Tag Archives: Conference

New Media and Governance

“You can try to avoid that’s why its pointless
but you can never avoid the voice of the voiceless” – Lowkey 
“The voice of the Voiceless… that voice is social imbalance”  – Immortal Technique

A conference titled New Media and Governance: Tools and Trends was held on the 14th to 15th of May 2012 (three days ago) organized by the partnership of Yaradua Center, EnoughIsEnough and Galaxy Backbone PLC (there are a ton of non-major partners).

New Media is a large concept and should not be subsumed in to social media, which is a part of New Media. New Media as a concept could involve the apparently primitive media tools insofar as information cost is lowered whereas social media is almost inseparable with electronic devices. If a town-crier best suit your purpose of disseminating information, there is no need for a whole village to subscribe a Blackberry plan. However due to demand of interactivity our discussions dwell on those tools that offer a two-way information traffic. And judging by the number of iPads at the conference, it would ve been disappointing not to talk about online tools.

Gidi Traffic alerts you of traffic congestion via twitter. When NYSC Corp members were not paid allowance, Ministry of Youth Dev did not find out through its bureaucratic channel but via social media updates. This could be the future of Nigerian governance. New Media may be extended to monitoring corruption by transparency (as in Ekiti State later on) and by citizen engagement (client engagement in terms of contract).

“Many World Bank projects have failed because citizens don’t engage in accountability” – Caroline Sage of World Bank

The essential ingredient of New Media is low cost, cost of information and cost of collaboration, which are significantly lowered by New Media; E.g information on budget can easily be disseminated via SMS and protests can be organized over facebook. There were so many real world examples given during the conference but for the sake of brevity, I’ll skip them.

A New Media organization is the big-guy that can stand up for the voiceless by relying on two major supports: Anonymity and Partnership. Such organizations/platforms can receive information anonymously (then perform necessary verification) and relay this information to their partners (or not as when mySociety flooded traffic authorities in the UK with complaint-emails without seeking permission first which would have been denied).

The style of this post is issue-focused. I noted some of the issue I thought were interesting and I’ll attempt to indulge in some. The reader may wish to jump to which sub headings they find interesting. The content of the conference was vast and quite detailed at times so here is a link to the presentations made for any who would ve wanted to attend (available for download). A few factual information in this post are taken straight from their presenters and not verified; also subject to my memory. I intended a section on technical details of the new media tools but that may make this post too long; a different blog perhaps on request. I will append a section at the end with a list (and links) to some of these tools.

INEC Situation Room

First, it was interesting to find out that Civil Societies love Prof Jega (Head of INEC); he is a kind of a celebrity. I got a different impression from internet comments but you know what, he seemed like a cool chap after many references to his participation in some endeavors… enough on Him. Cooler stuff await.

Did you know that INEC had a situation room? Neither did I. Perhaps my imagination is getting the best of me but I imagined it to be like 24’s CTU. There are large screens with major news channels (one was wasted on NTA), arrays of phones (landlines and mobile), and loads of people. An interesting sight is that the civil society ReclaimNaija had a section for itself in the situation room monitoring election in realtime. ReclaimNaija was using the Ushahidi Platform to monitor elections (more on that later).

#OccupyNaija and #FuelSubsidy Protests: Success or Failure

I won’t prolong the suspense. The consensus at the conference is that the protests were successful. It must be viewed from two perspectives to appreciate this answer.

First, by viewing the protests as battles and social activism as the war. As highlighted, the lack of a unified/operational youth body made it easier for NLC to hijack the campaign which led to them settling for “half” of the demand. What matters is that the demand of citizens was listened to and the government’s callous decision was “half” reversed.

I think international media is to blame for perception of others that this was a failure. For the cost of creating a spectacle, international mainstream media labeled the “Arab Spring” a facebook revolution. Many candid Nigerians believed it and thought that simply facebook/twitter were enough to cause change. What they were not aware of is the prolonged struggle and sustained organization that were the foundations of the entire revolutions. Many Nigerians that came out to the street felt betrayed (by NLC) and are disheartened because it seems what they understood to happened in other countries has not happened in theirs. Simply because of misinformation. I guess New Media can exaggerate aspects of a cause. Critical reading of news becomes a priority.

The second perspective to understand this success is from the point of view of Civil Societies. These are people who do the behind-the-curtains jobs in addition to the on-stage actions like the boisterous protests. For example the FOI act recently passed was a result of sustained attempts for 12 years. Now the Civil Societies are feeling the change in response of the government to issues they were once aloof about. More publically, the recent senate probe on fuel subsidy that was reported was prompted by this change in dynamics: Now that is success.

Equal under God… Except if You Know More

Chidi Odinkalu made an interesting claim: that Nigeria is a nation of discrimination based on information. We are constantly reminded that we live in an information age, the truth of which may be contested. The Nigerian context, although may be far from the typical economic implication of “information age” but may be socially/politically in information age. The question is that why are civil servants the richest class of people in the country? or why does any rich person have to depend much on civil servants? The answer relevant here is that because civil servants have information, others don’t.

In this sense, Freedom Of Information act is supposed to bridge this gap (of course not focused on economic investments). Freedom Of Information is then Freedom in Information or Freedom through Information. In most cases government organizations are not willing to share their secrets so FOI requests likely end up in court.  But even Chidi (I think) mentioned how the will of Justice is easily swayed in Nigeria. In cases where FOI requests succeed, it means only a few people (the requesters) have their hands on it. New Media comes to the rescue.

For other government agencies that publish documents on their websites, that is New Media and potentially accessible to anyone. The few that win court cases on FOI requests could publish it on the Internet or any other New Media. Discrimination then may not be based on information bust based on effort to access the information (which is technically not discrimination).

Revenue from Transparency

It was pay day in Afghanistan and many police officers were excited. They had gotten a raise. Perhaps this raise comes with their new payment method which was electronic (notification on phones). What they found out later was that there was no raise and it was no mistake. It was simply that their commissioners used to carve out chunks of their salaries before paying them… for years. This was a story shared at the conference by Steven Livingston.

More relevant is the case of Ekiti state which was narrated by the Governor at the Conference. Tax Revenue from Ekiti before adopting New Media (electronic payment) was about N150 Million. Tax Revenue after adopting New Media immediately jumped to more than N600 Million. This means that only about 15% of the taxes get to government treasury, the rest was “lost” along the way in the hands of bureaucrats.

It seems the answer to transparency (and citizen participation) can be provided by New Media. But why have many government agencies not embraced it? The Minister of ICT mentioned at the conference that by 2014 about 50% of government information will be published online and that 15 to 20 services (in addition to tax and immigration) will be added to New Media payment. However it seems government agencies are resistant to these services so far because the prefer yahoo and hotmail to their .gov.ng domains. The MD of Galaxy Backbone Plc (who provide the service) confirmed that only 6% of this .gov.ng services are being utilized. This reluctance may become resistance to “intrusion” of New Media. I hope the reluctance is not because of unreliable service… that is another issue then.

Did you know that a recent study showed that people are more truthful on emails than on phones? Emails implicitly mean documented, thus accountability. I’m just saying…

Transparency’s Scourge Proved Wrong

Caroline Sage, from World Bank, talked about the information revolution in the World Bank. The default stand of the World Bank (as with most authorities) is that all information is private unless there is a need to make it public; which may not unrelated to court cases. However the revolution flipped the scripts: now World Bank information is public by default unless there is a reason to make it private.

The fear of World Bank (as many other authorities) was mainly that exposing such information might leave them vulnerable to attacks and criticism. However World Bank has recorded less complaints/criticism since the information revolution. This is probably due to the availability of clear information which formerly may not have been clear and so easily misconstrued.

Another interesting finding which will douse the fear of exposing New Media to rural areas is the case of rural farmers which Caroline Sage worked with. Keep in mind that New Media includes monitoring via SMS. Potentially anyone that uses a mobile phone can be a New Media agent. This is what Caroline Sage had to say about the rural farmers:

 “I don’t know about literacy but Nigerians (farmers) have grabbed ICT with a vengeance.” – Caroline Sage

Preventing Rigging by Participation

There was a discussion on the techniques of rigging election in the recent context where voters are registered before voting. This point came from an unexpected source. It was not a detective, forensics or sociologist; it was a musician BankyW. The logic is outlined in what follows. Bear in mind that youths (18yrs to 35yrs) account for over 60% of Nigeria’s population.

Assuming there are 100 Nigerians and two political parties; let us hypothetically call them HP (Honest Party) and PDP (Power for Darkness Party). PDP is the evil party seeking to rig election to their favor. 70 Nigerians register to vote, 40 came out to vote. Of the 40, 30 vote of HP and 10 for PDP. Now PDP is smart enough to know that it will be difficult to rig the elections since the number of voters can be accounted for. PDP then prints ballot-papers and cast 30 votes in favor of PDP. The election commission sees the result for HP as 30 votes and for PDP as 10+30 votes. And so PDP wins.

Of course it is not all this simple in reality as one may ask questions like: why isn’t biometrics used to confirm identity of voters, was the registration protected enough because PDP could have inflated the number of registrants in anticipation of the future… and so many other questions. The message is that by coming out to vote, you are also preventing rigging.

Celebrity Dilemma

On the second day three artists were invited for one of the sessions titled “Naija Generation and New Media”: they are Efe Paul, a poet; Darey, a musician; BankyW, a musician. All three entertained us well the night before during a dinner sponsored by the conference organizers. During the session however, there was more preaching and less performing. BankyW was the exception; he seemed to be doing both. The three gave inspiring and contemplative short speeches but I highlight the question of whether celebrities should meddle with politics; this point was emphasized by Darey.

Darey threw in the rhetorical questions and BankyW attempted to answer some. This has always been one of the fallacies of media especially in advertisements where a celebrity endorses a product with statements that his/her artistic qualifications don’t give him/her authority; e.g. what might D’Banj know about toothpastes to give him authority to say it is the best. Darey asked if celebrities shouldn’t be careful before jumping into politics and if they must, shouldn’t they require understanding of policy making? BankyW on the other hand has been partisan in many civil movements and so justified his stand on doing what seems right (I think according to constitution). This type of involvement is different from that of say D’banj who sang for the present president as endorsement. D’banj’s producer apologized to Nigeria after the president callously (and stupidly I add) withdrew fuel subsidy without approval of relevant stakeholders.

Something interesting happened: the Ohimaya (SA to the Minister of Youths) was also in the panel. In his passionate speech he accused BankyW for indecisiveness for not endorsing a presidential candidate and even praised D’Banj. He, in his activist days, had endorsed a presidential candidate different from the present administration which he works for. BankyW responded that he endorsed the Governor of Lagos publically but would keep to himself who he voted for president because none of the candidates impressed him. With crowd support for BankyW’s response (thus Boo to the SA), the SA chipped in that BankyW should then run for president someday. BankyW (who wouldn’t let it go) in a smirk reply insinuated that the SA has a better chance after all he has come from activist to SA to minister in such a short time. Enough of this! beginning to sound like a gossip…

Darey articulated his decision not to endorse anyone because he feels its every citizen’s responsibility to decide for themselves, without his imposition. I guess Darey has forgotten about “manufacturing consent”. My advice for artists is not to endorse any politician but to promote causes. I guess that is what BankyW does and what D’Banj didn’t do. As far as I’m concerned, I can’t listen to D’Banj’s advice on social matters because his actions indicate that he can be bought whereas BankyW has my ears. Not because celebrities like BankyW are experts, but because they have not corrupted themselves by association and have not given me a reason to doubt their motives.

Youth Poverty Alleviation

The minister of youth affairs was at one of the sessions. Today university graduates are selling phone recharge cards on a small scale. About 70% are unemployable because they lack skills needed by employers but these people could thrive in entrepreneurship. The ministry of youth affairs needs to launch programs on Youth Development.

Given the current situation, Youth Development is not possible because the ministry spends over 90% of its budget on Youth Management. Actually about 90% of the budget is spent on NYSC. The youths in NYSC hardly make up 5% (my guess) of the Nigerian youths which the ministry is set for. The implication of this is that New Media projects are not likely to be launched for youth development (or youth participation in governance).

This couldn’t have come at a worse time because many are optimistic that youth development can be achieved through New Media. A project currently running in India is providing cheap/free internet connection on android tablets via satellite. This exposes youths to a variety of free skills acquisition resources online.

Non-Tool Focused Campaigns

I feel the need to touch on this point again because it received a lot of attention during the conference. Simply put, it is that New Media is not synonymous with Social Media even though Social Media is New Media. This point was explained in the introduction of this post.

Therefore when planning for a campaign for which you hope to find a solution in New Media, don’t immediately think about Facebook or Twitter. Make your purpose clear and define your constituency then make a decision on the variety of social media platforms available. Anyone trained in software engineering sees this as intuitive but it is worth mentioning.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel, Make a Mercedes Benz

For the techy’s it is very tempting to want to create your own New Media platform from scratch especially after hearing about how do-able they are and after identifying some of the weaknesses. If you are a techy and that is your end aspiration, then by all means. However if your end is to achieve a social cause, your energy may be better utilized using existing platforms and customizing to your taste. You can then focus on the social cause not the tool. An effect of this approach is that if you can come up with a better version of the platform, others can benefit and improve on your platform since it is open source; the evolution begins.

An example of this approach was illustrated during the conference. Michael Best used the Ushahidi platform initially but found that it crashes when rate of incoming signals exceed 50 SMS/second (I think). They created their software based on Ushahidi and were able to achieve about 150 SMS/second.

The analogy in the above title is also to show the organic importance of New Media. If New Media is the wheel, the entire cause is the car and destination is the cause’s goal.

African Software Engineering

I am particularly interested in this issue not because I am from computer science background but because I live in a third world country where we tend to borrow “international best practices” and attempt applying them to our situations with scarcely any adaptive changes. But it gets better, Africa now has its own superstar software platform called Ushahidi.(being open source means that it may contain contributions by non-Africans but it is important that it was born in Africa and managed in Africa).

Ushahidi was developed in Kenya as a way to archive information and make it publically available for access. Ushahidi is a web platform that allows the gathering of messages via SMS, email, tweets and direct posting on the website. It has since been built upon to monitor disasters in Haiti, in Japan and other places. It has also brought about what Mike Best (at the conference) called the African Software Engineering. I didn’t get the opportunity to ask him further what the term involves but it suffice to say it implies a form of customization of software for African context. It might interest you to know that the ReclaimNaija election monitoring site is based on Ushahidi but had to be customized for the Nigerian context.

This for me is a revolution in New Media (or ICT) but hopefully will extend to other fields for both large scale (like free market capitalism) and small scale (like world bank funded) projects, when it comes to application in Africa.

Big Brother for Politicians

If you are excited about the title, bring it low because there are no surveillance cameras and drama among housemates (as in the Big Brother reality show). But I will encourage you to raise your expectations.

New Media provides opportunities to monitor what your elected officials are up to. MySociety is a UK-based organization that provides just that solution. MySociety basically facilitates citizen engagement and governance transparency by building websites. 55% of visitors to one of their sites “TheyWorkForYou” think better of their MPs after visiting the site (TheyWorkForYou monitors Members of Parliaments each with their pages). More recently MySociety worked with Mzalendo to monitor Kenyan MPs, which was re-launched in February 2012. IF you thought NTA’s live coverage of legislature proceedings is cool try any of the two mentioned above.

In a previous post, someone proposed that government contracts should be monitored during a symposium (on the report on fuel subsidy probe). Perhaps New Media in the form of MySociety could help in this regard; it’s the concept that is important. Contracts could be monitored through their lifecycles like MPs are. As such, budgets could be monitored online.

Denial of Justice Attack (DoJ)

In computer networking, there is a form of attack which can be targeted on servers called DoS attacks (Denial of Service Attack) The trick is to overload the server with requests which is beyond its capacity (usually by automating the requests and never terminating sessions). The result is that the server crashes/hooks because it cannot respond; thus made nonoperational.

The head of INEC Prof Jega explained their situation in regards to the minimal prosecution of electoral crimes. It turns out that his tenure has prosecuted the most electoral offences since the commission was established. A problem he pointed out is that the definition of electoral offences is so wide that they have a record of about a Million offenses but were able to prosecute only 250 cases. This I call the DoJ Attack (Denial of Justice Attack).

Prof Jega says the solution lies in the outcome of the Uwais Committee Report.

The solution I propose lies in acknowledging that humans are not computers. Generally, especially in the case of a simple DoS attack, a server is unable to prioritize between requests partly because most of the time they are the same high-priority requests. Humans on the other hand can single out the offenses that will pass the message the most e.g. high profile personalities for media coverage, strategically located culprits to serve as examples for anyone.

Internet Censorship… Say WHAAAT?!

It was interesting that many contributors favored content censorship or some form of enforcement and Internet legislation. When I first heard a comment to that effect my reaction was: Say WHAAAT?! Haven’t you heard about SOPA and PIPA and Wikileaks and aren’t you aware that this conference is for online techies?! then I remembered its not really for techies but more for activists. But that makes it worse when you have techies that are activists!

First Prof Jega called for a form of legislation recalling that INEC has been a victim of unfounded rumors and that INEC has reacted to wrong signals (perhaps as planned diversions). Then Minister of Youth Dev shared similar concerns; following his encouragement of some ministers to embrace online presence, they have been subject to insults and a Senator was issued death threats. I also remember a discussant passionately calling for prosecution of online-content “offenses”. Many others either contributed in favor or passionately applauded. There were three responses I remember.

Prof Steven Livingston called for “self correction of rumors” in social space; adding that truth outweighs lies. If there are a significant number of reporters of incidents, then mathematically, truth will kick out the rumors (assuming probability of truth is high). Gbenga Sesan pointed out that threats on twitter are probably by people who “can’t hold a knife properly” and that real threats are not advertised on social media. Y.Z. Yau made a presentation on a systematic approach to curbing rumors using a four-step approach. Unfortunately the Y.Z.Yau’s slides are not available among the downloadable documents.

Summary: rumors that can require action should be subject to a confirmation mechanism (a number of methods have been suggested); insults and slurs, if you are a politician live with it; threats/inspiring threats, most are empty but if eventually leads to action and can be proved then the culprit should be prosecuted. Government is allergic to New Media. Social Media Etiquette might be more reliable (next to common morality). Using force/legislation is simply the lazy/expedient option like it’s easier to wage a war than to struggle for peace.

Monitoring Bribes and the Bribe Market

Since we are on the issue of transparency, what if you could monitor bribes? The gigantic bribes are left to simple mathematics (addition, subtraction etc) to discover that corruption has taken place but hardly able to decipher how much of that was spent of bribe. But the most rampant type of bribe are those that happen outside of contracts: with the police man, with the gate man, with the security officer etc. Now it is possible to monitor petty bribes… to an extent.

An online mechanism that achieves this provides users with a form in which users/volunteers fill to report the bribes they have given. This method doesn’t seek to stop bribe directly but in the spirit of transparency it seeks to make the bribe information known and archived. Of course we then totally rely on the honesty of the reporters (on which many online tools count upon).

The first of these tools is ipaidabribe setup to monitor bribes in India. This is an excellent site because it has an informative visual display that gives you all sorts of information like number of reports and from which cities; As at the time of writing this post over 440 Million Rupees have been reported in petty bribes. A Nigerian version of the tool is bribenigeria.com which also offers similar services as the one for India. Bribenigeria.com might do well to make its graphical analytics on the home page. Bribenigeria.com seems underused with just about a total of 42 reports (Lagos topping the ranks).

It is also important to note that these tools also allow reporting cases where a bribe was expected but was not paid. I like to do this exercise quite a lot as in a previous post.

Perhaps bribenigeria.com needs to expose it’s site to Nigerian Software Engineering  and awareness to allow for more participation. SMS capabilities could be added to broaden constituency of reporters or Smartphone apps could be developed (prudent of apps though). And perhaps, some media awareness will help. But even after achieving huge participation, only a percentage of bribes can get reported. Statistical methods could be used to get a reliable figure for how many Nigerians are involved in paying bribes (or not) and how much is this bribe-market worth.

In the future we might be seeing statistics on bribes being quoted next to poverty figures etc of the country. I am interested to know if much bribery happens on weekends and perhaps whether intensity of bribery negatively correlates to dates of salary payments.

Handicaps Participation

20% of Nigerian population are disabled. That is a significant constituency. A representative of handicaps at the conference asked the Minister of Youths what efforts the ministry is putting into supporting the disabled. The response was not promising. I will like to propose a New Media solution to harnessing power of the disempowered.

For now I am more concerned with the deaf and the blind. Assuming a quarter of the disabled population (5% of Nigerians) fall under deaf or blind. Then imagine that policy-making information is available online and legislative members embrace the online monitoring system (like theyWorkForYou or Mzalendo). Then providing internet access to this 5% (more than 10% of citizens that voted) could make all the difference. Cheap and reliable internet devices could be provided as in India presently (which Prof Steven Livingston mentioned).

The technology that makes online content available to the deaf and blind is available. The disabled person only needs an additional device to interact but the issue lies in designing websites/online-content to be accessible/handicap-friendly. In fact such a standard exists: here is the guidelines and here is a tool for website developers to ensure that their sites are handicap-friendly. The University of York in the UK is committing a lot of research in this field.

Now to a more realistic analysis. Not all of the 5% may be literate enough to use the portable internet devices but they can use phones. We might need a little African Software Engineering there. Then by accounting other categories of the disabled (of limbs), shortage from the assumed 5% could be topped up by the excess in other categories. So indeed participation could be 5% or more. If New Media flourishes, we might see a disabled-persons union that has a political will. Now this is social justice!

Points of Action… Action!

Discussions and conferences can be insidious to progress if they are not translated to action points. Fortunately in this case, a few actions had already been taken by the end of the conference… talk about speed. And by this I mean those I have come to know about.

EnoughIsEnough have agreed to work with a concerned citizen from Warri which in his own words “does not have big problems… but extraordinary problem”.  Also, Omidyar agreed to sponsor mySociety’s work with EnoughIsEnough. Action!

New Media Tools 

Ushahidi
Crowd Map
OpenStreet Map
Open311
Mapbox 
M4ID
MySociety: TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem, FixMyBarangay, FixMyTransport etc
Mzalendo
Gidi Traffic

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Woman Leadership in Islam: A Nigerian Perspective

I was at a conference organized by NMDC (Nigerian Muslim and Democracy Conference) on 14th April 2012. The theme was “The Political Future of Muslims in Democratic Nigeria”. This post is about one of the sessions titled “Muslim Women and Political Participation in Nigeria”.

A paper was presented and discussion followed. The attitude to Muslim Women Leadership in Islam is an interesting one, especially given the socio-cultural realities we find ourselves in recent history. Some Muslims see no difference in woman-leadership compared to man-leadership while others have basis to oppose woman-leadership. The latter group would rather not vote when all candidates are women. However, many Muslims fall somewhere between these two views.

To capture the situation, I will use four characters that were actually present. They were not the only participants but their contributions directed the discussion. The names are fictional (The choice of names is to clearly show sex of characters). First the discussion is presented summarized to capture the important elements at the cost of the statement’s precision. Secondly, I respond to the issues raised while accommodating for the attitude of Muslim-majority towards certain points of views.

Terms (for the sake of this post):
Sahih: Authentic, Reliable, Sound
Sunnah: The sayings, practices and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)
Hadith: Report of the sayings, practices and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)
Sahih Bukhari: The most venerated collection of Sahih Hadiths. Bukhari is the name of the collector
Companion: A Muslim companion of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)

Discussion Scene

Asiya: (while presenting her paper… ) There is consensus among Muslim scholars that women can participate in politics. There is no Sahih Hadith that is opposed to women leadership.

Bala: I will like to look at a statement Asiya made which is that “there is no sahih Hadith that is opposed to women leadership”. Now we need to be very careful when we pass judgment on a Hadith. There is, in fact, a sahih Hadith in sahih Bukhari which says “A nation that has entrusted its affairs to a woman can never be successful.” The criticism on the Hadith is that the person who narrated it from the Prophet, called Abu Bakrah, was punished by Umar (A caliph at one time) for lying; and thus this Hadith will not be considered as sahih even though it is in a sahih collection. The implication of this is also that any Hadith reported by this Abu Bakrah must not be accepted, that would be unfortunate. Remember that all companions of the Prophet are considered reliable narrators of Hadith. Given the broadness of Hadith Sciences, one passing a judgment on Hadith authenticity must acquire the authority before doing so. We are talking about dismissing a Hadith for god’s sake! Hadith is only second to the Quran.

Carla: A good point by Bala. This criticism that Bala talks about was put out by the Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi. It turns out she is the only one (perhaps the first) to put this criticism in her book. Now this criticism is very popular but it all goes back to her book. Knowing the types of views Fatima Mernissi espouses, this criticism cannot stand; her views are deviant from Islam.

Carla (continues): The second line of defense used by supporters of women leadership is referring to the story of Bilqees (queen of sheba) from the Quran. The story tells us of Bilqees being a ruler. But that was before (and at the time) she met Suleiman (Solomon). But she wasn’t ruling after their marriage, hence after her conversion to the religion of Suleiman (Islam). What does that tell us about a Muslim-woman in leadership.  Finally, I agree with Bala’s point. I believe it is apt that we get scholars to look into this matter and issue a fatwa. They are better qualified to take such decisions.

David: Well, the reality of sidelining women from politics is that the society is neglecting half of its constituents. Even Abu A’la Mawdudi supported a woman political candidate in Pakistan. And it is not because he does not know the Hadith (which opposes woman leadership). He made a simple reasoning: decided to support her (over the male opponent) because she was going to support the values of Islam more. They simply decided on this criterion and they found the solution in a woman politician.

Carla pointed out that the woman that Abu A’la Mawdudi supported turned out to be failure of a leader. Carla’s point may be that if woman leadership is to be judge on precedent, the modern woman leadership has turned out a failure.  Perhaps Carla has ignored the vast library of male-leadership failure which history has been very generous; assuming that was Carla’s intent. Consensus was amicably reached which was that scholars need to sit and deliberate this matter further.

Approach to Response

First it is only fair to point out that the characters were responding to each other and therefore didn’t have much time to consider their statements before putting them forward. This may also leave them with the tendency of generalization, as can be traced in the conversation. Unlike me, I took everything in, came back, rested then started typing. Also, it may be that I have not understood their points properly but I try to capture what I understood as best as possible. Since I’m using fictional names, no offence may be directed at any of the real characters.

I will refrain from quoting Asma Barlas and Amina Wadud as much as possible because of the general attitude (of audience that were present) towards them may be apprehensive. This is deduced from the attitude towards Fatima Mernissi; who is probably bundled in the same category as the other two. I can’t say much about Fatima Mernissi but I know Asma’ Barlas writes and argues well, and has dealt with this issue extensively (and well I might add). In fact Asma’ Barlas repeatedly tries to clarifies her position as distinct from the “feminist Muslim”. She must have thought herself as a “Muslim feminist” instead. I think Amina Waduud has valid arguments as well, but I reserve my comment on her action when she led Friday prayers (including men). I will refrain from referring to these female scholars that induce apprehension.

Response to Bala

Bala rightly cautioned on the need for sincere work/research before evaluating a Hadith as weak or not. Due to the differences among scholarly opinions on the strength of a Hadith, there is basis for coming to different conclusions on any Hadith by different people. It should be recalled that even when Bukhari completed his collection he passed it to prominent scholars of the time to verify (including Ahmad ibn Hanbal) who identified four Hadiths as weak, but Bukhari maintained them because he was convinced they were not. Bukhari is also said to have recognized his human ability to err in his introductory note. Another fact is from the works of Hadith scholars that have come after Bukhari: about 80 out of 430 narrators found in Bukhari collection have been questioned or labeled weak transmitters; secondly, about 89 Hadiths have been identified to have some defect. This is not to bring down the esteem of Bukhari collection (especially relative to others) but acknowledge plurality of opinion concerning even the most esteemed collection. Thus I think careful research is a prerequisite but we are entitled to our decisions afterwards. (source of facts: Mohammad Hashim Kamali; Hadith Studies )

Bala made a point that (all) the companions of the prophet are considered reliable narrators. This unquestioned elevation of companions of the prophet is a foundation for Muslims of ahl-al-sunnah/ahl-al-salaf persuasion, and thus Bala’s argument may easily stand for a person of such credo. But due to the emphasis the Hadith science places on reliability (righteousness, memory retention etc) of narrators, it could be disastrous to take a whole generation and credulously permit their contributions. The methodology of Hadith science already gives many privileges to the companions. The first is that on the list of ranking reliable narrators, companions are ranked the highest; but they have to be reliable in practice. The second is in the categorization of Hadith Marfuu’ and Mawquf.

Marfu’ is a Hadith that is not explicitly attributed to the prophet but since it is related by a companion, who would have only learnt it from the prophet, then the Hadith is elevated to having been a Sunnah of the prophet. Mawquf is a Hadith with its chain of narration being suspended at the level of a (reliable) companion but not attributed to the prophet; Mawquf remains unattributed to the prophet usually because of the weight of the subject matter. This latter categorization shows that even in a companion-friendly Hadith science, the companions are not infallible.

Response to Carla on Fatima Mernissi

Carla took two positions: that the criticism by Fatima Mernissi should not hold; and that the oft-quoted reference to Bilqees (queen of sheba) in the Quran does not support woman-leadership but restricts it if anything. We will deal with the issue of Fatima Mernissi first then the issue of Bilqees.

Fatima Mernissi, the Morrocan Islamic feminist, had this to say about the Hadith opposing women leadership in four points:

  1. The narrator of the Hadith was Abu Bakrah, who was once flogged by ‘Umar ibn al Khattab for giving false testimony (thereby invalidating him as a reliable narrator according to the principles of Imam Malik).
  2. The words of the Hadith were supposed to have been said by the Prophet (saw) in regard to a change of power in Persia (an enemy nation about to be ruled by a woman).
  3. However, the Hadith was not pronounced by Abu Bakrah until some 25 years later, after ‘Aisha had been defeated at the Battle of the Camel (which she fought against Ali, a man).
  4. Mernissi argues that Abu Bakrah appears to have opportunistically fabricated the Hadith to increase his standing with Ali, who he had failed to support before the battle.

The points made by Mernissi (except point 4 which is clearly an opinion) can be verified by recourse to original research. Therefore whatever her standing (to orthodoxy) she and her verifiable-claims should be differentiated to arrive at the truth. Al Ghazzali made this point clear when he differentiates a potty from the content of the potty; people may judge clean water in a potty as filthy, even if it is brand new. But according to Imam Malik, it stands that if point 1 can be proven, then the Hadith (and all Abu Bakrah’s narrations) should be discarded. If point 2 is proven, it will contextualize the Hadith as referring to a specific historical event. If point 3 is proven, it will weaken the Hadith. There are two ways to go about proving these: recourse to Fatima Mernissi’s original source using her book reference OR recourse to biographies of Hadith transmitters (‘ilm tarikh wal ruwat) which is a rich subject on its own.

Another interesting perspective is that the Hadith is a Fard Hadith (narrated by only one companion). Therefore all references to this Hadith goes back to one person; Abu Bakrah. Coincidentally Carla’s criticism of Mernissi is that Mernissi is the only one who claims that Abu Bakrah was punished for lying (and the othe three criticisms). We could say Mernissi’s criticism is a Fard criticism. But should this matter? Yes. Firstly, if Abu Bakrah is to be proven unreliable, then that Hadith cannot be taken as sahih. Secondly, in contrast to scholars of Hadith, the scholars of Islamic jurisprudence place emphasis on the number of separate chains of transmission (human transmitters) a Hadith goes through. They have made the distinction of Mutawatir Hadith and Ahad Hadith. The Hadith in question falls under Ahad Hadith, which makes it less reliable for drawing rulings. When we say women should not lead, we are deriving a ruling and thus an issue of jurisprudence.

It should also be noted that Bukhari and Mernissi could both be right yet, the Hadith may be faulty. Bukhari’s focus was on the chain of transmitters; whether they were reliable. Bukhari could have approved of Abu Bakrah for a number of reasons: high esteem of the companions, lack of knowledge on Abu Bakrah’s alleged faults, indifference to Abu Bakrah’s faults if insufficiently proved, not a follower of the principles of Imam Malik. Whereas Fatima Mernissi did not criticize the chain of transmitters, but she criticized the source (first transmitter). If the source is faulty, then the transmitters reliably transmitted a faulty Hadith.

Response to Carla on Bilqees

Secondly, Carla mentioned the case of Bilqees as unfit example for Muslim women because Bilqees was not a Muslim while she was a queen. That argument may hold. But in the context of this argument, it is not Bilqees’ example that matters as much but her capability/achievements. The Hadith by Abu Bakrah posits that a state/nation under a woman’s rule cannot prosper. But going back to the Quran (quote below)  we can see the graphical illustration of a prosperous nation under a woman. In fact everything mentioned about the nation seems very impressive except that they worshiped the sun; in other words their religion. Since Bilqees has proved capable, the Qur’an draws our attention to her faith. Perhaps capability should come before faith when Muslims are choosing a leader.

                The Quran gives account of the quoting the reporter telling the King Suleiman (Solomon) about the land (sheba) he had visited “I found (there) a woman ruling over them and provided with every requisite; and she has a magnificent throne. I found her and her people worshipping the sun besides Allah. Satan has made their deeds seem pleasing to their eyes, and has kept them away from the Path so – so they receive no guidance -” (Quran 27:23-24 Yusuf Ali Translation)

To further highlight Bilqees’ capability, Quran (27:29-35) shows her as a wise queen who consults her chiefs before making a decision. Consultation (shura) is a much cherished attribute of leadership the Quran (and Hadiths) encourage. Thus, we have the Quran showing us exemplary leadership qualities/capabilities… in a woman.

On a related note, I am yet to find any exegesis of these verses (and what follows) that Suleiman indeed married Bilqees OR that she was not ruling her kingdom after her acceptance of Islam. A probable source of these additions may be from Jewish and Biblical sources (Isra’iliyaat), which Muslims are cautioned against. I have been advised to check exegesis of Ibn katheer and Al Qurtubi because they are known to recourse to Hadiths and reason instead. I will check and then add to the comments section at end of this post. But why are these details of marriage or continued-ruling important? Carla pointed the answer in saying that Bilqees lost her ruling power after marriage to Suleiman. If they never got married, then it must have been simply a game of thrones. In Quran 27:36-37, Suleiman expressed that he was not interested in the throne but rather their submission (to the rule of God instead of religion of Sun worship). Perhaps Bilqees continued ruling her kingdom anyway.

Continuing on the controversial Hadith… Some may argue that in the Hadith, the prophet’s statement is for the future (from the time of the prophet). In that case, the Hadith may be classified with other Hadiths describing end of days… most of which do not stand to be used for legal rulings. This category of Hadiths is criticized by Hadith scholars as the Hadiths of story-tellers (because of its spectacles) or at other times under al-targheeb-wal-tarheeb (encouragement and discouragement). However the latter category is mostly for Hadiths on morals and warnings. Thus, a Hadith on future prophesy doesn’t not qualify to be used for legal rulings.

Response to David on Mawdudi

As for Mawdudi’s decision to support a woman politician, it seems on a reasonable criterion. Someone at the conference (where all this happened) concurred with Mawdudi also by telling me that Mawdudi chose the lesser of two evils. I don’t believe there was any evil, at least discernible to us, there were just two candidates who were yet to prove themselves. Oh one is controversial because “history” doesn’t record a lot of “her” type of stories.

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