Is the UK the ‘most sexist country in the world’? If you’ve seen and heard some of the news reports about Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women this week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is exactly what she’s suggesting.
Ms Manjoo has spent 16 days in the country as part of a wider tour looking at violence against women and gender inequality in several countries including Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea and Somalia. In a report published on Tuesday, she outlined her findings – which have been the subject of intense discussion – and derision – ever since.
Thanks to media misrepresentation of the report and of Ms Manjoo’s comments about her findings, what we’re seeing is disbelief and sadly-familiar dismissal of issues that, instead, should shock us and motivate us to act. Talking about the sexism of websites, magazines, and advertising in the UK, in a clip that has been widely broadcast, she mentioned that she found it more ‘in your face’ and more ‘pervasive’ than in other countries she had visited. Nowhere in her report does she say that the UK is ‘the most sexist country in the world’. Nowhere does she compare her findings with what she discovered on her visits to other countries.
As people have bought into the line that Ms Manjoo somehow believes women in the UK have it worse than women anywhere else in the world, critics have turned to the inevitable comparisons. What about those other countries where women have no rights? What about those cultures that treat women terribly? Can’t women in the UK just be grateful for how far they’ve come?
In dismissing the particular problems faced by women in the UK, laughing them off because ‘other countries are much worse’, those mocking Ms Manjoo’s report clearly haven’t read it properly – because it makes for sobering reading. Those other countries that she’s visited – and the findings she made as a result – don’t negate the troubling statistics from the UK.
According to data from the Home Office, 30 per cent of women have reported having experienced domestic abuse.
Every week, two women are killed by a current or former male partner.
Sexual bullying and harassment is ‘routine’ in schools.
Migrant domestic workers are subject to high levels of abuse and exploitation.
Ms Manjoo has spoken of how she was barred from entering Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre, where detainees have reported sexual abuse and mistreatment. She commented afterwards: “If there was nothing to hide I should have been given access.”
Ms Manjoo is clearly aware that gender inequality manifests in different ways in different parts of the world. By making her point about the UK’s culture of sexism being ‘in your face’ compared to other countries
she has visited, she’s not playing the comparison game, as her critics seem hell-bent on doing. In every country in the world, violence against women and inequality are issues because structural oppression makes it so, because relationships between men and women that desperately need restoration and redemption make it so.
In using media coverage of the report to indulge in snide whataboutery about countries in the global South, those mocking the idea that women in the UK might just be facing problems too only reveal their arrogance – a patronising arrogance that leads people to dismiss global inequality as something that’s an issue for those countries, over there, not for ‘forward-thinking’ nations like the UK.
In doing so they dismiss not only the lived experience of countless women, but also the troubling shifts – thanks to austerity and a failure to understand intersecting oppressions such as race and class – in the way that inequality is being tackled by the current government.
It isn’t always easy for people who have led relatively privileged lives to understand fully how those things that might seem trivial – such as street harassment or Page 3 of The Sun – contribute to a network of
factors that also includes poverty and race and employment that put women and girls at a disadvantage, disproportionately affected by violence and exploitation. As people who believe in ‘life in all its fullness’, we should recognise gender inequality in whatever form it takes for what it is and fight it however we can, by challenging attitudes, supporting campaigns, and constantly reminding ourselves that there was no
hierarchy in creation.
Speaking about the Evangelical Alliance’s support for the No More Page 3 campaign recently, general director Steve Clifford said: “We believe in the inherent dignity of all human beings and are passionate about
working together for a society that says no to objectification.”
Instead of writing off Ms Manjoo’s report on the multiple forms of discrimination faced by our sisters, our colleagues, our neighbours, it is vital that we wake up to the reality of life for many women in the UK today
and see that what’s needed is not derision, but righteous anger and action.