What if rape at university wasn’t impossible to prove?

Discretion advised if graphic details of this subject upset you.

Somewhere or other, you’ve probably read the last post on this blog by now. Other versions of Maria Marcello‘s article ‘I Was Raped At Oxford University. Police Pressured Me Into Dropping Charges‘ have appeared at the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Mail, the Tab, the Huffington Post and openDemocracy – the fact it’s the first thing she’s ever written is why you should follow her and why I’m privileged to be her editor. (It’s also why if you’re looking for one, you should hire me. Just saying.)

In the follow-up she published today, Marcello dissects what users at the Mail told her. Among other things, many fixated on her assumed inability to prove she was raped after falling asleep drunk.

I would ask this lady[:] Just what does she know about the event?

If you are so drunk that you have lost your memory or passed out how can you remember if you consented or not?

What evidence can she provide that she said ‘no’ to the main she claimed raped her?

How do you know you were raped if you don’t remember the night? In the period between being put to sleep and waking up with a man next to you, consensual sex could have been initiated, due to the heavy state of intoxication.

If you’re drunk and passed out, then who knows what happened? She could have dreamed the whole thing!

There would little to no evidence to bring a successful prosecution in this case. No DNA, no witnesses, no other evidence apart from a statement from someone who was so drunk they were passed out at the time with only a dim memory as their evidence.

In other words, her assault was just another case of ‘he-said-she-said college rape‘ where nothing could be proved.

As she notes in the sequel, the point of the original post was how much she could prove.

According to the Crown Prosecution Service and the Sexual Offences Act, extreme inebriation makes consent impossible. To prove her attacker raped her, Marcello had to establish a) that she was in such a state and b) that he had sex with her. What evidence did she – or rather, since I was with her at the time, we – have?

Well:

  • We had Marcello’s word, mine and up to three other people’s that she was so drunk she had to be helped to bed (i.e. couldn’t walk unassisted).
  • We had photos and several minutes of close-up video footage taken of her on the floor, unable to speak coherently and obviously extremely drunk.
  • We may also have had forensic evidence of how much alcohol she’d consumed had police physicians examined her. (The CPS advises they present this sort of evidence to courts in rape trials.)
  • We had Marcello’s word that she woke up while her attacker was having sex with her.
  • We had the word of guests who believed this was about to occur when they left.
  • We had the rapist’s statement witnessed by half a dozen people over dinner that he’d had sex with her, and possibly other statements to this effect.
  • We had bruises on her upper thighs and her statement she had difficulty walking, which police physicians would have confirmed had they examined her.
  • We had several used condoms which were presented to police.
  • We had clothes and bedsheets covered in forensics which were presented to police.

This was the case a police official informed she didn’t have once they’d got her upset and alone, before making her decide on the spot whether to press charges. The pretext for making others leave the room, gut wrenchingly, was that she not be coerced out of doing so.

Says Marcello of the official:

She said she got called to investigate a number of rape reports each day and her job involved deciding which of them it was worthwhile to pursue and which it wasn’t. In her opinion, as she made clear from the start, mine fell into the latter category.

I have to wonder: if this wasn’t a case worth pursuing, what was? I’m not a lawyer, but my guess has always been that if she’d been allowed to speak to one before making her choice, they’d have told her it was stronger than average. Even without the forensics, it should have been enough for her college to expel the undergrad who raped her – if a student’s shown to have broken the law any other way, they don’t have to lose a court case before there are consequences.

The received wisdom about rape, especially where alcohol’s involved, is that it’s impossible to prove – a matter by definition of one person’s word against another’s. Since that day in Maria Marcello’s kitchen, I’d always assumed her case must be exceptionally good.

When Stephanie Zvan said this, as so often when I read her, my assumptions changed.

We know victims of sexual assault skew young. According to Britain’s Home Office, women aged 16-19 are at the highest risk of sexual victimisation, closely followed by those aged 20-24, and are four and a half times as likely as the next hardest hit age group to experience rape. (Marcello had just turned 20 at the time of her attack.) In other words, university-age women are the most raped demographic.

000We know that, according to a rightly maligned set of government posters, ‘one in three reported rapes happens when the victim has been drinking’. I’d speculate that since only one in five rapes is reported and alcohol commonly used to dismiss complaints, the real-life figure is higher – and that it’s especially high on campuses and among young people where drunkenness is more common in social settings, men and women live in close quarters and a culture of sexual assault has been widely observed.

‘I’ve heard lots of stories similar to mine’, Marcello writes, ‘from people assaulted [at university].’ All factors suggest the reality we’re looking at is a very high number of rapes that share the broad outline of hers: heavy social drinking, a vulnerable or unconscious woman and a man who ‘took advantage’.

She had, I take it you’ll agree from the list above, a large amount of evidence both that she too drunk to consent and that her attacker had sex with her. But how much more was it than the average woman in her situation has?

Hours afterwards and with law enforcement’s tools, it’s not that hard to prove two people had sex – or at least, that someone with a penis had sex with somebody else in one of the ways the law requires for rape. Often seminal fluid can be found, either in used contraceptives or the when victim is examined. Often there are physical signs they were penetrated, including internal injuries. Often there are external marks left on them or forensics at the scene that point to sex. Sometimes the attacker thinks they did nothing wrong and <i>tells people</i> it happened, in person or by other (e.g. online) means. Sometimes they’re interrupted in the act, whether or not the witness views it as assault.

Many women in Marcello’s situation, I’d guess, have at least some such evidence.

Proving the absence of of consent can be more complex, but it doesn’t need to be when someone’s so drunk they can’t walk, talk or consent to sex. The video footage we had always struck me as an exceptional clincher, but then drunk photos and videos often appear on students’ social media accounts. Even when drunk victims aren’t filmed, they may be seen collapsing or needing help by far more people than a handful in their room – by crowds at a college party, for example. They may be assaulted after receiving first aid, being admonished by bouncers or no longer being served by bar stuff – all evidence of drunkenness. They may still be suffering symptoms of severe intoxication the next day, or have signs of it in their system police physicians can record.

Many women in Marcello’s situation, I’d guess, have at least some such evidence.

It’s still true, of course, that proving rape isn’t quite as straightforward as proving a crime where issues like consent aren’t involved. But it’s not true drunken college rapes are simply a case of he-said-she-said: on the contrary, extreme inebriation where demonstrable makes the absence of consent much more clear-cut.

Writes Marcello:

There would be more convictions if the police process didn’t pressure women with viable evidence to drop their reports. In 2012–13, official treatment of victims like me meant only 15 percent of rapes recorded by the police even went to court.

According to a report at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, official treatment of victims like her means evidence of vulnerability that should guarantee conviction – including drunkenness as well as things like disabilities – is routinely used precisely to dismiss reports, stop charges being pressed and get rapists off.

The best way to convict more is to stop telling victims with a strong case that they have no evidence.

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Richard Dawkins: abort Down’s Syndrome foetuses because “it would be immoral to bring it into the world”

In the recent past while he was telling people who were raped how they should think about their rape, I tweeted a guide to Richard Dawkins’ PR habits.

It was retweeted quite a lot at the time, and in the last few hours it’s started getting shared again. Seemingly, I have invented for myself a Richard-Dawkins-saying-something-awful detector. He’s at it again:

Where abortion is judged the moral option for the would-be child, a kind of euthanasia in advance, it’s because birth will result in something worse: incurable, unbearable pain, say. That’s the easiest example ethically, and we can argue about what else might qualify, but the point is that whatever life the child stands to have must be worse than not being born.

Is Down’s Syndrome worse than not being born? Most people with it don’t appear to think so. At least, they don’t appear as a rule to wish they’d never been born. My guess is that Dawkins, who never seems to grasp the idea of subjectivity, is presuming again to speak for other people – in this case those with DS. Perhaps he sees it as a ‘birth defect’, as many of his generation seem to see a wide variety of conditions – but most of the time, as a friend pointed out, people with disabilities tend to think their lives are worth living. You run into eugenics pretty quickly when you decide who’s ‘defective’ and who isn’t without consulting them.

To the original context of his tweet, I do think termination due to foetal disability should be legally available – partly since there are prospective parents without the proper means to raise a disabled child, but mostly since I think abortion should always be available. I support the legality of sex-selective abortion, even as I think it’s horrifying; I support the legality of Down’s Syndrome abortions even as I think they’re often horrible, and certainly if framed as morally obligatory. I support the right of anyone to end their pregnancy who doesn’t want to give birth, even if the rationale is horrific, because I don’t believe in forcing people to against their will. (Urging women or anyone with a uterus to abort because of a Down’s diagnosis is itself, in any case, using disability to tell them what to do with their own bodies. It’s what Dawkins is doing and what doctors did to my mother, who at 42 was urged throughout her pregnancy to abort in case I had DS.)

All this is quite different from saying the existence of people with Down’s Syndrome – for which they are presumably quite grateful – is a terrible moral crime, or that living with it is worse than never being born.

I have, for the record, neither a disability nor a uterus, so am happier than usual to be contradicted anywhere by people who know things I don’t.

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I will not hold my tongue about religion

Sometimes while writing I use Facebook updates to organise my thoughts, and the result is a rough form of what becomes an article. When I did so with the last post on this blog, one commenter asked me to publish the rough version, which is shorter and more shareable. (I’ve edited it lightly for republication here.)

Three years ago Greta Christina wrote a post asking what the goals of the atheist ‘movement’ were. It identifies two competing groups of atheists: one whose goals – combating anti-atheist bigotry, promoting secular governance, helping everyone to ‘get along’ – often entail alliance work with believers, and another who think religion is inherently a flawed, harmful phenomenon… and that we’d be better off without it, and that this is a goal worth pursuing.

The idea of noting these competing goals was, I think, to measure the usefulness of diplomatic versus firebrand-like approaches while talking about religion. (If the first group’s goals were her main or only ones, Greta writes, ‘I might well be advocating that we prioritise diplomacy more than we do, and dial back on the confrontationalism a bit.’) Chris Stedman cited her post to this effect at the Huffington Post, in a piece called ‘The Problem with “Atheist Activism”‘ which argued for the merits of the first group’s goals over the second’s.

Broadly speaking I’ve always shared Greta’s take, and have linked to it when frustrated by atheist civility politics, attacks on writers who aren’t ‘nice’ enough or the charge of being inflammatory, counterproductive and unconstructive. But there’s something I’d like to say in addition.

Some people’s main goal is combating bigotry and ‘building bridges’. Some people’s main goal is eroding the very grip religious faith has on the world in the first place. Especially as someone who unlike either Greta or Chris Stedman had a religious upbringing, I have a third aim to submit. As far as I’m concerned, it overrides both the others.

I hate the insistence I should self-censor to make what say about religion ‘constructive’, ‘productive’ or goal-serving – because whenever I’m speaking my mind about it I’m serving my primary goal. Speaking my mind about religion, including but not limited to my own experience – simply being able to speak freely about it without holding my tongue – is a constructive goal for me.

When other atheists tell me to shut up or be more polite because I’m hindering their cause, I want to tell them: saying what I want how I want is my cause. It matters more to me than any other, theirs included. You could convince me the way I write about religion makes more people convert to it. You could convince me that, as I’ve been told, it entrenches negative views of atheists or makes bridge-building impossible. I still wouldn’t stop.

What’s struck me repeatedly about the calm down brigade is that so often, they have no experience of having to hold their tongues – including about horrible things that happened to them – so religious feelings don’t get hurt. Tongue-holding no longer is the most important thing to me; it’s probably a large part of why I write a blog. And the fact is that if other people’s require me to give it up because to them it doesn’t seem constructive, I don’t care.

From my point of view, mouthing off and being an angry atheist stereotype seems hugely constructive.

Read the full version.

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To the atheist tone police: stop telling me how to discuss my abuse

This post is currently getting a lot of traffic. If you like it, here are some of the other things I write.

As an undergraduate I chaired a group for student atheists — at least, that’s what I assumed it was. The finalist who’d stopped being in charge officially a year before I got elected, but who most people still answered to in private, disagreed. When we ran a stall at freshers’ fair together, he insisted I not tell punters Oxford Atheist Society was for people who didn’t believe in God, in case this stopped religious people joining.

It turned out what the ex-president wanted was a humanist discussion group welcoming believers and working with them for church-state separation, so once he’d done a lot of talking, we became the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. Supposedly this made us all-inclusive, but anything deemed antitheist was discouraged lest it put believers off — things I had to say, for instance, about being taught I was satanically possessed or trying to kill myself because of the things I believed.

* * *

I hear a lot about constructiveness, especially from fellow atheists convinced people like me should pipe down and behave. Calling religion harmful, they’ve told me, is immature and stops us ‘breaking down walls’. What, they’ve asked me, does it achieve?

Since I started talking publicly (mainly in print) about it, I’ve been informed I’m inflammatory; that I need to keep things civil; that I’m hateful, encourage stereotypes and impede mutual understanding; that atheists like me are a liability, holding the movement back; that I need to smile more.

I’ve noticed that often, atheists saying these things have no real religious past.

* * *

‘If you’re arguing that confrontationalism — arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it — is hurting our cause,’ Greta Christina wrote in 2011, ‘which cause, exactly, are you talking about?’ In the same post she proposes two competing atheist agendas: working against sectarianism and for secularism with believers on the one hand, opposing religion qua religion on the other. How polite or fiery we should be, Greta suggests, depends which of the two our mission is.

Chris Stedman, constable of the atheist tone police, responded at the Huffington Post: ‘If your “top priority” is working to eliminate religion, you are not simply an atheist activist — you are an anti-religious activist. . . . I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanising generalisations about religious people’. Several combative bloggers, he pointed out, had said blinkered things about Muslims and Islam, therefore all attacks on religion were dehumanising.

* * *

American Atheists has launched a television channel. At Salon, Daniel D’addario calls the four hours he spent watching it horrific.

‘Despite my own lack of religious belief’, he writes, ‘I find it hard to imagine that even a casual nonbeliever would tune in . . . AtheistTV adheres to nasty stereotypes about atheism — smugness, gleeful disregard for others’ beliefs — to a degree that’s close to unwatchable.’

Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience is skewered in particular for ‘feed[ing] viewers a diet of scorn’. This translates to wearing a flame-patterned shirt, calling a Bible story ‘absolutely horrible’ and using the word ‘stupid’ about God. (No context is given.)

Fair enough if D’addario dislikes the channel, but by suggesting its tone does nonbelievers actual harm — that is, none will tune in because it hurts their movement’s image — he goes beyond writing a bad review.

AA has thousands of fee-paying members. The Atheist Experience has over twenty thousand fans and Dillahunty over thirty thousand Twitter followers. Whatever stereotypes their tone fits weren’t concocted by conservatives: obviously, it speaks for many real atheists. Smug or not, aren’t they allowed a voice?

* * *

Last month a column of mine went up at the new site of the Freethinker. I talk there about how as a queer teenager I tried to kill myself, and how I hold responsible the mainstream, nonfundamentalist Christianity I practised at the time: about letting go and letting God, convinced he never gave me more than I could handle while I was assaulted and harassed into self-harm; about declining to defend myself because the turning the other cheek was Christlike.

There’s a lot I don’t talk about there.

I don’t talk about how when I overdosed, I lost consciousness afraid suicide would land me in Hell, where aged six I’d been told relatives burned and where aged nine I’d been told I would go for lying.

I don’t talk about wondering what I’d done wrong to make that cycle of harassment and self-harm God’s plan for me and what I should learn from it.

I don’t talk about being pressured to pray in tongues once I was convinced aged eight the devil had possessed me, nor being aged seven to perform ‘faith healing’.

I don’t talk about the demons I believed entered our home, the one I believed was my father or the Hallowe’ens when year on year I hid from trick-or-treaters chanting prayers in abject terror.

I don’t talk about fasting till it hurt.

I don’t talk about the children who couldn’t visit on my birthday since they went to different churches, my childhood belief Hinduism was Satan’s work or result fear of anything Asian — yoga, Indian art, a woman in a sari.

I don’t talk about being told all Muslims practised FGM and ‘want[ed] to die for Allah’, or that Muslim men were instructed to rape Christian women.

I don’t talk about the schoolteachers I had who, sermonising, told me God ‘deplore[d] homosexuality’.

I don’t talk about the preacher in the streets of my hometown who called me an abomination, or how when I mentioned it online I was accused of ‘having a go at Christians’.

I don’t talk about my brother calling me an offence against nature and God.

I don’t talk about the magazine cutting my mother kept that said I was an atheist because I had a stubborn heart.

I don’t talk about being preached at by guests at my friends’ church wedding or glared at by the vicar when my friend’s body was buried because I hadn’t joined in with the hymns.

I don’t talk about being threatened with hell for being an atheist.

I don’t talk about being told I’d have my head cut off.

When I do talk about these things, people don’t usually suggest I smile more.

It’s other times I talk about religion I’m called bitter, hateful, counterproductive, told I need to quieten down. But when I talk about religion, I always have the above in mind.

When you tell me to speak more respectfully, this is what you’re telling me how to discuss.

Remembering it I return to Greta Christina and Chris Stedman, and want to say that after what it did to me, talking as rudely as I like about religion is my goal, not just a means to it. I return to every time I’ve heard atheists like me aren’t constructive, and want to say that after years holding my tongue, speaking freely is a huge achievement. If it hampers outreach by faitheists with no inkling of my experience*, I don’t give a fuck.

* * *

*A clarification: it’s in no way my intention to suggest no ‘faitheist’ has a history of this sort. Especially in Britain, where secular upbringings are much more common, I maintain they often accompany the silencing of confrontationalists – but I don’t mean to erase the trauma of people who challenge me. 

I will say this: if you’re telling me to shut up for no reason except finding my tone unpalatable – if it’s not (see below) about consequences or factual errors – it’s a charitable assumption that you’re doing it because you don’t know better. If you survived what I survived or worse, you have no more right than anyone to shush me, and (I’d have thought) more reason not to.

* * *

I return to Daniel D’addario at Salon. I want to ask: what’s it to him if other atheists are more barbed than he is? Isn’t switching off his TV enough?

I return to my atheist group’s ex-president. I wnt to ask: if a secularist mission means atheists can’t speak freely about religion, what is the point of it?

Others I know are called hateful.

Beth Presswood has family who refuse to acknowledge her long-term partner — Matt Dillahunty. Some have declared him, if memory serves, to be the devil. Except because ‘he thinks it’s nuts to rely on a book for wisdom and guidance’, D’addario can’t see why he’s ‘bothered’ by US Christianity. Could this not be at least a factor?

Jonny Scaramanga writes, occasionally snarkily, of the ultra-extreme Christian upbringing that left him alone, depressed, uneducated, socially unequipped and with wildly skewed attitudes to gender, race, sexuality and politics. Those he criticises label him bitter and his work a hate campaign.

Sue Cox has spoken publicly about the Catholic priest who raped her when she was a minor and her family’s decision to tell her this was part of God’s plan for her. When a television clip was posted on the Internet, some commenters called her an anti-Catholic bigot preaching hate.

Shaheen Hashmat lives with mental illness resulting from ‘honour’ abuse in her Scottish-Pakistani Muslim family. Because she sees Islam as central to her family’s actions, she is accused of ‘fuelling Islamophobia’ (demonisation of Muslims) and being a puppet of white racism.

These are extreme cases, but extreme manifestations of religion aren’t the only abusive ones. Many in religious communities…

…fall victim to genital mutilation. (About one human in seven or eight, specifically.)

…suffer violence, physical or sexual, in other contexts — by parents, clergy, organisations or states.

…are taught not to defend themselves from violence, as I was.

…are told traumatic experiences are punishments from a higher power.

…are terrorised with lurid images of damnation and hell.

…suffering ‘knowing’ those they care about are damned.

…have no chance to mourn loved ones properly due to religious differences.

…are seriously maleducated, including facing abusive learning environments, being fed fundamental scientific mistruths or being denied facts about sex and their bodies.

…are shunned or isolated for leaving religion or not following it as expected.

…are harassed in the workplace or at school for being skeptical.

…are denied child custody explicitly for being atheists.

…are rejected by family members or have to endure painful relationships with them.

…are forced into unwanted relationships or to end desired ones.

…are taught to submit to their male partners.

…are taught sex and sexuality are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies, when menstruating for example, are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies are a cause of sexual violence — including violence toward them — and must be concealed to prevent it.

…are taught their minds, because they live with mental illness, are gripped by cosmic evil.

…are medically or socially mistreated in hands-on ways while mentally ill.

…are told they’re sinful, disordered or an abomination because they’re queer.

…are told skepticism makes them a traitor to their race or culture.

…are denied medical care they need urgently — birth control, condoms, HIV medication, hormone therapy, transitional surgery, abortion, blood transfusions.

…give up much-needed medicine voluntarily due to religious teachings and suffer severe ill health.

…perform rituals voluntarily — fasting for instance — that seriously endanger their health.

…are manipulated for financial gain by clergy, sometimes coerced out of what little they have.

…are manipulated for social gain, often too reliant on their congregation to leave when they have doubts.

If this is true in religious communities, it’s also a reality for those who’ve fled them. Atheists who were believers have frequently been profoundly harmed; I suspect movement atheists are especially likely to have been; confrontational atheists, even likelier.

When you tell us how to talk about religion, you are telling us how to discuss our abuse.

* * *

There are times when rhetoric should be policed or at least regulated through criticism. It’s true many attacks made on religion, especially by those still forming atheist identities, are ill-informed, sectarian or oversimplistic — and that such attacks often punch down, reaching for racism, classism or mental health stigma as antitheist ammunition. (There are many other examples.)

It needn’t be so. I’ve challenged this because I think we can and should go after God without harming the downtrodden through splash damage. Doing so on everyone’s behalf who’s been downtrodden by religion is itself, I adamantly believe, a mission of social justice. Failing at it by making substantive errors or throwing the marginalised under the bus invites and deserves criticism; a rhetoric powered by justified anger needs to be carefully controlled.

But that is not a question of tone.

And it does not discredit the mission.

Bigotry and imprecision in antitheism have often been treated as intrinsic to it, conflated with the very notion of (counter)attacks on faith. Stedman, who states in his book Faitheist that he once ‘actually cried — hot, angry tears’ because of atheist vitriol, is especially guilty of this, treating racist comments on Islam like they invalidate all opposition to religion. D’addario’s attack on AtheistTV as smug and scornful has, similarly, covered my feed where secular ‘social justice warriors’ congregate.

If this is you — if you’re an atheist progressive who wants barbed, confrontational atheists to shut up — we’re likely on the same side most of the time… but there’s something I need to say.

People like us are infamous for words like ‘privilege’, ‘splaining’, ‘problematic’; part of the power of concepts like these is that when transferred between activist contexts they expose parallels. I’m deeply aware there can be only limited analogy between atheism and the concerns of more marginalised groups, and would hate to devalue their language. But I’m convinced of the following:

It is a form of privilege to be an atheist who’s never experienced religious abuse, as many of us have who are antagonistic.

It is privilege blindness to expect — without a clue what we’ve experienced or what it means to us — that we give up our self-expression so that you can form alliances with faith communities that deeply injured us.

It is tone-policing if when you’re not telling us to shut up about it, you’re telling us how to talk about it. How dare you tell us to be more respectful.

It is splaining if your answer when we detail histories of religious abuse is ‘Yes, but’ — or if you tell us we can’t blame religion for it since not all believers do the same. We know the details. You don’t.

It is gaslighting dismissing justified anger about widespread, structural religious abuse by telling us we’re bitter or hateful.

It’s civility politics implying our anger, bitterness or hatred is just as unacceptable, siding with the aggressor by prioritising believers’ feelings over ours on the false pretence of neutrality.

It’s respectability politics implying we need to earn an end to bigotry we face by getting on politely with believers, throwing those of us under the bus who can’t or won’t sing kumbaya.

It’s internalised bigotry shaming atheists for being stereotypical — smug, scornful and the rest — for letting the side down, instead of asserting our collective rights however we express ourselves.

It is victim-blaming to treat atheists who are stereotypical as a legitimate cause of anti-atheist bigotry or hatred.

It is tokenisation to impose on any individual the burden of representing atheists so our collective status can be judged by how they act.

And it is deeply, deeply problematic to cheer for snarky, confrontational firebrands of social justice who take on mass structures or beliefs that ruined their lives… then boo snarky, confrontational atheist firebrands off the stage who’ve survived religious abuse.

* * *

I must talk about religion and the things it did to me, and must do so however I like. This is my goal, not just a means to it — it’s my hill to die on and matters enough that nothing can compete. I don’t care if it sets back my career, hampers others’ work or hurts religious feelings.

Actually, hang on — yes I do.

If you feel your texts, traditions, doctrines, revelations, fantasies, imaginary friends or inaudible voices are licence to ride roughshod over other people’s lives, I want to hurt your feelings.

If your god, in whom billions believe, tells you to terrorise or mutilate children, deny them basic knowledge of their bodies or their world, jeopardise their health, inflict physical violence on them or assault them sexually;

If he tells you to inform them their trauma is deserved, that their own bodies were to blame or that their flesh and broken minds are sinful; if he tells you to instruct them against defending themselves or if their thoughts of him drive them to suicide;

If he tells you to preach racism, queerphobia or misogny; if he tells you what consensual sex you can and can’t have and with whom, or to destroy loving relationships and force nonconsensual ones on others;

If he tells you to threaten and harass others, subject them to violence or deny them medical aid;

If your god, in whom billions believe, inspires the fear, abuse and cruelty I and countless others lived through:

Fuck your god.

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Gay mainstreaming and the Oxford comma: Greta Christina and Alex Gabriel in conversation

A week ago Greta and I held a Google+ hangout to yak about things we like – BuffyProject Runway, queer politics. Technology, which we’re still trying to believe is our friend, let us down and she ended up being cut off mid rant.

Last night we got back on track and talked gay marriage, atheist tone wars, Oxford commas and So You Think You Can Dance.

We’ll be doing more of these in the near future.

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Moving Social Justice: the first conference for atheists and humanists of colour

Sikivu Hutchinson of Black Skeptics tweeted me after I chose the group to receive some of Greta’s book proceeds.

The Moving Social Justice conference will take place in Los Angeles between October 11 and 12. Together with African Americans for Humanism and the Secular Student Alliance, Black Skeptics are sponsoring it – in the spring, they announced on their blog here:

Going beyond the narrow scope of ‘atheist good’ versus ‘religion bad’, the conference will feature panels, presentations and strategy sessions on the following issues:

  • What political voice should people of color non-believers have in a national and global context in which the racial wealth gap has become gargantuan, increasing numbers of Black and Latino youth are being imprisoned and fewer have access to a college education?
  • What coalition-building needs to be done between activist non-believers of color and progressive faith institutions in our communities?
  • How can the under-represented issues of queer and LGBTQ youth of color (who have the highest rates of homelessness in the U.S.) be addressed beyond mainstream single variable paradigms of ‘coming out’ and same sex marriage?
  • What does a humanist feminist of color agenda look like given the European American feminist orientation of most freethought scholarship and activism in the U.S.?
  • How can atheists of color effectively challenge homophobia and transphobia in the Black Church and other faith institutions?
  • What is the connection between economic justice, community development and culturally relevant humanism?

Amen to all of the above.

Since then the programme has been updated to list specific panels on

  • Youth leadership & busting prison pipelining
  • Feminism(s) of Color & community activism
  • Anti-racism and the myth of colorblindness
  • Confronting homophobia & transphobia in the Black Church
  • Culturally relevant humanism: what is it and why do we need it?
  • LGBTQ atheists of color and social justice

Many of us, Hutchinson included, have been pushing atheist orgs to have these conversations for years now – it’s encouraging to see headway being made.

For full details of the conference, go to its Facebook page, or register your attendance here. Entrance is $40 standard, $25 for students.

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The making of two ex-Muslim mastheads: how would Roy Lichtenstein paint an Asian woman?

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HeinousDealingsBannerSmallAll three new additions to our site will by now have settled in somewhat; I’m lucky enough to have known two of them, Hiba Krisht and Heina Dadabhoy, quite well before they joined FtB. In the best-part-of-a-year between our hivemind’s decision to invite them and the actual debut of their blogs – it took so long because our site redesign went on forever – Hiba and Heina’s names became inseparable, which was something of a problem when they both commissioned me to create their mastheads (right). Since readers seem to like the banners, I thought perhaps I should write about the time I spent on them.

The common ground is inescapable. Both Heina and Hiba are ex-Muslim – more precisely, atheist – women of colour; both are feminists; both live in the US. They’re both queer, both polyamorous and both twentysomething; both are former hijab-wearers; they even have somewhat similar first names. (Would dubbing them the H-bombs be in bad taste?) When it comes to branding a personal blog, uniqueness is the order of the day – so the challenge of bannering-up both Heinous Dealings and A Veil and a Dark Place was always going to be distinguishing two writers I’d grown used to mentioning side by side.

Thankfully the likenesses are superficial: study their work and it’s clear each is their own quite different blogger.

Heina was a Sunni Muslim, Hiba a Shiite. Hiba is a Lebanese Arab; Heina, ethnically south-east Asian, is a Desi. Heina was born and raised in the US; Hiba is a several-times migrant.

Hiba’s writing tends toward the long-form, often centred on personal narrative. Heina’s is more typically about current events or blogosphere controversies. Heina’s voice is more conversational, often referencing comments or directly addressing readers. Hiba’s is more literary (her posts have been printed as-is in journals). Hiba, an academic and professional translator, relies mainly on turn of phrase for colour. Heina, a cosplayer in her spare time, draws on memes, gifs and pop culture.

Heina’s persona is distinctly ironic, dripping with snark. Hiba’s is known for being gutwrenchingly sincere. Hiba’s apostasy plays against the backdrop of her middle eastern taste in art, food, clothing, even grammar; Heina’s aesthetic – lipstick, heels, polka dots – is hard-femme Americana.

How do you represent these sorts of differences in two 728x120px images?

000Heina’s image could be read as a rejection of her roots – her A-line dresses and nail polish as aspirational, 1950s symbols that they are of idealised suburban whiteness. But an ex-Muslim who blogs on racism isn’t someone running from their background, and what feminist – actually, what woman today – dresses as a fifties housewife except on purpose? It’s a wardrobe filled with the intent to ironise, hijacking iconography meant to exclude women like Heina. She might as well, it struck me when she asked for a blog header, insert herself into Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings of pale, thin blondes – so I decided I should do just that.

Like most pop art and like her, Lichtenstein’s work is tongue-in-cheek. Filled with soap opera heterosexuals and exclamation marks, it’s as much a camp performance of his era’s gender politics as her look is – but that being so, he never to my knowledge painted anyone who looked like her. That raised a problem: with no precedent, how do you paint an Asian woman in Roy Lichtenstein’s style?

Some liberties were taken. The famous Ben-Day dots in his work were originally developed as a means of saving coloured ink while shading, so always appear on a white background there. This works for the pinkish hue of Caucasian faces, but trying to represent Heina’s skin tone that way in early versions left her looking zombie-like, so two different tan shades were required. Nor did Lichtenstein ever, to my knowledge, paint people with curly hair like hers or mine, and the resultant line work uses a technique more mine than his. Still, it seemed to work. (If you’re wondering why Heina’s hair is purple, it’s because its actual colour would have rendered as an amorphous black blob… as well as just because.)

Of course Heina, who broadcasts her opinions, had to have a thought bubble in live transmission – and of course her blurb had to be drawn like Lichtenstein’s narrative boxes. My hope is that the finished banner is as witty, camp, colourful and recognisable as she is, and her readers’ responses suggest it succeeded.

000When it came to Hiba’s blog, the task was the same with one added constraint. First, create something to symbolise A Veil and a Dark Place; second, make it instantly different from I’d done at Heinous Dealings.

Hiba is middle eastern rather than Asian, more literary than Heina and less western in terms of reference points: it made sense immediately that her banner would feature Arabic. The language’s script is exquisitely ornate, resembling embroidered latticework or chain mail when densely spaced, and while initially I wondered if using it for an ex-Muslim blog was ethnocentric, it struck me that doing so might actually combat the conflation of Islam and Arabia: unlike most current or former Muslims Hiba actually is an Arab, and associating an atheist’s blog with that spidery lettering seems like a way of reclaiming it from fundamentalists.

The phrase in the texture of the letters was meant to be the blog name, but annoyingly my laptop managed to unravel it somehow, and I’d likely have to study Arabic myself to rectify this. I’m convinced no colour suits its writing better than inky black, so wanted originally to keep the banner monochrome; for the lower portion of text , I was also tempted for a time to use Trajan Pro, that most Roman of fonts. What stopped me? Well, although both those concepts would differentiate Hiba’s blog from Heina’s, another ex-Muslim got there first.

Maryam Namazie’s banner is a thing of beauty – to imitate it even by accident would do all parties involved a disservice. Moreover, her blogging style and Hiba’s are very different, and it occurred to me her monochrome text suggests the matt black clothing of Islamist theocracies she rails against. Hiba’s subject matter is more personal, and her fondness for middle eastern art made me think the burnt yellow of Lebanese spices would fit. (When in doubt, my mind defaults to food.) For the typeface in the blog name’s second half, I went with Lato.

The pseudo-Arabic letters of ‘a veil’ are my own work, thus unique to Hiba’s blog, and took many hours of tweaking once I’d found actual Arabic characters to base them on. (Making the ‘v’ work was especially taxing.) For a while I messed about with colour fields and added details, but in fact I think the motif is so strong that other details would overpower it, and ‘floating’ on a white background means the banner looks centred above Hiba’s posts. (Like mine, it’s not really.)

Since the new blogs went up, I’ve been commissioned to do similar work for other people. I can only thank both H-bombs for coming to me, and I’m thrilled that on top of being their colleague, I got to support what they do.

Update: Hiba responds here.

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Welcome three new bloggers: Hiba Krisht, Heina Dadabhoy and Aoife O’Riordan

Forgive me – this post is much too late, but if anyone missed it the first time round we’ve an exciting announcement.

Three new writers just joined Freethought Blogs, and they’re three of the very best.

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Hiba Krisht, formerly known as Marwa Berro, can’t have escaped the notice of anyone in atheism this last year. Her post ‘What it is like to be a Muslim woman‘ (here’s an updated version) swept the blogosphere last summer, she’s guest-written for this blog and her ‘Ex-Hijabi Photo Journal‘ tumblr has been all over the press. If you’re interested in antiracist, anti-imperialist critique of Islam, A Veil and a Dark Place is the blog to read.

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Heina Dadabhoy, poached from her role as one of Skepchick‘s best known rabble-rousers, has her own writing space now at Heinous Dealings. (I may have named her blog.) As well as being, like Hiba, an ex-Muslim – currently she’s working on A Skeptic’s Guide to Islam – she writes on feminism, body image, racism and other things. See her ‘Don’t Be Boring‘ comments policy first, and then her gallery of violations.

Aoife O’Riordan, finally, writes a charming blog named Consider the Tea Cosy on ‘feminism, queerness, wheelyshoes, Ireland, what she cooked last week or any combination of the above.’ I’m thrilled as could be to have another colleague this side of the Atlantic (though not of the Manx Sea), let alone one who writes so well – read her her moving, vivid account of her Catholic grandmother’s death.

Curious? Send all three of them some traffic.

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U.S. readers, I need your advice

I have a problem.

Late last year, I did two rounds of editing on Greta Christina’s book Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. (I couldn’t talk her out of the Oxford comma. I never can.) The book is in essence a series of self-help guides for the nonreligious on issues like visibility, family tension and arguments at work – if these are issues you face or are likely to face, it’s definitely worth a read.

Because of the work I did on the book, Greta has pledged to donate 10 percent of her income from its first-month sales to a non-profit of my choice. This is likely to be quite a substantial sum, and I’m keen to send it somewhere it’ll make a difference. Because of the details of Greta’s situation and the details of American tax law, about which I know next to nothing, the recipient needs to be ‘a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit’ – and probably also, by dint of that, a U.S. organisation. It also needs to be a ‘specifically atheist, humanist, or some other godless-themed’ project or group, and one Greta doesn’t mind supporting.

I have a very general knowledge of orgs like this in the U.S., but it’s not detailed enough to know where a fairly large cheque should best be sent. So, U.S. readers: who should I give it to? (FYI, I understand there are Canadian 501(c)(3) groups – but please only recommend one if you’re certain it qualifies.) In case it helps you decide who to recommend, I have a few loose guidelines of my own.

For a start, it should be somewhere small and poor enough that this amount of money changes things – but not so small and poor that giving to them means throwing good money after bad. This rules out all the big lobby groups and membership orgs. Nor do I want to choose a generalised secular/atheist campaign group – rather, I’d like suggestions for secular groups with specific social-action mandates.

Some such mandates in particular are close to my heart. Since I’d like to donate to an org that reflects my own concerns, I’d be especially pleased to hear about atheist and secular nonprofits focusing on:

  • Addiction (Can anyone tell me, specifically, what the situation post-financial-crisis is for Secular Organisations for Sobriety, or if there are other orgs devoted to secular recovery?)
  • Poverty and religious exploitation in lower-class communities (e.g. secular soup kitchens, college scholarships etc.)
  • Queer/LGBT atheists or victims of religious harm
  • Sex education in a religion-free context
  • Survivors of religious abuse (in any form)
  • Women (e.g. combatting religious abuse or providing secular shelters)
  • Young nonbelievers and secular education

If you have ideas, let me know – or, if you know people you think will, share this post with them. I’d like to move on this reasonably quickly.

Thanks, and I’ll let you know who I choose.

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We’ve redecorated. Help us move back in?

Yesterday – all credit to our techies for a smooth-as-glass transition – the new-look Freethought Blogs went live. There’s a bit of a story to this redesign, of which I’m not sure how much I should tell, but suffice to say the world’s most useless web designers took eight months to code something our own people had to rewrite. (Again, hats off.) This delay is why it’s taken us so long to add our newest bloggers, some of whom you likely know of: my understanding is, they’ll appear this weekend.

000The new site’s admittedly a bit generic – don’t ask what that hand logo’s about – and whoever thought the text-space in our posts needed more width should have a scrapbook of media sites and a sense of pattern recognition tossed at them. (Which paragraph is more readable: this, or the last one?) On the plus side, the garish borders around images are gone, our site is finally mobile-responsive and the new frontpage is fierce. Hopefully the wallpaper – I might still find a different background I prefer – gives this blog back some character, and in love with Georgia as I am, I’ve decided I should go sans-serif for a while.

Thoughts?

Details are still being hammered out, tiny and not-so-tiny glitches being addressed. If anything’s amiss, do let me know, though you may want to check other blogs for issues already raised:

Now to uncover the furniture, sit at the desk and write. Ta-ta for now.

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