Monthly Archives: October 2015

The F Word

When it comes to –isms, I have a sneaking suspicion that they are mostly negative.

Take, for example: racism, terrorism, totalitarianism, ageism, homophobism.

Ok, ok, well spotted: the last one is better known as homophobia (yeah – no one remembers the film arachnophobism either).

And there are hundreds more – someone has even kindly compiled a list.  Whoever knew thermoperiodism was a thing?

… As, of course, is feminism.

(that was smooth, even by my standards, don’t you think?)

Feminism, then, dear readers: negative or positive?

You have been warned

You have been warned

There’s probably not much point in my pretending to be neutral about it (this being a blog about gender equality ‘n all).  Clearly feminism, for me, is a good thing. However, I am at least objective enough to recognise other people think differently.

Which is intriguing. We don’t generally ponder the merits of racism, for example; we either instinctively know (even if we’ll have to agree to disagree with Ku Klux Klan members) or have come to understand that it is ridiculous, hurtful and counter-productive to discriminate on the basis of skin colour.

Why, then, does taking the same principle and applying it to women’s rights cause so much suspicion-slash-sighing-slash-eyerolling?

And not just from my husband.

For example, would you describe yourself as a feminist?

Well, hang on, before you answer – it’s always wise to read the small print first.  Let me give you the Oxford English Dictionary definition, and then you can decide whether you’re in or out.

credit: OED

credit: OED

(In case you were wondering, definitions 1) and 2) were, respectively, femininity/feminine traits (so that would be, you remember, multitasking and getting lost) and the appearance of female sexual characteristics in a male.)

So feminism (or ‘womanism’ did you spot that one in the cf. section?) = “advocacy of the equality of the sexes”.

Well, what is there not to like about that? Do women who say they aren’t feminist disagree with their own equality?

I don’t think they do: rather, either they think they don’t need a label, or a movement, or don’t want to be seen as under-dog in the first place; or they have a fundamental issue with what they think feminism actually entails.

What does gender equality entail, justement?

Quick multiple choice question for you (prize for the winner).

Is feminism:

a) about rejecting men?
b) about women’s political empowerment?
c) about access to birth control?

Well – at various points since the Suffragettes’ brave movement in the early 20th century, it has been d) all of the above, and much more (sorry, trick question: no prizes).  The history of feminism has its own detailed wikipedia entry so I don’t intend to reproduce (ho) one here, but in the last two centuries feminism has often been focused either on specific issues (e.g. the battle for the right to vote) or specific reasoning for action (e.g. economic productivity v. ethics or equity).

So it’s a bit like saying: feminists all agree on equality, but we don’t agree on whose fault is it that we’re not equal in the first place, and nor do we agree on the best way to fix it.

This internal debate has spilled over, with the unfortunate consequence of the more extreme forms of feminism – such as blanket hostility (hostilism?) towards men – coming to symbolise what it’s all about.

This, in turn, has led to the kind of head-shaking I get from some of my friends when I talk to them. Nah, they say; all that bra-burning – not for me, mate.

I get that. I like my M+S matching sets: I have no urge to take to the street and burn my lingerie in the name of equal rights.

*slight identity crisis* does that, then, make me an anti-feminist?

Because there is an anti-feminist movement. I was curious about what that could be about (“let’s promote a crappy time for women, everyone!”), but thankfully I stumbled across Women Against Feminism and their members’ brightly-penned messages/selfies decrying why they did not need feminism, and all became clear.

well... exactly.

well… yes. your point being?

So: on one level, a rejection of feminism is (at least superficially) a misunderstanding of what it means, and how people then interpret that meaning in relation to their own individual lives.

But on a much deeper level, there is no misunderstanding at all, and the opposition comes precisely from what feminism wants to achieve (and what it takes to achieve it).

What I mean is this. Since equality logically implies readjusting unbalanced access to resources, opportunities, and autonomy, feminism will always be perceived as wanting to change (or at least challenge) existing power structures (and all the tradition, culture, etc that goes with/supports them).

So we’re looking at a best-case scenario of muttered frustration (think quotas) but more likely systematic rejection and resistance (nothing like a good acid attack or honour-killing to nip things in the bud).

This is partly why campaigns making feminism relevant to men are so important, such as This is What a Feminist Looks Like (hurrah for Benedict)

He da man

He da man

or #HeForShe, launched by British actress Emma Watson (yes, yes, Hermione Granger, but also UN Women Goodwill Ambassador) last September.

Video below – watch it over your morning cornflakes, and see if you get that tingly feeling with the “if not now…” conclusion, like I did.

A propos: the Daily Mail largely (deliberately?) missed the point of Watson’s speech, covering the launch of the campaign with an article which spent more time describing what Watson was wearing than what she was saying.

Thankfully they were ridiculed with a great parody article from Underground Magazine;
excellently done, but in itself a reminder of why things need to change (the parody is only funny because it is a parody).

Capture d’écran 2015-10-30 à 00.29.04

So, yes, I’m a feminist. So are you: you can’t not be, I’m afraid. Because feminism is simply about equal access, equal merit, equal treatment. If you don’t have that, you must want it, I suppose. And if you think you’ve got it already, good for you, but remember most of the world’s women still don’t.

Feminism, womanism: or how about just plain humanism?

That one, I think, definitely has a positive ring to it.

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When Harry Met Sally….

… this is what he said:

Alright, the link to gender equality is a lit-tle tenuous, but this is my thirteenth post, and I’m indulging myself as a reward.

(Even if I do feel a bit defensive about it. Like when I tell my daughter she should not eat sweets and then chew my way through a packet of Haribo crocodiles-qui-piquent as soon as she is in bed).

So. Where do you come out? Can women and men be “just friends”?

Had I asked myself the question ten years ago, the answer would have been a puzzled and adamant, ‘of course!’.

But after over a decade in France, and almost as long with a French husband, I find the answer a lot harder to give; at least, definitively.

Let me try to unravel that.

At college and university I had many boy-friends (note the hyphen). I don’t recall those relationships slipping into fuzzy territory. Many of those friendships took root while either of us were with someone else.  For the most part, my boyfriends (no hyphen) were fine with that (as I was, for them).

But those were my younger carefree years, when we all went cheerfully out together for a pint without thinking twice about it.

These days, I’m mostly surrounded by friends in long-term monogamous relationships, often with children. I’m not sure quite how it has happened, but suddenly the idea of drinking beers just with your gal/mal pal seems a bit odd (not to mention logistically challenging).

So. Getting older = mixed-sex friendships occur less frequently.

Which gives them a very different status…

…especially in France?

Hear me out before you accuse me of #Frenchbashing. In a country where absolutely everything can be turned into a baccalauréat philosophy exam question, it’s surprising there’s not more existentialism over amitiés platoniques.

Could it be the French, with their libertarian views on mistresses, sex and cigarettes, cannot comprehend platonic friendships? Whereas in the (less-Madame-Bovary) UK, we’re a bit more androgynous, or laid back enough to hang out altogether down the pub without it being, justement, compliqué?

I certainly don’t have any close male French friends. I’m pretty sure my husband would be perplexed if I did. His bande-de-potes are all mecs, and our social gatherings are instinctively women on one side, men on the other: drinking Get27 (urgh, urgh) and feeding my putain aversion.

Alright: I know that’s all very subjective. Maybe other French men are different; or maybe those friendships I thought were entirely black/white fifteen years ago in the UK were, all along, a blurry shade of grey (not one of those Shades of Gray – I would have noticed that).

After all, researchers have found that men in mixed-sex friendships are much more likely than women to a) find their female friend attractive and b) (mistakenly) assume she feels likewise.

So was Billy Crystal right all along, and the male friends of my early 20s were secretly lusting after me, femme fatale that I am?

Sorry; I don’t buy it (shame. Quite liked the idea of being a femme fatale).

What, after all, is so complicated about mixed-sex friendships? Caveat of femme-fatale-ignorance aside, why do we assume that it’s impossible for men and women to laugh without then wanting to jump into bed together?

Some argue that it’s because opposite-sex-friendships (OSF, of course there is An Acronym, will add to glossary) are still relatively recent. It’s true that it’s only in the last fifty years that men and women have begun to study and work together; and since interaction before then was in the context of marriage or family relationships, perhaps our instinctive doubt about platonic friendships stems from their novelty?

Paradoxically, in parallel, the concept of marriage has also moved on. We no longer marry (exclusively!) for money, out of obligation, or to make a good match.  We have therefore developed (great) expectations (and a rose-tinted vision) of marriage as tantamount to exclusive soulmates, best friends, partners for life.

Do we then feel guilty about external friendships because they imply that our relationships aren’t up to such a utopian standard? That there are somehow gaps to fill, which shouldn’t exist?

Or does the discomfort spring from a relationship we can’t quite grasp, that doesn’t fit in the boxes described by William Deresiewicz in his NY Times article?

We have trouble, in our culture, with any love that isn’t based on sex or blood. We understand romantic relationships, and we understand family, and that’s about all we seem to understand.

Whatever the reason, it is true: we seem unable to picture a platonic friendship without (consciously or unconsciously) suspecting murky currents of transgression and attraction.

Talk about paranoia, eh?

…Or maybe not.

After all, to be friends in the first place, there has to be some connection (even if it’s not physical). A meeting of minds, shared sense of humour; something in the other person that makes you click.  I certainly have that with all my girl-friends (hyphen again).

So why or rather when does it become an issue in mixed friendships?

Well, my take on it is this: that such friendships are tricky because of the constant possibillity of more.

Symbolised by the (very, very) fine line between harmless enjoyment of another person’s company and something else entirely; a line that is easily – and sometimes even unnoticeably – crossed.

And once it is crossed, by one or both parties: then what?

Yes: hardly surprising, really, that we hastily prefix our male-female friendships with “platonic”.

Rather, the question is, who is it we are rushing to reassure?

(don't) put your hands on me Jack?

(don’t) put your hands on me Jack?

I sound like I’m saying that platonic friendships are doomed from the word go.   Actually, no – look, Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio have managed it for fifteen years under Hollywood’s not-quite-believing glare (and if Kate and Leo can do it…)

But I do think with age and circumstance, such friendships face greater challenge.

Maybe that’s it, then.  For me at least.  When I was twenty and single, I could see whomever I chose (Sinead said so).

Now, I can’t (and don’t want to – let’s keep the hyphens), but the fact that I’m conscious of different limits, and conscious also of other people’s reactions if they suspect I am breaching those limits: well, that means platonic friendships have become a thing. 

Whereas before, they never were. And therefore, a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Now there’s a philosophy exam question.

Goals, or goalposts?

Credit: UN.org

Credit: UN.org

Women of the world, unite: we have a brand-new set of international goals which, by 2030, will render this blog entirely unnecessary!

But of course you already knew that, didn’t you?

What? You missed it?

Tsk. Well, actually, it’s understandable that the UN negotiations passed you by: two years of delightful diplomacy, grandstanding, consulting, arguing over semi-colons; all a bit other-worldly.

But the end product is worth your attention, because each of the new goals is about YOU.

Yes, you!

Let’s start with the basics: we’re talking about the Sustainable Development Goals, or the SDGs (aha, another acronym! I’ll have to create a ZeFWord glossary soon.  Or a quiz.  Shall we have a quiz?)

We could spend another two years attempting to unravel the why and eh? of the SDGs, but I assume you’d rather not (if I assume wrongly, the Guardian does a good beginners’ guide).

Instead, how about I just give you the three things you need to know to bluff convincingly about the SDGs down the pub (be careful to enunciate properly, or your mates will wonder why you’re telling them about herpes over your Friday pint).

Here we go:

  1. The SDGs are the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs. I won’t put that one in the quiz, since they’ve expired).  The MDGs guided international poverty reduction between 2000-2015, with some successes (reducing monetary poverty, education enrolment) and some peut-mieux-faire (infant mortality):Capture d’écran 2015-10-05 à 22.10.44
  2. The SDGs are double the size and scope of the MDGs: 17 goals, 169 targets, some 1025 indicators, etc. They add new subjects such as justice, climate, healthy and sustainable lifestyles.
  3. They are universal: the UK will be just as accountable, as, say, Niger.  

Here are the SDGs in all their glossy newness:

Source: UN

Source: UN

Aren’t they pretty?

Pretty, yes, and as I said, pretty important: the future of your planet, your city, your government, your money, your dignity, your health, your education.

Especially if you happen to be a woman.

Why?

For two main reasons:

  • the SDGs take a much broader perspective of gender equality than their predecessor, with a stand-alone goal that covers violence, harmful practices (including FGM), recognising value of unpaid work, political and economic participation, sexual and reproductive health and rights (or SRHR, another one for the glossary), equal access to assets
  • they incorporate a gender “lens” across other goals (such as focusing on needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women in Goal 2 (End Hunger).

Good!

But (sorry to be so demanding) not good enough, since:

  • the gender “lens” doesn’t appear to have been applied very thoroughly. Take Goal 3 (Health and Wellbeing). We could have done with some recognition that the burden of care of family members often falls to women. Or think about Goal 6 (Water and Sanitation) (or, if you’re down with the kids, WatSan): women do most of the water collecting in developing countries. Two of the (many) immediate implications of this are the physical burden and the frequency of sexual violence at water-collection points, but there is no explicit consideration of such angles
  • Maternal mortality – which was a standalone goal under the MDGs (and the one that made the least progress, NDLR) – has been subsumed into the new health goal. Nice and tidy, perhaps: but sensible? Call me cynical, but I don’t think dying-in-childbirth is an appropriate antonym of “wellbeing”. And in fact, we actually need to go in the other direction (as I have argued elsewhere).  It’s not (duh!) enough to avoid women dying while they give birth; we must also prevent the horrendous debilitating injuries that come from unsafe/unattended births.

Of course, this the problem: how do you decide what gets a goal, or a target, or nothing at all, when there are so many worthwhile issues out there?

Governments got away with deciding the answer to that question when the MDGs were first drawn up in 2000, since nobody was paying much attention (yawn. another UN thingy).  But the MDGs ended up becoming quite successful at channelling money and attention to specific causes. Consequently, this time round, many more people have wanted to have their say (hey, the UN thingy worked, guys, let’s get that protecting hedgehogs goal on the list).

This has been heightened thanks to a real effort by the UN to consult the entire planet on what sustainable development should look like (commendable, certes, but bound to make consensus a little tricky).

So it’s hardly surprising that there are twice as many SDGs as MDGs.  It’s a miracle, actually, that we only ended up with 17 goals (and not 170).

But just 17 (remember the magazine?); well, that’s still beaucoup.  Even developed countries are going to struggle to make progress across all of the goals. So, if you’re a sensible government with either limited means or no real desire to do anything about the difficult issues (cf those pesky women dying in childbirth) you’ll just cherry pick what’s easy and/or useful to you.

And, frankly, who’s going to stop you? Although the new goals are universal (as opposed to the MDGs, where we focused only on developing regions), they are not universally binding. There is no menacing (wo)man with a rottweiler who is going to come knocking at your door asking why you’re not making progress on all 17.

Let me also highlight two other criticisms of Gender and the SDGs (another almost-Harry-Potter-esque title), as discussed by Naila Kabeer, Professor of Gender and Development at the LSE, in her paper this month.

The first is the omittance of a rights-based approach to the goals (too complex to delve into here) and the second is a continued hangover from the MDGs in fussing over measuring targets instead of actually tackling issues:

we need to pay more attention to the substance of the changes we want to see, not just their form; to the quality of the solutions we achieve, not just their number

That said, the clarity of the goals is paramount to paving the way to results. And you only need to scan the list of proposed targets to realise how, well, unclear they sometimes are.  Take Goal 4, Target 4.6:

By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy

What is a “substantial proportion”, do you reckon? 55%? 63%? 87%?

Anyhow. I’ve probably exhausted you by now, and international development frameworks (and their ensuing acronyms) require much more space for analysis than the rudimentary discussion above.

So let’s close there. But in a nutshell (one you can offer thoughtfully as your conclusion over that Friday night pint) the SDGs are Good News.  How much they are Great News depends on the (devil of) detail, as well as implementation, from now until 2030.

And neither can be taken for granted.

I won’t get my coat, just yet.