Comment: Celebrate successful women and help end violence

Alison Johnstone is the Green MSP for Lothian. Picture: Contributed

Alison Johnstone is the Green MSP for Lothian. Picture: Contributed

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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.

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.

Alison Johnstone is Green MSP for Lothian

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