While Barack Obama proclaims White House support to the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities to which India is a signatory, the Indian Supreme Court has delivered a landmark judgment in a unique case of young woman in India. My apologies, but the subject necessitates a lengthy post.
Born in 1991, this woman was abandoned by her family in ‘98, when she was just seven years old. After a few years with the Missionaries of Charity, she went to her new home: the state-run Nari Niketan in Chandigarh, India. Though she is 18 years old today, she is said to have the IQ equivalent of a 9 year old. In this state-run institution, she was repeatedly raped by the staff, four of whom have been arrested. All this came to light only when she was shifted from there to another state-run institution Ashreya. The latest unsubstantiated evidence casts further doubt on where exactly she was raped, and on the entire police investigation so far.
When medical investigation revealed that the woman was pregnant, the Chandigarh Administration decided that it was in her best interests to abort the pregnancy. The girl expressed an unambiguous and unequivocal desire to keep the child. Responding to the state’s petition, the state High Court ordered an immediate termination of pregnancy.
A Delhi based lawyer Suchita Srivastava challenged the order, filing a petition in the Supreme Court. After several days of intense debate in the media as well as the public, the Supreme Court refused to allow termination of pregnancy, and stayed the High Court order.
Advocate Tanu Bedi who had earlier assisted the High Court as amicus curiae, argued for the woman, against Administration counsel Anupam Gupta. The highlights of the debate in court as reported in the press offer the gist of the arguments and the court’s judgment.
- “Consent of the victim cannot be decisive. The so-called consent of the girl is no assent either in law or fact.”
- Reacting to the statement that mild mentally challenged people have the capability to take a decision for themselves, Gupta said: “This is a myth, which is completely belied by present scientific knowledge. It is a structural edifice of myth built on a foundation of highly wishful postulates of mental retardation. The argument is underlied by sincerity and overload of commitment, yet it is mere euphoria.”
- Dismissing the emphasis that the girl’s desire to give birth was ultimate, Gupta said: “If this expression of desire is taken as consent, it will be a complete travesty of consent in moral, philosophical and legal category. How can one question her regarding termination of pregnancy when she does not even understand what pregnancy is? She is blissfully oblivious of her pregnancy and unaware of the sexual act.”
- Reacting to the argument that children of mentally challenged rape victims can be taken care by institutes like Nari Niketan and Ashreya, Gupta said: “It’s easier said than done. We seem to be living in a realm of imagination. I am not trying to run down the argument by calling it a fantasy but such change, although welcome, is yet an illusion in our society.”
- Senior counsel Colin Gonsalves, appearing for a social worker in favor of abortion, cited medical reports and said the continuation of pregnancy could result in complications, considering the girl’s age, mental status, and previous surgery. He said she was not aware that there was a child inside her, and hence could not mother a child.
- “It would be a travesty of justice if a mother has to come to the highest court of the land to seek permission to give birth to her own child”.
- Consent of the victim matters most. “She is not mentally incompetent to give consent. Despite her communication problems, she has expressed her desire to give birth to the child. She has immense strength and resilience. We don’t even know our destiny, how can we script the future of someone else?” concluded Bedi.
- Ms. Bedi argued that doctors did not form the opinion that termination of pregnancy was in the best interests of the girl, and that the medical report suggested that she required support and supervision to help her raise the child.
- Counsel argued that termination of pregnancy against the mother’s wish was against the provisions of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, and the Rights of the Disabled.
- If her mental age is a consideration for the judiciary to think that she cannot take care of her baby, why should poor women, who are found lacking in bringing up their children, be allowed to become mothers?
- Ms. Bedi said India was a party to international conventions that uphold and preserve the rights of the disabled, which had been given the go-by in the impugned order. “We have to respect the girl’s right to life”, she said.
- Ms. Bedi argued that the victim had a right to give birth to her child. She said the National Trust constituted under the National Trust for the Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act, 1999, had agreed to provide her social and financial support and take care of the child after delivery. Counsel for the Trust said it was funding several institutions and would support the girl.
- Before the judgment: “What you say is right if she is not a mentally retarded person,” Chief Justice Balakrishnan told Ms. Bedi. “We are worried about her future also because she is an orphan. No NGO is going to look after her. It is a difficult decision for us.”
- “We are not in favor of termination of pregnancy. If there are no further complications to the woman in continuation of her pregnancy, then why abort a life?”
- “We are sure that somebody will be in a position to give protection to the child. Our anxiety is the fetus is already 19 weeks. The second medical opinion says her physical condition is good to bear the child. The child is not suffering from any deformity. Nature will give her biological protection. If somebody is ready to take care of the child, should we even then order medical termination of pregnancy? Nature will take care on its own.”
- Justice Sathasivam told Gupta: “Is it not possible for the Chandigarh administration to take care of the child? Is it not your responsibility to protect her?”
- “We know as a natural mother she will not be able to take care of the child. But if somebody is ready to look after the child, then there would not be any problem.”
- After being satisfied that several national-level NGOs had come forward to take responsibility of the child, the 3-member bench was reluctant to accept any other arguments supporting her abortion.
- Acknowledging that if a baby is aborted against her wishes, it would cause further trauma to the woman, the court ordered that the baby should be born with “mother under constant care and supervision”.
I have no way of assessing general public opinion, but in my experience, the opinion regarding the court’s judgment has been largely negative. See this blog post by Aditi Ray on Sulekha. Prerna’s post has a slew of comments criticizing the judgment.
The Bioethics Discussion Blog asks readers’ opinion regarding permanent sterilization of mentally disabled women, and asks if disability rights groups should ever sacrifice the disabled individual to the group’s agenda. I also found an interesting student paper at the University of Kentucky’s Dept. of Philosophy, Health Care Ethics on mentally retarded women and forced contraceptives. Finally, the UN’s Women with Disabilities page is a gateway to much more information and links.
How do religions treat women? How do emancipated women treat religion? A sequence of events recently has made my mind unquiet over this subject. Nita asked if Hinduism was coming of age, with people performing the sacred ‘thread ceremony’ on their daughters. The BJP found itself trapped in the maze of confusion surrounding Hindutva. And Sarkozy said that women wearing burqas were not welcome in France, as it was more a sign of women’s subservience rather than religion. The Rational Fool hailed Sarkozy’s statement, while I and Etlamatey pondered about individual women’s rights in the comments.
Like I always do, I responded to my unquiet mind by thinking, scouring the net, and thinking some more. Here is a sampling of what I found:
- An American convert to Islam urges Muslims to fight against brutality of woman to preserve Islam’s image in the eyes of others
- A Hindu woman converted to Islam says Islam is not oppressive, unlike Hinduism
- A Hindu perspective explains how Abortion is Bad Karma
- Genocide of Women in Hinduism by Sita Agarwal
- Did the burqa bring about the ghunghat or the other way around? Read this.
- Did women have ‘fewer’ rights than men or ‘different’ in the context of Hinduism’s history? A heated debate ensued after Hindus started a campaign to change the content of sixth-grade school history textbooks in California.
- A Globe and Mail opinion piece discusses the reduction in church attendance among Canadian women and whether oppression of women by religious institutions is the main cause, while Tina disagrees in her blog post.
- How does Canadian society achieve gender equality rights enshrined in their Charter, which also protects the right to freedom of religion? The Star looks at the conflict of interests.
- Muslim-dominated Indonesia is a religious country where atheism is banned by law. Alarmed at the extent of oppression of women in their country, a group of Islamic and Christian leaders have released new manuscripts in an effort to use religion to achieve gender equality.
- BBC had an open debate on air on whether religion is an obstacle to gender equality. The extensive comments represent myriad opinions and differing perspectives on this issue. One example of a response to this debate is by Sally, who says that faith is an integral part of her, and suggests women work within their faiths for change.
In the above list, I have not listed any pro-atheist source, and strived to include Hinduism related articles. Referencing articles on Hinduism and gender equality or feminism is difficult for three reasons. One, the global discussion has centered on Islam, and the English-speaking Internet population is largely Christian.
Two, Hinduism is unique in its flexible and diverse interpretations. While all religions are intentionally scripted so as to offer multiple contradictory interpretations, Hinduism wins this ambiguity race by claiming to be ‘all-inclusive’. Devout religious folks from other religions do argue (as seen in the above examples) that the oppression of women is a misinterpretation and misuse of their ‘true’ religion. But Hindus can’t be surpassed in this respect: not only are there multiple contradictory interpretations of Hinduism, even these contradictions can be claimed to be embraced by it. I think it would be a safe bet to say that for every principle supposedly propounded by Hinduism, a contradictory principle can be found within Hinduism. People would not call me a mathematician if I did not follow mathematics, but they will call me a Hindu even if I did not follow it.
Third, for a religion that has existed for centuries, and is said to be flexible and evolving, it is impossible to differentiate religious practices from social customs and traditions. Do Hindu women wear the mangalsutra or bangles because of religion or tradition? Widow burning or sati is widely described in the world as a Hindu practice, but naturally, there are arguments and differing opinions about it.
For atheists like me, the issue is very simple. Religion has been used as an instrument of gender inequality, specifically, in the oppression of women. Removing religion from the picture removes religious and theological justifications for patriarchy, as Austin argues. Sally says that in the absence of religion, men will find other ways to oppress women, hence religion as such is not an obstacle. Indeed, many factors contribute to gender inequality, one of them being economic prosperity, as this chart shows.
However, there still exists a strong correlation between the extent of ‘organic atheism’ (as opposed to ‘coerced atheism’ like in communist countries) in a country and its overall gender equation. Both the 2004 and 2006 rankings of the Gender Empowerment Measure, which is part of the the UNDP’s Human Development Report, show that the top ten nations with the highest gender equality are all strongly organic atheistic nations, while the bottom ten are all highly religious countries with insignificant number of atheists. But, as Phil Zuckerman points out in the The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, the causal relationship is in reverse: overall societal health causes widespread atheism, not the other way around.
It is impossible to argue against faith and belief, so I do not venture much into such debates. I prefer not challenging other people’s beliefs as long as they do not interfere with my life. What I find perplexing is how even emancipated women prefer to remain within their religious faiths and struggle against oppression, rather than choosing to discard religion? If faith and belief are important, and hence atheism and agnosticism are rejected, why are other forms of theism not popular?
In the end, I think I differ from Sarkozy: if women choose to be subservient, let them be. It is their right. Men should not trample over that right, though they can trample over such women, if they wish.
Update 30th June: A few significant articles I found since writing this post:
- Few public figures have taken this topic head on. Cherie Booth, wife of ex-PM Tony Blair, gave a speech almost two years ago: Religion no excuse for gender inequality. Like many other ‘feminists’ I mentioned, she however suggests using religion as a weapon in the fight for women’s rights.
- God is merciful, but only if you’re a man. An excellent piece in The Observer that asks the exact same questions I did, and offers the exact same answer Rational Fool did in the comments – Stockholm Syndrome.
- Wherever religion and its patriarchs rule, women’s lives are in danger, an Opinion piece.
- Why Women Need Freedom From Religion, from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
(All cartoons are from www.atheistcartoons.com)
How did I end up in this Golmaal (confusion)? ‘G’ stands for all that is good and great. So how does one select a winner from among so many deserving candidates? Does one simply give up and disappear, as if Gone With The Wind? How does one separate The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly? With so many Goodfellas, who is The Godfather of them all? The father of the nation, Gandhi? With my readers having Great Expectations, I risk becoming a Ganashatru (Enemy of the People) by choosing one over the rest.
Situations like these are when I am forced to evaluate films on factors beyond that of film-making. Which films stand up for a better world? Which films go beyond entertainment and mastery of the creative process of film-making to talk about something greater? Which films make ordinary people aspire to be good?
Eternal déjà vu. A sci-fi premise used in a completely innovative way. A unique classic that has grown over time in its popularity, a testament to its multiple layers. Hilarious and yet extremely profound. Always enjoyable in repeated viewings. This is genius that is not immediately discernible. This is genius that is disguised as popular entertainment, winking an eye to those who eventually catch it.
Extremely intelligent editing. Remarkable performances if you think about enacting the same scene over again and again not for retakes but for different scenes, altering your behavior gradually in each new scene. Read my full review here.
In a way, this is one of the most spiritual films I’ve seen. I know I will be a better person if I am reminded of Groundhog Day in the morning when I wake up. How many films or art works in general can lay such a claim?
The Great Dictator
If you remember that The Great Dictator was written before Hitler invaded Poland, much before WWII, you will acknowledge that film-makers can be great philosophers. At the time the film was released, the scenes of storm troopers terrorizing the Jewish ghetto were viewed as ‘extreme’. Chaplin paid a price for his anti-fascist, anti-racist stance, by being suspected as a communist, and being exiled from the United States.
The ballet scene with the globe has permeated cultural consciousness across the world, beyond geographies, ethnicities, and cultures. The ego-games between the two dictators – Hitler and Mussolini, speak volumes more than dialogue can. The barber shaving a customer to the rhythm of classical music. Rodin’s Thinker with an arm raised in salute. There is so much to enjoy here!
This would have been my first choice if it were not for the out of sync speech at the end. It feels out of place, too long, and dilutes the comic entertainment of the entire movie. Chaplin probably felt very strongly about democracy and individual freedom, and was adamant in retaining the speech despite criticism. But considering his overwhelming contribution to cinema, I have no qualms listening to him, for he is, The Great Director.
From you, my dear readers, in the comments!
After the intense and enlightening discussion on an earlier post – An Unquiet Mind Over Matter – I couldn’t help resist sharing today’s Quote of the Day from The Quotation’s Page. It’s a perfect rejoinder that serves a sumptuous dessert of humor!
Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand
- Kurt Vonnegut
US novelist (1922 – 2007)
A few weeks back, I read Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion say:
I want us to flinch when we hear of a ‘Christian child’ or a ‘Muslim child’. Small children are too young to know their views on life, ethics and the cosmos. We should no more speak of a Christian child than of a Keynesian child, a monetarist child or a Marxist child. Automatic labeling of children with the religion of their parents is not just presumptuous. It is a form of mental child abuse.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since, when I was asked the following questions by Ashok in comments on his Temple Matters post:
1) What is your opinion on children being taken to temples but not encouraged to ask why?
2) At what point do you think parents/elders should leave the decision of finding personal meaning in religion to the individual? What would you do with your children?
For a novice parent, these are profound questions, and it is important for any parent to think about these.
To start with, there is no doubt in my mind in fully agreeing with Dawkins. I was indoctrinated as a Hindu child, and chose atheism only in my teens, after I discovered and studied other philosophies. I did not have to go through a tenacious struggle myself, but I can well imagine different experiences for others. I would disagree with indoctrination of any kind. One must encourage one’s children to think for themselves, and choose what they think is right.
Given that religion is based on blind faith and not reason, it is hardly surprising that most religious parents blindly indoctrinate their children in what they themselves believe is the best for their children’s good. But what about atheists? Do atheists equally provide an open environment for their children to let them choose between religion and atheism?
Even as an atheist, I believe that I should not indoctrinate my child with atheistic principles. Even if I was raised as a Hindu, I will let my child attend a Christian convent school if it offers quality education, even though it may expose her to Christian traditions. I will let her grandparents take her to Hindu temples and let her see and have that experience. I will teach her not to discriminate among her friends based on religion if I find hints of any such thing. Over time, I would encourage her to think critically for herself.
So my response to Ashok’s questions is: #1 is pure indoctrination. Not encouraging children to ask questions is bad parenting. Not allowing them to, is mental child abuse, as Dawkins points out. #2: From the birth of the child. You can provide facts, information, and knowledge. But the decision of finding personal meaning in religion or elsewhere is a birthright of the child.
Of course, it’s not as simple as it sounds (who said rational parenting was easy?). When she asks me for the first time (whenever that is), “Dad, what is God”?, what will be my response? Will it be “Dear, God is a fictitious entity that many people believe in?” No, I suspect I will point at an idol somewhere and say “That is what people call God”, and thus side-step the question of his existence. If after a couple of years she asks “Dad, where can I find God?”, I’ll say “I don’t know dear. I haven’t found him yet. If you do, please let me know.” As she grows up, I will continue to encourage independent thinking. When she is mature enough to understand how different people can have different values, I can then explain what my values are. Well, I hope so!
What are your thoughts?
Update: 11th Oct: I realize that comments section on this post can be too restricted a space for many people to espouse their ideas. I have also learnt that this is a universal topic for parents who think. Hence, as can be seen from the comments section below, this topic is now a meme, open to all.
Start of a space race
What a disgrace
Amidst all the pace
Who lost their face?
His dreams shattered
Ayn Rand published
The world awoke
A railroad at heart
Yet, a work of art
Beneath a burden
Refused a pardon
Became a guardian
Acted like in a disco
Much like a fresco
His life exalts
Like single malt
In space, rollickin’
Became a Senorita
Mir space station
An unsavory destination
Can man have affection?
Mere words, with trepidation
A pale blue dot
In an ordinary spot
What have they got?
Freedom? Dictatorship? Democracy?
These may be human constructs
But the doomsday if Atlas really Shrugged
Is there for all to see
I decided to add this prologue after the first few comments to this post. This post uses an incident in India, but is actually universal in nature and focuses on the moral, philosophical, and ethical decision-making involved in an emergency.
Imagine you’re traveling from Mumbai to Pune by train, which is full to capacity, as usual in India. An additional engine is added to the train to climb the ascent of the Western Ghats from Karjat at sea-level to Lonavala at a height of 2000 ft. above sea level. Your train trudges laboriously upwards and reaches Lonavala after 1.5 – 2 hours. You enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Sahyadri ghats. It stops at Lonavala for a while and everyone gets back on board, ready to proceed.
Suddenly the train starts inching backwards. There are smiles, giggles, and wisecracks about what antics the drivers are up to. Some wonder if they’re simply changing tracks or if some engine replacement or something had to be done. The ‘inching’ turns into ‘crawling’, and soon enough, ominously, the train is now really ‘moving’ backwards. There is puzzlement all around and you are amused as to what’s happening.
There is no let up however, as the train starts getting momentum, accelerates further, and starts gaining speed. Amusement disappears as you and everyone else realize that something is seriously wrong. The train gains further acceleration and you’re already cruising at a reasonable speed. Everyone is peering out the compartment doors and windows only to find people from other compartments doing the same. “Has the driver lost his mind?” you wonder, as people start voicing obscenities at the train staff.
“But, was the staff (driver and guard at opposite ends), on the train when it started off at Lonavala?” someone asks and nobody really knows. The worst possibility comes to your mind – you’re on a runaway train, downhill, with no one at the controls.
By this time, the train is so fast that it would be dangerous to jump off. Panic and confusion all around you. You calm yourself and start thinking rapidly. You visualize the laborious twists and turns of the track as it winds down the mountains. You imagine a full-speed, no holds barred, runaway train hurtling across those tracks and overturning into the picturesque Sahyadri valleys. Is this how you were destined to die?
Point A: Question 1
At this point, if you jumped off, you assess your chances. Let’s say there’s a 70-80% probability that you’ll get seriously hurt, and a 20-30% possibility that you might die in the process. Will you jump off?
Point A: Question 2
Assume you don’t, and cling on to hope, that there will be some miraculous intervention and that you will be saved. After all, when one lives in a civilized and moderately developed society, it is a rational expectation that there will be systems and processes in place to deal with such emergencies.
Some people are seriously doubtful however. They’re contemplating jumping off. Will you discourage and/or prevent people from doing so?
Meanwhile, the train has reached a breakneck speed. The sparks from the wheels are now of alarming proportions and reaching the windows. People from another compartment come rushing into yours as their compartment catches fire. The ghat section, where the real twists and turns begin, is just around the corner. People are screaming, women are crying in hysteria.
Point B: Question 1
At this point, there’s an almost 100% probability of serious injury, including permanent handicap, and a 70% probability of death. Will you jump?
Point B: Question 2
Assume you don’t, and still have hope that you will be saved. However, there are people who are getting ready to jump. Will you discourage/prevent them, just because you have hope even if they haven’t?
The above situation is not hypothetical. This is what happened to the Indrayani Express in the 1990s, when my cousin brother was on the train. During a normal return journey from Pune to Mumbai (downhill), the train used to descend the height of the ghat section in approximately an hour. That day, it ran the same track downhill in 11 minutes. The train did not overturn. Few people who jumped off were seriously injured. There were no major casualties. My brother urged dozens of people not to jump and ended up saving them in the process.
This image was taken, at Sagan’s suggestion, by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990. As the spacecraft left our planetary neighborhood to the edges of our solar system, engineers turned it around for one last look at its home planet. Voyager 1 was about 6.4 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away, when it captured this portrait of our world.
“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you know, everyone you love, everyone you’ve ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines. Every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds…
Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish this pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
- Carl Sagan, commencement address delivered May 11, 1996.
This tribute is to hope and pray on behalf of the 2996 people who were killed on that fateful day. Many more have been killed before and after, all over this pale blue dot. Just like Voyager, we also need to turn and look back at man’s history on this fragile planet. Will we learn to cherish what we’ve got, or wipe ourselves out of existence?
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Amnesty International (AI) is a worldwide movement of people who campaign for internationally recognized human rights. It is one of the foremost institutions, recognized worldwide, towards the fight for individual human rights.
Why is it called “Amnesty”? The definition of “Amnesty” is: “A general pardon granted by a government, especially for political offenses”, or as a verb, “To grant a general pardon to.”
Think about it. Why should human rights originate from a pardon? Isn’t a right, a right? Does it have to be pardoned and then granted?
No. Human individual rights are inviolable, they cannot be ‘granted’ or ‘pardoned’. Then why is the world’s foremost human rights activist organization called “Amnesty”?
The answer, as often is the case, is economical, my friends. Amnesty International is funded by the Vatican. Remember Original Sin? According to the Christian doctrine, human rights can originate only if God ‘pardons’ man, hence the word “Amnesty”.
Isn’t this a logical paradox? Yes, it is. So what does Amnesty International think about abortion?
So far, it has been “neutral” on the topic. Now, someone inside Amnesty has had a rational light bulb moment, and they’ve decided that Amnesty will support abortion in cases of rape or incest. The Vatican is up in arms, as expected.
Human Rights and Catholicism? You must be joking! But, we aren’t. This is the truth. Sigh.
Imagine not being able to:
- Study Wikipedia
- Read news sources like BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Economist
- Reference the Internet Movie Database (IMDB)
- Use MySpace, YouTube, Digg, or Orkut
- View pictures on Flickr
- Read blogs on WordPress, LiveJournal, or Blogspot
- Access sites of Microsoft, Apple, Hotmail, AOL, Yahoo
This would be your world if you were a Chinese citizen.
We all know about the Great Firewall of China. Take a moment and really think about how we take our freedom for granted. Think about what is meant by individual rights. And if you’re living in a democracy, cherish it!
You can test if a particular site is accessible from China or not using this online testing tool. No need to check your WordPress, LiveJournal, or Blogspot blog, since they’re all banned. Thanks to Oemar, from whose blog I found this testing tool.