Wading in, wading out?

The first time I ever heard anything about abortion was also the first time I watched Dirty Dancing.  I was ten, maybe. My best friend’s older sister was baby-sitting for us, and had plugged it into the VCR. She allowed us to stay, in our pyjamas, wide-eyed.

After the infamous the guy had a dirty knife and a folding table line, I asked what was happening.  I don’t remember what I was told, but I do remember being horrified at poor Penny’s suffering.

Dirty Dancing was set in 1963, a decade before the historic decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to legalise abortion through the famous “Roe v. Wade” case.  The film itself was released in 1987, only fourteen years after.  But even by then it was hard to imagine quite what the past had felt like; abortion had already become an accepted right for most American women, as the film’s screenwriter and co-producer Eleanor Bergstein explains in a recent interview:

When I made the movie in 1987, about 1963, I put in the illegal abortion and everyone said, ‘Why? There was Roe v. Wade ― what are you doing this for?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know that we will always have Roe v. Wade.’

Roe v. Wade revolved around the US Constitution’s 14th amendment (the right to individual liberty).  The case is back in the headlines now, as a landmark decision under threat from President Trump’s appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court (nomination subject to US Senate approval, as this article explains).

Many women’s health and rights organisations have decried Kavanaugh’s nomination, arguing that his previous track record as a federal Judge implies a possible reversal of Roe v. Wade with a swing of the Supreme Court to the right (see the #SaveRoe campaign). There is already evidence of states increasing restrictions to the federal policy, with 214 limitations on the right to abortion voted between 2011-2014 (more than for all three previous decades).

In just the last 4 years, states have enacted 231 abortion restrictions

Analysis by the Center for Reproductive Rights predicts 22 states in America would use a Supreme Court reversal to enact their own abortion laws. So if Roe v. Wade is struck down, what would that mean for American women?  Was “the Penny situation” typical, and would it still be, in 2018?

There are obviously no official statistics about how many American women underwent illegal abortions before 1973.  Some argue that Roe v. Wade did not change much: in five states (Washington, New York, Alaska, Hawaii and California) abortion was already legal.  Others obtained terminations quietly from sympathetic doctors.

The same would probably occur today, with women travelling interstate or abroad, or procuring drugs such as mifepristone and misoprostol to avoid some of the most awful home-alone methods of yesterday. But regardless: self-administration of any medical or non-medical procedure is not without risks, and seeking a legal abortion elsewhere would still require time off work, and a budget for the operation, travel or accommodation.

This point is particularly relevant. Of the 926,000 abortions performed in the US in 2014, half were for women of low income, according to an article by the BBC.  Illegalising abortion would create a double burden of discrimination in terms of need and access, but could also threaten disproportionate criminality for poor women, as described by Michelle Oberman writing in the New York Times:

In Chile, the small number of abortion prosecutions annually typically target doctors. El Salvador prosecutes women. Government officials there have toured the country’s hospitals to inform doctors of their duty to report women suspected of having induced their miscarriages. Not only does this policy violate near-universal norms of patient confidentiality, but because doctors have no reliable way to tell a natural miscarriage from an abortion, reports are made on the basis of suspicion. Whom do doctors tend to suspect most readily? Poor women.

It is difficult to have an exact figure for illegal abortions, but it is estimated that 25million terminations (of a total of 56million annually worldwide) are unsafe, defined as lacking either trained medical staff to conduct the termination, or the use of unsafe/incorrect methods.  And again, since accessing drugs online such as misoprostol still requires knowledge, money, and supply, it is not surprising that the majority of unsafe terminations happen in developing countries (where there is also the greatest unmet need for contraception, and where the laws tend to be the most restrictive).

Disparities in safety of abortions across countries with varying legal restrictions

So banning abortion does not stop it from happening; it simply makes it more dangerous. Unsafe terminations result in around 22,800 deaths annually (likely a conservative estimate), and some 6.9m ‘complications’, detailed below by the IPPF (and which cost an estimated $553m a year to treat according to the WHO).

So what are the risks? Immediately: severe bleeding, uterine perforation, tearing of the cervix, severe damage to the genitals and abdomen, internal infection of the abdomen and blood poisoning.

In the medium to long-term possible repercussions of unsafe abortion include reproductive tract infections (RTI – a 20 to 30% chance), pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), chronic pain and infertility (20 to 40%). Then there’s the risk of ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage or premature delivery in subsequent pregnancies.

But the picture is not stagnant. Whether for these ethical, economic, or human rights reasons, 27 countries have relaxed laws on abortion since 2000. This is also in line with international treaties signed by the majority of the world’s countries which establish rights to dignity, health, equal treatment, and health – all fundamentally linked to contraception and abortion.

Capture d_écran 2018-08-30 à 22.50.55

However, legislation, though a pre-condition, is insufficient alone.  Rights can only become reality when women have freedom to enact them.  Laws are always at the behest of public opinion, or a politician’s pen: Poland has progressively and aggressively narrowed grounds for abortion in recent years.

Where does that leave us? With a fairly linear conclusion, it seems to me. There will never be a happy compromise between the viscerally-opposed pro-life and pro-choice camps.  And abortion will always be the most visible and controversial element of a broader taboo surrounding women’s sexual and reproductive health; rights which appear as a challenge to sacred tenets such as the family, the community, religion, virility, or fertility.

Well, so be it.  Those rights are inherent to existing first and foremost as a human being, and not just as a mother, wife, or child-bearing instrument. An abortion is already a very difficult and intimate decision. It shouldn’t also be a source of persecution, prosecution, injury, or death.  Save (Jane) Roe, indeed.


This little piggy… stayed home

4998496e-phpo6ozf4The British parent living in France has a great TV bargaining chip: yes, child, you may watch half an hour tonight… so long as it’s in English. I am strict about this, and my daughter has long given up trying to wiggle her way into VF. Noddy is Noddy (it’s Non-Non to Oui-Oui).

Peppa Pig, then, has been another handy instrument for forced induction of my children into English. And it’s not bad for the long-suffering parent subjected to supervising their children’s television viewing. The episodes are five minutes long, the characters personable and jolly-ly British, and everyone ends up laughing at the end of each story.

Try getting ticking any of those boxes with the wearisome Petit Ours Brun or what-is-it?-Tchoupi, and their inevitable tantrums/lost doudou plots.


Carried along on the Peppa Pig craze, we even ended up giving into my daughter’s third birthday wish a few years ago: a trip to Peppa Pig World (near the New Forest in the UK). I was pregnant with my son at the time and remember blessing my mother for living five minutes away from the park. This meant we could escape for a lunchtime nap and some paracetamol, before returning afresh in the afternoon, unlike those people who had driven down from Scotland to be there eight hours on the trot.

My gender-antennae first tweaked in the gift shop, as it happens, where I rewarded my sacrifice with a Mummy Pig mug: pink, like Mummy Pig’s dress. The fathers who survived those eight hours of porcine adventures came home bleary-eyed, clutching mugs, too: theirs were blue.


My daughter is now almost eight. Peppa Pig had been packed away. But her four-year-old brother has come of age, and is now allowed his dose of English cartoons twice a week. With a fondness for familiar things, we dusted them off, and began with the perky-plonk theme tune and snorting all over again.

But this time, four years on, I found myself paying closer attention – and realising that Peppa’s imaginary-world is nicely summed up by the pink-and-blue mugs sold in the real-life gift shop.   I hadn’t noticed, since I had been probably been guilty of that parental abandon which comes from thinking what your child is watching is wholesome family fun, as pointed out below:

“A lot of parents feel that those programs are beneficial to the children,” parenting expert Dr Karen Phillip said.

“But by beneficial you don’t know if they mean education or childminding. To me, it’s more childminding.”

And I was also guilty of the feminist assumption that a programme first aired in 2004, oh-enlightened-twenty-first-century, would have thought about gender stereotypes.

Such as?

Such as the fact that Daddy Pig is the one to go out to work, and have “important meetings” (Mummy Pig does something involving her computer, at home; when the children break it in one episode, thankfully Daddy Pig is around to mend it). Such as Daddy Pig doing all of the driving, and newspaper (if not map) reading. Such as the household chores, when they appear, being done by Mummy Pig. Such as the fact that in every episode I’ve ever watched it is Daddy Pig who is “rather an expert at these things”, and does the majority of explaining and deciding (even if he gets it wrong).

The standard general stereotypes, reinforced by specific episodes which add another layer. There’s the one where Peppa inadvertently puts her red dress (she only ever wears a dress, like Mummy Pig) into the washing machine with Daddy’s white football top. The colours run. Daddy Pig is so horrified by the thought of wearing a pink tshirt in front of his mates – confirmed by George Pig, with a snort, even though George doesn’t seem to say or think about anything apart from dinosaurs – that he goes to football training wearing his white work shirt instead.

Then there’s the one where they go on holiday to Italy, and Mummy Pig takes the huge heavy suitcase filled with unnecessary things, and buys another suitcase once there to bring back more unnecessary things. There’s the camping foray, where Daddy Pig takes over and Mummy Pig is instructed in what to do. There’s the Christmas episode, where of course Peppa Pig wants a doll. And of course there’s the one at the funfair, with a bit of fake feminism: told by everyone that the different games are too difficult for her, Mummy Pig gets angry, gets good, and wins all the prizes.


Left-hand drive only

Researching views on Peppa Pig mostly produces positive articles. The series has won countless awards, and is now a $2bn brand extending from your TV screen to educational games, books, and applications. The only complaints have been about road safety messages (leading to characters having seatbelts in cars from the second series) or creating unrealistic expectations of the UK’s National Health Service (given Dr Brown Bear’s startling availability for a home call to treat George Pig’s cold).

Ok, but so what? So what, if George only wears blue, if Mummy Pig doesn’t say as much as Daddy Pig? If when Suzy Sheep comes to look after her friend Peppa, it is as a nurse and not a doctor?

Well, it matters because this series is more than popular culture – it is almost compulsory viewing, not only in the UK, but all over the world: over 250 episodes available, in 20 different languages. Mild or not, the pink/blue divide is absorbed by hundreds of thousands of small people. Television, like the books they read, or songs they sing, normalises their world. What you see is what you get; what they see is what we will get.

It’s not all bad. The series centres, after all, on a strong female character (even “sexist”, according to the Daily Mail). Peppa is (cutesily) bossy. Mummy Pig isn’t submissive, per se: she scolds Daddy Pig’s self-importance with a loving derision which has them all (and us) laughing.

But it could be better – good, even, and easily so.  These are made-up characters, remember. With a stroke of computer-animated pens, they could be a tool not just for my children to learn English, but to unlearn the stereotypes that can put limits on the rest of their lives.

Pigs might fly?

Well, they just might, if given wings.

The Full Monty

p03lcphhWe do, inadvertently, have Harvey to thank.

Enfin, the journalist who published the story.

Because with the tongues of some of the world’s most famous actresses finally freed comes a freedom and release for every other ordinary woman.  The freedom to speak up, to bear witness, in what has become a collective confession ever since the Weinstein story broke.

Here in France there have been two responses.

The first was the rapid adoption on social media of French versions of the Harvey hashtags, in the form of #MoiAussi and #BalanceTonPorc (#NameYourPig, a Francophone #MyHarveyWeinstein).

Capture d_écran 2017-10-21 à 20.38.08

The second Harvey happening, mostly as a consequence of the first, was from the French government. Faced with an unprecedented wave of women claiming they had been victims (a 19 October survey found over half (53%) of women have faced sexual harassment at some stage in their lives) ministers moved quickly to promise a new law to broaden the definition and prosecution of sexual harassment.

More on that later.

First, the hashtags. And some old-fashioned question marks: name and shame, or shame when name?

The social media outpour which has followed the Weinstein stories is to be welcomed. As French sociologist Irène Théry put it in Le Monde last week, “shame has swapped sides.” Both #MoiAussi and #BalanceTonPorc provide that outlet. Both help signal the scale and frequency of the problem.  Both have helped female (and male) victims to finally come forward. Both have galvanized governments into action.

But if both hashtags spring from the same source, why do we need two? The answer is that they are not quite the same. While #MoiAussi offers the space to say, this happened to me too, and it is time to stop it; #BalanceTonPorc is about, this happened to me too, and here’s the guy who did it.

Useful, perhaps, for big fish who might otherwise be protected by their name, and those prepared to go after them. Ariane Fornia, daughter of former French Budget minister Eric Besson, asserted last week that she was molested during an opera performance in 2010 by another former minister, Pierre Joxe.  When told on national radio that Joxe was going to press charges for defamation, Fornia replied, “Very good. Let him.”

#BalanceTonPorc is robustly defended.  To those who fear the legal implications of identifying an alleged attacker on social media, the answer is that very few women have actually gone so far as naming names.  To those who find the French coarse or violent, the retort is that sexual harassment is coarse, and violent.  And to those who worry that a quick Tweet will discourage women from using the proper channels of pressing charges, the response is that women are already discouraged from doing so: Osez le Féminisme says 90% of women do not press charges (other estimates are even lower) and of those who do press charges, only a small minority end in prosecution (for example: 5% for sexual harassment cases at work).

And yet. In our instant-everything world, where is the fair trial (we have fought so hard for ourselves as feminists), where is the reflection, in 140 (and even 280) characters?

What is the difference between #NameYourPig and, say, #NameYourNazi, or maybe, #NameYourNeighbour the next time their hedge overgrows, or, allez, #NameAnyoneWhoDoesAnythingWrong? By directing this movement toward a pitch-fork manhunt, we not only weaken the basic tenant of feminism – equal assumptions, equal rights – but slide dangerously into populism and the righteous mass.

It is extraordinarily depressing that so few women (and men) suffering sexual attacks report them to the police. According to Odoxa, a polling institute, #BalanceTonPorc led to 335,000 tweets in the space of six days. 17,000 of these tweets contained a direct allegation of assault or harassment.

Capture d_écran 2017-10-21 à 21.16.32

17,000 women who had not wanted or been able to bring that testimony to a police station, or court of law.  Common justice, at last, you might say?

Perhaps. Especially considering the humiliation, time and energy of pressing charges, and unlikelihood of prosecution. But in providing a quick-and-easy alternative to denounce, do we not in fact run the risk of the opposite: making it easier to commit sexual harassment and get away with it?

Which brings me to the last problem: the void, after the rush. This is common to both hashtags and pretty much anything on Twitter. Yes, it is good to speak out. Yes, the shame-swapping is essential, moving, and to be cheered. Yes, it has resulted in governments finally thinking about how to better capture and punish offenders.

But what about the why?

The why of your attacker, of everyone else’s attacker, of all current or future unnamed attackers: why harassment exists in the first place, and why it is permitted to continue, on 21st century planet Earth.

The first is answered easily enough. Harassment occurs because it can:

  • physical strength (I can’t say no: I can’t fight back)
  • hierarchy (I can’t say no: I will lose my job)
  • community pressure (I can’t say no: my reputation or my family’s is at stake),
  • isolation (I can’t say no: no-one will believe/help me),
  • anonymity (I can’t say no: it was in a dark cinema),
  • dependency (I can’t say no: who will look after me)
  • or *just* from fear (I can’t say no: I can’t)….

In other words, because of power. The answer therefore is the same, whatever the situation: empowerment.

Posting to hashtags is a form of that empowerment – a shaking-free from some of the binds above. But for all that those statements are brave, honest, and wield their own force, they are also fleeting, temporary, and personal.  Empowerment can be instantly triggered: but it cannot be maintained without permanent effort and enforcement.

So yes. Changes to laws are necessary.  Especially better and agreed recognitions, since part of the dismissal of the issue is in the rejection of subjectivity (or tutting about political correctness).  Have a listen to the Radio 4 programme Any Answers from 28 October: the flood of calls received by the host Anita Anand covered the usual range of irritation over ‘feminist hijacking’. One father complained that his sons were now

too scared to ask a girl out these days: the power ratio has been reversed, because girls have the power, the power of rejection

(heaven forbid).

So with clearer definition of what harassment is (and is not) stricter punishment will protect women’s integrity, lessen the fight, and make idiots or misogynists think twice (maybe) before they follow you down the street.



Good, good. But, as always, not good enough. Where is the beyond-a-plaster reflection? Tweets aren’t enough. Laws in themselves aren’t enough. We need to go much further, and build on this remarkable, courageous movement to investigate – and invest- into that why.

For me, it is about the education you receive. At school, at home. The images and roles you see as you grow up, and then imitate, expect or attribute. Your own self-worth.  Your definition of femininity and masculinity, and your community’s definition of those.

Complicated. But there are simple changes we can make. Like:

  • reading books, films, stories without damsels in distress or girls valued only by their beauty and/or feminine qualities
  • encouraging young women to explore studies or careers traditionally dominated by men, and vice versa
  • promoting women’s sport (my daughter, aged five, coming home from school: “the boys wouldn’t let me play football today, maman, I’m a girl”)
  • providing sexual education which is not just about biology, but equal respect, responsibility and pleasure
  • doing something about women and women’s bodies as portrayed in the media or advertising.

Yes: though I’d like to think that we are finally turning a page on harassment equalling a male-pigeon-in-the-park, healthy, harmless urge, when I see responses like the pleasant one below, I know that isn’t the case.

Capture d_écran 2017-10-21 à 21.06.33

Lovely. In the meantime, a little light relief.  The next time, ladies, you are being hassled for your number and he literally won’t take no for an answer, give him this:

Capture d_écran 2017-10-29 à 20.02.08

Oh, and for the record?


Make, or Brake?


Credit: National Geographic

“I can’t believe I’ve got off scot-free for so long,” says the woman opposite me.

We are in a revamped youth hostel near the Gare du Nord in Paris. It is busy with young people relaxing into their Friday evening. I am (I admit) feeling slightly too old to be here (ordering a hot chocolate instead of a beer may be proof of this) but also rather proud, given the cool company I’m keeping.

The woman I have come to meet, you see, is a Major in the British Army, and who better to help me understand why only 10% of serving military personnel in the UK are female?

Starter for ten?

I have come armed (ho!) with my statistics, articles, and studies.  It makes for fascinating reading, and as usual I have more questions than answers. But there is an easy starting point: the depressing 10% of women in the armed forces is the same miserable 10% we find for female heads of state or government.

Nothing like consistency, eh.

Late to the table…

My Major is at pains to stress that it is impossible to analyse female participation today without remembering what it was yesterday.   Before the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) merged with the main British Army in 1992, their training included deportment lessons and flower-arranging (perhaps to cleverly camouflage an AK47?). And even after the merger, women were not allowed to carry weapons (so as not to put their posture out).


WRAC members 1940s. Credit: BBC News

So that is one (simple) part of the answer: our armed forces have fewer women because it’s a relatively recent career option. But that doesn’t explain why the numbers applying to join today are still low. At current rates, it will be difficult for the armed forces to meet their (not overly ambitious) 2020 target of 15% servicewomen.

So do we need a specific recruitment drive for women? Current advertisements are generally like this one: rousing, fraternel, and usually with some extreme Bear-Grylls type climate conditions.

But if the argument is that women can (and want to) do whatever men can, why should they need any special encouragement in the first place?

A man’s world?

Maybe it’s because we ladies just don’t have the inclination for that kind of thing. Women are by nature soft, cuddly things, with an instinctive abhorrence for war, mud or manslaughter, right?  After all, when was the last time you saw a little girl running around the playground with a play pistol?

And aside from that natural disinclination, there’s those pesky female biologies that get in the way.


Ewe, too?

My Major says she is often asked questions about how she manages her period, for example, during fieldwork. And the perception of physical weakness is not just popular rhetoric. Decisions from the US and UK governments in the last two years to open front-line combat positions (e.g. infantry) to women have been met with dismay from some senior figures who claim such equality would “endanger” lives.

The physiological differences between men and women are an undeniable reality. Jessica Ennis will ever beat Usain Bolt in the 100m gold, and there it is.  But we are no longer in trench warfare of the 20th century. The breadth of non-combat roles across the armed forces, due to modernisation of war, weapons and machinery, have by and large removed any unique prerequisite of brawn before brain.

“On paper, it’s all open”

And of course, intake is one thing. But there are also outflows, or (aptly named) “wastage”: those who join the armed services, but leave.

For women, there are apparently two reasons for throwing in the (tea)towel.

The first is discrimination. This takes a variety of forms, from unconscious or engrained attitudes, to deliberate exclusion, physical or emotional harassment. It is always hard to quantify discrimination, but a survey in 2016 carried out by the UK government found 39% of Army servicewomen (v. 22% of servicemen) had suffered unwelcome attention or comment on their appearance or behaviour.


Source: Speak Out government report

Though it is worth remembering the (much lower) rates of more serious manifestations of sexual harassment, the fact that only 30% of all service personnel responded to the survey in the first place – and that so few of those who did think they had been victim of it felt they could report it – would imply the reality is likely to be worse.

In recent years, recognising the impact on personnel and on reputation, armed forces have made efforts to tackle this discrimination (and the rates in 2016 report cited above are lower than for 2009). In the UK, officers must undergo diversity training, for example; in France, following the publication of a damning book in 2014, the French Ministry of Defence launched an ambitious action plan to prevent and penalise harassment.

(Whether or not such measures are effective is another question. Three years on, there has been no evaluation of said action plan, for example).

So: discrimination is a very real reason why women leave. The other: babies.

Work-life balance?

Because getting pregnant, getting back into shape, and coping with little people all takes time and effort: and might cost you a promotion.  Arguably this is the case in many organisations – but it is especially important in the forces given the pyramid hierarchy and limited opportunities for flexible working on return.

And, well, combining bairns with defending one’s country can be tricky. The Royal Navy’s ‘duty of care’ policy, for example, means ships must return any female member of the team who discovers, well, a baby on board. And dropping everything and hauling out to some barren, hostile environment (for which you receive an non-negligable 18% retainer in your Army paypacket, fondly known as the ‘fuck-around factor’) is hardly easy for soldiers with young children. This is why, as late as 1990 (when the law was changed) servicewomen who fell pregnant were asked to leave.

Cultural change?


And yet, and yet. These obstacles are being recognised, partly because senior management understand that gender equality is not only moving with the times, but is essential to counter a shortage of personnel in specific roles.

In the UK armed forces, for instance, part-time work (previously not an option) or “static” career paths (for those less able or willing to be mobile) are now being considered. Women are now welcome in formerly male-only roles; in submarines; on the front line; and more and more women are making the senior grades, including two star positions in the RAF from 2013 and Army from 2016.  Not to mention that both the Army and the Royal Navy were in the UK’s top fifty employers for women in 2016 (based on a commitment to “fundamentally changing workplace processes and cultures to make them inclusive to all, benefitting women and men at every level in their organisation”).

And, despite the “wastage” that happens before pregnancy, the number of women returning to work after maternity leave has risen from 76% in 2003 to an impressive 93% by 2014.

So it’s not all doom and gloom. But we still don’t seem to be going very far, very fast. Why is there no % target for, say, 2025? Is full gender equality – all roles open to all, a 50% male and female breakdown – realistic or even desirable? My Major shakes her head when I bring up the idea of fifty-fifty. It is not about targets, she says;

Equality must be achieved through merit.

In an organisation run on discipline and allegiance, legitimacy comes from everyone, male or female, meeting the required standards.  Move the goalposts to promote diversity (e.g. easier physical tests for women) and you actually  make it harder for them in the long run.

That said, she says, eyeing my uneaten Speculoos biscuit, the obstacles which women face in military careers are real, and frequent.  Sometimes it is hard to believe until you actually witness it. Beyond friendly ‘banter’ which never bothered her, my Major recalls the first time she was whistled at by French regulars in an operation in Chad.  The experience was a shock, and something which made her think about her own responsibility (and ability) as a senior female officer to shape the Army from the inside out.

I finish my interview reluctantly. It is fascinating. I have another hundred questions for this impressive woman, but duty calls, and we are out of time.

So instead I give her my thanks, and (in a rare act of food-related generosity) I surrender the Speculoos biscuit, too.

Well, anything for Queen and country, after all.

Everything under the sun

images-8On the postcard that I forced my daughter to write to her grandmother last weekend was a vintage photo of the beachfront where we were staying. My child peered at the picture, grainy black and white, with its stiffly-smiling, fully-dressed ocean-goers.

“Why are they wearing so many clothes?” she pondered. “Aren’t they hot?”

“Well, monkey,” I replied all-knowingly, “people covered up a bit more in those days.”

These days, too?

You might have caught a bit of the volleyball in the Rio Olympics. Probably my favourite sport, having tinkered with it passably through college. It would appear Donald Trump is partial, too, to a bit of volleyball (at least, when the women are playing).

I am lucky enough to have never met Mr Trump, but I am guessing that he would have huffed and puffed (for different reasons) had he seen the Egypt-Germany beach-volley match. This photo, by British photojournalist Lucy Nicholson had much Twitter-ink spilling:


The question of religion and dresscode is a frequent bone of contention, especially in countries with large migrant communities of different faiths, or where – such as France – there are restrictions on the wearing of religious symbols in public places.

Leaving the Olympics to one side (and Donald Trump – permanently, if possible) let’s return to our starting point: the seaside. On 13 August in Corsica, a violent quarrel broke out on a beach, originally believed (but since refuted) to be over a “burkini” (a loose-fitting body bathing suit worn by Muslim women).

Immediately afterwards, some Mayors in mainland France banned the wearing of burkini on their beaches. Some claim “hygiene” reasons, others “an incompatibility with French way of life”; others still linking the burkini to a radicalisation of the Muslim faith – and oppression of women.  If President Hollande has so far steered clear of commenting, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently refused to condemn the Mayors:

I support those Mayors who have taken this decision, if it is taken to promote community life, and without political motivation (…) the idea that a woman is immodest and should be covered does not fit with the values of the [French] Republic

But the bans have, in turn, caused an outcry in France – denounced as another populist attack on France’s Muslims, or the right of any woman to choose how to dress.

This debate has been picked up elsewhere, too. In the view of British Muslim feminist Huda Jawad for example, the ban is nothing less than “misogynistic”:

What is it about French secularism’s blindspot to its own racism and misogyny? The obsession to the point of fetishism with Muslim women’s mode of dress and covering curtails the basic of human rights – that of self-determination and freedom of expression (…) instead of extending the hand of fraternité, [Mayors] are excluding Muslims, if not pushing them into the arms of radicalisers.



Jawad’s point – that active exclusion feeds radicalisation – is a valid one. But it is also hard to imagine Burkini and bikini wearers happily cohabiting on the beach. Given the recent attacks in Paris and Nice perpetrated by those acting in the name of radical Islam groups like ISIS, any Muslim symbol is (unfortunately) viewed with conscious or unconscious connotation.

And yet all religious faiths have long had requirements on how women and men should dress. Let us not forget Catholic nuns in headdresses; Jewish men in kippahs; Sikh men in  turbans. Does it not follow that the covering of a Muslim woman’s head is in the same context, and thus unfairly singled out?

Well, I think the answer is legitimately nuanced according to the type of covering. The hijab (covering the hair and shoulders, but not the face) is one thing. But what of the burka (full body coverage except the eyes) or niqab (also covering eyes)?

From a theological point of view, there is no obligation for any Muslim woman to wear either of the latter. The Koran instructs that women, from puberty, show only hands and face when in public or with strangers:


Capture d’écran 2016-08-17 à 17.04.24

source: http://www.dinosoria.com/burqa.html

So, a “burkini” (slight misnomer, since it does not in fact cover the face), is a logical water-proof extension of these teachings, and simply allows Muslim women to enjoy the same seaside fun as everyone else.

Good. Isn’t that what equality is all about?

Sans titre

Many happy returns?

And after all, the women who choose to wear them would say they do so freely, as part of their religious and cultural identity, or that doing so empowers them: freedom from being looked up and down as a sexual object (precisely the concern of some women back when the bikini was introduced in 1946, amid much controversy).

Have a listen, for example, to this strong testimony from Muslim women living in Los Angeles:



Watching it, I am almost convinced. It is hard to be a feminist, after all, and refute clear-headed arguments of empowerment and choice.

But, but. There is the inevitable question about why a hijab, burka or niqab should be worn by women in the first place.  Is the right to decide still valid if the need to choose only exists – today – because of a view on women’s bodies and appropriate behaviours defined in a very different era?

There is no similar requirement of men, and that basic inequality sits uneasily with me, just like any other. Why should women have to cover herself, or demonstrate modesty, but a man is free to dress as he pleases?

I understand the need for men and women of all religions to follow rules or customs. It is part of faith, and beyond that, identity. Those, indeed, are fundamental human rights.

But the existence of certain constraints, dos and don’ts, that only apply to women: should we embrace them because they have always existed? Because they are presented not as inequality, but as a cultural norm? The challenge is hard: at best, an accusation of wilful misunderstanding, at worst, of cultural imperalism.

So how do you assimilate difference, and how much should you assimilate, when that difference means one thing to one person and another to another?

These are the questions behind today’s debate, which is understandably knee-jerk, and often reduced to a battle of values. But if the answers (on a postcard) are hard to find, that doesn’t mean we stop trying.

In the meantime, maybe the solution is nudism. That all-over tan is very pleasing to my OCD, I have to say.  And they do seem a peaceful lot  – just don’t borrow their Factor50 without asking. Bare necessities, and all…

Money can’t buy you love

We’ve all been there.

You know – when you fancy a bit of rough and tumble, but there’s no-one to rough and tumble with?


And I would walk five hundred miles

You can compare it to that late night Ben+Jerrys craving, which drives you out of the house in your pyjamas and flipflops to the corner shop.

(Good luck with that in France – you’ll have to just wait for the boulangerie to open, and make do with a 6am croissant instead.)

Much the same with sex, right?

If Tinder isn’t coming up with the goods, you can head to your local brothel, “massage” parlour (technically speaking, it is a bit of you that needs massaging) or darkened urban woods, and pay someone some money to er, satisfy those needs.

Prostitution: the oldest profession in the world.

Sex sells, after all – miserably, as we have already discussed, in the form of transactional relationships, or human trafficking.

But surely, without coercion, cash-for-cuddles is not A Bad Thing?

Well, you tell me.

Firstly, who’s “bad”? (apart from Michael Jackson, c. 1987). And what is bad? Morally bad? Is there difference between selling your body and, say, sitting behind a checkout all day every day? (I can tell you from experience: the latter is also tough love. Especially with customers who present you with two hundred coupons when it comes to paying).

We all have to earn money somehow, and it’s usually done by providing something that someone else is willing to pay for. Is trading sex any different, any more subservient, to scanning other people’s shopping for hours on end?

And bad for whom? Bad for the prostitutes themselves? Not if recent protests in France are anything to go by, with hundreds of sex workers demonstrating in April against a new law penalising clients (a 1,500euro fine, raised to 3,750 euros for reoffenders: that’s an expensive orgasm).


If you’re happy and you know it

Presumably the clients don’t see anything wrong with it, either. 343 men (including some French household names) even signed an open petition, Touche Pas A Ma Pute (“Leave My Whore Alone”) rejecting the government’s meddling in affairs of the heart, ahem, other love muscle. 

So, then. Sex: supply and demand, just like any other traded good?

Of course not.

Because you don’t buy sex like you do your tub of chocolate-chip-cookie dough (I think on most nights I’d prefer the latter, anyway).

The hand-wringing (?ho) that accompanies prostitution comes down to morality and human rights, not economics. Generally, we approve of sex if it is voluntary, pleasurable to both parties, and legally conducted (granted, the last condition often depends on religious or moral norms; sex between two men is still a crime in many countries; adultery in Saudia Arabia carries a death sentence in some cases).

So the idea that women (70-80% of sex workers are female) engage in sexual intercourse with men they would never normally want near them, were it not for the money, has us at best clearing our throats and at worst enraged.

Lieux de plaisir

Credits: “Lieux de plaisir” from the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

And even while it is understandable that sex workers would oppose any new law which would puts their livelihoods at risk, it is hard to believe that anyone would willingly aspire to sell sex as a livelihood in the first place.   Spot the false quote:

I love my job! I love having to have sex with lots of different men every day, men I’d never otherwise sleep with. Perks include being at constant risk of violence, rape, pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. Ever since I was little, this is all I ever wanted to do. Dreams can come true!

Put it this way. If prostitution is such a cheerfully chosen route, then why are sex workers mostly migrants or from poorer backgrounds? For example, of the estimated 30-40,000 prostitutes in France, 80% are from Eastern Europe, Africa, China and South America.

Coercion is not then just a question of being forced by someone else. It is also being forced into choosing prostitution over destitution: which doesn’t feel like much of a choice to me.  If you lack money, employment, skills, a visa, have a family to feed, or even just yourself to feed: are you still freely choosing to become a sex worker?


Capture d’écran 2016-04-28 à 22.36.14

Source: Soroptimist

It is for this reason the new French law provides funding and support (e.g. temporary visas for migrants) to help sex workers leave prostitution. Although the amount of funding has been criticised as largely insufficient (“sticking plasters” in the words of French Senator Esther Benbassa), the aim is laudable, and follows similar moves elsewhere. France is the 5th EU country to legislation in this way, taking Sweden as its example, where similar laws passed in 1999 are said to have halved street prostitution.

Penalising clients or prostitutes is one response to prostitution; the others are  legalisation … or simply pretending it’s not happening. Regulation has the advantage of offering social protection to those officially recognised as sex workers (e.g. pensions, healthcare) or removing illicit conditions which trap sex workers in a life of invisibility and dependency.


Bargain prices, up against the wall

Governments who opt for the second approach (*crosses street whistling*) may do so because sex is seen as a private (non-state) matter, or too much of a moral conundrum to tackle, or perhaps because the act of buying sex itself is tolerated as a boys-will-be-boys fact of life (on which more anon).

But whichever the preferred response, none receives universal support. The legislation in France was passed after two and half years of vivid parliamentary debate, and many MPs abstained in the final vote.  Feminists themselves are divided: selling sex is about the right for a woman to choose what she does with her own body, versus, well, the right for a woman to choose what she does with her own body.

I still don’t know what to think, myself. I instinctively abhor the idea that anyone, for any reason, feels obliged to endure the intimacy (and, frankly, discomfort) of unwanted sex. Even if you are paid, so what; is that anything less than monetized rape?

And yet how can we not respect those who say they can and will continue, since there will always be clients willing to pay?


alright, but only if this turns out to be a Hollywood fairytale, ok?

Why is that, actually?

It is simply that Men Have Needs (akin or greater to the Ben+Jerrys cravings) that cannot be self-served or simply contained? Needs different from women, who seem to be able to make it through the night without going curb-crawling?

I wonder what would happen if we started to question that assumption, if we approached prostitution as an indulgence, rather than an inevitability.  Would men think twice about paying for sex, if there were a bigger reaction against doing so? Would society think twice about tolerating those “needs” so comprehensively? Would there be a longer-term change in demand (and therefore supply)?

Who knows. The focus of the debate is elsewhere for now: on whether or not – and how – commercial sex, and sex workers, should be regulated.  There doesn’t seem to be much room for philosophical ponderings about why it has to happen in the first place: the bottom line is that money can, and will, buy you love.

Or at least, that BJ.

(Ben+Jerrys, of course.  What did you think I meant?)





All creatures great and small



grub’s up

My five-(“and a half! and a half!”) year-old daughter will tell you: the only living thing it’s ok to squash is the mosquito.

(however, now that she is into wildlife documentaries, questions are starting to be asked about whether one can also squish a black widow spider in cold blood, in the interests of self-preservation).

Mosquitoes – the insect incarnation of La Poste – deserve whatever bloody end they get (and indeed, if it is bloody, then it is even more well-deserved, since that’s your blood on the wall).

Urgh. Mosquitos. They serve no positive purpose, unless you have a sado-masochistic penchant for that nails-down-blackboard whine, issuing seemingly from inside your eardrum, startling you from your sleep; or for the ensuing, desperate game of “where is it? where is it?” as you turn the light on and blink, red-eyed, at the expanse of wall around you.

Yes: the mosquito; the ultimate bad one-night stand.


That kind of Night Nurse

But not only do they leave you sleep-deprived and somewhat uglier, with those maddeningly itchy bites: they also delight in injecting you with some of the world’s deadliest diseases.  Through malaria, dengue, yellow fever or the superbly-named chikungunya, mosquitoes kill 725,000 human beings a year (definitely more than that black widow spider).

And – just when you thought it was safe to come out from under the bed net – now there’s another one for the list.

I first heard of Zika a few months ago.  I admit I initially thought it was a new fitness craze: next-level Zumba. But no. Zika is a virus.  And not some new-fad-virus, thank you very much:  Zika is actually a sextogenerian, first identified in 1947 in Uganda.

Despite its comic-strip baddie name, Zika is actually fairly harmless.  You get a temperature, a red rash, some aches and pains. Symptoms fade within a few days.  Aside from the few occasions where Zika has been associated with the rare Guillain-Barré syndrome, it isn’t anything to worry unduly about.

Unless, that is, you happen to be pregnant.

Because Zika is tentatively linked to a neonatal malformation known as microcephaly, or babies born with unusually small heads.  This rare condition affects one birth in a thousand, but since autumn last year Latin America – and particularly Brazil – has seen a surge of cases in parallel to the Zika epidemic.



Although experts are still wary about making a conclusive link between Zika and microcephaly, the peak in suspected cases has lead to governments and the World Health Organisation proactively recommending measures to prevent being bitten, such as removing water sources where mosquitoes commonly breed; sleeping under bednets, or donning long sleeved/full-leg clothing (joyful, in hot countries).

Oh, and not getting pregnant in the first place.

Simple, right?

Or not, since avoiding pregnancy requires one of two things: abstinence (never overly popular) or contraception.

The latter, on the face of it, is easier. Brazil scores fairly well on overall access to contraception (measured by the % of women with “unmet need“).  But there is a difference in contraceptive access between socioeconomic classes or urban/rural locations. Couple that with a peak of Zika infections in the less-wealthy north-east of Brazil (with a hotspot in the slums of Recife) and you have a situation disproportionately affecting women from poorer backgrounds: uninformed about the risks of falling pregnant, or
unable to avoid pregnancy through poor or unreliable birth control methods.


who you gunna call?

So as rousing as Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s
declaration of war on mosquitoes was (including limited edition t-shirt),  what about ensuring women have the access they need to contraception?

Hear hear! said the Pope.

Yes, yes, the Pope. I kid you not: reversing the Vatican’s position on contraception in between a Zumba lesson and midnight mass.  Is the Catholic church finally moving with the times?

Alas, not quite.  Because what Pope Francis actually said was:

Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime (…) an absolute evil. On the ‘lesser evil,’ avoiding pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandment. (…) avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil (…) I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.

So no: no dramatic departure from teachings of old (the Pope is indeed a catholic). Au contraire, not falling pregnant every time your body is biologically capable of it is still evil, apparently, just a tad less evil, than abortion.

Not that Catholics appear to pay much attention. A 2014 survey showed that 78% of Catholics worldwide support the use of modern contraception, and even 65% are in favour of abortion in some cases.

So you may legitimately ask: if Catholic wo/men do not take the humanae vitae literally, what does it matter what the Pope says or doesn’t say?

Well, it does matter. For two reasons:

  1. such rhetoric entirely misses the point of – and therefore diverts attention from – access to reliable and low-cost birth control. Without which the question of whether you should or should not be using it is moot; and
  2. labelling women who try to prevent or put an end to unwanted pregnancy as “evil” (as opposed to addressing unmet need – especially for poor women) – is, frankly, criminal.

Criminal, yes: and yet those who are considered the criminals are the women themselves. Abortion is restricted or illegal in many Latin America countries, including in Brazil, hotspot of the Zika epidemic.  If you abort (apart from to save the mother’s life; in the case of anencephaly (absence of a portion of the brain or skull); or as a result of rape) you risk up to 3 years’ imprisonment.

Oh – and your life.

In Brazil, there are an estimated 850,000 illegal abortions per year, resulting in around 200,000 women requiring treatment for, let’s say, injecting corrosive substances into the uterus in a desperate attempt to abort alone.

And with the Zika virus, these numbers are on the rise. Which is why the resistance to strict abortion laws is increasingly criticised, and not only from traditional quarters.  Jon O’Brien, head of Catholics for Choice, says that

progressive Catholic theologians argue that abortion can be justified under a range of situations (…) traditional Catholic teaching about conscience gives women the the final moral authority over the abortion decision

Moral authority or not: the fact of the matter is this. If a woman falls pregnant, and the pregnancy is unwanted, she may well take matters (and her life) into her own hands. This is especially true faced with the possibility of a baby born with microcephaly.

Ignoring that reality, and badging abortion as an “absolute evil”, is therefore not only immoral, but pointless.  If the Pope really is as progressive as he would have us believe, then it is time he moved the Catholic church away from wielding women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights as a moral pulpit, and used his considerable influence to make every pregnancy wanted, and every childbirth safe.

Simply: the word evil has no place in this debate. Unless, of course, we’re back to talking about the mosquito.

I think the jury might still be out on the black widow spider, though.