Wear trousers today…because you can

It is astonishing to think that in the year 2009 a woman can receive 40 lashes from a whip-wielding police officer for any offence. It is even more astounding when you realise her “crime” was to wear a pair of trousers.

This is what may happen to the Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussein who was arrested on July 3rd for wearing trousers, along with 13 other women in a cafe. Instead of submitting to a lesser amount of lashes straight away as some of the others did, she opted to stand trial for her crime. In addition she resigned from her job at the UN which would have afforded her immunity so she could challenge the ruling.


“This is not a case about me wearing pants.This is a case about annulling the article that addresses women’s dress code, under the title of indecent acts. This is my battle. This article is against the constitution and even against Islamic law itself,” she said.

I agree that a lot abuses of human rights are carried out under the auspices of religious law which is not, I imagine, how it was intended. Nowhere in the Koran does it say that women cannot wear trousers. It just says they should dress modestly. Some have interpreted this to mean they should be covered from head to foot.

I am living in a thankfully far more modern Islamic state than the Sudan, but even here the penalty under Sharia law for sex outside marriage is death by stoning. Death by stoning? Surely such a barbaric and base method of punishment has no place in any society, especially one that prides itself on tolerance and kindness, as Islamic society does?

Also today send a prayer, spare a thought, whatever it is you believe in, for Aung San Suu-Kyi, another female victim of a nonsense “crime” who welcomed an (uninvited) stranger into her house and now faces five years in prison. Her sentecing is today. How she manages to remain one of the most elegant, serene and beautiful women in the world is a miracle.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2009

Let the festivities begin….

One of Ali’s daughters is getting married on Sunday. There are huge preparations going on. Yesterday the girls had their hands and arms hennaed (see below pic of Olivia, Bea and Salama, Bea only had one arm done because it hurt too much). This evening there is a party and there have been make-up artists next door preparing Ali’s eight daughters for the event. It is a women only do, and of course there will be no alcohol. This is my first ever party without men and booze; I am intrigued to see what it will be like.

The lack of men does not stop the girls dressing up though. I was told by an Emirati girl I met last night that they are dressing up for potential mother-in-laws. It is like a beauty parade of potential brides. Even old trouts like me are expected to make an effort; the way you dress is a sign of respect or otherwise to the bride. Here you are supposed to outdo the bride, or at least try to, it’s considered rude not to.
It is not only the women who dress up. Our house is covered in lights, it looks glorious, I will post a picture. And we haven’t even had the wedding. It seems there are three days of festivities culminating on Sunday with a big bash which Rupert will be allowed to come to, but he’ll have to stay in another room so the girls can show off their glamorous clothes to each other. Sunday apparently is an all-glitter event. This evening I am just going for the full-length silk Tommy Hilfiger ball-gown with train….proof if ever was needed that women dress for other women.
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2009

A French experience

Yesterday was a busy day. In between checking my amazon rating, I interviewed Christine Ockrent, who is Belgian but one of those women you always think of as French because she made her career there. She was, among other notable things, France’s first female news anchor and also the only journalist to get an interview with Saddam Hussein during the first gulf war.

She was late due to lunch with a Sheikha and so I waited with her entourage of French women in the Business Centre at the Emirates Palace Hotel. There is one thing I had forgotten about French women. They all smoke. I couldn’t believe it. There I was innocently working out what to ask Madame Ockrent when suddenly I was being fumigated.

“Oh, do you mind the smoke?” said one.

“Well, I’m not mad about it, ” I replied.

“Oh, sorry,” she said making a lame attempt to wave her poison in the other direction.

What is the point I wondered, in asking someone if they mind and then carrying on? ‘Oh do you mind if I sleep with your husband?’ ‘You do? Oh well, try not to notice would you?’


Anyway Madame Ockrent was extremely interesting. She is now CEO of France 24 and here to launch the extended Arab version of the channel. She has done pretty much everything I always wanted to; including reading the news on national TV, writing books, working as a foreign correspondent all over the world and getting major scoops.

And, as far as I know, she doesn’t smoke….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2009

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

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



Pink nail varnish and other routes to happiness

JonnyDuring the rugby world cup last year I had an idea for a book called ‘How to seduce Jonny Wilkinson and other routes to happiness’. It was a book looking at what makes women happy, how we can be happier and so on.

Obviously I have no idea how to seduce Jonny Wilkinson (short of dressing up as a rugby ball and hurling myself over some posts) but that was to be what publishers call the “narrative arc”. On my quest to eternal happiness I would set out to achieve what most of the females (and some males) in England wanted to do at the time.

My agent didn’t like it. I mean she liked the idea, but she doesn’t fancy Jonny Wilkinson. So we opted for something that perhaps more women can relate to; pink nail varnish. And this morning I realised how right she was (although the book never did get written, the publisher didn’t like the idea, or pink nail varnish).

I sat on my bed after two weeks of interrupted nights due to the mosque outside my window, around me the children wailed, and fought, and argued and yelled. I reflected on the previous day when I had spent all my time trying to secure a flat that fell through at the last minute. I thought about the day ahead when I would have to find some way of keeping the children from murdering each other and all the horrible admin chores I need to get to grips with but just can’t muster up the energy to begin.

In my hand I had a bottle of pink nail varnish. ‘Violet’ it is called, from M&S since you ask. Slowly I opened the lid and began to paint my nails. The glossy, fuscia pink (more than violet) colour slid onto my toe-nails effortlessly, like a lump of melting butter on a piece of warm toast. I finished one nail and was pleased with the result. The children came and yelled at me.

“Go away please,” I said, Zen-like, without even looking up from my shiny toes. “I am painting my nails.”

Miraculously they did go away. I painted the remaining nails. At the end of it, I felt so much better. And my nails looked so much chirpier than before. Which I guess might be part of the reason why I felt better.

Whatever, I am happy, and I have not even met Jonny Wilkinson.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

My favourite time of year

It’s that time of year again, Wimbledon time, which means I get to put pictures of Marat Safin on my blog, oh joy! Last night he played an incredible match – we were all literally on the edge of our seats. Except Bea who declared the whole thing “boring” and Safin “ugly”. He was playing an Italian I had never heard of called Seppi and we witnessed some of the best tennis I have ever seen. They went on until after 9pm, I can’t imagine how they could see anything.


This year for the first time ever women are being paid the same as men at Wimbledon. This strikes me as hugely unfair. They don’t do as much work. They play three sets, not five, and they’re simply not as entertaining or as good as the men. I totally support their demands to be treated as equals, but being paid the same to play less is not equal.

Back to the bag saga – I am pleased to report that it was stolen by a thief with appallingly bad taste. My gorgeous Montegrappa is safe, as is my collection of Chanel and Laura Mercier lip glosses bar one, which I assume they dropped. They also left my wallet, my Smythson passport cover (with passport inside) and my credit cards, now even more useless than they were before as they’ve all been cancelled.

The only thing missing was the cash and my sunglasses. Imagine the depression when I had to go and buy another pair…..I am now the proud owner of the latest “tendance” as they call it here, a pair of Tom Ford’s which are extremely Jackie O and rather more chic than my missing ones. Every cloud, eh?

But I shall be removing them briefly to get a good look at Safin on Monday.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Style guru

Pink is the new black...Yes, it’s official, I am a style guru. Not only did a member of the Tatler Magazine staff try to steal my red fake croc handbag at my book launch, but I am now being PAID to talk about trends and what motivates women to stay thin, pretty, fashionable etc.

I had an email from a lady at a big advertising agency in New York who had read the US edition of Two Lipsticks inviting me to a dinner discussion in Paris. “As someone who not only spots trends but sets them as well, we are hoping to tap into your insight”.

As well they might. At the time I was reading the email I was in the process of setting a trend I expect you all to follow. I was sitting in my office, naked, on a pink towel, waiting for my fake tan to dry. How trendy is that?

The problem though with being labelled a trend-spotter and setter is that I now have a reputation to live up to. What the hell do I wear to this event? I don’t want the assembled trendies to out-trend me. Oh the pressure. At least I have a new Chanel lip-gloss, bought for me on mother’s day by Rupert.

If all else fails I can wear that and the fake tan and emulate the original imperial fashionista.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008