Argus title : It’s time to stop joking and start legislating
The Scottish comedian Billy Connolly was well known in Scotland long before he became famous in the rest of Britain. The turning point in his international career came in 1975, when he appeared on the Parkinson Show. He has always said that it was the telling of one joke during that interview that made the difference.
The joke was about a Glaswegian who tells a drinking partner that he’s murdered his wife and buried her near his house. When the killer shows the friend her grave, he notices that, while all other parts of her body have been buried, the woman’s buttocks have been left uncovered. He asks the man why and he replies “Well I still need somewhere to park my bike”.
Parkinson expected objections, not because of the joke’s misogyny, but because it was ‘off colour’. However, there were no protests to speak of and Connolly’s career went from strength to strength. Parkinson continued to promote Connolly and a year or so ago, he interviewed him again.
During this interview Connolly referred to the significance of that early joke – which he felt had established him as a risk-taker – and told it again. Parkinson laughed indulgently, as did the audience.
Once again, there were (apparently) no protests. If there were people in the audience who were hurt or repulsed by it, they kept very quiet. ‘Parky’, a doyen of television’s white male establishment, had conferred approval. Who were any of us to object.
What is remarkable about this joke is not so much that it was told in 1975 – in what were after all the early days of the ‘new’ women’s movement – but that it could still be told 3 decades later.
It’s worth taking a moment to think about how the BBC or ITV would have reacted if a comedian had told the same joke, but changed a few details to make it refer to a white man killing a black man, leaving his buttocks exposed so that he could be used as a bicycle stand.
No such joke could be told in a public place. In fact, there are few private settings in which anyone would dare tell such a gag. Connolly certainly wouldn’t and neither the BBC nor ITV would have allowed it. If they had, audiences would have protested and politicians and journalists would have condemned him.
However, the joke was about domestic murder and it seems that in our society this is fit subject for jest.
It is because of this perceived indifference to violence against women that more than 50 organisations have come together in a new and unprecedented coalition to combat violence against women. The End Violence Against Women (EVAW) Coalition recognizes that violence against women – including domestic violence, forced marriage, honour crimes, rape and sexual assault, trafficking, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment and stalking – is at crisis levels in the UK. It has called for an integrated national strategy to address the problem.
Spearheaded by Amnesty International UK and the Women’s National Commission, the EVAW Coalition includes The Women’s Aid Federation, Refuge, The TUC, The National Federation of Women’s Institutes and The Fawcett Society.
The launch was marked on 23rd November 2005 by publication of a report “Making the Grade: An Independent Analysis of Government Violence Against Women Initiatives”. It is damning in its condemnation of government failure to effectively address violence against women.
The report was delivered to 10 Downing Street by 2 survivors of sexual violence and 3 relations of women who have been murdered. The group included Liz Longhurst, whose daughter Jane – a much loved music teacher in Brighton – was murdered in 2003 by a man obsessed by violent internet pornography involving strangulation of women.
Mrs Longhurst was joined, amongst others, by Jill Saward who was raped at Ealing vicarage in 1987, during a robbery. Her case became a cause celebre when the man who raped her received a far lighter sentence than a man who had refused to rape her, but was judged to have had greater responsibility for the burglary.
A spokesperson for the EVAW Coalition said of the report that it: ”.. reminds the Government that under international human rights law it is required to protect women from violence, including taking action to prevent violence, and finds that currently it is not reasonably living up to this obligation.”.
The spokesperson added that it reveals “..disarray across government with little or no co-ordination between departments” with “ many not understanding the relevance of violence against women to their work.”
The EVAW Coalition acknowledges that the Labour government has made some
progress in tackling violence against women – including piloting specialist domestic violence courts, introducing new laws protecting girls from female genital mutilation, overhauling the law on sexual offences and setting up a specialist unit at the Foreign Office on forced marriage. But the work is uncoordinated, piecemeal and under-funded. Crucially it includes no long term preventative work, aimed at changing the attitudes that tolerate and foster violence against women.
The challenge is enormous. According to the 2004 British Crime Survey almost half of adultwomen have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. In England and Wales an estimated 1.2 million women were subjected to stalking during 2003, while according to the Equal Opportunities Commission, 1 in 2 women experience sexual harassment in the workplace.
One in 4 women in the UK has experienced domestic violence, while every week at least two women are killed by partners or former partners. In 2004 in Sussex alone there were 8394 reported incidents of domestic violence. The number of rapes in the UK continues to rise (12,867 reported in 2004/05 though actual levels are estimated to be between 50,000 and 80,000 per year), whilst the conviction rate is now at the lowest level (5.3%) for thirty years.
Police in London receive twocalls a week from women and girls reporting ‘honour’ crimes, including forced marriage and death threats from family members. There were 109 honour killings between 1993 and 2003 and many more deaths are being reinvestigated. Approximately 7,400 women in the UK have undergone female genital mutilation and the Home Office estimates that 7,000 girls under the age of 16 are at risk. Despite this, there has never been a prosecution.
The EVAW Coalition is calling on the Government, working within the framework of international human rights law, to develop and implement an integrated strategy to protect women from all forms of violence. It wants a single overseeing body in Government to progress this work across departments, reviewing the effectiveness of existing laws and policies. Crucially, it calls for preventative government led awareness programmes targeted at all sectors of society to challenge current attitudes.
The launch of the campaign and report did not receive the front page coverage it deserved – in fact it received rather less than the recent ‘speaking tour’ of convicted rapist Mike Tyson. The parliamentary launch was packed, but disappointingly not a single member of the government was present.
On the day the report was presented, Judy Mallaber, a Labour M.P., asked the following question of Tony Blair: “Has my right hon. Friend seen the shocking survey from Amnesty International that shows that a third of those questioned think that women who flirt or are drunk are partly responsible if they are raped? Will he support Amnesty’s campaign against all forms of violence against women and assert that all such violence is totally unacceptable and liable to prosecution?”
Ms Mallaber almost certainly expected a thoughtful response expressing a commitment to combat violence against women. The reply she actually received was a mocking one-liner: “I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that it is totally unacceptable and should be liable to prosecution”. He was on his feet for less than 2 seconds.
The reply was shocking in its calculated indifference. He looked like a man, arrogantly swatting away a fly. Most shocking of all was that other M.P.s allowed him to get away with it.
I ask every M.P. in Sussex:
• To support the EVAW Coalition and all related early day motions
• To hold the prime minister and government accountable for any failure to do likewise .
For my part, I’ve written to Billy Connolly to ask him not to tell that joke any more.
The EVAW coalition’s website is at: www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk .