Recently, I got into a heated debate with an Italian man who believed that sexism in the West no longer exists. He was adamant that gender inequality is a thing of the past, a societal problem now only existent in countries far from our little Western bubble. He used the Middle East as an example of where sexism still prevails, arguing that compared to the inequality there, here it is history. Sexism in the Middle East is clearer to see with the naked eye because of how entrenched inequality is in society. Sadly, women are still denied many fundamental rights. This is highlighted to western readers as new progressive policies receive broad media coverage. Recent examples include women being legally allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and Afghan mothers being able to have their name on their children’s birth certificates. The natural comparisons in societal treatment of women in those countries with those at home would seem to imply that it is no longer an issue here.
In the West women’s rights progressed beyond voting bans and maternal rights in the last century, long enough ago that one could simplistically believe, like he was saying, that we have achieved gender equality. But sexism isn’t a matter of relativity, a “they have it way worse so we’re fine” mindset is just not how it works. If anything, feminism is a fight for women everywhere and equality will always be far off as long as women anywhere in the world – North, East, South, or West – are being suppressed.
As a privileged white male, it was clear he had never experienced harassment because of the body he was born in. Granted, the West has made more progress on paper than some places in other parts of the world, but this does not mean we have achieved gender equality. Here sexism is more insidious, it manifests itself less as front-page news stories, such as the right to drive a car, but more-so in ways that still affect every girl and woman in her daily life. I, as well as every single female friend I have, have experienced some sort of harassment in their lifetime. I told this Italian that my very first time in a club in Italy, I was surrounded by a group of men that started dancing with me and passing me around like a rag doll. I asked him if he thought it was fair that when girls go out to dance with their friends they get treated this way, getting felt up by strangers (or worse). He said if a club is where you decide to go to have fun, you had it coming. We clearly still have a long way to go if there are enough men around that touch-up girls in clubs and justify that behaviour as the girls’ fault for being in the club.
The pandemic has helped to bring the ugly truth to the surface. Rates of domestic abuse and femicide rose in countries across Europe over the spring months of lockdown. A couple of these cases even became news headlines, with one of them reading “When staying home becomes dangerous”. The problem is so prominent in Italy that there is a term that refers specifically to orphans of femicide: orfani speciali (special orphans). A law was passed this year to protect these orphans financially. Over lockdown, domestic abuse hotlines in several European countries reported huge increases in calls. In the first week of lockdown, Paris reported over 30% more calls than normal. Email contact in France saw a staggering 286% increase. After three weeks of lockdown in the UK, calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline were up 49%, and between the 23rd of March and the 12th of April, The Counting Dead Women Project reported at least 16 domestic abuse killings had taken place in the UK – over double rates for that time of year in previous years.
Harassment and abuse clearly aren’t confined to the club – which you can choose to avoid. Home is somewhere you cannot avoid, particularly when you are being ordered to stay at home by law. I didn’t ask the Italian his opinion on this, I wonder if he would have considered this their fault as well. Maybe he’d say they must have done something to provoke their partner.
A couple of months ago on the steps of the US Capitol, an incident occurred in front of the press that demonstrated the fear and resentment of women in positions of power. Republican Ted Yoho called progressive Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “disgusting” and a “f-cking b*tch”. By making such comments he took their political disagreements within the Capitol, brought them outside, and made them personal. This man is part of the power structure of the so-called “leader of the Western world”. The fact that Trump, a man who has over two dozen sexual assault allegations against him and continually degrades and sexualises women in interviews was elected president gives you an idea of how normalised sexism still is. Even more so that he has received millions more votes in this election, which shows that for a large proportion of the American public, being a misogynist isn’t a dealbreaker.
These examples of harassment and abuse in clubs, at home, and in government are symptomatic of a societal view that women’s bodies are fair game. Women are still seen as the second sex.
Data from the European Trade Union Confederation shows pay disparities between men and women are growing in several European countries. Its results mean that if current trends continue, British women will have to wait another 58 years, until 2078, for the gender pay gap in the UK to close.
The European Institute for Gender Equality’s 2020 Gender Equality Index stated that “with 67.9 out of 100 points, the EU has a long way to go before reaching gender equality.” The Index takes into account factors such as access and inequalities of work, money, time (housework etc.), positions of power, and education. It found that it will take the EU over 60 years to achieve gender equality. “We need to speed up,” it concluded.
Maybe showing all these stats would have changed this man’s mind, maybe they wouldn’t. But considering we were in a group at a bar, it probably wasn’t the time and place. But just because this problem hasn’t directly affected him, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If we all use this simplistic logic no cohesive social progress for those who are marginalised, mistreated, or discriminated against will ever take place. It’s up to all of us to educate ourselves and to stand up for what is right not just for us as individuals, but for everyone in society.
Words by Francesca McClimont