Children in Headscarves

Fatima Laiba Aftab wrote a most eloquent and persuasive letter in the Evening Standard recently defending girls’ freedom to wear the hijab:

Girls should be free to wear the hijab

 I AM 10 and go to a primary school in London. I am so disappointed by the news about schools not allowing young girls to wear the hijab. I do not wear a headscarf at my Christian school but some of my friends choose to do so and the school has no problems with this.

I wear the headscarf when I go to the mosque but I know my religion does not teach me to wear one yet. I feel sorry for my friends who want to wear a scarf but aren’t allowed.

At school we are taught not to force our views or opinions onto others, so why are they doing this? It is so confusing and distressing.

School should be a happy place where we can learn, make new friends and respect each other. It looks like this is not true for religious people, especially Muslims, who keep getting targeted.

My friends and I do our best at school, help our teachers, raise money for charity and are good to people. This is what our religion, Islam, teaches us. Believing in a religion or wearing a scarf does mean that I am an extremist.

She’s quite right, it should not be banned – what kind of a society would we be if we started to legislate on the clothing that people were permitted to wear? – but there is nothing wrong with encouraging young girls to question the appropriateness of the garb. I have seen a number of letters and articles in various publications claiming that children under eleven years of age should not be encouraged to defy their parents’ beliefs, but the truth of the matter is that this is precisely when it is most crucial to reach out to children: while they still have questioning minds and before social conditioning can be indoctrinated into them.

[Incidentally, this latter-day insistence that parents always know best and that we shouldn’t suggest otherwise for fear of causing offence is quite simply, and entirely demonstrably, wrong. The primary focus of teachers and of society as a whole ought to be protecting the interests and wellbeing of children, not tiptoeing around their parents’ sensitivities. Teaching is a skill and a calling; anybody can have kids – hell, Fred West had five.]

The wearing of the hijab, or of any kind of covering, is not a symbol of devotion or of modesty but one of oppression. The idea that women ought to hide themselves away from the world has nothing whatsoever to do with religion – it is not mentioned in the Koran or in any holy book anywhere – and, unless we are to presume that God is ashamed of half of creation, there can be no justification for it.

Resenting women taking pleasure in their appearance is the start of a road that leads to indignant disapproval of them enjoying sex, and it’s a path that is abundantly adorned with the victims of acid attacks and of female genital mutilation. Dressing for “modesty” has nothing to do with god or divinity and everything to do with men suffering feelings of inadequacy and jealousy.

The wearing of a veil is solely symptomatic of the engrained societal subjugation of women. Allowing young girls to be made to feel ashamed of their appearance is wholly wrong, and their covering themselves up is a retrograde step that is pressed upon them – a step that should be resisted most strongly. The imposition of inequality should never be regarded as a cultural issue: equality is a fundamental right and anyone who believes differently is, quite simply, wrong.

So did we ought to question primary schoolgirls about their wearing of headscarves? I’d say absolutely we should! Education is about teaching our offspring to question and challenge boundaries, not wrapping them in the ignorance of ages. Our children are our future – we need to let them choose their own paths and we need to impress upon them that they go on their way in the world as equals.

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Boris Johnson’s Vaulting Ambition

With his nakedly populist demands for more money for the NHS (with no source specified this time, in contrast to 350 million previous untruths), Boris Johnson has once again exposed himself as being a shameless blaggard. Surely nobody can now continue to regard him as a serious politician, given that he is quite evidently unable to apply himself meaningfully to any role (his manifest neglect of his duties as Foreign Secretary in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe being a case in point).

Boris is self-serving, duplicitous and untrustworthy: nothing that comes out of his mouth seems to serve any purpose beyond that of self-promotion and yet, despite the truth of this being abundantly clear to all, it is quite apparent that this self-styled court jester still harbours ambitions of leadership.

I wonder if he’s considered joining UKIP…

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A New Hope?

We are living in an age in which we have had to adopt industrial farming techniques in order to sustain the diets of our burgeoning human population (resulting both in over-cultivation of the land and some dubious-at-best standards of animal welfare); an age in which our oceans are being flooded with litter and pollutants while our atmosphere is being choked with fumes; an age in which we are once again contemplating resorting to building on our precious green belts in order to accommodate our swelling (and swollen) numbers. Perhaps, in light of this, we ought to see recently reported falling male fertility rates as a good thing. The plain truth is that the survival of our species – and, indeed, our planet – may well depend upon this natural correction. Life is a fragile gift that we have taken for granted for far too long.

[Besides, a shrinking population is only really bad news for an economy that has become overly reliant upon a steady stream of cheap labour to supply the short-sighted capitalist model of continuously expanding markets, which is effectively a pyramid scheme. We would do well to remember that pyramids have only ever ended one way: entombing the wasted wealth of dead civilisations.]

Indeed, I would contend that we should see the forthcoming drop in birth rates as a fresh opportunity for humankind: the dawning of a new, post-industrial age in which we can aspire to develop a Utopian, peaceful society capable of stretching to greater accomplishments, freed from the need to compete with each other for diminishing resources and space – an age of art, exploration and invention: one in which we can leave a genuinely positive mark on the world, rather than just relying on our progeny to be our legacy.

After all, realistically, what other alternative do we have?

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A Trick of the Mind

I’ve been writing this for some time and kinda getting around to posting it, but it kept slipping my mind – for reasons that may become apparent. There’s a very good chance that there are gaps in the account below. Don’t bother asking me about them.

Jan 26th 2014:
I woke up this morning and couldn’t remember what day it was. Or what month or year. I also couldn’t remember yesterday at all. I’ve had bits of it recounted to me by my wife but I still don’t have anything like a memory of any of it.

Everything was apparently fine until early Saturday afternoon in Tesco when I was emptying the shopping onto the conveyor belt and I just stopped while bent over the trolley. After a moment I stood up and a customer at the next till caught me as I was about to fall over. Staff got me a chair and, after five minutes, I asked why I was sitting down, stood up and finished at the till.

I loaded the car, drove home, watched TV and ate a curry, I’m told, but I was a bit of a zombie. No memory. It seems that I forgot I’d quit smoking and I wasn’t sure if my parents were still alive (they are).

Early July 2014:
One week before my holiday in a hostel in Athens (which was NOT as described!), I was emptying stuff from the trolley onto the conveyor belt in Tesco (notice the common theme here?) and the next thing I knew I was sat in the back of an ambulance-car on the way to hospital. Apparently I hadn’t passed out this time but I had been spaced-out and was talking nonsense and muttering something about Davros (Tom Baker era Doctor Who) and I was clearly disconnected.

I spent all afternoon in hospital feeling very vague while they ran various tests including further blood tests. Nothing came up. Disturbingly, I couldn’t remember lots of recent history (like having changed jobs in January).

At six forty-five I was released and I got a cab back to Tesco with my wife (who’d been with me all afternoon), picked up the shopping (which had been stored in a trolley fridge!) and went home.

Late July 2014:
I woke up on a Wednesday with no memory of where I worked or who I worked with, which was decidedly odd. I checked my emails in order to refresh my memory of the company and then I started to walk to the train, during which time I recalled where the office was situated and who my colleagues were.

Sept 18th 2014:
Yesterday I completed a series of cardiology tests (24-hour heart monitor, twice, ECG, other stuff) and nothing appears to be wrong with my heart – which is great news, because who ever dies of a brain attack? Next up, neurological tests in a month.

Dec 2014:
Right, well, I’ve had the results of my heart and brain scans and apparently they were unable to find anything (no surprise there, some might say). The best guess seems to be that I suffered incidents of transient global amnesia, for which there is no known cause or cure but at least it’s got a name.
Arguably this is better than a stroke or a seizure but it has now happened to me five times in just over a year. It’s quite terrifying while it’s happening. It might have been caused by stress. Anyway, it’s been fine for several months now and there’s nothing else that they can test for so that appears to be that. On the upside, I’ve been thoroughly tested and my heart and brain seem to be fine; on the downside, I’m now all out of excuses…

Dec 21st 2014
Damn, I’ve just woken up like this again. I was fine all day yesterday but when I woke up this morning I couldn’t remember the day or the month or that I’d changed jobs (again). I still have no memory of where I work even as I type this. Frankly, it’s terrifying – but what can I do? They’ve given me scans and run all the tests and found nothing. I’m fine again now, by the way – it only lasted for a couple of hours.

So anyway, having suffered the fourth of my deeply-unsettling episodes, I thought to myself: “You know what? A night without any alcohol probably wouldn’t do me any harm at all.”
Then again, why take the risk? [Shortly after this, I did actually stop drinking on work nights. It’s done nothing for my memory but has done wonders for my body weight. Having also quit smoking several years ago, I now have so few vices that sometimes I wonder if any of this is even worth the bother.]

5th Dec 2015
That’s a bit of a downer: my last “incident” of waking up with no memory was July 31st (undocumented here but insignificant, so far as I recall) so I had rather hoped that it was all over – and then I had it again this morning. Still, that’s over four months, so they’re certainly getting further apart. The worst thing about it now is the crushing sense of disappointment that I suffer as all the details of my life gradually come back to me.

11th January 2016
And again today – which is a lot closer together again. The weird thing is that, as the episode passes, over the next few days I’ll get memories popping into my head that I haven’t recalled for years, and they’ll be really vivid – almost as though I’ve been revitalised as a direct consequence of the incident. On the other hand, I do seem to struggle during this period to form any new memories or learn new processes, and I also forget the names of colleagues. It’s as if my memory is fragmented. There are a few areas of my memory which I have no recollection of but which I can be prompted into: someone will begin to relate an incident to me and, while I cannot remember the event itself, I can recall the anecdote, as though it had been related to me rather than being my own. Watching TV, I will forget who characters are between scenes and often have no recollection of what the plot is. I have largely given up trying to read books for the same reason. Occasionally I find myself getting confused over simple things and I have a quick temper as a consequence of this. I forget big things, too: the other night my wife was talking to me about the holiday we had in Yorkshire and I couldn’t remember ever going there. I checked for photos on my PC and there were dozens. We went in 2013 – less than three years ago. I recognise the images but they don’t feel like my memories.

Obviously I have mentioned this to a few colleagues, in case an episode occurs while I am at work but, perhaps surprisingly, the issue has never arisen in the office. Indeed, the incidents all seem to have happened in situations which demand little or no attention, when I have effectively been mentally parked – although both supermarket episodes occurred after I had spent a couple of hours exercising in the gym.

20th March Ultrasounds appointment.

23rd May Neurology appointment.

4th June 2016
I was given a second MRI to see if there were any differences from my December 2014 scan. I’ll get the results when I get back from holiday.

13th June 2016
I woke with no memory while on holiday in Madeira. “This isn’t our bedroom! Where are we? Where am I?” Once again, somewhat unsettling since I had no idea where I was. Luckily the missus was able to set me straight and I was back to what passes for normal quite quickly.

18th June 2016
“The gentleman’s repeat MR brain scan showed no significant abnormalities.”
No significant abnormalities? Well, ain’t that rubbing salt in the wound! Presumably this might relate to the damage I suffered in my teens (when I was run over and suffered a fractured skull, resulting in a twenty-five day coma and then had to learn to speak again. Yes, I know: what a mistake that was!).

18th July 2016
Blood taken to test for neurosyphilis (who knew?). Some of the symptoms are: abnormal gait, sudden personality changes, changes in mental stability, dementia, depression, irritability, memory problems, mood disturbances, poor concentration. Yeah, I know, I know…

21st July 2016
Woke up in the night and my wife wasn’t with me (she was away, visiting family) so I searched the house for her. Twice. When I woke properly, this was followed by a significant memory episode and a day in which I was, once again, virtually unable to form any new memories. For a couple of days afterwards, I notice – not for the first time – I have a significantly heightened sense of smell.

12th September 2016
Another episode. “Fortunately, transient global amnesia is rare, seemingly harmless and unlikely to happen again. Episodes are usually short-lived, and afterward your memory is fine.” Pah.

You might think the worst thing about TGA is feeling utterly displaced in the world, with no sense of the present or my place in it, but actually it’s the crushing disappointment as the reality of who I am and where I am are revealed to me afresh.

29th January 2017 Woke with no memory. Eleventh episode in three years. And my memory has holes in it but when I ask people questions they just ridicule me so I sit stewing and I withdraw from communication and start to despise everyone around me. Maybe trying to look on the funny side should help but all I’m feeling is isolated.
Curiously, just recently I’ve been getting long-ago memories popping-up fresh in my mind again, so now it seems that they’re a prelude (rather than a postlude) to the event.

1st April 2017
Well, it seems that my brain at least has a sense of humour, deciding to screw with me on All Fools’ Day. I woke up feeling displaced from time, unaware of the year or my age or my job (but at least it was on the weekend this time) or my place in the world. Once again, I struggled to form new memories during the day – though I went to see a play in the evening which I can recollect just fine). Because I am, at least, always able to recognise these incidents now, I am also able to explain to people that my behaviour may seem a little out of sorts because of the phenomenon that I am experiencing. Alas, by the next day (which is when I am writing this), I have no recollection of who these people were. I suspect that it may have been an inappropriate level of over-sharing (although that’s actually quite normal for me anyway – mental conditions really are wasted on me, I swear).
I noticed, once again, a strange chemical smell seemed to pervade everything – and I haven’t had any chemicals up my nose for years now*. [* footnote to parental units: this references the industrial cleaning job I had at Waldens in the summer of ‘86] Additionally, I seem to be very emotionally laid bare; certainly I don’t recall ever crying while watching Superman before – not even back in 1978.

30th April 2017
And today I woke with it again. I’ve been ill for a few days, which didn’t help, but I awoke with no idea of where I work or who with. Or the date, or the year. The thing about it is, it actually seems quite trivial in retrospect – I imagine that reading it is getting quite tedious – but I can envisage how this is going to leave me neglected in a home at some point, patching together seemingly random, disconnected days while waiting for death. On the other hand, this is the thirteenth episode but I haven’t bothered reporting them since last summer because each one seems less severe. Once again I note that I am emotionally fragile – especially as, looking back, I recall how everything once seemed possible and now I can see how that’s worked out.
There used to be hope. That’s what I miss about being young: the belief that there was another world out there to be discovered. I suppose that’s how religion works too: allowing people to believe in possibilities. I miss the illusions. Without that pretence, there’s nothing.

1st July 2017
I’ve decided to post this now because I haven’t had an episode in absolutely ages. Except I have, of course: it’s just that I didn’t recall that until I re-read the whole blog just now. Whatever, I’m done with sitting on it.

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Theresa May’s Claim to British Values

Theresa May got a lot of praise for her speech in response to Wednesday’s terror attack, and rightly so. In that speech, she stated that “democracy – and the values it entails – will always prevail. Those values – free speech, liberty, human rights and the rule of law – are embodied here in this place, but they are shared by free people around the world.” Quite right. Never were truer words spoken.


Perhaps I’m being over-simplistic here but it strikes me that a lot of those values have been under sustained attack by those specifically entrusted with their protection: our elected government. This has been attempted under the guise of Ms May’s own notorious Snoopers’ Charter, which can most certainly be seen as a threat to free speech; in her party’s continued insistence that Britain withdraws from the European Convention on Human Rights; and, most recently, in the shameful challenge that Brexiteers mounted against the Supreme Court’s ruling that Parliament was entitled to a vote on the implementation of Article 50 – a ruling which protected the proper parliamentary process and a challenge which therefore posed a threat both to democracy and to the rule of law.

Let us hope that, in response to this week’s attack, the Conservative government has now determined to uphold these cherished values upon which our British sense of honour and justice is founded.

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Free School Farce

So it seems that, in the face of continuing austerity and deepening cuts to public spending, Philip Hammond has managed to find hundreds of millions of pounds to splurge on Theresa May’s pet project: free schools. One of the supposed freedoms which these schools enjoy is that they don’t have to follow the national curriculum, although quite what purpose that serves is anybody’s guess. I cannot imagine how it could be in the best interests of the pupils – unless the national curriculum is not fit for purpose, in which case I would suggest that it is in urgent need of review.

These free schools can be set up and run by independent (which is to say, private) schools or by people who really know what they’re doing, like parents or faith groups – because, in the Brexit age, everybody’s had enough of experts.

What free schools truly represent is the channelling of public money into the Tories’ cherished private sector, and their propagation contributes to the further undermining (and under-funding) of state education. Free schools are purportedly not-for-profit but that merely means that they are run as charities, which is the same outrageous tax-avoidance scam that schools in the private sector have been pulling for years. Tax free schools. Indeed, since free schools are also able to set their own pay and conditions, there can be little doubt that this programme is about little more than the creeping privatisation of state education by the back door.

As ever, the Conservative vision of a small state serves only to lead to a widening of the divisions in society – and yet somehow it always ends up being subsidised by the taxes paid by ordinary working people.

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The Great British…

Now that the BBC is set to lose The Great British Bake Off, I thought the time might be ripe to propose a slight variation to the format. As it happens, I have an idea for a programme featuring the competitive making of traditional Jamaican chicken and pork dishes, ideally to be hosted by that Boris Johnson fellow.

Unfortunately, I’m rather stuck for a title. I wonder if anyone might be able to suggest something apt…

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Burka Burks

According to a YouGov Survey, 57% of British people want a ban on burkas in public places. Here’s the thing: we live in a free country – something which we rather value – but that means that it has to be a free country for everybody: you can’t just have freedom for people who you agree with – endeavouring to follow that path means you end up having laws not only about what people can wear but on what religious beliefs they can hold, what political direction they may follow, what opinions they are allowed to express and even what they are permitted to read (in fact, I believe Theresa May already has that last one very nearly covered in her upcoming Snoopers’ Charter…). Pretty soon you’ll find yourself living in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

No, if we truly want to preserve what we perceive as being the British way of life then what we actually need to do is to defend people’s freedom of choice and of expression, and that means ensuring that nobody has anybody else’s will imposed upon them – that all of us are equally free from oppression and subjugation. The only way to achieve that, of course, is through improving education and by defending liberty. It may not be the fastest path to change but it is the only way of preserving freedom and democracy.

Meanwhile, in France…

In 1940, with fascist forces marching steadily across Europe, Winston Churchill famously gave his “We shall fight on the beaches…” speech (oft misquoted with a “them” erroneously inserted). It’s good to see that the French are today able to summon the same grit when it comes to facing down women wearing modest swimwear, although I can’t help thinking that they may have rather missed the point, which I believe was something about defending liberty from an uncompromising and authoritarian state. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, huh?

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God’s Final Message to Mankind

I am well aware that Mohammed was technically God’s last prophet, but he appeared to me in a vision the other day and asked me to pass on a few minor details to clear up some confusion:

God doesn’t care about hunger, poverty, deprivation or war; all he’s concerned about is how we wear our hair, what meat we eat, how often we shave and that we mutilate the genitals of our children. Oh, and he said to please make sure that we keep killing each other in his name.

Yours faithfully,

The Prophet Fles

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Bitter Tweet Symphony – an attempt to explain the phenomenon of the “Twitter-Storm”

Twitter is not a thing, a place or even a collective (although it is often described by the media in those terms). It is perhaps easier to think of it as a virtual soapbox: it is a far-reaching communication tool which can spread opinions and information around the world. One finds one’s audience (or, perhaps more to the point, they find you) and one chooses one’s feeds of information and opinions, much as in real life. The attraction is that people who might never encounter each other in the real world can find kindred spirits and explore ideas together.

Many of the occupants of the Twitterverse are affable and thoughtful souls; others may not even be sane. Think of them as friends and family. Now, naturally, any debate held in an open forum may attract its fair share of halfwits, bigots, racists, conspiracy theorists and even Tories, but they also have their place and are entitled to their voices. As I said, think of them as friends and family. [There are also lunatics, of course, but they can be blocked, muted or simply ignored. Think of that as locking them in the loft or cellar…]

Naturally, if one is to hold and express an opinion in this public forum – on politics, society or any other topic – then one really ought to be prepared to explain the rationale behind that position and even be ready to defend it to a potentially hostile audience. This is simple debating and it is the foundation of intellectual discourse and, indeed, democracy.

The problem with social media – well, one of the problems – is that it can occasionally whip good people into a frenzy over the merest perceived sleight. Online life seems to somehow encourage individuals to react with emotion over intelligence at times (and thus often without making the effort to understand the deeper story behind an event, let alone check sources…) but that is entirely a human failing and one which has very often been quite deliberately fostered – our tabloid media has been especially guilty in this regard.

The web is the new frontier, an unexplored environment of pure (and not-so-pure) mind, and social media is a territory upon which many people have set out on a voyage of self-discovery, often seeking to fulfil their need for “validation”. In the same way that the new frontier of America, back in the days of the Wild West, could not be held to blame for the rise of outlaws and gunslingers, nor can social media be held responsible for an occasional tide of outrage among those who populate it. A “Twitter-storm” is but a symptom, for social media merely hosts opinions; the puerile nonsense, alas, stems from humanity itself.

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