Monday, 21 May 2018

The real purpose of royal weddings

Now the bunting has come down and the prosecco bottles are consigned to the recycling, it has become abundantly clear what royal weddings are for - they are a national (and international...) form of catharsis, a global opportunity to be as rude as we wish we could be at actual weddings.

Let's be honest - only the truly saintly among us have never snarked at a wedding. Whether it's speculating from behind an order of service about how long the marriage might last, telling a bride she looks beautiful when you secretly think the dress looks like a feral shower curtain, or judging the choice of a Celine Dion track for the first dance, we've all been there. Sometimes snarkers aren't even subtle - I was told I was "brave" for not wearing a white dress, as if getting married in silver and black was heroism on par with rescuing orphans from a burning building.

But when it's a royal wedding, on telly for all of us to see, we let loose. The white lies and good manners that lubricate the wheels of polite society dry up. This is not new, despite social media.

When Charles and Di got married back in 1981, Princess Anne's omelette-like hat and the crush-fest of a wedding dress attracted much low-tech snarking. Indeed, this was immortalised in Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, with Adrian reporting that the princess wore a "dirty white dress". In the TV adaptation, Bert Baxter, the curmudgeonly OAP, said: "I know a wrinkle when I see one!" as everyone watched Diana enter St Paul's Cathedral looking like she was dressed in the handiwork of the Andrex puppy.

And with Twitter and Facebook, snarking went into overdrive as soon as the guests started arriving at St George's Chapel on Saturday. In between people expressing delight at the simple elegance of Meghan Markle's wedding dress, plenty declared they were bored by the dress, as if she got dressed solely for their entertainment, as if she owed the world a riot of sequins, itchy lace and a big old arse bow.

During the wedding service itself, collective pearls were clutched during the lively sermon given by the Reverend Michael Curry, the African-American primate and presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. This was hilarious (such as the starched fart faces of certain people in the congregation) and a bit disturbing - an angry online mob of white people complaining that a black bishop is talking for too long is somewhat unseemly to witness. Of course, when I dared point this out on Twitter, a bunch of white people landed in my notifications to tell me I am racist and that they really didn't notice the bishop was black.

Apparently, 14 minutes of airtime was more than some people were prepared to deal with, even though it was the most entertaining and memorable part of the whole damn wedding.

The Venn diagram of people who have ever screeched "Britain is a Christian country!" and those who felt the need to complain about Reverend Curry going on a bit would probably overlap quite significantly. How many of these supposed defenders of the Church of England against threats, real or imaginary, regularly attend church?

Fourteen minutes is by no means an epic sermon, as anyone who goes to church can attest. The eminently forgettable sermon at William and Kate's wedding ran for about eight minutes but both wedding ceremonies lasted about an hour in total - the Book of Common Prayer marriage liturgy can be a wordy, time-consuming thing, especially when you add hymns to the mix. Give me a lively 14-minute sermon over a couple of dirgy seven-verse hymns pooped out of an arthritic pipe organ any day. 

And here's the inconvenient truth for those who thought the reverend's sermon was too long or too over-the-top or both - if you are genuinely concerned for the survival of Christianity in the UK, you might want to congratulate black British people for doing their bit to keep churches open. The British Social Attitudes survey documented from 1983 to 2014 a steady decline for the Church of England and a slight decline for the Roman Catholic church but a substantial increase in "other churches", many of which are dominated by people of African and Caribbean heritage. Between 2001 and 2011, white Christians declined by 18%  in London whereas black Christian growth was at 32% over the same period. The growth in church attendance is fuelled by black and ethnic minorities, not white Brits.

And if that means lively sermons are getting bums on pews, anyone who has panicked about the decline of church attendance in Britain should celebrate these extra bums regardless of the colour of the cheeks.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

The Meghan Markle conundrum

Here's the thing about the royal family - even though their lives are far removed from ours, we still feel like we know them. Based on their limited, highly controlled interviews, absurd magazines and the occasional tell-all from a "palace insider", we reckon we have them all figured out.

Hell, I have Kate and William pegged as a nice but dull couple, the kind of people you'd trust to feed the cat while you're on holiday - but you wouldn't give them the task because then you'd have to invite them over for dinner and that would be excruciating. But Zara and Mike seem fun so I'd happily give them the house keys while I was on holiday. And - this is my controversial opinion - I think Camilla would be a right laugh too. She can pop over for a cheeky G&T.

We know them on first name terms even though we're supposedly meant to address them by ludicrous titles. And as of this weekend, Meghan and Harry will gain their very own ludicrous titles as they embark on married life and attempt to carve out their place in the world.

And speaking of places in the world, with the bizarre news that Prince Charles will walk Meghan at least halfway up the aisle today, in the absence of her ailing father - and despite her mother being in town - plenty of wags have suggested that finally after nearly 70 years on this planet, the hapless Charles has found something to do. The poor bugger has spent his entire life resembling a slightly beside-the-point Quentin Blake illustration.

Of course, the past week's who-will-walk-Meghan-up-the-aisle TMZ-fuelled brouhaha meant everyone felt the need to share their views on the whole notion of men giving brides away. Let's be honest - "giving a bride away" is hardly a feminist statement but when I got married at the ripe, old age of 34, Dad, a man who supports me in all I do, walking me down the aisle was lovely

That said, now we all know Prince Charles is doing the honours, opinion is divided, again as if we know the royals personally and have been privy to all the behind-closed-doors discussions. Did Meghan really ask Prince Charles to do this or was the Kensington Palace statement fake news? Is it a nice way to welcome her to the family? Is it sidelining Doria Ragland, the mother-of-the-bride? Surely the bigger story is sweeping homeless people off the street and not putting on a bunch of hog roasts for the people allowed into the castle grounds? Is it all just a bit weird for a father to give a woman to his son?

My first reaction was "Ick!" but I suppose the most charitable interpretation is that, even in the face of extreme awfulness by Sarah Vine, below-the-line Daily Mail commentators and other assorted racist, snobbish prudes, Meghan Markle is being supported by her new in-laws. Hell, there is a really awful sub-culture on Twitter of women who hate Meghan - they are racist, jealous and generally angry. Their comments in regard to the colour of her skin are not so much racist dogwhistles as honking great bullhorns.

For what it's worth, I like her - she comes across as fun, caring and a bit saucy. Anyone who upsets racists, snobs and prudes is fine by me. They are probably the same people who are, as I write this, whining about the multicultural BBC royal wedding coverage team - although I don't want to ruin my Saturday by going onto Twitter to see if there are idiots who are genuinely angry about the very presence of the gorgeous Naga Munchetty at Windsor Castle.

At the end of today, Meghan Markle will be the Duchess of Sussex - she has had to convert to the Church of England faith, if she has any children with Harry, they will join the in-line-to-the-throne production line and it is all part of an institution that is not based on merit, has only become moderately less sexist with the changes to primogeniture rules and could easily be thrown into confusion if an heir to the throne turns out to be gay. Her life will no longer be her own and everything she says, does and wears will be scrutinised for the rest of her life. I have no doubt that she will do what she can to continue the path of modernising the creaking old institution of the monarchy - and will probably be much quicker about choosing the causes she will support than Kate Middleton was.

Good for her and all that. Only a person with a truly rancid heart would wish Meghan and Harry a miserable marriage. Even a cranky old republican like me can smile at the sight of two people in love. If Meghan somehow brings down the monarchy, as the haters think she will, I would not be upset. But chances are, she won't cause the fall of the House of Windsor - and that will really annoy the haters.

Photography by Last Night of Freedom/Flickr

Friday, 4 May 2018

Local Elections 2018: Limited gloating opportunities

Hopes were high for post-local election gloating for both major parties, particularly in London. Here, Labour hubristically thought they might take Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea, and Wandsworth councils from the Conservatives and wrest Barnet back from no overall control. The Tories won all four. 

Meanwhile, the Conservatives thought they were in with a shot in Sutton but the scandal-ridden local Liberal Democrats prevailed, albeit with a 12-seat haemorrhage. The Conservatives also lost pro-remain Richmond-upon-Thames and Kingston-upon-Thames to the Liberal Democrats.

Jeremy Corbyn had planned to go to Barnet in North London to gloat today but instead, there was a last-minute change of plans and he travelled some 240 miles to Plymouth, the one bright spot for Labour, although by no means a bellwether for the national mood. Labour gained four seats in Plymouth and the Conservatives lost one.

Theresa May, meanwhile, went to Wandsworth to gloat over a result that should surprise nobody with a functioning brain stem - the Conservatives have presided over a low council tax borough where the streets are clean, the parks are green and crime rates are low. That said, the Conservatives only clung on by 141 votes and lost eight seats, while Labour gained seven.

But this is not just about London - across England, there was not a whole lot for either Labour or the Conservatives to sing about. Labour lost Nuneaton to the Conservatives in the Midlands, the Conservatives lost Plymouth to Labour. South Cambridgeshire has gone to the Liberal Democrats, a previously Conservative council. Three Rivers, in Hertfordshire, went to the Liberal Democrats after formerly being under no overall control.

It is true that at local elections, local issues are important. For example, Britain is a nation obsessed by the bins - you don't have to look too far to find someone who will complain that bin collections are not frequent enough, there are too many bins, too few bins, not enough is being recycled, recycling is an onerous burden, some idiot keeps fly-tipping instead of disposing of festering mattresses responsibly and so on and so forth...

But it would be naive to suggest that people didn't use this election to give the major parties a kicking over bigger issues than bins, parking, potholes and dog poo, particularly in regard to Brexit. Leavers and remainers are feeling equally powerless as they watch this government negotiate with the European Union with all the agility of a walrus on a trapeze and struggle to figure out exactly what Labour policy on this not-so-insignificant matter. On top of this, plenty of people are dismayed with the way Labour has dealt with serious accusations of anti-semitism. Therefore, the local elections were seen by many as a good excuse for a protest vote. 

So how did this pan out? It panned out pretty well for the Liberal Democrats and Greens with both parties picking up the votes of pro-remain voters, many of whom are currently feeling politically homeless. 

Overall, the Liberal Democrats increased their share of the vote by three percentage points to 16% at the time of writing - they were on 444 seats nationally, an increase of 49. This included some curious results, including Labour losing a seat to the Lib Dems in the Pallion ward of Sunderland council. That would be the same Sunderland that voted 60% in favour of Brexit, despite the area's biggest private sector employer, Nissan, setting up shop there in 1984, urged on by Margaret Thatcher who successfully sold the Japanese car-maker the idea of basing a factory there because of free access to the European market. 

The Green party won a few more seats - at the time of writing, they had 34 seats across the country, up from five. Interestingly, more than 80 per cent of the council seats gained by the Greens were snaffled from the Conservatives. That would indicate that there is a handful of seriously disillusioned Tory remainers out there, as well as Labour losing pro-EU voters to the Greens.

UKIP proved themselves to be a spent force in British politics with a pitiful three seats across the country, a drop of 121 seats. It would seem that the Conservative Party has scooped up these votes, suggesting the Tories are appealing strongly to a voter base that seeks massive cuts to immigration, probably doesn't give a toss about anyone affected by the Windrush scandal and is startlingly sanguine about the prospect of the UK crashing out of the EU with no deal and having to revert to WTO rules. Last night and this morning, as election results rolled in, Conservatives were happy to go on TV and say they had gained votes from UKIP.

And this is a crucial difference between Labour and the Conservatives right now - the Conservatives are taking a pragmatic approach. Plenty of Tories are appalled by UKIP but they will cheerfully Hoover up their voters. Hell, the Conservatives have cravenly taken control of Pendle council in Lancashire thanks to the reinstating of a councillor who was suspended from the party for retweeting a racist joke. It's not necessarily a principled approach but this is not an era for conviction politicians in Theresa May's desperate Conservative Party. 

Meanwhile, a common tactic in the murky world of Twitter political debate among Jeremy Corbyn's increasingly delusional Momentum fans is to accuse Labour-leaning Corbyn critics of being "red Tory scum", "Blairites" and to "fuck off and vote Tory" - colour me shocked to learn that this mindless strategy has not been converted into enough votes to control crucial councils up and down England.

The results are not really a ringing endorsement for either equally incompetent party leader. The only saving grace to come out of all this is that we might be spared having to vote again this year. Another general election would probably result in a similar outcome to the status quo - and Theresa May does not need two consecutive elections in which she recklessly sought a huge mandate but emerged with a grip on power like a limp handshake. Her reputation as a "safe pair of hands" is in tatters, Brexit negotiations will continue to be a car crash, and the Windrush scandal won't quite go away, despite Amber Rudd stepping down as Home Secretary.

But it all boils down to a big pile of "meh" with a huge helping of "whevs". With votes counted in 136 of 150 councils at the time of writing, Labour has 1,896 councillors, an increase of 58, and the Conservatives have 1,256 councillors, a drop of nine. This looks like an easy gloat for Labour but their problem is that this has not translated into a red landslide of taking control of councils across the UK. And it is not an easy gloat for the Tories because nothing much really changes for them, apart from losing Plymouth.

And people up and down this green and pleasant land will still complain about the bins.

Photography by Martin Deutsch/Flickr

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Incels and Daesh: lethal mysogynists

This month, so-called incels finally got the attention they have been craving so pathetically after Alek Minassian became their poster boy. Ten people were killed and 15 injured in an act of terrorism in Toronto - a van mowed people down as they went about their business and Alek Minassian was arrested for the atrocity.

It has since emerged that Minassian frequented white supremacist sites and praised racist murderer Elliot Rodger, who, aged 22, shot people at random and then killed himself. Minassian posted on Facebook: "The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!".

"Incel" is short for "involuntarily celibate" and in their hateful little subculture, "Chads" are the men who are getting laid and "Stacys" are the women who have sex with these men. 

Incels do not take responsibility for their romantic and sexual failures. They are not interested in personal change so they can become happier, better-adjusted men. They just want to blame others for their lives, and this extends to harming innocent people in vile acts of terrorism. 

These are the men who may seem harmless enough when they whine about constantly being "friend-zoned" but for these men, there is no value in friendships with women if they refuse to have sex with them. Instead of viewing healthy platonic friendships as part of a normal adult life, these men view women as gratification machines and if they drop in enough friendship tokens, sex will eventually come out.  

If incels actually cultivated healthy friendships with women, they might learn that sometimes we don't have sex as much as we'd like either. Women get dumped, women get friend-zoned, women's partners may lose interest in sex - being "involuntarily celibate" isn't just for men. Sorry, guys, you're not special. And when this happens to a woman, it can hurt, it can be embarrassing, it can crush self-esteem and it can lead to feelings of worthlessness. But it's not women who are reacting to romantic and sexual disappointment by plotting cowardly acts of violence because a man wasn't interested. 

When women aren't getting laid, we might get together and whine about men over a bottle of wine or a tub of ice cream, but you're not going to find us organising to kill innocent people. Sure, not every woman will handle being rejected in an entirely rational manner but the murderous bunny boiler of Fatal Attraction is a rare exception, rather than the rule, as crime statistics will bear out. 

Like Daesh, the incels have started a deadly movement and the parallels are chilling. Incels and Daesh prey on vulnerable, lonely young men, men who feel disenfranchised, men who are yearning to feel powerful and important, men for whom the ability to control women to the point of rape and murder is appealing, men who get very angry when they are referred to as losers. And now, with the Toronto attack, it is clear that incels and Daesh are both planning to kill more innocent people in the name of hateful and perverse ideologies. 

Incels and Daesh both hate women. They do not like to see women empowered or educated. They feel entitled to women's bodies, whether it is for their own selfish gratification (can anyone seriously imagine either an incel or a Daesh recruit giving a damn about female pleasure during sex?) or to breed a new generation of haters. 

There is no respect for women in incel chat rooms or Daesh training camps. They both hold juvenile, reductive views of women, they want to control us but they are also disgusted by us. They are the very worst examples of toxic masculinity. Their murderous foot soldiers might be dismissed as lone wolves but they are the useful idiots for the leaders of horrific ideologies. They are both terrorist organisations. They both need to be stopped.

Photography by cocoparisienne

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Thoughts on today's anti-semitism protest

Today, I know quite a few people who are attending the protest outside the Labour Party's headquarters in London. The protest is about inaction on anti-semitism within the Labour Party. Among the people protesting are those who feel politically homeless because anti-semitic abuse has been tolerated and not properly dealt with by the Labour Party. 

These people are routinely slagged off as "Red Tory scum" by certain elements of the Labour Party even though they support a such principles as a strong NHS, the welfare state, ending austerity, and a taxation system that does not favour the wealthy at the expense of the working class. These people are not natural conservatives, they have spoken out against Conservative Party policy, in many cases for decades. Some of these people are now voting for other parties, some now spoil their ballots, some have stopped voting, sometimes for the first time in their politically active lives.

Absolutely disgusting things have been said to Jewish people within the Labour Party, including threats, the dragging up of vile stereotypes that would not be out of place in the appalling propaganda of Nazi Germany, and calling Jewish female MPs, such as the eloquent Louise Ellman, "sluts" and "bitches" for daring to speak out. Ruth Smeeth MP has received 25,000 abusive messages and is now under police protection. It has to stop if the Labour Party is at all serious about being in government. 

When these people say they have been subjected to ugly anti-semitic abuse, I believe them. I have seen the awful evidence. I am not Jewish so I am not going to presume to tell Jewish people that their anti-semitic experiences within the Labour Party are invalid or not serious or do not warrant serious investigation and disciplinary action. The people who are responsible for the abuse would probably, quite rightly, not minimise reports of abuse towards Muslim people so why are they incapable of respecting Jewish people in the same way or taking their concerns equally seriously?

I suspect that a lot of anti-semitic abuse is excused as criticism of wealth and greed, of the Rothschilds as shorthand for all Jews, even though that is clearly wrong and ridiculous. Just as Muslims are tired of telling people that they are not terrorists, and black people are tired of telling people they are not in violent gangs, and women are tired of having to explain pretty much every life choice we make to someone, Jewish people are pretty damn sick of this stupid, offensive stereotype being perpetuated, complete with the horrendous rich-Jews-with-big-noses trope in the hideous mural Jeremy Corbyn claimed he didn't look at properly before defending it. 

Indeed, the motion which has been put forward by the Bristol West Labour Party in opposition to their MP, Thangam Debbonaire, attending last month's Enough Is Enough rally against anti-semitism doesn't so much contain a racist dog whistle as a honking great bullhorn - the motion actually said that "when people see inequality, ecological disaster and war alongside the accumulation of unprecedented wealth, in the private hands of a few, it is reasonable that they seek out explanations". If you can't see the problem with that, I can't help you. If those calling for Ms Debbonaire's deselection succeed, I hope they are proud of themselves for cutting down a talented female MP from an ethnic minority because she spoke out in support of people who are experiencing intolerance. This is an intelligent, compassionate woman who called to allow MPs to vote remotely in special circumstances after she juggled her parliamentary duties with breast cancer treatment. If that is the kind of person you want to remove from parliament, you really need to ask yourself who the real racists and haters are.

But the wealthy are an obvious target for the left and if Jewish people get scooped up in the criticism, that just seems to be viewed by many as mere collateral damage. It is possible to be critical of the morality of many wealthy people and big business without detouring down anti-semitic rabbit holes. I also suspect that criticism of Jews is seen as criticism not just of the wealthy and privileged but also of white people and that somehow makes it OK for many, even though it is racism on top of racism. Never mind that this is completely ignorant and flies in the face of the diversity of Jewish people who live in every continent. 

One of the defences has been "But there are anti-semitic Tories too!". Yes, this is true. And it should all be called out. Jacob Rees-Mogg should be held to account for rubbing shoulders with the dreadful Gregory Lauder-Frost just as the Labour Party was held to account for allowing holocaust denier Alan Bull to be a council candidate. But the argument that there are anti-semites in the Conservative Party as well is not really an argument at all - it just drags both parties into an awful race to the bottom where all forms of racism and intolerance become OK because the other lot are at it too. 

Jeremy Corbyn, the ball is in your court. Try not to hit it into the hands of those who are responsible for abusing Jewish people.

Photography of the Kindertransport statue by UggBoy♥UggGirl/Flickr

Friday, 9 March 2018

International Women's Day. International. The clue is in the name, people.

I spent International Women's Day flying from Abu Dhabi to London, The simplistic metaphor for that journey is that I flew from a backwards, sexist society to a place where women are free. But it's not that simple. 

The reality is that I flew from one country where feminism is still necessary to another country where feminism is still necessary. I flew from one ally of Saudi Arabia to, er, another ally of Saudi Arabia. 

Theresa May might have won the exchange during Prime Ministers's questions in which she was able to accuse Jeremy Corbyn of mansplaining feminism when he asked her about meeting Saudi's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman on International Women's Day, but let's be realistic. For all Theresa May's bragging about being a female PM meeting the Saudi Crown Prince and challenging him on human rights, only the terminally naive believe that her meeting yesterday will make a difference to women. 

Britain will still sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and these will be used in Yemen, a truly appalling place for women. The bombardment of Yemen is pushing the impoverished country even further backwards, doing nothing to empower Yemeni women. Just 55% of women aged 15 and above in Yemen can read and write. This is a country where a woman who was campaigning to improve female literacy rates was shot dead last year.

I was in Abu Dhabi covering a security conference, before drafting this blog post in longhand on the flight home. At the conference, I led an all-women editorial team representing Australia, Britain, India and Slovakia. We covered the news from a male-dominated industry event where female speakers were scarce.

But the conference's awards for student innovation offered hope. In the university students' category, all three prizes were won by all-female teams. In the school students' category, the prize for the best security invention was won by a girl. This should come as no real surprise - in the UAE, way more women than men are at university. More than 70% of Emirati university students are women. Record numbers of women are going to university in Britain too. 

But then there are terrible similarities for women in the UAE and Britain, with serious issues in regard to how rape cases are dealt with by justice systems. Rapes are certainly under-reported in both countries. In the UAE this is often because victims are worried that if the defendant is acquitted, she could face adultery charges for consensual sex with a man to whom she is not married. In the UK, many rapes are not reported for fear of a truly appalling experience at the hands of the system. Here, it is a place where women are, with depressing frequency, made to feel as if they were asking for it, for daring to walk alone at night, dress a certain way, drink alcohol, go on a date, be in a relationship, not be a blushing virgin and so on. 

Neither country's situation is acceptable. This is not an either/or thing. The issue of justice for rape victims is a genuinely international issue that affects women all over the world. And there is the crux of International Women's Day. It's a day for girls and women across the whole world. The clue is in the name.

There are issues which are universal for girls and women everywhere and there are issues which pertain more to some countries than others. And they are all important.

International Women's Day is not a day for sneering mansplainers to tell western women that we should shut up and be grateful that we are not under bombardment in Yemen, enslaved by Daesh in Syria, restricted by the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia or risking being kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria or threatened with the horrors of female genital mutilation.

Our little ladybrains are more than capable of caring about more than one issue in more than one country.

We are capable of rising up in support of our sisters all over the world. We are capable of doing things to make a real difference to the lives of girls and women everywhere. 

And we are doing this. We are angry. We are not going to be sidelined because of our biology. We are not going away. We will not be quiet. We will fight our battles great and small. We will celebrate our victories. And it won't just be on International Women's Day. This happens every day in every country in the world. Deal with it, sexists. This is our time.

Photography by jooleah_stahkey/Flickr

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Lock 'em up! Throw away the key! Hang the lot of 'em!

This month, another depressingly vile story about Jon Venables, one of the killers of James Bulger, broke, along with news that the equally vile Michael Adebowale, one of the killers of Fusilier Lee Rigby, will be moved from a high-security prison to the apparently "luxurious" Broadmoor. Then, a few weeks ago, there was a minor outcry because Tristen Asllani, an Albanian man locked up in the UK on a 25-year sentence for drugs and weapons offences, boasted online about how much fun he was having in the amusement parlour that is Wandsworth prison. 

Yet it is absolutely worth having an intelligent conversation about prison reform because the current system is not working and passing blanket laws on the basis of extreme examples is never a good idea.

When I studied legal studies for my Higher School Certificate, the equivalent in my Australian home state of New South Wales to the A-Levels, we were taught that criminal punishment has four aims: retribution, protection of society, deterrence and rehabilitation. With prisons overcrowded to the point of being dangerous for staff and inmates, the only aim that is even close to being met is retribution, a satisfaction of our base need to punish the bastards, even if the punishment is ultimately ineffective or expensive or both.

Sure, society is protected from genuinely dangerous people, such as Venables, Adebowale and Asllani by locking them up - but what about the prisoners who have served their time and come out of the prison system learning little more than how to be a better criminal? How is that outcome improving either the life of the ex-prisoner or society as a whole?

And prison is clearly not working as a deterrent - in August 2017, prisoner numbers stood at 86,413, an increase of 1,200 since May 2017. In the past 30 years, the prison population has risen by 82%. The most recent recidivism stats released by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in January 2018 come from the first quarter of 2016 - these showed the overall reoffending rate was at 29.6%, a figure that tends to fluctuate between 29% and 32%. In adult prisoners, the rate is 28.7% and in juvenile offenders 42.3%. None of this is good news.

One of the big reasons for overcrowded prisons is the over-reliance on custodial sentences for non-violent offences - MoJ figures reveal that 71% of prisoners in the UK are locked up for non-violent offences, and the use of the more effective community sentences has almost halved since 2006. Short prison sentences, instead of community sentences, are especially useless as a deterrent - according to the MoJ, almost 8,000 people serving a sentence of less than 12 months were recalled back to custody in the year to December 2016.

Whenever I think of the sheer futility and awfulness of custodial sentences for non-violent crimes, I am reminded of the dreadful case in Australia of Jamie Partlic. In 1987, the 19-year-old went to the notorious Long Bay jail, a prison that is home to some of New South Wales' most horrific and violent criminals. Partlic's crime was unpaid parking fines. After just four days in prison, he was beaten up so badly, he spent the next six months in a coma, sustaining permanent brain damage.

Perhaps we need to look to the example of the Netherlands where 19 prisons closed in 2013 because there weren't enough inmates to fill them. Instead of rushing to lock people up, particularly non-violent offenders, the Netherlands takes a far more level-headed approach. The ankle-monitoring system is heavily used to reduce reoffending rates with a 2008 study finding this cut recidivism by up to half compared to custodial sentences. It means that convicted criminals are still able to go to work and be productive members of society while still being monitored by the justice system.

Of course, whenever anyone dares raise their head over the parapet to call for improved, more humane prison conditions, there is the inevitable, moronic cry from the peanut gallery that "prison isn't meant to be a holiday camp". Everyone could debate for all time about the merits of allowing prisoners access to such things as TV sets in cells, internet access and recreational facilities, whether these should be for all inmates or whether they are only appropriate as a privilege for good behaviour, or whether they should only be for non-violent offenders in minimum security institutions, or not at all.

But to get bogged down in a mindless shouting match because someone read a fact-lite article  implying that all prisoners lead the life of Riley is to miss the point badly.

Nobody is seriously arguing that a stint in jail should be the equivalent of a holiday at an all-inclusive resort but nobody should seriously argue that it's perfectly fine for jails to be dirty, overcrowded shitholes with bad food. An unhygienic prison full of undernourished, often angry men (for it is men who are way more likely to be incarcerated than women) at risk of constantly getting physically and mentally ill, living cheek-by-jowl in conditions that are conducive to lost tempers bubbling over into full-blown riots, has no place in any country that purports to be civilised.

Oscar Wilde's account of prison life, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, should not be treated as a manifesto.

The deprivation of freedom is a major reason why prison is not a barrel of laughs, but this deprivation of freedom should not take place in an unhealthy environment where diseases spread easily. The risk of violence should be minimised wherever possible. Even if you genuinely don't give a damn about the wellbeing of any of the prisoners, think for a moment about the men and women who work in our prisons. They are as entitled to a safe working environment as anyone else.

And this brings me to rehabilitation - overcrowded prisons full of people susceptible to illness and on constant alert in case violence breaks out are useless for rehabilitation. The desire for retribution, for waving of metaphorical pitchforks, as if we are still living in an era of public executions, seems to far outweigh the importance of rehabilitation in conversations on prison conditions.

But to talk of the value of rehabilitation is not to be a soft touch or a liberal snowflake. It is to talk about ensuring that for the majority of prisoners, their time in prison is not a waste of life, a punitive means of passing time until the sentence is over and they are unleashed on the community again. Prisons should absolutely be used to equip inmates with skills for employability. Illiterate prisoners should absolutely have the opportunity to learn to read and write. Mental health issues should be as much of a priority for prison medical facilities as the patching up of shank wounds.

Rehabilitation - and a reduced reliance on jail sentences - is about getting serious about reducing reoffending rates, about ensuring that those who have served their time can be productive members of society when they are come out of prison, about making society better for everyone.

Yes, there will always be a minority of horrific criminals, such as Ian Brady, Myra Hindley, Fred and Rose West, Jon Venables and Michael Adebowale, where rehabilitation seems unlikely. But that does not mean that as a society we should simply give up all hope when it comes to the people who have ended up as convicted criminals for all manner of reasons. A focus on rehabilitation and not on simply locking people away at an ever-increasing rate have been shown to reduce crime rates and recidivism. If you have ever whined about your taxes being spent on prisons, if you have any desire for a safer society, you should support this.

Photography by George Hodan

Sunday, 4 February 2018

The uncomfortable truths about grid girls


It doesn't really matter if you are outraged that Formula One and the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) in the UK will no longer use attractive young women in decorative roles or whether you are outraged that such a job existed in the first place - there are plenty of circles you might want to square in your mind before you vent on your social media outlet of choice.

But it's probably too late because there has already been a predictable flurry on Twitter and Facebook, regardless of where you sit with this particular argument.

There has been hypocrisy across the board. The people who claim to mostly be concerned about saving these young women's jobs are not necessarily the same people who have spoken out about pay and working conditions for countless other jobs in the hospitality industry, where countless young women are exploited, harassed, underpaid and undervalued if they are seen mostly as decorative - or dismissed as decorative even if they are serving customers, pulling pints, waiting on tables or cleaning the toilets.

If you are only concerned about the economic status of these young women but have never said a word about other women in hospitality, you are being selective in your outrage.

For those who are celebrating the decision made by Formula One and PDC, it is uncomfortable to acknowledge that plenty of women are happy to be "grid girls" or "walk-on girls", even if the very job title is infantilising. Plenty have spoken out to say they do not feel exploited, they enjoy the work and it pays better than many other hospitality jobs. Some of these women are genuine sports fans who enjoy the opportunity to get paid to go to events that come with a high ticket price.

When I used to cast models for fashion shoots for a women's magazine, it was rare that anyone I hired was making a full-time career out of it. Most were students earning extra cash, there were a few bored housewives who did it for a bit of a lark, some were trying to make it as actresses or TV presenters. In the case of the women hired for Formula One and PDC events, this is often the case as well, but there are some who do earn good money doing this sort of work all year round, with their agencies sending them all over the world.

If the women who make a living out of this sort of work lose the Formula One and the PDC jobs, it will certainly make a dent in their annual earnings but, as any freelancer in any field knows, you can't rely on all sources of work to be there for all time.

The pictures at the top of this page indicate that it's not just Formula One hiring attractive young women at races. While there may well be not more young women holding flags and helpfully standing with signs on the grid so the drivers can find their cars, it is unclear whether the sponsors got the memo or even have to comply with Formula One's decision to send grid girls the way of the dodo.

While the days of Formula One organisers kitting out women in what are essentially tight-fitting office dresses are over, other companies may still be hiring, albeit in outfits that the Daily Mail would deem more "daring". Perhaps these women will be the next target for a ban. I don't know - I have been to motorsport events as a journalist and as a spectator and I am largely oblivious to the women hired as eye candy. However, if the photos above are any sign, there is still work to be had at motorsports events in a beer company crop top and mini skirt, a boiler suit rendered useless by amputated arms for a major financial institution, or a space-age silver boob sling on behalf of a manufacturer of electrical goods. 

Or perhaps this is the start of a subtle move towards encouraging women to take a more active part in other aspects of motorsport - as engineers, drivers, marshals, team bosses - after all, there is only one Claire Williams at the moment - she is the only woman who is a deputy team principal of a Formula One team.

Indeed, I noticed a distinct shift in the role of women when I was at the Dubai International Motor Show at the end of last year. While previous motor shows, in the Middle East and elsewhere, have become well-known for their "booth professionals", the glamorous women who are paid to pose all day long, usually in short dresses and uncomfortable shoes at the stands of different car manufacturers, last year's Dubai show was a bit different.

And it certainly wasn't about stereotypical Middle Eastern prudery - for the last 12 years, I've been to plenty of events in the region, motoring-related and otherwise, where women are paid to stand around looking pretty and, trust me, none of them are wearing hijabs or abayas. But a lot of them were looking really bored. This time around, at the Dubai motor show, there was a distinct lack of bored models. The women I encountered on the stands - and there were plenty of them - were knowledgeable about the cars they were promoting and they were not standing statue-still all day with ankles wobbling in high heels. Good.

Like most things, it all comes back to economics.

Formula 1 and the PDC darts competition are both big business. While it's all too easy for the likes of the Sun and the Daily Mail to declare that they are snowflakes who have bowed to political correctness gone maaaaaaaaad. But neither sporting organisation would have made the decision to ditch the girls if they thought it was going to have a serious impact on their bottom lines. And it probably hasn't - where are the outraged motor sport and darts fans tearing up their tickets?

Will there be a mass boycott of Formula One and PDC by furious spectators? Probably not. Will both sports continue to make money? Probably.

Photography by ph-stop/Flickr

Sunday, 28 January 2018

The charitable gropers of the Presidents Club

Tiresomely, predictably, there have been tiresome, predictable responses to the FT story in which undercover reporters alleged that women employed as hostesses at the Presidents Club all-male charity fundraiser experienced sexual harassment. This included being groped, invited by guests to join them in hotel bedrooms, guests demanding phone numbers from the hostesses, guests trying to kiss hostesses, hostesses being asked if they were prostitutes, guests putting their hands up the skirts of the hostesses, hostesses being followed into the toilets by representatives of the agency to ensure they didn't take too long in there, a guest asking a hostess to remove her underwear and dance on the table, a guest taking his penis out during the dinner...

Upon arrival, according to the FT report and a subsequent interview with one of the reporters on BBC Newsnight, the women were made to sign non-disclosure agreements without being given time to read them. They weren't allowed to take a copy with them either. The women were given fitted black dresses for the occasion and told to wear matching black underwear. Payment was £150 plus £25 for a taxi home (bad luck if you live in Zone 4 or you're not on a night bus route, sweetheart, you'll probably be at least £25 out of pocket). That equates to a little bit above minimum wage. The hostesses, hired if they met the criteria of "tall, thin and pretty", were encouraged to drink alcohol at the event so any notion of the employer having a duty of care towards the workers went out the window, along with the inhibitions of some of the guests, it would appear.

So, what have the apologists been saying?

"The women knew what they were getting themselves into!"

Sure, some did. According to one of the reporters, some women have worked at this event before, knew the men that attend could be a bit gropey, still thought it was a bit of fun and some claimed they got job offers from it. But plenty of women did not know what the event was going to be like beforehand and, once they were in there, were horrified by what they experienced and saw. Just because some women thought it was a bit of a lark, that does not excuse the behaviour that other women found unacceptable. It's like saying you're OK with the parish priest abusing the altar boys because he left the church secretary alone.

"So, why didn't they just slap the men? Or knee them in the balls?"

Don't get me wrong - any woman who slaps down a sex pest has my full support. Any woman should feel empowered to use whatever physical means she can to fend off everything from an unwanted hand on the knee to rape. But sometimes this is not so easy. 

When I was sexually assaulted while walking home in Dubai one night, I was able to fight off my attacker because he was not much taller than me, and he was overweight and not agile. I was "lucky enough" to get away - if coming away from an attempted rape with a bleeding scratch on my chest, torn tights and an overwhelming feeling of nausea is anyone's idea of a lucky day. I am only 5'1" and these days, I have arthritis on top of my two club feet and a knackered lower back. If someone tried to attack me again, I am pretty sure I would try and fight them off but my success would depend on factors such as whether or not I was having an arthritis flare-up and the size and physical strength of an attacker that I hope never comes my way. 

The same goes for hostesses at the Presidents Club - if a physically stronger man or a drunken, belligerent man crosses a line, a woman may think twice before using brute force, even if a polite "Do you mind?" or an escalation to "Fuck right off!" doesn't work.

"Boys will be boys! This is what happens when men get together!"

Still not OK. The men at this event are meant to be leaders - politicians, businessmen, captains of industry, men who are employers. We really are setting the bar low if we think it's OK for these men to harass women who are trying to earn a few quid, especially if these blokes are responsible for making policy in regard to workplace rights or they are employers, presumably of women. Why should they not be held to a high standard of behaviour?

These men are powerful. Many of the women working at the event were not - there were students, actresses and models in need of some extra cash because of the sometimes-sporadic nature of their work, they need the money and the fear of that agency not giving them any more work if they complain too loudly about creepy men is real, especially when you have London rent to pay. 

"What did they expect when they were given tight dresses to wear?"  

To not be sexually harassed. To not be groped. To not have men demand their phone numbers or ask them to accompany them to hotel rooms. To not see some miserable cretin flop his penis out during dinner. To be treated with respect. 

Wearing tight dresses does not mean an instant invitation for harassment. This is the same for women who work at, for example, Hooters. Some women who work there might enjoy the job, for some Hooters employees, not so much

"It's hardly the crime of the century! Lighten up!"

No, I won't lighten up, thanks all the same. I have other plans. As far as we know, nobody was raped that night. As far as we know. But that still doesn't make the accusations at all palatable or such behaviour acceptable. It's the mentality behind the groping that is disturbing. It's all about men feeling entitled to access women's bodies, even when the women are trying to work. And I shouldn't need to spell out the ultimate, awful consequence of a man feeling entitled to access a woman's body.

What about FGM or the Rotherham rape victims, huh?

Here's the thing - women can and are capable of being angry at more than one thing at a time. And all of it has the same mentality of misogyny, of exploiting women's bodies, of controlling women at its root. All of it.

"The big losers here are the charities!"

There has been much debate since the story broke about whether the charities should give the money back, as Great Ormond Street Hospital is doing. It is the morally right thing to do as accepting the money does compromise the reputation of the charity. And if any criminal charges were to emerge from the events of what turned out to be the last-ever Presidents Club dinner, it could be illegal to accept the money.

Or, here's a wacky idea: how about holding charity events where wealthy men can donate without feeling the need to grab women earning about £13 an hour?  

If the right to grab a woman's arse at a charity do is the hill on which you choose to die, you shouldn't be in a position of power. And it seems that all the men who were at the dinner are either denying all knowledge of any inappropriate behaviour or claiming they left before anything untoward happened or they really, truly would have left if they had seen any harassment.

Or, here's another wacky idea: how about men speaking up about such behaviour, having the courage to call it out when it is happening before their eyes, not just coming out with mealy mouthed excuses after the event. Would any of these men have said a damn word if the FT story wasn't published? Probably not. And this is why women will keep speaking out. Deal with it.

Image by Karen Arnold

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Feminism 2018: The state of things so far

We are only 21 days into 2018 but already I have rolled my feminist eyes so hard, I am in danger of being able to see out of my ear holes.

First, let's talk about where the hell the #MeToo movement is headed. It has been a great thing in many respects, getting women to speak out about their very real experiences of sexual assault and harassment, even if we have to constantly let men know that:
1. We are aware that men can be victims too and we are disgusted by attacks on men.
2. Encouraging women to speak out makes it easier for men to speak out. It does not negate horrible experiences men have had or make them any less awful. When women are cut down for speaking out, is it any wonder that men are often reluctant to share their own experiences?
3. The existence of this movement and the ensuing conversations, or the existence of women's shelters or services, are not affronts to men. They are entirely necessary.
4. Men can and should start their own movement, start their own conversations, open their own shelters and start their own services to help male victims of sexual assault, harassment and domestic violence.

Now we have allegations about Aziz Ansari via a woman identified only as "Grace" on the Babe website. Predictably, critics of #MeToo have seized upon this as a sure sign that the #MeToo movement is over, it has jumped the shark, it is now only concerned with the supposedly petty trifles of bad dates. Never mind that when a date turns bad, it can result in rape - that would require the naysayers to quit missing the point.

But here's the thing - our ladybrains are not so tiny that we are incapable of having more than one important conversation.

Just as we can talk about sexual assault and sexual harassment, as exemplified by the horrible Harvey Weinstein stories, we can talk about what happens on dates, when dates go bad, why they go bad, the worst-case scenarios on dates, how men and women behave on dates, understanding consent, reading non-verbal cues, raising women to be comfortable with saying no, raising men to accept no for an answer, the radical notion that both men and women can be horny, and that sex is not merely something that men get and women give.

And let's be honest here - the #MeToo movement really needs to trickle down a hell of a lot more than it is. Don't get me wrong - if I was appearing on the red carpet at the Golden Globes the other week, I would absolutely buy yet another black dress for the occasion - but the impact it is having on Hollywood and in politics needs to be happen for so many more women in so many industries. The #MeToo movement cannot just be the domain of the wealthy, privileged and famous. It needs to change the lives of the women who wait tables, pull pints in pubs, work on factory production lines, ring up groceries in supermarkets and so on and so forth.

Too easily, the working class women are forgotten in popular movements. Hell, many of them are too busy working for a living to be activists, let alone share their experiences in a few pithy tweets. Activism is frequently a luxury denied to those who could really benefit from wholesale social, legal and political change.

See also, the bungled attempt by Richard Branson to ban the Daily Mail from Virgin Trains. I completely agree that the Daily Mail teems with all manner of sexist and bigoted bullshit but the outcry from all quarters was faintly ridiculous. Anyone who gleefully thought this would be the end of people reading the Daily Mail on Virgin Trains didn't seem to grasp that the paper could still be bought at one of thousands of outlets across Britain and read on the train. And anyone who furiously accused Richard Branson of censorship and thought policing also, er, didn't seem to grasp that the paper could still be bought at one of thousands of outlets across Britain and read on the train.

It was never going to be a feminist victory and, on the same token, the critics from the right missed the point that Virgin is a private company and is therefore entitled to stock whatever the hell newspapers it likes. In any case, if anyone cares about Virgin's treatment of women - and indeed people in general - they might like to get outraged at the company suing NHS trusts, and their Hoovering up of NHS contracts, even though they are clearly not always the best candidate for the contract.

Indeed, the death of a woman has happened on Virgin Care's watch - the family of Madhumita Mandal probably don't give a damn what newspapers are available on the East Coast mainline. Mrs Mandal was triaged at Croydon University Hospital by a receptionist instead of a medical professional, a series of delays followed, an ovarian cyst ruptured, and she died of multiple organ failure four days later.

But these are the kind of stories Virgin would rather us forget. Hence the Daily Mail ban was a distracting stunt, albeit one that backfired badly.

That is where we are now - there are plenty of distractions to steer people's minds and anger away from things that really matter. #MeToo runs the very real risk of being a movement that mainly helps the privileged and those in the wealthy, developed world. Meanwhile, the girls and women of the under-reported countries and women in minority groups and poor women in developed countries, continue to suffer.

While actresses are lauded for wearing black dresses, women are getting excited about an ineffective Daily Mail ban, and people are arguing on the internet about whether bright pink pussy hats are racist or discriminatory against trans women, violent rapes are endemic in India, the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl in Pakistan dropped out of our news cycles, a doctor in Kenya is using faux feminism to try and legalise female genital mutilation despite a 2011 ban, women living in poverty in the US are more likely to be denied access to abortion, there is a real crisis in mental healthcare for black women in the UK, in Australia, the first Aborginal woman MP in the state of Victoria is receiving death threats for having the temerity to have an opinion on observing Australia Day, and in South Africa, a lesbian couple has been raped and burnt to death.

In 2018, feminism is as relevant and necessary as it has ever been but it remains to be seen how much will actually be achieved.