Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project in the film “Shouting Back” by Dan Reed.
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.