It is how we live, not when we will die, that we should be concerned about. How we argue, more than whether we always have to agree. Both death and disagreement should bring reflection, not regret.
Quality, not quantity of life
“It is the quality of how we live, in whatever circumstances and trials, not the quantity of our life, by which we should be measured. How we have grown, not what we have known. Not our faults and failures but how we learned from them and how many times we got back up again. Not our principles and judgements but how we stopped judging and sought justice. A little more reflection rather than reaction, in this world, would not go amiss. An attitude of gratitude, of making the best of it, not having the most of it. In disputes and discussions, of engaging not enraging, debate not hate, communicate don’t excommunicate, discussion not repercussion, of agreeing to disagree rather than the binary opposition of assuming your being right makes everyone else wrong rather than just being of a different mind.” – http://www.katyquot.es
TERFgate or Freedom of Speech?
This is something which Professor Mary Beard has tweeted about this weekend, in the wake of verbally violent disagreement over free speech and debates between some more radical feminists and aggrieved trans:
at risk of using few more characters, wouldn’t it usually be better to tweet “we disagree about this” than “you’re wrong about this”?
That heated debate, still going on – and which left Beard crying and even Peter Tatchell bruised, has resulted in both trans and feminists disagreeing as much amongst themselves as between opposing beliefs. Although it is hard not to disagree with many of the despicable ‘outing’ actions of Cathy ‘Bug’ Brennan, but even she has recently posted on agreeing to disagree.
Oliver Sacks, on how to live and (not) die
In the New York Times, renowned author and neurologist Oliver Sacks has reflected profoundly on his life and approaching death from terminal cancer:
“It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can… I have enjoyed loving relationships and friendships and have no real enmities, I cannot say that I am a man of mild dispositions. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions…
I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well)… I feel the future is in good hands…
My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
We are indeed unique – only we can live our lives and ours alone, to the full.
Historically, during the UK’s LGBT History Month, Stonewall (England and Wales) has announced that after months of meetings and “extensive consultation with over 700 trans people” that it will now actively campaign for trans rights and educate across the whole of LGBT.
“This change marks a significant moment in Stonewall’s history…This is an exciting but huge undertaking – we recognise that we are not instant experts, and will work closely with the trans community to achieve real change for LGBT people.” – Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall
Just as Stonewall plays historic catch-up and apology, others are debating the inclusion of more letters in the LGBT alphabet soup. So it was good that Stonewall also had engagements, one of which I was present at, with people who are intersex and/or non-binary, whether they identified as trans or not.
Ruth said: “We recognise that there is no universal experience of being trans”, so it is good that the trans* spectrum rather than stereotype is being explored.
At present, intersex inclusion is some way off, but engagement continues to take place, and Stonewall will help facilitate intersex campaigners and ensure that it itself says nothing about intersex without reference to UK intersex organisations and individuals first.
Another long standing grievance with Stonewall has been bisexual silence and thus tacit erasure. This too, has been addressed this month, with more conclusions to follow.
“Stonewall no longer needs to maintain a strict distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity….[but] we would have to work hard to make sure that people understood the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation.”
In an interview with PinkNews, to be published later today, Ms Hunt said:
“I am absolutely committed to creating a world through Stonewall where everyone has the right to be themselves, where everyone can be who they want to be, and I think that the artificial divide between trans and sexual orientation hasn’t been particularly helpful in the kind of disagreements that we have had, so I wanted to move it forward.”
LGBT, Bullying, Education and Schools
Perhaps, now, with Stonewall’s help weighing in on Government and education, we might see an improvement to sex education and anti-bullying training and measures that are inclusive of trans and gender non-conforming individuals, and not just homophobic bullying awareness. Indeed, anti-transphobic bullying campaigns and education about gender dysphoria needs to take place at an age before even sexual orientation becomes an issue, since gender identity is often felt by age 7.
Responses to the news
Meanwhile, some in the gay and lesbian communities have questioned the addition of trans. For instance, in the Pink News article comments:
“I’ve just cancelled my monthly donation to Stonewall as it’s clear they now have more money that they need. Gender and sexual orientation are wholly different.” – Steve
Other leading gay and lesbian figures including Paul Burston and Julie Bindel have previously commented that they can’t see the need of campaigning and including trans, and that at best lesbian and gay should stick together or indeed also work independently of each other. They regard LGBT as a letter too far and any other letters beyond that as weird and ridiculous.
Divided we fall, united we stand
Many of these changes are down to the hard work and great mediating of CEO, Ruth Hunt, who made these engagements a prerequisite of taking on the job after Ben Summerskill stepped down. She spoke to the Guardian on the first day of that new job:
“We are at quite an important tipping point in terms of trans equality, and we are looking at how we can best support and maximise that tipping point… Any change needs to be led by the trans community… we are very open to taking whatever direction will be in the best interest of [that] community” – Ruth Hunt
In just over 6 months she has begun the fulfilment of those promises, and today is indeed historical – but never needed to have been. Trans were among the first participants in LGBT rights and demonstrations since the Stonewall Inn riots, but were sidelined and erased from early gay rights history. Correcting that now, is long overdue, but nonetheless appreciated.
“This change marks a significant moment in Stonewall’s history. As a community we can achieve much more by standing together.“ – Ruth Hunt
This is very definitely a step forward and step away from the past. Some historic grievances may have to be laid to rest and a trans/bi-Stonewall amnesty declared to see this as a good thing for all, particularly as Stonewall are a narrow remit organisation involved in education, government and business equality monitoring and lobbying, not a support organisation or legal advocacy one, thus there is plenty of room for grassroots trans organisations to continue the great work they are doing.
Free Speech or Hate Speech?
This comes at a crucial time in the UK since twitter storms, blogs and facebook arguments are raging over trans rights to self-identify and the question of whether it’s free speech or hate speech to question that right and trans access to cis-gender spaces. (‘cis’ means non-trans, and is not a word I personally like, nor is accepted by many ‘cis people’ who simply consider themselves non-trans and comfortable with their birth sex identity.)
International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation
The United Nations designated Friday 6 February 2015 a worldwide day of zero tolerance on FGM, and called for action to end FGM now before another 86 million girls under 15 (most are under 5) are cut against their will by 2030.
It is carried out at the behest of male patriarchal societies, and increasingly by medical practitioners not just by tribal societies. In some countries up to 75% of cases involve healthcare professionals (most often other women) against the primary rule of medical ethics – The Hippocratic Oath, primum non nocere – “first do not harm”.
“It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls. The practice also violates their rights to health, security and physical integrity, their right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and their right to life when the procedure results in death.” – United Nations
Prevalence of FGM
Despite laws against it, and blatant after-the-fact evidence that is occurs on UK soil, and not just in African and elsewhere, female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) still happens. In 7 countries 85%-98% of girls are cut, with Somalia being the most extensive practitioner.
Some 140 million women and girls throughout the world are thought to be living with FGM, including some 200-500,000 in the USA and an estimated 66,000, 103,000 or 137,000 in England and Wales (2011 figures). It still goes on in at least 30 countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
Illegal but not Prosecuted
In the UK the first court case of its kind brought against medics and others involved has just failed to reach a prosecution. Another woman was arrested in the last few days trying to take her 8 year old daughter abroad, presumably to engage someone to carry out the intervention, the child was taken into care.
It has been illegal in the UK for nearly 30 years without a single successful prosecution. In Egypt it’s been against the law for only 7 years, but it has had its first guilty case just last month.
Whilst it has been rightly called “barbaric”, even primitive, is can be a distraction to use this term. Amnesty International counsel against it, though others think we should call a spade a spade, or a barbaric scalpel.
“Barbaric” may mean “uncultured, uncivilized, uneducated” or even “foreign, strange, brutal” from its earliest Greek and Latin origins, but some societies practising it do so in full knowledge of what they do, and as part of their culture, or coming of age ceremonies.
FGM Origins and Geographical Spread
It was present as far apart as Australian aboriginal tribes and Tsarist Russia in a Christian sect called the Skoptsy. They practiced castration and cutting of men and women as necessary for salvation – a complete misreading of some biblical texts in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. The early church father Origen, was said to have castrated himself too.
Indeed, there are reports that the ancient Egyptians and Romans did it themselves, highly civilised cultures by some measures. FGM and female circumcision pre-date the Quran, in fact they are not mentioned in it. Its practice may have related to controlling slave women, and through the slave trade spread across sub-Saharan Africa via Arab and other traders. Some early descriptions seem to be of early surgeries on intersex people with either an enlarged clitoris or large labia. To this day genitals and even gender are still defined by size.
Whatever its origins, in a supposedly post-slavery era (though we are not there on that count yet either) it remains used in traditions and cultures that are innately sexist where men and marriage define and control status, pleasure, and purity. Virginity and FGM remain prerequisites for some African marriages thus forcing mothers into being accomplices in the practice, in order to find marriages for their daughters and avoid the social and economic exclusion of not being married off.
Zero Tolerance to End FGM
Zero tolerance rather than a phased ending of FGM is the only way to bring about its demise, irrespective of cultural excuses, rather than setting some future date for it to end by. It is abuse, explained by culture and tradition but never justified by it. Mothers and medics, being coerced into collusion breaks their sacred vows to first, do no harm, to their child or patient. We need education of mothers, medics and girls, as much as legal action, to raise awareness that this is an unacceptable practice that must end.
An early version of this article was first published here.
Images courtesy of Pixabay and do not imply people illustrated are affected by FGM
In Saudi Arabia Raif Badawi remains in prison under threat of 950 more lashes and 9 more years of a 10 year sentence and a further 10 year travel ban upon release, as punishment for “insulting Islam”. Additionally, his trial lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair, who set up a human rights monitoring organisation (MHRSA) in Saudi, was also subsequently charged himself for various breaches. Both had their sentences recently increased by half again, not cut or commuted.
Waleed Abu Al-Khair
Among other things, Waleed Abu Al-Khair (also written as Abulkhair) was accused and convicted of “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and sentenced to a 15 year prison term in 2014 and a 15 year travel ban upon his release, he was already prohibited from travel since 2012.
Abulkhair had defended many people for socio-religious and political crimes in Saudi, including a British national when he was hired by the British embassy. If political is even a word that can be voiced in a state that is an absolute rather than even a constitutional monarchy. Opposition and democracy are thus, inherently illegal.
He ran, in his own home, a mixed sex politico-religious discussion group or salon called Smood (“resistance”) and used Twitter and Facebook for further discussion, somewhere he felt free at last. Indeed, Forbes magazine listed him as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Arabs on Twitter.
Social media activity is an uncensored medium that has got away from Saudi Arabia, which has the largest number of Arab Twitter users and a Facebook user base second only to Egypt. Perhaps the United Nation’s big #SocialUN gathering on 30 January and discussion of digital diplomacy will foster awareness of those imprisoned for freedom of speech on social media.
“Do I hate anyone?” I wonder, particularly those who have insulted me and my family, using the foulest of words in the course of the investigations? Do I hate those who imposed a travel ban on me for years with no legal reason? Do I hate the judge who ordered that I be put in jail simply because I have a signed a statement calling for fair trials? Or should I hate the Prince, whose emissaries have continuously threatened me with being put in prison for years if I refrain from signing an affidavit? Do I hate men of religion who drafted heinous reports about me to the security agencies – full of lies and proclaiming me an apostate? Or should I hate the people using pseudonyms on new media outlets, so they could lie about me and my family so as to damage my reputation further?
I reach deep within my heart and find that I bear no grudge against anyone. I realize that I rather feel sorry for them, the same way I feel sorry for those who decided to give up their freedom, just like an alcoholic who roams aimlessly after willingly giving up his mind to liquor.
Freedom of expression on social media hasn’t stopped Saudi reaching beyond international boundaries to extradite and imprison one Hamza Kashgari for questioning Islam via Twitter. Thousands of Saudis backed calls for this young man’s execution for apostasy and support of the Arab Spring. He served 2 years after apologising but was banned from writing again.
Kashgari described his original actions in the following terms:
“I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom. I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rights – freedom of expression and thought – so nothing was done in vain. I believe I’m just a scapegoat for a larger conflict. There are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are fighting for their rights.”
Raif Badawi was arrested in 2008 and again in 2012 for apostasy and insulting Islam by electronic means, i.e., he set up the website Free Saudi Liberals to enable discussion of religion and politics. Cited charges included “ridiculing Islamic religious figures” and “going beyond the realm of obedience” – whatever that means!
The Saudi court ordered him to undergo 50 lashes every Friday for 20 weeks, publicly outside a mosque on a religious day just after prayers, only the first instalment has been delivered to date, in the middle of the square in front of Al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah where a large crowd gathered to witness the flogging. Last Friday, he was again not caned – the third time the punishment has been postponed, allegedly due to his previous wounds not having healed enough, but also likely due to international media attention on Saudi following the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the death of King Abdullah.
Religion and Punishment
What kind of religion or state combines faith and flogging, prayer and punishment, in such a way? Well perhaps ancient Judaism might have done. Certainly, biblical texts of the Torah allow for the stoning of those caught in adultery, for instance, or tell of the clinical purging of an enemy for idolatry. That the populace tried to pick up stones, to stone an alleged adulteress, as recorded in the gospels, proves that the law was still known, if not in use, though there’s little record of it being enacted. Jesus intervened, in this case, and it didn’t happen. Likely as not, the Romans would have had a problem with people literally taking the law into their own hands anyway.
So, just because Jesus stopped a public punishment, does that place Christianity above Judaism in ethics? Far from it. Church history records the Crusades and the Inquisition, brutal tortures, executions, burnings of heretics, witches, liberals. Some countries and US states continue to commend the death penalty based upon biblical texts.
Islam – Peace or Violence?
Ironically, whilst Islam means “submission” it stems from the same root as the Arabic salām سَلاَم meaning “peace”. Numerous people have referenced its over 100 verses suggestive of killing varieties of “unbelievers”, yet it also condemns the taking of a single “innocent life” as equivalent to murdering the whole world. Like all religions, it seems, there is plenty of Scripture to cut and paste and formulate one’s own intolerant beliefs, or to foment and indoctrinate via human interpretation.
“Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error; whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And God hears and knows all things.” – Qur’an, Al-Baqarah, 2:256
Indeed, all three monotheistic religions have scriptures calling for tolerance, mercy, love and peace. What we choose to focus on, judge by, is therefore, a function of our beliefs, not something we can justify by selective religious reasoning.
State Sanctioned Hypocrisy
The hypocrisy of not only Saudi Arabia, but those nations and leaders that visited the country in the wake of the recent death of the king, even flying flags at half-mast, like England but not Scotland, is visible to all. Transparently and desperately trying to get in with the new king to gain access to oil, defence, and trade agreements.
As Abulkair has written:
“As long as the oil keeps flowing, the world will turn a blind eye if Saudi Arabia continues to crack down on freedom and human rights.”
Saudi’s own hypocrisy lies in not exercising mercy and tolerance in order to deserve the same, principles cited by Muhammad himself:
“No mercy would be shown to him who does not show mercy”, Muhammad in Sahih Al-Bukhari and in Sahih Muslim
“Be tolerant to be tolerated”, Muhammad narrated in Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Musnad 1/248.
Tolerance, or samah, in Islam is considered to also mean leniency.
Furthermore, it has been pointed out that they extreme flogging sentence breeches even the grounds and interpretation of Quranic and Sharia punishments.
Human Rights Campaigns
Various Change.org and Amnesty International campaigns are keeping the pressure up, but governments are turning a blind eye to Saudi, tolerating one form of extremism over another, Islamic State. Mainly, it seems, because IS (ISIL/Daesh) is missionary, i.e., wanting to expand and conquer, whilst Saudi is content to rule its own citizens with an iron rod, beheader’s sword and flogger’s cane.
Other international human rights, humanitarian, peace and journalists organisations have continued to publicise Badawi and Abulkhair, giving them prizes and awards to draw attention to their plight and honour their fight. For instance Badawi has been awarded the PEN Canada One Humanity Award 2014, the Reporters without Borders Netizen Prize 2014, and Aikenhead Award 2015 of the Scottish Secular Society.
Whilst the حديث ḥadīth or saying(s – technically أحاديث ʾaḥādīth is the plural) of the Prophet are outside the Quran, they like the Mishnah and Talmud for Jews, form a significant part of traditional interpretations for Muslims. Indeed, much Shariah law is derived from the Hadith. For those campaigning for the release of Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair you could do no worse than to quote the following hadith to them:
“It is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing.” – Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1011.
In fact it is an injunction of one hadith to call Islamic oppressors to account:
Allah’s Apostle said, “Help your brother whether he is an oppressor or an oppressed,” A man said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I will help him if he is oppressed, but if he is an oppressor, how shall I help him?” The Prophet said, “By preventing him from oppressing (others), for that is how to help him.” – Sahih Bukhari 9.85.84
Abulkair finished his final letter pending imprisonment with this:
“…freedom is cultivated, its seeds are those who have sacrificed a lot and have made the sky the limit to their sacrifice… There will always be free souls in this world who will not be silenced by oil!”
Please, and especially in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, do not forget those in prison for standing up for freedom of expression in the Arab world. Keep the pressure on governments, agencies and media alike to Free Raif Badawi and Free Waleed Abulkhair.