Article for the EXPRESS 16 June 2009


The election season is over, at least for the moment. Gordon Brown goes to ground with his supersized new Cabinet while ex-Ministers Hazel Blears and Caroline Flint take different routes to oblivion.

“I was window dressing,” moans Ms Flint, tossing back her raven locks on GMTV. This is the Europe Minister who never read the Lisbon Treaty, and seemed puzzled as to why she should. Gordon is a sexist, she says, who only promoted women to make himself look good. So that’s why she did a photo-shoot for Observer Women in clinging dresses and high heels, is it? Hardly the image of a power-house intellectual. 

Then there’s Harriet Harman, Leader of the Commons, promoting a “new watchdog” to regulate MPs, the most unconvincing performance of this year. Her Equality Bill grinds through the Commons: it won’t make a single woman more equal, nor do anything to close the gender pay gap, but it’ll burden business with yet more fatuous bureaucracy we’ll be paying for.

Contrast these pathetic creatures with the women in Teheran pictured as hardliner Ahmadinejad was declared the winner. Four secret policemen, all armed with identical rubber truncheons, are beating an opposition supporter senseless. Running towards them are four women, screaming at them, two with upraised arms as if expecting to end the violence by smacking somebody’s face. No thought of their own safety. No weapons in their hands. Only their horror at what was happening, as their country slid from democracy to a new dictatorship heralded by bloodied heads and riot police.

During the Iranian election it was women voters who came forward. Those young women in their black headscarves and lipstick were articulate, educated, and passionate about their country; they wanted a nation which was no longer a pariah in the world, where they would not be treated as terrorists the moment they travelled outside its borders. Older women were less in evidence, but could not resist talking with conviction to western cameras. Their government had to respond to the new regime in the USA. They wanted their children to grow up in peace.
One woman in particular was an impressive campaigner: Zahra Rahnavard, whose husband Mir Hussein Mousavi was the main contender. Even as her husband reluctantly called off post-election protest demonstrations (it was feared police would use real bullets this time), it was his wife who bravely addressed rallies of his supporters.
Zahra must have got under the President’s skin, for in a televised debate just before the poll he opened with a furious attack on the couple. Ahmadinejad held up a small picture of Zahra, and asked her husband: “Do you know this woman?” Ahmadinejad then accused Rahnavard  -  a respected professor of political science  -  of entering a graduate programme without taking the entrance exam. Her response is to sue him for defamation. But really, she pointed out, “Those who made up this case against me wanted to say it is a crime for women to study...”

There is precious little equality in countries like Iran, and this week has set their cause back decades. There is none whatever in countries like Afghanistan, where as recently as April the government of President Karzi signed a new law. It denies Afghan Shi'a women the right to leave their homes except for "legimitate" purposes; forbids women from working or receiving education without their husbands' express permission; explicitly permits marital rape; diminishes the right of mothers to be their children's guardians after divorce; and makes it impossible for wives to inherit property from their husbands, even though husbands may inherit from their wives.

The repression of women is prevalent in rural areas where youngsters are still denied a basic education and forced into marriages. Numerous schools for girls have been burned down and little girls have even been poisoned to death for daring to go to school.
Now that’s inequality: cruel, wicked, pointless and destructive. A world apart from the jolly comfortable lives of Caroline Flint and Harriet Harman.

These women Ministers don’t know they’re born, and it upsets me to hear them whinge so. They have fine salaries, public office and all the choices they care to make. They’re strong and healthy, with access to the health care they need; and where it’s lacking, as with our over-stretched maternity services, then who’s been in government for over a decade and not noticed?

This, against a background where young British women are often doing their best to emulate men. Sometimes however the outcome is downright degrading. British women are officially the world’s worst binge drinkers; in Torquay, Devon police have resorted to handing out flip-flops as so many girls were falling off their party shoes. Did our women Ministers protest about this? Did they raise objections as the 24-hour opening laws came in? No, I don’t think so either.

And as I see the female contestants in The Apprentice vie with the blokes to be the most aggressive, I wonder what is happening to us.  We don’t have to emulate men to be their equals. We can be women: we can behave well; and we can compete perfectly effectively without special consideration or quotas or positive discrimination.
Capable people who make the most of their chances don’t need it. I certainly didn’t, and neither did Margaret Thatcher.
It would do Ms Flint and her pals good to spend some time in Afghanistan, where women soldiers serve with the men as medics, as drivers, as pilots. They ask only to be treated the same, but they have the respect of their colleagues. That’s public service, but brings little thanks from the government in terms of fancy salaries or decent housing back home.

So please, let’s hear less from New Labour’s dismal dames.

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