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There’s more to the Facebook generation than the odd poke, writes Laurie Penny

This state-sponsored panic about the sexualisation of childhood has far more to do with religious censoriousness than it might at first appear.

Is Facebook turning girls into strumpets? That's the thrust of the latest moral panic to come out of the Bailey review into "sexualisation", an ugly word which suggests that girls are passive creatures with no sexual agency of their own. The word is relatively new but anxiety about young women in public spaces is age-old. Six decades ago, rock'n'roll concerts were apparently turning nice, young ladies into wayward, serial-shagging hussies. Now, it's social networking.

As always, the discussion is focused almost exclusively on girls, boys being free to post pictures of themselves dancing to Lady Gaga in their underpants without incurring the opprobrium of the Daily Mail.

This state-sponsored panic about the sexualisation of childhood, by which nearly everyone means girlhood, has far more to do with religious censoriousness than it might at first appear. The Mothers' Union, whose chief executive, Reg Bailey, produced the review for the government, is neither a union nor a mothers' group. It is an "international Christian charity", dedicated to bringing about "a world where God's love is shown . . . by supporting marriage and family life". The group pursues this goal "through prayer" as well as "policy work".

If the male leader of an Islamic charity were to advise the government on how girls should dress and consume popular culture, there would be uproar. Instead, the Prime Minister congratulates Bailey in an obsequious letter for voicing “an issue that concerns so many parents". It is reassuring to know that, in this decadent modern world, there are still powerful, middle-aged men on hand to manage and censor the sexuality of young women.

Parents have been concerned about their children becoming sexual for centuries. There isn't a mother or father who will not, at some point, become frantic with worry at the notion that their son or daughter will one day grow up, move out and start being penetrated in club toilets by runny-nosed young men called Nigel whom they met on the internet.

Growing up, however, is the one thing that children are guaranteed to be getting up to every day. It is impossible to legislate against it.

There is nothing that the government can do to stop girls from growing up, unless it plans to issue parents with vials of puberty-suppressing hormones to slip into their children's Frosties - and even that won't stop them going on Facebook to flirt. David Cameron may as well endorse a report recommending that spring not turn into summer quite so soon.

Dangerous minds

Most of the teenage girls I know do not spend their Saturday afternoons vomiting their A-levels into drains with their knickers around their knees and catching chlamydia from Facebook. Most of them are fantastic human beings, who astonish me with their resilience and courage. Among them are my two teenage sisters, both of whom spend a lot of time on the internet. I am often distressed when they use their profiles in this den of cyber-iniquity to admit, for example, to enjoying the music of Coldplay, or to post photographs of themselves doing shots of sambuca, when whisky should be a fine enough drink for any Penny female.

I miss the days when we were all eating rusks together and listening to The Smurfs Go Pop! on the way to school, but I'm not worried about my sisters growing up too soon. I'm worried about them growing up into a world that doesn't want them.

I'm worried that they will struggle, like millions of other young people around the world today, to find a job or a safe place to live. I'm worried that they will absorb religious rhetoric that tells them that their sexuality is dangerous and dirty, when the big, unspoken secret is that young women want sex just as much as young men do - and that's OK.

The kids are all right. Yes, the internet is full of teenage girls posting pictures of themselves in tight wardrobe malfunctions but it is also full of teenage girls learning about modern philosophy on Wikipedia, applying for university, or posting video blogs from Tahrir Square.

Instead of worrying about young women growing up, we might do better to focus our efforts on creating a better world for them to grow up into.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan

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The government must demand that Iran release Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Iran's imprisonment of my constituent breaches the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

I grew up with a very paranoid mother. She had tragically lost members of her family as a teenager and, as a result, she is extremely fearful when it came to her children. I used to laugh at her growing up – I indulged it but often scoffed at her constant need to hear from us.

A few days ago, I was in Parliament as normal. My husband, his parents and our baby daughter were all in Parliament. This rare occasion had come about due to my mother in law’s birthday – I thought it would be a treat for her to lunch in the Mother of Parliaments!

The division bells rang half way through our meal and I left them to vote, grabbing my phone of the table. “See you in ten minutes!” I told them. I didn’t see them for more than five hours.

The minute the doors bolted and the Deputy Speaker announced that we were indefinitely being kept safe in the chamber, all I could think about was my daughter. In my heart of hearts, I knew she was safe. She was surrounded by people who loved her and would protect her even more ferociously than I ever could.

But try explaining that to a paranoid mother. Those five hours felt like an eternity. In my head, I imagined she was crying for me and that I couldn’t be there for her while the building we were in was under attack. In reality, I later found out she had been happily singing Twinkle Twinkle little star and showing off her latest crawl.

That sense of helplessness and desperate impatience is hard to describe. I counted down the minutes until I could see her, as my imagination ran away with me. In those 5 hours, I started thinking more and more about my constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Here I was, temporarily locked in the Parliamentary chamber, surrounded by friends and colleagues and door keepers who were doing all they could to keep me safe. I knew I was going to be let out eventually and that I would be reunited with my daughter and husband within hours.

Nazanin has been detained in the notorious Evin prison in Iran for nearly a year. She only gets an occasional supervised visit with her two-year-old daughter Gabriella. She’s missed Christmas with Gabriella, she missed Gabriella’s second birthday and no doubt she will be missing Mother’s Day with Gabriella.

But it’s not just the big occasions, it’s the everyday developments when Gabriella learns a new song, discovers a new story, makes a new friend. Those are the important milestones that my mother never missed with me and the ones I want to make sure I don’t miss with my daughter.

Unfortunately, Nazanin is just one of many examples to choose from. Globally there are more than half a million women in prison serving a sentence following conviction, or are awaiting trial. Many of these women are mothers who have been separated from their children for years.

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the Bangkok Rules - the first international instrument to explicitly address the different needs that female prisoners have. It was also the first instrument to outline safeguards for the children of imprisoned mothers.

The Bangkok Rules apply to all women prisoners throughout all stages of the criminal justice system, including before sentencing and after release. However, Nazanin’s case has seen a wilful flouting of the rules at each and every stage.

Rule 23 states that ‘Disciplinary sanctions for women prisoners shall not include a prohibition of family contact, especially with children’. Tell that to her daughter, Gabriella, who has barely seen her mother for the best part of a year.

Rule 26 adds that women prisoners’ contact with their families shall be facilitated by all reasonable means, especially for those detained in prisons located far from their homes. Tell that to her husband, Richard, who in almost a year has only spoken to his wife via a few calls monitored by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Iran has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and supported the Bangkok Rules, yet it is breaching both with its treatment of Nazanin. It is therefore incumbent upon our government to take the formal step of calling for Nazanin's release - it is staggering they have not yet done so.

As I pass the window displays in shops for Mother’s Day, most of the cards have messages centred around ‘making your mother happy’. If there’s one mother I’d like to make happy this year, it’s Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Tulip Siddiq is Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn