Comments made recently by Rashida Manjoo, which claimed there is an ‘in your face sexist culture’ and ‘a marketization of women and girls’, in the UK led, to widespread indignation and an attempt to overwrite the suff erring of women. The Daily Mail’s headline ‘Britain’s ‘boys’ club’ culture makes it the most sexist country in the world says UN expert… who is from South Africa, the rape capital of the world’ was indicative of the pervasive assumption that sexism is ‘worse’ in other countries and therefore should take precedence over localized feminist activism.
The rapporteur did not claim Britain was the ‘most sexist’ country in the world, but that sexism was more ‘in your face’ than other countries she had visited, offering an analysis of the ways in which misogyny is manifested rather than a like-for-like comparison with other countries. Manjoo’s critics often cited South Africa, where it has been estimated that 40% of women will be raped at some point in their lifetime, or Saudi Arabia, where there is no prohibition against statutory or spousal rape.
Such a qualitative approach trivializes the experience of sufferers of domestic and sexual violence in the UK; assertions that women have ‘never had it so good’ disregard the fact that 85,000 women are raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted in the UK every year. While sexual assault may be more prevalent in other countries, it is extremely disconcerting to see this used to overwrite the experience of women in the UK. Rashida pre-empted the backlash her criticism of the UK would cause, drawing attention to the complacency created by ‘legal and policy responses that are often limited to some harmful practices’ while ignoring broader structural oppression.
The report makes a sensitive case for the interaction of practises of open misogyny, normalized by media representation and groups such as Women Who Eat On Tubes. The confidence expressed in gender equality often relies upon universalizing the experience of middle-class, heterosexual, usually white women in the UK. Contrarily, the UN report is particularly concerned to articulate marginalized perspectives, like those of asylum seekers, BME women, prisoners, LGBTQ women and the unemployed.
An example of structural sexism is the effect of the government’s austerity measures on women. Rashida measures not only the direct impact austerity is having on women by depriving them of crisis centres and trauma services, but also that of general cuts to the welfare system which affect poverty and unemployment, which are contributory factors to violence against women and girls.
The rush to defend the UK, by comparing it with other countries’ records of violence against women, silences the real and pressing issues highlighted by the preliminary UN report. The media’s mocking of Manjoo only serves to validate her judgments about the continued prevalence of misogyny in Britain.
Manjoo’s comments about Britain’s ‘boys’ club sexist culture’ described the treatment of women in the UK as worse than that in most emerging nations. Her decision to place the social implications of Page Three, in which women have consented to appear, above the daily violence women face in countries like Azerbaijan and India is alarming.
A Home Office report found up to 1.2 million women in the UK experienced domestic violence in the past year, showing a serious need to address this problem. But if we consider Manjoo’s example of India, a country in which most domestic violence cases remain unreported, there is a qualitative difference. The low numbers of accusations are not only due to the fear of women becoming destitute if abandoned by their spouses, but also because, as a 2012 UN report revealed, 39% of women in India think it is justifiable for a husband to beat his wife. Legislation against sexual harassment has only been recently introduced and is rarely implemented. Manjoo’s comments regarding the ‘visible’ nature of UK sexism suggests that women can at least be outspoken about the injustice they face.
While women are underrepresented in the British parliament, politicians cannot make misogynistic remarks without fear of public reprimand. However, members of India’s Socialist Party are vocal about the need for women to conform to male expectations of correct moral behaviour. Abu Azmi, a regional unit chief of the party, publicly declared that women who have sex before marriage should be hanged. Even the party’s leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, excused a recent rape case in Mumbai by saying, ‘boys will be boys.’ Such views are not confined to the peripheries of Indian politics.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), predicted to form the largest part of the coalition after the upcoming elections, has an extensive history of violence against women. In the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, minister Narendra Modi, did little to stop the sexual torture and mass murder of women. Asaram Bapu, a spiritual leader endorsed by the BJP, refused to blame the perpetrators of the 2012 Delhi gang rape case. “The victim is as guilty as her rapists,” he said. “She should have called the culprits ‘brother’ and begged before them to stop. Can one hand clap? I don’t think so.”
Beside such misogyny, the UK ought to be proud of its position as a liberal democracy in which many politicians advocate equality. Women are free to both express their discontent and campaign for change. Putting the ‘sexist lad culture’ of the UK alongside the genuine widespread oppression of women in so many countries only insults women in the developing world for whom rape, violent beatings and forced marriages are daily occurrences. Sexism in the UK is far less widespread and severe than in countries like India, and an acceptance of this fact should not be viewed as imperialist self-congratulation.