Category Archives: Society

The Glorification Of A Culture Or a Vulgar Fashionization?

Many events recently highlighted the issue of Westerners wearing a bindi (forehead decoration), a blackface and/or a Native American headdress at parties. Is this the embracement of a culture or just a vulgar fashionisation?

Opening that discussion should not be controversial. And it should especially not been seen as an umpteenth pamphlet on the victimisation of ethnic minorities.

When you are going to a foreign country and facing customs established there, would you go around and “challenge” those unwritten authorities? Well if you do, it’s what locals call rudeness! In fact, the excuse of ignorance is hardly acceptable nowadays, knowing the fact that we are living in a digital era – an era where we are submerged with knowledge on a daily basis.

Of course there is a tendency of laxity, but still. It is a matter of respect, to follow and imitate the crowd when you are a visitor. You cannot, for example, arrive in a temple wearing dirty sneakers while you are surround by priests walking barefoot.

Ms Yue, my former Cantonese tutor, explained to me how hard it was for her to stop spitting and putting her finger in her nose in public. In China it’s common, and not because they are nasty folks, but because of the polluted air. This blocks the airway (breathe a heavy air on a daily basis you will see that you will feel the need to spit more often) and the blockages in our noses are dust retained by our nasal hairs.

You may be asking yourself: why did I take the time to describe some foreign habits before coming to my cultural point? Simply because I want to underline that there is no difference!

Why should someone wear a blackface to a Hallowe’en party and in worst case associate this with primitive clothes, shouting some monkey sounds? Why should it be accepted and seen as a “funny way” to embrace a culture? This is where it goes wrong. It’s racist! “Glorifying” an ethnic minority by using degrading stereotypes is wrong.

If you want to embrace a culture or a community do it in an appropriate manner! Wear an Afro wig or a custom kente outfit.   Wearing the Native American headdress while drinking and smoking weed at a festival is a no-no as well. Do you know the meaning of that headdress? Most of us don’t! So can you understand how in an inappropriate way most people are wearing it?

Let’s be clear this is not a reproduction of the Salem witch trials. I just want to raise attention to this unstoppable trend of cultural vulgarisation that surrounds us.

I am all for the embracement of diverse cultures, but think of how you do it.

You can wear a headdress if you know its cultural meaning, if you wear it in a respectful way (if you understand that you can’t wear this at a booze party and use it to clean your vomit).

One of my closest friends occasionally wears a bindi – and has done this since she was a child (not for special occasions like parties, but on a daily basis) – even though she has no Asian background. She loves the way it illuminates the woman figure in Asian culture. (In South Asia it’s not necessarily only worn by married woman but points out the place of wisdom, “the sixth chakra”, traditionally said to be seated between the eyebrows. I asked her if she knew the meaning of it, or whether she wore it for fashion. She attested that she knew its significance.

We are living in a place where the South Asian community is strongly represented. Many have stopped my friend while we have been walking on the street to share with her their appreciation and to tell her how pretty it looks on her. Weirdly it’s her Western classmates who interpret her bindi as a bad trend she is following. Now she wonders whether what she is doing may be wrong after all. I replied to her: as long as you know that you are not doing anything inappropriate while wearing it, that you are respecting the meaning of that bindi, go for it! And spread the embracement of the Asian culture.

Audience segregation in UK universities? Farewell gender equality

Audience segregation and sexism definitely go hand in hand. To segregate an audience based on gender you are initially betraying those who have fought for gender equality. Sexism defines discrimination against a gender, and in the case of audience segregation you are discriminating against both genders, male and female. You are forbidding men and women to interact in an educational setting in order to exchange thoughts and opinions and this is non-beneficial to both of the parties. So why do some people accept audience segregation forgetting that it can be considered abuse against gender equality? The question which I find even more important to address is: why do some people even request audience segregation in educational settings? Religion does seems to be the answer, however, is it a good enough justification?

This debate started in March 2013 when a visiting religious speaker, at University College London, requested for men and women to separate during his talk. The talk was titled: “Islam or Atheism: which makes more sense?” It featured professor Lawrence Krauss, an atheist, and Hamza Andreas, a lecturer on Islam. Claims have been made that after Mr Andreas requested the segregation of the men and women in the audience, Professor Krauss then walked out. He was demonstrating his refusal to take part in an audience segregated event. He was both cheered and booed on the decision that he had made. Nevertheless, this decision caused an eruption of debates and controversy around the issue of audience segregation in UK universities.

David Cameroon has already made it very clear that segregation of this type is wrong and unacceptable across universities in the UK. He has shown great objection towards this matter, however, the message seems not to be coming home. Some people still argue that segregation based on gender is acceptable if requested by a religious speaker. In this case we are specifically referring to an Islamic speaker. After visiting an Islamic representative myself my views against gender segregation of this type only grew stronger. The Islamic speaker, who did not want to be named said, “Islam doesn’t give people the right to force an audience to segregate according to male and female except if that’s a choice that the audience makes. Other than that it is just wrong.” He also added,” Islam is not about forcing individuals to go against their own will. It is all about the choices we make as individuals and trying to better yourself for your creator.”

That is an interesting point. So if Islam is about pleasing the creator why are people feeling obliged to answer the commands of the ‘creations’?

It feels to me that some people use religion as a type of power or as a weapon to force individual to go against their will. They think their ways are the right way even if the norms and values of their religion fail to explain their irrational actions.

Asking University students about this matter, they all seemed to share my same frustration and objection. Samadi Walopa, a student at University of Westminster, said, “I think the main purpose of a religion should be peace and freedom. So I think everyone has the freedom to sit wherever they want. Also, if they were to discuss something during the talk, it is good when both men and women share their thoughts.” Tanaz, a journalism student at Birkbeck University, said, “Of course audience segregation is wrong. I mean what happened to freedom?”

I think most of the students I asked about this issue brought in the word ‘freedom’ into the discussion. This is because audience segregation can only be explained in one way and that is: the restriction of freedom. Those booing Professor Krauss are really saying rest in sweet peace to freedom and to gender equality.

As individuals we all have our own thoughts and beliefs and we have the right to act upon this. Audience segregation violates these rights. It gives power to religious speakers to force their personal beliefs upon university students. Our main focus should be building a stronger educational and learning environment, not destructing what we have already built. The main problem here is that many people don’t realise the immensity of the issue nor do they realise the harm that is being done. Audience segregation should not simply be thought of as separating men and women, but rather separating us from freedom and gender equality.

The British nation support both democracy and freedom. We should all live by these rules despite our religion, race and backgrounds. The decision to segregate an audience is not a democratic decision and erases freedom from our dictionaries. The message must come home and soon.

Image: “Segregation” by Michael Coghlan

Why this immigration rhetoric needs to stop: Sebastian

I’m trying to remember when I met Sebastian. It was before I had been to the Azores, which was in 2006, so I’m going to say 2005. I would have been 19.

Sebastian was a Polish medical student and like many Poles at the time (Poland had recently joined the European Union and Britain had opened its labour market to them), he had come to Britain for a few months to earn some money.

He was staying in my boss’s old static caravan in the field whilst we were working at a plant nursery. He was a quiet man, one or two years older than me at the most, but we became friends over those months. I have always liked to make people of a quiet nature feel welcome, as I am very much of that camp myself when in a new group of people.

There isn’t a huge amount to say about our friendship during those months. We would talk during tea breaks and lunch. My boss would for some reason keep him away from us during most of the day. I understand if I remember rightly that he was going to get married soon after returning to Poland.

A couple of occasions occurred when Sebastian had accidentally flooded the mower or broke a tool (something which is not uncommon due to the general cheapness of all the tools we have at work) but on these occasions my boss had threatened to take money out of Sebastian’s salary to pay for their repair or replacement and I had told Sebastian on both occasions that if my boss does do this I would help him out. There was, however, an largely unspoken but evident displeasure amongst the work team at this, and fortunately he never did get his wages docked.

When his time at the nursery came to an end we threw a party for him in the garden of one of the ladies who used to work at the nursery. He was going to spend a few days in London with some friends before going back to Poland and I gave him an envelope with £50 in it as a gift to spend in London. I remember how grateful he was and also him returning my Rizla packet which I had somehow accidentally dropped into the envelope.

A few months later, a Polish girl, Agatha, was working with us. She had met Sebastian once and handed me a bottle of Polish bison grass vodka that Sebastian had bought for me.

He had left an email address for me to contact him but unfortunately I never could get it to work. I haven’t spoken to or seen Sebastian since, but I hope he is well.

Thinking about Sebastian it makes me sad that the Government should take the regressive attitude it does to migration, and equally as sad that Jack Straw, the former Labour Home Secretary, regrets opening our borders when we did. Friendships such as that with Sebastian can be short. In most cases hopefully they last longer. They don’t happen at all if we’re insular and closed off from the rest of the world.

The Government should do a lot more to promote the virtues of migration. As Hein de Haas of Oxford’s International Migration Institute said, “Migration is a testimony to people’s imagination, creativity, and determination to make things happen, against all the odds.”

Time-sensitive opportunity: Dig Deep fundraising challenge

Dig Deep, a charity founded by student volunteers in 2012 which provides clean water supplies to communities across East Africa, is  looking for a committed student from Birkbeck University to join their team and lead their next fundraising challenge: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in summer 2015.

The deadline for applications is 15th May 2014.

The role:

  • Kilimanjaro Challenge Leader – leading a team of students to the roof of Africa;
  • Raising money to provide clean water to thousands of people;
  • All travel expenses provided via corporate sponsorship.

The trip:


Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the most impressive sights in Africa and
climbing it is one of the all-time great achievements. It’s the largest
free-standing mountain in the world and the trek encompasses terrains from jungle to glacier. Reaching the summit and watching the sun rise over the plains is the experience of a lifetime.

The sponsorship raised by the group completing this epic challenge will transform thousands of lives.

The challenge is going to take place in the summer of 2015 and  they are now recruiting for the Challenge Leader. The responsibilities of the role will include:

  • Running a recruitment campaign to select a team of dedicated students to attempt the challenge;
  • Facilitating the group’s fundraising and ensuring the social cohesion of the group in the build-up to the challenge;
  • Leading the group to the summit ensuring the welfare and morale of your team.

Skilled local guides will be there on the ground to arrange logistics and take care of all health and safety aspects, so you will not need mountaineering experience to take on the role. What is essential however is drive, confidence and the ability to motivate others.

In return for this vital work the charity’s corporate partners will cover the Challenge Leader’s travel and mountain costs for completing the challenge.

You will also gain leadership and project management experience crucial for any CV – and most importantly you will know that your work has provided clean water to thousands.

Dig Deep will be there to support you every step of the way. They have years of experience in co-ordinating challenges and many of us have been challenge leaders in the past. For more information see www.climbforcleanwater.org.

To apply for this life-changing experience,  fill out the form at www.digdeep.org.uk/gla1

Lamp and Owl is not affiliated with this charity. You may wish to delve deeper into their activities to ensure that their priorities align with yours. We are passing this on as an interesting opportunity for students to get involved with the charity sector.

Pretty Muddy and the Race for Life

Tania Rahman is a Visitor Services Assistant at the British Museum and is studying creative writing at Birkbeck. In her spare time she volunteers for  Global Charities and Cancer Research UK. With this in mind we thought that Tania was pretty well placed to talk about how to juggle all these competing activities. Her first article for the lamp and owl describes her experience of taking part in last year’s Pretty Muddy event…

I had the opportunity to take part in Pretty Muddy in Finsbury Park, a 5km obstacle course introduced this year. Of course, like the original Race for Life, the series of events for cancer charity, participants can walk, jog or run it, and it’s for women only! That is the easy part. Finsbury Park is an uphill park which added yet another dimension.

The obstacles included: running or walking around traffic cones, climbing up and over a (thankfully) low climbing wall, and scrambling under a net through mud. It did wonders for my hair, and if you did not feel muddy and challenged enough you could run through a mud pit and get completely drenched in mud.

There were actually two nets on the course. I avoided the first one, but felt that I should at least try the second one. The net was a lot heavier than it looked and had been sitting in mud, which made it even heavier. A friend later questioned whether or not there was “anything else” in the mud, which I really did not want to think about, and another friend told me that people had told her how tough the course was. Of course being a Race for Life / Cancer Research event, it was really all about talking part and they did not mind if you skipped any obstacles as long as you “had a go”.

On the way to Finsbury Park I encountered a lot of women dressed in pink making their way there, and a lot of mud-drenched women on the way back (most of them wearing their medals).

Despite this being only my second year involved in the Race for Life, taking part in a charity sports challenge has always been on my “to do” list. I go jogging and to the gym to keep fit and lose weight (the usual goals) so training for Race for Life events helps me to aim for something else and makes sure that I keep up my training.

While I was still at school I took part in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. The required hike was one of my favourite parts (but I found camping surprisingly tough) because it was something that I always wanted to do. Even now living and working in a city means that I have little opportunity to find activities like this and activity holidays can be expensive.

For more information visit the Race For Life / Pretty Muddy on the Cancer Research UK website.

Tania will be following this article up with a series of articles as she prepares for the challenges that she is taking part in later this year.

On Mandela

As I visit the various news websites and absorb the tributes, as I read the numerous posts on Facebook from all different kinds of people, it occurs to me that the most expected expression of grief, “RIP Nelson Mandela” (Madiba), followed by “a Light has been extinguished” is, for me, simply not appropriate.

Madiba spent his life fighting for the rights of all peoples to be treated justly and with respect and dignity. For this fight, he forfeited his own rights and freedom for 27 years. He emerged from his experiences not only to change his homeland, South Africa, but the world.

For this reason, I wish not to see his legacy rest in peace, but rather, that what he lived and breathed for continues to thrive in all of us in one way or another. May we continue to pursue justice not just for ourselves, but for each and every one of us. Let us practise the lessons of peace that he taught us, let us practise showing honour to one another, and let us practise treating each other with respect and dignity. Madiba was just not a friend to dignitaries and world leaders; he was a friend to all humanity. May his light continue to shine for the rest of our years and let us remember him by educating future generations to come, with the principles that he has taught us.

As I look further at the posts on Facebook, I note that he has been an inspiration to the generation to which the torch of leadership is soon to be passed.

From what I’ve read of this, I am reassured and hopeful that the light of Mandela is far from being extinguished.