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Tattooing your name on your partner's forehead is an act of control, not devotion

A woman allowed her boyfriend to brand his name on her body to help assuage his jealousy.

“I do it because he’s paranoid and wants to have me branded.” These are the words of Kourtney Leigh, who has the name of her boyfriend, Ryan Wibberley, tattooed across her forehead.

According to Wibberley, she is not the first of his girlfriends to have his name inscribed on their bodies, although none of the others have gone for quite so obvious a location. “It’s a laugh,” he tells the Sun, “It’s not taking advantage because they want it done.”

Should we be judging Leigh for consenting to be, as Wibberley puts it, “branded like Heinz Beans”? Or is it an act of devotion, perhaps not all that dissimilar to Johnny Depp’s famous “Winona forever” – now “wino forever” – tattoo? There might be a gendered context to this, but isn’t getting your partner’s name tattooed on your forehead on the same continuum as changing your name to his? Or reassuring him that the children you bear are definitely his? It’s all about ownership.

I’ve been with the same male partner for 16 years. I haven’t taken his name but our children have. Wasn’t my decision to mark them out as his also a form of Heinz Beans-eque branding? Certainly I consider it an un-, if not anti-feminist decision on my part. It’s a concession to a culture in which men’s obsession with paternity comes at the cost of female sexual and reproductive freedom.

Nevertheless, my sons will come to see their names as their own, in the same way that I see my name as mine, not my father’s. The compromise I have made has symbolic repercussions but does not come at a high personal cost (which is all the more reason for me to feel bad about it). I don’t think this is the case with Leigh and Wibberley. What is happening here is far more disturbing.

While both The Sun and Metro have adopted a light-hearted, “aren’t people funny?” tone in their coverage of this story, I don’t find it amusing at all. On the contrary, I think what we are witnessing is the sanitisation of coercive control. Wibberley met Leigh shortly after leaving prison for affray, making threats with a bladed article and theft. The tattooing is something he carries out himself (“I just get pissed up and I get my tattoo gun out”). In Leigh’s own words, “he thinks it’ll put other men off.” 

Leigh and Wibberley have already appeared on the Jeremy Kyle show under the headline “Why would I cheat on you? I’ve got your name tattood on my face!” Just like the men who storm on stage screaming at “slags” who “need to prove that baby’s mine”, Wibberley is treated as a part-villain, part-jester. Leigh, meanwhile, is relegated to the role of comedy dupe. Male jealousy is treated as an amusing quirk, not something which leads to men abusing and even murdering ex-partners and children. What happens to women such as Leigh when the cameras stop rolling is of little interest to the baying studio audience. She chose to be with Wibberley; she chose to have that tattoo; why should we care? (And as for all the other women who make similar choices, even the ones who end up dead, why care about them, either?)

But we have to care. I am tired of the way in which the compromises all of us make with male power are used to indulge a lazy, hands-off moral relativism which dismisses actual abuse as a woman’s free choice. Living with a jealous, possessive man who wants me to tattoo his name on my forehead may not be my own, personal “lived experience”; I still reserve the right to judge what is happening here as wrong.

No man who boasts of branding his partner “like Heinz Beans” should simply be dismissed as a figure of fun. He is not some comical detail in life’s rich tapestry. It’s time for newspapers and TV producers to stop trivialising the abuse that is right there in front of us. 

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

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?