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Sexual politics

Westminster is rocked by claims of sexual harassment

Sexual politics

Dear All,

Ever since producer Harvey Weinstein was exposed(!) as a serial sexual predator and bully, a spate of revelations by women from all over the world have shocked us.

In Britain, the story has also exploded, particularly in the political arena and the most high profile casualty of this so far is the Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, who resigned on Wednesday over ‘inappropriate conduct in the past’. A number of victims of sexism, sexual abuse and rape have spoken out and confirmed that such behaviour is not confined to any one political party.

A young Labour Party activist and former member of the party’s National Executive Committee (Bex Bailey), broke her silence after six years when she told how she had been raped by a senior party member at a party event when she was 19. When she later told another senior member she was advised to not pursue the matter as it would be damaging — for her.

Meanwhile, a former assistant to a Conservative MP and former Trade Minister (Mark Garnier) told of how she was sent out by the MP to buy sex toys for himself, his wife and another woman. The MP admitted he had indeed done this which indicates that he must have considered it a perfectly reasonable instruction. He also admitted to addressing his secretary as ‘sugar tits’ but insisted she was now only trying to get back at him after falling out.

Basically, the primitive attitudes casting women in the mode of dangerous sexual temptress whose appearance reduces men to helpless beings who are powerless in the face of evil temptation, need to be abandoned.

Another Conservative MP who describes himself as a ‘devout Christian’ (Stephen Crabb) has also admitted to sending ‘sext messages’ to a 19-year-old. According to The Guardian newspaper, the Westminster spreadsheet of complaints now includes some 40 Conservative MPs, but Labour is hardly in the clear: apart from the Bex Bailey case, recently their MP Jared O’Mara admitted to posting sexist and homophobic comments (albeit many years before actually becoming an MP) and MP Clive Lewis had to apologise for using a misogynist phrase at a Labour Party conference fringe event last month after being criticised by several prominent female colleagues.

Many, many accounts of inappropriate contact have now come to the fore and seem to be almost habitual behaviour: knee touching and ‘being handsy in taxis’ especially being much mentioned.

New stories are surfacing almost every day. Despite the fact that there are more women in British politics now, the levels of misogyny and sexism seem to have remained the same. However, now that this question is being so openly discussed, perhaps there is a good chance that at least some stringent systems will be put into place to ensure that these do not go un-checked and the perpetrators do not go un-reprimanded or un-punished.

The Labour activist Bex Bailey said she was inspired by the bravery of those who were now speaking out. And indeed a lot of victims now stepping forward (including the male actor who revealed that in 1987 when he was a minor he was assaulted by Oscar winner Kevin Spacey) have said that the number of victims sharing their story (#MeToo) had given them the courage to now speak out.

But the only way to redress this imbalance and misogyny is to make sure the old attitudes of ‘boys will be boys’ (nudge nudge, wink, wink) and ‘she asked for it’ (i.e. she looked pretty, or was wearing a tight top, or was in the workplace) are condemned and abandoned.

Basically, the primitive attitudes casting women in the mode of dangerous sexual temptress whose appearance reduces men to helpless beings who are powerless in the face of evil temptation, need to be abandoned.

But this patriarchal right wing thinking is everywhere now: even in Trumpland the women in positions of power are kitted out as Barbie dolls who routinely attack strong independent women and extoll the role of homemaker for women. In Pakistan this thinking is routinely articulated by right wing journalists who use both television and social media to prescribe how women should look and what they should wear.

The Weinstein story has opened the floodgates to revelations about sex pests, harassment and misogyny but the most surprising thing about the Weinstein story is how long it took to get the world to focus on it: in Hollywood the concept of the ‘casting couch’ has been joked about for almost a century.

Now perpetrators need to be called out and shamed. But victims will never come forward until and unless they have the assurance that it is not they who will be damaged by the process, as in most cases they are the ones who are professionally junior and financially vulnerable.

Let’s see where this all leads to…

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

The author is a former BBC broadcaster and producer, and one of the founding editors of Newsline.

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