Celebrate successful women and help end violence

VIOLENCE against women is a serious subject but last week I hosted a very positive celebration which left me with hope that we are starting to see meaningful change in the media and political landscape surrounding the issue.

Write to end violence

Let’s face it – it’s not difficult to be outraged at examples of casual sexism, ­objectification and ignorance given the pretty regular incidents in print, on air and in the decision-making chambers of local and national government. Hardly a week goes by without some unthinking hack or deliberately provocative columnist spouting ill-informed or inappropriate views, or some decision being taken by a male majority which has a negative impact on women.

By contrast it can be difficult to find examples of where we get it right, which is why the Write to End Violence awards were so important.

Some journalists and bloggers are doing an excellent job and, by celebrating what they achieve, we can hopefully encourage more of the same, so we improve understanding of the issue.

Scotland on Sunday’s Claire Black raised some serious points in a very engaging way in the article that was runner-up for the main award. Why do we welcome the news that sexual violence in the home is now a punishable crime in Saudi Arabia, when women there must continue to have a male guardian? In essence, she was challenging us to demand better. What can appear as progress is far from it if you scratch beneath the surface.

And of course, closer to home, we’ve had the Bill Walker case. The former MSP’s ­utter brass-neck was genuinely astonishing. His determination to cling on to his seat in parliament until the last possible moment underlined how out of touch with reality the perpetrators of ­violence usually are.

In the Walker case we heard evidence that he demeaned and belittled his former wives. Claire Black was right to highlight this in her article, again challenging our conventional view. Domestic abuse isn’t just about slaps and punches; it also comes in the form of intimidation and fear.

In politics we can lead by example, if we choose. You’d think local government, where many decisions impact on women’s lives, would hold plenty of appeal. However, only one in five councillors is a woman.

Could part of the reason be the hostile manner of many debates and regular evening meetings? As an Edinburgh councillor back in 2007 I was astonished when a colleague in another party was described as a fishwife. Business carried on regardless. I’m pleased that one of my legacies was getting council meetings ­webcast. Sunlight is the best of disinfectants.

It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so where we see positive examples of women being represented on a par with men let’s celebrate that. We know from analysis by bodies such as CEDAW (the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) that there is evidence linking the portrayal of women as sexual objects with attitudes that underpin discrimination and violence. Topless women in the tabloids is perhaps the obvious example of that portrayal.

Perhaps less obvious but as important is the imbalance on popular TV panel shows such as A Question of Sport, QI and Have I Got News For You. Who decides the guest list for these programmes? Isn’t there a case for a public service broadcaster setting an example here?

And where we have women in valued positions in our communities we should highlight that to encourage others to follow.

I once hosted an event in parliament to promote the House of Food project in Copenhagen, which has transformed the provision of meals in schools, hospitals and care centres. Part of the culture shift achieved came about by putting up billboard posters celebrating the men and women involved in making those meals. Those of us who are parents know who our child’s headteacher is – and it’s usually a man – but why aren’t we more aware of those – usually women – feeding our children?

Successful women should be highly ­visible. That way we have a chance of getting the message across.

Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, once said violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation, and as long as it continues we cannot claim to be making real progress.

This article by Alison originally appeared in Scotland on Sunday.

No More Page 3

This week parliament debated the No More Page 3 Campaign. I thank Jackie Baillie for securing it and below you can read what I said in the debate.


Pictures of naked or half-naked women do not upset me in the slightest, nor do they upset any of the men or women whom I have met who share Lucy-Anne Holmes’s view that it is time that a popular national newspaper stopped printing pictures of half-naked young women on page 3. What upsets us is that those images condition readers to view women as objects; what is wrong with page 3 is the context. As campaigners have said, we would not expect to see a picture of a half-naked young woman appear during a national television news bulletin, accompanied by some sickly sweet description. There would be an outcry if that happened. I thank Lucy-Anne Holmes, whose no more page 3 campaign, which began last year, has galvanised this long overdue outcry.

The debate is about what sort of society we want to be. How often does the Government minister in Westminster who naively suggests that it is for adults to choose what they read sit in a busy bus or train where The Sun and the daily drip-fed visual diet of women in passive and sexualised poses are increasingly hard to avoid? Why does that matter? Do those women not have a right to choose to do that? Of course they do, but we also have a right not to be exposed constantly by the mainstream media to a presented ideal of a topless young woman who is usually white, always very slim and frequently sharing print space with important-looking men who, it has to be said, are mostly wearing clothes. I went to the newspaper section of the Scottish Parliament information centre today hoping to disprove that theory but, frankly, I was very disappointed indeed.

As colleagues have underlined, there is evidence linking the portrayal of women as sexual objects with attitudes that underpin discrimination and violence against women and girls. That has been demonstrated in the United Kingdom Government’s “Sexualisation of Young People Review” and by CEDAW: the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

On days when I catch the bus, I read a free newspaper in which I am far more likely, as Christian Allard has alluded to, to find a picture of a scantily dressed woman in the news and gossip pages than to find a woman in the sports pages. Indeed, I could not find one picture of a woman in the sports pages of The Sun or the Daily Star today. If we look at the average magazine shelf in an average supermarket, we would be forgiven for assuming that most women have massive breasts and are more than likely, despite the fact that we live in the northern hemisphere, to find it unnecessary to wear any clothes. Those are the supermarkets where we shop with our impressionable young sons and daughters. Those images were not at eye level when I was a child, but the blurring of the lines and the insidious objectification of women is relentless.

I take this opportunity to thank Object and UK Feminista for their work to challenge the sale of so-called lads mags, and the everyday sexism project’s Twitter feed is well worth a read today, commenting as it does on Ryanair’s latest advertising campaign, which relies on two bikini-clad women to promote its flights. It really does belong in 1973.

The magazines that I am talking about are often found next to sport magazines, because sport is still seen by the media as something that women are not interested in. Many organisations are challenging that, including the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation. The titles in the women’s interest section of a magazine display might include articles on how to lose a stone in four weeks or how to never have a bad hair day again. We get the picture. The no more page 3 campaign is battling away, but it is difficult and we have a lot of issues to overcome.

Let us look at the BBC. Who decides who is worthy of a place on a BBC panel show? I mean not just political panels, which have had more scrutiny lately than previously, but shows that discuss music, satirical shows, current affairs shows, shows such as “Mock the Week” and “QI”. A colleague in my office suggested that it should be called “QIB”—quite interesting blokes. Why are those programmes so entirely unrepresentative of the population? It seems far more difficult for women to entertain, never mind sustain, a career in television, sports journalism or many of the most public-facing media from which we get our news and views.

We want our daughters, nieces and granddaughters to grow up in a world where there really are equal opportunities. It is time for women to be equally represented in the boardroom, on the sports pages and leading our schools and higher education institutes. However, while the blatant sexism that is page 3 is part of society, it is clear that we have a long way to go. If The Sun will not remove page 3, I say that we call for the removal of The Sun wherever and whenever we can.