Not all Syria-bound teens are a threat

Independent on Sunday, 27 April 2014

On a December evening in 1938, a large crowd gathered at London’s Victoria station. They were joined by the future Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee, as they waited to welcome home 305 British volunteers from the Spanish Civil War. More than 500 of their comrades had been killed, fighting for the democratically elected government. Its defeat left the country in the hands of General Franco, a brutal dictator who stayed in power for decades.

The British Battalion of the International Brigades has been celebrated in books and poetry but the exodus of 2,500 men and women to fight in a foreign civil war alarmed the British government. Recently released files show MI5 kept a close eye on the volunteers. Ministers even considered using the 1870 Foreign Enlistment Act to stop the flow, but no one was prosecuted.

The parallel with modern-day Syria is not exact, especially now that groups linked to al-Qa’ida are taking a prominent role in the battle against Bashar al-Assad. But I can understand why idealistic young people are once again being drawn into a foreign conflict. A handful of British citizens has already been killed in Syria, including Brighton student Abdullah Deghayes, 18, who died fighting in Homs. Abdul Waheed Majeed, 41, from West Sussex, appears to have become the conflict’s first British suicide bomber; he blew himself up outside Aleppo prison in February.

It is easy to see why our government is alarmed by Majeed’s “martyrdom”. But I’m uneasy about the Home Office’s underlying assumption, which seems to be that anyone who wants to fight against Assad is a threat to the UK.

Last year, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, used her powers to strip British passports from 20 individuals who had dual Syrian-British nationality. Presumably she had reason to believe they posed a danger, but now the authorities’ rhetoric has changed.

In a new campaign spearheaded by the police, Muslim women are being asked to take a bigger role in preventing young men from going to Syria to fight. Inevitably, this has been denounced in some quarters as tantamount to spying for the government, but the initiative has the support of some prominent Muslims. The brilliant Sara Khan, director and co-founder of the Muslim women’s organisation, Inspire, points out that work to explain the sectarian nature of the war, and to counter the influence of extremist videos, has been going on behind the scenes for ages.

Every generation throws up a conflict which horrifies decent people. The rest of Europe left Franco to murder his way to power, supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Assad is just as ruthless, and he’s supported by Russia, China and Iran. Of course I don’t want to see more British teenagers dying in Syria. But we need to think about how to keep them safe, instead of treating them all as potential terrorists.


Should the UK make buying sex illegal?

The Guardian,Wednesday 23 April 2014

Caroline Spelman is brave. The Conservative MP and former cabinet minister has called on the UK to consider adopting the Nordic model of dealing with prostitution, which criminalises the purchase of sex while removing penalties from those who sell it. Spelman is right to call for a debate in this country: the British government cannot sit out on the crucially important discussion about this new approach to prostitution.

Sweden led the way a decade and a half ago, and Norway and Iceland followed suit. France is in the process of changing its legislation and the law is under review in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Canada and Finland. Earlier this year, the European parliament voted by a large majority in favour of the Nordic model, following a report from the committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality. The resolution is non-binding, but puts pressure on members to review their own laws.

Selling women is hugely profitable. As Spelman is no doubt finding out, supporters of the commercial sex industry hate advocates of the Nordic model a great deal more than punters who abuse women. In the end, it doesn’t matter much because we are in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime shift in the way people think about allowing men to pay to use women’s bodies.

One of the reasons for this is a paradox. In western countries, it has never been easier to get sex outside marriage. If prostitution really were about nothing more than meeting the supposed needs of unmarried men, it would have died out years ago. The opposite has happened, especially in countries where legislators have decided to decriminalise prostitution. Germany has so many women working in the commercial sex trade that The Economist recently described it as a “giant Teutonic brothel”. The magazine estimates that about 400,000 women in Germany are sex workers, providing sex to 1 million men every day.

Even in 21st-century Europe, men have more economic and social power than women. The imbalance at the heart of prostitution makes a mockery of modern notions of gender equality, encouraging boys to grow up with the idea that women occupy a subordinate role. No one forces men to abuse prostituted women; if the trade is just about sex, it is hard to explain why studies consistently show such high levels of physical and verbal abuse.

I suspect there is an inverse relationship between a vocal minority of women who wax lyrical about the joys of sex work, and the silent majority who hate every minute of it. We should listen more to survivors. Laws are meant to protect vulnerable people, not ensure that they are damaged in slightly more pleasant circumstances.

Cameron’s Christian pledge ‘could hurt thousands of British women’. Here’s how

Daily Telegraph, 22 April 2014

The Prime Minister hasn’t thought through the consequences of offering privileged access and public funds to Christian groups, argues Joan Smith. Many non-religious organisations helping domestic violence and sex trafficking victims will miss out

Does it matter if the Prime Minister welcomes leaders of Christian organisations into Number 10 Downing Street? He is a Christian himself and it isn’t as if he doesn’t invite other ‘faith’ groups to mark religious festivals. But wait: when David Cameron welcomed prominent Christians into his official residence, he went much further than celebrating a set of shared beliefs. He made promises which will affect the lives of people who weren’t present and don’t share those beliefs. Many of them, I’m sorry to say, are likely to be women who find themselves in dreadful circumstances.

I’m thinking about women fleeing violent marriages and victims of sex trafficking. In the recent past, a wide range of organisations existed to help them, and religious belief played a small part or none at all in the services they offered. Many of them received public funding, either from local councils or central government, but George Osborne’s austerity measures means that funding has been slashed. On a typical day in 2011, Women’s Aid was forced by lack of funds to turn away 230 women seeking refuge from a violent husband or partner.

There is no doubt that these services are needed more than ever. So who is going to provide them as one NGO after another reduces its services or closes down? Over to the Prime Minister, speaking at his Easter reception for Christians less than two weeks ago. Cameron declared that he wanted to “expand the role of faith and faith organisations in our country”. He went on: “And if there are blockages, if there are things that are stopping you doing more, think of me if you like as a sort of giant Dyno-Rod in Whitehall: I want to make it easier, I want to unblock the things that help you do what you do.”

We already have an example of the kind of thing he has in mind. Until 2011, an organisation called the Poppy Project received government funding for the fantastic work it carried out with women who had been rescued from sex-trafficking gangs; many of these women were deeply traumatised and suffering from STDs, and some had become pregnant against their will. Between 2003 and 2011, Poppy received almost 1,900 referrals, housed 334 women and supported another 449. Its work in the field received international recognition.

In 2011, the government cut its funding to the Poppy Project. It awarded the contract for looking after victims of sex-trafficking to the Salvation Army, an evangelical Christian organisation whose stated purpose is ‘helping individuals to develop and grow in their personal relationship with God’. I doubt whether this is a top priority for women rescued from months or years of sexual violence, some of whom may belong to other religions. It’s also worth pointing out that the Salvation Army opposes abortion except in cases of foetal abnormality or where the mother’s life is at stake.

This is just one example of public funds being diverted from a secular provider to a Christian organisation. Many of these organisations are likely have a traditional view of the sanctity of marriage, yet it is vital for the safety of women and children that they are helped to leave abusive relationships. The most charitable explanation of Cameron’s behaviour is that he hasn’t thought through the consequences of offering privileged access and public funds to Christian organisations.

The conflict between modern notions of equality and a traditional Christian view of gender roles can’t just be wished away. In the rarefied atmosphere of Downing Street, promising to give Christian organisations privileged access to ministers and public funds may sound benign. But the impact on women and girls, in the real world, may turn out to be dire.

Joan Smith is a novelist, journalist and human rights activist, who can be found blogging at and tweeting @polblonde.She is also one of the signatories to the letter, printed in the Daily Telegraph on April 20, warning that the prime minister foster division by calling Britain a ‘Christian country’.

UPDATE – April 23, 18:33

A spokesman for the Salvation Army said: “We were awarded the contract in an open tendering process because the Home Office/ Ministry of Justice felt we were able to do the job delivering the contract across England and Wales. Plus, we were able to support female and male victims of trafficking (around 40 per cent of the victims of trafficking are male), whilst the organisation who previously held the contract only cared for women.

“To deliver this contract we work with partner organisations – some faith-based, others not, and we respect and support everyone who comes to us no matter what their background or religion. Our positional statements, such as the one referred to on abortion, are ethical guidelines for our church members and we do not impose these views on those we serve.”

The parable of the PM and the jellyfish

Independent on Sunday, 20 April 2014

Maybe that sting in the warm waters off Lanzarote was God’s way of telling Cameron that religion and politics don’t mix

As far as I can remember, jellyfish did not figure among the plagues visited on Egypt in the Old Testament. So perhaps God was improvising when he sent a member of this tentacled marine species to give David Cameron a message in the balmy waters off Lanzarote. Local people warned the Prime Minister that there were jellyfish just off the beach but, according to witnesses, he ignored their advice. What happened next was predictable: Cameron suddenly emerged from the sea, shouting in agony and rubbing his arm after being stung.

Has he got the message? There are plenty of reasons why God, if he were to exist, should be more than a little annoyed by the Prime Minister’s recent behaviour. Promoting religion is a risky business in British politics, so much so that Tony Blair wisely kept his views to himself while he was in office. The UK is a Christian country in name only, despite bullish pronouncements to the contrary by the Prime Minister and his pantomimic Secretary of State for Communities, Eric Pickles. (Let’s not even mention the “Minister for Faith”, the ineffable Baroness Warsi.) They seem to think that saying something often enough makes it true, yet more people belong to the RSPB than attend a church service each Sunday. By that logic, we’re more a bird-watching nation than a God-fearing one, a development for which I am profoundly grateful.

Census responses on religious belief tend to be skewed by asking people what their religion is, rather than whether they have one at all. The British Social Attitudes Survey, which tackles the question in a less loaded manner, suggests that the proportion of people who describe themselves as non-religious has risen from just under a third three decades ago to half in 2009; in the 18 to 24 age group, only 36 per cent claim to have a religious affiliation. And there’s more data to unsettle the Prime Minister, if he were not so caught up in his fantasy of presiding over a settled, God-fearing nation: according to an ICM poll in 2006, only 17 per cent of respondents believed that the UK could best be described as a Christian country. Four-fifths regarded religion as a cause of division and tension.

I doubt whether many of these people will have welcomed the Prime Minister’s recent article in the Church Times. Even though he was addressing a rapidly diminishing audience, he declared that “we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country”.

Who is this “we”? Not the UK’s Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and Hindu populations, and certainly not atheists, agnostics, humanists or anyone who believes that the state should be secular. While members of non-Christian religions get invitations to Downing Street to mark religious festivals, millions of people who do not have any religious belief are frozen out of Whitehall by a man who couldn’t even muster an overall majority at the last election.

Because he’s been Prime Minister for almost four years, it’s easy to forget how precarious Cameron’s position is; this is the Tory leader who couldn’t achieve a clear victory over Gordon Brown, Labour’s weakest leader for decades. Yet he talks smugly about “Christian” values, never acknowledging the immorality of imposing them on a population which is expressing an ever-greater preference for secular ethics. A little religious cabal around the Prime Minister keeps trying to demonise secularism, wrongly characterising it as an enemy of religion, yet it is the only practical way we can live together in a society that displays such diverse beliefs.

At an Easter reception earlier this month for Christians – mostly white men in suits, with the odd woman and a handful of people from ethnic minorities – the Prime Minister even made the remarkable claim that “Jesus invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago”. I’m not making this up: you can read his speech on the Downing Street website where he actually describes himself as “a sort of giant Dyno-Rod”, clearing blockages in Whitehall on behalf of Christian organisations.

In a lifetime of observing British politics, I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite such desperate tactics; with the polls stubbornly showing Labour in the lead and Ukip snapping at his heels, a British prime minister has been reduced to selling himself as an evangelical drain cleaner. Vote Camo-Rod and flush those nasty non-believers out of the system! (Generous discounts for regular churchgoers.)

Pitching for the religious vote carries huge risks for the Conservatives, suggesting they’re more out of touch than anyone could have imagined or have substantially overestimated the size of their core support. At the next general election, the Prime Minister will find himself scrapping with Ukip for a dwindling Christian vote, while Labour rallies behind a secular modern leader. No wonder God sent that jellyfish. He must be tearing his hair out as he watches the contortions of a Desperate Christian in Downing Street.

‘Women Who Eat on Tubes’ isn’t high art. It’s harassment

Independent on Sunday,13 April 2014

Women should be able to use public transport – and eat – without having to worry about weirdos with camera phones

Some men are funny about watching women eat. Lord Byron couldn’t stand the sight because (according to his first biographer) it might disturb his notion of their “perfection and almost divine nature”. A century later, Sigmund Freud identified a “cannibalistic” phase of infant development in which “sexual activity has not yet been separated from the ingestion of food”. He also wrote about the “vagina dentata”, a malign fantasy in which the female sexual organ is transformed into a hungry mouth, crammed with sharp teeth.

A confusion of mouths and vaginas may be one of the reasons why some religious societies, such as Saudi Arabia, expect men and women to eat separately. Evidently the act of eating, when it’s done by women, inspires a whole range of negative reactions – fear, mockery, disgust – even in the 21st century. Let me offer one more piece of evidence, in the shape of a photograph posted on Facebook a couple of years ago: it shows three women eating on a London underground train and the caption reads “Three little pigs”.

The man behind this Facebook group – it’s called Women Who Eat on Tubes – has all sorts of grandiose things to say about it. He’s called Tony Burke and you may have heard him on Friday’s Today programme on Radio 4, demonstrating his commitment to equality by talking over a woman who was trying to explain why she finds the project objectionable. Burke claimed that the group’s pages had been taken down by Facebook but it still operates as a members-only site; other versions exist as well, displaying masses of unflattering pictures of women cramming food into their mouths. According to Burke in various interviews, the site is either “high art” or the equivalent of wildlife photography. (Yes, it’s that old cliché: women as exotic animals.)

In fact, Burke is a self-confessed voyeur, summing up the group’s raison d’être like this on Facebook: “Everywhere I go I see women eating on Tubes… Slowly, secretly, guiltily raising each bite-sized morsel to their salty lips in the hope that no one’s watching. Well, I’m watching. And I’m photographing…”

This is pure projection: he has no idea whether the women concerned are feeling guilty or just in a hurry, grabbing a sandwich on their way to a meeting or to pick the kids up from school. The idea that they’re behaving secretively isn’t borne out by the photos, but it’s that phrase “salty lips” which really sounds a klaxon. An apple isn’t salty but semen is, revealing a classic conflation of sexual and alimentary appetite.

Burke made the link again in an interview while supposedly disavowing it: “I don’t want to have a picture of someone eating a banana and a load of people talking about blowjobs.” So who is talking about blowjobs? Then there’s this response on the group’s Facebook pages to a picture of a woman putting crisps in her mouth: “Tight! Tight! Tight!!!! It’s as if someone else is feeding her. Nice one, Tony!”

I don’t know about feeding women but the group certainly seems to be feeding sexual fantasies. If the pictures were of children, it would have been shut down in no time at all, but the objections to photographing women covertly are just as compelling. The images posted by the Facebook group, showing bulging cheeks and distorted mouths, are clearly intended to shame and ridicule women. The subjects of this unwanted attention have no control over how the pictures will be used; several women who objected when their photographs appeared without their permission have been abused online. The site has been accused of bullying and stranger-shaming, but the most profound objection is that it adds yet another gender-specific hazard to everyday life.

Most women have experienced harassment on public transport; I’ve been accosted by drunks on buses and followed off a Tube train late at night. More recently, the widespread ownership of camera phones has produced the phenomenon known as “up-skirting”, in which a man follows a woman on to an escalator to take photos of her crotch. Last year, British Transport Police secured the first convictions in London for this practice, sending a message that needs to be spread more widely. In the 21st century, women should be able to use trains and buses without having to worry about sexist comments, unwanted attention or outrageous invasions of privacy.

For some men, I suspect, half the fun in taking a woman’s photograph covertly on public transport lies in wondering whether she’ll notice and make a fuss; not every woman dares to challenge a stranger who is bigger than her and might become aggressive. If she doesn’t, it confirms a power imbalance in which men control public space and women have to live by their rules. What’s “artistic” about that? And in case someone asks the time-honoured question – “Don’t you have a sense of humour, love?” – my answer is simple. Yes, but I’ve never been amused by any form of harassment.

Deadly Intent

Sunday Times, 13 April 2014
An ingenious revenge tale from Jo Nesbo is a dramatic opener to our crime roundup
Jo Nesbo is having a break from writing about his troubled detective, Harry Hole. His new novel, The Son, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Harvill Secker £18.99/ebook £18.99), is about a heroin addict who stages an unexpected break from an Oslo jail. The young man, Sonny, is a model prisoner who has confessed to murders he didn’t commit in return for a regular supply of drugs. His escape is followed by a series of killings, which Nesbo describes with his usual relish for ingenious methods of murder. Sonny’s late father was a detective, and a cop who knew them both realises Sonny is out for almost-biblical revenge on the gangsters who staged his father’s suicide. The novel has Nesbo’s trademark twists and turns but sentimentality is becoming a habitual flaw in his writing, inviting the reader to overlook the ethical void at the heart of his fiction.
The French novelist Fred Vargas could be Nesbo’s polar opposite, producing hugely readable novels that never lose sight of her characters’ moral imperatives. Dog Will Have His Day, translated by Sian Reynolds (Harvill Secker £14.99/ebook £14.99), is a departure from her Inspector Adamsberg series and brings back characters from an earlier Vargas novel, The Three Evangelists. Seldom has a murder mystery been kicked off by a more slender clue, a human bone that has been eaten by a dog and deposited in a park in Paris. The bone is spotted by a sharp-eyed ex-cop, Louis Kehlweiler, who is sufficiently troubled to take it to a police station. When his former colleagues show little interest, he identifies the dog and follows the trail to a Breton fishing village. Few contemporary crime writers can match Vargas’s soaring imaginative flights, which have won her the CWA international dagger on four occasions.
Thomas Mogford is a relative newcomer whose crime novels are set in Gibraltar. Hollow Mountain (Bloomsbury £11.99/ebook £7.99) is a classic detective story in which a lawyer, Spike Sanguinetti, finds himself representing an international salvage company. The firm is trying to salvage lead ingots from a wreck and needs legal help after coming across a hoard of silver coins, but Sanguinetti begins to suspect more sinister motives. Some of the plot developments are signalled a little too obviously, but Mogford is a fluent writer and the book gains from its unusual setting.
The American author Ben Pastor has produced a fine series of novels featuring a conscience-stricken Wehrmacht officer in the Second World War. Her latest, A Dark Song of Blood (Bitter Lemon £8.99/ebook £8.99), places Major Martin von Bora in Rome in 1944. While each day brings news of allied advances, Bora is ordered to investigate the death of a secretary at the German embassy. The investigation brings him into conflict with the SS, but he also has to weigh the significance of one unexplained death against a mass execution carried out by the Germans on the outskirts of Rome. This is historical crime fiction at its best, vividly re-creating the atmosphere of a city occupied by an increasingly desperate army.
Depressed male detectives have become a cliché of modern crime fiction, but few have psychological problems on the scale of Harry Bingham’s Welsh cop, Fiona Griffiths. As well as being a woman, Griffiths is recovering from Cotard’s syndrome, a condition that leads sufferers to believe they are dead, and she struggles to feel normal emotions. This makes her an ideal candidate for a dangerous undercover operation in The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths (Orion £12.99/ebook £12.99), where she assumes a new identity to infiltrate an international fraud. But it also threatens her fragile sense of self, confronting the reader with profound questions about human nature in the midst of a fast-paced plot.

If I couldn’t be Fanny, why not Sophonisba?

Independent on Sunday, 6 April 2014

Traditional British first names are dying out, but what’s interesting is the list of those at risk of extinction

It’s enough to give your average Ukip member a heart attack: traditional British first names are becoming extinct, according to a new study, which shows that some of the most popular names from a century ago are in danger of dying out. Girls’ names are more likely to disappear than boys’, apparently; they’re more at the whim of fashion, whereas quite a few families still think it’s important to keep the same names in the male line. Bloody patriarchy gets everywhere, I say.

Actually, what’s interesting is the list of names at risk of extinction. Horace, Hilda and Doris were among the most popular names in 1905 but, while they may be traditional, their origins are not very British at all. The first is Roman while Hilda is German and Doris is Greek, although I don’t think my auntie of that name was remotely connected to the Dorians, one of the tribes that inhabited Ancient Greece. I’m sure she didn’t have a clue that her name meant “Dorian woman”.

Other names that are no longer in fashion, according to, are Cecil, Norman and Edna – Roman, Anglo-German and Hebrew respectively. Names say a great deal about patterns of travel and immigration, and the influence of Viking and Norman incursions on “British” names is obvious. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the popularity of a classical education in English public schools was reflected in the number of upper-class children with Greek and Roman first names. Personally, I’ve always hankered after Sophonisba, a Latinisation of the name of a Carthaginian princess.

Joan was not a common first name by the time I was born, although it had been popular in the 1920s and 1930s. My parents’ explanation – that they were expecting a boy and intended to call him Ian – has always baffled me. If Sophonisba was out of the question, I wouldn’t have minded Fanny – now virtually extinct, sadly – after one of my great-grandmothers. Her mother had an extraordinary first name, Deinas or Dinas, which I’ve never encountered anywhere else. The advantages of Joan, as far as I can see, are that there aren’t many of us (unlike Smith) and it’s impossible to shorten. No one has ever called me Jo, except by mistake, although I’ve had to see off a few attempts at Joanie.

Research suggests that shortened forms of first names are very popular, with Lexi replacing Alexandra and Sophie pushing out Sophia. We’re more informal these days and I’d like to think this reflects a deliberate blurring of class distinctions. But then I look at the top 10 girls’ names in 2012, compiled by the Office for National Statistics, and it’s like being slapped with a wet fish: no fewer than seven end with the letter “a”.

OK, I didn’t expect to find any Samiras yet. But there isn’t a single working-class name among all those little Amelias, Olivias and Jessicas.