At One

stunning night view

The Holy Isle – stupas, pier, view of Arran

At One

For string quartet and trumpet.

This work was written by me, with the idea of bestowing healing and calmness – a feeling of being at one with the world.  It is strongly influenced by jazz, in style, and also in method of composition.  I started this composition by setting out chords on the strings, and improvising over them for the trumpet part – this provides the opening of the piece.

In the very last section, the trumpeter has the option of either playing the pre-written part, or of improvising within specified parameters over the strings, which play the same chords as in the opening of the piece. In this performance, the trumpeter has chosen to improvise.  You can hear the abrupt change in melodic style at this point!  Until the final bar which was pre-written.

Performed here by the Impromptu Quartet and Clare Thorne on trumpet, at Lauderdale House, London, 2012. 

 

Swing Abeba

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 03.47.29My first love from early childhood was music: classical piano-playing, and singing (especially folk), accompanying myself on my beloved guitar.

However, it was social anthropology that I took to doctoral level, and as a way of not letting go of music, I specialised in the anthropology of music.

During my doctoral fieldwork, I performed with an Ethiopian-Jewish band called “The Band of Blossoming Hope” for 9 months.  (See my book:  Gondar’s Child.)  I also had lessons with the famous Ethiopian Christian singer Aklilu Seyoum, who coached the Band, in the Ethiopian intervallic mood-mode systems known as “keñetoch”.

Prior to this, I conducted research on Jewish society and music in Yemen, and wrote a substantial thesis on this subject.  Very many hours were spent listening to, analysing, and even painstakingly and painfully transcribing their music, and other kinds of Yemenite music.

Perhaps it was Ethiopian music, and also the American blues singers who frequented the folk clubs in Israel, which opened me up to jazz. Upon returning from my fieldwork to the UK, for years to follow, jazz became my passion. I studied with established jazz vocalists, performing at jazz jams, working hard on my vocal improvisation and learning the standard repertoire. Among the early tasks I was set was to sing along with recordings of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet-playing: a great training!  In my quest for jazz, I went to Manhattan where I attended lessons and vocal masterclasses, went to all the jazz jams and performances I could manage, and generally infused myself with jazz.

I am glad to say I finally returned to “my own” music and first love. I resumed my classical piano playing, and took it to another level – the most meaningful thing I feel I could have done with my life!

Years ago, I told a jazz musician about my background in music – all these diverse intensely-studied and deeply-internalised influences – and he said: “It will be dynamite when it all comes together!”.

Swing Abeba, a work for solo bassoon, is an example of some of these influences coming together.  Whether or not it is “dynamite” – even a small quantity of dynamite – even a teaspoonful, is for the listener, or player, to determine!

“Abeba”, means “flower” – part of the name of the Ethiopian capital city where modern Ethiopian music took root. “Abeba” is also a common refrain in their vocal music. True to its title, this work is influenced by Ethiopian popular music, which in turn was strongly influenced by swing rhythm in American big band jazz transmitted from an army radio station in Kagnew, in neighbouring Eritrea in the 1950s.

Ethiopian music – essentially song-based – consists of pentatonic melodies which tend to be deeply embedded in copious melismata, progressing in an improvisatory manner, similarly to jazz.

Accordingly, Swing Abeba begins with an Ethiopian, pentatonically melismatic treatment of an un-Ethiopian theme.  The music then breaks into a jazz-swing scherzo. The call-response nature of this scherzo recalls this feature of Ethiopian music. The second section begins with a slow, heavily melismatic ad lib passage marked “molto espressivo e pensivo”, which leads into a second swing scherzo, the opening themes reappearing in a different guise in the closing section.

In the recording here, it is played beautifully by John McDougall.  An earlier version of Swing Abeba was performed, equally beautifully, by Glyn Williams at the 17th New Winds Festival at Regent Hall in London, 2014.

 

 

Thin’s a child to the adult sex

Dancer-yellow

Artist-Yehuda Bacon-mixed media

Following on from my previous post:  “Bell, or Pas Belle”…..

A while back, I read an article about a composer who found some old cassettes of his which had decayed over time, and he wrote a composition using these decayed tapes. 

This caused me not a little concern.  I have boxes and boxes of cassettes with irreplaceable data and recordings.  So I am in the process of having my most precious recordings digitalized, although apparently my cassettes are, on the whole, in quite good nick – having been safely stored.

One of the recordings I’ve just had digitalized is of a song which I called Positive at the time, because it was about trying to think positively.  Here, I’ve decided, instead, to use the beginning of the song as a title.  It starts:

See it thus

Thin’s a child to the adult sex

I want none of that….none of that

This was when Susie Orbach’s book:  Fat is a Feminist Issue, had made a big impression on me.  The idea that the idealised thin (and devoid of body hair) aesthetic imposed on, and adopted by, women in the West, belongs to the concept of women as the child-like sex.

I was also influenced by an album by This Mortal Coil.  In one of the songs on this album, you cannot make out any of the words which the singer is singing – intentionally.  It is part of the style and atmosphere of the song.

This seemed like a great idea!  In this song that I had written, I felt quite exposed by the words after the initial lines.  So I decided to sing it disguising the words in a way that they were almost impossible to make out:  the voice would be more like an instrument providing melody, atmosphere and emotion, without fully-decipherable words.  After the opening lines, the words are not positive at all, but give expression to the way in which, in certain life (and death) situations, your pain can spill over, and other people’s pain can spill over onto you, in a way which can sap your confidence completely, and make it impossible to act on feelings of love, or of being in love.  I had recently passed through such a time, writing songs which gave vent to some intense emotions.  (“It’s slash your wrists time!” would be uttered –  it was later revealed to me – when I got up to sing in my local folk club!)

I met up with a guy who I have to credit with producing this recording:  Sal Paradise.  He got me to work properly on the guitar part until it was perfect before he agreed to record it.  He then doubled the guitar part with a delay inbetween the doublings, and added chorus, and a tabla sample on a loop.  (On his travels, he had recorded musicians, but I omitted to ask who the tabla player was behind this sample.)  He said he would make the vocal part “sweet”, but I think it is pretty much how I sounded back then, in the late 1980s. 

He then made us both a curry.

Unfortunately, he never let me have a decent copy of the recording.

So here it is:  Thin’s a child to the adult sex….

 

 

Hamas – Extreme Child Abuse

Alec Wardhttp://bcove.me/axm8v9g4

Upon seeing the video of East Jerusalemite Ahmed Manasra lying bleeding on the ground after being hit by a car while fleeing after stabbing two Israelis; upon seeing him with his legs bent up towards his head, trying to get up – my heart went out to him… a 13-year old kid – as much victim, as I saw it, of Hamas, as were the victims of his stabbings. And I searched the internet to see if he was alive and was being treated in hospital. As he was, despite Abbas’s claim that he had been executed! – in a most beautiful hospital in the beautiful area of Ein Karem, being provided with “5-star” medical treatment and being hand-fed good food. At that point, I was not yet informed on the nature of the attempted murder this boy and his cousin had perpetrated on the 13-year-old Jewish-Israeli boy leaving a sweetshop on his bike. Who could imagine that a 13 year-old riding his bike could find himself subjected to a stabbing frenzy. Manasra and his 15-year-old cousin stabbed him 15 times. If I had known this, I do not believe my compassion would have stretched so far. Yes – I still believe he is a victim of Hamas and his own Israeli Arab leaders, as was his cousin. But this frenzied attack seems indicative of psychopathy – Hamas-induced, Isis-inspired psychopathy.

I understand that Manasra, now released from hospital into police custody, was treated by a Jewish doctor while his Jewish victim, admitted into the other Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, in a critical condition, attached to a respirator and placed in an induced coma was operated on in the Department of Surgery headed by the Israeli Arab doctor Professor Ahmed Eid. A week later, this boy has woken up from his coma and has started communicating with people around him. While he is now out of danger, he has a long period of rehabilitation ahead of him.

A year ago, Elie Weisel made a point that needed to be made, and needs to be made over and over again, and which hardly anyone has been willing to make, and which most newspapers were even reluctant to publish! What Hamas is doing to its own children is severe child abuse – how could it be anything else? It is in fact child murder. To instill hatred in the minds of your children; to strap them with explosives and send them to murder innocent people and themselves in the process; to use them as human shields, and fire rockets from their midst. This is amongst the extremes of child abuse and child hatred.

This is the point Elie Wiesel was making, in his full page ad in and which 327 people who described themselves as “anti-Zionist” holocaust survivors and their (near or very remote) relatives obscenely distorted as abusing the history of the holocaust in order to justify “Israel’s wholesale effort to destroy Gaza and the murder of more than 2000 Palestinians, including many hundreds of children.” Appropriately described as “327 Moral Idiots” http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/327-moral-idiots/ and in terms of their “Moral Emptiness” http://forward.com/…/moral-emptiness-of-holocaust-survivor…/ – demonstrating that surviving the holocaust in itself is not something that gives someone a monopoly on morality!

But in Britain, on the other hand, 732 holocaust survivors, including my father,  were admitted here under the 1000 orphans scheme.  They formed a lifelong support group, calling themselves, including the few girls among them, “The Boys”.  http://www.martingilbert.com/book/the-boys-triumph-over-adversity/  Certainly none that I have met would have gone along, or would go along, with the distortions of the 327 “moral idiots”.  Although those of “The Boys” still alive are now in their 80s, many work tirelessly to promote tolerance and understanding among peoples, to go into schools to educate children on the holocaust. As one of these survivors said: “I implore you not to hate as it was hatred that caused the Holocaust in the first place. Had I lived with hatred in my heart … I would not be here today.”

In my review of Martin Gilbert’s book referred to above, I write:  “The point is driven home, here, that within the scope of being a war against all Jews – the elderly, the disabled (whether or not they were Jewish), this was most specifically a deliberate war against Jewish children….”  “….at the time of deportation,the SS did their utmost to hunt out every single Jewish child, and the fact of this war against children became even more evident at the selections where none were permitted to live.”  (45 Aid Journal, 1999.  50-52.)

I have over the last few years come to understand the extent of the atrocity perpetrated by the German Reich towards German children during the years of, and preceding, WWII,  with its intense and overpowering brainwashing apparatus:  the “raping” of the minds of the children and susceptible adult civilians.  With the result that many would have thought thoughts and performed actions that went profoundly against their true nature.

For Elie Wiesel, the holocaust is an obvious reference point for his witnessing of the specific targeting of children.  Hamas’s targeting of Palestinian children as a means of targeting Israelis civilians may be viewed as “sacrifice” from their own point of view, and this is the term Elie Wiesel uses.  Of course this same term could not be applied to the targeting of Jewish children during the holocaust, and an analogy is not applicable as far as Hamas’s abuse of Palestinian children is concerned.

But the main point is that nobody is showing the Palestinians any kindness or humaneness – especially not towards their children – by ignoring the fact that brainwashing children with hatred, “raping” their minds in this way, turning them into human bombs and into human shields, is child abuse of a most extreme nature.

Hebrew in Hebron and Gaza

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I came across an article in ElectronicIntifada.net (2013) by a Palestinian-American born in Washington and educated in the States, who was amazed and appalled to “find Hebrew everywhere” in Gaza. This is what happens when a “journalist” decides to write an article without bothering to do any research!

In 1990 I was studying Hebrew at a language school near Natanya, Israel, called Ulpan Akiva. There they teach intensive courses in Hebrew and Arabic. Among the students there were a whole unit of young Israeli women soldiers learning to be teachers of Arabic, and a number of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza on Hebrew courses. One of the Palestinian men was there to improve his Hebrew because he worked for Bezek in Hebron, which is in fact an Israeli telephone company, like BT, (although the paper “France’s Liberation”, has now placed Bezek on Israel’s map upgraded to the status of a town!)

There were two Palestinian women, one from Hebron, and the other from Gaza, and I made a point of saying “Salaam” to them whenever I passed them. After a day or two, after we said “Salaam”, they stopped to make conversation, and invited me to their room for coffee, and we became friends.

The main point I want to make here is this (in response to the article I’m referring to): both women were teachers of Hebrew: Nawal in Hebron, and Rana in Gaza. I asked, with incredulity, “Do people in Gaza want to learn Hebrew?” and was surprised at Rana’s emphatic reply: “Very much! Very much!” There was nothing in the British media that could have prepared me for that information. So yes – there has been Hebrew in Gaza for a long time, and not because it’s been colonially imposed on the people as this self-designated journalist would have it, but because at least in 1990 – and presumably for a greater time span than that – a sector of Gazan society have chosen to learn it. Which indicates that they saw it as being useful for their future in terms of links with Israel. Which indicates that they were not thinking along the lines of obliterating Israel and Israeli Jews from the map!

Nawal, a married woman with children, told me about, and urged me to come to the Thursday night disco, where she sat in her long dress and hijab, “anthropologically” taking in scenes she would not be likely to come across again in Hebron, while repeatedly urging me to dance! She told me I resembled her son, and had the same colouring, closely observing my reaction, and seemed satisfied when she saw that I was delighted. (What she didn’t realise was one of the reasons why I was pleased. While in Britain, Jews were at one time the dark imposters who didn’t belong here, we had now become the fair imposters who didn’t belong in the Middle East, designated so by some colour-obsessed projecting Brits! I had even been (mis-) informed by a highly ignorant and arrogant postgrad in the anthropology library at Oxford University, that the whole conflict was about colour, in terms of what he described as the Ashkenazis being light (he hadn’t seen my father or my uncle!), the Sephardi Jews being dark, and the Arabs being darker still! So here was Nawal basically and appropriately rubbishing this kind of theorising!) Nawal also noticed that I played music, and told me that she and her family also played musical instruments. When I felt cold, Rana lent me her hand-knitted sweater, and a couple of the Palestinian men noticed that I was wearing her sweater and looked pleased. (Speaking of hand-knitting, it was a local Arab woman who taught my Israeli mother [Palestinian at birth] to knit when she was a child. So it seems I have her partly to thank for the scratchy salmon-coloured number my mother knitted for me and made me wear at the age of 8. [My sister had an identical outfit in tangerine!] Although I can’t in all fairness blame this kind Arab lady for my mother’s dress-sense and its imposition on me as a child!) (As for who taught my mother to swear in Arabic – the only language she swore in – that I don’t know, but it must have come rather later!)

Just before the first Gulf War started, I found that Rana and Nawal had suddenly returned home, and I hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye. It was a time that was rife with Palestinians murdering other Palestinians under the pretext that they were “collaborators”, and I was worried about trying to contact them in case it endangered them. Even now, I am not comfortable about revealing their names, and therefore I have used false names in this article. (I hope I’ve chosen names appropriate for their generation and characters, and not the equivalents of, for example, “Ethel” and “Gertrude”! Because they are definitely not “Ethel” or “Gertrude”. Nor are they “Saffron” and “Sophie”! In terms of generation!)

There are of course, other reasons why Hebrew exists in signs and graffiti in Gaza – there have been Jewish communities living there – before 1948, for example, during the Turkish occupation, during the British Mandate period, and before.

The arrogant student I mention above interjected his theorising into a conversation I was having with an Indonesian Muslim student. (He [the former] then proceeded with an angry protest against people in the Third World acquiring fridges on the grounds that it was a threat to the ozone layer. Whereas, it seems, only those of us in the First World should be allowed to deplete the ozone layer with our fridges!) There are too many people who, like him, are divisive: whose object is to stir things up between us, as if we needed it! They can’t tolerate that there are some people across the communities who want to talk to each other and who actually like each other. It is as if the “dividers” are yearning for the spectator blood sports of old. They want the war in an arena on their doorstep, so that they can not just watch in a a rocket-proof, knife-proof, bomb-proof area to keep their own physical persons safe, but also goad on the combatants.

Then, by contrast, there are a few people who take responsibility for promoting peace and healing among the communities. One of these people is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk: Thich Nhat Hanh based in France. See the video below of his Israeli/Palestinian retreat at Plum Village in which it is easy to see that he is overflowing with compassion.

As the Dalai Lama states in his Foreword to Thich Nhat Hanh’s book: Peace Is Every Step, “Peace must first be developed within the individual. And I believe that love, compassion, and altruism are the fundamental basis for peace. Once these qualities are developed within an individual, he or she is then able to create an atmosphere of peace and harmony. This atmosphere can be expanded and extended from the individual to his family, from the family to the community and eventually to the whole world.”

Another person who takes responsibility is the courageous and admirable Canadian Moslem: Irshad Manji.

http://irshadmanji.com/

Somali women in Britain: access to medical facilities and attitudes to female circumcision

Back in 1998, I was requested by two obstetricians who ran a well-woman clinic for Somali women at Middlesex Hospital in London, to conduct preliminary research on why Somali women in Britain may fail to access medical facilities available to them, and on their attitudes to the custom of female circumcision.  The clinic was well attended often for the purpose of circumcision reversals especially in advance of childbirth, or because of medical complications arising as a result of their circumcisions. These obstetricians were obviously concerned that more women could be accessing the facilities they provided, and perhaps that some women, whose complications could be particularly severe and life-threatening, could be accessing treatment earlier on in the course of their medical conditions. The purpose of the report was to apply for funding for fuller research into these matters.

I interviewed a number of Somali women who visited the well-woman clinic, and also in Bethnal Green, and staff at Tawakal Somali Women’s Group – an organization in East London devoted to the well-being of Somalis in London, and the promotion of Somali culture.  Where necessary, I had the services of an interpreter.

To my knowledge, nothing was done with the report which I produced, and therefore I am publishing it here in case it is of interest and informative value to researchers.  I believe most of the findings of this report to still be relevant today.

Language and Information

The main factors cited for failing to take advantage of medical services relate to language and information.  Somali women who are not literate in English, or who have not acquired a facility with the English language, cannot read leaflets or access information in English.  For reasons of language, and their position as refugees, they may simply be unaware of what is available to them, since they do not know their way around an unfamiliar system, and are used to a very different system in Somalia: a system in which medical care is not readily available to everyone.  In addition, it is customary for Somali women to remain at home, so many women may not go to public places where information is available.

Inadequate interpretational facilities

Inadequate interpretational facilities were also cited as a major factor in explaining why women may either be reluctant to consult medical personnel, or may receive inaccurate information, which may result in their failure to follow up a consultation or course of treatment.

One implication of poor interpretational facilities is lack of confidentiality.  Somalis are encouraged to take relatives along to medical consultations as interpreters, but this frustrates any wish for confidentiality, the prior information of the patient, and the patient’s prerogative to choose what to disclose or not to disclose to relatives.  The same is applicable in the case of community members who may act as interpreters, as Somali women may not wish to run the risk of information on their medical condition spilling out into the community.

Another implication of the lack of professional interpreters is that since relatives or friends may not be experienced in medical interpretation and translation, information may be incorrectly transmitted.  Husbands, I was told, frequently hold on more tenaciously than their wives to the way things were in Somalia, and it is therefore not an uncommon occurrence for them to withhold information from their wives, or to convey incorrect information.  An example given was of a pregnant woman who already had many children.  Her doctor suggested that she may wish to consider measures to prevent future pregnancies.  Her husband who accompanied her to the consultation simply told her that the doctor said that she needed to lose weight.  When she consulted the same doctor with a different interpreter during her subsequent pregnancy because of related complications, she discovered what the doctor had actually suggested at her previous visit.  This case was cited to me as a general, rather than isolated, example of the way in which husbands may be involved in the misinformation, or lack of utilisation of medical facilities, of their wives.  It was explained to me that husbands frequently wish to continue the Somali way of having a child each year, despite the British context making it too difficult to have a large number of children.

Shame

Shame attached to certain medical conditions is a factor preventing some women from seeking medical attention.  According to aspects of Somali thought (and this is not just confined to Somalis), the patient may be believed to be culpable of the illness she bears, such as in the case of AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases, and this attitude may extend to other conditions, such as genital infections and vaginal thrush.  In such cases, women would be reluctant to consult medical personnel.

Some women feel that they are considered shameful and looked down upon by doctors because of their status as refugees, which may make them reluctant to consult them.  It is possible that, in Somali thought, dishonourable status may be attached to the condition of not being rooted in the land where one is living, as is the case in neighbouring Ethiopia.

Fear of vaccinations and mind-altering drugs

In some cases, a fear of certain types of medical treatment may be an inhibiting factor in seeking out medical help.  Since vaccinations are known to have been a significant cause in the spread of various illnesses, from AIDS to Hepatitis, some Somalis may therefore be fearful of consulting doctors because of their fear of vaccinations.

I was informed that, in addition, in Somalia, drugs prescribed by doctors to treat depression were inappropriate, and caused permanent damage to sufferers’ mental health, destroying their personalities.  Depression is a major problem among Somalis in Britain, especially because of loss suffered and terrible scenes witnessed in the Somali war.  Some have seen family members murdered before their eyes.  However, rather than seek medical treatment for depression, there are some Somali women and men who waste their lives chewing chat (a drug similar to marijuana) or drinking excessive quantities of alcohol in an attempt to numb themselves from the after-effects of trauma.

Lack of confidence in the British medical services

A Somali woman who had been in Britain since the 1960s expressed a lack of confidence in the medical services in Britain, of which she claimed to have witnessed the decline over the years.  She felt there were too many mistakes and oversights, and too little pride in medical practice in Britain, and contrasted this to medical practice in Germany where she maintained that standards were higher because of eagerness to obtain the best possible results from their work.  Her opinion was informed by her own experience, particularly in the case of her son who had suffered from epilepsy following an accident.  She told me that with conventional medical treatment, his condition deteriorated, but improved once she discontinued his medical treatment and cared for him at home in her own way.

Preventative health care

It was suggested to me that consultation of medical practitioners for the purpose of preventative health care was not a concept which existed in Somalia, and it may therefore not occur to people to consult medical services until they actually become ill.

The concept of acting to prevent the onset of illness does exist in ideas of healthy diet, and so forth.  But in Somalia, preventative health care was not linked to conventional medical facilities.

Traditional medicine

In Somalia, Islamic leaders would often be consulted in the mosques for healing by hearing the Qur’an read by religious Sheikhs and through other religious methods.  Other forms of traditional healing using herbs and amulets are attributed to rural and uneducated Somalis, rather than town or city people, but no-one interviewed knew of any of these traditional practices continuing in Britain.  I was told that many Somali refugees in Britain are in fact from rural areas.  However, these practices would not conflict with any wish to access orthodox medical facilities.  Of course everyone wants health, I was told, and will access all health facilities available to them, as long as they have confidence in them.

Female circumcision

The attitude to female circumcision varies among women according to their age and generation.

Somali women of the generation whereby they have grown-up children may be attached to the custom.  One woman of this generation expressed disinterest, although concern with related medical complications.  Another woman with grown-up children was very strongly opposed to the custom, encouraging other women to undergo reversals.  However, it is an ancient custom, I was told, and cannot change overnight.

Women of the younger generation – in their 20s, 30s, and younger, would not be willing to have their daughters circumcised.  This, I was told, is a general reflection of attitudes of young Somali women in the United Kingdom, and an attitude which is increasing among young women within Somalia.  One young woman expressed the opinion that female circumcision is “unnecessary”, and two others described the conditions under which they underwent the procedure, and the experience, as “terrible”.

Two women stressed that female circumcision is not in accordance with Islam, and is therefore not a necessary aspect of their culture, or one which has to endure.  Some women were also concerned to point out, perhaps in objection to being characterised in relation to this practice, that female circumcision is not something that is specific to Somalis, but that it also exists among many other nationalities, and was even practised in Europe not so long ago. However, it appears that female circumcision still occurs among Somalis in Europe, and parents may take their daughters to Saudi Arabia where it is performed under anaesthetic.

Concern, however, was expressed with the way in which their circumcision customs have been publicised and emphasised in the British media, providing the British public with a very unbalanced and negative portrayal of their culture.  They wished for positive aspects of their culture to be conveyed to balance the picture, and for a more sensitive treatment of the subject of circumcision, perhaps confined to women inside their community.

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The implications of this report extend to various other language groups in the UK.

Today a translation service provided by the NHS known as “Language Line” means that during medical consultations, translation can be supplied over the telephone. This must solve the problems regarding patients’ confidentiality, and the accurate and complete transmission of vital information to the patient, which interviewees outlined in 1998.

Arising from the interviews was an obvious need for programmes – or perhaps DVDs or websites – in the languages of various ethnic minorities which would enable women to understand the need for medical intervention and treatment in the case of medical conditions to which they may attach a sense of shame, as described. Such programmes, DVDs or websites should also provide explanations of the need for medical intervention in the area of preventative healthcare, and also proper explanation of vaccinations, and drugs prescribed for depression, to enable a patient to understand the ways in which such treatments might be beneficial.

What also arises from this report is a need for outreach services providing information to members of Somali and other communities who tend not to go to public places where such information would be available, and a need for appropriate support for refugees from war-torn countries who may be severely traumatized by what they may have witnessed and experienced.  Somali community organizations, cultural centres and women’s associations throughout London fulfil some of these needs.

 

 

 

Petition to reverse TFL’s decision to scrap cash fares on buses

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With cash fares no longer admitted on buses, some passengers will be stranded and at risk.  Oyster cards can be lost, stolen, not yet purchased, or have an insufficient balance.  There is often nowhere close to busstops to buy/top up an Oyster card – certainly not at all hours.  Passengers may not have contactless payment cards – especially if they are children. It is hard to believe that this measure is being introduced just a few months after a 22-year old law student was turfed off her last bus home at 3am in freezing temperatures for being 20p short of the fare.  Walking homewards to meet her mother who was coming to pick her up, she was subjected to rape, and to violence which was so extreme, her own mother did not recognise her, and from which she might easily have died. Only one third of those consulted on the proposal to scrap cash fares on buses agreed with it. Scrapping cash fares on buses is a thoughtless, mindless and uncompassionate measure, and this decision should be reversed.  Fare payment methods should support the safety, security and mobility of passengers, and not leave them stranded and place them at risk. Please click on the following link and sign my petition:

Somali women and Female Genital Cutting: A Mark of Cultural Identity, or Extreme Violence Against Women and Girls?

Image by Awesame Mohamed (Digital Journal) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has described female genital mutilation, or cutting, as among the “most extreme manifestations of gender-based violence there is”. The issue of FGC has gained increased publicity and news coverage in recent months in the UK. The general understanding is that FGC, termed as “mutilation” (FGM), constitutes violence, child abuse, and a human rights violation. The young girls who are subjected to FGC, considered in the West as “victims”, live in 28 countries in Africa and the Middle East, and in Britain, Europe, and other countries their families have migrated to. In Britain and elsewhere, it becomes of matter of protecting children who are citizens of our countries.

Negative views of FGC are not confined to the West. Article 15(4) of Somalia’s new Provisional Constitution which prohibits “circumcision of girls” declares the practice as “cruel and degrading….and…tantamount to torture.” Similarly it is classed as “torture” by the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

Is it, however, valid to class culturally-prescribed FGC as a violent crime against children? As “torture” or “tantamount to torture”, or indeed, as “mutilation”? Are we wishing to impose a Western value system where it may not be applicable? Indeed, by enforcing mandatory examinations of girls considered to be at risk, as in France, or as suggested in the UK, are girls’ human rights being violated further?

Inherent in the definition of “torture” is an intention to inflict pain and suffering. While the term “violent”, implies a destructive force – an intention to harm, damage or kill. These are surely never the intentions of those subjecting their daughters, granddaughters and nieces to FGC. While the intentions of those whose profession is to carry out the cutting may sometimes be less than pure, their intentions are still, surely, not violent.

And then there is the term “mutilate”, implying not just that the act is violent, but also that the result constitutes disfigurement, severe damage or destruction; that the beauty is spoiled. Yet it could be argued that FGC is beautifying according to a specific cultural aesthetic. Dynamic anti-FGC advocate, Leila Hussein, invited signatures for her bogus petition in favour of FGC intended to test the reactions of the British public (The Cruel Cut, Channel 4). “It’s beautiful!” – she called out to passers-by. Is it therefore a matter of cultural perspective as to whether cut female genitalia are disfigured, damaged, or spoiled?

Germaine Greer, a feminist whose views fall along the lines of a woman’s right to enjoy sex and to choose what is done to her genitalia, provoked a furor when she defended the right of women to undergo FGC as a mark of their cultural identity. Many of us in Britain who proclaim liberal values may incline towards cultural relativism. Where FGC is carried out under anaesthetic, we might posit the question as to how different FGC is from the practice of non-medically-based plastic surgery for culturally-aesthetic reasons. One might argue that in this case, adults choose to have the surgery. We could present the counter-argument that an element of choice is removed from these women by conditioning and brain-washing from lifelong exposure to media images.

It is perhaps partly due to an inclination towards cultural relativism, and a consequent reluctance to interfere with the various cultural mores of Britain’s ethnic minorities, that the issue of FGC has been slow to be taken on board in this country. A general reluctance on the part of the predominantly male powers-who-be to concern themselves with the vaginas of the politically least significant sector of the community (being female, minors and non-white) may also be a factor. In France, with its zero tolerance approach to FGC, approximately 100 people have been tried and jailed for involvement in FGC. In Britain, however, there has only been one (recent) prosecution to-date. We are told that FGC has been illegal in Britain since 1985 – something one might be forgiven for finding confusing. When has it ever been legal to mutilate a child in the UK? (Since beheading went out of vogue as a method of capital punishment.) More recently, it was reported that emails sent out to heads of schools containing guidelines relating to FGC were not even, for the most part, opened! How should we understand this? In terms of heads of schools being busy people, and of girls at risk of FGC being of low priority?

In the case of the Somali community in Britain, Abdi[1] casts doubt on the assumption that education, and awareness of the adverse effects and risks of FGC, is the answer. Families who are both educated and aware, such as her own, are nevertheless continuing the practice. She claims that activists who oppose FGC view the practice only according to a purely physical/medical model, and fail to consider it as creating Somali gendered identity. The question this evokes is: Can a woman be Somali if she has not been cut? (I am sure the answer to this is: most definitely!!!)

A Somali woman I once had the privilege of interviewing – a very beautiful and spiritual community leader with British-educated grown-up children – declined to either condemn or condone the practice: “I don’t know if it is a good or a bad thing,” she shrugged. I understand from her response that the practice was necessary in the social context she came from, and carried out with positive intentions. Somali parents subject their daughters to FGC in order that they will be marriageable, so that they will be “clean”, so that their behaviour will be culturally “feminine” (as it is believed in Somalia to impact on a girl’s behaviour), so that their bodies will be culturally “feminine”, so that they will be chaste until marriage, so that they will not be a source of shame to their families. Most of all, parents subject their daughters to FGC so that they will have social existence. If a woman is uncircumcised, in the Somali context (and even to some extent in the diaspora context) she will be unmarriageable, and will thus have no social role. Avoidance of such a fate is something parents have a duty to ensure. They are assuring their daughters’ future. A young mother may have no say in the matter, and may be forced to comply with the demands of her mother-in-law.

Upon learning that FGM is not in fact ordained in Islam, that not all women undergo the practice, and of its harmful consequences (which in Somalia were attributed to factors unrelated to FGM), how is a parent to feel? Surely it is unbearable to conceive of the idea that one has exposed one’s daughter to unnecessary violence, to unnecessary intense pain, to unnecessary health risks, and the potential disability or death of her offspring.

Opposition to the practice does exist in Somalia. Mogadishu-based Imam Macalin Adam Mohammed Osman has been advocating against the practice, insisting that it has no foundation in Islam.

Neither religion, therefore, nor, in my view, cultural relativism, can be evoked to justify the practice of FGM – a practice which is violent to the extreme. Certainly in the Somali case, it is violence that is inflicted on young girls, and that is reinflicted throughout their lives. It is reinflicted when a woman’s fused flesh is forced or cut open on her wedding night. Men as well as women are documented as being deeply traumatised by this event. In Somalia, it might be reinflicted when a man returns from a journey, having had his wife’s vagina sewn up before leaving to ensure her fidelity in his absence.   Much has been documented on the health problems and complications in childbirth which result from FGM, apart from the pain and difficulty in urinating and menstruating. A Somali nurse I encountered suffered from kidney failure as a result of FGM, endangering her life.

Waris Dirie, anti-FGM campaigner and UN ambassador (and former model), describes her experience of FGM in her book Desert Flower. Like Abdi’s interviewees, Waris was excited about the impending act because deception is involved in the practice. At the age of 5, or 7, the little girls are not told, and do not understand, exactly what is going to happen. Having been cut, in Waris’s case, she was left alone in the desert through the night, her legs tied together. She lost her sister to the practice.

The parents, grandparents, aunts who subject the little girls to FGM do not have violent or harmful intentions. But they are unconscious, unquestioning actors within a larger, all-engulfing mind, which has collectivised geographically and historically, down through the generations. This is a mind which is terrified of women’s sexuality, and wishes to eradicate it. It is a mind that willingly sacrifices the lives of girls and women to this end. A mind that advocates leaving mutilated little girls alone in the desert. It is a mind which believes that it is fine to cut young girls’ and women’s flesh repeatedly. A mind that is indifferent to women’s pain and suffering.   It is a mind which hates the (unaltered) vagina. A mind with a violent and destructive intention towards women and girls. Such a mind is, surely, characterised by misogyny.

Not everything that becomes embedded in our culture, and becomes enshrined as “tradition”, deserves to be preserved. The mass-murder of women as witches – a historical manifestation of extreme misogyny in European culture – was thankfully eventually abandoned.

Misogyny I believe, is the foundation of FGM. It is my belief, further, that children who are in danger, in distress, or in need – wherever they may be – are the responsibility of all of us. This responsibility, I believe, is uncompromisable by ideas of cultural relativism.

 

[1]“Carving Culture: Creating Identity through female genital cutting.” Durham Anthropology Journal, 18(1) 2012. 115-153