Saturday, 31 March 2012

Child brides and licensed rape

Women in the UK are being forced to get married with threats and violence. Children under the legal age of consent for marriage or sex are also being forced to marry - and most of them are girls.

Four hundred children were helped by the government's Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) in the last year - the youngest was five years old.

Worldwide, it is estimated that one in seven under fifteen year old girls is forced to marry according to the report Breaking Vows.

In 2011 the FMU dealt with around 1,500 cases of forced marriage of girls and women, but many more are thought to go unreported. In the UK, the highest incidence of forced marriage is among South Asian communities. In some cases, girls and women are taken abroad without knowing what awaits them. The FMU is aware of cases from Afghanistan, North and East Africa, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey.

In 52% of FMU's 2011 cases, victims were taken to Pakistan. Although forced marriage is predominantly a problem in the Muslim community in the UK, it also happens to Hindus and Sikhs.

Currently, it is not illegal to force anyone to marry. Forced Marriage Protection Orders (FMPO) were introduced in 2008 for England, Wales and Northern Ireland under the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007. These protect anyone who is at risk of being forced into marriage or who has been forced to marry. Breach of an FMPO is not a criminal offence, it's dealt with as a civil contempt of court and the county courts can impose a custodial sentence of up to two years. In Scotland the breach of an FMPO is a criminal offence punishable by prison.

David Cameron wants the law to go further and held a public consultation on making it a criminal offence to force anyone to marry against their will in England and Wales. He said people should not "shy away" from addressing the issue because of "cultural concerns".

In almost every culture, women have been seen as belonging to their male relatives at some point in history. They have been married off (handed from one man to another) to cement alliances, end wars or disputes, to consolidate territory or to get immigration visas. Royal or noble women and girls were used as strategic bargaining chips until comparatively recently in the West.

Although forced marriage has strong cultural origins, it is often supported and even justified by religion and cannot be entirely disentangled from it. While some religious leaders speak out against it, many endorse it either explicitly or tacitly. It is significant that the majority of cultures that still practice forced marriage are also Muslim.

If women are not taken abroad, they are often married by sharia courts in the UK - sometimes without them even being present. Under this law, a woman's word is worth half her husband's, she can be beaten and raped with impunity, and has no rights at all over her marriage or her children. Under-age girls may be threatened or abused into keeping silent; they may not know that UK law is being broken by using sharia this way or that the FMU exists.

Some of the women forced to marry are LGBT and some are forced to marry men much older than them. Once married, they are vulnerable to violence, abuse and forced sex (rape) with men who see it as their right to have sex with their wives against their will - even if their wives are under the legal age of sexual consent. Which means that they are raping children with impunity. Amy Cumming, joint head of the FMU, said 29% of its cases last year involved minors.

Women who want a divorce from an abusive forced marriage are told by imams to go back to their husbands and put up with the abuse. If they are allowed to divorce, the sharia court charges them twice as much as a man.

The consultation asked whether anyone who knew that an order had been breached but did nothing should also be liable to prosecution. However, some family members may be afraid to speak out - particularly women who may themselves be victims of forced marriage.

There are arguments against changing the law - for example that a change may result in more victims being taken abroad, that there may be more pressure not to report cases because a criminal record for a family member may result, and that kidnapping, false imprisonment, child abduction, assault and threats to kill are already illegal, along with non-consensual sex (rape) and sex with under-age children. However, these laws are either not sufficient or are not being applied.

In 2009, the BBC reported that some schools and local authorities are non-responsive and failing to intervene because "they dismiss forced marriage as a cultural issue or fear a backlash from powerful figures in minority communities". This situation doesn't seem to have improved.

There are two root causes of this abuse being perpetuated and of the lack of public awareness. The first is underlying cultural misogyny, the kind of misogyny that means we still have shamefully low rates of prosecution for rape in the UK as well as the kind institutionalized by orthodox Islam.

The second cause is so-called multiculturalism, allied with post-modern cultural relativism. This aspect affects the 15% of forced marriage cases investigated by the FMU that involved men.

We are still squeamish about criticising other cultures and religions for fear of being accused of racism or Western imperialist thinking or other lame excuses about values being relative and all truths being equal. It's the victims of forced marriage who need sensitivity, not the cultures themselves. The same applies to victims of religious caste discrimination and female genital mutilation in this country.

The abuse of women and children is wrong universally, there is no get out of jail free card for cultures we don't quite understand or are afraid of. Forced marriage and associated abuse are everyone's business, not something for other cultures to make their own decisions about. Or rather, for the men of other cultures to make their own decisions about.

Defending human rights means that they must apply universally. Feminism means looking out for all women. And child abuse is a crime in any culture.

In case we feel that this is a problem only for 'backward' cultures, the marital rape exemption was abolished in England and Wales only in 1991.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Are You A Heathen?

Julian Baggini has written in the Guardian that we need to rethink and re-brand atheism to make progress in public debate with the religious.

He's right that the debate about the place of belief in public life and the rights of non-believers has become polarised and that moderate atheists are often excluded (in the same way that moderate believers are).

Baggini writes that 'We need a name that shows that we do not think too highly of ourselves'. He's right that groups like the Brights do no one any favours as the name is a PR disaster, implying superior intelligence and smugness. He's also right that humanism is not the answer as it's just a sub-set of non-believers.

His solution is to re-brand atheists as heathens because 'in the public imagination [atheism] amounts to little more than a caricature of Richard Dawkins'.

The word 'heathen' has the same root meaning as 'pagan' - people who live in the countryside and who are therefore not civilized (living in the city, from the Latin civis). These people had their own belief systems that were characterized by the derogatory 'heathen' or 'pagan' as primitive, along with everything else they did. It was also a term used by early missionaries so it has a racist tinge to it as well.

As someone who was raised in the countryside, far from civilization, I'd like to reclaim the word 'yokel' and make it a source of pride but I won't be calling myself a heathen.

Other groups have reclaimed words or changed their meaning (gay, for example) but one of the problems with heathen is that it's already in current use. Heathens are a variety of neo-pagans and British heathens have an annual meet called Heathenfest in Peterborough. They may not be too pleased with the word being co-opted by atheists*. Heathen is also a thrash metal band and the Heathens are a Dudley speedway team.

Baggini does say that people may not agree with everything in his manifesto, that it is a broad set of principles, 'an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like'.

But no matter what we decide to call ourselves, there will still be moderates and extremists and there will still be people calling themselves atheists.

This could lead to non-believers becoming like the Judean People's Front and the People's Front of Judea. Our opponents will be pleased to see dissention and division so, rather than establishing common ground between believers and non-believers, a name change could just be divisive. Perhaps he should have run a focus group first before re-branding the product.

He writes that heathens can be religious, they are people who 'reject the real existence of supernatural entities and divinely authored texts, accept that science trumps dogma, and who see the essential core of religion in its values and practices' and many religious people 'will find themselves in agreement with much of what heathens believe'.

Maybe a few of them will but they are not considered true believers by the more orthodox. Hostility to non-believers and attacks on human rights come from these most orthodox of believers and religious leaders who will not embrace any of the manifesto points. They don't want common ground or common cause. These are the people who have access to the media and to government, not the more moderate believers.

While it may appear pragmatic to soften our image in order to engage with them, the fundamental differences remain and the hard core are not going to be mollified by heathens any more than they currently are by atheists. If reasonable, calm debate worked, we wouldn't be in the position we're in now. By suggesting a re-brand, he is acknowledging that we must change because the religious hardcore will not - but perhaps the re-brand is pandering to them, bending over backwards to make them accept and engage with us. Making concessions to a bully doesn't work, it just gives him more opportunity to mock, dismiss and kick you.

One of the manifesto points is about secularism. This is the key issue and the one he should focus on. It doesn't matter what non-believers call themselves or what believers believe, it is what happens in the public sphere that needs our attention. Our efforts should be focussed on making sure that religion doesn't claim any unfair advantage or try to disadvantage non-believers, women, minorities or the 'wrong' sort of believers.

Baggini's aim is to find 'common ground to make fruitful dialogue possible'. Entering into dialogue with the religious could be productive in some areas, but it's more important to make politicians listen and act to protect our rights. This might be easier if we had some religious people on board - and in some cases we already do work on common causes together. The National Secular Society has already been doing this for some time, for example on freedom of expression and sharia courts. But in other cases, it's the opposition between belief and non-belief that's the source of the problem, the different and intransigeant interpretations of human rights. No amount of dialogue or image-softening will fix that fundamental disagreement, rooted in incompatible world views. Secular legislation and education are the only routes.

Directing the re-brand at politicians so they are less timorous about engaging with us might work but recent governments have shown scant regard for facts and evidence and too much regard for religious arguments. The media is as bad, giving endless time to extremists because they make good copy while moderates do not, often getting a paragraph tacked on to the end of a story, if they're lucky. A bishop who rants about gay marriage is going to get far more column inches than any moderate, whatever they call themselves.

It's easy to wear a badge or a T shirt with Heathen on but re-branding is not what's needed. What we do need is for moderates (of both sides) to be more active, not let the extremists of either side go unchallenged or hog the limelight, to let them, the media and the public know they do not speak for us. There are a lot of us; what we call ourselves is irrelevant, we need to get out there.

*I've contacted a couple of pagan and heathen groups and will add their comments if they respond.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Equal Civil Marriage Consultation

The Government has now launched its consultation on equal civil marriage in England and Wales (Scotland consults separately).

Right from the start the consultation makes it very clear indeed that this is not about religious marriage and that the Government is not considering any reforms to religious marriage, which will remain between a man and a woman on religious premises. This is stated repeatedly through the consultation.

So religious opponents won't have to worry about lesbians and gays tainting their aisles (although, on a note of pedantry, no one goes up the aisle, it's the nave). Of course, this isn't their only objection but a lot of the anti propaganda has skipped over the fact that the consultation is about civil, not religious, marriage in order to whip up a lather of indignation.

It points out that there is no legal definition of religious and civil marriage. Marriage is defined according to where it can take place rather than being either specifically religious or civil (Marriage Act 1949). There will not be two separate legal regimes for civil and religious marriages.

The change to the law would also benefit trans people. At the moment, couples where one person changes gender cannot stay married because same-sex couples cannot legally be married. Currently, someone can legally change gender with a full Gender Recognition Certificate but not if they are in a marriage or civil partnership. They have to end the legal relationship to get a certificate and then re-marry, which can affect pensions and benefits. It's interesting that, among all the religious objections to equal marriage, not one has mentioned this aspect.

Other changes include the fact that these civil marriages will become subject to some of the same rules for divorce as other marriages – adultery and non-consummation, for example. The consultation says case law may need to develop, over time, a definition as to what constitutes same-sex consummation and same-sex adultery. This points up the rather archaic and patriarchal focus on penis-vagina penetration as the definition of a full marriage and of adultery - and the excuse used by some men that blow jobs don't count as infidelity.

The first question in the consultation is: Do you agree or disagree with enabling all couples, regardless of their gender, to have a civil marriage ceremony?

Given that the Government says it is committed to introducing same-sex civil marriage, are they now wavering or is this question a sop to the religious groups who have campaigned so vehemently against changing the law, as I wrote about here? That said, they do only get 200 words, so there's no room for any sermons, just a quick summary of how this is the end of civilization as we know it, a crime against nature and the road to hell.

Religious opponents will no doubt mobilize the masses to respond to the consulation. It will be interesting to see how the Government spins the balance of responses although, as I wrote last week, human rights are not a number game.

Point 2.12 of the consultation says We are aware that the doctrines of many faiths hold the view that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and this belief is contained within the teachings of their faith. We are clear that no one should face successful legal action for hate speech or discrimination if they preach their belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

It is an important freedom of expression issue that people should be able to express their opinions and beliefs within the law – which means we can expect a lot more like this from Cardinal O’Brien, the Coalition For Marriage and the like as well as leaders of other religions jumping on the bandwagon.

The latest attack comes from Vince Nichols, Head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, who told Jeremy Paxman that gay relationships are 'profound friendships', not marriage. He also said that although marriage is for a couple to have children, lesbians who have children via a donor don't count because they are not both the natural parents of the child. Paxman didn't ask him what that means for straight couples who adopt or use a donor.

Same-sex couples will still be able to have a civil partnership if they prefer or, if they already have one, they will be able to 'upgrade' to a civil marriage - which does make marriage sound like a mobile phone.

The consultation is here and runs until 14 June. The National Secular Society will be responding to it and will write guidelines for anyone who needs them to write their own response.

As so many religious opponents will be responding, it's important for individuals who support it to do it too and not to rely on Cameron keeping his word that he is determined to make equal marriage happen.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Equalities Are Not a Numbers Game

Various statistics are being bandied around at the moment about how many people support or oppose equal marriage for lesbian and gay people. They're intended to persuade us of the moral worth of the arguments for and against. Not surprisingly, both sides are citing polls that support their position. There are also contradictory statistics doing the rounds about how many support or oppose abortion, or assisted dying, or how many Christians there are in the UK.

Statistics make for good headlines and propaganda but democracy should not be confused with the alleged will of the masses. There were times when the majority of people thought it was fine to deny women the vote, have slaves or force small children to work in factories.

If any group suffers some disadvantage or is denied a privilege or right given to others then morally it does not matter how many of them there are. Equally, if some group claims a privilege denied others, the numbers are irrelevant. Otherwise, when should we start caring? When one person is affected, or a hundred, or a million? Without a moral argument, numbers don't help.

The egalitarian will seek to redress the balance either by making an opportunity available to everyone (for instance, universal enfranchisement) or by removing a privilege from those who have it (for example religious groups claiming exemption from equality laws).

Any group losing its unfair privilege will of course complain, claim unfairness, cite some spurious historical precedent or scriptural justification or play the numbers game.

There are times when numbers can be useful, for example to show that a problem is widespread. However, statistics in isolation, without a moral argument, should be not given undue weight when equalities are the issue. They may be an indicator but sometimes what they indicate is that the egalitarian will have an uphill struggle. Opposing groups throw numbers at each other as if they were the killer blow. But might is not right, not on its own. The wisdom of crowds is often not very wise at all.

The pragmatist may be forced to play the numbers games with politicians who are aware that numbers may equal votes but there is no moral high ground in doing this and fighting fire with fire sometimes just makes a bigger blaze. Politicians often use statistics solely to give credibility to a decision they have already taken and ignore the ones that don't suit them.

Quoting percentages can be a cheap tactic, one often used in adverts - nine out of ten women agree! (and then in small print that the sample group was 119 women or some other improbable number). Or nine out of ten cats. Their effect often relies on the fact that people instinctively respond to big numbers, especially if you flash up the small print very quickly or hide your dubious methodology. It's instinctively safer to stick with the herd, particularly if you don't have a full grasp of the issues.

Polls can of course be manipulated by the way in which questions are framed in order to produce the desired result. It's often in the interest of people conducting polls to ask questions without providing both sides of the argument for people to make a reasoned decision. A quick emotive response makes for better spin.

The Government is now reportedly considering whether to include a question in their consultation on equal marriage about whether people think it is a good thing. The wording of this question will be highly significant, especially because of the weight of religious lobbying influencing politicians.

Being swayed by public opinion about whether a group should be given rights others have is not true democracy. The majority of men would not have agreed to give women the vote in the early 20th century, for example. Vested interests, ignorance, protectionism, manipulation by opposing groups or just plain bigotry are always potential obstacles. Many people do not apply Rawls' veil of ignorance when deciding what they think about equalities issues.

Mistrusting the apparent will of the masses is nothing new - in 1841 Charles Mackay wrote Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

Unfortunately, the moral argument often doesn't make for good headlines. It can be subtle or a hard sell or require time and effort to grasp, so people with the best of intentions fall back on statistics. It can be particularly hard to sell the moral argument when the opposition is a religious group claiming that there is no morality without their moral code or that people opposing them lack morality because they are not religious - or not the right kind of religious.

There are going to be a lot more numbers in the headlines around the time of the equal marriage consultation and politicians will have an eye on winning or alienating voters, especially if religious leaders persuade them that they can sway their congregations (conveniently ignoring the fact that polls show congregations disagree with doctrine).

In the case of equal marriage, it all comes down to whether we should withhold a right from one group of people. The religious extremists argue that we should because this group is not equal, they are effectively inferior citizens to whom human rights legislation apparently doesn't apply. They use statistics to mask this prejudice.

Playing percentages may make you (temporarily) popular but Cameron needs to stick to his guns and not be swayed by numbers or doctrine. Either he believes that equalities apply to everyone or he doesn't. Either he has the courage to put that belief into policy or he doesn't. Doing the right thing is not a numbers game.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Marriage is for Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve

The Government is launching a consultation this month on same-sex marriage for England and Wales and there was a separate consultation for Scotland.

Various arguments have been used against gay marriage, these are some of the favourites:

It's unnatural
This is easily defused by pointing out that natural does not always equal good (eg disease, natural disasters, poisonous plants and venomous animals) while unnatural things are not always bad (technology, medicine, IT, cooking, clothes).

Marriage is traditional
This can be dispatched with a similar argument to the 'unnatural' defence - there are good traditions and bad ones, so in itself, the fact that something is traditional carries no weight. As Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman said on the Andrew Marr Show: "We have had prejudice, discrimination and homophobia for hundreds of years, that doesn't make it right".

The State/government should not redefine marriage
Cardinal O’Brien, President of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland and Britain’s most senior Catholic, has said 'No Government has the moral authority to dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage'.

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has said "I don't think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is."

The State already defines many aspects of marriage. It sets the legal age, who can and can't marry (for example, incest bans and bigamy law), the signing of the register is a requirement to legalise a marriage, the end of a marriage is defined in divorce laws. The State has also changed the rights of women within marriage and therefore the nature of marriage - for example the Married Women's Property Act, legal protection against domestic violence and the Custody of Infants Act.

What's more, Henry VIII as Head of State did exactly that (and started a new tradition while he was at it). He redefined marriage to suit his own ends - and laid the foundations for the Church of England in the process. Which has a certain irony.

Marriage between a man and a woman is a human right.
O'Brien has also said "In Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women. … Their proposal represents a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right" and "If the Government attempts to demolish a universally recognised human right, they will have forfeited the trust which society has placed in them and their intolerance will shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world."

Archbishop Conti of Glasgow issued a statement complaining about ‘the modern preoccupation with human rights’.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, with his usual muddled thinking, supports gay equality laws, but not gay marriage.

It would appear that human rights apply only to heterosexuals. Or perhaps gay people are not considered fully human. It's hard to tell, with all the inflated rhetoric flying around. What O'Brien probably means is that gay marriage will shame the UK in the eyes of the Vatican.

Won't somebody think of the children?
Another argument from O'Brien is that "Same-sex marriage would eliminate entirely in law the basic idea of a mother and a father for every child." In schools, children will be forced to learn about gay marriage, he says - "Will both teacher and pupils simply become the next victims of the tyranny of tolerance?".

The tyranny of tolerance. As opposed the the tyranny of intolerance. The kind that leads people to harrass, threaten, discriminate and do violence against others.

It's as if allowing gay marriage would somehow detract from hetero marriage, devaluing it. Straight couples won't feel special any more, poor things.

Is there a law about 'a mother and a father for every child' ? Perhaps a lawyer could advise me on that one.

It's the end of civilization as we know it
O'Brien again: "Those of us who were not in favour of civil partnership, believing that such relationships are harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved, warned that in time marriage would be demanded too. We were accused of scaremongering then, yet exactly such demands are upon us now"

It must be nice to be right. Those pesky gays, give them an inch and they take a mile. The ones who haven't been too damaged by civil partnerships to put a sentence together, anyway.

He continues: 'Redefining marriage will have huge implications ... for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense."

People will have to buy a lot more wedding presents, for a start. Society constantly redefines itself, otherwise we'd all still be living in a feudal society tugging our forelocks, pondering whether women have souls and putting little boys up chimneys. Societies that don't evolve become extinct.

But don't worry, civilization already ended when those wooly-headed liberals allowed inter-racial marriage. Many of the same arguments were used against that.

Britain doesn't want it
Translation: Daily Mail and Telegraph readers don't want it. Poll after poll shows that the majority of the population support gay marriage and gay rights (they also support abortion, contraception and the use of condoms to prevent STIs). It's clear that religious leaders don't reflect the views of their flock. But this will not bother them. Their flocks have gone astray and need reminding of basic faith values. Or they will burn in hell.

It's political correctness gone mad
The Coalition for Marriage say that 'People should not feel pressurised to go along with same-sex marriage just because of political correctness'.

Quite right, people should stand up and be proud of their bigotry. No one is saying that people don't have the right to say what they believe (within the law) but it is not their automatic right to have those beliefs given more weight than anyone else's. Some campaigners are claiming that there is now a hierarchy of rights with equalities trumping faith. But what groups like the Coalition want is for faith to trump equalities. They're happy for there to be a hierarchy as long as they're at the top. They claim that 'it's not fair' in the same way small children do when they can't get their own way.

The web site also warns us that 'If marriage is redefined once, what is to stop it being redefined to allow polygamy?'

This is known as the slippery slope/thin end of the wedge argument. It's surprising they didn't throw in 'and kittens will go blind'.

This could be a dig at Muslims or it could be a genuine fear that we are all secretly wanting multiple spouses. As if picking up one set of dirty pants from the bathroom floor wasn't enough (although they probably mean more than one wife because the thought of one woman and two husbands would make their heads explode).

Incidentally, their definition of marriage is 'the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others'. So why aren't they campaigning against divorce?

Gay marriage is a vote loser
During the Scottish consultation, Catholic Bishop Tartaglia threatened a rift between Church and Government if gay marriage is legalized. His Church sent 100,000 ‘protest cards’ to its parishioners and asked them to sign a declaration against gay marriage.

Tartaglia may not have noticed that the Catholic Church and the government are not currently joined (or should that be 'married'?). His threat is a very good argument for the separation of Church and State, which would mean that religious leaders couldn't try to blackmail governments.

Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone has warned the Churches not to polarise the debate (too late). She said "It is the government's fundamental job to reflect society and to shape the future, not stay silent where it has the power to act and change things for the better."

It's a shame this view doesn't extend to other areas of Government policy but at least on this one they're right. For once, the Conservatives are not being conservative.

Some religious groups have come out in support of gay marriage, including a coalition of Unitarians, Liberal Jews, Quakers, the Metropolitan Church and the Pagan Federation. Reverend Holdsworth, the openly gay reverend of an Episcopal church in Scotland said: “To behave as though bishops carry some kind of block vote to Holyrood, to threaten politicians and to decry those who want access to the dignity of marriage as unnatural, to say these things seems to me to go too far. Such comments from the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church have left me feeling embarrassed as a Christian.”

The anti-gay marriage lobby is very vocal, very organised and very well-funded. They will be responding to the consultation in their masses. It's important that anyone who supports gay marriage does too.

ADDENDUM: It has been pointed out to me by an ex-Catholic that the Catholic Church's opposition to gay marriage is partly because dogma is that marriage is for procreation and nothing else. There are also examples of a man in Brazil and another in Italy who were disabled and couldn't have children being denied a Catholic marriage. So if you can't breed (with each other), you can't marry. It all makes perfect sense now.