Unbutton that jacket, and let freedom reign

The Independent, Tuesday 24 July 2012

Clothes matter, especially when the temperature soars. This is the moment when halter-necks and strapless bras come into their own, inviting cooling breezes to caress newly-bare flesh – though not if you’re a man, of course. I was at a party in the City of London last week and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for all the men in suits. I don’t often feel sorry for men, obviously, but these were CEOs, politicians, lobbyists – men of some importance in their respective worlds – and they all looked the same.

This is one of the few areas of life where women have an advantage. “What are you going to wear?” are among the words I most enjoy hearing, signalling the start of intense conversations with my women friends. We compare the merits of different designers, agonise over heel height and offer supportive comments as we fix our lipstick in the ladies’ loo.

I don’t know for certain that men don’t do any of this, but I find it hard to imagine them  nthusiastically discussing each other’s choice of socks. Despite the massive social changes we’ve gone through in the past half century, it’s a curious fact that men’s clothes have evolved very little. David Cameron tries to do casual from time to time but in Afghanistan last week he sweltered in a totally unsuitable black shirt. I recently saw Ed Miliband standing next to Ed Balls on a warm evening, and they both had their suit jackets buttoned up.

A couple of male friends have told me recently that they envy my freedom to wear what I like. The downside – there’s always a downside where women are concerned – is the risk of not being taken seriously. The conservative nature of men’s clothes says something about gravitas and power, and the smart woman’s dilemma has always been whether to challenge that assumption or conform.

I rather admire David Steel’s wife Judy for deciding to get a tattoo for her 70th birthday, especially as she must have guessed it would prompt a discussion about whether a woman is ever too old for body art. Personally, I’ve never liked tattoos but I’m amused by their shifting relationship to class. Who now remembers that they used to be an aristocratic fashion, embraced by both the Duke of York (later George V), who had a dragon tattooed on his arm, and Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie?

If the meaning of body art can change so drastically, it’s odd that clothes are still so codified by gender. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’d love to walk into a party and look at the men’s clothes as well as the women’s. Am I right to think that most men don’t know what they’re missing? I can’t tell you how much fun it is to go out in a corset dress and heels.


There’s no latte without a dairy farmer

Independent on Sunday, 22 July 2012

Three or four times a week, I go into a local coffee shop and order a double espresso. It costs about £1.70, although I’m not absolutely sure, and the place is usually packed. Yet I suspect that some of the customers head straight from Caffè Nero or Starbucks to a supermarket boasting about rock-bottom prices, the kind of place that sells anaemic chickens which have never seen the daylight in their brief existence.

It’s a testament to the power of advertising: supermarkets have taught the public to value price above everything, while café culture has managed to achieve exactly the opposite. Few people seem to wonder why the milk that goes into their cappuccino or flat white is so ridiculously cheap on the supermarket shelf, where it’s often treated as a loss leader – the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) accuses Asda and Morrisons of “waging war with each other on milk prices”. Now there’s a crisis facing dairy farmers, with several going out of business each week, and the NFU says some farners are being paid less per litre of milk than it costs to produce.

Dairy farmers need 30p per litre to cover their costs. The price that many of them get from milk processors was cut in June and another cut is scheduled in August, making t the price of a litre as low as 25p. Last week, farmers blockaded plants owned by one of the big three milk processors, Arla, and more protests are planned. They’ve got the support of chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who point out that milk is cheaper than mineral water. Actually, a pint of semi-skimmed costs less than a chunky Kit Kat, suggesting that something has gone seriously awry with consumer expectations.

The way food is produced and marketed in this country has created an obesity epidemic, factory farming, and an endless struggle by farmers to make a living. We’ve been hearing for years about big supermarket chains using their power to impose unreasonable terms on suppliers, suggesting that the milk of human kindness is in short supply in the food industry. The NFU says the latest cuts are driving down the price of milk to a point where it’s no longer sustainable; it wants shoppers to support farmers by shopping at stores such as Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer and Tesco, which give farmers a better deal.

Four years ago, a study by economists at Oxford University upheld “the common belief that supermarkets currently hold the bargaining power”. Farmers do all the hard work but are the weakest point in the supply chain. I’ve thought for ages that supermarkets should be obliged to display information not just about where their produce comes from, but whether they adhere to fair terms of trade.

The revolution in the nation’s coffee drinking shows that people do change their habits. And consumers have power, if they can be persuaded to use it. Anyone who’s happy to pay £2 for a cup of coffee shouldn’t think twice about paying a fair price for essentials, whether it’s a chicken or a pint of milk.


There’s more than race in this case of handbags

Independent on Sunday, 15 July 2012

Almost 1.4 million women and girls play football regularly in England. Women’s football is the third largest team sport in the country after men’s football and men’s cricket, and  843 women have trained as referees. So what, I wonder, did they make of last week’s events in a London court, when two of the country’s top footballers admitted that they use demeaning and contemptuous language about women?

The case hinged on an accusation of racism against the Chelsea and former England captain, John Terry. In confusing evidence about a confrontation between Terry and the QPR defender Anton Ferdinand during a match in October last year, Terry’s QC said his client sarcastically used the word “black” because he thought Ferdinand had accused him of using it. Terry was cleared after receiving support from the Chelsea and England player Ashley Cole and the former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho.

I expected Terry to be acquitted and I’m happy to accept he isn’t racist. What I’m not happy about – and I suspect a lot of women and girls who play football aren’t either – is the reflexive misogyny highlighted by the trial. Brace yourself, for here is Ferdinand giving his version of the spat: “He called me a cunt, and I called him a cunt back.” Ferdinand said he went on to explain to Terry why he deserved the insult, claiming that “you shagged your team-mate’s missus”.

I’ve never believed that this unedifying series of exchanges has much to do with race. It’s in a tradition of confrontations in which professional footballers – some of the most widely admired and highest-paid sportsmen in the world – reveal that the very worst insult they can think of is a slang word for the vagina. Slang names for the penis also get used on the pitch but they’re much more ambiguous – I’m sure some players are actually quite proud of that part of their anatomy – but no man wants to be compared to a vagina. It’s a way of attacking a rival’s masculinity, and that takes us straight into the territory of ”honour”.

In this hyper-masculine world, a man’s “honour” is a fragile thing and he has to defend it at all costs. The then French captain, Zinedine Zidane, was sent off during the 2006 World Cup Final for head-butting an Italian player who called his sister a “whore”, and Zidane refused to apologise for years. Players claim to be defending their female relatives, but what’s really wounded is their pride. In this context, having an affair with a team-mate’s wife or girlfriend would be unacceptable not because it involves deception, but because it’s an incursion onto another man’s territory.

Terry and his club will be hugely relieved at the outcome of his trial, but it’s far from being a vindication of professional football in this country. In a breathtaking aside after the match at Loftus Road, Terry and Ferdinand met in the dressing-room and apparently agreed that their row was “just handbags, innit”. It isn’t: players, clubs and the FA should hang their heads in shame. Or do they really care so little about the poisonous misogyny at the heart of the professional game?

All material on this site (c) Joan Smith 2009-2012


There are no grey areas in rape

Independent on Sunday, 8 July 2012

Few subjects are as contentious, or as poorly understood, as rape. Blaming the victim is common, as is endlessly finding excuses to “explain” why some men brutalise women. Three months ago, people used social networking sites to abuse – and name – a 19-year-old woman raped by the professional footballer Ched Evans, who had just been sent to prison for five years. Last week, at Cambridge Crown Court, a schoolboy was spared a custodial sentence for raping a five-year-old girl after he blamed his “ormones” and the judge blamed “the world and society”.

Most rape cases are horrible, this one particularly so. The boy, 14 at the time, was known by the girl’s parents who asked him to babysit while they went to watch an older child in a school play. On their return, they paid him £10 and he went home; it wasn’t until the little girl was getting ready for bed that she told her father what had happened. On Monday, the judge imposed a three-year community sentence with a supervision requirement on the boy, leaving the victim’s parents to worry about the possibility that she will bump into him on the street. The girl’s mother said the sentence sent the “wrong message” about rape, and could deter other victims from coming forward.

She is right. Counsellors and campaigners talk about “myths” which blur the definition of rape and encourage misconceptions, such as the idea that attackers are “provoked” by the victim’s clothing or behaviour. Both the courts and the media repeatedly look
away from the individual assailant, whose responsibility for the crime gets lost in a welter of excuses. Anyone who rapes a five-year-old is by definition a danger to girls and women, who are entitled to expect protection from the criminal justice system.

The judge mentioned the boy’s use of internet pornography, claiming his exposure at a  young age had ended in “tragedy” – a strange choice of word for a vicious assault – but a 14-year-old boy is old enough to know that forcing someone to have sex is a crime. If he goes ahead and does it anyway, he belongs in a subset of sexual predators who will have violent relationships with women when they grow up.

The case underlines the need for education about sexual violence, both to protect potential victims and to identify boys with aggressive attitudes towards sex. Parents and teachers need to be on the outlook for such young men, and challenge their behaviour at an early stage.

It doesn’t happen often enough. Everyone thinks rape is a bad thing in theory, but real life cases are very different. Total strangers rush to excuse rapists on Twitter, while no one believed the victims of the black-cab rapist, John Worboys, leaving him free to drug and rape more than a hundred women in London over a period of years. What we should worry about is lenient sentences and ambivalent public attitudes, which mean rapists aren’t sufficiently afraid of being condemned and punished.



Veiled Bodies

Sunday Times, 8 July 2012

Zoë Ferraris is an American who used to live in Saudi Arabia, and Kingdom of Strangers ­(Little Brown £13.99/ebook £5.99) is the third in her fine series of novels set in the claustrophobic society of Jeddah. There, women can go out only if accompanied by male “guardians”, but the Saudi boast that women are treated with respect is challenged by a gruesome discovery in the desert.

Nineteen women have been murdered, proving that a serial killer is on the loose — but nobody has noticed. The case is assigned to Lt-Col Inspector Ibrahim ­Zahrani, a thoughtful officer with pressing problems. Zahrani is unhappily married and his mistress is missing, but he can’t report her disappearance because adultery is punishable by death. ­Distracted and out of his depth, Zahrani turns to Katya Hijazi, one of the force’s few female officers. Suspense and social commentary combine brilliantly as Katya’s  dilemmas provide insights into daily life in the kingdom, and the state of denial that exists about violence against women.

Ruth Rendell has always been fascinated by everyday life in the suburbs. But her latest novel, The Saint Zita Society (Hutchinson £18.99/ebook £19.81), turns a sharp eye on an exclusive region in central London. Pimlico is one of the city’s most affluent areas but it is also diverse, attracting people from around the world who work as domestic staff. Rendell’s novel focuses on some of these employees: a Spanish au pair, a cleaner from Antigua and a British Muslim widow. This disparate little group is uneasy about Dex, who has recently been released from a psychiatric hospital and hears “voices” via his mobile phone, but they allow him to join the organisation they’ve set up to air their grievances — the Saint Zita Society, which is named after the patron
saint of servants.

The society’s driving force is June Caldwell, an elderly housekeeper who’s been with Princess Susan Hapsburg since she was in her teens. But the class system is fragile and resentments build up, fuelled by how much the domestic staff know about their employers’ affairs. When a banker’s marriage breaks up, their au pair spots a chance to ally herself with the angry husband, with fatal consequences. ­Rendell’s prose style is unadorned, but she uses it to create memorable characters and nail-biting suspense.

Much of the violence in the superb Bed of Nails by Antonin Varenne, translated by Sian Reynolds (MacLehose £18.99/ebook £15.20), is self-inflicted. The novel opens with a team of hard-boiled Parisian cops viewing CCTV images of a naked man running into traffic, culminating in his gory death. The case belongs to Guerin, a maverick detective who has been put in charge of investigating suicides. Guerin suspects that some of his suicides were encouraged to kill themselves by a mysterious ­couple who regularly appear at death scenes. His suspicions are further aroused when a young American kills himself in an S&M nightclub. The novel has a strikingly original plot and characters, and its ­pessimism is balanced by Varenne’s inexhaustible human sympathy.

Jane Casey began her crime-writing career with The Missing, a clever novel about abducted children. The Last Girl (Ebury £12.99/ebook £11.64) has a searing opening, when a mother and daughter are murdered on the ground floor of their large house in Wimbledon, and the girl’s father is found unconscious upstairs. The dead girl’s twin sister survives, finding the bodies when she comes home from a late-night swim. Casey handles several plot lines with ease, and she’s come up with an attractive series character in DC Maeve Kerrigan.

Asa Larsson’s novels feature contrasting female protagonists: a detective and a prosecutor who work together in ­northern Sweden; Inspector Anna-Maria Mella has a husband and four children, while Rebecka Martinsson lives alone. At the start of The Black Path, translated by Marlaine Delargy (MacLehose £18.99/ebook £11.64), Martinsson is recovering from a breakdown after a case that ended with her killing three men in self-defence. She is drawn into Mella’s latest assignment when a woman’s frozen body is found in a fishing hut, apparently showing signs of torture. The growing friendship between Mella and Martinsson is one of the best things about Larsson’s novels, which grow in confidence with each book.

Jussi Adler-Olsen is the author of the Department Q series of novels that has won Denmark’s top literary prize. ­Disgrace, translated by KE Semmel (Penguin £7.99/ebook £3.99), is a follow-up to Mercy, his extraordinary novel about a kidnapped politician. Detective Carl Morck is in charge of Department Q, the cold-cases division of Copenhagen police, and the latest file to land on his desk is 20 years old. A brother and sister were murdered for no apparent reason, and the chief suspects were a group of students from an elite boarding school. Disgrace isn’t quite as original as Mercy, but Adler-Olsen’s ­fascination with abnormal psychology once again pays off.


Abortion: when private philanthropy affects public policy

Independent on Sunday, 1 July 2012

All over the developing world, private benefactors are funding libraries, fighting malaria and working to eradicate polio. Bill and Melinda Gates are the modern equivalent of Victorian philanthropists, providing grants worth $3bn in 2009 alone. They’re funding agricultural projects, providing resources to help women farmers, and their latest initiative is about safe contraception. Melinda Gates will be in London in ten days’ time to host a family planning summit with Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development.

The summit’s ambitions are laudable. Around 215m women in developing countries  aren’t able to make choices about when to have children, and the aim is to deliver safe contraception to 120m of them by 2020. DfID is expecting ‘global leaders’ to attend the event, although it hasn’t released names as yet. But there is a problem: experts point out that lack of contraception is just one factor behind the many thousands of unwanted pregnancies each year. This week the charity ActionAid will publish a report ahead of the summit, highlighting the role of domestic violence in preventing access to contraception.

ActionAid’s report includes an interview with Hadia Ali Makame, a 46-year-old mother of eight from Zanzibar, whose husband ignored her pleas that she didn’t want to get pregnant again. ‘I refused to have sex and he slept with me. I got pregnant yet my child was only eight months old. He…forced me’. Last week, a DfID spokesman assured me that education would be an important part of the summit, including challenging male attitudes that demand repeated pregnancies as a demonstration of virility. But he confirmed there’s one subject the summit won’t address, even though it’s of vital importance to women and girls: abortion isn’t on the agenda. ‘The conference is focused on the point before pregnancy’, he told me.

It’s an astonishing omission. An estimated 68,000 women die each year in backstreet abortions, according to the World Health Organisation, and millions more suffer permanent damage. The WHO describes unsafe abortion as a ‘preventable pandemic’ and insists that ‘the availability of modern contraception can reduce but never eliminate the need for abortion’. Family planning experts know that husbands force wives into unprotected sex, girls get pregnant as a result of rape, and condoms break. I’m sure the people organising the DfID/Gates summit know it too, so why are they refusing to discuss abortion?

This, I’m afraid, is where the link between governments and private philanthropy becomes problematic. The Gates Foundation didn’t respond directly to my question about abortion but it’s a hugely contentious subject in the US, and Melinda Gates has said she doesn’t want the Foundation to be drawn into the controversy. ‘We’re not talking about abortion’, she said in April, pre-empting NGOs who believe it makes no sense to exclude it from a major initiative on family planning. Inevitably, her speech raises questions about how far her personal views – she is a Catholic – are influencing political decisions.

Gates says she wrestled with her conscience before publicly opposing the Vatican’s teaching on contraception, and it may be that she regards abortion as a step too far. But it’s hard to see why a private citizen, no matter how wealthy or influential, should be able to dictate government policy. Abortion is legal in the UK, and British ministers will let down women in developing countries if they exclude it from the agenda of the landmark London summit.