Pants to extremists

Amnesty's UK director hails the feminist fightback against the rightwing vigilantes who beat up wome

One of the big criticisms made of “feminists” is that we have no sense of humour. The Valentines day “pink chaddi” underwear stunt in India, where activists are collecting and mailing pink pants to the leader of a rightwing vigilante group blamed for a violent attack on women who were drinking in a bar in Mangalore last month, goes a long way to rebut that.

What’s also excellent about this bit of direct action is that it is supported by men as well as women. In Britain and Europe violence against women is generally seen as a ‘women’s issue’. Too many men here have the attitude that violence against women is a women’s problem and as long as they themselves are not perpetrators it is nothing to do with them.

This is so different elsewhere. In many countries known for having ‘macho’ cultures and with high incidences of violence against women, there is a vibrant cohort of men standing together with women to end this violence.

Five thousand men marched in Bangladesh to demand an end to acid attacks on women.

Across six South Asian countries an incredible grassroots project called “we can end violence against women” has brought men and boys into the campaign.

In South Africa, which has astronomical rates of rape, there are men’s projects taking a lead in tackling sexual violence.

In Nicaragua, a men’s project to end violence started off by going to the most macho places, including cockfights and pubs, to confront men about their violence towards women.

In Iran men have joined women in gathering signatures, and suffering imprisonment and harassment as a result, for a one million signature petition to abolish laws that discriminate against women. And now in India men and women are organising together to send pink chaddis to a right wing group of men who don’t like women going out for a drink and a chat with their friends.

Why is it that in these countries men are so much readier to accept violence against women as an issue of inequality and to stand with women in opposing it? First, in many of the countries we are talking about there are very high levels of poverty. Men and women can directly see how violence against women contributes to and exacerbates the general level of poverty to the detriment of the whole community.

Violence against women limits women’s freedom of movement, limits their access to education and employment and so limits economic development and depresses everyone’s standard of living. In poverty, this link is stark and costly. But it can help persuade men to want to see an end to violence too.

Another factor, though one less well understood, is that repression of women is recognised as an indicator of increasing instability, tension and repression for a whole country. As a country teeters on the edge of poverty, conflict, civil and religious strife, dictatorship and repression, one of the first areas to be squeezed is women’s rights and freedoms.

Where women’s rights and freedoms start to be curtailed, the rights and freedoms of minorities, the less powerful and those who are a threat to the status quo, will also start to be squeezed. So in Iran men are joining women not only for women’s rights but for freedom of expression and association, and against censorship, arbitrary arrest and the influence of the extremist Muslim factions that wish to curtail pleasures and freedoms. Likewise in India, men are joining women against a wider trend of rightwing Hindu vigilante groups who also target Muslim and Christian minorities and want to limit people’s basic freedoms.

Perhaps we’re too complacent in the UK? Even in the face of deep recession we don’t feel that we are facing an imminent enough threat of poverty or repression for men and women to come together to end violence against women. We need to follow the example of those in other parts of the world.

Kate Allen is UK director of Amnesty International