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Church rules
Cover of the NI Issue 275 I’m sure you’ve had millions of letters expressing outrage about your ‘trial’ of the Pope (In the Dock NI 275) – I don’t want to add to those! In his defence, though, two things should be said:

1) Unlike political dictators such as Idi Amin, the Pope has no means of enforcing his ‘rules’. Such rules as are enforced by social pressures are often not Church doctrine but local superstitions.

2) The Church teaches a way of life that includes forgiveness of enemies, love of one’s neighbour, care for the disadvantaged etc. In such a world contraception might be less necessary than it now appears.

However, people have no trouble in ignoring those rules. They continue killing each other, lying, cheating, stealing, so that a world which could provide sufficient for all appears overcrowded. Rather than berate the Pope for his teachings, surely it would be simpler just to ignore that ruling along with all the others?

Charles Phillips
Bromley, England

I was disappointed and offended by In the Dock (NI 275). We were asked to imagine that the Editor had obtained the power to try five of his least favourite public figures for ‘crimes against humanity’. The issue was thereby turned into a set of political show-trials, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the methods used by the world’s nastier regimes against their opponents. It is deeply offensive that the NI should stoop to such methods, even in fun.

Each of your articles ended with a ‘requested sentence’. I have one for the NI: an indefinite period of objective and well-argued journalism.

Release the New Internationalist Five on the grounds of a mistrial.

Chris Baker
Witney, England

Women and the veil
I was disturbed by the implications in Curiosities NI 275 about Muslim women covering their faces in public. The questions and answers read together seemed to unquestioningly link Islam, women covering their faces and the oppression of women.

I am sure that most NI readers will agree that the chaderi can be seen as a means of restricting women, but it could also be argued that so are high heels and tight skirts.

Choice of dress is a highly complex interplay of custom, personal identity and the meaning we attach to different modes of dress. We can only start to understand the choices people make when we look at the real choices available to them and how they understand their options and constraints. Wearing a veil may mean quite different things to different women. I think we have to ask deeper questions about why we find veiled women disturbing.

And if we really do believe that covering one’s face in public is a sign of repression we have to work towards the liberation of women, so that all women are able to make real choices not only about what they wear but about all aspects of their lives.

Sarah J Matthews
Ipswich, England

Herbal medicine
I was disappointed that your issue on Medicine (NI 272) underplayed the important role of herbal medicine in many parts of the world. The WHO acknowledges its importance in developing countries where 80 per cent of the population still relies on it as the main type of primary healthcare. In many areas the significant work is being done by small groups working with communities to help safeguard both the traditional knowledge and the relevant plants from extinction. In the West there is a resurgence of interest although, since this is largely linked to self-medication, it has become vulnerable to commercial exploitation and also the risks of toxic effects have increased.

Dr Peter J Houghton
London, England

Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Torture survivors
I was very encouraged to see that you had mentioned the psychological problems of Tibetan refugees in India in your issue on Tibet (NI 274). I have just returned from Dharamsala, where I worked as a medical officer for one year. We carried out a mental health study of 35 Tibetan nuns and students who had been tortured in Tibet, and compared our results with a matched group of refugees who had not been tortured.

In the whole group, 41 per cent showed symptoms of anxiety, and 14 per cent had depression. Those who had been tortured had higher rates of anxiety but not depression. On average they had experienced 13 different forms of torture and been in prison for 21 months. Those nuns and students who had been politicized before being imprisoned and were prepared for the abuse, had much lower rates of anxiety and depression than those who were tortured unexpectedly. The political commitment to their struggle, as well as their Buddhist belief, contributed to the ‘resilience’ that I often heard talked about. Unfortunately similar torture survivor programs have been slow to get off the ground.

Timothy H Holtz
Jamaica Plain, MA, US

Grameen Bank
I read with interest your article on the Grameen Bank (Update NI 274). My immediate reaction on reading about the Bank’s progress and principles was one of hope and inspiration. The article gave hope that the Bank’s lending scheme could genuinely offer a way out of poverty not only for the world’s poorest countries, but for the poor all over the world. It also inspired me to contribute in some way to the Bank’s own aims of reaching out to a third of the world’s poor by the year 2005.

A full story on the Grameen Bank would make a very interesting read which I, for one, would enormously appreciate.

Riza A Momin
London, England

Part of the world
A response to Mark Mann’s letter (Letters NI 274) about ‘seeking solutions’. It is depressing sometimes to read of the poverty, oppression and ecological depredations going on in the world. The result is a feeling of powerlessness, combined with self-hatred when we consider our own materially rich lives, But we also know that randomly giving things up ourselves is not going to help a tortured prisoner or make grain grow in the desert.

I believe that one way of progress is to pay attention to oneself. Ask questions about yourself – only do what is important to you. Work on yourself, and you work on the world. You are part of it.

Rosalind Riley
Kent, England

Failed capitalism
According to the International Labour Organisation, the present figure for unemployment in all the capitalist countries of the world is 30 per cent. According to UNESCO, since the return of capitalism in Russia half a million extra people die every year. In Africa half a million kids die every year just from debt service, paying interest to bankers. And 11 million kids die of easily treatable diseases. In the United States, 30 million go hungry. In Britain, we have massive unemployment, growing job insecurity and falling standards of healthcare and education.

The only things growing are capitalists’ dividends and bonuses, corruption and crime. It is the reckless pursuit of profit, not the pursuit of the common good, that ruins society. It is capitalism that has failed, not communism.

Will Podmore
London, England

In Brave New World (NI 276) on page 18, ‘Megamyths’, there is an error in the colour coding of the key: ‘Cities with 10 million+’ should be mauve (5.5% of total population in the North, 2.4% in the South), ‘Smaller urban centres’ should be green (47.5% and 22.9% respectively).

The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

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L E T T E R [image, unknown] F R O M [image, unknown] R U S S I A

Olivia Ward finds a gulf growing between her and her friend Galina.
And there is nothing either of them can do about it.

I should be looking forward to Saturday, the day when I’ll get together with my closest Moscow friend, Galina.

But as the day approaches, I am frozen with embarrassment. Galina and I haven’t seen each other for a month, but not because of any bad feeling. We’ve shared each other’s jokes and misadventures since I came to Russia three years ago. There is no-one more warm, perceptive or understanding.

But the thing that upsets me is money. Something that is throwing up bigger and bigger barriers between people in this society, as effective as the walls surrounding the monster homes of the newly-rich.

In a Western country we would be on an equal footing. In this topsy-turvy place, a simple friendship is an emotional tightrope.

We live forty-five minutes away from each other, a wearing trip by cab or bus or metro. And, especially to a Russian, unthinkable without a meal at the end of it.

At first things seemed easy. I was new in the country, Galina pointed out. A visitor. That called for a trip to a concert, and eventually to her small neat apartment where a chicken would be roasting in a sputtering oven. In those days admission prices were cheap, transit costs negligible and food prices affordable though climbing. But over the months inflation exploded, while Galina’s salary stayed flat. Even a university department head could not make ends meet without moonlighting at other jobs.

Illustration by MIRIUM McCURDY

As the months passed, the circles under Galina’s eyes grew darker. With a gravely ill mother, an ailing student son and an apartment that was crumbling by the month, she was like a woman walking through financial quicksand.

I persuaded her to come to my flat for meals, uneasily watching her stare at the pricey ingredients she could no longer afford. Sometimes she would join me for a café dinner or a pastry-saturated afternoon at a glossy hotel coffee shop.

But sooner or later the bill would arrive. When I paid it, as discreetly as possible, there was no point in pretending that the tab was ‘absolutely nothing.’ Galina knew it was the equivalent of her family’s grocery bill for a week.

Soon she told me sadly that she couldn’t go on accepting these treats. Arguments about repaying her early hospitality had died of exhaustion. And guilt choked me when accepting her invitations to dine on the high-priced delicacies she believed were staples of the Western diet. Opting for a walk in the woods and a cup of tea only seemed patronizing.

Our friendship was reaching a stalemate. The meals were merely symbolic of the huge division between us, one that showed up every aspect of our lifestyles. It wasn’t only the economic effect of inflation but the emotional fallout. Once a member of Russia’s urban élite, Galina was used to an equal relationship with her friends. Now in a city that was one of the most expensive in the world, she could see people like herself begging in subways to survive.

When she got an after-hours job with a Western company, I thought her fortunes would rise. But, she explained wryly, ‘they wanted to hire a Russian. That means they want to pay Russian wages.’

In Russia there is now a three-tiered system: top pay for foreigners who venture into the rugged East. Fractional wages for the Russians who do much the same jobs in joint ventures or new Russian companies. And rock-bottom pay for those in traditional institutional jobs.

But inflation attacks everybody the same way. All that saves many Russians from starvation is their old dirt-cheap state flats. Like many people, Galina could privatize and sell her apartment. But she would end up homeless after a year or two in one of the astronomically expensive flats leased by gouging landlords who know they can always find a tenant to pay their soaring rents.

I think about this as Saturday approaches and I visualize the new stress lines in Galina’s face, the deeper hollows in her cheeks. And the inevitable stories of daily struggles that are ageing and breaking down this courageous woman.

I leaf through a pile of economic reports on Russia, trying to find some light at the end of what seems an endless dark tunnel for people like Galina.

‘In spite of its problems the market economy is already a success,’ enthused one. ‘It has introduced Russians to a concept they never dreamed of under communism: Freedom of choice.’

Olivia Ward is bureau chief for the Toronto Star in Moscow.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 277 magazine cover This article is from the March 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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