Tag Archives: gender inequality

Boris Johnson’s recent comments about Saudi Arabia.

Boris Johnson has done only two really worthwhile things during his political career, sustain a decent public transport system in London and tell some truths about Saudi Arabia, so I cannot understand why he has been “slapped down” for recent comments made about that dire Middle Eastern nation state with whom we should sever all relations for as long as the place is ruled by Wahhabi Muslims. As it is, Boris Johnson only said what everyone knows, that Saudi Arabia engages in overt and covert warfare in many parts of the Middle East, largely to murder vast numbers of Shia Muslims. There is a growing body of evidence to confirm that Wahhabi Muslims want to exterminate Shia Muslims.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

Just be grateful Boris Johnson did not say a lot more about what a dreadful nation state Saudi Arabia is (Saudi Arabia is such a rubbish nation state it makes even the Disunited Kingdom look reasonably civilised). Think of how Saudi Arabia funds mosques all around the globe that spread the dire Wahhabi message, a message which so often morphs into extremism claiming the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Think of how sharia law in Saudi Arabia disadvantages women, non-Muslims and Shia and Sufi Muslims, and how it leads to the public beheading, lashing and stoning of people who have rarely done anything that other nation states regard as seriously wrong. Think of how the Saudi regime persecutes its own Shia and Sufi minorities. Think of how people who say they are atheist or humanist risk being killed because the authorities do not provide such courageous individuals with the protection they require. Think of how even Sunni Muslim women are denied the most basic rights that women enjoy in almost every other nation state on the planet. Think of how there is not one church, synagogue, mandir, gurdwara or Buddhist temple anywhere in the country, and how non-Muslims cannot engage in worship on Saudi soil, other than in the most exceptional or rarest of occasions. Think of how a Muslim converting to a religion other than Islam is considered an apostate and that apostasy is a crime punishable by death. And think of how all non-Muslims are banned from visiting Makkah. Add to all this that Saudi Arabian support for extremist/jihadist/salafist groups around the globe has caused death and destruction on a scale that no other religious group currently engages in, and you have to ask the following. Is any nation state on the planet responsible for more terrorism, conflict, war and/or attempted genocide than Saudi Arabia? Is any nation state on the planet more contemptible? Is any nation state (with the possible exception of North Korea) more worthy of complete isolation within the international community? I would answer “No” to each of the questions just posed.

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

There is, of course, yet another reason why we should distance ourselves from Saudi Arabia. Other than in its commitment to the rule of law (but most of the laws that Saudi Arabia commits to so slavishly are as terrible as they are contemptible and should be overturned tomorrow), the Wahhabi regime has absolutely no time for the so-called “British” values of democracy, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for people with different religions and beliefs. Nor does it have any time for what are slowly emerging as equally important “British” values, equality, social justice and freedom of expression. We fall short in relation to all the values just identified, but at least we commit to them rhetorically. Saudi Arabia has nothing but contempt for them all.

So: don’t knock Boris Johnson for what he recently said about Saudi Arabia. Encourage him to speak with even more frankness about a nation state that is the antithesis of everything we should stand for.

Advertisements

Two peace walks compared and contrasted.

It is increasingly common for towns and cities in the UK to arrange peace walks as a concrete expression of interfaith dialogue, and many such peace walks are arranged to coincide with, or take place just before or after, National Interfaith Week in November. This year I took part in two peace walks in North-East England and thought it would be of interest to compare them.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Newcastle-upon-Tyne

One peace walk took place in a city and is in its twelfth year, and the other took place in a town a third of the city’s size and is in only its second year. Although the walk in the city could draw on many more local people to swell its ranks and is now a well-established event, it attracted less than double the number of people who joined the walk in the much smaller town.

The peace walk in the city started at the Hindu mandir before stopping at an Anglican church, a Sunni Muslim mosque and a patch of grass where a Jewish synagogue is said to have once existed, and concluded at a Sikh gurdwara, where everyone was given excellent langar. Light refreshments were available at the mandir, the church and the mosque. Other than the stop at the patch of grass, this was exactly the same route that has been undertaken for at least the last seven or eight years. Although the city has two synagogues, a Roman Catholic cathedral, many expressions of Christianity other than Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism (e.g. a Coptic church), a Bahai centre, a Buddhist centre and an ISKCON centre, to list a few other manifestations of religious diversity, visits were made to only four functioning houses of worship.

The peace walk in the town started at the Friends’ meeting house before stopping at a Roman Catholic church, a Methodist church, the town’s only mosque (Sunni), an Anglican church, the town’s only gurdwara and the town’s only Buddhist centre, and concluded at what might be deemed a neutral space, a local authority facility with a swimming pool and large rooms for public functions (e.g. concerts). No refreshments were provided until arriving at the gurdwara, where everyone was given excellent langar. The town has Pagans and Bahais in small/very small numbers, an Eastern Orthodox chapel and a small synagogue that opens very rarely to meet the spiritual needs of a community in terminal decline, but the organisers of the town walk did far better to make the route inclusive than the organisers of the city walk.

Darlington

Darlington

The city walk began with a few important people saying some words to those about to leave, but those who spoke represented only Hinduism, Anglicanism and the local authority itself. This said, someone managed to persuade the organisers that, in a welcome break with convention, a Bahai should read a passage from Bahai scripture. The passage from Bahai scripture better summarised some of the values and principles that underscore peace walks/interfaith dialogue than the words of any other speaker during the event.

The town walk began with some words said by two Friends and a Humanist. The Friends and the Humanists have commitments to peace more rock-solid than many people who subscribe to other religions and beliefs.

The city walk attracted a considerable number of high profile figures including the local Lord Lieutenant, two senior police officers, senior religious figures in the Anglican and the Roman Catholic churches, senior religious and community leaders in the Hindu, the Muslim and the Sikh communities, and councillors representing the Labour and the Liberal Democratic parties. Also present were Bahais, Humanists, unaffiliated agnostics and atheists, and a Shia Muslim sheyk who has resided in the city for about six months.

The town walk attracted very few high profile figures, two councillors representing the Labour Party being the most obvious exceptions. But throughout the walk there were Christians of at least five denominations, Bahais, Buddhists, Muslims and, in very impressive number, Sikhs. There were also Humanists and unaffiliated agnostics and atheists and, for all I know, a Pagan or two. It was good that a few members of the local LGBTQ community were also present.

The city walk felt like an event organised by a small group of influential movers and shakers reluctant to broaden its appeal and reluctant to tinker with something tried and tested, despite it being far less inclusive than the town walk.

The town walk felt like an event shaped from the bottom up and was thus more inclusive and democratic in atmosphere. I liked how some people had come with their own, home-made brightly decorated banners declaring their background and commitment to peace.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The police were the stewards for the city walk (the police did a brilliant job and their presence was much appreciated, not least because they inflated the number of people taking part. But their presence as stewards confirmed that the event had an official seal of approval, as it were). Ordinary people in high visibility jackets were the stewards for the town walk.

At each stop along the city walk, someone welcomed the walkers and engaged in a talk lasting between 15 minutes and half an hour. I have attended five of the city walks and the same people usually do the talks every year. Even worse, the speakers rarely say anything different or get much beyond the usual platitudes about how their religion is peaceful (despite obvious evidence to the contrary, whether of a contemporary or a historical nature). Also, women very rarely, if ever, get a chance to contribute to the talks – which was why this year it was so refreshing that the Bahai who spoke at the start of the walk was female. Yes: convention was challenged in a second welcome way!

At each stop along the town walk, someone welcomed the walkers and engaged in a talk lasting no more than 15 minutes. An almost equal number of males and females provided the talks. Although some of the speakers could not get beyond the usual platitudes about how their religion is peaceful (despite obvious evidence to the contrary, whether of a contemporary or a historical nature), I was impressed how speakers at the Roman Catholic and the Methodist churches (a female and a male respectively), and the speakers at the start of the walk (two males and a female), spoke with unusual insight and genuine emotion.

The worst thing about the city walk was that it had not occurred to those responsible for its organisation to make the event more inclusive (e.g. by increasing the number of religions that the walk embraced, by giving women a more prominent role in the formalities). Nor had it occurred to the organisers to ensure that the non-religious majority in the city, who are among the most loyal/enthusiastic supporters of the walk, had the opportunity to reflect on the merits of such events, perhaps in the first instance by urging Humanists to reflect on their thoughts and feelings.

I have only one complaint to direct toward the town walk, and I am confident the problem can easily be rectified in future years. We arrived at the town’s only mosque to find about twenty dour-faced Muslim men, all but two with beards and skullcaps, standing in front of the main entrance (no women of Muslim origin could be seen anywhere. The mosque was the only place where women were not present, or where the impression was given that women lacked a substantive role in the religion). It was obvious we were not getting inside the mosque, even though entry was routine everywhere else. Instead, the imam and an ordinary member of the congregation (both male, of course) quoted a chapter from the Qur’an, translated the text into English and told us Islam is a religion of peace, despite all the wars, death and destruction Muslims presently engage in.

I will be honest: empty platitudes and an almost complete absence of Muslim women characterised the visit to the mosque during the city walk, but at least we got inside the mosque and, in an interesting departure from convention, non-Muslim women did not have to put on a scarf. But the disappointments associated with the town’s mosque were not so great as to confound what I have said above: the town’s peace walk was far more inclusive and democratic (and more people-led and people-centred) than the city’s peace walk, which is undertaken largely to help movers and shakers feel that they are doing the right thing. The movers and shakers ARE doing the right thing, but it is time for the organisers of the city’s peace walk to learn some lessons about inclusion and democracy from the peace walk in the much smaller North-East town.

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Will there soon be a conference addressing the question, “Is religion divisive?”

I ask, because the more such conferences there are, the better. And they are urgently needed.

Someone actively involved in interfaith work in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (the United Kingdom) advised me recently that the Newcastle Church of England diocese (which arranges/co-ordinates all the most worthwhile interfaith activity in the city and further afield) plans to hold a conference or seminar to discuss the question, “Is religion divisive?”

I hope the event is nothing less than a seminar because, if it is less than a seminar, it will be of little or no merit. In truth, a conference of at least a day’s duration is necessary to do justice to the question.

Of course, based on evidence in this blog as well as evidence from numerous other sources, it is impossible to deny that religion IS divisive, but, as the question is subjected to scrutiny, it would be helpful if the conference or seminar also addressed some or all of the questions that follow:

How is religion divisive?

Why is religion divisive?

Is religion more or less divisive than in the past (e.g. twenty, a hundred or a thousand years ago)?

What needs to change to make religion less divisive?

To enhance matters of universal concern such as community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all, must some rights currently enjoyed by religious people be restricted (because religion IS divisive, and because religion often IS detrimental to community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all)?

To enhance matters of universal concern such as community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all, must some religious beliefs and practices be outlawed (because religion IS divisive, and because religion often IS detrimental to community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all)?

Are all religions, most religions, some religions or no religions fully in accord with the so-called “British” values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of (secular) law, mutual respect and tolerance for people who subscribe to different religions and beliefs?

Are all religions, most religions, some religions or no religions fully in accord with the golden rule, that is, treat others as you would expect others to treat you?

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Not so long ago I took part in a conference that addressed precisely the same question – Is religion divisive? – and the structure of the day helped ensure that something meaningful emerged from the event (the structure also ensured that the supplementary questions just listed were addressed, albeit not always in the detail their importance required). Here is a summary of the day which I provided for my contact in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the hope he can ensure the idea for a potentially very worthwhile event fulfils expectations:

I once took part in an excellent whole day conference (for university under- and post-graduate students and members of the general public) on the motion, “Is religion divisive?” Someone spoke for the motion (it is divisive) and someone spoke against the motion (it is not divisive), then people in the audience (the audience included people with and without religious convictions) had the chance to ask questions of the people who had just spoken. There was also a panel of “experts” drawn from different religion and belief backgrounds (e.g. a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Humanist) and scholarly disciplines (e.g. a biologist, a psychologist, a historian, a philosopher), all of whom provided additional information for or against the motion (people in the audience had the chance to also question the “experts”). Everyone then broke into smaller groups to discuss the motion in more detail with a facilitator (the facilitators were the “experts” just identified), then a plenary was held in which the facilitators summarised deliberations in each group. The people who originally supported and opposed the motion were given a last chance to state their case, then a vote was taken on the motion (a vote on the motion started the day. It was interesting to see that about 30% of the audience changed their opinion about the motion).

It was an outstanding event, benefiting in particular from the two people who spoke for and against the motion at the beginning and the end of the day. Both people avoided meaningless platitudes because they provided concrete/reliable/irrefutable evidence in support of their case. It was this grounded, evidence-based nature of the introductory and concluding inputs which ensured the event was worthwhile, rather than a platform for people to allege things about religion and religious traditions that defy all knowledge and understanding (indeed, that defy common sense itself).

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

I was particularly impressed with how one speaker explored the critically important idea that religions can be divisive by not only dividing/separating/splitting people along distinct religious lines (e.g. many religious people insist that their faith is the only source of “truth”; many religious people live in de facto segregation because they want to preserve their identity without “corruption” from outside; many religious people demand separate schools for their children so they secure an Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, etc. education), but also by dividing/separating/splitting people within the faith group itself (e.g. along sectarian lines, an obvious and undeniable fault-line; but also in terms of, say, males and females dressing in gender stereotypical ways; males and females worshipping apart; males but not females ascending to positions of religious power/responsibility; males and females undertaking different rites of passage; women being ritually impure at times during their monthly cycle; people with disabilities/special needs not being included to the same degree as the so-called able-bodied/able-minded; gays, lesbians and bisexuals suffering disadvantage and discrimination, or worse). This I thought an important but sometimes neglected insight: divisiveness operates within as well as between religious traditions. Not unnaturally, much was made of concepts such as community cohesion, inclusion, equality, justice for all, the golden rule and democratic decision-making, and how some (many?) expressions of religion struggle with these core values underpinning universal declarations of human rights. 

Above all, the conference was memorable because people had to critically evaluate their standpoints with evidence and argument rather than platitudes and wishful thinking. But events of this nature are very rare, partly because conventional approaches to interfaith dialogue ENCOURAGE platitudes and wishful thinking rather than analysis of the evidence and critical evaluation.

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

An insight into life in the Islamic State.

A recent programme in the Channel 4 documentary series called “Dispatches” examined the work of a Yazidi lawyer in Iraq who, with the help of other Yazidis, liberates Yazidi girls and women from slavery in the Islamic State. The programme provided a large audience with an insight into just how dreadful conditions are for girls and women in what may well be the most oppressive regime in the world. Below, I summarise some of the information shared with the Channel Four audience. Some of the testimony of those enslaved by the Islamic State is harrowing in the extreme.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they abused, tortured and slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

It is estimated that some four million girls and women live under Islamic State rule. The Islamic State is the most brutal regime for women to live under anywhere in the world.

The Islamic State has the strictest dress code for girls and women anywhere on the planet. Girls from the age of eight or nine and all women are forced to cover themselves from head to toe and must not allow even their eyes to be seen. They have to wear two loose-fitting black gowns to completely disguise their body shape, gloves to cover their hands and three veils to ensure that their eyes are invisible to others (inevitably, the veils make it very difficult for girls and women to walk around with ease). If their eyes can be seen, girls and women can be tortured and/or lashed. If perfume is worn or a girl or woman raises her voice, arrest will follow.

Girls and women can leave their home only if accompanied by a close male relative. Non-Muslim girls and women are bought and sold in slave markets and can be sexually exploited by the males that buy them.

Foreign women who have travelled to the Islamic State to offer their support are often recruited into an armed police force that walks around enforcing the strict regulations so detrimental to all females’ needs and aspirations. Such foreign women have the right to punish those who fail to comply with the laws, laws which are crude interpretations of sharia.

Yazidi women are often locked up in improvised prisons. One Yazidi woman who managed to escape from the Islamic State said:

In the prison where I was held there were thirty-five girls and three women, the oldest being me, twenty-one years old. Men would arrive and rape and sexually assault us. One man wanted to rape a girl aged nine. I was angry and tried to stop him, but he said, “It’s okay in our religion to take a nine-year-old girl. We can marry a nine-year-old girl.” 

In 2014, about 3,000 Yazidi girls and women were captured by Islamic State militants while trying to hide in the Sinjar Mountains in northern Iraq and taken to the heartland of the islamic State as slaves. It is now known that some of the girls and women killed themselves to avoid being raped or sold in the slave markets. A survivor of sexual exploitation in the Islamic State said that girls and women who took their own lives were fed to the dogs.

Someone in the documentary said that a barrier like a wall was being built around the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar (where in May 2015 it is alleged that about five hundred Yazidis were executed by Islamic State militants) to stop people fleeing from Islamic State rule.

A woman aged eighteen described her ordeal at the hands of Islamic State militants in the following way:

He dipped his toe in honey and forced it into my mouth. Once, six guards came into the room. They raped me through the night until the morning. They raped me not gently but fast, with force, without care. Then I was given to twelve men. All twelve of them, they did everything to me. I’m still in pain. I can’t sleep. I wake at three in the morning still smelling them. Their smell makes me brush my teeth more than ten times a day to get rid of their taste. It (the taste) will stay with me forever.

Many Yazidi women are forced to convert to Islam or face death. 

A girl aged about six was interviewed about what she remembered about life when she was in the Islamic State. She said: 

It was all black.        

An elderly Yazidi woman explained how she and other Yazidi women had to give blood to injured Islamic State militants in hospital.

Women accused of adultery are stoned to death. However, qur’anic requirements that proof of adultery must exist before stoning can begin are not adhered to: a mere accusation is sufficient to initiate the stoning. In one particularly harrowing sequence of film, a father is seen berating his daughter because she is believed to have engaged in adultery. He is then shown throwing a large stone at her, thereby contributing to her death.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they abused, tortured and slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

A Sikh engages in critical evaluation to enhance the well-being of his religion outside its homeland.

Here, from a Sikh in Canada, are some reflections on ways the Sikh religion can be enhanced in the contemporary era. Note how patriarchal attitudes have, to some degree, eroded women’s opportunities within the religion, and how young Sikhs appear to lack a commitment to the faith that older Sikhs seem have (note in these two instances similarities with other religions).

As a general rule, in the West we don’t have school systems allowing students to study Sikhism to a high level. If someone wants to learn about Sikhism in depth, he/she has to go to India. In the West, therefore, we don’t have places such as universities or training colleges for young Sikhs to learn about the religion, to receive training in the religion, and/or to become leaders in the religion. Also, we don’t have any female kathavachaks (people who can deliver religious lectures). During the third guru’s time there were about fifty female parcharaks (teachers). Even though our population is now so much larger, do we even have that many female parcharaks? We have gone backwards, not forwards, since Guru Amar Das’s time. As time and technology progress we don’t see Sikhism progressing. We don’t see young Sikhs proud to say that the gurdwara is their beacon of light.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

We need to look again at our gurdwaras. For example, some Sikhs have started asking the sangat (the holy congregation) not to bow or donate during the lecture. They ask the sangat to wait until the end of the lecture to bow and donate. This is so as not to distract anyone and to bring more focus to the lecture. When you go to a lecture hall you are not allowed to come to the front if you are late. You sit at the back so no one is distracted by your entrance. This is how it works in an institution of learning. But are gurdwaras institutions of learning? Perhaps they should be more like institutions of learning.

Businesspeople evaluate their businesses to ensure they are a success. Gurdwaras usually don’t have a system to check if they have been successful. So, when Sikh children have been coming to the gurdwara for a while but don’t know anything about Sikhism, this reflects badly on the way the gurdwara is run. Schools take children, give them a learning plan, challenge them and test their knowledge and understanding. Schools with better teachers where the children learn more are the parents’ most desired schools.

A Sikh friend of mine tells the story of how he had been coming to the gurdwara for years before he knew anything substantive about Sikhism, but no one ever checked with him to see what he knew. All he knew was that he should give a donation, take kara parshad (food sanctified by prayer and distributed to everyone to emphasise equality) and then go home. If someone had asked him what he knew about Sikhism in those early days he would have said, “Nothing.” The thing to do with someone who knows nothing is not to have them sit and nod their head about something they don’t understand. That someone needs a class or a course to fill his/her knowledge gap. A gurdwara’s responsibility to the sangat is like a teacher’s responsibility to his/her students.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

A problem with the gurdwara is that the “teachers” aren’t in a position to teach. The person who knows about the gurbani (the content of the Guru Granth Sahib) best is the granthi (a knowledgeable Sikh who performs the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib), but the granthi is not in charge of the gurdwara. This situation is like having a businessperson running a school when schools should be run by educators, not businesspeople. As a general rule, in Christianity the religious experts – the priests, ministers, bishops, archbishops, etc. – are in charge of their houses of worship. Gurdwaras are typically run by a committee of “lay” Sikhs with limited knowledge about the religion. There is no test or apprenticeship that establishes whether someone deserves to be on a gurdwara committee. No one checks their knowledge and/or commitment to Sikhism. The committee members are chosen in elections, but the elections are not always representative of the sangat because of vote-stacking strategies. One of my Jewish friends attends a synagogue that has an interesting system for deciding who should have authority roles alongside the rabbi. Every member of the community has an electronic ID card which they swipe whenever they come to the synagogue. At the time when decisions are reached about who will have authority alongside the rabbi, the votes of those who have participated most in the life of the synagogue carry more “weight”. This is a good example of people who participate the most within a community having more power/influence/authority.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara committees are usually populated by successful businesspeople (invariably males) and not gianis (people with spiritual knowledge), granthis or parcharaks. This system has a negative impact on the the way Sikhism is taught and transmitted to the next generation. For example, the committee might want to expand existing buildings, hire more employees and/or have more akhand paaths (uninterrupted, continuous readings of the Guru Granth Sahib from the beginning to the end) for which they can charge the sangat. This might make sense to an ambitious businessperson, but not to an educator or a religious expert. While these things are, in some respects, very good, focusing on them might be misguided. During paid-for akhand paaths , the average Sikh cannot understand what is said and is therefore not learning from them. Most of the young people aren’t engaged in the all-Punjabi katha (explanations, reflections) and can therefore be found playing on their phones instead. Most Sikhs don’t know what they are doing when they undertake the lavan (wedding ceremony) or what it signifies. Consequently, most people aren’t helped by having a big gurdwara in which more akhand paaths take place. Such things might seem impressive to a businessperson who can then boast about them. However, what about the spirit of the sangat? What about young people’s understanding  about the gurbani?

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Many older Sikhs point out that the average Sikh today can’t tell you what the Mool Mantra (the opening section of the Guru Granth Sahib, which describes/summarises the nature/character of God) means or explain the fundamentals of the religion. Consequently, the Sikh community is not using the gurdwara as a learning institution. Moreover, there are usually no resources at a gurdwara for people who want to learn about the religion. There is rarely a library or a bookshop to get books if you want to read more.

What is needed most is engaging katha in English to get the younger people inspired by Sikhism. This is the recommendation of a grassroots parcharak.

We need a dramatic shift in focus. We should focus more on educating and inspiring the young. We should invest in libraries and learning resources, train kathavachaks and start educational programmes. Gurdwara committees have a big responsibility to make this happen because, at the present time, they have the most power.

A letter to “The Times” newspaper about the sexual grooming of children and young women.

Sir,

For many years political correctness has led to the identity of the community most obviously involved in the sexual grooming of children and young women in the UK being described as Asian rather than Muslim. We are consequently encouraged to hear the prime minister’s assertion that “a warped sense of political correctness” will not stifle attempts to fight these crimes – which he now classes as a “national threat”.

The Sikh and Hindu communities have for decades been at the receiving end of predatory grooming by members of the Muslim community and have for some time campaigned in the UK for it to be recognised that this is so, as recent high profile sexual grooming cases involving Muslim gangs confirm. The emerging evidence clearly highlights that most of the gangs originate from within the Pakistani Muslim community and that their victims are almost always of a white, Sikh or Hindu background.

We urge the prime minister to tackle head-on why so many young Muslims in the UK have this disrespectful attitude toward women in non-Muslim communities, and we urge him to urgently engage with the leaders of the Muslim community to find answers to a problem that demeans women, that does incalculable damage to interfaith harmony and that has a detrimental effect on the public’s perception of the Muslim community generally.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, the Network of Sikh Organisations (UK).

Anil Bhanot, the Hindu Council (UK).

Ashish Joshi, the Sikh Media Monitoring Group (UK).

Mohan Singh, the Khalsa Sikh Awareness Society (UK).

Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Sadly, there is considerable evidence to confirm that the thrust of the letter is accurate in all or most of what it says (thus, a good Sikh friend of mine in Newcastle provides shelter, food and education in safe houses around the city to the Sikh and Hindu victims of Pakistani Muslim gangs who operate in Leeds and Bradford). But is this an appropriate task for the prime minister to engage with? This is a problem that must be addressed by the men of a very particular religion and ethnicity.  And such men must begin by asking whether a statistically significant number of Pakistani Muslim males engage in such sexual grooming because of how they perceive and engage with females within their own community. Next, and perhaps most troubling of all, they must ask whether such sexual grooming is an inevitable outcome of a religion that exaggerates the differences between male and female, that accords to girls and women far fewer rights and opportunities than it grants to boys and men, and that sees girls and women as both threats to male well-being and legitimate targets for sexual exploitation.

Anyway: the letter above provoked from a friend of mine, someone very knowledgable about the world of Islam, the following reflection, a reflection which demands from individuals within the Muslim community to confirm that gender inequality and the sexual exploitation of girls and women are not inevitable facets of a religion which, at times during the medieval period in particular, had much of which it could be proud:

I support just about everything in the letter to “The Times” except the idea that the prime minister should “tackle head-on why so many young Muslims in the UK, etc.” The prime minister could use his considerable influence to ensure Muslim leaders “find answers to a problem that demeans women, etc.”, but this is a problem that is most apparent among Pakistani Muslim men in particular (note the evidence from Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and Newcastle, for example) and, perhaps, Muslim men more generally (Muslim males of non-Pakistani origin have also been charged with sexual grooming of girls and young women, but in numbers far smaller than those from within the Pakistani community itself). It is time that the Pakistani and/or Muslim community took full responsibility for a problem that is self-evidently of its own making. The Pakistani and/or Muslim community needs to get its own house in order and should not – does not – require anyone outside the community, least of all the prime minister, to steer it toward doing what is no more than the right thing.

My worry is that the root of the problem lies with scripture itself and not “merely” the culture associated with Pakistani Muslim men. There are simply so many statements in the Qur’an and the Hadith that point to the inferiority of girls and women; that state how girls and women should be denied the rights and opportunities granted to boys and men (e.g. in relation to dress, education, employment, marriage and inheritance); and that conclusively stack the cards against girls and women being treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. Moreover, look at how, in the Muslim world generally, the honour of the family is fundamentally shaped by the behaviour of female relatives (in particular, such honour is shaped by how female relatives behave in the company of males who are not relatives), but men can commit the most dreadful crimes against humanity without bringing obvious shame on themselves or their family (they can also drink, take drugs and engage in sexual practices forbidden to women, presumably because boys will be boys!).

The challenge for Muslim leaders, whether Pakistani or otherwise, is that they need to find within their scripture theological justification for treating males and females equally, for providing males and females with the same rights and opportunities, and for according to girls and women precisely the same respect and dignity that should be accorded to boys and men. My Muslim friends frequently tell me that justice, equity, equality and respect for human rights lie at the heart of the Islamic faith. If this is so, I urge Muslim leaders to get to work to confirm it, in the first instance in relation to gender alone (then, perhaps, a theology of equality can be elaborated in relation to sexuality, disability, non-Muslims with or without a faith commitment, etc.) . The victims of misogynistic Muslim male attitudes and behaviour need to be confronted with that theology of gender equality now.

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Wow: I hear what is said and agree with much of the content. But can such a theology of gender equality be extracted from scripture? I believe it exists, but only if Muslim leaders ignore the much more compelling/detailed/problematic theology of gender inequality. Here is a tip for those honourable Muslim leaders, Pakistani or otherwise, who are determined to get their own house in order. Rely less on scripture to identify a theology of gender equality and examine Muslim history and tradition instead (in particular, examine how some Shia and Sufi groups have given expression to gender equality in the past and continue to do so today). But, for perhaps an even more obvious source for a theology of gender equality, engage with the many brilliant Muslim feminists (most of whom remain alive, thankfully, despite repeated death threats from males hostile to gender equality) who have done all the groundwork for the Muslim leaders already. Yes: confirm a commitment to gender equality simply by taking seriously what Muslim women really want and act upon their demands. As the meerkat says, “Simples.”

Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

P.S. Even before this post was published, a Muslim friend who kindly examined the draft pointed out, “And do not forget ijtihad, which allows for individual interpretation of scripture where scripture is not wholly explicit or unambiguous about what should be the case. Also, you are correct. While Islamic scripture appears to provide people with a theology of gender inequality, a very careful selection of statements from the Qur’an and the Hadith allows for a theology of gender equality. I am confident that Muslims will rise to the challenge this post provides for them to express such a theology of gender equality.”

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Religion: does it facilitate or inhibit gender equality?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Why is it that so many expressions of religion deny girls and women the same opportunities as boys and men? Is it that God, gods, the supreme being/beings, ultimate reality and/or the divine are all too often described as if they are male? Is it that men and not women wrote all or most of the world’s scripture? Is it that men edited scripture in such a way that women’s contributions were suppressed? Is it predicated on daft ideas that the physically powerful (males) should always shape life for the physically less powerful (women)? Is it predicated on the equally daft idea, no longer sustainable of course, that males are intellectually superior to females?

Goddesses and women have played varied and significant roles in many religions throughout history, so why have they been nearly invisible in the official stories of most religions? In the contemporary world, women often make up the majority in any congregation/gathering for religious ritual purposes, but they are less well represented in leadership positions.

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

The qur'anic class concludes with refreshments, Arapgir, Turkey. Note the difference in headwear

The qur’anic class concludes with refreshments, Arapgir, Turkey. Note the difference in headwear

I am not convinced that religions are necessarily sexist in their beliefs, practices, predispositions or general character. By way of opening up discussion about this matter of supreme and fundamental importance about religious commitment (a religion that cannot treat males and females as equals is highly suspect and deserves condemnation of epic proportions to encourage it to mend its ways immediately), I will dwell on the case of Christianity, which, in its very earliest decades, looked as if it would present a formidable challenge to prevailing norms about gender roles. Too bad, therefore, that, in a relatively short time, males of sometimes questionable character (e.g. note in the first three or four centuries of the religion’s existence the disquiet expressed about the abuse of children, some of it of a sexual nature. Have things changed that much since?) seized the reins of authority and quickly marginalised women. In other than only a few fleeting instances thereafter, it was not until two centuries following the Reformation in the 16th century that some of the Protestant churches began to address the issue of gender equality in a holistic and serious manner (although, in fairness, some expressions of Christianity prior to the Reformation allowed women to attain positions of considerable influence, but only within monastic orders).

A general comment to begin with. To a very large degree, the Bible has been written by men for men about men (to what extent is this also the case in relation to scripture in other religious traditions?).

However, in John’s Gospel, women are active, innovative and ministers of the kingdom to come. They are affirmed in roles unusual/unacceptable in contemporary Middle Eastern society.

Books of the Bible written before John’s Gospel make it clear that women should be the bearers of their husband’s children and satisfy their husband’s sexual needs. Biology shapes women (and men of course) and determines their roles in society. In a lot of early Jewish literature, women are defined as unclean and sexual temptresses, and contact with women should therefore be avoided. Because they were “responsible” for male temptation/deviation from an ethnically sound life, women were barred from public life lest they cause men to sin. Because women were not thought to have the intelligence of men, they were discouraged from using their initiative. In fact, it was sinful for women to study the Torah. Moreover, because they lacked intellectual ability, they could not act as witnesses.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls women to public ministry despite male opposition to the idea. He engages in theological discussion/debate (“I am the messiah”) with a Samaritan woman (who is doubly suspect, for being a woman and for being a marginalised/distrusted Samaritan). He talks with Martha about resurrection. The news of his resurrection reaches the disciples via Mary Magdalene.

Jesus is happy to interact with a marginalised Samaritan who is also a woman, someone whom many Jewish people at the time would have regarded as unclean. But it is the unclean Samaritan woman who is persuaded that Jesus is the messiah – and she drops/abandons everything to share her knowledge with others. She is therefore a model for apostolic activity and would therefore seem to be on an equal footing with the disciples. Her role in John’s Gospel is described in the same way that John’s Gospel describes the disciples’ ministry.

The Samaritan woman is the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus reveals himself as the messiah and she is the first person who acts on that recognition. She is therefore the recipient of important theological information. Jesus treats her seriously and responds to her comments patiently and thoughtfully. To a very real degree, therefore, she is a model of female discipleship. This seems to imply that women can be messengers of the kingdom.

In John’s Gospel, Marta of Bethany is introduced/described in such a way as to suggest that she is more important than Lazarus. Jesus delivers “I am” speeches to Martha and Martha’s response to them mirrors that of Simon Peter in Matthew’s Gospel. Simon Peter’s response is generally viewed as confirmation that he has a leadership role, which would therefore imply that Martha is like a leader within the Jesus sect. Jesus sees Martha as capable of perceptive and discerning faith.

Even in stained glass windows, men invariably outnumber women. St. Vitus's Cathedral, Prague

Even in stained glass windows, men invariably outnumber women. St. Vitus’s Cathedral, Prague

If Chapter 20 of John’s Gospel is taken at face value, it would seem to provide the ultimate confirmation that Jesus is the resurrected Christ, the Son of God. Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty and tells Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Mary Magdalene is told to tell Jesus’ brothers the news of the resurrection. She is therefore entrusted with the supremely important message of Jesus’ triumph over death. It is due to this role that Mary Magdalene has been called the apostle of the apostles. A woman is informing/teaching the male disciples about the most basic tenet of the Christian faith, about the most startling mystery at the heart of the religion. One is therefore compelled to ask, “Is Mary Magdalene the equal to Peter?”

In some key respects, therefore, Jesus in John’s Gospel is revealed as distinctly radical/revolutionary in relation to the cultural norms of his age. He seems to suggest/confirm that women do not seduce men and that they should have access to public life. He seems to say that women should benefit from education. However, the Bible very soon confirms that all the disciples are male. Does this therefore confirm that Jesus is really a man of his time despite the above? Or does this merely confirm that others who came after him subverted his original intentions?

There is an indication in Chapter 12 verse 2 of John’s Gospel that Martha may have served at a table, perhaps as what became known as a deacon or, eventually, a minister in a house-church.

Although the earliest Christian texts attest to the importance of women in Jesus’ entourage and in the running of the first Christian house-church meetings, women rapidly disappear from the official history of church leadership (is this so because leaders within the church conformed with Paul’s hostility to women playing an active, public role in society/the church comparable to that of men?). However, sufficient evidence exists (historical and biblical) to confirm that, in those early days of innovation, Christianity accorded to women a role within the emerging religion that was indistinguishable from that of men. Consequently, far from the Church of England’s recent ordination of a woman as a bishop being a departure from early Christian tradition (of course, women bishops have existed for some years in the Episcopalian Church, the US version of the Church of England), Anglicans have simply brought practice within their denomination into line with the seeds sown in the decades immediately following the execution of Jesus.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. For a number of years now, the synagogue has had a female rabbi

Although the great majority of religions worldwide discriminate against women in favour of men, or withhold opportunities to women that they grant to men (can anyone come up with examples of sexism that are more blatant?), the Church of England, the Episcopalian Church, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church are among the Christian denominations that have female priests/ministers, and within Judaism all “schools” except Orthodoxy encourage women to train as rabbis. Men and women share priestly responsibilities in ISKCON and in many manifestations of what is collectively called Paganism. Women also play a key role in rituals associated with the religion known variously as Vodou, Voodoo or Vodun (e.g. female Vodou priests are called “mambos”). In some manifestations of Sufism, men and women assume an equal role in ritual practices, and monasticism for males and females exists in many forms of Christianity and some forms of Buddhism.

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Can anyone identify the other religions around the world which accord women exactly the same opportunities as men to play a full/leading role within their faith? I’m not interested at this stage in those religions which say women are equal to men (this is frequently alleged by expressions of religion, but quite rarely carried through in practice); I seek instead evidence that this is so in terms of their authority within the religion. Put another way, if authority figures within a faith are men, can women fulfil exactly the same roles? And if not, why not? If they can’t fulfil such roles, don’t tell me it’s mere tradition because, if it is, tradition needs to be challenged yesterday. Slavery was traditional, but it no longer exists in most parts of the world (it is most common in India, however, where an estimated 14 million people – yes, 14 million people – suffer from different types of bondage/false imprisonment, children and women primarily). Female infanticide was traditional, but it is rarely encountered today (it appears to be most common in the People’s Republic of China). The burning of witches was traditional, but today it seems to be confined to only a few places in Africa and Melanesia. Human sacrifice was traditional, but it would appear to have died out everywhere (except in Louisiana, if “True Detective” is to be believed).

Unnecessary differentiation by dress, Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Unnecessary differentiation by dress, Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Who can say for certainty what form the divine assumes (if it exists at all, of course)?

Who can say for certain what form the divine assumes (if it exists at all, of course)?