Last week I went to see Made
in Dagenham – a film that had a special significance for me since I was the MP for Dagenham for eleven years.
I thoroughly enjoyed its uplifting account of a successful struggle for women’s rights at work.
Sadly, of course, one’s pleasure at such moments does not survive long the
harsh reality of today’s news headlines. Discrimination
in its many forms is still alive and well right across the globe. And discrimination against women, even
in New Zealand, is still a daily reality.
The horrific death of a young woman who was burnt alive is
– thankfully – something we do not expect to see in our country. But, lest we dismiss it too
readily, let us recognise our shamefully high incidence of domestic violence, the majority of whose victims are women.The statistics record only those cases that are reported.
They take no account of those women who suffer in silence, resigned to their fate. Nor do they recognise
those many women who are abused psychologically rather than physically or sexually.
The New Zealand legislation
on domestic violence was amended in 1995 to include psychological abuse (or what is now referred to in the literature as “coercive
control”), but New Zealand judges, lawyers, counsellors and psychologists have made little attempt to acknowledge that
psychological abuse exists, let alone provide a remedy.
Discrimination against women, of course, takes many forms,
not all of which necessarily involve violence. In recent days, for example, two UK Sky sports reporters
have been dismissed after their sexist and demeaning comments about women (as well as their casual and laughably mistaken
assumption that a female lineswoman could not understand football’s offside rule) were mistakenly broadcast live.
The Sky journalists made
the kind of comments that can be heard in any pub or club in both New Zealand and the UK. Their mistake
was to have them broadcast. But the dismissive assumption that this was merely “laddish” behaviour
and that no harm was done – a view apparently shared by some of our own sports journalists if Martin Devlin’s
comments are anything to go by - entirely misses the point. It is doubtful if those who treat the matter so lightly have any idea of how damaging
such discrimination is to the self-esteem of women or of how much it owes to a deeply entrenched prejudice that has been deliberately
used to enslave and devalue women over many centuries and in virtually all societies.
My thirteen year-old granddaughter,
who is intensely interested in issues of discrimination, recently asked me what I thought was the most damaging and pervasive
kind of such behaviour. She was a little surprised when, after a moment’s reflection, I replied that, in my view, discrimination
against women was the most significant. All
forms of discrimination are of course deeply offensive and damaging to their victims. So why – given
the wounding treatment of minorities on racial, religious, sexual orientation or disability grounds – do I think that
discrimination against women is the most serious?
In purely numerical terms of course, discrimination against
women, affecting as it does over half the world’s population, must take pride of place, not just for its impact on those
billions of individuals but also on the societies in which they live. But it is not merely the numbers
distinguishes discrimination against women from other forms of such reprehensible behaviour is that it is an integral, deliberate,
and entrenched element in cultures and religions around the world and from time immemorial. It is to be
found as the foundation stone of most social orders. Men in all societies and cultures have used their
physical strength and their freedom from the burdens of child-bearing and child-rearing to ensure that women are subjugated
is it that boys who love their mothers, are brought up with their sisters and eventually dote on their daughters can grow
up to be party to such systematic abuse? How can they not only tolerate but enforce codes that allow them
- indeed, require them - to stone women to death, mutilate them physically and sexually, treat them as chattels, and deny
them education and the freedom to choose?
In today’s Western societies, it is true, these extreme
behaviours are no longer tolerated. But the efforts are still made to keep women in their place, as the
women of Dagenham and the English lineswoman found.
The explanation is not that the strong male cannot help but
assert his superiority, but that the weak and frightened male needs to hide his fear by burying it deep in centuries-old religious,
moral and social codes that ensure that women are kept under control. And what is it that men are frightened
answer is that it is the power of women’s sexuality that frightens men. From Eve in the Garden of
Eden to the present day, men have found it necessary to counter that fear by destroying, restricting, commodifying and demeaning
that sexuality, and by identifying it as the origin of sin and of many of society’s ills. The rules
that male-dominated societies – and that means most societies – have put in place and that are supposedly justified
by religious belief or the need for social order are in the end no more than an attempt to limit the power that women should
legitimately claim and exercise to everyone’s advantage.
This article was published in the NZ Herald on 7 February 2011