Drunken western tourists to Japan have no excuse for wandering unawares into the Sexy High School nightclub on the main street of Sapporo's Susukino entertainment district. A large manga cartoon hung prominently beneath the gaudy neon sign indi-cates, quite unashamedly, that Sexy High School is one of those clubs. A middle-aged businessman is depicted groping a scantily dressed (and clearly distressed) schoolgirl. As he slides his hands up the girl's miniskirt and into her pastel-pink underwear, a thought bubble offers the Japanese-speaking pleasure-seeker a glimpse into the businessman's mind: "I reached my finger to her secret place. It hasn't been touched by others." Beneath the cartoon, some blurb advertises Sexy High School's range of drink promotions and urges prospective punters to "Tanoshinde!!" - "Come and have fun!!"
Plenty of fun is certainly being had in Susukino that night, though of a very different sort from that being had at Sexy High School. Right outside the adult nightclub, the 55th annual Sapporo Snow Festival is in full swing and, as ever, has drawn roughly two million visitors to Japan's fifth-largest city. With a clear view of the cartoon pornography, children play happily on an ice slide and devour hot crepes, gawping wide-eyed at the ice sculptures lining the street. Every now and then they are lit up neon pink, blue or green by the district's other noteworthy attraction: the sex shops, hostess bars and "soaplands" touting for business alongside Sexy High School.
No one appears bothered by this unseemly montage of family fun, ice and commercial sex. But then, commercial sex has its place in Japan, simmering beneath the surface of mainstream society. Pornography is widespread, and men's control of women's sexuality extends from contraception (the Pill was not legal in Japan until 1999, and many doctors still refuse to prescribe it) to social behaviour and employment. Bars offering expensive flattery and refills from attractive hostesses (many of them trafficked from the Philippines) give working men a sense of control that is particularly sought after in an ailing economy. A popular destination for bonding between businessmen, these bars reinforce Japan's work/home, public/private, male/female divides. Statistics may show that women account for 40 per cent of Japan's paid workforce, but women's labour remains deeply subordinated to men's.
The persistence of traditional gender roles - which promote housekeeping and childcare as women's responsibilities - in an unfavourable economic climate leaves most Japanese women too occupied with household chores to have a full-time career and too poor to be a full-time housewife. They often have to juggle low-paid, insecure part-time work with motherhood, care for elderly relatives and the demands of their (largely absent) husbands. These men, meanwhile, contribute on average just five minutes a day to housekeeping and nine minutes to childcare. If they're not at the office, they're probably brokering deals at the bar.
Yet despite the raw deal women get in Japan, global campaigns for women's rights focus mainly on problems in developing countries: Middle Eastern women beaten for wearing un-Islamic clothing; Afghan women abused and disenfranchised with or without the Taliban; Pakistani women suffering domestic violence, including acid attacks and so-called "honour crimes". If conventional discourse is to be believed, the front line in the ongoing struggle for universal women's rights lies in the world's poorest, most patriarchal and least democratic nations. In wealthy, democratic nations, by contrast, economic and polit- ical development has secured women immunity from persecution, discrimination and violence, and the freedom to participate on an equal footing with men in civil society. Feminism has become an outmoded label, and it is taken for granted that the fight for women's rights has already been won. When the New Stateswoman (NS renamed for its 4 April 2005 issue) asked, "Do any of the UK political parties understand women?", one reader answered: "Isn't it about time we moved beyond seeing women as a complicated separate entity?"
But perhaps we no longer see women as complicated enough. Japan presents a more complex picture of women's rights in developed nations. It may be a technological pioneer, the world's second-largest economy and its biggest global aid donor, but its treatment of women is far less advanced. Some might argue that Japan is an unfair example - that it is well recognised that its culture is more patriarchal than others in the developed world - but the liberal-democratic west (that yardstick by which so many global standards are measured) presents as troubled a picture.
Take the United States, a nation described by President Bush in a message to "repressed people around the world" (and, historically, there has been no group more repressed than women) as "the world's leader in support of human rights". According to Amnesty USA, guns in American homes increase the risk of someone in a household being murdered by 41 per cent, but for women the risk increases by 272 per cent. This is not so surprising, given that women account for roughly 85 per cent of domestic violence victims in the US. The severe financial disadvantages of being a single woman do not help these women to leave abusive relationships. Poverty is largely feminised in the land of the free: two in every three poor American adults are women, and a large proportion of female-headed families lives below the poverty line. American women are less likely to get the healthcare they need: they pay about 68 per cent more out-of-pocket for health expenses than men, and many insurance policies do not cover reproductive healthcare. The failure to address such inequalities is at least partly down to women's under-representation in US politics. Currently, there are only 14 women in the 100-strong Senate, and only 69 in the 435-member House of Representatives. Only 33 women have served in the Senate since its inauguration in 1789.
Abuses of women's rights in the developed world are occasionally reported fully and accurately - as in Amnesty UK's campaigns on domestic violence - but in general they are portrayed as isolated incidents and contrasted with widespread repression in the developing world. Case studies of Japan and the US, however, show that attacks on women's rights in these countries are also social phenomena. Moreover, they demonstrate that abuses in developed and developing countries are linked - and not simply because they are all included in the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. For example, Japan's sex industry, which helps perpetuate Japanese men's control of Japanese women, relies to some extent on the services of exploited Filipina hostesses, who allow themselves to be brought to Japan in the vain hope of alleviating the poverty suffered by their families back home.
Such case studies, however, tell only part of the story. Despite the valuable work done by the likes of Amnesty and Human Rights Watch in making public a wealth of statistics, progress on improving the position of women remains slow. The answer is to look beyond statistics, and to ask why an estimated 90 per cent of women and girls in Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Mali undergo genital mutilation; why women do two-thirds of the world's work yet receive just 10 per cent of global income and own just 1 per cent of the means of production; why in the US a woman still earns just 74 cents for every dollar earned by a man.
Cynthia Enloe, a professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, is one scholar who has gone beyond statistics and uncovered a causal connection between all issues of women's rights: the way that gender has been socially constructed to make men dominant and women subordinate. In Bananas, Beaches and Bases, a feminist revisioning of international politics, Enloe uses anecdotal accounts of women who are typically hidden within inter-national relations - for instance, "wives who are willing to provide diplomatic husbands with unpaid services so those men can foster trusting relationships with other diplomatic husbands" and "a steady supply of women's sexual services to convince soldiers that they are manly", not unlike the Filipina hostesses who foster a sense of manliness among Japanese businessmen and fulfil commercial imperatives by encouraging the consumption of alcohol. The international system, Enloe argues, is funda- mentally imbued with power to keep the status quo tipped in favour of a small male elite. Her twin manifestos, "Everything has been made" and "The personal is international", point to how the international system is dependent upon personal relationships between men and women, themselves governed by social constructions of gender roles.
A recent high-profile human rights case appeared to confirm graphically that gender roles are socially constructed: the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. As three female soldiers played up to the camera alongside hooded and bound Iraqis forced into humiliating sexual poses, they demonstrated that women are as capable of sadism and violence as men. The case emphasised how women's historic absence from the military has been socially rather than biologically determined. It also indicated that the power identified by Enloe is not simply a matter of men's control of women. Conventional discourse on women's rights reinforces colonial patterns of dominance. The plight of women in developing nations is often used to support ideas of the developed world's superior morality. Images of women shrouded in burqas under the Taliban were everywhere in media coverage of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, presenting western troops as guardians of democracy and human - particularly women's - rights.
Yet the developed world's perceived moral high ground is dubious. Not only are women's rights far from a fait accompli even in western liberal democracies, but the actions of developed nations at an international level are serving to undermine campaigns for women's rights in those countries where they are most urgent. The US is one of only a handful of nations, including Iran and Sudan, that have yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Its failure to sign up comes down to fears that the convention presents a challenge to US decision-making - in particular on the issue of abortion, through its promotion of access to "family planning" - and the result is to rob the convention of much-needed legitimacy. Western hypocrisy does much to undermine progress. Support for such serial women's rights abusers as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan hardly conveys the image of developed countries as moral standard-bearers.
Perhaps most disturbing, however, are the unbalanced rela-tionships between women themselves. Standard reporting of women's rights presents women who live in the developing world as a homogeneous, victimised bloc, and neglects the role that middle- and upper-class women in these countries play in perpetuating social structures that keep their poorer compatriots underfoot. But it is women in the developed world who are the chief accomplices in attacks on the rights of women in developing nations - for example, when they hire cheap foreign nannies to look after their children, or seek exoticism in holiday destinations whose tourism industries exploit women's labour, or buy clothing made in sweatshops.
Yet, if women play a role in perpetuating a gender-biased international system, so they play a role in reshaping it. If "everything has been made", then everything can be remade. This involves more than simply inserting women into the existing system in the hope that their qualities will reshape the irrational, anarchical world of men's device. It also involves more than the all-too-familiar fight for equality, proving that women are capable of doing the same things as men.
If the system women are fighting to compete in is fundamentally biased against them, and relies upon them slotting into socially constructed gender roles in their personal, everyday lives, then instead of accepting pre-existing models, women ought to challenge the very foundations of the international system and remake it according to their individual experiences as women. They must go beyond fighting for equality, and instead fight for change, if they are ever to remove the businessman's hand from their knickers.
This is an edited version of the essay that won first place in the competition for the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust/New Statesman New Political Writing Prize 2005, which asked: "Do women's rights remain the privilege of the developed world?"