Two recent events have set me thinking about human rights, human dignity, and the way in which law and custom shape our attitudes.
First, the Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the controversial practice of instant, unilateral divorce in Islam, Talaq-e-Bidat, is unconstitutional. The campaign to end it began several decades ago but has met with stout resistance. Fundamental to its overturning is the recognition that women have human rights, irrespective of their religious beliefs, that what both Sharia and the Qu’ran regard as sinful should not be protected by the civil law, and that simply because it can be argued that the practice has existed for 1400 years does not make it acceptable. A good summary, in my view, can be found here. Who would not welcome such a decision? Probably only those who see women as inferior beings, mere chattels in fact, who can be disposed of at will — and sadly, there are many such, not only in India.
Secondly, the Chief Executive of the Shropshire Community Health NHS Trust has refused to accept a donation of £2500 from a group of volunteer male fund-raisers on the grounds that the fancy dress they adopted was unacceptable. Specifically, she said ‘The presentation of men dressed as female nurses in a highly-sexualised and demeaning way is wrong, very outdated and insulting to the profession.’ You can read about the dispute and see a photo of the men here. No one is suggesting that anyone acted in bad faith or with the deliberate intention of causing offence, but the ‘shortie’ uniforms surely belong to the era of ‘Carry On’ films rather than today. They do indeed, in my view, represent a tasteless sexualisation of women that many women would repudiate as neither funny nor appropriate.
The decision of the Indian Supreme Court will have many ramifications, not only for the people of India but also, incidentally, for any woman who travels alone in that country. My travelling days are over, but when I did travel a lot, I must admit there were occasions when I felt vulnerable simply because I was a woman on my own and the behaviour of the men around me was a bit scary. It is difficult to explain, especially to men who have never experienced such vulnerability or who are themselves such gentlemen that they cannot imagine what it feels like to be harrassed by others. Unfortunately, it is part and parcel of the attitude that women are somehow ‘less human’. It extends beyond travel. Don’t start me on the subject of demeaning ‘jokes’ about women or condescending attitudes towards experts who happen to be female — like the metereologist who was told on Twitter to go and learn some real science, dear, and replied that having done a Ph.D in the subject and worked for some years in Institution X, she didn’t see what more she could do, really. (I love that ‘really’.)
Then there is the case of the Ludlow volunteers. I daresay many cannot see what is objectionable in the way the volunteers dressed, just as they cannot see, for example, that the way in which some Gay activists dress in parody nun’s clothing is not funny at all. St Benedict’s Rule has a lot to say about the way in which we should revere one another, even see Christ in one another, yet it also allows for a good deal of humour and light-heartedness. Jokes are not banned from the cloister, but they should be clean and not hurtful. They should never undermine that basic respect we have for one another. Benedict did not write about human rights as such, but it is clear that everyone in his community should treat others fairly and himself be treated fairly — whatever his age or background. A monastic community is, or should be, a place where ‘the strong still have something to strive for and the weak have nothing to shrink from’ because we are all one in Christ. Law, in this case the Rule, and custom work together to ensure that it is so.
In the world beyond the cloister we also rely on law and custom to help shape our attitudes. That is why the civil law is constantly evolving, constantly taking account of new circumstances. Many take their ideas of what is right and wrong from the law, which is why our law-makers must work hard to ensure that our laws are the best we can make them. The role of custom is more difficult to assess. We may cling to ideas that are outmoded and the prejudices that go with them. My younger friends look at me with amazement when I tell them that I couldn’t become a stockbroker when I was their age because women were not allowed on the floor of the London Stock Exchange, and even in banking there was a definite sense of being there on sufferance. Perhaps we can greet the decision of the Indian Supreme Court and the stand taken by the Shropshire Community Health NHS Trust as two cheers for women, one great, one small. Personally, I’d rather see them as three cheers for humanity.