Swords into ploughshares

Jonathan reports from Sierra Leone where he finds much hope in place ravaged by recent war

For a good number of us, an important part of living at Findhorn is leaving it from time to time in order to make some money. This is more or less inevitable for a community with a population of around 450 people living in one of poorest parts of Great Britain.

We have been able to do a lot in terms of strengthening our local economy – a study undertaken a few years ago by our local enterprise company estimated our contribution to the economy of the north of Scotland as being over 400 jobs and around £5m per annum.

Still, as long as we have a global economy distorted so as to make it more profitable to cut down forests than nurture them back to life, we will be obliged to look outside for some of our income. Not that I am complaining. Self-reliance in its more purist form is greatly overrated and all healthy systems need flows of information and exchanges with their surrounding areas. Plus, it is fun to get out of the hothouse that is intentional community once in a while.

This is especially true if, as in my case, such trips take you to truly interesting and inspiring places. So it is that I find myself in the second city of Sierra Leone, Bo, doing an evaluation of a Comic Relief-funded project being implemented by MAPCO (Movement for the Assistance and Promotion of Rural Communities) with support from its British-based partner, APT – Enterprise for Development.

The words ‘Sierra Leone’ and ‘war-torn’ have become more or less inseparable in recent years. The country was engulfed in an atrocious civil war for the duration of the 1990s, fuelled by puppet-masters outside the country competing for access to its huge diamond reserves.

In some areas, between 70 and 90 per cent of the buildings are reported to have been destroyed, and there is plentiful evidence of this in the villages that the evaluation team moves through.

Times of hardship bring people together in most wonderful ways. (I find this insight most cheering when considering the kinds of changes in lifestyle that the coming energy famine will impose on us all in the near future.) Here in Sierra Leone, something akin to the ‘blitz spirit’ prevails.

This is best reflected in a resurgence in cooperative, community-wide initiatives.
Much farming is now done cooperatively, as the villagers realise they need large teams working together to re-claim land that has been lost to wilderness over the lost decade of the war.

Great work teams are also engaged in re-building the community infrastructure.

One of our meetings is curtailed when someone arrives from a neighbouring village to say that they need help laying the floor of their new mosque. All hands are needed – even pregnant women and those with young children – and within minutes, the village is empty.

Revolving savings funds generated by the villagers themselves are allocated among the members to help pay for hospital bills, funerals and school fees. Tools and equipment are shared between all.

There is an air of happiness in the communities we spend time in – that great vibrant sense of well-being that will be familiar to all who have spent time on this astonishing continent.

Until recently, hunger was daily reality and the terror of war only recently passed. So many child soldiers. So many young women with children resulting from rape. So many that have lost limbs or parts of limbs in the gruesome conflict. So many stories of people fleeing their homes in the dead of night for the safety of the forests as the word passes through that the rebels are coming.

Now, all that is ended and the process of reconstruction, supported by organisations like MAPCO, is in full swing. MAPCO’s team of workers is as devoted to their work and to the communities they are serving as any that I have seen in 25 years working in Africa. The extension workers are often away from their families three weeks out of four, out in the villages teaching new farming techniques or how to operate the new soap-making equipment, weaving looms and other small enterprise technology that MAPCO’s engineers have designed and built.

Just in front of MAPCO headquarters in Bo, there are the half-dismembered carcasses of what was a fleet of armoured personnel carriers operated by the UN Peacekeeping force. Over time, this is being cut up and converted into agricultural implements, village-level food-processing equipment and tools for local enterprise. Swords into Ploughshares indeed.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.