Tuesday, 31 August 2010

What's In A Name?

by Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

I got married a couple of weeks ago. I think that there are a lot of interesting things to ask about that. For instance, what does marriage within atheism mean? Do you marry because you expect something to change or because it already has? Do you seriously expect us to save a piece of wedding cake for our unconceived child, or was that a joke? Yet the only question that people seem to ask is: are you going to change your name?

Just so that you don’t spend the whole post pondering, the answer is: no, we haven’t decided what we’re going to do with our names yet.

I’ve found the whole process of getting married wonderful… and fascinating. The mere mention of the word seems to elicit an ingrained and impermeable reaction in people (myself included). What’s more, not only do most people seem unable to control that reaction, but they also seem oblivious to it. And the issue of the name appears to be king.

There are two things that I’ve found particularly interesting. The second most interesting of these is that whilst the question is significant enough to be asked again and again and again… and again, it seems that my actual name pales in significance by comparison. “It doesn’t matter Rach, why not just consider changing it”, “Why hold on to your name Rach, isn’t that just ego?”, “Rachel Montes? It’s pretty.” As if that was in some way relevant.

By writing the above I risk offending most of my closest friends… which leads me to the most interesting thing. The pressure to bow to tradition hasn’t come from “society”, but from within my closest social groups. Odd.

Incidentally, no one’s asked my husband if he’s going to change his name. Perhaps that’s the most interesting thing.

So my ponder? My ponder is: what’s in a name? A quick flick through the papers suggests that there’s quite a lot actually.

1. There are those who have their names changed for them.

Hands up if you remember John Darwin? Nope, didn’t think so… how about the Canoe Man? There we go.

The Tabs have affectionately renamed the man who was brutally stabbed to death and hacked into pieces: Spy In The Bag… seriously?

Susan Boyle post-break down and post-waxing became known as SuBo. It didn’t catch on, nor did she.

I’ve become quite accustomed to hearing about Baby P. The tragedy of his story never seems to be far from us. And then every once in a while I hear someone refer to him as Baby Peter and the reality of it punches me in the stomach again.

2. There are those who adopt additional names.

Having a pseudonym has become an accepted and unquestioned tradition, particularly within the arts. But when you do stop to question it, it really does beg a question or two. Of course there are some who build entire personas and lives around a pseudonym and that ability is their artistry; think Banksy.

And then there are others who, like the George Elliots and Currer Bells of this world, rely upon pseudonyms to break down barriers and find expression. I get that.

But on the whole, pseudonyms seem to be used by people who are either scared that their “created” vs “true” identities are incongruous, or, they’re embarrassed about one or the other… or both… and so hide behind a pseudonym. And on the whole, we accept this practice. Perhaps we shouldn’t? I’m not sure.

3. There are those who give up their names all together.

The jury’s still out on this one too. There’s something distinctly uncomfortable about the current use of anonymity. Again, there are clearly situations in which the right to anonymity is not only acceptable, but should be fiercely protected. But, if you give a statement to the press, or post online anonymously, i.e. you’re not willing to put your name to it, then why should anyone be willing to give validity to what you’re saying? Surely, by indiscriminately encouraging anonymity, all we’re encouraging is cowardice?

4. There are those who have become convinced of “the value” of their names.

Super injunction. I’m afraid I can’t say anymore.

There isn’t necessarily a consistent theme to the above, except that names clearly matter, otherwise why would we go through the hassle of changing or hiding them.

So all in all, I don’t know what’s in a name… but I do know that there’s something. I also know that I’m not going to be in a hurry to lose mine just yet. So maybe I’ll be Rachel Montes, or maybe he’ll be Mr Surtees, but either way, I do wish people would stop asking.

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Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Me, Myself and I?

If the truth be told, I had judged Jeff too quickly. Perhaps his clown pants (only way to describe them) and matted beard suggested just another hippie. We sat on a table underneath a large papaya tree sheltering the Caribbean sun, and looked at the menu. I gathered he'd probably order a carrot and beetroot smoothie, and later invite us to play drums and make it rain on the beach.

"Chad did tons of yoga and meditation when he did it, but I'm planning to do nothing. I really want to get in my head, be alone with my thoughts, work through the demons..... see what happens"

Jeff, it turns out, was about to embark on ten days of darkness. Ten days of complete light, sound and social deprivation. Not an experience that most people could stand. For him, however, I imagined it would be a breeze, since he and my friend Anna had recently spent two months in silence, on a course in Guatemala.

In a small way, spiritual pilgrimages such as these reflect a sad, modern reality. That we have to travel to a dark hut, somewhere in the jungle of Guatemala, to be alone with ourselves. Or that we depend on therapy or medicine to understand our own behaviour. Are we really that confused about who we are? Should we be so complicated?

How we've become so complicated, in my opinion, is no mystery. Just take a look at the Market we've created, saturated with goods and services we don't need. Advertisers and branders have ruthlessly exploited and reconstructed identities, turning the consumer into a blank canvass. No need for a sense of self, unless of course it's been defined by Apple or Nike.

Of course, this is just my opinion. I'm sure that the exact same thing could be said for religion, politics or culture.

Perhaps Jeff has a point. Who are we?

It would be interesting to spend 10 days alone in darkness, deprived from everything but oneself to find out.


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Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Is the Burka any more offensive than the Miniskirt?

By Joshua Surtees

On the 13th of July, the day before Bastille Day, the French parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a ban on women wearing the burka in public. 335 politicians voted in favour of the ban, just one against. Justice Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie described the occasion as a victory for democracy and French values.

But surely, the point of democracy is that people have the freedom to choose things like the clothes they wear?

Just in the same way that some women in France choose to wear miniskirts, hotpants, push up bras or bikinis in the street. Just as men and women in France are allowed to walk around naked on nudist beaches. Just as newsagents and broadcasters are allowed to display pornographic images of women on shop shelves or national television channels like Canal +. Should Muslim women not be given the democratic freedom to determine how much or little of their bodies are seen? Just as these two Lebanese women in the photograph below have both made their individual decisions to cover or uncover their bodies – why should a government take it upon itself to ban one of them?

My personal opinion is that people should be allowed to wear what they want to wear and if that causes offence to others then those others should simply look away. I don’t particularly like the bomber jacket and cherry red Doc Martens uniform of the National Front – a symbol of the overt racist tendencies of the wearer. But I would not expect the government to ban it from being worn.

Some people may object to tattoos or piercings and the values they symbolise, some may object to the elongated ‘giraffe necks’ of some Burmese women, some may object to the sartorial choices of some transsexual people; but just because a style of dress reflects a culture that is different to ours, it is surely an extreme measure to officially eradicate it.

On the face of it this ban appears to have three strands. The first is a stance against the oppression of Islamic women. The second is a symbol of France’s secularisation of the state. The third is Islamophobia.

Turning first to the oppression of Islamic women. Do these women photographed in Birmingham look oppressed?

It’s an interesting question. Some of you might say yes, others might see a group of strong Muslim women, defiant and proud of their culture. In what way is what they are wearing any more oppressive than the cultural European norms that dictate women should be seen in high heels and make up?

On a trip to Syria a few years ago I met a young Parisian woman of Algerian heritage. Before leaving the hotel one day she decided it would be easier for her to wear a headscarf. When I asked why she told me it would attract less attention. As a woman in a city like Paris she endures the daily stares, whistles and comments that all men direct towards women. When a woman covers up the parts of her that men find attractive it neutralises the potential for sexist behaviour or unwanted attention. In Islam it is seen as a symbol of modesty. In France it is seen as oppression. Feminists would argue that rather than covering women up, instead men should be held accountable for their behaviour. But how do you stop men from staring and whistling? Perhaps a law against lewd sexist behaviour in public should have been pursued in tandem with the ban on the burka. But that will never happen under French law. There is no feminism within French law, only the pretence of it.

It is often said that women are forced to wear the burka by their husbands and, of course where this is the case – as in Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power – it is entirely unacceptable. But in Europe, large parts of North Africa and the Middle East, the choice to wear the veil is predominantly a woman’s choice based on her religious beliefs and not the result of coercion or domestic patriarchy.

With regard to the second point; the secularisation of the French republic. While all religious symbols are banned in schools and universities, there is currently no legislation banning the Jewish kippah or Sikh turban from public places. Jean-Francois Cope of the UMP party declared that “the burka is not a question of religion, it is the way for some extremists to make an instrumentalisation of the religion in order to make politics.” A deeply flawed and questionable statement which leads us on to point three. Is this simply Islamophobia in action?

There are 5 million Muslims living in France – many of whom opposed the ban. Only 2,000 French women are believed to wear the full burka. It therefore seems a symbolically aggressive gesture directed from the French state towards a minority community. Surely, in a case such as this, where the tangible effects of passing this law will be to remove from France’s streets a physical manifestation of a culture and religion, would it not have been more acceptable to put the vote to a national referendum? Or would that serve only to further polarise communities and exacerbate the tensions that have always existed between France and the peoples of its former colonies?

In Britain, a ban such as this would be seen as inherently racist and unacceptable. British Muslims would see it as an act of marginalisation of religious behaviour. Moreover it would be seen as an oppression of basic human rights. Tory MP Andrew Grice has already been warned that his statements about refusing to meet with constituents dressed in the veil could lead to legal action legal action. Yet, in Spain, Holland and Belgium similar bans to the one in France are already being discussed. This suggests something fundamentally different in the extent to which diverse racial and religious groups are accepted in British society as opposed to elsewhere in Europe.

On my way home on the bus the other day a woman was sat with her two young daughters. All three of them chatting away and laughing in Arabic. Her two young girls were wearing jeans, trainers, t-shirts while their mother was wearing the niqab. At one point during their conversation she turned to me and though I saw only her eyes, I could see she was smiling. I smiled back and she turned back and continued her conversation. Where I live in north London the veil is simply a small part of life just like the colourful flowing dresses of the Roma gypsies, the Lycra leggings of the Polish girls, the head scarves of the Turkish, the furry hats of the Orthodox Jews or the miniskirts of English women. Nobody stares, nobody is scared, nobody appears offended.

Why should they be?

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