SubScribe: Women's rights and wrongs Google+

Friday 8 March 2013

Women's rights and wrongs

Did your husband tell you to put your feet up and bring you a cup of tea? Did your boss give you the day off and a couple of cinema tickets? Did your name appear on a list of modern heroines? Did you join a demonstration, attend a seminar on feminism, teach someone how to make cupcakes?
International Women's Day has been around for 101 years, and for 100 of them most people were about as aware of it as St Cuthbert's Day (March 20). This year, however, it has made its presence felt much more strongly, with a thriving Facebook page, thousands of tweets and features in real touchy-feely newsprint as well as on newspapers' websites.

The initial idea of the movement was to fight for votes, equality in employment, decent pay. Well, we have the vote almost everywhere - although in some countries it is a case of principle rather than  practice - but even in the West women are still struggling to find jobs and to receive proper reward for their efforts.
Look further afield and we can see that the lack of a job is hardly the biggest concern when you are being beaten nightly, forced into a marriage before puberty, gang-raped while bus passengers sit and look the other way, jailed for daring to poke fun at authority, shot for wanting to go to school, trafficked abroad  to become an unpaid prostitute, mutilated to inhibit your sex drive...or aborted because your parents want only a boy child.
There are so many areas in so many countries where women are still abused, downtrodden and defeated, that it's hard to know where to begin to raise awareness - and start to redress the balance.
Perhaps by declaring the day a bank holiday? Twenty-seven countries have given their workers the day off today - many of them well known for their enlightened approach to human rights: China, Cuba, Uganda,  a clutch of former Soviet states. 
Nepal is another, this the country accused by Human Rights Watch of a 'year of backsliding' in a report last month which said:  Women continued to face violence in various forms in Nepal; rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence remained serious concerns. Also, without the assistance of male family members, the citizenship law makes it difficult for women to secure legal proof of citizenship – a sure way to deny them rights to marital property, inheritance, or land.

There are no Western countries on the holiday list. America doles out badges to foreigners and British politicians spout inanities about their determination to continue on the road to full equality. There were nearly 500 events across the UK - the most in any one country - but many had more than a smack of corporate interests jumping on the bandwagon. You could go on a shopping evening at Hobbs, have a swig of fizz and a mini sausage toad and come home with a goodie bag. You could paint yourself as a goddess in Vienna (thought this was a list of British events?) in an 'empowering process to create powerful portrait painting...using lush visualisations, gentle movement, breathing, relaxation, and chocolate!' [Why the exclamation mark? Why do people think the word chocolate will drive women wild?] 
There were plenty of picnics and baking sessions, or the more cerebral could go to a concert celebrating women composers, look at exhibitions of women in the workplace or - best of all - go to Cardiff City football ground for a day designed to encourage teenagers to look at non-stereotypical careers and take part in activities to raise aspirations.

So, given IWD's raised profile, how did our media approach the day?

The Independent gave us a little spread, naming ten women being honoured by Michelle Obama with America's International Women of Courage award. The paper carried a big picture of Ms Obama, a smaller picture of each of the ten winners in action and a thumbnail of the woman of courage herself. They included the Delhi bus rape victim, an Egyptian protester, a Honduran political campaigner and a Tibetan poet. Sadly, there were fewer than a dozen words available to give us each of their names and what they had done. But if you click here, you can read more about them.
Online, the Indy went from the breathtaking to the banal, with a pair of blogs about life for single women.  Dr Binni writes about how girls are a burden in India and about how she is working to improve their lot. Married at 16, Dr Binni found herself ostracised when she could not have children. She and her husband moved from their hometown to another part of Jharkhand  state and set up an organisation to empower single women in the state and beyond, eventually linking up with a similar group in Rajhasthan to create a nationwide association to encourage and help single women living alone. It's quite a task, she tells us that there are 43 million widows, 22 million divorcees and 33 million women who have never married. Her story was selfless and inspirational and well worth reading in full.
Natasha Devon meanwhile argues that some women choose to be single and aren't to be pitied as sad Bridget Joneses. a valid point but expressed in nauseatingly selfish terms:
Single people are answerable to no one (excluding the Grim Reaper and the Tax Man). We make our own rules. If we want to spend an entire Saturday reading frothy chick-lit, or the complete works of Lord Byron, or the Financial Times whilst sucking the chocolate off Kit Kat Chunkies and pinging the wafer at the cat, we can.
She also recommends the ability to 'stomp around in Kurt Geiger boots listening to Ziggy Stardust', finishing with the glib payoff line 'I'm probably having more sex than you, too.' Charming.

The Guardian also devoted a spread to IWD, but with more purpose, using it as a peg for a frightening story about wife-bashing  in  Britain - 1.2 million women suffered domestic violence last year and there was an 11 per cent rise in the number of people reporting such incidents (which may well be a good thing). There was also a thoughtful analysis about educating children in equality and a delightful set of pictures of teenagers with signs showing what feminism means to them. Serious stuff and all close to home.
Online, Jane Martinson told us in The Women's Blog how one sex assault victim was going to mark IWD by going back to the Tube line where she had been abused. An interesting element of the piece was the phrase  'the new wave of feminism sweeping the UK'.

Christina Scharff of King's College, London

New wave of feminism? Not if you believe the Mail. The paper marked IWD in its inimitable way, without mentioning it,  but in a spread entitled 'Portrait of 21st century British woman'. The main story is based on an ONS report that one in five women is childess at 45. Careers and the decline of marriage are 'to blame' writes Steve Doughty. He also tells us that fewer than half of women are married, although 16% are cohabiting, so if you look at it another way 67% of women are in that 'ideal' one man, one woman environment. We also learn that British women are unfit and lazy and that 30,000 are being 'forced' to work at 60 because of state pension changes that were announced yonks ago.

But the real delight on this spread is the piece headlined
'The generation that's finished with feminism'.
Most young women strongly object to being called a feminist - and say that they like men, say state-funded researchers. In fact, they believe that the aims of the feminist movement have all but been achieved in the Western world.

Doughty (yes, he wrote both page leads) goes on to quote from a study based on interviews with young British and German women:
In rejecting feminism, women are often seeking to position themselves within conventional norms of femininity and heterosexuality. Although none of the participants could point to specific individuals, most still viewed pioneers of gender equality as lesbian, man-hating feminists.'

Wow! So who wrote this study, where was it published, why didn't any other paper take it up? There are no details in the report, other than to say that it was funded by the taxpayer-supported Economic and Social Research Council and written by Dr Christina Scharff of King's College, London.

So I thought I'd look her up.I couldn't find any report published today - maybe I was so beguiled by the IWD Google doodle that I missed it. I did, however, find a book called Repudiating Feminism, by Christina Scharff, published by Ashgate in May 2012, price £55.

In the introduction Scharff writes:
Feminism, it seems, is met with suspicion, even in countries that pride themselves on their allegedly  progressive stance on gender and sexuality. Young women also seem to be reluctant to claim feminism. they want to be treated equally, and are aware of gender inequalities. Yet, the term feminism often gives rise to negative, affect-laden responses.
We also learn from the introduction that three-quarters of those she interviewed would not describe themselves as feminists. Quite a lot then, until you consider the section headed Scope of the study, in which she writes:
The research is based on a qualitative study, involving forty semi-structured in-depth interviews with young women in Germany and Britain.
And she cautions the reader:
My aim in this book is not to make a general statement about young women’s relationship with feminism; a sample of forty women does not allow me to draw such conclusions.

Interesting, then, that ten months after publication of this book, the Mail should choose to make a general statement about young women's relationship with feminism on the basis of that author's interviews with young women in Germany and Britain.

Sahar Parniyan, photographed
 by Ben Gurr of The Times
The Times didn't mention IWD either, but it did focus on women's role in the international workplace in its Business Dashboard, and sorry reading it made, too. The PwC Women in Work index puts Britain 18th in a league of 27 OECD nations on the basis of a variety of indicators, including the number in employment and pay equality. Scandinavia, as ever in such surveys, comes out top, South Korea is at the bottom. The bad news for Britain is that we have lost ground and while most other countries are still making progress, we are going backwards. The average basic salary of a male executive last year was £40,325; for a woman of the same status it was £30,265. We have a long way to go.

Not as far, thank goodness, as the women of Afghanistan - one of the countries celebrating a bank holiday today. Martin Fletcher again gets to the human heart of an international story:

I'm safe here, says star who fled Taleban
Until recently, Sahar Parniyan was a well known Afghan actress. Today she is a refugee in West London, jobless, almost friendless, unable to speak more than a few words of English...
Despite that, she is happy in some ways. For the first time in her life, Ms Parniyan, 22, feels respected as a woman, not oppressed. For the first time she feels that she has a government that protects her, not threatens her. 'I feel safe,' she says - three words she has seldom uttered before. 

Fletcher writes that Ms Parniyan was  a television reporter in eastern Afghanistan, until the Taleban threatened her four years ago. She says they told her:  'You are working with men. You are acting against Sharia. We will come to your home and kill your family.'
The family moved to Kabul, where Ms Parniyan became an actress,  playing assertive women who went to work and defied their husbands, before joining the cast of a satirical comedy. 'I wanted to be a role model for other Afghan women, to give them courage,' she told Fletcher.
But then two sisters also on the show were stabbbed to death outside their home,  and Ms Parniyan received a 3.30am phone call, threatening her: 'We warned you not to work on screen. We made an example of your two colleagues and you'll be next.'
I could easily reproduce the entire article here, but much better for you to read it yourself.
Such stories, not cupcakes and frippery, are what a real International Women's Day should be about.

Vicky Pryce photographed by The Sun

For every paper, however, there was one special gift for IWD: Vicky Pryce. How the misogynists and harpies clapped their hands in delight as they untied the ribbons and peeled away the packaging.  The Mail devoted eleven pages to her, the Independent nine. The Guardian and The Times a splash and a spread. Most made some fatuous play on the fact that Pryce is Greek, so we had myths and pyrrhic victories and tragedies; oh yes, and lots of furies.
The Telegraph committed the cardinal sin (in my book) of making a pun out of someone's name with The Pryce of revenge in humungous 'world comes to an end' splash head type, while inside Allison Pearson was let loose to raise some pertinent questions interspersed with such gems as Bernard Bresslaw lookalike to describe Chris Huhne's lover Carina Trimmingham.

A clever, successful woman brought low by an act of spite, a mother dragging her children through the mire, a spurned wife intent on vengeance destroying her husband's career. And all over three points on a driving licence. What's not to hate? What's not to celebrate?
Well, hang on. She was bloody stupid, not least in that ridiculous marriage coercion defence, and she'll be going to jail;  Huhne was manipulative and dishonest, yet he might just stay free thanks to his last-minute guilty plea.
Let's go back a bit. First he gets her to take his points because he doesn't want the bad publicity of a driving ban. Then he cheats on her. The first she learns of the affair is while she's sitting on the sofa at home watching a World Cup football match. Huhne comes in  and announces that the press has got wind of his relationship. Twenty minutes later he tells the world that he's leaving his wife for Trimmingham and, job done,  heads for the gym, shouting the instruction: 'Don't talk to the newspapers.'
Does that bit of the story remind you of anyone? Remember Robin Cook and the marriage brought abruptly to a halt at Heathrow Airport on Alastair Campbell's orders. One minute the minister and his wife were about to start their holiday, a mobile phone call or two later and the holiday is cancelled and the marriage is over. And do you also remember the bad press both the abandoned Margaret Cook and the new model Gaynor Regan suffered? Do you remember David Mellor parading his family at the garden gate to try to rescue his career after he unzipped his fly in the wrong house once too often? Why is it OK for these men to behave so despicably? Why are we so unforgiving when the wife fails to sit quietly and take the humiliation? Do we want to be a nation of Mary Archers?

And finally, for a bit of fun, the blogger Fleet Street Fox invited her Twitter followers to come up with phrases you would never hear spoken of a man. There were some gems, so I shamelessly reproduce a few here. If you want more, they can be found - with attributions -  in her Mirror column, Of Mice and Men.

Who did he sleep with to get that job?
Still fabulous at 40
Is the woman of the house in? 
How do you juggle being a father and a sportsman?
Kids, marriage, career, why men still can't have it all
Is it moral for a man to become a father at 50?
That's the problem with male bosses
And here comes Sir Fred in his grey Armani suit, looking lovely today
He hasn't done any real work since he had kids
Sassy Apprentice star Lord Sugar makes an emotional appearance at tribunal...

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