Daytime TV: Degrees of freedom

Feminists may complain about the objectification of women, says Gary Day, but they haven't been to Kabul

April 1, 2010

Vanessa Engle's three-part documentary series, Women, concluded with a film about the largely white middle-class London Feminist Network (LFN). The first two programmes, Libbers and Mothers, were admirable, but this one didn't really do justice to the participants (Activists, BBC Four, Monday 22 March, 9pm). A quick check of the group's website reveals that their activities are a bit more diverse than those portrayed in the programme. Happily, no man is to blame for this distortion, which just goes to show that not everything is our fault.

Vanessa is the culprit. After the film was broadcast, she was summoned by the LFN to explain why she had focused on the catering arrangements for the Feminism in London conference instead of on the objectification of women.

Vanessa's reply is not recorded on the website but my guess is that she got fed up of hearing Finn, Laurie, Sylvia, Sophia, Anna and Sally talking about the objectification of women. And indeed singing about it. "I object to objectification just for sexual gratification" - to the tune of an American marching song no less.

Frankly the planning of the menu made for more interesting viewing than the LFN's endless diatribe against Page 3. Not that there weren't contrary opinions, it's just that those who held them didn't feel able to express them. At least that was the view of Charlotte and Louise. Their views were practically heretical. What? Include men in discussions? Not condemn pornography outright? Here were two clearly in need of re-education.

Some women are portrayed as sex objects, yes. And so too, increasingly, are men. But that is not all they are portrayed as. Indeed, most women aren't portrayed as sex objects at all. The Queen for one. Trisha Goddard for another. To say that society is "brazenly misogynistic" is not true. To say that women are in constant danger of being attacked by men is irresponsible. Violent crime has been falling steadily since the mid-1990s and the most likely victims of violence in this society are young men between the ages of 16 and 24.

A cavalier attitude to facts and statistics was demonstrated by Laurie, who said that she was angry because a man who had branded a woman with an iron received only a two-month prison sentence. "It could be a made-up story," she said, "but even if I made it up it's probably true because that's the way this society is."

When Nel was six her parents fled to Britain from Afghanistan (Women, Weddings, War and Me, BBC Three, Tuesday 23 March, 9pm). Now, at the age of 21, she wants to explore the country of her birth. "I won't be able to wear these over there," she grins, holding up a pair of shorts. On arrival she goes to see her aunt and grandmother. "She's had a heart attack recently," said Auntie, nodding in the direction of Grandma.

Granny waved away the concern and lit a cigarette. She blew out smoke and spoke of a rocket hitting a man and his two young sons carrying wood. "They were blown up on the roof. You couldn't recognise any of them." She was silent for a moment. "We live by accident," she said, stubbing out her cigarette.

Nel's cousin told her what life was like under the Taliban. "If you wore trousers, you would be beaten." We saw a film of women being struck with truncheons because their burkas were not adjusted properly. She also spoke of women whose arms were chopped off and hung up as a warning to others to cover their flesh.

The new government has meant that life for women in the capital, Kabul, has somewhat improved. In the provinces, though, things haven't changed that much. Nel soon learns that she can't walk the streets unless she is cloaked from head to foot. We see a shot of girls as young as seven similarly encased. "I can't see, I can't breathe, I can't walk," Nel cries from the depths of her burka.

In Herat, she visits a women's prison. Most women are there for "crimes against morality". Sofia is 18. She has been in prison since she was 15. She ran away because her father wanted her to marry a 60-year-old man. In a hospital Nel meets a 15-year-old, who set herself on fire because she was regularly beaten by her husband's family. And she is astonished to find that girls run the risk of death if they go to school.

"I feel the contrast between how I live and how these girls live," says Nel. She lists the things she likes about England. Being able to wear what she likes, being able to walk the streets freely, being able to have a career. Oh dear. She really does sound as if she is in need of enlightenment by the LFN.

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