Time to resist out of control sexism

June 23, 2013
Placard at International Women's Day in Perth. Photo: Alex Bainbridge.

Women are facing a global health epidemic according to the World Health Organization (WHO). A report by WHO released on June 20 has found one in three women worldwide has experienced physical or sexual violence.

While acknowledging that violence against women is nothing new, the report says the situation is a “fundamental violation of women’s human rights”.

In Australia, as feminism is enjoying a resurgence among young people again, the issue of violence against women — and how it is connected to a broader culture of sexism — has been discussed widely.

Labor has taken advantage of this sentiment and is positioning gender as a key issue in the election campaign. Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced on June 22 that she will launch a gender inquiry into the treatment of women in the workplace.

In contrast, Opposition leader Tony Abbott is known for his conservative social views on women. Abbott told ABC’s Four Corners in 2010: “I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.”

In an article Abbott wrote about abortion he said: “The problem with the Australian practice of abortion is that an objectively grave matter has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience.”

In a speech on June 12 Gillard warned that an Abbott led government would “banish women’s voices from our political life” and a Coalition government would attempt to change Australia’s abortion laws.

There is no question Gillard has been attacked because of her gender, a situation that no previous prime minister has had to face.

Two recent examples are a menu at a fundraising dinner for the Liberal National Party which described Gillard as a quail with “small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box.”

The other was the line of questioning radio host Howard Sattler pursued in an interview with Gillard, asking her repeatedly if her partner was gay.

With so many examples of the misogynistic attitudes women have to face everyday, it can feel that sexism is out of control.

Labor’s message is that women should stand up to the sexism of Abbott and the Coalition and ensure that Gillard is reelected by voting for Labor.

Feminist writer Germaine Greer used the same argument in an article at the Hoopla on June 20. She wrote: “Every gross imputation, every cheap gibe should harvest a hundred thousand votes. Every woman who has endured humiliation (and every woman has) can avenge herself by supporting Gillard.”

Although it is true that Abbott and the Coalition have deeply conservative views on women, and use sexism as a weapon of attack, this cannot be used as an excuse to ignore the shortcomings of the Gillard government when it comes to women’s rights.

On the same day that Gillard won support for railing against misogyny in parliament, her government further disadvantaging many hundreds of thousands of women and their children by drastically cutting the single parent payment budget.

In fact, more money has been cut from the single parents welfare budget than what was raised through taxes on big mining corporations.

These attacks on single parents, the majority of whom are single mothers, have resulted in women having to leave study to find work or spending so much time at work that they are spending little to no time with their children.

Due to lack of affordable childcare and lack of other support, some parents are forced into leaving their children at home alone. Others have been forced into homelessness and poverty.

The sexist attacks on Gillard should not be tolerated. However those on the left of politics need to be able to critique Gillard's policies, call them out for what they are, as well as attacking the misogyny and blatant sexism of the Coalition without reserve.

Women continue to face sexism and violence because of their lower status in society compared to men. Women generally receive less pay for the same work, perform more work in the home, shoulder the responsibility for caring for children and relatives, and are still defined by their sexual and reproductive roles.

Sexism is embedded in the capitalist economic system we live under but it is important to challenge it whenever it occurs.

In the same way the campaign for equal marriage rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people has shifted public opinion about LGBTI rights and challenged entrenched homophobia, the culture of sexism can be challenged through building a powerful feminist movement.

A 2012 study into violence against women in more than 70 countries found that public campaigning by strong feminist movements were the key to changing attitudes, and had the biggest impact on reducing violence against women.

But this movement needs to defend the rights of all women, not just powerful and wealthy women like Gillard.

This includes fighting for the rights of refugee women imprisoned in Australian detention centres for years, for single mothers struggling to support themselves and their children and for LGBTI women who are denied the right to marry their partner.

Feminists today need to challenge both the track record of the government and the rhetoric of the opposition in equal measure. For a feminist movement to grow and maintain its relevance, there is no other alternative.

We cannot rely on Gillard to champion the feminist cause and we certainly cannot rely on Abbott.

Instead it requires a consistent and mobilised movement of women and supporters challenging all the systematic gender injustices we see today.

We should reclaim the “gender card”. If demanding equality of the sexes, and calling out men for their blatant sexist behaviour is “playing the gender card” then play that card proudly.

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