Category Archives: Freedom of conscience

Only 700 million women

child marraige poster

“What would she do, anyway? It’s not like she has any real choices?”

Such is the cynical response I’ve often encountered, or variations thereof, when I’m moved by whatever furies impassion me on such occasions to advocate for an end to child marriage. It’s an odd counter argument, as if the normalization of a systemic wrong makes it acceptable – “natural” even. The way things ought to be.

But then again, no. Such cynics feel no need for “oughts” in their world view. “It’s just the way things are, dear.”

I’m writing this in New Delhi, India, a country which in terms of population size has the largest number of child brides on the planet. Granted, it is an uneven picture; in some Indian states there’s been remarkable progress in beginning to diminish this practice. Yet in other states, such as Bihar, the percentage of child marriages is over 60 per cent. It’s illegal, of course. India passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act back in 2006, but the political will to enforce this law or to otherwise effect change seems inadequate. A National Action Plan intended to prevent child marriage, drafted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, has languished since 2013 with no passage in sight. Indian jurisprudence simply cannot decide how to define child marriage. As they ponder, the practice continues.

India is hardly alone. Niger in west Africa holds the ignominious title of worst offender, where 76 per cent of women are married as children. It’s daunting for me to wrap my head around such numbers. Yet the numbers are both daunting and damning; over 700 million women in the world today were married as children. That’s more than five times the entire number of women and girls in my own country, the United States. If you are reading this in the United States, just look at any woman or girl and think of five. Do that again and again, each time you see another female. Your head will be spinning before long. It should be aching, not just spinning. This is a problem of remarkable proportions, yet how often is it discussed by the general public, or cited as a priority?

Almost never. Continue reading Only 700 million women

The fight for America’s soul


Transgender people know what it means to fight for our souls. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If we fail to live our lives in full commitment to who we are, we lose our identity. Without our identity, we lose meaning. We lose joy. We lose self-respect.

We lose.

Yesterday evening America lost. Now we have to fight to get her back again. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If America fails to conduct itself as a nation committed to the principles she was founded on – “American values” for which so many have sacrificed and struggled and died – we lose our meaning and our place in history as a great nation. We lose any reason to be proud. Far from becoming “great again”, we become small…just another country with a narcissistic, self-serving, unprincipled ruler, and a citizenry who has been conned into thinking that this is who we are.

If that becomes the status quo, we all lose.

It may not seem very obvious this morning, but America is still a nation of ethical principles founded on revolutionary ideals of universal dignity and freedom. We are a nation where human rights values are manifest in our laws, and where we innately know that our (much eroded) tradition of civility in public discourse is necessary if we are to foster our co-existence as a diverse society with a common identity. We are a nation where we have labored hard to create and sustain strong democratic institutions characterized by integrity, self-sacrifice, justice, compassion, and the service of the common good. America is about freedom of religion. America is about caring for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. America is about responsibility to our children and our grandchildren and generations yet unborn, especially in the face of a threat as existential and monumental as global climate change.

That is my America, but this American awoke this morning with a new edge of vulnerability.

My suspicions are that the vast majority of those who voted in Donald Trump yesterday do not view me and those such as me as human beings worthy of respect. If you think locker room talk is corrosive to the dignity of women, that low standard of behavior that the majority of American voters chose to overlook isn’t limited to misogyny and tough-guy boasting. For those who are at home in that particular locker room, there is a special dialogue of enmity and scorn for anyone who dares to challenge the assigned-at-birth gender binary. The prospects for transgender rights were dealt an enormous set-back last night, and that has implications across the civil rights spectrum for so many minorities in this country. While we may all be Americans, we who are members of sexual minorities find ourselves set-aside and “othered”.

Yet…if we bother to try, each of us is able to feel what “America” means. OK, this morning it is harder: it is now more darkly obscured by venal politicians, the irresponsible media, self-righteously intolerant faith leaders, faulty polls that we won’t ever trust again, and by all those Americans who cling to “deplorable” sensibilities and values. Yes, Secretary Clinton was wrong to use that adjective for the people she targeted, but she was absolutely correct using it to describe their behavior and their attitudes – their intolerance, smallness-of-spirit, isolationism, misogyny, racism, and profound lack of civility. “Trump the bitch” is deplorable. Threatening one’s political opponent with jail is deplorable. Promising to renege on the Paris Agreement on global climate change is deplorable. Suggesting that America will return to torturing suspected terrorists with water boarding (or worse) is deplorable.  Urging the summary deportation of millions of undocumented people is deplorable. Claiming Mexican immigrants are all rapists and criminals is deplorable. Closing the country to Muslim visitors and igniting a national witch-hunt against Muslims who are already here is deplorable.

Voting for all of this was deplorable, and frankly beyond my comprehension. Continue reading The fight for America’s soul

Malaysia’s intrepid defenders of personhood

Malaysian trans

Who are you? And why are you wearing those clothes?

Most Americans will never be challenged by such questions, except perhaps on Halloween. We are who we are, and we dress as we choose. It takes a stretch of imagination to arrive at a scenario where exercising the individual right to express ourselves through our clothing and our mannerisms is deemed a serious threat to society, or harmful to others, or immoral. Yet when a person’s “expression” settles into a sustained, coherent, and insistent statement about their identity that runs contrary to what the authorities have declared regarding that person’s identity, the law is called upon to resolve this. After all, identity is where personhood starts, so the law has a stake in getting this right.

But how does the law get it right? And is that enough? And what does sex have to do with it?

On the one hand, it seems peculiar that one should need to turn to the courts to substantiate one’s deepest held sense of identity. On the other hand, when that claim of identity is contested, and something important is at stake, then the courts have a job to do.

Many Americans feel that the courts have accomplished that duty, now that the battle for “LGBT rights” is popularly perceived (although incorrectly) to be largely over but for the mopping up of state and local laws that still need to be aligned with the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. Yet for the “T” part of LGBT the battle for identity recognition and fair treatment is only just beginning. A long journey lies ahead before transgender Americans across this country enjoy the fundamental civil courtesy of being respected as rational, dignified human beings with full and fair rights under law. It was only one year ago here in my state of Maryland that a law took effect to ban anti-transgender discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, but across the nearby Potomac River in Virginia and in the majority of American states there are no such laws protecting transgender people from discrimination. In 33 of our 50 states, transgender people have a legal ordeal ahead before they begin to benefit from fair treatment as parents, renters, employees, and simply as citizens. We’ll get there, but we’ll have to resort to regular requests to our allies for support. Unlike gays and lesbians, transgender people are very few in number, and without the help of allies our cause will generate little attention.  Along the way to legal reform, we’ll all need to make progress simultaneously in the much more difficult undertaking – informing the American public about the transgender phenomenon so that perverse stereotypes are destroyed, hearts softened, minds made more aware, and we are no longer seen as “abnormal” people who have made a “choice” to lead a perverse “lifestyle”. We’re just people determined to be authentic.

Authenticity is the goal of transgender persons around the world, but in many countries the quest to have one’s gender identity recognized is not only a struggle against discrimination but quickly becomes a fraught ordeal against the institutionalized overlap of state and religion. In general, secular laws are open to challenge based on reason and fairness, but when the laws are founded on or heavily influenced by theology the realistic prospect for a tiny minority of transgender activists to achieve justice is often an exercise in frustration. When such religious principles are held to be above scrutiny or any challenge that is based on science or reason, the struggle can become one of complete futility. And yes, there’s the question of sex. But I will return to that shortly…first I must cast my sights 9,525 miles away. In Malaysia, October 8th provided a graphic example not only of the sense of futility that transgender activists must endure, but also a clear witness of the determination and resilience of such activists to see this long battle through to a just and fair outcome.

The constitution of Malaysia provides for a unique dual justice system—the secular laws (criminal and civil) largely inherited from the colonial era coexist with Sharia laws. The latter are the basic Islamic legal system derived from the religious precepts of Islam. In Malaysia, the two streams of law have come into conflict, and currently Sharia prevails – to the cost of Malaysia’s transgender community. Continue reading Malaysia’s intrepid defenders of personhood

Conform, or die.

Ananta Bijoy Das
Ananta Bijoy Das

It’s not just how you look, dress, or behave. It’s not even a question of “provocative” issues like non-conforming gender identity, non-conforming sexual orientation, or taking a “radical” stand in asserting that women are entitled to full human dignity also. Nor is it even a question of your minority or “opposition” political views, which are well demonstrated to be an incitement to violence among despots and their supporters. What most us here in established democracies aren’t aware of is that 76% of people in this world cannot freely practice the religion of their choice or leading, or hold secular or atheist views. In many such countries, such persons may well be killed for who they pray to, or for their choice not to pray at all.

On May 12th, a mob in Dhaka, Bangladesh enforced their brand of conformity. Ananta Bijoy Das, a highly respected young banker, blogger, and editor of a science magazine called Jukti (which provocatively means “logic”) met his demise at the hands of machete-wielding religious extremists. His widow, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, also suffered grievous injuries in this attack. Now back in the United States, she has been courageously calling the world’s attention to this outrage. I cannot begin to imagine how brutally agonizing it must be to be hacked to death as was his fate or to sustain such extreme injuries as she did, and I deeply share in her outrage. Continue reading Conform, or die.