UK feminists must address worldwide issues

All over the planet women are denied the most basic rights. Ruthie Samuel asks: where is the outrage?

, 4 February 2008

One of the main criticisms of modern feminism is that ‘the battle has been won’. While it is irritating constantly to have to point out the existence of the pay gap, low rape conviction rates and other real injustices experienced by women in the UK, in one way I understand where the critics are coming from. We are lucky to live in a relatively equal society and, as a feminist, I think it is important to remember this and to be proud of what has been achieved. The stark truth is that the most horrific and commonplace abuses of women’s human rights happen off our shores, and the scale of the problem means that the battle is nowhere near won.

That is not to imply that all other countries are still in the dark ages when it comes to women’s rights, while we Brits are legions ahead in some utopian, perfectly equal society. Far from it: we have plenty to learn from many countries across the globe. But let’s wake up to the fact that no woman, no human being, should have to put up with the violent rape and abuse that thousands of women in Papua New Guinea, Georgia and Darfur have to face – either ignored by government officials or perpetrated by them, as highlighted by Amnesty International. No-one should grow up resigned to the fear of violent gang rape, an epidemic in Haiti completely ignored by the law and society in general, to the extent that rape is often only named as such if the woman attacked was a virgin. Women in Saudi Arabia are regarded as insufficiently reliable for their court testimony to be heard. Fed up with brainless jibes at ‘women drivers’, despite statistics showing women actually have fewer accidents on average? I know I am, but look at it this way – at least we’re not legally banned from driving on public roads, a right that Saudi women may get later this year.

The lack of attention to these issues stems from an unspoken and perhaps unconscious assumption that the oppression of women is part of the ‘natural order’. This points to a more general deficit in our attitudes as a society, which is something that needs to be addressed at home as well as abroad

Just to imprint the scale of this crisis onto your mind with one last sickening example, let’s recap the treatment of one Saudi gang rape victim who was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail for the crime of adultery. Some of you may have heard this woman’s story. If you’re reading a feminist website now, the chances are you’re more likely to have heard it than the average person. But I can guarantee that you and most other people you meet have heard more about the case of the poor woman on trial for naming a classroom teddy bear Mohammad. No prizes for guessing which story got more column inches.

So, are UK feminists to blame for the lack of media attention focused on women’s human rights? The answer is definitely not, and I suspect that the subtle but very real sexism that underlies British culture is the true culprit. While our laws and our citizens may not stand for open maltreatment of women on our soil, the indifference towards the plight of women abused and denied of human rights abroad reveals something wrong in the psyche of the British public. Not enough venom is directed at the regimes and societies that allow and implement such treatment. We’re not talking about a minority, remember. We’re talking about 50% of these populations being denied basic rights, abused, disdained and patronised and yet you wouldn’t know it from the lack of attention paid to these issues by our media, society and politicians. It comes from an unspoken and perhaps unconscious assumption that the oppression of women is part of the ‘natural order’. This points to a more general deficit in our attitudes as a society, which is something that needs to be addressed at home as well as abroad.

This is why UK feminists can’t afford to get distracted by debating what we should be wearing and whether or not it matters if we choose to work part time. We need to focus on getting these human rights abuses the attention they deserve. They should be on the front pages of our newspapers, not just confined to the Guardian’s Women section, and condemned by our politicians until political pressure brings about some change. The lives of millions of women are at stake.

Ruthie Samuel is a first year psychology student and a feminist fo’ life. She buys ‘women’s magazines’ every few months to relax and end up in a massive rage, ripping them up and swearing never to buy them again, but she always does, inexplicably

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