Is there still a place for women’s pages in the media?

Not for us ladyfolk the stern black and white logic of the business pages! Not for us the brain-taxing Sudoku, with its spiky numbers and glaring empty boxes, says Natalie Guest.

This week, the Telegraph has unveiled its new women’s pages, entitled (CRINGE ALERT) “Wonder Woman”; a section offering “irreverent and intelligent writing about politics, business, family, life and sex.” An introductory blog explains:

All too often ‘women’s content’ is either lipsticks and handbags or BMW - bitching, moaning and whining about the ‘plight of being a woman’ – a tone of coverage this generation of women rarely identify with or enjoy reading.

Wonder Women, with its raft of brilliant writers defined by their reactive, witty and honest style, aims to articulate views which will get both women and men fired up, shine a light on individuals, issues and stories people will want to discuss with their mates down the pub and crucially, make readers laugh too.

Definitely a laudable goal, and one which those of us sick of “lifestyle” pieces about dieting and manicures can certainly identify with. But is there still a place for so-called women’s pages, and isn’t there something a little regressive about the entire concept?

The argument most often raised against women’s pages (along with women’s television programmes, and women’s radio shows) is that they are necessarily divisive, bringing with them an implication that women aren’t welcome amongst the other pages of the paper, and must be relegated into their own glossy pull-out harem. Not for us ladyfolk the stern black & white logic of the business pages! Not for us the brain-taxing Sudoku, with its spiky numbers and glaring empty boxes! No, the women need their own special place, full of pretty pictures of shoes (ALL WOMEN LOVE SHOES) and tearful confessions about lost love (ALL WOMEN LOVE TEARS).

As Wonder Women rightfully points out, the view of womanhood espoused by these pages is all-too often a patronising and outmoded one. We’re still dealing with a 50s housewife hangover, where every article is built around how to please a man, or make a good pavlova. Pavlovas have no place in modern-day society. I mean, what even IS a pavlova?

In an ideal world, of course, the media (and, indeed, society at large) would have embraced diversity enough for us not to need segregated content. Unfortunately, that’s a long way off – and if we said goodbye to the women’s page, many important topics simply wouldn’t be covered at all. And with current policies disproportionately affecting women and threatening to erode female bodily autonomy, drawing attention to women’s issues remains as important as ever – which includes covering the superficial as well as the serious.

The difficulty lies in changing the editorial view of what a “women’s page” is; whilst the Telegraph’s manifesto for Wonder Women hits all of the right notes, we’re only two days into publication and they’re already making missteps and lapsing into old bad habits. Take the “Board Babe” series, for example; a weekly column penned by an anonymous high-powered business woman, which raised eyebrows and prodded gag reflexes in the Twitter-sphere today on the publication of their very first article: Secret Diary: Our Board Babe on Naked Ambition. Go ahead and read it; I’ll wait.

Pieces like this are misogyny masquerading as empowerment: the “Board Babe” is set up as a challenger to the patriarchal status quo of the business world, whilst simultaneously being patronised and belittled (in this case, mostly by the sub-editor who chose the headline, although the article is fairly problematic in itself). Despite our writer having ascended to the top levels of the boardroom, she’s still referred as a “babe”, a term that both sexualises and infantilises at once. Her ambition is “naked”; as is she, underneath that trouser suit - because just in case you’d forgotten, women are there to be looked at. And (despite the fact that she presumably has a high degree of expertise and business savvy within her field), the piece is marketed as a titillating “confessional”, as though she’s moonlighting as a high-class hooker in her lunchbreak.

But it doesn’t have to be like this – and there are some real rumblings of change. With the growing popularity of blogs such as Vagenda, Jezebel, The F Word and Bad Reputation, we’re seeing a real desire for writing that deals with the issues of being a woman in a way that’s genuinely funny, fierce, intelligent and empowering (let’s call it the Caitlin Moran school of feminism, for now). From the Vagenda team’s six-figure book deal, to the success of Lena Dunham’s smash HBO hit Girls, to Moran’s own How to Be a Woman, all signs point to the fact that the more mainstream press is sitting up and taking notice of what we’ve known for a very long time: that women are hungry to read things that matter to them, written by people that they identify with.

So, is there still a place for women’s pages? For me, the answer is an unequivocal “YES” - but they need to be progressive, not regressive. Let’s see more women’s pages focusing on what we are, and what we want to be, instead of on what we used to be made to be. Ladies of the world take note: the time for pavlova is over.

The photo is from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence. You can view the original here.

In the future, there will be no pavlova. Image from Flickr/AnnCN, used under Creative Commons.

Natalie Guest is a London-based blogger, writing about feminism, current affairs and pop culture; just like all the other girls. Follow her on twitter @unfortunatalie

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.