Wednesday, 2 April 2014

It's open season on parents

Judging parents, in particular mothers, has become a global sport. And the way we pour scorn on celebrity mothers is merely a pitiful reflection of the way we judge mothers we come across in our own lives.*

Lily Allen caused significant horror when she admitted that she got bored with staying home with her children and that's why she made another album. She didn't say she hates her kids, as far as we know she doesn't starve or beat her kids, and they seem to be perfectly healthy. But she was honest enough to admit that being a mother wasn't 100% fulfilling and, as such, she wanted to do other things with her life.

If a mother goes back to work after having a baby and she is looking forward to it, good for her. While economic necessity is a big reason for many women to return to work after having a baby, for many others, the reasons include spending time with grown-ups, taking on challenges that are not related to being a mother, relieving the cabin fever of staying at home with the kid, and simply reminding herself that she is not solely defined by her offspring. How any of this is anyone else's damn business is a mystery to me.

Meanwhile, the Duchess of Cambridge was criticised for the way she carried her baby off a plane and for taking a kid-free holiday with her husband when the baby was seven months old. It's not as if Prince George would have been left chained to a radiator for a week. Good Lord! Personally, I am no fan of any monarchy but equally I don't think the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are terrible parents either.

Among the parents I know, there are massive variations in the age of their kids when they decided to take a holiday without them - or even leave them overnight with a babysitter. What works for one family might not work for another. Again, how any of this is anyone else's damn business is a mystery to me.

Then ex-Neighbours star Jane Hall felt the need to tell her listeners on Sydney radio that model Miranda Kerr "repulsed" her for having the temerity to talk about sex in an interview with GQ magazine. According to Hall, Kerr talking about sex was repulsive because she is "a young girl" (er, she's 30...) and "someone's mother" (which one can only assume happened because of sex). Clearly, Kerr never got the memo about how women must shut off their sexuality like a light switch the instant they give birth.

Given that I have friends with more than one child, I am pretty sure that despite the inevitable tiredness and time pressures of parenthood, it is not the death knell for sex either. And while I don't monitor my friends' bedroom activities, I can confirm that parents do still talk about sex, often in explicit detail.

Neither Allen, the Duchess or Kerr are bad parents. Obviously, having wealth and privilege helps make their lives easier, despite Gwyneth Paltrow's moronic comments about how simple life is for mothers who work in offices rather than on film sets. But I wouldn't even describe her as a bad mother, just a daft one with no idea what it's like outside her organic lentil bubble. And there is no law against daftness.

But the culture of judging parents has created a maelstrom of loud voices calling for such things as making drinking alcohol in pregnancy a criminal offence (absurd when there is no medical consensus on alcohol consumption in pregnancy), banning smoking in cars with children (which is surely commonsense - not even the most committed smoker I know would smoke in a car with kids and, as a bonus, it's hard to police) and now the Cinderella Law that will be mentioned in the Queen's speech at the next opening of Parliament.This would make emotional cruelty towards children a criminal offence.

We really need a lot more detail on definitions for the Cinderella Law before we can form a clear view. While there are certainly horrific cases of children being damaged by neglectful parents, the law's main cheerleader, Robert Buckland, a Conservative MP, made this sweeping statement about it on BBC Radio 5 Live: "You can look at a range of behaviours from ignoring a child's presence, failing to stimulate a child, right through to acts of in fact terrorising a child where the child is frightened to disclose what is happening to them."

It's not hard to see how such a law could be open to abuse and time-wasting false reports. Is the mother who needs to take a moment in the garden to compose herself because her kids are behaving horribly an emotional abuser? What about when a parent is tired and plonks a child in front of the TV for a couple of hours just to get some peace and quiet or the washing done? How about when a child is older and savvier - but still legally a child - and tries to criminalise his or her own parents in a fit of teenage vengeance? If you think an adolescent would never do that to a parent, you haven't met many adolescents. After all, we are living in an era where childhood is longer than ever.

Will there be some sort of state-sanctioned quota on hugs and kisses that will mean a child is being loved enough? What if there are too many hugs and kisses and the pendulum swings from neglect to sexual abuse?

As things currently stand, too many kids do slip through the net and end up abused and, equally, there are ridiculous cases of false accusations given a life of their own by over-zealous social workers. A commonsense-driven balance between parental responsibility and state intervention when required needs to be struck.

Whether more laws are required or just better application of existing laws, I am not sure. But I am sure we are living in an era of extreme judgement of parents. Eleanor Roosevelt nailed it when she said: "Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people." Perhaps we could all benefit from less talk about the scandalous mother who got bored by her kids/took a holiday/talked about sex. We could do with more talk about how we can create a society where we deal effectively with genuine abusers while accepting that parenting is not a one-size-fits-all occupation where there is only one way to do it right.

* Disclaimer: It is perfectly acceptable to judge parents who don't vaccinate their kids. They do not understand science or herd immunity and their actions harm others.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

L'Wren Scott and the inevitable grim spectacle

L'Wren Scott was a fashion designer who died a tragic death in New York City, aged just 49. That's no age, as they say. But in today's papers, she was, above all else, the girlfriend of Mick Jagger who committed suicide yesterday, who happened to be a fashion designer and, hey, what better way to sell a few more copies than to run a poster cover purporting to show a gigantic photo of the moment the ageing rocker heard the awful news.

I get it. As a believer in the free press and a free market economy for the media with minimal government interference, I support the right of any newspaper to report on this story however they damn well please. And the Mick Jagger angle is going to attract clicks galore. Obviously. It's Mick freakin' Jagger. Don't like the coverage? Don't buy it or click on the website.

But a free press must be open to criticism. I find it sad that a 49-year-old woman with accomplishments of her own is reduced in death to a "girlfriend". Even the way the relationship is described is reductive and juvenile. L'Wren and Mick were together for 13 years. At their age and after a relationship that lasted longer than a lot of marriages, "girlfriend" can be upgraded to "partner". Yes, I know plenty of people find the word "partner" to be utterly naff but at least it is grown up. With the exception of Dennis Thatcher, dead men are seldom identified first and foremost by their relationship, but for dead women, it is often the preface to her other achievements.

From a cold and cynical free marketeer point of view, the three words that are "suicide" and "fashion designer" will attract interest and will drive traffic to websites and subsequently lead to newspapers being sold too. People are complete and utter ghouls. Those three words will lead people to ask themselves who committed suicide and click on the link and, hey presto, the media outlets get what they want.  We have the additional story of Mick Jagger understandably putting his Australian tour on hold. There's plenty of mileage in this beast yet.

Armchair psychologists will also have their own grim field day with this story. The earliest news on the inevitable question of "Why?" points to financial problems. Cue people asking why she simply didn't ask Mick for some cash, or claiming that financial problems are a lame reason to commit suicide despite not knowing L'Wren Scott personally, or trotting out the trite "but she had so much going for her" line.

But just as Fred Nile reduced Charlotte Dawson's suicide to an abortion she had 15 years ago, nobody will ever truly know what the final moments were like for L'Wren Scott. Instead, there is a morbid rabble out there tweeting nonsense and none of this will advance our understanding of suicide or depression.

And none of this noise, none of this crude speculation over an unspeakably sad situation, none of the awful pictures of Mick Jagger in a state of utter shock and heartbreak, none of this predictable ghoulishness will bring a talented, interesting woman back.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Mind The Gap. Part Two: Still lame

Old Street, where agglomeration happens...

After last week's disappointingly thin first episode of Mind The Gap: London vs The Rest, I naively had high hopes for the second episode. Maybe there'd be more analysis, less kissing of Boris Johnson's arse and perhaps some interesting ideas about how the British economy does not need to rely quite so heavily on the capital. Hell, was I wrong!

Instead, we got to see Evan Davis (and more of Evan Davis than I really needed to see in tight lycra shorts) as he messed about on a bike at a velodrome in Manchester, we had the word "agglomeration" beaten into our heads until we lapsed into a collective coma, there were a couple of women whining in the street where Ringo Starr used to live, and we had the example of one cute village as a model for anywhere north of Watford.

Certainly, it is good that Manchester is managing to thrive with a vibrant cultural scene, drawcard facilities such as the training centre for cyclists and a hub for media businesses (that'd be the agglomeration Davis is unquestioningly evangelical about). But Davis seemed to then reduce the rest of "the north" into a homogenous blur that was never going to compete with the might of London.

Bizarrely, Davis mourned the demise of ports in the north of England, blaming the rise and rise of air travel. It is indeed true that most of us jump on a plane rather than sail for months when we take a holiday or travel for work. But in the previous episode, he gleefully skipped around the enormous new DP World port in London without challenging anything in relation to its Dubai Government ownership and generally proclaimed it as a good thing. So there is still a need for ports. There are still plenty of things that need to be transported to and from Britain by ship. And many cities of the north used to have busy ports and the related infrastructure so why was that not continuously developed and updated? Britain is not a big place - it is not an impossible transport challenge to get goods from, say, Liverpool to London any more than it is to get goods from London to Liverpool.

Liverpool was reduced by Davis to the street where Ringo Starr lived until the age of four. The street is a depressing row of terraced houses, mostly abandoned, save for Ringo's old house where Beatles fans inexplicably go to write on the boarded-up window and a few residents who'd like the street demolished to make way for new houses. It was unclear from (yet another) lame interview whether the pro-demolition women owned the houses or not or who was meant to pay for the demolition and rebuilding.

Ironically, disused places such as this row of terraces could be used for agglomeration, which seems to be Davis's favourite thing. He waxed lyrical about London's Old Street, where IT/wannabe Silicone Valley types are prone to hanging out together, setting up IT start-ups and the like. Why not encourage businesses to get the hell out of London and set up shop elsewhere if there is no real need for them to operate specifically from the capital? Tax breaks for businesses that decentralise, perhaps? Hell, it is the very technology the agglomerating Old Streeters are so fond of that makes it easy for businesses to get out of Dodge City and still communicate with the rest of the world.

Then there was a pointless segue to a funky but failed arts centre in Bromwich. All that did was disprove the adage "If you build it, they will come." Sometimes you've got to build something people actually want to use. Crazy, I know...

And then Hebden Bridge, the charming little town favoured by well-heeled professionals who work in cities like Leeds and Manchester but would rather live elsewhere, was put forward as an example of how it could be. Davis said that while places like Leeds and Manchester are hubs, somewhere like Hebden Bridge is a spoke, a desirable place to live with a buzzing economy of quaint small businesses all of its own. Which is fine if you can afford the property as well as the season ticket for the train, but it's not the panacea for the north.

Davis completely ignored the north-east and the potential of places such as Newcastle and Durham, and Scotland didn't really rate a mention. Examination of what an independent Scotland would mean for the rest of the British economy was clearly not in the remit for this one, which is a shame because that would have been a chance for some interesting analysis. Equally, there was no discussion of how to revive manufacturing, how to finally reverse the damage done by inevitable but poorly managed coal mine closures, and no mention of the importance of high education standards in creating strong economies.

But none of that would be as fun as pissing about in a velodrome or having a chuckle with Boris Johnson. In short, Mind The Gap was a massive let-down.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Is Mind The Gap: London vs The Rest the lamest thing on TV this week?

Look at me, there I am, loving London...

First, a disclaimer: I bloody love London. I have loved London since I first lived in the UK as a three-year-old, I loved it when I made return visits and I love living here now. I love the noise, the chaos, the people-watching, the museums and galleries, and I even love the weather. But Britain does not and should not begin and end with one city. I, for one, would happily work in another part of the country. Indeed, I almost ended up as a lecturer at Sunderland University.

While London's economy goes from strength to strength, the rest of the country is lagging behind, aside from a few notable pockets of affluence outside the capital. The effects of the decline of manufacturing and industry in the north continue to be felt until this day and politicians with clear, meaningful policies and ideas on how to develop the regions are sadly lacking. In Germany, for example, the economy is not just Berlin - places such as Munich, Stuttgart, Bonn, Hamburg, Hanover, Leipzig, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Dortmund and Bremen are all doing well in a way that many cities outside of London are not.

So with that in mind, Mind The Gap: London vs The Rest should have been a powerful two-part TV series, a challenge to government, to businesses and indeed to the millions of us who cling stubbornly to London to think about the rest of the country, to be aware that Britain does not end with the M25.

The first episode was completely lame. A fawning blow job to the capital. Evan Davis, an economist, proved to be an interviewer who was about as hard-hitting as a knitted hammer. Even when he did express concerns about the implications of London getting too big and succeeding at the expense of the rest of the country, his attitude seemed to be one of "Oh well, it might be a bit crap elsewhere but it'll be fine because London just can't fail!". Up to a point, Davis is right. London probably is too big to fail. But that should not have stopped him from challenging the status quo. He had ample opportunity to do so in a series of interviews but he just didn't manage this.

Unsurprisingly, his interview in the Shard with Boris Johnson was especially embarrassing. BoJo's dubious charms worked their floppy haired magic on Davis. Only a starstruck interviewer would let the Mayor of London get away with explaining why everything will be all right with a nonsensical jam-on-Ryvita analogy. Boris bumbled his way through an explanation that was along the lines of "London isn't sucking the jam (as a metaphor for money) out of the rest of Britain, London is helping the jam spread across the entire Ryvita (as a metaphor for the rest of Britain) because the jam will spread more evenly the more you pile on." It seems to be a food-based corruption of the theory of trickle-down economics and it went unchallenged by Davis.

Davis also had golden opportunities to ask serious questions about foreign investment and how much it actually benefits London and, in turn, the rest of the country, how much it benefits foreign investors (who, let's be honest, don't invest here for the good of their health...) and why we're not getting the same investment within Britain by British companies. At London Gateway port, you could not miss the DP World signs. There was even one on Davis' high-vis vest. There was talk about how this project creates jobs and maintains London's status as a port city, but no questions about the ethics of a partnership with a Dubai Government-owned company, what Dubai gets out of this, and whether taxes are being paid to HMRC. But Davis got to load a container with a big Chinese crane so that's OK then.

Similarly, when Davis interviewed Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin, CEO of SP Setia Berhard, the Malaysian consortium that is developing the prime Battersea Power Station site, they had a giggle when he was asked if he was interested in building housing in other parts of Britain. He wasn't asked why he didn't want to invest in, say, Manchester, a place with a growing media industry and education sector, an international airport, good transport to other parts of Britain and a thriving cultural scene. Surely that would be an opportunity to not only create jobs outside of London but be ahead of other foreign property investors in spotting a new up-and-comer?

But given SP Setia Berhard paid £400 million for the Battersea site, more than 800 flats have already been sold for £675 million, prices start at £388,000 for a studio, and details are sketchy on how many flats have been bought by foreign owners, it's pretty clear places outside of London are not going to attract this large-scale level of investment, foreign or otherwise, any time soon. It was just a chance to marvel at overpriced studios, along with the tour through an enormous £40 million Mayfair apartment that came with its own hideous, gold bespoke crockery. It was property porn with no analysis.

And then there was his depressing schlep through Elephant and Castle's currently deserted Heygate Estate, where people who owned ex-council properties were forced out with not enough money to buy somewhere comparable, and where a redevelopment probably won't do a damn thing to solve London's housing crisis. His interview with a woman from the local authority was, again, weak and came across like an advertisement for the development. There'll be places for kids to play and cafes and stuff. No talk of how many more people this will bring into an already crammed part of London, no talk of things like the schools and hospitals that will be required, and no talk of why London's property market is so completely obsessed by the crowded and expensive inner city areas Zones One and Two. Three-bed flats at the Heygate redevelopment are now being advertised to overseas buyers before the demolition of the old estate is finished. The price? £700,000. It's another Battersea Power Station. There had to be a better way to improve this part of London but we'll never know.

I can relate to the "If you're tired of London, you're tired of life" adage. But even if you are not a homelessness or unemployment statistic, if you are on an endless waiting list for a council flat, if you cannot see yourself ever owning your own place, if you fear you will be an eternal renter in the land where mortgages are a badge of honour and people treat home ownership as a get-rich-quick-scheme rather than somewhere to live, it can be a tiresome city indeed. The first episode of Mind The Gap briefly visited Yorkshire for some fresh air and talked a bit about the Tour de France. It would appear that the second episode will focus on areas outside of London. But the first episode was a massive disappointment. There were so many missed opportunities to ask hard questions and do a bit of analysis beyond the whizzy map graphics.

 Episode One was a largely uncritical advert for London. Here's hoping for something meatier in the second episode. Christ knows, someone needs to make the issue of regional development sexy and interesting to the wider population because right now, our political leaders sure as hell can't manage it.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

An open letter to Fred Nile

Dear Fred,

Congratulations on your marriage last December. I'm sure you had a lovely wedding day and, as someone who is also happily married, we can both agree that finding someone you love to share your life is a wonderful thing. It's just a shame that in your perfect world, you would not extend the right to such joy to same-sex couples.

Whoops! Sorry! That was a bit crass of me, wasn't it? Did see what I so thoughtlessly did there? I used the example of your personal life to make a political point. I've never actually met you, save for the time I was on Sydney's Oxford Street with my family watching the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras back in 1992 and across the road, I spotted you and a few supporters trying to pray the gay away, but I figured I'd still use your personal situation to share my views on marriage equality.

It's as rude as, oh, I dunno, using the suicide of Charlotte Dawson to hammer out an anti-abortion message, as you did, Fred. Perhaps obituary writers did not feel the need to mention the abortion she had in 1999 because she had already shared this story in her autobiography, or because her privacy had already been stripped away, partly by herself and partly by the media, or because of editorial word limits, or because, maybe, just maybe, the writers figured that an obituary might be a distasteful place to mention pregnancy termination.

Oh dear, sorry, I got distracted again. I was writing to congratulate you on your marriage. Er, where was I? Oh yes, that's right, it is indeed marvellous to fall in love and share your life with someone. It is such a shame that you didn't have the full support of your family on your wedding day. From what I've read in assorted newspapers and gossip columns, I understand that your daughter and one of your three sons didn't attend your wedding. Something to do with them not being comfortable with you remarrying so soon after Elaine, your first wife, passed away? Is that correct? How awful for you. I can't imagine my own wedding day without my family being there.

Whoops! There I go again! I don't know what has come over me today. What was I thinking in bringing up details of your family dramas when I've never met you or your family, I wasn't invited to your wedding, I am not privy to what goes on behind closed doors in your family, and I do not have access to all the facts.

That's bit like pulling out a quote about an abortion from a recently dead woman's autobiography and posting it on your Facebook page with a comment about the lack of abortion mentions in her obituaries the day after she was found dead in her apartment. The quote from her autobiography - "I felt a shift, I felt the early tinges of what I can now identify as my first experience with depression" - do indeed refer to the "total turmoil" she felt on the day she had an abortion after falling pregnant to her ex-husband, Scott Miller.

From her account, it would appear that she felt pressured into terminating the pregnancy at the behest of her ex-husband. But you didn't feel the need to think about this side of the story before posting on Facebook, did you, Fred?

The circumstances surrounding her abortion include a failing and troubled relationship that was being played out in the public eye. Charlotte's writings on the subject do not paint Scott in a flattering light. And nobody who is truly prochoice is OK about any abortion that happens in an environment of coercion. Prochoice is about supporting all choices women make, giving them the information to make educated choices, and the resources to ensure that all choices are available to them, including carrying unplanned pregnancies to term.

Here's the thing, Fred: Just as I have no real clue about the details of your family life, your wedding day, or your relationship with your sons and daughter, you have no real idea about what Charlotte was going through 15 years ago - or last week. Equally, neither you or I have a time machine that we could set to 1999 and change the course of Charlotte's life so that she chose to carry the pregnancy to term. We will never know what sort of a mother she might have been, whether having a baby would have saved her, how she might have coped with pregnancy and childbirth, whether she would have been felled by the horrors of post-natal depression, whether her marriage would have survived, or whether she would have gone on to be a successful and happy single mother. These scenarios are all in the realm of the ghoulishly hypothetical.

Given that nothing anyone can say or do can bring Charlotte back, given that her friends and family are going through the terrible process of grieving for a woman who felt so desperate that, despite her many advantages, she took her own life at the age of 47, and given that depression is a complex condition that cannot be summarised in a Facebook post, it is appalling that you'd give a troubled woman one last agenda-loaded kick when she was as low as any person can possibly be.

Like I said, Fred, congratulations on your marriage. May you and your new wife have many happy years together. May you recognise that such joy isn't as forthcoming to everyone. And next time you feel the need to make a point about abortion, consider whether using the early death of a woman who was in enormous pain really is the best way to push that particular barrow.

Kind regards,


Monday, 24 February 2014

Censorship, censorship everywhere and not a chance to think...

You think you can say what you like? Think again. This blog has been routinely blocked by O2 and EE using stupid internet filters that treat adult consumers like children. O2 regularly makes Barry Butler, a freelance ESOL teacher from the Midlands, jump through absurd hoops every time he tries to read this blog and finds it has been blocked. 

EE has also been guilty of preventing adult customers from accessing this blog - this is especially ridiculous given that EE sponsored the BAFTA awards the other week. Let me see if I understand. We have a phone company that has prevented adults from accessing the internet in its entirety putting its name to a celebration of the British film industry. That would be an industry which over the years has given the world some of the most brilliant, subversive and controversial contributions to the cultural landscape. 

Corporations are already doing the work of the government whose plans for internet filtering are anti-free speech in the extreme. There is an alarming dearth of opposition to these plans in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. If that doesn't strike you as the start of an ominous future of restricted speech and expression, we need to sit down and have a little chat.

And then we have the mob mentality which seeks to silence anything offensive. Personally, I think Katie Hopkins is an attention-seeking professional troll. I don't tune in when she is on TV, I don't follow her on Twitter, I simply cannot be bothered with her nonsense. But she has every right to spout whatever it is that she says. The same goes for lads' mags, Frankie Boyle, Seth McFarlane, Sarah Silverman and anyone or anything else that people have sought to ban.

Campaigning website wasted bandwidth with an e-petition to remove Katie Hopkins from ITV and Channel 5 after she she tweeted something tasteless after the helicopter crash in Scotland late last year. And, by jingo, it worked! Hopkins was indeed dropped from ITV's This Morning programme. Seriously, it is far saner to just not watch her if you don't like her. Frankly, I'd be happy if Keith Lemon, Citizen Khan, Mrs Brown's Boys or Chris Lilley never appeared on TV again because they're all about as funny as burning orphans but starting up an e-petition is childish and misses the point. 

Once you seek to ban something just because you don't like it, there is no reason why something you do like cannot be banned too.

We also have problematic discussions when it comes to banning hate speech. The thing is we don't actually need any more laws on hate speech. The UK already has laws against verbal abuse as well as physical abuse. If you yell something awful at someone and it causes distress or upset, you have broken the law and the judge will have to consider the hate speech aspect of it when sentencing. Similarly, if someone is beaten up for whatever reason, this is against the law and the judge again has to take into account whether there is any hateful motivation, such as racism or homophobia, when passing sentence. The impact of such abuse should be pretty obvious - I don't want to live in a society where it is acceptable to beat someone up for any reason - and in the case of assaults, either verbal or physical, that are motivated by hate, education is just as important as harsh sentences.

But this does not mean someone should not be allowed to speak out against issues such as same sex marriage or further immigration. I may find the views of someone opposed to marriage equality or immigration from certain nations absurd, illogical, unconstructive, unpleasant or just plain moronic - but if their views are silenced as "hate speech" there is nothing to stop other opinions also being shut down. If you start cutting down the right to express opinions, even ones with which you violently disagree, you automatically restrict your right to refute it.

And then there are more insidious ways that we are censored. 

The "gagging law" passed through Parliament, albeit with a few minor amendments and there was no mass outrage because, basically, people didn't take the time to understand it or think about how it might affect them. It imposes ridiculous requirements on lobbying groups (but not corporations...) in the run-up to elections and is essentially aimed at silencing groups such as trade unions and the implications go beyond silencing some rowdy unionists. Hint: If a law is opposed by various groups across the political spectrum, groups who typically disagree with each other, it's probably a bad law. The bureaucracy that will be involved in monitoring the membership lists and campaign spending of lobby groups flies in the face of government claims that they are all about spending less public money and being a libertarian party of small government. 

And just today I was tweeting in my other guise at the @Save_St_Helier account, whereby I am part of a campaign to try and retain vital services at my local hospital, such as A&E, maternity, renal and kids' intensive care. A few of us asked faceless bureaucrats in the Twitterverse for some transparency in relation to a process which has so far cost taxpayers £8.2 million. How the hell was a review of local healthcare services costing us so much money? 

We finally found out that £1.874 million of our money was paid to 2020 Delivery, one of those vague consultancies whereby a peruse of their website leaves you none the wiser about what they actually do. All we were told by the bureaucrats was that the £1.874 million was spent on "finance and activity monitoring and travel and transport analysis". But we can't really find out a whole lot more because Freedom of Information legislation does not apply to private companies, only public bodies. It's just another way to stop the free flow of information, to drive people who are using their freedom to publicly ask questions into a brick wall and to keep us passive and quiet.

I'm exhausted. I apologise for this blog post rambling all over the place but once you start looking at the ways in which we are censored, the ways in which the flow of information is restricted, the ways in which we seek to ban that which we dislike without thinking through the consequences, you soon discover a multi-headed hydra of anti-freedom bullshit has grown before your very eyes. Now, who wants to help me slay the hydra? It's a big job but it's one of the most important jobs we will ever do.   

Image: "Resurrection de la Censure", JJ Grandville

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Genital grooming of the worst kind

Seriously, I do not care what you do with your pubic hair. Wax it all off, trim it, grow it to your knees, dye it purple, get a vajazzle, braid it, coat your crotch in cream that stinks to high heaven, shave it, festoon it with feathers, whatever makes you happy. Just quit going on about it. This month alone, Salon has featured a wax-related whine, Cameron Diaz made actual headlines for urging women to leave their bushes be, and American Apparel caused a mass gross-out (and most likely a boost in sales) for being "brave" enough to put pubic hair on shop mannequins Good Lord. Not even the vulvas of store dummies are safe from scrutiny.

While this utterly pathetic, my-feminism-is-better-than-your-feminism-because-of-my-knicker-beard contest rages on, here are some facts on female genital mutilation (FGM). That would be the revolting, barbaric and inexcusable practice of cutting off all or part of the genitals of a girl or woman for reasons that represent sexism at its most grotesque.

1. It is estimated by the World Health Organisation that more than 125 million girls and women alive to day have been cut in the 29 countries of Africa and the Middle East where this practice is concentrated. Of these 125 million girls and women, it is believed that the majority of these mutilations take place between infancy and the age of 15. It is estimated that in Africa, more than 3 million girls are at risk annually.

2. As well as the risk of dying during this vile procedure which is usually performed in unsanitary conditions, complications as a result of FGM include severe bleeding, problems with urination and menstruation, cysts, infections, infertility, life-endangering complications during childbirth, and a greater risk of infant mortality.

3. The main FGM procedures include clitoridectomy (the partial or total removal of the clitoris); excision (partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora and, in many cases, the labia majora); infibulation (the narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a seal, usually with cutting and stitching); any other procedures where the female genitalia is cut, pricked, incised, scraped or cauterised for non-medical reasons.

4. Until the 1950s, FGM occurred in the UK and the US for fictitious medical reasons, such as the "treatment" of lesbianism, hysteria, epilepsy or masturbation. These days, there have been reports of girls and women visiting the UK or the US to undergo FGM in hygienic settings. This does not make it right. Indeed, although it is illegal in the UK and doctors have come across girls and women who have been cut, the number of prosecutions for FGM stands at zero. France has no specific laws against FGM yet has convicted 100 people as a result of 29 trials under existing laws against committing bodily harm against children.

The reasons for FGM are all about control of women, control of sexuality, of fetishising female virginity. Excuses made by FGM apologists, whether they are about hygiene, culture, religion or the protection of girls and women, are all harmful nonsense. Nobody's right to cultural or religious freedom extends to mutilating girls and women against their will in an environment where informed consent is absent. This is not negotiable yet many people are fearful of calling out FGM in case they are accused of racism or religious discrimination. With all due respect, get over yourself. FGM has been and continues to be inflicted on girls and women in Christian, Islamic, animist and other religious communities. 

It predates both Christianity and Islam. The obsession with female virginity and controlling female sexuality is not new but it does have a strong connection to this day with certain cultures, countries and religious groups. As long as people tiptoe around the issue and won't properly engage with countries and communities where FGM happens, nothing much will change. 

In every country where FGM happens, local campaigners are fighting to be heard. There are plenty of brave women who are not afraid to speak our against their own governments, communities and religious leaders to try and stop this ongoing assault on female bodies. We can help by giving these women a voice, by helping them have a platform from which they can shout about what is going on, lobby governments across the world to not only make FGM illegal but to enforce the law, to not be afraid of punishing the mutilators and enablers, to offer safe places for girls and women who have been cut, or are at risk of being cut, to escape abusive families, communities and countries.

But surely I am being a western cultural supremacist, sitting here all smug with my intact genitals, pontificating from a place of privilege?

Yes, there are women who say they have been cut, believe it to be culturally or religiously important and may even claim they have a great sex life as a result. Good for them. If these women sincerely believe they underwent an FGM procedure as an informed, consenting adult, if they believe it was an important thing for them to do, and they do not feel they are in any way damaged, either physically or psychologically, fine. Indeed, there are cases of women undergoing such procedures of their own free will, performed by medical professionals in hygienic places. Many of these women explain that their genitals were merely nicked and make their experience sound about as controversial as plucking out an ingrown bikini line hair.

Again, good for them. Their bodies, their choice. After all, nobody is speaking out against genital piercing or "designer vagina" cosmetic surgery, for example. But in the UK, such procedures are only legal if performed on consenting adults. Standards of hygiene must be maintained in places where these procedures are done. Underage girls are not being frogmarched to British piercing studios or cosmetic surgery clinics against their will to undergo painful, life-endangering procedures with unsterilised implements and no anaesthetic, while being held down by members of their family and community.

The stories from women who claim they consented to their own cutting are not helping the millions of girls (and the majority of FGM victims are underage girls, let's not be naive) who are mutilated every year in disgusting conditions, against their will, with no informed consent, with the real risk of death and infection, and who are doomed to a life of excruciating pain during urination, menstruation, sex and childbirth. Where is the freedom of choice for these girls and women? Where was their informed consent? How many of these girls and women have the means to undergo circumcision with full consent in sanitary conditions?

The women who sing the praises of being cut with their full consent in a clean medical facility are speaking from a place of privilege.

Monstrous violations are happening to girls and women on a large scale across multiple countries. After the mutilation has taken place, the stories about girls and women being married off to abusive husbands who force their way into the irrevocably damaged bodies of their terrified wives are truly nauseating. If this isn't an example of rape culture, I don't know what is. This is why there are women who are fighting to have their voices heard. Helping these campaigners effect real change is far more useful than banging on about pubic hair.


Useful links if you'd like to do something about FGM

Orchid Project

Edna Adan Hospital


Plan UK