“You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed
One of our great strengths is our ability to adapt to almost any situation, no matter how unusual it might seem at the start.
"I thought then: no matter how deep the dung, no matter how long the task, if you just go at it one shovel at a time the day will come when you can see clean earth at the bottom of the pile.
...I know better now. The unit of time that must be taken into account here is not decades but centuries, and tens of centuries. It has meaning only in the context of eternal time... I was a human being; I was ill-prepared to set my mind to plans that must be based upon thousands and thousands of years. Nothing about me was large enough to stretch itself to such a scale. And so, because there was quite literally nothing else to do, I set Time aside. I pretended that there was no such entity as Time; I abandoned it utterly. And then I set my shovel to the pile. I began to do whatever I humanly could. Outside the context of Time.
Tomorrow is International Women’s Day; in my mind, a day for celebrating, and thanking, inspiring women. When I think of the most inspiring women I know personally, and the most important conversations I’ve had with them, almost all of them have one slightly counterintuitive thread running through them: vulnerability and weakness.
Unusually for me, I’ve just spent the last two weeks pretty much solidly in the company of people who I’m working closely with; first at the Global Voices Exchange workshop last week, then at the engine room organisation retreat, which brought together our distributed team in one place. Both weeks further reinforced for me the importance of in-person meetings for those of us who interact primarily in the digital space, for a number of reasons, and together have changed the way that I’ll collaborate online in the future.
At the end of 2013, I came across a lot of ‘feminist round ups’ of the year that covered only achievements happening in the US and Europe. This frustrated me. So, in 2014, I started collecting tweets that I came across which linked to cool examples of fierce feminists from the majority world - and at the end of the year, I wrote this post - 24 fierce acts of feminism you probably didn’t hear about in 2014.
Last year, I was slightly less attentive to curating my Majority World feminism timeline, but I still managed to get some good ones. So, a little late, but here are my favourite examples of majority world feminism, from 2015.
Tweet with #mwfem if you come across more!
This weekend was the Art and Feminism Wikipedia Editathon- a campaign to improve coverage of women and the arts on Wikipedia.
I joined the Berlin group today, and I did two main things: created a page for the feminist artist Dilara Begum Jolly, whose work looks at social injustices in Bangladesh and globally, focusing on the role of women; and I improved the page of Kanak Chanpa Chakma, a Bengali artist who focuses on the lives of ethnic minorities in Bangladesh.
I found both of them via this pretty enormous page, Women Artists of Bangladesh. I wasn’t sure where to start on cleaning it up purely because it is so unwieldy - that is to say, long, without many references or structure, and with a very unusual style of writing. So, I focused on the two of them instead.
It is a lot more rewarding than I had thought to create a page and to see the improvements on Kanak Chanpa Chakma’s page, too! To my surprise, just 4 hours after creating Dilara Begum Jolly’s page, it’s now in the top 5 hits when you search for her name on Google, too.
Here are some things I learned today:
Part two of a few of my favourite things from 2014, (see here for Part 1); this time Feminism, Diversity + Inclusivity, Bangladesh, and All-women lists.
All year, I’ve been keeping a custom Twitter timeline of cool acts of feminism that are happening in the ‘majority world’ - ie. low-income countries. I wrote about why I’ve been doing that here earlier in the year.
Earlier this weekend, I came across this reddit post, entitled ‘Being a black woman in Berlin’. It’s a sad endictment on society here in Berlin that someone is experiencing such awful treatment from those in the city; sadly, though, I’m not surprised, judging from my own experiences. I’m also finding both the original post and the following comments to be revealing about German society in general.
In the original post, an African-American woman describes her experiences of moving to Berlin, and facing constant harassment and racism here in Berlin, specifically while living in Moabit. While obviously I can’t comment on the experience of black women in Berlin, I can from my own perspective as a British-Asian woman living here, and there were a few key things that she wrote that I can strongly sympathise with.
Hedy Lamarr, co-inventor of an early technique for frequency hopping, which was the predecessor for wireless communications, was born 100 years ago today.
I came across Lamarr early this year, after having a very thorough introduction to ‘how the internet came to be’ from some friends of mine. Then, I discovered that Hedy Lamarr’s Wikipedia article introduction barely mentioned her incredibly significant scientific inventions – instead, two paragraphs were dedicated to her “great beauty” and her acting. Needless to say, I didn’t appreciate this; so I changed it. As things turned out though, I ended up making things a lot worse.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to sit down with a few fabulous ladies who work in international development, to ask them about their experiences as feminists within their sector, and also their opinions on the role of feminism within global development.
The recording of the discussion we had aired last night on Berlin Community Radio (with a short introduction from Kate and I, and some gorgeous tunes from Naomi Wachira), and you can listen to the show below. I also wanted to quickly highlight here a few key points that stood out for me throughout the discussion.
I’ve just spent the weekend at AdaCamp, a two day event aimed at increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture. It was great, and gave me lots to think about, some of which I’ve tried to outline here.
Yesterday, I went to a fantastic wedding. It was truly wonderful for a number of personal reasons, given that it was my brother's wedding (!) – but it was also, for me, a great example of how an old-fashioned institution like marriage can be brought into the 21st century, and celebrated without gender-bias.
On Monday, I co-presented a short show on Berlin Community Radio, with my friend Kate McCurdy, on a topic that has been fascinating us for a little while now – feminist science fiction. We looked at a few key pieces of science fiction from as far back as 1905, with a short reading from Sultana's Dream, another reading of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness (one of our favourite pieces!), and talked briefly about Afrofuturism, too. We were joined by April who provided us with some awesome spacey tunes.
We did a fair bit of research for the show, which I've arranged below into an article, with links to works we mentioned– we said much of what is written below in the radio show though, which you can listen to online here. Suggestions for future radio show segments are welcome, as are recommendations of other feminist science fiction books to read!
Image credit: Joanna Walsh, who came up with the campaign
It's July already, which means I'm six months through my challenge of a. reading 50 books this year, and b. only reading books by women, as part of the #readwomen2014 campaign, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.
People close to me have now stopped recommending books by men as default, and caveat recommendations with “Next year, you could check out...” – which I appreciate. Other people who I tell about my women-only reading habits have been pleasantly curious, and upon thinking about it, have almost unanimously agreed that they probably read many more books by men than by women.
One of the nicest things, though (and this is perhaps more related to the quantity side of the challenge) – is that for the first time in years, I've started to set aside time for reading. Prioritising a few hours each week for the delicious act of curling up in my chair and delving into a book feels like such a luxury, and yet practically speaking, relatively easy to obtain.
In an era when complaining about being busy has become somewhat of “a boast disguised as a complaint”, escaping 'the busy trap' and making space for those few hours was initially slightly bizarre for me. Sorry, I can't meet you for dinner, I have to read. No drinks after work, I have reading to do. These reasons sounded strange to my ears to start with, but I soon lost that hesitation, and realised that actually, they are very valid.
I've been keeping track of my books over on Goodreads, after I realised last year that it was difficult to remember what I'd read throughout the year. Having them all set out in a list allows me also to find patterns among my reading choices: Ursula K. LeGuin is by far my most preferred author (6 books out of the 23) and the majority, just, of the books are written by women of colour (12 books out of the 23).
My favourite book out of all of them – and one that I've passed on to friends and recommended to more people than I can remember – has been The Left Hand of Darkness, which was a book which genuinely changed my behaviour, and made me realise things about myself that I hadn't really considered before. In terms of reading, it was the first science fiction book I've read, and it hugely whet my appetite for a genre which I'd previously ignored, proof of which can be seen through the 7 other scifi books I've read this year.
Scifi aside, my favourites so far have probably been Alice Walker's The Colour Purple, which is one I'd been meaning to read for a while, Mia McKenzie's The Summer We Got Free, which was beautiful and mesmerisingly written, or perhaps Taiye Selasi's debut novel, Ghana Must Go, on identity and immigration.
In terms of non-fiction, bell hooks' The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love is another one of those books which left a long lasting impression on me, and which I've recommended widely since. My other favourite is on a very different topic; Emily Parker's “Now I know who my comrades are: Voices from the Internet Underground”, which looked at internet activism in Cuba, Russia and China, and was a wonderful example for me of recognising cultural differences when considering online behaviour.
It's also pretty satisfying, looking through my list of books read in 2014; next up is I Do Not Come To You by Chance, and The Book of Unknown Americans, which will be my first book this year written by someone from Latin America.
I've also started taking note of lists compiled by others of books written by women:
50 Books By African Women That Everyone Should Read – (there's currently only 25, but the rest coming soon)
A Buzzfeed quiz on the 102 greatest books by women
7 great novels by African women writers, by Minna Salami
The Year of Reading (Arab) Women – a book for every month that has been translated from Arabic into English
Any other recommendations – especially those written by women from Latin America, Asia or Africa (especially Francophone Africa – I feel I'm missing that perspective) – would be really welcomed. I'm looking forward to see what else I learn about in (hopefully) the next 26 books over the rest of 2014!
I asked recently on Twitter if anyone had recommendations for reading material on the topic of postcolonial feminism; admittedly, a very general question, but sometimes it can be difficult to know where to start when you're new to a certain topic.
I got some great suggestions of reading material, and wanted to record them here for posterity, and in case they're useful to other people looking to learn more about the topic. I'm working my way through them now...
Essays and books
“Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times” by Jasbir Puar. She also has a range of other articles, including the wonderfully-titled “I'd rather be a cyborg than a goddess” and has some interesting-looking talks online, too. I'm keeping an eye on her 'Upcoming Events' for her next visit to Berlin...
Under Western Eyes:Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses by Chandra Mohanty – this came up a lot, and seems to be a good place to start
Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, by Chandra Mohanty
Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism by Chandra Mohanty
Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures by Chandra Mohanty
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color – a feminist anthology edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa – this sounds pretty wonderful, and is next on my 'to-read' list. (and it's available in Spanish, too)
Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios by Latina Feminist Group, Luz del Alba Acevedo(Editor), Norma Alarc (Editor), Celia Alvarez (Editor), Ruth Behar (Goodreads Author) (Editor), Rina Benmayor (Editor) – a set of autobiographic essays on the Latina experience
Black Body: Women, Colonialism, and Space by Radhika Mohanram
Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism by Trinh T. Minh-ha
But Some Of Us Are Brave: All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men: Black Women's Studies, by Gloria T. Hull (Editor), Barbara Smith (Editor), Patricia Bell Scott (Editor)
Re-orienting Western Feminisms – Women's diversity in a postcolonial world, by Chilla Bulbeck
Challenging Imperial Feminism, by Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar
Can the subaltern speak? - Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
“Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” by Audre Lorde
Femen's obsession with nudity feeds a racist colonial feminism, by Chitra Nagarajan
Gay Nigerians targeted as 'un-African' - Chika Oduah
How not to study gender in the Middle East – by Maya Mikdashi
Less related, but interesting-looking things I came across during this search:
Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color, by Gloria E. Anzaldúa – a collection of essays
Nehanda, by Yvonne Vera – a novel set in Zimbabwe, “the portrait of resistance and struggle, a tale of a people's first meeting with colonialism.”
The Nine Guardians by Rosario Castellanos
This weekend, there were two hashtags that caught my eye on Twitter: #sexismturnedaround and #YesAllWomen. The former started as a discussion about women pastors, but soon got much wider, and the latter began as a response to the awful Santa Barbara shootings.
Both were important discussions- I'd strongly recommend checking them out on Twitter, and I'm sure there'll be more of both in coming days. It's powerful to see a community come together around a shared topic or interest, especially ones as close to my heart as these - but they also reminded me of something I've been realising over the past few months.
Since I began writing and talking more about feminism and discrimination, women – both friends, and new acquaintances – have been sharing their stories on similar topics with me. And it's made me realise that, sadly, I'm lucky to be able to be writing about my experiences, and talking about them openly; with all of the experiences I've written about thus far, I've been able to get out of situations where I've been faced with bigotry or discrimination within a few hours, or at most a couple of days. I've always felt like I'm in a safe space (both online and offline) by the time I'm writing about these experiences. This is not the case for so many women out there.
Women who I've spoken to are faced with sexism as part of their everyday professional lives; some are living with the threat (or reality) of domestic violence or abusive partners, but who are too scared to leave; and almost all of them know that if they call out or even mention the abuse they are facing, it will almost certainly lead to even more difficulties for themselves, without any such certainty that their abusers will face any kind of consequences. With odds like that, it's not hard to understand why they choose to stay quiet.
It's been truly eye-opening for me to realise how many people around me are faced with those kinds of situations, and I have no doubt it would shock most other people out there too. Men around me have commented on how they're surprised that I face discrimination so often, and while I take that primarily as a compliment that they're really paying attention to what I'm saying or writing, and I appreciate hugely the discussions that have come out as a result, I'd also like to explicitly point out that my experiences are a minuscule drop in the pond compared to what women around all of us are facing every day. This might sound obvious, but I think it's worth saying: the fact they're not talking about it doesn't mean it's not happening.
I truly love the fact that writing has opened up these conversations with women and men around me, and I've learned an incredible amount from them (and, I hope I will continue to for a long time!). Writing, for me at least, is also a very cathartic act – it gives me a space to get things off my chest, to share experiences, and to think through ideas. Sometimes, it's been a way for me to say what I wanted to say at the time, but I couldn't – through fear, or shock, or a mixture of both. Knowing that other women out there don't even have this kind of outlet, is painful to me.
So back to Twitter; it's inevitable, then, that the women writing on these hashtags and sharing their views are just a tiny, tiny proportion of the people who are faced with discrimination and sexism. Obviously, it's only those of us who feel safe enough to write without the threat of repercussions who are participating.
I'd suggest that the large majority of women who are faced with abuse on a regular basis feel compelled to stay quiet because of the unsafe space they are in. However depressing or shocking the online discussions might get- bear in mind that they're just a tiny glimpse into the wider societal problems being addressed.
Summary: I'm on the hunt for examples of feminism and gender equality from the majority world, AKA low-income countries. I'm collecting them in this custom timeline, and tagging the stories with #mwfem. Join me!
At the end of last year, I wrote about how, to my annoyance, most of the end of year 'feminist roundups' covered only achievements happening in the US, or in Europe. To counter this, I did my own round up of examples of feminism that happened in the 'majority world' in 2013- a term referring to what's also known as the developing world, or low-income countries, which also serves as a good reminder that the majority of people in the world live in these conditions.
While I was doing this research, I found it harder than I had thought to come across these events. This is an excuse often used by, for example, men organising conferences with a poor showing of women speakers - “I looked, but I couldn't find any!”; - and I hate that excuse. You're looking in the wrong places, or looking in the wrong way. So instead of searching for (clearly geographically focused) hashtags related to feminism campaigns that I had come across (#fem2, #twitterfeminism, for example) - I looked for activities related to gender equality, or 'strong women', or other ways of describing what I was looking for, and in different languages, too.
This was a lot more fruitful, but still, unsurprisingly, difficult. While the majority of the world is living in conditions of poverty, the majority of the internet is clearly not.
So, since the beginning of 2014, I've been keeping a 'custom Twitter timeline' of Majority World feminism: tweets that I've come across that relate to brilliant activities on gender equality in the majority world. I'm entirely sure that I've missed so many great activities (and all this in the certain knowledge that the majority of shows of strength and inspiration by women across the world don't make it on to the internet) but that said, there's some interesting stuff in there.
I've also made a conscious effort to try focus my online habits to material that is written by people who have different perspectives in life to me, from the majority world (ie. outside of the US + Europe). In practice, this has meant looking up international news stories in the local or national news outlets of the countries where this is happening to read (in theory) the perspective of someone who knows the culture and the country, and following people on Twitter who are based in other countries, living in different situations to me, with very different priorities and interests.
While, of course, this is nowhere near as good as being able to spend time, or visit, these countries, cultures and people, I'm learning a lot. It's one of my favourite things about Twitter; while it's a good way of keeping up to speed with topics I work on or I'm interested in, from experts in the field, it's also an incredible way of getting insights from people who have been left out of 'mainstream' media, or who are experiencing things that I don't come across in my everyday life.
Finding out what is important to people from a wide range of backgrounds is, for me, a great way of getting perspective on what's important to me, in literally real time. Curating the examples that I come across online of women doing amazing things under the most difficult of circumstances into this custom timeline is another way of getting that perspective.
It surprised me how much I've had to think about my habits in doing this, and how clearly geographically, and topically, focused I've been in my choices. I realised I had been focusing on material from institutions or outlets based in the UK, the US, or most likely somewhere in Europe; articles written by well-renowned experts or people with established online profiles; links tweeted by people I'd met, or whose work I'd come across (through one of the above sources, most likely), or people who had been recommended to me (eg. I'd seen online interactions between) - others I already knew. These methods were excluding so many perspectives from 'my' internet.
Now, I'm learning an incredible amount from people I've never met, about things I've never heard of, and coming across all sorts of interesting, and important, perspectives. I have a long way to go in changing my habits, (and suggestion of how to do this more are so welcome) and a whole lot more to learn, but it's been so much fun; thank you, internet!
I've been talking about 'mansplaining' a lot this week; first, to some female friends who hadn't previously heard the term but immediately understood the concept, and then a few days later, to explain to other friends why I particularly disliked certain people at an event I was at; they had spent the afternoon 'mansplaining' at me.
For those who might not have come across the term, it's a mix between 'man' and 'explaining', used to describe the “act of a man speaking to a woman with the assumption that she knows less than he does about the topic being discussed”, purely because she is a woman. I have every faith that women reading this will know exactly what that means, and most likely men reading this will have either been in the presence of mansplaining, or (hopefully not) have mansplained themselves.
My friends who hadn't heard of it before found it a funny term, and sadly we all had stories of being mansplained to. We laughed a lot while trading stories; many of them were hilarious, if only in the tragi-comic sense. For me, being able to put a label on a thing, in this case a social act, often makes it a lot easier to discuss, because you realise that other people share that experience. It's for this reason that I was particularly happy to come across the term 'flirty racism' – finally, a label for one of my most hated things, and with that, the knowledge that other people had experienced it too.
I had thought that being conscious of the label “mansplaining” would also make it a lot easier to recognise when it was actually occurring. It turns out that I was wrong – yesterday, while I was at an event, I had the misfortune of being mansplained to for hours and hours, and it took me about half of those hours to even realise what was happening.
And when I did, I just didn't know what to do. I re-explained gently (probably too gently) that there was no need for the condescending explanations being fired at me, and yet they kept coming. Ideas I came up with were shot down, suggestions for how to get round all the blockers that they brought up were flat out refused, and it made the whole conversation incredibly difficult. Being in a group situation also made it more difficult to be direct, and (this is my own fault entirely) I was too taken aback by the whole thing to call it out in front of the group, for fear of making things even more awkward than they already were.
Long story short; I left the conversation and the group, and ranted to friends at the same event about how annoying the situation had been. But while doing that, I didn't know what I was hoping to achieve either; they didn't find the men in question as terrible as I did as obviously they had never personally had that experience, but they were sympathetic to my rants. I didn't confront the men in question myself because I didn't want to create a scene, and I ended up incredibly frustrated at how I'd been talked down to – or rather, how I'd let myself be talked to like that for much longer than necessary.
And today, I'm left wondering – what would have been the best response in that kind of situation? Taking them aside privately and asking them to reconsider their attitude? Calling it out in front of the group, to save having to repeat the exercise separately? Announcing some basic 'social courtesy' guidelines in front of the group, repeated regularly depending on whether they had internalised what I was saying? (And yes, a small part of me was thinking – should I just punch them in the face, and be done with it? See number 5 in this list)
It was clear that they respected much more anything being said by men, but I definitely didn't want to resort to asking male friends to have a word with them on my behalf. I also wasn't entirely sure what was happening until someone else highlighted it to me – I genuinely thought I was just communicating unusually badly, and this reaction annoys me greatly.
I've actually no idea what the answer is to this question – how does one actually deal with mansplaining, in the most socially acceptable, least awkward, and “best” way?
Answers on a postcard. Or to @zararah.
PS. for male readers who might be worrying if they're mansplaining, here are some tips to make sure you don't become that guy.
Dear white feminist public figures,
I'm writing to ask, quite simply, that you remember and recognise that the feminist movement is a global movement. It doesn't sound like much, does it? In my mind, it's not, but all too often I see and hear things that point to the contrary – hence this blog post.
I know that in some cases you worry about (mis)appropriation; that by mentioning experiences from other cultures, you'll face indignation from people of that culture, saying that you're not in a place to be talking or writing about them. But there's ways of mentioning things that make it clear that you're not trying to appropriate the experiences of others, merely paying homage to them.
Let me demonstrate.
“As feminists in [insert country] have demonstrated, [their experiences]. To find out more about this, I'd recommend you look up [their names].
Or how about:
“I've been inspired by hearing about the work of [insert name here] in [insert country]. I'm in no place to discuss what they've been through, but hearing it directly from them can be powerful. I'd recommend you take some time to read the work of [insert their names].
Maybe I'm wrong, but I'd like to think that proper accreditation and recognition of who's been doing the work might stave off the appropriation claims.
Doing this serves some major purposes; it means that you are using your voice and your platform to recognise the work of others, who might not have access to such similar platforms. It makes others who might not come across their work, aware of what they're doing. It raises their profile, and makes it easier for them to gain a place on a global stage; a place which, (though of course, through no fault of your own!) you have had privileged access to.
If you haven't heard of any examples from other parts of the world, or you genuinely don't have any material to add to your writing/talking from outside of your own country or continent, then please make this clear in your writing.
I'm sorry for picking on this one example, especially when (sadly) there's many more out there – but writing headlines like “23 Awesome Feminist Digital Campaigns That Changed the World” when 22 out of the 23 examples originate from the US, the UK and Canada, is, to my mind, incredibly reductive, and actually slightly offensive. Given mainstream prejudices already prevalent in those countries, your article is only strengthening the popular (but obviously, invalid) view that feminism is a 'western' ideology, not found in the rest of the world. (otherwise, surely, those examples would be included in an article about campaigns that 'changed the world', wouldn't they?)
If you want to keep the same content of the article, then how about a more accurate title – instead of 'changed the world', you could say, 'changed the western world'. Or, why not take this opportunity (and your position as a well-read and well-respected writer) to direct some attention towards other areas of the world that are less covered in the media? Or towards people who, perhaps because of lack of privilege, or discrimination, haven't enjoyed access to such widespread media platforms as yourself?
And, if you really haven't been exposed to any other cultures, then, at the risk of sounding patronising, just spend some more time on the internet. The internet is wide and connected and, global. Yes, they might take some more time to find, but there are stories and voices from all parts of the world on the internet, and they deserve to be heard. Google translate is your friend! And remember in some languages, feminism might be better known as, for example, “gender equality”; or talked about as “women's rights.”;
If you're in a position where you are able to, then why not travel? It's still valid to read about other peoples' experiences, but it'll give you a whole new dimension to actually meet them, see what they're talking about, and hear about them in person.
You are in a position where people listen to you; this is due to your hard work, talent, and, in all honesty, an array of features that you happened upon by pure chance – your skin colour, perhaps the place you were born, any number of arbitrary features. You have a responsibility to use your platform to make feminism recognised as what it really is; global, wonderful, inclusive and diverse.
My ask; please make the most of your public platform to point some attention towards some incredible campaigns, people and ideas who are unfairly ignored in the media. You're not by any means the problem behind this injustice, but you can definitely be part of the solution.
For me, a good book is one that makes me change how I think about things, or how I behave- for better or for worse. Thanks to multiple readings of Anne of Green Gables when I was younger, I still recognise an occasional gut feeling of trust or tribe with strangers by categorising them in my head as 'kindred spirits'; last year's Americanah has left me unable to read anything about the “global” feminist movement that's written by white feminists without feeling deeply suspicious; and now, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness has left me questioning my own, and others' behaviour, through a stronger gender-critical lens than I think I've used before.
A bit of background: the inhabitants of the planet the book is set on, Gethen, are permanently without gender. The main character, Genly Ai, is from another planet, and he is a man; for this, he is considered strange and alien, and the very idea of a whole universe out there with 'permanent' men and women is the biggest hurdle for the people of Gethen to understand about their planetary neighbours. Any of the people of Gethen can, once a month, assume either gender, during which they go through a period of being “in kemmer”, ie. able to mate with a partner. Crucially, as anyone can be male or female during this time (and it can change month by month), anyone can become pregnant and go through childbirth, meaning that caring for children is, by definition, equally spread throughout society.
I found Genly Ai's description of the difference between 'permanent' men and women, particularly interesting:
“I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one's life, is whether one's born male or female. In most societies it determines one's expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners – almost everything. Vocabularly. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food... It's extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones.”
I also found very clever the way that Le Guin used gender to describe certain behaviour, throughout the book – for example, when describing a mistrusted character:
“Estraven's performance had been all womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit.”
The same character is later classed as having “effeminate deviousness”.
This gendering of characteristics and qualities came back to me several times this week, as the first day of my new job role also happened to be the first day of a week long conference, which brought together people from around the world, all of whom were essentially experts on the topic of my new project.
Firstly, the reactions of people to this were rather telling:
“Wow, throwing yourself in at the deep end, that's great!”
“Wow, lots of input... that's really brave of you!”
Guess who said what?
Though perhaps loosely related here, it came back to me again while having lunch one day. A young woman and I got talking about how we had ended up working in this sector; she held two degrees, had years of experience in the field, and yet, sometimes, she said, she felt like a bit of a fraud amongst all these experts.
I found myself nodding along; I have, occasionally, felt like I've somehow found myself sitting among a lot of people who know a lot more than me, though I generally value (and cherish!) my 'blagging' skills to get me through those bits without too many issues.
Someone (a man!) who was sitting on the other side of us called us both out for this though, as he found it ridiculous that either of us would feel like that, given our experience, skills, and knowledge.
And then, of course, it hit me. We were displaying minor signs of Imposter Syndrome!* This would never happen on the planet of Gethen. The thought that society's expectations and treatment of women might have had such an influence on how I perceive my own actions terrifies me, and has left me determined to think more closely about how I attribute my successes. It's also left me determined to encourage my peers to think about this too. And all because of a planet named Gethen.
There are many, (many!) other aspects of the book I found thought-provoking, and I'll probably write about them once I've finished reading it, for the second time, in a week. And if that's not a strong recommendation, I don't know what is.
* For a hilarious parody on this, see here.
I've been coming across articles highlighting 2013's greatest feminist moments - this 28 Most Iconic Feminist moments of 2013 for example, or the 25 best moments for women in 2013 - and while they have some brilliant moments included, I couldn't help but notice that they're very US-centric . Surely the majority of 2013 feminist wins didn't happen in the US alone?
Well, no - feminism is alive and kicking in the rest of the world too, and here's ten examples highlighting just how.
In September, Aminata Touré became Prime Minister of Senegal. True to her unique style, she even announced her new appointment herself. Former Justice Minister, she's known for her strong anti-corruption stance, and has had an impressive career as a human rights activist. And let's not forget; Malawi and Liberia also have female heads of state - Joyce Banda and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, respectively.
Being sampled in Beyoncé's track “Flawless”; probably did wonders for Adichie's popularity among a whole new audience - it's well deserved, though. A related feminist win - her latest book, Americanah, came out earlier this year. Highly, highly recommended.
Rwanda beat their own record of percentage of women in parliament – jumping from 56.3% to a massive 64 per cent of women earlier this year.
Women now occupy 51 out of the 80 seats in the Lower House, thus retaining the title of being the only country in the world with a female dominated parliament- a title they first earned in 2008, when women held 56% of seats. There's a quota in place to ensure female representation, but it's only for 30% of seats. More on Rwanda's gender-friendly policies here
Aged 18, Mayam Mahmoud got through to the semi finals of Arabs got talent; she encouraged people to look past her veil, and listen to what she's rapping about.
Written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, Wadjda (Arabic: وجدة,) was filmed in the streets of Riyadh, meaning that the director had to work from the back of a van to avoid publicly mixing with men working on her crew. The film- the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, was also the country's first official submission to the Oscars for the Best Foreign Language Film. Listen to Haifaa Al-Mansour talk about the challenges she faced, and changes happening in Saudi Arabia here.
After huge efforts by Colombian women's groups working to highlight the key role of women in peacebuilding, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos finally announced that women would be invited to join the negotiation team. María Paulina Riveros y Nigeria Rentería Lozano, both lawyers, joined the previously all-male team at the end of November 2013.
Despite being a continent known for “machismo”, there are now women leading Argentina (Cristina Fernández de Kirchner), Brazil (Dilma Rousseff), Costa Rica (Laura Chinchilla), and most recently Chile, following Michelle Bachelet's overwhelming win with 62% of the vote earlier this month. No implied endorsement of any of their policies, though!
This video, mocking Saudi Arabia's ban on letting women drive, hit 10 million views earlier in the year. Here's hoping some of the princes saw it too.
Medical journal The Lancet released a series of papers looking at healthcare in Bangladesh, saying
“Improvements in the survival of infants and children under 5 years of age, life expectancy, immunisation coverage, and tuberculosis control in Bangladesh are part of a remarkable success story for health [in Bangladesh].
...Perhaps the most powerful strategy for health was the country's distinct acknowledgment and support of women to national development.”;
In September, Huriya Mashhoor, the Minister for Human Rights in Yemen, called for the revival of a bill which would set the legal minimum age for marriage to 18 years old. Her decision came after international condemnation following reports that an 8 year old died of internal bleeding on the night she married a 40 year old man.
Though no further progress has been reported, in November this year, Yemeni police stopped the wedding of a nine year old girl; it was reportedly the first such intervention to stop a child marriage in Yemen.
* Not strictly 'majority world' countries - but ones where improvements in women's rights are thoroughly needed, so I've included them here.
Wherever possible, I've tried to use local media sources in the links here- if there are any that could be replaced, let me know! I know I've missed lots out lots of other great moments, too - any to add, ping me @zararah or drop me a line zararah[at]gmail.com
And there you have a sentence that, incredulously, I keep hearing from my peers. At first, I was outraged; mostly, the people saying things like this are women, in their mid-twenties, young professionals working their way up the career ladder, over-achievers, well-educated, independent women.
What do they mean, they're “not feminists” - of course they are! If I asked them who was more intelligent between them and a male colleague, they wouldn't automatically default to the man. They're competitive and ambitious people; there's no crisis of confidence going on there, they know that they're just as capable as the men they work with.
But somehow, they don't consider themselves to be feminists. Perhaps, yes, the word feminism has been hijacked in popular culture to mean something other than 'people who believe in gender equality' – but the thing that shocked me most was that actually, they know that, and when they say they're not feminists, they mean it.
Yes, a woman can be just as intelligent as a man. But of course, believing simply that doesn't make you a feminist. The penny dropped for me while a friend was describing another friend's new boyfriend.
“He really looks after her, and he fixes everything around the house. It's just what she needs in a boyfriend.”
The next clue came soon after.
“My boyfriend would never let me do that!”
And then :
“Of course he doesn't do the cooking, he's the man!”
There were more. She, as an independent and well-educated woman, was and is perpetuating a bucket load of gender stereotypes that feminists all over the world have been focused on quashing. And sadly, she's not the only one. Somehow, these misconceptions have been so wired into some of my peers that they are firmly rooted in their cultural and social values.
And, strangely enough, it's apparently entirely possible to be against sexism (sometimes), without being a feminist. Selecting between when you're being discriminated against (sexism=bad) and when you, yourself, are perpetuating the gender stereotypes in a non-offensive way, seems like a funny distinction to make.
Feminism is apparently seen by many as a pipe dream, if that. An unwanted pipe dream might be a better way to describe it. The easy route (as seen by many) : all you've ever wanted is a husband and a house to clean, to have babies, to be looked after and provided for, and yet, for some reason, here these feminists kicking up a fuss when actually, that picture sounds perfect.
The fact that wanting to bow down to these patriarchal structures is seen as 'normal', while wanting to have the same opportunities in life as men is the odd option to choose, baffles me. It baffles me more that women who have truly benefited from the feminists of past generations fighting for that equality now seem so willing to forfeit those rights.
And how do you argue with someone who knows exactly what choices she is making and the consequences of what she is saying? She knows that perhaps more progressive ones amongst her friends will be shocked at her anti-feminist views, but she doesn't care. She's been exposed to all these views, and yet chooses to play the role of housewife. Do we simply accept these views and move on, hoping fervently that those misconceptions that she, as a woman, is 'supposed' to be in the kitchen, is 'supposed' to stay at home and pass up her career, won't get passed on much further?
Somehow, it feels incredibly ungrateful to all the great feminists who have fought for our equality (not to mention the fact that we're not even there yet in terms of equality). Responding to the opportunities that we've been given with resounding denial that we even needed any of them, just doesn't seem right.
Yesterday, I came across this article, "What happened when I started a feminist society at school" and it still has my blood boiling. In brief - a group of 16-18 year olds started a feminist society at school, and took part in the brilliant Who needs Feminism campaign.
The response from their male peers was horrific online abuse. The response from the school was encouraging the girls to stop the campaign and take down any photos in order to stop the abuse.
Even worse for me- the school in question is my old secondary school, Altrincham Girls Grammar School. It leaves me almost (but not quite) speechless to think that an institute of education for almost 1000 girls is trying to convey the message that sexist abuse is a problem of the victims and not of the abusers. It's not.
The school's reaction should have targeted those carrying out the abuse, the boys writing those shamefully ignorant comments. I'm curious to find out whether the boys' school down the road, Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, reacted to this at all, or any other schools in the area.
Trying to make the girls keep quiet to 'avoid the bullying' isn't a solution, and it astounds me that anyone would ever try and make teenagers NOT stand up for the basic human right of equality. In my mind, the appropriate reaction to this horrible incident is speaking to those boys, and educating them about gender equality. Has this happened? And if not, why not?