Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Nigella's business is now everyone's business...

The reaction to the Nigella Lawson-Charles Saatchi assault story reminds me of the armchair heroes who come out of the woodwork every time there is another horrific shooting in America. They are the people who claim with absolute certainty that if only they were on hand in Aurora/Sandy Hook/Santa Monica, they would have saved the day and shot the bad guy dead.

Ever since the jarring pictures of the Lawson-Saatchi argument were released, there has been a similar spate of heroes-after-the-fact. People who were not at the restaurant are sticking their heads over the parapet to claim they would have done something to help Nigella. The claims of "doing something" have ranged from asking if she was OK to calling her a taxi to calling the police to embedding a shattered glass in Saatchi's skull.

Yet the reality is that for those of us who weren't there, we don't know what we would have done. We only know what we like to think we would have done.
And now that Nigella has apparently moved out of the marital home, she is being called upon by people who have never met her to speak out about domestic violence. In Australia, the improbably named Dee Dee Dunleavy, a radio DJ, wrote a particularly stupid blog post in which she concluded: "Nigella, like it or not, you're a beacon for women from all walks of life. If you want us to buy your books and watch your shows on how to run our kitchens, then we need you to make a stand on domestic violence."

I've written before on why the idea of celebrity role models is ridiculous and I maintain this is still the case.

Dunleavy hastily issued a ridiculous clarification and claimed she wasn't victim-blaming or calling for a Nigella boycott despite her chronically patronising last sentence. That'd be the sentence where she advocated not helping Lawson to earn a living until she "make[s] a stand on domestic violence". Uh, yeah, because encouraging the reduction of a woman's earning power is, er, so empowering, right?

But Dunleavy is not alone in telling Nigella what she must do now. Globally, she is being ordered to speak out against domestic violence, to press charges against her husband and to divorce him.

In the meantime, Saatchi has accepted a caution from the police telling the media: ""Although Nigella made no complaint I volunteered to go to Charing Cross station and take a police caution after a discussion with my lawyer because I thought it was better than the alternative, of this hanging over all of us for months."

Given the extensive photographic evidence as well as accounts from people who were at the restaurant at the time, it would not have been unexpected if the CPS decided to charge Saatchi, even if Lawson chose not to co-operate. The CPS can prosecute in domestic violence cases without the alleged victim pressing charges, although I have been told by a police officer that this usually only happens if the "injuries are worthy of Section 47 Assault or above" - or in other words, at least an assault under the legal definition of actual bodily harm, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

So what now? Whatever Lawson decides to do next is up to her.  That's the thing about choice - sometimes people will make choices that we might not find acceptable or would not make for ourselves, but that doesn't mean the choices are invalid. Nor does it mean that it is always easy for a woman, even one with all the advantages of Nigella Lawson, to simply leave an abusive man.

In the court of public opinion, an idiotic peanut gallery if ever there was one, she is damned no matter what.

If she speaks out against domestic violence, some will say she is pandering to the busybodies and that private lives should stay private, even if that life spills out onto a public street.

If she stays with Saatchi, she will be portrayed as an object of pity, a middle-class, apron-clad version of Rihanna who can't seem to break up with notorious abuser Chris Brown.

If she breaks up with Saatchi, the likes of Cristina Odone, who seemingly can't bear to see a marriage break up for any reason at all, will blame media pressure. While writing about the marriage in the media.

The media circus has now dragged on for days - Saatchi has been spotted at a restaurant without Lawson and sources are saying they hosted dinner parties after the awful incident and they seemed happy. There seems to be much consternation that Lawson has not confirmed via her spokesperson whether her move out of the marital home is permanent or not.

Seriously, this is getting ridiculous. Nigella Lawson cannot be blamed for lying low for a while and she is under no obligation to tell the media anything about her private life. Can you imagine what it must be like to open pretty much any given newspaper and see photos of yourself as your husband grabs your neck or read opinion pieces by people who presume to know what is best for you and profess to know more about your relationship than you do?

Meanehile, the Evening Standard has run a series of pro-Saatchi pieces every day since the story broke - he is a columnist for the ES after all. Is this their bizarre way of telling the world it's all fine, he is a top bloke, it was just a "playful tiff" (ugh...), and he will continue to write for them.  Still, it's a change from their daily pro-Boris Johnson nonsense, I suppose.

It's one thing to raise awareness of domestic violence via the media, to use the Lawson-Saatchi story as an example of how domestic violence can happen to anyone - but it is quite another to use the media to tell a grown woman how to live her life. Nigella Lawson is an intelligent, successful woman - we can only hope and assume those closest to her are offering her all the support she needs at the moment. And we can only trust that she will make whatever choices are best for her without blaming her, patronising her, talking about her as if she is a stupid child, disapproving of her or judging her.

Instead of stalking Mayfair restaurants and getting columnists to dole out unsolicited marriage guidance counselling, it would behoove the newspapers of Britain to report on some other news. There's plenty of it about at the moment.


Here is a rare articulate piece of writing on the whole sorry story:

Image courtesy of Brian Minkoff - London Pixels

Monday, 17 June 2013

Quetta: Why nobody should be surprised by the bus bombing

Quetta is a troubled city. It is located on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Over the weekend, a bus transporting students from the all-woman Sardur Bahadur Khan University was bombed and 14 women were killed.

Fourteen women who were hoping to improve their lives, as Malala is here in Britain, have lost the chance to reach their full potential.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an extremist Sunni group, has claimed responsibility for the attack and says a female suicide bomber carried out this horrific act. According to police, a severed female head has been found at the site but they are still investigating.

In 2009, I interviewed a man who had been to Quetta. His name is Ayob Yusuf Vawda and he ended up there on an epic road trip from his home in South Africa. Ayob and his friend, Abdool Samath Samath, were attempting to drive to Mecca in Saudi Arabia to perform their Hajj pilgrimage, a religious obligation for all Muslims.

I was writing the story of their incredible road trip - which ended in Abu Dhabi, where I was living and working at the time - for the motoring section of a newspaper. He didn't get as far as Mecca because of visa bureaucracy with Saudi Arabia, a not-uncommon occurrence. Ayob and I sat down with a map of the world where he had diligently recorded his journey with a highlighter pen.

When our fingers traced the trip to Quetta, he told me about the markets of Quetta. These weren't your usual quaint tourist-trap markets. This was not a place to buy exotic Pakistani souvenirs. This is a place where US Army surplus is sold. I was shown photographs of weapons, night vision goggles, all manner of stuff that would certainly be of interest to a group like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

I was a little bit amazed that my story went to press without the bit about the US army surplus being censored by the paranoid editor-in-chief. After all, The National tried to tread a very fine line between never offending Muslims and supporting the United Arab Emirates' stance as an ally of the US. It was probably because it was a feature for the back page of the motoring section and not a story for the foreign news pages that allowed me to fly under the radar and expose something fairly appalling.

But if groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are getting away with acts of terror in a town where they can easily arm themselves with deadly equipment, the latest attack, a clear crime against women's education should come as no surprise at all. This is a group that has been around since the 1980s, has been deemed a terrorist organisation by the US and has links to, surprise, surprise, the Taliban. Oh, and the assassination of Benazhir Bhutto...

The bombing of a bus full of educated women should come as no surprise in the context of the Quetta marketplace. And on a bigger, grimmer level, it should come as no surprise that the Taliban has not been stopped and won't be stopped any time soon.   

Image courtesy of Ajmalahmedkhan at Wikipedia

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Privacy? Who needs it?

So Edward Snowden is hiding out somewhere in Hong Kong - or maybe by now, he's not. Who knows? Whatever the case, there is no middle ground narrative for him. He is either a noble and faultless hero or he is a reckless, dangerous man who, to top it all off, has pretty much orchestrated the world's most jaw-dropping break-up. Hell, he has made text-dumpers look positively saintly.

But his personal life is not really the point. Well, unless you're writing for New York magazine, in which case it is perfectly appropriate to name and run pictures of a woman believed to be Snowden's abandoned partner. And not just any old pictures either. New York magazine saw fit to publish pictures of her in pole dancing attire along with excerpts from her blog and her YouTube channel. And, quelle surprise, the Daily Mail has also decided pictures of a woman who is most likely feeling vulnerable and confused are newsworthy.  

What's the problem, you might ask. She put those pictures online for all to see so surely she has given up her right to privacy, no? No. As far as we are aware, she did not know what her partner was up to and was as stunned as his employers were to discover he had left the US after leaking his story to the Guardian. She has almost certainly been questioned, or will be questioned, but at the time of writing, she has not been charged with any crime or been found guilty of any crime.

It is likely that she wanted to attract the attention of people looking for pictures, videos and blog posts on pole dancing. Such people could have found her blog and interacted with her without knowing the details of her personal life. That is nobody's business.

She had occasionally alluded to a boyfriend known only as "E" on her blog, and yesterday she wrote a vague blog post about heartbreak and goodbyes - without naming her now world-famous boyfriend - but has since, understandably, deleted the whole website. Except it all lives on in Google cache. 

Ironically, in a lame attempt to smear someone who has potentially exposed a massive threat to privacy in multiple nations, New York magazine has not respected Snowden's partner's right to privacy. And they have demonstrated just how easy it is for your online presence to become everyone's business without the intervention of big government.

She did not ask to be an international public figure. She has a right to privacy and she has a right to make a new life for herself elsewhere, something that will now become more difficult as she is splashed all over the internet and no doubt in tomorrow's newspapers.

Edward Snowden's revelations are not necessarily shocking. Nor is the potential for the British government to be involved, despite the denials of William Hague. We voluntarily hand over information to the government all the time. In the last two weeks, I have handed over information about myself and my husband to the UK Border Agency so that I can have indefinite leave to remain in Britain. Yesterday, I made a complaint about my local bus service and included my Oyster card number to make it easier to track down the offending drivers. I have to trust that they won't use the information about my travels around London against me.

And they probably won't. Who cares where little ol' me goes in my boring daily business? But that's not really the point.

As a white, 37-year-old Australian woman of English and Scottish Christian heritage, I don't fit any of the usual stereotypes and I am probably not on any watchlists. Or am I? I regularly communicate online with Arab friends who I met in my time living in the Middle East. I am currently involved in a campaign to save my local hospital which has an online presence. I have written on this very blog in defence of the mosque in my neighbourhood. I am not a royalist or a fan of the current government. Who knows if some combination of words, phrases or contacts in my online life has alerted GCHQ? I am pretty sure I have the freedom in Britain to say what I say online without fear or maybe I am being naive?

But surely we need all this surveillance to keep us all safe? Here's the thing about terrorism - the reason why  it is so effective at creating mass fear is the element of surprise. Nobody who went to work at the World Trade Center on that awful day expected the day to end quite so badly. Nobody who went about their usual London commute on 7/7 thought their bus or train might end up a burning wreck. Drummer Lee Rigby did not expect to be attacked and killed in broad daylight.

The two suspects in Drummer Rigby's murder trial were known to MI5 but the attack still happened. All that was required to carry out such a vile act was a conversation between a couple of seriously unwell people and the acquisition of a meat cleaver. The conversation might not have even taken place online or by telephone. It was all pretty low-tech.

What we do need is time to properly digest the information already available to us from Edward Snowden's story. There will no doubt be more revelations in the coming months. We need to rationally assess the full extent of our collective privacy invasion and determine if we think such intrusions are worthwhile, necessary or even effective at stopping terrorism.

But even today, #PRISM and #NSA are dropping back in on Twitter because of #PS4 and #iOS7. An entire Twitter account, @_nothingtohide is devoted to the retweeting of lame remarks along the lines of "I don't care if the government spies on me! My life is so boring! LOL!".

Why do we need to give a damn about whether or not Edward Snowden has uncovered a massive infringement on liberty on an international scale? After all, there's a new console we simply must own and there are pictures of his pretty girlfriend in her underwear to leer over. 

Thursday, 6 June 2013

100 years on from Emily Davison...

So, it has been 100 years since Emily Davison died after invading the track at Epsom's Derby Day. She has become a feminist icon, a symbol of supreme sacrifice for the suffragettes' cause. But while she was probably pretty fatalistic about whether she lived or died when she tried to put a suffragette scarf on the King's horse, it is most likely she didn't intend to kill herself.

In short, she became a tragic reminder of why it's better to live humbly for a cause rather than die heroically for one. Davison died in 1913. Women in Britain didn't get the vote for another 15 years. The advent of World War I probably did more to help women achieve equality at the ballot box than any number of militant acts by the suffragettes.

But that was 100 years ago, Emily Davison is being looked on with rose-tinted glasses and, while Britain is one of the best places in the world to be a woman, idiocy still abounds.

A century on and the following is happening in Britain:

The loudest voice in Britain for reducing abortion rights and sending sex education back to the 1950s is a woman. Nadine Dorries. She bases her views on religion and an experience she had while working briefly as a nurse decades ago. She does this in between swanning off to Australia to appear on a reality show when she should be doing her job as an MP or likening her problems with hair loss to a mastectomy - and then wonders why people think she is a shameless publicity seeker.

Anna Soubry, the Health Minister, also turned the clock back to the 1950s when she said that the large number of women studying medicine is placing a burden on the NHS because they will "marry and have children" and then want to work part-time. She used the word "ladies" without irony in her tired tirade. She then back-pedalled like crazy, claimed the government is increasing the number of GPs (because it is so easy to just pluck oven-ready trained doctors out of thin air) and that she supports flexible working practices. No mention of the crisis in childcare though or male doctors who might want to work part-time for a better work-life balance.

Kate Winslet has the temerity to get married for a third time and become pregnant for a third time with her third husband - and according to the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, this is the worst thing ever. Two female journalists, Alison Boshoff and Judith Woods, turned on the bile hoses on with a powerful gush of judgemental, slut-shaming crap. Well played, sisters! Clearly you both know everything about Kate Winslet's personal relationships... I trust you will write something similarly vitriolic about Rod Stewart with his eight kids by five different women. Hell, he didn't even bother to marry them all.

G4S, the company that fucked up security for the Olympics so badly that the army had to be called in to save the day, has now been contracted by the government to run sexual assault referral centres. Because that's what's required when women are at their most vulnerable - to be looked after by an incompetent company motivated by profit.

But, hey, everything will be OK as long as lads' magazines are banned. The pearl-clutching moralising of the Lose The Lads' Mags campaign might have been supported by the likes of suffragette Christabel Pankurst, who managed to find time to campaign for better sexuality morality to prevent the spread of venereal disease or "the great scourge" as she called it. This is despite her publications on women's suffrage facing censorship as heavy-handed as that being proposed by the Lose The Lads' Mags advocates. Still, who wants to actually learn from history when you can simply make shit up about the good old days, eh?

It looks as if the new wave of hyper-conservative feminists may have chosen accurate role models after all. 

Monday, 3 June 2013

Mumsplaining, matronising and mammaries...

I had a feeling this might happen after putting my views on the Lose The Lads' Mags campaign out there for all to see. Some people would respectfully disagree (and kudos to everyone who can disagree without resorting to personal attacks), some would applaud my words and some would simply fail my Zero Tolerance of Idiocy policy.

Such as a woman I encountered on, of all places, Facebook. Despite claiming to be a libertarian and an anarchist, she exhibited zero understanding of how a free market economy works or what it actually means to be an anarchist when she came out in support of taking magazines such as Nuts, Zoo and FHM off supermarket shelves and out of high street newsagents. Heavy-handed regulation, treating adults like children and censorship are not libertarian or anarchist ideals.

I tried to reason with her when I pointed out the lack of evidence linking the existence of lads' mags in high street shops to sexual violence or harassment but she simply told me she didn't need evidence. All she needs are anecdotes and experience. Because she is a mother. And I am not.

Which is fine. I completely understand (and hope) that your life changes when you bring a little person into it - it'd be weird if such a huge event didn't transform your world. I asked her if she was implying that because I was not a mother, I had no right to an opinion on lads' magazines. Astoundingly, she told me she was not implying, she was telling me my views were invalid.

Wow. Nothing like being told that despite having worked on a lads' magazine, despite still working as a journalist, despite being a grown woman with an eduation and an ability to empathise and form opinions, anything I had to say on the matter was invalid because I don't have any kids.

Once my head stopped connecting with my desk at her matronising mumsplaining, I took a look at the wider world around me. In particular, I went looking for lads' mags. Everywhere I looked, they were already placed on high shelves and the covers were usually wrapped so there was a hint at what mischief might lurk inside. The visible images showed no more flesh than most women's magazines. At the newsagent at my local tube station, the kids'-eye-level high counter where you pay for your purchases was rammed with weekly gossip magazines. Without exception, they all showed loads of female flesh and reduced celebrities to their weight loss, weight gain, cellulite, breasts and pregnancies.

But these magazines should not be shunted off shop shelves any more than lads' mags should or any of the daily newspapers. Let's talk about the presence of lads' mags as a form of harassment, shall we? If I worked in a shop in the week Drummer Lee Rigby was murdered, I'd be more distressed by spending my workday surrounded by those grim front pages, all of which ran a poster-sized picture of one of the suspects brandishing a bloodied cleaver.

But I would not call for the newspapers to be removed from sale because that flies in the face of a free press.

There is a world of difference between lads' mags sitting quietly on high shelves waiting for buyers and a workplace where an idiot boss or colleague waves such mags around, forces staff members to look at the mags any more than they'd have to in their day-to-day employment or makes loud comments and comparisons between the models' bodies and those of employees. Indeed, because there is still an air of embarrassment surrounding nudity and sexual imagery, such mags are usually purchased furtively.

The worst behaviour you'll probably see is the occasional giggling schoolboy sneaking a peek at Nuts. Good luck with trying to regulate hormonal schoolboys out of existence...

And then I put the idea out there that I lived for five years in the UAE, a place where lads' magazines are not sold and the mens' mags have to keep things fairly tame when it comes to flashing flesh. While the UAE is not quite as backwards when it comes to women's rights as some might think, there are still problems with harassment, sexual assault and, in particular, the under-reporting of sexual assault. And these things happens here too, where lads' mags are sold. To simply take them off high street shelves is to trivialise the issue and oversimplify the deeper causes.

In the meantime, news came out of lads' mag-free Saudi Arabia about a novelist claiming that women will be harassed if they are allowed to work in certain jobs alongside men. The sad part is that might just happen if more jobs are open to Saudi women and there are no lads' mags to blame there.

Then the Middlesex University study into commonalities in lads' mag language and the language of convicted rapists has been flagged up in the midst of this latest debate as "proof" that lads' mags cause rape. Except that a bunch of quotes taken out of context don't really prove anything much. It just creates the warped circular logic that all lads' magazine readers are rapists and all rapists read lads' magazines. Again, this trivialises the real issues and treats every rape case as identical. With every convicted rapist, there is a set of circumstances that absolutely do not excuse rape but might explain how he formed his attitudes towards women. And the academic in charge of the study didn't actually conclude that censorship is the answer and, sensibly, he suggests education instead.

Phew! At last we're getting somewhere. Some nuanced discussion into what causes sexual assault and sexual harassment is urgently required. Alarmingly, the single-minded drive for the puritans of Object and Feminista UK to shunt lads' mags off shelves lest the "Page 3-style front cover images" cause sexual violence is the same mindset that leads to victim-blaming. It's no better than saying short skirts, low necklines, tight dresses or alcohol consumption are to blame for sexual assault.


Further reading from the blogosphere...