The Fight to Control Women

“Recent years have seen a panic over “online red-light districts,” which supposedly seduce vulnerable young women into a life of degradation, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s live tweeting of a Cambodian brothel raid. But rarely do these fearful, salacious dispatches come from sex workers themselves, and rarely do they deviate from the position that sex workers must be rescued from their condition, and the industry simply abolished — a position common among feminists and conservatives alike.

“In Playing the Whore, journalist Melissa Gira Grant turns these pieties on their head, arguing for an overhaul in the way we think about sex work. Based on ten years of writing and reporting on the sex trade, and grounded in her experience as an organizer, advocate, and former sex worker, Playing the Whore dismantles pervasive myths about sex work, criticizes both conditions within the sex industry and its criminalization, and argues that separating sex work from the ‘legitimate’ economy only harms those who perform sexual labor. In Playing the Whore, sex workers’ demands, too long relegated to the margins, take center stage: sex work is work, and sex workers’ rights are human rights.”

– Summary of Playing the Whore from

Debates about prostitution tend to cover many topics, ranging from informal economics to public health, but ultimately comes down to one central element: control. Control of women. Control over women.

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work by Melissa Gira Grant Jacobin/Verso, 136 pp.

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work
by Melissa Gira Grant
Jacobin/Verso, 136 pp.

Those involved in sex work, whether they use the label of prostitute, sex worker or something else, belong to a part of society largely overlooked by society. Like the homeless or the unemployed, society, generally, looks down upon them while rarely offering respect for their human dignity or considering their current state as a temporary one. Leaders in both public and private sectors rarely given them a chance for inclusion into the rest of society.

Grant’s Playing the Whore is a simple yet exhaustive study of all the areas which affect sex workers, including the police, the media and the groups who see themselves as the ‘savior’. Largely excluded from the discussion on criminality, depiction or alternatives are sex workers themselves.

Just as women of colour and lesbians of generations past had to face off against straight white feminists of movements past, sex workers who seek autonomy and respect have to face off against anti-prostitution feminists today who offer neither. Grant documents how feminists in the anti-prostitution movement organize events and talks about sex work while, without seeing the problem, never including sex workers.

Female sex workers, like the many others who preceded them in the women’s liberation movement, continue to counter the conservative values, often shaped by Christian morality, that come to control their daily life. Although those people who buy sex sometimes face arrest, the burden falls predominantly on the woman. Sex workers face widespread violence and harassment by police officers. Sadly, the rest of society does not value sex workers much better.

In the same way that substance abuse is now seen as a health concern and something that shouldn’t be treated with criminalization and imprisonment, prostitution should be seen as an issue of employment needs. Unfortunately, politicians, supposed “advocates” and others refuse to see their place as seeking harm reduction, as is being done for addicts. Similarly, the role for police in both instances is to protect citizens – all citizens – especially those most vulnerable to receiving harm.

The central element of the book, which is signaled by its subtitle, “The Work of Sex Work”, is that of employment. Bringing her own stories as well as other sex workers, Grant describes the informal nature of today’s sex work. The women’s liberation movement has long been about women’s economic liberation. From unpaid care work to the gender pay gap, women have long suffered from an economy tailored not to them but towards men. Sex work is no different. Grant connects the work of sex work to other forms of self-employment within the informal sector, such as hair stylists, and service industries, like retail. Until all women are given the economic opportunities to live a dignified and comfortable life, these forms of informal or part-time employment will have to be used.

The debate on economics applies to countries around the world. As Grant points out, the movement to “rescue” sex workers in Asia and elsewhere does not address the economic, political and social disadvantages sex workers face inside and outside the profession. Even if victimized women are rescued, they receive little more than job training to low-paid labour. A sign in a Cambodia textile shop employing former sex workers point to this realization. It reads:


Until we begin to see women – all women – as equal members of society, short-term fixes will not have the power to liberate sex workers when they continue to live in poverty. For those women who are left without alternative employment, decriminalization and support should be a first priority, not fear of the police and exclusion from ‘mainstream’ workers.

The debate between a woman’s right to self-determination and conservative traditional values in society is linked to another contentious issue: abortion.

The first feminist wave gave women the right to vote. The second wave gave women the Pill, and control of their reproductive rights.

In the United States, like most countries around the world, abortion was important for family planning but seen as a criminal action. This period, half a century ago, was also marked by near total male representation in politics. In 1973, the US Supreme Court determined that abortion was a constitutionally protected act with Roe v. Wade. Since then, conservative groups have fought to make abortion illegal or impossible to get.

cartoonThe documentary TRAPPED showcases doctors who perform abortions in some states in the United States who have fought against so-called TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws. Since 2011, states in the South and Midwest have passed more than 300 abortion restrictions — TRAP laws, admitting privilege requirements, rules for how medication abortions may be performed, bans on abortion after 20 weeks (and sometimes earlier), longer waiting periods, and greater impediments to teenagers seeking abortions without parental approval.

Earlier this year, in the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the US Supreme Court found that TRAP laws in Texas placed an “undue burden” on women seeking abortion and thus violate the Constitution. This is a major victory for women’s rights and may signal the beginning of TRAP laws being overruled across the nation.

TRAPPED follows in the footsteps of other documentary films shining a light on the battle over a woman’s right to choose. Six years ago, 12th & Delaware revealed the fight on the titular street corner in Fort Pierce, Florida, between a for-profit abortion clinic and a Roman Catholic Church-supported pregnancy clinic whose mission is to prevent women from obtaining abortions. While the abortion clinic takes precautions against threats of violence and fends off protesters, the pregnancy clinic actively spreads misinformation to women about the dangers of abortion.

A decade ago, Lake of Fire depicted the heated abortion debate that was already waging for decades in America. Leaving no stone unturned, it featured graphic footage of actual medical procedures and presented people on both pro-choice and pro-life sides of the issue.

These films add to the lengthy abortion debate in the United States and reveal the tactics of those groups opposed to a women’s right to choose how her pregnancy is managed. Ultra-conservative and Christian groups lie to pregnant women, spreading misinformation and fear. They set up anti-abortion pregnancy centres, which act as red herrings to women who are seeking abortions, while never disclosing their real ideology. These tactics show no respect towards pregnant women who, for whatever reason, have decided that a medically-assisted abortion is the right decision. Instead, they fool pregnant women, delaying their decision beyond what the law allows and, in effect, force vulnerable to follow through with their pregnancy against their will. A shameful game of politics over people.

The abortion debate in the United States has not been peaceful either. Groups like Operation Rescue and others promote violence to achieve their ends. It’s not just psychological violence. Although conservative and Christian groups regularly protest outside clinics and yell at women who enter, they also conduct terrorism. Male opponents to abortion (it’s almost always men who become violent) have repeatedly assassinated doctors and fire-bombed clinics, spreading fear and pressuring providers to close their doors. The entire anti-abortion movement ultimately furthers these horrendous acts of violence through their misinformation and shaming protests. Sadly, this violence in the name of opposing reproductive rights is not limited to only the US.

screen-shot-2014-05-04-at-1-59-26-pmThe concept of rescue is found in the ideologies of both anti-prostitution and anti-abortion. Rescue from what? Rescuing women from themselves, it seems. From decisions about their health, their well-being, their finances, and their work. The debate doesn’t typically expand past what to do once women are “rescued”. They are thrown back into society to fend for themselves without the political, economic or social support they may have wanted in the first place.

It’s difficult to ignore the irony at the center of debates on women’s rights: the loudest voices aren’t women. Men make up the majority of anti-abortion advocates. One of the biggest anti-abortion voices is the Catholic Church, which is built around female subservience to male clergy. Male legislatures pass laws without talking to female voters.

Although women are often found protesting prostitution and abortion, the organisations they represent are, more often than not, led by men. Men who will never be pregnant. Men who have more employment opportunities than women and who can purchase sex from prostitutes without fear of much prosecution or persecution.

Men need to stand aside and listen, rather than stand at the front and dominate the discussion. We need to stop making decisions about those we know little about.

Ultimately, the fight is not over whose morals should dominate because this is not a debate over ideas; it’s a debate over people. People who have the right to determine their own lives. All human beings deserve dignity.

All struggles are connected since, as the organisation Black Women for Wages for Housework said, “When prostitutes win, all women win.” Hookers and housewives unite!


Religion as Political Scapegoat

This is not about terrorism. Terrorism is the excuse. This is about economic and social control. And the only thing you’re really protecting is the supremacy of your government.

This reflection from the 2016 docu-drama Snowden illustrates the current world we live in. A world, we’re told, filled with terrorist threats. But, are we in danger?

The Muslims Are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani Verso, 336 pp.

The Muslims are coming! : Islamophobia, extremism, and the domestic war on terror
by Arun Kundnani
Verso, 336 pp.

In his book The Muslims are coming!: Islamophobia, extremism, and the domestic war on terror, Arun Kundnani thoroughly counters the narrative of Muslim extremism found in the United States and United Kingdom.

For the most part, the threat of terrorism by ‘jihadists’ is similar or less than the threat of white supremacists, which have a far longer track record of murder and mayhem in the two centers of Anglophone power (pp.22):

In Europe, the violence carried out by far Right groups, which have racism as a central part of their ideology, is of a similar magnitude to that of jihadist violence: at least 249 people died in incidents of far Right violence between 1990 and 2012; 263 were killed by jihadists over the same period.

In the US, between 1990 and 2013, there were 145 acts of political violence committed by the American far Right, resulting in 348 deaths. In comparison, 20 people were killed over the same period in acts of political violence carried out by Muslim-American citizens or long-term residents of the US.

The 20 deaths in the US, caused by Nidal Malik Hasan, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, Naveed Afzal Haq, Graham Mohamed Hadayet, Ali Hassan Abu Kamal, and the Jamaat ul-Fuqra group in Tucson 1990, are seen as proof of Muslim extremism, while non-Muslim terrorism is seen as unique and not part of a pattern. The United States has a long history of white supremacist terrorism, from the Ku Klux Klan to modern assaults on immigrants, as well as Christian radicals who attack anyone with an opposing ideology, like abortion providers.

The thread that links terrorism by Christian white supremacists and by Muslim radical isn’t their religion, as the US and UK would have us believe. It’s about their politics. The terrorists themselves say this. Many Muslim terrorists, such as those who bombed the London Underground, were motivated by nothing more than the Iraq War.

Unfortunately, this narrative doesn’t fit the agenda of Western imperialism.

The threat posed by white supremacists does little to push America and Britain to war.

Muslim terrorism, misunderstood, allows American and British military to cast perpetual war, from Pakistan to Yemen, Somalia to Afghanistan. Wars and extra-judicial drone bombings are the spark that ignites hatred against the West. It does nothing to provide safety and security.

The Cold War gave the West 50 years of fictional enemies: Russians and communists. Since the Berlin Wall fell, Muslims extremists were cast as the new villains to continue this fiction of global fear. In both cases, the enemy was ideal, as Samuel P. Huntington describes, for casting fear among Americans:

The ideal enemy for America would be ideologically hostile, racially and culturally different, and militarily strong enough to pose a credible threat to American security.

The ‘otherness’ of Muslims feeds into the racism that the United States and other Western nations wee built upon. By never understanding the ‘other’, Americans and Britons can create a stereotype of jihadists lusting for war, even though it isn’t true.

The Muslims are coming! looks at these issue from several areas. Following the 9/11 terrorist acts, perpetrated by 19 men of mostly Saudi nationality, liberal and conservative politicians united in the drive for war, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. By misunderstanding the reasons for the first attack, these politicians began the course for 15 years of terror towards Muslim communities abroad and at home. These wars, combined with stories of unrestrained torture at Bagram Airfield, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, caused a handful of young men to fight against the imperialism of American and British forces in foreign Muslim lands. Imperialist politics caused both sides of this problem.

In addition to misunderstanding their supposed enemies, American and British intelligence agencies have done an incredible job of fostering terror plots. Kundnani documents in detail how the FBI uses informants and financial incentives, as well as threats of violence, against low level criminals, who happen to be Muslim, to manufacture terror plots. These plots are thought up by FBI undercover agents and informants, who also get cash incentives, and sold to naive people who would have no ability whatsoever to do harm without the FBI’s help. The media sells these stories to the public at large, furthering the myth of widespread Muslim extremism and Islamophobia more generally. The national surveillance programs found in many Western nations was brought into existence by many of these lies and continues to target Muslims disproportionately.

These idea of political anger not religious terrorism can be broadened outside of the United States.

defamationDefamation, a film by Israeli director Yoav Shamir, travels the world asking what constitutes anti-Semitism in modern times. Anti-Semitism today is real and continues the 3,000 years of unspeakable hatred towards the Jewish people. Unfortunately, the label today is used to address both real hate crimes and used to protect all actions by the state of Israel.

Political scholars like John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Norman Finkelstein, who are profiled in the film, are some of the few people who can evade the label of anti-Semitic thanks to their Jewish heritage. For many others, especially Muslim activists, there is no such protection.

Criticism of Israel’s wars and persecution against Palestinians are seen as anti-Semitism by many Israelis and their defenders. Some accusations are warranted. But most are political and have nothing to do with religious hatred. This difference is fundamental to understanding both sides.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is not alone. Religious and ethnic differences, around the world, have been attributed to conflicts that are fundamentally political. From the 25-year civil war in Sri Lanka to decades of fighting in the Sudans, different people have fought for political recognition. News agencies and governments have twisted these stories to fit their own agendas, while ignoring the root causes. Ultimately, the lack of understanding for different sides prevents protracted conflicts from reaching a swift end and the start of peaceful change.

American and British domestic policies continue to see religion were only politics exist.

War will never bring peace. Western imperialism will never solve religious extremism. The first step must be to understand those you don’t know.

The Muslims are coming! is a great start for anyone looking to find the truth behind the shadow of fear.

A Critique of Sport

“Sport is war minus the shooting,” wrote George Orwell.

For a long time, I have been thinking about sport and its role in society. It can be like simulated warfare, as Orwell notes, with teams commonly attacking each other, injuries abounding. It can also seem like a religious experience, with fans idolizing players and dogmatically watching every game available.

Foul Play: What's WRONG with Sport by Joe Humphreys Icon Books, 271 pp

Foul Play: What’s Wrong with Sport
by Joe Humphreys
Icon Books, 271 pp.

It seems to be a mixed bag of the best and worst in society. Sports are found nearly everywhere and played by nearly everyone at some point in their life.

These are some of the intersections that Joe Humphreys explores in his book Foul Play: What’s Wrong With Sport. Largely based on his football fandom, Humphreys describes in six chapters the virtue and vice of sport. I found the book to be a timeless expose of a world unable to face criticism. Recent news from the world of sport, like fighting between football fans at Euro 2016 or doping at the Rio Olympics, point to the continued challenges found in competitions around the world. I will explore some of the book’s topics below.

Humphreys starts his book with the effects of sport on the youngest of its participants: children. The first chapter, “Sport and Stupidity,” discusses anti-intellectualism within sport. Each sport has its own set of hazards. Hazards that organisations do not like to discuss openly.

Unlike informal play, Humphreys shows that professional sports encourage amateurs to take unnecessary risks when attempting to live up to sports superstars. In the case of American football, the NFL waged a twenty-year battle to hide the dangers of repeat concussions. These dangers are now being seen in high school athletes as well as professionals. For teenage girls in the United States, cheerleading is one of the more dangerous sports and can lead to paralysis. Dangers are exacerbated by several states unwilling to classify it as a “sport” and thereby regulate its safety.

Beyond the potential injury it glorifies, sports incentive people to make dumb decisions that may not benefit them. Take golf, for example. Unlike routine exercise, gold requires specialized equipment and course fees that cost many times more than a gym membership. And all those green, lush golf courses which are resulting in droughts when constructed in water-limited environments. As a society, we need to think long and hard on whether sports like these are beneficial.

In the second chapter, “Sport, Character and Morals”, Humphreys details the Christian roots of both the Olympics Games – re-established in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin – and the Fifa World Cup – founded by Jules Rimet. Rimet believed that “sport – and above all football – would be the means to teach the world’s masses to appreciate the Christian virtues of hard work, honesty, obedience to rules, comradeship and fair play” (pp. 48). These grand competitions on the world stage followed the trend of “Muscular Christianity” which was established in Britain during the era of Queen Victoria. From its beginnings, Humphreys describes Muscular Christianity, which transformed into modern sport through the establishment of its rules and record-keeping, as a moral experiment. A moral experiment that has gone badly wrong.

Humphreys continues the chapter by discussing the negative psycho-social behavior caused by sport. Psychologists Bredemeier and Shields found that “participation in competitive sports created ‘lower level moral reasoning in both sport and life'” (pp. 53). Team sports dilute personal responsibility and lead to pack behaviors, where no single individual feels responsibility for his actions – they were merely following orders. These negative attributes carry into family and social life.

The more serious players and fans take their given sport the more harmful it can be for their family and friends. Families are forced to move when an athlete gets traded, or worse, separated from their partner and children. Die-hard fans will do anything to not miss a game, sitting for hours watching a game remembering every single minuscule piece of data, while forgetting about the world around them. As Humphreys notes, watching sports in this way, without talking about anything except the game at hand, does not provide the bonding that children need from parents. Nor does the drinking that typically comes with it.

Bullying within sport in another common phenomenon that damages the confidence of lesser-abled children. Think about how jocks and geeks have co-existed. Sport, unlike play, is a test of the fittest, whereby difference, even if only perceived, must be eliminated. These lessons in cruelty, rather than compassion, to one another carry into adulthood and continue as long as sport is thought as “moral.”

Chapter three looks at the aspects of cheating by athletes and the judgement of fans. Fans tend to see cheating by athletes as an anomaly – bad guys who get caught and should be punished. However, as Humphreys shows, cheating is a key part of sport. The good guys who don’t cheat are the real anomaly.

Every sport has cheaters. Sprinters, baseball players and bicyclists use prohibited substances. Footballers and hockey players dive. A tennis player declines to call a ball “out”. Cheating can’t be eliminated. Worse, the honest and fair athletes are commonly chastised by teammates and fans if they hurt their own score; this incentivises dishonesty.

Just as the church claims to judge sinner from saint, sports fans sit as judges on matters of right and wrong in sport. Humphreys comments: “That sport should be associated with heightened judgementalism is hardly surprising. Sport is a theatre of exaggerated emotions, and these can be expressed in a positive or negative sense: in hero-worshipping athletes, or alternatively demonising them” (pp. 104). With instances of lavish spending, assaulting people or crude statements, it’s hard to claim that athletes should be seen as role models.

Two stadiums of worship

Two stadiums of worship

“Sports fandom is often compared to religious belief. But it would be more accurate to compare it to the wrong kind of religious belief,” (pp. 125) writes Humphreys in chapter four. Fans tend to be self-righteous about their particular team or sport, which has a tendency to lead to hatred and violence. This are the same elements found in religious belief.

One similarity, highlighted by Humphreys, between sport and religion in how both are influenced by one’s birthplace. A baby born in a predominantly Christian country by Christian parents tends to ascribe to Christianity, while a Muslim country tends to raise Muslim children. Furthermore, Christians and Muslims will each speak to the dominance of their particular belief while demeaning the others as untrue or not complete. The same follows for many sports teams. Some might worry about the Catholic Church’s move to become more involved in organised sport.

When I was growing up, the local teams found in Edmonton (Oilers for hockey and Eskimos for Canadian football) were seen by everyone as the best, while the neighbouring teams found in Calgary (Flames and Stampeders) were ridiculed at every possible opportunity. No one questioned the fact that this rivalry was little more than a difference in jersey colours, as both teams were made up of professional athletes with equal skills. Almost all team sports have this “us versus them” animosity because it is supported by the sport system to keep fans engaged. Unfortunately, this division often leads to violence as often seen in football hooliganism.

In the final two chapters, Humphreys discusses the politics of sport. As sports journalist Tom Humphries put it: “Politics and sport always mix. In grants, in swimming inquiries, in civic receptions, in anthems, on days of sheer flagwaving nationalism. They mix. Always” (pp.215).

Sport is rarely open to criticism. Across the world, from Manchester, England, to Toronto, Canada, sports teams are taking every precaution to protect their brand. They do this by controlling the media, even becoming the media by creating their own media networks.

Sports brands sell themselves as competitive, entertaining, atmospheric, sentimental, a source of happiness, and a win-win pursuit. Unfortunately, these are all lies. “World” Cups that are heavily Anglocentric and not true competitions. Examples, like Major League Baseball going to court to block fans from operating fantasy leagues because they used copyrighted statistics, highlight the fact that governing bodies in sport are not “servants of the people.” Rather than finding happiness in sport, research shows that fans experience higher-than-normal levels of stress, anxiety and hopelessness due to their strict attachment to competitive sport. We need to stop buying the delusions that sport keeps selling.

The most insidious aspect of modern sport is its use as a distraction. In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky claims that sport “offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance … [and] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And, in fact, it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in – they have the most exotic information and understanding about kind of arcane issues” (pp.176). Fans use enormous energy and brainpower collecting statistics on sports, but rarely apply these analytical skills to the outside world. The world might be a better place if they did.

In the final chapter of the book, “Sport, Conflict and Prejudice,” Humphreys delves into the many hypocrisies within sport, as well as its entrenched class differences, racism and sexism. Despite what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) may claim, the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany did not break down barriers of race. The 1995 Rugby World Cup did not end apartheid and bring peace to South Africa. And large-scale sports tournaments are not good for a host city’s economy. Instead, these examples show how sport institutions tend to re-write history in a more favorable light, even if it’s not true. Sport doesn’t end racism or end poverty. Most of the time, as author Simon Kuper writes, “it makes no difference whatsoever” (pp. 209).

Sport is largely about keeping the status quo. Media is controlled. Regulations are discouraged. Alcohol and tobacco are campaigned for while disregarding public health.

This is the politics of sports. As sports journalist Tom Humphries put it: “Politics and sport always mix. In grants, in swimming inquiries, in civic receptions, in anthems, on days of sheer flagwaving nationalism. They mix. Always” (pp. 215).

To me, this is Big Sport. Just as Big Tobacco and other “Big” corporate interests, sport prioritizes profits over people. This is best seen in the case of sports club owners threatening to move. In my home city, the owner of the Edmonton Oilers, Daryl Katz, threatened to move the hockey team to Seattle if he didn’t get a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars for a new arena. In the end, he got everything he wanted from the city and provincial government, at the expense of taxpayers and to the relief of his own pocketbook. Big Sport for the win!

In recent weeks, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has become famous not just for his athleticism but also for his political protests. By sitting down, rather than standing up, for the American flag and national anthem during games, Kaepernick and others have continued the debate of widespread racism in the country, including the racism found within the sports America watches. As the AJ+ video below shows, you don’t change a racist structure simply by adding athletes of colour and stir. Sports teams have a long history of stereotyping Native Americans.

Seen as microcosms of American life, many sports leagues benefit from the labour of minority groups while being run mostly by wealthy, older, white men. Sports teams are first and foremost tools for making money, from selling TV rights to memorabilia, and not about promoting social justice. Widespread homophobia in sports also attests to this, as modern sport is based on heteronormative teaching, rooted in religious ideology.

In the era of modern sport, women have largely been excluded. In recent years, women have been able to play in female offshoots of male sports leagues. See the Ladies Professional Golf Association or the Women’s National Basketball Association. These sports leagues may be a positive space for female athletes to compete, although they will also need to address many of the issues described above. In the worst scenarios, women play Lingerie Football – the sexist creation of injury-prone competition in uniforms from a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, garters included.

Any progress gained in “ladies” sports has to be measured against the colossal weight of structural sexism with sport. From American football to boxing and racing, women are seen and used as little more than sexual objects in the world of male-dominated sports world. Objects to accent a game or celebration, whether on the sideline or behind the podium. Objects wearing revealing outfits to advertise products. What worse example than the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Essentially a reason to sell advertisements between photos of topless fashion models, the magazine went over 40 years without a single female athlete on its cover!

After delving into the psychology, politics and culture of sports, Joe Humphreys remains optimistic at the end of Foul Play. Like the worst forms of religion, sport has embraced fanaticism, judgementalism and irrationality, as well as a lack of self-criticism. And like religion, sport needs to change. Channeling two religious leaders – Martin Luther, who initiated the Protestant Reformation, and Martin Luther King Jr., who led the American civil rights movement – Humphreys sees a future where sport is taken little less seriously than it is today. A future where athletes don’t value winning above all else. A future where spectator are obsessed. A future where the innocent of play of children isn’t lost in later years. Sport needs its own reformation!

I think anyone who is open to looking at sport, for better or for worse, would appreciate reading Foul Play.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité pour qui?

In recent weeks, a series of French municipal decrees de facto banning “burkinis” and, apparently, any other skin concealing beach outfits worn by Muslim women were made in about 30 French towns. Women have received fines and armed French police have ordered some women to remove their clothing, as seen on a beach in Nice:


This treatment of Muslim women in France has put a lot of doubt into my mind of whether the motto of “liberty, equality, fraternity” (liberté, égalité, fraternité) still applies to all French residents. Liberty involves the social and political freedoms to which all community members are entitled. Equality means all people within a society have the same status in respect to civil rights, freedom of speech, and equal access to social goods and services. Fraternity, although highly patriarchal and better represented as solidarity, is a kind of ethical relationship between people, which is based on compassion. The ban on burkinis, or any other style of dress associated with an identifiable group, runs counter to all three of these principles.

Women are not allowed the freedom (liberty) to choose what they want to wear on a beach. A Corsican mayor who also banned the garment said that the burkini was “liable to offend the religious convictions or (religious) non-convictions of other users of the beach.” This mayor, like others, is wrong on many counts. No one has the right to be free of offence. In fact, that runs counter to freedom of speech. Just as a person has the right to wear a revealing swimsuit free from sexual harassment, so too does someone wearing full coverings, like a long-sleeved shirt, a wetsuit, or a burkini. As a London woman reflected on how the ban connects to her own past:

“This display of men controlling how women dress reminded me of my humiliation at an open-air pool in Ruislip in 1957 when I, beautifully suntanned and wearing a bikini, was ordered by loudhailer to leave the pool and dress suitably. Nothing changes, just a further reason – religion and terrorism are the current excuse.”

There is no compassion (fraternity) in mandating a woman’s choice of dress, let alone forcing a woman to strip in public in front of armed men. Furthermore, this ban is targeting Muslim women exclusively, in clear opposition to the notion of equality. What if Catholic nuns were banned from French beaches, given fines and forced to remove their religious habit? I don’t think that would be tolerated.


Another woman, a mother of two, was fined on a beach in Cannes while wearing a headscarf. “The saddest thing was that people were shouting ‘go home’, some were applauding the police,” a witness of the incident said. “Her daughter was crying.” Her ticket, seen by French news agency AFP, read that she was not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”.

I’ve heard some French politicians cite “secular values” as a reason for the ban, however, I think they are misguided in their terminology. Secularism favors open, democratic societies in which the state takes a neutral position with respect to religion, protection the freedom of individuals to follow and espouse, or reject and criticize, both religious and atheist beliefs. French officials are doing anything but be neutral. Coercing people into embracing religious belief should is no worse than coercing people into embracing anti-religious belief. Both are fundamentalist and both should be opposed.


As Human Rights Watch (HRW) points out, the bans were adopted in the aftermath of two horrific terror attacks: the truck attack in Nice and the church killing in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. In Nice, the administrative court ruled that banning the burkini is “necessary, appropriate and proportionate to the aim pursued in terms of the protection of public order and security” in the context of terrorist threats. It appears that security (securité) may need to be added to the French motto.

But this reasoning is again misleading. As HRW notes, “what in fact these bans serve to do is create a dangerous and absurd confusion between how some Muslim women choose to dress and the despicable terrorist attacks that French people, of all religions, have suffered.” The bans may even worsen security. It increases tensions between communities, fuels Islamophobia, and reaffirms the feeling of injustice felt by some Muslims in France. In just one example, skirmishes at a beach in the commune of Sisco earlier this month left four people injured and resulted in riot police being brought in to stop a crowd of 200 Corsicans marching into a housing estate with a high population of people of North African origin, shouting “this is our home”. State repression will not solve these problems.

In addition to being unfair and discriminatory, the burkini ban is also misogynistic.


The burkini is a cultural and religiously inspired mode of bathing attire, which women choose to wear to make them feel safe from the sexual gaze of society. The ban excludes women from public spaces, depriving them of their rights to autonomy, to leisure activities, to wear what they chose, and of course to practice their faith. As Huda Jawad writes, “such policies and acts of discrimination are examples of how Islamophobia is more likely to manifest itself in a gendered way which targets and affects women uniquely, adding to their misogynistic oppression and religious victimisation”.

Going forward, it appears that the French judiciary is starting to put an end to this shameful ban. France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil D’Etat, ruling for the Human Rights League and Collective Against Islamophobia in France, ordered the suspension of the ban adopted by Villeneuve-Loubet, a small town on the French Riviera. Although the ruling only has direct impact on that specific ban, it should create a precedent for 30 other municipalities with similar rules.

Many other European countries also ban burkas, or face veils. In Switzerland, women face fines of up to £8,000 for wearing a burka. The law came into effect in July following a 2013 referendum. Similar laws have since been passed in Belgium and the Netherlands. The Swiss ban was inspired by a similar French law passed in 2010 and upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 2014. European judges ruled that the measure aimed at stopping women covering their faces in public was entirely justified, adding that the garment threatened the right of people “to live together”. One must question whether Muslims are also people that have a right to live together.

As described above, these bans are discriminatory, racist and misogynistic. They do nothing for security and seem counter-productive. If we want to create a peaceful society, we cannot greet hatred with hatred, intolerance with intolerance. We need to hold fast to the better elements of society. For France, this means providing all people with liberty, equality and solidarity. Especially when it seems difficult.