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8 March 2012

The meaning of the F-word

We asked the following writers, activists and politicians the same question: if feminists could campaign for one thing, what should it be?

By New Statesman

We asked the following writers, activists and politicians the same question: if feminists could campaign for one thing, what should it be?

Julie Tomlin: Becoming agents of change

If there’s one thing the Arab spring taught us, it is that the media’s depiction of Arab women as passive, veiled victims was way off the mark. It showed that the image we are fed of women as passive objects is an inaccurate one – and that applies elsewhere, too. Did you know that women in Liberia played a major role in securing peace after years of conflict or that, on International Women’s Day last year, more than 100 women risked marching in Kabul to demand that they be able to take part in peace negotiations with the Taliban?

This year, women in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq will be standing on bridges to demand that women living in conflict zones be represented in peace talks. Be it in Afghanistan, Egypt or countries across Europe, where women, many British ones among them, will be bearing the brunt of the economic crisis, women have a role to play in creating the solutions. I suggest we champion women’s capacity as agents of change against whatever life-destroying forces they are facing.

[See also: Where Afghans stand on peace and women’s rights]

Rosamund Urwin: Page three and upskirt shots

An unexpected – but very welcome – consequence of the Leveson inquiry has been to draw attention to media misogyny. In January, representatives from four women’s groups took to the stand to discuss victim-blaming and objectification in the press. Among the horrors they highlighted were a newspaper describing the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl as an “orgy” and “upskirt” shots that make page three look like tasteful treatment of women.

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Why focus on the media when there are hundreds of other potential feminist fronts? Not only are these battles winnable, but decisions made by a few have a disproportionate effect on the attitudes of the many. Fleet Street’s tentacles stretch across the nation: its trivialisation of violence against women reinforces the idea that perpetrators will go unpunished, while the stream of “lovelies in their scanties” pics feeds a culture in which women are viewed as just bodies to ogle. Shame the press into changing and the benefits will be widely felt.

Liz Jones: Honesty about airbrushing

Women are being assaulted as never before by images of perfection. We need laws on retouching, with the unadulterated original posted on the internet as a sort of Dorian Gray flashback. Lack of self-esteem ruined my life, so let’s stop it ruining any more. I’d also like for glossy magazines to publish statements of conflict of interest, such as a list of freebies, to show young readers just why they should never believe that review of that wonder cream. Third, women who cohabit with a man and have his children need the same rights as if they had been married. Too many men walk away from any financial commitment. And I want segregated loos on planes.

[See also: Plastic surgery isn’t feminist]

Selma James: Protecting welfare

I’d campaign to repeal the Welfare Reform Act. Welfare could be cut because the vital caring work that women do reproducing the human race (and the whole labour force) is recognised as little by establishment feminists as by political parties.

Eleanor Rathbone and millions of others fought for child benefit and other money for women. But feminists in government and boardrooms have ignored unwaged work and concentrated on women getting a second job – for second-class wages. They didn’t feel attacked when Tony Blair called single mothers “workless”, or when benefits previously considered a right became a vanishing charity.

Income support was the backbone of the women’s liberation movement: of Greenham and other campaigns and of our ability to leave violent relationships. We’re now losing both jobs and benefits. I would fight for the military budget to go to welfare and unemployment pay.

[See also: What would real welfare reform look like?]

Frances O’Grady: The cuts

The defining issue of the government is its programme of deep spending cuts. With female joblessness at a 25-year high and women shouldering over 70 per cent of the Budget cuts, it’s clear that they’re being made to pay for the financial crash. Women have been the UK’s greatest economic success story in the past 50 years. Any government searching for growth ignores them at its peril.

Bidisha: Addressing loathing

I would change an emotion in the guts of the perpetrators who have created a world in which women are universally abused, exploited, violated, debased, belittled, isolated and excluded from all forms and networks of power. I would change perpetrators’ loathing.

It is loathing that makes it easy to call a woman names, to mock and objectify her, to harass and follow her, to violate her space and body, to beat her, to exploit her, to make her work for free or for a pittance. It is loathing that makes it easy to misrepresent, laugh at, talk down at, belittle, marginalise and ignore women in culture, politics and the workplace. It is loathing that makes it easy to betray, use and play women in the arena of sex and “love”.

The hatred/abuse of women (and the excusal of their abusers and the blaming of victims) is obvious and universal. It spans age, colour, class, culture, country and language. I would change this hate, from which all else springs.

Jane Martinson: Taking over Today

True equality has not been achieved across the globe, so it’s hard to choose. In Sudan, a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than receive an education and nowhere in the developed world do women earn the same as men or enjoy as much power. But on the basis that small and highly visible gains would cheer us all up, especially first thing in the morning, how about working to get more women on to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme?

[See also: The unbearable complacency of the Today programme]

Louise Mensch: Trafficking

Does our male-dominated society understand what rape means? All too often, it appears not. The incredible violation of having your body pierced by a stranger, without your consent, stays with its victim for ever. A single rape can and does shatter lives for years afterwards. Yet activities in which women and girls are raped not once but over and over again attract ludicrously low sentences. Google the sentencing guidelines for human trafficking and be profoundly depressed by the language, the maximum sentences and the examples. Trafficking for sexual exploitation – sentence not to exceed 14 years. Trafficking in prostitution – sentence not to exceed 14 years. Of course, we know such sentences are halved in practice.

The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines give sentencing examples for the most egregious cases – a man repeatedly trafficked a 15-year-old girl into “prostitution”, selling her over and over again to different men. His sentences totalled 18 years only. For how many rapes, for how much horror, for this minor? Nor was she involved in prostitution, which is the voluntary selling of sex by an adult woman. She was a child who was gang-raped. “Sold for multiple gang rapes at 15” would have been accurate. For this, the man did not even get life.

In another “extremely serious” case, multiple offences against “women and young girls” involving “prostitution” (or gang rape) merited 23 years in total. How many women, how many children, how many rapes to get that mere 23 years? How many months or weeks per rape?

Let the police, the CPS, the courts and politicians recognise what sexual trafficking is and the difference between prostitution and gang rape. It is part of the overall culture of hand-washing on sexual violence against women. Traffickers are slavers and rapists and they should go to prison for their entire lives, in recognition of the lives of the girls and women they have stolen.

[See also: What does a real refugee look like?]

Rob Delaney: Education

Education is the most important thing for women to pursue aggressively as they continue their fight to be recognised for what they are: dynamic, vital, biologically heroic people. Men and women are the two wings of humanity’s bird, or perhaps pterodactyl. (I offer the pterodactyl as a metaphor because humankind is often terrifying, as demonstrated by this discussion’s necessity.) If the wings aren’t equally strong, the pterodactyl flies in circles, gets angry, slams into a tree and explodes. (Look it up.) Education is what’s most important, because it isn’t an opinion that women should have equal rights to men in every possible way; it’s a fact. Its acknowledgement is an indispensable ingredient in the recipe for the survival of our species. And facts are much easier to identify when you have an education, which is something that remains out of reach to this day for many millions of women around the world.

Women outnumber men on our planet. And women create life inside their bodies. Yet misogyny and sexism, whose twin engines are fear and ignorance, continue to exist. We must deprive them of their fuel and that begins by educating women and men. The good news is that women and men start out as girls and boys, who are more fun to be around. So take heart in how the most powerful political act you might ever commit is to read to a child. And kids love pterodactyls, so try to find a book about them.

[See also: Why educating girls is the best cure for the world’s problems]

Tina Wallace: Supporting Africa

We live in an era of targets, where development agendas are increasingly set far from Africa. It is far removed from the reality of women’s lives across different cultures on the continent.

The noise of simplistic messages carried, for example, in Nike’s “Girl Effect” campaign, is overriding the voices of African women, bypassing their knowledge. While aid money for girls rises, the money sorely needed by women’s organisations in diverse cultural and political contexts is rarely forthcoming. African women’s organisations have a long history, many strong leaders and a local understanding essential for promoting lasting change. They require respectful funding that is negotiated, tailored and long-term. It took the UK generations to change the position of women and we should support women across to Africa to take this journey in their own way and their own time.

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