Identity: The Tale of Two Cities

I watched from behind the windowpane. Slowly, my small town materialized from the deep shadows. I was elated to finally come home—to visit the teachers in my old high school that marked so much of my development; to see my best friends and discuss our lives over black coffee in the little shop down the street; and to get gas (yes, even gas) at the station that still hand pumped your gas for you and knew every customer by name. I was absorbed in these thoughts, as my mother pulled off the main road and crawled up our driveway. After so long, I was finally home again.

Elatedly, I ran into my house. I walked into my bedroom to drop off my things, beginning to comprehend the shift in the house’s atmosphere—my music no longer echoed throughout the space, a slight layer of dust had accumulated on my desk, and even the slight scent of my perfume had left my pillow. Disillusioned, I began critically inspecting the awards, books, and articles of my past life. My stomach churned while I tried to connect with the girl plastered all over my walls, but could not bridge the gap between who I was and who I had become while at Duke.

Confused on what this meant, the following day, I went to see old friends at the little coffee house that we always went to. Sitting at “our” table, I began discussing my college experience, searching for understanding in their blank faces. They told me that I had changed, and I had. I dropped the miniscule remnants of my Southern accent and largely told people I was from the suburbs of a large city in North Carolina to dissociate from the South Carolina’s radically conservative politics, attempting to assimilate into Duke’s culture. This discussion between my friends and I stressed the distance I felt from my origin. By the end of the weekend this feeling climaxed when I told my mom, “I can’t wait to go home.” Shocked by my identification of Duke as “home”, her composed facade momentarily cracked; but it remained more than a simple mistake, as I had come to identify with Duke as my “home”.

In the weeks since this experience, I’ve come to accept that my relationship with the place I grew up will never be the same—for my space in the little town has been filled, and I have forged my own role within Duke University. Clover, South Carolina will always be an integral part of my identity; it was the place that molded me into the open-minded, constantly laughing, and overly optimistic woman that walks through Duke’s campus, perpetually amazed and inspired by the people around me. Yet, sometimes you outgrow places, and I have come to believe that a large part of growing into the person you are supposed to be includes pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. As I’ve come to adventure throughout my new home, and yes, I have come to believe that both Clover and Durham are my homes, I’m constantly reminded of what my mom once told me, “It’s that moment—when you are right on the edge of adventure—that’s the exciting part.” I’m right on the edge of two amazing communities, engulfed in an immense amount of love, and its hard to be anything less than thrilled about my next four years at Duke University.

What’s in a name?

Meet Blær. She’s a fifteen year old girl from Iceland, and her name roughly translates to “light breeze”. Nothing unusual there, right? Except for the fact that her name is banned. According to the Icelandic government, her name is Stúlka (which is Icelandic for ‘girl’). In 1991, Iceland implemented the Icelandic Naming Committee to ensure that its newest citizens weren’t given un-Icelandic names. In classic bureaucratic fashion, the committee drafted a list of approved names. But this is Iceland, after all-a relatively progressive Nordic nation. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is a way to circumvent this list and get your name approved. The only problem is that the committee is composed of a whopping three people, nominated by three different groups (the University of Iceland’s Philosophy and Law departments and the Icelandic Naming Committee, which is a government group dedicated to the preservation of the Icelandic language). It seems to me that this might be a group that is perfect for determining whether or not a name is linguistically appropriate, but something tells me they’re going to be hostile towards new names.

In some ways, I wonder why the United States doesn’t have a list of approved names. Everybody has known somebody with an unusual (and possibly cruel) name. But that said, language and names both evolve. It’s natural, and probably inevitable (though some countries may disagree). As we move into an increasingly globalized world, many nations and cultural groups are seeking out ways to ensure that their customs are not forgotten. However, I’m not sold on the idea that hampering individual expression, particularly with regard to names, is required to preserve culture. Given that people often strongly identify with their name (and it is the most common identifier of individuals), it is important for governing bodies to also understand the significance of rejecting or forcefully changing a person’s name.

Apart from the continued rejection of an individual that a name revocation of sorts can have, Blær’s case is particularly unfortunate because her name was deemed appropriate-had she been male. That’s right-Blær is a great, masculine Icelandic name. This raises an interesting question of how gender norms are rooted in culture, and how cultures can be preserved while maintaining and promoting equality. While many languages have defined gender conventions for many words, I think it is safe to say that modifying the convention can be appropriate in certain situations (such as calling a female deliverer of mail a mail carier as opposed to a mailman), though this almost definitely modifies the original language. Still, equality seems like a justified cause for the loss of complete lingual accuracy. As for Blær, she and her mother appealed the decision, with the district court ruling in their favor. Hopefully, Iceland will revisit their naming policies in the near future.

Much Ado About Foreskin

Is circumcision of young boys an affront on their bodily rights?


That is according to a regional court ruling in Cologne, Germany, last spring. This case arose after the circumcision of a four-year-old Muslim boy led to medical complications. The doctor who had performed the operation was taken to court and the court ruled that the boy’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity” had been violated. This ruling caused a lot of hue and cry among Muslims and Jews since they viewed it as an affront to their religious freedom. Although German lawmakers eventually passed a legislation that ensures that parents have a right to have their boys circumcised, this controversy touches on a lot of raw nerves. It is clear that while activists against female circumcision in most countries easily get their arguments across to the targeted societies, intactivistshave a hard time getting theirs across.

I find this particular case to be very interesting for many reasons. Beyond its medical benefits, circumcision means many things to different societies. For Jews and Muslims, circumcision is of great religious significance and has been practiced by these societies since time immemorial. For those African societies that practice it, circumcision is an important rite of passage that signifies a transition from childhood to adulthood. Some American and European societies also practice circumcision; and they too have their own reasons for doing so.

When social/religious practices conflict with personal rights/state laws, which one should take precedence? Does a boy born into a Jewish family have a right not to be circumcised? Obviously, an eight-day old boy cannot exercise such a right, so someone, usually the parent, assumes the responsibility. What happens then when the said boy later decides to renounce their religious beliefs? Or when he decides that the slight loss of sexual sensitivity as a result of circumcision is a big deal for him? Obviously, he cannot reverse the procedure. Could he then possibly sue the parents and the hospital for doing that to him? Or the state for allowing the parents to do ‘such grievous harm’ to his body?

Another twist to the circumcision issue is when national laws or beliefs conflict with the practices of one particular society within the country. Do the majority get to decide for the minority whether they get to keep a distinct part of their culture? While there exists grounds for arguing whether the German court was right in some sense, it is doubtful whether we can say the same about the guys who did this!

The German case has another dimension to it beyond that of the merits/demerits or circumcision and religious/personal rights. The fact that Germany has a long and tragic history of anti-Semitism immediately throws the other arguments out the window. While it is true that in Germany, circumcision is “unfamiliar to the general public, even to most lawmakers”, it is very important to think about the message such a ruling sent to the world about how Germans (or their judiciary) feel about minority groups in their society. To the court, it might have been a straightforward case of what the law allows and doesn’t, but it sure did appear otherwise to the world.

Anti-gay sentiments in Africa

Every time I read an article about the growing anti-gay sentiments in Africa, I shudder in horror at the pain and violence inflicted on my fellow Africans by my fellow Africans simply because of their sexual orientations.

I grew up in a homophobic society, but articles in the newspapers of violent acts against gays and lesbians weren’t as frequent as they are today. What are the reasons behind this sudden rise in anti-gay movements across Africa? One credible reason might be that people are increasingly being open about their sexual orientation. This situation is compounded by the explosion in telecommunication technology which has made it possible for events happening in one continent to quickly spread to other continents. This increase in awareness of what is happening in other continents makes it possible for real time discussions in Africa of events such as the appointment of Gene Robinson as the first gay Anglican Bishop in the US. As more news relating to gay issues reaches conservative societies, most of them often react defensively to this perceived transgression or moral decay.

However, the one possibility that I would like to address is the West’s involvement in the issue of gay rights in Africa. Particularly, I would like to look at the situation in Uganda where a bill that would sentence to death those perceived to be gay has been repeatedly brought into the country’s parliament since 2009 by one Mr. Bahati (ironically, this means ‘luck’ in Swahili). Particularly depressing is the fact that MP Bahati brought this bill into parliament with the support and urging of American evangelicals as per this New York Times article. Conservatives who are intent on exporting the West’s ‘culture war’ have been funding like minded organizations and politicians in Africa to sponsor bills that would result in the outlawing of gay lifestyles and tough sentences for those found to be gay.

Western governments’ responses to this situation have been mostly impressive and have led to such laws being defeated in legislatures or watered-down versions of the originals passing into law. However, the recent stance by Britain and the US to tie foreign aid to African countries to the upholding of gay rights is misplaced. I would like to see the rights of gay people upheld across Africa! However, a move by Western governments to impose on African societies a new culture smacks of neocolonialism. Using the threat of withholding foreign aid in order to bring about a culture change is nothing short of blackmail. Such actions do a lot of damage to Western diplomacy in Africa. They not only cause an increase in anti-Western sentiments, but also breathe life into the already existing anti-gay movements.

Some might posit that this is just like any other area where Africa has to be brought into parity with the world, and I agree with them to some extent. No one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. At the same time, changing a society’s way of understanding its world should be done in a manner that respects that society’s independence. Having two Western camps fighting their cultural war in Africa only serves to alienate African societies and make their needs secondary those of the feuding parties.

So, the big questions are: When the anti-gay camp fails to get its social policies passed into law in the US, is it acceptable for them to use their resources to get the same failed policies passed into law in some poor African country? And is it right for Western governments to use their economic might to blackmail African countries into accepting a new way of looking at the world that they are not ready for?