All sides need to stop using sexism as a political pawn

By Sian Norris

Over the last few weeks we've had revelation after shocking revelation about men's sexually aggressive, sexually violent, and just plain sexist behaviour hitting our headlines. From the devastating and disturbing allegations made against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, to Clive Lewis telling a man to 'get on [his] knees, bitch', and Jared O'Mara's misogynistic and homophobic comments on social media, there's been a rush of stories that range from the viscerally upsetting to the eye-rollingly enraging.

After the video of Clive Lewis was released, Tory MPs rushed to condemn his comments and use them to attack the Labour party on misogyny. Some even demanded a debate be held on Lewis using his position of power to undermine parliament.

Lewis' comments should be called out for normalising sexual aggression and he was right to apologise. However, one has to question how serious the Conservative party is when it comes to tackling sexism or whether they are instead more interested in using women's rights as a pawn in a wider political game.

If the party really wanted to support women against sexism, then why didn't its MPs vote against policies such as the rape clause, which forces women who conceived a third child through rape to disclose the violence to the DWP and leave their abuser to qualify for their tax credits?

Are Tory MPs more concerned about the word 'bitch' being used by an opposition MP than they are about women being detained in Yarl's Wood?

And when it comes to using a position of power to tackle misogyny, don't they have a responsibility to stop the closure of domestic violence refuges, or prevent the roll out of benefit reforms that leave women going hungry to feed their children?

Then there's O'Mara, who has rightly resigned from the women and equalities committee since his grim and offensive comments came to light. It is right that he has also since been suspended by the party. But he's not the only man with ugly views who took a seat on that committee. Philip Davies has used his position of power to block debates on male violence against women. Instead of Tory MPs calling for his resignation though, an article on the Conservative Woman website praises him for "having the balls" to take on the "feminist harpies".

Across the pond, Fox News' zealous reporting of Harvey Weinstein was combined with demands across the right that Hillary Clinton somehow take responsibility for what had happened. It was as though the last twelve months had never happened. Where were these voices condemning male violence when the allegations against Ailes and O'Reilly surfaced? Republicans who suddenly cared deeply about sexual violence as a tool to attack the Democrats also seemed to care a lot less when it was their president facing similar accusations.

As a feminist writer and campaigner, it is incredibly frustrating to see moments like these. This is a period in which real action can and must be taken to tackle sexism and misogyny in all its forms. Instead it is weaponised, not to support women, but to use them as political pawns in a left wing versus right wing game of chess. At a moment when women's voices should be heard, we instead see the abuses committed against us treated like mud to fling at political opponents.

If the right wing media and politicians in the States really took the Weinstein allegations seriously, they would not use them to attack Clinton. They would instead examine their own complicity in protecting an abusive president, and in enacting harmful misogynistic policies that penalise women.

And if the right wing media and politicians in the UK took the meaning behind Lewis' and O'Mara's comments seriously, they would be looking at their own policies that cause harm to women and create a society where sexism is allowed to proliferate and remain unchallenged. They would listen to the women in Yarl's Wood and take action. They'd decide that a man who thinks feminists are 'zealots' and who blocks women's voices as they speak about male violence isn't fit to sit on the women and equalities committee.

Real change comes for women when those in power stop using sexism as a political pawn and instead work together to take action to improve women's lives. Otherwise, when the Republican right stop talking about Weinstein to attack Clinton, Trump's accusers will still be waiting for justice. When the Tories stop talking about Lewis, vulnerable women will still be pushed into sexual exploitation.

Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is currently writer-in-residence at Spike Island. Follow her on Twitter here.

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