My husband says a global war is being waged on women. He is right. What is going on in the East, West, South and North cannot be attributed to “the backlash” or a new “masculinism” or a reactionary fight back. It is a brutal war without rules or redress, beyond the reach of international laws or institutions.
Last week the BBC broadcast India’s Daughter, made by Leslee Udwin, whose films include the much loved East is East. The documentary revisited the savage murder-by-gang-rape of the young student Jyoti Singh in Delhi in 2012. Five men were found guilty and sentenced to death. One hanged himself, the others have appealed. Udwin got permission to interview one of the rapists, Mukesh Singh, in prison.
Singh blames the woman and is unrepentant. “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy,” he said. Two defence lawyers also expressed extreme misogynistic views – views shared by millions in India and in countries around the world where females are seen as cursed, sinful, and upholders of honour. The apoplectic Indian government has banned the film and accused the BBC of tarnishing India’s shining image. Oh, and the tourist industry.
On Saturday I went to the South Bank Women of the World festival, a three-day carnival, full of much joy, and much pain too, as females from here, there and everywhere described their struggles. I was on a panel with the broadcaster Sandi Toksvig, the formidable feminist Beatrix Campbell, and Mariane Pearl, the journalist and managing editor of Chime for Change, a global network championing female rights. (Pearl’s husband Daniel was beheaded by Pakistani terrorists. She was pregnant at the time.)
We agreed that life is getting harder for females. Campbell thinks of it as the “great repudiation” of gender equality. Pearl, a soft-spoken humanist, just back from Kurdistan, said she saw a pricelist for women being sold there: “I think my price would be £10.” Neo-liberal capitalism is ruthless. Women disproportionately suffer as it demolishes social welfare, equality laws, childcare entitlements, other progressive ideas and policies. On top of that, the political space to object and resist has been slashed too.
The pay gap in this country has not narrowed, as Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, proudly avers. Only women under 40 working full-time in well-paid jobs have edged towards parity. But part-time or zero-hours work – which millions of women do – is insecure and underpaid. Local council employment was good for such women. That is all but gone. Benefits cuts – as we know – have been catastrophic for impoverished women, particularly lone mums. Men suffer too, those who are single parents or disabled. But overwhelmingly the suffering falls on females.
Porn is everywhere, reducing females to meat. Plans to teach 11-year-old schoolgirls the meaning of consent are necessary, but we more urgently need to teach it to young boys. Young girls in the richest societies, of all classes, are turning to self-harm in alarming numbers. Psychiatrists tell me they carry within them a deep and corrosive sense that they are not “perfect” and never will be. How did this happen? Go look at teen mags, websites, the messages drummed into young people every minute of their lives.
I have met an 18-year-old who is cutting every day. Assaulted by a young lad when she was 16 and then verbally abused by him online, she told no one but started cutting. He did well in his GCSEs and she, expected to get A grades, did not. Sexual assaults and harassment are rife at our universities but the authorities do nothing.
Wherever you look, women and girls are not safe, not thriving. Females are subjugated and violated in African, Asian, Arab, East European and Central Asian countries. Democracy has not tamed barbaric men. Child rape, FGM, forced marriages, honour killings, abductions are rife in the developing world. And are imported into the West: sickening, but true.
In the West, where gender equality has improved, women are still discriminated against and also violated. Worryingly, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights found that better gender parity increased violence against women. Nearly 50 per cent of females report physical and sexual assaults in Sweden, Denmark and Finland, where equality is embedded in the culture. The UK has the fifth-highest incidence – 44 per cent.
Could this be a war against modernity itself? The Pakistani grooming gangs and Isis clearly despise liberal cultures, autonomy and female emancipation. Conservative Africans cannot accept homosexuality or free choice either. Here in Western Europe, rage on the internet, homes, universities and streets seems to be provoked by feminism and egalitarianism, modern ideas that won’t go away.
In Afghanistan, on International Women’s Day, 20 men marched in Kabul in full burkhas. They spoke up for their women, among the most oppressed in the world today. This is what we need: good men standing with us, fighting this dirty war. Sadly too few do.
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