In the White Widow, we are watching the creation of a modern myth

The Independent, Saturday 28 September 2013

The media finds Lewthwaite fascinating, as with all female terrorists

The White Widow has struck again – or has she? Dreadful though it was, the terrorist attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi was not the first al-Qa’ida-inspired assault on Kenya, and it is unlikely to be the last. But speculation that it was orchestrated by the British terror suspect Samantha Lewthwaite, widow of one of the 7/7 bombers, has reached fever pitch.

As rumours flew, the presence of a British woman among the attackers in the Westgate shopping centre seemed to have been confirmed by Kenya’s foreign minister. But then Interpol issued a warrant for Lewthwaite’s arrest at the request of the Kenyan government – and it made no mention of last weekend’s attack.

Lewthwaite, 29, is wanted on charges of possession of explosives and conspiracy to commit a crime. The Kenyan government believes she has been involved in terrorist plots, but the charges relate to 2011, and fall short of the spectacular claim that she is the mastermind behind al-Shabaab operations in East Africa. Before the warrant was issued, there were reports of a white woman among the attackers in the Westgate mall, giving orders in English which were then translated into Arabic or Swahili. That is puzzling, since witnesses heard gunmen talking to each other in English, and lends weight to the notion that legends are growing up around her.

Reporters tracked down her relatives in England and Northern Ireland, and declared that her family had been “torn apart” by the shame of her link to the Nairobi attack. But there are plenty of reasons to be cautious about Lewthwaite’s supposed involvement in the siege, including a statement by Kenya’s President that he cannot confirm reports of a white woman among the attackers.

Even so, the narrative of a girl who grew up in Aylesbury, converted to Islam, married a bomber, sold her story to The Sun, disappeared with her children and finally reappeared as a terror suspect in East Africa is irresistible. Almost overnight she has become the world’s most wanted woman, the “quiet Home Counties girl who now tops the list of terrorism suspects”. Old photos  show an unremarkable teenager in school uniform, tie slightly askew, in contrast to recent images in which her face is almost always framed by a hijab. The subliminal message – how did that girl become this woman? – is hard to miss.

So is the enduring fascination with female terrorists. The hijacker Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, became instantly recognisable after an iconic photo of her was endlessly reproduced in the 1970s. In the photo Khaled looks pensive, with her eyes averted and her hands clasping the stock of an upright – and unmistakably phallic – AK-47 assault rifle.

Other terrorist organisations, including the IRA and the Basque separatist group ETA, used women in terrorist attacks; two sisters, Dolours and Marian Price, took part in the Provisional IRA bombing of the Old Bailey in London in 1973. A year later, an American heiress named Patty Hearst was kidnapped in California by a group of self-styled “urban guerrillas” called the Symbionese Liberation Army. Hearst was brainwashed by her captors, adopted the pseudonym “Tania” and was photographed in a beret, toting a gun, during a bank robbery in San Francisco. The image has endured more as a fashion statement than anything else; decades later, Madonna’s album cover American Life referenced the heiress in her brief incarnation as a bank robber.

These groups were secular, unlike al-Qa’ida and its affiliates. Islamist terror groups do not exactly have a reputation as champions of equal opportunities and that incongruity – actually less real than it seems – is driving an appetite for even the tiniest scrap of information about Lewthwaite. (The claim that she “stole ID to work in halal pie factory” is my favourite headline so far.) It is evidence of a longstanding fascination with women who turn to violence, whether accomplices of serial killers, like Myra Hindley, or involved in terrorist operations. Ideas about women as mothers and carers are so entrenched that individuals who challenge the stereotype make headlines, even now when women routinely serve in modern armies. There is a palpable longing in some sections of the media for the most lurid stories about Lewthwaite to be true.

In reality, she is not the only Muslim convert to find herself married to a terrorist, as Katherine Russell – widow of the Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev – demonstrates. Nor is her alleged involvement in Islamist terror unique, which suggests that groups associated with al-Qa’ida are more diverse – and certainly more opportunist – than conventional narratives suggest. Women have certainly carried out suicide-bombings in Iraq and Pakistan. Some studies suggest they account for 3 per cent of all successful attacks and al-Shabaab, which recruits from the Somali diaspora in the UK and US, may be more likely to use women in its operations.

The little we know for certain about Lewthwaite is that in 2011 she rented an apartment in Mombasa for a British man called Jermaine Grant, who appeared in court in Kenya last week accused of plotting terrorist attacks on tourist hotels. Confusingly, Grant shares a first name with Lewthwaite’s first husband, Germaine Lindsay, and like him he is of Jamaican extraction. According to some sources, she had a relationship with, or perhaps even married, a British man called Habib Ghani, also known as Osama al-Britani, killed earlier this month in an ambush 200 miles west of the Somali capital Mogadishu.

If true, the story makes her a widow twice over, and one who has stepped into her husbands’ terrorist shoes. This is the key fact about her, a role reversal – pious young mother into international terrorist – which the media finds endlessly fascinating. In real life, Lewthwaite’s long face is pink-cheeked and plain, and people who knew her as a girl describe her as lacking in confidence. “Her transformation into one of terror group al-Shabaab’s figureheads on the run in East Africa is something few can comprehend,” observed a Daily Mirror journalist, apparently without recognising the significance of what he’d written.

At the heart of this media storm is the transformation of a confused and fanatical young woman into myth. It was even reported last week that police found “sexy” underwear in the flat she rented for Grant, confirming she cuts a far more glamorous figure as the White Widow than she ever did as Samantha Lewthwaite. She is accumulating legends as fast as any Greek deity, and I suspect a lot of commentators are in for a shock if and when she is caught. The hijab-wearing terror mastermind in red underwear is almost certainly using fantasies of martyrdom to solve an identity crisis, and nothing like as fascinating as she seems.


Let’s face it – the niqab is ridiculous, and the ideology behind it weird

Independent on Sunday, 22 September 2013

Why everyone is being so polite? Religious expression is not an absolute right, and should be limited if it affects the rights of others

Here we are again, in the middle of another terribly polite discussion about the niqab. For anyone who hasn’t followed the debate, that’s the face-covering veil worn in this country by a minority of Muslim women. Should women be able to conceal their faces when they’re giving evidence in court? What about women who work in schools or the health service?

A judge has issued a confused ruling that a defendant should be able to keep her niqab on in court, but must take it off while giving evidence. The Government has ordered a review of whether NHS staff should be able to conceal their faces from patients, with the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt acknowledging he would prefer to see the face of the person who’s treating him. But he says it’s ultimately a matter for professional guidelines, not politicians.

Why so mealy-mouthed? The niqab is a ridiculous garment, adopted by a small (but growing) number of women and rejected by many mainstream Muslims. When I see someone wearing it, I’m torn between laughing at the absurdity and irritation with the ideology it represents. In secular countries, the notion that women have to cover their faces whenever they leave the house is rightly seen as weird, and runs counter to the principle of gender equality. Many brave women in the Middle East and Asia have died for the much more important right not to cover their faces, and I have little patience with women in this country who make a mockery of that struggle by trying to pretend they’re the ones suffering oppression.

The question judges and politicians are struggling with is what to do about it. I’m not in favour of the French approach, which is an outright ban on the niqab and the burqa; I’m not keen on banning things and it risks creating martyrs. It makes more sense to treat the face-veil as a political statement and insist on our right to make one in return. Covering the face doesn’t make anyone a better human being and the “modesty” argument doesn’t wash; if you wear outlandish clothes, whether it’s a face-veil or fancy dress, of course people will stare. Nor does the niqab discourage violence; evidence from Egypt suggests that veiled women are slightly more likely to suffer sexual harassment, probably because men regard them as easier targets than women in Western clothes. Does anyone seriously believe that women are safer in Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran, where most women wear the veil (many of them against their will) in one form or another? Wearing the niqab or the burqa is self-defeating, exposing women and girls to more oppression rather than less.

Where I think the state is entitled to intervene is when a woman’s decision to cover has negative consequences on others, including her daughters; face-covering should never be a component of school uniform, let alone compulsory. Then there’s the example of a courtroom: when someone is giving evidence, she should be subject to exactly the same rules as the rest of us. Vulnerable witnesses need to have their identities protected but as a general rule the judge, jury, defence and prosecution should be able to see witnesses’ faces. I wouldn’t expect to be allowed to appear in court in a balaclava, and the public good of open justice takes precedence over demands for special treatment on religious grounds.

As for the NHS, I’m aghast at the prospect of being treated by a health professional in a niqab. Patients often have to discuss intimate matters with GPs and nurse-practitioners, from sexual health to domestic violence. If someone doesn’t trust me enough to let me see her face, I’m hardly going to feel comfortable about her carrying out an intimate procedure such as a cervical smear. Nor is it easy to imagine a man discussing the symptoms of prostate cancer with a health professional whose idea of “modesty” doesn’t allow her to expose her nose.

At one level, it’s hard to believe we’re having this debate. The UK is a secular society in all but name. Human rights law is clear about the right to manifest religion but it isn’t an absolute right, and can be limited when it conflicts with the rights of others. The demand by a small number of Muslim women to cover their faces in all circumstances clearly impacts on the rights of others, and requires a robust response. If a woman wants to wear the niqab in Tesco or on the 94 bus, I think we should let her get on with it. But when she wants to work with members of the public or becomes involved in the criminal justice system, that’s a completely different matter.

Special perks for the Duke of Cambridge. Who but Prince William gets a year’s paternity leave?

Independent on Sunday, 15 September 2013

He is taking a year off at a time when millions of people are struggling to hold on to their jobs

Here is a piece of “breaking news”: a man has left his job. He did his last shift five days ago, and is thinking about what to do next. He is going to think about it for 12 months and an entire troupe of people will follow him on our behalf, bringing us “live” updates. These will consist mostly of someone standing outside an imposing building, using lots of high-sounding words such as “duty” and “public service”. So hats off to whoever wrote this headline in Friday’s Daily Mirror: “Prince William has left the RAF – but we’re none the wiser on what the future holds for him”.

I don’t know if I’m right in detecting a hint of irritation towards another royal non-story, but elsewhere correspondents were doing their best. Lack of hard information has never stopped royal reporters leaping for bones thrown by the Windsor family, and then rushing back to newsrooms with their tails wagging. William is said to have embarked on a “transitional year” which will allow him to “focus on royal duties” while “keeping his options open” and doing a bit of charity work. (Note to the unemployed: you might want to use that line about keeping your options open next time you’re asked why you haven’t found a job.)

Monarchists always say I’ve overlooked how much time the royals spend on official engagements. So I’ve looked it up: Prince William carried out 88 engagements last year and the figure isn’t expected to increase much until he becomes a “full-time working royal”. That’s roughly one every four days, which doesn’t seem very onerous to me, but then my idea of work is different from that of the royals.

Incidentally, his wife has been described as “on maternity leave”, which makes me wonder about her job description. On leave from what? Is “duchess” a full-time position? That’s another one to try at the Jobcentre.

Almost every “news” story featuring the Royal Family is a combination of non-event and smart PR, with a bit of celebrity gossip thrown in. The usual standards of journalism don’t apply, leaving us ignorant about the Windsors’ finances, politics and influence.

The Government is so worried about the political bias displayed in Prince Charles’s letters to ministers that the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, has blocked publication of even a tiny sample; he fears disclosure would damage Charles’s future role as king. This is one of the few royal “stories” worthy of the name, but all we get most of the time is guff about how hard it is for the poor royals to balance “duties” and private life.

So here is the real news: Prince William is taking a year off at a time when millions of people are struggling to hold on to their jobs, if they have one, and pay their bills. It’s another example of breath-taking self-indulgence within the ranks of the Royal Family, but most royal correspondents would stand on their heads rather than say so.

The Delhi bus gang-rape is not the only example of lax cultural attitudes to sexual violence

The Independent, Wednesday 11 September 2013

A study showed almost a quarter of men in the Asia-Pacific region admit rape. It seems sexual violence is regarded by some men as an acceptable part of relations with women

When six men set out on a “joy ride” in a bus in Delhi last year, they can hardly have expected the evening to end in life imprisonment or a death sentence. But that is the prospect facing four of the gang, who have just been convicted of the horrific rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student. Protests continue outside the court, where sentencing is due on Wednesday, but the case raises questions about attitudes to sexual violence which resonate far beyond India.

Much of the evidence In the Delhi trial was heard behind closed doors. That doesn’t help the cause of open justice and it also means we don’t know crucial information about the case. Here we have six men – one of the defendants hanged himself and another has been convicted as a juvenile – who tricked a young woman and her male friend into boarding their bus before embarking on what amounts to a prolonged and lethal bout of sexual torture. Did they plan it? Had they attacked girls and women on other occasions?

The idea that these defendants suddenly took part in a vicious gang rape without previously sharing contemptuous attitudes to women is hard to believe. And while their crime is dreadful, it sheds light on something anti-rape campaigners across the world have argued for decades: far from being rare or exceptional, sexual violence is regarded by some men as an acceptable part of their relations with girls and women. This is not to say that all men are potential rapists, but it is to argue that in many countries cultural attitudes towards sexual violence are insufficiently condemnatory.

Look at the results of a UN-led study, published just before the verdicts in the Delhi trial. It says that almost a quarter of men in the Asia-Pacific region admit to having committed at least one rape; more than half claimed they were still in their teens when they raped someone for the first time. India is not one of the countries included in the study but the UN’s human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, has described sexual violence in India as a “national problem”. In South Africa, almost 150 women report rape to the police every day but research by the Medical Research Council suggests that only one case in 25 is reported in some areas.

This is not just a problem in the developing world. We know that rape is under-reported in the UK: official figures represent ‘at best 20 per cent of what’s happening in London’, according to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt of the Metropolitan Police. In recent weeks several prominent women, including the campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and the Labour MP Stella Creasy, have been bombarded with threats of rape on Twitter.

Tolerance of such behaviour is an integral part of what campaigners call rape culture: lax and jokey attitudes which habitually underplay the seriousness of sexual violence. Treating rape as a normal part of life threatens all women, whereever we live in the world.

Joan Smith is Co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Panel


MPs are scarred by memories of 2003

Independent on Sunday, 1 September 2013

The vote on Syria was dogged by memories of 2003

Ten years ago, I watched in dismay as MPs voted for the Iraq war. Last week I watched in dismay as they voted against possible military intervention in Syria. On each occasion, the question uppermost in my mind was about this country’s values. We believe in universal human rights: our laws, treaties and political leaders say so. In the recent past we have intervened to stop atrocities in Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Libya; Iraq is a different story, but no one seriously doubts that horrors are being perpetrated in Syria. As MPs voted, footage was emerging of another dreadful attack by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, a fighter jet dropping an incendiary bomb on a school in Aleppo.

Opponents of intervention ask why Assad would sanction the use of such terrible weapons when UN inspectors were in the country. This is to misunderstand the nature of the regime, which has repeatedly displayed its sense of immunity. Assad knows Russia and China will veto critical resolutions at the UN Security Council. He lived in the UK until 2000, his wife’s family have lived in London for years, and he understands the toxic legacy of the Iraq war on public attitudes. Toxic and paralysing, to judge by last week’s votes, when some MPs seem to have been influenced more by the events of 2003 than 2013.

Syria is not Iraq. The Iraq war was based on a disastrous fiction – the claim that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the world, whereas his regime was actually weaker than it had been for years. The human rights case for regime change was compelling, especially after Saddam used chemical weapons at Halabja, but it barely figured in 2003. There’s a massive irony here: we went to war against a tyrant who turned out no longer to have weapons of mass destruction but won’t consider limited air strikes against one who has used them in recent days. President Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, is sure that Assad’s forces launched the chemical attacks on Damascus 11 days ago. For all its flaws, the Obama administration is not the same as the Bush White House.

A gap has opened up between this country’s rhetoric and the way MPs voted in the Syria debate. I don’t deny that such ventures are risky, but the consequences of refusing even to consider an intervention are worse: the coalition against Assad is fractured, Obama’s position has been made more difficult and we have signalled our impotence in the face of the use of banned weapons.

Military intervention on humanitarian grounds was championed by Robin Cook before the ghastly Blair took it up. It is an imperfect response to the mass slaughter of civilians, but consistent with our stated aim of upholding universal values. What happened in Parliament last week is just a mess. It’s often said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Learning the wrong lesson is even worse.