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All about the tennis serve

A good friendship, a good marriage, is like a knock-about game of tennis with an evenly matched partner. 

You both start off with the same number of balls, and you decide which of you should serve first.

I serve to you, and you return it, and I hit it back and then sooner or later one of us drops the ball and it dribbles to the side of the court.

Then you serve to me, I hit it back, and you return it.

When we’ve warmed up a bit, and are more confidant of each other, you might put in a spin now or again, with a smile, keen to flex your muscles.  Or I might run to the net and smash the ball back out of your reach.  Tricky drop shots, sometimes badly judged strokes that barely make it over the net.

The play continues, potentially forever, neither player having the upper hand.  Sometimes all the balls end up one side of the net.  Then you, or I, depending, will lob a load back, one after another so that we can carry on with the same number each.

This sort of game can accommodate injuries, temporary absences and distractions, because it is full of shared good will.  Sometimes one player will have more energy: sometimes the other will be full of the joys of spring.  Other times it can be a bit lacklustre, but still comfortingly familiar.  Sometimes the serve is under arm, easy to return.  Sometimes there are strokes of brilliance which both recognise.  Some games are fast.  Others have a midsummer afternoon sort of heaviness about them.   Above all, they are enjoyable.  Fun.  They make the world go round.

I know that this is what a good tennis game is all about because I play in them regularly.

Not all tennis games are like this though, nor all friendships or family relationships.

Sometimes it seems as if one player has all the balls, and so has to serve all the time.  It is not that the player has hogged all the balls, because there is no advantage to having the balls to begin with. Rather they are a responsibility, because serving is the most difficult part.  Serving is an act of hope, hoping that the ball will come back.

In this sort of game, the player the other side of the net is not interested in returning the ball most of the time.  He or she will let the ball go, won’t try to hit it back, and so the ball goes out.  This is the unacknowledged comment, the phonecall not returned, the email not replied to.

Sometimes, the other player will hit the ball back, just for the fun of hitting it, but not caring whether I manage to return it or not.  The return shot is intended to show-off, not to help the game along.  Worse, sometimes the smash is aimed at hurting me, not in the least bit playful.  It is an angry lashing-out.

By luck, sometimes, I’ll be able to return the ball, but, by then, you’ve lost interest and so my ball flies past you unnoticed and joins the other sad balls at the end of the court.  You almost never bother to pick them up and return them, though you could if you wanted to.

You will rarely if ever serve any balls in my direction.  Christmas might be an exception, or if you are lonely or bored.  But then you just want one shot back, just so that you know that I am still there, and then you’ve turned away again.  I’m not sure that you have other games going on at the same time, that are taking up your time and attention, just that you don’t understand what the game is supposed to be about.

I hate this sort of stroke-pattern.  Thinking about it, it is invariably preceded by a more normal sort of pattern, perhaps a doubles where you can hide your underfunctioning.  The early games lull one into a false sense of security, but then the other person loses interest and the game changes.  I’ve come across this game in many variations.  It seems fairly common following a divorce amongst our friends when the underfunctioning player is left behind, and doesn’t want to keep to keep the game going by himself.  I begin to understand why his partner did not want to play with him any more.  It must have been exhausting fielding all the shots.

Being a determined optimist, I often hope that the other person will change their game, that they’ll be interested in a proper exchange.  But, far too often, I end up wasting my time,  sending my precious balls on one-way journeys to the Land of Lost Balls.  Worse than that, it gets to the point where I’ve run out of balls and have to borrow them from other, nice, kind, players to send on this pointless journey. 

As they say – you cannot change the other person, so you have to change yourself.  What I should do is put all of my hope for this friendship, for this relationship, in one ball and smash it into infinity so that the hope disappears with the ball and I can spend my time in more enjoyable, equal games.  I am getting better and better at doing that.

A friend, having a difficult time, told me yesterday that she didn’t mind despair, it was hope she could not stand.  I knew what she meant.

I’m trying to finish a post on Russian painting, but it seems stuck. In the meantime, I wanted to write about this …

According to widely-quoted statistics, somewhere between 1 in a 100 and 1 in a 250 people have Asperger’s Syndrome.  A recent, as yet unpublished, piece of research at Cambridge University puts the figure at 1 in 58*.

Asperger’s Syndrome is sometimes otherwise called “high functioning autism” – those with Asperger’s Syndrome (often called “Aspies”, just as the syndrome is shortened to “Asperger’s”) do not show the same developmental indications as those with full-blown autism and, almost by definition, have an intelligence well above average if measured using the traditional IQ scale. The vast majority of these people are male. Professor Simon Baron Cohen characterises them as being very good “schematisers” and occupying one end of a spectrum, at the other end of which are the “empathisers”. The vast majority of empathisers are women.

Given all of this, it seems reasonable to assume that a pool of men, all of whom have IQs above, say, 130, will contain a sizeable number of men with Asperger’s syndrome. Men usually measure higher than women on traditional IQ tests, so it seems reasonable to assume that almost all women measuring, say, 130 on an IQ test would be schematisers, or have a degree of Asperger’s syndrome.

Not all men and women with Asperger’s will marry. Marriages with Aspies tend to fall into two camps. First there are those Aspies who marry other Aspies. Secondly, there are those Aspies who marry those who are “neuro-typical” or not Asperger’s. This is often a marriage of opposites where the strengths of one are complemented by the strengths of the other, or the weaknesses of one may be compensated for by the strengths of the other. Neuro-typical partners are often very empathetic but are still likely to have high IQs as they would be unlikely to interest the Aspie otherwise.

Because of the circles I move in, I know what seems like a huge number of men (but also women), with Aspergers, several of whom have received formal diagnoses from Professor Baron Cohen. The fact that they have Aspergers often comes to light when they have children. Aspergers is a highly hereditary condition (apparently). Often adults with Aspergers have learnt to fit into neuro-typical society, but their offspring have yet to learn and so the behavioural manners of the adult are magnified in the child.

I remember a philosophy class when, to the horrified silence of the rest of the class, I suggested that all babies should have a brain scan before their first birthday to discover whether or not they had Aspergers, and then should be cared for and educated accordingly. I actually wasn’t joking, but my comment was provoked by the misery of so many of my female friends.  These friends all seemed to be abandoning their marriages, usually for a man who was empathetic.  They all described living in an emotional desert, receiving no affection and no intimacy.  Yet their husbands were good men, devoted to their families and hardworking, if more than usually interested in arranging huge classical music collections alphabetically, or playing “Dungeons and Dragons” or achieving world wide acclaim for their esoteric mathematics.

Researchers in Sweden believe that early intervention can promote better outcomes for children with autism.  Babies in the Uppsala Babylab are being wired up so that their brain patterns can be followed.  Similar studies on infants are being carried out in London.

I move in circles where most of the men have very high IQs, and I have chosen female friends who have high IQs too. Some of these women probably have Aspergers, but a proportion do not. This second neuro-typical high functioning proportion tends to be married to men with similar or higher IQs. A significant number of these women are, therefore, married to men with Aspergers.

One odd thing about Aspies and love is that Aspies appear to function quite normally when they are “in love”. This period typically lasts about two years. After that the real work of “loving” as opposed to “being in love” starts. The Aspie does not know what “love”, outside the obsessional interest of being in love, means.

He will typically become immersed in his special interest – often his work – and will be disinterested in the minutiae of everyday life. He will have fixed ideas about things and will respond badly to being asked to do something that does not correspond to these fixed ideas. Typically he will not be in the slightest bit snobbish. He will typically have a very strong sense of fairness, though this sense of fairness is abstract. By abstract, I mean as it applies to other people, other than himself. Typically he will not be able to see why he should not do what he wants to do when he wants to do it. Typically he will not value possessions, needing very little. He will have almost no interest in clothes and will prefer them to be functional and comfortable rather than smart. He will only want what he actually needs to survive and will not see the point of anything else. He will typically not be interested in earning large sums of money – for he has no need of it. He will typically seem very pure and not of this world. He may have a tendency to take things literally, unless he has learnt to interpret phrases correctly. He may be fascinated with words, and very skilled at foreign languages. He will typically not hold a grudge, and will typically not be jealous. But he is not jealous because jealousy is tied up with preference and preference with love, and he is not concerned with that. He does not understand love as a “going out” feeling. He is more likely to understand love as “respect”. He will typically like rules, and be happy if they are followed. He will typically dislike holidays and leaving home. He will typically enjoy spending a lot of time by himself, away from other people. He will typically have been bullied at school. He will typically not have excelled at sports, though he may be able to recite all the winners of every football competition since the game was invented. He will typically be not quite sure what the point of women is, except to have his babies and bring them up. He will typically not imagine that she has any emotional needs, and will typically not see the point of wasting money on useless or decorative or fragrant presents or adornments. He will typically be close to his mother. He will typically have only a very small number of friends, and will share interests rather than feelings with them. He will typically always tell the truth, and speak his mind with no regard for the hurt the truth may cause: this is both a boon and a curse.  He will speak a different language which neurotypical people rarely grok.

He will usually be a very loyal friend, though you may not hear from him very often, and he will not know how to share what has been happening to him.  He will usually feel lonely sometimes, despite wanting to be alone, and will be devastated if those who he has high regard for disappear from his life but he will be unlikely to know what he should do about it.  He may have bouts of anger born of frustration.  He is likely to have periods of depression. Left to his own devices, on his own terms, he can be very happy with very little. Pushed to behave like a neuro-typical person, he will typically distance, and become very difficult. But then, so would a neuro-typical person asked to behave like someone with Asperger’s. He will have his own, unique character, and be shaped by his birth order and circumstances just like any other child would have been.

All of this is likely to produce confusion in his wife or partner.  On the one hand she will know him to be loyal, good, honest.  On the other hand she will experience him as being inside a glass ball.  However hard she knocks on the glass she cannot really get his attention, cannot really connect with him.  He will not know how to soothe her, or actively listen to her, he will not be able to put himself in her shoes.  He will not do empathy, though he might, if she is sad enough, feel sorry for her as he would for a wretched animal.  Psychologist have grouped together a basket of symptoms that such women often show, and have called it the Cassandra Phenomenon. The basket of symptoms is so called because the woman will rarely be believed when she describes the cause of her desolation: a romantic partnership demands a level of intimacy that no other relationship or friendship does, and so families and friends may not be aware of the deficit. It is easy to be judgmental when these women give up knocking on the glass and find emotional intimacy elsewhere. But these women are often not aware of the manifestations of Aspergers syndrome. Even if they are, it is a lot to ask of a woman, to live her life without emotional intimacy. Monkies wither away and die in similar circumstances. Simon Baren Cohen calls those women who stay with their Aspie husbands “saints”.

I often think that Christ (absent the miracles) may have been an Aspie. The internet was developed by Aspies for Aspies. At least, only Aspies would find it a truly rewarding form of communication. It suits them perfectly since there are no facial expressions or body language to read (they cannot read them very well, so better not to have the potential to misread them), and it also allows them time to process the speech they receive before they have to respond. This is true of emails, true of instant messaging (which need not be very “instant”) and comments on blogs. In my experience Aspies do not tend to be prolific bloggers. If they have their own blog it will usually only feature occasional posts. They may, however, be quite prolific commenters with a tendency to appear troll-like if they are not careful.

One of the most well-known writers about high-functioning autism is a woman called Temple Grandin. She is an expert on the industrial handling of livestock, but is also known for having invented a machine that will hug her. She writes this about the brains of those with autism and Asperger’s:

Autopsies of autistic, Asperger’s, and normal brains by Margaret Bauman and her colleagues reveal that in both autism and Asperger’s there is immature development of the cerebellum, amygdala, and hippocampus. Small cells are packed tightly in these immature parts of the brain, signifying true immature development, not damage or atrophy. Brains from people with autism are more immature in hippocampus development than are Asperger’s brains, which may help explain the cognition problems we see in low-functioning autism. The situation is reversed for the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes emotion. Here, the Asperger’s brain is often more abnormal than the autistic brain. Could the more normal hippocampus preserve the cognitive function in Asperger’s, with the less normal amygdala causing the social problems?

Corroboration comes from brain scan studies showing that people with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism process emotional information differently than do normal subjects. The British autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen has done functional MRI studies indicating that normal people activate the amygdala to judge the expression in another person’s eyes, but people with Asperger’s call on fronto-temporal regions of the brain. It is true that brain scan studies show less clear-cut results in terms of differences in amygdala size than do autopsies, but this may result from the subjects’ positioning in the scanner, from gender, or from differences in diagnostic criteria. In 1999, Elizabeth Aylward and her colleagues at the University of Washington School of Medicine found that in male non-mentally retarded autistic adolescents and young adults, the amygdala was significantly smaller compared to normals. But a British study by Matt Howard and his colleagues showed that high-functioning autistics had a larger abnormal amygdala. A third study, by Mehmet Haznedar and Monte Buchsbaum, showed no differences. Possibly the differences among these studies could be explained by differences in the criteria used to diagnose the subjects. Also, a brain autopsy is more accurate than a brain scan on a living person. Brain autopsy research has shown that both Asperger’s people and the highest functioning people with autism have a small amygdala; in cases of low-functioning people, by contrast, the amygdala is more normal and the hippocampus more abnormal.

More recently, a study by Haznedar revealed that in the brain of the high-functioning autistic or Asperger’s person, the circuit between the anterior cingulate in the frontal cortex and the amygdala is not completely connected. As a result, people with autism or Asperger’s have decreased metabolism in the anterior cingulate.

These brain studies demonstrate that the social deficits in autism and Asperger’s are highly correlated with measurable biological differences. But the question remains: When does a difference in the size of a certain brain region become an abnormality, instead of just a normal variation? If I selected 100 people at random from a large corporation or at an airport and scanned their brains, I would find a range of differences in the size and activation level of their amygdalas. It is likely that brain scan results from this normal cross section of the public could be closely correlated with tests that evaluate sociability and social skills. Conducting this experiment on the general public would show that normal brain variation could be measured. Furthermore, people tend to choose careers that they are good at, and I predict that there would be a high correlation between a person’s job and the characteristics of the amygdala. Out of the 100 hypothetical people from a large corporation whose brains were scanned, the technical people in the computer department would probably show less activation in their amygdalas compared to the highly social salesman in the marketing department.

The rest is here.

Important Note:


I do not update this blog regularly any more.

More importantly, for more than the last five years I have been pursuing an intensive training in psychoanalytic psychotherapy.  Through the training I have gained insight to the degree to which so-called ‘autistic’ defences are used as a means of surviving very difficult childhoods, and I am more likely now to see those defences as developmental challenges than before.  I would point readers in the direction of the Tavistock Clinic in London which works with children and adults with autism and Asperger’s, and to the many writings of psychoanalysts on very early developmental intrusions.  Ogden, for example, writes about the ‘autistic-continguous’ position.  Rhode and Klauber have written a useful book, endorsed by the Tavistock Centre.

Good luck with your journey towards understanding.  I guess we can only begin where we start from, and try to find our way.

Uppsala Babylab
Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck College, University of London
Other sites
The Asperger Marriage Site
Alone Together: Making an Asperger Marriage work – if you read nothing else, read this …
National Autistic Society: Partners
Radio Four, Home Truths, An Asperger Marriage
Families of Adults Affected by Asperger’s Syndrome (FAAAS)
On-line Asperger Syndrom Information and Support (OASIS)

*A report of the research, published in the Guardian, has been removed from the newspaper’s website. The report said that some of the team of researchers believed that there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, but Professor Simon Baron Cohen has since distanced himself from their views.

See also my earlier posts: “The Space Between: Mind the Gap”; Asperger’s Test; Austistic Traits and Testosterone

This article appeared in the Times shortly after New Year in anticipation of the annual flood of clients that present themselves at solicitors’ offices and advice bureaux having decided over Christmas that their marriage is over.  It is more often the case that they have decided themselves that the marriage is over quite some time before that but for various selfish and unselfish reasons they have decided to keep things going until Christmas, ostensibly for the sake of the children.  Laughable, really, that you give the children a “happy” Christmas, then ruin their lives (at least in the short term) a week or two afterwards. 

I meant to post this weeks ago, but I have not had time to do half the things I wanted to do. 

As the writing that a friend wrote with an invisible pen on the wall of her marriage many years ago looks as if it is about to show up with ultra-violet impoliteness, I post this now, wondering what can be done.  And wondering whether my last two posts do not have quite a lot to do with the situation all of us find ourselves in.  Look at these UK statistics here.
Libby Purves has written a great deal about being  a less-than-perfect Mother, and is passionate about families, so this article is unsurprising in its thrust.  But I wonder if she should not have published it in August or September when the decisions are often made.  In this short article perhaps there was not space to point would-be divorcees to more than one possible solution.  KBO seems to me to be a pretty dismal motivational statement.  

January 8, 2008

Divorces here! Everyone a loser!

This may be the worst time of year for marriage breakups, but it’s always worth sticking it out if possible

“I trust you didn’t spend yesterday with a divorce lawyer. Thousands apparently did, since it was trumpeted as Manic Monday when everyone resolves to change their life. Most do it with resolutions, diets, job applications and holiday brochures. Divorce lawyers, however, brag of a “deluge” of calls on this baneful day. Research claiming that matrimonial firms are twice as busy in January emanates from their chirpy website entitled, whose subtitle – yeuch! – is “Winning the life you want”.

Which should act as a warning, if fed-up spouses would only notice it before scrolling down the chirpy checklists on how to find a lawyer, sell the house, book a child psychiatrist and fix a prenup contract before you remarry. That subtitle, frankly, contained every warning you should need. “Winning” is a happy word for lawyers but not an appropriate one for divorce. Divorce is sometimes necessary but always lousy. Nobody wins. It is a public admission of failure – either you made a stupid decision when you got married, or else one or both of you has deteriorated into a nastier person.

As for “the life you want”, come off it. The path to happiness after divorce is not as smooth as sloganeering lawyers might want you to think. Easier, perhaps, after a brief and childless “starter marriage”: some young couples stay friends and stay cheerful. But even they must find a way to swallow the ignominy and waste of having spent tens of thousands on a wedding and solicited expensive presents, only to fall apart like a duff sponge cake.

Most divorces, though, happen over 40 and after more than a decade; more than half involve children under 16. Don’t do it. Or if you must (and occasionally it is true that the alternative is cruel misery) then try not to decide in January. Not when you’re broke and bloated and hungover and traumatised by prolonged contact with certain in-laws whom you fear your spouse is growing to resemble. You may just be living the immortal song by the spoof country legend Tina C: “Every day with you is like Christmas – I feel fat and bored.” At least let the daffodils come up before flinging yourself into the octopus embrace of the law. You might survive divorce – we all know happy second marriages and single lives – but it is never fun. Never.

Do 406 British marriages a day really need to end? Or are we becoming divorce-addicts, dashing for the adrenalin rush of change? Only a third of petitioners claim abuse (and that includes “emotional abuse”, an expression subject to all sorts of hysterical me-generation overstatement). Forty-two per cent cite infidelity – though the figures do not distinguish between a silly one-night stand and prolonged disloyalty – and the rest claim “boredom” or insufficient sex. But life is often boring and sex scanty. Things can be improved by other means.

Don’t crack a nut with a sledgehammer. So perhaps a hobby for this perilous week is to list the reasons not to do it, or not yet.

First, your judgment may be impaired by marzipan, booze and Visa bills. Any general yearning for change will naturally focus on the pallid, grumbling, sneezing lump in the corner. But he or she is unlikely to be the only problem. Admit it.

Secondly, think of the financial upheaval. You will probably have to sell the house, on a falling market (the lawyerly website is full of vapid old-hat advice about “decluttering” and baking bread). You will not only be introducing lawyers into your life, but estate agents too. The horror, the horror. Better to move into the shed with a Lilo for a month or so, while you think.

Thirdly, far more importantly, if you have children they too will pay the price. You can limit the damage, but that will involve intelligent effort over a long period. Unless the spouse being discarded is really evil, the children will get sad. Dealing with that sadness, and refraining from making it worse by using them as pawns, will be hard work. It may actually involve more determined love, patience and understanding than you could have spent in sorting out the marriage in the first place.

Fourthly, there are only two ways to divorce: well and badly. If you do it badly, in a quarrelsome and petulant manner, it will be vile – not only for the children but for you. There will be a reservoir of venom and resentment in your head for years. It will make you less pleasant to know, and drive away all but your most placid friends.

On the other hand, doing divorce well – and I know several shining examples of this – will involve at least one partner behaving in a saintly manner, heroically refusing to take offence, accepting financial and emotional unfairness, living closer to the ex-spouse than is comfortable, and often setting aside personal fulfilment and new relationships in order to keep the peace. It is exhausting. I honour those who manage it. But some, after a drink or two, tend to admit that it might have been better to work things out, or forgive the affair or whatever.

So don’t be conned by lawyers, or by celebrity mags full of airbrushed tales of how divorce “really made me grow”. Don’t buy the idea that a decree absolute is equivalent to “winning the life you want”. Borrow Churchill’s motto, which he discreetly abbreviated to KBO: Keep Buggering On. And in case you think I write from some hearts’n’flowers idyll, know that I have just asked my husband of 28 years what he would say to dissuade people from January divorces .

He replied gloomily from behind the paper: “Tell them it’s not worth it, they’ll only get remarried and have it all to go through again.” Happy New Year. KBO.”

The Queen and Prince Philip yesterday celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, leaving to spend time in Malta where they spent a few early years of their marriage away from the gaze of her future subjects.

The wedding took place on November 20th 1947 in Westminster Abbey after a short four month engagement.  Yesterday they attended a service in Westminster Abbey together with their family, close friends, the Queen’s personal knights, ten couples also married on the same day, and some of those who had contributed to the Royal wedding 60 years ago such as the seamstress who worked on the Queen’s wedding gown.   It was the same setting as their wedding, and the same music was used.  A transcript of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon is available here.

Every marriage is an act of faith. When you think about it, the promise to be in the company of the same person for a lifetime is an extraordinary thing to undertake; it is a statement of trust in one another and in the future which can never be free of risk. Another person, however well I think I know him or her, however confident I am about the mutual attraction between us, is still going to be deeply mysterious, beyond my control. Giving away my life to them is quite a step.”

Prince Philip was born in Corfu, the son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark who was the fourth son of the King of Greece.  He was baptised in the Greek Orthodox faith. When barely a year old, his life took a dramatic turn as he made his escape from Greece in an orange box on board a Royal Navy ship, HMS Calypso.  His father had been sentenced by a court to perpetual banishment.  His parents having fled to France, he lived there first, then in Germany after his parent’s marriage broke down.  His mother developed schizophrenia and Prince Philip’s contact with both parents became almost non-existant.  He left Germany in 1936 and came to the United Kingdom.   He joined the Royal Navy in 1939.

He had to give up both his Orthodox faith and his title to the Greek throne in order to marry the Queen; he had already become a naturalised British Citizen in the months before the engagement was announced.  His sisters had all married German princes and so were not welcome at the wedding.  Britain was suffering economically from the enormous cost of the Second World War and there was still rationing.  Clothes could only be bought using coupons.  Many women apparently sent the Queen their coupons to use for her wedding dress, but the coupons were returned as it was illegal to give them away.  Like every other bride, however, she received 200 extra coupons.  Her dress was designed by the Royal couturier, Norman Hartnell, and took three months to finish.  Hartnell recalled how rumours circulated that the silk worms used to produce the Duchesse satin were of Italian or Japanese origin and therefore provided by “enemy” territories.  In fact they came from China, via Scotland.

In an austere Britain, the wedding was a joyful spectacle that caught everyone’s imagination.  It was a symbol of hope and regeneration after the hardships that the people had suffered.

After their marriage the Queen announced that Prince Philip was to sit next to her on all occasions, in other words that he was to take precedence over any of their children who had titular precedence in relation to the throne.  Never mind being cradled in an orange box, Prince Philip seems to have been born with a foot in his mouth – if you scroll down to the end of his Wikipedia entry you will find a list of the numerous gaffes he has made in his supporting role. 

His most prominent contribution to British life is probably the Duke of Edinburgh Award – a personal development award scheme for teenagers requiring them to show service in community, develop new sports and interests, and take part in unaccompanied expeditions in the mountains, leading to Bronze, Silver and Gold medals.  The Gold medals are presented in person by the Duke of Edinburgh.

One of the refugee women I worked with was a practising Muslim.  She kept her hair covered at all times by a variety of neatly, tightly folded and fixed scarves.  She was a political refugee and the mother of two small boys whose father had disappeared in their country of origin.  She did not know if she would ever see him again as she had not heard from him since his disappearance.  She was anxious about coming to my house because she did not want to encounter my husband as it was forbidden for her to meet a man who was not related to her.  She was also unable to go out alone without a chaperone, although she did agree to allow me to take her to the shops and to the local park with her sons.  I was surprised, therefore, to discover that she was sharing her accommodation with a man who was neither her relative nor her husband.  She explained that he was her milk brother,  a term I had never encountered.  Milk brothers and sisters are people who were suckled at the same breasts.  She was allowed to stay with the man because he was her milk brother.

Milk brothers and sisters are one category of “Mahram”.  Under Sharia law a mahram is a blood relative or other person with whom marriage or sexual intercourse would be incestuous. 

Men falling within this description are a woman’s:

  1. father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so on;
  2. brother;
  3. son, grandson, great-grandson;
  4. uncle, parents’ uncle, grandparents’ uncle and so on;
  5. nephew, grandnephew, great-grandnephew and so on;

When she marries, a woman’s mahram will be extended to include her father-in-law and, when she has a daughter who marries, her son-in-law will become a mahram.

Strictly, under Sharia law a woman is not allowed to travel without a mahram.  A mahram is the only permissable escort for a Muslim woman.  She may be alone with him at home too.  A woman is not allowed to be a mahram for another woman.  In September I happened to go the Designer floor of Selfridges.  The floor was a sea of women clad in black.  At times I was the only woman not wearing the full length veil and gown or niqab which allows only a slit for the eyes.  Each group of women was accompanied by a mahram, often a very young man.  The older men waited outside in huge Mercedes limousines.  I noticed a group of women giggling at a glass cabinet displaying lingerie and accessories from Agent Provocateur and wished I had my camera.

I was struck by how these categories were almost identical to the categories I had formulated in frustration in an earlier post.  Even the category of ‘milk brother’ may be equated with the Western limited exception for male-female friendships which pre-date the marriage where, one assumes, any romantic attachment has already run its course if it ever existed and had certainly been supplanted by the new relationship.   It strikes me, however, that Prince Charles’s friendship with Camilla Parker Bowles would be a notable and cautionary exception to the non-threatening nature of such pre-existing friendships, which might be explained by the fact that he was unable to marry Camilla because she is a Catholic, and he was forced to choose a more suitable bride against his inclination.

Western women, of course, are also allowed out without a chaperone even if most of us would prefer not to walk alone outside at night and in most cases the rules are not applied until a woman has married or entered a romantic relationship with a man. 

I conclude that the unwritten rules applying in Western Christendom mirror the Sharia categories of mahram because they serve the same purpose.  That is, they exist to ensure that women have no opportunity to stray from their husband and that their children are the offspring of their husband and no other man.  They exist to outwit the power of eros untrammelled.

The same work exception to the rules that I identified in my earlier post applies in many Muslim countries too, as does an exemption for study.  The economic imperative means that a Muslim woman may be allowed to associate with work colleagues whilst at work.

Given the restrictive nature of the mahram categories, it is little wonder that women want to work to escape the bite of the rules.  In Europe, too, I suspect that women realise that their greatest freedom is when they are working and that their worlds will often shrink to become entirely feminine (except for the mahram equivalents) if they give up work to have children.  Women often say that they work because of the opportunity for social interaction, not because of the money they earn.  Working women are less likely to have children and particularly less likely to have more than one child.  Birthrates are very low in some Western countries.  I wonder if it is any accident that the birthrate is lowest in countries where women vanish almost completely from society once they become mothers until they are widowed.  This 2006 article in the Guardian seems to confirm my suspicion.  France has one of the highest birth rates in Europe but, perhaps significantly, also has one of the highest participation rates for women in employment with effective family-friendly policies.  High rate of female participation may be excellent news for the economy but is not necessarily such good news either for the women or their children.  Women who work often still have to carry most of the burden at home, resulting in increased stress and sickness.  Working parents have less time to devote to their children than non-working parents.

It is hard to see any evidence that the rules achieve their goal, especially given the scope of the work exception.  I speculate on the basis of my own anecdotal observations that a large percentage of affairs begin between work colleagues.  Divorces in the UK ar, incidentally,  now at their lowest rate ever since 1977. 

I wish the rule did not exist.  When I was a teenager I enjoyed sailing my boat against boys.  When I was older I enjoyed studying law alongside men.  When I began working as a solicitor, I enjoyed working alongside men.  When I became a partner in a law firm, I enjoyed running a business with men.  When I got married nothing changed because I was still working.  When I had my first child the shutters came down shockingly quickly and I was forced to exist in a world that, with the exception of my husband, was entirely female.  Occasionally we would meet other couples socially and, if I was lucky, I might find myself sat next to a man at dinner.  I miss the mixed environment a great deal.  I have no economic imperative to justify returning to work.  I often wish I had – or that I could change the rules all by myself.

You could say that the rules apply equally to men and women.  But they do not.  Men continue to benefit from the work exemption for the whole of their working lives.  Recently my husband said how sad he was that one of his work colleagues was going to be working elsewhere.  Their offices had been next to each other for years and he was understandably attached to the man who was leaving.  I remarked that though it was sad for my husband, it was even more sad for the man who was leaving.  My husband was losing only one colleague whilst the man moving was losing all of his colleagues for a much more solitary job.  I felt sad for the man who was leaving, and it was only days later connected my sadness for him to my own grief at giving up my job when my daughter was born – a grief that I was not allowed to express.  Like him I had lost colleagues who were  like my family.

You can read an article on the wisdom of having a mahram here.  I read about the mahram first in two introductory books to Islam that I read during half term. Neither was very good.