Concealment is the key to modern slavery

Independent on Sunday, 24 November 2013

If you are shocked by the proposition that there are slaves in modern Britain, think again. Today’s ‘slaves’ are not out in the open, like the Africans transported to the US in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and except in the most extreme cases they do not wear chains. They live in unremarkable houses and flats where they are forced to do hard physical labour, provide sexual ‘services’ or, in some cases, both. Last week’s announcement that police had rescued three women from alleged domestic servitude in South London is startling because of the time-scale, which apparently covers three decades. Not much is known about this extraordinary case but it has focused attention on a problem which is mostly hidden from view.

Concealment is the key to modern slavery. According to the International Labour Organisation, almost 21 million people are victims worldwide, with women and girls outnumbering men. Trafficking for prostitution and sexual exploitation has received a great deal of attention but forced labour is actually more common, especially in the domestic and agricultural sectors. I have interviewed victims of both and in each case they were tricked by trusted family members or friends. Last year I met a 41-year-old woman from the Caribbean who spent almost a year in domestic servitude with a middle-class Nigerian family.

‘Crystal’ agreed to talk to me for my book The Public Woman because she wanted people to understand what is going behind closed doors in this country. She was allowed out of the house only with a woman from the same island, who had been promised her freedom once she trained Crystal as her replacement. They spent 18 hours a day washing walls and floors, ironing, sweeping up leaves – and doing it all again if the couple was dissatisfied. ‘These people could have killed me and no one would have been the wiser’, Crystal told me. Like most victims of human trafficking, she knew she was in the UK illegally and was too scared to go to the authorities in case she was deported; she had suffered extreme domestic violence at home and was terrified of her ex-husband, who had threatened to kill her.

Traffickers encourage their victims to believe that the police won’t help them, and they use tried and tested methods to break down their self-esteem. In Crystal’s case, the Nigerian woman who paid for her to come to England knew she had been beaten and raped by her husband. They were both evangelical Christians and spoke on the phone many times before Crystal got on a plane; it was a classic grooming process but the woman ruthlessly exploited Crystal’s vulnerabilities once she was in her power. ‘You are like filth’, she told her. ‘The only thing you are good for is cleaning the kitchen and my baby’s bum’.

I was reminded of a harrowing interview I did with a Ukrainian woman in her early 20s. She had been sold by her father and uncle, without her knowledge, to a gang who brought her to London and sold her on to Russian gangsters. They forced her to work in brothels up and down the country for more than three years, and beat her savagely when she tried to escape. ‘They were saying I’m illegal and they could kill me because I didn’t exist here’, she told me. ‘They said I’m their property, I will be with them for the rest of my life – I’m not human, just something that can be bought’.

It is this daily experience of intimidation and abuse – what a senior officer in the Lambeth case calls ‘invisible handcuffs’ – which prevents so many victims contacting the authorities. It is a chilling fact that some of the most vulnerable people in this country do not know they have any rights, and their exploiters go to great lengths to stop them finding out.

But there is another element to this story of 21st century slavery. The British government has set up a forced marriage unit which helps young women (and some young men) who are being threatened with being married against their will. But it is much harder to reach women who have been brought to this country to marry distant relatives, only to discover that they are in effect domestic slaves for the entire family. A case-worker for an NGO which helps South Asian victims of domestic violence told me she has heard of women living in British cities for years without ever leaving the house. They do not know that domestic violence is a criminal offence, and they have no idea where to go if they manage to escape.

Investigations are continuing into the Lambeth case, with police saying they have uncovered a ‘complicated and disturbing picture of emotional control over many years’. Calls have been flooding in to the Freedom charity which helped organise the women’s escape, suggesting that the problem is much wider than anyone imagined. Perhaps this case, like the Savile investigation before it, will at least have the positive effect of breaking a silence which has denied help to victims for decades.

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

That which must not be named

Literary Review, October 2103

The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History

Emma L E Rees

It is more than four decades since the feminist self-help book Our Bodies Ourselves offered women detailed instructions on how to look at their vaginas. My yellowing copy describes how women learned to feel their bodies were not their own, arguing that this ‘hands-off’ message had even more force when applied to the vagina. Over two pages, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective gave matter-of-fact instructions on self-examination, advising women to prepare by collecting a strong torch, a plastic speculum, a mirror and a tube of KY jelly. Once everything was in place, the ‘pink area, which looks much like the walls of your throat, is your vagina.’

Was that it? Could this pink tube really have inspired such desire, fear and loathing over the centuries? It was a liberating exercise, especially for those of us who had heard all that nonsense about the vagina dentata in myth and literature. It’s amazing, in retrospect, that fearful and suspicious attitudes to the female genitalia have survived feminism’s deliberate demystification. Sadly, some people are still trying to control access to the vagina by persuading girls to feel shame about their genitals or actually sewing them up.

Female genital mutilation emerged in Africa, where it has a long history, but vagina-phobia is a widespread phenomenon. It surfaced dramatically in the US last year when a Democrat, Lisa Brown, was banned from the Michigan House of Representatives for using the word ‘vagina’ in a debate on abortion. Her Republican opponent, Mike Callton, found the noun ‘so offensive I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company’. However distasteful he finds vaginas, it seems quite likely that Mr Callton emerged from one, but I’m happy to report that the taboo on mentioning women’s genitals is nothing like as intact in the UK. I began reading The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History on a long train journey and no one in my carriage batted an eyelid. Perhaps they were familiar with a similarly-titled book from that show-pony of American feminism, Naomi Wolf, who has been writing a vastly over-extended form of memoir for years.

It was inevitable that Wolf would get round to her sexual parts at some point and the title of her most recent volume – Vagina: a New Biography – is telling. Wolf writes about the subject in a queasy combination of confessional anecdote and psycho-babble, which isn’t an accusation I’d level at Emma L E Rees. She is an academic, senior lecturer in English at the University of Chester, and her book arrives with reams of footnotes and a bibliography stretching to 18 pages. She clearly wants us to know that she has read dozens of books, journals and newspaper articles, visited websites, corresponded with others authors, watched episodes of South Park and listened to Metallica and Lady Gaga. It is an almost compulsive demonstration of scholarship, as though Rees is trying to establish her credentials as a serious writer while using the word ‘cunt’ a great deal.

Feminists have been trying to reclaim ‘cunt’ for a long time; the Pop artist Caroline Coon produced a painting entitled ‘My Beautiful Cunt’ as long ago as 1966. The discussion has been going on ever since, with contributions from Germaine Greer and Caitlin Moran among others, and Rees makes a bold claim when she says her approach is different. In her introduction, she argues that her book has two key tenets, which she identifies as the notions of ‘covert visibility’ and the ‘autonomized cunt’. What on earth is she talking about? She answers with a question of her own: ‘What happens to women when their psychical and physiological identities come apart and the hitherto unspeakable and unseen cunt both speaks and is seen?’

Oh, right. To be honest, I didn’t think anyone wrote like this any longer. Sometimes Rees sounds as though she’s parodying po-faced academic writing: ‘A Theological Position was the American writer Robert Coover’s fourth publication, his first successful foray into drama after two novels….and a collection of short stories, Pricksongs and Descants (1969)’. But her book is solemn and humourless. It is also a tad ungenerous towards successful artists such as Lady Gaga – ‘everything about her is cynically contrived to garner attention and, consequently, dollars’ – and Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues. Rees thinks it should have been called The Cunt Monologues but admits it wouldn’t have been so successful with that title. ‘I’m not suggesting pure self-interest here,’ she says prissily, acknowledging that Ensler’s success has enabled her to raise lots of money for victims of FGM.

Rees’s survey of the way vaginas are represented in art and literature ranges from the French philosopher Diderot to Sex and the City; forays into popular culture are de rigeur in a book like this one, but she expects an improbable degree of coherence from a TV series. She’s sniffy about Carrie’s passion for shoes but writes approvingly about an episode of SATC in which Charlotte, who works in an art gallery, poses for an artist who paints vaginas. But Rees ticks off a later episode on the grounds that it ‘threatens to fragment precisely that bodily integrity which was consummated in Charlotte’s encounter with Neville Morgan’s cunt canvases’. After wading through more than 300 pages of this stuff, I might have to slip out and buy a new pair of killer heels.

Bloomsbury £19.99, ebook £19.99

David Cameron goes abroad, but as arms dealer or avenging angel?

Independent on Sunday, 17 November 2013

He used tough language in Sri Lanka. But we are still left guessing what the guiding vision is

When David Cameron arrived in Cairo shortly after the resignation of President Mubarak in 2011, he made a point of walking across Tahrir Square. It was a perfect photo opportunity for the Prime Minister, who was snapped on the spot where protesters had defied Mubarak’s security forces.

Sadly for Mr Cameron, the symbolism was undermined by his companions on the trip, who included representatives of eight arms manufacturers. The Prime Minister’s claim that he wanted to help create the “building blocks of democracy” would have sounded more convincing if he hadn’t turned up with his pockets full of military equipment, so to speak. He did it again on a Middle East trip last year, leading critics to accuse him of indulging in a “disturbing trade-off” between jobs and human rights.

Two days ago, a very different photo opportunity presented itself. Mr Cameron was in Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm), after ignoring calls to boycott the event because of the Sri Lankan government’s dreadful human rights record. As many as 100,000 people may have died in the protracted civil war between government troops, drawn from the island’s Sinhalese majority, and the separatist Tamil Tigers.

Both sides were accused of a “flagrant disregard” for the welfare of civilians, and there were horrifying casualties among non-combatants during the war’s final months. But it is the Sri Lankan government, led by a former human rights lawyer, which stands accused of the worst atrocities. The allegations include mass rape, torture and targeting Tamil civilians caught up in the fighting.

On Friday morning, Mr Cameron flew north to the Tamil-dominated former war zone of Jaffna, where his convoy was stopped by around 250 protesters. The army tried to hold them back but could not hide the sight of grey-haired women clutching tattered photographs of sons, daughters and husbands which they pressed against car windows. The pictures flashed round the world, drawing attention to “the disappeared”. Many people vanished during the war but reports from Sri Lanka in the last few days talk about opponents of the government being carted off to unknown destinations in white vans.

The country is particularly dangerous for journalists, as the Prime Minister discovered when he visited the Uthayan newspaper’s office in Jaffna; staff say six colleagues have been killed by paramilitary gangs sent by the government, while the editor lives in the office after surviving assassination attempts. “This is going to make a very lasting impression on me”, Cameron said.

On Friday evening, back in Colombo, the PM duly met Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa – and that’s when things began to go wrong. Tamils in the north were still reeling from Mr Cameron’s visit, which one of them described as a “very big gift for us”, but the hour-long meeting between the two leaders achieved little. Mr Cameron challenged the President over alleged human rights abuses but it’s pretty clear he got a dusty answer. There is no appetite in the Sri Lankan government to investigate historic or ongoing allegations, and the risk for Cameron is that he has raised expectations which will be hard to fulfil. After the meeting, he said he had given Mr Rajapaksa a deadline of March to conduct an independent investigation or face an inquiry under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council – a threat so empty that it is akin to being slapped with a wet fish. The council’s members include significant human rights abusers, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, who are unlikely to support an inquiry which would draw attention to their own records.

There is an alternative. The International Criminal Court was set up to deal with exactly this situation and there have been calls for Mr Rajapaksa to be indicted on suspicion of war crimes; he would not be the first serving president in that situation, a distinction owned by Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. The big question is whether Cameron has the stomach for it, and the signs are not good. Indeed, this latest episode draws attention to inconsistencies in his foreign policy, which seems to veer between hard-hearted pursuit of Britain’s commercial interests and attacks of conscience.

He has no scruples about selling arms to Saudi Arabia or to the Middle East more generally. He’s happy to lead trade missions to China, which has only just announced its intention to abolish a system of terrible labour camps. On the other hand, he signed up to getting rid of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 and he recalled Parliament this summer in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade MPs to consider military action in Syria.

In other words, it isn’t easy to work out where Mr Cameron’s ethical boundaries lie. Before he went to Chogm, the Prime Minister talked about Channel 4′s harrowing investigation into the final months of the Sri Lankan war, and said he found the images “completely chilling”. Could it be that he was moved to challenge the regime by something as random as a TV documentary? It was a memorable piece of journalism, but foreign policy needs to be based on clear and consistent principles.

It’s time for the real David Cameron to stand up. Is he a pragmatic salesman for UK PLC or a committed human rights defender? President Rajapaksa appeared unworried after their meeting, and I suspect he’s banking on the former.

Wilfred Owen and Marine A: as far apart as you can get

Independent on Sunday, 10 November 2013

Calls for leniency for the convicted soldier are misguided – and do a disservice to those soldiers who hold on to their humanity in war circumstances

The idea of someone quoting Hamlet after committing a cold-blooded murder sounds like something from a bad crime novel. It would be even more improbable if the killer turned out to have had an audience, who didn’t remonstrate or try to restrain him. But this is what happened in Afghanistan in September 2011, when a 39-year-old British sergeant known only as Marine A killed a wounded enemy with a single shot to the chest. He was convicted of murder by a military court on Friday and faces a mandatory life sentence. Two other Marines, known as B and C, were acquitted of murder after a trial which involved harrowing video evidence.

The murder conviction has sent shockwaves through the military. On a Sunday when people are remembering the dead of a century of warfare, there is a stunned recognition of the fact that a member of the British armed forces has been found guilty of a war crime. (Stunned and, in some instances, reluctant: a former Royal Marine commander called yesterday for leniency and refused to condemn a member of the Marines “family”). Spokesmen have done their best to mitigate the impact of the murder, accepting the verdict and describing the killing as an “isolated” incident. During his trial, Marine A said around 20 of his friends were killed in a six-month tour of Helmand, where the Taliban displayed body parts of his dead comrades as trophies.

The psychological impact of such experiences is devastating. It has caused long-term problems for some veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, who need support and treatment for PTSD. But the risk of reprisals against captured enemies and civilians in warfare is well understood, which is why they are forbidden by the Geneva Conventions. Marine A acknowledged as much when he told members of his patrol: “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas. I’ve just broken the Geneva Convention.” He knew what he was doing, he knew it was illegal and he knew he needed to cover it up or he’d be in serious trouble. He also assumed he could rely on the discretion of his patrol comrades; the shooting emerged only because of a video inadvertently shot on Marine B’s helmet camera, which he was using to record souvenir footage.

This was not a murder which happened in the heat of battle, when troops were in fear of their lives; there were eight men in the patrol and just one wounded insurgent. On the contrary, the marines sound relaxed and even amused on the audio tape, which was released last week. (Video evidence was held back by the court for fear of reprisals.) They casually discuss what to do with the man, who was seriously injured after an attack by an Apache helicopter. With a British observation balloon overhead, they drag the Afghan under tree cover, verbally abusing and kicking him. The man groans but when one marine asks whether anyone wants to give first aid to “this idiot”, another replies “No” in a loud voice.

These are some of the most highly trained men in Britain’s armed forces. Yet they talk about whether to shoot the Afghan in the head, an option rejected by Marine A as too “fucking obvious”. Marine B pretends to help the wounded man in case anyone is watching, but then the overhead observers move away. Marine A finishes the Afghan with a shot to the chest, exclaiming: “There you are, shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt. It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.” The prosecution described the murder as “an execution”.

The juxtaposition of Shakespeare and a toxic sexual insult is jarring, even if it’s evidence only of how some of the playwright’s most famous lines have become clichés. But it is ironic that Marine A quoted Hamlet, that most indecisive of characters, as he despatched his victim with brutal efficiency. It is as far removed as anyone could get from the image of British troops created by the soldier-poets of the First World War, who were haunted by memories of the men they had killed as well as the friends they had lost. Wilfred Owen and his fellow soldiers endured years of brutal conflict without losing their humanity, as we will be reminded next year when the centenary of the Great War’s outbreak is commemorated in books, documentaries and ceremonies.

At least, that’s what we like to think. Every war produces atrocities, from the Nazi concentration camps to the mass rape of German and Russian women at the end of the Second World War. It is one of the reasons I’m uncomfortable with the current habit of describing every member of British forces in Afghanistan as a hero, which devalues the meaning of the word; some people behave heroically under extreme pressure, others don’t. That is why it is essential that politicians, generals and (as a last resort) the courts do everything they can to protect civilians and wounded combatants from the worst of human nature.

The UK government rightly supported the setting up of the International Criminal Court to identify, arrest and try those who aren’t held to account by their own authorities. The rules don’t just apply to warlords such as the former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who is currently serving a 50-year prison sentence for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity. They must be applied with the same rigour to individuals like Marine A, which is why calls for leniency this weekend are misguided.

Paying for sex isn’t something to boast about – it’s abuse

Independent on Sunday, 3 November 2013

Maybe the men who have signed a ‘manifesto’ in France should ask themselves why so few men admit to paying for sex

There is a bunch of well-known “bastards” in France who are keen on having sex with prostituted women. Don’t take my word for it: that’s how they describe themselves in a declaration insisting on their right to buy sex. The “bastards” (salauds in French) are so cross about a proposed law which would impose fines on men who pay for sex that they’ve decided to out themselves in a monthly magazine. The “manifesto of 343 bastards” has been signed by writers, actors, and commentators who say they have used, or are likely to use, “the services of prostitutes” – and aren’t ashamed of it.

The question of whether anyone (although it’s mostly men) should be able to buy sex is shaping up to become one of the great battles of the 21st century. France’s socialist government intends to follow the example of some Scandinavian countries, which have criminalised “punters”.

If you believe in equality, it’s hard to see why men should be allowed to pay to use women’s bodies, especially against a background of alarming levels of domestic and sexual violence. Inequality is at the heart of all these abuses, which is why it’s rare these days to hear men boast about using prostituted women. The comedian Russell Brand is an exception in Anglo-Saxon culture; in his autobiography, he recalled a holiday with his father in South-east Asia where he had sex with “loads” of prostituted women. “They didn’t seem enslaved or exploited,” the energetic sex tourist observed.

Until recently, many French people took the view that sex and prostitution were private matters. But the forthcoming trial of the politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who faces charges of aggravated pimping in connection with an alleged prostitution ring, has shone an unforgiving light on this aspect of French culture. France is a modern European country with a commitment to gender equality, so it was jarring to hear Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer protest that his client was guilty of nothing more than “simple libertine activity”.

Now it turns out that the lawyer, Richard Malka, is one of the men who have signed the manifesto. Its slogan – “Don’t touch my whore!” – is so inflammatory that it has caused outrage in France. Seldom has a single sentence been so revealing, exposing an assumption of patriarchal ownership which has backfired on the signatories.

There is another reason for the outrage. In 1971, a group of well-known women led by the author Simone de Beauvoir announced publicly that they’d had illegal abortions. A satirical magazine described them as “343 bitches”, but they are credited with changing the French law on abortion. Now the “bastards” are trying to appropriate this great feminist campaign for their own ends; a demand by women to control their own bodies has been turned, perversely, into a demand by men to control women’s bodies. I don’t like political name-calling but I can’t say I blame anyone who takes these “salauds” at their own estimation.


Daring to be different

Sunday Times, 3 November 2013

Our critic applauds a bold departure into the past from Sara Paretsky and the welcome return of Rebus in her crime roundup

After the Second World War, a number of European scientists who had worked for Hitler went to America and worked on the atom bomb. Some had actively collaborated with the Nazis, a fact the Americans were willing to overlook in their rush to perfect nuclear weapons before the Russians. Sara Paretsky’s new novel, Critical Mass (Hodder £17.99/ebook £9.99), is rooted in this history. It plunges her private eye, VI Warshawski, into an unfamiliar world of cutting-edge physics, slave labour and the Holocaust.

Warshawski’s part in the mystery begins outside Chicago, where a crumbling farmhouse has been turned into a drugs factory. She is looking for a woman who has left a desperate message on the answering-machine of Warshawski’s old friend Lotty Herschel, a Viennese doctor whose family died in the Holocaust. What Warshawski finds is the body of a drug dealer and a trail of evidence which suggests that the woman’s son is missing. When Warshawski discovers he is the great-grandson of an Austrian ­scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project, she realises that something more than drugs is at stake.

Unusually for Paretsky, Critical Mass moves between the present day and the first half of the 20th century, when the Radium Institute in Vienna welcomed women. The novel’s most important character, Martina Saginor, is loosely based on the Austrian Jewish physicist Marietta Blau, who was overlooked for the Nobel prize. It is a daring departure for Paretsky, combining her interests in women’s history, science and the Holocaust — and is a career-crowning triumph.

William Brodrick has established his reputation with an unusual series of ­novels that focus on moral dilemmas. He is a winner of the CWA Gold Dagger and his latest novel, The Discourtesy of Death (Little, Brown £19.99/ebook £6.49), uses the demise of a paralysed ballet dancer to explore the ethics of assisted suicide. Jenny Henderson’s death certificate states that she died of cancer but an anonymous letter, sent to Larkwood ­Priory, insists she was murdered. Father Anselm, a monk who was a barrister in an earlier life, agrees to investigate in a reflective novel that sometimes veers into melodrama.

It always seemed unlikely that Ian Rankin would be able to wave goodbye to his most celebrated creation, Inspector Rebus, when he reached retirement age. Back on the force as a sergeant, Rebus is sent to check out a car crash on a country road outside Edinburgh in Saints of the Shadow Bible (Orion £18.99/ebook £9.99). The driver is in hospital and it is her connections — her boyfriend’s father is the Scottish minister for justice — that intrigue Rebus. But his past is about to catch up with him in a book that pits Rebus against Inspector ­Malcolm Fox, the protagonist of two earlier Rankin novels.

Fox works for the Professional Standards unit and he is interested in a case from 30 years ago when Rebus was a young DC. Rebus’s colleagues ironically called themselves The Saints, destroying evidence in a murder case against one of their informers. This latest Rebus novel is about two very different styles of policing, Rebus’s personal integrity and whether he can ­survive in a culture that has changed out of all recognition.

AJ Cross is a forensic psychologist and brings an insider’s knowledge to her compelling second crime novel, Art of Deception (Orion £12.99/ebook £6.49). Dr Kate Hanson is an academic psychologist in Birmingham but she also advises the police, consulting for the unsolved crimes unit. Their latest case involves the mummified body of a young man, an art student who went missing 20 years ago, which turns up in the boathouse of a country park. Hanson is an intriguing character, adept at reading human behaviour, in a series that shows the police in a very modern light.