THREE different countries, three different women, three similar situations all in the last three weeks.
The most recent happened to Australian MP Nicolle Flint in which ABC columnist and broadcaster Peter Goers thought it appropriate to mock her “pearl earrings and a pearly smile”. He then continued to criticise MP Flint’s “vast wardrobe of blazers, coats and tight, black, ankle-freezing trousers and stiletto heels”.
The second happened to US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when Republican lawmaker Ted Yoho accosted her and called her disgusting, crazy, dangerous and out of her mind. After she told him his remarks are rude, he used expletives to describe her.
The third happened in our very own parliament house when Batu Kawan member of Parliament Kasthuriraani Patto questioned the lack of female representation in parliamentary select committees. Instead of an actual reply, a MP called her dark and told her to wear powder.
Did these men apologise? That is debatable.
They were all given the opportunity to apologise, to accept responsibility, to acknowledge the harm caused and seek to repair and correct their behaviour.
Suffice to say, none of this was part of their apology.
Did the women respond? Yes.
Were there consequences for the men? Nope, total impunity.
So what does this tell us?
First, it tells us that no matter how high a position of power a woman holds, she is subjected to sexist, misogynistic and racist insults. Encounters like these happen anywhere and happen in every country all the time.
Second, it tells us that such behaviour is common and widely accepted by men and women.
Third, it tells us no matter if a man is married or is a father or projects a decent wholesome front, he can still abuse women.
Let’s unpack this.
To the first point. Around the world, women are underrepresented across all levels of power. According to the Global Gender Gap Index of 2020, the largest gender disparity remains within the Political Empowerment Gap.
It has been 25 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action which set the target for reaching gender balance in political decision-making and still the global political empowerment gap has only been closed by 24.7%.
This means that only 25% of the 35,127 global seats are occupied by women and only 21% of the 3,343 ministers are women; and in some countries, women are not represented at all according to the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index. Such low representation is indicative of the power dynamics within societies and makes it difficult to counter the institutional and systematic marginalisation of women. So if what you witness happening in parliaments across the world is an indication of how easy it is to accost women and get away with it, imagine what every woman with less of a voice goes through on the daily basis in private and in public.
Second, such behaviour is not new. It is not new because there are structures and norms in place that allow for it to remain common and acceptable. This is not just a male problem, it is very much a female problem too. How many women actually stand up for other women? There is a saying that gets circulated every once in a while – “Be the woman who fixes another woman’s crown ...” and right now a “women supporting women” challenge is trending.
But in these three painfully real situations, how many women go beyond being optical allies and are genuine allies in support of the women parliamentarians who were accosted? How many remain silent, how many laugh at them, how many trivialise what these women are subjected to? How many are able to go beyond party allegiance to stand up against such abuses? While in these three situations, it was the men who were the perpetrators, it is important to acknowledge and remember that not all men are complicit and not all women are allies.
Third, anyone can use dehumanising language. Often times we hear the reasoning “but he is married” or “he has daughters”, “he has sisters”, “he is a religious man”, “he is a women’s rights advocate” but do these qualifications exempt people from accosting women? These roles and responsibilities are never a predicator. Just because a man is married or a father, son, brother, uncle or pious does not mean that he is committed to gender equality or will not abuse women. Yet many of us are predisposed and socialised into believing this myth whether consciously or unconsciously instead of expecting that men just respect women because it is the right thing to do.
In all three situations, the structures of a sexist culture allowed for it to happen without reprimand. In the case of Flint, a vetting team for the news agency would have approved the publication of his sexist article. They all perpetuated this sexist culture. In the case of Ocasio-Cortez, the perpetrator Yoho was walking alongside fellow representative Roger Williams who said nothing proving that it is common practice to speak of women in such a manner. He too perpetuated this sexist culture. In the case of Kasthuriraani, the video of what transpired shows the number of MPs who remained silent, who laughed, who trivialised the matter and who dismissed her. Both men and women perpetuated this sexist and racist culture.
The reality is every woman at some point has been subjected to sexist culture and socialised to accept it. And most of us just keep quiet when it does happen.
There is no quick fix for this but these public examples of sexism give us a front-row seat to some of the things women experience daily. It also provides the opportunity to have these discussions and to educate ourselves and society as a whole. While it would be better if these abuses never happen, such public examples provide a platform for us to call out such disgusting behaviours and dismantle their stubborn structures.