The ex-boyfriends aren’t the villains

Indigo Jo Blogs - 26 January, 2021 - 23:00
A small garden (underneath which is a mass grave of babies). In the foreground is a stone wall with a gap for an entrance; on the ground next to it is a sign which reads "In loving memory of those buried here; rest in peace". There are some flowers next to it. In the opposite corner of the garden is a shrine with a statue of the Virgin Mary and a larger deposit of flowers.Mass grave of babies who were born and died in a maternity home in Tuam, Co. Galway, Ireland

Last week, following the publication of a report into the abuse of women incarcerated in church-run institutions in Ireland in the mid-20th century, I saw series of tweets assigning guilt to the men who impregnated the women who then ended up in the institutions as a result:

What we do know is that for every one of those 56,000 pregnancies, there was a man who shuddered, and came, and said “thanks very much” or “I love you”… and who subsequently buggered off and didn’t have his life ruined one bit. And never came back. And NOBODY. EVER. TALKS. ABOUT. THE. MEN. So all these men are STILL protected by the silence of the women that they put into these camps. F**k ‘em. Let’s find out who they are by DNA. “Oh but they’re lovely fellas and they went on to have nice families”. Well, they’re NOT lovely fellas. They’re complicit in crimes. As I’ve said elsewhere: the Israelis are capable of finding and prosecuting 90 year old war criminals. What’s stopping the Irish?

I’ve not named this person as I don’t recognise their name and there’s no reference to a publication, university or government department or any other institution of any sort in their bio. But I do want to address the argument. There was a song written back in the 1980s by the late John Prine and Bobby Braddock called Unwed Fathers about a young mother cast aside by her family when she got pregnant (unlike in the majority of cases in Ireland, she got to keep her child) which has the refrain:

From a teenage lover to and unwed mother,
Kept under cover like some bad dream
But unwed fathers, they can’t be bothered
They run like water through a mountain stream.

But to complain that it’s the mothers who carry the shame and punishment as well as the hardships of pregnancy and childbirth while the dads just disappear and pretend it never happened is a different matter from saying they are criminals and should be hunted down using DNA profiling. Some of the fathers were rapists, some of them priests, teachers and others who might have known what lay in store for the women they abused. However, many were just naive young men, including teenagers, who didn’t know this and didn’t think of it and the phrasing used suggests that the women got no pleasure from the consensual sexual encounters. The boyfriends played no role in the subsequent abuse; this was carried out by the people who ran and staffed those institutions and who oversaw the organisations that ran them and most of those are dead. If anyone else bears responsibility for the women’s suffering, it is their parents and most of them, too, are dead.

It seems to me that some people are desperate to find someone to blame for the scandal who is still living and still in decent health. (Let’s not forget there were other abuse scandals involving Irish church-state institutions, such as the industrial schools; the victims were children as well as women.) It is more important to compensate those still living and to reunite families, where desired. As for the former, all the organisations in question took their orders from the bishops and cardinals who could have intervened to stop the cruelty and exploitation and the culture which fed it, but chose to enrich the church through it instead. The church surely still has land, buildings and other assets in Ireland and much of this could be sold to compensate the victims of their abuses. If the individual orders still exist and have assets, these could be seized but if not, they had parent organisations which are equally responsible.

As for the comparison with Israel and Nazi war criminals, this is also quite ridiculous. Israel tried and failed to bring a number of Nazis to justice using kidnappings and assassinations but in any case those targeted were non-Jews who were involved in a genocide against Jews, not Jews who abused Jewish girls and women in Jewish institutions in Israel. If such institutions had existed, no doubt there would be every bit as much difficulty bringing the perpetrators to justice as there has been in Ireland and elsewhere. Look at how difficult it is to bring Israeli soldiers and settlers who kill Palestinians to justice: it’s pretty much impossible. The war criminals are, in any case, more comparable to the actual abusers in the Irish institutions than to the victims’ ex-boyfriends.

Image source: Auguste Blanqui, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 4.0 licence.

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On fronted adverbials and other fancy names for everyday things

Indigo Jo Blogs - 24 January, 2021 - 18:07
A white female teacher wearing a green cardigan holding a globe in her hand with South America most prominently showing, pointing to one of a group of five children facing her, two of whom have their hands up. Behind her are shelves full of books, and some children's artworks and learning materials.

Recently my Twitter feed has been buzzing with talk of “fronted adverbials” with tales of children losing marks in their school English work for not using enough of them, parents having to ask their seven-year-old children what they are and writers having made a living for years without knowing what they are. This all comes from the government having made the use of these and other obscure grammatical rules and terms a mandatory part of the primary school English curriculum as a result of the latest media panic about children being inadequately literate when they start secondary school. The term refers to the use of a word or phrase describing a verb at the beginning rather than the middle or end of a sentence. For example, “you give your love so sweetly” uses an adverb (sweetly); an example of a fronted adverb would be “respectfully I say to thee, I’m aware that you cheat”, and “with respect” rather than “respectfully” would be a fronted adverbial in this context.

I was reminded of a conversation I had with my second driving instructor who asked me if I knew what “cadence braking” was. I had never heard the term. It turned out that this referred to what you do when you are trying to brake in slippery conditions: you pump the brake rather than jam it down hard once. I actually did know that, but I didn’t know there was a term for it other than “pumping the brake”. I was never asked about that term at any test (I passed on my fourth attempt in 1995 and there was no theory test then) so I’m not sure if examiners would fault a learner for not knowing that particular term rather than the practice of pumping the brake itself — I really hope not. There are some things we do that have technical terms for them that we do not know about, yet we can still use them without knowing what some people call them. Brake-pumping is just as effective whatever you call it, and language can be just as expressive whether we know the grammatical technical terms or not.

Image source: Mundial Perspectives. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) Licence. Original here.

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Carrier indemnity must stay

Indigo Jo Blogs - 23 January, 2021 - 20:23
A white woman standing in a crowd next to a man in khaki clothes holding an American flag and a sign saying "Trump Stolen 2020".

BBC Click — What’s Next for Big Tech? (Available until January 2022)

In the most recent episode of the BBC tech series Click, it was revealed that the new US president Joe Biden is seeking to repeal the law that indemnifies “big tech” from what people who use their services say. In the UK, where libel laws passed in the 19th century aimed at protecting the reputations of ‘gentlemen’, i.e. the rich and powerful, favour the litigant, web hosts are responsible for the content hosted on their servers and can be sued if someone takes offence. In practice, most will back down at the receipt of a lawyer’s letter and shut the site down until the matter is removed, or permanently. The same cannot happen in the USA; only the person who writes the material or takes an active decision to publish it is responsible — a web host is likened to a telephone service rather than a newspaper. Last year, according to the programme, Biden told the New York Times that they could not publish a known falsehood and expect not to be sued, but Mark Zuckerberg, the owner of Facebook, could, and that this law, known as Section 230, should be “revoked immediately”.

Both Biden and the BBC seem to be making the mistake that this is all about “big tech”. In fact, although social media is mostly in the hands of a handful of large companies, S230 benefits all web hosting services and their users. This blog is hosted in the USA; a few years ago, someone from my old school demanded I remove an entire entry, claiming it was libellous to him; he refused to identify himself or the relevant section. When I refused, he approached my web host and demanded they delete it. They also refused, because they are not responsible for what I said as a result of section 230 and told him the entry was covered by the American First Amendment. He then disappeared and I never heard from him again. If I had remained with my original British host, it would only have taken a letter from his solicitor to have my entire blog removed until I agreed to remove the entry, which exposed the culture of abuse and violence at the special school I attended in the early 1990s. Anyone can use this mechanism to silence a blogger whose material is hosted in the UK, whether the material is about child abuse, medical malpractice, corporate or political corruption or anything else.

The comparison between ‘Zuckerberg’ and the NYT is an entirely false one. The New York Times is a newspaper and what appears in it is the result of an editorial decision. Facebook’s content is written by its users and Mark Zuckerberg has nothing to do with it when it first appears. As it happens, Facebook does have means of screening out content which is inappropriate or harmful, as do most social media platforms, but if it was responsible for everything people said, for ensuring no libellous material appeared, then it could not function as a social media service. It has been widely noted that in some countries Facebook has become a cesspit of rumour, accusation and fake news and this has been a source of communal violence (e.g. in Burma, Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Asia) and if they persist in allowing this sort of use of their services, they should be held accountable, but a distinction must be made between harmful misinformation or incitement to violence and what causes mere offence where the responsibility should lie with the author, not the hosting company.

Calling the companies affected “big tech” implies that this just about a small number of multi-billion-dollar technology giants. It’s not just about them nor is it just about violent sedition or misinformation about vital matters of health such as vaccines and Covid. It’s about everyone’s ability to speak out about things that affect their lives. Of course, even with section 230 an author can still be sued and still is responsible if they defame someone, but they cannot be silenced by mere threats of legal action which could be idle and baseless just because the web host is also liable and has no interest in fighting the case. Section 230 facilitates free speech, both in the USA and abroad. It will have a chilling effect on all of us if it is repealed.

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One Thousand Roads to Makkah: Four Women’s Stories | Book Review

Muslim Matters - 21 January, 2021 - 03:03

“One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Ten Centuries of Travelers Writing about the Muslim Pilgrimage” (collected and edited by Michael Wolfe) is a treasure trove: the chronicles of hujjaaj from across time and geography, including – to my special interest – Muslim women of varying backgrounds, in wildly different time periods. I immediately jumped to their stories, eager to discover what it must have been like to make the long journey in their own eras. What historical factoids and spiritual reflections might they have shared, considered inconsequential to some but deeply meaningful to others?

After all, this was more than just any travel writing: this was about Hajj, the journey of a lifetime, the fifth pillar of Islam, the believer’s response to Allah’s invitation to His House. As it is, we have precious little details about the lives of Muslim women – in their own words or otherwise – from the distant past; it is a painful truism that history has rarely considered women’s stories worth knowing if they were not completely and utterly exceptional (or, perhaps, completely and utterly scandalous). Case in point – in this book, listing almost two dozen travelers and their tales, only four of them were women…. And three of them were white, Western women, who experienced more than some small amount of privilege. Even so – what, then, was it like for these women of the past, who had embarked on the greatest journeys of any Muslim’s life?

Nawab Sikandar, the Begum of Bhopal, was a recognized ruler in India (although, unfortunately, of a pro-Britain bent). In 1863, she left India for Makkah with a retinue of several hundred people, including her mother and uncle. She arrived in Jeddah in January of 1864, laden with wealth, of which she was quickly relieved in the form of official taxes from the Ottoman Pasha and the Sharif of Makkah, and unofficially by bandit Bedouins. 

The Begum’s account of her journey is – to the modern day reader – almost amusing. Her outrage at the bureaucracy is followed up with multiple complaints sent to harbour masters, British consuls, and others. Alas, the Begum’s situation was not much improved. Instead, her invitation to dinner at the Sharif’s home comes in the form of having her escort violently assaulted as she walked through Makkah, and being threatened with having her retinue shot in the head if she declined said invitation. Snidely, she comments that by the time she arrived at his home and was brought to the food, “the dew had fallen upon the food, making it as close as nice, so that nothing had any flavour.” 

Between her mother being temporarily abducted by robbers along the roads, being swarmed by the beggars who had discovered her wealth, and various other inconveniences, the Begum of Bhopal makes it clear just how little she thought of Makkah and its people. “Almost all the bad characters that have been driven out of India may well be found in Makkah,” she writes. She continues, astonished and horrified, at one particular discovery: “Women frequently contract as many as ten marriages, and those who have only been married twice are few in number. If a woman sees her husband growing old, or if she happen to admire anyone else, she goes to the Sharif, and after having settled the matter with him, she puts away her husband and takes to herself another, who is perhaps young, good-looking, and rich. In this way a marriage seldom lasts more than a year or two…” 

Despite – or perhaps because of! – her displeasure, the Begum’s descriptions of her experiences are detailed and descriptive, evoking images of Makkah’s sights and scents (and scoundrels!). What stood out, however, was a particularly unique scene: a description of visiting the household of the Sharif of Makkah, meeting his mother and four wives. (The Begum notes that he had seven wives, four of whom were present, but I suspect that the remaining three were concubines rather than legal wives.) 

Sikandar Begum describes the beautiful clothing of the women in attendance, the societal niceties that took place, and the rather infuriating observation that “Those wives only who have borne children to the Sharif are allowed to sit down in his presence, while those who have no family are compelled to stand with their hands put together.”

If it were not for the fact that the Begum was a woman who had access to women’s spaces – in this case, the private spaces of upper class women – these details would likely never have been noted in traditional history writing. Muslim women’s spaces have always been private spheres, the minutiae and particulars of their daily lives hidden away by the guarded jealousy of their menfolk, and often considered irrelevant to begin with. 

Yet the reality of female existence, and its dramatic differences even in undertaking and completing the same, sacred tasks of Hajj, becomes even more clear in the writings of Winifred Stegar of Australia. Winifred had accepted Islam and married a desi Muslim man in China, moving with him to Australia. In 1926, she and her family embarked from Australia to India, and from thence to the Sacred Land. 

Winifred’s recollections of her arduous journey to Hajj are a far cry from Nawab Sikandar’s litany of complaints. Though she traveled in far less luxury, and with far more difficulty, Winifred’s sincerity, strength of spirit, and good humour shine through her written memories. She describes moments of unexpected beauty, such as an ancient train in Lucknow dedicated to the hujjaaj, bedecked in wreaths of jasmine and roses from top to bottom; she speaks fondly of her kind, dignified brother-in-law, who takes charge of two abandoned young girls found aboard the rusted, repurposed ship they were all taking across the Red Sea.

One of the most dramatic scenes in Winifred’s chronicles describes the medical examination all the aspiring pilgrims had to go through before boarding their ship. The men were taken to a shaded area and provided with cool water to drink as they awaited their exams. Meanwhile, the four hundred women were taken to crumbling ruins with no shade and no drinks. “I could not help wondering what our sex had done that we might not enjoy the comfort of shelter and cool water as did the men,” Winifred writes, and I, almost a hundred years later, wonder the same. How is it that it has always been seen as common and unquestioned for women to endure conditions that our brethren need not tolerate, in the same time and the same position? 

The medical examination turns into a fierce brawl between Winifred and an abusive Eurasian (non-Muslim) woman doctor; Winifred emerges victorious, the doctor is arrested, and the hujjaaj make their way across the Red Sea. Winifred’s stories leave one with a deep appreciation for both modern comforts and for her own determination to continue with the blessed journey. 

Not long after Winifred Stegar came the legendary Lady Evelyn Cobbold of England, who made the trek to Makkah at the age of 66. Her accounts are riveting, of a freshly-minted Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, still mysterious and magical and untainted by the dirty politics of oil.

Lady Evelyn’s journals are perhaps the most detailed from the four women’s stories. As a European woman with significant connections, her experience was undoubtedly unique; being Western and Muslim (and elderly) gave her access to both women’s spaces and the all-male spaces forbidden to all other women, Muslim and non-Muslim women alike. Thankfully, her records are meticulous, and she introduces to the reader a perspective of Saudi that is rarely, if ever, shared with Western audiences. 

Lady Evelyn gives us a lush description of the natural beauty of the ocean and deserts of the kingdom alike; she reminisces over swimming at the sea at night, picnicking beneath the full moon, and driving through the sandy hills to the sacred, hidden city of Makkah. She speaks admiringly of Ibn Sa’ud’s establishment of safety and security in the land, ending the reign of terror of Bedouin bandits; she mentions homes built to care for ex-slaves and other impoverished women. As with the Begum of Bhopal, Lady Evelyn takes the time to recount in detail a personal, intimate portrait of her visits with local women. Her descriptions of their dressing is fascinating, as most readers likely associate the dressing of Saudi women with black abayaat and niqaabs alone; instead, we are given a glimpse into the inner spaces of these women. She speaks highly of the company of the local women whom she spends time with, and her gorgeous descriptions evoke a sense of wonder and nostalgia or these hidden worlds of women, so lost to history.

Finally, we have the story of Saida Miller Khalifa, another British Muslim woman who undertook the formidable travel to Hajj in 1970. Compared to the vintage era of the previous women, Saida’s experience was far more modern, taking a flight from Egypt to Saudi. Even so, it is certainly different from the Hajj stories of today, with the sense that hers was a time when there were yet many remnants of a more ancient age.

Saida’s own experiences with the hareem are dramatically different from those of the Begum or Lady Evelyn; as a commoner rather than a person of status, her insight into the world of women is far less luxurious, yet no less rich in nature. She speaks of the home she and her husband rented space in, crowded with numerous other hujjaaj; her anecdotes of her formidable hostess, fondly nicknamed “The Turkish Tyrant”, and of the other women residing with them are both amusing and touching. 

Saida’s description of Jumu’ah at the Haram in Makkah, as a woman, is fascinating to note, as are the rest of her Hajj experiences. Beautifully, she ends her account with the following words: “For myself, the Hajj meant a voyage of discovery ending in the opening of a door to a far deeper spiritual experience…”

The narratives of these four women, scattered throughout time, all to embark on the same journey, for the same purpose, resonated with me deeply. Female realities are utterly differently from male ones, even when performing a universal ritual such as Hajj; these women’s written accounts underscored this fact in multiple ways. Through their eyes, we catch glimpses of the private spheres of Muslim women, of which there are precious little records to begin with. Journeying with them through their words, we find the kinds of details that no man could share. 

It is a reminder to us of how important, and how necessary, it is for women’s perspectives to be valued in all things, that we may all gain a deeper and broader understanding of any given topic. When women’s voices are stifled, we all suffer from the loss of wisdom, experience, and insight. When Muslim women’s voices are stifled, we lose even more: we lose the the opportunity to gain religious knowledge and spiritual understanding.

I am profoundly grateful that these women’s writings were preserved and published, when far too many women’s words have been hidden away and disappeared in the sands of time. 

Beyond the four women’s stories described here, the book contains accounts from other historical travelers, all the way from classical medieval travelers such as Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Battuta, to Europeans and others from the early 1500s-1900s, and from the turn of the century to the modern age, including Malcolm X. Nonetheless, the singlemost important aspect of this book is that it is one of very few places where the experiences of Muslim women have been given the same due and importance as those of Muslim men.

“One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Ten Centuries of Travelers Writing about the Muslim Pilgrimage” is a precious item to have in one’s collection, as a Muslim, a bibliophile, a history buff, or all three of those things combined. 

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Tearing down statues of oppressors is not censorship

Indigo Jo Blogs - 18 January, 2021 - 00:25
A bronze statue of Edward Colston atop a stone monument with four figures on a lower plinth.Statue of Edward Colston, Bristol (erected 1895, toppled 2020)

Murderers are not a section of society that is held in great respect in our society, much as in others. Until the 1960s if convicted they were hanged; since then they have been subject to life imprisonment, and if released, they will be on lifetime supervision. Those who kill multiple victims or who sexually abuse or otherwise torture their victims first are often given whole-life sentences or in any case are never released. Their name will live on in infamy for a good few generations. There is one exception, however: people who were responsible for sometimes hundreds, thousands or more deaths in the service of their country, or whose victims were foreign and deemed “less than”, and who splashed money around their home city, will live on in statues and places named after them: concert halls, hospital wards and wings, railway stations, colleges, streets, squares.

Last year in Bristol, a statue of the slave trader and Tory MP Edward Colston (1636-1721) was torn down and toppled into a harbour by a group of protesters inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. A concert hall that had been named after him (on the site of a school he founded, which has since relocated to the suburbs) was renamed Bristol Beacon. A society which had existed to commemorate Colston for 275 years also disbanded last year. Colston had traded wine, textiles and fish but was also a member of the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly on English trading along the west coast of Africa, from 1680 to 1692 and served as deputy governor from 1689 to 1690 (the king or queen was governor) and during his involvement, 84,000 Africans were transported to the Americas of whom well over a fifth died along the way. The appalling treatment of slaves while being transported to the Americas is well-known: being walked for hundreds of miles in chains, being kept chained together naked in the hold, being whipped, being thrown overboard if sick. (Another detail that might interest a Labour council is that the crews of these ships also had a 20% mortality rate.)

Yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for housing, communities and local government, announced that the government would be bringing forward legislation to make it more difficult to remove statues and other memorials such as the Colston statue (the article is paywalled but there is a Twitter thread summarising the article by the paper’s assistant editor here). He claims that the memorials were often erected by public subscription and its removals are “an attempt to impose a single, often negative, narrative which not so much recalls our national story as seeks to erase part of it”. He attributes this to both “the flash mob” and “the decree of a ‘cultural committee’ of town hall militants or woke worthies”. He accuses the Labour Party, including the present leadership, of threatening to remove tombs of those it calls “offenders” and of changing Birmingham street names from those of historical figures to names like “Diversity Grove” and “Humanity Close”. (This is a modern-day Winterval myth; the streets in Perry Barr given these names were new, part of a redevelopment of a former university campus.) Councillors are elected, so their decisions are quite distinct from self-appointed mob violence, although if such things cannot be carried out by a local democratic process, the danger of such monuments being sabotaged is that much greater.

Jenrick then claims that “at the heart of liberal democracies is a belief that history should be studied, not censored”. Memorials are not ‘history’ but are a statement about history. We still know who Colston was and what he did without having a statue of him. A statue of someone or a street or building named after them is a testament to their worthiness and greatness. If a statue towers over people as they go to work, if people have to travel every day through a railway station named after a particular person, if a town hall is named after them, it tells people that this person has official approval or is celebrated. It may not hurt if the people oppressed by that person were not your ancestors, but if they were, it might well do. If the person celebrated by a street name led the army that repressed your people’s movement for self-determination so that they could profit from your people’s labour and country’s produce, or enslaved your ancestors, it might well rankle. When people first arrive in a country, of course they do not have the right to tear down monuments or insist streets or buildings be renamed to suit them, but when they have been with us for two or three generations, they have a right not to be offended on a daily basis by monuments to their forefathers’ enslavers or oppressors.

Jenrick proposes that a “proper process will be required” and that removals of “historic monuments” be performed only after consultation with the local community and if councils fail to do this, the Secretary of State will use his powers to “reflect the Government’s planning policies”. I am sure he is well aware that councils of all parties are notorious for conducting ‘consultations’ that hardly anyone hears about and the results of which are interpreted selectively, so if he seeks to remedy this so that unnecessary 20mph speed limits can no longer be inflicted on whole boroughs on the basis of no public demand whatsoever, that will be very welcome. However, it could be that some people are not bothered by a statue of a politician or financial benefactor from decades or centuries past but a substantial minority, descended from people they oppressed, is offended by being reminded of their ‘greatness’ every day. The greater good is not always the same as what the majority want.

Myra Hindley, one of the two notorious “Moors murderers” of 1960s Manchester, spent most of her life imprisoned for the five murders she and Ian Brady committed when she was in her twenties. Later in her life, she sent a cheque for a small amount to a children’s charity; the cheque was returned. They did not want her money, even though it had nothing to do with her crimes; it may have been earned while in prison or had been given her by relatives or supporters. If we believe that the lives of African people are worth as much as those of the children of Manchester, we really should not be protecting monuments to a man closely involved in a trade that treated human beings like mere inanimate property, tossing them into the ocean or sinking whole ships full of them for money. At a certain point, someone’s largesse becomes less significant than their crimes and the suffering and death they cause.

Image source: William Avery, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 3.0 licence.

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