want to play sports,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that women and girls cannot train to compete clearly violates the Olympic Charter’s pledge to equality and gives the Olympic movement itself a black eye.”

Saudi Arabia is one of only three countries in the world never to have sent a female athlete to the Olympics. The other two, Qatar and Brunei, do not bar women from competitive sports and their women athletes have participated in other international sporting competitions.

However Qatar announced on February 20 that it would send women athletes to the Olympics for the first time at the London Games. The IOC has offered Qatar wild card invitations for two female athletes to compete in London — swimmer Nada Arkaji and sprinter Noor al-Malki.

The UAE made history this month when it announced its first women’s track and field squad will be heading to the London Olympics.

Sheikha Maitha leads the UAE in Beijing

Sheikha Maitha in action at the Olympics
Indeed, Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum -- daughter of HH Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai – also made history for the UAE in 2008. At the Beijing Olympics, Sheikha Maitha became the first woman to represent the Emirates at the Olympic Games where she competed in the 67kg taekwondo event. She was also the first female flag-bearer at the Olympics from the Gulf region, inspiring young women around the Gulf and Middle East.

HRW has called on Saudi Arabia to act within one year to introduce physical education for girls in all schools, open women’s sections, and allocate funds to women’s sport in the youth ministry, the Saudi National Olympic Committee, and Saudi sports federations. The report says “these steps are necessary evidence of a Saudi effort to end discrimination against women in sports and thus a prerequisite for allowing the kingdom to be represented in Olympic events.”
HRW adds, “Women and girls are not only denied the thrill of competition, but also the physical and psychological benefits, leading to longer, healthier lives, that participation in sports conveys...
“Addressing health threats through expanded sports opportunities for women and girls has also been supported by Saudi religious leaders. For example, Sheikh Ali Abbas al-Hikmi, a member of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the highest religious body, considered women practicing sport an ‘Islamic necessity’ and Adil al-Kalabani, former chief imam of the Holy Mosque in Mecca, supported opening women’s sports clubs… Other government clerics of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, like Sheikh Dr. Abdelkarim al-Khudair, however, have decried women’s sports as ‘steps of the devil’ leading to moral corruption.”

The Olympic Charter states, “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind [and any] form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

Apart from appreciating and watching sports on TV, sports are a way of life that can be adopted in a variety of ways and means. It could be walking, running, swimming, basketball, tennis, volleyball, beach sports… The possibilities are endless.

Practicing one sport or other is one of the things we can do for our bodies and ourselves and can only lead to better health and quality of life.

Let’s do it, let’s all get sporty. The devil can wait…

Related post:
Why I run? – August 13, 2010

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Free Khader Adnan from 63-day fast

It is difficult to believe in freedom, justice and human rights without being touched, one way or another, by the plight of Khader Adnan, a Palestinian held under Administrative Detention in Israel.

Today, Khader Adnan enters day 63 of his hunger strike to protest his detention without charges or trial.

Administrative Detention is arrest and detention of individuals by the state without trial, usually for security reasons. The legal basis for Israel's use of Administrative Detention is the British Mandate 1945 Law on Authority in States of Emergency as amended in 1979.

Khader Adnan was seized from his home south of Jenin on the West Bank on December 17, 2011 by Israeli military and security personnel. He is now in Israel’s Rebecca Ziv Hospital in Safed where he is chained to his bed.

Cartoon in support of Khader Adnan's release by Carlos Latuff
Khader Adnan is 31 years old. He has rallied the hopes and aspirations of the Palestinian people and their supporters for rights, dignity and self-determination.

France’s Foreign Ministry yesterday (February 17) appealed to Israel for his release. It said:

« Nous espérons que les autorités israéliennes prendront une mesure humanitaire en faveur de M. Khader Adnan, compte-tenu de la précarité de son état de santé. Nous suivons de près la situation de ce détenu palestinien et sommes en contact avec les autorités israéliennes à ce sujet.

« La France rappelle que la détention administrative doit rester une mesure d’exception, d’une durée limitée et dont la mise en œuvre assure le respect des garanties fondamentales, en particulier les droits de la défense du détenu. »

Amnesty International has appealed to Israel to end the use of Administrative Detention and the release of Khader Adnan. It says:

Palestinian activist Khader Adnan has been on hunger strike since 18 December 2011 in protest against his detention by the Israeli authorities without charge or trial.

Khader Adnan started his hunger strike the day following his arrest from his home in the occupied West Bank to protest his ill-treatment by the Israel Security Agency (ISA).

On 10 January 2012 he was given a four-month administrative detention order signed by a military commander. It ends on 8 May but could be renewed indefinitely.

Khader Adnan's father, wife Randa and daughters leaving Ziv
Hospital, Feb. 15. Photo by Activestills via The Electronic Intifada

Khader Adnan is now in a hospital in northern Israel. After more than 60 days on hunger strike, doctors warn that his life is in imminent danger. He is still under detention and is shackled to his hospital bed at all times and under constant armed guard. 

Administrative detention is a procedure under which detainees are held without charge or trial for periods of up to six months, which can be renewed repeatedly. Under administrative detention, detainees' rights to a fair trial as guaranteed by Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) are consistently violated.

Khader Adnan is one of 309 Palestinians currently held in administrative detention by the Israeli authorities, including one man held for over five years and 24 Palestinian Legislative Council members. Hundreds of other Palestinian detainees and prisoners have joined Khader Adnan's hunger strike.

Take Action

Support Palestinian activist Khader Adnan’s protest for respect for the human rights of Palestinians in Israeli detention. Call on the Israeli Minister of Defense to:
  • Immediately release Khader Adnan and other Palestinians held in administrative detention, or immediately charge and try them for internationally recognizable criminal offences in full conformity with international fair trial standards;
  • End the use of administrative detention, which violates the right to a fair trial;
  • Ensure that detainees are treated humanely at all times, and that no detainees are punished for their decision to go on hunger strike.

You can take action by signing Amnesty International’s petitionSome 472,893 people around the world have already done so, and you can too.

Demo in support of Khader Adnan in Gaza (via Ahlam Ali)
The family and friends of Khader Adnan have set up a blog to send messages of support to his wife Randa and his family. The letters from all over the world are poignant and share a love for freedom, justice and human rights.

Among these messages of support was one by British-American veteran journalist, writer and researcher Helena Cobban from Washington, DC. She writes:

To Khader Adnan and his beloved family,
Dear friends,

I can barely imagine the pain all of you are going through, and the determination and depth of faith that have brought you to this point. I am sure you are well aware of the historic role that hunger strikes have played in many freedom struggles-- through Gandhi, South Africa, the Irish struggle... and of course, very frequently indeed in your own beloved Palestine.

I am among a number of people here in the United States-- not enough of us, but our number is now growing-- who have protested Israel's inhumane and unjust system of administrative detention for many years. I grew up in Britain, so I am well aware of the role that the British Mandate administration played in putting some of those (il-)legal provisions into place in Palestine in the first place; and I also know well the way that U.S. government power has shielded Israel from any accountability under international law throughout the past 45 years.

It is quite unacceptable to any humane conscience that the Palestinian people of the West Bank and Gaza have had to live under foreign military occupation for 45 years. Under international law, foreign military occupation was only ever envisaged to be a temporary situation! But here you are, chafing under a military rule, and one run by foreign occupiers who daily steal your land and resources and stunt the lives and dignity of all your people... for 45 years, with no quick end in sight.

After all the talk about 'peace processes' and the like, it seems clear to me that we in the west who profess to stand for "human rights" around the world need to refocus our attention, regarding Palestine, on the basic and clear issues of human rights for all the people there. Your very brave action-- risking your own survival-- shines an inescapable light on the abuses of the occupation regime. I wish survival, comfort, and strength to all of you. But beyond that, I wish self-determination and the assurance of the lasting protection of your rights and dignity to you and all the Palestinian people.

Freedom, justice and human rights cannot be selective. You either believe in them or you don’t. You either support them or you don't. I can only hope that on day 63 of his hunger strike, one of the longest in the history of political hunger strikes, Khader Adnan will be allowed to return to his family before it is too late.

Related sites:

Monday, February 13, 2012

Female Genital Mutilation must stop

Last Monday (February 6) was International Day against Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). The United Nations marks the day to raise awareness about this traditional practice that severely violates the human rights of women and girls.

Female genital mutilation includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.

It was an excellent opportunity to learn more about the subject. My curiosity, and I must say fear and horror at the practice (especially after seeing pictures), took me on an Internet journey for a few days, after discussing it with a friend and reading in the British press that around 66,000 women and girls in England and Wales alone are subjected to this illegal practice -- 24,000 being under the age of 15 and at high risk.

Speaking in the Commons, Home Secretary Theresa May said the British government is doing everything it can to warn young women about the dangers of the practice. “We need to redouble our efforts to make sure we educate young girls about the prospects of being taken abroad or having this done to them, but also ensure that we educate others not to do this terrible act,” May said.

Also known as female circumcision or simply as “cutting,” FGM/C involves removing all or part of the clitoris, the surrounding labia (the outer part of the vagina) and sometimes the sewing up of the vagina, leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual blood.

There are no medical benefits to this tradition. It is carried out for cultural reasons, often because it demonstrates a girl's virginity on her wedding night.

It seems the practice predates Christianity and Islam. There is mention made of Egyptian mummies that display characteristics of FGM/C. The historian Herodotus claims that in the fifth century BC the Phoenicians, Hittites and Ethiopians practiced circumcision. It is also reported circumcision rites were practiced in tropical zones of Africa, in the Philippines, by certain tribes in the Upper Amazon, and in Australia by women of the Arunta tribe. It also occurred among the early Romans and Arabs.

As recent as the 1950s, clitoridectomy was practiced in Western Europe and the United States to treat “ailments” in women as diverse as hysteria, epilepsy, mental disorders, masturbation, nymphomania, melancholia and lesbianism.

Many different peoples and societies have followed the FGM/C practice. It cuts across ages, continents, religions and is performed by Muslims, Christians, Ethiopian Jews and Copts among others.

Prevalence in FGM/C in women and daughters (via WHO/UNICEF 2005)
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to one of three types of female genital mutilation. Estimates based on the most recent prevalence data indicate that 91.5 million girls and women above the age of nine in Africa are currently living with the consequences of female genital mutilation. There are an estimated three million girls in Africa at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation every year.

In the 28 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East where FGM/C is performed, some 130 million women and girls have been affected, according to a UN interagency statement. It calls on all states, international and national organizations, civil society and communities to uphold the rights of girls and women as well as develop, strengthen and support specific and concrete actions directed towards ending FGM/C.

FGM/C causes severe pain and trauma. It can result in prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility and death. The practice is still widespread in spite of a global commitment following the 2002 UN Special Session on Children to end FGM/C by 2010, the statement says.

WHO says cases of FGM/C have been reported in Asian countries such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, and it is suspected that it is performed among some indigenous groups in Central and South America. 

Opposition to FGM/C, and efforts to combat it, has increased since the late 1980s. The UN Secretary General's in-depth study on violence against women reported that, as of April 2006, 15 African states where FGM/C is prevalent have made it an offence under criminal law.

FGM/C is common in parts of Africa, Asia and in some Arab countries. It is practiced among communities in: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, and Uganda.

FGM/C is also practiced among certain ethnic groups in a number of Asian countries (India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan); among some groups in the Arabian Peninsula; Iraq; Palestine and among certain immigrant communities in Europe, Australia, Canada and the US.

WHO has identified four types of FGM/C:

Type 1: Excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or the entire clitoris.

Type 2: Excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora.

Type 3: Excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation) -- sometimes referred to as pharaonic circumcision.

Type 4: Others, such as pricking, piercing or incising, stretching, burning of the clitoris, scraping of tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice, cutting of the vagina, introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina to cause bleeding or to tighten the opening.

The removal of, or damage to, healthy, normal genital tissue interferes with the natural functioning of the body and causes several immediate and long-term health consequences. For example, babies born to women who have undergone female genital mutilation suffer a higher rate of neonatal death; end in stillbirth or spontaneous abortion; and in a further 25%, the newborn has a low birth weight or serious infection, both of which are associated with an increased risk of perinatal death.

A road sign in Ghana
Communities that practice FGM/C report a variety of social and religious reasons for continuing with it. Seen from a human rights perspective, the practice reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. WHO says FGM/C is nearly always carried out on minors and is therefore a violation of the rights of the child. It also violates the rights to health, security and physical integrity of the person, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.

Data obtained by WHO over the last decade have shown little change in the frequency of FGM/C. But as a result of an emphasis on the negative health implications, there has been a dramatic increase in the proportion of FGM/C operations carried out by trained health-care personnel.

The same billboard in Uganda
In Egypt, 94% of women arrange for their daughters to undergo this “medicalized” form of FGM/C, 76% in Yemen, 65% in Mauritania, 48% in Côte d’Ivoire, and 46% in Kenya. This approach may reduce some of the immediate consequences of the procedure -- such as pain and bleeding – but, WHO and UNICEF point out, it also tends to obscure its human rights aspect and could hinder the development of long-term solutions for ending the practice.

Traditional circumcisers, who often play other central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths, mostly carry out the practice. However, WHO says health care providers perform more than 18% of all FGM/C, and this trend is increasing. It published a global strategy in 2010 “to stop health care providers from performing female genital mutilation" in collaboration with other key UN agencies and international organizations.

I touched on the topic with friends one evening last week and we wondered how this trend could be eradicated. Would it need another generation or two? Is the magic word “education” of the future generation? Is FGM/C a practice too deep-rooted to overcome? Maybe only time will tell…

Monday, February 6, 2012

Egypt: From camel to tear gas warring

February 2012: Battling tear gas
February 2011: Confronting camels
With protests against the military rulers continuing in central Cairo, Port Said, Suez, Alexandria and other parts of Egypt, I am reminded of a guest post at Mich Café in February 2011 about “The Camel versus Facebook” in Egypt. It focused on the faceoff in Tahrir Square between supporters and opponents of former president Hosni Mubarak. A year since, tear gas has replaced the camel.

Clashes in many Egyptian cities -- between police and the security services commanded by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on the one hand and demonstrators on the other -- have not subsided since 79 football fans were killed and several hundreds more injured in Port Said on February 1, 2012.

The confrontations erupted as the dust was still settling on the deadly pitch invasion in Port Said Stadium. There, supporters of local team al-Masry set on the visiting al-Ahly team and fans after al-Masry had unexpectedly won the match 3-1.

Port Said Stadium, February 1, 2012 (Photo by Reuters)
Police react at Port Said Stadium (Photo by Reuters)
With most deaths believed to be al-Ahly followers, hardcore fans known as “ultras” accused police and military authorities of planning the killings because they had stood up to them during last year’s revolution.

The question raised then – “Where is Egypt heading?” – is just as relevant today.

When Mubarak was ousted 18 days into the January 25, 2011 uprising and his powers shifted to SCAF, my sole observation online was: “How can military rule be compatible with democracy?” The question is just as fitting as well.

Camels have now been replaced by tear gas to fight off demonstrators in cities that have been sharing in the “Occupy” movement.

Wikipedia photo
At the end of last year, sadly “occupy” and “tear gas” were the words most commonly used and searched for on the Internet. The media analysis company Global Language Monitor lists “Occupy” in the top 10 list.

It is no surprise the use of CS in war is outlawed under the terms of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, signed by most nations in 1993 with all but five other countries signing between 1994 through 1997.

Only five states have not signed the Convention and are therefore unhindered by restrictions on the use of CS gas. They are: Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia and Syria.

Use of pepper spray too is also banned in wartime under Article I.5 of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It forbids the use in warfare of all riot control agents, whether lethal or less-than-lethal.

Having lived through the Lebanese civil war and covered various turbulent zones during my career as a journalist, I was fortunate not to be exposed to these gases. Wars, in the pre-Internet days had a different feel, especially as it took days sometimes for news of to travel and reach the world at large.

With enough to follow in our region, I hadn’t paid much attention to the Occupy protest movement directed against economic and social inequality. What started in Occupy Wall Street and Occupy San Francisco last September had by the end of 2011 taken place and/or is still taking place in over 95 cities across 82 countries and over 600 communities in the US, according to Wikipedia.

The Occupy movement has hit closer to home with the recent events in Cairo and Port Said where the use of tear gas and pepper spray is common. CS gas, an aerosol of a volatile solvent, is also being used to control Occupy participants and demonstrators in Egypt, alongside tear gas and pepper spray.

Broken promises

Egypt's military rulers have failed to live up to their promises to uphold human rights. Instead, they have been responsible for a catalog of abuses that sometimes exceeds Mubarak’s appalling record, Amnesty International said in a new report released last November 21.

In Broken Promises: Egypt's Military Rulers Erode Human Rights, Amnesty documents a woeful performance on human rights by SCAF.

"By using military courts to try thousands of civilians, cracking down on peaceful protest and expanding the remit of Mubarak's Emergency Law, the SCAF has continued the tradition of repressive rule, which the January 25 demonstrators fought so hard to get rid of," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Acting Director.

"Those who have challenged or criticized the military council -- like demonstrators, journalists, bloggers, striking workers -- have been ruthlessly suppressed, in an attempt at silencing their voices.”

Amnesty said that by August, the SCAF admitted military courts had tried some 12,000 civilians across the country. At least 13 were sentenced to death.

Dealing with tear gas

Tear gas irritates the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs. A chemical reaction to the sulfhydryl group of enzymes may cause the irritation. The results of exposure are coughing, sneezing, and tearing. Tear gas usually is nonlethal, but some agents are toxic.

One of many tear gas canisters from the streets in Cairo 
Exposure to tear gas gives: stinging and burning of the eyes, nose, mouth, and skin; excessive tearing; blurred vision; runny nose; salivation (drooling); exposed tissue may develop a rash and a chemical burn; coughing and difficulty breathing, including a feeling of choking; disorientation and confusion, which may lead to panic; and intense anger.

The best defense against tear gas is a gas mask, but if one is not on hand there are other steps you can take to lessen harm: You can soak a bandana or paper towel in lemon juice or cider vinegar and store it in a plastic bag. You can breathe through the acidified cloth for several minutes, which should give you enough time to get away.

Fleeing tear gas in Cairo (Photo by AP)
Goggles are a great defensive gear. You can use tight-fitting swim goggles.

Don't wear contacts anywhere you might face tear gas. If you are wearing contact lenses, immediately remove them. Your contacts are a loss as is anything else you can't wash.

You can wear your clothes again after washing them, but wash them separately that first time.

If you don't have goggles or a mask, you can breathe the air inside your shirt, since there is less air circulation and therefore a lower concentration of the gas, but that is counterproductive once the fabric becomes drenched.

First aid for eyes is to flush them with sterile saline or water until the stinging starts to subside. Exposed skin should be washed with soap and water. Breathing difficulties are treated by administering oxygen and occasionally by medications used to treat asthma. Medicated bandages can be applied on burns.

Anonymous Press has also put out a guide for “Defending against tear gas” that might help.

Stay safe!