If there was real gender parity, I said last week, women would be able to be brilliant and total failures – great and not so great, heroes and anti-heroes, just like men. It was at a lively debate on women in politics at the House of Commons. Too blasé, methinks now, simplistic, an ethically dubious position when one considers recent examples of atrocious female behaviour.
The Human Trafficking Foundation has just revealed that it is mainly women who are entrapping and forcing young, trusting lasses from abroad into the most bestial forms of prostitution in the UK. Until now, it was commonly believed that foreign male gangs were abducting girls or duping their families and then using rape and drugs to turn their victims into sex slaves. There have been movies about the fearsome abductors and their grimy activities, some actual arrests and convictions. But until now, the extent of female involvement was unknown.
The former Tory MP Anthony Steen, who chairs the foundation, says trafficking is changing. Instead of brutality, girls and young women are persuaded by older women to go abroad for a better life – false promises that are hard to resist for impoverished families in Romania, Albania and some African countries. Steen gives examples of girls betrayed and sold off by their own mothers. Today, the Immigration Minister Damian Green will announce his policies to tackle this subterranean, wicked and lucrative trade. He is setting up a new, specialised agency to deal with a growing crime. One hopes he has been well briefed on the wily women who are now so actively involved.
I met two trafficked girls last year, who had been rescued by the police and then faced deportation. They were around 18, both of them from Albania. They knew a little English though most of their vocabulary was erotic and sexual. Their eyes, I remember, were opaque and there were no tears as a translator recounted their appalling stories. One said her mum would never have her back: "They will send me here again. I don't know what to do." The police refused to believe that mums would be so heartless.
In India, Pakistan, Japan, China and elsewhere there have always been women who prostituted their own daughters, or connived to capture innocent girls and groom them. Sometimes the horrible business was turned into an art; in beautiful houses, women were taught courtly and sensual skills by old courtesans and the traditions passed through the generations. That practice still survives in some places but is veiled in secrecy and hypocrisy.
In the past five years, we have been forced to open our eyes here, as women, often in trusted positions, have been convicted of grotesque acts on babies, infants and teenagers. The young American woman Jaycee Dugard, whose memoir has just been published, describes how she was taken, aged 11, from a street by Phillip Garrido and his wife Nancy, kept hidden and raped for years, being forced to give birth to her children with only the two monsters present. There are other examples of female collusion in heinous sex crimes, which destroy those comforting beliefs in motherly grace and feminine care.
Michele Elliott, a psychologist and director of the charity Kidscape, believes this is considered the "ultimate taboo", something society does not want to think about: "The possibility that the sexual abuse of a child can be perpetrated by women causes enormous controversy and distress. It is thought that even raising the possibility of women abusing children, detracts from the larger, more pervasive problem of male abuse." She gives examples of adults despoiled by their mums or other female relatives, who were disbelieved even by doctors.
I have been writing about female genital mutilation for more than two decades. In all that time I have not met a single man who matched the pitiless fervour of the mothers, aunts and grandmothers, all of whom held on to the conviction that the slashing, maiming and closing off of a young girl's sexual parts was not only necessary, but noble. Several younger men from Somalia, Egypt and other North African countries told me they hated the practice and wanted their wives to feel not pain but pleasure during intercourse. They were overruled by the older ladies. OK, so they went through it themselves and fear social ostracism – but how do you hold down your screaming daughter, the child you carried in your womb, while they take a razor to her?
In almost all forced marriages and honour killings, there are imprints of women, including mothers whose love seems to burn off when they decide the opinions of their communities matter more than the rights of their fragile daughters. Samira, now in her 30s and a teacher, escaped from a marriage with an illiterate cousin. She told me: "My mum and aunties did it, they made me, they beat me, they locked me up, they made him take me on my wedding night, and he did, pushed himself in, again and again, till I fainted with the pain. The men didn't agree with any of it. I have no mother."
In her research, Elliott found men and women who will never recover from their experiences of violation by women they depended on. One was in the RAF; another, a woman in her 40s, said: "My mind knows it wasn't my fault – it was her filth, her dirt. But also mine. I feel utterly alone and evil to the core." We know that many of those who were subjected to sexual violence or oppressive practices become past masters (and mistresses) themselves. But that surely cannot absolve them entirely.
We feminists, with our neat critiques of male dominance, are pathologically unable to deal with the fact that females are, sometimes, more sadistic than men and can and do viciously hurt their own sex. Who dares within the sisterhood to revise the assumptions on which so much of that belief system rests? If we say that women must not be judged as harshly as men when they destroy those who are vulnerable, or that a woman must have the right to be as evil as a man, what kind of world is that? Perhaps I am coming round to the view that no, women shouldn't behave as badly as bad men, and when they do, they should be judged more harshly. Equality is essential, but morality is more fundamental; it has to be, surely.