At the Wedding

busseatsnorway

Years ago, just after the 7/7 bombings in London, when Islamophobia was on the rise, I made a film with my colleagues at Coventry Peace House Education Trust. It was a small, cheaply made production called “Conversations with Coventry Muslims” and it was exactly that – we chatted to people we knew about their lives, their beliefs and the kinds of prejudice they were encountering. I was proud of that film. It was televised on the Community Channel and it’s still being used to educate West Midlands Police Force about Islamophobia, so I’m told. One star of the show was a boy who talked about having to take the bins out and who proudly recited the Koran for us. He’s now a Hafiz and yesterday I was at his wedding reception.

I was bursting with pride at the wedding. It’s a long time since I’ve seen this man, but as with anyone I’ve created work with, he’ll hold a special place of gratitude with me. There was someone else there, a Muslim woman who I interviewed for an illustrated book and I have the same feelings about her. I’ll always remember her eloquence in talking about how different languages express certain emotions more readily than others and observing, as she spoke, the eloquence of her hands. At the wedding, I was talking to this woman and another Muslim woman I have met through work. Both of these women I have a great deal of time and respect for. They chose to share with me their more recent experiences of Islamophobia. I tried to respond with empathy. I’ve experienced racism vicariously through my family and gone through some of those experiences alongside them, but it’s not the same. I have been othered, but only in a situation where I felt my passport or my skin colour still gave me some protection. I don’t know what it’s like to be made to feel less than by your neighbours, by the Institutions of the country you grew up in, or continuously pulled aside at airports. I’m saddened that rather than getting better, since I made that film, Islamophobia has got worse. Muslim people I know have been used as political pawns and punching bags in the most awful way and it’s a disgrace. I am sickened by it.

I was in Coventry Library the day before yesterday, running a poetry event. At the end of the event I was with my husband (African) and child (mixed) who were helping me pack up. An older (white, British) man came in shouting about wanting to read a paper, only he couldn’t because he couldn’t read Swahili, going on and on about how the library didn’t have English papers (ridiculous), swearing his head off. I was livid. No one said anything to him and the two younger people he was with came and sat right by us. I am not a person to let things pass (it terrifies my poor husband!) but I knew that this man was itching to start a fight – to have his prejudices confirmed when someone ‘angry black person’ tried to stand up to him. So instead of calling him out on his racism, I stood and angrily said to him “Please can you stop swearing in front of my daughter?!” He immediately apologised and sat down and dumbfounded, I nodded at him.

My intention by focussing on the swearing was to say to him, look, my black family is more civilised than you! He looked cowed, to be honest. People will always look to others to blame for their losses, their lack of education or decent employment, or disappointments, or inability to whatever. People are always looking for a scapegoat. I think poverty, lack of social mobility, an education system that has been messed up by government after government, an underfunded health service, appalling mental health care – AUSTERITY – is a factor in this increase of prejudice people face on a daily basis. But there is no doubt that this has been fed by an owning class who have used difference as a way to deflect anger away from themselves as they; claim expenses, take backhanders, privatise services from underneath feeding lucrative contracts to their pals, use the media to make money for themselves and fix the system in their favour.

When I challenge people about Islamophobia they come back with domestic violence, fgm, women who are kept at home unable to speak English, forced marriage and honour killings. Well, you can lay plenty of thigs at the door of Christianity too but Islam, like Christianity, is incredibly diverse in the way it’s practised and Muslims, like anyone else, are an incredibly diverse bunch of people. The thing about prejudice is that it affects everyone in that perceived group. You can’t tell me that any prejudiced is a well thought out intelligent or ideological response to a deep knowledge of an individual’s values and culture. It’s aimed irrationally and generally at a group because of one defining feature – like a headscarf or a beard, or skin colour, or a bus seat.

Seriously, the other day a man posted a picture on Facebook of a load of bus seats – did you see it? It kind of, in a very vague way looked like a load of seated women wearing niquab. A right wing website got hold of it and the posts were terrifying, because they were aimed at people, but hilarious, because they were being made about bus seats. It perfectly demonstrated how senseless prejudice is.

I know this post isn’t very coherent. I’m not sure exactly what I am trying to say. But I guess it comes down to this: it’s up to all of us to make sure that things get better instead of disintegrating into hatred. I write this blog because I want a safe place to bring my daughter up. I want a good life for her and I really hope that the children of my superstar Hafiz and his new wife don’t have to face the hurt that they have had to face growing up.

The Only White Girl at the Party

I went to a party the other day. A friend of my husband whom I first met as a school girl in Rwanda was having a party in the UK, where she now lives, to celebrate the First Communion of her oldest child. I was the only white person at the party. I was met with consternation by most of the party-goers and with outright animosity by some. One or two were really lovely to me. Our hosts were as charming and welcoming as always.

Parties in Rwanda where I have been the only white person are too numerous to mention. At these parties I was mostly met with cheerful surprise. So what is different at parties here?

In Rwanda I was a guest. I was there because I chose to be there and because my host community chose to welcome me and have me stay. I wouldn’t have lasted long if they hadn’t – it was hard enough as it was – not speaking the language, feeling so isolated and struggling to understand what was expected of me – I am honestly in awe of migrants to the UK and the way they manage to cope. At parties I was a figure of curiosity and a kind of joke, in a way. The Rwandan people at the party were in their home country, in their element, with all the confidence and security that brings.

At parties in the UK, things are very different. When you walk into a black space in the UK, you are walking into a room of people who suffer racism on a daily basis. You are in a room of people who are struggling with all the things I struggled with in Rwanda and more. I didn’t head to Kigali for those bazungu volunteer parties so I could be surrounded by white people, but many of my compatriots did. I was, however, massively relieved when my boyfriend moved in with me and I had someone at home to speak English to and be myself with, without having to worry if I was making some cultural faux pas. I needed, as we all do, somewhere to just be without the (amazingly tiring) effort of following and conversing in language and culture I was trying to learn. I needed a place to be all of myself and not just the tiny part of me that I was able to communicate to Rwandans (no matter how perceptive they were).

In the UK, as the only white person at the party, I mess up people’s safe space. I intrude upon it. People are getting ready for the party thinking – oh, today I don’t have to put up with anything, I don’t have to educate anyone, I don’t have to represent; I can just chill out with my friends and speak my mother tongue and hug everyone. And then they get there and there’s me.

Not only do I mess up all of that, but I also make people feel bad for feeling those emotions – ‘Damn, what is a white person doing here?’ Followed by ‘I’m in her country. I don’t have any right to feel this way’, and then, ‘Why don’t I have any white friends, why are all my friends like me?’

I live in a pretty multicultural place. I’ve said that before. But equally, there are communities who are incredibly isolated. Because of the racism they face, because learning the language takes time and by then they already feel ostracised, because the only jobs they are officially qualified for, the only jobs they are allowed to do are those jobs British people don’t want – caring, nursing, factory work, where they mix mainly with other migrants. This situation is getting worse all the time, because of politicians scoring political points off the issue of immigration without any sense of responsibility for the rhetoric of racism and xenophobia they are making commonplace. Over the course of the In / Out EU Referendum debate, white people, strangers, have expressed racism to me with confidence in a way that would have been impossible even a year ago.

In this environment, I think you can understand why a black person in the UK might really not want to see a white person at a party. I think the animosity I face in these situations is a good example of what some people would ignorantly call ‘racism against white people’, when I’m sure you can see, that it is the product of racism against black people (the only kind of racism there is).

This summer we are taking our daughter to Rwanda and I have given some thought to things that she will notice. She will see her Daddy become a different, more confident, jokey and outgoing person, popular with everyone, expansive and sociable. He is not really like that here – he does not have that cultural confidence. She will see people’s reaction to me, as a white person. White visibility is something she has not come across yet. She will have the experience of being in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, surrounded by people speaking another language, people her Daddy and I know and love. I wonder what she will notice and I wonder what conversations will be started by those experiences? She will be called ‘umuzungu’ (white person / foreigner) and ‘Umunyarwanda’. We have always struggled with how much to teach our daughter about racism and so far it hasn’t presented itself as an issue, but I can feel the time coming closer when those conversations will need to be had and as scared as I am that she will be hurt by racism, selfishly, I can’t help worrying that at some point her experiences of racism might effect our relationship – that I will – to some degree, all of a sudden in my own family, be the only white person at the party.

White writing black

I am reading The Vorrh, a fantasy fiction novel by B. Catling. I’m only at the beginning, but one of the two main characters is a black, African man, living in Africa, in a colonised country. The praise heaped upon this novel is extreme. The character is well written and convincing. But I have reservations about him. I talked to my husband about it. This is what I told him I was struggling with:

Whether a white person can convincingly write a black, African character whose experiences are so far outside of their own experience.

Would a black, African reader be fooled by this? I remember a bit in the Poisonwood Bible, which was really well researched and a really enjoyable book (white main characters, mind you). In just two places the author exposed their lack of experience of Congo – the one I can remember is just this – at one point in the book the author talks about cassava bread as if it really is a kind of bread. It is not.

Should a white person try to write a black African main character?

Why would they want to?

And – it struck me as a bit awful that this book was so praised when African writers writing about African people under colonisation are barely given any attention at all.

I had a good reason to start this conversation – because I am guilty of writing black, African main characters in stories myself!!!!! As a white writer I can be a gateway writer, introducing African stories for white readers through the filter of a western consciousness they can understand. So why does The Vorrh bother me so much? Is it just because it’s successful? I’m finding it hard to put my finger on it.

 

The conversation between myself and my black, African husband touched on the white African novel as an expurgation of white guilt or an apology of some kind. This is uncomfortable as it seems to be a way of saying – look, those times are all in the past or in fantasy now and white people are alright these days. There’s also the fact that the guesswork is disturbing: Catling speaks at one point for the way a whole community (not just one character) feels about their colonisation and how it occurs. This part is a very white history, despite being narrated by a black character. It is all trite and horribly stereotyped – it portrays the African as childlike. We also talked about Ngugi Wa Thiongo – who writes in Kukuyu, but then translates into English. He says that you are only a novelist once you are celebrated by white people.

 

My husband was very clear that white cultures monopolise literature across the globe. Where are the African authors in our High-street chains of bookshops? On a single, segregated shelf at the back maybe? It’s the same, he says in music. You are no-one until you get rubber stamped by the USA or the UK. And also in politics – your government is not legitimate until it has been recognised by the USA and the UK (a proper white-stamped government can rule with impunity even if it’s legitimacy is not recognised by it’s own people). We white people get to decide what makes money and what gets widely circulated and remembered. We are still writing our own version of history.

 

As a white author who writes black characters sometimes (I want to get more black characters into books), I wouldn’t pretend to know what it is like for a community to be enslaved, or to be colonised. I might guess at the feelings and perspectives of one character (although I haven’t so far and don’t really want to write about those things). It seems to me that white people writing about colonialism is just another form of colonialism. The voice is not authentic. When I write I hear my husband’s voice inside my head and the voices of my friends – but still I know I can’t think like they think (the fact that I still do not find Rwandan jokes at all funny attests to this). As a writer, I want to be able to put the people I love in books – the people who impress me. I want to write stories and characters that my own daughter can relate to. If I can’t achieve this leap of imagination – is there hope for any of us?

Sexing the Deity

I went to church the other day. I go to church around twice a year. At Christmas and another service where multiculturalism is celebrated. It’s a great church – our friends go – it’s very warm and friendly and representatively diverse (and also very middle class – so not that inclusive). Humour is used a lot and the band is great, the songs are moving. It’s a good experience – even for me – an atheist.

Someone asked me to justify – a while ago now – why I didn’t believe in God. She’s a Doctor and she was surprised to hear I wasn’t a Christian “How could you not be a Christian?” was how she put it. I used to get this a lot in Africa, where Christians tend to sort the world into ‘bad people’ and ‘Christians’. They just couldn’t reconcile that I’d be there without the promise of a place in heaven. I work with refugee communities and people often assume that there’s some sort of religious drive behind that, too. Belief is a funny thing. I think what my friend meant though, was – ‘how could you not feel wonder at the complexity and interconnectivity that is evident all around us’? But of course, I do feel the numinous; I am filled with wonder all the time. That’s why I write – poetry particularly. I feel myself in the world and the world in me. I also give thanks and make rhetorical appeals and it’s useful to me. It helps me think about what I need, about who I am. There is something grounding in going through those rituals – it encourages humility in me, in what I think of as a deep ecological sense.

This is the answer I gave my friend: I have a problem with the anthropomorphism of God. I have a problem with the idea that a more powerful being might look or think or behave anything like human. I have a problem with the idea that, any being more powerful or ‘intelligent’ (because the definition of intelligent is also problematic) would really care about us at all, or be invested in us at all.

The word: In Rwanda, they have no sexed third-person pronouns – no him/her/his/hers/she/he. I had a sudden thought the other day – how about God? In the Rwanda the missionaries found, there was already only one God. There was already the concept of an immortal soul. The God was called Imana. Imana is not in the noun group for people: you would say umuntu wishimye for ‘happy person’ (although the translation doesn’t really work in Kinyarwanda – no one’s happy all the time!) for God you’d say Imana yishimye. In Kinyarwanda it is not possible to refer to God as a person. It is impossible to refer to God as a man. I asked my husband if he knew if Imana had ever been sexed. He said he didn’t know. The missionaries tried to change the name of ‘Imana’ to ‘God’ and the people fought it. The people won. It’s another way in which I have found I am weirdly more in tune with Rwanda than England. I don’t believe in God. I can’t rationalise God. I don’t believe in Imana, but it’s easier for me to rationalise that there may be a power that is not anything like human.

It was a short lived victory though: Rwandan Christianity is now just as full as Christianity anywhere else, of images of bearded white men sitting on clouds looking benevolently down. The masculinisation of God has, as far as I am concerned, a lot to answer for in terms of the continuing oppression of women.

When you speak a language that sexes third person pronouns, you are stuck with always calling someone ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘it’. Of course in the pervasive patriarchy, the God of English would end up male, even though some theologians themselves have a problem with it. But we’ve been mostly Christian here for a long time. We’ve had a while to come up with something better or different and that hasn’t happened. And every new Christian church that springs up worships a male deity and most of the church’s leaders are, by default, male. It’s an issue of colonial languages in general. I don’t know any Hebrew so I couldn’t tell you if God was sexed right from the Old Testament. Once Jesus was a man, I suppose it was a foregone conclusion for Christianity.

Every time I go to church I think I need to find some new hymns for myself – atheist/deep ecological hymns to the universe, because although I love singing, giving thanks, even praying – every time I come across the word ‘him’ in a Christian hymn I can’t really mean it. But you know what? I’m kind of a hypocrite, because I think I’d have much less problem singing to a divine ‘her’!

What is a City?

Kigali, the capital of Rwanda in 1999

 

Lucky-Dube, Celine Dion, Tupac hollering out from bootleg stands on each corner

Taxi-boys cursing, joking with each other,

Boys on their twelve-hour tired feet offering boiled eggs, salt and chilli pepper,

Or carrying trays around their shoulders of small packets of

peanuts, sunglasses, watches, gadgets, torches, keyrings

All of them Titanic themed.

Congolese-shiny patterned shirts flashing like fishes,

Ladies day-glo-green netted shoulders topping voluminous dresses,

Middle class teens in US style street threads;

tight jeaned, cola –capped –

Everyone swaggering and weaving seductively across my vision

Cat-fish from Victoria swaying their stinking whiskers,

Pineapples, sweat, cabbages, mangoes savaging the senses.

Business men and women, newly-rich, undulating their gleaming, ample inches.

 

I’d get to Kigali at around 9.30, after getting the 6am taxi bus from my village. There was a café, which I’d go to get chapati (the African kind – more like a paratha) with omelette and a flask of sweetened, milk-powdered Rwandan tea. Kigali was like that everywhere – full of people, full of life. It was fantastic for me. I was from living in the ‘sticks’ so I never got used to the bustle and the thrum – It never lost it’s vibrancy and fascination. That was then. Now, as with Kampala and other African capitals, Kigali is for the white people and the African nouveau-riche. The taxi park has gone. The kiosks selling music have gone. The street vendors have gone. The local food stalls have gone. Tens of thousands of houses have been bulldozed and people offered miniscule compensation in comparison with their loss, to ‘cleanse’ the city of it’s population. It is Kigali’s loss. It is architecturally beautiful, empty and soulless.

 

And now the same thing is happening to my austerity city in the UK. For those of you from elsewhere, ‘austerity’ is the label given to the cuts made by central government to try to counter the recession. My local council will have lost half, HALF of it’s money from central government by 2017. So, we are looking at the closure of community centres, youth clubs, children’s centres, health centres. We are looking at massive job losses and volunteers taking over things like mental health provision and libraries. Whatever you think about the necessity of this (to me, it seems horrifying and incredibly short sighted and illogical) alongside articles about library re-organisation in the local council magazine last week, was an article about the spanking brand new ‘way-finder computer terminals’ for our city centre, which will help orient tourists – “the first of their kind in Europe”. WHAAAAAAAT? So, who is a city for? I thought a city was its people. These days, cities are not people, or even for people – they seem to have a life of their own. What are they? Who do they serve? What is their purpose? Because I don’t understand. I live in a city. I want a decent library service. I want decent children’s services. For finding my way around the city, I can ask an actual person, or failing even that, a smart-phone.

Not Fitting In

I’ve been working somewhere, part time, since last February. This place has pulled me apart at the seams. It has made me question who I am and how I was made. It has turned me into a parody of myself. How? Because this place has a culture that I’m just not built to fit into.

I was a performing monkey when I was a kid. There is some old Cine-film, sitting in a box in a store cupboard in our house, faded into 70’s pastel, in which I am a two year old girl. The very second a microphone is put into my face I begin to sing back to back nursery rhymes, without even being asked. Ah, the hilarity this caused at family gatherings. It did not stop there – I was encouraged at every opportunity to show off how clever I was by loving parents who were very proud of me and by extension of themselves. Later, my Dad who was an accomplished professional engineer in different fields, would talk to me about problems with impellers or whatever at the dinner table and I was expected to use my eight year old knowledge to find interesting and useful things to contribute to the discussion, turning over my well manured brain, making connections that might be helpful using every bit of everything I’d learned (which was obviously not that much). I didn’t know how cool he was, how impossibly open minded. But I was also being trained to get attention and praise for being clever.

I learnt as I got older, that being clever is not the way to be popular with anyone except your Dad. (Of course I am not particularly clever, but I am open with the learning I have). I learnt to reel it in. I can do that, but not on a bad day. I had bad day after bad day, in a professional culture in which every single piece of knowledge is ring fenced and jealously guarded, in which any offer of help from someone unestablished, or any idea or contribution, can be seen as threatening and arrogant. Instead of being able to reel it in, I became the baby monkey at the back of the troupe waving their arms in the air shouting “I am clever and useful! Look how many things I know! I can help! I can learn! Please don’t eat me or leave me behind! I need grooming!!!!!” Yes. I was very annoying.

Things got really bad and last week, I quit. I felt everyone hated me – I was actually told that no-one wanted to work with me, which was horrible. Lots of people there were very tolerant of me and kind to me. I wish it had been one of those people who chose to talk to me and let me know I just didn’t – wasn’t ever going to fit in. When I realised what I’d been doing, when I went back over all those conversations which ended in people looking at me funny and me becoming more and more paranoid and insecure, I was mortified. I finally got it. For a few days I did nothing but cry and mope around feeling like a terrible person. Then I realised that all those things I was doing that made me so unpopular were not necessarily all bad things. I’m not good at recognising hierarchies. So? Hierarchies suck! In some environments it’s bad to try to help with whatever limited knowledge you have, to try to join in and discuss stuff, to engage with people to look for creative solutions. In some environments it’s applauded. Being creative is useful and important. I’m grateful to my family for raising me to believe we are all equal and we all have something useful to contribute. I’m grateful to them for being proud of me and pushing me to be creative and problem solving and to punch above my weight sometimes.

 

This made me think about all those people who come to the UK with another culture. It’s easy to imagine that those people might find the UK a confusing place: we are openly mocking of the leaders we ourselves voted in, we laud criminals and anti-establishment figures, we expect politeness, but swear a lot and have terrible road-rage, we hate the police and rely on the police in equal measure, we can’t talk about sex properly, but we use semi-naked, pouting images of women to sell vacuum cleaners. This is a country in which the customer was right twenty years ago but now the customer is a barely tolerated inconvenience. If we go abroad we are expats, but if people come here they are immigrants. We love and despise the Queen. We cling on to and revile the class system. We have a national melt-down if anything bad happens to a child, but we moan about allowing families in restaurants. We are so inconsistent about everything. It’s a miracle anyone learns to fit in here. But by ‘fitting in’ I’m not talking about familiarising yourself with the rules of a place, I’m talking about character – whether people can find here a place they are comfortable in and be accepted for who they are. Are they making local friends? Are they having bad days? Or are they wondering if the ideas and attitudes they were raised with are so inconsistent with our culture that they can’t survive here? Because I know a little of what that’s like. Thank goodness, for the sake of my mental health, I could leave and go home to somewhere it feels safe to be me.

The Drama of Dating in Uganda

Hi,

It’s been a while. Basically I was working really hard and a lot of my work was with undocumented refugees who have been through really terrible experiences. I didn’t feel like blogging at all over that period. Now I have the mental and emotional headspace to write some things.

A long time ago now, there was a blog post doing the rounds on Facebook, called ‘The Drama of Dating in Uganda’ from The Telegraph expat pages. The blog post was a light-hearted piece by a middle aged white expat woman living in Uganda who was having trouble finding a white expat boyfriend for a serious relationship. It referred to ‘side-dishes’ (mistresses) and painted the picture of an ‘average Ugandan men’ bothering her and her friends with incessant marriage proposals. It followed on by saying ‘marriage is not serious here’ and discussed the many ‘beautiful’ young Ugandan women ‘looking for a white man’. Her portraits weren’t any kinder to white people, writing about her white expat friends queueing for the chance to come on to any single white man and describing a white expat male attitude to her predicament, which suggested she come onto a man who was ‘available’ simply because his wife was ‘out of the country for a few weeks’. (Her editorial was kinder to white people, there was no comment here about white men not taking marriage ‘seriously’)

Ugandan women on Facebook were scandalised by the blog. Then later a Ugandan man decided to publish a counter blog (Spartakuss.ug/interracial-dating-in-uganda). This blog post complared expat women like the original blogger as ‘old broads who have been here a long time and probably have preconceptions’ with Ugandan women with ‘wily charms and curvaceous bodies’ who were ‘uninhibited, less prejudicial and less likely to stalk (a white man) when he gets back home’.

This blogger then went on to talk about white expat women who pick up uneducated native men as ‘projects’ and ‘sex objects’ describing these men as uneducated and therefore less able to ‘challenge stereotypes’.

The blogger also talked about Ugandan women who didn’t want to pick up white guys.

These posts have been on my mind for a long time. Let me start with the first one: I’ve read a lot of posts by expats which are written for amusement in a similar style to this. They are self deprecating and not meant to be read seriously, but these bloggers often try to establish themselves as experienced expat commentators by generalising about the native population. These generalisations are rarely complementary. I am not comfortable with that. At all.

The blog by the male Ugandan complains about the prejudicial generalisations made in the first blog but then goes on to make more and more generalisations himself.

Together the blogs manage to insult; white expat men living in Uganda (both blogs), white expat women living in Uganda (both blogs), Ugandan women (both blogs), uneducated Ugandan men (who are infantilised by the second blog) and educated Ugandan men (who are dismissed by the first blog).

All I have to say about it is this: Well done people! I don’t think you left anyone out, did you?

Interesting Times

Jewish School in London Bans Women Drivers

I found out about this through an article in the Guardian newspaper (Saturday 30th May 2015). It was pure reportage, quoting people (although I’m not saying they didn’t edit) without putting any kind of judgement or spin on the facts. That’s how I’m going to start – I’m going to lay it out.

The story broke when the Belz Sect School which serves a small, devout group of Orthodox Jews in London said that they would turn away children who were driven to school by their Mother.

Here are some quotes from one male parent:

“this is our tradition – this is our choice to be a little more pious. So my wife doesn’t want to drive.”

“This isn’t Saudi Arabia. No-one’s going to be punished or whipped or whatever, or even ostracised.”

“let us get on by living our lives how we want to live it – stop saying we are oppressed.”

Another male parent said:

“Not one of my friends would let his wife drive.”

A female parent said:

“I don’t drive because I want to be part of this community.”

Another female parent said:

“I choose to be part of this community, it’s my choice. Family purity is exceptionally important to us. There’s no bigger priority for us than raising a pure, Jewish family.”

I have been writing this blog for a long time and while I don’t sit on the fence exactly, I try to set out ideas in a way that lets the reader make their own judgements. I think some of my readers get a bit frustrated about this sometimes. Personally, I try not to meddle in other people’s cultures. In this case, the government has launched an investigation into this school, saying that the edict was “completely unacceptable in modern education.” I agree. I’m coming off the fence on this one.

The people interviewed in this article say that women are not oppressed by this ‘not driving’ thing. The women interviewed say that they choose not to drive. I don’t agree. It’s a choice not to drive. It’s not a choice when the school says that you are not allowed to drive or your child will be excluded. Not only is this oppressing women, it’s oppressing children, who have no choice in the matter.  Being allowed by your husband to drive? (“Not one of my friends would let his wife drive.”) That’s oppression too. The man admits that he has no friends outside of this Orthodox community. Does his wife? When you choose to marry into a community is it a contract between you and your husband, your families, you and the community? Do you sign away all your choices then and there for the rest of your life? And what if the community moves the goal posts? You drove before, but now you can’t drive without ostracising yourself and your children? By now the community is everything you know and love. All your friends are from that community. The choice is to leave or stay? That’s not much of a choice at all. These women say they knew what they were getting into. Well, the ones that spoke to reporters did. I wonder if all the Mums feel the same way. Would those who disagreed or felt uncomfortable about it be encouraged to speak?

Tell me, where in the Torah does it say women can’t drive? Where does it say that a woman driving her children to school is less pure than a woman who chooses to go by bus? Are children who are driven to school by their Mother less pure than children who are driven by a Christian, female taxi driver? There are no cars in the Torah, are there? This is about spiritual one-upmanship. It is about sacrifice, to show how much better you are than your neighbours, how much purer or more devout. Why is it so often women who are asked to make these sacrifices? Is a sacrifice the same as a choice? There’s more to be said here. Maybe, if you’re reading this you would like to say it?

Recently I watched a TV debate about whether Islam would ever accept homosexuality. A similar argument was made repeatedly by one young woman: I accept you can’t choose whether or not to be gay, so go choose another religion. It’s the same thing – implicit is ‘choose to leave your faith, your family, your friends, your community, the life you know’. The young man who bravely came-out in the programme said that he chose not to have sex with men. This wasn’t good enough for most of the Muslims present.

As part of that same debate another Muslim man said that Islam has changed before, using the example that slavery used to be acceptable for Christians and Muslims and now isn’t. I really took heart from that. I told myself that religions maybe were becoming more egalitarian. But in the back of my mind, I was thinking about the rise in all forms of extremism. It’s hard to see the big picture when you’re in it, maybe both things are happening at once.

What’s certain is that we live in interesting times.

(poem) A Whale of a Time

My friend says that academics suggest that

We should eliminate culture

Replace it with a system of values;

That culture divides.

My husband says that culture

Is hard wired into us:

Two people on a desert island

Will form their own culture of phrases

And movements

Habits and tasks

From the moment of their arrival.

Is culture what makes us human?

Unsure,

I am a whale in the playground,

Collecting children like giggling barnacles

Attached to my legs

And every now and again

As we sail around

Another one comes

“Can I play too?”

and we all say “Yes!”

Although we have lost track of who is playing.

“Can I play too?”

And no one says “No”

Although we aren’t sure any more what game this is.

And the barnacles are screetching with laughter

And wiggling their arms

It doesn’t seem to matter

And I am thinking that maybe

A culture of kindness is not out of our reach