On Friday, while riding in a crowded carriage in the London Underground, I stood to give up my seat to a woman (I very nearly said a lady, but I am told that these days the word is condescending rather than complimentary) who was at most three or four years older than I. Fortunately, she was old-fashioned, and accepted gracefully.
Had she insisted that I retain my seat, I should have felt extremely guilty and uncomfortable for the rest of the journey. My problem is that, 50 years ago, my mother so successfully instilled in me the idea that a man in a train must stand for a woman that no amount of ratiocination can eradicate it. I know that I am a dinosaur, and that my type has undergone mass extinction because of the feminist asteroid that struck the earth circa 1970; but, as people say when they wish to excuse their own failings, I am what I am.
So it was with a degree of discreditable schadenfreude that I read the howls in the British press about the treatment of the woman British marine, Faye Turney, captured by the Iranians and now held by them. “OUTRAGEâ€”A young mum paraded like a trophy on TV, forced by the cowards of Iran to LIE,” screamed one representative headline in the Daily Mirror. This outrage was a typical manifestation of tabloid sentimentality when it turns angry. Suddenly the marine became principally a mother, and a picture of her holding a little baby was widely published to bring a tear to every eye; it was dastardly and unchivalrous of the Iranians to not release so vulnerable a person, as at first they had promised. How dare they use her, the mother of a one-year-old baby, as a political pawn?
Now of course I am not condoning the Iranian action, and certainly not the coercion the Iranians must have used (even if it were only by threat) to obtain the ridiculous letter allegedly composed by Faye Turney, written in language so stilted that not even someone who had been through the contemporary British public education system could possibly have composed it. No native speaker of English in the British Isles would have addressed a letter to “Representatives of the House of Commons.”
But Faye Turney is entitled to no special sympathy qua woman: that is to say, to no sympathy that is not extended in equal measure to the 14 men who were captured with her. It is the wisdom of ages that young mothers should not be soldiers, or engage upon military pursuits, and she chose to overturn that wisdom by joining the marines.
True, she did not overturn the wisdom of ages single-handedly, nor was she the only one to do so; she was, in a sense, a victim of political correctness. But she joined the forces voluntarily; she was not press-ganged into it. No one's circumstances are so reduced that joining up is literally the only possibility for him or her.
Nor does she deserve any extra sympathy because, when she joined up, she could hardly have expected to be sent to Iraq while her baby was still very young. It is in the nature of armed forces that they go where they are ordered; surely no one could be so ignorant as to be unaware of this, and Faye Turney was a volunteer, not a conscript. Indeed, on the very day before she was captured, she told a British newspaper deeply opposed to the war in Iraq, the Independent, that she was fully aware of the dangers that she faced.
Either she's a soldier, or she isn't. Being a soldier, at least of the combatant variety, entails the danger of capture, death, mutilation; it isn't just a matter of posing stylishly in camouflage uniform with an automatic weapon for a photo that one sends to one's friends, in order to fulfill some dream of what is now known as gender equality.
Admittedly, it is not Mrs. Turney who is claiming special status for herself as a woman, and no doubt she has too much self-respect to do so; but the press and Downing Street has no hesitation in doing so when it suits their purposes. A “spokesperson” for the latter said, “It is a disgrace. It is cold and callous to be doing this to a woman at a time when she is being detained in this way.”
In the name of gender equality, one is not permitted to refer to spokesmen and spokeswomen, or actors and actresses, and one must disregard altogether the masculinity of military tradition. But as soon as a woman soldier is captured, ill-treatment of her is regarded as especially heinous.
If it is true that women and young mothers are entitled to special consideration when they are captured, merely because they are women and young mothers, then the real coldness and callousness is in having exposed them to capture in the first place. Let us have either mothers of young babies who are entitled to special consideration, or women soldiers, but not both.