Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Azerbaijan's press freedom: #JeSuisYunus

Jeremy Clarkson has been fired as presenter of Top Gear. Assorted idiots across Britain are behaving as if this is a monstrous attack on free speech. It is not. He had all the free speech he wanted but he cannot get away with assaulting a colleague. The only person responsible for the likely end of Top Gear is Jeremy Clarkson himself.

I do not want to talk any more about Jeremy Clarkson. I want to talk about Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is home to true martyrs of free speech. Khadija Ismayilova is locked up on an absurd charge of inciting a colleague to commit suicide. She is best known for reporting on high level government corruption in Azerbaijan. Seymour Khazi, another journalist who has investigated the government, is serving five years for "aggravated hooliganism." His defence is that he was attacked and acted in self-defence. He has accused the president of ordering his arrest and has written an open letter in support of Khadija Ismayilova.

One of the most shocking cases is that of Leyla and Arif Yunus. Leyla is a leading human rights campaigner and her husband is an academic. The couple, married for 37 years, has been detained separately. They were arrested at home in July 2014 on trumped-up charges of state treason, high treason tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, falsification of documents and fraud. Leyla and Arif are both in poor health. Their detention period has been extended until August 2015. Leyla and Arif's daughter, Dinara, is currently exiled in The Netherlands where she is campaigning for their release as well as for true freedom for Azerbaijan.

The notion of a free media is laughable in Azerbaijan. As well as jailing journalists and activists without fair trials or due process, Radio Azadliq was raided and documents confiscated earlier this year. Last month, President Ilham Aliyev signed amendments to media legislation that make it easier for the government to shut down news outlets.

But none of this is getting a whole lot of attention in the west. Today if you do a Google News search of "Azerbaijan", the top two stories about this country are about the opening of a Harvey Nichols department store in Baku, and the country's increased oil production. The next cab off the rank on the Google News search is a scant eight reports from obscure news outlets about how the president is "miffed" about criticism ahead of the European Games, which Baku is hosting in June.

Boo hoo, Poor little President Aliyev is miffed that people are trying to call him out for his despotic ways.

Still, he won't waste too much time being miffed. He can simply shut down media outlets so much faster these days, in between jailing the outspoken. It's not as if there is a Europe-wide movement of country leaders calling for a boycott of the games. So they'll go ahead without controversy, just as the Winter Olympics did in Russia and the Summer Olympics did in China, those other bastions of human rights and freedom. And Qatar will keep its 2022 World Cup tournament despite its appalling record on human rights - everything from deaths of labourers building the stadium to Sheikha Mozah's involvement with a clinic that claims it can cure gay people.

It's all about the money. Whenever corruption is tolerated and human rights abuses swept under the carpet, there is almost always a trail of money that you can follow to the source of the stench.

Just as Europe is heavily reliant on Russian gas, everyone wants to do business with China and massive companies such as Shell are making a fortune in Qatar, Azerbaijan's economy is on the up thanks to oil. Foreign investment is on the rise. Nestle, another company with questionable ethics, has just been announced as a major sponsor of the European Games. As per today's news, Harvey Nicholls has opened up in Baku - it is rather like when Harvey Nicks opened in Dubai in an attempt by that particular city to replicate the best of the west in all but democracy.

There is money to be made, there are businesses to boom, there is oil to be drilled, there are human rights and freedoms to be thrown under the bus.

It is highly unlikely any western country will take a stand against Azerbaijan's human rights abuses any time soon. Sadly, the likes of #BringBackClarkson will continue to dominate in a way that #JeSuisYunus really should.



Sunday, 15 March 2015

It will never be the end of the road for Jeremy Clarkson


First, a disclaimer. Top Gear has been one of my favourite TV shows for years. I genuinely enjoy the car chatter as much as I enjoy the films where the cast travel the world frequently behaving like bellends.  A friend of mine, who is sadly no longer with us, was not being awful when he called me "Jeremy Clarkson with boobs" when I worked as a motoring journalist in the Middle East (although I suspect Jezza is more buxom than I am...).

But while Clarkson has survived multiple scandals, the "fracas" may be the end of the road. Sort of. Initially, my prediction was that Clarkson would survive this latest incident and the producer would be moved to another BBC programme, possibly for a pay rise. But as more unseemly details emerge and as Clarkson himself telegraphs that the end is nigh in his column in The Sun, it looks apparent that Sunday nights in Britain may no longer be enhanced/blighted (cross out whichever word you feel does not apply) by the highly successful motoring programme.

Hell, there could be breaking news on this wretched story while I am sitting here blogging away...

It could be that Clarkson will jump before he is pushed. What that will mean for his co-hosts, Richard Hammond and James May, as well as the many people who are employed in multiple countries in the lucrative industry that Top Gear has generated, remains to be seen. Whether these people have been considered by the 900,000+ people who signed Guido Fawkes' lame #BringBackClarkson petition is dubious.

After all, the sparsely worded petition merely says:

We the undersigned petition the BBC to reinstate Jeremy Clarkson.
Freedom to fracas. 
 #BringBackClarkson 
There is no mention there, or in the comments from the petition's signatories, of the people who will be truly affected by this whole shitstorm. And here's the thing - no matter how this pans out, Clarkson will be fine. Do not worry about poor little Jezza. Jezza is not worried about poor little Jezza. He is a multi-millionaire with rich and powerful friends. He will get other offers, his kids won't go without shoes.
A BBC without Top Gear will be one that suffers a serious drop in revenue. A BBC without Top Gear may not be able to make quite so many lesser-watched but more worthwhile documentaries. A BBC without Top Gear will have to find alternative sources of revenue.
Or perhaps a Top Gear without Clarkson will prevail. Who knows? But if the allegations of physical violence against a colleague, and of using an expletive-laden racial slur against a colleague, turn out to be true, it will be very hard for the BBC to keep him on. If I was punched by a colleague or a colleague called me a "fucking Australian bitch", for example, I wouldn't be happy about continuing to work with that person. Why should anyone put up with that sort of behaviour in any workplace?
Is that the sort of "freedom to fracas" that Guido Fawkes thinks is appropriate for Britain's workplaces? 
If you don't like Top Gear, you have always had the freedom to not watch it. Easy. But if it turns out that Clarkson lost all self-control by physically and verbally abusing a colleague, his position will become untenable. And if Top Gear ends and fans are disappointed and people lose their jobs as a result, there will ultimately only be one person to blame.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Why I'm still a feminist: Part 3



And now for the last look at my feminist rants in honour of this year's International Women's Day... Let's see what I ranted about last year and whether anything has changed...

Just as I ended 2013 with a rant about first ladies, I started 2014 in the same vein in the wake of all manner of details about the private life of Francois Hollande emerging. Basically, it's only the business of those affected by his sex life and nobody else. Move on, nothing to see. Similarly, there was another sex work fauxrage over government employment incentives for strip clubs and the adult film industry. Sorry, but if the jobs are legal so are the incentives. And nobody is being forced by the government to work in these places. Again, move on, nothing to see.

Female genital mutilation was discussed in great detail for the first time on my blog last year - I am a bit saddened with myself that I did not do this sooner or more often. I have no time for cultural relativism here. It is a barbaric and brutal practice which pretty much always happens without consent and in appalling conditions. The privileged women who claim that it was their choice to be mutilated, that it was just a little nick and that the still-ghastly procedure was done in sanitary conditions by a doctor are ridiculous. They are in no way representative of the countless women whose lives are ruined in this way every year.

Reproductive rights in Australia came under the spotlight after the terrible Reverend Fred Nile used the suicide of an Australian TV presenter to push his anti-abortion barrow. Compared to the UK, Australian abortion laws are much tighter and differ from state to state. Here in the UK, they just differ if you live in Northern Ireland. That needs to change too.

And then another tragedy - the suicide of L'Wren Scott. She was reduced largely to being "Mick Jagger's girlfriend" rather than a talented fashion designer, a perfectionist, a woman from all reports of grace and charm.

And then there was the almost-abortion of Josie Cunningham. Her situation provided a challenge to prochoicers everywhere and a lot of snobbery emerged as a result, as well as some silly comments below the line. If you are prochoice, you need to be comfortable with all women's choices. That is how it works.

In may last year, the UAE trumpeted great results in a survey on women's rights. Having lived there for five years, I figured I was well-placed to analyse the results. The UAE remains a pretty good place to be a woman for the most part, but stats always need a closer study. This was no exception. It depends who you are as to whether being a woman in the UAE is a good thing or a bad thing. On the upside, it's not Saudi...

My eyes rolled hard last June when Kirstie Allsopp said she'd advise her daughter to skip university, find a nice boyfriend and just buy property. Given that her imaginary daughter would have access to education that millions of girls around the world still do not have, this was awful, head-in-the-clouds-and-up-one's-arse stuff. Allsopp gives sound property advice. Her life advice is another matter entirely.

I waded into murky territory with my "Fracking and feminism" blog post. The reality is that energy poverty denies girls and women the chance to reach their full potential in the developing world. It deprives them of access to education, it keeps them at home, often literally keeping the home fires burning. If shale gas was discovered in any of these places, the access to energy would be life-changing for many girls and women. But at what environmental cost? As opposition to fracking reaches fever pitch (although if Germany fracked more, it would not be relying on Russian gas...), intelligent long-term solutions are needed more than ever. But while everyone argues, girls and women are getting left behind.

The notion of women as victims is a murky one too so naturally I went there last October. Sympathy for women who have suffered something terrible varies wildly - it can depend on class, race, what she wore, how much she had to drink, the way she looks... And so the comparison of Monica Lewinsky and Ched Evan's rape victim led me to the conclusion that compassion for women remains conditional.

And then we ended the year with boobs. Another breastfeeding row... And now it is 2015 and International Women's Day has come and gone for another year and people still lose their shit about breastfeeding in public. Perhaps I need to resolve to do better. But I am just one blog. We need more voices across the world to be heard. And if you are doing anything to stifle freedom of speech, you are silencing women. So that is the uphill battle that now needs to be fought on top of improving the lot of women across the world. This is truly depressing.



Photo by Anna Langova

Why I'm still a feminist: Part 2



Following on from yesterday's International Women's Day blog post, in which I looked over assorted feminist rants I wrote in 2012 to see how far we've come (Hint: Not far enough in many cases...), I am now casting my beady eye over 2013's blog posts. My International Women's Day reflection for 2013 seems to ring true today, sadly.

"My feminism is better than your feminism" reflected on how women harm each other by turning feminism into a competition. Sometimes some of us will have to agree to disagree on certain issues. This does not mean healthy discussion should be shut down. It does mean that more will be achieved when there is mutual respect.

January 2013 was also about pap smears and cervical cancer - this is an issue very close to my heart, among other parts, as early detection of pre-cancerous cells back in 1997 probably saved my life. This is where Australia is leading the way - pap smears are advised 18 months after you first have sex or once you turn 18, whatever comes first. But the UK lags behind with early detection and, as a result, women under 25 are dying unnecessarily. More still needs to be done here, I am sorry to report.

I joined in the feminist fun of writing the terrible Nadine Dorries a letter from my uterus. I am quite sure she never read it but the good news is that she seems to have piped down, at least on the issue of reproductive rights. She has, however, made a fool of herself in many other ways since then.

Welfare reform and sexism intersected with my piece on the "woman with a womb like a clown car", representing as she does a tiny minority of benefits claimants. It remains to be seen with the General Election looming in May as to whether whatever damn government we end up with examines the benefits system with the right mix of commonsense and compassion.

And I probably alienated myself from some women with my dismissing of Seth McFarlane's "I saw your boobs!" song at the 2013 Oscars as a fauxrage. There is now at least one fauxrage a week as people become more and more determined to find things by which they can be offended and have less and less consideration for what true freedom of speech really means.

Additonally, I mocked Cosmopolitan magazine because its sex tips remain stupid. It is trying very hard at the moment to be the "acceptable" face of feminism. Sometimes it makes good points, sometimes I roll my eyes hard.

There were plenty of stupid things said about rape in 2012 and this has not really changed. As such, we had the unedifying spectacle of Ashley Judd being shot down in flames for daring to discuss rape. This led to idiots quoting her out of context and any intelligent discussion on rape fell by the wayside. I attempted commonsense on the thorny issue of false rape accusations but I am not sure anyone noticed.

April was a weird old month in the feminist rant department. I wasn't exactly tackling the big issues with a piece on marketing chocolate Special K to women (although I remain so tired of food being referred to as "naughty" or "wicked"...) and another piece on why shoe shopping sucks. But then Margaret Thatcher died and while the people who commented on my reflections on Thatcher as a feminist icon, I am quite sure many disagree with me wholeheartedly. Her legacy remains a topic of debate and I expect this to continue for decades.

And then there was another piece on lads' mags and Page 3 which resulted in some interesting comments indeed. I encountered a tiresome woman who used her "I'm a mother, you're not!" reasoning to try and shut down debate on censorship of lads' mags. That is a surefire way to quell any hope of intelligent discussion and it happens all the time. Nuts magazine announced more modest covers, possibly in the wake of the Lose The Lads' Mags campaign but I doubt campaigners will rest until these magazines are eliminated.

A century after Emily Davidson's untimely death elevated her to suffragette martyr status, I shared a few thoughts on things that would probably appall her in 2013. And looking over the points I made, not much has improved for women's voices in Parliamant. There is still tedious Daily Mail slut-shaming, and G4S still getting government contracts despite being inept and unscrupulous.

Nigella Lawson's personal life hit the headlines in 2013 after awful pictures of her now ex-husband throttling her at a London restaurant were published. She seems to have happily moved on. If only the same could be said for everyone who has suffered at the hands of an abusive partner. Domestic violence remains a problem.

I took a look at Australia, my country of birth after Julia Gillard stopped being the Prime Minister. I maintain that a lot of the vitriol directed at her was sexism pure and simple.

2013 also marked the year I could have been released from a UAE prison had I not acted my way out of a farcical adultery trial. It was a shocking and sad story but I do mot regret living in the UAE nor do I think it's the worst place on the planet for women. Indeed, a later rant on the niqab showed that my time in the Middle East led me to views on Islamic dress that may not be popular in certain circles. When it comes to how much flesh a woman should show, she simply cannot win.

Despite being a long-term Cosmo and Grazia magazine snarker, I defended writing about beauty because, basically, lipstick is not the enemy. Hell, some days I wear it myself. More seriously, there was a censorship row at Sydney University over a magazine cover featuring a range of vulvas. It would appear this is just one of many incidents in universities around the world where free speech is being stifled. This has become an alarming trend in recent years and it has to stop. Universities will no longer be bastions of free speech and thought if the rot is not stopped.

Sex workers' rights is always a tricky one. But I don't think anyone can deny that the current laws help anyone, especially women, whether they are brilliantly unrepentant sex workers by choice or whether they are true victims. In any case, a moral panic over women selling sex is never helpful.

And as the sun set on 2013's blogging, I reflected on the role of first ladies. Again, they can't win. It doesn't matter what political stripe they belong to, or what causes they choose to champion, they will be slagged off by someone. It is an awful job and I do wonder how much relief is felt by first ladies when their husbands are no longer in office. Whatever the case, it'd be good to see more bright women leading countries - not that this will be the outcome of the 2013 British General Election...

Photo by Vera Kratochvil


Sunday, 8 March 2015

Why I'm still a feminist


It's International Women's Day and, as such, there is always someone who uses the day to declare that feminism has failed, as if it is a homogenous movement where every single person who identifies as a feminist thinks in exactly the same way and agrees on absolutely everything. Feminism is different things to different women.

I have taken a look over blog posts I have written about women since I started writing this blog in 2012. If anything, they demonstrate why women still need to get angry about many things and why it would be much appreciated if men can join in too.

Here is a selection from 2012 alone which demonstrates that vigilance is essential for women everywhere.

Boobs have featured heavily in my blog, either by accident or design. One of my first blog posts, "Not all boobs are created equal", was about how we perceive different boobs in different contexts. The Page 3 girl argument rages on - and, even if The Sun does drop this dinosaur of a page, that still won't make everything better.

Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham continue to polarise opinion, as per "Why Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham can't win", but whether you love or loathe either of these two women, I am glad they keep feminist issues in the mainstream and help more young women become aware that sexism still happens.

"Honour" killings still happen and I stand by my refusal to take "honour" out of inverted commas and to prefer to call them "sexist murders".

"We are Malala (except for the idiots who just don't get it)" remains one of the most viewed posts on this blog. Since then, Malala has continued to be a remarkable young woman and her work is more important than ever given the rise of Boko Haram and IS, both of which oppose the education of girls and women.

"Pregnancy! Now with an inquiry nobody's talking about!" is one I'd forgotten about, ironically enough. What the hell did happen with the cross-party inquiry into unwanted pregnancies in Britain? I'd best follow this up. Since 2012, teenage pregnancy has fallen and I believe that is largely down to improved sex education and availability of birth control - so that's good news. Whether this inquiry would ever lead to an erosion of reproductive rights in Britain remains an interesting question.

And, funnily enough, a few months later, I wrote "Britain remains proudly prochoice". This was in response to Nadine Dorries and Frank Field attempting to change abortion laws here. As far as I can tell, neither of them were involved in the unwanted pregnancies inquiry. They were just trying to impose their ideologies on the whole country and I am glad they failed.

In 2012, I blogged twice  from Amsterdam about how their approach to sex, prostitution, pregnancy and motherhood helps women (although I am not so naive as to believe every single Amsterdam prostitute loves her work or is there by choice). In any case, the Netherlands does a lot of things well when it comes to women and many other countries could learn from this example.

Such as Ireland - "RIP Savita: A tragedy that was always going to be political" reflected on the horrific chain of events that led to the unnecessary death of Savita Halappanavar, denied an abortion despite being in a situation where her foetus was not going to make it to full term. Irish women are still fighting for better access to abortion and I stand with them all the way.

Funnily enough, I also reflected on International Men's Day and got at least one predictable comment at the end. Like International Women's Day, it is often misunderstood and attracts trolls. Quelle surprise!

In November 2012, I wrote about the possibility of women becoming bishops in the Church of England. And this has now happened. Progress indeed!

December 2012 saw much madness erupt around the first pregnancy of the Duchess of Cambridge. As an avowed republican, I resent paying for her or her offspring but as a human being, I believe she deserves privacy. I also believe that every woman should have the same level of care if they are suffering from acute morning sickness. The tragic outcome of a prank call on the hospital where the duchess was being treated still has an impact today - indeed, the Australian radio station involved in the prank call which, in all likelihood, is linked to the nurse who answered the phone committing suicide may lose its broadcasting licence. And I may be imagining things, but the media seems to be more respectful towards the duchess during her second pregnancy - apart from a gross promo from The Mirror last week promising pictures of Kate "in full bloom". Ugh.

I also managed to outrage herbal tea fans when I called out a PR company for using the Duchess of Cambridge's morning sickness to sell ginger tea - it would not do a damn thing to cure women suffering from the kind of pregnancy ailment that killed Charlotte Bronte.

And 2012's blogging came to a tragic close with a post on the disgusting gang-rape and murder of a young Indian woman. Victim-blaming rages on globally and India is not even close to dealing with this problem properly, as India's Daughter, the BBC documentary demonstrates with a sickening rapist interview.

I'll try and reflect on my blog posts from 2013 and 2014 over the next week...

Monday, 2 March 2015

To the jihadi brides: Stop being so stupid and come home



Honestly, I just want to give Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana one of my tough-love-cut-the-shit-and-get-your-act-together talks.

Something like this...

Shamima, Amira, Kadiza, you are three intelligent teenagers. You have everything going for you. You have been doing well at school. You have families who love you. You are not homeless. You have enjoyed the financial and educational advantages of growing up comfortably in Britain. And now you are throwing it all away to be "jihadi brides".

Do you have any clue what you are letting yourself in for? Being a jihadi bride is moronic. It sure as hell isn't romantic. Do you think you will be marrying handsome warrior princes like some sort of warped extremist Disney movie? Do you think you will have a choice in the men you marry? And once you are married to these repugnant men, do you think you will have choices about things such as when you have sex, how many children you have, whether or not you have to do tedious household chores, what you can wear, whether you can leave the house, what books you read, what you can see online, what music you listen to, who you can talk to?

You won't have any more choices. You will be silenced. You will become invisible. You will never reach your full potential. You will have no freedom of movement or speech or expression.

You will be marrying men who think women are inferior, who are profoundly anti-education, who use rape as a weapon of war on other women, who think that beheading people and burning people alive are perfectly acceptable things to do.

You will be marrying into a form of extremism that bears no resemblance to the lovely Ahmadiyyan Islamic community in my neighbourhood. The people who attend the mosque in my neighbourhood conduct themselves magnificently with their commitment to education for all, to working with the people of Merton rather than against them, to volunteer for a wide range of charities, to condemn and reject violence, to welcome non-believers as friends into their mosque, to be a part of Britain.

If you come home, you could be part of multicultural, positive Britain. You could join the people who seek to unite rather than divide our communities.

But instead you have chosen to be a part of an evil force that thrives on hatred, that depends on people hating all Muslims, that seeks to undermine everything great about living in Britain.

Here in Britain, you are able to go to school without fear of being shot. You can go on to university, again without worrying that some lunatic will gun you down for daring to be educated. You can marry for love. You can have a career. You can be a mother. You can drive a car. You can travel. You can vote. You do not have to marry the revolting men who are doing their best to make the world a horrific place. You can come home and appreciate how good you have it here in Britain.

I was once your age. And at that silly, wonderful age, I thought I knew everything and that the ridiculous things I did in 1992 were very clever and sophisticated. Like you, I did well at school but I was not a grown-up and neither are you. I am sure you think you are being very clever, daring and heroic. But now I am old enough to be your mothers and I look at the three of you and despair. I have more than 20 years life experience on you. I can see what you are doing and I can see how ridiculous you look.

It'd be easy for me to sit here in judgement of your families, to wonder out loud how the hell they didn't notice something was up. After all, fleeing the country to marry terrorists is an outrageous form of teenage rebellion. It makes sneaking into pubs, smoking a sly cigarette behind a bus shelter or wearing a parental non-approved outfit seem pretty pathetic. Teenagers are good at hiding stuff from their parents, especially their internet browsing history. There is not much to be gained by slagging off your very worried parents.

Governments, airports and airlines will look into how they can stop girls like you from leaving the country to do something as stupid as become a jihadi bride. Your legacy will not be one of religious heroism, exemplary devotion or piety. Your legacy might be something truly pitiful such as new regulations for unaccompanied minors travelling out of British airports. It will be on par with the regulations that require us to hand over nail clippers and 110ml tubes of toothpaste at airports after we've removed our shoes and belts. They will be the kind of regulations that are dubious in their effectiveness and cause people to irrationally curse all Muslims when they are trying to get on a plane to Alicante. For that you deserve a slow hand clap. You will help breed more stupid hatred.

So come home.

There is still hope for you. I believe in redemption and rehabilitation. I do not believe you should be locked up for life if you return to Britain. I believe that you are still young enough to build lives that do not involve joining a terrorist organisation. You three have taken teenage rebellion to a whole new level but you can still come back from this ridiculous path you've all taken.

Or can you?

I am not sure where any of you are right now, or who you are with, or whether you are safe. If you ever read this, I will be amazed. You may find yourselves in appalling situations very soon, unable to escape marriages to men who condone rape and murder. Your freedoms will be lost, your voices will be rendered silent.

But if any of you happen to read this, if you are not already entrenched in marriages that are about propagating violence, if there is any way any of you can turn around, please do so. You will not regret it.



Photo by ColinBroug


Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The three-parent baby panic


ZOMG! END OF DAYS! THREE-PARENT BABIES ARE NOW A THING!

To be more measured and less hysterical, the House of Commons and the House of Lords in Britain have passed amendments to legislation that will pave the way for fertility clinics to use a process during IVF called mitochondrial donation. Babies conceived this way would have biological material from three different people: a mother, a father and a female donor. The baby would have 99.8% of its genetic material from the mother and father and the remaining 0.2% would come from the donor. The donor would be anonymous and have no parental rights concerning the child.

Of course there are the inevitable howls about "designer babies", about how the inevitable outcome is vain parents greedily creating some sort of dystopian but very attractive master race. The reality is that the rules will apply to a very narrow range of genetic conditions. With careful regulation, this will help eliminate mitochondrial diseases that make people's lives horrific, as well as saving on healthcare costs. This is a good thing.

The 50 concern troll MEPs who wrote a letter calling on the European Commission to look into Britain's supposed "lack of compliance" can, with respect, bugger off. Likewise, the group of Italian MPs who urged the House of Lords to vote down the proposals can also take a long walk off a short pier.

What is particularly vile is the 50 MEPs claiming this amendment will "violate the fundamental standards of human dignity and integrity of the person." I urge these people to tell muscular dystrophy patients that their lifelong pain and drastically shortened life expectancy is essential to their human dignity. Perhaps sufferers of Leber hereditary optic neuropathy simply need to embrace the loss of eyesight from a young age for the good of their personal integrity. Maybe Leigh syndrome patients could learn to enjoy the dignity of respiratory failure and seizures.

Newcastle University's Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research has been instrumental in making this amazing medical breakthrough a reality. The research team, led by Professor Mary Herbert and Profesor Doug Turnbull, should be a source of immense pride for the north-east of England and for Britain as a whole.


Photography by Anna Langova

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The unseemly spectacle of disgruntled men piggybacking on the Natalie Allman case


I genuinely had no idea that the law was such an ass. To discover that a judge can order a woman who was treated so violently by her ex-partner that she could have died from a slashed throat to write to that same abuser three times a year to update him on their kids came as an appalling shock.

But that is what has happened here in the UK in 2015. In a country that I think is generally a very good place to be a woman. In 2011, Natalie Allman was tortured for seven hours by Jason Hughes. They had broken up but he was still living in the same house while Hughes was looking for a new place to live. He had a drinking problem - a litre of vodka or six bottles of cider a day was not unusual, according to court records. Allman called off their engagement two months before their planned wedding day and had started seeing someone else. Hughes, it would seem, did not take this news well.

He tried to smother her with a pillow. He battered her face was battered with a dumb-bell. He slashed her throat in front of their twin sons. The blade narrowly missed a major artery. Her throat had to be surgically rebuilt.

Hughes has been jailed for nine years for malicious wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. Not attempted murder. His defence was that he wanted to make her look ugly to other men, not to kill her. Astoundingly, this worked. One would think that if you wanted to make someone look ugly, you'd slash their face but according to the judge, this was not the case.

One would think that the nine-year jail sentence would be the end of it. With Hughes locked away for nine years, Allman could get on with her life, safe in the knowledge that he could not harm her or her sons. And she did just that. In 2012, she gave birth to a son with her new partner, Wayne Young. They are still together. This should be the happy ending Allman deserves.

But in January 2014, Hughes applied for a Residence and Contact Order. He asked for six letters a year and phone calls from the twins at Christmas and on their birthday. After spending £3,000 on legal fees to fight this absurd demand, a court ruled that she should send up-to-date photos and three letters a year to update Hughes on their health, education and emotional development. The court gave permission for Hughes to send the twins Christmas and birthday cards and a letter at the start of each school year.

If Allman does not comply with this order, she could be found in contempt of court and jailed. She is the victim here. We should not have a situation in a civilised country where a victim of horrific domestic abuse faces prison for refusing to stay in touch with her abuser. That is the sort of morally repugnant rubbish you'd expect to find in societies where women are made to marry their rapists, not in Britain.

This is a story about the importance of justice for domestic violence victims. And it is a story about the importance of balancing parental rights with compassion, commonsense and the protection of children. Hughes should have lost all rights as a father when he attacked his sons' mother in front of them.

But this story did not stop a few trolls from coming out of the woodwork. A particularly unseemly character on the Metro newspaper's Facebook page hailed Hughes as a hero for wronged men and condemned Allman as a cheating woman and a bad mother who was asking for it. No. She was not. To make excuses for such brutal violence against a woman you've never met on the grounds of adultery, either real or imagined, is to live in the dark ages. Or modern day Saudi Arabia, where people can still be beheaded for adultery. In Britain, beheadings for adultery are associated with Henry VIII and he has not been on the throne for quite a while now.

The cesspit of foolishness that is the Daily Mail comments section featured academic giants criticising her for finding a new partner and having another baby so soon after her relationship with Hughes. I'm sorry. I didn't realise there was a required period of celibacy for women after the end of a bad relationship.

And then someone popped up in my Twitter notifications to tell me "the law is a farce here". No argument from me so far but then there was the kicker: "Good fathers get deprived because of bitter mothers but evil men get rights."

Yes, I know, there are indeed cases where men miss out on access to their kids for no good reason. This is not a good thing. Obviously. But to tack this issue on to this story is appalling. The Natalie Allman case is not about a bitter mother. It is about inexcusable domestic violence and how the laws in a supposedly civilised country can fail victims so comprehensively.

If Natalie Allman speaking out to the media gives domestic violence victims, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, the confidence to come forward, to bring their attackers to justice, that is a good thing. Like rape, we will never know the full extent of domestic violence because it is not always reported. But if we expect to walk down the street without being assaulted, the same should apply in our homes, in our most intimate relationships.

And if Natalie Allman speaking out can help bring about a change in the law so that men like Jason Hughes are not able to be a grim spectre in the lives of their victims from behind bars, that would also be a good outcome.

Let Natalie Allman have her moment without slut-shaming her for her life choices or turning this into a chance to slag off "bitter mothers". She is not a fame whore. She just wants justice.







Image by Sabine Sauermaul

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

An open letter to anti-vaxxers


Dear anti-vaxxers,

I know you think you mean well. You probably even fancy yourselves as nice people. Indeed, if I came across you as I was going about my business, we would probably have a perfectly pleasant interaction as long as the exchange didn't involve a discussion on vaccination.

But your willful ignorance, your desperation for a conspiracy theory, your refusal to listen to a world of science from incredibly smart people who do not actually have vested big pharma interests, and your obscene, privileged posturing make you and your ilk terrible people. Sorry, but by refusing to understand and accept the importance of herd immunity in eliminating horrible diseases, you are being dreadful.

By promoting your selfish, anti-science agenda, you are putting vulnerable people at risk. Children with cancer. Anyone with a compromised immune system. The elderly. Newborn babies. People with allergies to vaccine ingredients. Children who are in between vaccinations, such as the series of injections for whooping cough. A story I wrote as a young reporter back in 1996 was about a child who contracted whooping cough in between shots in rural Australia. The sound of her little lungs struggling with a cough that sounded like someone choking a puppy is not something I ever want to hear again.

Do you feel good about yourself now?

You are pontificating from a place of modern privilege. You probably don't remember the awful era when entire families were wiped out by measles. Or when polio forced children into iron lungs. Or when the horrific menace of smallpox killed millions of people. Or when there were no rubella vaccinations to prevent children being born with life-altering conditions? In the last week, people in Britain have been moved to donate more than £300,000 to help a 67-year-old man who was mugged outside his house. His name is Alan Barnes and he suffers from serious sight, growth and bone problems because his mother contracted rubella when she was pregnant in 1947. But ensuring girls are vaccinated against rubella prevents these conditions being passed on during pregnancy.

It is because of vaccination that you probably don't know anyone who has suffered with polio or smallpox. It is because of vaccination that measles hasn't killed any children in your street. It is because of vaccination that child mortality is low in the developed world. Vaccination has made the world a better place.

But diseases such as measles and whooping cough are making a comeback that is about as welcome as a new Dennis Waterman album.

Spare me your lies about vaccination causing autism. It doesn't. And even if there was a connection, which there isn't, it is appalling that you'd rather have a dead child than an autistic child.

Spare me your citing of the Merck case as a reason to not vaccinate. I know that Merck overstated the efficacy of vaccines. But Merck is not the sole manufacturer of vaccines. And this case does not mean all vaccines should be banned. Your own exaggerations are like calling for all cars to be banned because one car manufacturer had a recall.

Spare me your whining about the evils of big pharma. I am not an idiot. I know drug companies make money from vaccines. But so many eminent scientists who are not on big pharma's payroll have conducted study after independent study on vaccine safety and risks (and yes, I acknowledge that, like any medicine, there are risks but the benefits far outweigh any risks). Immunologists and epidemiologists know what they are doing. They know that while you are freaking out about formaldehyde, they know exactly how much is required to make a safe vaccine and they know that not all vaccines contain formaldehyde and they know there is more formaldehyde in a goddamn pear.

Spare me your "I didn't vaccinate and my kids are perfectly healthy!" rhetoric. You fail to comprehend causation and correlation. And if your anti-vax dogma stays with them into adulthood, they may not be perfectly healthy if they travel to a country where travel jabs are highly recommended and they contract something delightful such as typhoid or cholera. Perhaps if your kids go to places where diseases that are largely unheard of in your backyard - and contract those diseases for themselves - they might learn the error of your ways. But, Christ, what a way to learn that lesson.

Spare me your "But if your kids are vaccinated, why are you worried about my unvaccinated kids?" crap. Please at least try and understand herd immunity instead of being content to wallow in the arrogance of ignorance.

Do I come across as a bit rude? Do you feel as if I am shaming you for not vaccinating? Good. I am not here to spare your precious snowflake feelings because you are ignoring people of science who are way smarter than you or I, and you are instead devoted to a movement popularised by bloody Jenny McCarthy, and fuelled by stupid websites such as Natural Health News, Health Impact News and Mercola.

If explaining the importance of vaccinations to you through the lessons of science and history is not going to work on you, then I have no qualms about making you feel ashamed. If parents of vaccinated kids don't want your kids around, perhaps you can take the time you would have spent ferrying them to playdates to think about what you are doing to your kids and to other people.

You should be seen as a pariah, as someone who is on the wrong side of science and history.

Yours sincerely,

Georgia Lewis, a successfully vaccinated member of society since 1976.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Colleen McCullough: Probably more successful than the dead obituary writer


"Colleen McCullough, Australia's bestselling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth."

The daft obituary then went on to quote her from an interview in which she said: "I've never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men."

This was for a woman who not only wrote multiple books, including The Thorn Birds which sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, but was also an accomplished neuroscientist.

I'd give a slow hand clap to the writer of this obituary that appeared in The Australian this week but apparently he died six years ago. Right. So once an obituary is written and kept on file at a newspaper, it is simply impossible for it to be edited in any way, shape or form? Rather than existing as an electronic file, an obituary is carved into a stone tablet and cannot be updated, am I correct? A dead obituary writer's words must be respected at all costs even if he has written a load of tripe?

There was a lame attempt to make amends yesterday with a respectful piece in the Murdoch-owned paper from the former premier of the state of New South Wales, Bob Carr, but the #MyOzObit hashtag on Twitter had already made a mockery of the stupid original obituary.

And that is the best way to respond to such sexist bullfuckery - with mockery and humour.  My own #MyOzObit might be something like "She was only 5'1" and had a flat nose, but Georgia still managed to marry an actual man, albeit at the age of 34." or "Georgia was allowed to compile fashion pages for women's magazines between 1999 and 2004 despite her inability to walk in high heels."

I wouldn't call for a ban on The Australian because I am not a "ban-all-the-things!" feminist. If anything, it's good to know exactly how this newspaper views accomplished women, that it will still reduce them to their weight, appearance and ability to attract men, even in death. Let's have that idiocy right out there where we can see it so we know what we're dealing with and we know to set the time machine back to 1950.

But I will use my freedom of speech to call out the double standard.

If you don't think there is anything sexist about the obituary, just imagine for a moment if The Australian treated male writers the same way. Perhaps The Australian's new obituary writer is currently beavering away on the following pieces:

"Despite going quite bald and sporting some unfortunate facial hair over the years, Salman Rushdie punched above his weight when he married Padma Lakshi."

"Martin Amis had a face that looks a bit like a battered potato but this did not impede his ability to be twice listed for the Booker Prize."

"If he sidled up to you in a smoky bar, you'd probably make your excuses and leave. If you were drunk enough to take him home, you'd probably find yourself wishing that Will Self, with his gangly arms and sunken chest, would spend less time writing novels and more time pumping iron."

These words, I confidently predict, will not make it into any obituary of any of these three men anywhere in the world. Indeed, in life, these men are not subjected to criticism about physical appearance in the same way that the very-much-still-alive Hilary Mantel is, disappointingly by women as well as men who didn't like what she said about Kate Middleton or just couldn't finish Wolf Hall.

Similarly, historian David Starkey with his demented owl demeanour does not cop the same vitriol that the brilliant Mary Beard has received. When people criticise Starkey, they tend to criticise his views rather than his appearance. However, Mary Beard dealt with one of her trolls brilliantly by meeting him, educating him and ultimately writing him a reference.

And I suspect that Colleen McCullough would have roared with laughter at her obituary in The Australian and been deeply touched and amused by the #MyOzObit hashtag, just as Mary Beard deals with her trolls with wit, charm and humour, while never downplaying the serious implications of sexism.

She acknowledges that the vile abuse is "meant to hurt and wound" and could very well "put many women off appearing in public, contributing to public debate." When you seek to reduce a woman to her appearance or her personal life, to downplay her achievements, to silence her, you need to ask yourself why you feel the need to do so. Perhaps it might behoove you to go and achieve a few things of your own instead.