Where I live, you can tell the different tribes of children from their clothes. The African children, marching nicely behind their parents, are kitted out in little suits and frilly satin dresses, like some kind of Strictly Come Dancing for tiny tots, except that the show is Strictly Come to Church or Mama Will Give You a Big Wallop. The Muslim children look as though they've stepped straight out of a nativity play, in long robes with little lacy caps (for boys) and little head-scarfs (for girls). And the Hasidic Jewish children, whey-faced and dark-eyed, look like extras from Fiddler on the Roof.
For the children on the council estates – white, black and mixed race – there is one choice only: the track-suit bottom, unisex, universal, uni-size, accessorised with a hooded top. And then there's the biggest tribe of all, or at least the one that makes its presence most acutely felt. These are the yawning, whining, screaming little Lord Fauntleroys, with long curls and long shorts, sipping mango smoothies and scattering the crumbs of their banana muffins on the floor; while their parents hone their novels and their blogs.
You can't tell everything from clothes, of course. You might guess that the little Jewish boy with the ringlets and the skull-cap had his fore-skin removed a week after his birth, and his first ceremonial haircut at three. You might guess that the little black girl in the frilly dress is made to say her prayers before she goes to bed and that the little boy in the long shorts is warmly encouraged to eat his organic broccoli. And you might guess that the boy in the long robe and the lacy cap has been learning to recite the Koran. What you probably wouldn't be able to guess, however, is whether he has been told to flog himself with sharp, curved blades on a bundle of chains.
This is what happened to two boys in Manchester earlier this year. At a Shia ceremony in a community centre to mark the death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, a 44-year-old warehouse supervisor, Syed Zaidi, handed the zanjeer (yes, this handy religious instrument is mass produced and has a name) to a 13-year-old boy and his 15-year-old brother and told them to use it. "This is part of our religion," he said. "It was an emotional time and the children were happy."
Actually, the children were slightly less happy by the time they got home, with serious bleeding and multiple slash wounds, and by the time they were taken to Manchester Royal Infirmary. Their mother wasn't too happy either and the result – a British legal first – is that Zaidi was convicted on Wednesday on two counts of child cruelty. "This," said Carol Jackson of the Crown Prosecution Service, "is a very unusual case."
It may be an unusual case, but it's hardly the first time that extreme religious belief has resulted in cruelty to children. Now that the "misery memoir" has become a cliché of contemporary publishing, it's worth remembering that many of the most significant accounts of childhood misery have been associated with religious repression. One of the first, and still one of the best, is Edmund Gosse's account of his evangelical childhood, Father and Son. Here, among many descriptions of his parents' attempts to control every aspect of his life – including a funny, but poignant incident with an "idolatrous" Christmas pudding – one of the saddest is his simple assertion that "I had not the faintest idea how to 'play'."
The hardships that Gosse endured did not, however, involve physical violence. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (a novel, but based, she has said, on the stories of people she knew) the charismatic Catholic patriarch actually breaks his children's bones. And in Memoir, one of hundreds of books chronicling brutal Irish Catholic childhoods, John McGahern writes of a life in which sudden physical blows were followed by sudden instructions to bow down in front of a crucifix (a fetishisation of extreme violence if ever there was one) and pray. "Authority's writ ran from God the Father down and could not be questioned," he says. "Violence reigned... in the homes as well."
We live in a country in which the proliferation of schools established only to impose particular sets of religious prejudices on young children unable to know, or seek, better is encouraged. Like everything else, it's about "choice". If a bleeding heart in school assembly is the price that little Chloe pays for her straight As, then so be it. Her bleeding-heart-liberal parents can treat it as a joke. And if little Mohammed is taught about jihad, and that unveiled little Chloe is a slut, well, that's just up to the parents, isn't it?
No, it isn't. In this country – whose state religion, incidentally, rarely did anyone any harm, except a bit of boredom on a Sunday morning – we should do better. If parents have the right to believe what they like, their children have the right to an education that teaches them that certain things are wrong, and that, as Edmund Gosse says in Father and Son, it is "a human being's privilege to fashion his inner life for himself".
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