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The UN's special rapporteur did NOT say that Britain was the “most sexist country in the world”

Rashida Manjoo, human rights expert from the UN, has caused a kerfuffel by declaring the UK is the “most sexist” country in the world - except she hasn't.

Rashida Manjoo speaking at a conference in New Delhi, 1 May 2013. Photo: Getty Images
Rashida Manjoo speaking at a conference in New Delhi, 1 May 2013. Photo: Getty Images

The UK is the “most sexist” country in the world! Or is it? That's the question raised by UN special rapporteur on human rights Rashida Manjoo, who has made headlines with her comments about Britain's patriarchal society. (“Britain's ‘boys’ club’ culture makes it the most sexist country in the world says UN expert... who is from South Africa, the rape capital of the world”, roars the Mail, for example.)

She's been in the country for 16 days as part of fact-finding mission on violence against women, which in turn is part of a wider world tour on the topic. The Independent has a good summary of her initial reaction:

She concluded that violence against women remains a "pervasive challenge throughout the United Kingdom," drawing particular attention to the sexualisation of women and girls in the media (she referenced the Sun's Page Three), misogynistic advertising, harassment on tubes and in public spaces, the bullying of girls in school, the "disproportionate" effect of austerity measures on women, and the inability of the criminal justice system to respond to women and girl survivors of violence.

"I am also concerned by legal and policy responses that are often limited to some harmful practices, such as early/forced marriages of young women and girls, or female genital mutilation, while ignoring all the harms emanating due to a sexist culture that exists in the country; and which impacts all women and girls," she added.

All valid points - but what about the headlines, the claims that she called the UK the worst in the world? Here's the actual quote, courtesy of the Telegraph's write-up:

Have I seen this level of sexist culture in other countries? It hasn’t been so in your face in other countries. I haven’t seen that so pervasively in other countries. I’m sure it exists but it wasn’t so much and so pervasive."

This is caveated by being explicitly about the countries she has visited on her trip, not all countries in the world - that means Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, Kyrgyzstan, El Salvador, Jordan and Somalia. In that context, there's a big difference between being "the most sexist" and having a sexist culture that is most "in your face" among a list of other countries where sexism is manifested in different way.

That said, it's extremely depressing to see the mostly-male British commentariat attack a woman for making a point about the qualitative nature of structural violence against women, instead of attacking the things that are actually making the lives of women worse - like government-led austerity, for example. Setting the bar as low as "at least we're not as bad as Somalia" is shameful.

You can read Manjoo's initial report here, which includes this vital intersectional point in its conclusion, and which will - as always - go ignored in the mainstream press:

It is crucial to acknowledge that violence, inequality and discrimination does not occur solely on the basis of gender, and that women and girls face multiple forms of discrimination on the basis of their race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and other factors, including their immigration status. Multiple forms of discrimination have an impact on women’s experiences of violence, their perceptions of those experiences, and their ability to seek and receive support.

I am concerned about the problematic narratives surrounding violence against black and minority ethnic women and girls, which are often framed within the notions of culture, community, or religion, rather than within the larger context of a general patriarchal and discriminatory approach to women and girls. I am also concerned by legal and policy responses that are often limited to some harmful practices, such as early/forced marriages of young women and girls, or female genital mutilation, while ignoring the harms emanating due to a sexist culture that exists in the country; and which impacts all women and girls.

While a holistic approach to violence against women and girls does require a thorough analysis of how different cultural contexts facilitate and perpetuate discrimination and violence against them, it is crucial to ensure that this analysis does not occur as a process of stigmatization of certain communities. A scrutiny of customs, traditions and institutions that facilitate violence against women and girls should include all cultural practices that generally 
affect women and girls, including negative and over-sexualized media portrayals of women and girls. More sustained work needs to be undertaken with the media to challenge its increasing over-sexualisation of young persons, particularly, of young women - a concern that was raised by many of the people I spoke to.

The State has a responsibility to act with due diligence to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls, and it is imperative that the best interests of all women and girls should guide the response of the UK government.