Blowing the Whistle on Prejudice in Football

By Kaammini Chanrai

Last week, after the Champions League fixture that saw Paris Saint-Germain play Chelsea, footage surfaced of a group of Chelsea fans chanting a racist song. ‘We’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it’, they sing as they physically prevent a black man from boarding the Parisian Métro. Three men were suspended from Stamford Bridge whilst Chelsea F.C. released the following statement that same day, reprimanding what happened:

‘Such behaviour is abhorrent and has no place in football or society. We will support any criminal action against those involved in such behaviour, and should evidence point to the involvement of Chelsea season ticket holders or members, the club will take the strongest possible action against them, including banning orders.’

This incident is a disgrace and it has rightfully attracted widespread attention and condemnation. Racism in football is pandemic, indicative by examples from last year alone. In April, Villarreal fans racially targeted Barcelona player Dani Alves by hurling a banana at him. Similar events occurred in May with bananas thrown at Milan’s Kevin Constant and Nigel de Jong by Atlanta fans. In August, the League Manager’s Association defended racist and homophobic texts sent by then Crystal Palace manager, Malky Mackay, as ‘banter’. In December, Mario Balotelli pleaded guilty to the FA for an anti-Semitic post on Instagram – Balotelli himself has been subject to racial abuse by Juventus fans and online.

I don’t want to undermine racism in football. The attention that it is receiving is entirely necessary and the discussion must continue in order to tackle such a deeply rooted problem. But I’d like to use this opportunity to open up a wider conversation, which encompasses sexism and homophobia in football as well. Sexism and homophobia are pervasive at football matches and occur so regularly that they have almost been normalised.

I’ve been at football matches where players were subjected to abusive chants for supposedly being gay or queer or transgendered. I’ve attended football matches where catcalls follow the every move of a woman on the pitch. Just recently I went to a match where the female physiotherapist on the pitch bent down to assist a player and a supporter shouted for her to give the player a blowjob. Nobody bats an eyelid. These comments are brushed off like mud on a player’s shoe and dismissed as playful banter.

The absence of openly gay players is well documented and discussed, and it is only recently that LGBT supporters’ groups have sprung up in response to fans’ fear of homophobic abuse, sometimes even from their fellow supporters. Brighton players and fans have been subjected to harassment simply for their town’s associations. A survey last year revealed that 73% of fans in the UK would be comfortable with a member of their national team coming out as gay – a relatively high proportion compared to other countries, and one that was met with praise. This statistic, however, belies the full quarter of British supporters who would reject such a player, let alone the almost certainly hostile reaction if said footballer played for the opposing team. Thomas Hitzlsperger remains the only openly gay player to have played in England’s Premier League – a sad truth which illustrates the antagonism that still exists within the game and the consequent difficulty for players to be open about their homosexuality.

I had never personally been harassed at a football match – not until a few weeks ago, when I attended my team’s Boxing Day fixture. My sister and I accidentally strayed into a sea of West Ham supporters and, without realising it, we were the only two females in the vicinity. It was only when my sister gave me a communicative stare that I properly listened to the singing behind us: “I bet these two take it up the arse,” a group sung repeatedly. “Get your tits out,” a few of them began to shout. I rolled my eyes and we continued walking, deciding it was probably better not to react and let the day’s scoreline speak for itself. There were plenty of police around, some of which definitely heard the abuse, and it was clear that they had been desensitised to such behaviour.

Of course, an indictment of all football fans is entirely unfair. Not all football fans are hooligans. Too many are racist, sexist or homophobic but it would be unfair to chastise all supporters because of the actions of some. I’m a Chelsea fan myself and I – along with most Chelsea fans – would never hurl racist abuse or physically assault another individual on the basis of their skin colour, gender or sexual orientation.

However, that this happens time and time again in football says something about the group mentality of football fans. Why such discrimination occurs is an entirely different question. The exertion of hegemonic masculinity is likely to have relevant implications. Hegemonic masculinity can be described as ‘a question of how particular groups of men inhabit positions of power and wealth, and how they legitimate and reproduce the social relationships that generate their dominance’ (in Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity by Carrigan, Connell and Lee). The existence of this seems evident in many sporting contexts and a situation such as a football match – which brings together a high amount of ‘masculine’ behaviour – is a breeding ground for prejudice.

Another explanation is the effect of collective behaviours. Multiple theories of collective behaviours exist but ‘Contagion Theory’ perhaps best describes this mob mentality in football. Gustave Le Bon stipulated that crowds exert a hypnotic influence over one another, which negates individual responsibility. He said ‘by the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs on the ladder of civilisation.’ Along with historical rivalries, strong emotions and an element of anonymity, this is likely to exacerbate prejudice and irrational action.

From a structural perspective, racism and sexism are accepted in entirely different ways universally. Thus, the microcosm of racism and sexism in football pans out in the same way. Sexism is often downplayed in such contexts and it is sometimes dismissed as irrelevant. In her article Female Fandom: Identity, Sexism, and Men’s Professional Football in England, Katharine W. Jones highlights the argument that sexism is not considered to be ‘as important as racism because of the lack of female footballers. They could see the direct effects of racism on players but could not envisage where sexism might take place.’ And yet, female referees and commentators are still hard to come by, sexism exists pervasively towards women’s football and there is a widespread narrative that football belongs to men.

Slowly, things are improving. Although they have been the subject of sexist and offensive remarks, female referees, assistant referees and commentators do exist around the world. The figures are miniscule but they are an improvement from a few years ago and hopefully the barriers to entry will begin to erode sooner rather than later. Moreover, just last week a match to display anti-homophobia was played between Dulwich Hamlet and Stonewall F.C, who are Britain’s top-ranking gay football team and current Gay Football World Champions. The Rainbow Laces campaign, also run by Stonewall, recently saw an array of Arsenal players speaking up against homophobia as well.

Racism, sexism and homophobia are not the problem of only one football club. Such prejudice and discrimination happens across the board, across the world. These issues are institutional, not incidental. They are structural, not isolated. FIFA and UEFA have already sanctioned campaigns to combat racist behaviour, but unfortunately the responsibility of holding people to account has been delegated. Better regulation must be a priority. And as we ‘Say no to racism’ we must also ‘Say no to sexism and homophobia,’ loud and clear.

[I would like to thank my sister for her contribution to this article]

Pink Lady Apples (No, That’s Not a Euphemism)

By Hana Shaltout

During our weekly Tesco run, my best friend-cum-roommate Nancy and I happened upon Pink Lady apples in the fruit section. Any bystander, in the next few minutes that passed, would have seen two people staring intensely at the packet. We were absolutely baffled, confused and bewildered. Pink? Lady? Pink Lady apples? We looked at the price — double that of standard apples. We looked at the standard apples. And then back at the packet, reading the description of their “delicate pink skin with a crisp bite and sweet fizz.” Having stared intensely for so long, and exchanged quizzical looks, we decided to leave, with an unsolved mystery to deal with. On the way back home, we pondered. Were they for women? Were they farmed by women? Were they only meant to be eaten by women? Were they only meant for ‘ladies’? Did they have to be eaten “as if one were a ‘lady’?” Did they contain more oestrogen than normal apples?  WHAT WERE THEY? Having run out of options, we Googled it. Apparently, they are pink because John Cripps — an Australian who crossed golden apples with red ones to get that shade — genetically modified them. While they are not explicitly for women, all the marketing seems to say otherwise by using pink, suggesting recipes and employing pictures of women in the advertising.


In the picture to the right you can see Nancy’s scathing post on Facebook and while it is amusing, I am more interested in linking this to other women who have been vocal about brands’ targeted marketing strategies (discussed below). I am thinking of the now viral “Bic Pens for Women” video made by Ellen DeGeneres. I would like to focus on one of the comments she made in the video — namely that of women’s products costing double those of men.  A quick example of this is the razor —  Gillette Fusion for men and Gillette Venus. The men’s one costs £5 according to Amazon, yet the Venus one is £11 on the Boots website.

Without going into too much detail about other products, we can safely assume that marketing strategies utilise sexist tools for attracting women. This is not to say that all women hate pink — but neither do all women love it. This kind of marketing also draws on essentialist notions of gender, in addition to ignoring the general differences and attitudes women have about products in general. However, this view is contested. Regarding the relationship between women, postfeminism, and colour, Veronika Koller comments in her article “‘Not Just a Colour’: Pink as a Gender and Sexuality Marker in Visual Communication,” that:

“While associations with pink still overwhelmingly make a connection between femininity and its stereotypical values, as well as with sexuality, an emergent concept is that of fun and confidence… Finally, the emergent associations of pink with fun, independence and confidence find their visual reflection in the use of pink as a postfeminist colour indexing economically independent, hedonistic femininity.”

What does this mean for consumerism and femininity? In my opinion, gendering inanimate objects (and animate ones, for that matter) is highly problematic to say the least. Going back to Pink Lady apples, my bewilderment stemmed from wondering why on earth is it necessary to differentiate between apples for different consumers? I do realise the difference between razors, for example, but apples? Don’t get me wrong: I do not wish to belittle the work of the man who spent years trying to genetically modify apples to get this shade of pink. What I am wondering is how much more advertising can capitalism produce that makes us think that we need pink to be confident, independent and feminine?

Another brief example of this is tissues for men — Kleenex mansize tissues. Is that meant to be a compliment to men? Or a criticism of men? I wonder how many more products rely on gender differences to sell. When discussing this blog piece with my boyfriend I asked him, in a rather frustrated manner, what the next commodity “for her” could possibly be. He replied sarcastically: “phones with a better HD front-camera for better selfies.” I feel as though this anecdote highlights how marketing draws on assumed concepts of women — in this case that women like taking selfies. Why is it that “for her” commodities are all pink and fluffy but the “for him” lines utilise darker colours in their marketing?

I would like to end by asking whether these commodities actually contribute to the production of normative femininity and its maintenance? Pink laptops, pink phones, pink everything — how does this add to the understanding of what femininity is, and why does it have to be in such opposition to masculinity? This is not to deny people any agency (guys buy pink laptops and girls buy blue phones) but why is it necessary to use the phrase “for her” when advertising completely generic things? Ultimately, it will be interesting to see how these products are received and how they are appropriated, used and contested by different people.

For further reading, please check out this article on the ‘10 Dumbest Products Marketed to Women.’

Women in Leadership: “Bitches get stuff done”

By Asha Dinesh

As a long-time disciple of the Fey-Poehler School of Feminism, I heartily applauded this proclamation by Tina Fey regarding the press coverage of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign for presidential nomination. At the time I did not realise why it had struck a chord with me, but it has since become apparent that it was because I tend to be weary about how my behaviour may be perceived in situations where I have to assert authority. This can probably be traced back to the time some kid called me ‘bossy’ in primary school when I was clearly just trying to maintain order as the hopscotch queue disintegrated into chaos. Combine this with the British disposition of self-depreciation that I was initiated into during my teens after moving here aged twelve, and you could perhaps begin to explain the self-consciousness I experience when in a leadership position.

For every woman who has ever been called ‘bossy’, ‘cold’ or a ‘bitch’ for daring to assert her authority in a leadership position — whether in the public sector or in business — there is a man who would be called ‘assertive’, ‘ambitious’ or ‘authoritative’ for behaving in exactly the same way. This is observable across the board, be it a US presidential campaign or amongst ten year olds (so it wasn’t just me!). Despite some of these terms shedding their negative connotations (see the redefinition of ‘bitch’, as alluded to by Fey), gendered adjectives may have inadvertently played a major role in the gender gap in leadership evident today across politics, business and the media.

I suspect that the low number of female CEOs, MPs and heads of states has much to do with the discouragement faced by young girls when they show any signs of authority. Along with the gendered nature of these professions preventing women from rising to the top, this deeply embedded tendency in society may be discouraging women from even entering the competition to start with. The gender bias in early life, both in public and private institutions, results in the disruption of not only the learning processes required to be a leader, but also the construction of a leadership identity in women.

Recent research has highlighted that most of the twenty four female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies started in low-level jobs at the company they ended up leading. This suggests that organisational efforts to encourage gender equality in leadership are important and effective. But caution should be applied when professing the effectiveness of organisational change; a closer look at the financial sector reveals that a culture of sexism has prevailed despite changes in employment policies and hiring practices. While the major firms are achieving gender equality in overall staff numbers, less than 20% of senior roles in the City are held by women. That measure falls to 16% when looking at banking in particular. Other professions are not faring any better, especially in the the media. The Economist has just appointed the first female Editor in Chief in its 171-year history, which actually makes it a pioneer in this regard when compared to many other major publications. What is clear from the numbers is that it is necessary — but not sufficient — to have gender equalising processes in organisational hierarchies.

I will not waste space here detailing the economic, political and human rights arguments for gender equality in the public sphere, as they are obvious. It is a goal that is clearly achievable, as the list of the most gender equal countries in the world demonstrates. This list consists mostly of European countries and is, perhaps unsurprisingly, topped by the Nordic region. Intriguingly, it also features countries such as Nicaragua and Rwanda, where extreme poverty and political suppression persists. Breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ is therefore not entirely dependent on GDP or economic growth — although clearly these factors are influential. These countries prove that quotas and affirmative action policies play a crucial part in the achievement of gender parity in public institutions.

For an individual, the path to the top rank of their profession appears to be carved early on, requiring the early promotion of positive associations between femininity and leadership. The Ban Bossy campaign and other social media-led movements may have begun to effect a change in perceptions. This may perhaps be the best way to speak to future female leaders, but this needs to be supported by processes in education systems that instil ambition and self-belief in early life. The inclusion of young boys in the conversation is also essential in order to achieve widespread transformation — a message which the He for She Campaign attempts to reinforce. Fundamentally, changing the gender imbalance in leadership across society requires a deeper shift in early educational institutions in order to encourage girls to construct a leadership identity from a young age and continue developing it into their professional lives in order to overcome long-established biases.

Gender and Terrorism in Egypt: Who Really Needs Saving?

By Elena Sabatini

In our current day and age, Islam can now be seen to fit into the Western imaginings of the ‘bogeyman’, or what Edward Said referred to as the ‘Other’: something characterised by its savagery, despotism and on some occasions downright ‘lasciviousness’, diametrically opposed to the ‘rational and civilised West.’ Aside from the sometimes legitimate concern over terrorist threats, however, a more pervasive and subtle factor at play is our conviction that Islam as a religion oppresses women — and significantly more so than any Western-originated structure, religion or institution. It is true that thousands of women are oppressed, abused and discriminated against globally, via the instrumentalisation of Islam as well as most other religions and cultures. However, there is a growing narrative which wrongly suggests that all Middle Eastern women are oppressed by Islam and require Western help. Our imagery of Arab men, of the Middle East, North Africa and Islam are now irrevocably tied in with the idea that women living in these regions, or who are in some way affiliated with Islam, are in need of being ‘saved’ from the dominance of ultra-conservative men. Or as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak put it, we are persuaded of the need for ‘white men saving brown women from brown men.’ I would like to challenge the assumption that Muslim women are always ‘oppressed’. Instead, by using the example of the rise in attacks against women in Egypt, I’d like to argue that women have been caught in the crossfire of larger global dynamics such as the ‘war on terror’, but that these dynamics are hidden under the veil of the need to ‘protect women from the threat of Muslim men.’

The loose category of ‘Arab women’ — and the not necessarily correlated one of ‘Muslim women’ — is now irrevocably associated with connotations of oppression, and the need for their rights and safety to be protected. A classic example of this narrative is Laura Bush’s radio speech from November 2001. The former First Lady argued that ‘the brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists.’ She added that ‘the civilised people throughout the world’ were heartbroken and distressed upon seeing that the Taliban wanted to ‘impose their world on the rest of us.’ Finally, she claimed that ‘because of our recent military gains in Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.’ Her speech constructed Muslim masculinity as ‘the Other’ (in opposition to the ‘civilised people’) and as a threat both to women and the entire world — thus attempting to legitimise the need for military intervention in Afghanistan.

Together with the correlation with ‘terrorism’, Arab and Muslim masculinity have been increasingly constructed as ‘hypersexualised’ and impossible to control. In the case of Egypt, below are two examples of some street adverts that appeared in Cairo after cases of harassment against women started increasing in 2008:


The first caption reads ‘a veil to protect or eyes will molest.’ The second example says ‘you can’t stop them, but you can protect yourself.’ The ads depict Egyptian men as flies, unable to stop themselves, whilst at the same time accentuating the idea of women as objects of desire and not safe enough to be present in the public sphere. Needless to say, the ads further the idea that if a woman is attacked while not wearing a veil, she is the one to be blamed.

Instances of street harassment were already common in Cairo, but following the Arab Uprisings in January 2011, cases of violent sexual assaults against women started increasing. They peaked on 25 January 2013 — the second anniversary of Mubarak’s ousting. On that day, 19 cases of assault against women were reported in the vicinity of Tahrir Square alone. All of the attacks occurred in an almost identical fashion and were highly systematic. They were also perpetrated by men who appeared completely free from any fear of repercussion (in some cases, they even attacked the ambulance that arrived on site to take the victim to the hospital).

Academics and human rights organisations alike have both argued extensively that the attacks against women in Cairo were actually orchestrated by Egyptian state actors themselves. These patterns were in fact reminiscent of Mubarak’s use of sexual violence to deter women from protesting. In 2005, for example, groups of men were hired to attack female journalists who were protesting against a referendum on constitutional reform. To date, the perpetrators have yet to be prosecuted. Nadje al-Ali argues that there is no doubt that Egyptian authorities have been instrumentalising violence — particularly sexual violence — after the fall of Mubarak’s regime. This organised violence occurred through the medium of the baltagiya (thugs from informal settlements in the Cairo periphery), who were appropriated in the early 2000s by Egyptian security forces. They were ordered to shout extremist slogans during protests to make protesters look like ‘terrorists’ as well as brutalise the protesters themselves.

Whether or not these attacks were actually orchestrated by state-affiliated actors, I think we can agree on a few things. Firstly, in the post-9/11 world the discourse on the ‘war on terror’ and the need to reduce the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is ever-present. Secondly, there also seems to be a massive emphasis on the need to protect women in the ‘global South’ from gender-based violence, particularly when somehow correlated to Islam. Just how much women would actually want to be protected by the West remains murky at best.

On the other hand, notions such as the rise in Islamic fundamentalism and violence against women certainly generated an interest amongst international actors, such as the US State Department and the UN. They also provided what appeared to be a solid and legitimate basis for the Egyptian state to justify an increase in the use of state-perpetrated violence, so as to allegedly ‘protect’ women and defuse the threat of an Arab ‘time-bomb masculinity’. Incidentally, that term has been widely used in the media, and is eerily reminiscent of the suicide bomber trope. I would argue that this terminology is not due to a random semantic choice, but rather an intentional effort to correlate the notions of ‘Arab man’, ‘hypersexuality’ and ‘fundamentalism’. Regardless of who was actually responsible for the attacks in Cairo, it is clear that their occurrence was useful to the Egyptian state and military apparatus. Riding on global dynamics such as the ‘war on terror’ and the fight against gender-based violence, the state was able to instrumentalise the attacks in order to legitimise its own human rights abuses, its criminalisation of Cairo’s ‘slums’, mass arrests and a continuation of the state of emergency decree.

However, mainstream discourse on the rise in violence against women in Egypt has yet to address the vested interest of the Egyptian state in the unfolding of these events and in the construction of their narrative. Instead, it continues to simplistically focus on debating just how oppressive Islam is towards women. This is an incredible reduction of the issue as clearly, in the Egyptian case, the violence is a reflection of a broader power struggle that has everything to do with squashing civilian dissent. A simplistic explanation based on patriarchal norms in ‘Arab culture’ is simply not enough to explain the organised violence which has been taking place.

In a time that seems characterised by rising levels of intolerance, I would argue that we need to steer clear of ‘essentialising’ and ‘othering’ attitudes. The events in Egypt are a case in point, and simply talking about Egyptian women being ‘oppressed’ offers a significantly thwarted understanding of the issue at hand. Another useful exercise might be that of refraining from protective attitudes, and alternatively trying to understand if they are masking vested interests. The only way to increase mutual understanding is to strive for a more subtle and nuanced comprehension of processes, events and their causes — and avoiding tendencies towards stereotyping .

In light of a more comprehensive analysis of events in Egypt, I now feel compelled to ask if rather than talking about ‘saving’ Muslim women, we should instead be trying to save ourselves from our own assumptions — and questioning whose interest lies behind creating the basis for those assumptions.