Don't mention headscarves… (2004)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed on 10 December nearly sixty years ago, and the European Human Rights Convention soon after. If you rank them out of 10, which Right has made the most difference? I’d go for Private Life.

In the 1940s it meant not having the heavy squad come round to arrest you from your bed in the small hours of the morning. In the 1960s illegitimate children used it to save them from daft and humiliating regulations that had people pointing their fingers at them. Since the 1990s it has covered prisoners’ letters: not every note to mum must be screened by two pairs of eyes, which is a relief for prison staff too. In the new millennium it has meant that post-operative transsexuals can change their birth certificates: no more embarrassment at the counter when the face doesn’t match what’s on the computer.

Rights develop over time, or at the least the way we see them does, which amounts to the same thing. We can all appreciate privacy and know it doesn’t work if someone is butting in trying to help us enjoy it. We tend to leave well alone, because we want to be left alone. Religious freedom is a different story though. If we were holding a race for human rights, religious freedom would still be shivering at the starting line waiting for its plimsolls.

Inter-faith week took place in Edinburgh last month. We all assured each other we speak peace and are the last word in tolerance, but a quick look round the world tells you it’s not true. Religious freedom was devised in the 1940s so people would stop killing Jews, but they are still being killed and now in countries that fought against Hitler. At heart, human beings can’t stand the way other people wear their hair or their hats, and headscarves incense us from here to Moscow, in a way that boob tubes and bootleg trousers never do.

We are free to believe – and not to believe – according to our Rights, but something inside makes us want to meddle. If someone tells us they are vegetarian we feel we are being got at and have to justify eating meat. You could say ‘being got at’ is the refrain for many of our faiths. Perhaps we should zip it in a bag marked ‘common history’, and look on belief as a right to privacy?

MF, 2004