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Sunday
Feb222009

I don’t have my Identity!


Modern identity is confusing because it is double edged. It has two sides, sharp and hard. It’s hard to explain, and even harder to understand, but at the bottom of it all is the contradiction between equality and liberty. A contradiction? – you say, that’s odd, I thought they were part and parcel of the same thing. Yes, that’s true, part and parcel of the same thing, but that’s the rub, they are contradictory and being so closely linked, makes that contradiction even more explosive.
How does that work? Take liberty. If we are free, we can exercise the right of freedom. One classic example would be to own property. You buy a house. It’s yours. What happens to equality? It becomes distorted. A homeless man, who is also free, wants your house. We are all equal, he says, and I want my share. Well do you want to share your house? No, you have to reply, you can’t have a share in my house; liberty, in this case, has contradicted equality – go read the Gingerlly column in The Nation, that guy with a beard explained it last week.
It’s the same with religion. Some Muslim women in European countries would like wear headscarves. Or more complete veils. It’s their right, one would have thought, they are free. But no, Jack Straw says he can’t communicate through a head-covering. And that remark obviously, makes it harder for someone who wants to cover their face to talk to him, making them unequal in that context, with another person who is not covered.
I should say, quite forthrightly, that I find the attitude and remarks of Straw, and so many others who have taken the position that if certain immigrant groups are to be tolerated in Europe, then they have to pretty much behave like White Christians, to be offensive. Now as I have been arguing, equality and liberty are always at odds, but these new European arguments limit the play of that contradiction in an offensive way.
Anything one wears is personal, and it really should be ones liberty to choose ones dress. On my view, only a suicide belt should be exempted from freedom of dress – and that, we don’t usually see.
Similarly with language. It is my understanding – and I am subject to correction, (my source is a recollection of a BBC documentary) – if someone wants to apply for a visa to enter the Netherlands, as a fiancée, one has to take a test, in Dutch, in the Dutch Embassy in ones home country. So if you are Moroccan, and your boyfriend immigrated to Holland, and now you are going over to get married with him and settle there, and you are applying for a visa for that purpose, you can’t get it unless you speak Dutch. Already.
The argument is, assimilation. Pure and simple. To be Dutch, you have to know Dutch. That’s not just absurd, that’s wrong. That’s like saying you have to know Sinhala to marry a Sri Lankan. But it persists, because everyone knows the Dutch are the most tolerant people in the world. Except when they are speaking Dutch, and making every one else speak it, no doubt. Except then.
But this problem isn’t just about Europeans and Muslims. It’s really about modernity; the way things are in the world, between equality, liberty and the state. The flip side of this happens when the state begins to tell you what you are.
In my last Gingerlly column in The Nation, ‘do you have your identity?’ I wrote a few weeks ago, I was talking about soldiers at checkpoints trying to figure out if you are an enemy of the state. And of course they try to work out if you are Tamil or not. Always a complicated game to play, I was trying to suggest. Now the Aanduwa goes one better. It sent over a form, with many pages, a sort of a booklet, that asked many questions, including what my religion is, and my ethnicity. I think everyone’s got one of these by now. So what? Do note that this a little odd. We do fill this out on a census form, but that information isn’t tied to ones name and address in a verifiable way. And no, its not on your passport, as many think. It is not on your identity card, either. Just write it in, someone I complained to said, ‘nothing to hide, no?’ I found that remark as offensive as the form.
Shall we ask for caste as well? Well why not, my dear, why hide that now? I don’t want to specify my religion, ethnicity or caste or tribe or anything else like that, on a form, because I want it to be my right not to. To be fair to the Aanduwa, there is a number for ‘no religion,’ on the form. But there isn’t a number for no ethnicity; there is one for ‘other’ which I filled in, but that doesn’t really convey my refusal to produce my identity on cue. All this form does is stereotype people, and through that stereotype neighborhoods, as Tamil. That’s what it will end up doing, how ever many arguments are made about the dire need of this information for security. In fact, for those stereotyped, it works the other way, they are now marked on a list, targets for the next riot. So let me assure you, they don’t feel secure at all.
Which is worse, you ask, telling European women not to wear face-coverings, so that they don’t ‘look Islamic’ or making a list of Tamil residents in Sri Lanka, by requiring people to say, “I am X”? I think they are both wrong, both horrible. But they are two sides of the same dirty coin, that someone flipped up, and we’ve pocketed. Let’s throw it away.
[Pradeep Jeganathan (www.pjeganathan.org), is an internationally published anthropologist, writer and photographer]

 

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    No mate, its extraordinary to see rivalry finally and great on the Indian group for playing so well, I wish them luckiness, I'm an Aussie and adoration to see a not too bad amusement alongside whatever remains of us in Australia who cherish the diversion, it’s exhausting to watch when it’s ...
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