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.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Merry Christmas and a happy new year! It's taxation by stealth.

Abu Dhabi, 2010. I receive a speeding fine - not an unusual occurrence when I lived in the Middle East, I confess - but on this occasion, there is no way that my car could have been caught on a camera at 2am on an Abu Dhabi road travelling at 100km/h in an 80 zone. On the date of the supposed offence, my car was safely parked in the car park of Volkswagen's UAE head office in Dubai. This is because I was testing one of their cars for a review during that particular week.

The only way it could possibly have been my car was if someone broke into it without damaging the lock, hot-wired it, again without doing any noticeable damage, drove it from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in the middle of the night, got snapped by a speed camera, and then drove it back to the Volkswagen office car park, parked it in the exact same spot, and returned my driver's seat and mirrors to the positions favoured by my 5'1", corgi-legged self.  

Still, I paid the fine. Compared to Australian or British speeding fines, it wasn't too expensive, I was well-paid, the points system for traffic offences was way more generous than Australia or Britain, and the process for appealing vexatious speeding fines is a bureaucratic palaver for which I had neither the time or energy.

I know I am not the only person to have lived in the UAE and paid a phantom speeding fine. The governments of the seven emirates probably do pretty well out of these fines.

But before anyone outside the UAE dismisses my phantom fine as part and parcel of life in a country that is not a fully fledged democracy or writing it off as the result of corruption in a far-off land, ask yourself if you think such a thing could ever happen in your own country. Would your government find ways, either by accident or design, to get their hand in your pocket for some extra revenue, above and beyond what you legitimately pay via such things as income tax or VAT?

I fear this is happening in Britain right now. This is not the fear of a paranoid, conspiracy theorist. Let me give you an example of what happened to me over Christmas.

My parents and my sister and brother-in-law, all living in Australia, sent Christmas presents to the UK for my husband and I. The gifts were items of clothing and jewellery, not ivory furniture, weapons or hard drugs, so hardly the sort of thing that would ring alarm bells for HM Revenue and Customs. But instead of these parcels, which would have fitted through our letterbox, being delivered to our house, we got red cards from the Royal Mail informing us to collect the parcels from the nearest mail collection centre. 

On two brisk Saturday mornings, we walked across the park and on both occasions, could only collect the parcels after paying £17 in "customs duty and/or import VAT" for receiving goods from outside the European Union. This struck us as bizarre, especially as the customs forms that our loved ones filled out in Australia clearly had a tick in the "Gift" box. I am hardly likely to go into business by trying to sell on the Wonder Woman apron my sister gave me, rather than exporting it to me, for Christmas. At the same time as this farce, a friend posted us some novelties from Cyprus, a fellow EU member state for now. The parcel came through the letterbox, it didn't cost us a penny.

Somewhat miffed about being £34 poorer for the privilege of receiving Christmas presents, we looked into the matter and found out that you can try to claim back incorrectly charged customs duty. We now have to fill in a form for each parcel and provide a load of documentation. This includes (and I am looking at the form as I write this):

● Customs black and white charge label
● Customs declaration form
● invoice/receipt or other evidence of value (such as eBay page or Paypal receipt) of the goods
● for returned goods - evidence of refund on goods returned, certificate of posting, cost of repair etc
● for overseas students - confirmation from University/College of course details and permanent address outside the European Community
● for antiques - verifiable evidence of age

If the parcel contains one or more personal/private gift(s) from someone abroad, please provide written confirmation from the sender, including details of the gift(s), its/their value and the intended recipient(s).

Rather like appealing a phantom fine in the UAE, this is a palaver but we're going to go through with it and hopefully recoup the £34. It's a matter of principle.

But I do wonder how many other people who received Christmas presents from outside the EU got a similar festive surprise this year? And it's not as if people only receive gifts from outside the EU at Christmas - I am now looking forward to paying needless tax on any birthday presents from Australia in a few months time. 

According to, you do need to pay 2.5% customs duty on gifts worth between £135 and £630, and there are special rates for gifts worth more than this, depending on what they are or where they came from. But for most of us, we are not expecting or receiving gifts worth more than £135. That would be a very expensive T-shirt and apron from my sister and brother-in-law.

And of the people who received a bill for customs duty on Christmas presents from outside the EU, how many simply paid up without question? How many people were aware that you don't have to pay customs duty on gifts? And of those, how many knew how to go about claiming the money back? It's not as if this was advertised at Christmas. You do need to go digging around online to find the information you need and then download the form, print it, fill it in and post it, along with the aforementioned documentation, to a sinister-sounding government department called "Border Force", located in Coventry.

For people without internet access, for people with literacy issues, for people who need to get letters from relatives abroad who might struggle to write letters in English, for people who simply didn't think to question this charge, it's not hard to see why many people wouldn't try to claim the money back. It just goes straight into the government coffers, unchallenged.

And if a hard Brexit goes ahead, it does not take a great leap of imagination to picture more and more people getting a red card from Royal Mail and bill to pay for presents from friends and family across the Channel. Can anyone seriously imagine this government going out of their way to inform people about their rights in regard to gifts from Europe?  

Consider this a warning. If you have received a bill for customs duty on a gift, click here for the link you need to download the form and obtain the information you need about the rules on this matter.

Photography by Petr Kratochvil 

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

On winter

"I woke up and I was covered in snow," Tony told me with startling cheer last night.

We chatted about his attempt to get his foundation for lifting people out of poverty and exclusion, The Outcast Foundation, up and running, about the farce of how he almost had free office space courtesy of Landsec until he was deemed too homeless

Tony is the guy who sells me The Big Issue at Victoria Station each week. Like Big Issue Bill, from whom I used to buy the magazine, atoning for my hungover sins on many a blindingly sunny Sydney morning, I've started chatting with Tony. The stories of vendors are frequently moving and inspiring and Tony's story is no exception.

So it's an absolute travesty that he should have woken up on Sunday morning covered in snow. 

Meanwhile, barely half an hour after I bid Tony good night, I was on the bus from the tube station to my house fruitlessly poking away at my phone screen in a state of irritation. I was trying to turn on the heating via an app. I couldn't connect to the internet and had to endure the hell of coming home and then turning on the heating via a switch on the wall just inside the front door.

I had to remind myself that I have never woken up covered in snow.

And for the too-many people who have woken up covered in snow this week, the reasons, the chain of events which lead to people not waking up in warm beds, underneath roofs, surrounded by solid walls, with the central heating set to switch on before the alarm goes off, are complex.

For some people, such as Tony, the attempts at assistance from well-meaning charities can be more of a hindrance than a help.

For some people, they know there is a door somewhere out there that will always open for them but there are other issues at play, such as mental illness, which lead to sleeping rough. And this is the situation for a dear friend of mine as I write this, safely indoors, with the heating turned on.

To understand life in the mind of someone with a mental illness is a challenge for those who are not in this uniquely pernicious pain. To voluntarily be homeless, as my friend currently is, to leave a warm home where loved ones await can seem like an almost offensive rebellion, an act of profound ingratitude. And on a purely academic level, maybe it is. But mental illness is not rational. It produces irrational responses and behaviours that don't always make sense and can be genuinely terrifying to the patient and to the people they love and who love them, even when their situation is bleak.

And that is my fear for my friend who has again abandoned a roof over his head, who has been known to sleep in the gardens and garages of friends and family, who has taken up residence in woodlands and in the parks and shop doorways of London.

Too many times I have spoken to him or had an online chat with him and feared that it would be the last time I would ever see him or hear his voice or see his words pop up on my phone or computer screen. He is a brilliant writer, a wonderful raconteur, when he is at his best, he is the funniest, most entertaining person in the room.

He wrote a piece for me only a few weeks ago and it was excellent - it was insightful, there was not a cliche to be found, it was everything I wanted for that particular commission. I barely changed a thing, just a couple of typos. If only every writer whom I edit could consistently file such sparkling copy. It was a joy to edit his work, it was a joy to process the invoice.

Richard, once again, I ask you to come home, to follow the treatment that is on offer, to sleep in a warm, clean bed and not cause your family sleepless nights.

I have given three eulogies in my time - my paternal grandparents and a godmother all died within two years of each other and Dad and I somehow found ourselves appointed the family funeral orators. As far as I can tell, my eulogies were well-received. But they were written about people who died aged 89, 91 and 86. They were long lives well lived.

Richard, I have had horrific dreams about giving your eulogy. As much as I like the sound of my own voice, I don't want to give your eulogy any time soon. We are doing our best to understand why you are currently at the mercy of what is already a biting British winter. And we are all hoping for that day when nobody wakes up covered in snow.

This is Richard. Please keep an eye out for him in central London and Hertfordshire

Photography by Karim Corban/Flickr

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Perspectives on the Lupita Nyong'o hair story from someone worth listening to

The fallout from Lupita Nyong'o publicly calling out Grazia magazine for PhotoShopping out her natural hair led - and Grazia's bizarre, responsibility-shirking non-apology - to a pretty unseemly global spectacle. Plenty of white people were quick to jump on the "This is PC gone mad! Why is everything racist?" bandwagon.

But here's the thing - when a black woman calls out something that she believes to be racist and ignorant, she is worth listening to. Her perspective is different to someone who has never experienced a day's discrimination because of skin colour.

So, with that in mind, today I am handing my blog over to Annette Walker. She shared her views on why it matters that Lupita's proudly African hair was removed from a cover photo, puts the story into historical context and explains why it's not simply a matter of political correctness going too far.

Here are Annette's eloquent words:

The privilege of being free from such experiences can often trivialise these micro-aggressions of racism.

To understand the relevance of Lupita's objections it helps to understand the legacy of politicalisation of Black women's bodies - including hair - from a legacy of racism against the image of African peoples. It's so deep-rooted that Caribbean and African (and many other non-white) societies reject their own image in favour of Eurocentric ideology of beauty (lighter skin, straighter hair, straighter/narrower nose - Michael Jackson's cosmetic surgery is the poster for the deep-rooted psychological impact). 

Many in African and Caribbean communities struggle with the concept of thick, coarse, afro "kinky" hair as acceptable (soft, fine hair is favoured and considered "pretty"), and many afro hairstyles are considered inappropriate and unprofessional in workplaces (and schools). In contrast many non-white people often fetishise "natural" afro hair styles (the exotic other). 

My older relatives often talk about how they were unable to get jobs or be seen as professional if they wore their hair in its "natural" state (canerows and plaits were undesirable styles). These instances barely scratch the surface of the legacy of racism in relation to the image of black people. 

Hair fashions change, but the image of black women in fashion and media continues to be a racially political topic while racial inequality exists, whether or not it's overt or more subtle. The image of the black woman has endured centuries of injury and the legacy of this continues. 

Lupita is able to use her unique privilege to highlight just a tiny aspect of this issue and while not everyone might agree with the battles she chooses to pick, it's more damaging for things to be left unchallenged. 

It might seem a trivial matter that removing a ponytail was a non-racially motivated, photo-editing decision to tidy up an image but in this instance I agree with her with the wider implications. It highlights the ongoing racial undertones of the representation of beauty. 

Of course it wouldn't be the same story if a white model had her ponytail removed which is exactly the point why this needs to be addressed. From experience, I've learnt that as a black woman, the way I personally chose to wear my hair has social implications far more than just a personal choice of hairstyle. 

So it's good to be able to have this discussion in public because it's most often a silent battle falling on deaf ears that believe racism no longer exists.

Photography by Lilchim/Wikimedia Commons 

Sunday, 19 November 2017

On believing women

One of the howls that has emerged from the #MeToo stories and the ongoing breaking news about accusations of sexual harassment, abuse and rape in multiple industries is the objection to those who say we should believe women when they come forward.

"But what about the women who falsely accuse men?" is the inevitable reaction, regardless of how many statistics from multiple countries on the low rate of false reports are cited. I am pretty sure this will always be a kneejerk reaction to the notion of believing women.

Would the howls stop if we said instead that when a woman comes forward with an accusation that she is taken seriously? Can we please at least get to that point?

This is not about denigrating the vital legal principle of innocence until proven guilty. It is about treating women with respect when they come forward to report something that is incredibly serious. 

Because there is no other crime where the accuser, the alleged victim, is not taken seriously.

When someone reports a burglary, the initial response is not usually: "But were you really burgled? Are you sure you just didn't put the TV in another room? Maybe you sold all that jewellery and you just forgot about it.". Yet a woman is often made to question her judgement, to second-guess herself, to ask herself if she really was sexually assaulted, if her memory is failing her.

When I was sexually assaulted and called the police, the first thing I was asked was: "Are you sure? Are you just making this up?". As if I was calling for a lark on the weekend, as if that is how I planned to spend my day off.

If someone is burgled after leaving the house with a door or window left open, the worst they might get is to be made to feel a bit silly, but they are not going to be made to feel like they were totally asking to be burgled. Yet women are accused of "asking for it" all the time with the short skirt or the low-cut neckline or the tight dress being the unlocked door equivalent for a woman's body.

When I was sexually assaulted, I was asked what I was wearing and instead of telling the amateur Perry Mason on the other end of the phone to fuck off, I sheepishly said I was wearing a knee-length red dress and black tights. The tights were torn in the assault, for God's sake. The neckline on my dress was not low yet my attacker managed to scratch my chest, drawing blood. 

Or maybe the woman was not sexually assaulted while being dressed "provocatively", whatever the hell that means except to insult men by implying that they are a pack of sex-crazed beasts with no self-control, and to insult women by removing our agency and implying that we should all dress like nuns at all times to protect ourselves. 

Maybe she was assaulted in her own home by a man that she lives with, while she was dressed in a onesie and slippers, or maybe she was assaulted by a man whom she invited into her house, which could be for any number of reasons. 

But what if you threw a party and got burgled, or that royal wedding street party kicked on after the kids had gone to bed and a few neighbours went over to yours for a few more beverages, and you got burgled? Most people's reaction would be: "How terrible. You invite some people over and that's all the thanks you get!" rather than "Well, you were asking to be burgled by being so hospitable!".

Yet that is how women are made to feel when they are attacked in their own homes. If a plumber comes over and nicks your cash when you're not looking, you might well get more sympathy than if the plumber raped you instead of unblocking the loo. Throw a party and if you're raped while a bit drunk, you will probably be blamed for your attack in a way that would not happen if instead of being raped, you were robbed instead.

If you were drunk when you were burgled, you will probably get more sympathy than the woman who was drunk when she was sexually assaulted. 

Contemplate that - a woman may get more sympathy for a stolen television than a violation of her body.

And then there is the old chestnut about why a woman didn't speak up at the time. Obviously, I would urge every woman, girl, man or boy who has been sexually assaulted to speak up, to report it, to tell someone. But if there is a real likelihood of being interrogated about everything from choice of clothing to alcohol consumption to sexual history to why you were alone with that person in the first place, there are plenty of reasons why someone felt as if they couldn't come forward.

When I was sexually assaulted, I reported it quickly but I was asked why I didn't scream. I did scream. Anyone who has known me for more than two minutes would probably not be surprised to know that I yelled and screamed. I told the officer I screamed. I was then asked why nobody came to help me. Fortunately, I managed to get away before I was raped but even if I froze in fear and didn't make a sound, it would not lessen the seriousness of what happened to me. There is no correct way to react when someone has pushed you off a footpath, shoved one hand down your neckline and the other hand under your dress when you are walking home after being unable to find a taxi.

And if you have ever slagged off a woman for being too mouthy, for having the temerity to be loud or outspoken, or you have tried to silence her for making herself heard, you have no right to demand to know why a woman didn't make more noise at the time of her attack. If you are telling any girls in your life to be quiet and demure, to never speak up or make a scene or draw attention to themselves, you are part of the problem. Women are routinely told to shut up in a way that men, in general, are not. An outspoken woman may be seen as a bitch, as a mouthy cow, while an outspoken man is more likely to be seen as assertive, powerful, statesmanlike.

If we raise our girls to be demure, fearful women who don't feel as if they can speak up, then of course it will take days, weeks, months and even years for women to come forward when they have been sexually assaulted.

So we could argue until we are blue in the face about whether believing women is the right language to use here. Or we could quit being collective brutes as a society and treat attacks on our bodies with the same seriousness that we give to stolen material possessions. Whether it's an accused rapist or an accused burglar in the dock, they both have the right to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law. But the people who report the crimes deserve respect too. 

My body is not the same as a goddamn stolen television.

Photography by Pablo Fernandez/Flickr

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Post-Hef-post-Weinstein confessions of an ex-men's mag employee

I suppose I should be grateful to Hugh Hefner. With Playboy, he created the market that created a job for me from 2003 until 2006 - in those years, I was working as a sub editor at the Australian edition of FHM, the men's magazine which launched in 1985 and, ultimately, was eaten alive by the internet.

But in my time there, I worked with people who actually had ethics. I received nothing but support from male colleagues after I was followed by a man in a car when I walked home alone one night after a 15-hour day in the office, or when my terrible neighbours were having drug-fuelled arguments outside my flat door at 3am and I turned up to work looking like death, and when there was a family tragedy. The office fell silent and sad when we looked at our watches and realised that a young Australian man had just been executed for drug trafficking in Singapore in mitigating circumstances in 2005, and when a member of staff was sent the video of the beheading of Kenneth Bingley in 2004.

There was was one bad apple who was on staff briefly. He was a very junior member of staff, who I later discovered behaved in a sexually aggressive way towards a friend. He ended up being struck off my friends' list when he revealed himself to be a racist worshipper of Stefan Molyneux. And a member of staff, who worked across other magazines in the company, was dealt with severely, and rightly so, after he called one of the entrants in an FHM modelling competition after spotting her phone number on the back of the photo she sent in, back when people still entered competitions by post. I still remember how appalled the guys in the office were when word got out about that incident.

When it comes to writing, there are very few sacred cows in the barn when you work on such a magazine and everyone is under constant pressure to be the funniest person in the room. But jokes about race or rape or paedophilia, for example, did not find their way into the pages. A lot of the jokes were self-deprecating jokes about men written by men.

There were lines in the sand. We didn't really need to be told where the lines were, and if anyone was unsure they'd run it past someone else, or it would be filtered through the editing process, because we were essentially decent human beings. FHM was an excellent example of media self-regulation, something which tends to cause panic among fans of censorship and restrictions on press freedom.

Sure, there were gags in bad taste - I made a few crass jokes myself in the line of duty - but there was an innate sense of decency even amid the farts, belches, hangovers and comedowns.

We did not exploit the women who appeared in the magazine. Nobody was forced to pose for photo shoots in bikinis or lingerie against their will. The women who appeared in FHM all had agency and were treated with respect. I supervised many photo shoots myself and I can honestly say nothing bad happened to the women on any of them.

Yet I am not going to worship at the altar of Hugh Hefner.

Yes, Playboy published many excellent articles, genuinely good and groundbreaking journalism, witty opinion pieces from men and women. He paid writers well and, in many cases, they were pieces which would not have found their way to press anywhere else. 

Yes, Hugh Hefner gave airplay to black writers, activists and entertainers through publication of their work and interviews.

Yes, Hugh Hefner donated extensively to civil rights causes.

Yes, the Playboy Foundation funded the first rape kits in America, which are essential for evidence-gathering in such cases.

Yes, Playboy was one in the eye for prudish conservatives and lovers of censorship.

But here's the thing. Hugh Hefner could have achieved all of the above without doing anything from the list below.

He didn't have to sleep with Dorothy Stratten to apparently further her career, with the support of her obsessive husband, Paul Snider. Snider, by the way, ended up shooting her when she was just 20 years old, before turning the gun on himself. Nor did Hefner have to ensure she posed for Playboy when she was still 17.

He didn't have to publish full frontal nude photographs of a 10-year-old Brooke Shields posing in a bathtub, her face plastered in makeup.

He didn't have to publish photographs of 11-year-old Eva Ionesco in the Italian edition of Playboy in 1976.

He didn't have to refuse to wear condoms during his sex parties at the Playboy Mansion.

He didn't have to pay Marilyn Monroe a pitiful $50 for her Playboy shoot, a shoot from which he profited handsomely over the years.

He didn't have to be a douche in death by spunking $75,000 for the crypt next to Marilyn Monroe's final resting place.

He didn't have to impose controlling rules such as 9pm curfews, restrictions on social life, and insistence on sex on demand, on the women in the Playboy Mansion. If you seriously think every woman in there genuinely loved her time in the mansion or truly had a wide range of life choices available to her, you're deluded. Plenty of women came out of the mansion physically or psychologically damaged - it's not sex-phobic or prudish to say so. It's reality.

And so here we are, in the post-Weinstein era, with Hugh Hefner barely cold in his grave, and plenty of men are whining about how they just don't know what to do with themselves anymore. Apparently, for these poor little petals, a new culture where girls and women are not afraid to speak out about the whole spectrum of sexually abusive and inappropriate behaviour, will be the death of flirting and will prevent people from having relationships.

Except that nobody has said that flirting or touching or sex with consent should be banned, or that workplace relationships will suddenly stop. Hell, I met my own husband at work without either of us exploiting the other. If the right to say no does not exist, the right to say yes is meaningless. If the right to give consent disappears, we live in a wilderness where entitlement to the bodies of girls and women reigns supreme.

Men do not have to rape women, or harass women even after they have told them they are not interested, or stalk women after break-ups, or follow them home as when they walk alone, or call them sexually explicit and unasked-for names in the workplace, or kerb-crawl them, or demand they smile when they have the temerity to not beam like a beauty queen at all times.

All the things we are asking of men are not onerous demands, just as Hugh Hefner did not have to do any of the awful things he did when he was alive.

So I am not going to sit here in eternal gratitude for Hugh Hefner. Even if his legacy never happened, even if FHM never happened, I am pretty sure I still would have found work in publishing and, more importantly, progress in areas such as civil rights and rape case investigations still would have happened. And I am pretty sure the men I worked with at FHM would still be decent human beings and not exploiters of women and underage girls.

Photography by Alan Light