Big stupid honking mistake!

Cristina Odone occupies the first three paragraphs of her review of Does God Hate Women? pointing out a factual mistake – the name of one Afghan woman murdered for acting like a human being with a mind exchanged for the name of a different Afghan woman murdered for acting like a human being with a mind.

It’s a fair cop. The mistake is real. It’s mine. I have no idea how I managed it, but I did.

I didn’t realize I’d done it until the literary editor of The Observer asked our publisher (who asked us) about it, and I looked it up. That was Thursday I think. Jeremy and I had a set-to this morning about whether or not I would say it was mine. He told me not to the minute we both read the review. I said of course I’m going to! He said please don’t – and I wavered. But I also pointed out how damn near impossible that would be – and he admitted as much – and then I had him.

Of course I have to! I’d have bugs crawling under my skin for the rest of my life if I didn’t. His objections are as nothing in comparison. He wouldn’t let me fry, so I’m not about to let him fry. That’s it.

He did however insist that I should say that he is adamant that the responsibility is joint. Like so:

It is entirely fair that we should cop to it together. Look, if it had turned out that people had loved the book because you wrote some particularly devastating critique of something then I would have benefitted. It just happens that you made a tiny slip, and we`re going to get a little flak because of it. But structurally that`s no different. Given that I would have benefitted in the first instance means it`s fair that I`m disbenefitted in the second. (And anyway, I don`t suppose it`ll be much more than this review, and maybe a bit of crowing from the usual suspects.)

Fair enough. As long as I don’t have to creep around like Raskolnikov with a Horrible Crime on my conscience, he can have his say.

Now – as for what Odone concludes from my stupid mistake –

In the rush to drive home their point about all religions’ oppression of women, Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom shoved one woman’s narrative under another woman’s name: their priority is to make their case, not mourn a martyr.

I don’t know what that means. I don’t think Odone knows what that means. Mine was certainly a dumb-ass stupid clumsy mistake – but it also certainly wasn’t because we think either woman is unimportant, or subordinate to our making a point in our book, or anything like that. If anything it’s because we think both (and all) are important. As I said, I don’t know how I made the mistake, but the only explanation I can come up with is that both names were in my head and I somehow switched them while writing. That would be because both women matter to me, not because neither does or because one matters more than the other. In other words…the basic story is that there is a lot of material here, about horrible things done to women simply because they are women, and that I scrambled two bits of information about two such women. That stands for…having such women on my mind, not whatever other cynical thing Odone is gesturing at.

Still – to do her justice – Odone is critical of the book, but not to the point of being untruthful. She doesn’t follow the lead of Madeleine Bunting or Sholto Byrnes. She doesn’t just scream and throw things, or say we do nothing but rant from page 1 to page 178. That makes a nice change.

But there is some apologetic nonsense, all the same (and not surprisingly, since Odone is a vocal – or should I say New, or Militant? – Catholic.)

For millennia, women have found in God their greatest ally and muse – witness the writings of mystics such as Julian of Norwich and the charitable work of peasant Muslim women. For centuries, the most powerful and liberated women were the abbesses, nuns and consecrated virgins who devoted themselves to God. Women such as Maryam, Jesus’s mother, and Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife (and boss), play crucial roles in the Qur’an.

Well what choice did they have? No doubt they did, but then God was a given, wasn’t it, so it was either find in God an ally and muse, or do without. You might as well say the restaurant lobsters make a cozy home in that little tank where they wait their turn to be boiled.

Does God Hate Women? takes us on a terrible journey, where innocent women struggle – often in vain – against an oppressive culture. We should never forget these martyrs, and with their graphic descriptions of female circumcision and multiple rape, Benson and Stangroom ensure we won’t. But in explaining how God is dragged into this systemic abuse, the authors are guilty of the flawed logic they abhor in macho regimes. An attractive woman in a miniskirt who walks down the street is not responsible for the men who, distorting her attitude, read it as an invitation to rape; so God, in his many guises, cannot be held responsible for the men who distort his message into an invitation to abuse others.

Well – props for giving us that much credit, I must say. That’s a pretty generous reading, from a believer. But the last bit doesn’t really make sense, and in any case it’s beside the point. It’s not really God we’re holding responsible, since we don’t think there is any God; it is indeed the men who distort or adapt or use or anything you like the putative message. It’s religion’s power to sanctify and protect injustices that we are holding responsible.

And it’s my stupidity I’m holding responsible for the name-switch mistake. Don’t let nobody tell you different.

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