29 March 2010
It’s time for a short break. I’m hanging up my blog hat. I am putting down my blog pens.
Delilah has been running for three months, and it’s time to reflect.
It’s a kind of addiction, like coffee in the morning or beer in the evening. The more I write, the more I read, the more I want to write. Thanks to everyone who reads and comments. With each step, I hope that I am getting a little bit further towards the truth.
I am taking a two-week holiday to write my novel. Delilah won’t be too far away. She has managed to worm her way into the novel, as a minor character.
The novel’s main character is called Jemima. She’s a journalist who embarks on a passionate, yet doomed, affair with a senior colleague. It’s a novel about the imbalance of power in relationships, the deluded nature of obsessional love and the strength of an individual’s character to cope against the odds.
Delilah’s part is very small (she was demanding to be in it so I gave her the part to shut her up). She’s Jemima’s feminist cousin, with the same surname; hence the MJ after Delilah, which stands for Morton-Jones. Jemima rejects Delilah at first, but – over time – they form a strong friendship as Jemima discovers what’s important to her.
Hard work ahead. In the meantime, I won’t stop thinking feminist thoughts. Have a good Easter.
27 March 2010
Iceland has just passed a law that will shut down every strip club in the land.
"It is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold," says Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, the politician who proposed the ban, quoted by Julie Bindel in the Guardian.
Iceland is leading the world in aspiring towards and achieving equality between women and men. Almost half the parliamentarians are female. Johanna Sigurðardottir is Iceland's first female head of state.
There’s also more equality in the home. From 2000, fathers were given three months’ leave, mothers three months and the parents three months to share as they wished. Around 90 per cent of fathers take advantage of their right, and there is evidence that the law has levelled the status of men and women in the labour market in Iceland.
It is no coincidence that the growing attitude of society about the objectification of women – that it is not acceptable or inevitable – is linked to efforts that boost equality in the workplace and in parliament. Iceland ranks fourth out of 130 countries on the international gender gap index, behind Norway, Finland and Sweden. All four of these Scandinavian countries have, to some degree, criminalised the purchase of sex.
From 1 April, the UK will also have this legislation. This is thanks to the work of dedicated activists, such as those from OBJECT and Fawcett, who are part of a vibrant and growing UK movement, as demonstrated in a BBC4 documentary shown last week.
As momentum builds, these issues and debates become more mainstream, the truth emerges and things start to change.
On Thursday, I went to an event where Kat Banyard, campaigner and co-founder of UK Feminista, which is a new organisation supporting action against gender inequality and launches today, spoke about her book ‘The Equality Illusion’.
At the event, a former prostitute and lap dancer – who are now working with OBJECT on the campaigns against ‘sex object culture’ (one writes a frank and poignant blog) – told the audience about their experiences.
Both women were addicted to drink or drugs or in an abusive relationship and saw prostitution or lap dancing as their only option. They thought – as in society we are led to believe – that the job might even be glamorous and empowering.
The beliefs were nothing but delusions. As women for sale, they were constantly in debt, subject to abusive and degrading comments from men and treated exactly as they were portrayed – as objects. The mental trauma that ensued was unbearable. Thankfully, these women got out, and are brave enough to speak out. They will help many others to do the same.
20 March 2010
The Ideal Home Show at Earls Court in London starts today.
Nothing wrong with that, until you look a little closer at what it involves. It is offering, along with ‘Ideal Gadgets, ‘Ideal Interiors’ and ‘Ideal Gardens’, a section entitled ‘Ideal Woman’. There is no ‘Ideal Man’ section.
Why is this worrying?
It is branding women in the same category as others aspects of the home. It is portraying women as objects, to be treated the same as gadgets – there to be bought and used.
‘Ideal Woman’ boasts a ‘beauty bar’ and ‘cat walk’. Two ways to make or show that an object is attractive.
I am not saying that women shouldn’t spend time making themselves look beautiful, or enjoy fashion.
I am saying that we should be concerned that women’s aspirations are portrayed in a very narrow way, which conforms to a stereotype of what society expects and accepts women to be like. This has implications everywhere – women are seen as the passive homemakers without the ambitions of men. They may be treated differently in the workplace because of this and expected to conform to a stereotypic ideal of femininity – and punished if they don’t. They may be subject to abuse and violence by their partners or men in the street because they are seen as objects to be treated as such.
There are also problems for men. What if a man doesn’t conform to the stereotype of being the dominant, macho breadwinner of the household? What if a man enjoys pampering too, wants to care for and spend time with his children and go shopping for clothes? He may find it difficult to be himself for fear of ridicule. He may feel pressured to act in a certain way to prove his masculinity. He may not want to be violent to women or intimidate them (and many men, of course, don't).
There is no scientific basis for the stereotypes of men and women. When you examine the vast array of scientific evidence, you see that – to date – most studies have shown that men’s and women’s brains are not innately different. Unfortunately, the media pick up only on the few results that indicate there may be a difference, because these are newsworthy and resonate with people’s stereotypes.
The evidence instead points to nurture; it starts in the ‘Mothercare’ shop which divides its clothing into two sections. It has pink t-shirts with flowers and no writing (for girls) – and blue t-shirts with words such as ‘I am the boss’ and ‘100% right’ (for boys).
The pressure for women and men to slot into artificial roles starts young. And, when we reach adulthood, we find that we are not as free as we should be.
17 March 2010
There’s a worrying trend in UK politics. The wives of male politicians are being used to boost the popularity of their husbands. And it’s because of how they look, and what they can say to mould the public image of their husbands.
The women are being wives of politicians – not people in their own right.
It is the objectification of women at the highest echelons, setting a disastrous example to the nation. First, it’s promoting that women should be valued for their looks and not their intelligence, and, second, it’s reinforcing damaging stereotypes – already rooted in our society – about the roles of men and women.
In an interview on ITV with Trevor McDonald, which was covered widely by the press, Samantha Cameron uses cliché after cliché while describing her husband. Of course, there is a chance that she's telling the truth, but this is so unlikely because she describes him as a stereotype (designed to match society's stereotypes of what a man should be like), not as a real person.
He loves cooking, but he’s messy.
Stereotype: men are messy
That’s the most annoying thing about him.
Stereotype: men are annoying, but in an acceptable, loveable, roguish way.
As Zoe Williams points out, Samantha Cameron can’t say he’s perfect because that wouldn’t be convincing. So she pretends to criticise instead, but it’s saccharine praise in disguise – it resonates with people’s stereotypes about men and women.
Sarah Brown is no better.
My husband, my hero.
Which would be almost OK (although verging on female submissive stereotype) until she continues with:
I am protective about our Sunday lunches – otherwise he would just want to go and watch TV.
Stereotype: female homemaker and the husband who just want to go off and be unsociable. Or: husband wants to go off and interact with the outside world while the woman stays at home.
It all started, of course, with Michelle Obama. Apparently Barack:
has no fashion sense, makes annoying remarks, and sometimes makes thoughtless remarks about my wardrobe.
Stereotypes: men don’t know anything about clothes. Men are tactless. Overall message: these flaws are OK.
Sound familiar to you? Yes, these stereotypes are not what we necessarily experience in real life. In real life, men and women span the spectra of messiness and sartorial calibre and competence to care for a family. But we recognise these stark stereotypes as ones that have been ingrained into us as children, in the books we read, in the advertisements we see; throughout our lives, throughout our culture, everywhere we look.
And after years of feminism and progress, these stereotypic messages are stronger than ever.
The media is a huge player in this. After all, if they tap into people’s stereotypes, they are more likely to provide what people want. We see the scathing attitude of newspapers, especially the tabloids, to female leaders because they are not seen to conform to the stereotype. Therefore their femininity is attacked:
She looks like a man. She has a dowdy dress sense.
Conversely, there is over-analysis of their sexual features. See this classic example.
Meanwhile, praise is handed out by the bucketful to the beautiful wives, famous for being wives.
Grazia magazine conducted a survey which concluded that two-thirds of women questioned thought Samantha Cameron has the best first lady style. (Incidentally, Grazia won consumer magazine of the year and the judges called it the ‘sharpest reflection of what the modern female head currently holds.’)
People are constantly being encouraged to judge female politicians and wives of male politicians by their style and not their brains. It is no wonder that objectification of women persists.
This is tragic because it means that if a woman (or a man) does not conform to a stereotype; for example, she is a leader, not a homemaker; then she is ostracised, disproportionately criticised and belittled.
She will also be blamed for her husband’s faults. I did a quick search of comments on news sites and blogs that were posted during the US election campaign and found the following message over and over again:
Hillary Can't Even Manage Her Marriage, So How Can She Manage The Country?
Do you think if Michelle Obama were to indulge in an affair then we’d lose confidence in Barack? Of course not.
She’d be called a slut and he’d be all the more endearing.
13 March 2010
The long-standing ban on women serving on Royal Navy submarines is about to disappear.
Only for a trial period, though. And the change is not even due to a desire to be fair to women. Women’s rights for equal opportunities don’t seem to come into it. The Navy is running out of staff, it seems. So they have realised, after all, that women are people and may actually be able to help them out.
This is despite attributing the ban to a risk of the dangers posed by fumes inside the submarine to a fetus if a woman is pregnant. That was clearly rubbish then, if they can abandon that reasoning so swiftly when they decide that women have a use.
So have we finally reached equality on the stormy waves?
First of all, there will be only five women out of a total of 135 staff. That’s just 3.7 percent of a group of the population that makes up fifty percent. You’d think the women were taking over completely based on the fuss this story has been receiving in the media this week.
But that’s not the worst of it. No, the real insult is this. The Navy bosses are blaming the women for problems even before they have gone down. They are blaming women for problems that may well be the fault of men, not women. They are apparently concerned that ‘a small number of females living in close quarters with male sailors will lead to sex scandals’.
One Navy boss says: "The Navy will go to great lengths to make sure that the first women are officers with impeccable credentials."
Is this a joke? Will men never take responsibility for their behaviour? Is it always the fault of women? It is the Delilah story all over again; a situation in which nobody knows whether it is the man or the woman, or both, who are at fault, but the finger automatically comes out to point at the woman before the story has even begun.
So the women have to be perfectly behaved so that they can resist the men, who don’t have to make any effort.
So it’s the women who have to sit there, all pretty and quiet, taking the taunting and flirting as the men act as they normally do. And God help her if a woman responds.
Just one false step, and the woman will be out. Not just her, but the whole of womankind, banned forever because – if a woman responds – she is clearly responsible for a ‘sex scandal’.
Let’s imagine one of these women with ‘impeccable credentials’. She’s on board a submarine, living in close quarters with all those men around her. They are full of lust, and showing it (because they don’t need self-control; they haven’t got ‘impeccable credentials’).
She fancies one of them – a nice-looking one in the corner, who isn’t eyeing her up as though she is a piece of meat, who isn’t making belittling comments to her. She likes him, but she is angry, because she isn’t allowed to express her feelings and the men are. She looks up at him, and he sees her; there’s a flicker of attraction. As she edges near him, she brushes his arm; their eyes lock again. She thinks: I could bring the whole lot down; I could cause a ‘sex scandal’. It’s the only power I have, she thinks.
But she knows, as well, that if she does that, she will be the Delilah of the submarine, and she will ruin the prospects of all her female colleagues. Not only them, but women in general – it will be all over the newspapers that women can’t be trusted in submarines, or anywhere else, for that matter.
So she tightens her lips together, looks at the ground, and says nothing.
10 March 2010
Someone commented in response to my last blog post and wondered why we shouldn't celebrate chocolates for Women’s Day.
There is nothing wrong with chocolates and flowers, and, sure, we can celebrate them. But the trouble with associating them with International Women’s Day is that they reinforce the stereotype that:
women like pretty things, as opposed to intellectual things;
that women are ‘sweet, nice and girly’, as opposed to assertive and independent;
and that women think about eating, or worry about eating, chocolate, as opposed to more substantial issues.
And this narrow stereotype of what a woman should be like - when bombarded at women (and men) from all angles - has a limiting effect on girl's and women's ambitions and also on society's expectations and assumptions about what a woman can and should achieve and aspire to.
It is ironic that a day that is celebrating women’s economic, political and social achievements is marked by a splash of pink and fluffy things on the greetings card website. This is exactly the opposite of what we’re celebrating. We’re celebrating women’s diversity and contributions to society, not society’s stereotypes - which are narrow and inhibiting, and a false reflection of reality.
And when is Hallmark going to start selling cards for Women’s Day and give it the same status as all the other commercial celebration days?
08 March 2010
Most special days are recognised by greeting card manufacturers.
This one has been overlooked, except by a couple of online outlets, such as this one, which has a shocking array of cards covered in pink patterns, chocolate and flowers.
International Women's Day (IWD) is a celebration of the opposite of all things stereotypically ‘girly’. Marked on March 8 every year, it’s far from being submissive, apologetic and giggly – it’s a major global celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women.
The very first International Women's Day was launched by Clara Zetkin, leader of the 'Women's Office' for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, in 1911 – a few decades after Henry Maudsley, eminent psychiatrist, said that “a woman does not easily regain the vital energy that was recklessly spent on learning”.
Plans for the first International Women's Day demonstration were spread by word of mouth and in the press. Articles began to appear which questioned the equality of women in the government and in society.
On the day itself, meetings in villages halls were packed so full that male workers were asked to give up their places for women. Men stayed at home with their children for a change.
In 1975, the United Nations gave IWD official recognition and it is now marked by a national holiday in China, Armenia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
This year, on the 100th IWD, Fawcett, which campaigns for equality between women and men in the UK on pay, pensions, poverty, justice and politics, has launched its election campaign.
Bringing together over 40 organisations and thousands of individual voters to ask all the political parties 'What About Women', Fawcett is asking all the main parties to answer some key questions about women and their policies.
So how far have we come in the UK?
Just 19.5 per cent of the MPs in Britain are women; a record so poor that it puts the UK 69th in the world for our proportion of female parliamentarians – behind Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan.
In 2008/09, the number of women applying for Queen's Counsel was at its lowest level in 10 years. Higher up, there is only one female judge on the UK Supreme Court and just 15 of 109 High Court judges are female.
Women have 40 per cent more chance of living in poverty than men, with the sex pay gap still at 16.4 per cent for full-time work and 35 per cent for part-time.
Research commissioned by channel 4, revealed today, shows that men outnumber women by two to one on our television screens and male news reporters are a third more likely to cover subjects such as politics, trade and science.
And in childcare, the ‘choices’ of men and women are still not equal, as Natasha Walter in ‘Living Dolls’ encapsulates:
“If men were expected to take more than six months at home with the birth of each baby, and were frowned on if they worked fulltime before their child was 12, and were judged by other fathers if they didn’t bring cakes to the school cake sale, and never opened a newspaper without finding that the decision to work and be a father was under question; if they had to hassle and negotiate for every hour they spent away from their newborn baby, if the childcare costs were seen as coming out of their salary and not their wife’s, if their partner was not prepared to take up the slack; if they lived, in other words, in the same world that women do, then their choices might look different.”
We still have a long way to go.
06 March 2010
Today, it’s the Million Women Rise march in central London. Women will storm the streets in their thousands and end up in Trafalgar Square in the afternoon.
The march is an annual national demonstration against male violence, which includes domestic violence, rape and sexual violence, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, crimes in the name of honour, trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.
It’s a crucial cause to fight for. Most violence against women and children is perpetrated by men, and predominantly by men that they know. The experience and impact of violence upon women and children is a serious violation of human rights. Violence devastates the lives of women, our families, and our communities. It also threatens to undermine efforts to bring about sustainable development.
Women are divided, however, over the theme this year, which is ‘End the rape of women, end the rape of our earth’. Many women believe that the destruction to the planet is an extension of violence against women and conclude that the two sit naturally together.
The problem with combining the themes is that the call to end of violence to women is diluted; it becomes less prominent. There are many people protesting about harm to the planet and fewer voices speaking about women’s rights. There is also the risk that onlookers may (falsely) conclude that we are a group of ‘complainers’ who whinge about everything.
The irony to my point is that most climate change sceptics are male, as noted by Richard Black on BBC news. This could well be because men are cited more often in the media. It could also be because the harms of global climate change do not affect men and women equally. Women are more likely to die than men in the course of a natural disaster. According to a UN report, women are more likely to live in the regions hit early by changing climate patterns and girls are more likely to leave school early because of these changes.
Oxfam also noted that women not only produce the majority of the world's food, they also make up the majority of the world's small farmers, which leaves their livelihoods particularly vulnerable to global warming.
However, I think the sexist truth about the climate change is far too subtle for the people whom we are trying to influence by marching today. Violence against women, aged 15-44, causes more death and disability than war, cancer, malaria and traffic accidents. The tragedy may be that this message is missed.
The march – practical details:
SATURDAY 6 MARCH 2010
12pm MEET Opposite Hyde Park (Speakers Corner End) on PARK LANE
MARCH ROUTE set off 1pm: OXFORD ST, REGENTS ST , PICCADILLY
RALLY AND CELEBRATION: 3 - 4.30PM TRAFALGAR SQUARE
02 March 2010
The rise of hypersexual culture is the subject of Natasha Walter’s new book ‘Living Dolls’, which I have started reading this week.
“The rise of hypersexual culture is not proof that we have reached full equality, Rather, it has reflected and exaggerated the deeper imbalance of power in our society,” Walter writes.
The sexism that women fought so hard against a few decades ago has now come back in a different form.
The sex industry is more mainstreamed than ever. Walter notes how intriguing it is that the men who have powerful roles in this highly sexualised culture are so eager to explain that it is has been shaped by the ‘choices’ of others.
Of course the reality is much darker.
There is much less social mobility than in previous generations. Is it not surprising then, that women who feel unable to aspire to a career in, say, politics, instead aspire to the ideal that the sex industry is pushing – that status can be won by any woman if she is prepared to flaunt her body?
A seasoned glamour model is asked if she thinks that stripping naked on a bed to try to win a Nuts photo shoot while men cheer and jeer is what women choose: “No, not really. A lot of girls don’t know how to make choices. They think that because one girl’s doing it, and everyone’s going wild, they should do it.”
The head of her agency says: “There’s this desperation, the are so many girls coming through… They come down to London on the strength of one shoot, with stars in their eyes, and they end up to their ears in debt, pulling pints, lap dancing, prostitution, you name it.”