A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Tag Archives: Feminism

Introduction to Beyond the Veil by Fatema Mernissi

Fatema Mernissi is a Moroccan feminist and sociologist who is renowned for her work on women’s rights within Islam. Beyond the Veil is the result of her doctoral research and was first published in 1975; the edition I have, from 2011, includes a new introduction addressing the Islamophobia that currently permeates European politics and the West’s obsession with the veil.

So far I’ve only read the first few chapters of Beyond the Veil , and before I say anything about them I want to acknowledge a few things, namely that as a white European whose knowledge of Islam is limited I’m likely to get things wrong. Obviously it’s no one’s responsibility but my own to try to get them right, but I think that acknowledging my perspective and letting you all know that I’m more than open to hearing from people more knowledgeable than I am will make for a more productive discussion. So if I happen to be wrong, feel free to correct me, and if you happen to be knowledgeable about feminism and Islam, I would love to hear from you.

In the  introduction to the original 1975 edition, Mernissi says the following:

In this book I want to demonstrate that there is a fundamental contradiction between Islam as interpreted in official policy and equality between the sexes. Sexual equality violates Islam’s premises, actualised in its laws, that heterosexual love is dangerous to Allah’s order. Muslim marriage is based on male dominance. The desegregation of the sexes violates Islam’s ideology on women’s position in the social order: that women should be under the authority of fathers, brothers, or husbands. Since women are considered by Allah to be a destructive element, they are to be spatially confined and excluded from matters other than those of the family. Female access to non-domestic space is put under the control of makes.

Paradoxically, and contrary to what is commonly assumed, Islam does not advance the thesis of women’s inherent inferiority. Quite the contrary, it affirms the potential equality between the sexes. The existing inequality does not rest on an ideological or biological theory of women’s inferiority, but is the outcome of specific social institutions designed to restrain their power; namely, segregation and legal subordination in the family structure.

The point Mernissi makes in the second paragraph seems particularly important to me: gender inequality is not inherent to Islam, but is the result of specific  religious interpretations having been actualised into law, policy, and social practices. There are historical reasons for why these anti-equality interpretations trumped more progressive ones, and I can’t wait to read more of Beyond the Veil to find out what they were.

And of course, I’m also really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the book.

Further Reading:

Louisa May Alcott and the Wise Woman

This is my second contribution to this month’s discussion of Little Women.

One issue which is seldom discussed when appraising feminist themes in literature is the role of women in old age. Too often older women are invisible, just as Doris Lessing observed in her novel The Summer before the Dark.

Last year, when we discussed Herlandby Charlotte Perkins Gilman,

I was impressed by Gilman’s description of an all-female society where older women are both honored for the lives they have led and employed for their wisdom and self-control. Here the male visitors are greeted:

“If they were only younger,” he muttered between his teeth. “What on earth is a fellow to say to a regiment of old Colonels like this?”

In all our discussions and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women, whatever else they might be, would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy.

“Woman” in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow, into private ownership mostly, or out of it altogether. But these good ladies were very much on the stage, and yet any one of them might have been a grandmother.

Although Louisa May Alcott is writing about a real 19th-century world – not a fantasy like Herland – she also recognizes the powerful role older women can take in understanding and counseling the young as they try to make their way in life. Marmee in Little Women is a clear example. Her opinions are usually conservative.

“Learn to know and value the praise which is worth having, and to excite the admiration of excellent people by being modest as well as pretty, Meg.”

Also,

“I’m not ambitious for a splendid fortune, a fashionable position, or a great name for my girls. If rank and money come with love and virtue, also, I would accept them gratefully, and enjoy your good fortune; but I know, by experience, how much genuine happiness can be had in a plain little house, where the daily bread is earned, and some privations give sweetness to the few pleasures.”

At the same time, Marmee unites with Mr. March in not accepting poverty passively. When the girls propose to find work,

“Believing they could not begin too early to cultivate energy, industry, and independence, their parents consented, and both fell to work with the hearty good-will which in spite of all obstacles is sure to succeed at last.”

What is most striking to a modern parent is not that the girls’ mother gives advice – all mothers do that – but that the girls take the advice so seriously.

Alcott’s next successful children’s book after Little Women was An Old Fashioned Girl. In it, Alcott continues to show the strong role an older woman can take in a sometimes dysfunctional household. Young Polly – pretty, gifted and poor – comes to stay in the Shaw household. The Shaw children are friendly but spoiled. Polly receives understanding and support not from their mother, but from their grandmother. When they meet, unsophisticated country Polly is praised by Grandmother Shaw because she is still a child:

“Well, dear, I’ll tell you. In my day, children of fourteen and fifteen did n’t dress in the height of the fashion; go to parties, as nearly like those of grown people as it’s possible to make them; lead idle, giddy, unhealthy lives, and get blas, at twenty. We were little folks till eighteen or so; worked and studied, dressed and played, like children; honored our parents; and our days were much longer in the land than now, it seems to, me.”

But children were not idle at all:

“Yes, and we all learned to make bread, and cook, and wore little chintz gowns, and were as gay and hearty as kittens. All lived to be grandmothers and fathers; and I’m the last, seventy, next birthday, my dear, and not worn out yet; though daughter Shaw is an invalid at forty.”

“That’s the way I was brought up, and that’s why Fan calls me old-fashioned, I suppose,” said Polly.

This function of advice giver and reinforcer of conservative family values is given to Uncle Alec in another successful children’s book, Eight Cousins. But still, the many aunts in the story sometimes get a word in and the elderly great aunts, Peace and Plenty, stand firmly for the good old days and good old values.

Even in her adult novel, Moods, Alcott finds a place for a wise woman. When Sylvia is grieving over the unfortunate marital choice, she has a “sudden memory”:

“If ever you need help that Geoffrey cannot give, remember cousin Faith.”

This was the hour Faith foresaw; Moor had gone to her in his trouble, why not follow, and let this woman, wise, discreet, and gentle, show her what should come next.

Faith diagnoses that Sylvia has two spirits contending in one body, and “…each rules by turns, and each helps or hinders as moods and circumstances lead.” Advice and comfort are then given and gratefully received.

Louisa May Alcott wrote two sequels to Little Women. In Little Men and Jo’s Boys Marmee does not completely disappear, but Jo is now clearly in charge of the family destiny. Whereas she was once the harum scarum tomboy who wanted independence of action, now she follows the fortunes of others and guides them on their various ways. Jo is now the wise woman.

Little Women – Feminist Novel?

I would like to open the discussion of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel for girls, with a proposition. Some readers find in the book a feminist message of independence and self-expression, while others find a message of social conformity. So which is it – a liberating view of female possibilities or an imposition of community expectations? My proposition is that Little Women delivers both messages. The tension between them is what makes the book so real and so memorable.

The March sisters receive a letter from their father in which he expresses his ideals for his “little women.”

Let’s start with the conformity message. In Little Women, Mr. March is the absent father, leaving the four sisters and their mother to fend for themselves while he serves as a military chaplain in the Civil War. His presence is strongly felt, however, as he presses for the girls to grow up in accordance with his ideals.

 “I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully, that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.”

If they must fight their bosom enemies and conquer themselves, then they must suppress their true natures in favor of a standard set by him, the father. This is reinforced when, near the end of part one of the book, Mr. March comes back from the war and proclaims:

“I see a young lady [Jo] who pins her collar straight, laces her boots neatly, and neither whistles, talks slang, nor lies on the rug as she used to do. Her face is rather thin and pale just now, with watching and anxiety; but I like to look at it, for it has grown gentler, and her voice is lower; she doesn’t bounce, but moves quietly, and takes care of a certain little person in a motherly way which delights me. I rather miss my wild girl; but if I get a strong, helpful, tender-hearted woman in her place, I shall feel quite satisfied.”

A “strong, helpful, tender-hearted woman” is no bad ideal, but it is Mr. March’s ideal, not Jo’s. Alcott realistically shows that when a girl is as energetic and ambitious as Jo, she can expect loving parents will try to get her to conform. Most books for girls at that time would leave it there, with Jo seeing the error of her ways and finding happiness in meeting family expectations. Alcott is a better writer than that. She depicts a Jo who is fully appreciative of love and support; she is not rebelling against her family but against the role of a girl:

“It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy; and it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with papa and I can only stay at home and knit, like a poky old woman!”

After she publishes her first story, Jo does not reject her family role, but desires to be independent within it, to support those she loves as – dare we say it! – a boy would have been expected to do.

 Jo’s breath gave out here; and, wrapping her head in the paper, she dedewed her little story with a few natural tears; for to be independent, and earn the praise of those she loved were the dearest wishes of her heart, and this seemed to be the first step toward that happy end.

By the time she wrote Little Women in 1868, Louisa May Alcott was establishing herself as a professional writer. Like Jo, she wanted to support her chronically-needy family, by any honest means. She did, in fact, try various jobs including teaching, sewing and serving as a paid companion. Writing paid best, besides being satisfying in other ways. She wrote plays, poetry, short stories, thrillers, and an account of her nursing experiences in a Civil War hospital – whatever would sell. Her greatest affection was for her “adult” novels, such as Moods, with their emphasis of emotional states and high romance. She wrote Little Women on assignment so, rather than trying to move the reader as in Moods, she told the story, as in Hospital Sketches. When the story is told – drawing on her own experiences growing up with three sisters in the poor but worthy Alcott family – her true values are expressed in the story itself and the choices she made in telling it.

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

People talk like that. These are real girls, not models of perfection. Whatever your concept of feminism may be, for me it is the belief that women define their own natures; they are not defined for them by the male half of humanity. If women are entirely noble and good or entirely evil and dangerous, that is a patriarchal construct which separates females from the rest of the human race where everyone is a mixture of good and bad characteristics.

Jo does want to make money for her family, but she also knows that with money comes power, and she wants that too.

 …Jo was satisfied with the investment of her prize money, and fell to work with a cheery spirit, bent on earning more of those delightful checks. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house….

Jo enjoyed a taste of this satisfaction, and ceased to envy richer girls, taking great comfort in the knowledge that she could supply her own wants, and need ask no one for a penny.

She also has ambition for herself, for her own sake.

“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, — something heroic or wonderful, that won’t be forgotten when I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous: that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.”

This is important because so often, in stories about girls or biographies of women, their accomplishments are portrayed as done entirely for the sake of others, to fulfill a helper role. Jo does not reject being a helper, but she also wants her own satisfactions and achievements. Within the realities of 19th-century life, Jo gets them. She rejects the suitor she does not love, she leaves home to support herself, she sells her stories, she writes a good book, and, finally, she does marry, but it is an unconventional union which enables her to become the manager of a school.

  1. Which is the stronger message within Little Women – conformity or independence?
  2. What other messages to you find there?
  3. What are the roles of Marmee and of Jo’s sisters?  Do they support or deny feminist values?

For more information about Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, and the interesting town of Concord, visit my blog page: http://silverseason.wordpress.com/courses-and-presentations/little-women-by-louisa-may-alcott/

Review: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

The Beauty Myth coverTitle: The Beauty Myth
Author: Wolf, Naomi
Length: Around 350 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction
Original Published In: 1991

It’s getting nearer to the end of the year and everyone is getting busier and busier, and participation has been dropping off. I know I found it hard to finish the book this month as I’ve been on the road for work. That being said, I’m still so excited to be part of this project and I’m glad I made time to read this book. I still can’t really wrap my head around my full thoughts on it so I’m hoping that some of you have joined me in reading along to discuss some points with me!

Firstly, the idea of the beauty myth as a force – definitely something I agree with. I think that culture definitely affects us in a myriad of ways and the way that beauty is displayed so frequently and in only such a limiting number of ways has definitely contributed to the way things are. I agree with Wolf that the timing of it all seems rather coincidental (or rather, not so coincidental!) and that it is largely a political idea.

That being said… in many cases I found myself thinking Wolf was going a bit too far or exaggerating a bit. I can’t decide if this is because it has been 20 years since she wrote the book, or if even at the time it was a bit extreme. Speaking of which, in some ways it’s hard to believe she wrote the book so long ago, as so much of it is still so relevant. And some of her points have definitely come to pass, like cosmetic surgery becoming more common for men.

At the same time, other ideas, as I said, seem to go too far for me. She takes away the idea that women can still be varied and have multiple reactions to different things in their lives. For example, the idea that women would only like S&M because of the images we see in advertising seems a bit offensive to women who may like S&M (odd example, but I found she just kept going on about it!). Another place where I was a bit unconvinced was the section on religion and how beauty has become like a religion.

My other problems with the book were Wolf’s reliance on gender stereotypes (that men and women are different, and this is how, and that we react differently, there are always different expectations, etc) and her firm views of history. If there is no actual evidence of things jumping to conclusions or using ideas because they fit seem too easy! Lastly, this book and Wolf’s views are aimed, really, at middle- to upper-class white women almost exclusively. Although there was a reference here or there to the damage of the fact that beauty is often considered as “white”, this is mostly ignored. And the book focuses on women who only started working in the 60s and 70s, and who can afford these surgeries and products – which certainly excludes a large percentage of people. I’d have liked to see more about everyone instead of just this privileged group.

In terms of our project I was interested to see how heavily Wolf was influenced by Virginia Woolf, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Simone de Beauvoir. It was neat to see other ideas and books we’ve discussed this year feature in the discussion and arguments that were presented in this title. Definitely made it more interesting to have the background that this project has given me!

I’d like to know from you:

  • How did you react to her idea of the beauty myth as a political construct – do you agree that it exists?
  • What struck you the most (for me it was the section on work and how we are expected to look a certain way, and also the insinuations that we got something because of our looks – always frustrates and upsets me)?
  • What bothered you the most?
  • Do you think we’ve improved or regressed in terms of the beauty myth since Wolf wrote this book?

Finally, please do add your review to the InLinkz collection below to create an easy database for participants to use to find your review and keep the discussion going!



Introduction to The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

Written in 1991, The Beauty Myth explores the issue of the ideal of a perfect beauty to which women are subjected and which women strive to achieve. Culture and society push certain images at women which makes women feel they have to look a certain way.

The book summary reads:

In today’s world, women have more power, legal recognition, and professional success than ever before. Alongside the evident progress of the women’s movement, however, writer and journalist Naomi Wolf is troubled by a different kind of social control, which, she argues, may prove just as restrictive as the traditional image of homemaker and wife. It’s the beauty myth, an obsession with physical perfection that traps the modern woman in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfill society’s impossible definition of “the flawless beauty”.

I’ve heard numerous critiques that Wolf in this book deals only with women like her – i.e., moderate to well off white women – but I am hopeful going in to the book that I will be proven wrong. This will definitely be one angle though that I will explore in my discussion of the book. I’m looking forward to what others pull out of the book as well.

Wolf herself has made quite a name for herself recently with some of the things she has been in the news for (that Palin and Bachmann are feminists, even if they work against women’s rights in legislation), that the allegations of sexual assault against Assange are definitely all false, and more. Knowing these facts about her I will most likely be reading into her politics through the book as well.

Has anyone started the book yet? I apologize for getting the introduction post up so late, but am looking forward to what everyone thinks of the book!

Why is Reading Classic Feminist Texts so Important?

We thought that to celebrate the half year mark we would talk a bit more about ourselves and about what feminism is to us – expect to see a post where we answer a question for the next four Fridays. We will share our thoughts and we are hoping that you will chime in with your answers either on your own blog or in the comments.

On July 1st we asked why do you identify as a feminist? We followed up on July 8th asking why do you think it is important that others identify as feminists as well? Last week on July 15th we asked why do you think there is a stigma attached to the feminist label? Today we are finishing up by relating these questions back to this project and asking Why do you think reading these classic feminist texts are so important?

Iris:

Because I think that if you are going to call yourself a feminist, it is good to know at least a little about the history of the term. Especially because of the controversy around the term, it seems like a good way to get to know the ins and outs, to know where some of the “stigmas” have come from, to see with your own eyes how some early feminist were racist for example is to learn to reflect on that and change your own position. By reading a selection of classics on the subject you offer yourself an opportunity to engage with the different notions of feminism that have existed and to decide what forms and arguments you agree and disagree with. Since I believe every identification like “I am a feminist” or “I am a vegetarian” is a matter of growth, no one ever is and everyone becomes – to throw in a cliché, to keep reading this texts is to keep learning and positioning yourself. Something about that just sounds so attractive to me. And, I believe that by reading these texts together with a group of people, you learn even more, especially since we’re all from different backgrounds, in a different stage of life and thus reflect on these texts differently, it has opened my eyes to so many issues I would not have considered otherwise

Emily:

It is entirely possible for people to be feminists and do important feminist work without ever having read a “classic feminist book”, taken a course on feminism, or, yes, even used the word “feminist”. However, reading historically important feminist texts is a really great way to contextualize our feminist convictions. It’s a way of grounding these convictions and challenging them against others so that they continue to evolve, and so that we are better able to articulate and communicate them to each other. It’s a way to better understand the current position of women and feminism in our world, to gain inspiration, and to locate problem areas in feminist movement that need to be improved upon. They can help serve as starting points for conversations between feminists and those who aren’t sure yet whether they’re feminists or not, but are curious about feminism. Regardless of where one is in their individual development in relation to feminism, reading and talking about feminist texts is a good way to focus conversation and get us talking about what’s important to us. Which is, of course, the aim of this blog 🙂

Ana:

History has a way of repeating itself, and the past is very often not as different from the present as we’d like to believe. This is not to deny the incredible progress that was made in the last century or so when it comes to gender equality, of course. But nevertheless, the issues women deal with now are in fact similar to issues women have faced in the past. And even if not, reading about the way other obstacles were conceptualised and overcome can give us useful ideas with very real and practical applications. It can also shed light on the blind spots of previous generations of feminists – which are of course not negligible, as anyone who’s read our selections so far will have noticed – and hopefully open our eyes to present ones. Last but not least, these classics are fun, interesting, and great conversation starters.

Amy:

While I don’t think that reading feminist classics is required to call oneself a feminist, I think that it is important for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, reading these texts reminds us of how far we really have come. We can see where we used to be and how much progress has been made and how important the movement really has been. The second reason is that we can learn the truth behind many of the false claims that anti-feminists made because we know our true history. The third reason is that we can learn both the similarities that exist between past and present and some ideas on how to move forward. Even though we’ve come so far, when we read many of these classic texts there are a scary amount of similarities that perhaps aren’t the exact same issue but the parallels are there. This teaches us how far we still have to go as well as how we might get there. Lastly, it is a way to solidify ones own beliefs by discussing these ideas with others and both learning to grow and accept other perspectives and by learning why and how these issues are important.

Why is there a Stigma Attached to the Feminist Label?

We thought that to celebrate the half year mark we would talk a bit more about ourselves and about what feminism is to us – expect to see a post where we answer a question for the next four Fridays. We will share our thoughts and we are hoping that you will chime in with your answers either on your own blog or in the comments.

On July 1st we asked why do you identify as a feminist? We followed up on July 8th asking why do you think it is important that others identify as feminists as well? This week we want to know, Why do you think there is a stigma attached to the feminist label?

Amy:

Think about it, the only way to get real action is to work together, and those in power are the ones who keep reinforcing the anti-feminism message. Did you know that women never actually burned their bras? Did you know that many (most) early feminists were happily married with children? Did you know that even those feminists who are lesbian or queer usually don’t hate men? Did you know that there are many men who are feminists? Despite the fact that none of it is true, we have this cultural stereotype of the feminist as a bra-burning, man hating, ugly woman who is just bitter because she can’t get a man. It is frustrating to know that the lies and rhetoric actually work. The stigma is there because we are lied to, the stigma is there because those with power like having power and like abusing power.

Iris:

The stigma attached to the feminist label frankly baffles me. It was only when I first started to question my aversion to the term that I realised how ridiculous the stigma is. What I was trying to say, back when my favourite line used to be “I’m not a feminist, but..”, was really: I don’t want you to associate me with all the prejudices surrounding this term, but yet, I am for gender equality. But when I think about it, it is hard to give even a proper description of this vague notion of the stigma attached to feminism. What is it really? Is it the fact that I don’t want to be a bra-burning person, like the movies we had to watch when we very shortly dealt with feminism in high school? Why do I even mind that people who called themselves feminist burned their bras? Or is it the notion that as a feminist gender equality is your only focus, forgetting other social injustices in the process? But back in high school, I am not sure I even considered that part of the prejudice. I guess for academics, that is one reason they turned to the term gender instead of feminist studies: wanting to take away the idea that other inequalities did not count, as well as the idea that masculinity could not be studied as part of a feminist agenda. But I wonder if the change of term wasn’t a matter of ascending to this dominant “stigma” (whatever it entails, really). I am hesitant to say that this very vague notion of a stigma that so many conjure up as soon as the word feminism is used, that I so often felt the need to defend myself against, is really a way of “structures” in “society” resisting gender equality? Hesitant because structures and society are such vague terms too. But part of the reason that this stigma is still attached to the term must be because it is an easy way to minimize the “threat” feminism poses? And part of it, I think, is part of the history of feminism itself. But that does not mean that the stigma is relevant today – it just means that feminism took different forms in different situations and where we allow for that kind of change in other terms for groups, apparently it is hard to let go of them in this context. See, I have no answers, just questions.

Emily:

I think the stigma against feminism comes from the misunderstanding that elimination of male privilege means the elimination of men or, less dramatically, that since we live in a gender-binary society, feminism is a zero-sum game which must empower women at the expense of men. This is false. Because we live in a society that understand sex and gender as binary, sexism is a double-sided coin. Feminism doesn’t flip the coin, though: it simply gets rid of it. Feminism liberates both men and women from sexism, not by creating some sex or gender-free imaginary landscape, or post-feminist gender-blind society, or whatever, but by opening up more space in terms of what is deemed socially acceptable so that everyone is presented with more options for self-expression, behavior, and opportunity, regardless of their sex or gender. The process of liberation does take work, however, and people who are privileged by the current system are loath to see it crumble. This is why all outbursts of feminist action are followed by extreme backlash and, unfortunately, anti-feminists have been really effective at negatively branding what they see, rightly, as a serious threat to their positions of privilege. By demonizing feminists on account of their real or perceived looks, career choices, family status, or any number of silly judgmental things, they focus attention away from what feminism is actually about; the dismantling of unfair systems of privilege.

Ana:

I think it’s a mix of ignorance and fear: some people genuinely fear everything feminism stands for due to their attachment to what is to them a very comfortable status quo; others actually do believe in some if not all the core principles of feminism, but they’re not clear on what the term actually means. There are many myths surrounding the word “feminism” – that it’s about hating men, that it means you have to give up or actually shun anything associated with traditional femininity, that feminists are all humourless, etc. – but perhaps the most insidious and bizarre is the notion that to draw attention to gender inequality is to reinforce it. People often make arguments that mirror the notion of “colour blindness” is discussions about race: they seem to think that if you truly believe in equality and reject gender stereotypes, then you should never focus on issues that affect women, or in any way acknowledge the very real ways in which the construct of gender constrains people’s lives. I look forward to a world where this is possible, but that world, my friends, is not the one in which we currently live.

Why Should Others Identify as Feminists?

We thought that to celebrate the half year mark we would talk a bit more about ourselves and about what feminism is to us – expect to see a post where we answer a question for the next four Fridays. We will share our thoughts and we are hoping that you will chime in with your answers either on your own blog or in the comments.

Last week we asked why do you identify as a feminist? This week we are following that up with: Why do you think it is important that others identify as feminists as well?

Ana:

First of all, because I think that establishing that this, all of this, is what feminism really is about avoids derailing: it keeps the conversation focused on what’s important – putting an end to gender inequality – rather than on definitions or semantics. Secondly, because I think that the more people openly identify as feminists, the more obvious it will become that feminism is for everyone: not just for women, not just for academics, not just for those who are well off, not just for westerners, not just for straight people, not just for cisgendered people, not just for white folks, and so on. The fact that feminism is often perceived as insular does of course have very valid historical roots, but the more people make the term their own, the more that notion will be dispelled.

Amy:

There is power in numbers and the more we pool our voices together, the more chance we have of being heard. Feminism is for everyone. All of us (even the most privileged) suffer from the consequences of the system in which we live where being a woman is considered ‘other’ and ‘less-than’ and anyone outside the gender binary is even more so. While most people would agree that discrimination is bad, many are willing to overlook anything that doesn’t affect them personally. Many people identify with the facts of feminism but by refusing the label the discussion becomes fragmented and is more easily dismissed and ignored, and so we remain in the same situation or even move backwards when we should be moving forward. Unless we all pool our voices, we won’t be loud enough to be heard.

Iris:

As I said in my previous answer, I was once one of those who said: “I am not a feminist, but..” Why do I think it is important that others identify as a feminist? It is because only through showing that feminist need not be all that stereotypes will have them be, can the word and thus its message become respected again. If stereotypes manage to prevail, it is as if letting inequality win. By showing the diversity within the common denominator feminism, we show that no one need be ashamed to support the message of gender equality.

Emily:

I think it’s important for people who oppose sex and gender based discrimination to call themselves feminists because doing so ensures the continuation of a discussion that is a difficult but important one to have; one that too many people feel is unnecessary because they wrongly believe that “equality” has been achieved and that problems disappear when ignored. I also think that part of the stigma against feminism comes from many people thinking that they don’t know any feminists personally, when in all likelihood they do, only they don’t call themselves feminists because they have internalized the negative stereotypes about feminism and no one wants to be ostracized on account of their beliefs. But the more clearly that someone’s parents, friends, teachers, and loved ones identify their feminism, the more palatable feminist action and understanding becomes to those around them. Sure, feminist actions and beliefs are more important to depart than the word itself, but words are powerful and we should use them, not fear them. There are reasons for criticizing or disowning the word feminist as a personal descriptor that I am sensitive to, including the desire to distance oneself from the racist, trans-phobic, imperialist, and other oppressive facets of feminist history (and, too often, the feminist present) or in attempts to ensure that feminism remains centered around activism and doesn’t become apolitical life-style branding. However, let’s not throw out the good with the bad, I say. There are still too many people who fear feminism for the RIGHT reasons (i.e. because they are sexist) but are not terrible people; people who could be persuaded into re-thinking some of their comfortable, messed up assumptions if surprised by the proud declaration of someone they know and respect that they are a feminist. There’s still too much good within feminism to give it up completely, so if “feminist” describes your ideas, then own it! It’s yours to shape and improve. Finally, I think it’s important for feminists to call themselves such as a gesture of appreciation for the work of all the feminists who have come before us and whose achievements are of great personal benefit to us all.

Why Do You Identify as a Feminist?

At this, the half-year mark, we want to send a huge THANK YOU out to all participants and readers!

We thought that to celebrate this milestone we would talk a bit more about ourselves and about what feminism is to us – expect to see a post where we answer a question for the next four Fridays. We will share our thoughts and we are hoping that you will chime in with your answers either on your own blog or in the comments.

Why do you identify as a feminist?

Emily:

My favorite definition of feminism comes from bell hooks, who says that feminism is the struggle against sexist oppression. Globally, women suffer disproportionately from poverty, little or no access to healthcare, illiteracy, and various forms of domestic and sexual violence. I call myself a feminist because I think this is wrong, that it’s not inevitable, and that it’s my personal responsibility as a compassionate human being to combat this state of affairs in my daily life in all the small but meaningful ways I can. Because women and children are often the most vulnerable members of their communities, raising their standards of living raises the living standards of whole communities. Feminism is not enough: a coherent, effective approach toward social justice, or becoming the person I envision as my best, most fulfilled self, must also include the struggle against other forms of oppression which inevitably intersect with those of sex and gender based discrimination including, but not limited to, sexual, religious, racial, and economic systems of devaluation. So, feminism is not an end-point: it is, however, a crucial part of both my social justice worldview and my personal understanding of myself, the world, and what I want to accomplish within it, regardless of barriers imposed by sexist social structures. It gives me the tools for understanding my place in the world in relation to others, and for realizing most fully my own potential while encouraging others to do the same.

Ana:

Because, as Cheris Kramarae put it, “feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.” This may seem obvious, but we live in a world that still treats women as second class citizens – be it through the gender pay gap, the unfair division of domestic labour or the reality of sexual assault in the developed world; or the incredible poverty, illness and violence that disproportionately afflict women in the developing world. Gender is of course not the sole cause of inequality in the world, but feminism is nevertheless a crucial part of any social justice movement. It all comes down to the fact that the world does not give women a fair deal, but there’s something we all can do about that.

Amy:

Simply being a woman affects me in so many ways: if I am sexually assaulted or am abused by my partner, I don’t have recourse to justice because I am disbelieved and my character is questioned; as a woman if I decide to take time off to raise my children, it will count against me if I try to rejoin the job market; as a woman I am less likely to have the same autonomy over my body and my health, because other people restrict my health care access and choices; as a woman I have to put up with sexual discrimination and sexual harassment on the job and in the streets on a regular basis. The list is endless, horrifying when put together, and also upsetting. If, as a society, we refuse to give fully equal rights to (and are actively decreasing the rights of) roughly half of the members in the society, what does that really tell us about our values and our future? I want to live in a world where women can live safely and securely and have the same rights as men. I want to live in a world where my gender (be it female or male) dictates such a large part of what I can do, what I can want, and what I can become. I want to live in a world where we are all safe and free to be ourselves. It is unacceptable that we aren’t already there, and we can all do something about it. Hence, I identify (loudly, and proudly) a feminist.

Iris:

Compared to the answers of the others, I feel a little ashamed to admit that I must have been fairly late to identify as a feminist. Yes, I hail from the generation that likes to use the words “I’m not a feminist, but..” and even when my interest in university started to go in the direction of gender studies, I would have endless discussions with male friends in which – apparently – the argument “I’m not a feminist” is considered necessary to be taken seriously. However, since I started using gender as a category of analysis in university (which was at about the same time that I started blogging and found the wonderful Women Unbound Challenge), I have realised how necessary it is to identify as a feminist. Most of us are well aware of the visible gender gap across the world, but what made me truly identify as a feminist are the more ‘hidden’ inequalities. Ever since I started looking at historical sources – and consequently at everyday things like commercials, movies, books and TV shows – through the eyes of discourse analysis and the implicit ways in which women so often are subjected, I have truly become a feminist. Silly as it may sound that I needed these implicit things to hit home before I could come to terms with identifying myself as a feminist, I think it does say a lot. So, I identify as a feminist because all too often, explicitly and implicitly, women are still considered unequal to men, because sometimes, they are not even considered human. As a fellow human being, I don’t want to accept these things at face value. I want to at the very least be aware of them. Moreover I would like to draw attention to these issues so that other girls who once said that they are not feminists – almost as a defence mechanism? – will realise that asking for equality is nothing to be ashamed of, that it is, actually, necessary. As such, like Emily, Amy and Ana, feminism is not an endpoint, it is but one part of the awareness of inequality in the world. However, to me it is one of the basic things to be aware about – and an important one at that.

What about you – do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not?

Wrap-Up: God Dies by the Nile

Title: God Dies by the Nile
Author: Saadawi, Nawal El
Length: Varies per edition, approximately 175 pages
Genre: Fiction
Original Published In: 1974

I have to start by saying what a fantastic time I’ve had this month. Due to my life finally being in order I’ve been able to participate much more than I had been able to previously. Sadly participation was lower this month but hopefully my availability continues strong and participation increases as we read books that are more available!

I started the month with an introduction to Saadawi and to this book, continued with some possible discussion questions to think of when reviewing the book, and then mid-month continued with more information and news about Saadawi. In addition to reading this title I tried to learn more about Saadawi by searching out her political protest involvement (discussed in the posts linked above) and I also tried to read more of her works. Sadly due to the Canada Post strike and lock-out two of the titles I purchased have yet to arrive on my doorstep, but I was able to read both Woman at Point Zero and The Novel. I do think that these titles helped me get a better understanding of Saadawi’s work.

Now, my thoughts on this book. I really did like it (my review is also posted at Amy Reads). Although now that SilverSeason has pointed out some of the language (translation?) issues I can’t get them out of my head (everything being pale), I still really enjoyed the language of the book. I found it very sparse and simplistic, and the use of repetition, to me, really reinforced how little possibility there was of anything changing. Through the course of the novel we see the perspective of a variety of characters through the story which, I felt, gave the reader a true overview of the situation and the true extent of the corruption.

Another thing that I enjoyed about the book was the way in which the corruption and mistreatment affected every member of the village in some way. The powerful were on edge trying to keep their power, the women suffered at the hands of men, and the men also struggle as the powerful work at different ways to access the women and so get rid of the men. The treatment of men through the story, to me, showed clearly how improving the lot of women also helps men. If the mayor can’t simply kill the man to get the woman, then the man wouldn’t suffer as much either. I loved how Saadawi showed the effects throughout not only on women but on men – I can’t help but think (sadly) that seeing that their lot will also improve will get men to pay more attention.

Lastly, throughout the novel we see again and again how religion is used by corrupt officials to trick and subjugate peasants. I thought that through this Saadawi was showing that religion itself isn’t the cause of suffering but rather a tool being used. Her choice of title, I felt, owed more to the corruption. Allah can’t really be killed, unless someone else has taken over the role of Allah as we saw in the book.

What did everyone else think? Please share your thoughts!

A few participants have already linked their reviews so I will share a brief taste of their experiences reading the book. Do click through to read their full reviews and comment!

Christina of The Blue Bookcase showed reasons why she wanted to really like the book and explains why it just didn’t work, starting by asking:

There are important issues here, ones that often occupy the minds of bleeding-heart liberals like me. God Dies has class struggle, domestic abuse, arranged marriage, female circumcision, corruption in government and religion, and even PTSD. These huge, horrible things are as relevant now as they were when the book was written in the 1970’s. So why didn’t I get all excited and activsity when I read this?

Lauren of Underneath a Book did enjoy the book more. She compares it to another book (that I need to read!), Beloved, saying:

Both women, Zakeya and Sethe, live incredibly hard lives, surviving through their wits and hard, physical labor, and are constantly tormented by the inequalities that surround them. Both Morrison and Saadawi do an incredible job of rendering even the most violent, desperate acts understandable and those who commit them human.

SilverSeason, blogging at Silver Threads, had issues with the language and translation and also points out that:

I find this novel more of a protest against the injustice of Egyptian society than a feminist tract. There is not much to choose between the abuse of men and women in the story; each is abused in accordance with his or her gender. Men are murdered and falsely accused of murder. Women are deceived and seduced and cast out. Being male does not save the “son of fornication and sin” from death at the hands of the mob.

BeachReader talked about the same thing, saying:

It is so full of despair, anger, and violence that it keeps the reader on edge because you know as you read it there is no happy ending.  Not only is it about the subjugation of women on the most bases of levels, it is also about the confinements of a social class system that’s walls are impenetrable.

Melissa of The Feminist Texican [Reads] had a post that completely blew me away (seriously Melissa, your posts are always brilliant!). She talks about how she saw a review on GoodReads that talked about the anger in the book and this got her thinking about – and discussing – the stereotype of Angry Feminist. I’ll just include a short excerpt but I highly recommend reading the whole:

As Nawal El Saadawi is a Muslim woman of color writing about disenfranchised women in an African country, the Angry Feminist label assumes a messier set of baggage when applied to this book. The Angry Woman of Color label has racist roots in both feminism and society at large. Think of the anger-related stereotypes of women of color and how they’ve been used in delegitimizing ways, even though the anger that inspired these terms is often perfectly justifiable: Bitchy Asian, Angry Black Woman, Hot-Tempered Latina, etc. Now think of the mainstream anger-related stereotype for Muslim women…I don’t think there is one. By and large, the most prevalent stereotype of Muslim women involves silence and face-covering veils.

 

Finally, please do add your review to the InLinkz collection below to create an easy database for participants to use to find your review and keep the discussion going!