Monday, August 27, 2012

How to effect political change non-violently: organize a sex strike

Women in Togo have been urged to abstain from sex for a week from Monday to push their demand for reform. Opposition leader Isabelle Ameganvi said that sex could be a "weapon of the battle" to achieve political change. But she added immediately,"We have many means to oblige men to understand what women want in Togo." 

Ameganvi said she had been inspired by a similar strike by Liberian women in 2003, who used a sex strike to campaign for peace. Women's groups hope that the strike will motivate men who are not involved in the political movement to pursue its goals, which include an end to a system allowing unlimited presidential terms.

The women want President Faure Gnassingbe, whose family has held power for decades, to stand down. "If men refuse to hear our cries we will hold another demonstration that will be more powerful than a sex strike," Ameganyi added.

Such a strike has been used with varied degrees of success many times in the modern period, not only in Liberia but also in Nigeria, Kenya, Columbia, the Philippines, and the Ukraine. And a strike has even been suggested in Belgium. Sex strikes have at the very least publicized the grievances of many people, especially women, in these countries.

In Liberia in 2003, nonviolent protests that included a sex strike resulted in women achieving peace after a 14-year civil war and helped bring to power that country's first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Isabelle Ameganvi

The most famous example of a sex strike is in a Greek comedy written by Aristophanes. First performed in Athens in 411 BC, it is a comic account of one woman's extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata persuades the women of Greece to withhold their sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace. But this is a strategy that inflames the battle between the sexes.

Lysistrata, whose name in Attic Greek, Λυσιστράτη, means "Army-disbander," has convened a meeting of women from various city states in Greece, although there is no mention of how she managed this feat, and, very soon after confiding in her friend about her concerns for the female sex, the women begin arriving.

Lysistrata persuades the women to withhold sexual privileges from their menfolk as a means of forcing them to end the interminable Peloponnesian War. The women are reluctant, but the deal is sealed with a solemn oath around a wine bowl, in which the women temporarily abjure all sexual pleasures.

Some of the women waver, but Lysistrata rallies them with an oracle. She is an exceptional woman and by the end of the play she has demonstrated power over men also -- even the leaders of Greece are submissive once caught in her magic.

Modern adaptations of Lysistrata are often feminist and pacifist in their aim, but the original play was neither feminist nor unreservedly pacifist. Even when dramatic poets wanted to demonstrate empathy with the female condition, in classical Athens they still reinforced sexual stereotyping of women as irrational creatures in need of protection from themselves and from others.

In conclusion, the play is not an attempt to promote universal peace -- Lysistrata chides both the Athenian and Spartan envoys for allying themselves with barbarians. The play, as has been noted by others, is not so much a plea for an end to the Peloponnesian war as it is an imaginative vision of how to end this war in an honorable way at a time when no such ending was possible.

Nevertheless, Lysistrata has fired the imagination of women for centuries, especially in the modern period. Thus it is hardly surprising that today women, who are often as powerless as the women in this ancient play, use one of the few tools at their disposal in order to effect political change in their native land: a sex strike.

In African societies, where women are controlled by men even more that they are in the West, a sex strike is as difficult to achieve as it was in ancient Greece. Contemporary women are very often still treated as chattel, and they have few rights even when it comes to their own bodies.

A modern staging of Lysistrata

The call for a week-long strike in Togo has even been ridiculed by the some women. Few people expect it to last more than two days. As Lysistrata discovered, many women are reluctant to continue such a strike for long. Yet this is still a powerful tool, even if it is largely symbolic.

What makes a sex strike especially powerful is its non-violent nature. No one is hurt in such a strike, unless it is the pride of the sexually-deprived men. Violence may ensue afterwards, as men beat their wives, but the strike itself does not involve violence.

In a world where violent revolutions are increasingly the norm, it is refreshing to be reminded of an age-old method of effecting political change that does not resort to violence. The women in Togo may yet prove that change is possible in a peaceful way. Women (and men) everywhere must support their effort and seek to emulate them.

People who seek peaceful ways of resolving conflicts must find other ways as well to achieve their goals. People of faith around the world must join in the search for non-violent alternative ways to effect political change. A sex strike is only one tool. There are many others that we can and must use. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Stop child labor

Child labor is an injustice that at one time was universal. Today it is still widely practiced and refuses to go away. During the Industrial Revolution, children as young as four were employed in factories with dangerous, and often fatal, working conditions. Child labor is now considered by wealthy countries to be a human rights violation, and is outlawed, while some poorer countries allow or tolerate it for economic and political reasons.

Child labor is work that harms children or keeps them from attending school. Around the world, the growing gap between rich and poor in recent decades has forced millions of young children out of school and into work. Yet there are laws in most countries that prohibit child labor.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 215 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 currently work under conditions that are considered illegal, hazardous, or extremely exploitative. Of the 215 million, approximately 114 million (53%) are in Asia and the Pacific; 14 million (7%) live in Latin America; and 65 million (30%) live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Incidence rates for child labor worldwide, per World Bank data. The data is incomplete, as many countries do not collect or report child labor data (colored gray). The color code is as follows: yellow (<10% of children working), green (10-20%), orange (20-30%), red (30-40%) and black (>40%). Some African nations have more than half of all children aged 5-14 at work to make ends meet.
The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, which was subsequently ratified by 193 countries. Article 32 of the convention addressed child labor, as follows: Parties recognise the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.

Underage children work at all sorts of jobs around the world, usually because they and their families are extremely poor. Large numbers of children work in commercial agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, mining, and domestic service. Some children work in illicit activities like the drug trade and prostitution or other traumatic activities such as serving as soldiers.

I have seen this myself in Nigeria

The ILO suggests poverty is the greatest single cause behind child labor. For impoverished households, income from a child's work is usually crucial for their own survival or for that of the household. Income from working children, even if small, may be between 25 to 40% of these household income. 

Lack of meaningful alternatives, such as affordable schools and quality education, according to the ILO,  is another major factor driving children to harmful labor. Children work because they have nothing better to do. Many communities, particularly in rural areas where between 60-70% of child labor is found, do not possess adequate schools. Even when schools are available, they are too far away, difficult to reach, unaffordable or the quality of education is so poor that parents wonder if going to school is really worth it.

The ILO`s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), founded in 1992, aims to eliminate child labor. It operates in 88 countries and is the largest program of its kind in the world. IPEC works with international and government agencies, NGOs, the media, and children and their families to end child labor and provide children with education and assistance.

But powerful political, economic, and cultural factors stand in the way of eliminating child labor. Legislation by itself is not enough. If laws ban all forms of child labor that the poor need in order to survive, the informal economy, illicit operations and underground businesses will continue to thrive.

Yet there are moral and economic reasons that justify a blanket ban on labor from children aged 18 years or less, everywhere in the world. Child labor leads to poor labor standards for adults, depresses the wages of adults in developing countries as well as in the developed countries, and dooms the third world economies to low-skill jobs only capable of producing poor quality cheap exports. The more children that work in poor countries, the fewer and worse-paid are the jobs available for adults.

The availability of good schooling is thus the best way to stop child labor. This will take both time and money, but the latter is often in short supply in the developing countries. Yet, as economic conditions improve in these countries, the need for child labor will decrease. This happened in Europe and North America, and it will happen elsewhere too. The incidence of child labor in the world decreased from 25% to 10% between 1960 and 2003, according to the World Bank.

It happened even in the US: mill children in Macon, Georgia

The provision of universal education by itself is not a panacea, however. In many African countries, as I know from personal experience, this provision was not properly funded. Schools sprung up everywhere, but books and adequately trained teachers were in short supply. 

Hence the reluctance of parents to send their children to school is understandable. Their children were better off working in the fields or contributing to the family income in some other way. It was, in fact, necessary.

In this blog I have written about many injustices that need to stop. Child labor is one of the worst, since by allowing it to perpetuate, we are depriving children not only of the education they need and deserve but also of the opportunity to be children who can play and socialize at will. Education is a basic human right that all children deserve. Children must also have the right to be children, and not forced to work.

These girls, bearing signs in Yiddish and English, are part of a protest in 1909

There have been other attempts in the past to stop child labor. It is indeed a form of slavery that must end soon. We must do what we can to eliminate this grievous injustice. 

Admittedly, many families in developing countries still need the income that their children can provide. They will not willingly give up that income. Thus we must be prepared to provide incentives for them to do so. That may involves expenses on our part, but we should do what we can, motivated out of love for the world`s most deprived children.

Let`s stop child labor through enforcing existing laws relating to child labor, by helping to provide children everywhere with adequate educational opportunities, by taking the small but important step of boycotting companies that use child labor, and by doing whatever else we can to improve their lot. We owe it to them!


Monday, August 13, 2012

Stop Islamophobia

Islamophobia is alive today, as I was reminded again a few days ago when someone told me that the Qur'an only teaches hatred. Chalk that up perhaps to ignorance, but like many people, he expressed at the same time a fear of Muslims that I have noticed in many countries all over the world. I define this as Islamophobia.

Yet I just read an article claiming that Islamophobia does not exist, and another contending that since anti-Islamic crimes have declined after peaking in September 2001 the US cannot be described as Islamophobic.

However, if Islamophobia is defined as a fear or hatred of Islam and Muslims, then it does exist. In fact, some Muslims argue that this term is inadequate to describe the hatred of their faith and the discrimination they experience. They would prefer to call it 'anti-Islamic racism' since it combines a dislike of a particular religion and an active discrimination against the people who belong to that faith.

Jews, who have suffered discrimination, protest Islamophobia

The Runnymede Trust in the 1997 document, "Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All," identified eight components that define Islamophobia. These are just as relevant today as they were 15 years ago:
1) Islam is seen as a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change.
2) Islam is seen as separate and 'other'. It does not have values in common with other cultures, is not affected by them and does not influence them.
3) Islam is seen as inferior to the West. It is seen as barbaric, irrational, primitive and sexist.
4) Islam is seen as violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism and engaged in a 'clash of civilisations.'
5) Islam is seen as a political ideology and is used for political or military advantage.
6) Criticisms made of the West by Islam are rejected out of hand.
7) Hostility towards Islam is used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society.
8) Anti-Muslim hostility is seen as natural or normal.

Islamophobia is a website that describes Islamophobia as "an irrational fear or prejudice towards Islam and Muslims." It includes many articles introducing Islam. Another site documents cases of Islamophobia.

Islamophobia is irrational, not Islam. We tend to fear the unknown or things that we are ignorant of. The list that the Runnymede Trust provides illustrates the appalling ignorance of many people about Islam. One of the most effective ways of combating Islamophobia is through education. It is by far the easiest, since deep-seated prejudices are harder to eradicate.

Some people, unfortunately, prefer to wallow in ignorance. They only know the myths that the media, or at least segments thereof, pedal in order to sell what purports to be news.

Nearly a fifth of Americans believe that Barack Obama is Muslim. This myth was popular during the 2008 election in the US. In this election year it is crucial that this blatant example of Islamophobia be eradicated once and for all. Unfortunately, it will probably be perpetuated by those who can benefit from such ignorance.

Europeans are not immune to Islamophobia either. Many there dread “Eurabia,” the ostensibly imminent Arab/Muslim takeover of the continent, even though its Muslim population is less than 3 per cent.

Islamophobia is not just interpersonal: it is systemic. It is intimately connected with sexism and violence, both of which are endemic in Western societies. That is why it is so difficult to eradicate Islamophobia.

The media are complicit in perpetuating Islamophobia. Many journalists know little about religion in general and Islam in particular. Deadlines are one factor in their ignorance but much more crucial is the relegation of religion to the private sphere in the West. Secularized journalists thus find it especially difficult to understand Islam, a religion that contradicts this relegation, since it emphatically denies the public/private distinction.

Anti-semitism and Christophobia exist as well in Western societies. The former is attacked more often than any other group in the US, but this does not mean that Islamophobia is "a gross exaggeration that has been peddled by Muslim political leaders with an agenda," as one website puts it. 

All hate crimes must stop, not just the one perpetrated against the group one belongs to. Islamophobia must be eradicated. The fight against every form of religious phobia is part of that process of eradication. 

We must support each other so that one day every form of religious phobia will be gone. Isha'Allah.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Measuring greatness at the Olympics

How should we measure greatness at the Olympics? This thought was brought on just after Michael Phelps received his 19th Olympic medal. Many accorded him the accolade, "the greatest Olympian of all time."

This is an amazing achievement, but does he deserve to be called the greatest ? No less an authority than Sebastian Coe was reticent to bestow the ultimate crown on on Phelps.

“My personal view is I’m not sure he’s the greatest,” Lord Coe, who won two gold metals in athletics and is now the head of the London organizing committee, said. “But he’s certainly the most successful.”

Phelps is indeed successful, as the following list reveals (as of August 1, 2012):

Most medals won by one Olympic athlete
1Michael PhelpsUnited States2004-12Swim152219
2Larysa LatyninaSoviet Union1956-64Gym95418
3Nikolay AndrianovSoviet Union1972-80Gym75315
4Borys ShakhlinSoviet Union1956-64Gym74213
Takashi OnoJapan1952-64Gym54413
Edoardo MangiarottiItaly1936-60Fencing65213
7Natalie CoughlinUnited States2004-12Swim34512
Aleksey NemovRussia1996-2000Gym42612
Bjørn DæhlieNorway1992-98CC Ski84012
Jenny ThompsonUnited States1992-2004Swim83112
Dara TorresUnited States1984-2008Swim44412
Birgit Fischer-SchmidtEast Ger./Germany1980-2004Canoe84012
Sawao KatoJapan1968-76Gym83112
Paavo NurmiFinland1920-28Athletics93012
15Ole Einar BjørndalenNorway1998-2010Biath64111
Matt BiondiUnited States1984-92Swim82111
Mark SpitzUnited States1968-72Swim91111
Věra ČáslavskáCzechoslovakia1960-68Gym74011
Viktor ChukarinSoviet Union1952-56Gym73111
Carl OsburnUnited States1912-24Shoot54211
Most gold medals won by one Olympic athlete
1Michael PhelpsUnited States2004-12Swim152219
2Ray EwryUnited States1900-08Athletics100010
3Carl LewisUnited States1984-96Athletics91010
Mark SpitzUnited States1968-72Swim91111
Larysa LatyninaSoviet Union1956-64Gym95418
Paavo NurmiFinland1920-28Athletics93012
7Bjørn DæhlieNorway1992-98CC Ski84012
Jenny ThompsonUnited States1992-2004Swim83112
Matt BiondiUnited States1984-92Swim82111
Birgit Fischer-SchmidtEast Ger./Germany1980-2004Canoe84012
Sawao KatoJapan1968-76Gym83112
Winter Olympics
Summer Olympics


Even International Olympic committee president Jacques Rogge is hesitant to put Phelps above everyone else. Rogge notes that Phelps is“definitely one of the greatest.” But, Rogge explains, "You cannot reduce everything to the medals." He does admit, however, "It is a landmark."
It is indeed a landmark. This record will not be broken any time soon. Phelps now has won almost twice the number of gold medals than anyone else. The questions remains, however, is he really the greatest Olympian of all time? I too my doubts.

At the Olympics, greatness is measured by the number of medals that are won. Competition is healthy, but are medals the best measurement of greatness? What about athletes who put on the best performance ever, but still do not win a medal, are they not equally great? They have done their best, and thus they can rightfully be proud of their achievement. So should the nation they represent.

I do not mean to diminish Phelp's achievement, but he earned his medals in a sport where he can reveal his talents in many Olympic events, unlike some sports where an athlete only has one opportunity to perform. Medal count alone is not the measurement of greatness.

Not only individuals but nations also vie for Olympic medals. If nations want to compete, sport is a much preferred alternative to war. When the original Olympics were played, wars were temporarily suspended.

Ancient list of Olympic victors of the 75th to the 78th, and from

 the 81st to the 83rd Olympiads (480–468 BC, 456–448 BC).

Some nations go to great lengths to win medals. They will even encourage their teams to cheat, as happened in badminton.

China uses of the most demanding and controversial training systems in the world in order to reap the medals  at the Olympics. Children as young as six are selected and sent to elite sports schools, of which there are more than 3,000, training 400,000 athletes. There are accusations that children are abused at these schools.

However, fewer than 400 will make the Olympic team. The success of the Chinese program is phenomenal. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China won a record-breaking 51 gold medals, and 100 overall.

The United States has also been very successful in harvesting medals. In 2008, the US won 36 gold medals but 110 in total. Good training and lots of money seem to be the key to success at the Olympics.

In striking contrast, in 2008 India won only three medals in all, while Canada, earned a total of 18. I have listed the top twenty nations, together with the number of medals that each won.

1 China (CHN)512128100
2 United States (USA)363836110
3 Russia (RUS)23212973
4 Great Britain (GBR)19131547
5 Germany (GER)16101541
6 Australia (AUS)14151746
7 South Korea (KOR)1310831
8 Japan (JPN)961025
9 Italy (ITA)891027
10 France (FRA)7161841
11 Ukraine (UKR)751527
12 Netherlands (NED)75416
13 Kenya (KEN)64414
14 Jamaica (JAM)63211
15 Spain (ESP)510318
16 Belarus (BLR)451019
17 Romania (ROU)4138
18 Ethiopia (ETH)4127
19 Canada (CAN)39618
20 Poland (POL)36110

If one compares the population of Canada with that of the US and China, for example, Canada on a per capita basis won more medals in 2008 than both of these countries.

Maybe the medal haul of countries should be evaluated per capita. Unfortunately, that would still leave poor India somewhere near the bottom of the list. Australia, however, would fare especially well on this basis.

This proposal would not be very popular with the countries near the top of this list. Thus it is not likely to be introduced, but maybe some of the media might be willing to provide such a list, if only for interest sake.

The Bible realizes that in a race there can be only one winner (1 Corinthians 9:24), but the next verse teaches the ephemeral nature of the prize the winner receives. It uses a very different measurement than what is used in the Olympics.

Will people still remember Michael Phelps fifty years from now? Probably not. But people still remember the amazing accomplishment of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin when a black man rubbished the Nazi idea of the Ubermensch. Although he only won four gold medals, Owens changed the world.

Let Phelps and the other medal winners (and their countries!) bask in their brief moment of glory. Sic transit gloria mundi (worldly things are fleeting). One might very gently remind them of this, but that would maybe spoil the party.

Enjoy the Olympics! But take the results with a huge grain of salt. The athletes and their families may savor their moments of victory for awhile, but for most of us it is merely entertainment. 

Let's treat the results as a momentary distraction from the problems of the world. People will continue to die in Syria and elsewhere. Don't forget about them as you watch the Olympics.