That's what she said: the experiences of women in "lad culture"

We have all been complicit in this everyday sexism, and now it's time we all changed.

 

When I was a student at University of Strathclyde, I studied politics. I was actually told by one man that “women don't do politics”. In a separate instance it was expressed to me that women students who dress in a low cut T-shirt are “just asking to be raped”, and should take responsibility for that.  My eyes were firmly opened to the worrying level of sexism that women in education have to deal with.  I think it probably spurred me on to where I am today. Last year I was elected the Women’s Officer for National Union of Students.

Today NUS is releasing new research -  That’s what she said: Women students’ experiences of lad culture in higher education . I’d like to use this blog to allow some of the women who were brave enough to take part in the research to speak. By this I mean I would like to impart to you some of the examples used to illustrate the stories shared and the genuinely upsetting experiences of women respondents who took part from all over England and Scotland.

Interviewee 10:

I think that’s the misconception, that they’re these rough lads from rough backgrounds who have no respect for women, well they’re not, they’re everywhere, they’re in all parts of the country.

Participant I:

In lots of tutorials I’ve had lots of banter… I do Politics and History and within that there tends to be a slight focus on feminist theory at some point. It’s always the time when the lad comes out. It’s just like shit jokes and stuff like that. For example, if you try to make an announcement in [a lecture], everyone will immediately start shouting stuff… Something along the lines of being a ‘shit feminist’ or something. That kind of ‘another one of those man haters’.

Participant G:

We got them all to line up on the floor on their hands and knees and they just got pelted with eggs, flour, oil, water, washing up liquid, silly string, squirty cream by all the older girls, the girls who were second and third year. We made them do bobbing for apples in a thing of baked beans, cat food, Worcester sauce, chilli powder. It was revolting, it was really, really, disgusting and I felt so uncomfortable but there’s is nothing I could really do about it because they had done things last year that I voiced opposition to and it didn’t make a difference.

Participant P:

In first year there were definitely club nights which were advertising this image of slutty girls… trying to have this image of girls who are going to put out whatever, using them as bait for the guys to come.

Participant I:

I was on a bus once… there’s a lot of buses in [my city] with a lot of lads… they started making quite horrific rape jokes and [there were] quite a lot of individual women on the bus and you could see that everyone on the bus was really uncomfortable with this as you would hope most people would be. They could kind of sense it, but they were like ‘wahaay blah blah!’ like firing them off. And someone made a particularly horrible one… and there was kind of like a mood change and one of the guys was like, ‘Don’t worry ladies none of us have been convicted yet!’ and… [it was] like ‘you guys just can’t take the banter.’ And it’s not banter, it’s people’s real lives.

Interviewee 8:

[Laddish behaviour] generally makes me not want to go certain places, [or] talk to lads I’m friends with on their own.

Do any of these stories sound familiar? I think that they resonate with most students, men and women. In 2010 NUS published the “Hidden Marks ” report which produced the staggering statistic that 68 per cent of respondents had been the victim of one or more kinds of sexual harassment on campus during their time as a student.  That’s What She Said builds on this revelation with an exploration of the depth of feeling surrounding the phenomenon of “lad culture” and how this can facilitate negative student experiences.

It was really hard to read the research if I’m honest. It’s difficult to comprehend that in a society where women have fought so hard, and advanced so far that we are still subject to ridicule in areas that are deemed progressive such as university life. But what’s particularly stomach churning for me is that most of this ridicule is filed under ‘banter’ and if you’re questioning it you are somehow devoid of a sense of humour.

Now it’s time to stand up and take responsibility, collectively across the higher education sector, across the women’s movement and accept that nobody will change this but us. To this end I am proud to have yesterday sent a letter to Jo Swinson urging her to convene a summit of relevant organisations to tackle the problems which have been identified.

The Everyday Sexism Project, Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), Universities UK (UUK), support our call for a summit to address the problems identified by the report. British Universities and Colleges Sports (BUCS) have also committed to participation and it is our intention to enlist as much support as possible throughout the women’s movement and organisations which are relevant to the higher education experience until action is taken.

It’s time to realise that we have all been complicit, all played a part in acceptance, and we must now all play a part in change.

 

Photograph: Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 

 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.