Is the Burkini Really Just ‘A Choice of Clothes’?


Imagine the scenario, you’re shopping in your local supermarket and in walks a person dressed head to toe in a Klu Klux Klan or Nazi uniform. You ask them if they’re going to a fancy dress party and they say no. They are clearly a person who holds beliefs that are racist and hateful. You are shocked, and probably offended. Do you say something or pretend not to notice? Judging by the western liberal voices in the media on the burkini in France this week, we should probably do the latter.  And yet, people would feel offended by such attire as a symbol of racial hatred and intolerance. In fact, the Nazi swastika has been banned in Germany. The point being that clothes are not only  symbols of aesthetic or practical ‘choice’ but of ‘belief’ and ideology too.

On the other hand, let’s suppose a white, non-Muslim woman goes into a predominantly Muslim area in a European city, one of the ‘no-go’ areas, wearing a mini-skirt or openly drinking alcohol. Do you think it would be tolerated and acceptable? Of course it wouldn’t and isn’t. As explained in France is Right to Ban the Burkini, this everyday fear and reality is not some Right-wing myth but has actually resulted in women being attacked:

This important point is blithely ignored by naive liberal writers, particularly those in Britain, who have little understanding of the extent of extremism in France, where 100 of the country’s 2,500 mosques are controlled by Salafists, the most puritanical Islamic ideology. The Salafists want all women covered, at all times, and the burkini is part of their strategy. It is a symbol of Islamic purity with a clear message: good Muslims wear the burkini, bad ones wear the bikini. Toleration of the burkini will only embolden France’s ‘police of mores’ in their campaign of coercion, a point emphasised by Nicolas Sarkozy in an interview to be published in Friday’s Le Figaro magazine. ‘Wearing a burkini is a political act, it’s militant, a provocation,’ said Sarkozy, styling himself as the uncompromising centre-right candidate ahead of next year’s Presidential elections. ‘If we do not put an end to this, there is a risk that in 10 years, young Muslim girls who do not want to wear the veil or burkini will be stigmatised and peer-pressured.

Conservative Muslims believe that ‘good women’ should be covered head to toe, that women are inferior to men and that their rights depend on their male guardians. Women who ‘choose’ or who are ‘pressured’ to wear burkas or even hijabs, are often subjected to such misogynist and sexist social conditioning from the day they are born.  Yet even so-called ‘moderate’ Islam (as well as other patriarchal religions) appears to condone and encourage some worrying beliefs. For example, according to one recent poll, half of all Muslims in the UK think that homosexuality should be outlawed (with 23% wanting Sharia Law). The death penalty for homosexuality applies in most Muslim-majority countries, so anyone arguing that this thinking bears no connection to Islam must be either a) incredibly naive or b) deluded.

These same naive (or regressive) liberals together with religious patriarchs were also celebrating the forced covering up of world-class female athletes at the Rio Olympics:

Veiled athletes were hailed as examples of multiculturalism, inclusiveness and female empowerment by dullards who looked past the reality of how women are treated in Muslim majority countries.

Tennis great Martina Navratilova was among those operating under the delusion that women competing in burkinis were free to choose, just like their Western sisters.

“Olympians in Hijab and Bikini, — as long as we have a choice, it is up to us to decide what is right for each of us,” Navratilova tweeted.

The only problem is that women in Islamic countries don’t have a choice and to pretend otherwise is a betrayal of the most disempowered women in the world; the very women that Western feminists should be fighting for instead of obsessing about trivial twaddle or, worse still, rationalising the treatment of women under Islam by indulging in cowardly moral relativism.

To be clear, I don’t support an outright ban (which would be difficult to police and further restrict the freedom of disempowered women). In any case, France’s highest court overturned the ban yesterday. However, one doesn’t have to support the French ban in order to support criticism of this form of clothing. As Muslim man, Maajid Nawaz wrote in Both Sides are Wrong in the Burkini Wars

It is possible to oppose the French ban on burkinis while also challenging the mindset of those who support burkas and burkinis…..

But the assumption that “modesty” equates to covering up is a subtle form of bigotry against the female form. It goes without saying that harassment on Western beaches, where the female form is more normalized, occurs less than in conservative societies, even though it is still present. But in too many instances across Muslim-majority contexts this “modesty theology” has led to slut-shaming of women who do not cover.

In the worst of cases, misogyny disguised as modesty has led to mass sexual harassment on the streets, most recently by gangs of Muslim migrants in Cologne. In Egypt, it has even given rise to a mass public rape phenomenon. As Muslim feminists note, violating Muslim cultural “honor codes” (irdh) and modesty theology (hayaa’) can lead to heinous legal and societal reprimand and the gross fetishization of a woman’s body.

John Stuart Mill, famously argued in ‘On Liberty’, that offence is not necessarily sufficient alone to ban something unless one can show it causes real harm or provokes hatred towards people. One could potentially argue that the ‘modesty doctrine’ ideology behind the burqa promotes misogyny and gender apartheid. As an ex-Muslim woman eloquently wrote in The Burkini-Bikini False Equivalence and Your Disproportionate Outrage :

I don’t know what people mean or understand by “coercion,” but positive adherence to modesty doctrine does not negate the presence of constraint.

Further to that, positive adherence to modesty doctrine in the presence of social sanction and encouragement is only to be expected.  Conforming to an extant social norm and feeling free and empowered to do so is not only entirely possible in the presence of systemic constraint, but encouraged and enabled by it. Especially if it is adherence within a fold that has no truck with outsiders (eg particularly insular communities).

Because while those who choose to conform are visible, those who are not free to dissent are not.

Looking at the woman who insists she wasn’t made to conform tells you nothing about the woman who didn’t want to conform, and hasn’t anything resembling the visibility to say so.

As a liberal, anti-racist feminist it is frustrating to hear the general debate on this issue yet again categorise those who criticise the burkini as Right-wing fascists or racists. Even French Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended the ban on burkinis in more than a dozen coastal towns on Thursday, saying France was locked in a “battle of cultures” and that the full-body swimsuit symbolised the enslavement of women.

Naive (or deluded) liberals really need to understand the ideology and reasoning behind such clothing to understand why many people in liberal,secular countries find them a provocation and offensive. It is the height of racist and patriarchal ignorance (and ignores the plight of millions of Muslim women currently being forced to wear such dress) to write such things off as simply a matter of ‘free choice’. Let’s not forget there are non-European (and Muslim-majority) countries that have banned the burqa and Germany is now considering following the same route as a ‘barrier to integration’.

If you really believe that it is acceptable for women and children to wear burqas out of social, religious or state-sanctioned pressure backed by sexist ideology then you really should also have no problem with people publicly wearing the swastika, the Klu Klux Klan outfit and so on in places where such views are uncommon.

The key distinction to be made here is one between a clothing choice made out of aesthetic or practical considerations and one made based on an ideology that is ‘offensive’ to liberal, secular, gender equality values. This is not about ‘covering-up’ vs ‘showing flesh’ this is about patriarchal religious ideology.



Beyond Leave and Remain…..


Disappointing to see the level of debate in Brexit reduced to one of Leave (racist old fogies) and Remain (pro-immigration, love and peace). Some sanity in the cacaphony of ‘rule and divide’ mainstream narratives.

John Pilger on why the British said No to Europe

The most effective propagandists of the “European ideal” have not been the far right, but an insufferably patrician class for whom metropolitan London is the United Kingdom. Its leading members see themselves as liberal, enlightened, cultivated tribunes of the 21st century zeitgeist, even “cool”.

What they really are is a bourgeoisie with insatiable consumerist tastes and ancient instincts of their own superiority. In their house paper, the Guardian, they have gloated, day after day, at those who would even consider the EU profoundly undemocratic, a source of social injustice and a virulent extremism known as “neoliberalism”.

The aim of this extremism is to install a permanent, capitalist theocracy that ensures a two-thirds society, with the majority divided and indebted, managed by a corporate class, and a permanent working poor.John Pilger on why the British said No to Europe:

Ron Paul on  The People Will Not Suffer From Brexit, Only the Global Banking Elite Will

On Friday, the people of Great Britain made their voice heard. They no longer want to be a part of the European Union and for good reason. For decades they have sat back and watched the global elite enrich themselves through special trade agreements ostensibly designed to bolster the economy, but in reality grant special treatment to those close to the top.

Julian Assange on Brexit:

Zizek on Culture, Migrants and the Left


“Cultural struggles should not simply be: ‘I have my culture, you have yours, and we should understand each other.’ There are horrors at the heart of every culture. Like Walter Benjamin said: ‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ The problem is how to confront the very core of how we feel, how we desire. Our own cultural fundamentalists claim that culture is an authentic experience at the innermost core of our being. Such a claim is false. Fake it, pretend it, overcome it, but I don’t think that this appeal to some inner core (even if it is of our own culture) has any value. It certainly doesn’t have any emancipatory value. Our innermost attitudes are something we learn, but they can also be changed. We must never forget that.” Slavoj Zizek

The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture

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Dating Tips for the Feminist Man

The opposite of masculine rape culture is masculine nurturance culture: men* increasing their capacity to nurture, and becoming whole.

The Ghomeshi trial is back in the news, and it brings violent sexual assault back into people’s minds and daily conversations. Of course violence is wrong, even when the court system for handling it is a disaster. That part seems evident. Triggering, but evident.

But there is a bigger picture here. I am struggling to see the full shape emerging in the pencil rubbing, when only parts are visible at a time.

A meme going around says ‘Rape is about violence, not sex. If someone were to hit you with a spade, you wouldn’t call it gardening.’ And this is true. But it is just the surface of the truth. The depths say something more, something about violence.

Violence is nurturance turned backwards.

These things are connected, they must be connected. Violence and nurturance are two sides of the same coin. I…

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Selective Outrage: The Silence and Denial about Islamic Homophobia

Omar Mateen, the suspect

Fifty people were gunned down in a mass terrorist shooting in Orlando; USA. They were deliberately targeted by Muslim man, Omar Mateen, 29, because they were gay. Outrage and shock followed the shooting which has been described as one of the worst mass shootings in US history. I will leave the issue of the gun ownership laws in the USA to one side, which are definitely a big part of the problem.

However, since the news broke I have noticed yet again those on the Regressive Left, Muslims and Religious Right, stating that ‘we should not ‘exploit’ the crime and talk about Islamic homophobia. As Hassan Raza put it:

If one thing that stays consistent every time there is a terrorist attack somewhere in the Western world where Muslims turn out to be the perpetrators is the response of majority of Muslims around the globe. Be it Paris, Brussels or the recent tragedy that hit Florida today, one of the responses that we often get to see is “Terrorism has no religion.” I personally believe nothing could be farther from truth. In my opinion, Terrorism definitely has a religion, whether it is the religion of Babbar Khalsa, Bajrang Dal, the Lord’s Resistance Army or the ISIS. As long as you’re carrying out attacks on innocent civilians in the name of your religion or after getting motivated by your religious sacred text, your terrorism, and extremism has a religion.

And yet homophobia and hatred is still being openly preached in US mosques. The Husseini Islamic Center in Florida, USA, invited Sheikh Farrokh Sekaleshfar to speak at their Mosque. Dr. Sekaleshfar says the killing of homosexuals is the compassionate thing to do. In a 2013 speech Sheikh Sekaleshfar said this regarding gays:

Death is the sentence. We know there’s nothing to be embarrassed about this, death is the sentence…We have to have that compassion for people, with homosexuals, it’s the same, out of compassion, let’s get rid of them now.”

When Sheikh Sekaleshfar calls for the death of all homosexuals based on the tenets of Islam it cannot be ignored, he is an expert on Shariah Islamiyya or Islamic Law.

A recent survey of British (yes British) Muslims found that 50% (way more than the national average) thought that homosexuality should be illegal. Sadly, this does not surprise me at all as that has been my own personal experience when talking to ‘ordinary’ Muslims.

I taught English to a group of Algerian Muslim men  a couple of months ago. Without any provocation from my side, they asked me what I thought about gay people. I had been warned by my boss (eager not to lose paying students) not to be pro-gay or say anything that might offend them (what like expressing views of a decent, tolerant human being?). He told me that a male teacher had said something to the class that showed he supported LGBT rights. They were deeply offended and told my boss they didn’t want him to teach them.So I turned the question on the men and asked them what they thought. They all stated without hesitation that it was wrong and forbidden by the Koran. I am sure many Catholics and members of other major religions would say the same thing too.

These were not extremists or radicals, they were educated, middle-class Muslim men. I am sure this is just the tip of the iceberg. Let´s face it, patriarchal religion was, and is, like a cancer on this planet. It oppresses women, children and men. We cannot let multi-cultural tolerance become tolerance of the totally unacceptable (and yes that includes women wearing hijab).


Can you imagine a white man gunning down fifty plus black people and people saying ‘don’t mention the fact that he’s white because that’s exploitative and we need to let people grieve’? No. In fact, whenever a white guy guns down people in the USA it is immediately made into an issue of race. So why are people saying that when a Muslim man guns down gay people? That is the problem with Regressive Left PC advocates (and I consider myself to be a socialist-anarchist). It’s imbalanced and selective in its outrage. It also gives people the impression (in its misplaced need not to offend Muslims or people of colour) that religious homophobia and intolerance by Muslims should not be openly discussed. As Dave Rubin eloquently put it in Orlando Terror Attack is a Wake Up Call to Gays, Women, and You:

Imagine if there was a political party that believed in forcing women to dress head to toe, endorsed throwing gays off roofs, and killing apostates who left the party. Every sane person, both left and right in America, would be rightfully against this backwards ideology. Yet for some reason, as a religion, this set of ideas gets a pass. And not only does it get a pass, it gets handled with kid gloves, tacitly endorsed or intentionally obfuscated by Western intellectuals. Of course, irony being what it is, Radical Islam will come for these apologists right after they’re done with the gays, the women, and the other assorted infidels.

Some people were also angry at the hypocrisy of the sudden outpouring and grief for the LGBT community while the daily crimes against LGBT people in Muslim-majority countries (sanctioned by the state and police) go ignored and unreported. Habiba Effat had this to say about hypocrisy on this issue from the Egyptian State Department:


Where the fuck are your “heartfelt” fucking “condolences” for the thousands of LGBTQ Egyptians who are arbitrarily arrested and forcibly disappeared and subject to the most inhumane forms of torture and killed in cold blood in your police stations and prisons, whose stories will never be heard and whose causes cannot even be publicly advocated for because both state and society viciously sanction brutality against anything remotely queer in the name of traditions and morality and religion? Do you experience the same kind of “grief” for every gay or trans Egyptian whose life you have ruined and whose family you have torn apart? Are you “united” with the many more who cannot dare express themselves freely in this country for fear of never seeing the light of day again? Fuck you, Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you fucking joke of a diplomatic institution, and fuck you especially, Ahmed Abu Zeid, you hypocritical fucking cunt.

So if as many try to claim, those who hate and murder gay people are not real practitioners of Islam, how come the 10 countries that have the death penalty for gay people are ALL Muslim majority countries? Did all those people in those countries get Islam wrong then?

And also what about British, gay Muslim,  Sohail Ahmed, who spoke to the BBC about why he considered terrorism as a direct result of his religious upbringing and beliefs who states: “I actually became more radical because I was gay……It`s like you really start believing you`re evil.””

With the EU recently deciding to ban ‘hate speech’ on social media and German comedian, Jan Böhmermann, being prosecuted in a German court for ‘insulting’ the Turkish President, the importance of preserving liberal, secular values on gender equality and LGBT rights together with freedom of expression has never been more acute.

As Aayan Hirsan Ali said on Twitter in response to the cowardly murders:

No doctrine is more violent to the gay community than Islamic doctrine. It is time to take on Muslim homophobia.



Poem for the Day: Go

Stunning poem by Kathleen Ossip.  It could have been titled `’The Nature of Mind’/Tathagatagharba:
It is a cube, it is red, it is mountainous,
it is a bird of fire, it is the bones of the pelvis, it is a walnut,
it is treasured. It is yellow Saturn wobbling in its orbit.
It is danger, squawking.
It is the desire to sit down with strangers in cafes
and then it is the strangers in cafés,
it is the man with the black T-shirt
labeled UNARMED CIVILIAN and it is the blind man with him
and his painful trembling.
Always it is oxygen and more oxygen. It is the fight in you
and the fight in you dying. It is the need for water
and the water that falls from the sky.
It is desperate for a theory and it is the acts you call evil
when you know there is no evil only desperation.
It is that bravery, that arrogance, that blindness.
It is the pink morning and your smile in the pink morning.
It is a phantom and the thin neck of a tree it
is a little project called loving the world.
It is howling in the dirt it is an extravaganza.
It’s the abandoned sports bra, in the dirt beside howling you.
It’s the windchimes in the thin-necked tree and
it is tonguetied. It is asleep.
It is waking up now. It is a small cat on the bed.
It is the threads of a leaf and it is the Three Graces:
Splendor, Mirth and Good Cheer.
It is their heartfelt advice:
You can’t let it hurt you.
You must let it hurt you.
It is a careless error and the hotel pool blue with chemistry.
It’s a kiss of course it is a kiss.
It’s an old strange book newly acquired
but not yet catalogued, it is crazy.
It is you, crazy with honesty and crazy with ambition.
It’s the sun that stuns over and over again.
It’s your tablet, which is every tablet everywhere.
It’s an explosion it is every explosion everywhere.
It is pavement, mineral and hot and wet with droplets.
It’s the stars that pitch white needles into the pond.
It is provable, it is a lotion, it is a lie.
It is a baby because everyone is a baby.
It talks to you, always to you, it moves
swiftly, it is stuck, it moves swiftly, it is stuck, it moves
swiftly. It’s the impenetrable truth, now clear as ice.
It is serious, it is irreversible, it is going, going.
It is flying now laughing strong enough to know anything.

Age Discrimination and Gerontocracy in Tibetan Exile Politics?


Ageism is a form of discrimination toward an individual or group based on their age. The term often refers to the treatment of older people but is occasionally used to define prejudice against young people as well.

With the re-election of a Prime Minister, Lobsang Sangay, whose policy is that Tibet remains part of China, the public appointment and subsequent speedy withdrawal (in the space of two days) of the sole female member of the Tibetan Exile Government Cabinet, Dhardon Sharling, has led to more incredulity by members of the exile community and their friends and supporters.

The Tibetan Charter states that a member of the Tibetan exile Cabinet cannot be younger than 35 years old. Sharling is apparently 3 months short of 35 years old and so the Tibetan PM withdrew her nomination after a row broke out about her appointment.

According to a report in Phayul, the Tibetan Prime Minister, Lobsang Sangay stated that Sharling:

… told me that she was born in 1981 which if taken only on the basis of the year of birth amounts to 35 years of age. Of course, under the circumstances, she had not noticed that she was ineligible by a few months. Hence I apologize to the house and declare that it was not an attempt to deceive anyone.

Tibetans reacted strongly to the decision on social media. Some cited it as incompetence and dubious motives of the Tibetan Prime Minister and his advisors. Others called for the minimum age requirement to be changed. One Tibetan, Wangchuk Tsering, stated on Facebook that:

This is the height of irresponsibility by our elected Sikyong & Chithues as well as the Chief Election Commissioner. How could such an important matter go un-noticed by all of them? Disgraceful!

Many people associate ageism with elderly people but it also often effects younger people as well.  There are several forms of ageism, including adultism, gerontocracy and jeunism. Adultism is a favoring of adults over children and teenagers. Gerontocracy is a form of government wherein the leaders are all significantly older than the average adult population. Jeunism is the favoring of younger people and youthful beauty over older people. Women in particular are often subject to all three, a no-win situation.

Ironically, for Tibetans in particular, such a form of leadership is common in communist states in which the length of one’s service to the party is held to be the main qualification for leadership. In the time of the Eight Immortals of Communist Party of China, it was quipped, “the 80-year-olds are calling meetings of 70-year-olds to decide which 60-year-olds should retire”. For instance, Party leader Mao Zedong was 82 when he died, while Deng Xiaoping retained a powerful influence until he was nearly 90.

A new definition of ageism was introduced by Iversen, Larsen, & Solem in 2009:

Ageism is defined as negative or positive stereotypes, prejudice and/or discrimination against (or to the advantage of) elderly people on the basis of their chronological age or on the basis of a perception of them as being ‘old’ or ‘elderly’. Ageism can be implicit or explicit and can be expressed on a micro-, meso- or macro-level (Iversen, Larsen & Solem, 2009).

As Hung Vo, UN-Habitat Youth Advisory Board, North America Representative, points out in Youthists and Age Discrimination:

Age discrimination is something that is prevalent in many countries. This is evidenced in the United States: The average senator and congressman are the ages of 60 and 55, respectively. While age does not reflect competency, there is a disservice done when there is such a disconnection between the policymakers and the youth. Although those under 18 may not be able to vote or sometimes may not have the intellectual ability equivalent to an adult, it does not mean that we do not have a right to have our voices heard…….

In countries of extreme poverty, age discrimination can manifest itself as cruelty. Violence is an expression of power, and since children do not have power, they are often left vulnerable to abuse. The devaluing of youth contributes to problems such as human trafficking, abuse and the existence of sweatshops. The core of this problem can be extrapolated as society viewing young people as being of inferior intellect, and as a result, they are left doing physical work. When children are discounted, they do not express themselves when they are hurt or abused because they do not see adults as friends or confidants, only as a threatening authority figure. The deconstructing of age stereotypes and the fostering of mutual understanding is another step for all young people to have the opportunity to pursue the happiness they so rightly deserve.

The new Tibetan Cabinet has an average age of 55, with three members of the six being above 60. However, according to data the Tibetan population is overwhelmingly young:

 In fact, 35.27% of them are under 19 years old while 54.69% are under 29 years old! The 2010 world population has a similar breakdown – 35.33% and 52.06% for ages 19 & under and age 29 & under respectively. However, when we look at the population of China alone (Tibetan population included), only 24.10% are age 19 & under while 41.24% are age 29 & under! These differences mean that for both these age groups (19 & under and 29 & under) in China – the population of Tibetans is greater by ~46% and ~33% respectively.

Researcher James Connell whose PhD is on subjectification, historical trauma and marginal youth agency in the Tibetan exile community said:

I suppose in many ways the withdrawal doesn’t surprise me and reflects what I have generally found -despite the mostly tremendous care for the ‘seeds of the future’- that intergenerational inequalities in exile (particularly in terms of political participation) are hampered by patrifilial norms that have been institutionalised and very much internalised. Even quite politically aware youth are constrained by a profound respect for elders which is, of course, tightly bound to the political cause -making ‘standing’ or ‘speaking’ up not only socially taboo, but also quite painful for fear of betraying the elder generation or HHDL. It’s disappointing because not only is Sharling the youngest, but she’s also a woman -and both groups desperately need better representation in exile. I hope -as I guess you do- that this will prompt closer attention to the general exclusion of young voices and an effort to institute change.

Sharling is only 3 months short of the arbitrary age restriction. Considering that the election rules were quickly changed by the Tibetan Election Commission to ensure that Independence candidate Lukar Jam was removed from the final round of voting, it is  disappointing that the Tibetan Prime Minister caved into pressure to abide by these rules on this occasion.

If Sharling is old enough to be elected she is old enough to be chosen by the elected Prime Minister for a Cabinet role. To deny that is both undemocratic and ageist.

The Difference Between ‘Cultural’ and ‘Philosophical’ Buddhism


Yesterday, I got a Tweet out of the blue from a Tibetan woman, informing me she had a problem with my ‘identifying’ as a Tibetan Buddhist and suggesting I qualify it with the words ‘British’. At first, it struck me as bit odd that a complete stranger felt the need to inform me of this. However, the message itself was a good example of a self-righteous and narrow-minded ideology and mindset that appears to be gaining ground in those associated with the ‘post-colonial’ Left.

As a Buddhist Studies scholar and student for the last ten years, any suggestion that the fundamental tenets of Buddhism are somehow connected to one’s race, gender, age or culture are not only tragically ironic but also factually incorrect. Shakyamuni Buddha was a man who preached the exact opposite of ‘identity’ politics. His central message was that we need to let go of (spang, abandon) two sets of mental ‘obscurations’ ( sgrib-gnyisfrom our mental continuums in order to attain liberation and/or enlightenment. They obscure the ‘mind’’s deepest nature and thus obscure the ‘mind’’s automatically arising deep awareness (ye-shes lhan-skyes, innate wisdom). These are:

1) The emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib) – disturbing emotions and attitudes, which prevent liberation and are often connected with clinging to identities developed by cultural and social conditioning ( such as religion, race and gender).  This includes letting go of the idea of an inherently existing Self (gang-zag-gi bdag-med, selflessness of persons).

2) The cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib) – obscurations regarding all knowable phenomena and which prevent omniscience, such as letting go of the idea that phenomena inherently exist from their own side (chos-kyi bdag-med, selflessness of phenomena).

While the latter is much more difficult and ingrained, the former is within the ‘intellectual’ grasp of most people. It does not take genius to work out that such ‘identities’ are ‘man-made’ and have no inherent existence from their own side. And yet, some people who ‘identify’ themselves as Tibetan Buddhists apparently are not aware of (or wilfully ignore) this central tenet of Buddhist Philosophy and cling to the idea that Buddhism (as practised by Tibetans) is somehow ‘Tibetan’ or owned by ethnic Tibetans, merely by virtue of their parents’ racial and cultural heritage. This is even more ironic when one considers that Buddhism, which originated in India was ‘culturally appropriated’ and adopted by Tibetans (something that post-colonialists normally take issue with).

Of course, this is not unique to Buddhism. Groups such as Ex-Muslims and Indian Atheists also resist the ideology that one’s religion is equivalent to (or owned by) a particular ethnic group or culture. And yet this way of thinking appears to be popular among those on the ‘Regressive’ or ‘post-colonial’ Left as I have written about here and here and here.

Sadly this type of ideology also extends into the intellectual sphere where scholars and writers, including myself, have been ‘informed’ (often by non-Scholars) that they should not be speaking about a specific culture, race or religion because they are not the correct ethnicity. A recent example of this can be seen with the Sanskrit scholar and Indologist, Sheldon Pollock, and the attacks by Hindu nationalists in India, on his academic position and worthiness, based on his ethnicity and nationality.

The idea that one culture ‘owns’ a particular heritage is also having a profound impact on museums, as Tiffany Jenkins explains in Does One Ethnic Group Own Its Cultural Artefacts?:

We need to ask who speaks for the relevant indigenous community, and on what basis. Even who qualifies as indigenous is a vexed question, as is the fact that ‘the indigenous’ rarely speak with one voice. Ethnocentric policies therefore tend to vest authority in anointed chiefs and elders (local equivalents of the privileged white male), without asking how many and which tribal members need to subscribe to the traditional view for it to remain authoritative. What about those who disagree? And what about those who want to change it, or challenge it from within?……

But handing over the right to narrate history to those with the approved ethnicity is not the way that knowledge works. The pursuit of truth and the understanding of history must be open to everybody, regardless of class, ethnicity or gender. There must be universal access. That is how questions can be explored, and old forms of authority challenged.

Such issues demonstrate the need to make a crucial distinction between ‘religion as culture’ and ‘religion as philosophy’. The vast majority of self-identifying Tibetan Buddhists are still ethnic Tibetans who (since birth) have been brought up and identified as Buddhist by their parents and society. Similarly, the majority of Muslims and Hindus have adopted it (or been brainwashed into it) by birth. This ‘religion by birth’ is often (although not always) accompanied by a lack of genuine knowledge or interest in the actual philosophical practises and teachings contained within the doctrinal texts.

For example, many ethnic Tibetan Buddhists (living outside of high altitude Tibet) happily eat and consume meat without any consideration or recognition that such behaviour goes against one of the central tenets of Buddha’s teachings: see the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra Chapter 8 and Kyabje Chatral Rinpoche. Similarly, many Muslims drink alcohol, believe in gender equality and do not espouse violent jihad against non-believers. As Sam Harris and ex-Muslim Aryan Hirsi Ali have pointed out this makes such people Muslim by name but not by religious doctrine.

Prof. Robert Thurman with the 14th Dalai Lama

And here lies the crux of the matter. There is a vast difference between a person who identifies as a Buddhist (be that Zen, Hinayana, Mahayana, Tibetan etc.) for cultural or social reasons and someone who is following and studying Buddhism (or any religion) for spiritual or philosophical reasons (such as Prof. Robert Thurman pictured above).

The 14th Dalai Lama himself has stated on many occasions that ‘western’ followers of Tibetan Buddhism are often ‘better’ and more ‘diligent’ students than ethnic Tibetans, the majority of whom do not really understand the philosophical texts or teachings. A Tibetan friend of mine told me several years ago that the majority of Tibetans understand about 20 per cent of the Dalai Lama’s teachings in terms of the philosophical terms and meanings.

Of course, such distinctions are not mutually exclusive. For example, some ethnic Tibetans (who are ‘Buddhists by birth’) manage to be both spiritual and cultural practitioners, such as the 14th Dalai lama, the 17th Karmapa and other monastics or yogis. And of course, there are ‘Buddhists by choice’ who all too readily adopt the cultural and material aspects of the religion without really entering into the Philosophy in a deep or genuinely meaningful way. The great Tibetan Buddhist master, Chogyam Trungpa pinpointed this kind of follower in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and here the 17th Karmapa describes it:

Sometimes when we practice dharma we think that we need to show some sort of external or physical sign of it. We pay a lot of attention to the rituals and these actions of our body and speech. This is practicing dharma when we’re focusing outside. But instead what we need to do is turn our attention inwards. We need to see whether what we’re doing is functioning as an antidote to the afflictions or not. We need to see whether we are taming our mind or not. We need to see whether our mind is improving, getting kinder, or not. If we don’t look at it in this way then there’s no benefit to doing these actions – we think that we are trying to do the dharma, but actually we are just making a show with our body and speech. We are putting on appearances, and that’s all we really take an interest in. And the moment that happens, this becomes spiritual materialism.

Shakyamuni Buddha always emphasised the importance of study and practice and focusing more on what unites us as human beings (our desire to be happy and not to suffer), not on ‘secondary differences’. As the Dalai Lama stated recently at a talk given this year to Tibetans in Minnesota:

Children…….have no prejudices or preconceptions. They aren’t bothered by the secondary differences of colour, faith, nationality, wealth or education that seem to pre-occupy adults. We would be better to be like them and one remedy is to remember that we are all the same as human beings.

If someone wants to identify as Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and so on, one would hope they are free to do so without the ‘culture police’ telling them if it is appropriate or not. However, let’s be clear about what we mean if we do. Are you a cultural or a philosophical Buddhist or both? Because if you think that your ethnicity is important to your Buddhism then then you are clearly the former.

Group of Buddhist nuns with Tibetan Buddhist nun, Thubten Chodron

Those on the Regressive Left, like my Tibetan Tweeter, would no doubt seek to pressure people to ‘identify’ themselves with lengthy, awkward monikers such as ‘British, hetero, white, woman, following a form of Buddhism culturally appropriated from Indian Buddhism by Tibetans……’. Perhaps a more accurate ”label’ than ‘Tibetan Buddhist’ would be ‘Vajrayana Buddhist’ (as this includes both Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhist teachings).

However, if I am going to ‘identify’ as anything I will identify as a Philosophical Buddhist (or Buddhist by Choice and Learning) not a Cultural one (Buddhist by Birth and Socialised Habit). A far more meaningful identification in terms of what the Shakyamuni Buddha actually intended, which does not divide people on grounds of race, ethnicity and culture but on one’s personal knowledge, attitude and conduct.

Why ‘Identity Feminism’ Divides Rather Than Conquers


Women’s rights and feminism have come a long way in the past 100 years. Many women worldwide now have the right to vote, to travel freely without a male companion, to get an education, to work, to marry and divorce out of choice, to take control of reproduction, sex and family planning and get a decent wage for their work. There is still much work to be done though, with some countries still suffering from unacceptably low levels of gender equality and human rights for females.

For some on the bourgeois ‘Liberal­-Left’, or what feminists like Aayan Hirsi Ali accurately call the Regressive Left, the reason why women of colour still lag behind on human rights and freedom in the vast majority of countries is partly due to European colonialism and ‘white feminists’ ignoring the plight of their sisters. Although there is no doubt some truth in this assertion, to simplify it in such a manner also glosses over and diminishes the patriarchy and misogyny present in these cultures present long before any ‘white colonialism’ arrived. In addition, the global internet, media and greater levels of education, travel and literacy have only recently given ‘white women’ access to information about the situation of women of colour in distant lands.

The claim that women of colour have been ignored by white feminists (and are even being undermined by them) so often dominates debate and narratives, particularly in the US, to such an extent that any discussion of misogyny or inequality in people of colour cultures or religions is immediately derailed by accusations of racism and white supremacy. My essay ‘The Hoodie and the Hijab are Not Equals’ and the controversy it created with over 80 North American academics issuing a letter to condemn it, is an example of how this works. This reactionary ideology has also driven an increase in ‘Identity Feminism’, (‘Intersectional Feminism’ suggests these groups recognise the intersectionality of all racial groups which they often don’t); feminist groups associated with a particular race, religion or nationality.

For example, I spent a few years living and working with the Tibetan community in exile in India and Nepal, countries which have some of the lowest levels of gender equality in the world and have written about issues related to gender and patriarchy in these communities. Last year, a small group of ethnic Tibetan women (based predominantly in the USA) founded a group called the ‘Tibetan Feminist Collective’(TFC), inspired, in a back­-handed way, by criticism of the Tibetan patriarchal culture by non­Tibetan women. Their first essay complained about my critique of Tibetan exile patriarchs as unfair because (according to their logic) I am white and any critique of Tibetan patriarchy or culture should come from an ethnic Tibetan.

While the creation of such a group is to be welcomed if it helps empower Tibetan women, ironically, despite the fact that the majority of Tibetan women live in Tibet, India and Nepal, the majority of TFC’s social media posts have been US-­centric and dominated by a brand of feminism that grew out of the black civil rights movement in the USA. In addition, they rarely support or encourage solidarity with Indian or Nepali feminist groups or writers, which are the natural allies to look to in terms of dealing directly with issues that affect the majority of Tibetan women in exile. Issues such as the continuing male dominance of Tibetan Buddhism are still left largely unchallenged outside of western, academic circles.

This ideology and tendency is not unique to a small group of Tibetan­-American women though. In fact, one could say that ‘Identity Feminism’, which claims to offer a ‘unique’ perspective for that particular race, nationality or religion, is often nothing other than thinly-­disguised ethnic or cultural nationalism or religious propaganda or denial. It is no accident that many men (and women) on the Religious Right in deeply patriarchal cultures often cite and use ‘Identity Feminism’ (and its continual attacks, stereotyping and degradation of ‘white women’ and ‘the West’) to prop up and support misogynist culture and practice.

Although there is no doubt that race is a factor that cannot be ignored in feminist discourse, to blame that on some kind of inherent racism or supremacy in white feminism is simplistic and also, at times, serving the patriarchal status quo. As Nushin Arbabzadah who was raised in Afghanistan and fled to Europe as a refugee says in her article In My Life, Headscarves Have Been Symbols of Oppression, Not Solidarity in relation to American women showing ‘solidarity’ with Muslim women by donning headscarves:

Women may want to express “solidarity” with Muslim women by covering up. But Muslim women don’t need to cover up. This act of solidarity perpetuates a version of Islam that says it’s O.K. to poison little girls who dare to feel the sunlight on their heads.

Image result for my stealthy freedom with without hijab
Photo from #mystealthyfreedom

Ex­Muslim feminists and activists like Maryam Namazie continually protest the convenient Regressive Left Myth that homogenises women who have grown up in Muslim­-majority countries as supporting the hijab or even see it as an expression of Muslim identity:

Nonetheless, many post-­modernist and culturally relativist Leftists, liberals, and feminists remain firmly on the side of the Islamists. Any opposition to Sharia law, (which is based on the Koran, Hadith, Islamic jurisprudence), the veil, and Islamic misogyny are met with charges of racism and Islamophobia, cultural imperialism and more. Those who say so though have bought into the culturally­-relativist notion that societies in the Middle East and North Africa (and even the “Muslim community” in the west) are homogeneous, “Islamic” and “conservative”. But there is no one homogeneous culture anywhere. Since it is those in power that determine the dominant culture, this point of view sees Islamist values and sensibilities as that of “authentic Muslims’…..Those who assert that a demand for secularism and opposition to the veil and Sharia law are “foreign” and “culturally inappropriate” are only considering Islamism’s sensibilities and values, not that of the many who resist.

This ‘Liberal’ attitude towards Islamists or misogyny also reared its ugly head on New Year’s Eve in Germany, Finland and Switzerland, where over one hundred women were robbed and sexually assaulted by a group of men of ‘Arab and North African’ origin (any of whom have been identified as asylum seekers), in what appear to be co­-ordinated attacks. Such crimes are unprecedented in these countries but yet again in social media, there was denial and dismissal of the hundreds of eyewitness reports by women and police with suggestions that such reports were racist or promoted racism and that the ethnicity or culture of the men should be ignored as irrelevant.

The question to ask any ‘Identity Feminist’ group is how does being X really make a difference to your ultimate goals of human rights and equality for women? Of course, race, gender, class, sexuality and economic power need to be considered when dealing with inequality but how does being a certain race or nationality make the goal or ideology different? The question here is about whether human rights are culturally relative or universal. I, and many other women (including those from Muslim­-majority countries) assert that such rights are universal and any attempt to make them culturally or racially relative sadly serves patriarchs more than women.

In fact, such attempts are symptoms of ‘the racism of lower expectations’ which ‘expects less’ from the ‘Other’ because ‘that’s their culture or religion’. Ironically, by pandering to the idea of ‘difference’ it divides women and puts them on the side of the patriarchs and misogynists. As the 14th Dalai Lama has often emphasised when talking about ways to solve conflict, inequality and division:

What is important is finding the common ground between religions and therefore cultures, identifying those common morals that can unite us all. Multiculturalism, then, is not so much about celebrating differences, but emphasising our similarities.

The common unity to be found in feminism is how ALL females are oppressed and suffer through gender inequality, patriarchy and misogyny, and by prejudicial gross stereotypes that reduce a whole race or nation to a ‘single story’. As we all know, the best strategy for achieving control in any situation is to ‘divide and conquer’ and that is why the patriarchs are still in control.

– First published at


An attack on Buddhist scholar, Robert Thurman in the name of Tibet?


The Tibetan exile social media world is a small one, and at times has a tendency to be self-congratulatory in terms of its overall impact and product. A recent blog post by an anonymous Tibetan blogger is a good example of this and of a growing trend among US-born or resident Tibetan-Americans who make a habit of blaming ‘white people’ for ‘Tibetan problems’.

This would be funny if it weren’t actually true. In ‘Tibetan Fundamentalism’ the blogger describes a having a conversation with her Tibetan uncle:

…..about a controversy that was brewing inside the Rubin Museum, a Himalayan art museum in NYC. My uncle works there. One young Tibetan employee was complaining about how removed the museum was from the political reality of Tibet and how underrepresented Tibetans were within the museum despite it extensively displaying Tibetan art. I told my uncle that I felt that she was justified in her critique and my uncle responded by saying that I, along with that person, were part of a generation that did nothing yet felt entitled to complain about everything. He said my ideas and my reasonings were eurocentric and that he was speaking from a Buddhist perspective. He claimed that he spoke as a Tibetan person while I spoke as an American. I said I did not recognize the profoundness of Buddhist philosophy in his dismissal of me as an under-accomplished person. He said I speak the way I do because I don’t know Buddhism. Inherent in his argument was an accusation that I was less Tibetan than him, and that my critique of the Rubin museum was the result of hubris granted to me by my Western education.

The author wants to make a serious point that Tibetan identity should not be homogenised as being solely Tibetan Buddhist. However, bizarrely, and tenuously, tries to make this point by targetting renowned Buddhist scholar/practitioner (and long-time friend of Tibet and HH the 14th Dalai Lama) Robert Thurman, glibly dismissing him as an ‘asshole’ (based on a second-hand anecdote) and as ‘White, privileged and with rudimentary knowledge of Tibetan experience’.

Such remarks coming from a Tibetan who has done ‘nothing’ other than ‘be ethnically Tibetan’  are not only rude and immature but also not even relevant to the topic at hand.

In addition, the way the author singles out Thurman as a ‘White person’, (with a capital letter W for White!!) is suggestive of a left-wing political or ideological agenda. There are many Tibetan Buddhist scholars (alive and dead) such as Gedun Chophel and Thubten Jinpa who are also held up as bastions of Tibetan cultural identity by Tibetans and non-Tibetans. So the author seems to have more of an issue with White people being considered scholars of, or experts, in Tibetan Buddhism or Tibetan culture, than providing people with constructive ideas of what could constitute Tibetan identity (one that is not merely based on Buddhism or ethnicity).

For example, if the Tibetan who wrote this grew up in North America, how would they be ‘more Tibetan’ (if there could be such a thing) than a White person who grew up going to TCV school, fluent in Tibetan, surrounded by Tibetans in exile and very few westerners?  The author seems to suggest in the article that ‘Tibetanness’ would be (and is) one predominantly based around ethnicity or parentage, which is something to be strongly resisted of course, as I have argued here.

The author wanted to show the world that their Tibetan Uncle was wrong and that they were not  ‘part of a generation that did nothing yet felt entitled to complain about everything’. Sadly, however, the piece was counter-productive and proved the Uncle right. Robert Thurman​’s global contribution to raising awareness and knowledge about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism is far more than the author could ever hope or claim to have done.

And, let’s not forget that the Uncle (who is also ethnically Tibetan) might take umbrage at having his voice taken away from him too.