Yes, he’s read the reports that a Muslim cleric announced women should not touch cucumbers, carrots or bananas lest they become sexually impure, admits Egyptian newspaper editor Muna Khan in the Cairo daily newspaper al-Arabiya.

And Khan says he is just shaking his head in disbelief.

Women should not touch bananas, according to the cleric.

“Sometimes a cleric has to issue an edict for the jokes to write themselves,” he writes. “This was evidenced on Thursday in a so-called edict by a Muslim cleric calling for a ban on women touching phallic resembling fruit. It was bound to elicit outrage and ridicule alike.

“The brouhaha erupted after the publication of a report in the Egyptian newspaper Bikya Masron Thursday which was quoting the website al-Senousa in which an unnamed cleric in Europe said that women shouldn’t touch fruit/vegetables like bananas, cucumbers, carrots and courgettes because they resembled male genitalia. The only way women could eat these fruit was if there presented to them by ‘a third party, preferably a male related to them such as their father or husband should cut the items into small pieces and serve it to them’ the newspaper quotes the cleric as saying.”

The international response has been predictable, laments Khan. ”It set social media forums aflame with Twitter users suggesting other fruit that should be banned for resembling female anatomy. The ludicrousness of the matter also attracted the attention of news outlets, many of whom ran the story ─ and everyone had a good laugh, a good cry while a whole lot of Muslims hung their heads in shame.

“It was a good day on Twitter for cucumber jokes. Granted, this supposed cleric wouldn’t be the first to make ridiculous pronouncements or paint Muslims in psychodelic colors. That silly ‘judgments’ posing as fatwas are routinely passed, and unquestioningly so ─ just this past Tuesday we published a story on a slew of fatwas by Egyptian Salafis, including one banning women from wearing high heels outside their homes ─ is depressing.

“And it makes anything possible, including the unbelievable ban on women touching phallic-like fruit lest it lead to their arousal,” writes Khan. “It’s easy to believe it but irresponsible to retweet, forward on and so forth as fact when that is not necessarily the case. The only thing it leads to, and rightly so, is incredulity and also defensive reactions from Muslims arguing that this paints Islam in a bad light and not all Muslim clerics are obsessed with sex. Both are valid statements but we need to up the ante.”

For too long, writes Khan, the debate on women’s rights has been led in Egypt by “nut jobs intent on suppressing women’s freedom of

speech and movement ─ and it is their narrative that gets the most press, even if only because it makes for salacious reading.”

Khan cites recent articles, such as fears expressed by a Saudi scholar that allowing women to drive could lead to all forms of societal perversions.

Another Egyptian politician announced that any female candidates in ongoing Egyptian elections should appear in public only if dressed in a head-to-toe burkha and should not speak aloud unless addressed by males. Another Egyptian politician made headlines when he said Egyptian antiquities violate Muslim prohibitions against “graven images” — and that if elected, he would ensure that the faces on Egypt’s 6,000-year-old monuments’ would be covered with beeswax.

Aliaa Mahdy

Should the news media ignore these stories? Aliaa Mahdy doesn’t think so. The Egyptian activist posted a full-frontal nude photo of herself on the Internet recently — protesting the repression of Egyptian women.

“The posting of her naked body left Egyptians and Arabs angry,” notes columnist Joseph Meyton on Egypt’s Bikya Masr.  ”Hate and condemnation quickly followed. Ironically, despite all the hatred purported in her direction, millions of people logged onto her blog to see her picture, with even lewd comments being posted. For Mahdy, it was a symbolic protest against the status of women in Egypt and across the Arab world. She said ‘enoug’h to the centuries of male-domination meted out to women in the country and the region. It launched a debate over women’s rights, or rather, ‘what is appropriate

for women.’”

Other activists followed Mahdy. “In Tunisia,” writes Meyton, “Nadia Bostah was attacked after she posed semi-nude for a magazine cover and then re-published the image on her Facebook page. Anger was quick to follow. In Pakistan, popular actress Veena Malik was criticized for posing nude for India FHM – although no ‘parts’ were showing.”

The stories highlight “the struggle women have in the region,” writes Meyton. Indeed, the Coalition of Islamic law graduates coordinator Ahmed Yehia told him that “it is an insult to the revolution as these persons who pretend to be one of the revolutionists and asking for sexual freedoms, they are giving the uprising a bad name. It is our duty to fight corruption and this is a corruption case, we people who are trying to corrupt society with foregion and unacceptable customs like the sexual freedom they ask for.”

“What is corrupting about a blogger posting her nude body on her blog?” asks Meyton. “In today’s Internet Age, there are naked pictures across the web, most more graphic than the one Mahdy posted. At the end of the day we can choose to click the link or not to either view the image or avoid it. ”

But the problem is that Egypt’s women, says Meyton “continue to face a double-edged sword. Take for example the attacks on Egypt’s Tahrir protesters, women in specific, who were accused of ‘fornication’ and ‘drug use’ by the ruling military junta in the country. Women face an uphill battle, with a snowball towering toward them in Egypt and around the region. To do what they want with their bodies seems to not be their own personal decision, but the decision of the men that control their destiny.”

Meanwhile, clerics announcing that women shouldn’t be allowed to shop for zucchinis, carrots or anything else that could be mistaken as a phallic symbol will continue to make the headlines — instead of coherent debate on women’s rights in Egypt, sighs Khan on the al-Arabiya editorial page. ”I don’t see the nut jobs retreating into corners for time outs. That is until and unless saner voices prevail and respond — not ignore — to their madness in equally loud measure.

“Failure to do so means the freak show will go on until there’s little left to laugh about.”

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