Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: A poisonous environment in which to be a woman

When Michelle Obama takes girls to Oxford and tries to get them to imagine reaching for the top, she should also tell them what happens to women if they do

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Dame Barbara Mills DBE QC, 70, died on Saturday, after suffering a stroke. I asked a number of young professionals if they knew who she was. No, not a clue. Not even the lawyers among them. She was nobody to them – a formidable barrister who ran the Serious Fraud Office and was the first female Director of Public Prosecutions.

I also asked them if they thought the awesome Frenchwoman Christine Lagarde would become head of the International Monetary Fund. Again, no recognition. One young city accountant did think she had seen her picture. "Is she grey haired, quite old?" Yes, I said, just like the man who had the job last, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, now awaiting trial in the USA for allegedly molesting a hotel chambermaid and admiringly described by some of his French compatriots as "the great seducer".

This has not been a good spring for feminism. Or maybe it has, for as the sunshine arrived, we were able to see more clearly that old-style sexism was back, setting down again in the West. Time to step off the rollercoaster. When men running old structures seemed to be turned this way and that, throwing up sometimes, screaming loudly, they must have known it would soon stop, come down with a thud. Clothes would be adjusted, faces wiped and everything would get back to "normal", as God surely intended.

I say "the West", because that is where hopes of a great transformation were well advanced and where some irrevocable rights have been won. In the South and East, (even in the super-economic nations like India and China) millions of female infants, girls and women still don't have the right just to be, to see another day. Uncounted numbers are aborted, beaten, bullied, burnt, starved, covered up, killed, raped, used and abused, subjugated, forced to marry and reproduce. So yes, when we compare our lives to theirs, we are fortunate. However, it is just when things feel OK that things slip back.

Even I, an obdurate feminist, have heard a voice in my head wondering if Cheryl Cole had kinda asked to be kicked off X Factor in the US. That Dynasty hairdo, purple trousers, turquoise belt and orangey top – all wrong, I thought. No wonder ... Oh yes, we are now all implicated in the trashing of women. Cole, beautiful and ambitious, has been chucked by Simon Cowell and the men who run Fox TV, as if she was a minor flunky, a thing, theirs to discard. She should never have handed over so much of herself. Eleanor Roosevelt, civil and human rights giantess, rightly believed: "Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission".

More bad news: here comes a new fad, "Slut-Walkers" – women in scanty underwear or provocative T-shirts who have taken to demonstrating against male violence, thus making a mockery of rape and of women's rights. And Hugh Hefner, that irrepressible sex machine, is opening another Playboy Club in London. Just like before, with cute gals wagging furry pom-poms on their butts in costumes which lift and squeeze. To beat the recession, he offers glamour jobs to unemployed graduates and bimbos dying to wave their assets in front of tipsy blokes with deep pockets and long arms.

Also about to hit our shores, the sicko American series Girls Gone Wild. The makers find places where young women get drunk, offer them brand T-shirts to strip and act out porn fantasies. They too will find many willing lasses out for a laff. This is modern day female "empowerment". Not. Proffering up yourself naked or in grab-me garb is easy pleasure for masturbators and an invitation to lechers, girls – not "empowerment". Learn that if nothing else.

Just as depressing was the Michelle and Samantha tableau of womanhood. Them in their girlie frocks, sitting demurely with their hands together on their laps, sharing cookie recipes perhaps. Or how to make the prettiest cupcakes. Two professional women and mums had to show they were safe and domesticated. Why weren't Barack and David on the kitchen sofa, and why didn't their two women demand the table tennis photo shoot instead? As for Kate Middleton, she willed herself to blend into the nothingness of beige. What was the point of her university education?

Meanwhile one can but imagine the real feelings of Anne Sinclair, once a highly rated journalist who became the third Mrs Strauss-Kahn, or Maria Shriver, best-selling writer and the wife of adulterous Arnie Schwarzenegger, or Joyce Goodwin, highflier in the financial world until she met and married Fred Goodwin, he of the shredded super-injunction to keep hidden an alleged affair. All three women and many others like them, were not compliant, little wifies. They had made it, made their mark but were unable to prevent betrayal and public humiliation. To be shown, maybe, that the highest-achieving woman must know her place and be brought down.

Our environment has become poisonous for women, one in which it is assumed that they don't matter whether they are successful or not. That must be why there is hardly any debate about the degradation of women, or much objection raised when childcare support is slashed, when more females are being laid off than men, when single mums are blamed for all social ills, and even abortion rights might be sliced away.

So when Michelle Obama took girls from an inner-city London school to Oxford, to get them to imagine reaching for the top, she should have told them what happens to women who do. Or about the dangers which appear when they assume equality with men. Or how she has to play the unthreatening woman for the sake of her husband's position. Just as Kate Middleton does. Or that the sexualisation of young women is proving the most effective whip against female progress. Of course she didn't, couldn't.

Feisty fighters who refuse to give up the struggle for real and enduring parity between the sexes get dreadful invective, particularly from sleepless internet bullies on the prowl. On my wall I have this quote by the author Dame Rebecca West: "I do not know what feminism is. I only know that people call me that when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute." Feminism itself has become a term of abuse just when we need it most. Time to reaffirm it and not wear a bunny-tail or whore kit or apron, please.


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