Angelina Jolie’s bravery has little to say to everywoman

Independent on Sunday, 19 May 2013

Her experience is always going to be very different from a single mother being treated in an overstretched NHS hospital

I’m sure Angelina Jolie meant well when she wrote about her double mastectomy in the New York Times. Her doctor followed up the article with a blog which explained Jolie’s treatment in more detail, including the fact that she was back at work only four days after surgery. The doctor said she was pleased to find the actor “in good spirits” and surrounded by storyboards for the movie she’s about to direct, even while six drains dangled from her chest. Jolie hopes the disclosures will help other women who don’t actually have a tumour but know they have a faulty gene that predisposes them to a high risk of breast or ovarian cancer.

Ever since Jolie’s article appeared last Tuesday, I’ve been trying to work out why the
publicity around it makes me uncomfortable. It isn’t just that I’m wary of drawing parallels between the lives of Hollywood stars and other women, although that’s part of it. Many women have to make difficult decisions about breast cancer on their own, without a supportive partner or much in the way of resources to make the treatment less wearing. That isn’t Jolie’s fault and I’m sure she would like to see other women get the support she’s enjoyed. But her experience is always going to be very different from a single mother being treated in an overstretched NHS hospital. Jolie’s optimism may be refreshing, but I suspect some women will struggle to feel quite so positive in a culture obsessed (as this story confirms) with women’s breasts.

It’s also important to bear in mind that Jolie’s situation is very unusual. There has been a big increase in the number of prophylactic double mastectomies in the US in recent years, and doctors recommend them in rare cases like hers where the risk of the disease is very high. But there has also been a rise in cases where a woman who has cancer in a single breast nevertheless opts to have both removed. This seems to be part of a trend towards more aggressive breast cancer treatments, even though its impact on survival rates is unclear. I can’t help suspecting that some American women with early-stage breast cancer are undergoing more radical surgery than they actually need, just as hysterectomies were overprescribed for earlier generations.

At the same time, most readers seem to have missed the confused messages sent by Jolie’s decisions. She insisted that having a double mastectomy didn’t make her feel any less of a woman, but we don’t know how she’ll feel when the initial sensation of relief has worn off. She also opted for complicated reconstructive surgery, which suggests rather more anxiety than her article acknowledges. That isn’t a criticism: it’s hard to know how women would feel about losing a breast in a culture where they weren’t on permanent, erotically charged display. But I’m uneasy about drawing too many conclusions from the health choices of celebrities, and I doubt whether Jolie’s feel-good article tells the whole story.

The great feminist revival

An anti-Page 3 campaign, SlutWalks and the relaunch of Spare Rib show that feminism is as vigorous – and necessary – as ever. Why did we ever doubt it?

The Guardian, Tuesday 14 May 2013

I’ve lost count of all the times I’ve been told that feminism is dead. I’ve even found myself described as a “post-feminist” writer, as if I were one of the survivors of a lost golden age. I’ve never taken it very seriously, because I know that writing off political movements is a mug’s game. But now feminism is back, and in such a big way that I can’t help wondering how all those doomsayers are feeling.

A lively internet campaign to get rid of Page 3 has collected more than 100,000 signatures and received the support of the Girl Guides. Another campaign, The Women’s Room, is encouraging women to add their names to a database of female experts to counter male bias in the media. And the pioneering feminist magazine Spare Rib is being relaunched in both paper and online editions.

I’m not in the least surprised. Feminism is one of the great human rights movements, and a raft of evidence shows that it is more necessary than ever. None of the big issues has gone away since I began writing Misogynies a quarter of a century ago; I seem to have been writing about equal pay throughout my career, and I’m still waiting for a government that will enforce the transparency we need to achieve it. Domestic violence accounts for one in seven recorded crimes of violence, while the exposure of “historic” rape cases on an industrial scale suggests that a culture of impunity existed for decades at such organisations as the BBC.

Two things combined to force feminism into the semi-underground it’s now emerging from so triumphantly. Like any transformative movement, feminism threatened the status quo, unsettling powerful men in business, politics and the media who saw their interests threatened. The movement was actually very diverse, encompassing radical feminists and women who worked in traditional political movements, but we were all caricatured. The slander worked, turning off younger women who didn’t want to be associated with the feminist label.

At the same time, feminist campaigns against the most egregious forms of sexism had begun to pay off, so younger women didn’t encounter them in the way my generation had. When I asked to study economics A level in the 1970s, I was told it wasn’t taught at my all-girls state school; when I started work on a local paper, the features editor assured me it wouldn’t be long before I could stop covering court cases and write about fashion. Thanks to the efforts of 70s and 80s feminists, some of that reflexive sexism has gone into decline, or at least become less visible. For many women in their 20s or early 30s, it’s only when discussions about pay, promotion and childcare kick in that they realise it’s still a man’s world in too many ways.

Journalism looks like a model of equal opportunities but three-quarters of news reporters on national titles are men, and women account for only a third of journalists covering politics and business. Rebekah Brooks, who was the most powerful female newspaper executive in the country until just before her arrest in the phone-hacking scandal, modelled herself on her most ambitious male colleagues — and cultivated exclusively male mentors.

For anyone who believes gender equality is no longer an issue, the economic crisis is a wakeup call. Unemployment among women rose by almost 20% between 2009 and 2012, compared with 0.32% among men. Vital services for women, including shelters for victims of domestic violence and trafficking, were among the first to feel the Coalition government’s axe. I’m sure some of the feminist energy that is around at the moment has been generated by the urgent need to protect women’s interests. But it’s also a reaction to the growth of a vast commercial sex industry, which has flooded popular culture with crude sexual images of women.

The legal side of the industry is visible in billboards advertising pole dancing clubs, targeted at high-earners in the City. But there’s also a huge illegal trade in the transport of girls and women across continents to provide sexual “services” to men in developed countries. Such things were unheard of when I wrote Misogynies and while I was aware of the horrors of female genital mutilation, I didn’t know it was happening in the UK.

In the light of all this, it would be amazing if feminism wasn’t undergoing a revival. One change for the better is the existence of the internet, which means campaigns can quickly become international. The SlutWalks movement started in Canada and was imported into the UK, where it updated the old Take Back the Night protests. I love seeing women asserting the right to be sexual on their own terms in a culture that promotes extreme images of women, from the preposterous “glamour” model Katie Price to the curiously sexless Duchess of Cambridge. And while I’m queasy about the nickname “blue bra girl”, the brutal beating of a young woman in Cairo’s Tahrir Square has become a symbol of the sexual harassment suffered by Arab women every day.

Women’s rights are human rights. It’s one of my favourite slogans. Twenty-first-century feminism is about girls’ education, safe contraception and abortion, freedom from sexual and domestic violence, and the right to enjoy public space. It’s a vibrant and radical manifesto for a supposedly defunct movement.

The Public Woman by Joan Smith has just been published by the
Westbourne Press

August’s child is behind the curve

Independent on Sunday, 12 May 2013

You know those parents who can tell you exactly how old their children are? Three years and four months, they say proudly, and if you’re like me you mentally round it up to three-and-half. Now it turns out they’re right to be so precise, as a difference of a month or two can be measured later on in exam results.

Children who are born in the summer perform less well at GCSE and are less likely to go to university than those born in September. The effect is so apparent that a think-tank, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has suggested that teenagers born earlier in the school year should be set higher pass marks in their GCSEs. Pass marks would stay the same for children born in February and March, for example, but be set lower for summer babies.

After getting over my initial scepticism – based largely on the fact that I was born in, ahem, late August – I think the IFS is on to something. It isn’t that children born in the summer are any less able, but they are up to a year younger than their peers and have less confidence. These things matter, in the sometimes brutal hierarchies of children, and from my own experience I’d say the disadvantages are social as well as academic.

I didn’t do badly in exams, even though the IFS has found that August babies are 6.4
percentage points less likely to achieve at least five Cs at GCSE. But I followed the script for August-borns by not going to a Russell Group university, and I hated school almost from the day I started. I was intensely conscious of being the youngest in the class; if I’d been born five days later, I wouldn’t have gone to school for another 12 months. It didn’t help that I came from a home where I was used to reading every day but was in other respects young for my age; I didn’t have siblings and we lived in a house in the middle of a park, so my experience of other children was next to nil.

The IFS says the accident of being born in July or August can have “potentially serious long-term consequences” on pupils’ lives, yet the September-to-August school year is an arbitrary invention. Initial disadvantage is reinforced by teachers and parents, who rate the academic ability of August-born children lower than their September-born peers. I know that any measure which seeks to compensate for bias tends to be met with howls of rage in this country, but whoever imagined that being born in summer was such a handicap?

The IFS’s suggestion of seven different pass marks, set according to month of birth, seems a bit clunky. I’d much rather see parents and teachers acknowledge the problem, and concentrate on building the confidence of the youngest children in class. We live in a test-obsessed culture, and kids have quite enough to handle without the unintended burden of calendar-related discrimination.

Our disbelief is the sexual predator’s greatest asset

Independent on Sunday, 5 May 2013

The problem was not tolerance of abuse but disbelief of anyone who dared complain

If the broadcaster Stuart Hall ever felt a scintilla of anxiety about the possibility of one of his victims reporting him, I doubt whether it troubled him for long. Confident predators like Hall know that almost everything the public believes about sexual violence is wrong, and they take full advantage of the fact. People are wrong about the kind of men who commit sexual assaults; they’re wrong about how victims behave after they’ve been attacked; and they’re hopelessly bad at deciding who is telling lies.

Until Hall suddenly changed his plea to guilty, a fact that couldn’t be reported until last week, he lied through his teeth about his assaults on girls in the 1970s and 80s. It emerged on Thursday that he had pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to 14 charges of indecent assault, allegations which he had publicly denounced as ‘pernicious, callous, cruel and above all spurious’. It is hardly a stretch of the imagination to picture Jimmy Savile reacting in similar terms if even a fraction of the allegations against him had become public knowledge in his lifetime. Both men thought they were untouchable and they had good reasons for that belief, although not because attitudes to sexual violence were different in the last century.

The problem in those days was not tolerance towards sexual offences but disbelief of anyone who dared to make a complaint, especially if the suspect was well-known. We know now that some of the victims abused by Savile came forward in his lifetime but he never had to face them in court, while the emerging accusations about a string of sexual assaults in children’s homes in north Wales tell a similar story; in each case, abuse appears to have been widespread, but victims had little confidence that their testimony would be believed. The north Wales scandal involves mainly boys and falls into the category of ‘historic’ abuse but recent events in Rochdale, where girls as young as 12 were ‘groomed’ and prostituted by criminal gangs, show that young people are still at risk.

What has changed is that police and prosecutors have finally begun to understand the damage done by popular myths about rape. Thanks to academic research and evidence from rape crisis centres, the balance of belief has shifted from massively favouring predators to listening to victims. This change is crucial, but it has yet to be accepted by the general public. Ordinary people still believe, wrongly, that rates of false accusation are higher for rape than for other offences. What they’re actually reacting to is decades of lurid and inaccurate headlines in papers like the Daily Mail, which loves to frame the central problem of rape as the risk to men of unjust accusation. The truth is that false accusations of both rape and domestic violence are ‘extremely rare,’ according to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, who published detailed research earlier this year.

It is far more common for genuine victims to decide against going to the police, in some cases for decades, because they’re terrified of not being believed. They’re also afraid of being humiliated and accused of lying in court, an experience which the violinist Frances Andrade found so devastating that she took her own life during the trial of her former music teacher for sexual assault. Yet the public is so fixated on ‘false’ allegations that a new survey shows that three-quarters believe rape suspects should be given anonymity until they are convicted.

It is hard to think of a proposal more likely to ensure that sexual predators go free. Prosecutions for rape or sexual assault are much more likely to succeed when jurors can be shown a pattern of offences, instead of having to make their minds up about the testimony of just one or two witnesses. Most of Hall’s victims came forward only when they saw the publicity around his initial arrest, helping Lancashire police to build a rock-solid case against him.

There are other rape myths which need to be demolished, including the notion that victims bring it on themselves. (How welcome it would be if the conduct of alleged offenders was subjected to the same degree of scrutiny as that of survivors, just for a change). The reality is that rapists pick victims they regard as vulnerable, such as the five-year-old girl who died of her injuries in India last week.

The notion that there’s something peculiarly stigmatising about allegations involving sex crimes is equally nonsensical, as anyone who has been accused of child cruelty can attest. But there is also a fundamental public misunderstanding about the nature of sex offenders, most of whom are a very long way from the stereotype of the ‘frustrated’ individual who commits an uncharacteristic single offence. Rape is much more common than murder and it makes more sense to worry about serial rapists than serial killers: Savile is an extreme case but John Worboys, the ‘black cab’ rapist who was sent to prison in 2009, is believed to have drugged and raped more than 100 women across London. The habitual cunning of such men obscures the extent of their offending and discourages victims from coming forward; it is only when someone is arrested and survivors realise they aren’t alone that they feel able to tell the police what happened. It could not be clearer that Hall would have gone on proclaiming his innocence, and wallowing in self-pity for the cameras, had the number of his accusers not become too large to dismiss.

At the very moment when the extent of ‘historic’ sex abuse is becoming shockingly evident, misplaced public sympathy for men accused of sexual offences risks putting justice in jeopardy again. This is little short of tragic: a country where a well-known man has only just been called to account at the age of 83 can hardly be accused of being too tough on sexual predators.


Garments workers matter more than burgers

Independent on Sunday, 28 April 2013

Eating a bit of horse won’t kill you. You’re unlikely to become even mildly ill from eating burgers laced with horsemeat, despite a media storm of massive proportions. Buying clothes manufactured in sweatshops in Bangladesh won’t hurt you either, but it’s a different story for the people who work in the industry. Yesterday, survivors were still being pulled from the ruins of an eight-storey building in the capital, Dhaka, which collapsed on Wednesday morning, killing hundreds. Rana Plaza housed four clothing firms which have in the past supplied Western chains, including Primark and Matalan.

Three thousand people are believed to have been in the building when it collapsed and two factory owners have been arrested, accused of forcing employees to work despite visible cracks in the walls. It’s the highest death toll to date in an industry where fatal accidents are common; only five months ago, 112 people died in a fire at a clothes factory in Dhaka.

Why isn’t this scandal on the front page of every British newspaper and leading news bulletins? The garment industry in Bangladesh wouldn’t exist but for the demand for impossibly cheap clothes on Western high streets. The fashion industry harms young women by sending half-starved models on to the catwalk, but what about the damage it does to the mostly female workforce on another continent?

There are 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh, and the country is attractive to western companies because its labour costs are among the lowest in the world. Factories have working conditions which wouldn’t be tolerated in Europe, but the government won’t impose stringent rules on an industry which accounts for three-quarters of the country’s £24bn annual exports. Unions are shut out of some factories altogether, so nothing is likely to change unless foreign companies and consumers face up to their responsibilities.

The roots of this scandal lie in a globalised economy where western shopping habits – for food and clothes alike – are disconnected from the manner of production. The fashion-conscious young have been persuaded by clever marketing to think that clothes should be cheap and disposable, just as poor families came to believe that eight nutritious burgers could be made for £1. It remains to be seen whether the horsemeat scare will change consumer behaviour in the long term, but there’s no comparable outcry about the plight of Asian garment workers.

The human face of the disaster was illustrated when an American NGO posted ID cards found in the rubble of the Rana Plaza on its website; one belonged to an-18-year-old sewing operator called Lucky, who worked on the seventh floor. It isn’t known whether she survived. But the NGO claimed that some of the dead and missing worked 14 hours a day for “starvation” wages. This is the real cost of fashion, and it’s a much bigger scandal than microscopic traces of horsemeat in frozen lasagne.