Ownership of Women

Of all the reasons to burn an effigy of Richard Gere, it seems odd that kissing Shilpa Shetty is what finally does for him. A line from The Guardian’s report caught my eye:

Groups of men burned and kicked effigies of the actors in protests across India [my emphasis].

This reminds me of an issue highlighted yesterday over at Pickled Politics, concerning the status of women in Indian society, and the anxiety among traditionalists groups who see the breaching of caste and and community boundaries as a threat to the patriarchical status quo.

Sunny also links to a mea culpa from Shashi Tharoor (former candidate for UN Secretary-General):

… by speaking of the declining preference for the sari amongst today’s young women in terms of a loss for the nation, it placed upon women alone the burden of transmitting our society’s culture to the next generation … And this was unacceptably sexist: after all, my column only called for the sari’s survival, never demanding that Indian men preserve the dhoti or mundu.

I have encountered these double-standards before. While interviewing youths of Asian heritage for the documentary Sex, Lies and Culture, we often reached an impasse in the conversation when it came to the question of whether the same standards of conduct were applicable to both sexes. In one case, a young man actually endorsed the assault he was subjected to by the over-protective brothers of a girl he had been dating, secretly (“well, basically, they threw me down a couple of flights of stairs.”) He said that, had he found out that someone had been dating his sister, then he would probably have reacted in the same way. The overt message was that the men of the family, brothers and fathers, have a right to cast judgement on the behaviour of their sisters and daughters. And yet the demands that mothers place on their son’s behaviour do not carry the same moral weight.

This is not an attitude particular to Asian cultures. Within the UK, I still detect undercurrents of this same attitude. Often, when people hear that my sister has three older brothers, some comment is made about how that must be difficult for potential boyfriends… as if these brothers are some kind of obstacle. As if we have a right to interfere in someone else’s relationship. Clarice at Conceptual Reality detected a similar attitude in Mark Lawson’s recent radio play, Expand This, where a brother cannot tolerate the sexualisation of his (grown up) sister. The ‘ownership’ of women is implicit in wedding ceremonies, where the father (or male head of the family, when the father is absent) is required to ‘give away’ his daughter to some other man. The suggestion of a mother giving away her daughter, or indeed of of a mother giving away her son, is still laughed out of the room.

Finally, this attitude is also implicit in the coverage of Prince William’s break-up with Kate Middleton. The understanding is that, as a member of the Royal family, William has the right to sow his wild oats in any girl who is ‘lucky’ enough to catch his eye. Most insidious is the coverage of a groping he perpetrated in a nightclub, in which William’s Royal status is apparently justifcation for his behaving like a lecherous dickhead. Apparently, for a royal to cop a feel of your breasts is also a stroke of good fortune. Literally.

Even if women have formal political equality, there still exists in society an unspoken, second-order sexism. Yet another reason why there is a place for the ideology of political correctness, which can expose and shame these attitudes. They may be “Just a bit of fun, mate” or “Just a tradition, son”, but they can ultimately cause an erosion of self-confidence, and family conflict.

Royals in Uniform

Amid all the discussion of Prince Harry’s deployment to Iraq, I’ve heard of an ‘arrangement’ that the Armed Services make with the Royal household. Apparently, when the Heir and Spare join the Force, it is the Spare who sees active service, while the Heir is kept back at home.

I can see how this might be thought sensible, since even the deployment of the ‘Spare’ is a heightened security risk, and it would be a catasrophic morale crusher if anything happened to Harry in Iraq (just as it would have been if Prince Andrew had come to harm in the Falklands). But if Prince William, and before him, his father Prince Charles, are not going to be subjected to that pressure of ‘proper’ service, what’s the point of joining the army in the first place? It seems to me as if joining up is merely a ruse to win the right to wear a uniform, with lots of sashes and bows, which always looks great in Royal Wedding photos and the other assorted ceremonies which the Head of State must attend.

But if the monarch is the official Commander In Chief of the Armed Forces, a post they inherit on the death of their predecessor, then surely that office means one would be entitled to wear the uniform anyway, without the charade of basic training? Why bother with the training that one is never going to put to use? It looks to me like a rich kid playing at soldiers.

I am reminded of the Queen Mother’s funeral, back in the ’02. I was working in Westminister and went along to the Abbey to see the procession. Pacing behind the horse-drawn carriage and forty bag-pipes, Prince Edward was noticable in his long black civilian coat, while his brothers and sister all wore their uniforms. He looked like the awkward guest, who was not told that the party was fancy dress.

After the ceremony, a sight I shall never forget: Some kind of wake had been organised, back at Buckingham Palace, for the Crowned Heads of Europe. The Queen was chauffered away in her Rolls-Royce, but the distinguished guests were all shepherded onto a waiting coach, as if they were a gaggle of blue-rinse grannies. King Juan Carlos was one of the first to embark, and he made his way to the back of the coach (clearly, he is reckoned to one of the cool kids of the International Aristocracy). He sat down, and gave us a wave. Unfortunately for him, Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden was chatting on the tarmac, so the coach remained stationery. King Juan Carlos waited awkwardly in his seat, fiddling with the brass buttons on his uniform. Every now and then, he would turn to the window and wave again.

Japanese prince

“I am very glad that the prince was born,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, who is likely to become Japan’s next prime minister. “It’s a refreshing feeling that reminds us of a clear autumn sky.”

So, the Japanese royal household has a baby boy at last. This ends years of agonising over their royal succession, and whether the constitution should be revised to allow women to inherit.

I’ve written before about this bizarre and outdated system of ‘salic primogeniture’, when the pregnancy was announced. I think the points made are worth repeating, especially in light of a subsequent debate I hosted here on the morality of the British monarchy.

[The new prince] will become third in line to the throne, leap-frogging two older sisters and his cousin Princess Aiko [the eldest child of the Crown Prince] … The message to Princess Aiko is simple: We wish you were not a girl. And the message to the country: boys are better than girls.

A monarch of the kind we see in Japan or the UK may not have much (if any) political power to change or influence the passage of law. But the institution is nevertheless a powerful symbol that can adversely affect the citizens – no, subjects – of the country in question. Therefore, its machinations should not be determined by centuries old traditions, which reflect centuries old prejudice. The issue is more noticable in Japan, which seems to have an even more conservative system than the UK. But the flaw is in the system itself, in the unequal, institutionalised relationship between the monarchy and the people. The problems that are manifesting themselves on those islands, could be repeated on these.

Immoral Monarchy

At qwghlm, Chris dissects the ‘myth of 62p’, the amount that the Royals cost each UK resident, each year. He rightly points out that the figure is derived from the civil list, and does not include those associated costs such as security for royal visits and weddings. I might also add that the 62p figure is derived by dividing the total cost (£37.4m) by the population of the UK (approximately 60m), whereas it should be divided by the number of taxpayers, which would yield a significantly higher figure.

While I understand the nature of Chris’ argument, I fear it will fall on deaf ears. Debates over cost will always be futile, because – as he points out, in fact – many monarchists will declare 62p to be good value for money, and would be glad to pay more.

The argument over the monarchy is an argument over the very system of politics, not value judgements over the allocation of our shared wealth and resources. The debate cannot therefore be about value-for-money, or economics. The monarchy institutionalises privilege at the very centre of our political system. It would still be immoral even if it were free. In fact, it would still be immoral if the Queen paid us to be Head of State. Cutting down the civil list, and persuading the Royals to pay tax, are mere fudges designed to give the impression of progress, where in fact none is being made. It would be more honest if Her Majesty had kept her Royal Yacht, her private jets, and locked the tourists out of Buckingham Palace. We would then look upon her as she truly is: Not some kind of A list celebrity, but as the hereditary ruler of these islands, with dominon over us all, her subjects.

Queen's Coronation

Misogyny in the Monarchy: Volume II

More on the traditions of monarchy…

My previous post asserted that a Head of State, the symbol of a country, should be chosen in a manner which reflects a country’s values. By blocking women from the Imperial Throne, Japan is effectively declaring that boys are better than girls. Sexism is institutionalised in Japan at the highest and most symbolic level. However, It is up to the people of Japan to decide whether their national symbols adequately reflect their values. It may be that the Japanese decide that they still do believe in the primacy of men over women. Since understand very little of Japanese culture, I will not concern myself with their constituional crisis further.

Besides, it is unnecessary for me to pronounce on sexism in Japan. A similar sexism is practiced in the UK, where unequal primogeniture is entrenched in law. A male child of the monarch will inherit ahead of his sister, even if she is older than him. The last time this occurred was in 1901, when Edward VII succeeded ahead of his older sister Victoria. Interestingly, she was the mother of Kaizer Wilhelm II of Germany, who would have inherited the British throne had a fairer system prevailed… although had this been the law at the time, Victoria would probably not have married a german in the first place.

Since Princes Willam and Harry are male (and, we assume, will continue to be), the issue of the laws of succession remain ignored and irrelevant for another generation. Nevertheless, the law stands. Just like Japan, sexism is encoded into the fabric of our country. A distinction between men and women could be made when biology is concerned (for example, in custody battles). But since the choice of Head of State exists entirely in the political sphere, the current system is entirely inappropriate to our 21st Century values. It is also out of keeping with many other progressive European monarchies, such as Norway, Sweden and The Netherlands. If the British Royal family are to ‘get back in touch’ with their subjects, then its female members should be placed on the same legal plane as their male relatives. It is a shame that this was not enacted at the same time Universal Suffrage:

“What do we want?”
“Cognatic Primogeniture!”
“When do want it?”
“Nineteen twenty-eight!”

Why bother complaining? It is not as if it affects anyone in the population at large, and women do sometimes get to be queen. However, I beleive this is an important argument, because it highlights fatal problems with the idea of a monarchy itself. The law that allows males to leap-frog females therefore institutionalises misogyny. By the same argument, the idea of hereditary political positions institutionalises and endorses unearned privilege. The most symbolic person in our country is not chosen by a vote, nor appointed by a committee of citizens. They are not even voted in by a lottery, as King Auberon is in The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Instead, they are given the position just because their parents had it. Nepotism of the worst kind, and the other citizens of the country have no say in the matter whatsoever. Not only are they powerless, but they are obliged to pay for someone else’s privilege.

Never mind the fact that we have an elected Prime Minister. Never mind the fact that we vote for local public officials. Never mind the fact that we have a press that scrutinises at every turn. Never mind the fact that the rule of law is strong in this country. Never mind that HM the Queen has no practical power. Even with all these positive, progressive aspects of our political system, the very existence of the monarchy means our country is both sexist and nepotistic at heart. By endorsing the system, we cannot escape endorsing these traits, which should have been consigned to the shame of history, long, long ago.

No amount of democracy and accountability in the other apsects of government can excuse the following fact: The highly symbolic and visible pinnacle of our system is a morally barren wasteland. For a people who believe in equality, this is simply not good enough – We owe it to ourselves to devise something better…

Misogyny in the Monarchy: Volume I

From Japan comes news that Princess Kiko, wife of second-in-line Prince Akishino, is pregnant. If a boy results, he will be the first born to the Japanese royal family in forty years. He will become third in line to the throne, leap-frogging two older sisters and his cousin Princess Aiko.

The issue of the Japanese succession has been labelled a constitutional ‘crisis’, with the public divided over whether a female should succeed to the Imperial Throne (The Chrysanthemum Throne). It has caused a personal crisis for the Crown Princess Masako, who is said to have become withdrawn due to the pressue inside the Imperial Court, to produce a male heir.

It should be stated that is is entirely incorrect and irrational to pressurise a woman (princess or otherwise) to produce a male heir. The sex of a baby is determined by whether the sperm that fertilizes it carries an X (female) or Y (male) chromosone. It is entirely random which of these genetic codes gets through… but if it were not, then only the testicles of the man who produced the sperm could be held responsible for a lack of Y’s in the bag.

That a group of people can be allowed to pressurise a woman in this manner is bad enough. Worse is the underlying desire for a male heir which causes such pressure. Clearly this attitude is one which runs deep through the entire society – opinion polls see the country divided on the issue of whether a female heir should be allowed, and fierce debates have surrounded the proposal by Junichiro Koizumi, that a woman be allowed to ascend to the throne. It was even suggested that the Crown Prince be allowed to adopt a boy to ensure that his daughter would not succeed!

The message to Princess Aiko is simple: We wish you were not a girl. And the message to the country: boys are better than girls.

We could list examples where the sexes are not equal. Mothers have a different bond with their children than fathers. Men are (usually) physically stronger. These inequalities are always rooted in biology, or psychologies on the most inate level. Many will also argue that the traditional nuclear family is the optimal social arrangment to promote human flourishing (whatever that may be). A family or tribal unit is something that may evolve, with the structure adapting over time and due to environmental considerations. We may not be conscious of it, and we may not be able to break out of the structure we find ourselves within. Misogyny may continue, and parents will still secretly wish that they have a son, and not a daughter.

Conversely, a State is an entirely political entity. It exists only in the conscious human mind – no more, no less. The idea behind a democratic state is that people consciously endorse (and usually codify) the way their political system – their mutal concerns – are arranged. It is about taking responsibility for how you live. Let no-one say that the political rules, handed down from previous generations, are not open to consideration. Let no-one say they cannot be changed.

In fact, breaking away from the tyranny of previous generations is part of the point of democracy. The nature of the system almost demands that laws be changed, for they must always reflect the views of the populous.

When a law becomes outdated, when it no longer reflects the values of the people it governs, it must be scrapped. As the news of this royal pregnancy reminds us, sexism is institutionalised in Japan at the highest and most symbolic level. The people of Japan must now decide whether they wish their Head of State to be determined by these values, or whether a new millenium should herald a change.

Volume II will be posted later today, in which we will (of course) return to Blighty.