Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Abolish personal laws: Patriarchy remains deaf to the Quran’s call for justice, equality and compassion

  Sadia Dehlvi in Times Of India

Whenever Muslim women approach the judiciary in a quest for justice, Muslim orthodoxy rallies against the abolition of Personal Laws. Their rhetoric of ‘identity under attack’ resumes. Clearly, Indian Muslims have moved beyond the politics of identity; choosing to express themselves through contributions to science, architecture, law, medicine, film, theatre, music, literature and other fields.

Debates over the validity of pronouncing talaq, divorce, three times in one go or over three months offer no solutions. Both methods find permissibility in schools of Islamic fiqh, jurisprudence. Unilateral divorce allows men to commit grave injustices by stripping women of honour and dignity, inalienable rights both in Islam and the Indian Constitution. It is unwise to expect reform from the community whose religious leaders have historically treated women as subjects and not equals.

Islamic law is a human endeavour that evolved over centuries with multiple schools holding diverse opinion. The principles of Islamic jurisprudence are weighing the benefit and harm of legal rulings in societies that jurists live in. Barring the foundational five pillars of Islam, nothing in Islamic law is definitive. Salafis and Wahhabis reject classical Islamic jurisprudence and philosophy. Their myopic literalist interpretations of Islam cause gross violations of human rights.

Sharia has always been flexible in adapting to changing times and situations. Umar, the second Caliph of Islam and companion of Prophet Muhammad, dropped sharia punishments for theft when famine struck Arabia. He realised people were stealing to survive. The eighth century Imam Shafie, founder of Shafie jurisprudence, changed many of his fatwas on migrating from Iraq to Egypt. Had sharia lacked movement, Islam would not thrive in India.

Islam is dynamic, understood and practised in a variety of ways in different cultures. Patriarchy remains deaf to the Quran’s call for equality, justice and compassion that extends to all humanity. Excluding women from leadership, patriarchy is blind to the Quran celebrating the wise consultative rule of Queen Sheba and her diplomatic engagement with Solomon.

Patriarchy fails to recognise the Quran honouring women as recipients of wahy, Divine Revelation; as experienced by Moses’s mother and Mariam, or Mary. Some famous early and medieval commentators of the Quran, such as Imam Hajar Asqalani and Imam Qurtubi, include Mary amongst the prophets.

The Islam of Prophet Muhammad disappeared within 40 years of his death with powerful and oppressive patriarchal tribes regaining power. The poor, women and slaves embraced by Islam were again marginalised. Islam’s paradigm shift in empowering women and slaves had created great difficulties for the Prophet. He sought political counsel from women, welcomed them in his mosque; encouraged women like Haqibatul Arab to deliver khutbahs, sermons. He appointed Umm Waraqa the Imam of her mosque, and sent a muezzin, one calling to prayer, from Medina to her village.

Some Islamic scholars, including the famous 9th century Imam Tabari, drew upon this precedent to proclaim it lawful for women to lead mixed gender prayers. American Muslim feminists are reclaiming this tradition despite the controversies it evokes.

Islam abrogated the concept of God as Father, saying, ‘Nothing is like Allah’. God transcends gender and is best understood as Noor, Compassionating and Illuminating Guidance. ‘He’, is used in the Quran and its translations because Arabic grammar is gender specific with no pronoun for the neuter gender. In most languages including Arabic, Persian and Urdu, the feminine is applied for ‘Zaat e Elahiya’, Divine Essence.

The word rahm, womb, is derived from God’s primary attributes Rahman and Rahim, Mercy and Compassion. Prophet Muhammad often likened God to a Mother who forgives her children. Traditional Arab poets addressed God in the feminine, literature that would probably be termed blasphemous today.

The Quran advocates equitable treatment of slaves and encourages freeing them, but does not specifically ban slavery. Responding to prevailing 7th century Arabian evils, Quran forbade the inheriting of women, female infanticide and abuse of slaves. Muslims across the world welcomed the abolition of slavery, believing it to be in accordance with Quranic guidance.

Islamic scholars have responded creatively with Quranic verses sanctioning armed struggles. Invoking the principle of ‘asbab e nuzul’, cause of revelation, they rightly limit this relevance to ‘just wars’ against oppression fought by the first Muslims. Instead of similar creative engagement with regard to oppressive canonised laws for women, patriarchy maintains the status quo. Women’s rights can no longer be defined by political Islam or Arab culture and histories.

In matters of inheritance and nafaqa, maintenance, Quran guarantees a minimum financial protection for women but does not cap the maximum. Offering more financial and emotional security to women can never conflict with Islam. Prophet Muhammad famously said, ‘None of you believes till you love for the other what you love for yourselves.’

Sharia law denies the right of punishment to individuals, leaving this responsibility to the state. Sharia endorses responsible citizenry, making it mandatory for Muslims to comply with laws of the lands they inhabit.

Traditionally, women pilgrims travelling to Mecca required to be accompanied by a mahram, husband or other male relatives with whom marriage is forbidden. Negotiating modern challenges, many Islamic scholars have ruled it permissible for women to travel alone. They declare the state as mahram, for in ensuring security, the laws
of the state replace the role of the ‘protective bodies’. This principle should extend to the Indian state.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Brexit may be the best answer to a dying eurozone

Larry Elliott in The Guardian

Staying in the EU means hitching ourselves to an undemocratic project run by and for a remote elite

Illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck

The elephant in the room. Everybody knew what Mark Carney meant when he paused halfway through his regular three-monthly update on the state of the economy: the implications of Brexit.

The governor of the Bank of England did not pull any punches. He warned of a potential run on the pound and of possible problems financing the UK’s whopping balance of payments deficit. He said the Bank expected growth to be materially lower and inflation to be notably higher. Voters trust the Bank of England. They sat up and took notice. The opinion polls started to move in favour of remain. When the history of the referendum campaign is written, Carney’s may be seen as the decisive intervention.

In truth, there was more than one elephant in the room. Carney was right when he said there was a risk that the upheaval caused by Brexit could tip an already weakening economy into recession. But as elephants in the room go, this was the smaller, Indian version. The equivalent of the bigger, African elephant was the shocking state of the eurozone after the failure of the single currency experiment. This went unremarked by Carney, although it is relevant to the debate aboutEurope.

Why? Because, although Britain is likely to stay in the EU, Brexit will remain a live issue unless the eurozone can sort itself out. That means either admitting that the euro has been a terrible mistake, or going the whole hog and integrating further, with a single banking system, a Europe-wide treasury, and a democratically elected finance minister with the power to raise money in Germany and spend it in Greece. This is not going to happen any time soon, and perhaps never. Countries that joined the eurozone gave up a considerable amount of economic power when they adopted the euro, but they retained the right to raise their own taxes and make their own spending decisions.

Britain is not in the euro, for which we should all be thankful. But let’s be clear: staying in the EU means hitching the wagon to a currency zone unable to go forwards or backwards, and which will continue to struggle as a result.

The euro brought to fruition the idea of ever-closer union, a plan that dates back to the early 1950s. Lots of things considered good ideas back then are no longer considered quite so clever: system-built high-rise flats as the answer to slum housing; nuclear power to meet energy needs. Put ever-closer union in the same category as the Birmingham inner-city ring road: it seemed a good idea at the time.

Dan Atkinson and I spent the winter working on a book about the single currencycommissioned in the wake of last summer’s Greek crisis. The brief was to look at what had gone wrong from a left-of-centre perspective; to explore the widespread disquiet about the way in which a country that voted in January 2015 for an end to austerity ended up seven months later being forced to accept even deeper cuts in wages and spending.
The eurozone crisis is about more than Greece. It is about Italy, where the economy is barely any bigger now than it was when the single currency was introduced. And France, where unemployment is double the level of the UK or the US. And Finland, one of the most tech-savvy countries in Europe, where the economy is 7% smaller than it was before the start of the financial crisis. And even Germany, where an export boom and high corporate profits have been paid for by workers in the form of below-inflation pay increases.

Our investigations took us back to the last time Britain held a referendum on EU membership, when during the cabinet discussions Tony Benn warned that Britain was signing up for something that was undemocratic, deflationary and run in the interests of big business. “I can think of no body of men outside the Kremlin who have so much power without a shred of accountability for what they do,” Benn said.

Benn’s dystopian vision proved entirely accurate. When the architects of the new Europe looked to the future, they envisaged a new and better version of the United States of America. Europe would have all the good bits about the US – such as the economic dynamism, a large barrier-free market and a single currency – without any of the bad bits: the inequality, the high levels of incarceration, the poverty and the inadequate welfare safety net. 

This dream lives on. Yanis Varoufakis, the deposed finance minister of Greece, thinks the eurozone could be recast along Keynesian lines, with the rich and strong countries obliged to provide financial help to the poor and weak. Good luck with getting Germany to agree to that.
Economic policy has been relentlessly deflationary. The interests of bankers have been given a higher priority than workers’. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus and Spain have been the laboratory mice in a continent-wide neoliberal experiment of a sort Tea Party Republicans in the US can only fantasise about.

Given the obscene level of long-term unemployment, the idea of Europe as the guardian of labour rights is laughable. The gap between the US and Europe has widened, not narrowed, since the launch of the single currency. Populist parties of both left and right are gaining in support. One left-of-centre argument against Brexit is that it would result in the breakup of the euro and by doing so set off a chain reaction that would lead to the next global crisis: a perfectly fair point. Those who fear that another recession and even higher levels of joblessness would threaten a return to the totalitarian politics of the 1930s are right to highlight the risks. Some on the left who want Brexit say that the time is not yet ripe.

The left-of-centre case for divorce is that Europe doesn’t work, is not remotely progressive and is heading for an existential crisis anyway. Last year’s threat was Grexit. This year’s threat is Brexit. Next year’s threat will be something else: Italy leaving the single currency, perhaps, or Marine Le Pen’s tilt for the French presidency.

This presents an opportunity for those who believe that the way ahead still involves closer integration. Jean Monnet, the godfather of the EU, always said that ever-closer union would be forged through crises, which is what Brexit would undoubtedly trigger.

If the polls are right, Britain seems unready to trigger this act of creative destruction and it will be left to Varoufakis to do out of office what he could not do in power: prove a different Europe is possible.

A different Europe is needed, but it is stretching credibility to imagine that the Europe of Greece and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership can easily morph into America with the nice people in charge. The eurozone is economically moribund, persists with policies that have demonstrably failed, is indifferent to democracy, is run by and for a small, self-perpetuating elite, and is slowing dying. The wrong comparison is being made. This is not the US without the electric chair; it is the USSR without the gulag.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Are funny people sexy ... or are sexy people funny?

Dean Burnett in The Guardian

In a recent guest post, Girl On The Net looked at the assumption that women “love a bad boy”, the cliché that women are attracted to more rebellious, undisciplined, aloof characters who play by their own rules like “treat them mean, keep them keen” etc.

But never mind the bad guy, what about the funny guy? It’s an equally common cliché that women are often charmed by a guy who can make them laugh. It certainly pops up in the media often enough. How many sitcoms have you seen where the at-best-average-looking bloke ends up with a woman who’s clearly “out of his league”, purely because he’s wacky, or witty, or cuttingly sarcastic?

Real life isn’t short of examples either. The acronym GSOH is practically mandatory for dating profiles. In his brilliant (if psychologically alarming) autobiography Becoming Johnny Vegas, Vegas pulls no punches when it comes to criticising his own physical appearance and shortcomings, but highlights how his increased comedy success lead to similarly increased attention from women (much to the annoyance of the more typically-attractive blokes watching, a phenomenon that has been scientifically recorded).

And for those with a strong constitution, there’s Dirty British Comedy Confessions, a site where people confess their sexual fantasies about British (and beyond) comedy stars, in often eye-watering detail (thanks to Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast for flagging this up, and the Greg Davies andNick Helm episodes in particular).

Ken Dodd has been making countless people laugh for over half a century, but still isn’t considered a sex symbol for some reason. Photograph: Gary Calton for the Guardian

The link between humour and sexual attraction has a lot to back it up, as the bishop said to the nun. Humour is widely regarded as a complex form of communication, allowing people to convey sentiments and information in an enjoyable and engaging way. If you’ve ever seen a seasoned lecturer make jokes (or at least, attempt to) you’ve seen how prevalent this notion is. So humour is a complex and valuable tool for modern humans. However, when you give a typical human anything at all, one of the main responses will inevitably be “how can I use this to get sex?” And lo, humour has become deeply entrenched in what is questionably referred to as “human mating”, and in a variety of ways.

At the most basic level, it makes sense that we’d be more drawn to someone we find funny. We encounter someone, they make us feel pleasure by making us laugh, we form a positive association with them, and have more positive feelings towards them. Basic associative learning, the kind Pavlov’s dogs demonstrated. Obviously, it’s a lot more complex than that; people can find novelty coffee mugs funny, doesn’t mean they want to have sex with them (although no doubt people who work in A&E could provide evidence to the contrary).

Another theory is that the ability to make jokes and amuse people is a sign of psychological health and fitness, as it requires intelligence, quick thinking, versatility etc. All these things suggest the person is a good mate, from a health and genetics perspective. So maybe jokes and wordplay are the verbal equivalents of a stag’s antlers, or a peacock’s tail; excessive displays of biological health and fitness.

Again, it’s clearly more complex than this. Very few women will look at a man who makes her laugh and think “Phwoarr, I’d love some of his gametes”. Also, the assumption that “humorous = psychologically healthy” isn’t a definite conclusion; there’s evidence to suggest that many people see excessive humour as a sign that someone is psychologically unwell, hence the whole “tears of a clown” cliché.

Depressingly for those who believe being funny can compensate for being physically unattractive, that seems to only work up to a point. An interesting study by Cowan and Little, which looked at humour and attractiveness found that physically attractive people were deemed to be “funnier” than less attractive people when the subjects could see the speaker. When presented with audio only, this effect wasn’t so pronounced.

Why would attractive people be considered funnier? Surely that’s not how humour works? One explanation is the “halo effect”, where our initial impression of a person causes a bias in all our other assessments of them. So if you look at a man and think “he is attractive”, when he makes jokes you’re more likely to think “he is funny” because you already have positive feelings about him due to how he looks.

It’s technically possible to separate humour from physical appearance, but it takes you to strange places. Photograph: Alamy

In contrast, because the humour-attraction link is well established and manifests in various ways, many might consider attempts at humour as synonymous with flirting. And if a person you don’t find attractive tries to flirt with you, most people really don’t like that, so you experience a negative reaction. Overall, it suggests attractive people have a much easier time of it when it comes to making people laugh. At last, the physically beautiful finally catch a break!

All this comes with many caveats. The style of humour and romantic intent plays a role, because people are complex and aren’t limited to binary funny/unfunny or sexy/unsexy judgements. You also can’t really filter out the countless cultural influences on our perceptions.

For example, the study mentioned above shows that humour is linked to attractiveness for both men and women, but the effect is stronger for women. Is this some deep-rooted evolved mechanism, or the result of everyone around us assuming that women aren’t “supposed” to be the funny ones? Any that are are defying convention, so receive negative responses for this. It’s nonsense of course, but then any woman who displays positive traits seems destined to be attacked for it. We live in a world where even the most physically flawless woman can be criticised and mocked in major publications because a photographer with a powerful camera glimpsed some cellulite between 2 adjacent skin cells.

So it’s assumed that men “should” be the funny ones, and women are the ones who “choose” funnier men. But there’s no rule saying it has to be this way. And this (and nearly every study into the area) focuses solely on heterosexual relationships. There’s nothing to say homosexual interaction doesn’t use humour in similar ways, but the stereotypical culture roles would now throw everything off, so cause even more headaches for scientists.

Overall, while it seems clear that humour and sexual interaction are strongly linked, the idea that funny people are sexier isn’t quite so obvious. People who are already attractive often get perceived as funnier, because the people attracted to them want them to be, even if it is at a subconscious level.

This isn’t an absolute of course, what with humans being as messy and complex as they are, particularly when it comes to sex. Some people really are irresistably drawn to someone who makes them laugh, regardless of looks. Other people have no interest in dating a wannabe clown at all. But, with all that in mind, if you’re wondering why so many current comedians seem to be attractive young men with trendy hair, now you know.

Why a new toilet law could flush cafes and takeaways down the pan

Chitra Ramaswamy in The Guardian
How many seats in a coffee shop does it take to necessitate provision of a customer loo? Fifteen? Five? A solitary stool and a sticky counter? An existential question and one that, according to this toilet-user, depends on a complex set of circumstances, from what’s on the menu to where the chairs are positioned. (Five outside? Toilet unlikely. Four inside? Expect a small, whiffy loo with no paper towels in the dispenser.)
The correct answer, according to section 20 of the 1976 Local Government Miscellaneous Provisions Act, is 10. As in, cafes with fewer than 10 seats are not legally required to provide customer loos. Which is presumably why you can’t scoff a sausage roll in Greggs and then demand use of the washroom but you can order a takeout coffee in a central London Starbucks and get a key to the saddest toilets in Soho. (When it comes to public conveniences don’t be fooled by the romance of a key.)
Despite the 10-seat guideline, thousands of takeaways and coffee shops could now be forced to install a toilet or get rid of seating following a recent case in Hull. Two branches of Greggs, both of which had fewer than 10 seats, lost a legal battle with the council after the judge ruled that not providing facilities gave them an “unfair commercial advantage”. If the ruling, which is being appealed, sets a precedent, as many as 21,500 takeaways and 5,230 coffee shops across the UK – the vast majority of which are small independent businesses – could be affected.
“It would be a major problem,” Raymond Martin, director of the British Toilet Association, says. “Most of these are not going to be able to provide a toilet. Many would be forced to close down.” Would he expect a loo in a takeaway with only a few tables? “It does seem right to provide a toilet if a takeaway allows me to consume food and stay on the premises for a period of time,” he replies diplomatically. “But should we force takeaways to put in toilets? I don’t think we can.”
The real issue, he adds, is the loss of public toilets from our cities and town centres. The law currently does not compel local authorities to provide public toilets – of which there are around 4,000 in the UK – and the result is that Britain has lost more than 40% of its facilities in the past decade. “We reckon we are losing toilets faster than we’re gaining them,” Martin says. “Every day we get calls from councillors saying: ‘We’re thinking of closing some, if not all, of our toilets. What’s our legal position?’ In years gone by, people would have got their food from a takeaway and then used a public toilet later. That is no longer the case.”
Meanwhile stores, supermarkets, petrol stations and other commercial providers have stepped in, hopeful that, after we’ve relieved ourselves in their lovely free toilets, conveniently located right at the back of the store so we have to walk past all their goods to get to them, we’ll do a spot of shopping. Perhaps toilets are the latest trick in retail, the new piped muzak luring us in to spend a penny before we spend, spend, spend. “The government wants people out shopping, eating, keeping the economy flowing,” Martin notes. “But it doesn’t want to provide the toilets.”