I don’t want your freedom….

So I missed ‘Freedom’ because we were keen to leave the concert before everyone else in case of a two-hour traffic jam. Actually I forgot to mention that Alicia Keys played before George, she was truly incredible, I liked her almost more.

""Especially when George started doing cover versions of Roxanne and Nina Simone songs. Does he not realise that he will always, to millions of fans, be immortalised by Wake me up before you Go-Go and Careless Whisper?

Last night as we sat at the Emirates Palace outdoor cinema waiting for Madagascar 2 to start and the kids ran around freely we were discussing freedom.

Some might argue that there is limited freedom in a country like this. Personally I feel there is more. There is the freedom to let my children roam without fear of abduction or menacing. There is the freedom to enjoy a vast street party without any risk of violence at all. And the freedom to get into my car without locking it because I think some rapist will have snuck in the back.

Yes, apparently this is the latest thing in England. As you fill up your car with petrol some lunatic gets in the back, then he abducts you and takes you off to be gang-raped. If you survive the attack you are released. One woman called Leigh Matthews has already been killed in this horrific manner after travelling on the M3. What an unimaginably terrible way to die.
In the words of the song, I don’t want your freedom.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Free Esha Momeni

A couple of nights ago I sat next to a young man at a drinks party who had escaped from Iran aged 14 in the back of a van. This was in 1987. So while I was going to dinner parties at university and making vital decisions like what to wear, he was risking his life for a better future.

Esha“Iran is nothing to me now,” he told me. “I am an American.” Interestingly he also told me that if he ever wanted to go back, he would have to adopt Iranian nationality. Iranians are not allowed to visit unless they are nationals. The reason for this? “So they can throw you in jail with impunity,” he said.

As I write a young student from the University of California is languishing in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. Her alleged crime? A totally fabricated minor traffic offence. Her real crime? Investigating women’s rights in Iran for her university thesis. She is also a member of the Iranian women’s rights group Change for Equality (www.forequality.info/english/). Esha called her family the day after her arrest on October 15th but no one has heard anything since then.

Esha Momeni is Iranian/American. Her family, who live in Iran, were told that if there was no publicity surrounding her arrest she would be freed. This has not happened, so her desperate family have told the press about it. They must remember the case of the Canadian journalist raped and murdered there a few years ago and countless others who have never been seen again.

Evin is not a place you would want to end up. I have just finished reading an excellent book about it called Prisoner of Tehran which tells the story of a young student who escapes the firing squad by marrying her interrogator. But not before she is tortured to within an inch of her life. And all because she wanted to learn something at school and not just listen to rants about how marvellous Khomeni was.

If you do nothing else today then please spare a thought for Esha and sign this petition (www.PetitionOnline.com/EshaM/) or join Amnesty International and find out how you can help Esha and others like her.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008


A life sentence

This morning a woman was shot on her way to work in Kabul by a fundamentalist who sped past her on a motorbike. Her crime? It could have been as mundane as being female and having a job. As it turned out she was a western aid worker whom they accused of spreading Christianity.

Yesterday I read on the BBC website the tragic case of a young girl (who looked uncannily like Olivia and was around the same age as her) who has been desperately saving up money to buy medical books and who’s most fervent desire is to continue studying so she can qualify as a doctor and “help my people”.

But her brothers and her father keep telling her girls don’t go to school; only boys do. I fear she will soon be forced to give up her studies. I feel like going there and adopting her.

Her story reminded me of a conversation I had with an Iranian film-maker at the Middle East International Film Festival which was held here last week. We talked about political prisoners and women’s rights.

“The worst goalers are the husbands, brothers and fathers,” he told me. “The opression from the state is nothing compared with them. There are thousands and thousands of women in prison in their own homes.”

This was not a man who could be described as liberal. When I suggested that maybe stoning people to death for adultery was a little old-fashioned and that we too used to do things like that in medieval times but have now moved on he said that while our law is secular, theirs is religious.

Oh, so that’s all right then…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Publish and be bombed?

When a certain Martin Rynja founder and owner of Gibson Square publishing first wrote to me suggesting I write a book about my life in France I assumed he was a vanity publisher. I had spent most of my adult life trying to get a book published without any success, so was amazed to have a real publisher contact me.

""I first met Martin at a cafe in Liverpool Street station. We discussed the book deal and signed a contract soon afterwards at a restaurant in Harrods. He is a perfect gentleman; clever, witty, imaginative and harder working than any other publisher I have worked with.

Little did I know at the time his reputation for taking on topics that others shun. I was horrified to read this week that his house was fire-bombed because he agreed to publish a fictional account of Mohammed’s first wife Aisha (which Random House decided not to, although they loved the novel). Martin is fine and in good spirits. He emailed me asking if I had a spare front door. The publishing of the book, however, is on hold.

I find this a very sad state of affairs. Although living where I do I am more sensitive to the issues surrounding Islam than many back home, I still find it tragic that free speech, opinion and fiction is supressed in this violent manner. And as the author herself says, she is extremely positive about the Prophet. In fact most of the hate mail she recieves is from people calling her a supporter of terrorism.

I hope this is not a sign of how things are to be in the future. British publishing has a great and proud tradition of independence and courage. Although if it were my home being bombed I suppose I would do what any normal person would and scrap my plans to bring the book out. 

Martin’s list includes several other books larger publishers deemed too hot to handle such as Blowing up Russia: the secret plot to bring back KGB terror; House of Bush, House of Saud; OJ Simpson’s If I did it and, er, Two Lipsticks and a Lover, one of many books he has bravely published by Helena Frith Powell when all others refused to. She is eternally grateful.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Depressing reading

I have just finished a book called Burned Alive by a woman called Souad. She was a teenager when her brother-in-law poured petrol over her head and set fire to her. Her crime was serious in “honour” killing terms among Palestinians; she was pregnant. But every year hundreds of women are murdered for just looking at a man, or sometimes doing nothing wrong at all.

About to be stonedIn Saudi Arabia a couple of weeks ago a girl was stabbed to death by her father who caught her looking at a Christian website. I assume he is still walking free.

The beginning of Souad’s book is one of the most compelling I have ever read. She describes how she walks, quickly and with her eyes on the ground, so as not to risk anyone accusing her of illicit behaviour, such as eye contact with a man, which would lead to her being branded a charmuta (a whore) and certain death.

When she is in hospital a few months after the burning, rescued by a woman working for an organisation called SURGIR, she sees nurses talking openly to doctors. “I won’t be seeing them tomorrow,” she thinks to herself. On the West Bank, where she comes from, they would be killed for less.

It seems incredible that these medieval atrocities still go on. But they do. Souad is only a few years older than me. In Afghanistan today a woman dies in childbirth every 30 minutes and 80% are forced into marriage.

Souad describes the plight of women as worse than animals. She tells how her mother used to suffocate new-born girls. Now she feels revulsion at this, but at one stage she felt they were better off dead.

Olivia & BeaI think many things when I look at my lovely, free, happy, noisy, clever little girls. But after reading Burned Alive my most pressing thought was that I am happy they will never suffer the kind of opression many women all over the world suffer. And that they will never allow themselves to be treated worse than an animal. And that their life expectancy is more than 44 years (average for a woman in Afghanistan) and that life for them is a series of adventures and happy events, not just fear, terror, hunger, enforced ignorance and horror.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008



The power of the pen

Alexander SolzhenitzynAlexander Solzhenitzyn, the Russian Nobel laureate and former prisoner of Stalin’s gulags, has died in Moscow aged 89. I can’t pretend to have read any of his books, but I have at least heard of them and I am aware of what a huge impact he made exposing the cruelty of the gulag system despite harassment from the KGB and then eventually twenty years in exile.

Sarkozy (keen to get on on the act) has called him “an heir to Dostoyevsky”. The letters on the BBC website all talk about how he changed people’s lives, what an inspiration he was and one even says that A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich showed him the power of literature to change the world. Solzhi, as he was known by friends in his adopted America, would probably agree. One amazing fact I read this morning is that in the gulag they were allowed neither pens nor paper, so he memorised everything and kept it in his head until he was free to write it all down.

I think every writer secretly dreams about changing the world, either with a huge scoop or with a great book. But maybe at slightly different levels and obviously linked to your circumstances. Were I living in Afghanistan, for example, I like to think I would write a book that would help the plight of women there. But as I’m not I am quite happy helping women in my world lose weight, discover matching underwear and feel better about themselves. Possibly not as ground-breaking or as important as Solzhi’s epic work, but it suits me.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Hygiene reasons

There are few things that make me as angry as the situation in Zimbabwe. I read this morning that 60 or so women and children have been removed from the opposition party headquarters for “hygiene reasons”. They were hiding there for fear of beatings, arrest or worse. Meanwhile Morgan Tsvangirai has taken refuge in the Dutch embassy following the announcement that he has pulled out of the election on the grounds that it will be a non-election.


He is right. Not only will it be a non-election, it will cause huge suffering, as we have seen already. Thousands of people have been beaten and harassed. More than 200,000 have lost their homes. Food aid has been snatched and distributed to supporters of Mugabe. A run-off would have amplified these problems and ended with more deaths and beatings. Mugabe will stop at nothing to keep his grip on power, to continue to destroy what was once one of the most prosperous and happy countries in Africa.

What amazes and angers me almost as much as Mugabe (and by the way, is total dictatorship the secret to not ageing? How young does he look? Or has he had a series of clones produced that he controls with a remote?) is the fact that no one seems willing or able to speak out against him. I suppose nothing the “imperialist west” does will make any difference, although maybe cancelling the upcoming cricket tour would annoy him. But his African neighbours ought to do something, especially South Africa. Why the silence? Do they really want a crippled Zimbabwe on their doorstep? Or are they too scared of being rounded up for hygiene reasons to speak out?

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Let them eat…..nothing


What the hell is Robert Mugabe doing at the World Food Summit in Rome? This man belongs in jail, not at some international convention. Added to which the irony could hardly be more poignant. He has sytematically starved his people for years. So while he dines in the Via Veneto, his people die of hunger. As one journalist put it, it’s rather like inviting Pol Pot to a human rights convention.

I know a journalise who went to Zim recently. He interviewed a woman who was beaten repeatedly in front of her two children so badly that the Daily Mail judged the pictures too gory to publish. Her crime? Voting for the opposition. I cannot bear to think about the suffering going on there now before the electoral run-off at the end of the month. And yet western leaders welcome this tyrant, this dictator, this despot in Rome. Why didn’t Berlusconi (who loves attention) refuse to give him a visa? Why doesn’t someone shoot him? Mugabe that is, not Berlusconi. He at least is only starving his people of decent television.

Closer to home there is also worrying news. Today Rupert goes in to hospital to have his knee operated on. It is a simple operation, but any operation is worrying. Although possibly not as worrying as his reaction to shaving said knee in preparation for keyhole surgery.

“I can see what you girls are on,” he said, looking rather pleased with the results. I have left him in the capable hands of a friend who will take him to hospital as I whiz up to Paris for my style guru event. If only the talk were about men I could announce the new shaved knee look. As it is, I will have to come up with something else.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

My suitcase arrives…..

Regular blog readers may remember that ever since I was a little girl I have lived with the idea that a large suitcase of cash would one day magically appear on my doorstep. Well, it has.

The night before last we had a friend over for dinner. He is a charming man, a proper bloke, as Rupert would say. He showed up with presents for the children and wine for us. He played chess with all three children (and let them win), entertained us with stories and told us that is we ever needed anything to come to him. “After all,” he reasoned, “you are bringing on the next generation.”

Then we started talking about what we were up to. I told him about Renew and how we had lots of press coming but were still short on punters. He asked me how much it will cost to run the first retreat. I told him. “Oh I’ll lend you that,” he said. Needless to say, my immediate reaction was to jump up from the dinner table and kiss him. Amazingly this didn’t put him off. Today we are having lunch to iron out the details but thanks to this particular suitcase, Renew Retreats is now very much a goer.

""If there happen to be any world leaders reading can I just say one thing? Boycott the Olympics in China. That’s all you need to do. France (bless her) has made some noises in that direction but the rest is a deafening silence. As for Gordon Brown meeting the Dalai Lama, good, but why not do it in Downing Street and make it a state visit? No need to answer that, we all know why; cowardice and greed. Not two adjectives one would use to describe the people of Tibet.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Deport them

A teenage bride who came to Leeds for an arranged marriage has been beaten to death during a “prolonged and vicious attack” by her young husband over a three-week period, all with the collaboration of his relations who apparently took an instant dislike to her.

Sabia Rani, aged 19, from Pakistan, married Shazad Khan, aged 25 in January 2006. She suffered bruising to 90 per cent of her body, sustaining horrific injuries that would normally only be seen in victims of a car crash. Paramedics found her dead in her bathroom.

Sabia Rani

The family blamed “evil spirits, curses and black magic” for the horrendous injuries, but the truth is that Sabia’s broken ribs were caused by her husband stamping on them. He was convicted of her murder last year. The police are now prosecuting Sabia’s mother-in-law, sister-in-law and her husband for allowing the death of “a vulnerable adult” and perjury.

While I applaud the fact that the rest of the family is being prosecuted, I don’t think it is enough. If you have a dog who repeatedly attacks your children, you put him down. He is not willing or able to abide by the rules of your household so he is no longer welcome.

So it should be with people who are not willing or able to abide by the rules of our society. Personally I would put them down, but a more politically viable option would be to deport them. Unless we send a strong message to those living under these medieval beliefs and customs the “honour” killings and abuse of women will continue.

And before you start writing to me harping on about human rights, do you really believe that someone who does this kind of thing can be called human and therefore have any such rights?

In colonial India the British put an end to the ritual of Sati or Suttee, the burning of a newly-widowed woman on her husband’s funeral pyre.

The locals told Sir Charles Napier that it was their “custom” to burn widows.

“You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours,” he told them.

How many more young girls will die at the hands of their families before we have the courage to act against these “customs”?

(Read the Daily Mail article: ‘Family turned a blind eye’ as teenage bride was beaten to death by arranged husband)

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008