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Women demand end to Australia’s culture of ‘toxic masculinity’

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Rape allegations against two members of Australia’s ruling Liberal party have already sparked widespread protests and demands for an end to violence against women. 

But the leak of a shocking video this week showing a male staff member masturbating on a female MP’s desk plumbed new depths of depravity, igniting renewed calls to stamp out what critics say is a misogynist culture that runs through parliament and wider Australian society. 

“There is clearly a problem with toxic masculinity in parliament,” said Janine Hendry, organiser of a nationwide protest movement March 4 Justice. “But the frightening thing is that these are the role models that our children, young men and women, are being influenced by.”

Hendry, a Melbourne academic, led tens of thousands of demonstrators at one of a series of protests last week, which captured the mood of frustration and anger. The protesters have called for legal reforms to protect women and a government investigation into the rape allegations against the two party members.

The demonstrations have piled pressure on the Liberal party government, which has been accused by the opposition of covering up the alleged rape of a party adviser shortly before the 2019 election. 

But they have also exposed the wider problem of sexual harassment and violence perpetrated against women in a country where, on average, one woman dies every week in a domestic violence incident.

Brittany Higgins alleged a colleague raped her in the parliamentary office of the defence minister in 2019
Brittany Higgins alleged a colleague raped her in the parliamentary office of the defence minister in 2019 © Jamila Toderas/Getty Images

The issue exploded on to the national agenda last month when Brittany Higgins, a former Liberal party adviser alleged a colleague raped her in the parliamentary office of the defence industry minister in 2019. Higgins reported the incident to police but initially did not pursue the complaint because she felt her “job was on the line”.

Linda Reynolds, the defence minister and her boss at the time, was forced to pay compensation and apologise to Higgins for calling her a “lying cow” when she went public with the allegation last month.

Two weeks later, Christian Porter, Australia’s attorney-general, denied an allegation that he raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988 at a debating competition. The woman who made the complaint to police later died by suicide but her friends have demanded an independent inquiry. The request has been rejected by the government. 

“For many people, this is the last straw. It is so hideous, an alleged rape at the highest level of government,” said Olivia Patterson as she protested outside Sydney Town Hall last week.

“A lot of women have put up with sexual violence and people are just completely fed up,” she added, holding aloft a placard that stated, “I’ve seen better cabinets in IKEA”. 

The extent of the sexual assault crisis was exposed this month by an online petition calling for consent to be taught earlier in sex education at schools. The petition, which was posted by Chanel Contos, a former Sydney schoolgirl, has attracted almost 40,000 signatures and more than 3,700 testimonies of abuse.

Hendry was reading about Contos’s petition while eating breakfast with her 16-year-old son and told the Financial Times that some of the testimonies moved her to tears. 

Hannah McGlade, a human rights lawyer and a survivor of sexual assault
Hannah McGlade, who was one of the tens of thousands of women who responded to the call to action, says ‘macho culture’ flourishes in Australia © Sarah Collard

“I just thought, this is my son’s life, this is his future,” said Hendry, who was so angry she posted on Twitter asking how many women would it take to form a ring around parliament to demand action.

Hannah McGlade, a human rights lawyer and a survivor of sexual assault, was one of the tens of thousands of women who responded to the call to action and spoke at a protest in Perth.

She claimed sexual abuse became normalised during Australia’s colonisation and that a “macho culture” continues to flourish to this day.

“During the frontier times white men could rape and murder Aboriginal women with impunity,” said McGlade, who wrote a PhD on sexual violence. “And, you know, we haven’t progressed that much.”

McGlade said the government’s failure to pass national human rights legislation or implement reforms proposed by the Human Rights Commission last year in the wake of an inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace was a glaring failure.

There was a need for deep cultural change around equality for women and indigenous peoples, she added.

Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, this week denied Labor’s claim that his government covered up the alleged rape of Higgins and he made a tearful appeal for a change in public attitudes to women.

He is preparing a cabinet reshuffle, which will probably result in Reynolds and Porter being moved from their portfolios in an attempt to satisfy public outrage. But the prime minister has failed to propose practical measures that would address the fundamental concerns of the March 4 Justice.

Hendry is not disheartened. Instead, she is developing a grassroots movement that she believes can force the reforms required to clean up politics and break down the culture that permeates society.

“This could well be construed as Australia’s #MeToo movement,” she said. “I’m convinced it will bring the type of structural changes we saw around the issues of equality and sexual harassment in the UK and US.”



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Analysis

Iranian TV action thriller delivers warning to Zarif

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It is hardly surprising that Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and nuclear negotiator, is not a fan of Gando, a popular television drama that depicts an incompetent minister who scuppers nuclear talks with world powers by hiring dual nationals who turn out to be spies for MI6.

The series — made by an institute believed to be affiliated to the elite and hardline Revolutionary Guards — “is a lie from the beginning to the end” that “damages foreign policy more than me” by fuelling public mistrust, Zarif said.

By focusing on the nuclear talks, the Guards’ motive goes beyond creating compelling drama, reformist analysts say. Iran is in discussion with western powers about reviving the nuclear deal, a key reformist achievement, and hardliners want to deter the popular foreign minister from declaring his interest in the presidency in what is a crucial election year.

“I’ll be grateful to Gando-makers to let us continue our current job,” Zarif said this month, and commented that he would not run for the presidency.

The possibility of nuclear talks with the US and other powers has complicated an already fraught Iranian political scene ahead of the June election. Many reformists are pinning their hopes on Iran’s top diplomat to reinvigorate the nuclear deal and boost support at the ballot box. Hardliners might prefer to negotiate the deal themselves after the election. The polls are also seen as particularly crucial in case supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 81, dies during the next president’s term.

Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from ‘Gando’
Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. The series title refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies © Bahar Asgari/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The purpose of Gando, which refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies, “is to tell Zarif that should he dare to announce his candidacy, he will be destroyed immediately,” said one reformist analyst. “When the intelligence service of the Guards truly believes in the Gando plot lines, it means even if Zarif decides to defy such warnings, he will not be allowed to run.”

Centrist president Hassan Rouhani is due to step down this year after two terms and it is not yet clear who the presidential candidates will be. Politicians register as late as May and then have to be vetted by the Guardian Council, the hardline constitutional watchdog, which can disqualify nominees. Potential hardline candidates include Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the parliament speaker and a former guards commander; Ebrahim Raisi, the judiciary chief; and Ali Larijani, a former speaker of parliament. On the reformist side, speculation has centred on Es’haq Jahangiri, first vice-president, Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the founder of the Islamic republic, and Zarif.

A US-educated career diplomat widely respected in the west for his pragmatism, Zarif was instrumental in the historic deal in 2015, under which Iran curbed its nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But Donald Trump abandoned the accord in 2018, imposed sanctions, including on Zarif, and said he would pursue a new accord to contain Iran’s regional and military policies. The US move emboldened hardliners, confirming to them the untrustworthiness of the US.

Zarif’s background in the US both as a university student and as Iran’s head of mission at the UN — during which he met US politicians including then senator Joe Biden — has long made him a source of suspicion for hardliners.

This wariness of both Zarif and the west is evident to viewers of Gando, as is the heroism of the Revolutionary Guards. Mohammad, the action hero protagonist, warns that western negotiators may sabotage refineries as part of nuclear talks. Mohammad works out of elaborate facilities akin to those in a James Bond film. The fictional foreign minister is advised by a media adviser, the main culprit, “to enter into direct talks with the US and accept the conditions of the leader of the global village”.

Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’
Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. State TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run © Hassan Hendi/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The dramatic scenes reflect, in part, the worldview of some of Zarif’s critics. “Reformists, Mr Zarif and his lobby group in Washington [Iranian dual nationals] should be wiped out from Iran’s politics,” said an aide to a senior hardline politician who is a potential presidential candidate. “We have to get rid of this cancerous tumour once for good.”

Gholamali Jafarzadeh, a former conservative member of parliament, said Zarif “is not a good statesman and should not run for president” while “reformists should know that their choices have no chance to be allowed to run”. 

This month, state TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run. Local media said broadcasts would resume when the presidential race was over. Iran’s centrist president Hassan Rouhani, whose signature achievement is the nuclear deal — alluded to the show on Wednesday and said “people’s money” should not be spent on “fabrication of the truth” and “distortion of facts”.

After three years of sanctions, many voters are disillusioned by the infighting and the prospect of real change, whatever the outcome of the election. “Whether Zarif or a figure more senior than him runs or not, I’m not going to vote,” said Hamid, a 40-year-old engineer. “Let the Guards win the election as they are the ones who are running the country anyway. Why shall I make a fool of myself?” 



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Rising inflation complicates Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis

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After seven months in lockdown, Michele Marques received some unwelcome news when she returned to work: while she was away the prices of almost all the products she uses as a hairdresser had soared.

“A box of gloves rose 200 per cent. Colouring products increased at least 100 per cent,” said the 37-year-old from São Paulo, underlining how costs were rising while her revenue had collapsed. “I had to raise the price of my services, too.”

It is a dynamic that is playing out across Brazil, adding an extra layer of complexity to the country’s coronavirus crisis, which has already claimed the lives of almost 350,000 individuals and pushed hospital services to the brink.

With much of Latin America’s largest economy being shuttered, inflation is surging to its highest level in years, fuelling a silent scourge of hunger among poorer citizens that has run in parallel to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The high price of staple foods — rice and beans, for example — has led to the disappearance of these items from the table of millions of Brazilians,” said Ana Maria Segall, a researcher at the Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security. In the 12 months to the end of March, the price of rice increased 64 per cent and black beans 51 per cent.

“In Brazil currently food inflation has penalised the very poorest, preventing them from having adequate access to food and in many situations leading to hunger,” she said, adding that rising unemployment and the curtailment of social programmes were also contributing factors.

Volunteers hand out food in São Paulo © Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Less than half of Brazil’s population of 212m now has access to adequate food all the time, with 19m people, or 9 per cent of its inhabitants, facing hunger, according to a recent report by Segall’s group.

“I’m doing some odd jobs, but it’s not enough to keep us going,” said Jonathan, a 28-year-old who lost his job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in São Paulo when the pandemic began. He said he now struggles to provide enough food for his three young children and pregnant wife.

On a 12-month basis, inflation in June is expected to surpass 8 per cent, far above earlier estimates. In the 12 months to March, food prices jumped 18.5 per cent, while the price of agricultural commodities in local currency surged 55 per cent and the cost of fuel increased almost 92 per cent.

Line chart of Percentage increase over past 12 months showing The price of rice in Brazil is soaring

The developments pose a fresh challenge to President Jair Bolsonaro, who is already under fire for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Across Brazil’s biggest cities, graffiti has sprung up labelling the populist leader “Bolsocaro” — a portmanteau of his name and the Portuguese word for expensive.

The rising prices are also likely to provide useful ammunition to leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who returned to the political fray last month and may challenge Bolsonaro in elections next year.

“Bolsonaro is to blame for the increase in food prices, he is to blame for everything. They have to remove this guy,” said Maria Izabel de Jesus, a retiree from São Paulo.

Armando Castelar, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute of Economics, said the government had underestimated inflation both in terms of the numbers and also “how much a concern it should be”.

He attributed the rising prices to the devaluation of the Brazilian currency, triggered in part by the stimulus packages passed by the US government — which helped to bolster the dollar and led to higher Treasury yields — and the brighter economic outlook outside Latin America.

“You have a situation where commodity prices are going up because the global economy is going to grow a lot this year. With the growth in the US, interest rates are going up and the dollar is strengthening. This puts a lot of pressure on the exchange rate in Brazil and emerging markets in general,” he said.

As the spectre of inflation loomed last month, the Brazilian central bank raised its key interest rate by 75 basis points, higher than the half-percentage point many economists had expected. A further rate rise is expected next month.

“The central bank acted correctly, but it cannot stop there. It is important not to be too lenient in dealing with this,” said Castelar.

Silvia Matos, a co-ordinator at the Brazilian Economy Institute, also pointed to Brazil’s weakening currency as a contributing factor to inflation. But she said the slide in the real was triggered by investor concerns over Brazil’s deteriorating public finances.

Following the creation of two separate stimulus packages to mitigate the impact of Covid-19, government debt has risen to about 90 per cent of gross domestic product, a high level for an emerging market economy.

The rollout of the second of these packages began this month, with 45m Brazilians set to receive $50 a month for four months.

Critics said, however, these stipends were not nearly enough to keep people both fed and at home in lockdown.

“It is essential that the emergency aid is of a greater value, so that people do not leave the house but no one also stays at home starving,” said Marcelo Freixo, a federal lawmaker with the leftwing PSOL party.

“We need to reduce the circulation of the disease. Brazil is already experiencing 4,000 deaths per day. We will reach 500,000 total deaths by the middle of the year.”

Matos says that inflation had hit poorer citizens much harder than middle-class and rich Brazilians because a larger portion of their income was dedicated to food, the price of which has increased substantially.

“The only thing that could help right now is to get out of this pandemic,” she said.

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Can CVC pull off a $20bn ‘deal of the century’ at Toshiba?

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Proposed management buyout looks like an improbable win for the Japanese conglomerate’s embattled CEO



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