Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Covered Women

Like the rest of the population, it seems, I've been mulling over this veil malarkey and it seems to me it's rather a complex issue, no? I thought reading Snow, by Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, about veil-wearing and suicide in a remote Turkish town, might shed some light on the subject for me, but enjoyable though it is, it isn't making things any clearer.

I mean, on the one hand, it's a potent symbol of women's oppression, and I find it difficult to look at a veiled woman without instantly thinking of her poor sisters (and mine) in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and all the countless other places around the globe where women’s lives get grimmer by the day thanks to the religious authorities that are in charge. The plight of such women is perhaps the saddest aspect of the increase in religiosity that we are witnessing in the world today.

But as one of the speakers on the Today programme last week pointed out that, after Jack Straw's pronouncement, it can also be regarded as a symbol of freedom. 'If I were in Saudi Arabia', she said, 'I would be campaigning for a woman's right NOT to wear the veil. Here I must campaign for her right to wear it.'

And she has a point. Setting aside the issues about communicating with someone whose face is invisible (I think it was the same speaker who noted, pertinently, that the discussion she was involved in was taking place in a radio studio), we do purport to live in a free country, and surely that should extend to what we choose to wear. If I wanted to walk to work everyday dressed up like Marie Antoinette, I'd expect to do it without being arrested, albeit getting some funny looks.

The difficulty comes in when people want to wear religious symbols in schools, colleges, hospitals etc, and if there is one tiny bit of pleasure that us secularists can glean from the current debate it's from watching government ministers tying themselves up in knots over what they can and can't tell people to do in state-funded institutions. How, after all, can they ask people to refrain from wearing symbols of their religion while supporting faith schools? The answer, you find, to many of the big cultural religious debates of our time, is the same. Ban faith schools, disestablish the church, end religious privilege.

It strikes me that Muslim women have several reasons for wearing the veil. Some wear it to show their piety, and others because it is expected of them. A few, however, are politically motivated, and I suspect that unless there is a radical rethink on the role of all religions in our society, resulting in religion being put firmly in its place — ie outside the door of public institutions — politcally motivated 'covered women' are going to keep on growing in numbers.


Aah, Richard…

It's been a while, I know, but I've had more of the mum stuff going on of late than the atheist stuff, and I'm sure that those of you who tune in from time to time don't want to be bored with my domestic details. I know that it turns me right off if I log on in search of godless rants and find myself reading the ins and outs of darling little so-and-sos daily business, no matter how in tune with the parents' irreligious leanings I might be, so I'm not going to go there. If I feel like gushing on about what my children have been up to (or moaning about them), I'll set up another blog fit for that purpose.

I did manage to shuck off my domestic responsibilities one night recently and went with my mate Amanda to see Richard Dawkins at the Institute of Education. I have to admit to feeling a certain frisson of girlish excitement at the prospect, and there was even more excitement when we got there and realised how popular the event was. I suppose we shouldn't have been surprised, given the fact that The God Delusion is whizzing off the shelves and out of cyberspace at a pleasing rate. Amazon is still selling it for a tenner, by the way.

It was good to see some of the London Brights there too, and Andrew from the British Humanist Association, and very gratifying to see the forest of hands that went up when we were asked how many of us didn't believe in god, even if it meant that dear Richard would preaching to the converted — not the point of his book at all, although I don't reckon the sales would be doing quite so well without us.

Of course by far the most exciting part of the evening was the book signing at the end, although the girlish excitement turned to girlish nerves as we stood in the queue and tried to think of something a little less inane than 'we think you're great' to say when we finally got face to face with the great man.

It didn't feel all that different from those occasions not so long ago (well actually quite a long time ago, but we'll draw a veil over that) where I would queue up after concerts to meet and greet rock stars, an impression which was enhanced by the two geeky but trendy youths (and when I say youths I mean in the spotty, oily-haired sense of the word) in front of us in the queue. It occurred to me to offer him (Dawkins, not one of the youths) a body part to sign, but I decided against on the grounds that it would be a little undignified, him being one of the world's most eminent scientists and not the lead singer of the Lemonheads. Nothing, of course, to do with the fact that I couldn't think of a part of me that is still firm enough to sign, or the fact that these days I wouldn't be prepared to forego showers to protect the hallowed signature from wearing off, and that I'm definitely too much of a wuss to consider having it made permanent as a tattoo, though it did cross my mind.

In the end I decided to be selfless and get him to dedicate my copy of his book to my own atheist mum, but by the time we got to him we had been told he wasn't doing dedications — sorry mum, but if you could have seen the length of the queue you'd understand. And after all that worry all we managed were a few mumbled thankyous which I'm sure conveyed to him the depth and sincerity of our feelings.

Aah, Richard...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Isn't it time for 'moderate' muslims to wake up and smell the irony? How much of this sort of thing will it take?

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