Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Standing With Our Sisters - International Women's Day

A message to misogynists everywhere...
Today is (still just) International Women's Day, a day to mark both the contribution of the majority gender and to highlight the discrimination and misogyny which, even now, continues to plague so much of the planet.

Today, I have read about child brides in Yemen bleeding to death, of the public stripping of Dalit women in India by upper caste men intent on humiliating them, and of women attacked on the streets of Cairo for daring to demonstrate to have at least one solitary female voice among the many male ones busily drafting Egypt's supposedly new liberal constitution.

In many societies, violence against women is not only still legal, but even women have been drilled socially into seeing it as acceptable - for example, a survey found that 8 out of 10 Zambian women feel their husbands should beat them if they go out alone: the western press ignores that this is in a prevalently Christian country, concentrating instead on the preachings of certain Islamic scholars who accord a similar view of females in Islam.

Yet it is not only in these most horrific of cases in countries far away that there is a need for a day like today. The West, so smug in its supposedly liberal traditions and democratic zeitgeist, concentrates rather more on the statistics of how many women are in managerial jobs or taking seats in the Boardroom, important though these are, and rather less on the more salacious and sometimes truly disturbing undercurrents that continue to inform society's view of women on all too many occasions.

Consider these facts:

- American legislators, just six weeks ago, sought to redefine rape by making a distinction between forcible rape and, well, presumably some other type of rape. After a storm of protest, the Republican Party proponents of the new definition reluctantly withdrew it, but that such an idea could be seriously entertained at all in Congress is proof enough that misogyny is a long time dying. And it is little coincidence that religious fundamentalism was a key motive in the move. Indeed, the idea of "forcible rape" perhaps is rooted in the biblical passage of Deuteronomy which prescribes the killing of rape victims who do not scream loudly enough - "ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city."

- It is not only in Zambia that women believe that if they are beaten it is all that they are due. An Edinburgh Napier University study last year found alarming views among 11 and 12 year old schoolchildren in Scotland. An overwhelming majority felt that violence by men against women can be justified if there is a reason! A staggering 80% felt that it would be permissible for a man to hit a woman who had not prepared his meal on time for him. The figure rose to nearly 100% if a man discovered his wife or girlfriend was having an affair. Among British adult women, one in ten think they deserve to be hit if they flirt with someone other than their partner, and one in five people see domestic violence as acceptable at times - this even although two women are killed by their partners every week.

- Police, sometimes including female officers, have on many occasions assaulted women in ways that never quite seem to occur with men in custody - for example, the disturbing footage of British police stripping and beating a young woman who had been arrested after arguing with her boyfriend; or the American police who beat a handcuffed woman when they lost patience with her lack of co-operation. Although there is sometimes some half-hearted prosecution by the authorities when somehow the incidents leak out, convictions and even dismissals are relatively few.

I could go on. Sure, there are many other wrongs in the world, and many men suffer greatly in many ways as well as women. But given that in some countries women's testimony still counts as less than a man's in court; in others they are confined to the home or forced to cover up out of doors at threat of severe punishment, or subjected to a media that simultaneously casts women as sexualised objects and then screams in faux horror and sensationalist coverage at sexual violence, International Women's Day should give an opportunity to think and act for genuine equality.

Employment, economic and legal equality are absolutely vital. But so too is respect and dignity and valuing of the person and the current cuts in support for victims of domestic violence in the UK are sending out all the wrong signals. In a world where so much of humanity is degraded and debased by our pernicious and exploitative economic system, gender inequality and the denigrating of women in so many ways is somehow all the greater an affront to our species. Today is a chance to change and make a better world for us all, sisters and brothers together.


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