Dispatch

Yemen's Child Bride Backlash

After a 13-year-old girl's death, the conservative Islamists are retrenching -- with some bizarre, yet somehow effective, arguments.

The sad case of Elham Assi, a 13-year old Yemeni girl who died from internal hemorrhaging after being raped by her 23-year-old husband, has certainly sparked conversation in Yemen over the longstanding practice of child marriage. But the conversations -- taking place everywhere from Sanaa kitchens to the parliament building -- aren't exactly what you'd expect.

Instead of addressing the question of children's rights in a country where a quarter of all girls are married before they're 15 and half before they're 18, some Yemenis are treating Elham Assi's death as a rallying point against the so-called imposition of a Western agenda. Instead of catalyzing protective legislation for children in Yemen, as the tragic 1911 Triangle Factory fire did for industrial laborers in the United States, her death may actually make it more likely that others will share her fate.

In February 2009, parliament approved a bill to raise the marriage age to 18 years old, causing an immediate furor in the Islamist community, which denounced the legislation as un-Islamic. The September 2009 death of a 12-year-old-girl in childbirth once again drove home the importance of this issue. However, the bill has since languished while a parliamentary subcommittee decides whether or not it's in accordance with sharia law. The subcommittee's decision is scheduled for May.

Over the past few months, Sheikh Mohammed Hamzi, an official in the powerful Islamist party, al-Islaah, along with hundreds of other conservative lawmakers and clerics, has issued a clarion call to "true believers" to oppose the law, arguing that it is a first step toward allowing the West to take over Yemeni affairs.

"We will not bend to the demands of Western NGOs. We have our own laws, our own values," said Hamzi, who made headlines again this week when a coalition of Yemeni rights groups announced it would take legal action against the sheikh for maligning activists as infidels and agents of the West during his regular sermons at a Sanaa mosque.

Elham's death sparked reinvigorated calls from local rights activists to pass the bill. In response, Islamist lawmakers, conservative clerics, and members of the ultra-conservative Salafist minority renewed their vehement opposition. On April 22, the infamous henna-bearded Sheikh Adbul-Majid al-Zindani, an influential Yemeni Islamist scholar and reportedly a former spiritual guide for Osama bin Laden, told a crowd at the conservative Iman University that the bill "threatens our culture and society," and he vowed to gather a million signatures opposing the law. His audience cheered in response.

Proponents of the bill say Islamists like Hamzi and Zindani are just using rhetoric to manipulate Yemeni public opinion. Here, anything that is perceived as un-Islamic or Western is immediately and virulently condemned by liberals and conservatives alike. The root of the problem, perhaps, lies in the frequency that these terms -- un-Islamic and Western -- are used synonymously. "If people think a law is ‘American,' it's done. Finished. It's over," said parliament member Abdulrahman Moazid, who supports the ban on child marriage. It's a political two-step not unlike referring to a law as "socialist" in certain circles in the United States.

Certainly, the frenzied accusation that the proposed bill does not conform with sharia is ill-founded. Saudi Arabia, Yemen's ultraconservative neighbor to the north and its guide to all things Salafist, has passed similar legislation, declaring it acceptable under Islamic law. Furthermore, despite the claims of conservative clerics, Western NGOs had very little, if anything, to do with the legislation. Yemeni rights activists, lawyers, and women's groups are almost entirely responsible.

Yet, to many Yemenis, the issue seems to awaken a visceral fear of Western cultural imperialism. Anti-American sentiment runs deep here -- there is an entire generation of Yemeni men named Saddam, born after their namesake "defeated the Americans" in 1991 -- and this fear directly affects the country's domestic politics and foreign policy.

In January, after the failed Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was tied back to a plot hatched in Yemen, rumors about U.S. security forces setting up bases in the country were met with scathing speeches and editorials by politicians, imams, and Yemen's dwindling literati alike. A group of 150 Islamic scholars signed and published a public letter affirming Yemenis' religious right and duty to "global jihad" if their land was invaded. Locals posted signs saying that if U.S. troops so much as set foot on Yemeni soil, every Yemeni would join al Qaeda.

Similarly, the Islamists' double talk on child marriage appears to be working. At a protest outside parliament in late March, opponents of the bill, holding Korans above their heads, accused lawmakers of being anti-Muslim and kowtowing to Western demands. "Who are you to say we should change our laws?" a young woman who had been at the protest asked me. "This is our country. We have our own religion, our own values, and we don't need you telling us what to do." Other demonstrators condemned the bill while simultaneously opposing U.S. military involvement on Yemeni soil.

Most Yemenis are appalled by the marriage of 8-year-old girls and were horrified by Elham's early death. However, they are against anything that impinges on their cultural sovereignty. Yemenis are, and will continue to be, emphatically opposed to anything that is perceived as anti-Islamic. The problem is that, with the help of some rabble-rousing clerics and politicians, the circle of what constitutes "anti-Islamic" is constantly widening.

KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Bears in a Honey Trap

The sex scandal that's rocking the Russian opposition.

The phone call came in the middle of the night. The tape, the caller said, was already online. It was past two, but Viktor Shenderovich, Russia's pre-eminent political satirist, knew he had to move, to get his side of the story out before Moscow awoke to watch video of him, naked, hairy, and vulnerable, having sex with a young woman named Katya, already infamous for luring a who's-who of the Russian opposition to her bugged apartment for kinky sex and drugs. Shenderovich had been anticipating this moment and now it had arrived, two days before his daughter's wedding day.

Shenderovich, who says he is happily married, fessed up.

Yes, he wrote on his blog, "I fucked Katya."

In any other country, the confession would have hit like a thunderclap. Sure, the first wave of the kompromat had already broken in March, when Mikhail Fishman, the editor-in-chief of the liberal Russian Newsweek, was caught on a clumsy Internet video cutting lines with a half-naked Katya, who apparently also went by Moomoo. The revelation prompted Ilya Yashin, an up-and-coming young opposition politician, and other opposition members to preemptively post their stories of being seduced by the same woman. Yashin, Fishman, and Dmitry Oreshkin, a liberal commentator, were also shown attempting to bribe traffic cops. But the resultant scandal -- if one can call collective eye-rolling a scandal -- focused entirely on the sloppy, dirty tactics used to entrap the young men, not on their behavior.  

With Shenderovich, however, it might have been a different story. Shenderovich is, after all, nothing short of a Russian household name. For well over a decade, he has been speaking truth to power in the best traditions of political comedy. His political TV show Kukly (or "puppets," for the dolls representing the country's elite), running from 1994 to 2002, first needled Boris Yeltsin, then Vladimir Putin. It earned Shenderovich two indictments and the show's cancellation, and contributed to the state's takeover of the show's host channel, NTV. Shenderovich is Russia's Jon Stewart, if Jon Stewart had been on the air longer -- and if the Bush era had never ended.

And here was Shenderovich, on tape and in the lewdest, most embarrassing way possible -- "Well, I guess I'm not hopeless if I'm still a little bit appealing to girls," he says in the tape, as he undresses for the waiting Moomoo -- cheating on his wife with a girl his daughter's age. In a fedora.

Yet nothing much happened that Thursday morning: For the most part, the story sank like a stone. In fact, the main thing people wondered about was why Russia's opposition -- a splintered, leaderless scrum already so effectively neutered by the Kremlin that they don't have a single seat in the Duma -- would be the focus of such an elaborate hit job. There are no elections coming up, and none of those targeted have made a bid for power recently -- because they know they're hopeless. Even Shenderovich is no longer the star he used to be. He lost his television platform when NTV was wrested away by the government, and he has been effectively blacklisted ever since.

Moreover, Russians have always loved womanizers. It is central to the concept of muzhik, the manly salt-of-the-earth man. Whenever a rumor of another Yeltsin woman surfaced, his ratings spiked instantly. When Alina Kabaeva, the rhythmic gymnast with R-rated flexibility, was said to be the new Mrs. Putin -- and mother of his only son -- it did not hurt the prime minister one bit. Even the most recent sex tape scandal -- in 1999, prosecutor Yuri Skuratov, who antagonized both Yeltsin and Putin, was filmed in bed with two young women -- had no serious ramifications. Skuratov was already in trouble for exposing government graft, but the sex tape, promoted by Putin on national TV, just made the Kremlin look bad, and the person deemed responsible for making it was quickly fired.

In typical muzhik fashion, Shenderovich and the two other opposition figures caught on the tape blew the whole thing off with a bravado that seemed to hold only a bit of defensiveness. "I possessed Katya without any particular enjoyment," Shenderovich wrote on his blog. "In the process, my colleague was boring, like all you vile Gestapovites." ("I would have been better off had I gone to the gym," he told me later. "I would have burnt more calories. It would have been better for my health in every sense.")

When we met for coffee the day after the tape hit the Internet, however, Shenderovich admitted that the exposure stung. "I have a reputation, and I treasure it," he said. "Imagine knowing that all those people, everyone you know, have seen this tape." But for the most part he played the unrepentant swinger: "I have never written anywhere that I am a saint. I have never announced anywhere that I am monogamous. If I had and then got tangled up in this, then they could say, like with Clinton, ‘Guys, turns out he's lying!'" Moreover, the brainy, stocky Shenderovich joked, the tape in no way discredits him. "If anything, I'd say I dispatched my male duties satisfactorily."

The cultural difference between Shenderovich and his American counterparts is striking. Caught in embarrassing moments, American public figures prostrate themselves before the public, and before their families -- in public. Russians, however, lack what they see as this deeply Puritanical impulse, so they swagger and mock, or yawn.

"People who expect this response" -- that the opposition should wither in contrition -- "are not getting the particularities of the Russian mentality," Yashin, who also shook off his tryst with Moomoo, saying he'd weathered far worse political storms, told me. "It's a reason for impeachment in America. Here it's ‘big props.' Even when they see Shenderovich in this tape, they say, ‘Not bad! The guy's already 70 and he's so energetic!'" (Shenderovich is 51, but much of the Russian blogosphere was similarly congratulatory.)

Echoing pretty much everyone else I spoke to, Yashin added that Shenderovich may be a public figure, but his private life is inviolate. "What does this have to do with anything? You can also install a camera in the bathroom and catch him pooping, if you want! The only people who can ask him about this are his wife and his daughter. Everyone else -- it's not your fucking business, okay?" (Yashin also noted that getting caught with Moomoo wasn't as bad as the alternative. "What would be political murder is if they published someone with boys," he said. "And they didn't find any gays among the opposition in two years [of trolling for dirt].")

When I asked Shenderovich if, as a prominent critic of the government, he should be held to a rigorous standard of behavior, his response echoed Yashin's. "I do behave myself," Shenderovich told me. "I behave myself in the sense that I pay for myself in any group, with any millionaires and billionaires. I try to at least cover my half. I never take money for my publications, except for honorariums. I am completely transparent in my taxes. And I behave myself. In everything that allows me to walk down the street and look my fellow citizens in the eye. Because I really am a public figure."

As for the rest? Irrelevant and forgivable -- even by his wife, at least according to Shenderovich. "My wife reacted completely wonderfully," he said. "I have this habit when traveling of taking the shampoo from the hotel as a memento of the trip. It always really irritated my wife. Yesterday, she said, ‘See, I told you: You should never take free shampoo.'" Not only did she forgive him, she calmed down Shenderovich's 80-year-old mother. His daughter laughed it off and went on with her wedding planning. Fishman's wife got a T-shirt saying, "Smile! You're on camera!"

Tracing the goopy trail of the honey trap, the victims and their sympathizers saw all the overeager, sycophantic clumsiness of the Kremlin youth group, Nashi. On Monday, Yashin filed a complaint with the State Prosecutor's office for invasion of privacy and distribution of pornography, citing Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's Karl Rove, and Vasily Yakimenko, a federal official who curates all things youth-related and who was once in charge of Nashi. Oreshkin, who was also targeted by Katya but managed to decline her invitation to see her new apartment, wrote that his sources inside the government said Yakimenko was behind the campaign, with the Kremlin's approval and financing.

It's not a far-fetched conclusion, given that real police cars were used in the traffic cop-bribing video. The Interior Ministry denies it was their policemen or their car; but, as Shenderovich quipped, "What service can rent a police car, stuff it with electronics and surveillance equipment? Who can do this? I don't think these are students of the Conservatory."

Robert Schlegel, a 25 year-old Duma deputy and federal commissar of the Nashi movement, maintained to me that his organization was not involved, although he seemed to know a disconcerting amount of detail about the smear campaign and had extremely well-thought-out opinions on the matter. "It's because this group of journalists has turned into a gang that doesn't betray its own," he said, his voice rising angrily. "They really have a strong sense of complete righteousness, that's one. Two, they are not ready to live according to the law -- that is 100 percent true. That the law isn't written for them. They see themselves as a separate political force. That's crazy."

And he, too, explained why Russians didn't find anything shocking in the tapes. "Russia has a significantly freer culture," he claimed. "For us, cheating on your wife, for the majority, is not something unusual. Moreover, for us, snorting cocaine -- what's unusual about that? Everyone snorts it." Especially, he said, "all journalists. And if they don't snort, they drink. Or huff."

Schlegel could not reconcile to me the apparent pointlessness of smearing someone with a charge that in Russia, usually works to build your reputation -- nor explain the use of smearing the feeble Russian opposition in the first place. The week since Shenderovich was awakened by the call has brought some clarity, however. For the most part, not much has changed. Shenderovich's daughter got married. His mother has calmed down. As expected, the authorities have yet to launch a real investigation, although the tenacious Yashin has gone on the offensive: With the help of some local journalists, he discovered Katya's now empty apartment (you can rent it for $1,200 a month) and her ex-boyfriend.

But then, on Tuesday, Nashi filed a court complaint against Yashin. It claimed "insult" and "false accusations," but also called for legal consequences for the crime caught on tape: bribing police officers. The tactic is a strange double-feint: Nashi is insisting it had nothing to do with the videos, while also drawing more attention to them and carrying out what now appears to have been the video's grand purpose all along, proving that opposition members are just common, petty criminals.

Shenderovich, meanwhile, is taking the apparent Kremlin attention as a "badge of honor." In the best traditions of Russian martyrdom he recounted to me all the ways he's needled the government over the years and the ways he'd been singled out before: break-ins, round-the-clock surveillance, blackmail. Last week, he said, they torched the St. Petersburg apartment of the man who organized his latest play. "I deserve a lot from them," he told me. "And I understand that I'm alive only because I am fairly famous and they understand that will be too costly for them, PR-wise."

When we had wrapped up our interview, a man came up to Shenderovich and fervently shook both his hands. He thanked him again and again for his work, and Shenderovich began to beam from behind his beard. "It's impossible to live in this country," the man said. Then he leaned in and whispered something: He worked for the state prosecutor.

MARTIN OESER/AFP/Getty Images