In defence of Baroness Warsi: the sequel

The Tory peer is spot on about bigotry and Islamophobia.

In my last post on Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative Party chair and peer, I wrote:

I have a soft spot for Baroness Warsi. Before the Islamophobic and racist trolls arrive "below the line" to claim it's because she shares my faith or ethnicity, let me clarify: it has nothing to do with that.

But let me be clear in this post: I am delighted by her latest intervention precisely because I share her faith and am a co-religionist. Why wouldn't I be? Like every other Muslim I know, I've been waiting years for a leading politician to speak out against the growing, depressing and nasty anti-Muslim bigotry that has disfigured our public and private discourse. If that politician happens to be a Muslim herself, as Warsi is, then so be it. (And there's a lesson here for British Muslims of the Hizb ut-Tahrir/segregationist variety, who argue that Muslims should stay out of politics and public roles. The words "ostriches", "head" and "sand" come to mind.)

So what will Warsi be saying, in her speech at Leicester University tonight? From the Telegraph:

Islamophobia has "passed the dinner-table test" and is seen by many as normal and uncontroversial, Baroness Warsi will say in a speech on Thursday.

The minister without portfolio will also warn that describing Muslims as either "moderate" or "extremist" fosters growing prejudice.

. . . Lady Warsi will blame "the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media". The peer will describe how prejudice against Muslims has grown along with their numbers, partly because of the way they are often portrayed.

The notion that all followers of Islam can be described either as "moderate" or "extremist" can fuel misunderstanding and intolerance, she will say.

"It's not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of 'moderate' Muslims leads; in the factory, where they've just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: 'Not to worry, he's only fairly Muslim.'

"In the school, the kids say: 'The family next door are Muslim but they're not too bad.'

"And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: 'That woman's either oppressed or is making a political statement.'"

The baroness will also be offering some "home truths" to sections of the Muslim community:

. . . she will also suggest that some Muslim communities must do more to make clear to extremists that their beliefs and actions are not acceptable.

"Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law," she will say.

"They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims."

On a side note, I'm amused that her comments have attracted such headlines -- it was the lead story on the Today programme, no less! -- when she made exactly the same points to me in an interview in the New Statesman last year:

She is surprisingly frank and forthright about the rise of Islamophobia in Britain. Citing the conservative commentator and columnist Peter Oborne, who has written extensively about the demonisation of Muslim communities, she tells me: "When Peter says that anti-Islamic sentiment is the last socially acceptable form of bigotry in Britain today, that's absolutely true." She adds: "If you have a pop at the British Muslim community in the media, first of all it will sell a few papers; second, it doesn't really matter; and third, it's fair game.

"If you go back historically -- [and] I was looking at some Evening Standard headlines, where there were things written about the British Jewish community less than 100 years ago -- they have kind of replaced one with the other."

But I couldn't resist blogging on her latest comments for one very simple reason. Prove me -- and her -- wrong. Prove that there isn't Islamophobia or anti-Muslim bigotry by keeping the comments below the line, on this particular post, civil, tolerant and non-bigoted. I suspect the trolls won't be able to. And, in doing so, they'll prove Warsi's point. How deliciously ironic . . .

Ready, steady, GO!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA