Saturday, 27 October 2012

Giving feminism a bad name?

Today I came across this picture, of the Ukranian feminist protest group Femen:

It shows young, attractive women, some of whom are showing a nipple, in slogan T-shirts amid furniture. The women were protesting in Ikea in Paris, because the company has removed pictures of women from its catalogue for Saudi Arabia.

But by getting their nipples out and creating a ruckus in our favourite furniture store, are they giving feminism a bad name?

Rude girls

Undoubtedly many people across the world will have looked at these pictures in their newspapers and on the internet and tutted, dismissed them as feminists, seen these women as young and misguided, exposing themselves, causing trouble where they don't need to. Or else they will be pleased that they chose to wear nipple-exposing garments, as if you don't care or don't know what they're protesting about, at least you get to look at some attractive topless women, so everyone's a winner.

But whether you like it or not, you have noticed. Millions of people have seen these pictures. And it took showing their nipples to make that happen, because if they hadn't shown their nipples, we all know it wouldn't have been big news. They wouldn't have made the newspapers in the way that they have. So, yes, they do have to strip off to get themselves noticed, because it worked. And now you know that Ikea was happy to delete women from its publicity material in some parts of the world.

Nice girls

Femen is the face of radical feminism today. In the UK we take for granted the fact that we no longer have to chain ourselves to railings to get the same rights as men, but in other parts of the world (such as Botswana), this just isn't the case. And these women are standing up and telling the world that that's not OK. It's not acceptable for powerful multi-national companies, like Ikea, to collude in the suppression and censorship of women. These are our modern Emmeline Pankhursts.

Of course, we don't all need to be stripping off for equal rights. We don't all need to be Emmeline Pankhursts or Femens. Sometimes, just having your rights and showing you value them by exercising them from time to time, is enough. We don't have to join the Femen women, but we can, quietly support then, by not condemning then, by not laughing at them for getting their nipples out in Ikea, and by acknowledging that actually they have a very good point to make, and how else were they going to make you sit up and listen?

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Battle of the Brooms: Housework

Housework is still an issue that looms large. Recent news stories about housework have included:

It's still a topical issue, this deciding who does what. Interestingly, an internet search revealed a lot more articles in the Daily Mail about this than anywhere else, suggesting that the writers of this particular rag believe the issue to be a particularly pertinent issue for their readers. So is housework The Elephant in the Room? Or is it just something that reactionary newspapers like to write stories about every time they get hold of another bit of research that they can pull out of context?

Where are we now?

So here we are girlies. Here is the wealthy western world we have more or less equal opportunities, we are thoroughly enfranchised, with access to education, the pill, abortion, maternity leave. The glass ceiling may still be there, but it's definitely cracking. Really, it's not that bad.There are still things to be done, but we're doing OK.

But what about the housework? Women now work the same hours as men but invariably end up doing a lot more housework. Figures from the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank in March this year suggested that eight out of 10 married women do more household chores, while just one in 10 married men does an equal amount of cleaning and washing as his wife.

Now one thing I do think is that if he works full time and she stays at home or work part time, then yes she should be doing most of the housework. That is logical. Likewise if she works full time and he works part time or not at all, she should be able to come home to dinner and a clean house. Stands to reason. The trouble is, that while in the past he went out to work and earned the money while she stayed in and cooked and cleaned, now they both go out and earn the money, and in their spare time, she runs around frantically trying to do the cooking and cleaning. What's going wrong? Why are our men sitting idly by as we spend our evenings skivvying? Here are some reasons for this:

1950s-style drawing of a woman slumped down with a mop and bucket1. They see housework as 'women's work'
While there may be a few dinosaurs left out there who take this view, they are dying out fast now. It's now normal for men to cook and change nappies and I think they expect to be doing at least some of this stuff. The men I know don't expect women to do the housework as a matter of course, as they would have done a couple of generations ago.

2. We see it as 'women's work'
I think there are far more women who think this than men. We've done a far better job at winning over the men than the women. A lot of women still see it as an innate part of their femininity to cook and clean for a man. If you are both happy for you to stay at home and do this, then fair enough. But if he expects you to bring home some of the bread, then he should be helping to bake it.

3. We like cooking and cleaning
Our innate nestmaking instincts drive us to it. We like doing it, and we like the feeling of satisfaction we get when it's done. There is something in this. I do love cooking. I don't always count it as housework. The pollmakers do.

4.  Men don't care about the cooking and cleaning as much as women do
Maybe guys just aren't that bothered about whether the house is cleaned top to bottom and they have a cordon bleu meal every night. They either don't care about living surrounded by dirt, or else they just have a higher dirt threshold than their women, which means that we always get to it first. He would rather have a sandwich and ignore the dirty sink, while she will come in after a long day and rush around cooking and cleaning but feel satisfied that at the end of it they can both settle down to eat a nice dinner in a clean house.

In reality you can't separate these out. We're not that simple. We're a big mess of motivations, instincts and cultural practices. We don't make sense (people, not just women). We're full of contradictions, and I'm sure housework will continue to be an elephantine presence for generations to come. Anyway,  must go cook dinner. 

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Victorian feminism comes to Botswana

This week the High Court in Botswana ruled that women can inherit property. The country has a constitution that guarantees equality to men and women, but until now a woman could not inherit her family home.

This is fantastic news for Botswana, and marks a step further in the road to real equality. It also waves a little flag reminding us of something that we probably knew all along, but hadn't thought about. Until now women in Botswana couldn't inherit their family home, and in Zimbabwe, Sudan and Zambia - and I'm sure many more countries, they still can't. Bad enough to lose your parents, husband, brother - but to be left destitute as well?

In Britain we have to go back to the Victorians, more than 130 years ago to find a similar state of affairs. We have the landmark Married Women's Property Act of 1870, which for the first time allowed women to be the legal owners of the money they earned and to inherit property. Then, in 1922 husbands and wives could finally inherit equally. It took half a century to move from between these two stages. I only hope it's quicker for women in Botswana. 

Some feminists argue that there is still some way to go to achieve full equality in western countries, and maybe there is. A gender pay gap, and the costs of childcare are still issues that need our attention, and I don't think we should neglect them - they are important. But compared with the women in Botswana, I am pretty lucky. I grew up equal to my brothers, with exactly the same rights and opportunities. This is something that women in Botswana and Zimbabwe, and other countries, in Africa and elsewhere, wouldn't dare to dream. As a world, we still have a long way to go. 

Monday, 8 October 2012

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

The Minister for Women Maria Miller has said that she thinks we should bring down the legal time limit when women can have abortions. Currently the latest point you can have an abortion is 24 weeks. Miss Miller wants to bring this down to 20 weeks.

I am thoroughly pro-choice. I think the right to have an abortion if you are unfortunate enough to require one is massively important. If you don't want to have an abortion, no one is going to make you, but for women who have been landed with an unwanted pregnancy, whether through bad luck, a mistake, or in the worst case because they have been raped, then I think they should get it if they want it. It’s hardly an easy option. The medical profession encourages women seeking abortions to get them as early as possible. Late abortions, as I understand it (I’m not a medical professional) are most likely to be in the most desperate cases. And what are the most desperate cases? Young girls, rape victims, foetuses displaying signs of serious medical conditions, and women whose own lives could be at risk if they bring the baby to term.

My problem with Miller in this case (I think I could have quite a few problems with her) is not that she is against abortion, it is that she is against medical science. The decision to allow legal abortion in a society is a moral one. It is exactly the kind of issue that politicians should be able to talk about. Debating these kinds of issues, whether you are for or against them, is how our society, our attitudes and our laws grow and change. The precise medical details of when and how abortions take place is an entirely medical issue and should be for the professionals to decide.

Miss Miller argues that care for premature babies has improved and so the point at which a pregnant mother can have an abortion should go down. The implication is that we are now aborting foetuses that are old enough to be living screaming babies. But a review by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists two years ago said there was no scientific evidence to justify a lower limit. And that, I think should be the end of the story.

Jeremy Hunt has now waded into the debate with his twopence-worth, saying that women shouldn't be able to have abortions after 12 weeks. A lot of women don't even know they're pregnant until then! The Royal College (the professionals) says it better than me. In their statement, about Hunt's helpful interventions, they say that his comments 'do not put women at the centre of their care.' And that, Maria Minister of Women, is why you should be staying well out of this. If we need a Minister for Women, shouldn't she be on our side?