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Backlash over high heel dress code protest exposes discrimination, victims say

Yumi Ishikawa, front, and other signees of a petition seeking a ban on high heel dress codes, head to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward to submit the petition on June 3, 2019. (Mainichi/Satoko Nakagawa)

TOKYO -- A woman who started a petition earlier this year seeking legislation to ban female dress codes requiring high heels in the workplace is now receiving a backlash on the internet. Unfortunately, this isn't the first case in which a woman has spoken her mind about a gender-related issue and has been attacked for it. Why is it that women who dare to speak out are subjected to such harassment?

In this latest case, it all began when actress and writer Yumi Ishikawa, 32, who had a part-time job working for a company providing funeral services, began wondering why heels were a part of the dress code for female employees.

"I wanted the option to wear flat shoes like the men. It's gender discrimination for women alone to be assigned to wear heels, which increase the risk of injuries, and for there to be a social mindset in which heels go unquestioned as a requirement among women," Ishihara told the Mainichi Shimbun.

Ishikawa spoke at a gathering to share the reality of forced heel-wearing on June 11. There, she shared the backlash she faced. "People ignore the distress and pain of people who say they are suffering and are in pain, and simply resort to fault-finding and nitpicking. When someone speaks out, there are others who try to silence them," she said, choking up.

When Ishikawa began collecting signatures for her petition in February this year, misdirected criticism began popping up on Twitter and other social media. "Men are gritting their teeth wearing suits and leather shoes," one wrote, while another said, "Some women want to wear heels." There were a striking number of tweets that seemed to interpret Ishikawa's statements and actions as an attack on men.

Following the submission of the petition against high heel dress codes, Yumi Ishikawa, center, and others hold a news conference at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on June 3, 2019. (Mainichi/Satoko Nakagawa)

When Ishikawa's submission of the petition to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare on June 3 was widely covered by the media, online comments protesting and defaming Ishikawa escalated. Critics stated, "It's just a publicity stunt," and "All she needed to do was negotiate with her employer," while others wrote, "Are you really being forced to wear heels?" and "You made the funeral industry look bad." Threatening posts, such as "I'm going to find out where you work," were also found online.

On June 13, Ishikawa tweeted, "I'm going to quit my part-time job. I'm being talked about as if I lied, and I'm too scared to even face our clients." She's still on leave from her job at the funeral services company, but says she has never been directly criticized by people at the company or in the industry. "But I felt fear from the tweets I read. It feels like being bullied," she said.

Standing out were attacks on Ishikawa's work and images from her past as a bikini model, accompanied by snarky messages such as "You've made your womanhood into a product and you're screaming gender discrimination?" Such comments, Ishikawa has repeatedly said, are prime examples of gender discrimination.

Ishikawa says that due to stress, she has lost weight, and at one time was dealing with her face twitching and fatigue.

"What I'm doing is not attacking men," she said. "What I'm asking is why women and men don't have the same options. I think it's an issue that concerns everyone."

Such online criticism is nothing new, as attorney Keiko Ota knows all too well. Ota is known for her work with "kenpo," or Constitution, cafes -- casual gatherings in which attendees can learn about the supreme law. From around 2015 she began to receive phone calls at her office, in which an anonymous man would yell at her. She also received defamatory emails. Ota thinks it's because she spoke out about sexual violence and gender discrimination on social media.

Since last year, there have been cases of harassment in which Ota and other women, including a municipal assembly member and an activist, were sent underwear, cosmetics and dietary supplements that they had not ordered.

"Twisting women's words around, or sexualizing their appearance, their words, and their behavior are all typical ways of attacking them when they speak out," Ota said when asked about the harassment to which Ishikawa has been subjected. "There's concern that such harassment will have an intimidating effect. The people around her mustn't just stand there, but rather express through their own behavior that such discrimination and bullying is unacceptable."

Online attacks on women have been seen as problematic in other countries as well. In December 2018, Amnesty International released the results of a survey in which the organization looked at how 778 American and British female journalists and lawmakers were written about on Twitter for the entire year of 2017. Out of 14.5 million tweets, 1.1 million were insults, or in some way harmful or ill-intentioned. Such tweets were posted about once every 30 seconds.

Toshiyuki Tanaka, a Taisho University associate professor of sociology, commented on the phenomenon of women who speak their minds being attacked online. "The destabilization of a social structure in which gender roles were clear-cut, coupled with a deteriorating economy, has led to a spreading sense of inadequacy and gloom among men. Men in these situations have misinterpreted the entrance of more and more women into the workforce as women taking over their share of work and pay, which has led to this misogyny," he said. Tanaka notes that women-only cars on trains in Japan, which are designed to allow women to avoid gropers, have also been criticized as discriminatory against men. He says that such disapproval stems from a similar mentality.

At the core of the heels debate, Tanaka says, is the belief that women "should look beautiful," an assumption by which both men and women have become restricted. "Forcing women to wear heels and the online harassment of women who speak up share the same core. Men and women are suffering from gender norms. Those norms need to be done away with."

(Japanese original by Satoko Nakagawa, Integrated Digital News Center)

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