{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.

{Fri 31 October 2008}   Responding to passion

I’m not (so far) a political campaigner, but a friend has inspired me with her passionate commitment to the Obama campaign. She is an American living in Italy and has the broader perspective that usually comes with living outside one’s home country. She is right that it really is important for the whole world, not just for the USA, who wins the coming election. Like her, I believe that the world is ready for Obama and will respond more positively to him than to McCain. She’s also right that there are many reasons not to take anything for granted. Despite the polls, old attitudes and loyalties are hard to shift and peculiar things happen to people’s consciences in the privacy of the ballot box. And, as we know from 2000, even more peculiar things may happen to ballot boxes even after the individual consciences have left them!

I’m quoting verbatim here from Stephanie’s email to her friends after she received an email from Avaaz. She urges them to support the Avaaz campaign to counter any desperate dirty tricks by McCain in these crucial last few days before the election:

“I send this to all my friends in the US and abroad. We cannot take an Obama win for granted and I think this (see below) is an excellent idea. As an American I am very aware of the fact that many Americans have NO IDEA that the whole world will be affected by the results of this election. I am staying up until the small hours of the night, every night, calling Americans in swing states in support of Obama, and I have donated 50 dollars to this Avaaz campaign because I think it is a great idea. THE WORLD NEEDS TO EXPRESS IT’S VOICE TO AMERICA because we will all be affected by the results of this election. Avaaz is a great organization that takes very concrete action on the most pressing issues we face, and I am so happy that they are taking this initiative. LET’S ALL MAKE AN EFFORT TO GIVE A PUSH TO THE FUTURE OF DEMOCRACY! THIS IS THE MOMENT! Please dedicate some time to circulate this as widely as possible and if possible make a donation, even a small amount will count. This ad can counteract all the brainwashing “opinion news” in my country and speak directly to the people. It cannot hurt to remind America in this critical moment that we also love the democracy that she stands for and that we hope that she takes the positive leadership that she is capable of. Please express your voice and give a hand! Thank you, Stephanie”

So… I’m passing on her request, after acting on it myself. Please click here to watch the ad, sign its message and make a donation if you can:

It’s quick and easy to do. Each of us is a drop in the ocean, but millions of drops can make a difference.

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{Tue 2 October 2007}   To duvet or not to duvet?
In my opinion, this article in The Guardian’s Comment is Free by Theo Hobson on Dawkin’s latest crusade in the USA is appallingly bad journalism (whatever one’s religious belief or lack of belief), but many of the Comments on it are very intelligent and some very, very funny.


I think Commenter Taliesin20 summarizes Hobson’s motivation succinctly:

“As an example, my father (a fundamentalist Baptist Minister) hates sleeping under a duvet, preferring a sheet and blankets. My mother prefers a duvet and so sometimes my father has to comply with her wishes. But he’s spent the past 20 years on a crusade – he asks just about every man he meets whether they like duvets. Despite any evidence to the contrary he’s utterly committed to his thesis that all men hate duvets and are only tricked into sleeping under them by their wives as part of an evil female conspiracy. This is a small and rather silly example, but it shows how he thinks – if it turns out that duvet-liking and duvet-hating are equally valid forms of experience (and even that he’s in the minority in hating them), then he feels personally threatened. So he can’t accept that those who like duvets don’t want to impose their preference on him.”

Being one of those who think that anyone who still believes in sheets and blankets cannot possibly comprehend the true meaning of heaven, I’m enjoying the rare delight of being with the majority on this one!

I’d be careful about suggesting that all advocates of religion feel personally threatened by people who don’t share their faith (unlike Hobson who clearly believes that atheists are all of a kind and all out to get him), but the above analogy certainly seems apt to the content of Hobson’s rant.

{Wed 15 August 2007}   Are you for or against democracy?

There is a heartfelt, rousing cry for people everywhere to choose sides in the battle between democracy and theocracy in the article Time to Attack by Avraham Burg in Haaretz today. I agree 99%, I have to say.

The 1%: I’m not sure I agree that physical death and “democratic and moral death” are exactly the same, because while there is physical life there is hope for change and rehabilitation. So although I do think that all the different theocratic fundamentalist leaders are dangerous, I think that those who advocate physical killing are more dangerous, because there is no possibility at all of undoing that act. I am aware that for many this is a very theoretical distinction, though, because for those trapped inside very closed “heart and mind” belief systems, there is no realistic prospect of change or rehabilitation unless some kind of trauma or crisis ruptures and challenges their structures. However, these challenges do sometimes occur and opportunities arise for thinking differently, and in the mean time people can grow and develop and obtain some satisfactions from the many positive elements of their traditions. This clearly cannot happen at all if the person is dead. Therefore, I do see those religious people who declare their territory to be hearts and minds only and who leave physical death to God as marginally more advanced than those who believe they have a right to take physical life in the name of their religion. This does not mean I think we should leave any of them to continue teaching poison without challenge.

Although I would love to live in a world where nobody ever killed anybody, I accept that this would only be possible if a critical mass were mature, loving and responsible at all times, were able to prevent violence against everybody always, and were able to offer adequate material and emotional support to all disadvantaged people always, and this is not likely. I don’t think we should ever kill as punishment, but we are likely to have to kill for reasons of self-defense or protection of others sometimes and to make hard choices between possible deaths sometimes. But those choices should be governed by the evidence and the individual circumstances in each case, not by the idea that some religious Authority who cannot be proven to exist says that it’s OK to kill anybody who doesn’t believe as you do.

I think it comes down to differentiating between respect for the person and respect for the person’s beliefs. I respect people. I respect their right to choose their beliefs. I do not necessarily respect the beliefs themselves. I expect people to accept the civil consequences of and limitations on the beliefs they choose. I expect to be free to challenge their beliefs. I welcome their challenge of my beliefs. Beliefs that are valid to hold until good information requires them to change are those that concern issues that cannot be examined or proven scientifically. Where it can be proven scientifically that a particular belief is wrong (the earth is flat; all black people are stupid; all women are inferior; all women are better at housework than men; all men are better at providing for and protecting a family than women; all women are natural mothers; all homosexuality is a matter of choice; all humans are either male or female; all men are better leaders than women; covering women prevents sexual infidelity by men or women; AIDS is best cured by noshing on beetroot and garlic…), the belief should be robustly challenged by the institutions of government, not “respected” in a misguided attempt to celebrate diversity. And don’t start on that rubbish that “science is just another form of belief”! Just because some scientists are as misguided and misleading as some fundamentalist leaders and create mythologies to fill in the gaps between things that can actually be proven, this doesn’t invalidate the scientific approach.

I don’t think that democracy is “perfect” or without risks, or that all Western laws are right, moral or ethical, or that existing non-religious civil structures should be accepted without question or challenge, but I see more potential in this route for the evolution of mankind than in closed theocratic systems. I’m for democracy.

et cetera