Deborah Orr: Cherie Blair is making an important point, so who exactly is she offending?

Those who say her comments will hamper her husband in his attempts to 'build bridges' are fools
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The Independent Online

What could she have in mind? Honour killings? Forced marriage? Genital mutilation? Stoning for adultery? Removing your shame by marrying your rapist (whose crime is then wiped out)? The 52 per cent illiteracy rate among Arab women? The fact that in neither Kuwait nor Saudi Arabia women are allowed to take part in parliamentary business?

We know already that Cherie is against this sort of thing, because she expressed her support for the war on Afghanistan as an assault on the Taliban's record of misogyny. We know her husband is against it too, because his government tackled the problem of forced marriage in this country only the other week. We know the rest of the nation is, because our institutions all strive to emphasise that they absolutely worship the idea of equal rights. So who exactly is Cherie supposed to be offending?

If any Muslim living in Britain is offended by the idea that in some countries Muslim women are appallingly mistreated in the name of religion, then it is because he is a dangerous misogynist, or because she is deeply in denial. What Mrs Blair said - even with its careful emphasis on local custom rather than Islamic charter being the cause of inequality and cruelty - is controversial only because it is such a bone of contention in Islam anyway.

Moderates are always at pains to emphasise that Islam champions equality between the sexes. Some even suggest that the anti-female laws in some Muslim countries derive not from Mohammed but from the days of colonial rule. At bottom, the truth is that much of the support for Sharia law that exists in Muslim countries comes from the people themselves, who have repeatedly clung on to old discriminatory customs even when government attempts to reform them. It is a fact that those Westerners who "want to spread democracy in the Middle East" should bear in mind, as they have been forced to do of late in Iraq.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, all citizens should note that what's really bothering Mrs Blair's critics is the idea that a man's wife should have ideas and opinions of her own that she is not afraid of expressing. I don't know exactly what ancient custom decreed that the spouses of prime ministers should forebear from letting slip that they have minds of their own. But it certainly predates the liberation of women, just as it predates Islam.

Those who say that Mrs Blair's comments will hamper her husband in his attempts to "build bridges" after the invasion of Iraq are fools. These accusations against Mrs Blair imply that Arab misogyny can be humoured and pandered to. But in common with Western misogyny, it cannot.

Once again, our children are let down

I've no doubt that the appalling record of the Child Support Agency ever since its inception under the Conservative governments that oversaw the breakdown of the traditional family has been largely down to the systematic underfunding and bureaucratic incompetence that now dog public and charitable service in this country.

But there is another, more basic problem with the CSA - and that problem is that no bureaucratic system can be expected to compensate for the failure of parents to support their children. Children can be brought up very successfully in what we call "non-traditional family structures". But the fact is that there are double as many parents in "non-traditional families" on benefits as there are in traditional ones. Liberals who dismiss fears about family breakdown are often judging on their own more comfortable experience of unconventional family arrangements.

It's understandable that the public and government should resent picking up the bill when parents walk out on their infants. But unless Mr Blair and his new appointee Louise Casey can work out how they are going to make the "respect agenda" into something more than talk, that is what we must do.

The crucial project is to recalibrate our ideas about fatherhood so that its centrality to the upbringing of a child is understood. Until that's done, it's madness to expect men who understand nothing else about their responsibilities to understand that they must pay.

Poor sensitive boy

Gorgeous, pouting Chris Martin is learning at the moment how tough it is at the top. The rock star millionaire and husband of Gwyneth Paltrow, has been "knocked sideways" by critical criticism of his band Coldplay's new album in the United States. The young god's supporters are quick to point out that these American types are just jealous, since no one in their own sad country can hold a candle to Chris. But I can't help wondering if the problem might in fact be that the chap has spent so long surrounded by people feeding him this sort of childish bilge that he's lost his sense of proportion.

Martin is vain enough to enjoy his "modest" image, and perhaps he thinks that showing his hurt feelings is "sensitive". Actually, it's just arrogant. The sort of soft rock purveyed by Chris and his friends has always been best loved by young men awfully similar to Chris and his friends. These young men, by amazing coincidence, are more than likely to be rock critics too. Maybe in America they prefer less homogenous critics as well as less homogenous music.

Martin claims that he got much of his inspiration for the new album from watching porn - a touching vignette of how liberal active fatherhood can be, and an alarming insight into how Martin needs help in his pursuit of self-love.

* I think we're supposed to salute Gail Porter's courage in appearing in public with alopecia. And I guess it is brave in one way, as well as being supportive of other women who may feel isolated by their own hair loss. Such, anyway, is the modern mantra of conspicuous victimhood. But I can't help feeling that this young woman is so neurotic in her need for attention that even when her hair falls out from the stress of her increasingly empty fame, she works out how to turn it into an effort to get column inches.

If Ms Porter treated herself to a period of privacy, her hair may have a better chance of growing back. Sadly, though, no one would know.