Leading article: Our culture promotes bias and inequality

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The Independent Online

Cherie Booth's first major public speech since leaving Downing Street was on a subject that has always been close to her heart: women's rights. The high-flying human rights lawyer and wife of the former Prime Minister pointed out at Chatham House yesterday that "cultural differences" are no excuse for barriers to equality between men and women. She argued that religiously-sanctioned discrimination against women results from the misinterpretation of religious texts by male clerics. She also criticised those in the West who attempt to explain away institutionalised injustice against women on the grounds of cultural relativism. Violence and discrimination against women should be condemned by democratic societies wherever they occur. As Ms Booth put it: "Women's rights are not a luxury of the rich world".

This is all true. But something was missing. Why did Ms Booth not single out particular regimes for failing to curb, or in some cases for actively promoting, such abhorrent misogyny and discrimination? The head of one of them happens to be paying a state visit to Britain at the moment. Ms Booth's defence of Saudi Arabia in a radio interview yesterday was not convincing. It may be the case, as she pointed out, that some Saudi women are permitted to attend university and run businesses. But the fact is that the vast majority are not allowed out of the home unless accompanied by a male relative. Ms Booth stressed the importance of Britain's maintaining a dialogue with the Saudi royal family. Maybe so, but should we be treating them to the full honours of a state visit? What message does this send to women and true reformers in the desert kingdom?

Nor should the Saudi regime have been Ms Booth's only target. There is an institutionalised bias against women in law courts and justice systems across Asia and Africa. The courts fail to take rape and domestic violence allegations seriously in Pakistan. So-called "honour killings" in Jordan tend to result in ridiculously lenient sentences. There is worrying evidence that female foetuses, identified with the aid of ultrasound technology, are being singled out for abortion by parents in India with the collusion of medical professionals. Thanks to the state's "one child" policy, female babies are being abandoned to die in rural China, which is resulting in a severe anti-female demographic distortion. Economic injustice is rife, too. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, women produce some 80 per cent of basic foodstuffs, but many go unpaid. Across the world, women tend to perform lower-status jobs than men. The gap in educational opportunities is still glaring. Three-quarters of the world's 876 million illiterate adults are women.

Ms Booth could also have been more forthright about the inadequate status of women, even here in Britain. The old glass ceiling that prevents women from rising beyond a certain level in a great many professions may have begun to crack, but it has not yet been shattered. Unequal pay for equal work is prevalent across the workplace. And sexual violence remains more of a problem than many will admit. Despite some improvements in police attitudes, the conviction rates for the crime of rape are still scandalously low.

Our culture unwittingly promotes this bias against women. The rampant objectification and stereotyping of women in the media and advertising has a negative effect on the emotional development of our children. As well as encouraging the rest of the world to treat women equitably, we should be putting our own house in order.

Ms Booth picked a deserving subject. It is simply a pity that she chose to pull her punches.