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Visible, in Your Face Sexism? In Britain?

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Rashida Manjoo last week announced her report on how far the U.K. has implemented the recommendations of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) held in March last year. She is a global expert on Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG), appointed by the UN as 'Special Rapporteur' - in other words she goes round countries checking on measures they have taken to comply with their UN treaty obligations.

So, after a 16-day visit, what's her view of the U.K.? Well, she said sexism was 'more in your face' in Britain than in any other country she had visited, including Algeria, Italy, Bosnia, Azerbaijan, India and Croatia.

'I'm not sure what gives rise to a more visible presence of sexist portrayals of women and girls in this country in particular,' she said, 'What is clear from these portrayals is that there is a boys' club sexist culture.'

That's a pretty damning indictment of our country's progress on gender equality isn't it? And what was the British media's response to her conclusions? 'Meddler!' screamed the Daily Mail.

Falling over themselves in their haste to get something into Femail the next day, they found Kathy Gyngell - a woman who had once had a man drunkenly proposition her at a posh do while her husband had gone to the Gents and just, you know, dealt with it - to proclaim on behalf of all women: 'Sexist? Nonsense, Britain is the best place on earth to be a woman.'

Meanwhile former minister Edwina Currie told the Telegraph: 'Why can't she go to a country where women can't drive cars, or have maternity leave? There are plenty of countries where women face serious problems.'

The Sun, doubtless because 'Page 3' had received special reference from Ms Manjoo, hauled in Feminist Uber-Lad herself, Louise Mensch, who, under the charming headline Shut it Sister, indignantly took the 'we don't even stone our girls here' line to new ludicrous heights with this question:

'What about Bosnia, where rape was a national institution?'

Bosnia was a war-zone.

Apart from a brief response from Yvette Cooper in the Independent, the only person who engaged with the actual debate was Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism on Newsnight, who stated the figures (85,000 women a year raped, two women a week killed by their partners or ex-partners, nearly one third of 16 - 18 year-old girls experiencing unwanted sexual touching at school) and the known link between media representation of women as sex objects and the abuse of women and girls.

That was the only engagement with the actual content of Ms Manjoo's report, and even a serious platform like Newsnight allowed the debate to be derailed into a 'Media Representation' versus 'Real Problems for Women' narrative. Writer Nesrine Malik opined: 'I'm far less bothered by the imagery of women than the issue of equal pay.'

Former Guardian Women editor Louise Chunn, told Newsnight that the 'idea Britain is the most sexist country doesn't reflect my experience of living here - it just seems ridiculous.'

We had the chance for an in-depth analysis of how exactly a visibly sexist culture impacts on the daily lives of women and girls, affecting their health, self-respect and aspirations, along with a serious exploration of what messages these sexist portrayals of women send to men, and how that is likely to influence men's view and subsequent treatment of women. But we blew it in the clamour to prove that we are not as bad as other countries, in a jingoistic thinly-disguised racist outrage. We really don't like a Muslim woman judging us do we?

That's not good enough.

The UK CEDAW Working Group last year had already assessed the U.K. government's progress in implementing the United Nations Convention and had been unequivocal in their report that the U.K. was failing in its duty to meet recommendations regarding media representation of women, stating that:

The 'persistent portrayal of women as sexualised objects in the print based media is clearly discriminatory in nature, it is un-paralleled for men, and it exists without context,' and that the 'lack of press regulation on the issue is inconsistent with other forms of media, and equality legislation, and it allows for the sexual objectification of women in mainstream media to continue unchecked.'

The CSW was originally established as a subcommission of the UN Commission on Human Rights back in 1946. Those 68 years and 57 sessions represent an enormous amount of time and work put in at the highest levels by thousands of people worldwide to define and tackle the specific gender inequalities that women and girls face globally.

So a review and report from an internationally respected UN representative deserves to be taken seriously; the media should be bringing in professionals who know what they are talking about. EVAW released their statement in response, but no national media published that, nor did they seek the opinion of any representative of organisations supporting abused women.

And in light of the judgement made on our country from an experienced outsider, we should be feeling a collective shame. Because Ms Manjoo is right; a 'visibly sexist' country is a sexist 'boys' club' culture, one in which women and girls are clearly disadvantaged. And to prove it, our national media's response to Ms Manjoo's report was one of resounding, visible, in your face sexism.

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