UN spokeswoman for violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, has in some rather controversial comments branded Britain the most sexist country in the world, sparking a fierce defensive backlash in the British media. On a recent visit to the country, the UN envoy claimed that the sexism exhibited in the UK was more “in your face” than in other countries and voiced concerns over the fact that sexual harassment and bullying were regular occurrences in both the school environment and the work place. Highlighting the easy availability of porn and the overtly sexual portrayal of women in the media, Ms. Manjoo suggested the sexist culture stemmed from an entrenched “boys club” society in Britain which leads to certain questionable perceptions of the women in the country.
These comments form part of Ms. Manjoo’s initial findings in her investigation into violence against women in the UK and she is due to report back to the UN Human Rights Council at a later date. Aside from her roles in the UN Ms. Manjoo is also a part-time professor in public law in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. As an extension of her findings was her other assertion that recent austerity cuts have impacted the female population more than their male counterparts in Britain. She had tried to gain access to the Yarls Wood Immigration Detention Center that holds a large number of female immigrants facing deportation in order to try to gauge levels of violence against these extremely vulnerable women. Her claims that she was prevented from doing so due to a stipulation from the Home Office has not been confirmed by the British Government. Their only comment on the subject was that the issue of violence against women was a high priority and almost 40 million pounds had been set aside specifically to help combat the problem.
Her comments were greeted with an unsurprising burst of outrage and denial from the majority of the media outlets and one or two high-profile women of the country. Former Conservative MP Edwina Currie batted the claims away with a rather limp protest that the majority of women she knows in Britain are quite happy with the social culture of the country and suggested that Ms Manjoo should criticize countries where laws are much more discriminatory, for example places where women are not allowed to drive or walk around without covering their faces. The notoriously right-wing newspaper The Daily Mail also highlighted the fact Ms Manjoo hails from Cape Town in South Africa which has the dubious honor of being named the “rape capital of the world.” They clearly felt that to brand Britain as the most sexist country in the world was a joke worthy of ridicule, but more than that they took it as a slight on the culture of their country complaining that she is not the first foreign official to try to lecture the British Isles on their social issues.
The problem is, as usual, things have settled at two extreme ends of the spectrum. Ms Manjoo’s comments seem to be a clear exaggeration of the problem as a democratic country with equal rights enshrined by law seems an unlikely candidate for the unwanted title. Meanwhile the response to her statement has merely gone the opposite way and completely ignored the issues she raises, disparaging them as mere fantasy and instead pointing the finger at those worse off in an attempt to distract from the issue at hand. Their calls for her to visit various other countries where women are routinely attacked, oppressed or persecuted actually show that they are missing the point. The fact is, she has been to all of these countries, witnessed terrible things and so she is actually in a fairly astute position to judge the nature of sexist culture. Britain might be ranked 18th out of 136 countries for their record of equality, however it is clear that there is still work to be done otherwise why would she bother to create such a fuss with deliberately inflammatory remarks?
Ms Manjoo’s point is that while discrimination against women is illegal in Britain, it does not mean that sexism is not present in other forms that could be just as damaging to women. In many of the countries renowned for unfavorable gender equality, particularly in the Saudi Arabia for example, the sexist culture is all about concealment and legal oppression designed to intimidate and control the female population. African countries also tend to use physical violence in the form of female genital mutilation (FGM) to maintain their patriarchal, sexist societies. The sort of sexist attitudes shown in the UK are vastly different to these examples, as they focus conversely on glorifying sex, the female body and titillating young girls in completely inappropriate manners. The use of social media, sexually motivated advertising campaigns and negative, sexually explicit media portrayals of the female body, combined with the worryingly potent belief that gender inequality is a thing of the past, has meant that sexism in British society is a difficult and somewhat hushed up problem.
Yet women are scrutinized on the basis of their appearance by the public and the media at every turn, high heels and revealing clothes are consistently part of clothing ranges targeted at young girls, and eating disorders are on the rise. Incidents of sexual harassment and even attacks are also increasingly common with modern surveys giving shocking evidence that many girls view sexual violence as the norm. All of these things in a country which prides itself on being a democratic, progressive, equality focused society. . .There is no doubt that women in Britain have many advantages over their counterparts in less developed or less democratic countries, yet in a way they have to live with the more difficult knowledge that if they dare to speak out about the everyday sexism evident in Britain their views will often be dismissed as unwarranted and without a factual basis by a large part of the Western world. They will often be branded as militant, men-hating feminists who don’t appreciate the culture they are born into and are not grateful for the rights they have which many other women in the world are still striving to gain.
So is Rashida Manjoo right in her branding of Britain as the worlds most sexist country? The answer seems to be, unlikely. Nevertheless it would be a fallacy to claim that gender inequality does not exist in the country, or that sexism does not take many forms – some more easily recognizable than others. Her comments, therefore, have at least drawn attention to a problem Britain is very unwilling to acknowledge as its own.
Commentary by Rhona Scullion