A Brief Walk Around God, Ignorance and Southsea

S&C’s culture correspondent sees signs of God in Southsea and gets pondering….  

I am trying to find that in-between space, somewhere amid Richard Dawkins and Isis; between Page 3 and the niqab. But all the while, I am humming that “Take Me to Church” song by Hozier: “I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies…” So for those of you who know it, you will understand that I am closer to the Dawkins end of that particular spectrum.

It was a bright winter Saturday in Southsea, with no cloud to take the edges off the chill. Heading into Fratton, I walked past the entrance to the Jami Mosque and was struck by the sign with the arrow on it, a version of the symbol for the return key on my computer keyboard, which directs the faithful women to their separate entrance at the rear.

I dislike the separation of men and women in this way. I especially dislike the separation of our children into any school where faith determines who may or may not enter, and where teachers within it separate the genders for anything other than educational reasons. And anyway, Sunday school is for Sundays. I am fully aware how uninterested the faithful may be in my reaction to the sign, but it’s helpful to declare this up front, I think.

I looked into it a little and found myself in some nasty company: people who would not hesitate to take one look at my brown skin and decide that I was part of a series of problems in their imagination. One can’t object to a faith school without leaving a pig’s head spiked on a stick it seems. And express doubts about the Divine, and you may then be a part of a smear campaign. This is loaded territory.

Is there a space to write safely about these things? I also discovered proud women saying they didn’t want to be praying in front of the men anyway, with their bums in the air. But there is a bigotry there too, isn’t there? Apparently, even with the most modest clothing imaginable, the devout men in the mosque simply could not help themselves and their notorious thoughts.

What does this version of faith say about men? It has always bothered me that the responsibility to remain modest falls entirely on the women. If I were a teenage girl, I may well be tempted to cover my flesh and contours as a matter of choice, but that would only be because I have gotten to know what is actually in the heads of some of the adolescent boys around me. But Sharia law is not the answer either. We need a cultural shift (banning page 3 would help, freeing the nipple might not). We need to educate boys and girls to avoid an over-emphasis on appearance, and to nurture and protect the default position that they are equals. I accept that there is no stopping raging hormones and the second glances of our animal instincts, but if my son learns that a good brain is a very sexy thing relatively early on, then I think life will be more interesting for him.

I asked my friend’s other half how she feels about it (yes, some of my best friends are Muslim). She doesn’t like such signs either and her deep frustration stems from both her deep understanding of and dedication to her faith. She told me that her grandfather actually never favoured boys over girls, and her father never prevented her from competing in races at school, and her husband has no rules for her at all. For her, and for campaigning Muslim women who want a better mosque experience, there is no justification within the faith for dividing men and women in quite this way. The frustration is much greater for the faithful and progressive than it is for the interested but agnostic.

Again, I do not find it pleasant to walk past the sign. But in the end, I know it is allowed: it is an exemption to the Equality Act. A person who thinks like me must tolerate these religious exemptions for the moment, while we wait for the progressive forces within the churches and mosques to catch up to a more reasonable understanding of men and women, and sex and sexuality. But I can respect the faithful exactly up to the point where they tick over into a sort of prejudice, usually against gays and lesbians, or based on “natural” roles for men and women. When one encounters those views, I think one is obliged not to let them slide without challenge. And I do not believe the defensive faithful for a second when they say that they are not judging anyone. That protest itself is a judgment.

If you want to understand a person, do not listen to what they say they believe, but watch if you can how they behave, especially in the company of those who they think agree with them. It is in those spaces where prejudices emerge. And remember, for whomever this is relevant, God is watching them watching porn on the computer anyway, so God can sort that out in due course.

***

Later that Saturday night, I walked along Elm Grove on the way back from Albert Road, less worse for wear than many a student around me. Laddishly stumbling toward me were three giant, well, lads. They will be chaps when they get older. They were not from the area, in shirts selected from the pink palette and sweaters tied around their waists. They were a long way from Fulham, I thought. Were they from Chichester? Were they named Tarquin? They saw me and one of them, feeling jolly as one does with a few drinks inside of one, gave me the full “Allah-o-Akbar”, both arms raised to the sky, chuckling. To quote him directly, he said, “Oh, here’s one of the Allah-o-Akbars now”. (I don’t have a beard or anything.) Another giant lad shushed him, embarrassed not by the content of his friend’s behaviour, but the visibility of it. ‘Not in public,’ he said, ‘not in public.’

I was then going to write that perhaps it was one of you having a good night out on the sauce.  But I have learned over the years that the people who read Star & Crescent and the pink-shirted lads tend not to overlap. That’s a sad state of affairs, but the subject of another piece entirely. I do flick through the Telegraph and Sun editorials occasionally, to get in touch, with what The Great British Public are being told they think. I recommend it to everyone, but I digress.

On the Sunday morning, as I was walking through Southsea Common, a friendly doddery old gentleman, who for no sinister reason had been giving my son biscuits on the way to school for well over a year, gave me a wave from a near distance, but also a friendly ‘Salaam Wakulayam’ (don’t ask me what that is, but he was doing his best). There was no hint of a snarl at the edges of his greeting, nor a longing for the Southsea he used to know. Knowing him quite well, it was easy to conclude that he was just being friendly. I was with my brown friend and his son too. This must have distracted him, as he did not seem to recognise me at all. But I gave him a wave and a ‘Good morning’ back.

Later, hovering at one of the market stalls on Palmerston Road selling the over-priced olives, I heard a middle-aged white male explaining to his mother how he had recently ‘discovered’ the ‘Arab shop’ on Palmerston Road. By this, he meant a shop called Akram’s Spice Cave (aka ‘The Aladdin’s Cave’ which appears to have won a local campaign). No-one who works there could be described as coming from the Middle East. He then went on about his trip to Egypt, which was also full of Arabs, and olives.

***

Let me be clear, it is not ignorance per se that bothers me – we all have holes in what we know about. I am reminded of that every day. It is ignorance with conviction: ignorance that comes from a lifetime of not being minimally interested enough in the world to learn the difference between Bangladeshis and those from the Middle East; the ignorance of assuming that a brown person must be a Muslim. This affects some of us more than others.

There were times in the past (maybe three times in the last twelve years), especially when particular people felt the need to indicate to me that I was a Muslim and not particularly welcome, when I would have replied with a ‘Guten morgen’ or a ‘Guten tag’ and then pretended to have confused said white person with a German. I must confess this was generally directed at the older generation who were most offended at the prospect of being mistaken for German.  In one of the less friendly conversations this prompted, I followed up with a query about why England persists with a German royal family. I do know this is unkind, but I am only human. And that old neighbour can be extremely rude.

So anyway, these few local encounters got me thinking. There I was, pondering the women’s-entrance-at-the-rear sign  and the exemptions to the Equality Act, and how long they might take to die off as I hope they will, and yet walking past these people, young and old, to whom I was automatically a Muslim. It is my habit to pick on blind spots as I see them. You may well wish to point out my own. But to me, there is a blind spot in a wide-eyed celebration of all of diversity even if it means that women are in a separate room in a mosque, where the men are legally entitled to keep them, for the moment. And there are also the more obvious blind spots, where I am greeted or treated as one of those men.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.