A weapon against half the world

To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, Julie Bindel calls for a global movement against sexua

Inside the walls of a coastal town in Morocco, several women crouch at the roadside selling bunches of herbs. One of the women catches my eye. She is nursing a baby but looks at least 60 years old. I try to see her as a woman with whom I share substantive experience. I have no children; I am not poor. As a lesbian, I do not require access to safe contraception. I do not need to worry about my rights as a married woman. Yet there is one thing that all women share - something that shapes our lives and partly determines the way we live and the choices we make - that is, the threat and reality of sexual violence.

It is this commonality that is taking me to the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations headquarters in New York this month. In the past 15 years, the women's movement has become truly global, a development kick-started in an unlikely place: Beijing. In 1995, 23,500 women and 5,000 government representatives of 189 counties gathered in the Chinese capital for the UN Conference on Women and formulated a Global Platform for Action (PfA), through which governments should address gender inequality, including measures to end violence against women. The PfA remains the most wide-reaching international commitment to women's equality. At this year's catch-up conference in New York, many of the delegates will be asking how far we have come and what still needs to be done.

As I write, women and girls all over the world are being beaten by their husbands, raped, burned and mutilated in the name of "tradition", forced into marriage, sold into prostitution and murdered for transgressing a twisted code of "honour". Violence against women is an international epidemic. It has been identified by the World Health Organisation as a grave health issue, affecting more people than HIV and Aids.

Globally, at least one-third of all women and girls will be beaten or sexually abused once or more throughout their lives. In Kenya, 70 per cent of those asked by the Women's Rights Awareness Programme admitted they knew neighbours who beat their wives, and almost 60 per cent said that the women were to blame. The news is not much better in the UK. A recent survey on Londoners' attitudes to rape found that almost half think that rape victims are at least partly to blame.

The poorer the woman, the more vulnerable she is to exploit­ation and sexual violence. If a woman has to fight for clean water, she may be pressured to swap this for sexual favours. If there is no work in her town or village, she could be targeted by traffickers promising her a better life overseas.

Under attack

In most countries, women have won the right to vote only within the past 50 years. There is still nowhere in the world where women have access to political or social power equal to that of men. I spoke to Rachel Carter, head of policy and advocacy at the UK-based NGO Womankind Worldwide. She believes that the main achievements of the Beijing conference have been the formation of a vibrant international movement and the development of legislation against violence towards women in countries that had no prior public awareness of the issue.

“However, the massive gap left to be plugged is implementation," Carter says. "There is a tendency for some governments to see their country strategies, legislation and policies as an end rather than a means to an end."

Do we need to create a new formal agreement, as we did in Beijing? "I would be reluctant because, if anything, in today's climate, I think we would go backwards. Climate change and the rise of fundamentalism have made it worse for women. Women's rights are being eroded. Women's freedom was used as an excuse for the invasion of Afghanistan, but now women's rights are being traded out and it is worse in some ways for them."

Baroness Gould is chair of the Women's National Commission, which provides a link between the UK government delegation to the conference and NGOs. She is similarly cautious: "If we had another Beijing, we might go backwards in terms of reproductive health, in particular abortion and contraception. There are very few countries in Africa where abortion is legal."

There is evidence to back up Carter and Gould. Zimbabwe has long had a vibrant women's movement, but women have borne the brunt of the recent turmoil there, and growing numbers of cases of both sexual and domestic violence are being reported. In countries experiencing conflict, or which have recently done so, violence towards women tends to have increased.

During the Beijing conference, representatives of uncompromising Catholic and Muslim countries refused to sign in support of women's rights to abortion and contraception, or a right to sexual self-determination, and yet these are the very issues that lie at the root of women's vulnerability to domestic and sexual violence. "If a woman lives in a country where rape in marriage is not a crime, and domestic violence is viewed as perfectly acceptable, how can she ever leave?"asks Hilary McCollum, a UK-based anti-rape activist. "And if there is no option for a woman not to marry, how is she ever going to be free from the control of men?"

South Africa is one country that is suffering from a surge in sexual violence, even though it has one of the best constitutional and legal frameworks in the world for human rights, including violence against women. After the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, and during its transition towards democracy, South Africa experienced a rapid increase in reported rapes. South African rape statistics are now among the highest in the world. In 1997, the Human Sciences Research Council released a report claiming that child rape in South Africa had reached "epidemic proportions". One-third of reported rapes between January and September 2001 were of children between zero and 11 years of age.

According to rape crisis groups in the country, many of the rapes committed are akin to those experienced during the anti-apartheid struggle, with victims suffering extreme violence, often by multiple perpetrators. "While the history of apartheid and conflict must play a role in this," Carter says, "I think we must go back again to the root causes of power imbalances between genders, patriarchy, and women's bodies being used as both personal and political territory upon which wars are played out." It has been recognised since the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict that rape is a tool of war. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, for example, up to half a million women were raped by combatants.

Women in rich countries are also vulnerable to pimps, rapists and wife-beaters. Dowry deaths, honour killings and female genital mutilation all happen in the UK. Girls are taken to Harley Street clinics by their Somali-born parents to be mutilated in the name of culture. Pakistani families send girls "home" to marry a cousin they have never met, often before puberty. Women born into Turkish families can be killed by their male relatives for daring to love an unsuitable man.

Heroine Harman

Honour crimes also happen to women of British descent. Wives who dishonour their husbands by leaving them or being unfaithful often die for stepping out of line. The Deputy Prime Minister, Harriet Harman, much derided for her outspoken feminism, has fought hard to prevent men from pleading provocation in such cases, a defence that can be traced back to the Middle Ages.

But the global women's movement is making a difference. A recent Unicef report found that female genital mutilation in one region of Ethiopia had fallen from 100 per cent to 3 per cent, largely as a result of innovative public education programmes run by Kembatti Mentti Gezzima-Tope, a women's self-help centre in the township of Durame. Meanwhile, the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota, has saved the lives of countless women and been replicated around the world. By developing a multi-agency approach that involves the courts, prosecutors, probation and refuge workers, it has brought about a sharp fall in the number of women killed as a result of domestic violence.

“In the UK, we have made enormous progress in terms of sexual violence," Gould says. But we live in difficult times. For Carter, relying on what she calls "paper rights", such as those outlined in the PfA, will not translate into women's lives being saved or sexual violence being eliminated. We need concerted action, she says, and her hope is that the conference at the UN this month will inspire just that. "We need to be able to tell men what they will gain if they give up power, which will be no easy task.

“Right now we don't have enough mechanisms to hold governments to account, despite the PfA. Fifteen years after Beijing, and we are struggling to hold up the damn walls."

Julie Bindel is co-founder of Justice for Women

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile