California Chronicle: Algerian, Jordanian Feminists Stun Southern California Audiences

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California Chronicle: Algerian, Jordanian Feminists Stun Southern California Audiences

By Pat McDonnell Twair

The American Friends Service Committee, which has been assisting Arab feminists to address the issue of violence toward women in their respective countries, brought 10 activists to the United States this spring to network on strategies to combat domestic crimes against women. Speaking in the Los Angeles area were Dr. Faika Medjahed, an Algerian dental surgeon, filmmaker and writer, and Leah Sawalha, a public health specialist from Amman, Jordan.

Dr. Medjahed spoke passionately as she described the all--out war being waged on women in Algeria. Explaining that her country is close to anarchy, with radical Islamists ruling most of the country at night and all but the capital by day, the dentist--turned--documentary filmmaker said women are the most vulnerable members of her society and, hence, are targeted first.

At an AFSC reception in Pasadena, the phenomenon of contemporary Islamic women choosing to wear the hijab (a head scarf which many non--Arabs refer to as a "veil") dominated questions posed to both of the visiting feminists.

"The practice of hijab has increased in Jordan commensurate with the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood," Sawalha explained. "I'd venture to say 90 percent of women university students and professors wear scarves as a political statement."

The fiery Dr. Medjahed said that in Algeria the hijab has become the "supreme obligation" for women. Those who don't cover up are subject to death by Islamists, who have killed more than 200 women since 1992.

"Peasant women who work in the fields aren't forced to cover, but in the cities women must hide behind the hijab," Dr. Medhajed asserted. "They are walking graves whose minds are entombed."

Asked who imposes the rule that Algerian women must wear hijab, she replied: "The fundamentalists. If there isn't enough employment for men, they say women are holding their jobs. If there is a housing shortage, they kill widows who are living alone to take their homes. They even blame the hole in the ozone layer on women."

"No matter what the problem, they say the solution is to veil women and keep them at home in the kitchen," she continued. "When we've asked the government to stop this inquistion, we get no response. During Ramadan, they killed the president of the feminist movement because she wasn't veiled while helping village women to start their own carpet factory. They killed a three--year--old because they said his mother had loose morals. They interrogate children in the mosques and schools and ask if their parents fast during Ramadan and if they drink alcohol."

Asked how Americans can assist Arab feminists, Sawalha stated: "During this visit, we've become aware of many myths Americans accept about Arab women. Maybe these myths are intended to keep Western and Eastern women divided, to make them fearful of what they don't know. …