Returning to Findhorn

The Findhorn eco-village has had to work hard to avoid becoming a 'New Age old people's home', but i

Let me introduce you to Michael. Now in his early 30s, Michael spent the first 18 years of his life here in Findhorn before heading off to the US to seek his fortune and see how the world might look when viewed through different lenses.

Barely a day passed, however, when he did not think about the community where he grew up. And, in early 2002, just in time for the Findhorn community’s 40th birthday and the launch of his mother’s book, ‘In Search of the Magic of Findhorn’, he came back – and decided to stay.

Michael’s journey runs parallel to that of a good number of his peers and now, a happy group of the generation of children he grew up with here has moved back and today plays a variety of important roles in the community.

Michael notes two significant changes in the community compared to the one he left in the mid-90s. First, as it had grown in size and complexity over the previous decade, it had become easier for young people to stay on and find a niche for themselves in the community. Several of our enterprises – notably the shop, bakery and Bakehouse restaurant – actually favour young people in their employment policy.

On the other hand, and also part of the process of enlargement and diversification, the body at the heart of the community, the Findhorn Foundation, had shrunk back to its area of core expertise, namely the provision of educational services.

In the process, many activities that the Foundation used to finance and manage had been shed, delegated or sold off into private or cooperative community enterprises. One of the activities thus shed was the funding of a coordinator for the Youth Project, the core focus for youth activities in the community and also often attracting children and young people from neighbouring communities.

As a result, on his return Michael found that young people were less consciously held by the community than previously and that intergenerational conflict and misunderstanding were on the rise. He also noted a strong demographic imbalance, with a large gap in the community’s population between the ages of around 18 and 40.

This was symptomatic of wider trends in the community as a whole. For, with the Foundation clearly defining its remit in terms of the performance its core educational business and the welfare of its hundred or so employees, it became ever clearer that we were lacking an overarching governance body for the entire community, a majority of which did not and never had worked for the Foundation.

The Youth Project was just one of a number of areas of areas of activity that were in danger of falling between the cracks. Who was responsible for recycling, for care of the elderly, for decision-making and conflict facilitation outside of the community of Foundation employees? Who, in short, was to manage the community’s welfare state?

As you would expect in this place, necessity became the occasion for a fresh bout of creativity and the New Findhorn Association was born with membership open to and encouraged for all members of the community. Michael was one of a number of young people who got involved in helping to steer the NFA in the direction of more actively holding the young people and giving them a greater voice in community affairs.

Today, the NFA funds two part-time youth positions – one a project worker, the other a youth advocate who sits on the NFA council. There is a growing range of youth-oriented cultural and educational programmes. Findhorn is one of the core nodes of NextGEN, the Youth Council of the Global Ecovillage Network. And, if we are still not demographically representative of the population as a whole, the 20 – 40 year-old age group is no longer as sadly sparse as it has been.

Work, of course, remains to be done, a key challenge being that of providing reasonably well-paid and responsible jobs for our youth. But a corner seems to have been turned. One of the community’s pioneering figures suggested years ago that a real challenge facing us was to avoid the trap of becoming a ‘New-Age old people’s home’. If we have succeeded in at least postponing that dread fate for the time being, we have much to be thankful for to Michael and the other young people who have been so active over the last five years or so.

And the latest news from Michael? Well, he has recently come back from the most recent gathering of the Young Scotland Programme, a week of debates and presentations on themes of importance to Scotland’s youth. And, on the back of a keenly and passionately argued speech on the potential for renewable energy to transform our society for the better, he has returned glorying in the title of Young Scottish Thinker of the Year.

Bravo.

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.