Thursday, 8 May 2014

It's all relevant

It may have come to your attention via some social media or indeed conventional media that River Island sold an offensive novelty item and then removed it from their stores when the public kicked up a stink.
The novelty item in question was a toy ball gag fashioned out of a plastic football and some elastic. It was sold with the name 'The Domestic Anti Nag Gag' which, to quote the BBC article ''urged men to 'gag' nagging women ... ''. Though clearly a novelty item, the gag wouldn't stand up to any real usage, the message behind it was clear: 'women talk to much, men should make them stop.'.
It additionally built on the stereotypes that women are over talkative harpies who only care about domestic issues ('It's your turn to do the dishes' and 'pick your clothes up off the floor' screeches the woman to be gagged on the packaging) and men are only interested in watching the footy and other such blokish activities. The notion that perhaps men and women might share domestic duties, or engage in a dialogue or even *gasp* watch sports together isn't even considered.

So that is the item that started it all. But this post isn't about the item directly; it is a response to a facebook post that claimed that people were wrong to be offended by this, that it was trivial and should be dismissed as a joke. Not because it wasn't sexist but because it was small fry in comparison to the current kidnappings in Nigeria, world starvation and, child abuse and that we shouldn't be offended by a novelty item whilst these other things going on.

I would offer a counter opinion: we should be offended by a novelty gag because these other terrible things are going on. I would also pose that a sexist novelty ball gag (and my offence) are not a separate issue from Nigerian kidnappings, starvation and child abuse (and my horror). They are linked, and fighting one is part of fighting the whole.

Let's start with the current kidnappings in Nigeria

In summary a group called Boko Haram, a group of militant Islamists in north-western Nigeria who have been engaged in aggressive and hostile action in the region and across Nigeria, have been abducting large groups of school aged girls from schools, purportedly to 'sell' them. Boko Haram is the unofficial name of the group and, translated from the local language and dialect roughly means 'Western Education (Boko) is forbidden (Haram)', a fact which is significant considering that schools and places of education are being deliberately targeted. The group's view is that western ideals have infiltrated and thus people are not being educated or acting by the ruling of the Koran.
Why is this a sexist issue and how on earth does it relate to a novelty ball gag? Well, apart from the obvious fact that these are female students being targeted and abducted, and not male students, it has to do with the relationship between education and a social voice. Throughout history we have seen voting and other forms of social representation denied to those people who are deemed uneducated and unworldly. This has included people who don't hold a certain level of education, people who don't work and of course women. So often, these three groups of people are in fact, the same group of people. Women who are kept uneducated are not allowed a voice in society. Women who are confined to domestic and family duties are not listened to. For many, many cultures, education is a crucial step forward in a better life and voice in society for women.
Boko Haram are forcibly removing women from education. They are forcibly removing women from what they see as a western agenda that allows women a social voice. They are gagging a sector of the population in order to promote and drive their own patriarchal agenda.
Is a plastic novelty ball gag on quite the same level as being removed from your school at gun point and herded out like cattle to be sold? No it isn't. But are they both a part of a patriarchy that enforces the belief that women should be silent, that women should not have or voice an opinion, that they should not be able to voice an opinion or break away from purely domestic service? Yes they are. Yes a novelty gag is far more symbolic but it is symbolic of an attitude which is shared with groups like the militant and extremist Boko Haram. Saying that a novelty ball gag is just a joke or shouldn't be questioned is saying that attitudes that suppress a women's right to an education and a social voice shouldn't be questioned or fought to be upheld.
In a similar way that 'rape jokes' told by otherwise nice people justify and endorse the the thought processes and actions of actual rapists, gagging jokes justify and endorse the hard line attitudes that wish to oppress women in a very real and violent way.

What about child abuse?

Another example used in the original facebook post was that we shouldn't be upset about a novelty gag because child abuse happens. Well to me the link between the two is blinding obvious but, I will do my best to spell it out. Child abuse, like many other forms of abuse (sexual and otherwise and including rape) is not solely about sexual desire. Abuse is so very often about power and control. Ball gags, when used in BDSM between consenting adults, are about power and control. Ball gags were used as an implement in torture and imprisonment in order to control when and how somebody was allowed to speak.
One of the biggest tools used by abusers is the assumption that their greater power and the relative lack of social voice held by the victim (especially children who are known for being 'childish' and making up stories and have less of a voice than adults) will mean that the victim won't speak out. This is often re-enforced by the abuser using lines like 'who would believe you' and 'you can't prove it'. The abuser is imposing a virtual gag on their victim through intimidation and social pressure. As long as there is a world that exists where people think abuse victims are liers then that can be used to gag a victim. As long as there is a world where children and women should be seen and not heard, that can be used to gag victims.
Furthermore, as long as there is a world where women and children (and especially female children) are told that they should just 'put a sock in it' (to quote the novelty item itself) victims are taught that they have no right or ability to say anything to even prevent an attack happening let alone report it. If we want to really make a move against child abuse, in fact against all forms of abuse, then we have to make sure that people understand that their voice is important. That they will be heard and that they do have a right to talk out against their abusers.
The 'why rape jokes are bad' argument also applies here. As long as we are accepting of making joke of silencing and belittling people (outside of a consensual arrangement) then we are giving credence to those people who really want their victims to be silent.

'1 in 8 people are starving'

 What about the claim that getting indignant over a novelty item is ridiculous compared to the fact that '1 in 8 people are starving' [actual quote from original facebook post]? Well the link here isn't as obvious but it is there. The statistic quoted is indeed accurate, or at least it was. The situation may be worse now. People are starving, and this is a terrible, often incomprehensible thing. In sub-Saharan countries, which is where a lot of the endemic starvation is located, as well as in other regions and even more developed countries, the people who are most affected by food scarcity are those who are poor, those who are uneducated and women. As previously, there is a lot of overlap between these groups. You see, people who are unable or denied the opportunity to educate themselves, the opportunity to advance in employment, people who are kept in the lower ranks of society through social norms and are not adequately represented in the population i.e. those people who are gagged, are the very people who are likely to suffer most when food shortages occur. In the UK a larger proportion of women and children are facing food shortages and using food banks than men. This is because it is often women who are the lower wage earners or who have to work less or no hours in order to look after children (often on their own). In African nations, women often work unpaid and/or are working on farming jobs to provide food, so are the first to be affected when food scarcity occurs. What does this have to do with a novelty ball gag? Well as above it is about society condoning the notion that a women's voice should not be heard. That a women's views are not important and thus that women are less important in our society. It means that women find it more difficult to rise above poverty and not be faced with food shortages. In cultures where starvation and food shortages are more endemic and related as much to climate as infrastructure, there is a need for more diverse opportunities for people and a stronger voice for women so that they are not always first in line to loose their pay and food. Accepting a novelty item that suggests that a woman's place is to be quiet and domestic accepts that woman should just have to deal with lower income and less access to food and nourishment.

'I can like both Indian food and Thai food, especially since they use similar spices'

Now these are all very specific arguments. As it happens, each of the examples given, abduction, abuse and starvation, can all in some ways be linked back to the oppression of women and feminism. It is clear, to me at least, that we can not afford to pick and choose what we take umbrage at and what we choose to fight, because when things are so intricately linked, fighting over something as small as a novelty ball gag, plays a part in fighting for the bigger cause of gender equality and the problems that gender inequality raises worldwide.
However, if the examples given where, unarguably, absolutely not related to sexism, feminism, oppression based on gender or anything else to do with a novelty ball gag then so what? The vast majority of people I know are quite capable of caring about more than one issue at a time. Caring about one thing, however insignificant it may appear does not preclude caring about something else. If a surgeon takes a small amount of time to clean up and bandage a scraped knee does that mean she then can't perform life altering surgery? No it doesn't. If I like Thai food am I not allowed to enjoy Indian food? Of course not that would be ridiculous. A problem is a problem regardless of its size and apparent place on a global stage. People have every right to deal with what problems they choose. It may turn out of course that that problem is part of something much greater than first appeared, and that taking the time to care actually makes a difference.

NB: please note I have not quoted the original facebook post I am reacting to in full, nor have I identified the individual. Whilst some people may recognise the quotes I have selected, please keep in mind that this is not an attack on the individual but rather a challenge to the argument.

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