Anyone here been raped and speak English?*
By Heather Kennedy, WVON correspondent
As part of the Wise Words festival celebrating women’s writing, Amnesty International hosted a meeting on International Women’s Day looking at the role of the media in reinforcing gender inequality.
Chaired by Kat Banyard, author of "The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Men and Women Today", the panel included Samira Ahmed from Channel 4 News, Harriet Sherwood, International News Editor at the Guardian and Jenny Wood, Editor at Look! magazine.
Kat Banyard kicked off the debate by arguing that society was in denial about the scale of sexism and inequality in Britain today. The panel agreed that women still faced very serious barriers to equal media representation. There was a lively debate about how best to tackle the problem.
However, no one disagreed with Harriet Sherwood when she talked about how female MPs are portrayed in the media. She pointed to a “sexist and intolerable” assumption that women such as Harriet Harman and Hazel Blears were too hysterical or stupid to do their job. Panelists agreed that the political sphere was dominated by “public school machismo” with the result that few women chose to get involved in politics. She suggested that more regional reporting was needed away from the “hot house” of Westminster.
The panel discussed the emphasis that was placed on the appearance of women in power. Take Samira Ahmed as a good example who said she felt a lot of pressure as a female newsreader to conform to certain aesthetic standards.
One important question raised by the discussions related to the reporting of violence against women: Does regular coverage damage women, casting them as titillating victims or does it help to move the issue up the agenda? Panelists agreed that problems such as rape and domestic violence were so endemic that the media had a responsibility to keep them firmly in the public eye.
Kat Banyard asked whether feature supplements aimed specifically at women such as Observer Women reinforced or challenged gender equality. There was however no consensus among the audience on this question.
There was also division about the issue of positive discrimination. Harriet Sherwood felt that all female shortlists could go “seriously wrong” and people should not be put in positions without the necessary skills or experience. Samira Ahmed spoke in favor of female quotas, arguing that “without quotas you will not get women into positions of power, particularly in the third world”.
Both Samira Ahmed and Jenny Wood said that it was important to get more women into serious editorial roles to challenge the current white, middle class, male perspective that dominates. Samira Ahmed said male editors were often “wholly unfamiliar” with issues facing women and so relegated them to the sidelines. Speaking about international news, Harriet Sherwood pointed to an agenda that was dominated by war and terrorism “despite the fact that it is women who are most affected by war”.
The discussion then turned to the increasing sexualisation of women in society. Addressing an audience of mainly young women, Samira Ahmed suggested that this generation might not realize that things have not always been this bad.
Harriet Sherwood described the sexualisation of women and children as “deeply pernicious” and something that we must tirelessly resist. Kat Banyard thought that the problem stemmed from the “astronomical growth of the sex industry. Objectification and the enforcing of unrealistic beauty standards followed. Women are attacked for being alluring. They are also attacked for being apparently too frumpy”.
There was one clear message from the panel – women need to speak out and get active. Kat Banyard felt there was often a tendency among women to keep quiet for fear of being labelled a “prude”. Samira Ahmed’s advice was very simple: “We need to complain more! It doesn’t take many voices to start making waves”. For instance the school girls who successfully campaigned against the sale of Play Boy stationary in WH Smith.
On that point we were all agreed. The audience, mostly in their twenties might not be able to remember a time when there weren’t lap dance clubs on every high street and cosmetic surgery ads in every tube station. But neither was there a willingness to sit back and accept these worrying shifts. Books such as Kat Banyard’s "The Equality Illusion" and Natasha Walter’s "Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism" seem to spell a change in feminist thinking.
For my part, I was inspired by the hope that the myth of the post feminist utopia may be retreating as women look around for more nourishing paths to justice and self expression.
* A reference to a "soundbite" by a British reporter overheard in a refugee camp in 1960s Congo.