We could have had a proper debate about sexism after Rashida Manjoo's comments. Instead, we’re fencing over a media-garbled paraphrase

It doesn’t matter if one thinks Britain is the most sexist country in the world or not

Share

There are straw men being erected everywhere. They are not difficult to knock down. But they are sturdily made, and straw does not degrade quickly, and so their prone forms litter the political landscape, endlessly getting in the way of anything else.

Consider the suggestion that Britain is “the most sexist country in the world”. This, we have been told, is how visiting UN special rapporteur Rashida Manjoo described us when summing up her 16-day visit earlier this week. She may have reason to regret it. When the last UN rapporteur who visited had the temerity to criticise the bedroom tax, Raquel Rolnik – who is from Sao Paulo – found herself described as “loopy” and a Marxist “Brazil nut” who had once practised animal sacrifice. If this form is anything to go by, we can expect to hear more about Ms Manjoo before the end  of the week.

The thing is, whatever headline writers and the online outraged are claiming, Ms Manjoo did not say that Britain was the most sexist country in the world. What she said was this: “Have I seen this level of sexist culture in other countries? It hasn’t been so in your face in other countries. I haven’t seen that so pervasively in other countries. I’m sure it exists but it wasn’t so much and so pervasive.” The other countries, it is important to bear in mind, are not all 192 UN member states, but the six that she has already visited as part of her work on violence against women.

I still disagree with her statement. Those countries include Bangladesh, Somalia, and Kyrgyzstan, and even if one acknowledges that Ms Manjoo’s observation was limited to sexist culture as opposed to sexism as a complete system, it seems a bit much. I am a little irritated by the remark – a silly PR failure on a scale that may render the UN representative’s whole visit a waste of time. But I am far more put out by those who have so wildly misinterpreted it. The stretch involved is so considerable that I am inclined to believe that anyone making it can only be doing so on purpose.

The full quote of Ms Manjoo’s that I reproduced above is 42 words long, the bastardised version of it that has done the rounds only seven. But at her press conference on Tuesday, Ms Manjoo read a 4,000-word diagnosis of gender inequality in Britain today, and then took questions. She discussed sexual violence, and the media, and the particular ways that women who are disabled or gay or poor or members of an ethnic minority might be disadvantaged.

She pointed out that she was denied access to Yarl’s Wood, an immigration detention centre for women that has faced heavy criticism for the way it treats its inmates. One might have hoped that Ms Manjoo’s intervention would have helped to focus our attention on these significant matters. Instead, the argument has been dominated by those who consider her presence a diplomatic insult so grave that it overrides all such considerations.

One Daily Telegraph blogger argued that the country is a “gynocracy” because we’ve had a queen since 1952. Once the “most sexist country” line had taken hold, even those responses that acknowledged the existence of sexism often did so in a tone that seemed to long for this awful UN woman to just go home and leave us in peace.

It doesn’t really matter, now, whether one thinks Britain is the most sexist country in the world or not. The point is that anyone who is interested has been forced to take a position on this concocted accusation and its accuracy as a paraphrase, instead of talking about anything that matters. The state of British gender relations becomes a problem that only matters insofar as it dictates our position in some abstract international pecking order. Thus another opportunity for having a proper debate about the position of women in this country, without reference to whether or not women in Saudi Arabia are allowed to drive, goes past.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. When the 140-character version is the only one that counts, this happens all the time: it happened when Raquel Rolnik visited, and we all got obsessed with favelas; it happens when the increasing necessity of food banks is in the news, and all anyone can talk about is whether it matters if the child on the Daily Mirror’s front page is actually American. By the time we've finished arguing, we've forgotten why we started. And, sure enough, here I am, rabbiting on about exactly the topic that I think is beside the point.

This is how it is with straw men. You’ll be trying to make sense of something, and  for a second you’ll think you’ve caught a clear glimpse of the horizon – but then you’ll notice another of the buggers, practically on top of you. Even if you get out of its way, you’ll still find your view obstructed when it hits the ground.

Twitter: @archiebland

Read more:
Britain isn't the most sexist country in the world
Boys' club Britain is more sexist than Italy, Azerbaijan and India

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Pokot woman holds a razor blade after performing a circumcision on four girls  

The campaigns to end FGM are a welcomed step, but they don't go far enough

Charlotte Rachael Proudman
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game