(lbduk) Battle of the Sexes - The Rematch

Submitted by Editor on Mon, 18/10/2004 - 00:22

The arrival of Bob Geldof as a sober champion may have given the men's movement a new legitimacy after the the flour bombing and superhero stunts. But beneath the bids for sympathy a bitter extremism refuses to go away. Jenifer Johnston reports

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Dave Ellison
Dad4Justice
mad-dogs@ntlworld.com
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October 17, 2004

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Twenty years ago next month Bob Geldof launched the crusade against famine in Ethiopia, which galvanised a generation. Today Geldof is still an articulate and passionate campaigner, but his cause is very different.

When Geldof shared his views on marriage and children on Channel 4 last week he became the acceptable face of an emerging movement more used to operating on the fringes.

When the former singer with the Boomtown Rats calmly and rationally dissected the flaws in a legal system that separated men from their children after the breakdown of marriages, he did infinitely more for fathers' rights than the series of highly publicised stunts which have recently grabbed the headlines. Many women liked what he said. Critics liked what he said. Men were grateful for what he said.

While the purple flour bombs and Batman at Buckingham Palace did little to win the public over to the cause espoused by the Fathers 4 Justice group, Geldof's quiet anger was much harder to dismiss.

His television broadcast may emerge as the moment when the arguments of the men's rights movement finally struck a note with the public.

It is a movement that is gaining momentum. Fathers 4 Justice now boasts 16,000 members just two years after it was formed. Since the mid-90s there has been a steady rise in the number of support groups for male victims of domestic abuse, helplines for men caught in inescapable family law problems, and, more recently, political activism from men who want their gender to count for something, and not just on issues towards childcare.

Their list of grievances is growing and partly echoes the central planks of the women's rights battle of previous decades. The four main areas of concern are education for boys, domestic abuse, fairness over divorce and access to children after a separation.

While access to estranged children has so far dominated the news agenda, education is the main bug bear of campaigners. Steven Fitzgerald of the Mankind Initiative, a charity which lobbies the government on male issues, calls the state of male education in the UK "awash with double standards". He believes the recent success of girls in the system has been at the expense of boys' education.

In Scotland, 55% of this year's Higher passes went to girls, a widening gender gap. First Minister Jack McConnell now supports a pilot scheme of boys-only classrooms at secondary level, and under-achievement for boys is now a serious subject of study by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, concerned because 57% of university students in 2001/02 were female.

George McAuley, chairman of the UK Men's Movement (UKMM), a campaigning organisation based in Glasgow, says he was shocked at the length of time it has taken for the education of boys to merit proper discussion. "We were sneered at 10 years ago when we raised this with politicians. But now they are taking heed."

Domestic abuse and the image of men in the media are other issues some men are aiming to highlight. While Women's Aid points out that over 90% of domestic abuse is carried out by men towards women, a group called It Does Happen claims thousands of men have contacted them after suffering domestic violence, and that already in 2004, 48 men have lost their lives to domestic abuse. Their slogan is "it's not a gender issue, it's a human issue" and they urge men to dump any residual macho pride ­ if they have been hurt they need help.

Many of the emerging men's groups feel that the problems they face are reflected in the coverage of such issues in the media. Steven Fitzgerald highlights a recent primetime television programme in which a wife is seen slapping her husband. "Can you imagine if a man was shown slapping a woman Å  there would be an outcry. Men are degraded to a huge extent in the media and nobody complains."

George McAuley agrees and claims the very real problem of violence against men and male domestic abuse are victims of a skewed media viewpoint.

"Men get a raw deal in the media. A female prison suicide merits four pages of hand wringing, but a guy found dead in his cell gets about four lines," he says.

Writer Neil Lyndon is an unlikely hero of the men's movement. Ironically, he was thrust into this position after the publication of his 1992 book No More Sex War, which argued that men and women were not, in fact, engaged in perpetual struggle for supremacy.

When Lyndon's book hit the shelves, his argument was widely interpreted as an attack on feminism and he became the subject of intense media interest. Various columnists suggested he had either lost the plot or hated women. Work dried-up and he later wrote that "in the whole year of 1993, I earned less money in total than I had earned each month in 1989". His house was repossessed. His marriage collapsed, and his relationship with his 10-year-old son was placed in jeopardy.

"It was a kind of carpet bombing. I was silenced. I was shut up. It was the intention that my ideas should be erased," he recalls.

Lyndon is careful not to align himself with the men's movement but says he's grateful to Bob Geldof for airing his views on the subject on television. "I hope it opens the gates for more debate. The struggle for men's rights to access their children is something that can only be compared to the suffragette movement."

The UKMM claims "a slow, strong groundswell of support for men's issues, rising up faster and faster" ­ the UKMM lobbies the Scottish parliament on male issues and seek political redress in their perception that society has swung so far towards equality it now favours women over men. The totems that were once held up by the feminist movement as being symbols of oppression ­ unequal pay, sexism at work, stereotypes of "a woman's place" ­ are now, it seems, being claimed by men's civil rights groups.

It's hardly surprising that their cause provokes a strong re-action. "There are a group of very angry men who believe they are the victims of reverse discrimination," says Dr Michael Kimmel, an expert in men and masculinity at Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York.

"Their feelings of powerlessness, of getting ripped off, are real, but you have to ask if those claims are legitimate. What are they angry at? Are they right to claim those things are real?"

The facts on gender equality speak for themselves. Women in Scotland earn on average £482 less a month than their male counterparts, and 35% of women do not belong to any kind of pension scheme because childcare commitments have intermittently taken them out of the workplace. More than 1000 women a year sue their employers for being sacked after falling pregnant. Education seems to be the only area of society where women excel over men, and that achievement is still not fully rewarded in employment.

The Equal Opportunities Commission is the 21st century result of the suffragette movement ­ the government agency has responsibility not just for gender issues, but also for equality in issues of race, disability and sexuality.

A spokeswoman for the EOC dismissed the claims that the equality fight had now resulted in discrimination against men. "The argument that boys' education has been left to languish while girls have been pushed ahead is just not true. The amount of women in science and engineering is still woefully low, and at school level there is a huge amount being done to encourage boys in foreign languages and English."

Dr Kimmel suggests the current wave of men's civil rights is a generational phenomenon that affects men of a certain age.

"There are four areas these men are campaigning on ­ education, access to children, divorce and employment. They feel a loss of power in all these areas," he says.

"Younger guys have been brought up with mum at work, sisters at work, wives at work ­ they have no problem with equality. The problem is more apparent with older guys."

Despite the recent television coverage, the growth in membership numbers and an increasing public sympathy for at least some of the points it raises, the emergent men's movement hasn't yet managed to shed the extremism which undermines their cause.

Fitzgerald from the Mankind Initiative, which advocates gender equality in education and lobbies the government on real problems of male domestic abuse, effortlessly lurches into polemical sloganeering, claiming men to be "the new Jews". He damns Bridget Jones career women: "They might as well have "I want" tattooed on their foreheads ­ where has their maternal instinct gone?"

McAuley of the UK Mens Movement goes even further. "It is whining crap that women have ever been oppressed in this country. The FemiNazi has been working to remove the father figure from the family. Single mothers have landed society in a mess because of that.

"We would like to stop the propaganda of Women's Aid and the political correctness squad over issues like rape, domestic abuse and child abuse, which have been grossly exaggerated by them and their continued denial of any female culpability in it," he says.

It makes the "movement" an easy target. Claire Houghton, a children's rights expert with Women's Aid, is appalled by some of the comments espoused by groups seeking more rights for men.

"To say that domestic violence has been exaggerated to elicit sympathy, is dreadful. I wish we were exaggerating the figures. The sad fact is that one in four women in Scotland has been a victim of domestic abuse. Across the UK, two women a week are murdered by their partner or ex-partner. And there is an undeniable gender bias in abuse ­ between 93% and 97% of abuse is perpetrated by men towards women.

"It is very dangerous to suggest women are somehow playing up levels of abuse. Every person, man, women or child is entitled to help and support if they have been abused and we would absolutely support that."

McAuley, however, claims: "Our society is going to hell in a handbasket unless men start moaning and get politically organised. I recognise there is little electoral benefit to parties in courting a male vote. Women are the joiners and complainers and are politically active, men are stoical by comparison."

Making that move into mainstream politics are Father 4 Justice. In just two years of being an official organisation, their membership has swelled to 16,000. Dave Ellison, the international co-ordinatior of F4J says that men's rights is now a "world wide phenomenon. I have contacts almost every day from a new part of the world that want to copy our methods and fight for the right to see their children".

Those methods still include ridiculous publicity stunts. Just yesterday two members of the group climbed to the top of a rollercoaster in Blackpool dressed as The Hulk and Batman, to attract publicity.

But the group is also targetting the political system. Paul Watson, 35, originally from Glasgow, gained 139 votes for Fathers 4 Justice in the Hartlepool by-election (and was arrested after throwing purple powder over the LibDem candidate) in September. He believes F4J's impact has been considerable.

"There is not a judge or a politician or a senior civil servant in the UK today not aware of this issue ­ that's the impact we've had. Tony Blair has told me himself that he knows the system is broken," he says.

"Basically guys are getting off their fat arses because of us. We've created real debate around a pressing issue and whether or not the public thinks we are nutters or irresponsible, or whatever, at least people are noticing that men are alive for a change."

17 October 2004

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Dave Ellison
0796.333.5938
International Co-ordinator
Fathers for Justice: http://www.fathers-4-justice.org
http://www.amberell.com/campaign.html
Homepage: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/mad-dogs/
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