Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project in the film “Shouting Back” by Dan Reed.
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Everyday Sexism speech to the UN: “Sexism and sexual harassment is not a ‘women’s issue’ – it is a matter of human rights”

To describe sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual violence as “women’s issues” side-lines and reduces them, neglects male victims and lets perpetrators off the hook. One in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime.

A little less than two years ago, I started a project called Everyday Sexism, which invited people to share their daily experiences of gender imbalance. I started the project because when I tried to talk about sexism, I was told again and again that it wasn’t an issue any more – that women were equal and I needed to lighten up, and stop making a fuss about nothing.

Twenty three months later, over fifty thousand people from all over the world have proved those arguments wrong. They have demonstrated unequivocally that everyday sexism is a very real and serious problem, affecting the lives of women and girls, men and boys, often on a daily basis. The stories we received came from people of all ages, nationalities and walks of life.

We heard from a schoolgirl who was so young when she first experienced serious sexual harassment, that when the men who shouted at her referred to her genitalia, she didn’t even know what they meant. From a female engineer who was dismissed in the workplace as a “cute little girl”. A designer whose boss told her he would never employ an unattractive woman. A doctor who was told by a senior consultant to sit on his lap if she wanted his help interpreting an x-ray. A man who was ridiculed by his colleagues for wanting to share parental leave with his partner. A sixteen-year old girl who said it didn’t matter what she did with her life, whether she became a teacher or a doctor, because she felt that as a woman, she would only be a success if she was “sexy” and “hot”. A student who suffered groping from her lecturer in silence because she wanted to excel at programming. A child who experienced systematic abuse from a family member but was disbelieved when she tried to speak out. An elderly woman who carried the burden of her rape in silence for her whole life, because society had taught her it was her own fault.

The stories revealed that for many women sexism combines with other forms of prejudice, resulting in a kind of double discrimination. Like the disabled woman who was asked to do a pole dance around her walking stick; the transgender women who regularly suffered extreme abuse in public spaces; the woman who was told she was only hired so there would be a “sexy Asian in the office”; or the woman who described repeated, aggressive sexual advances from men offering to ‘turn her straight’ when she went out with her female partner.

What the testimonies reveal, again and again, is that these varied experiences of sexism, harassment, assault, discrimination and rape are not isolated incidents, but exist on an interconnected spectrum. The same ideas and attitudes about women that underlie the more “minor” incidents we are often told to brush off or ignore are also at the root of greater inequalities and incidences of sexual violence. For example, the same words and phrases used to a woman who was catcalled in the street were also directed at a victim of sexual assault. A woman who tried to ignore her harasser found that he followed her home and assaulted her on her own doorstep. Women trying to succeed in the male-dominated environment of politics have to contend with a media that objectifies them, reporting on their bodies and clothes instead of their policies.

The treatment of women in one sphere has a clear knock-on effect on behaviour towards them in other areas.

So, to reflect an inter-connected set of problems, we also need a joined-up solution. It won’t work to take measures to increase the representation of women at the top levels of business and politics unless we also challenge the media’s repeated presentation of women as dehumanised sex objects. It won’t work to tackle workplace discrimination, if the moment people step outside the office they exist in a public space where sexual harassment continues to be accepted as the norm. Our efforts to tackle gender imbalance will be more effective if they take into account the way that sexism intersects with other forms of prejudice.

This problem is like a mosaic, and no individual, organisation, or government can solve it alone. But the different solutions are as varied and diverse as the different manifestations of everyday sexism, and each one of us has it within our power to play a part in changing the landscape.

Individual governments can ensure that strong, clear legislation is in place to criminalise and penalise domestic and sexual violence and all forms of discrimination. But they can’t magically change the cultural normalisation of sexism. What we need is a major societal shift in our attitudes and behaviour towards women, so that political and legislative efforts translate into real impact on the ground.

Businesses can address sexual harassment and gender imbalance in the workplace with zero-tolerance approaches, staff training and victim-centred reporting processes. Schools and can educate young people about issues such as consent and healthy relationships and Universities must react decisively to incidents of sexual assault on campus. Families can address issues around sexual assault and respect for others with both boys and girls. Organisations can support this work by providing resources, materials and training.

And individuals have a vital role to play in helping to combat the normalised, socially ingrained sexism we all encounter on a regular basis. By shifting the way we perceive and treat women in our own sphere, we have a knock on impact on the way they are treated elsewhere.

Taking responsibility for this change falls to each one of us, whether it is a university student challenging “banter and jokes about rape on campus, a colleague taking a stand against workplace discrimination, or a bystander intervening when they witness sexual harassment in the street. Men who perhaps rarely witness sexism or harassment and are largely unaware of the problem because they would never dream of perpetrating it themselves can play a vital role in helping to combat it once they have been made aware. The focus should not be on dictating how victims should react in a given situation, but working to prevent the situation from arising in the first place.

Within this process the importance of listening to women’s voices is paramount. For centuries, women have been silenced – through ridicule, dismissal and fear. Countless Everyday Sexism Project entrants specified that this was the first time they had ever told their story. Many described trying to speak up, only to be told they were probably overreacting, or imagining things. Some had reported serious workplace harassment to a human resources department, only to be told to get on with it if they wanted to keep their jobs. Some spoke of hiding sexual abuse for the sake of family honour. Others had spent years finding the courage to speak out about rape, only to be asked “Had you been drinking?” “What were you wearing?” “Did you lead him on?”

Often it is women themselves who are best placed to direct useful action to combat gender inequality. Grassroots projects that put local ownership and knowledge at the centre of their initiatives can inform and support the work of bigger organisations. Although the entries we have collected from our 18 project branches around the world suggest that many experiences of gender inequality are universal, culture and context also mean that there are different unique challenges to overcome in different areas and at different times. What helps to combat the problem in one community will not necessarily work as a “one size fits all” solution. Listening to women’s voices is crucial in finding the way forward.

But this issue is not just about women. It is not a “women’s issue”. It is a matter of human rights. To describe sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual violence as “women’s issues” side-lines and reduces them, neglects male victims and lets perpetrators off the hook. One in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. For many women, sexism and sexual harassment are simply an accepted part of everyday life. These are problems of epidemic proportions, yet they are often so normalised that they become part of the wallpaper. Tackling gender inequality is in everybody’s interest, and it must be everybody’s responsibility.

We can’t do it alone. Our voices are loudest when we raise them together.

Now watch “Shouting Back” by Dan Reed, a film about the work of Laura Bates and the Everyday Sexism project:

“Everyday Sexism...” by Laura Bates will be published by Simon & Schuster on 10 April

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"The land of Gandhi can never be racist": is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

“If we were indeed racist, why would we live with the South Indians?" was how one politician addressed the debate. 

When we were kids, my younger brother and I would spend much of our time thinking up new and innovative ways to get under each other’s skin, as siblings often do. One of the most reliable weapons in my brother’s arsenal was a taunt about skin colour - he was quite fair even by Punjabi standards, a fact that he was inordinately proud of. I on the other hand, had a permanent tan. This is now politely referred to as a "dusky" complexion, but back then was just "kaala" (black).

Being older, I generally had the upper hand in this cold war of insults and condescension, but my brother employed this particular tactic to great success for a couple of years. Because it rankled, it really did. No amount of explanation about melanin and sun exposure, or the fact that we were both "brown" in the eyes of the world made a difference. He was fair, I was not, and that was that. We didn’t have the context or the vocabulary to articulate why that minor difference in skin tone was important, but we knew instinctively that it was. It took us years to realise how problematic these little exchanges were. By then, we had  recognised how racism and prejudice about skin colour had wormed its way into our psyches at a young age, even growing up in a fairly liberal household. We laugh about it now, and my brother is more than a little embarrassed about that short phase during his pre-adolescent years. But as recent events have reminded us, for many people in India, racism and colourism is no laughing matter.

Two weeks ago, a video posted on Facebook by the African Students Association of India (AASI) went viral. It showed a mob of 40-odd Indians armed with snooker cues, dustbins and chairs brutally assaulting two Nigerian students inside a mall in Greater Noida, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just 40km from the national capital, and home to hundreds of students from Africa who study in the city’s many private colleges and universities. This was part of a wave of violence unleashed by residents of the city that saw at least four Nigerian students admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, and countless others being treated for minor injuries. The details of what transpired over that week are as familiar as they are sordid - a missing Indian student, who was later found, and died in the hospital of a suspected drug overdose. Rumours of Africans being "cannibals", a new addition to the long, long list of racist stereotypes about black Africans that are bandied about to justify such violence. Demands that all African residents of the area be kicked out. And eventually, inevitably, mob violence.

The response by the government and the police followed the general SOP for when such attacks happen - and they do, with alarming frequency. There were promises of swift action (which rarely materialises), brazen denials that the violence was motivated by racism or xenophobia (“Criminal not racial” is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described one attack in 2016) and victim-blaming (“Africans are involved in drug-dealing, Africans don’t assimilate”).

Then there is the Gandhi factor. “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha…we can never have a racist mindset,” declared a pompous Swaraj, conveniently ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself was a proponent of anti-blackness in his early years, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” The truth is that, despite three centuries of experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of British colonisers, India’s unrequited love affair with whiteness has remained undimmed. We - specifically the North Indians who dominate so much of our national political and cultural discourse - take pride in our "Aryan" heritage, thereby aligning ourselves with global white hegemony. We have internalised the pseudo-scientific European racial theories that were in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century, but have lingered on in our school textbooks long after they were debunked. Indeed, when black Africans in India talk about being treated like a caged animal in a zoo, it’s hard not to make connections with 19th century Europe’s infamous "human zoos".

But while much of India's anti-blackness can be traced back to a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own indigenous strain of "colourism", one that predates European theories of racial superiority. Last week, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay went on an Al Jazeera programme to talk about the recent spate of attacks. “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?,” he said. “We have blacks…black people around us.” In his attempt to defend India from charges of anti-blackness, Vijay inadvertently laid bare the full extent of India’s problem with skin colour-based bigotry - our othering of not just black Africans but also of the darker-skinned citizens from our own country. It’s not hard to guess who the "we" in that statement is - the fairer, upper caste North Indian Hindus that form the BJP’s core constituency, and who have for ages thought of themselves as the template for the "true Indian". Everyone else, whether it’s Dalits and lower caste citizens from across the country, or the Dravidian residents of the southern parts of the country (both associated, though not entirely accurately, with darker skin colour), are merely tolerated. These two strains of bigotry - race and caste - combine to create a society where darkness is, at best, treated as a personal failing, something that you must strive to overcome. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and, eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for the persistence of such toxic attitudes towards skin colour rest with India’s pop culture and mass media industries. Bollywood, as always, has been a pioneer. For decades, people of darker skin colour have been pushed to the margins, relegated to the role of caricature or villain. Take for example the still iconic song from the 1965 film Gumnaam, in which comedian Mehmood tries to win the attention of Anglo-Indian actress Helen. “Hum kaale hue to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I’m black, I still love you),” he sings, reinforcing the improbability of a beautiful (read fair-skinned) woman like Helen falling in love with a dark-skinned man. More recently, there was the 2008 film Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to a black man. There’s also a long history of Indian films featuring "blackface" and racist stereotypes of black Africans, best exemplified by a horrifying scene from 2000 film Hadh Kar Di Aapne, in which… actually, just watch it yourself because I can’t figure out a way to put it into words without throwing my laptop out the window.

Indian television is no different, with dark-skinned actors - especially women - so rarely seen on programmes or advertising, that any advertisement that dares to break the norm is celebrated as groundbreakingly progressive. And then there’s the fairness cream industry, endorsed by a host of top film and television celebrities, with advertisements that inextricably link fairness not just to beauty but also to employability, self-confidence and suitability for marriage. Just take a look at this epic five part tele-commercial by Ponds, appropriately titled White Beauty. The focus on whiteness is relentless, and this colourism runs rampant even as Indian movies and television borrow and steal from black culture at will, even bringing in rap artists like Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to perform on Bollywood songs. It’s another thing that Snoop Dogg - or anyone with the same skin colour - has as much chance of playing the lead in Bollywood as I have of becoming Potus.

In recent years, as Indians outrage about racist attacks against non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the US and Europe and get involved in global conversations about racism and cultural appropriation, many of us have also started turning a spotlight on racism back home. The fairness cream industry is facing increasing criticism, even from high profile actors like Abhay Deol who would otherwise earn big money by appearing in their ads. Explicit racism in film and in advertising no longer goes unchallenged. When former Miss World and current Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai appeared in a print ad for a jewellery brand that alluded to 17th century European paintings of noblewomen, complete with emaciated black child servant holding up a red parasol, she was met with a barrage of criticism and outrage that forced the company to withdraw the ad. But as last month’s attacks make clear, this is not nearly enough.

First, the Indian government and our political class needs to acknowledge that racism and anti-blackness are a real problem, instead of trying to brush it under the carpet. Step one would be to bring in a long overdue law against racial discrimination. But as the persistence of caste despite the legal abolition of caste distinctions 70 year ago shows, having laws on the books is not enough. We need massive programmes to sensitise police, bureaucrats and the public at large about the toxic effects of racism and how to counter it. Racist stereotypes in media and public discourse should be shut down, not tolerated or even reproduced by political leaders as they are now. Anti-racist and anti-caste discourse should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Celebrities, activists and civil society needs to be much more vocal in their critique of racist and colourist speech and actions. There are more than enough policy prescriptions out there, if we can find the political will to put them into action. And we must find it soon. Or our kids will continue to grow up with the notion that social worth is tied to where you are on the Fitzpatrick scale, they will continue to weaponise skin colour in schools and in playgrounds. And for those of us with darker skin, whether black Africans or "black" Indians, the possibility of sudden, explosive violence will always lurk around the corner.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

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