Tuesday, January 28, 2014

THE SPLINTER IN YOUR BROTHER'S EYE



It was one of those shared articles that had been plaguing Facebook after the Boston bombing. Its main purpose, inevitably, was to convince the public that Islam was evil. I didn’t save the link, but it doesn’t matter for the purpose of this column; after all, you probably saw one or two such articles yourself. What matters was the concerned response of one of my Facebook friend who wrote in his comment: “But how do we reason with them without imposing our values upon them?

That, my dear friend, is the million dollar question!


The article focused on child brides in one of the predominantly Islamic countries (I’m not 100% sure, but it might have been Bangladesh). The beef I had with it wasn’t the topic itself. Even as a multiculturally aware counselor-in-training I will argue with anybody and at any given time that marrying off eleven-year-olds, often against their will, to men several decades their seniors is NOT okay. And to those people who will say that in Bangladesh it has been a tradition for centuries and we gotta respect that, I have only one thing to say in return:


FUCK THE TRADITION!

Nonetheless, what irked me was that the article intentionally made it sound like Islam was the only religion guilty of pressuring children and teenagers to marry. The belief that a girl is “ready” for marriage once she gets her first period is pre-Islamic and has been practiced all over the world for centuries. Nowadays, it’s still very common in some regions in India, especially in rural areas; and on African continent it’s been practiced by Muslim, indigenous, and Christian communities alike. (If you don’t believe me, I suggest you do your own research.)

And then there is the United States.

No, I’m not joking. Have you ever heard the name Rebecca Musser? She is a woman who had the misfortune of being born into the infamous Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints and as such was married at the ripe age of 19 to a “prophet” Rulon Jeffs (who, by the way, was 85-years old at the time of the wedding, and possessed 65 wives).

Apples and oranges, you say? Rebecca, being 19, has seemingly nothing in common with child brides. But in this particular case it’s not so much Rebecca’s own story that interests me; it’s her fight for the rights of thousands of girls and women that are born into religious cults that brainwash and oppress them, and more often than not force them to get married in their teens, usually to someone who is much older and has multiple wives. Check out Rebecca's website to learn about her activism and about what she has to say about American child brides.
And you know what? It’s NOT Muslims who are doing it! Most of these cults consider themselves indeed Christian.


In the United States it’s mainly the isolated fundamentalist communities in the Southwest (think Arizona and Utah) that practice polygamy, and in most of these communities, marriages of teenage girls to older men are common.



How is it possible? The state of Utah was given an ultimatum already in the late 19th century to either abandon polygamy, or to secede from the United States. Yet polygamy is very much alive and kicking in the state of Utah. Somebody must have made a mistake somewhere on the way. Consider the attitude of Mark Shurtleff, Attorney General, quoted in Suzan Mazur's article from 2005: “Polygamy is illegal in Utah and forbidden by the Arizona constitution. However, law enforcement agencies in both states have decided to focus on crimes within polygamous communities that involve child abuse, domestic violence, and fraud.” Fine. So the authorities decided not to prosecute polygamous communities for being polygamous, but were still willing to protect the children.


Except – what are the chances that children, especially girls, from communities like this can even report a case of child abuse? Think about it.
 
I would like to believe that things have changed since 2005, but being a skeptic by nature, I somehow don’t think so. There is plenty of evidence out there that in our democratic country that prides itself on being the world’s leader in democracy, we let religious (predominantly Christian, like it or not; although admittedly we are talking about an extreme form of Christianity) cults practice not only polygamy, but also underage marriages. If anything else, watch this documentary: Banking on Heaven written, produced, and directed by Laurie Allen, who managed to escape her polygamist community at the age of 16. It will break your heart and it will convince you that it IS a real problem – right here, in our midst.


So if I were to go back to my friend’s question regarding how to reason with the people of Bangladesh, I would probably respond by saying: “Dear So-and-so, maybe we are not meant to just yet. Maybe as Americans, before we start policing the whole world, we need to make sure that nasty shit doesn’t happen in our own country – you know, because in case it does, we look a) dumb and b) hypocritical. Otherwise, what the hell are we going to say when somebody asks us: Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye and not notice the beam which is in your own eye?!



I, for one, wouldn’t know.

The photo of Warren Jeff with a twelve-year-old bride is accessible to public on Internet (my source: www.sodahead.com)

Monday, January 20, 2014

THE TROUBLE WITH PLURAL



A couple of days ago I received an e-mail from one of my good friends; a colleague from my Writer’s Club. He is a very honest person and never hesitates to call me on my bullshit, which is why I value his opinion very much and when he gives me a positive feedback on something, it feels like Christmas came early this year :) He complimented me on my latest blog post about Unitarian Universalism and said that he appreciated how my opinion, while strong and passionate, never came across as preaching. “Almost everything I read nowadays,” he wrote sadly, “sounds like the author thinks of himself as appointed judge of human virtue.”

Yes, sir, and this is precisely why I have been at odds with so many people recently – way too many, I feel! Some of them are my friends, some are acquaintances, and some I have never met, just came across their stuff on-line or at school, but they all have one thing in common: They seem convinced that they know better than everyone else how to live.

Personally, I’m starting to believe that the world would be much more pleasant place if people were using the singular tense more. But no, these days almost everyone is an expert on what WE should do.

Admittedly, there are some causes when I will gladly join the forces in order to convince the public that WE all should or shouldn’t; like for example WE should recycle, but should not shoot each other with guns. If there is considerable evidence that doing or not doing something has a potential harmful effect on us as a society, I certainly don’t mid folks taking a stance. But what troubles me is when people are becoming judgmental and unable to cope with the fact that when it comes to private lives, some of us might make different choices.

I already described vividly on this very blog how much crap I have been taking from people on both continents for not wanting to have children. You would think from the way some people react that it somewhat affects them personally – which it doesn’t. As a result, I’m getting an allergic reaction every time when I hear in the media “ALL women,” followed by some revelation about what ALL women want, need, think, etc. because interestingly enough, neither of these people, who act like they know me better than I know myself, ever asked MY opinion.

And you know what? I’m actually not picking on the conservative religious right for once.

Yes, even those individuals who are fighting for a good cause can ruin it when they start believing that they have somehow discovered a universal guide to life for every single human being. Do you remember when I got upset in one of my previous columns with some of my counseling colleagues for participating in slut-shaming on Facebook? It wasn’t because I couldn’t stand that they had a different opinion. What bothered me was that they presented it as “US women should do this and that” and you know what? I’m a woman and I don’t like others telling me what to do, especially when it comes to my sexuality, which is what the post was about. I’m fully capable of making my own choices, thank you very much, and yes, they will inevitably be different than those of most of my friends, because my attitudes and beliefs toward human sexuality tend to be more liberal than the American mainstream. But that’s what democracy is about, right?

On a larger scale, it is also one of the reasons why I stopped identifying myself as a feminist – because I got tired of fellow feminists trying to tell me how to dress, how to behave, and, in some cases, how to fuck.  Although I still recognize the important role of feminism in our history and am grateful to early feminists for their accomplishments that now make my life easier, I have felt too many times that liberating women from the oppression of the patriarchal society doesn’t make any sense if you start bossing them around yourself. 

But let’s not get all tangled up in sexuality and gender issues, I have more columns coming on these topics later! The annoying know-it-all syndrome can affect any area of life. Consider the difference between these statements:

Statement A: “I have never felt so good since I decided to go vegan! Most of my health problems disappeared, I feel optimistic and full of energy, and I believe it’s the right path for me.”
Statement B: “WE all should go vegan! It’s the healthiest way to live, it’s good for the environment, it cures diseases – and people who refuse to change their diets are a bunch of ignoramuses and if they get sick and tired, it’s totally their fault.”

Or another example, my favorite, which is becoming a big trend these days in the multiculturally sensitive counseling world:

Statement A: “Personally, I would like to meet a man who will appreciate me mainly for the kind of a person I’m inside.”
Statement B: “Ladies, WE all have to realize that men just has to appreciate us for who WE are inside and if a guy compliments you on your physical appearance and you let him, you are disrespecting yourself and he is a chauvinistic pig who needs to be executed as soon as possible!!!”

And one more for a good measure:

Statement A: “I’m a big girl and I’m proud of it. I love my body just the way it is and you know what? I refuse to bow to the societal pressure about how as a woman I should look like.”
Statement B: “WE all should be proud of who we are and to love our bodies! How dare you to share with your friends that you started to go to the Weight Watchers!?”

Do you see the fundamental difference? The woman defending her right to love her body like it is needs to consider that well, other women just want to be slimmer - may it be for aesthetic or health reasons. It does not necessarily mean that they are brainwashed by the society to become anorexic. Similarly, vegan diet can work wonders for many people but as almost every traditional medicine teaches us, different people respond differently to different foods. My ex-boyfriend developed serious health problems after he became vegan, even though he followed all the guidelines about balanced diet. And if I am the kind of a woman who doesn’t feel that a compliment from a guy on her appearance makes her automatically an “object,” well, it’s really not anybody else’s business but mine, is it!?

Personally, I think that WE all should spend a couple of minutes in the front of a mirror every morning and repeat to ourselves “live and let live” as a mantra. WE would become so much more pleasant if we did! Well, most of us anyway…





Monday, January 6, 2014

THE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST CHURCH AND WHY IT DOESN'T SUCK


The year of 2014 has already started, but I’m still thinking about the beautiful Christmas Eve service in our Unitarian Universalist church. Filled with love for the humankind (which is probably NOT going to last forever), I decided to dedicate my first January column about the church and why I think it rocks.

First of all, you should know that I’m the kind of person who believes very strongly that organized religion sucks. Back in October, I was having a conversation with one of the new students in our program and it came up that I was going to church on Sunday. She looked at me in astonishment.

“I thought that you hated Christians!” she said.

Well. This is what happens when you are used to express your opinions perhaps TOO freely! I didn’t want to be a bad role model, because of course as future counselors we are not supposed to hate anybody or anything, and so I spent a couple of minutes explaining that I didn’t hate Christians; I only hated people who were trying to convert me, make their beliefs political to force them on the whole society, threaten everyone with eternal damnation, and oppress people’s sexuality (mine included, if they had their way). It certainly wasn’t MY fault, I finished my little speech innocently, that in America it was predominantly the Christians who were guilty of all those things!

Yes, I won’t lie to you; I have felt somewhat threatened by Christians ever since I came to America. I’m used to that in Czech Republic (which, together with Estonia, is considered the least religious country in Europe) they have very little, if any, political power. In the United States, however, they have WAY too much of it, especially in the South.

Anyway, while I DO have beef with American Christians, truth be told, I’m at odds with all forms of organized religion, period. In the moment when people start to organize spirituality, they usually fuck it up. All religions seem to have started with good intentions and genuine search for the connection with the Divine, but given time, they ended up with focusing way too much on rules and restrictions on (often natural) human behavior; leave alone the fact that once they became part of political agenda, forget about God – it was suddenly all about power.

As a result, I spent many years claiming that I considered myself spiritual, but not religious. I found every single religion oppressive (yes, even the ones that have reputation of being peaceful and inclusive – while I do appreciate that Buddhists don’t threaten people with Hell, I never understood their obsession to deny everything that makes us human in order to achieve “Enlightenment”), maybe with the exception of modern Wicca, but that one seemed to be attracting way too many weirdoes for my taste. So I floated through the world without any religious or spiritual community – until I discovered Unitarian Universalism.

My inner rebel has no reason to raise and create havoc in the Unitarian Universalist community, because there is no one to argue with :) For those of you who don’t know: Unitarian Universalism, while loosely based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, has absolutely no creed. It teaches that everyone should be given the opportunity to pursue freely his/her own spiritual path, which can have many different forms and THEY ARE ALL OKAY! Unitarians Universalists not only consider all religious and/or spiritual practices equally valid, but they are the only religious community I know of that welcomes folks who identify as agnostics or even atheists – and NOT in order to convert them.

As a general guidance, Unitarian Universalists adhere to “seven principles,” which you are welcome to read here, and which focus on protecting freedom, equity, and justice for all people.

Cool, huh? I couldn’t believe for a long time that I found a community where no one was trying to convince me that there was only ONE acceptable spiritual path and if I didn’t choose it, I was going to meet a terrible end. I enjoy going to Sunday services, but if I sometimes decide to skip and go worship and meditate to a Hindu temple instead, no one has a problem with that.

Most importantly, the values of the Unitarian Universalist community regarding social justice and diversity reflect those of my counseling program (most of which I have adopted as my own a long time ago). Unitarian Universalists have always been heavily involved in the fight for social justice - in America, they were one of the first churches to denounce slavery, support women’s rights, and, more recently, provide a spiritual sanctuary for the LGBTQ community. They even care about the environment – in fact, to “honor the Earth” is a part of my church’s mission statement. And if they can do all that without trying to tell me what to think and how to live – seriously, folks, what’s here not to love!?

:)