Tag Archives: Kyriarchy

The difference between being required to believe and respecting belief

I’m very happy to respect people’s right to hold cultural beliefs, to behave in a manner that is courteous and respectful, to adopt the behaviour of my hosts when I am at someone else’s place.

However I am not happy to be told that I must engage in particular cultural behaviours for my own safety.

The former asks me as a decent human being to behave in a respectful manner in the presence of someone else’s holy objects, or in their special place; the latter attempts to enforce a particular set of beliefs.

When Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand, issued an invitation for regional museum staff to visit and see some of the work being done behind the scenes, it did the latter. Subsequently, it modified its stance to the former. I think the former is acceptable, and more than acceptable: it is desirable. It is something that gives people the space to choose their own way of life, their own set of values, their own beliefs. The latter is dangerous, all the more so when back by the power of the state.

Here’s what Te Papa said in the first instance when inviting regional museum managers and workers to its behind the scenes tour.

Wahine who are either hapü (pregnant) or mate wähine (menstruating) are welcome to visit at another time that is convenient for them.

There was no indication that this was an ‘advisory’: it was a straightforward instruction that women who were pregnant or menstruating were not welcome. To read it any other way is an egregious refusal to consider the ordinary use of language, and the history of such phrases. Try these sentences for size:

Black people are welcome to sit at the back of the bus.

Aboriginal people are welcome to come to the back door of the shop to get an icecream.

Women are welcome to purchase a drink in the lounge bar.

Catholics are welcome to apply for jobs elsewhere.

In other words, black people are not allowed on the front of the bus, Aboriginal people are not allowed to enter the icecream parlour, women aren’t allowed to go into the main bar, and Catholics are not allowed to apply for jobs here.

These are not just random things I have made up: each of these sentences resonates with particular episodes of discrimination.

When Te Papa says that women who are pregnant or menstruating are welcome to come back at another time, it looks very much as though it is engaging in discrimination.

Te Papa quickly issued an explanation. It wasn’t discrimination based on gender. All they were trying to do was to keep women safe.

Wellington’s Te Papa says it is advising pregnant or menstruating women against attending one of its tours, which includes sacred Maori objects, “for their own safety.”

She said there was a belief that each taonga had its own wairua, or spirit, inside it.

“Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects.”

In order for this policy to work, and remember, this is a policy for a national museum that is open to everyone, you have to believe that taonga have a spirit which can affect pregnant and menstruating women. Women are asked to stay away, not out of respect for the culture, but because the spirits really do exist.

At that point, the state institution has moved from asking people to respect a particular culture’s beliefs, to actually believing them. At that point, through Te Papa’s policy, the state is imposing a particular religious belief on people.

Now before I, or anyone else, starts shrieking, “Taliban! Taliban!” it’s worth remembering that there are absolutely no consequences to refusing to take on the belief about spirits in taonga, and very few consequences for failing to act in accordance with the belief. Requiring people to believe in the spirits is a long way removed from the way in which the Taliban has attempted to impose its beliefs on people. To be sure, it is a difference of degree, not kind, but it is a difference of degree so great that for most purposes, it is a difference of kind.

Nevertheless, Te Papa explained their instruction to pregnant and menstruating women not to come on the grounds that the women might be harmed by the spirits of the taonga. That explanation is the beginnings of the state imposing beliefs on its citizens.

There has been a long, long struggle in Western nations and other nations around the world to separate church and state. And there’s good reason for this: the history of Western nations and other nations is rife with the horrors caused by people trying to impose their beliefs on others. These days, we tend to think that the state has no role in imposing belief. Instead, it should try to create the conditions where each person, each group of people, can practise their own beliefs, without interference from others, and without fear that they will be discriminated against because of their beliefs. State institutions should not discriminate against people because of their beliefs, and they should not try to impose beliefs on other people.

By Wednesday, Te Papa had changed its story. By then, it was saying that as a matter of respect for Maori culture, it would be good if this particular tapu could be observed, even by those who did not believe in it. That was when it moved from imposing belief, to asking that belief should be respected. And that is something I have no problems with whatsoever.

More than having no problems with it whatsoever, I think it is a highly desirable thing to do. It is in fact the best way for modern liberal democracies to proceed. Why? Because it reinforces the idea that individual people and groups of people are free to choose their own beliefs, and it creates space for people to respect each others’ chosen ways of life, even if you would not take on that way of life or those beliefs yourself.

I think that it is a much more secure approach. If you rely on your beliefs to be respected because the state has those beliefs too, then you are vulnerable. You are vulnerable to the state finding that it no longer holds those beliefs, so it sees no reason to allow believers to continue to follow that particular way of life. I think that something of the sort has been going on with respect to Christianity, which has for many years been the de facto state religion in New Zealand, but it’s influence is declining. Even so, Christians have no reason to worry that they will not be permitted to practise their faith. No churches have been closed down, Christians have not been banned from exercising freedom of speech, they have not been forbidden to associate with each other. Their right to be Christian has not been affected at all. Of course, Christianity no longer enjoys the power it once had, but that’s a matter of changing social mores, not discrimination by the state.

I think the distinction between requiring people to believe, and respecting people’s right to belief, is very important. It creates the space in which people may choose their own way of life, and it creates the space in which other people may respect that way of life and those beliefs, without participating in them personally. So contrary to some, I think that Te Papa’s choice of words was very important.

Finally, I think today’s editorial in the Herald is a bit bloody rich. On Monday, they contacted me, looking for an Angry White Feminist to condemn Maori customs and beliefs. When I refused to do so, and instead focused on the distinction between imposing beliefs and respecting beliefs, they went with the Angry White Feminist line anyway. But today, suddenly, they are all about respecting beliefs. Whatever.


On a personal note, I’ve found it frustrating to be accused of being an unthinking white liberal feminist who has no idea about Maori culture and beliefs, who denigrates Maori culture, and who has no business telling Maori what to do. It has been frustrating because I have not made negative comments about Maori culture at all. I don’t even want to repeat the words that someone told me I had used to denigrate Maori culture, because not only are they words that I did not use at all, they are nasty words, and I don’t want to put them on my blog. I haven’t been telling Maori what to do: in the very first comments I made on the matter, I made it very clear that I did not think I should be involved in discussing what cultural practices Maori should engage it. I said, “It’s up to Maori to work out if and how and when cultural practices should change for Maori, within the traditional freedoms of liberal democracies.” In another place, I said that as a matter of fact I don’t like the ban on women speaking on some marae, but that what I thought about it was irrelevant, and it was a matter for Maori women and Maori men. And I made it clear that if I was on a marae, I would follow the customs of that marae. In another place, I’ve said that I’ve got some thoughts about what might be done with respect to working towards much greater respect for Maori as the first people in New Zealand, but that I didn’t want to put them out there, because it’s not my place to charge on in and tell Maori what to do.

I’m not expecting cookies for this. However it would be nice not to be criticised for things I have neither said nor done.

Mind you, I guess that this sense of frustration is all too familiar for many Maori, and probably far worse. I’m fairly confident that talk back radio and comments threads on some of the newspaper sites have been full of nastiness about Maori culture. Perhaps I should have spent some time on those threads myself, trying to knock back some of the nastiness.

Dr Pell and the Pill of Evil

The Australian gave Dr George Pell some space on Saturday, to write about why the pill has made things worse for women. For those of you who don’t know him, Dr Pell is Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, and he is a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. What he writes is utter tosh.

Dr Pell has three arguments about the pill and its terrible impact on women. First, it distorts the marriage market for women. Second, it makes women have abortions. Third, it makes women unhappy.

Let’s take them one at a time.

In the first part of the article, Pell draws on the work of an economist to show that the pill has made things worse for women, because now men don’t have to enter the marriage market in order to get into the sex market, and that means that women can’t find marriage partners anymore, and even if they do, they’re more likely to get divorced.

The economist Pell draws on is Timothy Reichert. His analysis was published in First Things, which is…

published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.

It was founded by Richard John Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic theologian. So this is not exactly The Economic Journal, or The Quarterly Journal of Economics. It’s a source that’s highly biased towards the results that Pell wants. As for Dr Timothy Reichert, the economist Pell cites so approvingly: his first degree comes from Franciscan University (the name alone should tell you about the religious orientation of the school), and his masters degree comes from The Catholic University of America. I suspect that he’s got some ideological prior commitments. These days, he works as a transfer pricing specialist. Having said that, his PhD is from George Mason University, and the economics school there is very highly regarded. He is clearly very smart, and very able.

I do not like arguments from authority, so I am not impressed by Pell’s regurgitation of Dr Reichert’s thesis. But if I do not like arguments from authority, then I am also committed to counter-arguments that do not consist only in criticising the authority. However, I am not an economist… Nevertheless, there seem to me to be two serious points to be made in respect of Pell’s use of Reichert’s analysis. The first is that because the pill has enabled women and men to separate sex and marriage, men have put off marriage. Women typically start looking for marriage partners earlier than men do. As a result, there is an age mismatch in the marriage market. And oh noes… women can’t get married because there are no men to marry!

Ah… slow down. Let’s imagine that in the absence of the pill, both men and women want to get married at say, age 20, so that they can have lots of sex. Then along comes the pill. Suddenly, people can have sex without having to get married. Even so, sooner or later, lots of baby lights start flashing in women’s heads, and by say, age 30, they want to get married and have children. Unfortunately, men’s baby lights don’t start flashing until say, age 40. So, there’s a 10 year age gap.

And there’s your answer, Dr Pell. Even if the pill enables men to delay marriage, the consequence is only that women marry men who are somewhat older than they would have been had there been no such thing as the pill. Sure, there’s a mismatch early on, when people may not be able to partner up, but over time, the mismatch sorts itself out.

Dr Reichert, and Dr Pell, assume that the age mismatch means that women have less bargaining power, which results in more divorces as men trade in older wives for younger. But that seems odd to me. If men are older when they start looking for child bearing and rearing partners, and older men are more likely to ditch older wives and start looking for younger ones, then surely that increases the number of men looking for wives. There must surely be an over supply of potential husbands, resulting in increased bargaining power for women, not less.

Even so, since when has the church taught that marriage is a transaction, to be engaged in only for what each partner can get out of the other? Many years ago, when we got married in the Catholic church, my partner and I went to a marriage counselling weekend. We talked about all sorts of issues with respect to relationships, and how to build a successful marriage. Absolutely none of the discussion was about what we could sell to each other. It is absurd to cast marriage as a mere transaction in a market place, and normally, the church does not do so. Except when it’s convenient, eh, Dr Pell?

Second, Dr Pell argues that the pill causes abortion. His argument goes like this. The pill creates a contraceptive mentality. The contraceptive mentality means that we regard pregnancy as something to be gotten rid of. Therefore, people are more willing to have abortions. Therefore, the pill causes abortion.

Personally, I find it hard to understand how something that prevents conception causes abortion. It seems to me that it’s ignorance of contraception that causes abortion. That, and ignoring human nature. The Catholic church teaches that all sex outside marriage is wrong (unless it’s priests raping children, of course). As a corollary to that, Catholic girls and boys don’t need to know about contraception, because they don’t need it, because they won’t be having sex.

Pull the other one.

As it turns out, abortion rates are falling, because unintended pregnancy rates are falling. It seems that over time, access to effective contraception is having exactly the desired effect.

Third, Dr Reichert, and Dr Pell, argue that women aren’t as happy now as they were before the advent of the pill. Ah.. because aside from rabble rousers like Betty Friedan, all women were surely much happier when they were required to be housewives raising children. The happiness gap between men and women has been much discussed: the most plausible explanation seems to be that men are still not stepping up.

A big reason that women reported being happier three decades ago — despite far more discrimination — is probably that they had narrower ambitions, Ms. Stevenson says. Many compared themselves only to other women, rather than to men as well. This doesn’t mean they were better off back then.

But it does show just how incomplete the gender revolution has been. Although women have flooded into the work force, American society hasn’t fully come to grips with the change. The United States still doesn’t have universal preschool, and, in contrast to other industrialized countries, there is no guaranteed paid leave for new parents.

Government policy isn’t the only problem, either. Inside of families, men still haven’t figured out how to shoulder their fair share of the household burden. Instead, we’re spending more time on the phone and in front of the television.

Perhaps Dr Pell would like to factor male responsibility, or lack of it, into his thinking.

As a final little point, Dr Pell points out that Western countries are no longer producing enough children to maintain their populations. Ah… so what? If anything, surely this is a good thing?

In any case, since when has the Catholic church ever been concerned about women? It seems to me that the hierarchy only gets worried about women when it seems that women might just gain a little independence, a little autonomy, a little respect, a little being treated as though they were human beings after all.

Wearing the burqa

Daleaway sent me this slideshow about wearing the burqa in Afghanistan. Some of the images are disturbing, as are many of the stories. Pick a moment when you are feeling strong to watch it.


It’s also available on youtube: The Canvas Prison

The slide show is circulating on the net, and it seems to have been around for a month or so now. I can’t find who made it, but some of the matters it refers to are also discussed in this article in Time: Afghanistan: When Women Set Themselves on Fire. The slideshow also refers to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). I spent a bit of time on the RAWA site: again, some of the material in the slide show is consistent with the information there. I’ve found it hard to track down some of the claims it makes about the origins of the burqa, but the history of the burqa is not central to the points being made in the slideshow.

I found the slide quite wrenching to watch. Some of the images frightened me, some brought tears to my eyes. I think that some of the colours and shots used are possibly tendentious, designed to bring to mind the massed ranks of masked, and frightening, stormtroopers in Star Wars. Even so, my dominant response was one of horror. The violence that is being done to women in Afghanistan is appalling.

I do not support banning the burqa. I do not see that adding another layer of repression will do anything for women who are forced to wear the burqa, and that if we ban it, all that will happen is that women who were previously allowed to at least walk the streets, will be forced to stay in their homes, all the time.

Even so, I think the burqa is a terrible garment. I have no problems with many forms of religious dress: if a woman chooses to wear say, the hijab, or a cross on a necklace, or some other item that indicates her allegiance to a particular way of life, that’s her business. Sure, her “choice” may be constrained, but equally, it may not be. And of course, the same can be said about many of the garments “chosen” by the most free women in the world, women living in Australia and New Zealand and Canada and the Scandanvian countries. Exceedingly high heeled shoes, anyone? To someone looking at my culture from the outside, the clothes that women are required to wear must look very odd, to say the least. What sensible person would insist that a woman wears shoes that damage her knees and hips, and make it difficult for her to walk, effectively hobbling her, and constraining her movement. Of course, we say it’s a matter of choice, but to someone looking from the outside, it could look like as though women are forced to wear these shoes. However, I would no more interfere with a woman in my culture choosing to wear high heeled shoes, than I would interfere with a woman in my culture choosing to wear the hijab. It’s her business!

I suppose that one critical difference is that women in my culture do not risk physical abuse if they choose not to wear high heeled shoes. Women in Afghanistan risk terrible violence if they do not wear a burqa. Given the threat of immediate violence, it is hard to see how a woman is able to choose to wear a buqa at all. She is required to wear it: there is no choice in the matter.

But a burqa is not a headscarf, nor a hijab. It seems fair enough to say that wearing the burqa in Afghanistan is not a matter of choice. But there are no analogies to be drawn between wearing a burqa in Afghanistan, and wearing a hijab in Australia or New Zealand.

Having said that, the makers of the slideshow make some points that are deeply worrying. They say that many educated and well-to-do Afghanis have left their homeland. This represents a great depletion of the human treasure of Afghanistan, the women and men who are teachers and lawyers and doctors and nurses, the people with expertise and skill who are needed in any country. Each time an educated person leaves, particularly people with specialised and critical skills, matters become worse for those who remain, whether by choice or because they have no means of leaving.

The most chilling point? They ask, why do the men of Afghanistan allow this to happen? Why do they not stand up for their mothers, their wives, their sisters, their daughters?

When I ask myself that question, I do not like some of the answers that spring to mind.

Action to take: RAWA has some suggestions on their website.

Clothing and Control

From the blog on Women’s Web, an Indian website:

Clothing and Control

Why is is that we never hear of the ‘trouble’ with allowing young men to wear Western clothes? It is assumed that trousers and shirts are ‘normal’ for men, whether Indian or Western. Women, on the other hand, must uphold the symbols of their cultures or religion.

Read the whole thing

“Out of touch” doesn’t quite capture it

Earlier this year I wrote a fair amount about the Catholic church, and more particularly, the Vatican, and its astonishing failings with respect to priests who raped children (one, two, three, four). But then I laid off, for various reasons, mostly to do with some of my best friends and all. As it turns out, my friends who are members of the church feel wretched and angry about it: wretched because by implication, they support the church, and angry because they feel that their church is being taken from them by a group of men who are entrenched in positions of privilege and wealth in the Vatican. Moreover, most of my friends who are Catholic live in New Zealand, where my understanding (somewhat untutored) is that the church has not tried to cover up, and has worked hard to hold priests responsible for their crimes.

For a long time, the Vatican has tried to avoid responsibility for child-raping priests, and has worked hard to distance Joseph Ratzinger, who likes to be known as His Holiness Benedict XVI, from complicity in cover-ups. It wasn’t Ratty who moved priests on, and neglected to hand them over to civil authorities, or so they said. But that is wearing thinner and thinner. Given the great uncovering that is going on in Catholic churches all over the world, and especially in Western countries, I’m sure that it’s only a matter of time before he is found to have very dirty hands indeed. Moreover, his failure to hold priests and bishops responsible continues. Not only is Cardinal Law, formerly of Boston, and now of the Vatican, still sitting pretty in a sinecure in Rome from whence Ratty refuses to dislodge him to face a grand jury back in the USA, but now he won’t even accept resignations from bishops who have been shown to have failed in their duties.

Vatican rejects resignations of 2 Dublin bishops and Vatican rejects resignations of Irish bishops over child sex abuse scandal

Ratzinger seems to be a most unholy man. Refusing these resignations is extraordinary: it is a tacit endorsement of the bishops’ efforts to cover up the crimes of child rapists who were harboured by the church. It’s a slap in the face for Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, who is trying to clean up the diocese. I’ve no doubt that there is a great deal more he could do, like selling some of the church’s property in order to pay compensation to victims. But no he must be wondering why he should bother, if the man who increasingly seems to be at the centre of the evil will not even accept mea culpas from those who did wrong. And it’s a covert wink and nod to other bishops around the world. “Don’t worry,” Ratty is saying. “I’ll look after you.”

What is Ratty trying to cover up?