Religious Belief and the Age of Consent

You may recall a case from a few weeks ago, in which a girl named Lydia Playfoot took her school to the High Court. The school had not allowed her to wear a chastity ring, which she argued was a representation of her religion. Over at the Ministry of Truth, the prolific Unity has pointed out that the girl’s father, and the people who assisted in her Human Rights claim, also run the UK franchise of the Silver Ring Thing (via DK). The court case doubles as a fantastic publicity campaign for the chastity course, which makes money selling the rings and merchandise to those who take the pledge.
This revelation chimes in with the unease many people felt over the Playfoot case, as with the Shabina Begum case two years ago. The idea persists that Lydia was “put up to it” by her father, just as the influence of the hard-line Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir was cited in the Begum case. Personally, I don’t think such “influence” captures the full story in either case – both Lydia Playfoot and Shabina Begum clearly hold strong beliefs and do not seem to be anyone’s puppet.
Nevertheless, I think both cases grate on the consciousness for the same reason, which is that the symbols (ring and Jilbab) evoke a religious imposition of chastity. This in turn is linked to ideas of male ownership of women, and the use of religion to impose control over women. As Mark Morford writes in his discussion of ‘Purity Balls’, this is a distasteful concept in itself, but also one that leads to a “wanton sexual stupidity” that is dangerous and miserable (via Tygerland).
This concern was not the basis on which both Playfoot and Begum eventually lost their cases. Instead, the cases centred around how the expression of their faith impacted on other people. The rights and wrongs of their personal convictions were not questioned, nor was the sincerity of their convictions. Perhaps they should…
Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish has been running a discussion on the genital mutilation of children for religious reasons. While FGM is obviously much worse, Sullivan points out that MGM is still a ‘scarring’ to which the child cannot possibly consent. ‘Consent’ is an interesting word here, since it unites sex and religion once more.
Many countries around the world, including the UK, have an Age of Consent law. By stipulating the age at which one can legally be said to have given consent to sexual relations, it effectively says that children under that age are not capable of making such an important decision for themselves. However, I do not believe such laws exist for the adoption of a religion. This is in many ways odd. Choosing a faith (or none) is arguably a more important decision for a person, than whether to have sex or not. Most religious people cite their faith as the most important thing about them. They would surely be the first to agree that it outweighs the very human choice over whether to indulge in intercourse or not on any given evening.
Its a conundrum for the religionists, who are happy to use the language of choice, responsibility and rights when it comes to promoting their faith, yet deny similar choices can exist for sex and sexuality. I say that if a fourteen year old is old enough to make a decision about their God, then they are also ready to make a decision about sex! Alternatively, if a fourteen year old cannot make a responsible decision about sex, then they cannot possibly make a responsible decision about God. Note how children like Lydia Playfoot are only deemed capbable of making a responsible choice when they choose chastity. In that case, is it any kind of choice at all? Should it be respected in human rights law?
My suggestion is to broaden the definition of the ‘Age of Consent’ to include a consent to religion too. By this rationale, children could still, of course, wear religious symbols in school… but below the age of consent, they would not be deemed, in a legal context, to have chosen to wear those things for themselves. Rather, they have been dressed by their parents. If religionists wish to assimilate young members into their Church, and use their ‘choices’ as the basis of a campaign… then they have to allow those young members the choice to have sex too. Alternatively, if they cannot stomach such a permissive idea, then the religious choices of school-children can no longer be the basis of a Rights campaign in the courts.
Either way, The ‘Age of Consent’ will remain a law designed to protect youngsters from the predatory influence of adults.

8 Replies to “Religious Belief and the Age of Consent”

  1. ya…you are sooo right! child, men and women should have the right to choose their own religions. It’s ridiculous that babies are baptise before they can even speak for themselves. Absolutely outrageous and againt basic human rights.

    1. There should be age consent as my daughter behind our backs has converted to a Muslim over the phone with a 25 year old man encouraging her.
      I have now lost my daughter as there is no law in asking for parents consent in this happening,my daughter has just bearly turned 17 ,she don’t even no what she wants for dinner, let alone convert to Muslim.
      I believe that if she was 18 then she can make that big step in her life.
      My daughter can’t vote.
      My daughter can’t go clubbing.
      My daughter can’t buy liqueur or tabacco.
      So why is it ok that she can change her religion .in such a scary way,as I have never heard that you can convert over a phone.

      1. Hi Cheryl, this sounds like a bizarre and distressing situation.
        I would be very surprised if many mainstream British Muslims would consider conversion over the phone as the valid and proper way to convert to Islam. Like any religious adherents I think the community and in particular, the Imams, would want to see that the person was committed to the religion and was not being coerced.
        I assume that you found this blog post by searching the Internet for “what is the age of consent for religion” or something? I am not a lawyer but as I understand it there is no age of consent for a religion. Unlike sexual intercourse there is no ‘act’, just a thought, so it’s not something the state could or should regulate.
        That said, forcing or persuading someone to go through the ritual of a religious conversion could certainly be seen as controlling or even abusive behaviour.
        Sadly, at age 17 there is probably less that could be done than if she was younger. And when she turns eighteen I doubt social services or the law would be able to offer much help. There may be groups that offer support for this kind of thing.
        The good news is that because the law does not licence or forbid religious affiliation, if your daughter did decide she had made a mistake, the people who persuaded her to convert would have no legal standing or hold over her. She can stop being a Muslim simply by saying so, or even by thinking it. Don’t buy into the idea that just because she has converted to Islam that she is somehow changed or there are constraints on her out in the world. As I say, the choice to be or not be religious is in one’s head.
        That might not stop certain people claiming to have rights over her or that she is still a Muslim even if she denied it. But they would be wrong. If they harassed her about leaving Islam then they would be committing a crime.
        There is also the possibility that your daughter may have chosen to convert of her own free will, in which case it really doesn’t matter whether it is legitimate to have done so over the phone. She is telling you that she has done a ceremony in order to get you off her back, present a fait accompli.
        I have not had personal experience of this dilemma. But my gut instinct is that you should stay in close contact with your daughter, regardless. No religion teaches that you should cut yourself off from your family. If she is serious about Islam the your relationship will grow around it. It may give her purpose and be a very good thing. On the other hand, if she does decide she has regrets then you will need to be around to support her.

  2. “‘Constent’ is an interesting word here”
    — I think you want “Consent”. Wouldn’t usually be a big deal, but you’re calling specific attention to the word.
    Also, well written article. Argues a point while largely avoiding rhetoric.

  3. We are currently dealing with this with my 5 year old daughter. Certain members of my family are “forcing” their religious beliefs on her, to the point she believes that if you don’t think this way, you’re wrong/bad. My husband and I have consentrated on teaching her about all religions, so that when it’s time for her to “choose” one (if any), she can make an informed decision. We don’t even consentrate on the religion that we have chosen, although a little more time has been spent on it. We also are teaching her that most religions are the same. Same ideas about God, and same principles. Shouldn’t we be teaching our kids about tolerance instead of “I’m right, your wrong”?
    But this is a great article. Although I don’t believe you should put a certain age on choosing a religion, I do believe if you are mature enough to make your own choice about what to do with your body, you’re mature enough to make your own choice about your spirituality.

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