400, 000 children in the UK do not have their own bed

400, 000 children live in such extreme poverty that their parents are unable to afford to buy them their own bed. The 400, 000 figure is an estimate made by the charity Buttle UK. 

The charity calculated the estimated figure of 400, 000 based on a sample of the 10 000 families it helped last year. Among those 10 000 families, 25% of children did not have a proper bed of their own to sleep in.

Estimation errors aside for the moment (see below on this), I was altered to this shocking indicator of child poverty by a short item on Radio Kent, and although it has filtered through to mainstream news, it doesn’t seem to be particularly high up the agenda.

The impacts of ‘bed poverty’ 

As Buttle UK points out… one of the main problems with bed poverty is that it has a negative impact on children’s physical and mental health. If they are failing to get a decent night’s sleep, then they are less likely to be able to concentrate in school.

Then there is the rather grim fact that mattresses or pillows used as a bed, which are stored on the floor, are more likely to be infested with bugs that a mattress on a ‘normal’ raised bed. This means poor children are more likely to be infested with bugs than children with proper beds.

What are the causes of bed poverty?

Well, I guess this is down to the existence of poverty in general in the UK. A bed is one of those relatively large expenditure items that you can live without if necessary, so if you’re one of the nearly 30% of children living in absolute poverty (after housing costs) I guess it makes sense for your parents to prioritize food and heating before a bed.

The ideological choice to cut welfare payments which are part of ongoing Tory policy also obviously help to exacerbate the number of children in poverty in general and in ‘bed poverty’ in particular.

NB – Be cautious about these stats

Although I accept the fact that tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of of children live in ‘bed poverty’, I’m not convinced that the figure is as high as 400, 000. My reasoning is that the charity probably works with the very poorest, and I think that figure possibly uses ‘softer measurements’ of poverty to beef up their claim. (NB this is only a possibility, they don’t actually say in the article which measure of poverty they use to derived the 400, 000 figure!)

Relevance to the A-level sociology syllabus 

This is yet another indicator of child poverty, and also probably a new concept (‘bed poverty’) for most students. It’s also a good example of ‘hidden poverty’ – this is a good example of an aspect of poverty that most of us wouldn’t even notice, even though the consequences are severe.

It has obvious relevance to the sociology of education: as explained above, those missing out on a decent night’s sleep will not be able to learn effectively. It’s a classic example of how material deprivation can affect class differences in education.

Finally, although I haven’t discussed it any depth here, this is also a good reminder of the need to be skeptical about the use of statistics – there are different measurements of poverty (relative and absolute), and I’m not actually convinced that the 400, 000 figure is valid. This is a good example of a statistic that is socially constructed and a campaign that possible lacks objectivity, so this can even be tied in to debates surrounding value freedom!

Image sources 

Dirty Mattress

Full Fact – poverty graph

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Civil Religion

Robert Bellah introduced the concept of civil religion to sociological debates surrounding the role and function of religion in society in the early 1960s. One of his best known works is his 1967 journal article ‘Civil Religion in America‘.

Robert Bellah argued that ‘civil religions’ had become the main type of religions in the 20th century, as mainstream, traditional religions declined. Civil religions effectively performing many of the same functions of ‘traditional religions’, just without the concept of a god or higher power.

Bellah analyses the role of religion in much the same way as classical functionalists such as Durkheim, hence he has been labelled a neo-functionalist in many A-level sociology text books.

He defined ‘civil religion’ as any belief system which didn’t rely on a conception of a God, or gods, but which still inspired a passionate mass response with members displaying a high degree of commitment to that belief system.

Historical examples of belief systems which might be regarded as ‘civil religions’ include Nazism, and other forms of nationalism, and at a more international level, Marxism. Such movements provided their adherents with an idea of the ‘true path’ to a ‘better life’, to be achieved through obeying certain moral codes as well as a degree of commitment to charismatic leaders. These movements also had plentiful symbols and rituals to generate a sense of shared identity.

Bellah argues that ‘Americanism’ is the civil religion of America. The civil religion of Americanism stresses a commitment to the ‘American way’: a belief in the ‘free market’ and a drive to make the most of available opportunities. It also emphasizes a commitment to God, but that God is an American first, rather than a Catholic, Jew or Muslim, and he welcomes everyone from all backgrounds who are willing accept commitment to the American dream.

According to Bellah, the American Civil Religion unites people across all sexes, classes and ethnic backgrounds.

It is possible to see expressions of the American Civil Religion in many aspects of American life:

  • Most obviously is the daily ‘pledging allegiance to the flag of America that children do in schools.
  • We see it in yearly rituals such as Independence Day and Thanksgiving.
  • The national anthem being sung at the beginning of various sporting events, most notably the Super Bowl.
  • Numerous Presidential speeches and address praise America, with the phrase ‘God Bless America’ featuring frequently.

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/69ShK4TYHJk” frameborder=”0″ allow=”autoplay; encrypted-media” allowfullscreen></iframe>

Are national sporting events manifestations of a civil religion?

Bellah argues that civil religion developed especially strongly in America because it is a relatively new nation, based on immigration from multiple countries. A civil religion which emphasizes both a belief in God, but with that God coming second to the idea of America itself, has served to quickly unite people with diverse beliefs into one nation under God.

Criticisms of the concept of civil religion

  • It is quite a loose concept in that it is possible to interpret any nationalistic activity as being part of a ‘civil religion’.
  • It is unlikely that people taking part in watching sporting events, or even ‘pledging allegiance’ to the flag are as committed in their belief in America as traditionally religious people are to their religions.
  • To criticise Bellah’s concept of Americanism specifically it is clear that not all Americans have been united equally into the American nation. American Muslims have experienced particularly high levels of ostracism since September 11th for example.

 

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The Shallows by Nicholas Carr:  How the internet is changing the way think. A summary of chapter 1

This is my summary of chapter one of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr.

Carr has an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, is remapping the neural circuitry in his brain. He feels as if he’s not thinking the way he used to think.

He says that he used to find it easy to immerse himself in a book, but that’s rarely the case anymore… his concentration drifts after a page or two and he starts looking for something else to do. Deep reading used to be easy, now it’s a struggle.

He believes this is because he spends a lot of time online, surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the net.

He notes that ‘the Net has become my all-purpose medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind’ (hardly surprising giving the sheer amount of ‘functions’ that are now facilitated online!)

He notes that there are positives to the internet – having so much information to hand is very convenient and means we can think and work more efficiently. He also recognises that skim-reading short snippets of lots of articles probably makes us more creative, as this encourages us to make a greater diversity of linkages between different information sets.

However, the positives come at a price. McLuhan noted that media shape process of thought as well as supplying us with material to think about, and Carr thinks that the net is chipping away at his ability to concentrate and contemplate… Once he was like a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now he zips along the surface like a guy on a Jet-Ski.

He is not the only one who believes that the internet is changing the way he thinks: friends have made similar observations as have various bloggers. For example, Bruce Friedman who blogs about the use of computers points out that he skim-reads even short blog posts and his thinking has taken on a ‘staccato’ quality.

Phillip Davis (among many others) points to the advantages of ‘skimming’ lots of articles – believing it makes us more efficient and creative than the older linear ways of reading and thinking. Others believe the net has made books superfluous.

A research study by nGenera which interviewed six thousand members of what it called ‘Generation net’ found that young people don’t even read a page from left to right or top to bottom, they skip around, scanning it for areas of interest. It truly appears that the net is changing the way we absorb information.

Even though there are different degrees of net usage, what is clear is that for society as a whole, the net has become the communication and information medium of choice… we have embraced its uniquely rapid-fire mode of collecting and dispensing information. This transformation is profound, and so are its likely impacts.

We seem to have arrived at an important juncture in our cultural history – we are trading away our old linear thought process, calm focused and undistracted. These are being replaced by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster the better.

Ever since Guttenberg’s printing press, the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science and society. It’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind!

Carr was born in 1959 and noes that for Baby Boomers and Generation Xrs, life began in the analogue age and gradually transitioned to the digital age from the 1980s onward.

He was an English major at Dartmouth college and outlines how in the late 1970s he spent most of his time working towards his degree in the library, rather than in the cutting edge (at the time) computer center.

He says that he didn’t feel the anxiety of information overload symptomatic of today’s online age despite the tens of thousands of books in the library. ‘Take your time, the books used to say to him, we’re not going anywhere’.

He now takes us through his own personal history of his ever-increasing engagement with computers… From his first purchase of a mac Plus in 1986; getting caught up in the ‘upgrade cycle’ in the mid-1990s; getting online for the first time by installing Netscape in 1995; and then broadband, Napster, Google, YouTube, and the rest…

When the net went Web 2.0 in 2005, he became a social networker, and a content generator, benefiting from the new ease of access to information and reduced barriers to publication afforded by new modes of connectivity.

However, by 2007 he realised that his brain was ‘hungry’… it was demanding to be fed in the way the next fed it…. in 2-minute chunks.

The internet was changing him into a high-speed data processing machine… being connected had made him want to be connected constantly… he wanted to check emails even when he was offline.

Ultimately Carr notes that… ‘The computer…. Was more than just a simple tool that did what you told it to do. It was a machine that, in subtle but unmistakable ways, exerted influence over you…. The more I used it, the more it altered the way I worked.’

For my summary of chapter two please click here. To purchase the book (it’s a cracking read!) please click below!

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Why is Crime Increasing Again?

The latest crime figures show an increase in the overall number of crimes committed in England and Wales, for the year ending March 2018. The overall numbers of crimes have increased from approximately 5.8 million in 2016-17 to 6 million crimes in 2017-18 (excluding ‘computer misuse’).

While this may seem like a relatively small increase, this follows a 7 year downward trend in the overall crime rate. And if we drill down into different types of crime, we find that some crime categories have seen dramatic rises in recent years: Robbery is up 30%, and knife crime is up 16% for example.

These figures are taken from the Crime Survey of England and Wales, a victim survey which is widely regarded as having greater validity as a measure of crime compared to Police Recorded Crime Statistics.

As you might expect, the mainstream newspapers have been all over this. Typically the press blames the move away from more authoritarian forms of crime control associated with Right Realism and blames soft-touch Left Realist style policies for the increase in crime.

The Daily Mail has recently reported on how rural crime, as well as urban crime is spiraling out of control. The Sunday Telegraph has blamed the government’s ‘too soft’ approach to crime control, which focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment. The Independent commented that the Tories might be blame for this increase in crime because they have cut funding to the police, resulting in fewer officers.

However, the theory that ‘soft touch’ approaches and fewer police officers may well be insufficient to explain why crime is increasing. For example, police numbers have been going down for years, while crime has also been going down:

The truth is probably more complex: it might just be that there are different causes of crime in different areas, and different causes of different crimes…. so perhaps we should steer clear of over-generalizing!

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Radical Feminist Perspectives on Religion

Radical Feminists emphasize the patriarchal nature of some mainstream religions such as Catholicism and Islam. They argue that such religions have developed in patriarchal societies and have been ‘hijacked’ by men. Men have interpreted religious doctrines in order to justify their positions of power.

Radical Feminists also believe that religion often serves to compensate women for their second class status within religion and society more generally. For example, by providing psychological rewards if they accept their role as mothers and limit their horizons to fulfilling that role well.

However, Radical Feminists do not necessarily see religion as inherently patriarchal. Historically, for example, Goddess religions have celebrated the creative and nurturing power of the feminine. It is really men hijacking religion and downplaying the role of women in the development of some religions over the past couple of thousand years which is the problem.

It follows that women can use religion to lead fulfilling lives, but need to fight oppression within mainstream religions organisations to do so, or even to develop their own unique, individual paths to a feminine spirituality.

The mind map above summarises the following Feminist perspectives on religion. Please click the links below for more details:

 

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The social causes of the California wild fires

The California Wild Fires are typically reported as being caused by a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental factors. Mainstream news reports tend to focus on how a conflation of a lack of rain, humid conditions, and fierce winds results in these dramatic, and unpredictable fires.

California wild fires certainly appear to be newsworthy, in that they tick many of the news values used by news agencies to determine what should be aired. California fires are dramatic, visual, involve an elite nation, and are often personable: if they’re not threatening a town, we can always focus on the brave bush firemen.

Challenging the envirocentric narrative 

However, I think we need to challenge the mainstream narrative that California wild fires are purely natural events.

If we dig a little deeper, we find that this ‘environment centric’ view is misleading as human social factors are just as much a cause.

Gegory L Simon argues that wildfires in California are just as much a result of reckless human development decisions as they are due to environmental conditions.

Authorities all around California have agreed permission for development to take place on areas they new were high fire risk. He further argues that authorities turn a blind eye to the fire risks because of the huge profits to be made from building houses in California.

Evidence for this lies in the simple fact of the increasing costs of dealing with fires in California…

One would have thought it sensible to stop developing in areas where there appears to be an increasing fire risk. Or if not, at the very least, we could be more honest about the fact that there is a human cause’ to these fires, rather than it just being purely down to environmental factors!

Then again, I guess deluding ourselves with the later explanation is more comforting.

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Sources

If you want to explore this issue further, I suggest reading the following two critical articles

The Conversation – Don’t Blame California Wild Fires on a Perfect Storm of Weather Events

The Atlantic – Power Lines are Burning the West

Federal Fire Fighting Costs 

Image Source 

 

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Exploring Inequality in Life Expectancy in the United Kingdom

Get rich or Die Young (BBC, Panorama 2018) explores the causes and consequences of low life expectancy in Teeside, in the North East of the United Kingdom. It focuses on the experiences of three people who are living through three of the main causes of low life expectancy: smoking and poor diet, drug addiction and mental ill health.

The documentary is hosted by the ever-reliable Richard Bilton, who seems to be the BBC’s go-to guy for these social injustice documentaries.

Teeside has the largest life expectancy gap in the country. Those in poorest boroughs of the region have a life expectancy of just 67, the same as Ethiopia. Those living just a couple of miles away in the wealthiest boroughs live until 85, 4 years above the national average.

This means that the life expectancy gap between the poorest and richest boroughs in Teeside is 18 years.

The inequalities are literally written on the gravestones, where in some graveyards, 60 years seems like a ‘good innings’

low life expectancy UK.png

Richard Bilton points out early on that most babies in the U.K are born healthy, but a baby’s health is shaped by what comes next, and a crucial variable which influences health and life expectancy is wealth, or lack of it.

He also suggests more than once that leading an unhealthy life is not simply a matter of individuals making poor choices. Rather, being socialised into poverty restricts the kinds of choices people can make, and in extreme cases results in stress which seems to literally take 10 years off an individual’s life.

The first of the three emotionally charged case studies focuses on a 46-year-old male whose life is nearly over. He has fluid on the lungs, sciatica, and type 2 Diabetes, among other things, and is dependent on breathing apparatus.

get rich die young.png

There’s quite a lot of footage of his 4/5 kids musing about how he hasn’t got much time left…. And I guess that’s the ultimate negative consequence of his dying in his late 40s: a partner left to bring up 4 distraught kids on her own

His Illnesses are down to smoking and poor diet: people are four times more likely to smoke than those from wealthy areas.

The second case study focuses on a gran mother who is bringing up her daughters two children because she seems to be a hopeless crack addict. We see an interview with the drug-addict daughter who just appears to have given up the will to look after her kids. (Possibly because she knows her mother will do it?).

Drug deaths in Stockton have doubled in a decade and nationally they are substantially higher in the more deprived areas.

The grandmother attends a support group for grandparents who look after their grandkids because their children are drug addicts…. And we can see clearly how the stress she’s under is reducing her own life expectancy.

Finally, the documentary visits a middle-aged woman suffering from depression and anxiety who has made multiple (unsuccessful) suicide attempts. Suicides are twice as common in the poorest areas.

One of the problems here is that mental health services have been cut. There’s nowhere for her to go. If it were not for a voluntary support group, she’d probably be another early death statistic.

So how do we tackle low life expectancy? 

This is a very short section towards the end of the documentary which visits a school in a deprived area. The headmistress of the Carmel Education Trust thinks she can turn things around. She doesn’t believe the poor-health life path of those in poverty is fixed.

She believes that therapies help kids to better at school, and if they do better at school, they get better jobs, and that seems to be the key to a healthier life…

NB the documentary doesn’t actually go into any depth about what these ‘therapies’ are. This section is very much tagged on the end of the gawp-fest.

Final critical appraisal of the documentary

What I like about the documentary is that it’s rooted in what you might call micro-statistics. It ‘digs down’ into the sub-regional variations in life expectancy in Teeside. It even distinguishes between life expectancy and health life expectancy.

If You rely on the Office for National Statistics own accessible data on life expectancy, you don’t even see these variations!

However, the documentary spends too much time ‘gawping’ at the poor sick poor people rather than analysing the deeper structural causes of poverty related health problems.

There’s no real mention of the longer term historical downturn in the North East of the U.K. which highlights the high levels of unemployment, for example.

I’m also not entirely convinced by the (too brief) look at the solutions on offer. Therapeutic interventions in schools was offered up as the solution. Relying on the education sector yet again to sort out this social mess of extreme in equality in life expectancy just isn’t practical.

Having said that, if the mission of the documentary was to alter us to the extent of the problem and shock us, I think it did a reasonable job overall.

Possibly most shocking of all is that men in the poorest boroughs have a life expectancy of just 64: the average man doesn’t even make it to retirement age. And this isn’t the only region in the UK where this happens. In the very poorest regions, men work hard, pay their National Insurance, and get nothing back for it. There’s something not quite right about that!

Ultimately, I agree with the message the documentary puts out, even if it gets somewhat lost in the emotionalism of the three case studies: the reasons people die young are complex, but the most common reason is poverty – low income limits your choices. There is also no reason why anyone should be getting a chronic illness and dying in their 40s. All of the likely soon-to-be deaths in the documentary are entirely preventable!

Relevance to A-level sociology

This documentary offers some us some qualitative insights into the causes, but mainly the consequences of low life expectancy in the poorest regions of the United Kingdom and so should be relevant to the ‘ life expectancy and death rates‘ aspect of the families and households module.

It’s also quite a useful reminder of how we need qualitative data to give us the human story behind the statistics.

If you want to find out more about variations in life expectancy in the UK, you might like this interactive map as a starting point.

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Carol Christ’s Feminist Spirituality

Carol P Christ is a feminist theologian and foremother of the Goddess movement. One of her best known works is her 1997 essay ‘[Why Women Need the Goddess]( http://www.iupui.edu/~womrel/Rel433%20Readings/Christ_WhyWomenNeedGoddess.pdf)’ in which she argues that feminine spirituality is rooted in the concept of a supreme Goddess.

Carol P Christ

Carol Christ is critical of any religion which is based on the idea of there being ‘one true God’ or ‘one true interpretation’ of what religious practices people should engage in.

And although the Enlightenment challenged the authority of the church, Carol Christ is also critical of Enlightenment thought.

In the Enlightenment, knowledge was held to be something independent of the individual, and thus objective and true. The Enlightenment also championed the ‘rational man’, someone who was dispassionate and detached from the process of uncovering true knowledge.

However, Carol Christ believes that detached, objective knowledge is not actually possible, as it is always tied up with the values, beliefs and interests of the person who creates that knowledge.

In at least two significant ways, the Enlightenment attitude towards knowledge is similar in that of traditional religious organisations’: they both believe that the source of ‘true knowledge’ is external to the individual and yet within both traditions, knowledge is basically created by men and reflects male values.

An alternative to both is what Carol Christ calls ‘embodied spirituality’ in which

‘we think through the body, we reflect upon the standpoints embedded in our life experiences, histories, judgments and interests…. Embodied thinking enlarges experiences through empathy… Empathy reaches out to others, desiring to understand the world from different points of view.” (1997).

Carol Christ argues that through such knowledge, traditional theology (in which men interpret religion) can be replaced with a new thea-ology, which means ‘reflection on the meaning of the Goddess’.

She believes that if embodied knowledge is the basis of spirituality, then we can overcome dualistic ways of thinking such as rational and irrational and mind and body because The Goddess is found all around, in everything, forming a web of life which integrates all things into a universal whole.

Historical Representations of the Goddess

Symbols and statues of the Goddess have been found in a wide variety of civilizations going back 25000 years.

Mythical stories which pay tribute to an Ancient Mother Goddess whose fertility and abundance give nourishment to a culture date back to prehistoric times.

Goddess Sprituality FeminismOne of the earliest examples, from the Paleothic era, is the ‘Venus of Willendorf. She is fat, showing her abundant life-energy, and representing the nurturing and support which mother-hood offers.

Later examples from the Mesopotamian era are the clay figurines of the Ishtar (circa 2000 BC) in her characteristic breast-offering pose which suggests her function as the Goddess of all nourishment and fertility.

A more recent example is found in the Macha Earth Goddess – a fertility goddess who was worshiped in ancient Ireland by the Picts before the arrival of the Celts and adopted by them. She is associated with war, horses, and independence.

How individuals can find the Goddess

Carol P Christ believes that people need to find their own spiritual paths through personal experience.

Christ had something of a traumatic time discovering the Goddess for herself. As a student of theology, she became increasingly frustrated with traditional interpretations of God as male, with God always being associated with the father, with Kings, and even with war. This all built up to a head one evening when she shouted out

‘I want you to know how much I have suffered because you let yourself be named in man’s image’, after which she heard a female voice in her head that said ‘In God is a woman like yourself. She shares your suffering.’  

Christ’s ideas on the Goddess were further developed by attending a workshop led by a woman called Starhalk who saw the Goddesss as Mother Earth, who was found in nature and in the spirit, emotions, mind and body of everyone.

Her understanding and spiritual awareness developed further in a women’s spirituality group called Rising Moon.

Carol Christ ultimately believes that personal experience has to be the starting point of valid knowledge. She believes that every woman on a spiritual path has a story to tell and their own spiritual journey to go on, but each finds a similar power through the Goddess.

In terms of Feminism, everyone can work together with other Feminists and valid spiritual knowledge can be co-created.

Evaluations of Goddess Religions

While it is hard to doubt the authenticity of Carol P Christ’s views (i.e. it is clear that she really believes what she saying), there are certain problems with this approach.

Firstly, It is difficult to evaluate an approach which rejects empirical research. It is difficult to assess its reliability or validity.

Secondly, it is difficult, if not impossible to make generalisations from personal approaches – for example, it is easy to find examples of religions which are not patriarchal.

Sources/ Find out More

Haralambos and Holborn (eighth edition) Sociology Themes and Perspectives

Faces and shapes of ancient mother goddesses

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Gender and Education: Good Resources

Useful links to quantitative and qualitative research studies, statistics, researchers, and news paper articles relevant to gender and education. These links should be of interest to students studying A-level and degree level sociology, as well as anyone with a general interest in the relationship between gender, gender identity, differential educational achievement and differences in subject choice.

Just a few links to kick-start things for now, to be updated gradually over time…

General ‘main’ statistical sites and sources

The latest GSCE results analysed by gender from the TES

A Level Results from the Joint Council for Qualifications – broken down by gender and region

Stats on A level STEM subjects – stats on the gender balance are at the end (70% of psychology students are female compared to only 10% of computer science students)

General ‘Hub’ Qualitative resources 

The Gender and Education Association – works to eradicate sexism and gender equality within education. Promotes a Feminist pedagogy (theory of learning).

A link to Professor Becky Francis’ research, which focuses mainly on gender differences in educational achievement – at time of writing (November 2017) her main focus seems to be on girls lack of access to science and banding and streaming (the later not necessarily gender focused)

Specific resources for exploring gender and differential educational achievement

Education as a strategy for international development – despite the fact that girls are outperforming boys in the United Kingdom and most other developed countries, globally girls are underachieving compared to boys in most countries. This link takes you to a general post on education and social development, many of the links explore gender inequality in education.

Specific resources for exploring gender and subject choice 

Dolls are for Girls, Lego is for Boys – A Guardian article which summarizes a study by Becky Francis’s on Gender, Toys and Learning, Francis asked the parents of more than 60 three- to five-year-olds what they perceived to be their child’s favourite toy and found that while parental choices for boys were characterised by toys that involved action, construction and machinery, there was a tendency to steer girls towards dolls and perceived “feminine” interests, such as hairdressing.

Girls are Logging Off – A BBC article which briefly alerts our attention to the small number of girls opting to do computer science.

 

 

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Nawal El Saadawi: The Hidden Face of Eve

In The Hidden Face of Eve (1980), Nawal El Saadawi considers the role of religion in perpetuating female oppression in the Arab World. She offers an Egyptian Feminist perspective on the role of religion and thus broadens our understanding away from the typically white female voices of feminism.

El Saadawi.pngEl Saadawi is a women’s rights activist, who has herself experienced oppression within Egypt. She has campaigned vigorously for women’s rights in the Arab world and has been imprisoned for her activism.

She was forced to undergo female circumcision as a young girl, without any warning or explanation and points out that male violence against women within the family is common in many Arab cultures. Young females are frequently the victims of violence at the hands of their fathers, uncles or brothers. In addition, women are also victims of forced prostitution and slavery which provide further evidence of patriarchal dominance of Arab men over Arab women.

However, despite the prevalence of female oppression across the Islamic world, El Saadawi does not believe that female oppression is caused by Islam.

She points out that male female oppression exists in many non-Islamic cultures and is in fact just as common in Christian cultures. A classic example of this is in the 14th century when the Catholic Church declared that women who treated those who were ill, without special training, could be executed as witches.

(Possibly our fixation with the oppression of women in Islamic cultures is a result of a broader anti-Islamic prejudice?)

For El Saadawi, the oppression of women is caused by ‘the patriarchal system which came into being when society had reached a certain stage of development’. It just so happened that Islam developed in those areas of the world which already had extremely patriarchal social structures. Over the centuries, Islamic doctrine was thus shaped by men and reflected their interests, with women’s voices being effectively unheard in this process.

Ultimately, El Saadawi believes that where religion evolves within patriarchal cultures, men distort religion to act in their own interests and to help justify their own privilege and the oppression of women.

The Origins of Oppressive Religion

El Saadawi argues that religion became patriarchal through the misinterpretation of religious beliefs by men.

She uses the Greek myth of Isis and Osiris as an example of this in which the evil Touphoun overpowers the male Osiris. His body is cut into small pieces and dispersed in the sea, and fish eats his sexual organ.

To El Saadawi, this story clearly implies female superiority, but men have interpreted it quite differently. They have emphasised the superiority of Osiris because he was created from the head of the god Zeus, who was greater than Osiris, according to Homer and other writers, because he was more knowledgeable.

However, the above is a narrow interpretation which conveniently leaves out the next link in the ‘creation chain’: all male gods were created by or given the ability to move by the greatest deity of them all, the goddess Isis.

Similar distortions have entered the story of Adam and Eve. Males usually portray Eve as a temptress who created sin in the world. However, if we read the original story as described in the Old Testament, it is easy for us to see clearly that Eve was gifted with knowledge, intelligence and superior mental capacities, whereas Adam was only one of her instruments, utilized by her to increase her knowledge and give shape to her creativity.

Monotheistic Religions and Female Oppression

El Saadawi argues that forms of religion that were oppressive to women developed as monotheistic religions (believing in a single god). Such religions were interpreted in the context of patriarchal societies, primarily by men. For example, male representatives of early Judaism interpreted Abraham as a patriarchal figure which served to justify the patriarchal family in which wives and children came to be under the uncontested power of the father.

Islam similarly developed patriarchal doctrines because it was established in the context of a patriarchal social structure: Authority in Islamic society belonged ultimately to the political ruler (the Khalifa) or the religious leader (the Imam), and then down through a small male minority who had power due to their ownership of herds of horses, camels and sheep, and finally down to the level of the lifeworld via the male head of household.

As a result, the enforcement of many laws in Islamic culture remains highly unequal. For example:

  • Although the Qur’an states that both men and women can be stoned to death for adultery, this fate rarely befalls men.
  • Men are permitted many wives, but women are not permitted many husbands
  • Husbands can divorce their wives instantaneously.

Fighting back against religions which oppress women

El Saadawi concludes that female oppression is not essentially due to religion, but due to the patriarchal system that has long been dominant. She is not hostile to religion, but only to the domination of religion by patriarchal ideology.

‘The great religions of the world uphold similar principles in so far as the submission of women to men is concerned. They also agree in the attribution of masculine characteristics to their God. Islam and Christianity have both constituted important stages inn the evolution of humanity. Nevertheless, where the cause of women was concerned, they added a new load to their already heavy chains. (El Saadawi,1980.)

She believes that the only way for women to free themselves from oppression is to themselves fight for their own liberation.

Thankfully, there is a long tradition of religious radicals doing precisely this, probably the best-known example being Jesus Christ himself who El Saadawi describes as a revolutionary leader who opposed oppression. She also points out that early Christianity tended to have codes which enforced the equal treatment of men and women.

Finally, El Saadawi believes that revolutions are generally beneficial to women and so can thus be regarded as a Marxist Feminist as much as a Radical Feminist.

Sources

Adapted from Haralmabos and Holborn 8th edition 2013

Find out More

El Saadawi (2015) The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (new edition)

 

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