Monday, 11 November 2013

Why we need more open dialogue about FGM in the UK (warning - graphic/disturbing image)

Yesterday evening I finally found time to watch Leyla Hussein's C4 documentary on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the UK.  I feel guilty about that "finally" because I should have seen it sooner, but in my defense I simply didn't know until I watched just how important it was that I - and everybody else - should watch it.

I believe I'm better informed about FGM than many Brits, certainly more so than most Brits who do not belong to one of the communities in which the practice is common.  I'd read the news articles (here and here too, and many more), and the websites campaigning against the practice.  If asked, I could have told you what FGM is, including the three recognised sub-types, and even quoted facts and figures about its prevalence.  I could have told you that it causes scarring (both physical and emotional), infections, difficulties with sex and in childbirth, infertility and occasionally even death.  I knew FGM is often - even usually - carried out without anaesthesia and without basic hygienic procedures.  I knew I was against FGM, knew it was a barbaric and totally unnecessary form of torture inflicted upon small girls with the aim of suppressing their sexuality in later life.  In short, I thought I knew what I was talking about.

Not a bit of it.  It turns out there is a WORLD of difference between knowing, intellectually, that FGM involves removal of the clitoris and clitoral hood, sometimes removal of the inner and/or outer labia, and sometimes the sewing up of the wound to leave only a small hole for urination, menstruation, sex and childbirth.  Actually seeing it done (in oversized model form), and seeing - briefly - the results is totally different.


I don't know about you, but I struggle to look at that - and that's been taken a long time after the woman pictured was mutilated, probably years.  I can't even begin to imagine the agony.

In her documentary, Hussein investigated the attitudes of the British public by setting up a fake petition in defense of FGM as a cultural practice, and was understandably distraught when almost everybody she asked on a high street signed it.  I would have been devastated too.

But although it's certainly true that there is some cultural relativism at play here, along with that fear of being thought racist that actually causes well-meaning people to be racist, there is another reason, I think, that so many people happily signed up to defend people's right to inflict this torture and mutilation on their daughters.  We just don't understand it, don't know enough about it.  However well-informed we may be on the cold facts about FGM, most of us I think lack the imagination to really understand what it really is, and what it does to people.  In fact, that was made clear in the documentary by the seismic shift in the attitudes of some young men Hussein talked to about it; before her demonstration they were ambivalent about FGM or even in favour of it; understanding exactly what it meant horrified them, and to a man they turned against the practice.  I know I didn't appreciate the horror until I saw images like the above; I know I probably still don't, because I will never have to live with it.

Now, there is a fine line to be trodden here.  Do I think people who are not at risk of being mutilated need to have a better understanding of what it really involves, and what it means?  Absolutely.  Do I want to risk turning it into a freakshow, potentially stripping FGM victims of their dignity or causing them to feel ashamed of something that was done to them, before they were old enough to bear responsibility for it?  Absolutely, categorically not.  I don't know where that line lies, but I do think we all need to have a more empathetic grasp of what FGM is and what it means; all the statistics in the world, I think, can't bring it home to those of us who've never had to deal with it in our own lives.

Hussein has set up a petition to the UK government which needs 100,000 signatures to be considered for debate in the Commons.  Please, please sign it; thousands of girls are at risk in the UK, right now, and the UK has never had a single prosecution for FGM despite the fact that it has been a crime here since 1985.  If you've any doubts at all about the need to stop this practice, watch the documentary; this is abuse and torture that leads to lifelong suffering.  It can't be allowed to continue within reach of our arms.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

If the cap fits, Rowan Williams...

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England, has said in an interview that Christians in the UK can be subject to "petty harassment" and are considered by some to be "homophobic, misogynistic reactionar[ies]".

Now, I don't know exactly what counts in this context as "petty harassment", but to be fair to Williams he does argue and has argued against the claims of some Christians to be "persecuted" when in fact they are made to feel "mildly uncomfortable"; he has said more than once that "petty harassment" should not be counted as "persecution".  It's entirely possible that I fall into the "petty harasser" category IRL; the majority of my friends are highly educated and liberal in their values, so it tends to come as a surprise to me to learn that one of them is a Christian and I do often prod at it, asking questions to try to understand how they reconcile that statement with their liberal values.

The result, usually, is embarrassment on the part of the Christian friend, a sort of shamefaced acknowledgment that the religion to which they belong doesn't sit well with the direction in which they would like societies and ethics to move.  But whether my asking questions and causing embarrassment would count as "petty harassment" for Rowan Williams isn't really the point; what matters is that Christianity has an image problem when it comes to social equality and human rights... because it has a problem when it comes to social equality and human rights.

The Church of England, to which Williams belongs, is often perceived to be rather benign and cuddly, but that didn't stop it opposing marriage equality until it was forced to admit defeat - and it still does not allow women to be bishops.

One of the reasons the Church of England is generally considered harmless is that it is often considered against the backdrop of far worse mutations of Christianity.  Its reputation is not tarnished by ongoing accusations that it systematically covered up child abuse, for example.  It does not oppose fair access to healthcare, either, or picket funerals, or promote the murder of children by denouncing them as "witches".  Only against that background could a church that openly opposes both gender equality and GLBT rights come out looking moderate and benign.

Christianity is both homophobic and misogynistic; that is why I am surprised when people who are educated and liberal tell me they're Christians.  Christianity has an image problem because it deserves to have an image problem.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Stop pretending you can't see the elephant, Mr Cameron

The past weekend has been a bad one, even by the standards of Islamist extremists.  We don't yet know exactly how many innocent people have been slaughtered in a shopping centre in Nairobi, or how many were murdered by suicide bombers leaving church in Peshawar; the total, by current estimates, is probably around the 150 mark so far.

We learned today that four Brits were among those killed in Nairobi, having presumably been unable to answer the question "what was the name of Mohammed's mother?".

And what has been David Cameron's response?

"These appalling terrorist attacks that take place, where the perpetrators claim they do it in the name of religion - they don't. They do it in the name of terror, violence and extremism, and their warped view of the world."

Are you FUCKING kidding me, Cameron?!  You're going to sit there and pretend this mass slaughter had nothing to do with religion?  The murderers selected who would die and who would live based on a question only a Muslim would be expected to be able to answer.  Yes, these lunatics have a deeply "warped view of the world" - and why the fuck do you think that might be?  You honestly think that has nothing at all to do with their belief in the holiness and divine mandate of a religious doctrine notoriously heavy on murdering unbelievers (apostates, gay people, women, adulterers, people who draw pictures of Muhammed...)? You don't think a person's faith - a faith so strong they are willing to die for it - in a violent and barbaric religious doctrine might be in any way to blame when that person acts violently and barbarically?!

Of course these despicable, murderous lunatics do not represent all Muslims, or what most people would recognise as Islam.  But to try to pretend their actions had nothing to do with their religion is just... I mean, it's not even wrong, it's bizarre, it's nonsense of the most baffling order.  This isn't an elephant in the room, it's an entire herd of pachyderms squashed into an airing cupboard.

I'm so fucking sick of this cowardice.  And before anyone says it, no - I'm not picking on Muslims.  We all know various religions have been the cause of endless horrors throughout history, from the Inquisition to the "Troubles" in Ireland to the Vatican contribution to the HIV epidemic in Africa and the Philippines.  I don't actually care which religion is causing the problem because they're all just as ridiculous as each other.  But anybody who tries to pretend Islam is not, right now, the most dangerous religion in the world is not paying attention - or they're hiding behind an ink cloud of paternalistic politically correct affronted liberalism.

And I am a liberal; Cameron hasn't lost my vote over this because I'd never have voted Tory anyway.  But we liberals seem to be just as bad, or even worse; nobody can criticise Islam without being called "Islamophobic" or racist (as if all of Islam, from Indonesia to Somalia, were a race) by well-meaning people who are often, where the religion in question is not Islam, also outspoken against the privileged place religion holds in society.

We've no problem with blaming a person or a group's crimes on their political ideology; nobody worries about being thought racist or bigoted when they say Stalin or Hitler did what they did because of their insane and deeply nasty political beliefs.  Why do we worry about pointing it out when it's clear that a person's lunatic beliefs have led them to commit crimes - just because those beliefs are religious rather than political?  It's pathetic and cowardly and I'm sick of it.  You don't pretend you can't see the elephant when it's trampling around killing people.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

As if my reading pile (...well - heap, really) weren't big enough already

As a few people on Twitter have pointed out, I have been seriously neglecting my blog of late.  I mean to remedy that, starting now.

I've been doing a lot of reading lately on the sciences, but I find that my lack of any formal education in any scientific discipline gives me real problems with knowing where to go for good information.  Lacking any sort of grounding in the basics, I dip in and out of subjects with various books, and never really know how broad a scope I gain from doing so.  I can't be the only layperson to be frustrated by this problem, so I asked people on Twitter for their suggestions.  I'm going to list these recommendations here along with some of my own, and I intend to keep updating this post in the hope that it might serve as a useful resource for people in a similar situation to my own.  I've linked all the kind Tweeps who contributed below; please follow and show some love!  Oh, and as always - comment below if you've any suggestions of your own, or comments on any of the books here recommended.

There is a (sort of) system here; if it's in bold I've read it; if it's not I haven't (yet!) and I'm passing it on based on somebody else's recommendation.


Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Great grounding in the basics and history of science, although upon rereading about a year ago I noticed a few bits among the physics stuff that's now out of date. Recommended by lots of people!

R. Barker Bausell: Snake Oil Science

George Hrabovsky: The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics

Terry Pratchett (with others): The Science of Discworld series.  This should only be half-bolded since I've only read some of them, but those I've read I enjoyed (and understood!) and you can never have too much Pratchett in your life

Stephen Hawking: The Universe in a Nutshell

Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time.  One of those books I read avidly, more or less understood at the time although I had to read some pages twice, and now can't remember very well.  A reminder to me to reread!

Christopher Lloyd: What on Earth Happened? and What on Earth Evolved?

John Gribbin: In Search of Schrodinger's Cat and The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of its Greatest Inventors.

Peter Atkins: Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science

Armand Marie Leroi: Mutants.  A beautifully written book on embryology and evolution, reads like classical literature but full of meaty science (and a few gory bits)

Brian Cox: Wonders of Life, Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe.  Lots of recommendations for these!

Thomas S Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Lawrence Krauss: A Universe from Nothing. Brilliant and baffling.  I got about ten pages in before going back to Amazon and ordering Krauss's Fear of Physics to read first

Sherry Seethaler: Lies, Damned Lies, And Science

Richard Dawkins: The Greatest Show on Earth and Climbing Mount Improbable.  Oh, and The Magic of Reality, which bruised my ego by forcing me to wonder why I hadn't wondered about these things before.

Hugh Aldersley-Williams: Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements

Paul Davies: About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution

Charles Darwin: On the Origin of Species.  OK, a bit obvious.  And if you're anything like as impressionable as I am you'll speak like a Victorian for a week after finishing it.  But it's fascinating both historically and scientifically, and a model for clarity of reasoning and expression.

Richard Feyman: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.  I want to bold this, but can't honestly do so.  It's been on my bookshelf for months, but it's not doing me a lot of good there!

Matt Ridley: The Red Queen.  Another book I need to reread, dense but fascinating.  And it's about sex, so there's that.

Matt Ridley: Genome and The Rational Optimist. Also on my bookshelf.  I'm going to find time to read them, I swear.

Marcia Bartusiak: The Day We Found the Universe

Ben Goldacre: Bad Pharma and Bad Science

Daniel Dennett: Darwin's Dangerous Idea.  Dennett makes my brain hurt, but in a good way.

Ullica Segerstrale: Nature's Oracle: The Life and Work of W D Hamilton.  Reading this at the moment.  Not wonderfully written, but fascinating and contains lots of weighty science in Hamilton's own words.

Brian Greene: The Fabric of the Cosmos

Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the last 13,000 Years

Murray Gell-Mann: The Quark and the Jaguar

Victor Stenger: God: the Failed Hypothesis.  Hesitated about recommending this one, because for my money it would have been a better book (albeit one with far fewer sales) without the God stuff.  But the science is interesting and accessible, so recommended for that.

Jerry Coyne: Why Evolution is True

Michael Shermer: Why Darwin Matters: The Caste against Intelligent Design.  This one I found to be just a little too basic, although engagingly written; but it's interesting to know what the enemy is thinking...

Donald Prothero: Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters

Martin Nowak: Supercooperators: Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour

Carl Sagan: Cosmos.  I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't read this one!

Steve Jones: Almost Like a Whale: The Origin of Species Updated.  Clear, easy to read and entertaining.

Sam Harris: The Moral Landscape.  I find Harris heavy going, but his ideas and the information upon which he bases them are interesting so this is worth sticking with.

Adrian Forsyth: A Natural History of Sex: The Ecology and Evolution of Mating Behaviour

Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries

Stuart Firestein: Ignorance: How it Drives Science

Chris Impey: How It Began: A Time-Traveler's Guide to the Universe

Neil Shubin: The Universe Within


...riiight.  I spend my entire life with my nose in a book.  I read in the shower, FFS.  How can I have read so few of these?!  In my defense, I have neither my bookcase  nor my Kindle in front of me to remind me of books I have read, and I've also read an awful lot of science books I wouldn't recommend.  But still, the paucity of bolded, "read" books in that list is pretty damning, I'm sincerely embarrassed by that.  To Waterstones!

(And I may amend this post later when I've gotten home and looked at my bookcase, to make myself feel better.)

*     *     *

My thanks to loads of helpful Tweeps:  @IntenseGas @One_Trick_Pony_ @geoffsshorts @mart_brooks @KeefJudge @weyendrote @Patricknising @tauriqmoosa @GasDocGraeme @NickSpellman @tcc300892 @NotungSchwert @Patchlaythe @neilhanman @neilenator @gomijacogeo @Metamagician @JDofAndersonia @Andrew_Hulme @Graham_Gowland @thelandlord28 @robhuntvarg @Timlove_1981 @bobgeoghegan @MarkTBullets @Christo_77 @Kyle_McEvoy @heafnerj @Alexdurrant7 @MiguelOSilva @MikeyM_101 @joatca @ingStHawk @talace @MCGiorgi @MrMRM513 @hitchfan1 @ThejemR @bradparkin @RLHyde @tchrquotes @bigrumdaddy @willCpierce @crash121ss @Christoph_er @Shadow_ofaDoubt @vomatt @perisabil

Thursday, 30 May 2013

The cowardice of being an "oppressed" majority.

Today I learned on Twitter, through @tauriqmoosa (thanks, Tauriq), about an intriguing group of UK campaigners.  Depending upon your viewpoint, you might find them controversial, challenging, psychologically and anthropologically fascinating, hilarious, infuriating... or embarrassing.  Or possibly all of these things, actually.  Check them out: http://straightprideuk.com/

Now, if you react as I did you're probably going to spend ten minutes convinced this has to be a parody.  Part of me still hopes that might prove to be the case (and if so, I will confess myself taken in but take comfort in the fact that I have not been the only one), but I don't really think it's likely.  Based on the balance of what they're saying on their site, combined with their Twitter feed, I think they're serious.

The group's aims, as laid out on their page, are informative:


Personally I can't help finding this immensely funny at the same time as being revolted by it (and as I reread this I find myself unsure again that I don't think it's a deliberate joke), but I'm amused rather against my will and I can certainly understand it if other people are not.

I think my favourite bit may be that these lunatics reckon there is a need to "raise awareness of the heterosexual part of society and make sure ... their views are heard".  This in a world where the default assumption of heterosexuality is so ingrained that a US basketball player made international headlines when he came out as gay earlier this year.  It's funny, but it's also sort of scary.  There are straight people out there who actually believe their voices are drowned out by those of gay people; this is the sort of self-deception of which humans are capable when we try to reconcile nasty, bigoted views with our wish to think well of ourselves.

More than anything, I am reminded by this of the ludicrous complaints of oppression so frequently made by members of the powerful religions.  Christians in the USA whose rights to practise their faith is protected by law but who complain bitterly that they are persecuted while their collective voice is enough to keep gay people from marrying in all but 12* states, and to make it practically impossible for a non-Christian to become President; Muslims who complain that they are victimised when the right they think they have to treat women like livestock is opposed.

There is one sense in which people like those behind the "Straight Pride" movement (I still can't quite believe this is a thing, but it seems to be sincere) could be said to be helping.  Gay people seeking equality already have the support of many straight people, a fact that regularly makes me proud to think that - however far we still have to go in many areas - we humans are, in the broad sweep of things, becoming more compassionate, more given to choosing compassionate secular values over superstitious dogma, and more ethical.  I think people like the members of "Straight Pride" can serve to remind us that the fight against homophobic bigotry is not yet over - in fact, if this does eventually prove to be a hoax, I suspect it will be one perpetrated with precisely this aim in mind.  It may also sting more straight people into openly, actively supporting gay rights - I know I for one would never want anybody to imagine for a moment that the Straight Rights campaigners represent anything I want any part of.

I've been tweeting about this today, and more than one person has said they're reluctant to give such a loathsome movement a platform by publicly opposing it.  People have every right to make that decision for themselves, of course, but for what it's worth my own opinion is that this group's claims to being oppressed are so transparently nonsensical that I don't see much reason to fear we might inadvertently give them legitimacy.  They're not only bigots, they're cowards and hypocrites too; I could allow a tiny, grudging measure of respect for these people if they were at least honest about their obvious homophobia (terms like "heterosexualy [sic] normal" are a dead giveaway, guys).  But by hiding behind this ludicrous fa├žade of oppression they make themselves contemptible not only for their views but also for their cowardice.  I think they can only galvanise the GLBT movement, so far as they can have any effect at all on a societal change that has gained such momentum over the last couple of decades - and for that I thank them.



*Actually not quite that simple, but I don't think my point is affected.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Why marriage equality will make the institution of marriage MORE, not less, meaningful - and in a far better way.

Yesterday I had a long conversation with a friend, stemming from the ongoing debate in the UK and elsewhere about marriage equality, about marriage as an institution.  He and I both support the right of gay couples to marry if they wish, but we both confessed that we couldn't really understand why anybody - of any sexuality - would wish to marry.

This has long been the case for me.  Although I understand that marriage is important to many people, and therefore support the right of any couple to enter into it regardless of their respective sexes or genders on principles of basic equality, it's not an impulse that seems to exist in me.  I'm twenty-nine now, and many of my friends and contemporaries are married... but I don't really understand why they've bothered.  I've lived with my partner for nearly six years now, and virtually nothing would change if we decided to marry; I wouldn't even need a new passport since I wouldn't change my name.  If we wanted to have kids that would make being married a more sensible financial and legal choice for us, but even that, I think, is more an argument in favour of amending the UK's rather outdated laws than in favour of marriage.

Many opponents to marriage equality argue that allowing gay people to marry will render the institution of marriage meaningless.  In fact, I suspect that the opposite might be true.  I think marriage - at least in the UK and  other parts of Europe - already IS pretty meaningless; certainly it's no longer necessary for purposes of respectability, or for recognition as a couple.  And I consider that loss of meaning to be a good thing; it's good that I am not the property of my partner, that our sex life does not require a stamp of approval from the church, that my legal rights are not different to those of my (male) partner.  But when true equality is achieved in the UK (and it will be, although I predict it'll take us a while to work out all the kinks resulting from the current, rather strange, laws) I can see marriage regaining some of its lost meaning - but in an entirely new and positive way.

Marriage could be reborn as a TRUE symbol of love - and also of acceptance, equality and freedom.  Purified of the taints of religious bigotry, of outmoded notions of respectability surrounding sex, and of the hangover of gender inequality that cannot but be present in an institution requiring that participants be of particular sexes, it could become meaningful in a positive way for the first time, arguably, ever.  As marriage in the UK currently exists, I feel not the smallest desire to enter into it; in fact, the more I think about its history, its archaic, exclusionary and arbitrary messages about what is and is not "acceptable" to society, and its ongoing, inbuilt homophobia and sexism, the more actively opposed I become to the idea.

But when any consenting adult can marry any other consenting adult, and when the only motivation to do so is love, then I will consider that an institution I can support, and perhaps even want to be a part of.  Then it will carry meaning that is truly deserving of our protection.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Secular cowardice in the face of name-calling.

Since taking part in International Day to Defend Amina earlier this month I've come in for heavy criticism for being "Islamophobic", "culturally imperialist", even plain racist for opposing the human rights violations that stem from Islam.  You may or may not agree with these labels; I don't myself, but as the days went by I heard the same accusations repeated so many times I did start to wonder if I might be missing something.  I also reflected that even IF the criticisms were in themselves unjustified it was still possible for the misperception to be so widespread as to render my actions counterproductive, even on mistaken grounds.

With this in mind, I emailed one of the administrators at the Council of Ex-Muslims Forum to ask his advice on how people like me - who have never been Muslims -  can best support ex-Muslims and other victims of the more vicious doctrines of Islam, and oppose threats arising from Islam to secular values.

He wrote back to me very swiftly, and acknowledged the difficulty that can arise both from supporting ex-Muslims and from criticising Islam:


(I hope my distaste for organisations like the EDL goes without saying, but just in case; no, I absolutely do not want to ally myself with such groups.)

Having acknowledged the delicate balancing act, however, my correspondent went on to say the following, which I think is crucial:


On first reading my response to this was to think "I don't even have to be public and outspoken?  What can that possibly achieve?"

But I've thought about it a little more since I received the email, and actually I think a very valid point is made.  So often I say to religious people - most often to Catholics, but the principle can be generalised - that their personal acceptance of the fact that (for example) the use of condoms is beneficial in preventing the spread of HIV is meaningless if they continue to lend tacit support to the power base of the Catholic church.  The Vatican is able to campaign against condom use in Africa and other places plagued by HIV because it is able to bring to bear the political weight of over a billion Catholics - if a significant number of those people stood up to oppose this monstrous policy (or, better yet, left the church - although I accept that this is not easily done), it could not continue.

The point is that numbers do matter.

I've written before on the duty I think atheists have to speak out against the evils of religion, and I don't think there's any excuse to shirk this duty when it comes to Islam - we must oppose such atrocities as "honour" killings, FGM, forced marriage, the oppression of women.  We who have never been Muslims are in some senses better positioned to argue against Islam than those who have been because - generally speaking - the risks we take in doing so are less than those taken by former Muslims.  Islam punishes apostasy harshly; the consequences of being known to have abandoned the faith range from ostracism and abuse to death.  The worst I can reasonably expect to get for denouncing Islam as one of the greatest evils we face in this century is name-calling - mostly from others who have never been Muslims.

Well, I can live with being called an Islamophobe and I can even live with being called racist - if the alternative is to sit back and allow people who face far greater threats to stand alone.  It's fairly clear why the accusations of bigotry flow so freely when Islam is criticised - they work.  But ask yourself; when a Christian accuses you of being a bigot, of "persecuting" them when you oppose their (assumed) right to stop gay people marrying, do you accept the criticism and shut up?  Does their accusation of bigotry prevent you from arguing against Christianity, or do you explain why you're not a bigot and keep arguing?

Why, then, does being called an Islamophobe shut you up?  Why do you adopt the term and throw it at people like me?  Would you call me a bigot, or culturally insensitive, when I tell Christians their religion doesn't give them the right to stop people getting married?

People who oppose Islam do so in the face of great adversity and even danger; to refuse to lend them your support out of fear of being called a nasty name is simply cowardice.

So visit the CEMB Forum, follow them on Twitter, lend the weight of your numbers even if you don't want to take a more active role in helping their work.  Every person who supports those who fight Islam makes their task a little easier.