What Will It Take to Achieve Gender Equality in the UK?

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As many of you know, my book Darkness is a dystopian piece of fiction that follows a female terrorist group in the UK who are fighting for the destruction of the patriarchal state. I was at a book club recently, to discuss the book and its themes, when one woman asked me, ‘what will it take to achieve equality for women – other than violence?’

The question caused a few laughs around the room. I smiled politely.

You see, I understand Darkness is exceptionally traumatic and bloody and, on reading the book, this woman – who absolutely considered herself a feminist – hoped that there would be less confrontational or violent methods to achieve the same results. After all, she said, I’m not one for mass murder. Indeed. Hopefully the case for all of us.

But, as I said to her and the rest of the room, dystopias are at their most terrifying when the leap from today, to that world in the book, is a small one. And one of my themes therefore that I was examining was, will it take violence to achieve gender equality?

And so, we in this book club set about discussing how gender equality could be achieved in the UK. How could that be done? And, you know what, we ended up coming full circle.

Let me explain how and why.

First, let’s deal with our so-called representative government who exist to create our policy and legal framework through which all are enabled to live and work in a free and equal society, and where we are protected from injustice and exploitation.

Frankly, they’re not doing a particularly good job, are they? I’m not going to waste time (or characters) by laying out the state of play here but, simply, there isn’t a part of women’s lives, whether in the private or public sphere, where we are not marginalised, exploited, underrepresented, or oppressed in some form.

And we are supposedly a first world country with a mature democracy based on representation of the people. So why is it that all the governments over time haven’t made any real concerted effort to address the structural imbalances in our society? Answer: Because they don’t want to.

In our class-ridden, elitist society, the white men at the top do not want to make any room for women. They either consider the issue of women’s rights ridiculous or refuse to acknowledge the need for its existence. After all, this isn’t Saudi Arabia, they cry! (That old chestnut.)

As women’s rights are neither of interest nor taken seriously, it is easy to find policies that the current government are pursuing that are either explicitly or implicitly anti-women.  

Take the current ‘issue of concern’ as an example – social care. In the UK, our underfunding in social care is now in severe crisis. Social care, btw, is the description for our structure that provides care to those who need it to enable people to retain their independence and dignity.

Who are social carers? Women. It is women who fill a disproportionately higher number of social care jobs compared to men. A lack of funding means they don’t get paid, or are pushed even further into lower paid roles, which have knock on impacts on housing, welfare, and support for dependents. And who are these carers caring for? Women. As women live longer than men, it is women who are more dependent on social care as they age. And what about social care teams who support people with disabilities? Cuts to funding mean that women who need support to participate in society and lead an active life will be marginalised further.

And that’s just the active policies. There is nothing but inaction on long-standing issues such as the gender pay gaps, (one which is even more acute for women of colour), the glaring gender imbalances in politics, boardrooms and the workplace, and the appalling lack of progress in getting convictions for rape and sexual assault.

And don’t forget, this is the same Tory party who only a few years ago, supported one of its MPs, (Nadine Dorries) in proposing a Bill to Parliament that would make it more difficult, more of an ordeal, for women to have an abortion.

Is it just the right wing, I hear you ask? Well, as Christabel Pankhurst once famously said, men on the left are as unjust to women as men on the right. And she wasn’t wrong.

Now that we’ve Brexit in the mix too, we’ve seen a lurch from the Labour Party to grab this part of the electorate. And so, the party that has historically prided itself in representing the underrepresented is now signing up for policies that leave women terribly vulnerable.

When we leave the EU, we will leave behind the explicit directives that protect the rights of pregnant workers, as well as part-time and low-paid workers (jobs that are disproportionately taken up by women).

Further, on ‘reclaiming our borders’ (give me strength), we can expect some pretty draconian legislation against women seeking refuge from conflict, war and poverty overseas. These are women often fleeing terrible scenes of butchery and where rape as a weapon is endemic.

And all of this on the back of a surge in hate crimes which have seen women targeted for attack and abuse, whether it be because they choose to wear hijabs or, simply, because they are not White.

I’m sorely tested to consider a Leave vote to be an anti-feminist one. How can we, as a society, claim to be feminist when, in truth, we are marking out who we consider acceptable women to be allowed to live and thrive in the UK, and those who cannot? And if we care so little about the protection for women that EU legislation and rights enforce, well, we don’t really care about women, do we?

That, of course, leaves the Liberal Democrats – the only major party who are openly campaigning against an exit from the EU. Only, how can I say I’m a feminist if I vote for a party where the leader is an active homophobe? What does that say to women who identify as LGBT? That their rights aren’t as important as those of a heterosexual woman? That it’s OK to swallow down this discrimination?

It’s not OK. It is absolutely not OK.

Plus, let’s not forget, Tim Farron is also on record as saying, ‘Abortion is wrong. Society has to climb down from the position that says there is nothing morally objectionable about abortion before a certain time. If abortion is wrong, it is wrong at any time.’

So as far as I’m concerned, he can fuck off to. Anyone who opposes a woman’s right to choose at any point in her life is categorically not a feminist and not someone who will champion true gender equality.

So if gender politics cannot be left to politicians to address, then women outside of politics must become involved.

This January saw the spontaneous and, largely, positive series of Women’s Marches across the world, including the UK. Despite there being disagreements amongst women and feminists that have lasted for generations, these marches saw women come together and protest in solidarity for all women everywhere.

It was a beautiful thing. Genuinely. But it wasn’t lost on me, or many others no doubt, that these protests came in response to the explicitly anti-women administration that has taken over the White House.

Trump and his cohorts are a very real and present danger to women and women’s rights and it is important we stand in solidarity against them. But why have we not seen such protests in the UK for the ongoing and persistent discrimination we face at home? Was it the shock of the Trump administration that woke us up? Is the insidiousness of our government blind to us?

I sense that it is. But, now that these marches have allowed us to see what is possible, can this be harnessed in the UK to address issues we have at home?

Well, now we’re talking.

I’m all for marches and peaceful protest. They’re OK. But how many marches do you think it would take to get equality? How many protests? How many placards do you think you would have to make, how many times would you have to say it, and how many times would the government have to hear it before they took action?

Well, clearly more than once.

Just to throw this out there, are you aware that women were protesting for the vote peacefully for six years before Emmeline Pankhurst came on to the scene. SIX YEARS. Six years of peaceful protest and with zero result. Then Emmeline created the WSPU and how long do you think their direct action lasted? Ten years. TEN YEARS. Ten years of smashing windows, throwing axes, chaining themselves to railings, of enduring state-sanctioned violence, and of being sexually assaulted by the police.

Therefore, in total, it took over sixteen years of protest, peaceful and violent (and, arguably, the arrival of WW1) to get women the vote. Just the vote. A basic human right. And even then, not all women were given that right.

Simply put, therefore, one march will never be enough to achieve gender equality. And then we have to really consider what we think peaceful protest will achieve.

I was there in 2003, part of the one and a half million who marched against the Iraq War. And that achieved nothing. And I too was there in the Women’s March this year, but that protest didn’t even stop our government from bestowing Trump with a State visit.

To paraphrase Emmeline P, nothing short of rebellion has ever obtained concession from the British government. My evidence to support that? The whole of history.

Whether you’re looking at breaking the tyrannical rule of the King through the Civil War, or the violent protests by workers and trade unions during the Industrial Revolution to secure workers’ rights. Who in turn inspired Pankhurst’s WSPU and her militancy. Or whether you look to more recent history, such as the sustained violence and terrorism by Irish Republicans to obtain Irish self-rule.

Emmeline wasn’t joking when she said ‘the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics.’ Violence gets results. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Why is that? Because you have to threaten the wealth, privilege and financial security of the elites to obtain a piece of the pie. Peaceful protest doesn’t threaten their base, not really. Active resistance gets their attention. Direct attacks on their property and their wealth… That gets concessions because the elites calculate that to give you something is better than for them to lose everything.

So, if you want politicians to take women’s rights seriously, at some point (and hopefully soon) we must address the fact that a return to militancy may be required.

The book club took this all in, and they thought this through carefully. They understood that the avenues for progress through political discourse are thin and, even where they are open, they do not result in meaningful change. And certainly not on the breadth of issues facing women.

And nearly all in this book club were mothers and many felt acute sadness when they realised that it’s not just possible or even probable but an absolute certainty that their daughters will be fighting exactly the same issues as we are fighting today. Which are the same issues that existed in previous generations too. So, they looked at each other, nodded, and said, ‘We need to protest. It’s protest that changes things, isn’t it?’

And then I asked them, ‘But what happens when those peaceful protests are ignored? Or worse, met with resistance from the State? What do we do then?’ And I could see them exchange looks with each other because, yes, they understood. That’s right. We fight.

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