Tag Archives: feminism

Back to the Present: Canadian #Education Minister ‘Orders #School to Turn the Clock Forward’!

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24-7-52 Sexism: Is Women’s Equality Heading Towards Oblivion?

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 18.29.07One of the more sobering developments that we at Mediolana have come across in recent times is the revelations of the Everyday Sexism Project, an Internet initiative headed by the British writer Laura Bates. Bates, an alumnus of the University of Cambridge, where she read English Literature, had the simple idea of setting up an online portal where people – in practice mostly young women – could send in their experiences of sexual discrimination; a little over two years after it went live, everydaysexism.com has garnered over 50,000 submissions.

The content of many of these submissions is truly horrifying, and paints a picture of a contemporary culture positively dripping with violence and genuine contempt for women purely on account of their gender; while some of the contributions may not be representative of everyday existence, there are simply too many qualitatively profoundly troubling ones to dismiss this project as sensationalist.

But why is this happening? Sexism was meant to be a problem which had been ‘solved’ in various successive ‘waves’, notably those in the first and third quarters of the twentieth century; now, even basic human rights which previous generations of women would have taken for granted, including the right not to be assaulted, are seemingly not universally viewed as such – and somewhat ironically, in supposedly sophisticated and progressive countries such as the United Kingdom.

Without wishing to pretend to be able to proffer an instant solution to a problem that must concern us all, after some contemplation we at Mediolana believe that addressing the following points would go some way towards resolving certain structural issues within both the contemporary feminist movement and wider society:

1. Back to the Future. Feminism’s golden age saw concrete, big-ticket gains for women, notably in the economic sphere: the right to inherit and own property was something that was broadly denied to most women in the West until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Feminist writers during both this and earlier periods were able to convince large swathes of men through the moral strength of their case; reading what is arguably the greatest feminist tract in the history of Western thought, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), it is impossible not to admire the intellectual brilliance, eclecticism and ethical clarity of her vision – qualities sorely lacking in most contemporary feminist works.

2. Confusion. Contemporary feminism as a body of thought appears to suffer from basic problems of orientation which render it much less convincing. For example, on the issue of pornography the movement cannot seem to decide whether porn is dehumanising or liberating – despite apparently overwhelming, consistent and interculturally-valid evidence for the former position. When the waters are being muddied on a topic as basic as this, it becomes that more difficult to take the ideology as a whole with the seriousness it should deserve.

3. Complacency? The parameters of the debate surrounding the presence of topless models on prominent pages of European tabloid newspapers such as The Sun and Bild seem touchingly naive given the ubiquity of Internet pornography. This continued focus on material which, although perhaps problematic, is practically-speaking predominantly of symbolic value, arguably illustrates the complacency of contemporary feminism – or perhaps this escape into a pre-digital world represents nothing more than the fear that dealing with this issue is now almost impossible.

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The 2011 Newsweek Global Women’s Progress Report: Great Idea, Flawed Logic

The ever-readable Naomi Wolf – author of such classic late twentieth-century cultural studies texts as The Beauty Myth and Promiscuities – recently brought the Newsweek/Daily Beast (‘Newsweek‘) 2011 Global Women’s Progress Report to the attention of the readers of her Al Jazeera English column via an opinion piece (The price of oppressing your women, 5th October 2011). This report uses a variety of measurements – financial, educational and so on – to rank 165 countries in terms of where it is best to be a woman; predictably, countries in economically and politically stable northern Europe – such as Iceland, Sweden and Norway – dominate the top ten, providing 70% of the nations in this elite category, while countries which are synonymous with war, disease and extremely limited state capacity – the likes of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan – populate the lower reaches of the chart.

The Newsweek survey is a fine initiative and will continue to provoke much discussion. However, on closer inspection of the report, we at Mediolana believe there are some profound methodological lacunae which bring into question its overall value:

1. Gendercide. As noted in this blog in our piece on this year’s International Women’s Day, China and India – two countries which are the poster-children of the belief in exponential economic growth – are also world leaders in gendercide. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen‘s notable 1990 estimate of 100 million killings of unborn or young girls in a pair of nations deeply scarred by the One-Child Policy and the dowry system respectively is doubly tragic because that astronomical total is now indubitably, and substantially, higher. It is reasonable to posit that any country which engages in such wholesale killing of the female gender purely on gender grounds should be rock bottom of the Newsweek index, yet in a quite surreal twist the magazine instead focuses on fair hiring policies in the PRC; neither India nor China features even in the bottom 20, an act of ‘outsourcing’ that is perhaps without parallel.

2. Work Versus Wealth. The Newsweek survey places great emphasis on work as a key indicator of how liberated women are: legal barriers to entry in certain industries, the percentage of women in the labour force and women’s wages as a percentage of men’s are specifically cited under the ‘Economics’ rubric of the methodology. However, while to some degree this accentuation of work is perfectly understandable and indeed compelling, it does not necessarily signify a great deal. Work is not wealth; in particular, conventional salaried work might not lead to the accumulation of wealth and control of capital that has genuine meaning in a capitalist economy.

In this context, one is reminded of Muhammad Asad Sadi and Basheer Mohammad Al-Ghazali’s 2009 study on female entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia; despite facing all kinds of legal and cultural obstacles to work in a country which is regarded – not least by important Saudi personalities such as Dr. Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi – as an international joke in the context of women’s rights, Saudi women have still managed to accumulate a total of SR 62 billion in bank accounts and other locations, owning an estimated 23,000 businesses as of the mid-2000s. A global study which incorporated women’s ownership and control of productive assets would make for far more enlightening – and perhaps sobering – reading.

3. Mental Health. Incredibly, the Newsweek survey makes no reference to mental health in its methodology, concentrating as it does on vital but ultimately incomplete indicators such as the incidence of HIV, the availability of contraception and the number of unsafe abortions per thousand women.

This is despite the fact that, according to the World Health Organisation (‘WHO’), unipolar depression is expected to be ‘the second leading cause of global disease burden by 2020‘, already occurring with twice the frequency in women vis à vis men, and the reality that mental health problems which are suffered especially by women are now assuming gargantuan proportions, particularly in developed nations: a recent study by the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology spanning 30 European countries found that women were 250% more likely to suffer depression than men, while many of the same nations at the acme of the Newsweek index also occupy the top spots in the WHO’s statistics on per capita mortality from eating disorders: both charts are topped by Iceland.

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International Women’s Day 2011: Five Causes to Reinvigorate Feminism

As International Women’s Day (‘IWD’) is celebrated around the world today for the 100th time, it seems an appropriate juncture to examine the present position of feminism, a once-influential social movement which is increasingly viewed with some disdain; as the Oslo-born arts personality Mariella Frostrup notes in her largely excellent recent article on IWD, in today’s United Kingdom very few people publicly define themselves as feminists. Perhaps there are good reasons for this. While almost no one would argue with the aims of so-called ‘first wave’ feminism, whose advocates – notably in the first quarter of the twentieth century – sought to gain fundamental political, social and economic rights for women,  the second and third waves of the 1960s and 1990s respectively arguably possessed far less intellectual potency; too often, feminist ideology was conflictual, ethnocentric and detached from the everyday concerns of those it claimed to represent. In order for feminism to have continued relevance in the future, it is clear that it needs to redefine itself; however, it is important to recognise that while feminism as presently understood may not be the optimal means by which to solve the problems of women, these issues are all too real and need to be addressed for the sake of society as a whole as well as for those directly affected. The feminist movement could substantially reinvigorate itself at least in part by engaging with the following subjects: 1. Gendercide. As the Economist reported in 2010, in China and northern India there are around 120 male newborns to every 100 corresponding females: owing to a variety of social and cultural factors – including the modern trend towards smaller families and the low value given to female children in societies where the dowry system and the One Child Policy are respectively dominant – the abortion of unborn girls is being carried out on an unfathomable scale. Nobel laureate and author of Development as Freedom Amartya Sen estimated back in 1990 that the number of ‘missing’ girls was 100m. And this problem is not limited to India and China: this is also a trend in Taiwan and Singapore. It is difficult to imagine a problem of greater urgency than this. 2. Advertising. Women – perhaps even more so than men – are subject to a daily barrage of advertisements featuring digitally-manipulated images of impossibly thin, voluptuous females, and there is a wealth of literature illustrating that such images are psychologically damaging, particularly with reference to the self-image of young girls. Those concerned about this issue could do worse than lobby their municipalities to follow the example of São Paulo: in 2006, the Brazilian metropolis famous for its gridlocked expressways and staccato skyscrapers entirely banned outdoor advertising under the direction of mayor Gilberto Kassab. Visually, São Paulo – which used to resemble a website – is now one of the ‘cleanest’ cities in the world, with depictions of improbably insubstantial women banished from the landscape. 3. Work. As the origins of IWD hint at, feminism has long been associated with socialism; as such, it has traditionally regarded capitalism with sometimes barely disguised antipathy. However, perhaps this scorn is misplaced: entrepreneurship promises to liberate women not only from the virtually universal problem of receiving lower wages for producing the same output as men, but also the emotional and physical exhaustion associated with the rarely-attained combination of salaried employment and a rich, meaningful family life. 4. De-eroticisation. In many parts of the world, sex is effectively being replaced or diluted by virtual sex or pornography. This is a cause for concern for women in particular, since much material masquerading as erotic in fact depicts violence or degrading acts being inflicted on women, and is therefore distorting people’s expectations of sex and its context. That this is a subject of some sensitivity makes its addressing no less desirable. 5. Spirituality. Mainstream feminist theory has barely considered the topic of spirituality, yet in a great many cultures around the world women find tremendous psychological solace and societal status in religion and religious structures. Given that unipolar depression – predicted to be the number two global disability by 2020 – is twice as common in women than in men, there is every incentive for further exploration of the role spirituality can play in ameliorating this trend.

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