David Cameron on his way to announcing new anti-terror measures. Photo: Getty
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David Cameron to chair emergency meeting on UK hostage death threat

After a video apparently showing the beheading of another American journalist has been released, a Cobra meeting will be held to discuss the threat to a UK hostage.

The Prime Minister is to chair an emergency meeting today to discuss how Britain should respond to the threat by Islamic State (also known as Isis) militants to kill a British national they’ve held hostage.

The Cobra committee comes the day after another kidnapped US journalist, Steven Sotloff, appears to have been beheaded by the militants, in a video released online claiming to show the killing.

According to the BBC, Downing Street confirmed on Tuesday this week that it was aware of a UK hostage being held by IS, the name of whom his family have asked not to be released by the media. Yet it is reported that David Cameron has been aware of this hostage situation for a while, so it has been informing his approach to the situation in Iraq.

The footage – released yesterday – shows a clip of the UK hostage at the end of the video, and also again a masked jihadi who appears to have an English accent. It has come out a fortnight after the same militant group put out a video showing the killing of another US journalist, James Foley, which also showed a militant with an apparently English accent, dubbed Jihadi John by the British media.

According to the BBC’s Today programme this morning, government sources are asserting that there will be no “knee-jerk response” to this news by the cabinet, and the Prime Minister instead will set out “a considered approach”.

However, although insiders are playing down the possibility of a retaliatory strike against IS, the pressure has been mounting on the PM as the situation in the Middle East intensifies. On the day of the return of MPs to parliament on Monday following summer recess, he gave a speech to the Commons explaining how the government is attempting to widen and strengthen anti-terror laws in light of the threat of British nationals going out to fight with jihadists and returning to the UK.

In his statement, he suggested that if Britain were to intervene in the area, in an emergency situation, then there could be the scenario of acting first, and telling parliament afterwards – rather than securing a vote from the Commons first, before the country takes on an offensive role. This, along with his assertion that he has not ruled out military action against IS, suggests that intervention beyond a humanitarian and surveillance role may be on the cards. It may be Cameron’s only choice if the British government is unable to avoid the death of a British hostage.

The former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who was in the role ten years ago when the government took Britain into the invasion of Iraq, told Today this morning that military intervention may be necessary. He said that "increased pressure for military involvement" among some MPs in parliament is "not unreasonable". And after asserting his support for arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who are fighting IS, saying, "we ought to have a more active policy of support", he added that there was a case for British involvement in military action against IS forces, at least in Iraq. He said, if the US asked the UK to join in air strikes in the area, "my instinct would be probably to do so. No one's aware more than I am of the legacy of the 2003 Iraq war. Of course we should learn from the past, but we shouldn’t be paralysed by the past at the same time…"

Straw also spoke about how to deal with the situation of British hostages being held, having been involved in the Ken Bigley case a decade ago. He said there would be the need to react "secretly, privately", to some extent, and also stated, "you need communication with the hostage-takers, but not negotiation... Not entertaining the payment of ransoms to hostage-takers, but at the same time you need some communication with the hostage takers..." He acknowledged the heightened sensitivity brought about by mass-communication today: "there was a lot of pressure ten years ago, but there wasn’t social media available in the levels that it is now."

With heavyweight figures on both sides, including Nick Clegg and the PM himself, not being averse to military intervention, it may only be a matter of time.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.