If there is anything you would like to add to this introduction, any comments, evidence or suggestions, then please do comment at the bottom of this post or email me at bigvoice2011[at]gmail.com.
Before we get to the F word itself, let’s have a quick introduction to discrimination.
In life we discriminate whenever we select one option over another, for example university admissions tutors discriminate between different applicants. Discrimination is only unlawful when we base our decision on unacceptable criteria. In the UK these criteria (known as protected characteristics) are set out in the Equality Act 2010.
Discrimination can be direct (I don’t want to hire you because you are black) or indirect (I will only hire people over 6 foot tall, which indirectly impacts on women). The Equality Act defines discrimination as ‘less favourable treatment’ of a person because of a protected characteristic.
Discrimination can be deliberate or unintentional (perhaps through lack of consideration or understanding). It can also be institutional. Institutional racial discrimination was examined in the 1999 Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and defined as:
“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”, which “can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes, and behaviour, which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping, which disadvantages minority ethnic people”.
Challenging systemic, in-built discrimination
Roughly speaking, feminism challenges institutional discrimination against women. Historically, women were treated much less favourably than men, with a legal status similar to children: they couldn’t own property, couldn’t vote and needed a man to speak for them in court. It was in this context that most of our political, military, education, legal, financial and cultural institutions were founded. While there have been great improvements to reflect changing cultural norms in these institutions, they can often only be ‘improved’ on so much.
Without a more radical overhaul of our institutions and systems it is difficult for us to realise true gender equality.
Feminist academic and political theorist Carol Patemen follows this idea further, arguing that at a fundamental level the economic and philosophical basis of our society (the social contract) is reliant on a collateral contract of sexual discrimination, “an unwritten contract for exchange: economic support and protection given by the male for subordination in all matters, sexual service and unpaid domestic service given by the female”.
Institutional Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System
As an example, our prison system was developed in a period where women rarely went to prison. Police custody suites were not designed with mixed genders in mind and today women are expected to ask for sanitary towels and (in Brixton police station at least) the men’s section of the custody suite has to be closed if a female prisoner needs to have a shower.
While every case is different, the profile of women in the criminal justice system is different from male offenders. Women in prison are more likely to be there for non-violent acquisitive crimes and are more likely than men to have been experiencing a crisis in their lives (mental illness, abuse, poverty etc). Women in prison have fewer qualifications than male prisoners, are less likely to have previous convictions, over 50% have been victims of domestic violence and around 30% are victims of sexual abuse. Women in prison are 36 times more likely than the general population to commit suicide, compared with 8 times more likely for men.
While a period in prison is not celebrated by most men, it does not decrease their perceived masculinity. For women, on the other hand, they feel their femininity is diminished and the commodification of prisoners (‘here are your 6 tampons for the month’) increases feelings of dislocation and isolation. Finally 9 out of 10 single parents are women and so women prisoners are more likely than male prisoners to leave a child without a primary carer when they are sentenced. For more information on this issue see the 2007 Corston Report.
This is not a deliberate collusion of ‘powerful men’ to subjugate women, this is not the fault of any individual man or woman, this is a problem with a system. Feminism is a movement to challenge institutions, stereotypes and practices that discriminate against women.
Discrimination against Women
I particularly like the definition of discrimination used in Article 1 of the UN Women’s Rights Convention (CEDAW):
“any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”.
For more information on discrimination see the advice guides from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.
For an incredibly brilliant insight into sex discrimination in the criminal justice system from a lawyer’s perspective read the inspiring Eve Was Framed, by Helena Kennedy QC.
To get involved with a campaign to improve access to community sentencing and proportionate treatment of women in prison visit Women in Prison.
Read Part 2 of a Lawyer’s Introduction to Feminism.