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.