Posts Tagged 'women'

New tool for female empowerment: Turkish soap operas

By Harry van Versendaal

When the Turkish soap opera “Noor” revealed to Samar that marriage can be an equal partnership between two loving people rather than a state of misery and repression, she switched off her TV and got herself a divorce lawyer.

“I liked using the subject of soap operas to speak of the important issue of women’s rights. Doing so cast a different light on the story; it was also a happier way to tell the story,” says Nina Maria Paschalidou. Her latest film, “Kismet,” is screening at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) after making a well-reviewed debut at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in November where it was nominated for the IDFA Best Mid-Length Documentary Award.

Fifty-four-year-old Samar, a Lebanese woman living for years in the United Arab Emirates, is not alone in finding inspiration in Turkish TV dramas. Samira, a victim of sexual harassment in Cairo during the recent Egyptian revolution, tells the camera how she found the courage, despite being pressured by her family to keep quiet, to take the perpetrators – army officers – to court after watching Fatmagul, a gang-rape victim in another Turkish drama series, fight for justice. She not only won her case, but also helped to stop the until-then mandatory “virginity tests” given to all females in police custody.

Paschalidou, a 40-year-old filmmaker, journalist and producer from Veria, a small town in northern Greece with a strong Ottoman imprint, became fascinated by how a medium that provokes much derision in the West has become a successful tool for female empowerment in the East.

“I was staying in Washington when a friend, who is from Turkey, showed me a Washington Post article on Turkish soap operas. I was intrigued and began to look into the subject,” says Paschalidou, founder of independent documentary and multimedia group Forest Troop.

Millions of viewers across the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans are hooked on TV dramas such as “Gumus,” which is broadcast across the Arab world as “Noor,” “What Is Fatmagul’s Fault?” “The Magnificent Century,” “Life Goes On,” and “Forbidden Love.” During a recent survey carried out in 16 Middle East countries, three out of four said they had seen at least one of about 70 Turkish shows that have been sold abroad since 2001.

“The impact went beyond all expectations. People started to name their children after the main characters, women started to divorce their husbands because of what they saw on TV, tourist operators offered site-specific tours,” Paschalidou says.

Bad signal

The success of these shows naturally did not go down well with conservatives in the Middle East. In Iran, where shows are watched via smuggled satellite dishes hidden on balconies, authorities said soaps were “destabilizing the institution of the family.” Saudi clerics went as far as to issue fatwas against people watching the shows.

Apart from being an unintended cultural export and a unique brand of soft power, Turkish dramas also raked in cash – tons of it. The value of soap opera exports skyrocketed from a million dollars in 2007 to 130 million in 2012 as the country sold 13,000 hours of programming, according to data from the country’s Tourism and Culture Ministry.

Part of their appeal, the director says, was thanks to the good-old American recipe. “It’s the drama, the passionate love affairs, the nasty vendettas – a recipe first sold by the Americans with ‘Dallas’ and ‘Dynasty’ in the 1980s,” says Paschalidou.

But, like most observers, Paschalidou also sees culture-specific factors at play. “It was no coincidence that these shows struck a chord with audiences in the areas of the former Ottoman Empire. There was something exotic, yet at the same time quite familiar, to them. People in this part of the world have many shared memories, a common past, similar food,” she says.

They also have similar ambitions.

“Viewers in the Middle East see the Turkish woman as a model of the modern Muslim female. This is a bit who they would like to be, who they struggle to become,” Paschalidou says. They want greater freedom and more rights. And more wealth. “What all these shows have in common is their penchant to show off designer clothes, nice homes and luxury villas,” she says.

Interestingly, while women in Arab countries appear in the documentary to be inspired by the modern, feminist narrative, their Greek counterparts are looking in the other direction as Turkish series have triggered in many a nostalgia for pre-modern values and ideals such as tradition and family ties. “I like these shows because they have morals and the girls don’t take off their underwear all the time like they do here,” says one elderly Greek fan.

Greece’s stubborn recession, now in its seventh year, has hit most people hard and at the same time influenced Greeks’ collective self-understanding. “The crisis has been widely associated with the West and many things modern. As a result, we have dug out old memories and turned to the Eastern part of our identity,” Paschalidou says.

“Perhaps there is also this longing for true love, for the type of man who stands by his wife and looks after her needs – even if he is a bit of on the macho side,” she says.

To be continued

Closer to home, these programs have inflicted some collateral damage by exposing Turkey’s internal contradictions: The narrative of a modern, prosperous Turkey is being challenged by a conservative, intolerant backlash. Once the darling of liberal reformists, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who has criticized a historical soap based on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, which depicts the sultan as a man in thrall to his favorite wife, as “an attempt to insult our past, to treat our history with disrespect” – has fed concerns among secularists about his increasingly authoritarian style of government.

“Turkey’s efforts to promote a modern, Western face cannot disguise its huge shortcomings in the area of women’s rights,” Paschalidou says.

Despite a series of legal reforms over the past few years, Turkey did poorly in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Index. A recent survey found that a third of marriages in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern provinces involved very young brides, many of them under the age of 15. In “Life Goes On” a young girl from Anatolia is married off to an abusive 70-year-old. The girl escapes her yoke, but in reality such happy endings are less common.

“Reality is not always like in the series. A girl who has been forced into marrying at an early age in Turkey will not have the support of her family if she decides to break up,” the director says.

“These series present an idealized image that Turkish society is mature enough to solve its problems, which is not always the case,” she says.

But the effort is there, and it is a genuine effort Paschalidou believes. The shows are mainly written by female scriptwriters who nudge the narratives into more feminist paths, and even attempt to involve their audience. When the final court scene of “What Is Fatmagul’s Fault? was filmed, the extras cast to carry banners and shout slogans in support of Fatmagul were real-life victims of sexual abuse.

“What really impressed me was that Turkish actresses are fully conscious of what it is that they are doing,” she says. Many of them have taken the effort outside the TV studio by participating in a campaign to stop domestic violence against women.

“It’s not just a marketing strategy. Some of them genuinely believe they can help.”

Skin trade exposed

Harry van Versendaal

Shortly after communism came crashing to the ground in Eastern Europe, Mimi Chakarova, then 13 years old, left her small Bulgarian village to start a new life in the United States with her mother.

As she found out during a visit back to the place a few years later, other girls from her village had been less fortunate. Lured by promises of well-paying jobs abroad, many disappeared into the dark world of sex slavery as they were actually sold to gangs who confiscated their passports and held them captive in brothels and nightclubs, forcing them to work as prostitutes.

A teacher of visual storytelling at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, Chakarova’s curiosity surrounding the circumstances of the girls’ emigration prompted her to embark on a photo-reportage project in 2003. The venture culminated in a well-crafted and deeply disturbing 73-minute documentary feature which combines still images with video footage.

In her award-winning film, “The Price of Sex,” showing at this month’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Chakarova follows in the footsteps of Eastern European women forced into sex trafficking and abused by their captors. Along the way, she conducts interviews in Bulgaria, Moldova, Greece, Turkey and Dubai.

Chakarova interviews recruiters, pimps, police officials and a couple of sex-starved clients. She does not hesitate to pose as a prostitute, using hidden cameras to film inside a Turkish sex club — a feat that is unfortunately not as cinematically revealing as it is bold. And she has no qualms about occasionally drifting away from unemotional objectivity, cherished among doc traditionalists, to step into more activist territory.

One of the women describes how she jumped out of a three-story-high window to escape her captors. The attempt left her partially paralyzed but she was still brought back to continue working until a replacement was found. As Charakova puts it in the film, “one kilo of cocaine, one AK-47 or one Moldovan girl — it’s all the same.”

An estimated 2 million women and children are sold into the sex trade every year, according to the United Nations. A large number come from the countries of the former communist bloc.

“If you want to fight sex trafficking, you first have to combat the discrepancy between rich and poor countries, rampant corruption and poor access to justice,” a NGO worker tells Chakarova. Too tall an order for a documentary maker, perhaps, but if knowledge is power, then this doc can provide some of the necessary spark to get things moving in the right direction.

The 35-year-old Chakarova spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about her experience and hopes for the future.

What made you decide to make this particular documentary?

What motivated me to make “The Price of Sex” changed over time. Initially, I wanted to see if what I was reading and seeing in the press was fairly reported. The sensationalism surrounding this issue really troubled me. So I challenged myself to see if I could do a better job of understanding why women were sold into sexual slavery after the collapse of communism. Over the years, no matter how difficult this journey got, I felt a sense of obligation to carry on. I grew up in a village in Bulgaria. I migrated abroad as well, and my family struggled with some of the same challenges of poverty that others faced. I knew I had to return and expose something that many chose to ignore or were too afraid to acknowledge as a post-communist plague in our society.

What were the main obstacles you had to overcome in making the film? Do you still run into trouble because of it?

I often think about some of the situations I put myself in and I realize it was absolutely insane. I didn’t have security. I was shooting with hidden cameras in environments where you are constantly watched and you can’t show fear. This type of work gets to you over time. Even when you come home and it’s “safe,” you can’t turn it off. But at the same time, it’s impossible not to find yourself in dangerous situations, no matter how prepared you think you are. You’re dealing with criminal networks that don’t want their operations exposed. There are too many variables beyond your control when you enter high-risk situations. I always tell my students that staying alive in this line of work is a combination of common sense based on experience, instinct, your powers of observation and the rest is really luck. Once it runs out, you’re done.

It must have been difficult to win the trust of these women. How did you go about it?

I gained their trust over time. I photographed one of the women in “The Price of Sex” over a four-year period before she agreed to a video interview. Every story has its own life and requires patience and care. And in every place you document, you leave a piece of yourself. It’s an exchange. You are not only reporting, taking a photo or shooting video; you are giving your attention and concern. Sometimes you don’t even do the work. You sit and observe and help, if you can. When someone opens their home to you, shares the little bit of food they have and offers you their bed because sleeping on the floor is out of the question, you are a guest, not a journalist. And you treat people with the respect your mother taught you. I am fortunate to say I have a wonderful mother who instilled that in me. And I can return to the places I’ve visited over the years without ever feeling unwelcome. The people we make films about should never be referred to as “subjects.” And the dynamic is way too complicated to ever pretend that we can be objective with the work we do.

Do you feel you kept the necessary distance from the women while shooting the film? Or did you perhaps find yourself getting more engaged than you should have?

I don’t think it’s possible to keep a distance when working on a subject matter like sex slavery for almost a decade. This work affects you profoundly.

Did you help any of the victims in any way, and is that necessarily a bad thing?

Yes, I’ve been able to help some of the women through the work I’ve produced, but my bigger challenge is how to ensure long-term change and, most importantly, how to prevent this from happening to other young girls. One positive outcome is that the US State Department will use the film to train its employees at embassies throughout the world. But there is still a lot more to be done.

Did opening up to you have a cathartic effect on the women?

There were many times when I would ask, “Why are you telling me all this?” — especially when a woman would disclose really graphic or gruesome details of what she went through. And the answer was consistently: “Because you won’t judge me. I have no one else to tell.” So, yes, I think many of these conversations were painful but also cathartic.

You only mention a few numbers in your documentary. Is it because you feel the personal stories you present are more powerful than figures?

The numbers vary so greatly depending on the source that I was wary of focusing on estimates. For example, the US State Department estimates the number of trafficking victims at 800,000 per year. But the UN’s estimate goes up to nearly 2 million. These numbers also include labor trafficking, so rather than focus on data which is very difficult to substantiate, I decided to make a film that tells the women’s stories and also reveals the widespread, systematic corruption across borders.

What do you hope to achieve with this documentary?

I hope that people who see it can leave informed but also with the urgent desire to do something. If you’re not informed, you are living in darkness. The more you know, the more responsible you become about changing. And once you know what happens to others, it is your duty as a human being to take a position. Pretending that what’s right in front of you doesn’t exist just because it disrupts your comfort zone is unacceptable. I would like to encourage people to visit http://priceofsex.org and learn more about the film and the multimedia series. I would also urge them to react and post their comments. It’s through this global discourse and sharing of ideas and experiences that we truly bring such issues to the surface. And that’s always an important first step before taking action.

Are you working on a new project?

I am currently traveling with the film and speaking about “The Price of Sex” to as many people as I can. Once I feel that the film has a life of its own and no longer requires my presence, I will start working on my second film, which takes place in the US.

Taking secular values at face value

Photo by the|G|™

By Harry van Versendaal

France’s decision to ban the niqab and the burqa — the latter being a version of the full-body veil usually associated with Aghan women who were repressed by the Taliban — has naturally drawn a shower of criticism from politicians, clerics and pundits in Muslim countries. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman promptly complained that “any kind of ban on observance of the veil means a lack of freedom and rights of Muslim women.”

But apart from the public rebuke from Iran — an unlikely defender of women’s rights and liberties — the French move has also come under fire from Europe’s liberal-left commentariat, which has denounced the ban as a wrongheaded breach of the freedom of expression or, more cynically, a political machination on behalf of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, aspiring to ride the burgeoning wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country of 65 million people.

But even if it passed the ban for the wrong reasons — which is debatable — Sarkozy’s party may still have done the right thing. What most critics seem to miss is that France has a long tradition of strict secularism or, what the French like to call, laicite. The legacy of revolutionary anti-clericalism, this peculiarly French doctrine differs from other European understandings of liberal pluralism such as, for example, Britain’s live-and-let-live multiculturalism which revolves around allowing all different cultures flourish in a multiethnic, multireligious environment.

The French are concerned that this shrug-your-shoulders-and-move-on type of religious tolerance works against social integration because it encourages the creation of social apartheids — parallel societies living according to their own norms and principles but never really mixing with each other. For that reason, the French elites have for over a century insisted on an unflinching secularist policy designed to purge religion from public life while safeguarding the three fundamental principles of the Republic: liberty, equality, fraternity. Being French is not about the right blood, color or metaphysics, but about endorsing these key secular values which by default stand above any ethnic, racial or religious tag.

It’s an inevitably imperfect and oft-betrayed ideal, but it is still an ideal. And it’s easy to see how this uncomfortable tent-like garment that reduces visual perception of the outside world to a burqa mailslot, falls short in respect to these values; in fact, in many ways it stands at the opposite end.

A symbol of inherent inequality and male domination, the burqa is the product of a bizarre notion of sexuality: gazing at the hair or faces of women arouses sexual desires in men; and the people who must punished for that are the women. Andre Gerin, the Communist deputy who chaired the commission that examined whether there was a case for outlawing the burqa, said the full-body gear is “the tip of an iceberg of oppression,” while Algerian-born minister Fadela Amara described it as “a kind of tomb, a horror for those trapped within it.”

As defenders of the practice like to point out, there are of course exceptions as some women claim to don the garment by choice. But so long as there are women out there who are beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their face, liberal societies in the West have an obligation to defend their citizens against this jailhouse garb.

And, whether some women actually like to wear the burqa or not, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that covering your body and face signifies something else than unwillingness to integrate with the rest of society. France, a country which includes 5 million Muslims, has good reason to worry given recurring reports of Muslim men who forbid their wives from seeing a male doctor, of women who demand female-only swimming pools or refuse to participate in school sports, and of pupils who skip history classes such as those on the Jewish Holocaust.

Instead of whipping our backs while trying to accommodate the most indefensible of customs in the name of a misguided anything-goes cultural relativism, we secularist liberals should have the courage to defend the animating principles that make the open society: freedom, equality, openness. Anyone who wants to join in must, at least, have the courtesy to show us their face.

Orgasm Inc.

By Harry van Versendaal

Sales of Viagra, the famous blue pill used to treat male impotence, exceeded $460 million worldwide last year. Imagine how much money could be made from producing a pill for the other half of the globe’s population: women. It’s no surprise that the world’s pharmaceutical companies are locked in a race to come up with a pink Viagra.

Liz Canner joined the race in 2002. That was when the 42-year-old filmmaker from Vermont, in the USA, was recruited by Vivus, a small pharmaceutical company based in California. Her job was to edit erotic videos for women used as test subjects in the development of an “orgasm cream” designed to cure something called “female sexual dysfunction.” In the process, she discovered that “sexual dysfunction” was a catchall term with little scientific value. But there was little point in creating the drug unless the industry first created the condition. As a medical researcher says in the film: “We’ve come up with the drug. Now we have to come up with the disease.”

The fruit of her nine-year research, a 78-minute documentary called “Orgasm Inc,” exposes efforts by the pharmaceutical industry to medicate female sexual desire – from cosmetic vaginal surgery to Dr Stuart Meloy’s push-button orgasmatron – putting women’s health at risk for profit.

“Orgasm Inc” won the Best Feature award at the Vermont International Film Festival and Best Feature Documentary award at the Southeast New England Film Festival, while The Independent magazine last year named Canner one of the top 10 independent filmmakers to watch. The film will be screened at the Orpheas open-air cinema on Kos on Friday, September 3, at 8.50 p.m.

Canner spoke to Athens Plus about the industry of female pleasure.

How did you get involved in this project?

After over a decade of producing documentaries on human rights issues such as genocide, police brutality and world poverty, the violent images from my movies were giving me nightmares and making me depressed about the state of humanity. In order to change the script in my head, I had decided my next project would be about pleasure; specifically, the history of the science of female pleasure.

Then, strangely, while I was in the middle of shooting the movie, I was offered a job editing erotic videos for a pharmaceutical company that was developing an orgasm cream for women. The videos were to be watched by women during the clinical trial of their new drug. I accepted the job and gained permission to film my employers for my own documentary. I thought the experience would give me access to the secretive world of the pharmaceutical industry and insight into the latest scientific thinking about women and pleasure.

I did not set out to create an expose but what I uncovered at work compelled me to keep filming and investigating. This insider perspective allows the film to scrutinize the culture within the pharmaceutical industry, which has been perverted to place the drive for profit above our health. So much for pleasure…

How easy was it to make this film? What were the main obstacles you had to overcome?

It is not easy to make a documentary about the secretive pharmaceutical industry and the media’s collusion with it. It has been quite stressful.

You spent nine years on this project. Has it given you a new perspective on the issue of female orgasm – or lack thereof?

The biggest secret about orgasms is how rarely women actually have them during heterosexual intercourse. One of the women in my film, Charletta, underwent painful surgery to have an orgasmatron device installed in her spine. The only thing that it did was make her leg kick out uncontrollably. Needless to say, it did not work. It turned out that Charletta actually had no trouble climaxing but wanted it to happen during sex with her husband in what she considered a “normal” way. She was thrilled when I told her that most women don’t climax through intercourse alone.

According to Charletta, her idea about what her sex life was supposed to be like came from the movies. In our society, we’re constantly bombarded with images of fabulous sex in the media and the message that we should have orgasms every time. This is just not accurate. Researchers have found that 70 percent of women actually need direct clitoral stimulation in order to climax.

Charletta had been told by the doctor that she had female sexual dysfunction because she was not having orgasms during intercourse. The idea that there’s sexual dysfunction implies that there’s a norm. However, there is nothing that says what functional is. There is no norm — no medical study that says that women should be having five orgasms a month during intercourse or 10 sexual thoughts a day in order to be healthy. So this idea that you can be dysfunctional is problematic. If you create something that makes it appear that there is a function that women should be living up to, it’s quite dangerous. I think that all of us have complaints. I mean, who doesn’t want to have an orgasm whenever they want?

Your film contradicts past reports that some 43 percent of women suffer from sexual dysfunction. Do you think the figure is arbitrary?

All over the media you hear that a shocking 43 percent of women suffer from female sexual dysfunction. I first heard this statistic when I was working for the pharmaceutical industry in the early 2000s and it surprised me. If so many women had female sexual dysfunction, why didn’t my mother tell me about it and why weren’t my friends talking about it? In fact, I had not even heard of the disease until I took the job with the pharmaceutical industry.

In “Orgasm Inc,” I investigate the history of the 43 percent statistic. It turns out that it was taken from a sociology survey that was conducted in the early ‘90s to find out what people’s sex lives were like. It was never meant to measure the number of women with a disease. Using exaggerated statistics like that manipulates women. It also says to Wall Street that there is a large market for this drug.

Do you think this is a case of disease mongering, as it were, i.e. of the industry trying to convince people there is something wrong with them?

The media talks about female sexual dysfunction as if it always existed — when in fact it was a term that came about in the late 1990s. When Viagra was released, it was such a blockbuster drug for men that companies like Pfizer began to think that there was also a big market for women. The problem was, in order to develop a drug, the FDA required that there be a clearly defined disease. Pfizer and a number of other drug companies sponsored the first meetings on FSD. In the end, 18 of the 19 authors of the definition of the disease had ties to 22 drug companies. This definition is extremely broad: Almost any sexual complaint you have, whatever causes it, will fall into this disease category.

It’s a bizarre disorder, because you have to self-diagnose and you have to be distressed by it. So in other words, if you never felt an iota of sexual desire in your life but it didn’t bother you, you don’t have the disease. If you never had an orgasm but it didn’t bother you, you don’t have the disease. There are real physiological conditions that can cause sexual problems such as hysterectomies and diabetes. I think we can’t ignore that. But for the most part, most of women’s sexual problems are caused by sociocultural conditions like past sexual abuse, relationship problems and stress due to overworking.

Could it be that men are simply looking for ways to make up for their failure to stimulate women?

In the United States, part of the problem is the lack of comprehensive sex education for both men and women. In most sex ed classes, the full genital anatomy is not taught. The clitoris, the most sensitive part of the female body, is not mentioned because it is taboo to talk about pleasure. It was surprising to me how many women and men do not know where the clitoris is.

While shooting your documentary, you witnessed the development of a number of treatments. Did any of them seem to work?

In “Orgasm Inc,” I followed the pharmaceutical industry over a period of nine years as they raced to develop a female Viagra. I kept hoping that they would discover a magic bullet but most of the products currently in clinical trials do not work much better than a placebo (sugar pill) and the side effects for many of them are quite horrific – including breast cancer and cardiovascular problems. Part of the problem is that sexual experience is really complicated and based more on context than biology.

In the press you read: “Men have their Viagra, women want theirs too.” I’d love to know which PR firm came up with this slogan, because it is very effective. The question is what do women need Viagra for? Most of women’s sexual problems are not caused by a physical medical condition but are the result of sociocultural issues. So, I think the only way that most women will be satisfied with their sex lives will be if they can take a product that makes them feel comfortable about their bodies; that ends sexual abuse toward women; that creates equality in the workplace; that creates equality in relationships; that gives women good sex education so they can fully know about the clitoris and about how their bodies function. Why can’t we take a pill like that?

Isn’t there a percentage of women, however small, that do suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction?

The thing about sexual experience is that our sense of satisfaction comes from our expectations. In other words, if women think that they should be having an orgasm every time they have intercourse, then a lot of women are going to believe they have sexual problems. If women think they should have the same libido at 60 as they had at 20, a lot of women are going to think they have a disease.

Right now, there is a cultural shift going on and medicine is changing our expectations but this is not a new phenomenon. In our grandmother’s time, women with low desire were said to suffer from frigidity. During the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, the pathologizing and medicalizing of woman’s sexual experience was challenged and resisted. Terms such as nymphomania and frigidity were no longer used. Recently, the clocks have been turned back. Low desire is now called hypoactive sexual desire disorder (a subset of FSD) and there are quite a number of drug companies racing to find a nose spray, pill, cream or patch to cure it. By the way, I find it very curious that they’re working on a desire drug for women. Would anybody think to develop a desire drug for men?

It is important to note that some women do suffer from a real physiological problem when they experience a lowering of their sex drive. Radical hysterectomies and some antidepressants affect libido. However, the majority of women do not suffer from a disease. For many of us, our libidos are influenced by everyday life experiences such as aging, our sense of body image, the health of our relationship, stress, and past sexual encounters.

You have taken your film to many film festivals. What has been the response to your work?

It has been exciting taking “Orgasm Inc” to film festivals. We have had many sold-out shows and received a lot of positive feedback. There have been quite a number of times when women have come up to me in tears after a screening and told me that they learned things about their sexual response that they did not know and they feel relieved to discover they are healthy and normal.

Have you had any reactions from the pharmaceutical companies?

When we showed “Orgasm Inc” at Lincoln Center in New York, a woman who works for the pharmaceutical industry stood up and denounced the film. The audience grew annoyed with her and booed her down. It was quite a tense moment.

Are you working on a new project?

My next project is finally going to be about female pleasure. It is called “The Hidden History of O.”

God is not secular

By Harry van Versendaal

There are many things about the Roman Catholic Church that should provoke outrage – such as its evasive posturing on the burgeoning pedophilia scandals involving Catholic clerics – but the recent ban on women becoming priests should not be one of them.

The Vatican earlier this month ruled the “attempted ordination” of women as “graviora delicta,” one of the gravest crimes in ecclesiastical law, in fact putting the practice on par with clerical sex abuse of minors, heresy, apostasy and schism. Any cleric who attempts to ordain a woman will be defrocked, the Vatican said, causing a fury among liberal Catholics and women’s groups.

The Women’s Ordination Conference, a US-based advocacy group, denounced the decision as “medieval at best” and a “scare tactic.” “The Vatican is using this attempt to extinguish the widespread call for women’s equality in the Church,” the organization said in a statement.

Terry Sanderson, president of the UK-based National Secular Society,” shot down the ban on female ordination as “one of the most insulting and misogynistic pronouncements that the Vatican has made in a very long time. Why any self-respecting woman would want to remain part of an organization that regards their full and equal participation as a ‘grave sin’ is a mystery to me,” he said.

But to seek greater participation by women in ecclesiastical affairs is to confuse theology with democracy. Those who are looking to eradicate gender inequalities within the Church merely wish to play the religious, metaphysical game by modern, secular rules. However, like all religions, Catholics have their own mythology and, well, Jesus was not selected by vote.

“The Bible insists on the absolute equality of men and women but gives them different functions in the church, so that men can show leadership through self-sacrifice and thus reveal the character of God, and women can demonstrate Christian discipleship to the wider church, thus helping us all follow Christ better,” Rod Thomas, vicar of St Matthew’s Elburton, Plymouth, wrote in The Guardian. “These are theological issues, not ones to do with justice or fairness.”

Thomas is right. Calls to update religious principles are preposterous and those who say that Christ was only behaving according to the norms of his times are missing the point. Religion is by design all about timeless, unchanging truths. It does not come with an automatic software update. Religious credo is based on godly wants and desires revealed to people who lived thousands of years before us.

The fact that these people knew less about the natural world than the average primary school student today is a completely different story.

Liberte, egalite, fraternite?

By Harry van Versendaal

No wonder Hassen Chalghoumi receives death threats these days. The Tunisian-born imam of Drancy, an industrial suburb northeast of Paris, has come out in favor of a French government proposal to ban face-covering veils in public places.

“The burqa is a prison for women, a tool of sexist domination and Islamist indoctrination,” the 36-year-old Chalghoumi told Le Parisien daily last week, adding that if Muslim women wish to cover their faces, they should move to a place where this is acceptable practice. “Like Saudi Arabia,” for example. Not exactly the words you’d expect to hear from a Muslim cleric.

The burqa debate has spawned confusion in France, first of all over the ulterior motives. The proposed ban has widely been scoffed as a political tactic aimed at swaying center-right supporters and undermining the xenophobic National Front ahead of regional elections in March. But such cynical interpretation underestimates the French preoccupation with Frenchness: the usual animating myths about French exceptionalism — much of it delusional fluff but a preoccupation nevertheless.

Oddly, the controversial imam seems to have a clearer idea about what it means to be French than most of France’s political leaders. An ongoing national debate on French identity, launched last year by President Nicolas Sarkozy, has generated more ambiguity than clarity. Politicians’ comments have often tread on the frontiers of political correctness, while a purpose-built website has turned into an outlet of extremism and xenophobia. “Being French means being white. That’s all,” one contributor wrote, according to an AFP report. “Being French means learning to park your car in a garage to avoid having it torched,” posted another in a reference to the riots in the banlieues in 2005.

A parliamentary panel set up to discuss the issue recommended on Tuesday that France ban the wearing of all-enveloping veils in public places like schools, hospitals and public transport, reasoning that the burqa (or more accurately the “niqab,” a face-covering veil with a slit for the eyes) is “contrary to the values of the republic.” The report, some 200 pages that took 6 months to prepare, said among other things that civil servants should refuse to serve veiled women who turn up at public offices.

The 32-member commission fell short of proposing an all-out ban on burqas, although earlier comments by French politicians had presaged otherwise. In his state-of-the-nation address last year, Sarkozy described the burqa as “a sign of subservience and debasement” that is “not welcome” in France. Andre Gerin, the communist head of the parliamentary commission, has in the past lashed out against “the French Taliban who force women to be veiled.” However, concerns that a ban would be unconstitutional and fears of terrorist reprisal (al-Qaida in the summer threatened to “take revenge” on France) seem to have induced second thoughts.

About 6 million Muslims live in France today — the largest Muslim community in western Europe — yet no more than 2,000 wear the full veil. Wary of being accused as racist, Sarkozy has sought to portray the move as a security threat and as an attack on French secular values — most prominently “laicite,” a militant form of secularism born out of the 1789 revolution, which keeps faith strictly limited to the private sphere. Visiting an oft-vandalized Muslim cemetery in northern France this week, Sarkozy said that secularism “is not the negation of religion” but “an essential component of our identity.”

No other European country has so far introduced similar laws but the debate is gaining momentum across the Continent. Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark, still dealing with the ramifications of the Muhammad cartoon controversy in 2005, said that the burqa and the niqab have no place in the Nordic country because “they symbolize a view of women and humanity that we totally oppose and that we want to combat in Danish society.” The Dutch government is mulling legislation banning the veil for teachers and civil servants, while several districts in Belgium have already banned the garb under local laws. Across the Channel, Britain, known for its liberal live-and-let-live ethos, has so far resisted pressure from the right. Education secretary Ed Balls last week said that such ban was “not British, it is unfair, it is not consistent with our traditions of liberty and freedom.”

It was an interesting formulation, if only because the French claim to be defending those very traditions. Balls’s comments highlight the philosophical complications — even paradoxes — surrounding the veil ban, exposing the blurred boundaries between freedom and coercion as western states seek to impose their liberal norms and values on newcomers.

In British eyes, the French are more concerned with “egalite” than “liberte.” The truth is, the French have a different, more aggressive understanding of liberty, what philosophers call “positive liberty,” whereby the state has an obligation to protect individuals against the diktats of culture and religion. Proponents of negative liberty, meaning the freedom from something (i.e. the freedom not to be forced to do something, like remove one’s veil), claim it is preferable to positive liberty because the later is open to state abuse. But it’s hard to sympathize when you see a young girl wrapped up to the eyeballs.

It seems fair to say that it is Muslim migrants who need to adjust to Europe’s secular values, not vice versa. More than a sign of female subjugation, the veil is a sign of separation; it’s like saying “I am not one of you, I do not belong here.” Xavier Bertrand, head of Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, had a point when he said recently that the full veil “will make no one believe a woman wearing it wants to integrate.”

Again, Chalghoumi was the first to agree. “Having French nationality means wanting to take part in society, at school, at work,” he said. “But with a bit of cloth over their faces, what can these women share with us?”

If only integration was simply a matter of lifting the veil.


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