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Religion, identity and liberation

The threat of heaven

The white poppy and red poppy debate continues here in Stroud but it's pointed me in an unexpected direction. The local Green Party (of which I'm not a member - or of any political party come to that) hosts occasional meetings/debates in a local cafe', and in January I was asked to talk about red and white poppies. This I was happy to do but was surprised to have been asked.

The subject of the evening was culture, identity, and difference and three Muslim women from Gloucester - and one woman Muslim convert from Stroud -- had also been invited to speak. I expected their contributions to be of great interest and concern and to talk about poppies seemed somehow unconnected. In the event, my apprehension was well-founded. One of the Gloucester women and the convert wore headscarves and the two younger women wore veils, and it was their experiences the meeting wished to hear. I did my stuff for five minutes and then the real business began.

Mini-skirt liberation

The Gloucester women were all “born here” and the convert was a white woman from Stroud whom I'd occasionally seen in the High Street or wherever. The first Gloucester speaker was followed by two young women. All had been to university and all were social workers of some kind or another.

The younger women, in particular, spoke of their gradual adoption of stricter belief and dress -- culminating in the veil -- and how they felt “empowered” by this change from the fashionable western dress they'd once worn as students. I could see that one of them was wearing high-heeled stilettos under her robe. When questions came, they quickly centred on reactions to the women after the attack on the NY Trade Center and, later, the bombs in London.

Be good and be saved

The questions mostly came from women - there were few men at the meeting anyway - and I listened incredulously. As an atheist I am always disconcerted by religious belief, and in no time the young Muslim women were referring to “my Lord” and what he wanted and expected from them. They harped on about “modesty” and how their refusal to display themselves for men was particularly empowering. The convert (known personally to many in the room) found Stroud broad-minded and accepting generally but, as yet, had declined to wear the veil. I waited, in vain, for a questioner to mention the explosive word feminism and for its related issues to be aired.

In the event, we were soon instructed to form discussion groups and to report back in 20 minutes. One of the Gloucester women sat next to me, and discussion quickly turned to her personal experiences. She regarded herself as well-educated and intelligent (her two daughters were bound for university too) but was treated as an alien presence and spoken about at supermarket checkouts as though she wasn't there and couldn't understand English anyway. Once a woman (“in a skirt halfway up her thighs and a revealing top”)had tapped her on the shoulder in the street and told her she found her clothing “disgusting”.

There were sympathetic murmurs around the table, but it struck me people were too polite or inhibited to engage with her core beliefs which boiled down to the usual religious mantra: be good and be saved. And she too began on “my Lord” and what he wanted of her; she told us that she shouldn't really be sitting next to me and “certainly not making eye contact”.

Hell is round the corner

I felt increasingly hot under the collar and, as she held forth about 40 years before Armageddon and blood, fire and pestilence and who would be saved blah blah, it struck me I was hearing the same stuff I'd hear from American Christian fundamentalists. What on earth were they quarrelling about? The time had come to say my bit: I was, I believed, representative of liberal western thought, which celebrated individualism, personal identity and sexual freedom. I felt part of a movement which had fought long and hard to get out from under religious puritanism and the threat of eternal damnation. So did I feel threatened by her beliefs?

You bet I did.

Topics: Religion