The fight against sexism will be won in schools

13th March 2015 at 00:00

I used to play a sedate version of seven-a-side football on a Sunday morning, with a ragtag bunch of young graduates, undergraduates and high-school teenagers. Half-time chat usually comprised bleary-eyed recollections of excessive boozing the night before, but one morning one of the students had something on his mind.

"Bloody bra burners," he spluttered. He was a quiet sort and I'd barely heard him speak before. Now, however, he was getting high on his own invective, railing against the nonsense of a lecture he'd been compelled to attend the other day - on feminism and women's rights.

Misogyny often lurks just beneath the surface of 21st-century civility, and there have been some high-profile examples of late. Think of the abuse hurled by football supporters at Chelsea's female doctor Eva Carneiro, or Labour MP David Hamilton's decision last weekend to ridicule Nicola Sturgeon's appearance rather than her policies.

Signs of complacency about gender equality are not hard to find. On Sunday it emerged that only 28 per cent of general election candidates in Scotland are women. A search of Education Scotland's website, meanwhile, commendably yields 65 assorted resources for "sectarianism" and 47 for "racism" - yet only two for "sexism". There are signs of action, however, notably later this month when the Scottish Parliament will host 128 young women from schools throughout the country, and ask them to explain to the political classes what holds girls back in life (News in brief, page 7).

The tragic, catastrophic consequences of normalised sexism were laid bare in India's Daughter, a heartbreaking documentary screened by BBC4 on Sunday night, about the ferocious gang-rape and murder of medical student Jyoti Singh in Delhi in 2012.

One of the attackers coolly explained that a "decent girl" didn't go out at night, that women were more responsible for rape than men. A defence lawyer for the murderers likened women to delicate flowers who, if they were out late and fell into the "gutter", must accept the consequences. But the sickening nadir came from another defence lawyer, who openly explained how he would respond if he had an unmarried daughter or sister who "engaged in pre-marital activities": he would pour petrol on her and set her alight.

Let's not file this away as an extreme case particular to Indian society - the moral high ground on these shores has rickety foundations. We learned recently, for example, that many vulnerable girls in Oxfordshire were let down by the dismissive attitude of the authorities supposed to protect them.

The film's conclusion? Leila Seth, a former chief justice and member of a rape review committee in India, felt that the legal system she worked in could only do so much. It was at school that girls learned self-worth, in the classroom where young men were taught to value women. In summation: "The only way you can change things is education."

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