Stay out of religion, David Cameron, it’s not your job

Independent on Sunday, 15 December 2013

How did anyone ever think it was OK to expect men and women to sit apart?

David Cameron is strongly opposed to gender segregation. Michael Gove thinks it’s “pandering to extremists”. Universities UK, which came up with an insane piece of “guidance” on the subject, is reviewing it after being covered in the metaphorical equivalent of a bucket of ordure. So how did anyone ever come up with the idea that it was OK to expect men and women to sit separately at some events on university premises?

I suspect it might have something to do with the fact that the current government (prop, D Cameron) is in most respects inexplicably keen on religion. Want some money to set up a Catholic or Muslim free school? Go and see that nice Mr Gove and he’ll tell his officials to hand over the dosh. There is even a minister for faith whose job description includes promoting religion. Baroness Warsi goes around telling people that the coalition is one of the “most pro-faith governments in the West”. This is hardly something to boast about, in my opinion. But who can blame your average religious extremist if he (it usually is a he) gets the idea that people of “faith” can do whatever they like?

Here are a couple of correctives to the notion that religion is an essentially benign force. In a country committed to equality, British universities allowed Islamic societies to segregate male and female students at around 40 events in the 12 months up to March this year. Then the Supreme Court ruled that Scientology – an “evil cult”, according to Michael Gove in a parliamentary debate – must be recognised as a religion. The judges swept aside a ruling that only groups which recognise a deity count, opening up the possibility of tax breaks for Scientology. The decision caused dismay at the Department for Communities which happens, amusingly, to be where the minister for faith is also based. I hope Lady Warsi is going to update a recent observation – “More often than not, people who do God do good” – to avoid discriminating against people who aspire to become Operating Thetans.

The court’s decision is logical. Who is to say that one set of supernatural beliefs is more credible than another? The proper way to deal with it is to withdraw tax breaks and privileges from all religions, not just ones that ministers don’t like. Sadly, Cameron’s mild Anglicanism hasn’t equipped him to deal with all this, and the result is staggering incoherence. Promoting religion isn’t the job of governments, and no one should be surprised when it leads to gender segregation or worse.

After Darcy

Literary Review, November 2013

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy

Helen Fielding

134 lbs (g), calories 2000 (vg), embarrassing sexual encounters while reading this book 0, hours of life lost reading this book 7, despair over state of British publishing – total

Bridget Jones is getting older. In the third volume of her diary, she is 51, the mother of two children and a widow. Who would have dreamed of that? It is a startling alteration in the fortunes of Helen Fielding’s chronically self-doubting heroine, who was played in two movie adaptations by Renee Zellweger. Surely no one could go through the loss of a spouse without becoming a great deal wiser than the carefree singleton so many young women identified with in the 1990s? The death of Jones’s husband’s in tragic circumstances could easily overshadow the novel, taking Fielding into uncharted territory. Killing off Mark Darcy, who famously fought with Daniel Cleaver for Jones’s affections in the earlier books, feels like a radical departure from a very successful formula.

So here is the introduction to one of Bridget’s diary entries in 2012, four years after Darcy’s death: ‘175lb, alcohol units 4 (nice), calories 2822 (but better eating real food in club than bits of old cheese and fish fingers at home), possibility of having or desire to have sex ever again 0’. Not much change there then: the old Bridget Jones is back, with a weight problem and a problematic sex life. Naturally this situation cannot be allowed to continue and Jones’s widowhood is soon enlivened by texting and excursions onto social networking sites. Despite all her anxieties about getting older, she promptly encounters a hot 29-year-old who styles himself @_Roxster on Twitter. This event prompts a familiar bout of soul-searching: ‘Pros of sleeping with Roxster 12, cons of sleeping with Roxster 3, percentage of time spent deciding whether or not to sleep with Roxster, preparing for possibility of sleeping with Roxster and imagining sleeping with Roxster compared with actual time it would probably take to sleep with Roxster 585%’.

It should by now be apparent that Mad About the Boy has exactly the same preoccupations as the earlier volumes of Jones’s diary. While the character always seemed young for her age, she did at least express some of the anxieties of her generation in comically magnified form. But the 50-something Jones seems to have learned nothing; without the financial worries which would be the main concern for most women in her situation, male attention is still what she craves most in life. Decades of world history seem to have passed her by, while the recent revival of feminism might as well have taken place in a parallel universe.

There are moments when Jones remembers that her husband is dead and has a stab at writing about the experience, but she still has the sensibility of a scatter-brained adolescent. The diary entry in which she recalls meeting Roxster in the flesh for the first time, experiencing such an attack of nerves that her mouth fills with vomit, made me wonder how she would react if something really dreadful happened to her. If Jones cannot cope with talking to a sentient adult in a bar, it is hard to imagine how she would survive not having enough money to feed the kids over a weekend. Or, ahem, becoming a widow.

Bridget Jones is an established and successful brand, but alert readers will quickly spot the book’s central flaw: a formula which more or less worked a decade-and-a-half ago now reads like an embarrassing parody of itself. Not far into the novel, Darcy’s death on a human rights mission in Darfur begins to seem like a device to allow Jones to throw herself back into the dating scene, but without any of the insight which comes with loss. Even worse is the degree of false consolation in the book: no matter how self-obsessed, unkind or ignorant the character reveals herself to be, men are still mad about her. As soon as Jones packs off the youthful Roxster to find someone closer to his own age, a cracking new piece of husband material heaves into view – and this one has been in the SAS!

I just hope for all our sakes that this one is made of more durable stuff than Mark Darcy. The prospect of Bridget Jones single again, mining the same old seam of self-deprecating solipsism, is more than anyone should have to bear.

Jonathan Cape £18.99

At last…Jimmy Savile is having a good effect

Independent on Sunday, 8 December 2013

It is being called the “Savile effect”. I’m not sure that anyone would have predicted, when the DJ’s criminal career began to be exposed just over a year ago, that the police inquiry would have such a dramatic impact. But rape crisis centres are reporting a surge in calls, with some charities recording increases of 40 per cent. At the same time, more women are going to the police: in London alone, there has been an increase of 29 per cent in rape reports in the past 12 months.

Of course, that still means that most rapes go unreported. Ten days ago, I went with the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to the Solace Women’s Aid centre in north London. The centre helps 5,000 survivors of sexual and domestic violence each year but staff say that only 20 per cent of their clients report their experience to the police. It is a chastening fact that, when Johnson was first elected, there was only one rape crisis centre in the country’s capital city. He spent £1.4m to set up three more, but the Savile effect is so pronounced that he has had to find an extra £25,000 for the south London centre over the past year.

The breathtaking extent of Savile’s crimes – he is believed to have committed sex offences against 450 people, including more than 30 rapes – has given many women the confidence to talk about their own traumatic experiences for the first time. The Savile cases, along with the conviction of the broadcaster Stuart Hall, has smashed the myth of sexual attacks as one-off crimes committed by “normal” men in a moment of madness. A slew of trials, including that of the prolific “black cab” rapist John Worboys, has shown that rapists tend to be serial criminals who select their victims carefully. It is also their downfall: juries may not believe a single victim but they are more likely to convict when several women describe similar experiences.

A landmark case which ended on Friday suggests that the criminal justice system is finally treating rape with the gravity it deserves. A serial rapist, Harbinder Khatkar, received a life sentence after he was found guilty of attacking six women in Derby in a single night. But the Khatkar case is notable for another reason; it is the first time a defendant has been retried in Derbyshire after a change in the double jeopardy law. Khatkar was acquitted of rape in 2011, just six weeks before he attacked three women in the street and another three in their own homes, but the Crown Prosecution Service successfully challenged the verdict.

In London, prosecutions for rape have gone up by almost a fifth in the past year. That is good news, even though police and rape crisis centres desperately need more resources. Jimmy Savile would be turning in his grave, I suspect, if he knew how public discussion of his crimes is helping to bring other rapists to justice.

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


HIV-Aids has mutated into a disease of poverty

Independent on Sunday, 1 December 2013

When a friend in London told me he was HIV-positive in the early 1980s, neither of us really knew what it meant. By the time I visited another HIV-positive friend in hospital in New York a decade later, the horror of the Aids pandemic had become apparent. I was shocked by how much his condition had deteriorated in the couple of years since I’d last seen him, when he had been well enough to wander round Manhattan with me. At the same time, I was touched by the support system for patients, including an organisation which walked my friend’s dog daily when he became too frail to do it himself. He died not long afterwards, joining thousands of gay men whose lives were tragically cut short.

The prognosis for HIV-positive people has changed dramatically since the 1990s with the development of anti-retroviral drug therapies. A couple of years ago I watched the harrowing documentary We Were Here about the Aids crisis in San Francisco, and was shocked to see archive footage of the ravaged faces of young men. The film is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, but the images already seem to be receding into history. Some organisations are looking forward, somewhat optimistically, to a day when there are no new infections.

That is why today’s World Aids Day is so important. The time when Aids was seen as a disease of gay men in affluent countries – and used as an excuse to launch shameful homophobic attacks – is long gone. It still affects people in developed countries, and approximately 100,000 individuals now live with HIV in the UK.

But HIV-Aids has reverted to a depressing norm, becoming a disease of poverty; of the estimated 35 million people living with HIV worldwide, 70 per cent are in sub-Saharan Africa. Most transmission there occurs within heterosexual relationships, including marriage and commercial sex. Some African countries, including Ghana and Malawi, have made significant progress in tackling Aids. But South Africa has the highest number of people with HIV in the world, with almost one in five of the population infected; among women aged 25 to 29, it is close to one in three. Last week, a report suggested that a fifth of healthcare facilities surveyed in South Africa face a shortage of drugs to treat HIV and tuberculosis. In rural areas, people often have to travel long distances, only to find there are no drugs available.

Women are much more vulnerable to infection by men than the other way round, while many live in cultures where men refuse to use condoms and domestic violence is common. The link with inequality is confirmed by startling figures from the US, where African-American women have an HIV prevalence rate nearly four times that of white women. A disease once associated in the public mind with gay white men has turned, in some parts of the world, into a tragedy for poor black women.