published in Asian Age last week
Finding real women
May 29th, 2010 -- Kishwar Desai .Share ..Where have the real women disappeared? I am not talking about the Cheryl Coles and Victoria Beckhams! I am talking about intelligent, normal, efficient women. It’s the current debate engrossing us especially as the number of women in the new British Parliament shrinks before our eyes faster than you can say “Kate Moss”.
Despite this being the country of the original militant suffragettes, despite the constant bollocking by feminists like Germaine Greer, despite a generally liberal media, and despite a completely free school education — women are barely represented in government, or indeed in the boardroom, or even in media. When I came to the UK — I had imagined that I was entering a land of equality, but instead I find that sexism and ageism — the two factors which blight our lives are still widely prevalent. In the real world, there is no gender equality. In fact, women here still receive 20 per cent less pay (on average) than their male co-workers. And they are constantly pressurised to look youthful and drop-dead gorgeous forever.
Recently, when we were bemoaning this sexual bias over dinner, one knowledgeable man tried to justify it by saying that men are also similarly discriminated against because everyone wants them to look “young and sexy” as well. He gave the example of the poor new deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who apparently has been cruelly pressurised into carefully cultivating a look which will lure women voters and encourage them to fantasise about jumping into bed with him (Of course, the strategy spectacularly boomeranged and it was David Cameron who did jump into bed with him.).
But how important are youthful good looks? Excruciatingly crucial, mutter most of the ageing women in the UK who feel they are being increasingly marginalised — and becoming invisible in the public space. Even though male chauvinists love to pretend it is they who are being victimised, it is undoubtedly the women who bear the brunt of it. In reality, apart from a few “Cleggerons” the number of men who really have to worry about fading looks or cellulite-laden buttocks is miniscule.
However, right now the problem is even more acute — because women of all shapes and sizes (ranging from drop-dead gorgeous to pretty average) presumably exist in the UK, and yet the government has found very little use for them in policy-making. There are, in fact, less women government ministers this time round, than they were under Labour. (Bring back the Blair babes, all is forgiven!)
This looks less like the “new politics”, and more like the “old politics”: how it can be different when it is stuffed with boringly similar men in suits, talking mostly to their mirror images? How can they ever make “women friendly” policies if there are simply not enough women calling the shots? Even the cop-out argument that there are plenty of strong women behind the scenes is untenable: we want to actually see more women in charge, not imagine them fluttering about in the background.
Perhaps this is a global phenomena, because even the shots being called in Cannes this year were mostly by another bunch of men. Kate Kinninmont, who heads Women in Film and Television in the UK has been monitoring the lack of women at the helm in media for a while with growing alarm. Even though she has been speaking about it loudly and authoritatively from every possible forum, the issue has barely moved. In Cannes she pointed out how after Kathryn Bigelow’s big win at the Oscars, everyone expected another woman to grab a substantial prize — but, alas, (perhaps unsurprisingly) women were barely represented there. In fact, women account for less than seven per cent of the directors of the top-earning 250 Hollywood films.
Having worked in television herself, she remembers a time when women joined television in huge numbers, and usually stayed there for life, with the organisation looking after them. Now, she regrets the fact that at least half of the women who work in television today are younger than 35 years. Most of the older women tend to drop away: either they are encouraged to leave, or they simply do not fit into a culture where women are told to diet to size zero and botox their wrinkles and dye their hair, whilst their male counterparts are allowed to crease up like happy accordions.
So, finally, one of the “older” anchors, an award-winning journalist, Miriam O’Rielly, who felt she had been unfairly dismissed has picked up the gauntlet and taken the BBC to court. So far it seems the judge agrees with her grievance stating that the BBC has a case to answer, and perhaps older women are being discriminated against. At last, some glimmer of hope!
Apparently, the same phenomenon of preferring younger women in TV has begun to crop up in India as well. So will we soon see women in India suing their employers for sexism or ageism?
Perhaps the only time it does not matter how old you are is if you are the Queen of all you survey, and that is what the reigning monarch proved yet again when she arrived to open Parliament. It is astonishing to remember that Elizabeth II has been Queen since 1952, and has seen off 12 Prime Ministers. I absolutely love the pomp and ceremony of the occasion, and still remember the thrill of sitting inside the House of Lords for the first time (it is the one day when spouses are permitted on the red benches) as the Queen gives her speech to the joint Houses of Parliament. However, while the Lords and their Ladies are seated, the Prime Minister, being a commoner has to stand at the entrance. That certainly adds to one’s delusions of grandeur!
Inside the House of Lords, while all the men are in ermine, the women are permitted to wear their gowns or dresses — and in cases such as mine, a sari. However, I joked with someone that I did not possess a tiara (as indeed many of the women do come wearing their bejewelled finery) “Don’t, worry, darling”, I was reassured. “You can always hire one”. Suitably chastised I stuck to wearing some simple earrings and hoped that with all the glitter around no one would notice my subdued attire.
Yet it is all still taken quite seriously .When this time Samantha Cameron arrived without the required hat to sit in the gallery upstairs all the newspapers immediately pointed out the death of another grand tradition. They sombrely recounted all the past Prime Minister’s wives who had peered down at the Queen while wearing some thrilling concoction on their heads. As usual when a perfectly sensible woman is finally noticed, it is for the wrong reason!
The writer can be contacted at email@example.com