Kat Banyard: The Equality Illusion (2010)

Women apparently have never had it so good. In today’s supposedly post-feminist world, cosmetic surgery is seen as empowering, lap dancing as a sexually liberating career, and the lack of women from boardroom a result of women’s free choices. In The Equality Illusion, campaigner Kat Banyard argues passionately and articulately that feminism continues to be one of the most urgent and relevant social justice campaigns today.

Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Men and Women Today takes an unflinching look at what it means to be a woman today and, due to the fact that Banyard is British, especially in the UK .

Still, whether you are an Afghan woman fighting for girl’s rights of literacy or an American doctor performing late stage abortions, you have one thing in common: you lead a dangerous life and might end up being killed. Both things happened.  The first happened in Afghanistan in 2006, the second in the US in 2009. They illustrate the illusion of equality and show what a global phenomenon it is.

Banyard structured the book like a day in a woman’s life and tied each part to a topic. Getting up – beauty myths, going to work – sexual harassment and the opposite of equal opportunity, coming home – domestic violence and unwanted pregnancies, evening out- lap dancing clubs, porn industry and prostitution… This structure works very well.

The key topics are beauty and looks, equal opportunity at work, poverty, literacy, the sex industry, domestic violence, abuse, relationships and children. Banyard looks at everyday life and how it is lived and not so much at the ideas beneath it all. There is an introdcutory chapter on false assumptions about gender but it is quite short.

To say the least, I was shocked about a lot of the data and statistics and saddened by most of the individual stories. Whoever said that feminism wasn’t needed anymore or that we were by now equal?

Women are to this day among the poorest of the world. In some African countries little girls do not go to school because they are raped on the way. In the UK some girls have bad grades because there is constant sexual harassment at school and all the teachers do is saying “boys will be boys”. In some countries girls are forbidden to learn to write and read.

Humiliating and degrading girls serves to highlight just how masculine boys really are. And so, sexist bullying and sexual harassment are an integral part of daily school life for many girls. (p.67)

What women have to face at work isn’t much better. Cases of all forms of sexual harassment are frequent. Women with children do not have a lot of chances to make a career, especially not, when, as seems to be the case, men do not help enough when it comes to child rearing. Payment is still not equal at all and this stems to a large part from the fact that many jobs performed by women are considered to be less valuable and are paid less.

Legislation can create the illusion that equality has been achieved. But just because it is officially illegal to pay women less than men for equal work, to sack them for being pregnant, or to sexually harass them, it doesn’t mean theses things don’t go on. There is a huge gulf between policy and practice, and much current legislation – particularly around equal pay – lacks real bite. In a society where women still do the majority of unpaid caring, rigid workplace structures and the long-hours culture mean they pay a huge penalty for doing so. (p.101)

There is a trend, especially in the UK to normalize the porn industry. According to the interviews in this book, there is no such thing as “elegant lap dancing clubs”. Sooner or later all the women are harassed and coerced into having sex. Prostitution may be a choice but only because the women have not much to lose. They have often been abused as children, are very poor, have no education or just had no idea what they were getting into. “At work” they face brutality and violence on top of the degrading activity of selling their bodies.

I think the way society has glorified prostitution is very sad. I believe young women all over the world are becoming more curious (about going into prostitution) due to the positive light that is shown on this horrid profession. (p.145)

Domestic violence is extremely wide-spread, rape is on the up and many perpetrators are never convicted and if they are the punishment is ludicrous.

What bothers me personally the most in my personal life are two things. One is something I’m facing at work- there is no such a thing as equal treatment and the other is something I see happen, namely the overwhelming presence of the influence of the porn industry. Porn practices, fashion and looks seem to become normalized to the extent where you can find “sexy” underwear and clothes for little girls at the supermarket.

Compared to all this it may seem futile to debate whether all the pink toys for girls are really an issue or not but when you dig deeper, you just see that it is one of the symptoms of gender inequality. And it’s everywhere.

What I truly liked about the book, is that Kat Banyard offers hope. Her last chapter and the appendix are entirely dedicated to grassroot activism which is extremely important work and she offers a list of resources. She clearly shows how important feminism still is, that you can achieve something if you want to, it doesn’t need to be anything big and that your dedication may inspire others to follow your example. Last but not least she underlines that feminism also needs the contribution of men and they will ultimately also benefit from equality.

l read about this book on Still Life with Books. I’m really glad I read it and would love to hear from anyone who has read this or any of the other new/old publications. My first thought when I saw these new books was “But that has been done before….” Yes, it has, but apparently most of it has been forgotten. And we need books that back up the topics with actual data or the books get dismissed as being outdated.

I hope I might finally get to Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender next.