Friday 17 January 2014

Religious Accommodation vs. Women’s Equality Rights at a Canadian University
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For the last couple of weeks (early January 2014) the Toronto press has been abuzz with a story emanating from York University. In brief, it is the following.
A male student was taking an on-line course from Prof. Paul Grayson in York’s Department of Sociology.  Although the course was on-line, Prof. Grayson required his students to visit the campus once to take part in a group activity with other students. The male student asked to be excused from this requirement as his religion prohibited his interaction with unrelated women. We don’t know the student’s religion, and Grayson refused to speculate, but he said he did consult with both Jewish and Muslim religious leaders. He then declined the student’s request.
York University Keele Campus- Wiki Commons
Meantime, however, Grayson’s Dean and other senior administrators instructed him to grant the request. One reason for this was that he had excused at least one other student who lived outside Canada from the requirement to be present on campus.  The other reason was that, under the doctrine of “reasonable accommodation,” administrators’ are supposed to decide whether a religious accommodation would harm anyone else’s human rights. The administrators decided—somewhat reluctantly, it seems—that excusing the student from interacting with female co-students would not harm any woman students’ rights.
One question here is whether the harm would be real or merely symbolic. Would the female students be harmed, perhaps, by being deprived of the male student’s brilliant insights? If there was no such harm, did the fact that he did not wish to interact with women somehow constitute a psychological or symbolic harm, suggesting that they were unworthy of his attention, or unclean, or somehow sexual temptresses.
Professor Grayson argued that the York administrators would have been unlikely to assent to the student’s request if he has said his religion prohibited him from interacting with black or gay people.  I think he’s right about blacks: the administrators could not permit racial discrimination, even if it had been hidden (Grayson did not have to tell other students about the request). About gay people, I am not so sure. Religious prejudices against homosexuals are rooted in some of the same prejudices held against women. Women in their bodily functions, especially menstruation, are seen by some religions as dirty and shameful. In this view, gays’ sexual activities also render them dirty and shameful.
Nevertheless, I can’t imagine any York administrators instructing Grayson to grant a student’s request not to interact with gays. So why grant it with regard to women? I think the answer is the long history of separation of women and men in some religions, especially some variants of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. This separation is bound up with traditional ideas of modesty and the separation of the sexes for their own good.  So it still doesn’t seem as wrong to say that your religion doesn’t permit you to interact with strange women, as to say your religion doesn’t permit you to interact with blacks or gays.
In preparation for writing this blog I reread an article I published (with Laura Reidel) in 2007, “Human Security and Multiculturalism in Canada” (published in Ineke Boerefijn and Jenny Goldschmidt, eds, Human Rights in the Polder, Oxford, Intersentia).  In that article I discussed a number of debates going on in Canada at the time; about prayer space for Muslims in Quebec universities, gay marriage, the use of shari’a-based arbitration in Ontario, and censorship of cartoons appearing to denigrate Islam.  I concluded the following:
“[T]he right to practice a minority religion should [not] be permitted to undermine the human rights of citizens of liberal democracies. The state should accede to demands for accommodation by religious minorities only when such accommodation is not likely to undermine the human rights of any citizens, whether inside or outside the religious minority…[A]ll citizens are at risk if policies to accommodate the demands of any religious minority undermine the liberal democratic human rights regime.” (p. 35)
On this basis I supported prayer space for Muslim (and all other religious) students (even though space is always in short supply at Canadian universities). But I opposed shari’a based arbitration (as well as arbitration under Jewish law) on the grounds that it can undermine women’s and children’s rights. I supported gay marriage. I opposed banning of cartoons, on the grounds that freedom of speech is more important than protecting believers from offense.
Using the principle that accommodation must not undermine other people’s human rights, I think Professor Grayson did the right thing. Even if there was no immediate material damage to the women in his class, the principle that a man does not have to interact with women in an educational or work setting is denigrating to them. It implies that they are less than fully human, not worthy of the same respect as men.
Of course the York University case gives ammunition to proponents of the Quebec Charter of Values, about which I wrote on September 11, 2013: you can find that blog here . The proposed Charter would ban public servants from wearing religious apparel at work. I maintain my view on the Quebec Charter. I see no reason to ban religious apparel from the public sector, although I would prohibit proselytization by public servants at their workplace, whether in Quebec or elsewhere. Banning religious apparel sends an extremely negative message to members of minority religious groups, while permitting it does not undermine anyone else’s human rights.

Wednesday 15 January 2014

From the Shadows of the Soviets

From the Shadows of the Soviets

(Note: I have decided to open up my blog site to the occasional guest blog. The blog below is by my current research assistant, David Clement, candidate for a Master’s degree in political science at Wilfrid Laurier University)

Imagine yourself on an extended vacation as a child, enjoying a new country, its food, its people and its pleasures, all the while knowing that at some point in the near future you’ll be heading back to your beloved hometown. Now imagine, at the age of 16, you are told that your extended vacation is now permanent because everything your family once had back home is gone, either stolen or destroyed. This is how my family came to Canada.

Like most Canadians, I am from an immigrant family. The mosaic that is my familial background includes the Isle of Man and India (on my father’s side) and the United States and Bulgaria (on my mother’s). What makes my Bulgarian heritage so intriguing is the circumstances that caused their migration to the country I have called home for my entire life. My grandmother came from a prosperous business family from Bansko, Bulgaria. My great grandparents, Pauline and Boris Todoroff, were eclectic entrepreneurs in that small ski village nestled at the foot of the Pirin Mountains. They successfully owned and operated a bakery, liquor store and inn at the center of Bansko. Because of their success as entrepreneurs, they were able to afford some luxuries that others could not, most importantly the ability to travel. My great-grandfather, otherwise known as Dadu, decided in the summer of 1938 that his family should take an extended vacation in Canada, for the experience, and to strategically avoid the turmoil that was erupting throughout Europe. What was not known is that their hometown would never be the same, and that they would never return.
A picture of central Bansko- Wiki Commons

In the fall of 1944 Soviet troops invaded Bulgaria beginning the era of Soviet influence in the country. As a result of the invasion, and political upheaval, my family lost everything. Their businesses were seized by the Russians, and their land was partially destroyed. Upon news of the terrible loss, the Todoroff family decided to make London Ontario their permanent home, and it would remain so until my grandmother was well into her 30’s. My family took its entrepreneurial spirit to Dundas Street in London where they owned and operated a shoe repair shop, selling shoes and hats. They represented, both literally and symbolically, the perseverance of a family after losing almost everything. What my Bulgarian family’s story demonstrates first is the importance of migration for Canada. The Todoroff family came to Canada unexpectedly, with few language skills and very little to their name, but contributed to the growth of London Ontario for decades. It highlights that the movement of migrants into Canada not only provide migrant families a place to rebuild, but a new community to which they contribute and of which they become a part of.

The second lesson learnt from my family’s turbulent arrival is the importance of property. The right to property is an essential human right. The arbitrary seizure of property by government authorities strips families of their ability to provide for themselves and their communities. It denies them access to the most basic means of wealth creation and sustenance. From this difficult experience, a new Canadian family emerged. This new Canadian family embraced their new home, were able to own property, and were able to make their own lives better, as well as the lives of those around them.

Tuesday 7 January 2014

Eritrean Refugees: Victims of Human Trafficking

Eritrean Refugees: Victims of Human Trafficking
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In early December 2013 I read a report in the Globe and Mail by Geoffrey York (“A Desperate and deadly tide of migration,” p. A17, December 4, 2013) about the human trafficking of Eritreans in the Sinai Peninsula area of Egypt, next to Israel. York in turn was reporting on a document submitted to the European parliament by three researchers, an Eritrean human rights activist called Meron Estefanos, and Professor Mirjan van Risen and Dr. Connie Rijken from Tilburg University in the Netherlands.  The report is called “The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond” and can be found here
These unfortunate Eritreans are captured or purchased by human traffickers, who torture them and threaten them with amputations or sale of their organs if they do not manage to raise ransoms from their families to free them. Sometimes the kidnappers telephone family members to listen as their loved ones are tortured. The Eritrean families have to raise thousands of dollars to ransom them: how they get the money I do not know, given how poor Eritrea is. This is part of a larger story of Eritrean refugees, several hundred of whom drowned in 2013 while trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa just north of Tunisia.
Eritrean victims of the Lampedusa Drowning- Wiki Commons

I was interested in this report because I had read a little bit about Eritrea as background to a chapter I wrote on state slavery in North Korea (the chapter is forthcoming in 2014 in a book called Contemporary Slavery and Human Rights, edited by Annie Bunting and Joel Quirk; for my blog of slavery in North Korea, see . )
By state slavery, I mean states—governments in power—who enslave their own citizens. One kind of state slavery is the communist kind, which in the 20th century enslaved large numbers of people in prison camps now collectively known as the gulag, originally an acronym for slave-labor camps in the Soviet Union. Such enslavement was also widely used in China after 1949 and is still practiced, although apparently China’s rulers recently decided to abolish it. Slave labor was also practiced on an enormous scale during the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (1975-79).
The second kind of state slavery is enslavement of citizens for the financial or material benefit of the government and the individual slavers who control it, and that is the kind you find in Eritrea. Eritrea is a small state on the east coast of Africa that obtained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a long civil war. During the war, as I recall, there was a lot of propaganda about how the Eritrean nationalists were democrats who deserved to be freed from the tyrannical regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia.
Yet the Eritrean rulers soon introduced a system of state slavery for the benefit of the government and those who controlled it. They instituted an 18-month period of obligatory military service for every adult, male or female. By 1998 they had extended this so-called military service to be indefinite forced labor of anyone unfortunate enough to be drafted into the army. Officially, this forced labor lasts until the age of fifty, but sometimes individuals are enslaved even longer. Members of government and the ruling party, and senior military officers, use these slaves to build their houses, act as their personal servants, and work on farms, building sites, and enterprises owned by the state or army.
The Egyptian/Israel Border- Wiki Commons

Knowing what I did about Eritrea, I assumed the unfortunate victims of these traffickers in northern Africa were refugees who had fallen into the wrong hands.  But it turns out that sometimes they are kidnapped by their own Eritrean security officials, who sell them to Sudanese traffickers, including military officials and border guards, who then sell them on to traffickers in the Sinai. It isn’t enough for Eritrean officials to run a state of internal slavery, it seems; they also engage in the slave trade.
Another shocking aspect of this story is the way Eritreans are treated when they finally escape their captors. Some manage to reach the Israeli border, but the Israelis simply turn them back when they try to enter. Israel ratified the United Nations Convention on Refugees in 1954. One aspect of that convention is the provision of non-refoulement. Non-refoulement means you can’t return an individual to a country where she is likely to be tortured or politically persecuted. Yet the Israelis don’t offer to help these refugees: they simply return them to the very Egyptian soldiers who have often colluded in their capture in the first place. These soldiers often hold them to ransom again, before they can return to Eritrea.
Israel should be ashamed of itself, but apparently it has a hard time accepting that the black African people who live close to them have the same moral right to assistance as the Jews who were denied entrance to Canada, the United States, and other countries during Nazi rule in Europe.
If you are Eritrean, it seems, your choice—so-called--is between the devil you know and the devil you don’t know.  If you stay in Eritrea, you may well be a slave. If you leave, you risk drowning, kidnapping, torture and murder.  Meantime we are all horrified when hundreds drown within sight of Europe, but we manage to ignore what drove these hapless people out of their own country.