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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.



{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:
http://www.avaaz.org/en/for_all_of_us

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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{Thu 22 November 2007}   Points of light in a grey, wet winter
I love rain, but I don’t like grey. Heavy, exciting rain that contrasts with plenty of warm sunshine, that’s good. Rain that just witters around forever, greeting me with wimpish wetness every time I open the curtains in the morning, that’s bad. Real bad. Just what is the point of opening those curtains, if it’s not going to change the quality of light in the room? In this season, I look towards the coming months in the UK with a kind of muted horror, feeling already how hard it is to motivate myself to dress in anything other than an all-enveloping cushion of warm frumpiness, or to go out to the mailbox, much less to the gym.

But then, there’s Shakespeare, and poetry.

The weekend before last, we held a reading of Antony and Cleopatra. It was a fantastic evening, with twelve readers gamely taking on the 56 or so roles between them. Before we launched in, we had the privilege of an introduction to the political context of the Roman world of the Mediterranean by a group member keenly interested in Roman history. This brief survey of the times added great interest, helping us to understand the characters’ motivations and the enormous personal and political stakes for which they played, as well as clarifying that Shakespeare had squashed actual events that spanned several years into what appears a much shorter period in the play.

Our Cleopatra was passionate, petulant and powerful right to the end, and Antony’s gorgeous voice keenly reflected the conflict between his own passions for love and for honour, and between his rationalizing and his rational mind as he yearned both to lose himself in Egypt and to lead again in the Roman Empire. Octavius Caesar came across as intelligent and dangerously calculating under a veneer of courtesy and honour. Cleopatra’s maidservants, Iras and Charmian, were suitably langorous and lighthearted (at least at first), to convey Egypt’s exotic sensuality and hedonism as opposed to the militant, ambitious demands of Rome.

It’s a long and very complex play, with a vast number of scenes, some only a few lines long, taking place in Egypt, in Rome, in Sicily, in Athens, on the battlefield, etc. Messengers are of great importance in a scenario as vast as this to carry the story from scene to scene and to assist the audience with the understanding of the transitions. Our Messenger (we had one person reading all of them) bravely dusted himself off after the various rejections and beatings which seemed to be his unfortunate lot as he brought unwelcome news again and again!

Of course, it’s easier to relate to this number of scene changes when one sees them on stage, as visual and musical settings help to orient one. I’ve never been so grateful for the clear and confident reading of Stage Directions! It seems strange to beginning readers that we should “waste talent” on reading Stage Directions out loud, but we have found that this contributes enormously to the framing of each scene and to the rhythm of the reading. The person reading the humble Stage Directions with clarity and confidence subtly facilitates and “contains” the reading for the others. It’s so effective that I now try to allocate one reader to Stage Directions for each Act, with that reader reading no or very few other parts during that Act if possible. In fact, I would have a single person read all the Stage Directions for the entire play if I weren’t afraid there’d be a mutiny, because of course we all want to feel the motivations and speak the poetry of at least one character as well!

To do something a bit different and slightly lighter over the festive season, we’ve decided to hold a poetry evening next. In the spirit of inclusion, as so many different cultures are represented in our group, we’ll each read a poem that is connected in some way to an aspect of our heritage, and then direct some or all of the others in the group in a re-reading of it (besides being a lot of fun, this is a way to absorb the meaning and atmosphere of a poem that is at first strange to one — it’s very seldom that one truly “gets” a poem on first reading. Well, I think the best poems keep on giving one new stuff every time one goes back to them, of course!) The date has yet to be decided, but I hope there’ll be a write-up of a happy poetic evening soon!

And still on points of light… see my next post for a light poem about light that I wrote last weekend at a writer’s workshop in Geneva.



{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.

http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/theo_hobson/2007/10/deliver_us_from_dawkins.html

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.



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.



{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.



Yesterday we hosted one of our regular Shakespeare readings at home. The company was jolly and the food delicious, if very simple (crudites with organic hummus to start, then homemade veggie soup with homemade crusty bread at the halfway point, and strawberries and Lindt Lindor Extra Dark choccy balls for the final act!). With the help of some French organic cider and a very good Pinot Noir, the group launched into Measure for Measure with great energy, scrambling bravely over the rocky bits (French velvet and English kersey) and breaking out every so often for a spot of outrage or insight as we are wont to do. We were delighted by the variety of temperaments our readers captured in both large and small parts, with a menacingly sepulchral Angelo, Lucio as a canny, sassy, irreverent ne’er-sit-down whose wordplay gleamed like swordplay, Francisca sporting an Irish accent, a self-righteous Elbow, a truculent Barnardine, the passionate virgin Isabella, and all the other characters whose hilarious and shocking contrasts only fully emerge when embodied.

The play was, as always, very timely. We yielded willingly to the Bard’s genius in creating characters, situations and wordplay that make us laugh uproariously while reflecting on themes of moral hypocrisy, the unequal values placed on the testimonies of women and men, the power-relationships of relative rank, money, reputation, class and gender, over-legislation and interference by the state, and the obsession with sex as a focus for legislation and judgement due to supposed “public interest”, with repression the chosen tool despite the evidence of history that it is neither possible nor desirable to “geld and splay all the youth of the city” (Pompey to Escalus, MforM Act II Sc i).

These topics are so ubiquitous and familiar still from our own everyday politics that it’s hard to blame anyone who takes up an attitude as cynical as Lucio’s, determining simply to follow whichever path (and suck up to whichever power source) is likely to lead to the greatest personal licence right now. However, in Shakespeare’s time one had a lot less choice about one’s position and advancement in society (at least relative to those who live in more or less democratic cultures now — I know that the majority of the world still lacks this privilege). Why don’t those of us who can in the 21st century require our leaders and opinion-formers in church and state and media to concentrate on education, health, gender equality and poverty relief or any of the other things where their intervention could actually be useful, rather than spending our time and our money on the prosecution of people whose service exists because of society’s need and desire to use it?

I say this in connection with “The madam, her girls and a city in fear” in the Mail&Guardian. How much has changed since Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure? Well, I smiled as I thought that it seems clear that the primal needs and the political motivations of the players haven’t altered at all, but at least there is a possibility that Mistress Overdone may get more airtime. That, at least, brings a bit of balance to the exploitation equation.

Overall, the play’s a peachy preach on a theme that’s too little heard these days:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5

And I love the open question at the end… did Isabella say yes to Vincentio?



{Mon 30 April 2007}   Multiculturalism Betrays Women
I’m easing back into the blogosphere after a month of distractions… still don’t have much time, but this article by Johann Hari in The Independent today is so well-written and hard-hitting I just had to come back to recommend it. If you were in any way touched, intrigued or appalled by my previous post on the disgusting way that religions approach women, you really need to read “How multiculturalism is betraying women” — http://comment.independent.co.uk/columnists_a_l/johann_hari/article2496657.ece


I’ve read three articles today on the oppression of women by patriarchal religions. It’s not news to me, of course, but the intensity of these outraged lists of the sins of human against human on the basis of genital differences forces me to face the fury and the fear that always lurk within.

Here are some examples of what in my view are blatantly evil and incredibly destructive religious precepts:

    “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman”
    (Sephath Emeth, p. 10).
    “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife”
    (Ephesians 5: 22-23).
    “Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God hath gifted the one above the other”
    (Koran 4:37).

What a disgusting “God” these quotes reveal! Who would want to worship, who could trust, such an insecure bully?

What on earth possessed the men who could institute a daily prayer thanking God that they’re not born female? How about not born stupid, or poor, or apelike, or with three legs, or something? Of course, any of these could cause offense to any being that happens to have these characteristics, so we’d not think of creating a new prayer like that now (at least, we wouldn’t do it in the UK), but because we’re so politically correct, we also wouldn’t challenge any religion that continues to promulgate this oppressive crap. Here’s a novel idea: how about thanking God for what you are, instead of for what you are not?

When one reads these, it is hard to understand how anyone can insist that religion is a good thing. The only people who benefit from it are men, and even this benefit is short-term and deceiving, because how can men truly be served by systems that encourage them to be less-than-human and that rob them of the possibility of living a truly fulfilled life that is enriched and balanced by the female principle, by honest, equal relationships with women?

The huge need to oppress women reveals an enormous fear of women. This cripples both sexes and ties us into continual battles with each other, when there are so many other issues on the planet that would benefit from our pouring all our energy jointly into their resolution instead.

Maybe there’s a poem here somewhere, but at the moment I just feel sick!



et cetera