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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.



{Thu 13 March 2008}   Reality and truth
Two things I read today seem to intersect – the first is this article by Elizabeth Pisani in The Guardian, Thursday March 13 2008 entitled “Spitzer’s true folly” and subtitled “A governor who pays for sex should know to mould social policies on reality, not morality”. Although light and not in-depth, it seems to me a very balanced and realistic view of the sex trade and I instinctively agree with the idea of regulation rather than the impossible fantasy of the elimination of the trade. I’m sure that when I think about it more deeply any number of caveats will arise, but essentially I’m not disposed to think of the women in that trade as any more “sinful” than anyone else and many of them may well be a lot more canny and a lot more grounded than most. There are some related thoughts in my post titled Overdoing Mistress Overdone in Washington.

The other thing is the little essay-in-a-booklet called On Truth by Harry G. Frankfurt which I picked up at a bookstore this morning. He argues that despite various consciously or unconsciously held postmodern positions on the possibility and accessibility of truth, most of us rely on our ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood in very practical ways in our everyday lives. He equates truth here with fact. For instance, no matter how skeptical you are about truth, you’ll probably give your actual name and address when filling in an application for something. In other words, you’ll tell the truth about the fact and you and the contracting party will rely on the accuracy of those details. If they prove false, the whole thing won’t work (at least not for long). Practically, truth is essential to large parts of our lives, and our trust in others and, most importantly, in ourselves, depends on it, so communities couldn’t function without it. Communities do sustain a lot of “bullshit and lying” too (apparently the subject of a prior essay by the same person), but we can navigate this if we have some ability to tell the difference between truth and falsehood (and most people do). Those who hold to falsehood as truth are crazy. Every time someone tells us even a white lie, perhaps in order to protect us, and we believe them, we enter into a world created by their words that is different from the real world experienced by those not exposed to the lie. Every time we do this, we become a little crazy and our trust in our own ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood is damaged.

My thoughts aren’t quite formulated yet, but I think where they’re going in pulling these two stimuli together is that the whole attempt to “eliminate” prostitution is based on a falsehood because it’s out of touch with reality (facts). This would lead to the conclusion (not new, but still shocking) that the church is a liar because it refuses to tell the truth about the way things really are (labelling all prostitution “sin” is not “telling it like it is” for everyone). Ergo, the church makes us crazy.

When truth is an ideal, it has little practical use, because it doesn’t relate to facts, or worse, tries to deny them. One could argue that it isn’t truth at all, just something that wants to be.

Postscript: Just read this really funny, outraged and outrageous response to the Catholic Church’s new seven deadly sins, by Grant Walliser in the Mail & Guardian: Catholics modernise their mumbo-jumbo. Worth a read for further thoughts on reality, truth and crazy-making.



{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.



On Monday, 13 August 2007, in an article titled “Amnesty to defy Catholic church over rape victims’ abortion rights”, The Independent newspaper reported some very good news. Amnesty International had declared that the human rights of women should include access to abortion if they have been raped or if their lives are in danger.

Inevitably, many in the anti-abortion lobby were unable to appreciate the careful consideration given to supporting the rights of women without taking a moral position on abortion. Some asserted that Amnesty had now abandoned its support for human rights, apparently implying that the unborn are human, while women are not.

This assumption also underlies the selective inference of the “Pro-life” label that the unborn have a right to life no matter how much this compromises the life of the mother. The unborn, of course, might be male, whereas the mother’s femaleness is incontrovertible, so there is a further implication that men are human, while women are not. This illogical thinking is similar in nature to the theological assumptions underlying anti-abortion positions.

Amnesty’s deputy general secretary, Kate Gilmore, denied the organisation had become “pro-abortion”, insisting the organisation took as its guide legal, not theological, imperatives. “Amnesty International’s position is not for abortion as a right but for women’s human rights to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations,” she said.

“Amnesty International stands alongside the victims and survivors of human rights violations. Our policy reflects our obligation of solidarity as a human rights movement with, for example, the rape survivor in Darfur who, because she is left pregnant as a result of the enemy, is further ostracised by her community. Ours is a movement dedicated to upholding human rights, not specific theologies. Our purpose invokes the law and the state, not God.”

The organisation is to be applauded for distancing itself from theology and focusing on human rights. However, the theological position that, because the child has been conceived, God intends for it to live at all costs, is illogical. It suggests that God intended the rape. This position allows people to continue to downplay society’s responsibility to protect women, because if God sanctions violence against them, there is no reason for society to do any better.

The woman must then “live” (for many it is a living death) with the physical, psychological and emotional trauma of having been raped, with the physical discomfort and risks of a pregnancy when she is in this weakened state, with the rejection of her partner and the ostracism of her society both of whom illogically blame her for the dishonour she had no power to prevent, with the burden of responsibility for a child she does not want and whose presence reminds her every day of the violation she experienced, with the need to find alternative sources of income and sustenance for herself and the child now that her normal sources are denied her and the likely worsening of her health and material circumstances as a result, and with the further punishments of an unforgiving society if she is not a good enough mother to this unwanted child. Her human rights, her right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or to “liberty, fraternity and equality” are effectively annihilated, in an instant, at the whim of a man. The child of such a mother is also similarly disadvantaged.

The conception of a child is no longer a “mystery”. We know that it occurs when a suitable sperm meets a suitable egg in a conducive physical environment. We also know that this meeting occurs after intercourse, i.e. after a man penetrates a woman. While this action does not always result in a child, we know that without it a child cannot be conceived. When it is conceived, it is not a “miracle”. It is a function of calculable odds. Our feeling that each new life is a miracle proceeds from either our ignorance of, or our inability to hold in mind, all the factors involved, due to their complexity, but they are in fact identifiable and quantifiable. A child is a possible consequence of man exercising his free will, and, as the mainstream interpretation of the Eden story suggests, these consequences are not always desirable.

Quite frankly, God has nothing to do with it. Whether one defines God as a personal being who created the universe or simply as the force that holds the universe together, God’s provision of the materials does not constitute a sanction for every use that humans make of those materials. Otherwise, one is left with the logical conclusion that God intends and approves every evil action as much as every good action that occurs in the universe. This mocks any conception of free will and therefore any concept of wrong action, effectively making it impossible for anyone to do wrong (or, in theological terms, to sin).

Until the world sanctions the compulsory sterilisation of men (which it is already possible to do, and which is not an illogical option as it is simple, inexpensive, and reversible), there is a strong argument for allowing abortion when men force themselves on women. This would not yet put women on an equal footing with men, because the rape and the abortion would still be traumatic in ways that men can never begin to imagine or experience, but it would prevent much of the consequential abuse that women and their unwanted children suffer.



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?



During my ongoing review of ancient scribblings by myself, I came across another essay that I very much enjoyed writing. Its subject matter, George Herbert’s 17th century anthology The Temple, is a wonderful example of “fine energies” being examined and released by “fine reasoning”, albeit inside a worldview that is entirely circumscribed by a belief in received interpretation of Christian scripture. Rereading it, I feel myself again seduced by the beautiful internal consistency of Herbert’s argument, won over by his sincerity, awed by his skill and respectful of his courage and his humility in facing his God.

It seems amazing that I wrote a 3000-word essay on a poem of just eight simple lines! Well, it was on The Temple as a whole, but as Dr. Ron Hall’s original question indicates, the themes of this great work are succinctly encapsulated in the tiny Bitter-sweet. This shows how powerful a good poem can be in stimulating and feeding meditation on huge life-changing subjects, and thus it should be no surprise, if one views the Bible as a poetic work (as argued in my previous posts Fine energies and fine (if erroneous) thoughts and Poetry and creativity in the press and in the Bible), that it has had the power to mould and move individuals and nations both to heights of achievement and, sadly, to depths of repression, as they reach for the perfection at which it hints.

I think that, as in the best poems, some of its power comes from its universality. Although I do not believe the Bible to be an accurate historical or empirical record of, nor a blueprint for, human development, I do believe that, along with many other writings of similar poetic power, it contains universal truths which attract those who experience their lives as a meaning-making journey, whether their medium be primarily that of the emotions or that of the intellect.

So… here’s my encounter with Bitter-sweet and The Temple:

Taking the poem Bitter-sweet as your point of departure, discuss the methods used in, and the effects achieved by, Herbert’s blending of “complaint” and “praise” in The Temple. (Dr R. Hall)

Bitter-sweet

Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

George Herbert

After an oppressively didactic introduction in The Church-porch, Herbert opens the heart of his work with a series on the Passion of Christ. Despite the Judaeo-Catholic legalism of the preceding section, it is clearly these poems, with their Protestant emphasis on salvation by grace, that are intended to set the context for the major part of The Templei. The remainder of The Church is a meditation on the nature of the relationship with God exemplified in, and made possible by, Christ’s Passion. When Herbert imitates his God, as suggested in Bitter-sweet, he clearly has in mind the Christ who could complain to his Father, “…take away this cup”, yet in the next breath say, “…not my will, but thine be done”ii.

Read the rest of this entry »



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?



{Wed 9 May 2007}   Love as yardstick of truth
Well, this started out as a comment on another blog, but rapidly grew long enough to be a post in its own right, so I decided to open it for further comment here. If you want a bit more background, go to the previous discussion on What Theology Looks Like at Father Stephen’s blog.

In response to Father Stephen’s gentle suggestion that my original conversion experience might have been emotional rather than content-based, I responded as follows:

I don’t think anyone would be able to continue living with the consequences of their conversion if it contained no content, unless they really had a pathological need for rejection by and isolation from family, former friends and mainstream society. Although my conversion experience was emotional and therefore highly motivating, it was strongly founded on a clear intellectual understanding of the Christian gospel and much bible reading.

I experienced many further “proofs” of the reality and effectiveness of my faith over my years as a Christian, being a witness to and facilitator of many other conversions and physical and emotional healings, and was very involved in leadership and church-building in different communities, including one of the first truly multiracial churches in South Africa, based in Soweto before apartheid fell.

All my experiences further convinced me of the truth I espoused, because my framework was adequate to contain and explain them as long as my exposure to other worldviews was limited. When I began to read and travel more widely, this was no longer possible as some aspects of reality simply could not be forced to fit any more. Do not assume that acknowledging this was easy or quick for me. Finding a stance from which I could live positively thereafter was an extremely painful and lonely process over 10 long years. I’ve only recently begun to name that stance “negative capability” after Keats, and I know that name may turn out to be inadequate. The key factor for me (at present) is personal responsibility.

I think the issue is not to do with content or the lack of it, but with the names we give to the content. Our naming systems are impossibly inadequate for the task of codifying suprarational realities, and our attempts to do so, while inevitable as part of our efforts to make sense of our world, usually amount to no more than Babel-building, because we don’t have sufficient humility to acknowledge our limitations.

This is not the same thing as saying that everyone is “right”. I’m not sure whether that is a “quintessentially American idea” – it may be, but I doubt whether it originated in America. In any case, I’m not an American, so my current position is not due to the undue influence over me of what you might perceive as negative forces in American thought!

In my opinion, the state of the world offers clearer evidence that everyone is wrong, than that anyone is right! I do believe that everyone may (although many choose not to) draw some enlightenment and some sharpening of conscience from their traditions, but I do not believe that all traditions are equally right (or wrong). They (and sub-traditions within them) may be closer to or further away from the kind of love that respects all persons equally and facilitates each person’s becoming all that she can be. This love-in-action is the yardstick I choose to use for measuring truth.



Well, I’ve just given in to an impulse to update the grammar in the essay on “The Priesthood of the Soul“, although I admit that it’s 99.999% likely that I’m the only one who would notice the difference (as it’s just about as likely that I’m the only one who’s actually read it). Anyway, it’s infinitesimally less poncey and slightly more readable due to some shortened sentences, use of the active rather than the passive voice, etc. I couldn’t do more without really settling in to rewrite the thing, but it was a good way of revisiting these thoughts.

Today, I was struck by this quote from Keats that I used in the essay:

Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine… (In the same way) our reasoning though erroneous…may be fine. This is the very thing in which consists poetry. (317)

I think this stood out to me because I’ve been re-engaging with theology and the Bible a bit in my new comments today on “The Nakedly Evil Origins of Ritual Oppression of Women“. It’s not a new thought that the Bible is poetic in nature and thus contains poetic rather than rational truth. The one is no less true than the other, but they are of a different order and arrived at via different processes. It is also not news that some very intelligent and highly trained thinkers believe that the Bible is rationally and empirically true. I think one reason for this may be that the “fine energies” in the Bible are so seductive that they attract thinkers capable of fine reasoning who sense its power but misinterpret its mode. Because these fine minds have a rational approach (and are not accustomed to seeing the poetry in everything), they insist on a form of biblical exegesis that requires reality to be modified in order to remain internally consistent.

This applies especially to the axioms on which the reasoning is built. Despite their intelligence, these thinkers simply cannot allow for any causes or conditions that do not support the extraordinarily finely structured house of cards that they have built upon their chosen foundations and on which they continue to labour lovingly day after day. Its very fineness, though erroneous, in its own way pays homage to the “fine energies” to which the thinkers are responding. Quite simply, it is too fine a thing to lose. And so mankind blunders on.



et cetera