News Carol Hunt

Thursday 18 September 2014

Wake up to the cold, hard facts of rising worldwide misogyny

Men, start questioning your gender privileges rather than defending or deflecting them

Published 09/03/2014 | 02:30

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Men have dominated and controlled women for centuries. Picture posed. Thinkstock

It's been another one of those, "Yes, but what about... ?" weeks. They are depressingly predictable. Anytime the established status quo feels threatened by news of overt discrimination against a disenfranchised group, the "yes, but what about" begins. As in, "Yes, but what about us? We're suffering too you know." And before you know it, the people who are being discriminated against find themselves apologising for drawing attention to this fact.

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Last week an EU survey (by the Agency for Fundamental Rights) found that a quarter of Irish women have been victims of physical violence, a third have been victims of psychological violence, and that nearly half of those who had experienced sexual violence from a non-partner refused to report the crime. (This is an appalling indictment of our society as well as our justice system.) Across the so-called civilised continent of Europe, the study reveals that one in 20 women has suffered rape and a third have been victims of physical or sexual violence since the age of 15.

The director of the Rape Crisis Network, Fiona Neary, said, "This survey confirms that sexual violence against women and girls is pervasive and pandemic across Europe." She may well have added, "and in the rest of the world too". Last summer globally linked papers and reports, including one from the WHO, revealed that violence against women worldwide was at epidemic proportions. The rise in religious fundamentalism hasn't helped, but secular Europe is also tolerating horrific levels of violence against women.

And yet, simultaneously, we're told that women have never had it so good: we're now better educated, wealthier, more powerful than we've ever been. Strange how it doesn't feel like that. But of course, this is still very much a man's world – particularly in Ireland where our female representation in media, parliament and on boards remains depressingly low and female poverty continues to rise.

Feminist gains in recent decades have been modest but still, there are those who feel threatened by them. So, which came first? The global rise in violence against women? Or the backlash against female equality? Chicken or egg? Feminism or misogyny?

Well, in recent years there has been a dramatic assault on women's rights worldwide – and you can't open a paper without reading about yet another young girl being raped, a girlfriend murdered, a wife beaten as well as the day-to-day 'harmless' general harassment that most women have to put up with.

Have a look at the rape jokes which pass for 'funny comment' on social media if you doubt me. Last week we were supposed to find Paddy Power's "delightful wheeze" about betting on the outcome of the Pistorius trial amusing. Why not give odds on whether a violent rapist goes free too? Or a paedophile? Wouldn't that be hilarious? What, you don't think so? Oh get a sense of humour sister!

Increasingly, sexism, if not downright misogyny, is so endemic in society that many of us barely register it. But when we do – when a report like the EU one wakes us up to the hard, cold facts – we have to be very, very careful how we phrase our outrage. God forbid we may upset people. Or be called muck-raking cranks. Some people are very sensitive, we may hurt their feelings (they may sue!), so we have to be very clear and say, "not all men, only some men hate women", and only the "odd man" is actually a "real" misogynist. And of course, we understand and acknowledge that "men suffer from domestic violence too". And of course, we should be talking about women who are violent to their partners as well.

Pretty soon, we're apologising for saying that we live in a sexist world (we do) which overwhelmingly benefits the male sex (it does) and that we're concerned about the level of violence directed against women (we are). Soon after that, we're agreeing that yes, men certainly do terrible things to women, but women can be just as bad, if not worse, and before you know it, the discussion is no longer about endemic societal misogyny and violence against women but about the dubious effects of feminism, and whether militant 'feminazis' are destroying society as we know it.

I noticed this in many of the comments about articles on the EU report: "Why is this report only about one gender?" "Surely men suffer more violence than women?" (Eh, not at the hands of women.) "Why does female violence go almost unreported?"

And of course, most blokes are lovely guys; they are our fathers, brothers, husbands, partners and sons. And it's not their fault that the world is a horribly sexist place with such terrible levels of violence perpetuated by one gender on another. But that doesn't mean they can ignore it. It doesn't mean they have no responsibility to act. Individually, most men do not hate women. But as a group? Look at the facts. Men have dominated and controlled women for centuries.

Most times when I point this out to the typical Irish bloke I am accused of being hysterical, paranoid and wrong. Sometimes I am accused of being a man-hater. Occasionally I am told I just need a "good seeing-to". But often the man I am speaking to becomes angry and defensive. He should be angry, but not defensive. He didn't choose to be born into a world with such levels of violence against women – his mother, sister, wife, daughter – people he loves. But he should be angry enough to want to change it, to challenge it, to be brave enough to call out sexism and misogyny when he sees it. We need men to start questioning their gender privileges rather than automatically defending them, deflecting them ("yes, but what about?") – or worse, insisting that they don't exist. Only then can we hope to begin to tackle the global rise in misogyny and its corresponding endemic violence against women and girls. It's over to you boys.

Twitter @carolmhunt

Sunday Independent

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