Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Losing lads' mags and the slippery slope of censorship

The hashtag popped up on Twitter over an otherwise quiet bank holiday weekend. Suddenly my Twitter feed erupted with #losetheladsmags - as an unrepentent former employee of a lads' mag, I was curious so I took a peek at the Lose The Lads' Mags website.

UK Feminista and Object are on the warpath and they want high street shops to take lads' mags (the likes of Nuts, Zoo and FHM) off the shelves or risk legal action. Without any hard data linking such magazines to sexual assault or domestic violence, the website asserts that lads' mags "promote sexist attitudes and behaviours" and "normalise the idea that's acceptable to treat women like sex objects."

It's as if men looking at women's bodies is something new...

Just as well then that UK Feminista and Object are on the case to stop customers and shop employees from being exposed to such filth. That'd be the customers who can choose not to buy magazines they find offensive and employees who have accepted jobs in shops where they know such magazines are sold.

Seriously, where might this ban-hammering end? Or is this an attempt at selective censorship on the part of UK Feminista and Object?

Would UK Feminista and Object be up for defending the sensibilities of customers and employees who did not want to be exposed to gay magazines because they find homosexuality offensive? What if someone's religious views were offended by the opinions put forward in, say, The Jewish Chronicle or The Muslim News? What if an anti-birth control Roman Catholic wanted to work in Boots but not process any transactions for condoms?

UK Feminista and Object have "obtained brand new legal advice showing that displaying and selling lads' mags and papers with Page 3-style front cover images can constitute sexual harassment or sex discrimination under the Equality Act 2010." In short, if shops sell magazines that have been approved for unrestricted sale in a free society with a free press, staff and customers could have a claim, according to UK Feminista and Object.

Excellent! More work for lawyers! And even better, the people who are employed by such magazines might find themselves out of work! Yeah, what a great result in the current economy!

In the midst of the rush to sign petitions and be offended, UK Feminista and Object are not listening to the women who choose to work in men's magazines, whether they are writers, photographers, graphic designers, stylists, sales and marketing staff or indeed the models themselves. Do they not want to ask these women how they feel about it all? Do they think the models are bimbos who don't know what they're doing and are unable to speak out if they feel oppressed? Why are two groups claiming to know what is best for women who work out of choice on such magazines?

If women want to pose for lads' mags or work for them, that's their choice. Nobody held a gun to my head and forced me to work for the now-defunct Australian edition of FHM. I did not feel oppressed or feel I was oppressing people by writing headlines and captions, interviewing the women who appeared in the magazine, writing features which generally told men where they were going wrong, or compiling and styling the sex pages (which gave women another opportunity to tell men where they were going wrong...).

Much of the humour of FHM was about men being self-deprecating - more often than not, the joke was on them. We never made jokes about rape or paedophilia on my watch. And in an excellent example of self-regulation and learning from mistakes, an outcry concerning the Hillsborough tragedy, led FHM to quit using comedy captions on serious stories about issues such as terrorism, war veterans or prisons.

But it's far easier to clutch pearls, get outraged and call for bans in a free market economy.

Indeed, why are the generally healthier body sizes of women in lads' mags a target for censorship but not the unhealthy body sizes of fashion magazines? A perusal of the boobs on the Nuts magazine website is an interesting exercise in mammary variety - there are big breasts, small breasts, some are real, some have been surgically enhanced, some nipples are big, some are small, some are the national average cup size, some boobs sit high while other hang low. If a woman is at all worried that her breasts are in some way abnormal, the Nuts website is a good place to seek reassurance.

And if you don't want to look at such websites or buy such magazines, you don't have to do so.

But what about the children? Er, don't buy lads' mags for your kids. If you don't want your children seeing such mags, don't have them in the house. If your child spots such a magazine and asks why the lady has no clothes on, there are any number of non-hysterical responses you could make depending on how old the kid is. Because it was a hot day, because she is happy with her body, because it's her job...

There is room for school sex education programmes to discuss the images in such magazines, to explain to students who are old enough to understand (and have probably seen far more flesh online anyway...) about how images are PhotoShopped, about how women's bodies come in all shapes and sizes, about how there really is no such thing as one normal body type, how pubic hair is a reality even though stray hairs are routinely airbrushed out of such magazines and so on.

But teenagers should be taught to critically read all media, not just lads' mags. Given people routinely spout their newspaper of choice as gospel, this is a skill plenty of adults could use too.

So where will it end for UK Feminista and Object as they behave like the modern equivalent of Victorians covering table legs?

Will shops have to stop selling short skirts or tight dresses or low-cut tops lest women are seen walking around in them, objectifying themselves? After all, if women who pose for lads' mags have no control over their behaviour, surely women who willingly show their legs or cleavage are similarly powerless?

What about women's magazines dedicating pages to the care and feeding of the male orgasm? Or advertisements and features in women's magazines for lingerie or swimwear? Why is The Sun's page three girl offensive but not the Daily Mail's constant insistence that famous women's bodies are news? What about weekly gossip magazines speculating on pregnancies, weight loss, weight gain or cosmetic surgery? Should they be taken off sale too so women don't have to look at all that harassing female flesh and men aren't driven to sexual assault?

And there's the elephant in the room - the Daily Mail, magazines such as Cosmopolitan and the weekly gossip mags are very popular with women. Will UK Feminista and Object condemn women for consuming such publications? After all, if women are mindlessly posing for lads' mags, surely they are mindlessly consuming media too and they need other people to tell them what they can and cannot read.

Then again, market forces might do the work of UK Feminista and Object for them. The men's magazine segment is on the decline and Zoo and Nuts are two of the biggest losers in this slide. People just aren't buying magazines like they used to, largely thanks to the internet. Calling for magazines to be taken off shop shelves is, frankly, a bit retro in this online age. And trying to stop stuff you don't like from appearing on the web is like trying to stop a tsunami with a tampon.

Image courtesy of www.kozzi.com

Free speech, extremism and kneejerk reactions

There is nothing wrong with questioning British foreign policy in relation to Afghanistan. Expressing the sentiment that the current government does not care about us is not an outrageous point of view either. Anyone in Britain who holds either of these opinions should be free to express them peacefully.

Of course, if anyone expresses such views and brutally murders someone in broad daylight while doing so, they should be arrested, tried and, if found guilty, punished accordingly.

As Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale lie in hospital and await being declared medically fit to face questioning in relation to the death last week of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, plenty of people are exercising their right to free speech to speculate, comment and generally attempt to put the world to rights. In the midst of this noise, there have been calls to ban religious extremists from being interviewed on TV. Yes, because such measures were so effective in stopping the IRA during the 1980s...

And who are we defining as religious extremists anyway? Is this definition only limited to Muslims in Theresa May's utopia? What about conservative Roman Catholics who believe all abortion is murder? Are they extremists too? Or Westboro Baptist Church, whose members routinely declare that "God hates fags"? Should their views be banned from broadcast?

Kirsty Wark's panel discussion on Newsnight last week, in which she grilled Anjem Choudary on whether he condemned the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby has been roundly condemned for giving him a platform to air his views. But all Choudary did was talk in circles and show a politician-like talent for not giving a straight answer to any question. Just as every time EDL members open their mouths, they remove any doubt that they are simplistic, hateful racists with no real answers to any problems facing modern Britain, Choudary similarly condemned himself with his own absurd words.

Choudary looked ridiculous and, in contrast, the comments from Julie Siddiqi, executive director of the Islamic Society of Britain, and Shams Ad-Duha Muhammad, director of Ebrahim College, were measured and intelligent. Muhammad was not afraid to say that it is perfectly reasonable to oppose British foreign policy and condemn the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby.

And then my Twitter feed filled with comments from America questioning why we're not all armed here. These people are free to criticise from afar just as I am free to respond to their claims and assertions. There were the usual armchair heroes who declared they would have shot him dead or wished the woman who bravely took the time to reason with the suspects shot them instead. It's too easy to ignore the simple fact that because nobody was packing a semi-automatic or automatic weapon, we did not end up with a mass shooting in Woolwich last week.

Given the horrific events took place right near a school, this is one of the few good things to come out of such an awful tragedy. The only shots fired came from armed police who incapacitated both suspects rather than killing them outright. As a result, the potential to glean further information about their motives and activities has not died with them. More arrests have been made in relation to Drummer Rigby's murder, and a fair trial can take place, which is a better outcome than summary executions in the streets of London.

Image courtesy of www.kozzi.com

Monday, 20 May 2013

And again, same-sex marriage debate results in another long afternoon/evening of talking...

I had an exhausting afternoon in February keeping track of the debate in British Parliament over the legalisation of same sex marriage. And today, they're at it again with amendments a-go-go to muddy the waters and, predictably, idiotic and paranoid things are being said by elected represenatitives.

Here is a rundown of some of the shenanigans from Westminster...

David Burrowes, a Conservative MP opposed to gay marriage kicked things off by saying that New Clause 1 says the bill "should not lead to schools having to promote a view of marriage 'contrary to the designated religious character of the school'."

So Burrowes doesn't really understand that "teach" and "promote" are two different things. It is one thing for a teacher to inform a class that marriage in Britain between two men, two women or a man and woman are legal. This is not the same as the same teacher saying: "Gay couples can now get married in Britain and I urge all you kids to go out and find a partner of the same sex so you can join in the fun!".

This does not stop Burrowes from adding that the bill could be a "compulsory redundancy bill" for teachers who disapprove of gay people getting married.

Tim Loughton, another anti-marriage equality Tory MP, whose amendment on civil partnerships is clearly aimed at wrecking the bill says those who support it, are "promoting a hierarchy of conscious objection" because they support the right of Catholic surgeons to opt out of performing state-funded abortions (because Britain needs to risk experiencing a horrific Savita situation...) but are not in favour of Catholic registrars being able to opt out of performing state-funded gay marriages. Frankly, if both abortion and gay marriage are legal here, anyone who works as a gynaecologist or registrar and accepts public money for doing so should not be able to opt out of either procedure. But clearly I am "promoting" a separated church and state here...

Stephen Williams, a LibDem MP, responds to Loughton's abortion/marriage comparison, saying that he is in favour of Catholic surgeons opting out of performing abortion but not gay marriage because abortions make up "only a small part of what surgeons do, but conducting marriages is central to the work of the registrar." Well, that's a nice, wishy-washy response...

Stephen Doughty, a Labour MP, enforces commonsense by quoting the barrister Lord Pannick who said it would rake a legal miracle for religious bodies to be forced to conduct gay weddings by the European Court of Human Rights.

Good grief. More proof that separation of church and state is urgently required as Edward Leigh, Conservative, says that marriage is between a man and a woman and this should be a protected characterising of religious belief under the Equality Act 2010. Chris Bryant, a Labour MP and ex-vicar, scoffs at this nonsense saying that other religious beliefs, such as the virgin birth and transubstantiation are not specified this way in the Equality Act.

Leigh willfully ignores the fact that Christianity does not have a monopoly on marriage. Nor does religion in general. Next!

Leigh adds to the idiocy by saying amendments are needed, citing the case of Adrian Smith, a housing manager who said on Facebook that allowing gay weddings in churches as "an equality too far" and was advised he'd lose if he went to a tribunal. He didn't get his old job back and was only paid £100 n compensation. Firstly, no church will be forced to conduct a same-sex wedding under the bill (not even the Church of England vicars who'd like to do so...) and, secondly, nobody should be fired for expressing such views on Facebook. But that is another blog post for another time.

And there is now a break in transmission because work intervened and now I must get a tube home. I wonder what nonsense will transpire in the meantime...

Saturday, 18 May 2013

South-west London and the amazing shrinking hospitals...

It has already cost more than £2 million and the costs are set to continue before the people like me who live in south-west London will find out just how badly our hospitals (for we do pay for these hospitals, they are ours) will be neutered.

"It" is the tragically misnamed "Better Service, Better Value" consultation has been given the task of saving more than £300 million across hospitals in this growing part of the capital. Given that more than £2 million has been spent "consulting", they are already behind the eight-ball.

Three options have been put forward involving closing assorted parts of hospitals, downgrading some Accident and Emergency departments to urgent care centres (how "urgent care" differs from the care required at an A&E department is unclear), closing some maternity units, slashing the odd renal unit and, hey,  surely we need fewer intensive care departments in a city this big...

If even one of these hospitals loses its A&E or maternity department, there will be an inevitable knock-on effect for the hospitals that still have these vital units. St Helier, the hospital nearest to my house, looks most likely to lose both these departments as well as the renal unit and intensive care. This hospital regularly accepts patients for A&E and maternity when the often excellent but frequently overstretched St George's Hospital in Tooting cannot cope. More than £200 million had been set aside by successive governments for a much-needed upgrade to St Helier but now that funding is under a cloud.

On top of all this, there are no costings on how much will need to be spent to upgrade the hospitals that don't lose vital departments so the whole process seems set to foist a gigantic exercise in false economy on our lives.

This all comes hot on the heels of the scandalous downgrading of Lewisham Hospital, in London's south-east - an area not too far removed from the swathe of the south-west which is now under threat.

The public is constantly being told that no decision has been made yet on the three options. And all three options are awful. It is fine for me to yell and scream that I want St Helier to remain as it is. But that means that another hospital in the area will lose services and St Helier would be overburdened.

So there is the truly nasty part - while we try and defend our local hospitals in our little corners of south-west London, this has the horrible effect of pitting communities against each other.

So, a fourth option needs to be put forward involving largely retaining the status quo. But there are only three options on the table. And here is the kicker: the BSBV committee is meant to put four options forward.

And there is another kicker. There is meant to be a three-month public consultation process that does not run over the summer holiday period. But the process is slated to run over the summer holiday period.

So what now? It is imperative that all of us who have been fighting to keep our hospitals in south-west London unmolested united and push for a fourth option to be put on the table and for the public consultation period to be moved back to September.

If neither of these two things happen, then it would not be unreasonable for the local authorities to call for a judicial review. But judicial reviews are expensive. And this is not a time when any local authorities are keen to put up council tax in order to fund a judicial review.

The question that everyone in south-west London needs to ask themselves is would they be prepared to pay a little bit more council tax in the short term to fund a judicial review? The kneejerk answer most people would give to this question is most likely a resounding no. And if that is the case, if everyone stands by and lets this happen, if the people of south-west London do not fight together to preserve their health services, the outcome could be fatal.

Photo courtesy of Michaela Kobyakov

Monday, 6 May 2013

So, I visited my friendly local mosque...

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a ridiculous piece in the Daily Mail, where David Goodhart, a writer with a book to peddle, portrayed Merton, the borough where I live, as some sort of hateful war zone where immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, were not integrating. I did not recognise the Merton Goodhart wrote about and I was appalled - although not especially surprised - that the Daily Mail readily published something with rubbery use of stats and blatant lies.

As a result of this original blog post, I wrote a follow-up post and another post when David Goodhart responded over Twitter. And then I was invited to visit the mosque which formed the central theme of Goodhart's disgust for the "polite apartheid" that he claimed was going on in Merton. The Baitul Futuh mosque was not, as Goodhart claimed, built to replace a dairy and steal local jobs. There was a seven-year gap between the dairy closing down and mosque construction starting. In the seven-year gap, the old dairy site became a magnet for drug-related crime. Now there is a mosque on the site, this is no longer the case.

On my visit to the mosque, I learnt about its construction - part of the old dairy was used to build the minaret , the building is clad in elegant, self-cleaning marble, light enters the part of the mosque where women pray via walls created from the same material used at Chelsea's home ground - oh, and it didn't cost British taxpayers a penny to build.

The mosque shares its car park with a nearby college and the college uses large rooms in the mosque to hold exams. This is not just an example of the mosque integrating with the community, but an example of the mosque actually helping save the taxpayers money - allowing use of the mosque for exams means the college does not have to fork out for expensive building works. Why anyone would disapprove of this is a mystery to me. There are no reports of students leaving the mosque after an exam as extremists or under pressure to convert to Islam. It is a lovely, quiet building - I can see why it'd be a more pleasant place to do an exam than a cold school hall.

Bushra, a woman I consider to be my newest friend, showed me around the mosque. Having visited mosques in the Middle East and Turkey, I was mindful of dressing respectfully and wore a long top over loose jeans and I had a scarf draped around my shoulders. I asked if I should cover my hair with the scarf when I entered the mosque but was told this was not necessary. If I had've been asked to cover my hair, I would have done so without complaint. Equally, I wouldn't walk into a church wearing a bikini and I'd ask someone to leave my house if they turned up wearing a "Keep calm and carry on raping" T-shirt - it's about showing respect to your hosts.

As we entered the main part of the mosque, we removed our shoes and Bushra talked animatedly about Islam and in particular about the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. It is the 73rd sect of the Islamic world and many adherents of this sect have sought safety in Britain because of persecution by other sects, especially in Pakistan. Unlike other sects, the Ahmadiyya community believes the messiah was Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, who lived from 1835-1908. Bushra explained that Ahmad was dismayed by fanatical Islamic beliefs and championed a religion of peace and justice. He spoke against religious bloodshed and recognised the nobility of teachings by Abraham, Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu and Guru Nanak.

It would appear Ahmad was a man ahead of his time - he did not like the drive towards fanatical Islam in the 19th Century and it is hard to imagine he'd be thrilled by events such as the 9/11 and 7/7 terror attacks, the current Israel-Palestine situation or the fighting that has gone on between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland for that matter.

As Bushra told me, the concept of "jihad" is rooted in one's personal struggles rather than a desire to destroy other people. Suicide bombers should not be considered true Muslims as the Islamic view of suicide is much the same as that of many Christian faiths.

As such, I am quite sure that when I visited the Baitul Futuh mosque, I was not entering a dark and terrifying den of extremism. I am confident that there is no secret south London branch of al Qaeda operating from this mosque. I did not feel any pressure to become radicalised or to convert to Islam. Instead, Bushra and I drank tea, ate cake and samosas, and chatted for hours about the mosque's work, especially with secular charities, about the role of women and about life in general.

It was easy to relate to the reluctance of women at the mosque to pray alongside the men, given the head-down-bottom-up position for prayer - it's not a position I'd be thrilled to do in front of a group of men either. And while the men of the mosque have a group for the over-40 age group, the women do not because, quite simply, plenty of women were not keen to admit to being over 40.

Bushra told me about how her marriage was arranged, but not forced. Consent by all parties is important and, having met her husband at the mosque, it is clear that their marriage was not a case of forcing two people together with little in common. Arranged marriage was a way to meet someone with whom she could build a life - it is all too easy to judge this concept from the outside looking in. But Bushra pointed out that online dating isn't really any different - it is just another way to try and match yourself up with someone with whom you have stuff in common. Which makes sense. You can be very specific when you go trawling dating websites, right down to height and eye colour, just as an arrangement is about meeting certain criteria. Having a future husband/wife checklist is as universal as women not wanting to point their bums in the air around men or admit they are older than 40.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with Zara, the wonderful Muslim woman who used to clean my apartment when I was a spoiled expat living in Abu Dhabi. She told me that all most people want is peace and to live a peaceful life with their families. While families can take many forms, including your circle of friends in many cases, Zara's point was that underneath it all, people are not that different wherever you go.

The Baitul Futuh mosque is open to everyone. You don't need to make an appointment, you can simply turn up and someone will happily show you around without judgement. I said that it was similar to being able to walk into an open church and it was interesting that Bushra said she wasn't sure if she would simply enter a church. I'd never considered it from that perspective before - just as non-Muslims may be unsure about whether they can walk into a mosque and take a look around, plenty of Muslims are probably equally uncertain about whether they can walk into a church.

If you scoff at the idea of visiting a mosque, if you still believe that all Muslims are terrorists and simply believe every word in the Daily Mail, you are part of the problem. And if you are peddling the "Britain is a Christian country!" line, you'd better be as willing to show Muslims around your church (you do go to church, don't you?) as Bushra was to show me around her mosque.