The hidden agenda behind the explicit criminalisation of sex-selective abortion

Pro-Choice Signs

Women, like men, live in societies and make choices based on the norms and constraints that exist within those societies. Accepting diversity means accepting the fact that different people hold different conceptions of the good life. As long as people make autonomous choices within those constraints, the government should keep out of it.

A British or an American-born woman will likely choose to abort her foetus if she has no means to support it, or if bringing it up would affect her circumstances to such as an extent that she finds unacceptable. She makes the choice based on the constraints of her community, which holds financial independence and material affluence to high regard.

Can someone meaningfully argue against that woman’s right to abort? Can one object on the grounds that she is forced into it due to the pressures imposed upon her by the cultural norms of western societies? I think not. Yes, you could object to the abortion on religious or other grounds, but not using the argument that it is a product of cultural oppression.

Gruesome as it may be, sex-selective abortion falls within the same parameters. Sex-selective abortion is a practice that responds to the norms of some cultures, in the same way as financially-motivated abortions are a product of decision within the constraints of western liberal cultures. Insofar as it is the autonomous choice of women, where informed adults exercise their agency over their reproductive rights within the inevitable constraints of their societies or cultures, the state cannot legitimately intervene. As such, the amendment to the law to explicitly criminalise sex-selective abortion, has a hidden agenda: to criminalise all abortions and in doing so to restrict women’s reproductive freedoms.

The state should not be in the business of regulating people’s lives. Rather, it should guarantee that the women in question make autonomous decisions without coercion, and that they are aware of alternative options available to them; options that they might so choose if and when they want to.

The state should guarantee that the women in question enjoy a substantive right of exit from their cultures. A right of exit is very different from forcing a woman to give up her reproductive rights. Similarly, providing a right of exit should not entail the destruction of her culture, as it provides context-of-choice for her – a term coined by the Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka.

Guaranteeing autonomous choice and a substantive right of exit for women, means that the state must guarantee that women have a right to education and that they are aware of the existence of a safety net beyond the structures of their culture. Both conditions rest on the availability of a welfare state that will provide educational opportunities, structures that will help women to get back on their feet if they choose to alienate themselves from their families and friends, and overall gender equality within society: in the job market, in universities, in the media, in the arts and, of course, in public office.

Restricting women’s reproductive rights is not the way to go. On the practical side, there is no way to enforce such a measure without the state shoving its nose into people’s private lives (the law already prohibits SSAs, the new amendment wants to recognise the “rights of the unborn” independent of the pregnant woman, as many academics rightly argued in a letter to the Telegraph). More substantially though, it doesn’t solve the problem. If it’s not sex-selective abortion it will be something else. And then something else. And some more. How far do we want to take it before our private decisions are first vetted by the value-system of the majority societal cultures?

A small state, as the one envisioned by the Conservative party, cannot guarantee people’s right to live their lives as they see fit. The erosion of the welfare provisions of the state leaves it unable to guarantee a substantive right of exit of individuals from their cultures. It can only act as a bully — by intervening and asserting its authority through a blanket ban on some practices, which rests on the arrogant superiority that women in minority cultures are victims of oppression who cannot make autonomous decisions.

In doing so, the sack of Aeolus opens and more restrictions on women’s control over their bodies is under way. Now it’s self-selective abortion, in a few years, provided that the majority culture deems it prudent, it might be all abortions, “our” abortions. When we talk about the rights of “others” is easy to miss how their restriction could backlash against the rights that feminists have fought for and won after centuries of oppression by us, men.

Am I the right person to talk about women’s reproductive rights? Probably not. I will never experience giving birth and I will never be in a position where I will have to make choices such as these. Nevertheless, neither are most western activists who campaign in favour of the explicit criminalisation of sex-selective abortions. The voices that need to be amplified, those we really need to hear, are the voices of women who face this choice.

If the objective is not to ban abortions altogether, if there is no hidden agenda against all abortions behind the proposed amendment, then we need to start talking about the empowerment of women and the unjust hierarchical structures that constrain the options available to them. We must engage with women who face decisions that we find problematic and learn from them instead of classifying them as victims of oppression who have no agency or control over their lives.

And history can teach us a few things on that. Not too long ago, France banned the veil in public schools. Three girls were expelled from their school for refusing to conform. A great debate took place, from which the only people missing were the three girls whose choice to wear the veil was considered problematic by the majority of French people. When the girls were later interviewed it became obvious that their decision to wear the veil was autonomous and reasoned, and that the veil was an assertion of their identity rather than a product of an oppressive culture that left them no other choice.

We need to avoid the restriction of women’s right to choose how to deal with their own bodies and we need to take positive steps to make sure that the choices they make reflect the exercise of their informed judgement and not the pressure of their families or cultures. Explicitly criminalising sex-selective abortions achieves neither objective. Instead, it will endanger the lives of women who will seek alternative — underground — means to get those abortions and will, at the same time, limit the reproductive rights of women in general, as is the objective of the so called pro-life group behind the proposed amendment.

Published in the Huffington Post. For comments head to the original article.

Time to rethink the book ban

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A Cypriot was stopped at Stansted Airport because he was carrying emergency flares with him. The person that will likely carry mini-explosives to the airport is either a potential terrorist or “stupid and naive”, and it makes sense for the authorities to assume that he is the former. As it turned out, the defendant was not a terrorist.

If this was a story about a 22 year-old with a box of distress signal mini-flares in his luggage, then there would be nothing controversial about it, besides perhaps the fact that the police actually returned the flares to him once they charged him. As it turns out, the problem were not the flares, but rather a book he was reading, called the Anarchist Cookbook, which was published in 1971.

Five months before his airport arrest, Andreas Pierides, a Cypriot student at the University of Southampton’s Business School, was photographed by a fellow train passenger reading the Anarchist Cookbook on his kindle. The eager co-passenger reported Pierides to the police and handed them over the pictures of Pierides reading the prohibited book.

The Anarchistic Cookbook, featured here on Vice, was written to express the anger of its author William Powell, who explained in the Guardian that he wrote the book because he was “being actively pursued by the US military, who seemed single-mindedly determined to send me to fight, and possibly die, in Vietnam.” It includes instructions on how to create bombs, LSD and other fun stuff.

It is prime time for an open debate about the practice of banning books. Not only because it violates people’s freedom of choice and expression, but also because it is impractical and costly. This debate needs to take place in light of the expiry of the copyrights of Hitler’s magnum opus Mein Kampfarguably the most controversial book of the previous century. The copyrights are currently held by the Bavarian state government, which prohibits its publication in Germany. In 2015 the copyrights will expire, and the German politicians will be called to decide whether to ban the book or not.

We live in an era were only rudimentary knowledge of computers is needed in order to browse the internet almost completely anonymously. Leaving all moral justifications aside, the sheer costs in money and privacy of banning books are enormous; so much so that it makes it irrational to maintain that banning them is either desirable or even possible.

The enforcement of such laws require the secret service agencies, be them the NSA or the GCHQ, to constantly monitor the activities of their citizens, and to apprehend them not for the crimes they have committed, or for the crimes that they are thinking about committing, but about the potential crimes that reading a book might lead them to commit. Do we really want to live in a twisted geeky version of the Minority Reportwhere citizens are arrested for future crimes they had not even considered committing?

The violation of people’s privacy, albeit the most important consideration, is not the only non-moral cost involved. The motivation that drove the fellow passenger to call the police on Pierides was guided by what I assume were well-meaning concerns about public safety. If fraternisation in a democratic society is curtailed by suspicion, mistrust and security considerations, it will gradually lead to the erosion of that society, because it will undermine the capacities of its citizens for cooperation and — dare I say it — comradership; necessary for the implementation of any redistributive programme by the government.

Banning books is as misguided as it is banal; it misses on how societies and individuals evolved with the popularisation of the internet. The internet created more open societies. It enabled people to transcend their cultural boundaries and to use the tools of other cultures to reform their own. Along with a culture of openness, it created a new kind of citizen, the scavenger citizen. Citizens that have access to enormous amounts of data that they skillfully navigate in order to find what they are looking for. The scavenger citizen is much more critical than the previous, analog citizen, and much more able to examine and reject new pieces of information.

The scavenger citizen deliberates over issues online, transforming the way political debate and deliberation takes place. The fear that books will adversely influence this new type of citizen, shows a complete mistrust towards their abilities and creates a flair of mystery around the subject-matter of the book, making it more attractive to young people who tend to be more susceptible to exoticised topics.

There is a dilemma here that we need to address: we will either live under a constant worry for our well-being in a securitised society that considers the private sphere as the place where potential terrorists are groomed, or we will try to achieve a more equal and inclusive society that trusts those living within its bounds. The more we emphasise security over equality, the more home-grown terrorists we will see. The way to tackle the problem is not by banning books or by monitoring every private moment of free citizens’ lives. The only way to make people less eager and less susceptible to influence of extreme ideologies is by providing them with a structure of equal opportunities, an inclusive society that does not exclude them because of their religion, language or skin-colour.

The issue on whether to ban books or not is not an isolated topic. It is part of a wider discussion on multiculturalism, economic and social inequality, and the freedom of choice and expression of people living in liberal countries. If people feel excluded from the society they live in because of the diminished life-chances that they have, they will be more susceptible to be influenced by extreme ideologies, and more eager to radicalise. The solution is not to proclaim that multiculturalism has failed and embark in a full speed attack on people’s freedoms, but rather to try and think about multiculturalism as linked to economic and social inequality, and to figure out how best ton integrate people from other cultures into your country.

Until the challenges are seen as part of a wider bundle, governments will keep censoring books and violating the privacy of their citizens to defend their “freedom from fear,” as George W. Bush used to say.

Published in the Cyprus-Mail on August 31st, 2014, under the title Time to rethink the book ban

Not very British #BritishValues: how Cameron silences minorities

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In his article on Mail on Sunday, the British Prime Minister explains that values such as freedom, tolerance, social responsibility and the rule of law are virtues distinctively British that should be taught in schools. Cameron is factually, conceptually, historically and empirically wrong.

These values he describes — tolerance, freedom, social responsibility, the rule of law — are desirable and worth upholding, but they are not ‘British’. They are global values that feature at the core documents of the biggest intergovernmental organisations like the Charter of the United Nations and the Lisbon Treaty. At best, they could be described as ‘Western Values’; an equally misguided conclusion since it assumes that non-Western countries endorse slavery, which is the opposite of freedom.

Cameron is not only appropriating the whole of liberal political thought, he is also sterilising it by cutting it off from the historical developments and philosophical waves that have influenced it. Cameron’s analysis is therefore conceptually naive. It cannot capture the evolution of concepts such as freedom and toleration. A useful reading for the PM would be Lord Parekh’s book Rethinking Multiculturalism, which traces the historical, geographical and philosophical evolution of the concept of diversity, demonstrating its cross-cultural character. As the law professor John Tasioulas wrote: “real values, unlike good cheese and wine, are not geographically specified.” Britain did not invent these concepts and there is nothing distinctively British about them. The most we can say is that the UK provides a successful example for the application of some of these values; for instance, by providing religious exceptions to Sikhs, it has set a precedent for the accommodation of cultural and religious minorities in the EU.

Cameron’s appropriation of values such as freedom and toleration is not only conceptually challenged, it is also ahistorical, or even worse, historically selective. James Tully, a Canadian philosopher and one of the most celebrated Lockean scholars, has explained how John Locke’s philosophy was written at the back of British imperialism and how it was used to explain the appropriation of Aboriginal peoples’ land in the colonies. David Cameron appropriates the liberal values that philosophers like Locke have pioneered, but he does not explain the historical context that brought them about. He does not talk about British imperialism, slavery and racism, which are fundamental characteristics of the British Empire. If Britain is to be proclaimed the originator of these values, then it is only fair to highlight its other contributions to human civilisation rather than to cherry-pick the bits of history that make Britain proud.

Cameron’s rhetoric on British Values is also empirically misguided. It misrepresents the current debates in British society. The PM used a fabricated letter — a hoax — to argue that Britain is threatened by Islamic extremists. Within this narrative, the non-extremists are described as moderates. And moderate is what you are before you become an extremist. He is making a double division: on the one hand he divides British society between those that are properly British and uphold the values of Britain and those that are not; and on the other hand, he divides Muslims into moderates and extremists.

In doing so he is silencing the overwhelming majority of Muslims living in the UK; people who are political liberals that accept the main premises upon which the British society is structured. These people are making demands on the grounds of liberal equality. They ask for the same treatment as the members of the majority societal culture, whose culture is engrained into the institutions of the state. The most obvious example of the ethnocultural bias of the British state can be seen in the appointments at the House of Lords: it has 26 Anglican Bishops as Spiritual Peers that influence the law on ‘moral’ issues such as homosexuality. Another example is the debate on faith schools, which is presented as a distinctively Muslim demand, obscuring away from the fact that Christian Schools of the Anglican church that receive money from the state far precede and outnumber their Muslim equivalents. David Cameron does not accept that (a) his country is a multi-nation country and (b) that all states are ethnoculturally biased in favour of the members of the dominant societal culture. In doing so, he is silencing the liberal demands brought forward by members of minority groups.

David Cameron not only misrepresents minority groups and the nature of the demands that they make, he is also skewing the whole debate on minority rights. The debate is not whether someone says “oh, and by the way, I don’t accept freedom of speech”. The debate is about how to balance different ‘liberal’ and ‘desirable’ principles with each other. How to balance, for instance, the liberal principles of freedom and equality. The government should enter into a productive dialogue with these cultures in order to find a way to accommodate their demands within the bounds of liberal principles.

David Cameron and most of his colleagues have studied PPE at one of the best universities in the world. They know very well that cross-cultural dialogue can only be meaningful when the groups and their demands are not misrepresented. Their handling of the Trojan Horse fake letter demonstrates that they have no such inclinations. What worries me the most is that the debate on British Values came only weeks after the Prime Minister declared that the UK is a christian country. This lets me wondering: what does Mr Cameron want? Does he want a liberal country that respects all its citizens or a religious country that discriminates according to the religious beliefs of its citizens? If it’s the former, then he should stop calling people unpatriotic.

Published in the Huffington Post

HOWTO survive social encounters with British people

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Life in the UK is not always straightforward. One needs time to get accustomed to the social norms in order to be able to understand the subtle meanings that are implied in social encounters. I will attempt, through an array of generalisations and stereotypes, to illustrate these differences. Continue reading only if you don’t take yourself too seriously.

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Multiculturalism in Cyprus: watching the Third Motherland, a documentary about the Maronite community


Costas Constantinou and Giorgos Skordis created a documentary back in 2001, called The Third Motherland. It contains a series of informal interviews at the village of Kormakitis. The interviews show the internal exclusion that Maronites have experienced. As Constantinou himself says: “the film reveals the dilemmas of identification and belonging and accounts for opposing feelings and beliefs within and beyond the community”. It is “a film about cultural loss, co-option, denial of rights and everyday social problems, but also of ethnic pride, cultural revival, communal joy and resistance”.
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Multiculturalism contra Ethnicity: the case of Cyprus

In late June, I will be presenting a paper titled ‘Multiculturalism contra Ethnicity: the case of Cyprus’ at a conference organised by Surrey’s Center of Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism and UCL’s Migration Research Unit, called The Future of Multiculturalism: Structures, Integration Policies and Practices.

This is the abstract of my paper:

This paper will use the post-conflict and post-colonial multicultural challenges that exist in Cyprus to assess the use of ethnicity as a marker for cultural identification. It will be demonstrated that ethnocultural identification can become a source of social, political and linguistic oppression and as such should not be uncritically adopted in defence of group-differentiated citizenship. This hypothesis will be assessed through the example of Cyprus, where the British colonialists divided the various religious groups of the island into two ethno-national minorities, reducing the rest into religious collectives without substantial political rights. The case of Cyprus will demonstrate: (i) how the concept of ethnicity as an ‘imagined community’ can be utilised as a pretext for assimilation or social isolation; (ii) how ethnicity prioritises the continuation of the collective imaginary values over than the needs of the individual cultural members; and (iii) how ethnicity can be utilised in making religious groups socially invisible. The marginalisation of the Maronite, Latin, Armenian and Roma cultures in Cyprus demonstrates the problematic relation of ethnicity and multiculturalism since the former can be used to deny cultural and linguistic recognition to non-dominant or non-ethnic minorities and religious groups.

Modood’s Multiculturalism: a Civic Idea

Opposite the critiques of group-rights, stands Tariq Modood who is one of the most vocal proponents of multiculturalism in the UK. His book Multiculturalism: a Civic Idea (2007) is a reply to the conservative claims that multiculturalism is dead, like those advanced by the British Prime Minister David Cameron when discussing terrorism and radicalisation (05 February 2011).
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Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship

In this post, I provide a summary of Will Kymlicka’s very influential book on multiculturalism, titled Multicultural Citizenship: a liberal theory of minority rights. This book is important for everyone interested in multiculturalism since it initiated the contemporary debate about group-differentiated rights. One needs not to fully agree with Kymlicka to acknowledge his courageous effort to challenge liberalism’s atomistic individualism by promoting an interpretation of traditional liberal values which demands special treatment to members of some (minorities and immigrant) groups. In doing so, Kymlicka challenges the long assumed neutrality of the liberal state. His thinking and argumentation comes within liberalism itself, which is what makes his case distinctive (if anyone dares to give a concrete definition of liberalism, be my guest).
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Tully's Strange Multiplicity

I give a summary of what I consider to be one of the greatest works of contemporary political philosophy.

Tully, in his book Strange Multiplicity (1995) gives an account of what a just constitution would look like. In a just constitution he tells us ‘each speaker is given her or his due, and this is exactly the initial question raised by the politics of cultural recognition’ (p. 6). A just constitution arises through deliberation among equals; people who mutually recognise each other for what they are without reducing them to familiar and convenient images that distort and misrepresent them. This requirement (of diversity) has been ignored in the discussion of multiculturalism, since ‘cultures are conceived as analogous to the more familiar constitutional concept of nations’ (p. 8). Moreover, multiculturalism has been a victim of essentialism; cultures are discussed as if they are internally homogenous entities, even though in reality they are ‘continuously contested, imagined and reimagined, transformed and negotiated, both by their members and through their interactions with others’ (p. 11).

Tully suggests that we need to listen to the stories that other people have to tell us through intercultural dialogue that will facilitate our understanding of other peoples’ diverse perspectives. This intercultural discussion has not taken place at the constitutional level, and therefore the modern constitution remains undemocratic (p. 28-9).
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Ethnic Nationalism

“The notion that birth is fate – that simply in virtue of being born into a certain ethnic group one acquires the (potentially enforceable) duty to maintain its ancestral culture – is continuous with a kind of ethnic nationalism that is potentially at odds with liberalism.” Brian Barry, Culture and Equality, p. 65.

I disagree with most of Barry’s points, but I do share his worries (end envy his writing style).

..where we're coming from

Consider what we mean by identity. It is who we are, ‘where we’re coming from’. As such it is the background against which our tastes and desires and opinions and aspirations make sense. If some of the things I value most are accessible to me only in relation to the person I love, then she becomes part of my own identity.

(by Charles Taylor, The Politics of Recognition)