The Faux Phallic Fatwa

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.

The innocent-looking cause of all the fuss. Via Bikya Masr.

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:

“Reporting in a fair and accurate manner on Islam is a difficult process, and one that Bikyamasr.com takes very seriously.”

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.

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.

  • Muhammad Amreeki

    You have performed a great service by exposing phony stories published in the Arab and Western media and I commend you for it. For far too long blogs and news aggregator websites post these types of articles as if they are fact, further reenforcing Muslim stereotypes.

    This website as well has been guilty of posting such nonsense without comment. Further, you have defended your actions by stating you do “not attempt to only share links about ‘true events’, but rather I chose to feature several reports and articles in which Muslim women (in the broadest sense of the word) are being portrayed over the course of a week. Even if this story is a re-occurring hoax, I would still decide to feature it (at least once), as it says a lot about how Muslim women are being portrayed, and which stories ‘make the press’.”

    True, it says a lot about the portrayal of Muslim women. The problem with this defense is that at least until now, you have not made any attempt to distinguish between the truth and lies. By posting such articles, you imply endorsement as to the article’s veracity and help entrench stereotypes because you are apparently willing to post re-occurring hoaxes without proper context.

    I’m hoping that by publishing this fine piece on the fake fatwa, you have changed your editorial policy to challenge such hoaxes. I would imagine that is the goal of your website to not only shed light on how Muslim women are treated in the media, but also give true and accurate information to debunk such fakery and expose myths.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/ Krista

    Seriously, “at least until now, you have not made any attempt to distinguish between the truth and lies”? Ever? Look, we do what we can to try to contextualise stories and figure out what’s true and what isn’t. Sometimes we screw up, and sometimes we miss things, and there’s always room for improvement, but we also include a whole lot of posts that do try to make exactly the distinction you’re asking about.

    Moreover, as a volunteer-run blog, we don’t have the kind of resources for fact-checking that other news sources do. As a media analysis blog, our priority is to talk about the media stories that are coming out, whether they’re true or not. (Ideally, this includes a comment about the reliability of the story. As you’ve pointed out, that’s not always the case, and we can do better, but I don’t think we have a habit of posting hoaxes without some kind of comment.)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/ Krista

    By the way, comment moderation will be very slow today; I apologise in advance.

  • Muhammad Amreeki

    Seriously? I’m not sure why there is a need to be defensive. Criticism of a website’s content comes with the territory. If readers didn’t care about your content and your mission, they wouldn’t post, would they? No one said your website as a habit of posting hoaxes. But there should be scrutiny of the articles you post because A) you have a credible website, and B)posting phony stories hurts your credibility. Any veteran editor will tell you that readers don’t care whether you are volunteer-run or you do the best you can to contextualize the article. A quick read of the article to determine sourcing and attribution should be enough to judge its authenticity. Readers expect accurate information from a website that bills itself as a Media Watch organization. So, to use your word, seriously, do you think getting angry at readers for commenting on something you don’t like gives you more credibility?

  • luckyfatima

    I thought the unnamed sheikh part was weird but quite honestly it is not impossible to imagine some sheikh somewhere declaring this and people start passing it on as truth. I have heard all sorts of advice from people that in some places among some crowds is treated as words of wisdom. Like don’t make wudhu while naked, take off under garments when praying in case any discharge invalidates one’s prayer, high heels are haraam, if you veil your face but not eyes, be sure to cover your eyebrows, too b/c they are attractive, etc.

    I did note the Western media frenzy over this cucumber fatwa thing and recalled the Somali anti-samosa debacle earlier this year (turned out Al Shabaab or whoever declared samosas in a specific area haraam because a local vendor was using spoiled meat, NOT b/c the samosa has 3 points representing the Holy Trinity). And then there was the anti-padded bra fatwa from a satirical online magazine in Pakistan that was picked up and reported on as if it were real.

    That’s three phony fatwas that were sensationalized by the Western media in 2011.

  • mllanders

    It’s rude, I know, but I’m not really sorry — at this, “the otherwise well-respected and reputable team at Bikya Masr,” I had to scoff. And assume you have not read them all that much.

    • Sana

      Hah, not rude at all – Bikya Misr is pretty respected, but in particular circles. I’m not a huge fan personally and I don’t read it religiously, but I do read it. But point taken.

  • Sana

    Salaam Muhammad,

    Could you give specific examples of the blog supporting fake stories?

  • C.Harper

    The cucumber story is indeed silly and likely a farce, but is it any less silly than forcing women to wear a burka for fear that she might cause men to lust after her? Is it any less silly than using violence to control women and children and minority religions? If sharia law is so effective, why is Pakistan the number one country in the world downloading child internet pornography according to Google search engine statistics??? It seems to me that the more strictly you inhibit society, the more depraved you cause the secret society become. Men will take out their own sexual frustrations in harmful ways, such as sodomy, anger and abuse of women, or child abuse. Why can’t Islam truly practice what some preach, a religion of peace. Far too many Muslim clerics preach a religion of hate and oppression.

    This comment has been edited according to MMW’s Comment Moderation Policy.

  • dina

    “was picked up immediately by international media hounds rabid with the need for more fodder to fill our feeds. ”

    Hmmm.. I think i read about this first here on mmw in the friday links section…filed it under “absurd” personally, but did not see a reference it was an “unsound” story here… so i am not sure this criticism is so fair in this case..


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