On December 6th, a headline hit Facebook and Twitter feeds that an unnamed Islamic cleric – a Salafi cleric at that – residing in an unnamed European country declared that women were forbidden from touching and eating fruits and vegetables that were phallic shaped unless accompanied by (“preferably”) a male relative who would then have to cut the demon shaped foods into small pieces. The reasoning behind such a fatwa was that these fruits and vegetables would invoke thoughts of sex within the minds of women and, of course, God forbid that a woman ever comes near that subject in her thoughts.
Even when she’s amidst it.
To anyone with sound judgment the story sounds nothing short of satire worth a chuckle. Or two, at most. Yet the story, reported initially by the Egypt-based Bikya Masr, was picked up immediately by international media hounds rabid with the need for more fodder to fill our feeds. While many doubted the accuracy of the story (and here! And here!), originally taken from the Arabic website Assawsana, many others were quick to point and laugh at the silliness of Muslims and scoff at further proof that Muslim men love nothing more than controlling Muslim women in any way possible, including their daily fruit and veggie servings! Twitter and other social media websites were ablaze with cucumber jokes resonant of a 14 year old boy’s sense of humor. It was, indeed, fun while it lasted.
But not really.
Within less than a week, on December 11, Bikya Misr’s Joseph Mayton posted an editorial apologizing for the story:
“As Editor of Bikyamasr.com, I am disappointed that I did not catch and hold this piece. The “Islamic cleric bans women from touching cucumbers, bananas for sexual resemblance,” article should not have run when it did. Arguably, it should not have been run at all. We should not have published about an “unnamed sheikh” in an unnamed European country unless we were able to garner more information on the issue, both on the sheikh himself and the news website the information was gathered from, independently.”
Perhaps, however, the most important and resounding statement from Mayton’s editorial was the following:
And with that, Mayton hit the nail on the head. The Cucumber Fatwa ultimately brings into question not only the accuracy of reporting this particular story but also the accuracy of reporting of other stories relating to Muslim women and Muslim men’s interactions with Muslim women. How often are stories with little fact reported? And how often are these stories forming opinions of not only Islam, but its adherents? Gullible reporting has repercussions beyond a brief headline.
“Reporting in a fair and accurate manner on Islam is a difficult process, and one that Bikyamasr.com takes very seriously.”
It shouldn’t be difficult to report on Islam in a fair and accurate manner, but it sure seems to be. Predisposed opinions and ideological adherence can make things tough. While Mayton recognizes that this error is an unforgivable editorial oversight – which it is – it does raise the question of why the otherwise well-respected and reputable team at Bikya Masr wasn’t able to pick up on the glaringly obvious dubious nature of the story. Oversights can easily happen in the editorial process – some times due to time constraints and other times due to a lack of knowledge, or laziness, or just human forgetfulness – but why such an oversight on this story? And is it only this story? It should be noted that the story of a “crazy Muslim cleric” with a “crazy Islamic opinion” comes at an opportune moment for an Egyptian-based publication, as the fight for representation in the country has become erroneously characterized as primarily between Salafis and Secularists. In particular, the former have come to be all thrown into the same pile with little or no nuance afforded, with their “treatment” of women at the center.
It is extremely disappointing to see a news organization such as Bikya Masr fall for sensationalist gossip that has little purpose in any headline, even if it were true. Yet it is not surprising. In general, there is a media obsession with Muslim women’s bodies. We know that. Through association, there is also an obsession with how the Standard Muslim Male engages with them. The story of the cucumber fatwa that probably never was has garnered so much attention not simply because of its sheer absurdity – because it certainly is not a lone instance of a ridiculous religious edict – but because it feeds into a largely held opinion of and interaction with the Standard Muslim Male (and by extension the Standard Muslim Cleric) and the Standard Muslim Female and Their Standard Relationship – which is always tragically comical in its unequal, oppressive nature. And perhaps it also feeds into a collective opinion of Islam as a religion filled primarily with ‘backward idiots’ and sexually repressed and perverted adherents, of the male persuasion, who in an effort to keep themselves repressively satiated turn towards repressing “their women.”
Excuse me while I go release an extremely long sigh.