Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Why is my gender suddenly in retreat?

The truth is that all nations would prefer it if women went back indoors again

Monday 23 November 2009 01:00

Boorish, brutish sexism has broken out again. Yet again. And, as usual, here come lady cheerleaders, handmaidens to men who have never accepted that half of God's people are fully human and entitled to all that the world has to offer. How these tongues burned and lashed out when Cathy Ashton got the top foreign policy job in the EU. She got it 'cos she is a flippin' woman. Obvious, innit?

And before that her skirts and lipstick meant they had no other choice when casting around for a replacement for Lord Mandelson's EU job and her peerage too must have been an appeasement gesture for those pesky feminists (did he get all his big breaks because he is gay? Such questions would be unseemly and are rightly never asked). A Sunday newspaper cartoonist calls Ashton "whatsherface?" Such wit.

Baroness Ashton and I are slightly acquainted, no more, if you need to know that. She has always seemed to me pragmatic and effective, with abiding principles, able to cut through dross and unaffected by grandeur and privilege. None of that matters. She is a woman and should stay in some obscure corner.

The world only feels right when women are removed from the public space. We know that is what the Taliban believes. The discouraging truth is that all nations would dearly like it if women went back indoors again to seek and find total fulfilment in babies and baking and these days 24-hour sexual availability. I love babies, baking, beautiful clothes, fun and men. But I am and always will be a feminist, with eyes wide open until we get to the point when equality no longer needs to be fought for. Not in my lifetime for sure. Women's rights have come a long way since the 1950s, but the mountain is high and we frequently slip or are pushed down. Was I the only person in the world to notice that when the US met China in Beijing, along the long table with Hu Jintao and Barack Obama were all men in dull suits?

Hillary Clinton was somewhere else in China, so couldn't provide relief from the monotony and static manliness of the delegates. On the BBC's always lively programme Dateline London I asked this question. After some seconds of silence Dianne Wei Liang, a Chinese thriller writer, remembered the translator was female. Everyday I watch British TV (including the BBC which gets substantial licence fee money from those of us with the XX chromosome) and all intrepid travel programme presenters are white and male, most TV chefs and judges too, history, design and games show hosts and so on and on. Yes there are a few women, not enough and always pert and pretty, feeling they have to be flirty, pleasing to men.

Jeremy Clarkson and Russell Brand and even coarser creatures cleverly debase women, including our women politicians. They are the "it" boys. They turn their chauvinism into gold. Simon Cowell ended the hopes of the beautiful singer Lucie Jones and was gratuitously rude to her, then praised her for meekly accepting this treatment. Only one woman is now left in his show while hairspray keeps the boys in.

The world's economy was brought down by careless, greedy men. Women, said authors of a report on the crisis by the Cranfield School of Management, were not more risk averse but more risk aware. Just what we need. Do we see any sign that that quality is being valued in the financial sector? Do let me know if there is. All I see is still wretchedly low representation of women in our top echelons and progress, compared with say the Scandinavian nations, snail slow. And even the sluggish snails now get stamped on.

In the last weeks it has been more evident that we women are not faring well. The Pope invites anti-women Anglicans to join his properly male church, and they threaten to, encouraged by the now blonde Ann Widdecombe; the adorable Sir Alan Sugar arrives in the Lords, he with his admired retro views on foolish young women who want to work and have a family; a high-achieving scientist reveals she was the upmarket prostitute and blogger Belle De Jour (what does that mean? That you let rich strangers deep into your body and not factory workers? So you make more dough opening your legs? And that makes you more classy?).

The professor of law Ruth Deech condemns attempts by the equalities champion Lord Lester to give mothers in cohabiting relationships the same rights as those whose marriages break up, and adds that the law would be a windfall for lawyers and no one else "except the gold-digger". The newly minted high priestess of family values, Catholic Cristina Odone, once a powerful media player, now says she chokes on her cereal when she hears women moaning about glass ceilings.

And what about young females? More bad news. Jill Berry of the Girls' Schools Association believes girls must not grow up expecting "to have it all". But boys must be allowed to expect that, Mrs Berry? I hope parents interrogate this custodian of future generation women whose dreams she is trying to cut down.

Research by the NSPCC reveals that a third of teenage girls in a relationship have experienced forced sex and or physical abuse by boyfriends. One teenage girl I heard from witnessed two such scenes at parties and couldn't understand why nobody else there thought it was wrong. Now they are talking here and in the US of the paradox of "declining female happiness". The more powerful we get, the less happy we are. What's more, men are getting happier and women are getting gloomier.

The brilliant US columnist Maureen Dowd deconstructs the findings and suggests that the feminist revolution may have benefited men more than women who have only taken on added burdens – the impossible balance between work and life, time poverty, pressures to be always young and beautiful. Then there is derision and subversion from reactionary men and women which makes the glittering prizes feel both heavy and pointless. Exhausting and debilitating it may be, but the fight must go on. Feminism will get us there one day because we are worth it. And I am not swishing my extensions or pouting my lips as I write that.


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