Thursday, January 07, 2016

Culture clash: on importing misogyny

I feel sorry for Angela Merkel. After responding with humanity and generosity to the Syrian refugee crisis, some of her guests have abused that generosity during a night of mayhem in Cologne and other cities on New Year's Eve. Large crowds of men of Middle Eastern and North African origin behaved appallingly, assaulting women who were out enjoying the festivities and overwhelming the police, who struggled to regain control. It was a gift to all the anti-migrant, anti-immigration organisations, here and in Europe. One man is reported to have told a policeman,
"I am Syrian, I must be handled in a friendly manner. Mrs Merkel invited me here!" 
However shocking, maybe we shouldn't be surprised. Refugees may not necessarily be terrorists, smuggling themselves into friendly countries in the guise of the desperate, but they may not know how to behave well either. Think about it.

Whenever you see a crowd picture in the news from the Middle East, it's invariably dominated by men. If there are women, they're usually vastly outnumbered and covered in the burqa. In repressive Islamic regimes, women are not free to go where they please or do as they please. They are treated as male property and even when they're assaulted or raped, the fault lies with them, not with their attacker. You can't simply blame their governments, as it suits most of the men in these societies to live this way. The sexes are strictly segregated, so from a young age they've known no different. These practices are being imported into Britain and other European and Scandinavian countries, where men and women are kept apart in the mosques. British Muslim women who attend mosques dominated by imams from abroad may not suffer the same extremes of repression as their sisters in Iran, Syria or Pakistan, but forced marriage and honour crimes are still a problem, as is the practice of Sharia Law.

Men raised in these societies, used to servile, controlled women, may come to regard women from the UK, Europe and Scandinavia as easy pickings, advertising their sexuality for the taking, because they do and dress as they please. Whether covered by the burqa or not, women aren't worthy of respect. We don't matter. The result is that when they come into contact with women outside their own community, there's bound to be trouble. A majority of the paedophile rings exposed here in recent years have been described as "Asian". The Libyan soldiers being trained at Bassingbourn Barracks took advantage of their new-found freedom to abuse local women - some are now claiming asylum here, knowing that they'll be punished if they return home.

Population growth, the effects of climate change, conflict in the Middle East, are all contributing to the migration of people across borders, but it's not as simple as moving across the map. The cultures of migrants and hosts couldn't be more different. You don't change attitudes during language lessons or through the education of immigrant children in a short time, not when the numbers are so high. Sweden is finding this. It has been generous towards refugees too, like Germany, but things aren't going well. Resentment towards Muslim immigrants in Sweden is growing, and understandable. Integration isn't happening. Canada's Globe and Mail reported,
Sweden’s fantasy is that if you socialize the children of immigrants and refugees correctly, they’ll grow up to be just like native Swedes. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Much of the second generation lives in nice Swedish welfare ghettos. The social strains – white flight, a general decline in trust – are growing worse.
What happened in Cologne may not be an everyday occurrence, but imagine a house guest who ignores all the usual rules of civilised behaviour and abuses your hospitality, then multiply it by thousands. Some kind and generous people from the South of England who took in a refugee who'd come across the channel were lectured by their guest on how to raise their daughter. She was immodest, they were told, and shouldn't expose so much flesh. It didn't occur to this idiot that he was in the wrong, not them. Sadly, there are many more brain-washed idiots like him, who've never been challenged about their beliefs before, and if we observe the convention of "respecting" their beliefs, nothing will change and women, especially, will suffer for it.

Another Canadian writer, Ali A Rizvi, has described religion as the "elephant in the room" in debate about Middle Eastern misogyny.
Having spent the first 24 years of my life growing up in Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan as part of a Muslim family, I can't be so simplistic to allege that all of the misogyny in the Arab and/or Muslim world is a consequence of just one or two factors. But I also can't be naive enough to dismiss or even downplay one of the major, central forces driving it.

Saying that sexism and misogyny in the Middle East has "nothing to do" with Islam (or any Abrahamic religion for that matter) is symptomatic of either denial or fear.

The Quran is written in Arabic. And the people of Egypt, the largest Arabic-speaking Muslim country in the world, largely believe it to be the immutable, divine word of God -- not unlike most people in other Arab and Muslim countries. The majority of Muslims won't even touch or recite the holy book unless they have done wudhu (cleansing) and/or ghusl (bathing). Women are not allowed to recite it while they're menstruating. That is how much it's revered.
For the sake of women everywhere, we can't tiptoe around cultural differences and religion and make excuses for misogyny. I'm in favour of offering sanctuary to refugees from the chaos of Syria and the droughts of North Africa, but it's not possible to ignore the dangerous beliefs that some of them regard as beyond criticism, and which threaten our human rights and rule of law. They have to be confronted.


A report from Spiegel Online on the Cologne attacks, "Chaos and Violence: How New Year's Eve in Cologne Has Changed Germany."

And now, a happy story about an English woman and her male Syrian refugee lodger.

Refugees to be given lessons in 'Western sexual norms' in Norway.

Belgium to launch 'respect for women' classes for refugees and migrants.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Terrorism, and what not to do about it

There may be many things wrong with religion, such as Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and the thread of misogyny that runs through the Abrahamic religions, but being religious doesn't make you a terrorist, including being a Muslim. There are estimated to be 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. Only a very small proportion of them are terrorists but they make up a large proportion of the victims of terrorism and of the refugees from the mess in Syria and Iraq. Yet in the current panic about terrorism, some regard every Muslim as a suspect.

People, mostly male, who become terrorists are likely to have huge chips of their shoulders which they blame on others for a variety of reasons. They are unhappy, resentful people who'll justify their anger and hatred with one of a variety of negative -isms, including jihadism, patriotism, tribalism, nationalism and sexism. The Oxford English Dictionary defines terrorism as "The unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims." What was "shock and awe", the assault on Baghdad in 2003, but state-sanctioned terrorism, most of it committed by nominal Christians, led by those two pious idiots, Bush and Blair?

IS, or Daesh, is a bigger organisation than Al-Quaeda, Al-Shabaab or Boko Haram, largely thanks to Syria's Bashar Al-Assad's destructive regime and to the mess left in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In the absence of any effective governance, widespread lawlessness and the availability of illegal weaponry has allowed a few charismatic leaders to recruit fighters to their toxic cause. Sponsorship by wealthy benefactors also contributes. Many of its foreign recruits are from areas of social deprivation; under-educated, under-valued, under-employed, and ripe for enrolment into an organisation that tells them you're all right and everyone else is wrong.

France may like to crow about "Liberté, égalité, fraternité!" but it has housing estates full of Muslim citizens who will tell you that they don't feel that they're treated equally. Al Jazeera has reported that by 1904 5,000 Muslims were working on the shop floors of Paris, in the soap factories of Marseilles and in the coalfields of the north. Muslim soldiers fought and died for France during the First World War, and Muslim members of the resistance helped liberate Paris in 1944. "Born as North Africans, many would die for France. But how much did post-war France care about their sacrifices?" Not enough. Young Muslims, like the young woman who blew herself up in Paris last week, have grown up to face social deprivation and unemployment with an understandable sense of grievance. Maybe you should be surprised that more of them haven't become terrorists.

And what about the UK? We don't have the same pool of disenfranchised Muslim youth, though there are pockets of deprivation, but bombing IS isn't going to help matters. There'll be more anti-UK rhetoric and reaction, more refugees, and more anti-Muslim nonsense spouted in the right-wing press and nationalist political groups and parties. In other words, it'll stir the pot of violence and hatred even more. Act in haste, and reap the consequences.

Click here to watch the Al Jazeera series on French Muslims.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Friday, October 02, 2015

Ban the Bomb

Horrified by what had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I joined CND as a teenager on Merseyside. My dad didn't approve. Some of my friends were in the Committee of 100, which he definitely didn't approve of. I had to sneak out of the house in the early morning to meet my best friend Ann before joining a coachload of CND people in Liverpool, off to demonstrate outside the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool. The Scouse sculptor, Arthur Dooley, was on his hands and knees with a hammer and nails in the coach, making placards for us to wave. We assembled on the beach in Blackpool, where Canon Collins and others spoke from a flatbed truck until the incoming tide threatened to wash them away. My father had got wind of my plans and forbade me to go, hence the early departure. He'd have locked me in my room if the lock wasn't stuck open with several layers of paint. I was spared a row when I got home because Mum and Dad had visitors, and didn't want a scene.

Ann and I continued to demonstrate. In the Easter holiday of 1960 we pretended to go youth hostelling in North Wales but went on the Aldermaston march instead, with me dodging the news cameras so my dad wouldn't see me in the Daily Mail, his newspaper of choice. We leafleted patrons leaving the local cinema after Dr Strangelove, Stanley Kupbrik's black comedy about nuclear weapons.

By 1962 I'd left home to work as a farm labourer. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 I was living on a small dairy farm outside Flint, in North Wales. My boss's wife, a primary school teacher, was convinced that we'd all perish in a nuclear holocaust at any minute and her paranoia was contagious. She'd stocked up with whitewash and brown paper to protect the windows against a nuclear blast, and rehearsed our survival strategy. The eldest two children were away at boarding school, and she fretted about bringing them home. As we were having breakfast one morning, her youngest son strolled into the kitchen in his pyjamas and asked, "Mummy, what's that big red glow in the sky?" Terrified that it was a bomb over Liverpool, my boss's wife rushed to look through the landing window. To everyone's relief, it was only the sunrise.

53 years later, I wouldn't have expected to be discussing the same issue again, but Jeremy Corbyn's statement that he wouldn't press the nuclear button has prompted a hoo-ha. It's absurd. One pro-nuclear advocate on Twitter told me that the nuclear deterrent has kept the peace for the last 70 years. Apart from the fact that a nuclear "deterrent" wasn't part of anyone's arsenal until the 1950s and was mainly connected to the Cold War, there's no evidence that it's a deterrence now, since the formation of the European Union, the demise of the USSR, and the increase in terrorism. What good would a nuclear bomb have been post-9/11? Former Tory Defence Secretary Michael Portillo called for our nuclear arsenal to be scrapped ten years ago. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian wrote,
I can recall no head of the army and no serious academic strategist with any time for the Trident missile. It was a great hunk of useless weaponry. It was merely a token of support for an American nuclear response, though one that made Britain vulnerable to a nuclear exchange. No modern danger, such as from terrorism, is deterred by Trident (any more than Galtieri had been in the Falklands or Saddam in Iraq). But the money was spent and the rest of the defence budget had to suffer constant cuts – and soldiers left ill-equipped – to pay for it.
So why Corbyn's Defence Secretary Maria Eagle should say that his remarks were "unhelpful" beats me. When it comes to nuclear weapons, Corbyn's a realist. Those Labour Party people who regard his stance as unhelpful need their heads testing.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Is it smart to be proud of obesity? (Light the blue touch paper and retire immediately)

My photo, outside a supermarket
I have a problem with being fat. I'm over-weight (though not obese) and trying not to be, though it isn't easy to lose the weight as someone with restricted mobility. I have enough health problems, without obesity making them worse. I also have a problem with other people being fat. It's not about shaming them, which isn't good, but I find them deeply unattractive, even repulsive. One of the experts on BBC TV's 'Flog It!' programme is Michael Baggott, who's enormous. I can't watch him - I change channels whenever I see him. I'm sure he's a very nice man and he knows what he's talking about, but I'd rather not watch him. Is that so terrible?

Tess Holliday
This post was prompted by a thread on Facebook today, where the subject of "fat-shaming" came up. In America, it seems that you have to be very careful what you say about obese people, for fear of being charged with a hate crime. In response to criticism, some women (it's mostly women) have adopted a "fat and proud" stance. The recent visit of size 26 supermodel Tess Holliday to the UK, where she signed up with a British model agency, attracted hoards of fat fans who adore her because of her attitude. She's tweeted, "To the people that fight on my social media: I don't give a fuck. Get a therapist, phone a psychic or eat a fuckin' burger ... grow up."

The World Health Organisation says, "The fundamental cause of obesity and overweight is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended." In other words, eating too much. Couldn't be simpler. Yes, I know it's not easy, with all those tempting high calorie things out there just falling into your shopping bag and, like any other addiction, it's hard to quit. But there must be a balance between fat-shaming or bullying and being "proud" of a condition that's a major risk factor in noncommunicable diseases such as:
  • cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke), which were the leading causes of death in 2012;
  • diabetes;
  • musculoskeletal disorders (especially osteoarthritis - a highly disabling degenerative disease of the joints);
  • some cancers (endometrial, breast, and colon).
The increase in cases of diabetes has been reported as overwhelming the NHS, costing £25,000 a minute, while you're a drain on the public purse even when you're dead, if you're fat; I've blogged about that before.

So, excuse me if I'm not proud of being fat and I don't expect anyone to find it attractive. I'm eating less (small plates, no snacks) and slowly losing the weight. You can click on my Just Giving link (right) to encourage me. And I don't think it's clever to try to be a fat role model, like Ms Holliday. Her obesity is, of course, highly visible, but no less a problem than an invisible one like alcoholism or smoking. They all damage health. How can you be proud of that? Maybe it's time that more fat people were less proud?

Saturday, August 15, 2015


Saw a bit of the VJ Day stuff on the telly and it reminded me of Bill. In the early 1960s, including one of the coldest winters on record (1962-63), I worked on a small dairy farm just outside Flint in North Wales. Bill was my boss, one of the kindest, gentlest men I've ever known. He taught me a lot, including how to care for the cows and their calves. We bottled the milk and sold it on a milk round in Flint, which wasn't easy when the streets were like an ice rink.

Bill had been a prisoner of the Japanese in the notorious Changi Jail and on the Burma Railway, where so many men died. One of his fellow prisoners was the artist and cartoonist Ronald Searle (famous for creating the St Trinian's delinquent schoolgirls). Bill told me that they were so hungry that they used to catch and kill snakes and cats to eat, but Ronald drew them first.

Searle smuggled lots of drawings out of the prison. This one is of roll call before going to work on the railway - click on the image to enlarge it. I asked Bill what he thought of David Lean's film, "The Bridge on the River Kwai", with Alec Guinness as the ridiculous British officer, Nicholson. Bill was seldom negative, but he became almost angry when he said that it was nothing like Burma - nothing could be that bad. Wikipedia says, "The largely fictional film plot is loosely based on the building in 1943 of one of the railway bridges over the Mae Klong...". Bill said it was almost all fiction.

I didn't stay long on Bill's farm - I left to go to art college. Bill said that he'd think of me whenever he saw a box of Kleenex, as we'd both struggled that cold winter with colds, coughing and sneezing through the snow drifts. Compared with what he'd suffered under the Japanese, that was nothing. On today's news I saw that some Japanese are proud of what they did in the war, and feel they have nothing to apologise for. Maybe they've forgotten about Changi and the railway.

Friday, August 07, 2015

An email to my MP, James Cartlidge (South Suffolk)

I'm ashamed of my government. I'm appalled by the attitude that migrants are all potential scroungers and must be deterred. I'm sad and angry at the lack of basic humanity shown towards these desperate people. We have accepted far fewer refugees than other European countries, and certainly far fewer than countries like Greece and Lebanon, who really can't afford to help them.

Today (Friday) I read a report from a young woman, Jaz O'Hara, who's Head of Design at Pants to Poverty, about a visit to The Jungle, the makeshift refugee camp in Calais. Jez is one of the volunteers who takes food, clothes and other essentials to the refugees.

This is what she wrote:

An hours drive from my house, then half an hour on the Eurotunnel, and we were in the world’s worst refugee camp in terms of resources and conditions, yet we were welcomed with open arms. It’s amazing how only the people who have nothing really know how to share.

The ‘jungle’ (as the camp is known), is loosely and naturally divided by country, with every one of the worlds warzones represented. We walked through ‘Afghanistan’, ‘Syria,’ ‘Eritrea’ and ‘Sudan,’ all living peacefully alongside each other. This struck a chord with me – it was immediately clear that these people, fleeing war and persecution, want anything but conflict. The ‘mosque’ (a wooden frame), next to the church (some wood and tarpaulin, crowned with a wooden cross), right next to each other, representing that we are all the same, regardless of religion or race.

Nothing could have prepared me for hearing the stories of these people first hand.

A man from Afghanistan told me how he had fled his country with over 100 other people with the aim of walking together to England. Many people (mainly women and children) died along the way. They were so hungry they ate grass, and one night, walking through Bulgarian woodland in the dark, he tripped and a stick pierced through his eye. He spent 2 weeks in hospital in Sofia and the group left him behind. He carried on alone and had finally made it to Calais.

Then we met three Eritrean brothers aged 14, 13 and 10. They were alone. Sent by their parents to escape conscription to compulsory, indefinite military service, which is basically slave labour, they had made their way from Eritrea on foot.

And then, a 23-year-old from Dafur, Sudan. He told me that the Gangaweed had come to his village on horseback when he was 18, burnt it to the ground and brutally shot many people, including his dad, just for being black. He was arrested, accused of opposing the government, and put in prison for two years. As soon as he got out, he went back to where the village once was, desperate to find his two little brothers, little sister and mother. He was told his sister was alive and in a nearby town so he went looking for her. She wasn’t there. He searched towns and cities until he was again arrested, as travelling through the country is not permitted. Unable to face any more time in prison, he spent all the money he had to be smuggled to Libya. Here he started his journey, on foot and alone to England.

England..where everybody is always smiling and no one has problems, he told me. “Is it this cold in England?”, he asked in the middle of a sunny day in August. His expectations, and the reality of his life if he ever does make it to England, make my heart hurt.

He told me he doesn't feel the hunger (the refugees get one free meal a day they have to queue for hours for), or the cold (I cant even begin to imagine winter in this camp), he just feels the pain of his lost family. Each time he spoke the word family, his voice broke and he put his head in his hands. Crying, he told me that every time he closes his eyes, he sees his mother, telling him he is a good boy, and that he is doing the right thing. ‘Why then, am I living like an animal?’ he asked me.

Every night he walks a few miles to the tunnel in an attempt to make it to England, although he told me he was taking a couple of days break from trying to allow his leg to heal. He proceeded to show me a huge bruise on his calf from where he had been hit by a police baton.

Many many people from Sudan tell the same story. Persecuted for being black, many have seen their entire family killed in front of their eyes.

We sat for ages in the Sudanese part of the camp. The guys here searched the surroundings to find the most mismatch selection of chairs, and even made us tea over an open fire. ‘You are our guests’ they told us, in front of the opening to their makeshift tents.

Yesterday I realised that the people in this camp don't WANT to come to England. They have no choice.

These people aren't migrants...these are REFUGEES. They can't go back, but they can't go forward, they are stuck, trying to create some kind of normal life from a bit of tarpaulin and a blanket.

And they are heroes. Their stories show more determination, strength and courage than anything I have ever heard from anyone in the UK. They should be an inspiration to us all...yet they are portrayed by our media as a drain on our society, scrounging our benefits. This couldn't be further from the truth. These people WANT to work, want to earn enough money to pay tax, and want to be given the opportunities they deserve.

These people are desperate. On the one hand we commemorate holocaust Memorial Day, yet on the other we turn away at people facing as extreme persecution as the Jews, right on our doorstep.

What the actual fuck?

A sign in the camp read 'we must all learn to live together like brothers, or we will die together like idiots'.

This needs to happen, and quick.

Many people didn't want us to take their picture, scared of the negative media representation, but also in case their families face repercussions under repressive governments back home. They are also ashamed; ashamed to be living in such an undignified manner.

We'll be going back next week to start filming a documentary, as sensitively as possible, with the aim of sharing the stories of these inspirational people. We're also stocking up on men's shoes, men's clothing, SIM cards, old phones (people are desperate to call home) and anything else people many be able to donate...

To be involved, to donate or to help us, like our campaign here:

You can follow the journey in photos on instagram:


This is the link to our kickstarter campaign:

We need to do something. Turning your back on this tragedy on our doorstep is literally unforgivable.

I agree. It is unforgivable. But I'm also concerned that the government has back-tracked on its green commitments; scrapping support for offshore wind, cutting solar and biomass subsidies, scrapping the green homes scheme and the zero carbon homes scheme, selling the green investment bank, reducing incentives to buy greener cars, fracking (especially in SSIs), and dropping the green tax target. All this, while President Obama sets an example with his speech on tackling climate change. What has this to do with migrants? Have none of your considered the increase in refugees from Africa and Southern Europe as extreme weather, due to climate change, makes their homes uninhabitable? Are you going to fight to keep them out too? What about those who are drowning in increasing numbers in the Mediterranean? UKIP's attitude I can understand - those people are ignorant and prejudiced - but surely even Conservatives with an imagination might see that your current policies (if you can call them that) are inhumane and destructive. Unless there is action on climate change soon (it's long overdue) the UK population will also be on the move, from the coasts and the flood plains. For goodness' sake, wake up!

Note: James Cartlidge was chosen by the South Suffolk Conservative Association as their election candidate to replace Tim Yeo, who was deselected because, they said, there'd been complaints that he didn't spend enough time in the constituency. Yeo served as Chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee and was a humanist, and to the left of the party, so maybe these made him unpopular with the old Tory fogeys.

Photo by Jaz O'Hara.