“Women must earn less than men, because they are weaker, they are smaller and they are less intelligent.” These were the words uttered by Janus Korwin-Mikke in the European Parliament during a debate on the gender pay gap last Wednesday. The Polish MEP’s statement was perplexing not only because it was an outright assault on the rights of women, but also because it was made within an institution of the European Union – a stronghold for human rights. A painful reminder that the verbal abuse of women’s rights in international politics still runs deep. (Featured Image © Alisdare Hicksone)
The United States, South Africa, the United Kingdom, India, Japan and Italy provide just some examples of blatant sexism in national politics around the globe. On the international scene too, discrimination on the basis of sex and gender is an often-underestimated issue. Politicians have taken to sexist rhetoric on more than one occasion. Case in point are North Korea’s sexist attacks on South Korea’s President Park Guen-hye, once even calling her a “dirty comfort woman”. Diplomats are not necessarily more diplomatic: leaked e-mails revealed a Russian diplomat writing that the members of Pussy Riot (a feminist protest punk rock group) were simply unhappy about their sexual life and “needed a good f***”.
Yet sexism is not confined to countries which have highly questionable democratic records. Meeting with other heads of state in 2011, Chilean president Sebastián Piñera made a sexist joke about the “difference between a politician and a lady”. Another more recent and obvious example is that of Donald Trump, who was elected president of the United States despite numerous remarks that were overtly discriminatory towards women. As if to stress his bosses’ sexism, Trump’s national security aide Sebastian Gorka topped things off by tweeting that “the alpha males are back.”
Obscure and overt sexist remarks exacerbate the existing inequality of men and women in international affairs.
Gorka’s statement raises an important point: international politics and diplomacy were long considered a man’s world and, despite a lot of progress, it possibly still is. In a previous article, Jan-Hendrik van Sligtenhorst highlighted the United Nation’s missed opportunity to elect its first female Secretary General. While the UN promotes 50/50 gender parity, it fails to lead by example as only 22% of all UN leaders are women. Such physical underrepresentation of women creates leeway to reduce women’s rights to mere talking points, and in turn allows some men to consider female colleagues as (unwelcome) exceptions in international affairs.
The concept of alpha males also reveals a second worrying practice: the continued prominence of rhetoric that endorses “masculine traits”. Men are made to believe that they are stronger and more reasonable, creating a culture of hyper masculinity that has for example led to the normalisation of sexual assault in the military and war crimes on the battlefield. Similarly, conducting foreign policy in terms of “demonstrating male strength”, as Gorka would, could seriously backfire. Such a vocabulary reveals a dangerous inaptitude to separate misguided concepts of masculinity from actual rational policy making. Worse still, it minimises the valuable contributions that women do bring to global peace and security, further adding to the point that elusive and overt sexist remarks exacerbate the existing inequality of men and women in international affairs.
Whenever global leaders verbally abuse women’s rights, it not only disproportionally damages efforts to protect these rights, it also strengthens the idea that gender inequality is not actually an issue.
The implications of this problem, however, extend far beyond the realm of international affairs. What politicians say affects women regardless of their profession, and when politicians take to the international scene their words have a far greater reach than those of their national counterparts. So whenever Trump, Korwin-Mikke or even the Philippine President Duterte say something sexist, it affects millions of people around the globe. Whenever global leaders verbally abuse women’s rights, it not only disproportionally damages efforts to protect these rights, it also wrongfully strengthens the idea that gender inequality is not actually an issue.
Due to their prominent position, politicians and diplomats alike must lead by example and refrain from sexist remarks. Whenever this is not the case, such a detraction cannot go undisputed or even unpunished. Other politicians and diplomats should condemn their colleagues’ sexist remarks far more often and explicitly than they do now. For instance, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is hailed as a champion of women’s right, yet refused to condemn Trump’s sexist remarks for the sake of other national interests. In such a case, words do actually speak louder than any other action.
On an institutional level, international organisations should continue to promote the recruitment of women. Additionally, procedural rules must make it crystal clear that discriminatory language bears serious consequences. The Polish MEP that made sexist remarks in the European Parliament does face a penalty – ranging from “a reprimand to a fine and temporary suspension”. Whether this constitutes a just punishment is strongly debatable for the reasons stated throughout this article.
Women’s rights are human rights – if world leaders, international organisations and society at large are serious about protecting these universal values, they are all obliged to take a firm stance against those who verbally discriminate against women.
When world leaders and organisations fail to take a stance, individuals can still make a difference. Anyone can join an NGO or grass roots movement that does explicitly speak out against such injustices. Furthermore, politicians and diplomats are not the only ones with a potential global outreach. Social media such as Twitter have regularly proved that public outcry can influence issues of sexism. There are thus plenty of things that anyone can do to support the equality of men and women. Indeed, women’s rights are human rights – if world leaders, international organisations and society at large are serious about protecting these universal values, they are all obliged to take a firm stance against those who verbally discriminate against women.