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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Becky Lee Katz

KUWAIT: New labor law grants women the right -- and flexibility -- to work late

The choice to clock late-night hours just like men is now a right for Kuwaiti women. 

In a revision to the labor law this week, the government of Kuwait allowed women to work night shifts at hotels, restaurants, pharmacies, press offices, banks and various other businesses.

AwadiThe amendment overrides a labor law that barred Kuwaiti women from working between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. Minister of Social Affairs and Labor, Dr. Mohammed Afasi, says Kuwaiti women can work until midnight in such professions as law, medicine, journalism, tourism and hospitality.

However, they still will be barred from jobs described as physically dangerous or taxing, such as those in the manufacturing, construction and petrochemical fields.

Afasi has also decreed other caveats to the labor law, including a ban on any private sector employee, man or woman, from working between 12 and 4 p.m. from June until August due to the perils of the summer sun and heat. 

These revisions come with a recent tide of other gender-conscious legal reforms that put Kuwaiti women at the forefront of gender rights in the Persian Gulf, according to a March 2010 report by Freedom House. 

Generally, they enjoy more comprehensive social and economic rights than their counterparts.

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UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Stricter smoking ban expected soon as anti-tobacco fervor sweeps Middle East

Shisha_smoker The United Arab Emirates may breathe easier under a strict ban on smoking, the details of which are still being hammered out five months after the actual bill was signed by President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National reported this week.

The new bylaws would ban smoking in all public places, including hotels, cafes and restaurants, and outlaw all forms of tobacco advertising. Even the ubiquitous nargileh, the traditional water pipe puffed across the region by teenagers and grandmothers alike, would be subject to tighter regulations.

The original law required only a partial ban on public smoking, and the wording was so vague that it could not be implemented, forcing health officials back to the drawing table.

They ultimately adopted more or less the exact language prescribed by the World Health Organization, banning even special smoking areas within public establishments and requiring smokers to stay at least 25 feet away from the entrance to a public building.

"We want to prevent the use of tobacco products in all public venues in the country. We want to fight this," Dr. Salim Adib of the Abu Dhabi Health Authority told The National. "I don’t think we should accept anything less than what is happening in Western Europe."

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ISRAEL: Australia expels Mossad station chief over passports in Dubai killing

W-forged-passport-cp-RTR2ATIt would be difficult to weave as intricate a web as the international spy thriller that first unraveled in Dubai in January. Yet another sinew has been threaded out of the ongoing, worldwide investigation on the killing of Hamas arms procurer Mahmoud Mabhouh. 

In recent days, the Australian foreign minister informed the Israeli Embassy that its Mossad station chief, whose identity remains secret, would be leaving the island continent within a week.

Stephen Smith spoke to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, claiming that the officer in question was "involved in state intelligence." He argued that Australian passports "were deliberately counterfeited and cloned for use" and investigations had proved "beyond doubt" that Israel was involved, reported the Australian publication International Business Times.

Israeli authorities had a warrant out for Mabhouh's arrest, as did the Egyptians and Jordanians. In 1989, Israeli authorities had failed to arrest Mabhouh for his recently confessed participation in the murder of two Israeli soldiers.

Smith concluded that Australia "remains a firm friend of Israel." 

However, he lamented, "this is not what we expect from a nation with whom we have had such a close, friendly, and supportive relationship."

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IRAN: Friday prayer preachers focus on improper women's dress, signalling potential crackdown

Tighten your hijab, ladies, and pull on your manteau. The months-long siesta for religious hard-liners in the Islamic Republic of Iran appears to have drawn to a close as two Friday prayer leaders called for a crackdown on the immodest dress of women, potentially laying the groundwork for more harassment of women in public.

The government coordinates on Tuesdays with religious leaders to determine the content of sermons for Friday prayers, ensuring that the same message is spread throughout the country. 


In Tehran, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati called for a crackdown on all Iranian woman, beginning with "government employees and students." 

Referring to female students, Jannati said that they may face disciplinary committees if they refuse to abide by the state's interpretation of a uniform Islamic dress code and that the success of their exams may be contingent on their conformity to the moral order.

Jannati said that hospitals and other public centers should also not avoid scrutiny. He praised the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution, one of the institutions that drove the 1979 Islamic Revolution, for adopting a plan two years ago to enforce chastity and the wearing of the hijab, though it was blocked.

"Those who obstructed this law should be held accountable.... Why haven't you implemented this law yet?"

Jannati's sermon was broadcast on state radio.

Jannati is a force to be reckoned with in Iranian politics. He has been a member of the Guardian Council since 1980 and its chairman since 1988. He also holds seats in the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Discernment Council, significant government organs.

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DUBAI: Another suspect identified in alleged Mossad killing of Hamas commander

2385687682 In the latest twist to the Persian Gulf spy thriller, Dubai police have identified yet another suspect, a British national, in the assassination of Hamas military commander Mahmoud Mabhouh, the British consulate confirmed to the Palestinian Ma'an Agency on Monday.

Unlike the other 32 suspects, including two alleged members of the Palestinian Authority, the latest alleged agent to enter the United Arab Emirates actually did so with his real passport. Though Interpol and Dubai authorities maintain they have the biographical information of the suspect, all that is known publicly is that the 62-year-old Brit’s father was a Jew who fled Palestine after the onset of World War II and immigrated to the United Kingdom.

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IRAN: Cannes 2010: Imprisoned filmmaker Jafar Panahi is honored at film festival [Corrected]

Amid the glitter and gaiety of the 63rd Cannes Film Festival opening, one of the nine chairs for jury members remained empty. 

Internationally acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, slated to serve as a jury member at the festival, couldn't attend because he was being held  in Tehran’s Evin prison.

Jafar_Panahi In March 2010, plainclothes security officials raided Panahi’s Tehran home and arrested him along with his wife, daughter and 15 house guests. Though Iranian authorities shortly released the others, they held on to Panahi, accusing him of “making a film against the regime following the post-election events," according to the French daily Le Figaro.

Despite this, the prosecutor's office in Tehran argues that Panahi’s imprisonment has no political motive. 

"The arrest of Jafar Panahi is not because he is an artist or for political reason[s]," prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi told the Iranian Students News Agency. 

"He is accused of some crimes and was arrested with another person following an order by a judge," reported BBC News.

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IRAN: Anger and protests follow executions of Kurds on terrorism charges

Farzad-ali-shirin-final Reports have surfaced of renewed unrest in parts of Iran and protests at Tehran University after Sunday's execution of four Iranian Kurds, including a woman, and another Iranian activist for alleged terrorist activities.

Media reports said Iranian Kurds were planning protests in anger over the executions and the declaration of martial law in the cities of Mahabad and Sanandaj, which have predominantly Kurdish populations.

According to the independent Kurdish news website Aweenah, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had made a secret visit to Tehran early Sunday in a last-minute bid to stop the executions.The website said Talabani, a Kurd, had been scheduled to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to ask him to intervene in the case and put the executions on hold.

But the executions went ahead, and Farzad Kamangar, Ali Haydarian, Farhad Vakili, Shirin Alam-Houli and Mehdi Eslamian were hanged after their convictions on various charges, including terrorism and waging war against God, according to Iranian state media.

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MIDDLE EAST: The idea of filming 'Sex and the City 2' in Dubai or Abu Dhabi? Perish the thought

Writer and director Michael Patrick King envisioned "Sex and the City 2" unfolding in an earthly paradise where self-indulgence and excess never raises an eyebrow.

So naturally, he flew the four fabulous ladies, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte York-Goldenblatt (Kristin Davis), to the Persian Gulf.

"I thought about where's there a lot of money with no shame attached," King told, the entertainment website. "Then I thought about the Middle East because of Dubai and Abu Dhabi and their extravagance. It's the new Middle East and the future."

But the vision was immediately clouded by the Arabian Gulf's perplexing contradictions, as one smooching British couple recently learned.

Though the film's masterminds originally wrote the script with the divas vacationing in blingy Dubai, they had to substitute it with the neighboring United Arab Emirates state of Abu Dhabi and film it in Morocco after authorities rejected permission to film there because of the word "sex" in the movie's name.

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LEBANON: In Muslim Middle East, Jehovah's Witnesses congregate in secret


An elegantly dressed Lebanese woman in a black and white Chanel suit stood up and offered her seat to a Philippine domestic worker, "Please sit, I'll go look for more chairs."

The unusual scene in Lebanon, where wealthy locals more often than not abuse and exploit migrant workers from Asia, was at an undercover Jehovah's Witnesses congregation just outside of Beirut.

Recently, more than 200 Jehovah's Witnesses gathered in the basement of a posh building north of the capital. They divided up into two rooms, one for the English-speaking and one for the Sinhalese-translated session for Sri Lankans.

Unlike other parts of the Arab world, Lebanon is known for its tolerance of multiple religious confessions. But even that has a limit, especially for faiths like Jehovah's Witnesses that are not registered or officially recognized by the government.

It is estimated that there are over 15 "Kingdom Halls," or prayer gatherings, in Lebanon, which for now appear to be tolerated despite fears that participants could be harassed or deported. "My employer is Greek Orthodox, but she likes that I am a Witness," a young Philippine woman explained. "She knows that she can trust me. She lets me come to the meetings."

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LEBANON: Professor condemned for scholarly work with Israeli counterparts

Sari Hanafi (1) A politically charged uproar has erupted on the campus of a leafy university over the academic collaboration between a local Arab professor and two Israeli counterparts. 

In a town hall at the American University of Beirut  earlier this month, nearly 300 in the crowd castigated Sari Hanafi, a scholar and Palestinian activist, for his role as co-editor of the book, "The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories." 

Hanafi worked on the book with two Israeli scholars from Tel Aviv University, Adi Ophir and Michal Givoni, both of whom publicly oppose the Israeli military presence in the West Bank.

Lebanese law forbids contact between its nationals and Israel. The two countries remain technically at war. There's also an ongoing effort to isolate Israel called the Palestinian Academic Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which many AUB students and faculty support.

“This open collaboration between an Israeli academic and an AUB academic is unprecedented in my 50 years of service at this university," said Tarif Khalidi, professor of Arab and Middle Eastern studies at AUB, who addressed the audience at the March 8 meeting. "I say 'open' because God knows what might be happening under the table. This is especially disturbing in a country like Lebanon, which is still in a state of war with Israel."

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LEBANON: Experts argue against 'clash of civilizations' at university forum


 The clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and the West isn’t over -- it never began, according to a group of top-notch scholars gathered in Beirut last week.

The scholars from around the world convened at the American University of Beirut to discuss the future of engagement between the Islamic world and the West in a forum sponsored by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center.

“It’s more appropriate to talk about a clash of ignorances,” said Ali Asani of Harvard University. “People tend to paint each other with one color, with one brush stroke, as simplistic caricatures in utter humiliation.”

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LEBANON: Palestinian rap duo welcomed in Europe, but not in Arab countries


It's hard out there for a Palestinian playah, especially in the Arab world.

I-Voice, a Palestinian hip-hop duo, has played to thousands of its fans in sold-out auditoriums from Austria to Spain.

But it can’t cut a break on Arab stages from Casablanca to Dubai.

Denied entry to Morocco recently, I-Voice had to cancel yet another tour through the Arab world because of what they describe as discriminatory practices against Palestinian refugees and their descendants. 

“When I went to Austria and Spain, it was no problem," said Yasin Qasem, 21, a freelance sound engineer who is one-half of the duo."For Cyprus, I got it on the same day. But with Arabic countries, I don’t know why. Maybe they are scared from Palestinians."

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