Apr 16, 2011

Equality is nothing but red tape?

As part of its '"red tape busting challenge", the government is proposing to get rid of equality legislation. It's not clear whether they think scrapping the one Equality Act 2010 and reverting to the multiple bits of pieces of law we had before is good for reducing red tape or whether they just think equality is a bore and wish they could "liberate" the "market" from it, but they're asking for people's opinions. Below is mine.


The Government's proposal to "scrap" the above act as "red tape" is revealing in the extreme. To explain by way of example:

- Section 66 of the Act stipulates that employees should not have a clause in their employment contract that  is less favourable than another employee's employment contract, on the grounds of difference of sex. It basically says that all employees should be entitled to have equitable and similar terms of employment; this seems such a basic requirement of a functioning economy that I am surprised to see it legislated for: I'd have expected it to simply have been the case everywhere, all the time.

Evidently I, and other members of the public are naive in not understanding that the simple requirement to not write prejudicial contracts for employees is a sizeable enough burden of "red tape" on companies that the Government sees fit to have it "scrapped".

What evidence does the Government have of this? Have employment contracts in the public sector been scrutinised to show that so many of them are inequitable as would require a major investment of resources by employers to correct? If so, why id the Government not sharing this important and worrying information with its public prior to proposing "scrapping" the legislation that would correct this state of affairs?

- Section 74 of the Act refers to the provision that should be made for a woman not to lose entitlements to pay increases and bonuses that she would have been entitled to had she not gone on maternity leave, because she went on maternity leave. the perceived need for this clause implies that at the moment, employers are depriving women of pay rises and bonuses they had earned while in full time work, because the pay out time falls within their term of absence - which is self evidently inequitable, bordering on fraudulent.

By proposing to "scrap" the legislation, the Government is signalling to employers that depriving employees of pay they had legally earned is an allowable action in some circumstances (when the employee is a woman, and when she is not physically in the office due to statutory maternity leave).

This is a dangerous precedent to set, and to my mind speaks to the fact that the government is proposing the "scrapping" out of a feeling that employees who "really matter" to "alarm clock Britain" (read: men) would simply never be in a position where their pay can be simply not given to them, for some seemingly plausible excuse - a dangerous and as I say, revealing assumption to make.

I am dismayed and alarmed that the Government of Britain considers protecting the people of Britain from such obvious unfairness and rapacity as illustrated in the two brief examples above unnecessary "red tape", rife for "scrapping". It shows a commitment primarily to a narrow and shrinking constituency: that of people whose lives are never touched by discrimination.

The reality of this country is that many people can and do discriminate on a variety of grounds against their fellow human beings, for reasons of principle as well as simple profit. That the Government does not consider it part of its mandate to bring these people to book is a sad reflection on the state of social cohesion in this country, a step so far removed from the rhetoric of fairness and "Big Society" as to be farcical.

My recommendation to the Government is to implement the Equality Act 2010 in its entirety without delay, especially with regard to the new provisions such as pay equality audits. Only in an environment of transparency can fairness be seen as well as talked of, and only then can we begin to build a truly big - in the sense of broad, inclusive, and all-encompassing - society.

You can find the consultation papers and respond here. Hat tip to Anna for sending round the link and prompting me to comment!

Apr 5, 2011

Limiting access to abortion is about hatred of women, nothing else

Here's what I don't understand about this most recent attempt at attacking women's liberties from Nadine Dorries: under British law, and abortion can only be granted if the pregnancy risks causing "grave permanent injury" to the physical or mental health of the woman. Two physicians must countersign any decision to grant an abortion after having interviewed the woman, meaning that both need to be in agreement that likely mental health harm may indeed occur as a consequence of enforced pregnancy, labour and motherhood. Unless you live in Northern Ireland of course, in which case fuck you and your mental health, who gives a shit.

Likewise in order to gain access to the so called "morning after pill", a drug that inhibits conception (not terminates a pregnancy, as is often misleadingly claimed), one needs a prescription, which means having at the least a telephone conversation with a GP and explaining the circumstances to him, justifying one's fears and decision to request the drug and so on. Sharing quite a bit more detail about one's sexual activity than a GP would normally be entitled to pry into, frankly.

Even in the case of the contraceptive pill - which is rightly and admirably provided free of charge in the UK - the GP is a gateway through which women must access the treatment they need and deserve. Needless to say, more invasive forms of contraception (IUDs, tube ligation etc.) require even more negotiating, and easily fall prey to the caprices and clinical prejudices of individual doctors.

I know that some people, mostly those who will never need an abortion (read: men and Anne Widdecombe) have this notion - half nightmare, half sexual fantasy - that since the 1967 Abortion Act was passed, women haven't needed to bother with "taking responsibility" for contraception, because all you need to do is walk into Boots, five months pregnant, spread your legs for 20 minutes, and have the inconvenient consequence of your filthy immoral lifestyle taken out, immediately and for free.

Well sorry lads, but it ain't like that at all. Women are actually curtailed already, not only from freely and directly exercising their right to bodily autonomy in case of an unwanted impregnation (a right that, unlike in the US, they don't actually possess under UK law), but we're not free to access most forms of contraception how we want, where and when we want, either.

We already, in effect, have to get "mandatory counselling" before making any reproductive choice, which means that while I completely agree with Laurie Penny's point that with this proposal, Dorries & Field are treating women as if they were all alcohol soused sows who take all comers against the wall for the simple pleasure of ripping ickle babby toesie wosies out of their own uteruses with unwashed hands, in matter of fact she shouldn't be all that worried, because hey ho, British law already kind of treats them like that anyway.

So no, I don't really buy the "counselling" angle. I don't for one microsecond believe that any fibre of Nadine Dorries's tiniest organ has any faith whatsoever that said "counselling" is either necessary or beneficial. This is about using these so called "crisis pregnancy" centres to spread lies, misinformation, false medical statistics, false mental health statistics and shame, with one purpose and one purpose only: to force or manipulate women into pregnancy and labour against their will, and against their initial instincts and better judgement.

Think for a moment just how cruel this would sound if the ickle babby toesie woesies weren't being used as a smoke screen to distract attention from the reality of it: someone wants to take your body, and force you to have something inside of it for nine months, something that will change your metabolism, affect your sleep, digestion and blood pressure, something that will distort your bones and stretch your skin, rearrange your internal organs and change the way your brain chemistry works, and will eventually burst out of you, Alien-style, with great pain and possible grave and permanent injury.

And we think the Spanish Inquisition were evil for only hammering nails under people's fingernails for a few hours.

Why would Nadine Dorries want to do this, I hear you ask? Well, we could tie ourselves into knots claiming that she just loves ickle babbies (she's against welfare for actual babbies, so not sure on that one), or how the foetus has rights too (it doesn't, not under any accepted conception of human rights law), or how it's all about religion and what God said (nothing, abortion isn't mentioned in the Bible). Or we can just use Occam's Razor and admit that opposition to abortion is probably about hatred of women and a desire to punish them for being so hateful with enforced pregnancy, labour, and motherhood. Because that's what it is.

This isn't the first time that US-style anti abortion tactics have been imported to the UK, nor is this idea of mandatory counselling an original one. There are many states that have all sorts of laws making it more difficult for women to access abortion: waiting period laws, parental notification laws, mandatory counselling, mandatory ultrasounds and so on. 

The reason they gained purchase in the US, and the reason I fear they will gain purchase over here - for all that it's tempting to dismiss Dorries as a monomaniac crank - is that they play to the well established, unexamined, but deeply misogynist belief that women are just too stupid to know what they want, and that if we don't rub their noses good and hard in the reality of their physical condition, there's no way that they'd be able to make an intelligent choice.

Up to now, I've mostly not really worried about good old Nadine. Women in the UK are not dependent on the whims of private corporations and individuals for access to health care, and people here do in general have a higher level of science understanding that protects them from being influenced by grisly doctored images of fake "aborted foetuses" wielded outside clinics. But this one I fear may stick, and it's telling that she's already got a man to co-sponsor the bill with her. 

British people are just as likely as any other people in the world to be of the implicit belief that women, rather than being fully sentient human beings, are a special, slightly brain-addled case of the homo (hah) sapience species, - homo sapience birdensis, perhaps? - too easily distracted by footwear, cocoa derivatives and the colour pink from making really serious decisions or genuinely understanding what is going on with and inside their own bodies. Liz Jones has made a career out of playing up to that stereotype, and I can just about see the Mail disingenuously supporting this initiative as a "reasonable" attempt at "balance", feeding neatly into the bizarre implied argument that GPs somehow have a "vested financial interest" in increasing the number of abortions that makes them unreliable single sources of advice (which is probably the craziest and least well-tailored bit of this American import: fair enough when your doctor works for a huge corporations, but GPs? Really? They're only like the most trusted professionals in the country).

While Nadine Dorries and Frank Field waste Parliament's time and taxpayers' money peddling this hateful bullshit as a cover for their extreme woman-hating, by the way, funding to a wonderful organisation that really does educate people about reproductive health and abortion is likely to be slashed. Do dig in your pocket for that fiver that'll help them reach their extraordinarily modest goal of £30,000 to continue their awesome work, even if you can't really be bothered getting excited about al this Nadine Dorries business.

Apr 1, 2011

Silly Trolls (in ur Westminsterz, running ur countryz)

It could only have been an April Fool. I mean, seriously, who could utter a sentence like "feminism replaced egalitarianism" and not be pulling our leg?

Someone who believes in equality among people, but doesn't believe women are people, it turns out. Because the government minister in charge of higher education, "Two Brains" Willetts himself ("half-brain" Willetts is an irresistible joke that should not longer be resisted, I think), apparently does genuinely believe that whereas giving equal rights to women was in principle a good thing, it was, in the long run, detrimental to equality.

Chew on that one for a bit.

This is the man charged with deciding the future fate of academia in this country. Who has also recently commented that university fees are progressive, because women earn less than men and so will have to pay off the debt more slowly. Yes, a government minister in Britain in 2011 believes that the wage gap gives women an advantage over men - a Scott Adams level of delusion, frankly.

Now, it's a rapidly coalescing consensus that this government is inflicting sustained and systemic violence on women: cuts to child benefit, unprecedented mass redundancies, decimation of women's shelters and rape crisis funding, withdrawal of funding for legal aid and help in getting child support payments - these are all things that will trap the most vulnerable women and children in potentially dangerous situations through poverty and a simple lack of somewhere to go, likely pushing the number of women murdered by intimate partners from 2 a week to something higher.

So I don't necessarily know that it surprises me that we are governed in part by a man who hates and fears women. Because it's only fear and hate that could make an otherwise intelligent, well educated person miss the three massive elephants in the room with this argument: that wages and working conditions have been stagnating since the 80s, feminism or no; that women have not achieved anything like equality, and even for the upper wage brackets economic inequities and the pay gap persist; and that class inequalities and gender inequalities are not Lego blocks that you can mix and match however suits you to construct a plausible sounding complaint, but disparate and complex economic phenomena, duh.

No, surprise was not the emotion I felt most keenly; it was more bafflement at the fact that misogyny would make someone so heedless of embarrassing themselves in public. What did surprise me was seeing Page 5 of the print edition of the Telegraph today. It was a half-page, with the bottom half given over to advertising, and the top half containing the following headlines:
Feminism 'held back ambition of working men'

Mothers being forced back to full-time work

Female drinkers 'a burden on the NHS'

Nice Baps, shame about the name
Oh and also a piece about rude place names titled "Silly Trolls", which was what made me think the whole page might have been a leg-pull.

Because seriously, how can a publication with any sort of pretensions to newsworthyness concentrate so many misogynist tropes - objectification, vilification of feminism, moral panic about misbehaving women, mommy wars pearl-clutching - into one page, and expect to get away with it?

It's seems to me that the Telegraph - a newspaper I used to respect even when I disagreed with it - is trying to pander to the illusions of its readership; illusions about always being middle class, about staying married and not needing to go to work to survive, about not needing feminism because "we have equality now", about the cuts being necessary to bring those lazy, shiftless, drunk poor people in line and not having any effect on "us". It's decided to act as a mouthpiece to a callous government that is hoping to get away with murder because its core voters are too alienated and too smug to realise that blinking at the proposed suffering of others will have implications for them, direct or otherwise.

A lot of people have variants of these illusions. Most if not all of us at times judged or blamed the unlucky, the unsuccessful, thinking "I would never let that happen to me". But of course these people didn't "let it" happen. Bad things happen for random reasons, or for structural reasons that are sometimes too big to see.

And one of the reasons bad things continue to happen to women - bad things like under-employment, poverty, violence, rape - is that we live in this environment of constant, unremitting blame, where a major daily national paper can afford to dedicate an whole page to saying a variety of untrue and damaging things about women and their struggle for equality, and no one but a bunch of angry feminists would even notice, let alone comment.