Should misogyny be classed as a hate crime?

A new report by Citizens UK states that women are three times more likely to experience threats and acts of sexual violence and assault than men. The study, which involved focus groups in London, Birmingham, Newcastle, Manchester and Cardiff, also found that gender-motivated hate already factors in one-third of hate crimes protected under hate crime law, with Muslim women reporting the highest levels of abuse. Despite this, 60% of hate crime victims said they never reported incidents to police, with women less likely than men to report crimes. Women surveyed were more likely than men to say they believed they would not be taken seriously, or that the police would be unable to take meaningful action.

Misogyny is a term meaning contempt for, or prejudice against, women and girls. Although sometimes used interchangeably with ‘sexism’, misogyny is more sinister. Unlike sexism, which perpetuates harmful stereotypes and gender roles, and continues to create barriers for women, misogyny often manifests as disrespectful, degrading or threatening behaviour and attitudes towards women, which can escalate to violence. 

Misogyny is endemic across the globe, especially in countries that have poor human and women’s rights records. Extreme levels of violence are used against women and girls every day, with UN Women estimating that 137 women are killed by their families every day.

Misogyny is a dangerous trend in a world where leaders, lawmakers and judges are still overwhelmingly male.

Misogyny has a long history that intertwines with that of the patriarchy; rape and sexual abuse in conflict zones only became classed as a war crime in 1998, due to the deeply ingrained and widespread normalisation of violence and abuse of women. Even to this day, women of enemy groups are considered the ‘spoils of war’. Misogyny is a dangerous trend in a world where leaders, lawmakers and judges are still overwhelmingly male.

Despite the UK having a relatively good record for Women’s Rights, many acts of violence that affect women worldwide also happen in the UK. Amnesty UK reports that an average of two women a week are killed in England and Wales by their partner. Although predominantly practiced in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, FGM is estimated to affect 100,000 women and girls in England and Wales.

Public harassment, such as catcalling, groping, upskirting, intimidation and taking of unwanted photographs, is perhaps the most widespread and normalised form of misogyny in the UK. With the advance of technology, “online flashing”, such as sending unsolicited ‘dick pics’ and other sexual material, is becoming a new avenue of sexual harassment. The wide distribution and consumption of pornography depicting violent and degrading treatment of women is both a product and perpetuator of misogyny; it continues to suggest to young and impressionable people, that abusive relationships are normal and desirable.  

Melania Geymonat, and Christine Hannigan, made headlines in May last year after being assaulted on a London bus. After an investigation was launched against the teenage boys that attacked them, Geymonat started receiving anonymous harassment from the boys over social media. When police failed to act on her report, and suffered nightmares about the boys finding where she lived, she left the UK to seek refuge in Barcelona.

Geymonat disclosed how she believes the attack was motivated more by a disdain for women in general, especially women who ‘serve no purpose’ to men.

 From abroad, Geymonat disclosed how she believes the attack was motivated more by a disdain for women in general, especially women who ‘serve no purpose’ to men, than by homophobia. Geymonat said, “I also understand that it was a homophobic attack, but I think above all it was a sexist one. I understand homophobia as falling within sexism because I think men feel displaced. Because they’re not invited, they’re not needed, and it drives them crazy.” 

Geymonat and Hannigan are among several others calling for an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill currently being discussed in Parliament. The amendment would add misogyny as an aggravating factor in crimes and offences that go to trial, as well as requiring police forces to record it in their reports. 

In the 3 weeks following the start of lockdown in the UK, 16 women and girls were killed, more than double the average in previous years; in most cases, the perpetrator was the victim’s partner or former partner. 

The recent focus on domestic abuse increase over lockdown may make it seem as this is a relatively recent issue. However, far from being of national significance, domestic violence is so commonplace as to be un-newsworthy – it took the news lull caused by the extended lockdown to make headlines. 

These so-called “coronavirus murders” as the media has dubbed them, paints them as freak incidents involving ordinary men. This is wrong – lockdown has not made men more violent. What it has done is further isolated women who were already at risk from family and friends, as well as forcing them to spend more time in close quarters with their abusers; this has resulted in greater frequency and severity of abuse, culminating in deaths.

According to the UK government, 10% of all incidents reported by the police relate to domestic abuse, with two-thirds of victims women aged 16-74. This is why the proposed amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill will add misogyny as an aggravating factor, where accurate, in instances of abuse at the hands of romantic partners or other family members.

Adding misogyny as an aggregating factor would require police to record it, with greater visibility reflected on crime statistics.

Hate crimes are often penalised by law with longer and/or harsher sentences compared to the same crime without hate as a motivation. This is due to the psychological damage inflicted on victims by being targeted for traits that are out of their control  or are an intrinsic part of their personal identity. Adding misogyny as an aggregating factor would require police to record it, with greater visibility reflected on crime statistics. Being visible would mean police forces would be better able to tackle misogynistic crimes, by identifying problem areas, and devising strategies to tackle them head on. 

According to the Crown Prosecution Service, a hate crime is a range of criminal behaviour where the perpetrator is motivated by hostility towards the victim, due to the perception of them belonging to a specific group. Protected characteristics, as listed in the Equality Act, were intended to protect against prejudice and discrimination in the workplace or other public area. Hate crimes, in contrast, serve as a legal marker for the recommended penalties for certain offences.

The law in the UK currently only classifies the following five protected characteristics as hate crimes: race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and transgender status. Despite sex also being a protected characteristic in the 2010 Equality Act, crimes committed against women due to their sex cannot be penalised to the extent of a hate crime.

Nottinghamshire police made history in 2016 when it became the first police force to pilot a “misogyny hate crime policy”. The trial has been an overall success, with women in Nottingham feeling more empowered to report crimes now that they feel their report will be taken seriously, and an investigation launched against their aggressor. 

In April, Scotland started the process to make “misogynistic harassment” a specific offence, updating its current Hate Crime Bill. The Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said the “stirring up of hatred can contribute to a social atmosphere in which discrimination is accepted as normal” and must be challenged to ensure a respectful and inclusive society.

Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Philip Grindell said, “Women are being disproportionately targeted on the basis of their gender. There is ample evidence of an escalation of threats and attacks against high profile women – reflecting a wider problem in society at large and the need for policing to adjust accordingly.” 

The Upskirting Bill, which penalises the taking of photos under a victim’s clothing without their consent, was finally introduced in England and Wales in 2019. Upskirting had already been a specific crime in Scotland since 2010, and also covers men wearing kilts.

As put by Labour MP Stella Creasy: “Misogyny is so much part of everyday life that we overlook the harm it does – at the expense of tackling the root causes of violence against women.” The 2020 Domestic Abuse Bill will include the appointment of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner whose role will include developing early intervention programmes targeting perpetrators. 

Misogyny is a leading cause and perpetrator of violence, abuse and death among women and girls. It is important to challenge the normalisation of misogyny, and to take a firm stance on discrimination and gender violence both in the UK, and worldwide.

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