Say what you will about whether “gender identity” is a confused concept (here’s Rebecca Reilly-Cooper with a thoughtful article on that), the fact remains that theoretical disputes are a separate matter from the fact that LGBTI folk are subjected to discrimination, harassment and violence exactly because of those identities.
Others have known about this for some time, I’m sure, but today was the first I’d heard of Oakfield Farm in Johannesburg, a wedding venue that would like to insist on only hosting heterosexual weddings due to the “religious convictions” of their shareholders.
They have been in trouble for this position since at least April 2014, when “the Commission for Gender Equality notified Oakfield Farm that it was investigating a complaint against it of unfair discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”
In the same article linked directly above, you can read that the chief executive of the South African Human Rights Commission, Kayum Ahmed, “said that service providers were not allowed to discriminate against gay and lesbian people because this is a violation of the Constitution and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act.”
section 9(4) must be read as placing an internal limitation on other rights such as the right to property and the right to freedom of association. This means the right to associate freely and the right to property is qualified by section 9(4) and these rights can only be exercised in conformity with the non-discrimination injunction contained in section 9(4) of the Bill of Rights.
Section 9.4 specifies that we can’t discriminate against others on various grounds, including race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, belief or culture.
The key difference between the sort of discrimination you practice in refusing Scientologists access to your birthday party and the sort practiced by Oakfield farms is that they are offering a service to the public, whereas I am holding a private gathering. Once you offer a service to the public, you can’t discriminate on those specified grounds.
So it seems clear that what Oakfield do (or attempt to do) is (currently, and whether rightly or wrongly) illegal. A “right of admission reserved” sign has no legal standing when in competition with these non-discrimination laws.
But, and here’s where the trouble starts, that’s all a separate issue from whether the law, or the Constitution, should say other than what it does.
One thing one might want to argue is that it’s discriminatory against the religion in question to force them to host gay weddings (leaving aside the fact that it’s unlikely any gay folk would want to get married there, if that was the case).
These are tensions I’m not qualified to address in terms of the law – and it is a tension, because it might well be the case that there are more members of religion X (that doesn’t like gay marriage) than there are gay folk.
We don’t make laws via popularity contests, I know, but the point is that if the religious group is being discriminated against by being forced to host gay marriages, some argument is needed for why it’s them, rather than the prospective gay couple, who should be discriminated against.
One answer is that non-discrimination should be the default (and that’s certainly the position I’d take), but that begs my question, in that it seems plausible to describe the enforced-gay-weddings position as discriminatory against the religious. And this, in turn, means that gay folk are higher up the pecking order in some sense than religious folk.
There’s one way in which that ranking makes perfect sense, because you don’t (typically) choose your sexual orientation (or race), whereas you’re perfectly free to choose your religion. Is it as simple as that – in other words, that these forms of discrimination can be rank-ordered where necessary, but bundled together in law until that need arises?
A second sort of thing you might want to say in objection to the Constitution (as read here) is that – so long as everyone of whatever race, religion, sexual orientation etc. has equal access to facilities, any individual facility should be free to discriminate, and the market can discriminate in return, hopefully driving the bigots out of business.
To lay my cards very much on the table, I’d prefer the second option in theory. However, thanks to how easy it is to rig the game (or, perpetuate the rigging of the game) against people who have historically been subject to discrimination, this would in all likelihood end up perpetuating that discrimination – leaving us with the forced pragmatic (and morally sound) choice of enforcing non-discrimination.
(On a concluding note, in case any of my lawyer friends drop by, I don’t understand why S6 of the Civil Union Act passes muster on the reasoning of the de Vos piece linked above. Section 6 reads:
A marriage officer, other than a marriage officer referred to in section 5 [which refers to people who qualify as representatives of religions], may in writing inform the Minister that he or she objects on the ground of conscience, religion and belief to solemnising a civil union between persons of the same sex, whereupon that marriage officer shall not be compelled to solemnise such civil union.
I was happy to register under the Civil Union Act precisely because I wanted to be able to marry heathens, including gay ones, but how is it that I should be allowed to choose not to marry gay couples?)
In 2014, in addition to laws such as those targeting “apostasy” and “blasphemy”, the report shows a marked increase in specific targeting of “atheists” and “humanism” as such, using these terms in a broadly correct way (the users know what they are saying) but with intent clearly borne of ignorance or intolerance toward these groups.
To put it more plainly, nonreligious people are being targeted as a distinct minority group in various countries around the world. The report also indicates that hateful speech against atheists does not come exclusively from reactionary or radical religious leaders, but increasingly from political leaders, including heads of state.
Cases covered in the report include the Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who this year labelled “humanism and secularism as well as liberalism” as “deviant” and a threat to Islam and the state itself, in a speech where he also denied that Malaysians had any right to “apostasy” (leaving Islam).
Saudi Arabia is criticised for a new law equating “atheism” with “terrorism”. The very first article of the kingdom’s new terror regulations banned “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion”.
Even the supposedly secular regime of Egypt’s president Sisi was found to target atheists directly, through what the report calls “an organized backlash against young atheists”. Beginning in June, Nuamat Sati of the Ministry of Youth announced a campaign to spread awareness of “the dangers of atheism” and why it is “a threat to society”, so that young atheists in particular, who are increasingly vocal on social media would be given “a chance to reconsider their decisions and go back to their religion.”
In the past few months, Egyptian authorities have detained young atheists who appeared on TV media and Youtube videos talking about their right to express atheist views, and in a worrying an unusual development in November, Christian churches actually “joined forces” with Egypt’s AlAzhar in another anti-atheism campaign, saying that “Society should resist this phenomenon [of atheism]”.
Previous editions of the Freedom of Thought Report, which considers and rates every country in the world for anti-atheist persecution, found that almost all countries discriminate against the nonreligious, in some cases through religious privilege or legal exemption, with the worst countries refusing to issue identity cards to the nonreligious, taking children from atheist parents, or sentencing “apostates” to death.
The 2014 edition of the report notes: “This year will be marked by a surge in this phenomenon of state officials and political leaders agitating specifically against nonreligious people, just because they have no religious beliefs, in terms that would normally be associated with hate speech or social persecution against ethnic or religious minorities.”
It is not only school principals and governing boards who privilege one religion over others, rather than supporting religious freedom through remaining neutral and encouraging a secular approach to religion, whereby religious education is welcome but religious indoctrination precluded.
The MEC for Education in Gauteng, Panyaza Lefusi, boasts of having distributed 50 000 Bibles to schools in his first 100 days in office – with no mention of also having distributed Korans, or books on Humanist ethics and thought. This constitutes not only a violation of the Policy, but if the Bibles were paid for with public funds, also a clear abuse of those funds in that revenue from the taxpayer cannot be used to support what amounts to State-sanctioned religion.
The Freedom of Thought Report is published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) with contributions from independent researchers and IHEU Member Organisations around the world. The South African Member Organisation is the Free Society Institute.
The IHEU is today releasing a report on discrimination against non-religious people, with examples drawn from all over the world. It makes for interesting reading, because in addition to all the cases that get widespread media attention, the problem of discrimination against the non-religious is perhaps a larger one than many people realise. The report offers many examples of such discrimination, sometimes in the expected places, but also in jurisdictions where you’d hope for freedom from persecution on grounds of non-belief.
Freedom of Thought 2012 covers laws affecting freedom of conscience in 60 countries and lists numerous individual cases where atheists have been prosecuted for their beliefs in 2012. It reports on laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, curtail their freedom of belief and expression, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, criminalize their criticism of religion, and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents.
The report highlights a sharp increase in arrests for “blasphemy” on social media this year. The previous three years saw just three such cases, but in 2012 more than a dozen people in ten countries have been prosecuted for “blasphemy” on Facebook or Twitter, including:
In Indonesia, Alexander Aan was jailed for two-and-a-half years for Facebook posts on atheism.
In Tunisia, two young atheists, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, were sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for Facebook postings that were judged blasphemous.
In Turkey, pianist and atheist Fazil Say faces jail for “blasphemous” tweets.
In Greece, Phillipos Loizos created a Facebook page that poked fun at Greeks’ belief in miracles and is now charged with insulting religion.
In Egypt, 17-year-old Gamal Abdou Massoud was sentenced to three years in jail, and Bishoy Kamel was imprisoned for six years, both for posting “blasphemous” cartoons on Facebook.
The founder of Egypt’s Facebook Atheists, Alber Saber, faces jail time (he will be sentenced on 12 December).
“When 21st century technology collides with medieval blasphemy laws, it seems to be atheists who are getting hurt, as more of them go to prison for sharing their personal beliefs via social media,” said Matt Cherry, the report’s editor. “Across the world the reactionary impulse to punish new ideas, or in some cases the merest expression of disbelief, recurs again and again. We even have a case in Tunisia of a journalist arrested for daring to criticize a proposed blasphemy law!”
The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, welcomed the research. In a foreword to the report Bielefeldt notes that there is often “little awareness” that international human rights treaties mean freedom of conscience applies equally to “atheists, humanists and freethinkers and their convictions, practices and organizations. I am therefore delighted that for the first time the Humanist community has produced a global report on discrimination against atheists. I hope it will be given careful consideration by everyone concerned with freedom of religion or belief.”
An advance copy of the Freedom of Thought 2012 report is available from:
http://www.iheu.org/files/IHEU Freedom of Thought 2012.pdf
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world umbrella group bringing together more than 100 Humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, and freethought organizations from 40 countries.
The commission with the improbably long name (more formally known as the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, or CRL) is currently holding public hearings on South Africa’s calendar. Following the receipt of four complaints from members of the public, the CRL has set out to determine the extent to which religious bias informs which Public Holidays we get to enjoy, and which we don’t.
On the one hand, the debate seems easy to resolve. We’re not officially a Christian country, so on the face of it, having Good Friday and Christmas Day as 2 of the 12 Public Holidays is surely discriminatory, in that it privileges one religion over others. If you include Family Day – surely Easter Monday in all but name – a full quarter of the holidays are Christian, and none represent other faiths.
If this discrimination is thought unmerited or wrongful, we’d have two options. We could try to represent all faiths, or we could resolve to represent none. Then, it is of course also possible to argue that the discrimination is warranted, seeing as roughly three-quarters of South Africans claim to be Christian.
You might not expect to hear this from an atheist, but I’m rather sympathetic to the claim that it’s not unfairly discriminatory to allocate 2 of the 12 public holidays to the Christian faith. Religion, per se, does not justify public holidays, even if your religion regards certain days as holy. But sometimes tradition, history or heritage does seem to do so, when it can plausibly be argued to represent a significant majority of a population.
In the case of South Africa, three-quarters of the country appear to self-identify as Christian, and therefore three quarters of the country happen to regard the same days as holy. Seeing as many of them won’t be showing up for work on those days in any event, it seems to make perfect economic and moral sense to recognise that day as special. For most of the country, in other words, it is indeed special.
Not recognising those days as special could simply mean that additional (non-official) public holidays would result. If these two (perhaps 3) days are indeed the most holy days in the year for Christians, a possible alternative is of course to let people choose to take these days as part of 12 holiday days everyone is entitled to, on days of their choosing. But why create the logistical nightmare of forcing this large community to co-ordinate their holidays in this way?
Second, if all holidays are a matter of choice, it’s not only the co-ordination of them between family, friends and communities that’s an issue – we might also suspect that some people would end up getting no public holidays at all. It’s one thing for an employer to pressure someone to work on an official Public Holiday – easier still would be for an employer to keep refusing to allow someone to take any self-designated day off. Having 12 pre-identified days makes everyone’s planning easier, and makes it more difficult for employers to exploit their staff.
So however we resolve the public holiday debate, giving everyone 12 days off – on days of their own choosing – seems the worst possible choice we could make. Our alternatives, as mentioned above, are to include all religions or to include none. Including all of them is clearly out of the question, unless by “all” we mean some limited set, rather than all. Deciding on who gets to be included in that limited set would require some discrimination, though, and seems to get us back to square one – who gets to decide which religions are privileged, and why?
If, as suggested above, making these decisions is premised on popularity, then we should bear in mind that we might sometimes need to revise which public holidays are celebrated and which not. If South Africa eventually becomes a majority Muslim or Jewish country, for example, the holidays should change accordingly. This is perhaps the main issue: such a revision will be unpopular and divisive, and therefore unlikely to occur.
So we might want to consider the discrimination to be unjustified, and resolve that public holidays need to be entirely detached from religious holy days. Then, the days would never need changing and would be selected on a more principled basis. They could be arranged in such a way that the impact on the work week – and the economy – is minimised. Public holidays in the middle of the week invariably result in absenteeism on adjacent days, and this problem could be resolved by stipulating holidays on “the third Monday of June”, for example, rather than on a fixed date.
As indicated earlier, though, arguments that the current arrangements are discriminatory (coming from both other faiths and nonbelievers) seem to my mind overstated. Discrimination is not always wrong, though it’s easy to understand a non-Christian religious person feeling more aggrieved in this case, seeing as to all intents and purposes, having two Christian days recognised where no other faith has a day does appear to present Christianity as the de facto national religion.
Debating this issue on the grounds of discrimination seems to result in more heat than light. We’re becoming a nation of complainers, always on the lookout for who is abusing our dignity or denying some putative right. If there is a slight to other faiths and no faith here, it’s a minor one. But if we are to consider whether the current public holidays are the right ones, there are serious issues to debate – most importantly how we can derive maximum public benefit at lowest cost to the economy. Let’s hope the Commission takes the opportunity to consider those issues, rather than being exclusively concerned with religious (and non-religious) sensitivities.
Focusing on one manifestation of an issue can sometimes obscure other manifestations. Or, it could even obscure the fact that what we’re dealing with is a systemic issue or even problem, with multiple manifestations. To (briefly) return to a theme we’re all sick of, treating certain cultural beliefs related to respect as normative in the case of The Spear is one thing, but if someone were to claim that the same cultural norms justified abolishing equal suffrage, we’d be less sympathetic.
Arguments that use some established norm or cultural preference to motivate for a certain conclusion are open to these charges of inconsistency – both in terms of when the arguments are leveled, and in how we respond to them. Political correctness and the expectation that we respect the views of others tend to censor us – at least until the stakes seem high enough that silence is no longer appropriate.
Thank you, thank you. I wouldn’t be here without the help and support of my cats, Mogwai (pictured), Mr Jones and Mot. I must of course also thank the Family Policy Institute, and particularly its leader, Errol Naidoo, for bestowing this honour on me. The reason for Errol bestowing this honour on me is at this stage slightly ambiguous, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume he means “homosexual activist” in both possible senses. Here’s an extract from his latest emailed newsletter:
Homosexual activist, Jacques Rosseau [sic] has slammed the Film & Publication Board for its association with Family Policy Institute. Apparently, my work to protect children from exposure to porn on TV and the internet is considered “censorship” a crime worse than the social degradation of children.
While I’m grateful, Errol, I do need to point out a couple of problems with the reasoning of your selection committee in bestowing this honour on me. First, it’s not quite true that I’m a “homosexual activist” – instead, I try to be an activist against idiocy of various forms, but particularly the sorts of idiocy that results in discrimination. Yours, for example. But also gender or racial discrimination, or giving one particular religious viewpoint undue attention when it comes to deciding on matters of public policy.
Second, the most important reason for mentioning you in that column was to say that the Film and Publications Board shouldn’t be endorsing homophobes. As a state body, you’d think they had a duty to respect the provisions related to equality in the Constitution. So, when some religious creep (not all religious folks count here) calls homosexual behaviour unnatural and immoral, and threatening to “the family” (the families that homosexuals are in don’t count, of course), you’d think they should distance themselves from you. But no – you’re listed as a “useful link” on their website (but without any text saying something along the lines of “This link is useful if you want to know what a bigot looks like”).
Third, I’m fully in support of protecting “the children” from undue harm. But you’ve never (and nor has anyone else) demonstrated that the children will crack the two pin codes required to view porn late at night, nor that there is good reason to swallow your doomsday-ism about the harms that result from pornography in any case. The evidence is inconclusive, and until you can get God to talk to us herself, rather than through folk like yourself, I’ll rather not base public policy decisions on your say-so, thanks.
The rest of the newsletter consists of the usual self-congratulatory detail related to how he’s saving civilization through setting up urgent meetings to discuss stuff. Or sometimes, waiting to see if people are willing to meet with him:
I am waiting on confirmation to meet with the DG of Communications, Ms Rosey Sekese and the CEO of ICASA who are currently in Cape Town to discuss the urgent need to amend legislation to specifically prohibit pornography on TV and to install filters on the internet to block online porn.
It’s a good thing that not even any Christians I know take him, or his organisation, seriously. Except, that’s not quite right: they do take him seriously to the extent that they see him as an embarrassment to their faith, and as very bad PR for Christianity in general. Replace “faith” with “species” in the previous sentence, and the Christians and I are in full agreement.
Errol Naidoo’s latest Family Policy Institute newsletter indicates quite a remarkable change of mind, at least if I’m correctly reading between the lines. In one section of it, he appears to be arguing that religion should not merit any special protection from discrimination under South Africa’s Bill of Rights. Here’s (part of) what he has to say:
There is a proposal to remove the ‘sexual orientation’ clause in the Constitution. This clause in the Bill of Rights serves only to provide homosexuals the power to demand special rights.
Homosexuals are protected as human beings in the Constitution like every other citizen. The sexual orientation clause provides special protections and privileges for their sexual preference and more importantly, provides legal sanction to penalise anyone who disagree with their lifestyle.
The clause in question (9.3) reads as follows:
The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.
So, following Naidoo’s logic, if the “sexual orientation” clause only exists to “provide homosexuals the power to demand special rights”, it’s surely also the case that this is true for the “religion” clause (and all the others), and he’d have section 9.3 read something like “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly of indirectly against anyone”.
This might be the first, and only, time that I can say he’s on to something which isn’t completely crazy…
This Saturday, September 24, Slutwalk comes to Johannesburg, and thousands will participate to protest victim-blaming and to affirm the right of all women to wear what they want, and act as they please, without fear of being misunderstood as welcoming sexual assault.
Many will participate dressed in clothing that might be considered sluttish – in the traditional sense of the word – because part of the point of Slutwalk is to reclaim the word ‘slut’ and to say that others (rapists, as well as those who deny women agency in less violent ways) don’t have the authority to impute desire where none might exist.
As I’ve previously argued in the lead-up to the Cape Town Slutwalk, calling these protests Slutwalks runs the risk of alienating some supporters who see the word ‘slut’ as inescapably pejorative. It also runs the risk of creating tension between those sympathetic to the cause, but divided on the appropriateness of the name.
In fact, one unfortunate consequence has been that some who question the name are thereby assumed to be unsympathetic to the cause, despite their reasons for objecting to its branding. The equation has sometimes appeared quite simple: Object to the name, and thereby reveal yourself as (at best) only partially aware of the deep-seated patriarchy and resulting lack of understanding experienced by many (probably most) victims of rape.
Another example of this easy equation is highlighted by my previous sentence, where I use the word ‘victim’. Criminal agents have recently violated my home, three times in the space of a month. That makes me (and my family) a victim of their crimes. To call those who are victims of crimes ‘survivors’ instead of victims is a choice, not an obligation – it can signal a certain attitude or mindset, but we start playing very fast and loose with language when choosing not to use that signal is taken as indicating a lack of sympathy.
Words mean something, and they can have consequences. One way to be help being clear about potential consequences is to agree on definitions and to allow for the fact that increased miscommunication – and misattribution of motive – becomes increasingly likely if we can revise those definitions as we please. This particular slippery slope concludes with a world of Humpty Dumptys, all asserting that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Slutwalks have such momentum, and have achieved such significant consciousness-raising and debate, that even those who oppose the name need to acknowledge that they probably do more good than harm. I’d therefore like to appeal to a post-Slutwalk consideration of how we engage with such issues and causes in future – and in particular a consideration of whether gendered epithets like ‘slut’ merit a place in our discourse around social activism.
Besides the debates around whether (ostensibly neutral) designators like ‘Chairman’, personal pronouns like ‘he’ or words like ‘mankind’ perpetuate a gender bias, gendered epithets constitute another class of words that reveal a bias in our language and behaviour. Apologies to sensitive readers, but there are quite simply far more negative words used to describe women than there are to describe men.
‘Bitch’ is a mild example – not only because it’s sometimes used in reference to men, but also because it has been stripped of much of its sexist content in usages such as ‘to bitch about Arsenal’s defence’. But ‘cunt’, ‘twat’ or ‘whore’ have a visceral impact and malice that ‘cock’ or ‘prick’ lack. And then there is the word ‘pussy’, which, while applied mostly to men, is intended to accuse that man of being weak – just like a woman.
The primary question is really this: Why do these words not get the same attention and attract the same outrage as the words ‘nigger’ or ‘kaffir’? While I do believe that it’s possible to use all these words for effect – in humour, or to make a point about racism or sexism – most usages of them are instead in anger, and intended to silence or demean the target.
These expressions of contempt or hostility use words that are linked to a race or a gender, and as I’ve suggested above, that race is often black and that gender is often female. But while the racist versions of these slurs are unquestionably considered unacceptable, the sexist versions operate in a context where misogyny is so deeply entrenched that it can escape notice.
It’s not just the fact that misogyny is invisible that we need to face – it’s also the fact that this invisibility is a large part of what makes it the enormous problem it is. We cannot begin to properly address misogyny and the harm it causes unless we start being able to see it.
One aspect of seeing misogyny is perhaps recognising that words can be used to harm, and that when those harmful words are linked to race or gender, existing stereotypes regarding those races and genders can also be reinforced. Even if you use these words without holding sexist and racist attitudes, you can have little control over how your target perceives them, and the hurt they might cause.
In the context of this weekends’ Slutwalk, these targets include those women who have been subjected to hostility through being called a slut, and who find themselves unable to see the word as anything other than demeaning.
Furthermore, we sometimes forget other audiences – the genuine racists and sexists, who could overhear casual uses of such epithets, and interpret this to mean that their position is more broadly supported than is actually the case.
So while I can believe that the Slutwalk does more good than harm – and while I fully understand the point of calling it Slutwalk in the first place – I worry about how to reconcile it with the broader issue of how language can be used to reinforce misogyny. I imagine that many self-described feminists agree with me on sexist epithets in general, understanding them to be a subtle way of reinforcing negative attitudes towards a particular sex.
And if, in a few months or years time, a campaign is launched and marches are held to get people thinking about whether it’s appropriate to call someone a cunt, might it perhaps be the case that we’ll have little answer to someone who retorts “you’re simply missing the point to find ‘cunt’ offensive – why not simply reclaim it, just like you did with ‘slut’?”
I used to consider myself a feminist. Then I read Andrea Dworkin, and realised that a concern for credibility made it prudent to not identify with any of the summary terms she did, at least insofar as this was possible (terms like ‘human’ being a somewhat insurmountable problem). And now that we’re in the seventh (I think) wave of feminism, it’s perhaps time to consider this the terminal wave, and to consign this particular version of identity politics to the dustbin of history.