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{Tue 20 July 2010}   On banning face veils
Thoughts on banning face veils

After reading about the French ban, I was interested to see in Ha’aretz yesterday that Syria has banned face veils at universities in order to protect the secular nature of the state. The article also reports that hundreds of niqab-wearing primary school teachers were transferred to administrative jobs.

I agree with the banning of face veils, for practical reasons related to identification and communication, yes, but also because I believe that face veils are shaming of women and womanhood in general.

In the UK we tend to believe that tolerance involves tolerating everything, especially the behaviour of the weak and disadvantaged, so as not to add to their burdens by shaming them. But, paradoxically, this attitude can entrench that weakness, allowing an extreme intolerance to grow amongst us that threatens the very society that tolerates it. Damian Green says that Britain is unlikely to follow France’s example because banning the burka would be “unBritish”. I agree with him, but not because I believe that being “British” in this particular respect is a Good Thing: The French approach is an attempt to engage with the problem. In Britain, “tolerance” is often shorthand for ignoring both issues and people and disengaging from them.

I believe that a woman who wears a face veil is participating in a declaration that womanhood should be effaced from public life… its message to me is that women are dangerous, require restraint and should not be allowed to participate equally in the world with men. It is an intolerant, insulting and disrespectful message which challenges all the gains women have made in the slow and still-incomplete battle for freedom that has cost many their lives over centuries. It is also aggressive, or, at the very least, insensitive, as it creates fear and discomfort in non-wearers who feel threatened and weakened by what it represents—women at the mercy of men.

The veil also insults and weakens men. It assumes that men cannot control their sexual urges in the presence of a woman. It reduces men to the level of instinctive beasts and removes from them any responsibility for learning to respond appropriately.

In Western societies, even the wearing of just a headscarf (rather than a niqab or a burka), when it is clear that the purpose is total covering of the body and hair, conveys similar messages.

While I say this, I am aware that millions of women have no choice but to wear the veil—they face ostracism or death if they do not. These women are damned (by the West) if they do and damned (by their cultures) if they do not. Their plight is terrible and I have deep compassion for them. They are being used as human shields to draw the fire of negative responses to extremism in the same way that some terrorists use their own civilians as human shields. While extreme displays reveal extreme distress, the causes of which should be investigated, understood and addressed, this does not mean that terrorism should be tolerated.

I actually think the terms of the French ban recognise the problem very well – the fine is only €150 for the woman wearing the veil but €30,000 or a year in jail for the man who forces her to do so. This recognises that the woman does not deserve further shaming and attempts to go to the source.

Of course, the man too may suffer shaming and ostracism by his culture (although likely not death) if “his” woman is not covered, so truly “going to the source” requires a much deeper and wider educative approach where men and women are encouraged to find ways of affirming their identity and their honour without shaming or degrading each other.

P.S. After writing the above post, I found this wonderful article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown which eloquently and fervently expresses some of the same thoughts and many more… I so admire her stance as a Muslim woman and I urge anyone who is interested in the implications of the veil to read her too: “Stand up against the burka” (The Guardian, 17 May 2010).

P.P.S. 04 April 2011. The wonderful Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has again written a great piece on the dangers of the veil. She says that banning is too extreme a response, but urges society to consider sixteen reasons why Muslims themselves should oppose it: Sixteen Reasons why I object to this dangerous cover-up.



{Sun 13 June 2010}   Alone Together
Alone Together

There’s something so poignant about the phrase, “alone together”. It stuck in my head after I saw this CNN video about Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir on YouTube. I presume that most readers of this blog have seen it too. I wonder whether the same phrase at the end of John Vennavally-Rao’s report has also intrigued, delighted and troubled you?

I’m putting down here some random thoughts that haven’t fully coalesced yet into a coherent philosophy, but I’m chasing something/ some things that are hard to see.

The haunting beauty of the choral sound and the inclusive arc of differently coloured faces and backgrounds on the red-curtained stage of cyberspace pleased me deeply. I smiled. I watched it again. I forwarded it to a few friends. I watched it again. I studied a few of the faces — each singing peacefully and unselfconsciously as one can only do in one’s own private space. I felt glad and privileged to have access to those private moments mixed together in an enormous public display that reached and continues to reach across continents and across time. It was/is something precious. I googled Eric Whitacre. I was pleased to read that he’s working on more pieces for the Virtual Choir, perhaps some original work…

And yet, why does it haunt me so? The sense of longing, of reaching out for connection that is communicated to me, the viewer-hearer, is largely a function of the strangeness of the presentation, not of each individual’s communication. Most of the singers look extraordinarily serene, like people absent from the world because they’re in “flow” (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990).  People who are physically together when singing together, no matter with how much joy or harmony, don’t wear exactly the same expression as an individual in private rapture. Or didn’t, anyway. As we reach out for connection in this new way, are we inviting others to steal a part of our soul that previously only revealed itself to the walls or landscapes of our private spaces?

Even as I delight in the confluence of digital media that make possible this self-revelatory joining of humans who know nothing of each other besides that all (all of those who are featured, anyway) can sing, I cannot help but be conscious of all those intervening media, “the storage and transmission channels or tools used to store and deliver information or data”. They make the fragile meaning that could not exist if the electricity failed.

But isn’t this just a logical 21st century extension of the artistic process? Artists have always used materials and techniques to transform base material into something else. It’s what artists do. Why does this seem different to me?

Partly, it’s the ephemerality of it — the is-and-notness that flickers on and off at the whim of the switch. Also, it’s the way the human sources are both enhanced by and subsumed in the media. Their “togetherness” is something that the media help us (and them) to imagine. We imagine willingly, but the compulsive clarity of video entices us to go further — to believe, despite ourselves. This mixture of the not-real and the real is disturbing. The putative “togetherness” (not-real) painfully emphasizes the aloneness (real) of the participants. We see each person’s aloneness clearly, multiplied a hundred times in an instant. Usually, we would suspect it only by extension from our own aloneness, when we can risk being conscious of that, and only one-by-one, from the occasional glimpses provided by circumstance.

On the other hand, we also see some elements that inspire us to seek togetherness… that give us hope. Despite our different countries, languages, cultures, genders and body types, we can all sing; we all aspire to make beautiful sounds; we can participate and cooperate to harmonious effect (albeit with the help of a strong guiding and editing hand); we all seek out private time or space to connect with ourselves, we can all be receptive; we can all be gentle. We also all enjoy and depend on similar electronic equipment for our communication and pleasure, so we are patient with each other as we struggle with its vagaries.

As the days passed, my thoughts turned to the creator/conductor/guide/editor — the uber-artist who put it all together. The reach of the work in terms of participants and, even more, of audience, and the fact that the harmony is created in his own private space by one over/above/outside the private spaces of those making the sounds, made me think of him in godlike terms. He is a small god, but with incredibly long digital arms. And now we can all be like him. We “little kings” are no longer held in check by the limitations of our physical resources. We are let loose with the power to make our megalomaniac dreams come true — in a sense — but we pay with the constant awareness of our aloneness.

This aloneness has always been the human condition, but before these digital joinings in eternally-preserved and universally accessible public spaces, we only dipped in and out of this awareness occasionally. Well, there is no way back, unless we have a Butlerian Jihad in our future. Until then, humanity is working out the Zen of our growth into full and constant consciousness of how we really are — just google the phrase “alone together” to see how much this concept exercises us in the current age.

Published simultaneously on www.transliteracy.com.



Safety obsession makes UK unsafe for normal people

I was going to post about how uncomfortable it is becoming to live in the UK, because one risks being declared a criminal if one responds spontaneously to a child, whether in greeting, helping, comforting or challenging, … but I’ve just read an article that says it brilliantly.

So please read Jenni Russell’s article ‘Crazy law leaves a child out in the cold’ in The Times Online: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article6898212.ece. I very much agree with her assertion that the “insistence on the importance of distrust is eating away at our society. ”

She doesn’t describe yet what campaign might be appropriate, but offers her email address, presumably for suggestions.

Addendum (17:07) I emailed Jenni to let her know I had blogged about her article. She replied today and included the following suggestions for action each of us can take right now:

” I think we have to start both by changing peoples’ minds ( we don’t need more laws- terrible things will sometimes happen, and we can’t eliminate risk) – and by lobbying politicians. It’s worth writing to your MP and to Ed Balls and Jack straw now, before Singleton reports on his review in December. Most of all its worth lobbying the Tories, especially Cameron, Chris Grayling, Dominic Grieve and Michael Gove. The Tories want to do what the public wants – we have to let them know. Best wishes, Jenni ”



{Thu 9 July 2009}   Smooth Red Woman
Smooth Red Woman

Piled under an Italian sky, red marble gleams at me:
“Rosso Ammonico di Verona”, “Rosso Levanto”,
“Rosso Francia”, “Rosso Laguna”, “Rosso Lepanto” …
Seduced, I let the rosy names roll richly off my tongue.
My husband moves on with the guide, but I am enthralled by a red marble woman:

Shining in the sensuous sun, her whole body is deep tongue-texture,
Poised for creamy pleasures.
I cannot pass without caressing her; without sending forth probes
To scan the galaxy of textures just below my reach.
I must stroke her; explore her cool warmth with my fingertips,
Marvel at the harsh practice that produces smooth perfection.
Her delicacy suggests a gentle touch,
But soon I want to lick her, kiss her deeply.
Did she respond to the artisan’s hand as he chipped and chiselled and polished?
Did blood roil in her seething veins?
Did she strive with him to produce this beauty?

My medium’s not marble or any other deserving stone
That earns its right to care by its beautiful existence.
No, my chisel hits flesh, and draws blood, each time.
Its lumpen labour breaks surfaces; bruises.
It’s always amateur art, always a work-in-progress.
I search to expose the beautiful woman,
But each blow chips so little away.

What do I earn by being? By being what I am,
What my mounds, my cracks, my crevasses dictate I must be?
The right to be tossed aside, dismissed, like inferior stone,
Or to be reshaped (misshaped) into something unrecognisable.
My capillaries and crannies are not lovingly polished to reveal their textures.
No, smooth is different for warm-fleshed bodies.
In the world below the marble mountain, there is no real red.
I have spent much life on the effort to be equal:
I could not fashion a man’s sword for myself,
But, with assiduous application of all man’s expertise,
I do not age, have no cramps, show no blood.
My tampon fits discreetly in the palm of my hand.
I am a smoothed-out person, with a smoothed-out life.
No wo(e)-, just -man.

But, inside me, blood breathes and surges.
When the moon is full, it calls and urges.

Why do I fear that place where the Goddess waits?
“I am a woman,” I cry, “See my wedding ring, the pink coat,
The love of roses, the plucking of eyebrows, the Brazilian!”
I don’t want to go to No Man’s Land, where the Goddess waits;
That place where, she says, my name is Woman.

But I hear her calling, “Come, give me your hand.
Let’s wander down the river of blood.”



{Mon 2 February 2009}   Seeking the ideal daily routine
Seeking the ideal daily routine

Sue Thomas posted this question under Talking Points in our Creative Nonfiction module today:
I came across this very interesting website http://dailyroutines.typepad.com/ which prompted me to ask – what is your daily routine? Do you have one? Do you wish you had? What works for you?

I found this website fascinating. One thing that struck me particularly was how few writers write for more than three or four hours a day. Another was how many of them write in the morning. I am also a morning person. Sometimes, I jump out of bed with a huge sense of urgency at 3, 4, 5 or 6 and head straight to my computer. If I do start writing then and if nothing else actively demands my attention (I am very good at procrastinating about things that should be done but aren’t actually shouting at me), then I can write or design projects easily until 11 or 12 am.

Usually, though, I have a much more disciplined routine which results in far less writing! This is because I’m married. Because I currently work and study from home and my husband has to travel to work, all the housework and catering falls to me. His necessary routine dictates mine. We rise at 7 (if I’m not already up) and I must have a cooked breakfast on the table by 8am at the latest so that he can be at work by 9. I usually fit in some housework and about 45 minutes of exercise between 7 and 9 as well. I am much more regular about exercise if I do it in the morning. If I miss, sometimes I can persuade myself to get on the stepper in front of the TV in the evening, but I have to talk to myself sternly to make myself do this!

From 9 I’m back at the computer and work through until 12 or 12.30, when I break for lunch for an hour (in which time I’ll do some laundry and possibly get onto the stepper in front of the TV if I missed it in the morning). Then at 13:00 or 13:30 back to the computer until 6.30 pm. I often have a concentration slump somewhere between 2 and 4pm, so I might read online news, answer emails, browse websites or even watch TV then. At 6.30 I start preparing dinner to serve at 7pm (I don’t do fancy cooking!). By 8pm I’ll finish clearing up, laying the breakfast table and preparing my husband’s work lunch for the following day. Then it’s time for any collaboration with him on online projects or domestic issues, or if we don’t have anything pressing, we’ll both return to our computers until 10pm (well, we always say 10pm, but inevitably end up only getting into bed by 11 or later because he’s a night owl).

I deal with household admin and finances – property, banking, insurance, investment issues, etc. for at least an hour a day. Most of this is online or call centre work which I dislike intensely, and some letter-writing, and it usually goes better if I do it in the morning, but I often leave it until late in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, I don’t function well on less than 8 hours’ sleep, or if I get to bed any later than 11pm. I would so love to be one who could manage on 6 hours!

Sometimes, when I’m deeply engaged in a project or piece of writing, none of the above applies. I’ve been known to spend 12 to 18 hours solid at my computer, only drinking or eating when my other half realizes that I’m shrivelling up and brings me something.

So, that’s my reality, which doesn’t really work for me. One possible improved schedule would be:

06:00 Yoga, self-care, planning
07:00 Light breakfast; read
07.30 Write, study
11:00 Online chores
12:00 Lunch (main meal); read or walk
13:00 Write, study, work
17:00 Housework, dinner prep with music
18:00 Walk or read
19:00 Light dinner and clearing up with music
20:00 Read, play games, collaborate, dance, singing, drawing or music practice
09:00 Prep for sleep
09:30 Read in bed
10:15 Sleep

Seems so simple…. why is it so hard to make this happen regularly?

One answer: Csikszentmihalyi talks of the “activation energy” needed to transition into activities that produce flow, and of the dangers of the lure of passive activities like TV that require very little activation energy. TV is a big problem for me because it’s easier than all the other things. If I could, I would throw it out, but hubby won’t hear of it. Although, recently, I’m glad to report, I’ve been so interested in what I’m learning and doing on the course that I’ve been watching a lot less.

I’d be happy to hear what routines others have or have tried in the past, and especially what motivates you to stick to them.

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Global warming? Terrorism? Fundamentalisms? Racism? Sexism? International crime? Water? GM crops? Sometimes (most times, maybe) most of us just want to switch to the entertainment channel and forget all about it. It might be because we don’t care, but quite often it’s because we just can’t see what “little ol’ me” could do about it.

The article Global Population: From explosion to implosion? by Koïchiro Matsuura, Director General of Unesco, in yesterday’s Mail&Guardian, addresses the population explosion and asks whether it might turn into an “implosion” due to the demographics of age and childbearing and their different impacts in the Northern and the Southern Hemispheres. It’s important to read, and not too long or too hard (because statistics always have a slightly numbing and distancing effect, I think, as opposed to personal stories that engage one’s empathy but are therefore sometimes very draining).

The best part about it, for me, is the conclusion, which clearly shows a way forward by focusing on priorities for action. Essentially, it’s one priority — education to develop “knowledge societies” that have the expertise and knowhow to solve their problems, but within that, the first priority is basic education for women and the second the development of a culture of life-long learning for all:

Basic education is first and foremost — especially the education of girls, the best contraceptive of all. According to one study, there are regions where girls are excluded from secondary schooling and the women have an average of seven children each. Where girls’ school enrolment is just 40%, this mean figure falls to three.

Life-long education for all ought to be recognised as an essential priority as well, for this is the answer to ageing populations and rising life expectancy. As knowledge and skills become outdated more rapidly, and people face the need to keep up by retraining or changing occupation, the demand for education is increasingly going to become a life-long matter. At bottom, this is good news: the world population will become older, admittedly, but individual humans will spend more of their lives in what counts as “youth” — for they will never stop learning.

What’s great about this for me is that it’s reinforced my thoughts about where best to spend money that I’ve earmarked for charity (and probably also some that I hadn’t, as I reflect on just how important this is). Education, education, education. Particularly for women. Particularly for those women where knowledge and competence will make the greatest difference in their and their families’ lives. Educating the most disadvantaged girls and women could have a profound effect on the population balance and also enable increasingly more people to look after themselves. It’s in everyone’s interest, even that of those who still don’t care.



{Fri 7 September 2007}   Laugh or cry?

Despite the awful reality that they all turn on, some of the comments on this CNN post are really funny:


http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2007/09/07/bush-on-iraq-were-kicking-ass/

My personal favourite is “Jesus would be so proud”, posted By Ben – Chicago, IL. This says it all.



Hmmm… it’s happened again. I start to make a teeny tiny comment on someone else’s blog and suddenly it becomes an essay. Well, this time I’m resisting the temptation to reprint it here as a post, because I think it’s actually better if you go to the original blog to see what I’m responding to and read the other comments. This one is on religion’s role in creating or facilitating morality.

See http://de-conversion.com/2007/07/04/humans-do-not-need-religion-to-be-moral/#comment-5651. In brief, I agree with the writer’s assertion that religion isn’t necessary for morality, and support this with reference to Erich Fromm, but also call to mind M. Scott Peck’s assertion that religion may be a useful transitional tool in the movement toward maturity.

Some of my previous posts that are relevant to this topic (and which also began life as Comments on other people’s blogs) are:

Love as yardstick of truth
What do I believe?



Still on the topics of gender discrimination and of hypocrisy, the following articles in the Mail&Guardian today caught my eye:

Sex Bias and Hypocrisy by Lucy Ward begins with the following paragraph:

Teenage girls and young women in the United Kingdom overwhelmingly believe they face a future of discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere, with half worrying that their careers will suffer if they have children, according to a survey by the Girl Guides.

It goes on to say that while the majority of them believe that women can do anything they want to do, and that 94% expect to go back to work after having children, most of them also believe that they already and in the future face discrimination issues due to their gender.

In the same section, I came across an article by Sarah Churchwell (whose surname is doubtless considered ironic by members of the church, given her views) titled Who needs kids anyway? I think the title is slightly misleading, because it gives the impression that she thinks of kids as a burden and wouldn’t want any herself, whereas the article reveals that she is open to the possibility but is making the point that motherhood is a possible role, not the entire definition of a woman. The article starts like this:

Last week brought yet another report in the United Kingdom yelping about women “waiting too long” to have babies. I enjoyed this one, particularly as it was about graduate women born in 1970, of whom 40% have had children. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m one of the other 60%. The report had a clear message: get impregnated now or you shall rue the day. Oh, please. Can we get a few things straight?

She goes on to make four points with which I heartily agree:

  1. Raising children in the wrong partnership is painful and destructive for all concerned and when a suitable partnership isn’t available during the childbearing years then remaining childfree is far preferable.
  2. “… wanting children is not a foregone conclusion just because I am a woman.”
  3. “… not having children is not necessarily a selfish decision.”
  4. “… having children is not necessarily a selfless decision.”

For me, the most compelling reason is the last one. I am really irked by the hypocrisy of those who have had children for a huge complex of psychological reasons including the desire to live out an improved version of their own lives through their children, the need to feel empowered by controlling beings less powerful than themselves, the desire to achieve status in communities that value the number and/or achievements of one’s children, the need not to be considered inadequate by communities who believe that a woman is not fulfilled unless she is a mother, the hope that children will provide some kind of insurance against loneliness and poverty in old age, or even simply because it never occurred to them not to have children, and who then in retrospect justify the difficulties that they’ve faced in childbearing and childrearing by saying that they did it for love, or because they are “unselfish” in comparison with those who have chosen not to have children.

Of course, I understand the need to create meaning and a sense of purpose in order to sustain oneself through the struggles that having children entails, and I do believe that some people who start out selfish may become less so through the experience of having children, but it’s simply not true that the majority of women start out with the altruistic thought, “What can I give to the world? Oh, I know, I’ll have a baby.” Most people do it for themselves, or due to cultural pressure (which, in a way, is still for themselves).

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that this isn’t a good reason for doing it, as it’s perfectly human. Just be honest. It’s no more or less selfish than the choice not to do so. And both choices may or may not have positive consequences for the world. One could be the mother of a serial killer. The other might be Mother Theresa.



The article Discrimination against girls ‘still deeply entrenched’ by Terri Judd and Harriet Griffey in today’s Independent quotes statistics from the Plan International report “Because I am a Girl” which show me very clearly that the issue of gender status is not yet a curiosity for the history books:

    Almost 100 million girls “disappear” each year, killed in the womb or as babies…
    … two million girls a year still suffer genital mutilation
    … half a million die during pregnancy – the leading killer among 15 to 19-year-olds – every 12 months
    … an estimated 7.3 million are living with HIV/Aids compared with 4.5 million young men.
    Almost a million girls fall victim to child traffickers each year compared with a quarter that number of boys
    …. Of the 1.5 billion people living on less than 50p a day, 70 per cent are female
    … 96 million young women aged 15 to 24 (are) unable to read or write – almost double the number for males.
    62 million girls are not even receiving primary school education
    … an estimated 450 million have stunted growth because of childhood malnutrition.

The article goes on to say that while many of the worst figures apply to developing countries, there is still clear statistical evidence of sexual discrimination in the north, and gives specific examples in the UK.

As I write about this, I’m obviously challenged to think what exactly I’m doing about it. I might be making a very tiny contribution by blogging about the status and perception of women (amongst the other things I’m interested in) and by contributing to Amnesty International who run several campaigns specifically on behalf of women, and by creating a website (sheTIME) which is intended to offer a place for women to exchange experiences, tips and information about the feminine cycle in order to change their perception of this definitive female experience from negative to positive. sheTIME has been held up a little while the two of us who’ve created it clarify our vision for its future, but I do hope that it will eventually be released for public view. But all of this seems so little a contribution from someone who comes from a place of relative comfort, rank and power when compared to the women the statistics above describe. I know there is more I can do, and in the next few months I will look for appropriate channels. My instinct is to go for educational programmes that target women, because education empowers in the long-term, but I know there are so many other urgent issues as well, like stopping the rape in Darfur.

This morning while musing and browsing, I came across this site that has a huge number of stories about successful programmes in India: http://www.empowerpoor.com/programmereport.asp When the enormity of the problem threatens to overwhelm one, it’s good to be inspired by such a long list of creative solutions that have made and are making a difference.

Here’s another good one to consider: http://www.plan-uk.org/becauseiamagirl/trafficking/



et cetera