Women Bloggers: not weaker, just different...

Jonathan from Liberal England is worried that women’s blogging awards will just serve to position women as the weaker sex. But, is offering a platform for an underrepresented group to get increased profile really such a minefield? Are women Lib Dem bloggers (and beyond) really so in danger of being patronised and undermined? Surely, the good female bloggers such as Alix or Charlotte, to name just a couple, don’t need a special award…surely they can compete in the full blown Booker of Lib Dem Blog awards?

I think Jonathan is worrying unnecessarily; I think it’s a great idea and I don’t feel in the slightest bit patronised or undermined. The Lib Dem blogosphere, at least, is very male in terms of gender and in terms of sex. It can be a pretty macho, testosterone fuelled place in terms of those writing. It’s hard to know what the readership is in terms of sex but I would guess that it mirrors the proportions of those who write.

This means, inevitably, even with the best will in the world, the subjects that get written about most are the priorities of those men writing from a male perspective. This is not to say that many, many of the things that are written about don’t interest women readers, they do. However, some subjects are not written about as much or prioritised as much.

It’s one of the reasons that I started writing my own blog; there were things that were interesting to me that rarely got mentioned on Lib Dem blogs and still not get the attention I would like them to have. Now some of that may be down to the quality or frequency of my writing but I think some of it is definitely that often I will choose ‘feminist’ topics to blog on.

What I do notice, from Lib Dem Voice’s weekly round up of blogs is that the posts that get the highest number of hits are usually focussing either on Westminster gossip or internal party politics.

Jennie , is quite right when she points out that the blogosphere is full of women bloggers and that their blogs tend not to be so overtly or acutely political. And I would say that was a fair reflection of many women’s approach to life…politics is part of it but not everything. Jonathan also references the excellent Philobiblon who not only hosts the Brit Blog Round Up but is also the founder of Carnival of Feminists which is proscribed reading for me, even if I don’t agree with every contributor!

However, it seems to me that there is a space for political female bloggers in the Lib Dem Blogosphere but it’s not currently very big. If we need these awards to elbow our way into higher profile, particularly with women who perhaps don’t read any of our blogs at the moment then I think they are a good thing!

Right, I’m off to Selfridges for the last time before Christmas…I wouldn’t be blogging now but for the fact that I broke my computer a week ago and a suddenly opportunity came by to access my blog and post something, rather than just read and comment on others! Who knows when I will be back; no doubt when my Sony comes back from laptop hospital after Christmas but maybe, hopefully before!

What's all this cultural relativism about then?

Gillian Gibbons is freed and the Sudanese Government hasn’t made any contribution to the idea that Islam is a peaceful religion and that followers of Islam are not all fanatics ready to take umbrage at the slightest slur to their religion.

In the UK, it has been pleasing to see that the majority of people commenting, irrespective of their religion or lack thereof have been appalled by the actions of the Sudanese government; at all points there were choices both around the interpretation of the offence and the law and at every point the Sudanese establishment chose the most extreme action.

There has been though, throughout this, whether on BBC comments, Blogs or Any Answers a significant minority of people who have suggested that Gillian Gibbons only had herself to blame, as she should have known the law. She was in fact naive.

I think there is an enormous difference between causing offence and invoking the displeasure or irritation of whoever has been offending (and therefore being marked out as someone you wouldn’t want to spend time with) and being put in prison or lashed for it. The naming of a teddy bear does no physical harm to anybody.

I’m pretty much an atheist and don’t have much time for religion, but I’ve no real interest in going around deliberately causing offence to other people for the sake of it; I think that’s a waste of time, energy and just not very nice. But I believe passionately in free speech and therefore in my right to cause offence without being punished by a state for it.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience where, as an acutely left handed person, I am in danger of causing offence every time I go to the Middle East and without realising it pick up my bread to scoop up some food with my left hand. This is really, really bad table manners; I mean I might as well start picking my nose at the table (in fact, it’s much, much worse than that…but I don’t want to put you off your dinner). Should I be lashed or sent to prison because I have, with no malicious intention broken, in Meral Ece’s words, ‘a few of the cultural 'rules' we learn to live with’,? Sure, don’t invite me to dinner again, suggest I use a knife and fork rather than my hand (as people have) or just tell me plainly not to use my left hand (as an ex-fiancé’s brother once decreed), explain to me the error of my ways, but please don’t send me to prison for it!

Another analogy: this time looking the young woman the other week in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 200 lashes for being in the company of a man she wasn’t related to ahead of being gang raped. Now, she is a Saudi, not just a visiting teacher, she surely knew the law? Do we all then sit back, fold our hands on our laps and say: ‘Well, she knew what the law was…how naïve of her!’. No, we don’t, because we know that her punishment under that law is an infringement of human rights, just as the response to Gillian Gibbons was by no means reasonable or just a harmless cultural difference. I make this point not out of a lack of respect for the rule of law in a given country but out of my greater respect for human rights.

Perhaps if Gillian Gibbons had got the lashings she was at risk of, instead of a very short prison sentence and pardon, then not as many people would have found it so easy to slip back into an ‘oh, well, it’s different there’ mentality; but remember it’s not just western primary school teachers that have no freedom of speech or apostasy in Sudan, is it?

Lots of people, from all religions or none know and understand this, I am sure, but lets not forget that human rights are for everybody, absolute and not subject to cultural relativism.

What should MPs look like?

Is it really just this?

There has been a flurry of interesting posts on Lib Dem Blogs gender equality in blogging, in the Lib Dems and in general over the past few days; it feels like it has been a bit of a breakthrough for women bloggers, there’s been a definite surge of confidence.

‘Wimmins’ stuff isn’t massively popular on Lib Dem Blogs and so it was nice to see Alix’s posting on Positive Discrimination getting nigh on 40 comments and opening a lot of discussion. I found it really heartening to hear a wide variety of opinions and some of them even chiming superbly with my own. I was especially struck by Linda Jack’s question on who defines the ‘best’ when it comes to candidates’ she says:

“Democracy has its downsides - if a man gets a job for which a woman is better qualified she has redress in law, if, because of the subconscious prejudices of an electorate that sees an MP as a white middle class well educated man, as better than a more qualified woman, she has no redress. This is the difficulty of using the word best.”
I would argue that the problem is less with the electorate, who actually come out and vote more if there is a woman candidate but the ‘selectorate’…the people choosing the candidate in the first place. I don’t think they realise what an electoral asset women are and are unnecessarily small ‘c’ conservative on behalf of the voters in short I think they read voters wrong.

I also think that all the political parties are conservative, when they’ve finally plucked up the courage to select a woman in a winnable seat around how she should look.

When going to Fawcett Society ‘Do’s’, I find myself more often or not talking to women from the Labour Party, as Lib Dem and Tory female activists are pretty thin on the ground at such events. It is fascinating to hear about a completely different cultural approach to gender and I’m not just talking all women shortlists. However, one thing that doesn’t seem to be different is the requirement for female candidates to look a certain way. In the Labour party they all get sent to Barbara Follett for a makeover…it’s known as ‘folletting’.

And so you end up with something akin to this…better…but still not really representative, is it?

The other week I met Johanna Sumuvuori MP, whom I found completely inspiring and engaging and who had definitely never, ever been folletted!! Obviously, she had a super name; in fact, reading her CV was a bit of a masterclass in visualisation – ‘Johanna sits on this committee in parliament, Johanna is the chair of that committee’; I’ve saved it to waft in front of myself in moments of weakness, in the manner of smelling salts.

But more importantly as I looked at her and listened to her speak I couldn’t help but think how much I identified with her. I find it difficult to explain completely but I looked at her and thought to myself that nobody had ever taken it upon them selves to tell that if she wanted to succeed she would need to dress differently, iron out any individuality and for goodness sake don’t do anything to bring attention to the fact you are a woman!!

Somewhere along the lines to Finnish parties have worked out that you can be representative, you can scrutinise, you can sit on and chair committee whilst looking like a young woman in your thirties; any young woman.

Finland use a list system and PR allows one to focus less on the individual and more on the party; no doubt if it were a first past the post system there would be more pressure on individual candidates to conform to a stereotype that is acceptable to the media and party system.

And obviously, I’m not suggesting that the 9 (is it really only 9?) women Liberal Democrat MPs are lacking in individuality or criticising their personal style or anything like that; they dress like business women, like I do. Our female MPs, PPCs and business women like myself do this because not to would undermine our credibility. In fact, even when I’m working at a client’s who have a dress down policy, I go in wearing a suit, just to make sure. But, I admit I was intrigued by Johanna, her style (which would be much like mine, if I was left to my own devices) and her ability to be all this and still have power! Frankly I was pretty envious and briefly wished my mother had had the foresight to school me in Finnish.

I thought to myself how wonderful it would be to be able to just look myself when campaigning to be selected instead of having to dress in a particular way to try and prove that I have the ability to be a good candidate or MP.

But, I also thought what a fantastic role model Johanna is to young women in Finland, who must surely recognize themselves in her and feel far more confident about their ability and right to go forward and represent their party and fellow citizens without losing part of their own individuality in the process. And of course, vote for her…..because I am quite sure that she is an electoral asset.

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