In a gaffe spectacularly sexist even for him, Boris Johnson has ‘suggested’ that the reason women go to university is to find husbands.
If this wasn’t bad enough, the context of this comment makes it all the worse. Johnson was speaking at the launch of the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) in London. The Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, sat next to Johnson, was asked about the rights of women in Islamic countries.
He replied "before coming here, my officials have told me that the latest university intake in Malaysia, a Muslim country, 68 per cent will be women entering our universities." Johnson then interrupts the PM, a politician significantly more senior than himself, to make a joke, about women. Johnson is heard saying, with a laugh, "they’ve got to find men to marry."
Boris is well known for his less-than-politically-correct attitude to women, but he has always denied, vehemently, being sexist. “I’m not remotely sexist!” Boris cries. The problem is, I don’t think Boris really knows what sexism is. He is not alone.
Admittedly, we can’t really blame him for not understanding the complexities of intersectionality; some of my brightest undergraduates find it challenging, and that’s hardly a fair comparison. But having an undergraduate degree from Oxford, where I teach – which is according to many – one of the best universities in the world, I would really have expected him to understand the very basics of the concept. Oh well. I guess men don’t go to university to learn stuff either.
Anyway Boris, here’s a little tutorial for you, for next time you think about discussing women’s issues. I’ll make it as simple as possible.
- Sexism is prejudice based upon a person’s sex. That means treating someone in a certain way because they have a vagina or a penis. That’s what sex is (in case you weren’t sure on that either).
- You can be sexist by being ‘nice’ to someone. If you treat someone differently because of their sex, you are being sexist.
- Although one doesn’t need to treat someone badly to be sexist, typically, sexism has manifested as men treating women badly because of their sex. Examples of this are women being criticized because of characteristics associated with their gender. (I don’t think I’ll attempt to explain the difference between sex and gender to you Boris; let’s not try and run before we can walk, eh?)
- One of the most common types of sexism women encounter in the workplace is that of their intellectual capacity being challenged (epistemic injustice). Being patronized is one of the worst forms of sexism because it belittles the speaker and calls into question their authority within a professional group. I think you might have had a bit of trouble with this sort of thing before. It’s not very nice to be patronized, especially when you’ve spent a long, long time studying and working and hard things like that.
- Casual sexism, like making jokes about women as a group, maintains a culture wherein women are perceived as less significant than men, which leads directly to sexual harassment, rape, and other forms of sexual violence. You could read the tweets of @EverydaySexism for infinite examples of these. I believe you’ve recently been made aware of the project after a few of their followers tweeted you today.
If you were my undergraduate, Boris, I’d be expecting a 1,000 word essay with the title ‘What is Sexism?’ from you by next Monday. I somehow doubt you’d be up to scratch. As it is, I’d like to ask a different question of you. Given the Tories’ fetishisation of marriage, and your quite interesting view on women’s motives for attending university, perhaps your party could start to 'recognize marriage in the tax system' and use tax money to fund women to attend, thereby killing two birds with one huge, (as Everyday Sexism out it) 'pathetically archaic, unacceptably sexist, and hopelessly out of touch stone'.