A few days back, I was watching a children’s reality show on TV, Zee Saregamapa Little Champs. Young children sing and compete in this show, and there are two judges, one of whom is Ms. Alka Yagnik.
After one of the kids sung a song composed by Bappi Lahiri, Ms. Yagnik said she had brought a present from Mr. Lahiri for him. Can you imagine what it was?
It was a lemon and chillies bundle made of gold. She said it will help ward off evil spirits from the boy once she waves it around him. Another couple of minutes of air time was spent in close ups and a discussion of how it was 24-carat gold. Can you imagine my utter shock and disbelief? My instantaneous reaction was take it and SIUYA.
Millions of young impressionable minds all over India are passionately watching this reality show. The ratings of the participants matter personally to them. The judges are looked up at as role models who’ve made it big in the music industry. Is this what our role models are supposed to be teaching our children?
[For those not in the know, this is the most ubiquitous charm used in India to ward off the evil eye. See here for more information.]
TV shows like these are the rage on the Indian internet scene. There are countless sites with videos of episodes, innumerable forums where teenagers as well as adults are passionately discussing these shows and the progress of the contestants. If you think educated people with broadband connections who participate in such online activity would be immune to such superstitions, see this:
Of course, our politicians are not behind. This year, the national convention of the Congress in New Delhi sported this ‘good luck charm’. I thought I had seen it all, but then I saw this on a Send Gifts to India shopping site:
What is the harm in following silly old superstitions that harm nobody? Mr. Dabholkar, of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (ANS) says “The idea that there is no harm in following some superstition as long as it is not harmful is what is worrying", in this DNA article Dare to step on lime and green chillies?
The Maharashtra Eradication of Black Magic, Evil and Aghori Practices Bill is still languishing with no support group behind it. From political parties like BJP and Shiv Sena to each and every religious organization starting with the letter ‘H’ – there is vociferous opposition, blatant misinformation, and scare tactics used to sway gullible public opinion. The ANS activists are so frustrated that they are now writing letters to the ruling politicians in their own blood.
With the apathy of educated Indians towards such beliefs, and the mainstream culture embracing such superstitions, I think a lot more people will need to give their blood to this cause if it has any chance of success.
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)
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.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has gone on record in an interview with CNN to say:
“”You can never win a war against terror as long as there are conditions in the world that make people desperate — poverty, disease, ignorance, et cetera.
In which world is Desmond Tutu living? There is poverty is many regions of the world from where terrorism doesn’t originate. There are many ways in which impoverished people have tackled their poverty – by immigrating to foreign shores or raising the overall economic development of their countries.
Terrorism in our age has been fueled by Osama, who is wealthy, and perpetrated by Islamists who are educated and well-to-do.
Africa is one of the poorest continents in the world – strife with poverty, disease, and ignorance. How many terrorists has it produced?
Forget the fact that terrorism needs an inordinate amount of wealth – those weapons and the educated sophistication cannot come without it – terrorism cannot thrive without an ideology behind it.
It is the fundamentalist, extremist, Islamist ideology that is fueling terrorism, not poverty. And Mr. Tutu, until leaders like you fail to recognize this, we will continue to suffer from it.
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.
For once, I am not going to say much myself, except that I haven’t subscribed to the notion that America is an imperialist superpower out to rule the world. That is, at least not yet. There are disturbing signs emerging that support such a notion, and that’s what this post is about.
When I read about Obama saying that if he were President of the United States, he wouldn’t hesitate invading Pakistan (if Musharraf didn’t act on ‘actionable intelligence’), I was alarmed, to put it mildly. I have written in the past about why the US should not invade Pakistan.
So I was pondering a post in response to Obama’s speech, when I came upon this excellent blog post, by Chapati Mystery.
I need not say anything further. It is a long read, but I assure you, well worth your time if you’re interested in these topics.
Second, I have always advocated for democracy in Pakistan. I assumed that the American standpoint would be the same. Thanks to Desi Italiana, I discovered this NYT article, and realized that that’s not completely true either.
I’ve decided to hold off on the notion of global imperialism, but must confess that there is ample evidence of imperialism in multiple situations. Sigh.
Following a statement by the US intelligence chief that he believes Bin Laden is alive and hiding in Pakistan, come fears that the White House may actually consider raiding the Pakistan tribal areas to try to capture Bin Laden. Some opinions interpret the homeland security adviser’s remarks as an open admission that the American military has already staged attacks against Al Qaeda within Pakistan. Still others think that invading Pakistan, not Iraq, is an opportunity lost.
The real military options available to the US are all unpalatable, however:
When asked how the United States would respond if Al Qaeda were to plot a successful attack on the United States from the tribal areas, the answer from one intelligence officials was direct: “We’d go in and flatten it.”
But the US is facing a major dilemma:
“There can be no wait-and-see approach by the US in terms of Pakistan, but neither can there be any unilateral action like a covert operation against these areas,” says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs. “That would be the kiss of death for any broad move against the extremists, and it would inflame the already strong anti-American feelings in the country.”
So, what should the US do? While I am the staunchest supporter of the ‘war on terror’, I think (like many others) that it has gone terribly wrong. One of the reasons Al Qaeda is gaining ground is that the US strategy is alienating all Muslims:
Americans who think that all Muslims hate the United States may be surprised to hear that many Muslims believe they have it precisely backward. Our questionnaires showed that Muslims worldwide viewed Islamophobia in the West as the No. 1 threat they faced. Many Muslims told us that the Western media depict them as terrorists or likens them to Nazis.
The above article, “Bush still doesn’t get it“, is an excellent read “galvanized by the need to help Americans better comprehend the Muslim world”. Yet another op-ed from the Baltimore Sun echoes this view:
Al-Qaeda is not simply an outlaw organization that can be put “on the run.” Rather, it is part of a broad, religion-based social movement that has deep support in elements of the Muslim world. If al-Qaeda can be isolated and deprived of public support, it will wither and die. If not, it will continue to be a resilient franchise capable of regeneration, growth and ultimately additional strikes inside the United States.
Point 1: US needs to be more sensitive to Islamic aspirations, and project a vision for the future that embraces moderate Islamism. It can do many more different things in Pakistan, like helping revamp education (a dear thing to many Muslims), rather than simply pouring billions of dollars in aid for the army, which the people of Pakistan say is ultimately used against them.
Second, a civil war or extremist surge across Pakistan would be worse than not capturing Bin Laden. This has to be prevented at all costs. And the only political process that can help avert that is democracy. However, after six years of supporting Musharraf’s dictatorship, there are sensitivities involved that need to be balanced. But supporting the roots of democracy would likely pay off:
More broadly, however, the US must work – fast – to pressure Musharraf into opening up Pakistan’s political system and tapping into its shallow but existing democratic roots, experts say. “Musharraf simply won’t be able to mount an effective campaign against the extremists without broad civilian support,” says Cohen. And for that, he adds, the military leader will have to move to a system of power- sharing that encompasses Pakistan’s political parties.
Point 2: Urgently pursue all diplomatic efforts to broaden the political support for the war against extremism in Pakistan. Chacko from Indian Mutiny even exhorts India to take up the cause.
Why am I writing this? There are many reasons why America should not invade Pakistan. This blog post by Eric Margolis, who has actually spent time in these tribal areas of Pakistan, offers a realistic on-the-ground picture and reasons why America’s invasion of this territory would be a catastrophic mistake. I can only add that it would completely destabilize the entire region. India cannot afford the risk of civil war or an extremist Pakistan. We cannot afford Pakistan turning into Iraq Version 2.0.
After the Christian fundamentalists’ ape-like antics during the Hindu priest’s opening the Senate morning session, comes a more worrisome portent.
The Denver Post reports that evolutionary biologists and university professors teaching evolution have been receiving death threats from a Christian fundamentalist.
At Panda’s Thumb (an excellent scientific resource for defending the theory of evolution), you can read excerpts of threatening emails received by the professors.
Observe how this contrasts with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism:
- Terrorism strikes the general public; these threats are against specific distinguished men of learning and science
- Terrorism is organized, inspired by a fanatical leader; this is an individual fanatic, inspired by organized religion
Evolution says that in the long term, the fittest species survive. Will they, in this case?
Once an issue becomes a mainstream news item in India, you can be sure every major religious group, political party, student organization, and celebrity will have an opinion on it. After the Shiv Sena, it’s now the All India Minorities Front’s (AIMF) turn to freely express their views on Orkut while living in democratic India.
What are odds that the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) will not be the next to express their views from Gujarat?
How does one issue become mainstream? Well, one of the TV channels has to take the bait, and the rest will follow. The print and electronic media will then aggressively offer the right platform for everyone to get their views miscommunicated, taken out of context, and misquoted. Competing with a dozen other news channels and newspapers, the one creating the most sensationalism and misunderstanding will win the most eyeballs, goes the wisdom. There will be talk shows with pundits, and opinion polls, and public talks shows.
In all this brouhaha, two things happen. Not only is the true issue misrepresented to various extents and typically blown out of proportion, but other significant newsworthy items are all but ignored.
How many of you recollect tomorrow’s British PM-to-be, Gordon Brown’s high profile visit to India? No? Not surprising, because the Indian media never knew of anything else happening in the world apart from Big Sister Shilpa Shetty in Big Brother!
Not only is this phenomenon unique of India. For e.g., in the US, the retirement of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman was relegated to the background over more important stuff like celebrities being jailed for drunk driving.
While US Cable TV was obsessed with drunk-driver-celebrities (DDC, a long wanted title):
“President Bush skipped the final session of the G8 Summit, Vice President Dick Cheney needed to have his heart pacemaker replaced, and NASA’s Space Shuttle Atlantis prepared for launch!”
In India, it’s Cricket Coach Controversy, Big Sister abused on Big Brother, the AAA (Abhi-Aish-Amitabh) wedding, Big Uncle kissing Big Sister, so on and so forth. Too much coverage, too many opinions, too many mountains out of molehills. When this happens – and its happening with increasing frequency – I need a break. To regain my sense, rejuvenate my capacity to reason, to make this world meaningful again.
Then I listen to Kumar’s Nirguni Bhajans (or read this review) , or Mozart’s 40th in G Minor. Watch Ek Doctor Ki Maut, (or read this review by my friend, Asuph), or dream of taking a yacht cruise like Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead. What can you do? Escape to the Himalayas by reading my Spiti Travelogue! Just kidding…though I do that too, sometimes!