Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

Black and blue - the state of women's rights

The feminist fight for gender equality must include men, and must use humour and subtlety if it is to have any effect

Recently social media was abuzz over a dress. No, it wasn’t a repeat of Lady Gaga’s infamous ‘meat’ dress, but rather over the colour. Now as trivial as this seems, it even made the papers and was a feature on all major news broadcasts. Within two weeks of the dress’s appearance, another image began making the rounds on social media. The image depicted a woman, battered and bruised, with the tag line: ‘Why is it so hard to see black and blue?’

So why did this clever advertisement not even make the news, let alone reach hashtag status? The advert was clever in the way it both attempted to “ride” the wave but also brought a new dimension to the conversation. Unfortunately, it never peaked at the same level as its more frivolous counterpart. Whilst both were featured in newspapers around the globe, the domestic abuse campaign received little to no celebrity endorsement unlike “the dress” which even got mentioned by Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian.

On the other end of the spectrum, Emma Watson’s #HeForShe campaign has skyrocketed. It called for women’s rights in a manner which would have made First Wave feminists turn in their grave. No longer was it calling upon women to burn their bras as symbols of patriarchal society. Instead it engaged with the other half of society - men. It invited men to join the fight for equality, and made the cause more easily accessible because no longer was your gender a deciding factor for entry. Quite ironic that whilst discrimination based on gender was what the feminists tried to fight, they ended up using this very tactic.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I praise the women who tirelessly fought for women’s rights and who perhaps used these more “traditional” techniques. But as Iain Dale said of the likes of Peter Tatchell, what worked then, won’t work now. Subtle protest can sometimes have greater efficacy than physically marching down the road. You see, we as a society have become so used to these public protests that we sometimes, without realising it, block it out.

In a recent OECD paper the question was asked, Can Social Media effectively include women’s voices in decision-making processes? It found that whilst there were cases of grassroots activism resulting in legislative changes (#DelhiGangRape and #Sendeanlat) there were still many barriers to this. These include access to internet, censorship and then lastly something I would like to focus on, activism fatigue.

Activism fatigue is not something which exclusively affects the fight for gender equality. It occurs due to one of two reasons, the participant grows tired and discouraged due to delayed results and secondly the people at whom the activism is aimed grow “bored” of hearing the message and eventually choose to ignore it. Whilst we cannot control our audience we can alter or modify our approach.

Banksy summed up the problem quite simply when he was questioned on the image of a kitten he painted in Gaza, his response was, “on the internet people only look at pictures of kittens.” Unfortunately this is true for the vast majority of society. The pictures that get shared, retweeted, hashtagged and mentioned aren’t pictures of domestic abuse victims, but rather of a dress through various filters. Thus we can clearly see that the biggest issue facing our cause is that our message generally isn’t one of a happy tone.

So how do we move forward? How do we tell a story, that quite frankly no one wants to hear? Marching down to parliament isn’t going to do much, what can the politicians really do? We cannot legislate the thoughts of people and quite frankly if we tried, that would be complying with patriarchal institutions.

One feminist did something so clever: she played on our human weaknesses. She used music. We’ve all been told at least once in our lives about the magic of Mozart and to use rhyme in revision. So what did Lily Allen do? Instead of bombarding us with images of beaten women, or rapping about the evils of men, she basically told it how it is… That, quite simply, it’s hard out here for a bitch. Yes, a ‘bitch’. You see, the tongue in cheek nature of the very lyrics will forever leave an imprint on your mind. I’m sure you can hear the song’s catchy jingle in your head right now (if not, please Google it). The lyrics were perhaps crass to some, and maybe even offensive, but they said what all those pictures of beaten women, jobless wives and young girls revealed with their eyes.

The simple fact is that it is extremely hard to be a woman. I know my mother does not only hold down a job, she was my homework assistant, my extracurricular chauffeur, my nurse when I was sick, the greatest chef on the planet (except for those experimental meals), my counsellor, my friend and, lastly but by no means least, my mother. On top of this, she entered a profession where women were received with disdain and a poorly-concealed cold shoulder. She had to pay for her own university fees because “girls didn’t need degrees”; she had to fight for everything she has. So, yes, maybe Lily didn’t need to swear BUT she wasn’t lying when she said it is hard out there…

Once again, the beauty of this song’s message is that ANYONE can sing along, regardless of your skin colour, gender or sexuality. If you can hold a note (or not) shout from the rooftops that it’s hard out here! I would dare you to go out right now and shout an old feminism rally slogan, but I wouldn’t want to subject you to the awkwardness of the occasion. But tweet a lyric or sing a song and, believe you me, someone in the room will make eye contact and smile.

So what can we learn from these three very different campaigns for the equality of women?

Firstly I think it’s important to state this. It may not be what you want to hear, but, one of the biggest enemies to women rights is feminists themselves. Feminists will criticize women who try to dress to impress for making themselves “cheap”. Feminists have tried to attack Margaret Thatcher because by going into politics she “actually was just playing by the men’s rules”, little thought is given to the way good old Maggie proved that women COULD and WOULD lead, as the Baroness once said “the Lady is not for turning.”

Now forgive me for going on a tangent, but surely these feminists claim they want women to break free from the oppression they suffer at the hands of the patriarchal society yet here we see examples of inwardly directed hatred and disgust. This is most certainly where the word “cattiness” seems apt. If you cannot foster love from within, how on earth can you expect to receive it?

Secondly we need to lose the entry barriers. The idea that a man cannot fight for equality of the genders has about as much validity as the idea that women can’t drive. Emma Watson hit the nail on the head when she said, “How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?”

Thirdly we need to adopt a new approach. This includes altering the way we think, from questioning the social conventions that pink is for girls to objecting to the use of girly or butch as insults. It is small decisions like this that will help to modify the modus operandi. This new approach must be one centred on the tongue-in-cheek catchiness of Lily Allen’s Hard Out Here which sought to send a message of equality across all top radio stations worldwide and clubs. This also sought to take an extremely depressing topic and transform it into a song of hope.

Lastly, as we have learnt from both Banksy and the Salvation Army’s campaign, sometimes subtlety is best. It is more about the message than the means. As Daisaku Ikeda said, “The reactions of the human heart are not mechanical and predictable but infinitely subtle and delicate.” It can thus be understood that if we wish to appeal to people’s hearts and minds instead of knee-jerk adrenaline filled reactions we must be subtle.

In closing, many have asked me why I see myself as a feminist and I take a quote from Audre Lord to explain.

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

But allow me to paraphrase and say that WE are not free while any OTHER HUMAN is unfree, even when their shackles are very different from our own…

This article is a response to the topic idea; The power of images – a double-edged sword.

How this article was made

Creative Commons License

Also in this issue