Which Side Are You On?

Remember that old labor song – ‘Which Side Are You On’? Pete Seeger sang it – that’s the version I know. It’s a strike song, a union song, a solidarity song. Well – get out the banjo and let’s sing a few bars. Which side are we on.

Not this one.

…in northern Afghanistan in May, three women workers at a microcredit organisation (which gives loans to women to start up small businesses) were stoned to death by warlords; in India, a woman social worker in Madhya Pradesh state had her hands chopped off by a man furious because she was counselling villagers against child marriage. In Pakistan, the head of the Human Rights Commission was stripped and beaten in public after she organised a series of sporting marathons in which women could compete. (One marathon was attacked by 900 men from the Islamist alliance, armed with batons and petrol bombs.)…In Iraq, a wave of attacks on women has been carried out by the new insurgent groups. Said a 23-year-old university student: “They dropped acid in my face and on my legs. They cut all my hair off while hitting me in the face many times, telling me it’s the price for not obeying God’s wish in using the veil.”

Nothing new there. In Marjane Satrapie’s Persepolis, Marjane’s mother encounters ‘Two guys…two bearded guys…two fundamentalist bastards…the bastards, the bastards…They said that women like me should be pushed up against a wall and fucked, and then thrown in the garbage…And that if I didn’t want that to happen, I should wear the veil…’ ‘That incident,’ Satrapie comments in the next panel, ‘made my mother sick for several days.’

That was twenty-five years ago. Yet we still hear imbeciles burbling about the veil as a ‘choice.’

Which side are we on? Not this one.

Such meetings have increased as secular women lobby hard to prevent religious Shiite conservatives – the parliament’s majority – from mentioning Islam as the “primary source” of legislation in Iraq’s new constitution…Mona Noor Zazala, a Shia member of the National Assembly at the event who favors the wording, insists there is nothing to fear…Mentioning Islam in the country’s constitution is important because Islam, which most Iraqis follow, emphasizes “motherhood and obliges men to spend money on their families,” she said.

Uh huh. But the secular women weren’t buying it.

In the current social climate, where some of the women at the event had received death threats for their activism, “we are afraid to say what we think,” said the woman, who declined to give her name out of fear of retaliation. “We must fight for our rights now – in the future we might not be able to fight at all,” she said.

Even well-meaning ‘tolerance’ is not always the right side to be on.

It is not the language or aspiration of multiculturalism but of tolerance – a concept much advanced in the past few weeks – which needs to be examined. For to tolerate too often means merely to put up with. This does little justice to the task which faces Britons of every class and creed: a task, confirmed since the events of July 7 by the alarming rise of race- and faith-hatred crimes. It is to be hoped the proposed commission will identify ways grudging tolerance can now be transcended by genuine acceptance, understanding and respect, which turns neighbours into friends because it accords difference the dignity it always deserves.

That’s a Canon – Canon Chris Chivers of Blackburn cathedral. Well – genuine acceptance, understanding and respect of what? What kind of difference? Is it true that difference always deserves dignity? No – of course it’s not. As, surely, the Canon himself would agree as soon as anyone asked him about some blindingly obvious examples of difference. So why do people keep on endlessly recycling unhelpful bromides like that? Because they’re worried about hate-crimes, and they’re right to be worried; but surely evasion of the real difficulties doesn’t help.

There are some differences being argued over here – ‘here’ meaning all over the world, ‘here’ meaning related to this subject of the religious oppression of women and other subordinate groups (dalits for example) – that should not be tolerated, and that’s that. So it’s no good just arm-waving and saying ‘difference’ and ‘dignity’ and ‘respect’ over and over again and thinking that settles the matter – it doesn’t. Unfortunately, there are sides here, and we have to choose one.

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