Snapshots of law, gender and sexuality news from the past couple of weeks.
H&M’s 2016 Autumn Collection: a step forward for feminism?
Begüm Elif Yılmaz, University of Manchester
A recent H&M film advertisement for the fashion company’s 2016 Autumn Collection has been the centre of attention for feminists on the web in recent weeks. The ad seems perfect on the surface. With the song “she’s a lady” playing in the background, it is made up of footage of a host of ‘real’ women enjoying their lives. The apparent aim of the advert is to challenge people’s understanding of what being a lady really means and to celebrate those women who do not conform to the gender standards of society. In short, the advertisement highlights the important idea that all women are still women regardless of what they look like, where they come from, what they do and how they do it. It includes a trans woman, a woman in a restaurant picking her teeth with her fingers, a curvy woman in her underwear comfortably admiring herself in the mirror, a woman with an unshaven armpit enjoying junk food, a woman with a shaven head, a strong executive directing a meeting, a proud androgynous woman who would traditionally be ridiculed for her so-called “masculinity”, an older woman and a woman in an empty subway spreading her legs. These women come from various backgrounds, making the advertisement not just a feminist one, but also one that adds a broader diversity element to the conversation. Challenging the societal norm that women can and ought to only have a specific look and possess a certain collection of traits, this advertisement seems to reflect a deeply progressive presentation of modern women. Almost all women have been warned at least once in their lives for doing something “inappropriate” because it is “unladylike”, and as such the new advert’s overarching theme seems to be largely positive.
Nevertheless, the question arises as to whether companies like H&M really do care about the principle of diversity they claim to promote, or if adverts like this are in large part simply another PR strategy to attract new consumers. After all, targeting women’s ‘soft spots’ – in this case, the fatigue that results from being criticized for not looking or acting like a certain type of woman – has always been key to advertising.
There has been much feminist debate on the internet about the advertisement and if it really represents a step forward in a worldwide fashion market that is itself so often criticised for reinforcing problematic gender norms. Certain news outlets welcomed the advertisement. For instance, a Huffington Post article stated that the advertisement has “completely destroyed the meaning of being a lady” and the women’s magazine Cosmopolitan agreed by asserting that it sent all the right messages to young girls. On the other hand, Motto, while attempting to praise the feminism of the advert, gave its article the title “This H&M commercial celebrates femininity in all its forms”. In doing so, it made the mistake of still associating women with femininity even though one of the advert’s goals could be interpreted to be explaining that ideas of masculinity or femininity -socially constructed ideas of gender- do not define a woman.
On the other hand, other articles accused the clothing brand of being hypocritical. For instance, in a further article in the Huffington Post, looking deeper into the issue, it was reported that ‘plus sized’ clothing have recently been pulled from all of H&M’s New York stores. But perhaps more importantly still, a number of other newspaper reports also point to the discrepancy between the advert and H&M’s problematic commercial practices. H&M lists sustainability and fair living wage as some of its commitments. However, in February this year, the Independent reported that the company had been found to have used child labour (and specifically child refugees) in their garment factories in Turkey, although the company were said to have taken immediate action to protect those children once they became aware of the issue.
Furthermore, in a Quartz article, again published earlier this year, evidence was offered of extensive mistreatment of workers in H&M’s supplier factories and that women from poorer backgrounds were disproportionately affected by this mistreatment. The article includes reference to a 2016 report from the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, which advocates for the preparation of new regulations by the International Labour Organisation that might provide better working environments for workers in Asia. The report states that on the basis of interviews with over two hundred workers from H&M’s factories in Cambodia and India, the AFWA found that the workers of the majority of H&M’s factories in India reported women being fired for becoming pregnant. The report also notes that these women depend on their work to live and this often leaves them no choice but to undergo abortions when they fall pregnant. H&M responded by stating that they “do not accept termination on the grounds of pregnancy under any circumstances”.
Quartz also included workers’ reports in India that they were being paid by H&M below the Indian minimum wage. In this case, H&M’s response to the report findings was that this was not a problem solely with H&M, but rather these issues existed industry-wide.
In relation to H&M’s Cambodian factories, the AFWA report points out that although Cambodia’s Labour Law 1997 prohibits sexual harassment, it still does not provide female workers with any specific complaint procedures and does not include specific legal provisions that provide safe working conditions for women. According to the findings, workers in 9 out of 12 factories in Cambodia reported being sexually harassed. This begs the question, if national laws cannot provide a safe working environment for women, what ethical questions does this raise for private international companies whose factories are based in those territories?
It is of course clear that this is an industry-wide problem; H&M was not the only company found to have problems in the AFWA report. However, the particular issue here is that H&M’s specific celebration of the women promoted in their Autumn Collection advertisement reveals a potentially glaring gap between its marketing and the reality beyond the TV screen for many of the women it employs in the developing world.
Child marriage: A serious global problem not yet solved
Lauren Scott, University of Manchester
On 11 October the UN celebrated International Day of the Girl Child, an opportunity to promote gender equality and empowerment for girls across the globe. And yet, a Save the Children report released to coincide with this day of recognition for girls has revealed that even today ‘one girl under the age of 15 is married every seven seconds’ around the globe. In past decades the international fight against forced child marriage has united many who demand the abolition of this cultural tradition, and as a result legal change is slowly being brought about in many countries. However, reports and statistics repeatedly show that this change is not coming about quickly enough and the number of children affected by forced marriages is predicted to increase.
The reality is that forced child marriage remains a serious problem, and one which urgently needs to become a problem of the past. Ultimately, child marriage is a basic human rights violation which should be made punishable by criminal conviction. Furthermore, child marriage has material effects on the well-being of girl children. From a psychological perspective, children subject to forced marriage are left feeling isolated and dis-empowered. They are also deprived of their fundamental rights to education, health and safety. Many children forced into marriage suffer from domestic abuse and are at a greater risk of contracting HIV than unmarried children. The consequences of forced child marriage speak for themselves. So how can there still be such divisions between countries on an issue which is seen by many as unjustifiable? No religious or cultural justification can legitimise the continued legality of forced child marriage.
In some positive signs of progress, a “landmark ruling” by the Tanzanian High Court has outlawed child marriage in Tanzania. Now, any male or female who wishes to marry must be eighteen or above. Across the same continent, in West Africa, The Gambia has also adopted a similar legal ban on child marriage. Currently thirty percent of underage girls are married in The Gambia whilst the rate is thirty seven percent in Tanzania.
It is often assumed that forced child marriage is a problem concentrated in the developing world, due to the majority of western societies having long-standing laws against the practice in place. The practice of forced child marriage is something that the British Parliament dealt with almost a century ago under the Ages of Marriage Act 1929, when they raised the age limit to sixteen for both sexes. This remains the law today. Yet, the common assumption that the problem of child marriage has been ‘solved’ in the UK is far from accurate according to a Sunday Times report earlier this year. Following an investigation in to child marriages in the UK, a number of cases surfaced. For instance, the Sunday Times reported that a six year old British female was recently taken to Pakistan to marry and then returned to her school in England.
Others have suggested that this is not a rare event. Charities established in the UK to help vulnerable children, such as Karma Nivana, have received over one thousand calls regarding cases of children from ages as low as five being forced into marriage in the last three years. The chairman, Jasvinder Sanghera, is quoted as saying: “It’s very much a British problem happening to girls and boys in our classrooms, and schools are not spotting the signs”. This clearly shows that forced child marriage is not unique to developing countries; the harsh reality is that this is an issue tied up with the beliefs and practices of some cultures even within the UK and laws designed to protect British citizens are proving ineffective in preventing child marriages from happening.
Although the recent decisions to outlaw child marriage in The Gambia and Tanzania are a move in the right direction, it is not possible to curb this problem until it is universally accepted that children being forced into matrimonial ceremonies is wrong. In order to achieve this goal the law needs to move fast, and not only outlaw the practice but educate communities on the political and ethical concerns raised by this important issue.