The tax on being a woman

Published

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Claire Thomson
Views Editor

I wonder if anybody, ever, has found an edible cake decoration absolutely essential. Without their wafer daisy, they simply could not go on. Their health, hygiene and emotional wellbeing depended on this one fondant Santa, without which they could not function. According to HMRC, they have. Edible cake decorations, from sprinkles to spray on edible glitter, are exempt from VAT. They’re essentials, you see. Sanitary products however, are not. Sanitary products are subject to VAT at 5 per cent. The taxman apparently can’t grasp the fact that sanitary products are absolutely essential to women, as a woman you can’t simply do without. I’m fairly certain that even the most dedicated of bakers could do without an edible Santa this Christmas.

A petition begun by 21 year old Laura Corylton calling for Chancellor George Osborne to scrap the so called “Tampon Tax” has thus far garnered over 270,000 signatures – my own included.  It’s almost difficult to believe that in 2015, women are taxed for simply owning a uterus, yet here we are.

The abolition of the tax is not an entirely straightforward process, changing the legislation would involve navigating EU law and gaining support from all 28 member states. According to the government, the 5% rate charged on tampons is the lowest EU law allows. UK Treasury Minister David Gauke has promised to raise the issue with the European Commission.  The Tampon Tax is clearly a Europe-wide issue, in Hungary sanitary products are taxed at a rate of 27%. It’s a Europe-wide issue that requires European cooperation. Women Europe over ought to unite in their outrage and demand that their representatives work towards abolishing the archaic tax. However, even this would be one small reduction in the cost of being a woman.

The Tampon Tax is not the only tax women pay for the privilege of ticking the female box in an application form. Being a woman is quite frankly, bloody expensive. Getting home from a night out, or indeed from work or university in the dark early evenings of the winter months, for a woman incurs expense unique to their gender.

The Glasgow Taxis app estimates that a fare from Partick (home of many a student and yours truly) to Bath Street, home of some of Glasgow’s busiest bars and clubs, would set you back £7.40. Sexual assault is an epidemic in Britain’s cities and women simply don’t feel safe walking home at night, I certainly know that I never feel able to walk home after 11pm. Taxis offer a safer option, but at a price.

Of course, men take taxis too. But men choose to take taxis for many reasons, convenience, intoxication, the weather… For women, choice rarely comes into the equation; when a woman takes an expensive taxi home for fear of sexual assault or violence, there is really very little choice in the matter.

The average British woman spends £140,000 on hair and beauty products and treatments in her lifetime. Calling this a “beauty tax” would lack nuance, beauty products are not essential to the hygiene or to the safety of women: they are, ultimately, a choice. In Western society, however, the mould of “woman” is a pretty and polished one, and deviating from the mould often may not feel like a choice at all.

There are those who continue to deride the attention women pay to their looks and the time they devote to their cosmetic routine. What they forget is the consequences not conforming to the beauty ideal could have. Ashley VanPenvenage was ridiculed across social media after posting two photos side by side, one of her barefaced self and one of her heavily made up face. Comments included “this is why you gotta take a girl swimming on a first date” and “this is why I have trust issues.”  This is precisely why for many women, makeup doesn’t feel like a choice. The potential vitriol one’s bare face may trigger is enough to force women to reach for makeup brushes in defence. Comments like these have removed a degree of women’s choice when it comes to getting ready in the morning. If makeup helps ward off judgement and shaming from others, so be it.

Of course that’s not to say that there is not an element of enjoyment in applying makeup. Personally I am far too lazy to spend more than ten minutes in the morning grooming. I scribble around my eyes with kohl, smudge and hope for the best. My hair is not perpetually messy for the sake of style, but for the sake of an extra half hour under the duvet. But I have friends who are far more polished than I who genuinely enjoy the process of applying makeup and extend the ritual for hours for the sheer pleasure of it. The issue comes when women feel they are obliged to doll themselves up for the convenience of others and for acceptance. Then, makeup and beauty treatments become yet another tax on being female.

The Tampon Tax is one of the many taxes on being a woman and it’s essential that we take steps to abolish it.  We must also remember that women are forced to pay a myriad of other levies simply for existing as an adult woman; taxis and makeup to name but two. True equality will come when it costs the same to exist as an adult man as it does to exist as an adult woman.

I’m glad we’re finally talking about the Tampon Tax, I’m glad it’s in the realm of public discourse and I’m glad that a European solution is foreseeable. But I fear the Tampon Tax dominates discussion on the attainment of equality to the detriment of all else. Equality for women is a very, very long way off. Abolishing the Tampon Tax would be a welcome step forward, but it’s a drop of equality in the ocean of a patriarchal society.