Gender issues have been in the media a lot of late. In particular, the publication by the Sunday People of TV chef Nigella Lawson’s husband Charles Saatchi grabbing her by the throat several times outside a high-end London restaurant have landed the debate around domestic violence full square in the spotlight, and rightly so. The casual manner in which Saatchi tried to downplay the incident does not sit well (at the time of writing Lawson herself has made no comment) and his turning up at a police station to accept a caution which he believes will draw a line under the matter I doubt will be the end of it. The photographs make for uncomfortable viewing. Domestic abuse continues to occupy a sphere in the public mind which is a sensitive area to tread – it being by definition something which more often than not happens behind closed doors – and in that private space between two people which outsiders often feel is out of bounds to comment on.
It is however a matter just as relevant now to Scotland as ever, and society has moved forward greatly in articulating why any form of male (or female) aggression towards a spouse is entirely unacceptable. That Saatchi allegedly has an excitable temper should bear no part in justifying his actions. In Scotland tens of thousands of women report such incidents each year, and we have organisations dedicated to channelling disillusioned angry young men into dealing with life’s problems in positive ways. We also have a number of bodies which act as the first point of contact for women to report this type of crime and seek advice. A critical factor is that victims of abuse can hear reassurances that they are not the only ones facing this, and allow them to take the next step and report violent partners or spouses to the police.
It has been also been 100 years since suffragette Emily Wilding Davison died when attempting to stop the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in the name of advancing women’s right to many of the things denied her sex at the time, not least the entitlement to vote. And since then both men and women’s role in society has undergone multiple transformations.
Scotland has a tradition and legacy of strong women throughout the ages – women who have led campaigns to address massive social problems, and who have been held in high regard not because they are women, but because they have been people whose achievements are great. Women’s role is central to our unique egalitarian cultural landscape. We can see that Scotland’s women are respected for their forthright attitude and their central role in the social fabric of our country. Even Disney picked up on this with their Scottish princess in animated feature Brave, whose independence in making decisions over her own life were the lynchpin of the entire movie plot, unlike almost every other Brothers Grimm rejigged fairy tale they make, where meeting their prince is life’s purpose.
The new Scottish Parliament itself was conceived as a place where a new relationship be forged for women in the public eye. The nature of the proportional representation voting system, and its building filled with glass-walled meeting rooms, were designed to ensure that Holyrood be conceived by the public as more transparent. This it has done through much of the legislation passed since 1999. Women have been key to the running of the Scottish Parliament as an institution more reflective of Scotland’s egalitarian nature. Many of the most astute and concise politicians in Holyrood have been, and still are, women. Gone are the days of the ‘old boy’s club’ Westminster represents, shaken up by a new more forward-thinking vision of what democracy means to us in our corner of north-west Europe.
All of these factors make the role of women, come the referendum, absolutely vital. We know from elections that Scotland has a greater leaning to left-wing social and political movements, even in the 21st century when politics has all melted into a massive bland centrist pot. Our political and cultural landscape is unique in this regard.
When issues like domestic violence emerge into the day-to-day media, with prominent examples such as Saatchi and Lawson – then politics must come to the fore. In Scotland the number of reported cases of abuse are still far too high, and the incredible work by organisations such as Women’s Aid remind us that it won’t go away without hard work.
The range and scope of issues which will be at the heart of the Scottish independence referendum debate will be large, but there is a definite sense that what will motivate people is not a debate over national identity, which is by nature fluid and ever-changing, but the possibility of redefining what we value as a society and of making this country a better place to live. Key to this will be ensuring women’s voices are heard loud and clear.
Many of the Scandinavian countries cited in the independence debate have very cohesive and balanced family-orientated policies, in which men, women and the state are intertwined. In Finland, for example, each family receives a box of supplies from the government when they have a child. These kind of policies do not eliminate problems such as domestic abuse, but they do provide to each new generation a set of gender values and social responsibilities which are fundamental to what it means to be Finnish. They provide a lesson to Finns that both men and women are at the heart of family life.
Their attitude to everything from healthcare, childcare and flexible working for both parents, should be a reminder to us that we can do a lot better. Perhaps more than any other factor, the reason Scandinavia is deemed productive and forward-thinking, is because they refuse to accept out of date gender stereotypes for society today. In Stockholm very recently the city’s train drivers have taken to wearing skirts to work because they are prevented from wearing shorts to work despite the hot weather. I cannnot imagine Scotland’s public transport operatives feeling quite so confident. I may be wrong.
The important point in this, however, is that by dismantling and redefining gender stereotypes, then men are not compelled to exist as emotionally-stunted zombies, and everyone benefits – the expectation that men cannot, or should not, express their feelings is removed. Changing this would go a long way to improving their relationship with themselves and their attitude towards others, particularly women.
The Yes camp, therefore, have a tremendous opportunity to spell out the kind of society it wants the Scottish boys and girls of the future to grow up in. If we can engage everyone in a debate about the place of both sexes in our society, and how we can make things work better for each, then the whole country will be the better off.