The Anachronism of the Month award this month can only have one winner, and what a worthy winner it is. Step forward the European Handball Federation, which has emerged from deep in the 1980s to clinch the honour.

The sport’s officials roused themselves briefly to attend the 21st century in order to deliver a stern reminder to the Norwegian women’s team that Baywatch attire is mandatory.

The players’ offence? Wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms in a competition.

The international rules of handball state that to compete, women have to wear tight bra tops and bikini briefs, with the emphasis on the “brief”. Pants have to be close-fitting, cut upwards on the leg and have no more than 10cm of fabric at the sides. Male handball players, by comparison, can wear shorts in a looser-fitting style, and tank tops covering their torsos. (I’m not making any of this up.)

There is a photo doing the rounds that illustrates the contrast better than words ever could. It’s of the Norwegian national men’s and women’s teams next to each other. What it shows is men who are dressed and women who basically aren’t.

And that’s the way it should be, seemed to be the message from officials. The European Handball Federation (past presidents: Benny Hill, Sid James, Austin Powers) issued a 1500-euro fine to the bikini-shirking Norwegian women before, rumour has it, returning to their lair to watch Carry On Camping.

Well, needless to say, it all backfired spectacularly since there is no conceivable justification for making women wear bikinis if they don’t want to. According to the New York Times, even a spokeswoman for the International Handball Federation didn’t know the reason for the rules, though I think we can make an educated guess and it’s nothing to do with sporting performance.

Boris Johnson, who notoriously made time in his diary to watch the women’s beach volleyball at the 2012 London Olympics, wrote about “semi-naked women… glistening like wet otters”. How lovely for those elite athletes to be thus drooled over by an overweight middle-aged Lothario.

Objecting to these absurd rules isn’t about trying to dictate a new outfit to women handball players. It’s about giving them choice. If they wish to wear a bikini, then fine. But if they don’t – and astonishingly, some women don’t enjoy being forced to wear a bikini to work – then they should be allowed to cover up all the way from neck to ankle if that’s what they prefer.

It’s probably safe to assume that after so much toe-curling coverage about this idiotic fine, the sport’s international ruling body will eventually change the rules. After the initial debacle, the EHF made it known it was working to reform the regulations and had donated the fine money to charity, though it stopped short of giving the cash back to the players.

But this episode makes you wonder just how much progress we’ve really made towards gender equality in the last decade and how safe those achievements are.

If sporting officials can think it OK to fine women for objecting to objectifying clothing, then how much of an impact did #MeToo really have?

This is a significant question because for women aged under 50, the last five years have brought the most powerful period of collective action by women they can remember. Women’s patience with discrimination and harassment has run out. I have always called myself a feminist, but it took the #MeToo campaign to make me see the casual sexual harassment and abuse I’d experienced in the past for what it really was instead of accepting it as an everyday hazard women have to endure. Eyes have been opened; a step-change has occurred, superficially at least.

That feels like progress. Now with a young daughter of my own, I see positive change too in children’s culture. Disney heroines are unrecognisable from the sort who populated my childhood. They are action heroes. Where I wished I were Indiana Jones, my daughter can choose from Elsa, Moana, Merida, Elena, Astrid and countless others. Children’s books exalt brave, risk-taking but kindly female protagonists, usually in leadership roles. Football, rugby, martial arts and engineering organisations promote themselves to girls as well as boys. Teachers are much more aware than they once were of gender stereotyping.

Underpinning all this, it seems to me, is a spreading social awareness that it’s not OK any more to disrespect girls.

But at the same time, in the adolescent and adult world, change is dragging. Yes, pop stars sing songs of female empowerment that drip with contempt for cheating men, rather than celebrating women’s capacity to endure mistreatment, but let’s not kid ourselves. Women still face dire hazards and challenges due to their gender. It’s estimated that one in three women worldwide have experienced sexual or physical violence. The murder of Sarah Everard and the outpouring it prompted of anger and story-swapping among women, was a reminder of how endemic and deep-rooted is the intimidation and abuse of women. And there are new threats, such as the ready availability of porn among teenagers, which has worrying implications for boys’ attitudes towards girls.

Social change is incremental. Barack Obama, an optimist convinced that America is becoming a fairer place, said halfway through his presidency that “progress isn’t always a straight line”. He did not know then that a misogynist racist would be occupying his White House apartment within four years, but even when that shock result came in, he defended his wide-angle view of ongoing social progress, saying: “For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back.”

The recent history of social movements tends to bear that out. Back in the 1990s, some people imagined that feminism had done its job. We are far more savvy than that now. Changing ingrained attitudes takes generations, but we can tentatively say that progress is going broadly in the right direction. It seems absolutely remarkable that an international organisation would try to force women to wear bikinis in 2021, but perhaps it’s a sign of progress that the decision has attracted such scorn, and that already the officials are trying to backtrack.

Allowing women athletes at all levels of sport to wear what they feel comfortable in, is another tiny sign of progress.

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