I’ve always considered myself somewhat of an idealist – i’m a bit of a hippy frankly, who studied Anthropology in Brighton, a city known for its gay pride, festival-esque activism, reggae nights by the beach, and open drug indulgence. And of course, listening to that much Desmond Dekker in a cloud of rainbow flags and joint smoke, it’s hard not to develop a rather heightened (chemically or otherwise) positive mindset. Now I’m in London I am an intern with a women’s activist and outreach organisation, and indeed the capacity to do that kind of work inherently assumes an ability to imagine that another world is possible. I’ve often thought this is what separates the youth from the out-of-touch establishment that fails to represent them – it’s almost as if those in power don’t really believe that the world can be any other way and that equality is a dream that can be attained, and so they don’t strive hard enough to make it happen, reluctant to waste their time on it because it’s not them who will pick up the pieces. My stubborn idealism has been to me like an arrogant badge of honour – I refuse to be stunted by a lack of imagination like my politicians are; i’m better than that.
But in the last month, I’ve been forced to come to an unwelcome realisation – the world is actually getting worse. Ok, for fear of sounding like a doomsdayer, let me clarify – gender inequality is actually getting worse. Although, when you’re talking about half of the population, and when the link between the opportunities of that half of the population has been so intrinsically linked to the wellbeing of the other half (see www.girleffect.org if you are still in doubt)…ok then yes, the world is actually getting worse. One morning a few weeks ago on the tube, nestled in between everyone else, I started having an internal crisis – ‘how can I possibly be an idealist when the facts in front of me suggest such glaringly negative progress towards equality and freedom from oppression? How can it be that the world is ACTUALLY getting worse and we are not developing along a linear path of progress like I have been told in all my history lessons??’ You can imagine what an unsettling start this was to my day and that whole week actually I felt a mournful loss of innocence, like i’ve suddenly found myself in that secret club of adulthood that I never wanted to be in anyway but I can no longer find my way out of so I can go chat with the cool kids outside in the smoking area.
So let’s track back to what it is that’s caused me to question this part of my identity that, until now, I’ve assumed would always be with me. It’s a culmination of things – an avalanche of unsettling findings that started with me picking up Living Dolls, a book by the director of Women for Refugee Women, Natasha Walter, on the return of sexism. This book starts with an experience she had in a toy shop, travelling up an escalator to the girls’ toys floor which appeared like a rush of nausea as a sickness-inducing vision of pink, causing her to wonder when and how this image of girlhood defined as a melange of barbie, hello kitty, baby born and kitchen sets had come about. Although I’ve always objected to this fluffy idea of what it means to be a girl, preferring, apparently, to play with worms over dolls, I’ve never really thought about whether or not it has always been this way. But actually, when I think of photographs of my parents as children, they look funny because they look strangely without personality, wearing bland generic baby clothes or dressed up like mini adults in a way that expresses nothing but babyness. My mum’s favourite outfit as a kid was some sort of grey tabbard and kids then wore clothes that their parents decided on, and often made themselves, preferring practicality over any expression of gender. Or course children should be able to express themselves, and thats the point – there are a multitude of ways to be a boy or a girl but the girlhood that is prepackaged and sold to us now is a singular one – if you look through the pages of an Argos catalogue you see that girls now are little princesses who love caring for animals, dressing up and miming domestic chores; they are sweet, caring, quiet, and polite. The version of boyhood on offer is just as narrow, and this is a major generational change. There’s a picture of my two oldest brothers when they were about 5 and 7 pushing a pram each, strolling their two little dolls wrapped in pink blankets down the streets of Brixton, and I can’t imagine that picture being taken today. Even when I think of me and my friends as young teens, I think you can notice the change that has occurred in just a decade. Far from cool we were like a motley parade of embarassing anti mainstream sentiment through the ages – me a goth, another a hippy, others indie or punk or emo or grungers; in short, we certainly didn’t look very sweet and we sure as hell weren’t quiet. Whilst I might look back on my platform boots and penchant for studs and safety pins and cringe, at least in my high school there were other female identities beyond the ‘pretty and pink’ one. I don’t feel that it’s the same for my youngest sister in high school now.
In reality, this “gender apartheid”, as campaigners from Pink Stinks call it www.pinkstinks.co.uk, is a recent phenomenon that has pretty much occurred in my lifetime. According to the American writer Peggy Orenstein, exclusively pink toys for little girls of a sexual or domestic nature only became the norm in the nineties after Disney realised that exaggerating gender stereotypes and selling them to children could earn them millions of dollars. In fact, it earnt them more – in 2009 Princess products earnt them $4 billion and it has been one of the most successful marketing ploys ever, a cloying mix of capitalism and emotion that Orenstein calls the Princess Industrial Complex www.peggyorenstein.com
You might think also this pink vision of girlhood doesn’t matter, that it’s only playing after all and it’s not real. But as Natasha Walter argues, it is fast becoming real as femininity is increasingly being lived out as imaginary.This fetisihised Barbie world has left the toy shop and taken over every aspect of girls lives – it’s used to sell them everything from toothbrushes to school books to food throughout their childhood. And when girls start to grow up, they look around and see the majority of successful women who are given space in the media have been given so because they are thin, beautiful and/or have very big breasts, and so being doll-like becomes the aspiration of young women seeking fame, fortune or indeed, as inequality grows, any status at all.
What’s more, those in the events business have clocked on to the sexual liberation period of the sixties and seventies and co-opted it, only to repackage and resell sexism as empowerment – Walter talks about the female stars of reality TV, the rise of glamour modelling, the normality of lap dancing clubs on the high street and the increased validity of the ‘prostitution is empowering’ argument. The hyper-sexual image of femininity that starts with little girls playing dress up in their princess costumes isn’t just play – it has, as Walter puts it, come to ‘redefine female success through a narrow framework of sexual allure’. Even Barbie back in the day used to be a vet or a doctor or a pilot, now she’s pretty much just a slut. In the adult world, the only sure fire way to get into a newspaper as a girl is to be a size eight and get your breasts out on page 3. And these are by and large the only female role models that are widely available for girls in Western culture, which brings me on to the second wake up call I had this month – an article in the Guardian weekend with Laura Bates which said that among 14 year old girls being thinner is their single biggest wish. Read that again – it is so depressing it makes me want to cry.
As the following week progressed I was confronted with more and more facts that revealed how this narrow definition of femininity is more than just an abstract idea impacting the way girls identify and present themselves – it is having a concrete effect on the very real rights of women. An article in Stylist Magazine, titled Back to the Fifties, looked at how women’s reproductive rights are under attack across Europe and America. Spain is about to make abortions illegal and in Ireland a woman died a few years ago after being denied one. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-20321741 In England too the coalition struck the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health from its sexual health forum in 2011, replacing this impartial organisation with the pro-life one, Life, meaning that here in the UK it’s getting harder for women to choose when and if they start a family, or how big that family should be. www.theguardian.com/society/2011/may/24/abortion-sexual-health-coalitionTo have an abortion in England now, a girl must get 3 separate signatures okaying the procedure, and she must go through ‘counselling’ (which effectively means enduring discouragement) which boils down to putting women, and girls, through huge amounts of unnecessary turmoil when they are at their most vulnerable, to pursue a traditional conservative and religious agenda.
Of course, the impact of this erosion of reproductive rights is going to be felt hardest among the poorest as women who can’t afford impartial family planning advice that is safe will seek it elsewhere, and women who can’t afford childcare will remain out of work. Women already earn less than men in the UK, are more likely to live in poverty and have been hit harder by the recession www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/activity/women-and-the-economy/ and so this chipping away of women’s reproductive rights could well lead to greater merging of gender and class based inequality with women increasingly pushed into the lower sectors of society. This compounds the problem even more, as women must overcome gender and social barriers before they can become the next leaders of tomorrow – as the Stylist article notes, Britain has already slipped in the last 13 years from 33rd to a miserable 58th place in the league of female political representation. According to my research we’re even lower, below Afghanistan and Iraq at 64th place, and as Cameron’s female MPs keep leaving it is likely to drop further. www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm
What does this mean for women? Lack of representation means a lack of services and as the final blow was delivered to my idealistic streak, in the form of Owen Jones’s article in The Guardian, I learnt that support for women victims of violence and rape is being demolished. In the first 2 financial years of this coalition government, funding to the domestic and sexual violence support sector was slashed by 31 per cent. And this cut has occurred in a context where reported domestic violence is on the increase, whilst conviction rates have declined , www.theguardian.com/society/datablog/2014/mar/10/domestic-abuse-sexual-violence-what-the-new-figures-tell-us with thousands of rape cases wrongly thrown out without being referred to the CPS.www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/revealed-thousands-of-rape-cases-thrown-out—as-charges-fall-following-new-cps-guidelines-9105454.html What does this mean for women? On a random day in April last year 155 women and 103 children had to be turned away from domestic violence shelters because of a lack of staff and funds – it is well known that women in violent relationships are most likely to be murdered after they try and leave their abusive partners, and so what this means is more women die as a result of violence.
At school we learn that history is linear and that we’re all moving forward towards a better, more equal, civilised and prosperous place. It makes me sad to confess that this is not true, to come to realise that part of being an adult is the knowing that this is just something they tell you when you’re young. Because when we take a historical look at definitions of female identity, reproductive rights and violence against women over the past few decades, we can’t deny the stark truth of narrower identities, less secure rights and more violence.
…I’m at a loss for how to end this article. I want to say something hopeful and profound, like something Martin Luther King said during his fight against segregation and institutionalised racism in sixties America; ‘the arch of history may be long but it bends towards justice’. But I increasingly find my belief in the fundamental good of humankind hard to reconcile with the hard facts on the ground that seem to suggest that things are getting worse.
But I will say this; if there is one sector of society that gives me hope, that shines an unblinking light of optimism on this otherwise dark reality, it is the community sector. Of all the depressing statistics I consumed in the last month, there was one very hopeful one – the very first prosecution for FGM, after 30 years without a single conviction in the UK. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-26681364 There is no doubt that the success of this breakthrough is the success of the community sector. Over the past few months I have been lucky to work with the two organisations leading the fight for more action to stop FGM worldwide, Equality Now and FORWARD, under the leadership of two women whose tireless commitment and faith in a better world is an inspiration, Efua Dorkenoo and Nanaa Ortoo-Orytey. It is because of them, and the passionate women and men they work with that this watershed moment in history has been made; politicians might introduce laws and judges and police may enforce them, but it is the community sector to whom credit is owed. And the credit is vast – from their small offices, run down youth centres and shared community spaces, the people of the community sector are literally changing the world. They are the ones working behind the scenes, out in the community, supporting vulnerable women and girls from their front rooms and their hearts and getting things done.
Coming to question my idealism is a mournful moment for me, like the loss of some childhood innocence. But knowing the fighting spirit of activists like Efua and Naana, if there is anything that can keep the flicker of optimism from going out, it is the transformative power of the community sector; against the odds it is slowly changing the world.
The Joy in my Feet: Inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem, my blog The Joy in My Feet is about celebrating the work of women activists and artists around the world campaigning to end gender oppression. I am an intern with Equality Now working on a campaign to end FGM in the UK, so most of the posts you’ll find are covering current issues of sexual or gender based violence against women, interspersed with poetry and art.