Rebecca Meredith, one of the two debaters who faced sexist heckling at the Glasgow University Union, makes the case for feminism following her experience in dealing with the media and the online abuse she has received since her story came to light.
Last Friday marked International Women's Day. In our student bar in Cambridge, one of my male friends declared: "I understand why it would be needed for women in India or Iran, but why would it be relevant in Britain. You are doing just fine here."
The perception that sexism has been solved - that modern Britain banished the historical evil of misogyny through equality legislation and the removal of formal barriers to employment - is pervasive. The rationale is: 'if I don't see it, it can't be that bad.'
If only that were true. The claim that western women don't need International Women's Day infuriated me. I had spent the day frantically calling lawyers and friends after being informed by male friends and complete strangers that 'Lad' websites and male chat forums had posted pictures of me from news sites and discussed how best to violently rape or sexually assault me. I scrolled through comment after comment discussing whether it would be preferable to rape me using a knife, or to keep me as a sex slave.
According to Rape Crisis, one in five women in the UK will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes in the UK. Now more than ever, feminism can't be allowed to peter out among claims that formal legislation equates to eradication of the problem.
My friend Marlena and I had been in the media because we had been booed during the final of a debating competition by a small number of male Glasgow University Union members. The men analysed our sexual attractiveness throughout the debate, told female audience members they were 'frigid b****' when they were confronted and shouted 'get that woman out of my union' when my partner Marlena approached them after the debate.
In the past week, female students from Glasgow reported that some male GUU members in the past have allegedly played a game where they grab a female student, tell her they were going to rape her, and then time themselves to see how long they could hold on as the woman struggled. This game was played on campus, by university members, and always against women.
The response to women who speak out about sexism from the media is an interesting one. Women who publically protest against sexism are often met with the response that they are whiners: unable to cope in a tough world. Alternatively, they are dismissed as radical feminists with an agenda, or are personally attacked based on their attractiveness. The MP Clare Short, when protesting against Page Three in 2004, was dismissed by The Sun as only campaigning against topless modelling because she was 'fat and jealous'.
The national media in many ways has perpetuated tired sexist stereotypes. When reporting on the GUU incident, some newspapers falsely claimed that we had been reduced to tears in the debate because the boys called us ugly - playing in to narratives that we were female wallflowers that should be pitied and petted because some men had been mean. We hadn't cried; in fact we'd confronted the men involved and the organisers only to be told that 'it was to be expected' and 'par for the course' that women would be booed in the union for their gender.
Others emphasised that I studied at Cambridge, with several commentators from the public noting that this probably meant I was sheltered and couldn't deal with heckles. I attend Cambridge on a bursary and I grew up in the West of Scotland, 30 minutes from Glasgow. The idea that I was an English rose wrapped in cotton wool, who just couldn't handle the big bad world, encouraged blatant apologism for the sexism I had encountered. The idea that a woman should accept being sexualised and abused for her gender is inexcusable, regardless of her background. But more importantly, it attempts to victim-blame; to paint the picture that women who speak up against sexism do so because they aren't able to handle the heat, rather than because they have genuine grievances.
Gerald Warner, a GUU old-boy writing in the Spectator, went as far as to say that women just aren't suited to the 'rough and tumble of a dialectic free-for-all.' I was the 3rd top speaker in Europe at the European University Debating Championships; one of the female debaters abused by the men in the audience was the top speaker at the World Championships. We can deal with heckles and we have beaten men in debates hundreds of times. What I'm trying to work out is why the onus is on us to interrupt our speeches and explain to men why saying 'what does a woman know anyway' is unacceptable when the same men are free from any such interruptions when they choose to speak.
Women are as good at debating as men; but Warner should remember that a 'free for all' doesn't usually include one speaker being harassed because of their gender or race. That seems to miss most of the criteria of a free discussion under any definition I can think of.
Warner claimed that we were heckled because we introduced 'feminist clichés' into a debate about religion. The desire to portray women who speak out as extremist radical feminists who are to be ignored because they just like complaining is not one we just find among young men or 'Lad' sites - it is pervasive within mainstream culture. Warner again got his facts wrong. I was booed before I even started speaking. The six men in the debate with us spoke about female priests and female equality, and yet weren't booed. Warner even claimed that if the men hadn't disparaged our appearance, women in the audience would have. Rampant apologism for young men, excuses for sexist behaviour, and the attempt to denigrate women as hysterical radicals who have a pathological hatred towards men - or each other - allows exposure of sexism to be lost among gendered narratives and excuses.
The problem with societal discussions about sexism is that they are presented as black and white issues. Women are juxtaposed against men. When I spoke to journalists, I continually tried to emphasise that men in debating had been hugely supportive, and that senior debaters at the GUU (many of them men) had written a public note condemning the male students involved in the heckling. Sadly, that never seemed to get mentioned in print. The story that some men are also feminists, not just creepy internet users who threaten young women, didn't seem to be a relevant one.
And that is why western society still needs feminism. Because while it seems like formal barriers have gone a long way to increase equality, sexism hasn't gone away - it has just morphed into a subtler and more insidious form. We are a society that is too often silent on sexism. When women speak out they are often treated either as oversensitive wallflowers, or as militant feminists with an agenda. When women are reported upon in daily newspapers or enter student unions, they are fair game for men to sexualise and attack with threats of sexual violence. And media outlets defend or propagate these men's right to 'free speech' or use gendered language to colour the portrayal of the victim.
While we should continue to fight against sexism worldwide, the 'grading' of sexism based on different levels of harm is a temptation which should be resisted. Deciding that the legal treatment of women in other countries is worse than in the West does not mean we have reached some kind of an objective 'end point' - a satisfactory place in which we can assume equality exists. Women may be perceived to have equal opportunity to men, but they are still more likely to paid less than their male counterparts for the same job (according to research by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit) and remain under-represented in high-powered career fields.
According to Women's Aid, 11,310 women will have used domestic violence help services on International Women's Day. On International Women's Day an estimated 10,000 women will have been working as sex workers in the UK after being forcibly sex trafficked. On International Women's Day I was offered huge sums of money to pose in my underwear for a British media outlet that didn't want to write a story on sexism or misogyny - it just wanted its readers to see the latest nameless woman it had provided for them. This is why feminism is as relevant as it has ever been.
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