Thursday, July 5, 2007

From a theme park in the Golan heights to housing in Libya for “women who are vulnerable to engaging in moral misconduct.”

Tonight at a conference on a maverick alliance's scheme to broker a peace agreement between Syria and Israel for the return of the Golan Heights - a part of which would be turned into a park open to citizens of both countries, I had to listen to much bullshit: from the Israeli who feared the nuclear weapons of the Iranians, but seemed to have forgotten those in his own possession; and from the feted Syrian speaker who began appealingly enough: He said that a lot has changed since he left Damascus for America 50 years ago; at the time Muslims lived beside Jews whose next door neighbours were Christians who lived opposite Alawis.
So far so good.
Then in response to a Kurdish speaker's concern that there were no schools in Syria allowed to teach the Kurdish language, the man with dual Syrian and American nationality held up his thumb and index finger and framed a zero to emphasise how much he knew about the discrimination of Kurds in his native country. Rather, he argued that there could be no state democracy until there was democracy within the family, and in the meantime he believed Syria to be the safest country in the world to live in right now: better a dictatorship where he feels secure, than, well, the chaos of Iraq. A disingenuous comparison I feel. Nor did it escape my notice or the Kurd's that Mr. Dual Nationality resides in the United States, so he might well find living under a Syrian dictatorship not too hard to bear.
Then a polite mustachioed man stood up in the back to deliver the final comment: he told of a recent play at SOAS that had recreated the Jewish Libyan community of the 50s - its colloquialisms and dress - and so accurately that he felt he was back in his childhood. Then he made a witty remark, the full irony of which few understood; he said that perhaps Basheer Assad could follow the great example of the 'reformed' leader, Qaddafi, and come up with his version of Israestan, or whatever he called the one-state solution, that would be ruled in alternate years by Israel and Palestine. I went up to the mustachioed man afterwards to ask him what he meant. He said that the great 'reformed' leader, Qaddafi - who Tony Blair had recently hugged on a visit to Libya - was little reformed, and one should be wary of the peace deals such men make. I liked this guy immediately and later told Ruba that he was surely gay; not only had he not tried to pick us up, he had a lightness of touch, and a rare - and not tokenistic - sensibility to the suffering of women in Libya. He surprised me when I asked him if, in the light of his earlier comment, he was Jewish, and he answered that he was Muslim. He then asked if I was Jewish. I also said no. Christian then? Well, not exactly I replied. Generally each was surprised the other showed an interest in the Jewish Arab community.
He also told us of the day six years ago when Qaddafi had ordered 1,500 prisoners shot in a single day because they had complained about the quality of the food. And I thought again of the eerily silent voices of the hundreds of political prisoners tucked away in jails in the countryside around pretty holy sites I had visited in Syria. I finally returned home after another depressing talk - this time on the Western betrayal of Hamas (see Alistair Crooke in the London Review of Books), and googled Libya and Sexuality. I found this:

The Benghazi Home for Juvenile Girls
“They just want us to be silent. They just want us to keep quiet.”
— A child detained in the Benghazi Home for Juvenile Girls, April 23, 2005
Financing from the General Secretary of Social Affair’s social fund (sanduk al-iktima’i) established the Benghazi Home for Juvenile Girls in the 1980s. It is located in a larger compound housing people with disabilities and juvenile males who have been convicted of crimes. It houses girls (both Libyan and non-Libyan) below the age of 18. The director of the facility described the usual admission process, involving girls who are fearful for their safety should their families learn that they have had sex (consensual or forced): “Usually girls are afraid. They go to the police, who send them to the public prosecutor, who transfers them into temporary detention. If the father or family is sympathetic, they [the girls] can get a pass to stay at home.”

When Human Rights Watch visited the facility in April 2005, five girls—three Libyans and two Egyptians—were detained, all aged sixteen and seventeen. All of the girls had been tested for communicable diseases without their consent, and four of them had been forced to undergo virginity examinations administered by male forensic doctors. Three of the five girls told Human Rights Watch that they were victims of a rape or an attempted rape. They were brought to the facility by families who no longer wanted to provide them with housing.

Girls at the Benghazi Home for Juvenile Girls, many of whom are in fact victims of crimes and not perpetrators of them, are treated like criminals. Once in the facility, they are detained indefinitely and require permission from their fathers to leave. During their detention, they are provided with no education except religious instruction from a sheikh who visits the facility once a week to teach the Qu’ran. Girls complained of being hit or sent to solitary confinement if they talked back or misbehaved in even the smallest way. The mandate of the facility allows the authorities to hold girls in solitary confinement for up to seven days. However, staff at the facility admitted to holding some girls for periods of two to three weeks and showed us a record log of the days girls were held in isolation. The girls we interviewed reported that staff sometimes handcuffed them while they were in isolation. While the food they were provided was sufficient, they told Human Rights Watch that personal hygiene supplies were inadequate. One girl said, “[t]hey give you soap and shampoo only once a month. They don’t care if it runs out.” The girls are only allowed visitors with the permission of a prosecutor.

Mona Ahmed, has been detained in the Benghazi Home for Juvenile Girls for over a year. She became pregnant following a rape and was brought to the facility by her father. While the family initially doubted that she had been raped, the rapist eventually confessed. However, her father continues to prohibit her from leaving until she agrees to give up her child, who is kept in the facility with her. She told Human Rights Watch, “the rapist confessed but my father is complicating things. Only my father can give permission to release me. My father will agree only if I give up the child so that he can marry me off to his friend.” She does not know whether she will ever be permitted to leave the facility.

Nada Mounir, seventeen, was brought to the facility on April 21, 2005 after the death of a relative who tried to rape her. She attacked him with a knife in self-defense, and he subsequently died of complications. She told Human Rights Watch, “[h]e tried to rape me but he didn’t succeed. My parents were in another house. He came from behind the house. He kissed me. He had a knife. He pulled me down by my hair and said he was going to do it but I took the knife and stabbed him. I told my mother about it. She took me to the police station. They [the police] took me to the prosecutor who brought me here.” Her family refuses to visit her or agree to take custody of her. She does not have a lawyer.

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