The new feminists: still fighting
Source: UK Guardian
The Observer, Sunday 15 August 2010
The feminist movement in the UK and the US did not start with bra burning – brilliant as that act now seems as a piece of political theatre. It started with small groups of women getting together to talk about “the problem that had no name”.
Sitting in a circle, housewives, students, academics, artists, scientists and activists met in small groups to talk about their personal decisions, their sex lives, their love lives, their ambitions, their work, their children and their men, and discovered that the individual idioms of their lives which felt so personal and particular were, in profound and often startling ways, similarly structured and imagined.
They were self-limiting and cautious. They had imbibed injunctions not to want, not to desire, not to do unless that doing was within strictures of nurturing others and enabling them to fulfil their dreams. Whether it was typing a boyfriend’s thesis or ironing his shirts, remembering whether flour was needed or the baby’s nappy needed changing, women came upon their own internal patterns, which put them as midwives to the activities of others.
Four decades of activism have changed the face of what it means to be a woman in the west. Ambition is encouraged. In principle abortion is available. Sexual preference accepted. Women can borrow money in their own name. Collect child support as mothers. Daughters grow up believing the world is their oyster; that they can enter it as principals, not guests.
They don’t anticipate that harassment may await them, equal pay may still be a dream, poverty a reality for many, that a hypersexualised culture will dog their attempts to feel comfortable in their bodies and childcare will flay them when they come to reproduce.
As their expectations clash with experience, they will be encouraged to see their difficulties as personal; the trumping of the feminist revolution by the “have-it-all woman” has privatised their experience, engendering a sense of individual failure if it doesn’t – as it can’t – all work out.
If they are lucky, they will turn to these eloquent women from Brazil, the US, Afghanistan, South Africa, India, Egypt and the UK and hear women who dare to articulate what others would rather not see. Sexual violence, physical abuse at home, infanticide of girl babies, abortion denied and sexuality controlled. They may begin to see links between their own privileged circumstances and the injustices which are perpetrated on women around the world as a form of control.
Hearing the struggles of women to challenge obedience, poverty, the denial of sexual rights and systematic rape and violence, they may understand the tools by which devastating relations between women and men, and women and women, are wrought.
Their window into seeing the entrenched nature of female infanticide – or as Asha Singh terms it, murder – of baby girls in India or of the so-called corrective rape of lesbian women in South Africa or the sexual violence that happens in Egypt may allow them to think about the social nature of the still unequal struggle for women’s rights in the west.
Feminism has been a cultural force of epic proportions. As vision or as critique it has touched the lives of everyone. It has been the touchstone for modernity.
In the west, the women’s movement has influenced all of our lives. It has transformed education, how we bring up our sons, acceptable sexual practice; it has enabled us to listen to children and be part of a trend in which personal experience as a testimony is appreciated for what it tells us about all of our lives.
Outside the west, as women have taken up education or earning money for themselves, social and sexual relations have been threatened. Sexual violence has increased, becoming an instrument of social control and terror. In the west, the right hails Sarah Palin as feminist heroine. The capacity of ideology to trim itself to the latest fashion can appear inexhaustible. But are we fooled? I think not. These magnificent interviews remind us of the need to ensure change for women (and men) around the world. And not only change, but the transformative nature of collective action.
The anti-porn crusader
Anna van Heeswijk is the grassroots coordinator for Object. It was set up in 2003 to speak out against the sexual objectification of women in the UK and the mainstreaming of the sex and porn industries.
I’ve always been outraged by injustice. I come from a political family; my mum is Guyanese and was involved with the black women’s rights movement in Brixton in the 1970s. As a teenager, I felt I would be judged and labelled if I were to admit to my peers that I was a feminist. In my early 20s I decided I needed to be more vocal, so I joined Object.
One of the campaigns we’re working on, Stripping the Illusion, aims to expose the myth that lap-dancing clubs are a harmless part of the leisure industry. Until recently they were licensed in the same way as cafés and cinemas. Because it was hard for councils to distinguish between a licensing application for a café or a lap-dancing club, it was almost impossible for local communities to object and for councils to reject applications.
The number of lap-dancing clubs opening in the UK doubled in the five-year period up to 2009, and facilitated the mainstreaming of lap-dancing in society, to the point where pretty pink pole-dancing kits with paper money and frilly little garters, aimed at young girls, are now sold in toys and games sections of leading retailers.
It’s a no-brainer: lap-dancing clubs are clearly a part of the sex industry, so they need to be licensed and regulated appropriately. We worked with the Fawcett Society to get the law changed, and since April it’s up to each council whether they wish to adopt these extra laws. If they do, they can limit how many clubs they allow in, or if they do allow any, protect the women within the clubs. Local people will be able to oppose an application for a club on the basis that it would be inappropriate for the character of the neighbourhood. The next stage is to ensure that councils adopt the extra powers.
From birth women are conditioned to be passive and focused on fitting into ingrained sexist culture. All women need to start thinking that, actually, this is our world – and we shouldn’t be treated as pieces of meat.
The abortion activist
Cecilia Sardenberg, 62, is a professor of women’s studies, gender and feminism at the University of Bahia in Brazil. She is a founding member of several women’s rights bodies, including Pathways of Women’s Empowerment and Neim, both of which campaign for the legalisation of abortion and an end to domestic violence.
In Brazil abortion has been legal since the 1940s, but only in two cases: if the pregnancy is the result of rape or if the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. Although these laws are in place in theory, in practice the state does not provide for legal abortions in public hospitals.
In 2006 more than 26,000 women in the state of Bahia alone were hospitalised after having an illegal abortion. A drug called Cytotec, used to treat ulcers, is employed to induce abortions. It’s illegal and you need a prescription, but it’s very easy to get hold of and is widely used. Cytotec doesn’t come without risks. Many women bleed so heavily that they need to be hospitalised for a D&C [dilation and curettage]. These women are treated horribly by the hospital staff – hectored for their “immoral behaviour”. But Cytotec has been a life-saver for Brazilian women, because it has substituted back-alley abortions, although we are now in the situation where just as many women need to go to hospital due to these induced abortions as are going to hospital to give birth.
The Catholic church has a strong presence in Congress, although there is meant to be a separation between church and state. We have been close to having new laws passed that are in favour of pro-abortion rights, but they’ve been blocked at the last minute. Recently a new law was put forward by the Conservatives granting unborn foetuses citizenship. If it is passed, we will fight it.
The warrior against sexual violence
Ndumie Funda, 36, is the founder and director of Luleki Sizwe, a charity that campaigns for the end of the “corrective rape” of lesbian women in South Africa’s black townships.
Growing up in Gugulethu, a black township near Cape Town, I was raised in a strict Seventh Day Adventist family, in a society where a woman was expected to know her place: everything was conducted and controlled by men. We couldn’t be outspoken; we were not equal. I knew from a young age that I was both a feminist and a lesbian – two things that I could never change.
I founded Luleki Sizwe after the deaths of my dear friend Luleka Makiwane and my fiancée Nosizwe Nomsa Bizana within two years of each other. Luleka was an outspoken advocate of women’s rights and gay women’s issues. She died of HIV/Aids in 2005, a few years after she was raped by her cousin, who later said he was “trying to prove to her that she was a woman”. My fiancée was gang-raped by five men because of her sexuality. As a direct result of the attack, she developed cryptococcal meningitis, an infection of the brain and spinal column, and died on 16 December 2007.
After Nosizwe died, I knew I had to do something. I rallied friends and told them about my idea for an organisation that supported victims and campaigned for the end of these crimes. It is important that we stand up, united, to say that we will not be raped and abused. Although South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world with regards to homosexuality, the reality on the ground is that black lesbians and gay men are persecuted for their sexuality. Nothing gets done for lesbian women in black communities – we may as well be invisible. There is no police support and the legal system does not see our cases as particularly important.
Luleki Sizwe means Discipline the Nation Constructively, and I believe that educating people is the key. My job is to empower those who are less fortunate than me and change negative perceptions. I look after women who have been abused in horrendous ways and are living with HIV and the scars of their abuse.
I have been sleeping in my car and working out of a cabin since being evicted by my landlord earlier this year. We don’t have any funding yet, so it is a real struggle – we’re living by God’s grace – but it hasn’t stopped us. Every feminist should attach themselves to a women’s cause, and I will not rest until the day when “corrective rape” is nothing but a bad memory. Change will take time – but I’m prepared to fight for justice until my last breath.
The lawyer who tackles the Taliban
Shahla Farid, 48, lives in Kabul, Afghanistan. She is a lawyer who has published two books and is lecturing at Kabul University.
When I was 13 years old, I remember our teacher telling us one day that women have no wisdom, that we are different from men, that we are not equal. I stood up in front of the whole class and explained that I didn’t agree, and for that I was suspended from school for a week. That was the moment I became a feminist.
Our government appreciates cultural barriers more than Islamic issues: in Islam, a woman should be treated as a human – they should have the same rights as men. It’s not just the government that is anti-women, it’s the people too. A “good woman” is someone who stays at home and obeys her husband, father or brother. Women who work, or who are activists, are looked down on. The work I do means that I’m seen as a troublemaker and a bad woman.
The key issue women face in Afghanistan is poverty. They are completely financially dependent on their husbands or, before they are married, their fathers – and even if they do have a job, their salary goes straight to their husband or father. Islam doesn’t allow this: according to our religion, we have the right to our own income. Lack of education for girls, economic insecurity and extreme levels of domestic violence make it impossible for women to progress in life.
The Taliban is still very much a part of our daily lives in terms of cultural, if not legal, power. Women still live in an atmosphere of terror, and years of war and oppression have made our lives a misery. At the moment I am lecturing full-time, teaching other women how to practise law to defend women’s rights. Whenever I’m doing any legal consultation or campaigning, my community turns on me: I’m criticised, gossiped about and rumours get spread. I receive death threats all the time, but I’m not afraid. I am proud to call myself a feminist – whatever I do is a positive step forward for women in my country.
The infanticide campaigner
Asha Singh, 37, is a lawyer with Prayatn (an ActionAid partner organisation) in Morena, where she campaigns against female infanticide.
Iwas aware from a very young age that women didn’t have the same rights as men. Often I’d want to go out and play and I would be told by my family that I couldn’t, while my brother could do whatever he liked. It was my mother who motivated me to study when I was in my teens, and it was around that time that I decided that I would become a lawyer and defend women’s rights.
The issue of India’s “disappearing daughters” is one of national shame. Baby girls are perceived as a burden and a curse. The deliberate neglect of female babies is deeply ingrained in many parts of the country. In poor communities, female babies are routinely denied medical treatment by their families, and many die of malnutrition before their second birthday.
Over the past five years, there has been a sharp increase in female foetuses being aborted. Many clinics are offering gender detection tests, and sex selection is now common, even in rural communities. Ultrasound machinery is bought by charlatans who set up “clinics” and perform scans on pregnant women for a fee. If it’s confirmed that the baby is a female, it is aborted.
Every month I travel to more than 25 towns and villages to talk to women about their rights. When I began, I met with strong resistance. I told people that what they were doing is murder. At first those who run the clinics tried to buy my silence, and when I didn’t accept their bribes I was repeatedly threatened with violence.
I want to help reduce the systematic violence and discrimination against women at every level of society. The number of rapes in India has increased, as it has become a tool for intimidation: if a woman is raped, she will be ostracised by her community. Change will only happen if women unite and demand it.
The marriage reformer
Marwa Sharafeldin, 33, is an academic based in Cairo. She is currently campaigning for the reform of women’s status laws, and speaking out against female genital mutilation.
I work with the Network for Women’s Rights Organisations in Egypt and the Musawah International Movement for Muslim family law reform. One of our aims is to reform Egyptian family law, which has been in place since the 1920s. We’re trying to reread the Islamic texts and Qur’an and come up with a new law that is more relevant. Currently the law obliges the husband to maintain the wife, but the price is obedience – and if she is financially dependent it puts her in an even weaker position.
All a man has to say is “I divorce you” and it’s done. In 2000 Khula, a no-fault divorce law, was approved, which means that a woman can request a divorce without presenting reasons. She still has to go to court, and if she requests the divorce under Khula, she loses all her rights for alimony and has to return her dowry. Khula was created to prevent oppression in the guise of marriage, but now Muslim women have to effectively buy their way out of a marriage. We’re calling for a marriage contract that protects the rights of both wives and husbands.
Sexual harassment is out of control, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in a dress, or wearing a veil or a niqab. It’s down to sexual repression, which manifests itself as violence. Female genital mutilation is a huge issue in Egypt. In 2008 it became illegal unless there are medical reasons for it. This leaves a loophole that allows the practice to exist under the pretext of medical necessity. The figure was around 95% 10 years ago, and that’s only dropped by 5%. It’s just another form of violence which demonstrates how women are generally perceived in Egypt: that they need to be controlled.
The pro-choice blogger
Jessica Valenti, 31, is a New York-based writer and blogger. She is the founder of feministing.com and an author– her most recent book is The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. She is seven months pregnant with her first child.
I went on my first pro-choice march when I was 12. My mum was nervous about taking me along, as she felt that I should come to my own political beliefs, but I hounded her. The presence of tens of thousands of happy women, all supporting each other and united by a cause they believed in, opened up my world. One of the stand-out memories was watching the anti-abortion picketers, who were mostly men, screaming abuse at us. I remember watching a man dressed as the grim reaper, holding a doll covered in fake blood by its ankles. It’s moments like that which shaped me as a feminist.
There’s an ongoing backlash against feminism – but we’re still facing a lot of the same battles we were fighting in the 1960s and 70s. We’re still fighting for equal pay and abortion rights. It doesn’t matter that abortion is now legal; what matters is the reality – 85% of counties don’t have abortion providers. So if your nearest clinic is a 10-hour drive away and you can’t take time off work, then how is abortion available to you? We need to look past the nominal wins and talk about women’s actual lives.
Reproductive justice is not just about abortion rights. It’s about access to birth control, the choice to have a child when we want to, and having laws to support and protect women who choose to have a child. The US is the only industrialised nation with no mandated, paid maternity leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act will give you 12 weeks off at a push – all unpaid. That includes maternity, sick, compassionate and bereavement leaves. It’s not just about childcare – it’s the way that we value or devalue parenting, especially mothering. A recent study showed that a year of childcare in some states is as expensive as a year of university. It’s more financially sound for some women to go on welfare than to work and pay for the care of their child. We’re very good at talking about these issues as individuals, but they’re never taken on politically.
Feminism has had a tenuous relationship with motherhood. The stereotype is that feminists don’t care about children or the family, that marriage and children are oppressive – and that just hasn’t been my experience at all.
We’re at a really scary place right now with the conservatives. For so long they bashed feminism, but when Sarah Palin ran for vice president, the American right realised how powerful pro-women rhetoric is. They’ve started to appropriate a lot of feminist language; and all these new female conservative politicians are coming out under the umbrella label New Feminists. It’s a dangerous moment for Democrats, as “feminism” is being hijacked by the Republican right. But their agenda is very much the same old regressive stuff it’s always been on abortion and motherhood. Palin has an incredible amount of populist appeal, and it would be wrong to discount her, because a lot of people, including women, are taking her seriously. It’s highly possible that she could creep right up there in the next election.
The America I want my daughter to grow up in is not this one. I would like my daughter to grow up in an America where feminism doesn’t exist, because it’s just not needed, and where equality and social justice are like oxygen – absolutely necessary. ■
Tagged with: abortion • feminism • In the News • student activism • young feminist activism • youth leadership