September Issue 2013

By | Bookmark | Published 8 years ago

We’re living in a world where many famous women, who would otherwise argue for equal opportunities and rights for women, categorically state they are not feminists. Take the examples of acclaimed singer-songwriter Lady Gaga or Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. Or actor and activist Susan Sarandon. Or Bollywood starlet Madhuri Dixit. Or the former first lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. You get the idea.

This wariness of the feminist label becomes somewhat understandable in the context of the many myths surrounding the movement (‘man-haters,’ ‘bra-burners,’ ‘militants,’ ‘feminazis’) and the overwhelming diversity of views held by feminists around the world. And it was with the aim to clarify the former and to celebrate the latter that three British writers asked noted women around the world to contribute essays about feminism for an anthology. Unlike Fifty Shades of Grey, the bestselling erotic-romance novel, the 52 essays in Fifty Shades of Feminism (insert sexist joke about women not being good at maths) are not about a sadomasochistic relationship between an impressionable young woman and a tall, dark handsome man who takes being dark to a whole new level. Instead, they are about how the various writers were awakened by feminism, about the multiplicity of perspectives held by feminists and about the kinds of restrictions women experience in their lives.

Because the editors had to compile more than 50 essays, they only allowed a few pages per writer. And because each writer had to work with a limited word count, they barely had the space to get into a topic before it was time for the concluding paragraphs. The more successful writers focused on specific topics or experiences through which they highlighted the relevance of feminism. The less successful essays were either vague musings, randomly interjected with oft-quoted statistics, or earnest, yet uninspiring, odes to feminism.

Take, for instance, the love letter to feminism penned by one of the editors, Susie Orbach. A well-known writer and therapist in England, Orbach has written extensively on various topics such as body image issues and sexuality. But in Fifty Shades she abandons critical, issue-based commentary in favour of waxing lyrical about the friendships she forged four decades ago at a women’s studies programme (“Always tender. Often fierce. Ever true…A love rich and light. All the colours of the rainbow”). The 1970s marked many pivotal moments for the women’s movement but while Orbach tries to evoke the camaraderie she experienced back then, her rather florid writing fails to bring the memories to life for the reader.

But thankfully many others do get it right. With one of the most critical and insightful essays in the anthology, physician and academic Sayantani DasGupta examines how western feminists too can get caught in the trap of viewing women from Asia and Africa as nothing more than oppressed. Throughout the short piece, DasGupta highlights how western media, be it in the form of the Oscar-winning documentary Born Into Brothels or through the extensive coverage of female genital mutilation in Africa, has undermined the efforts by local activists and feminists to solve the problems on their own terms and, ultimately, even helped justify unwanted foreign interventions.

In light of DasGupta’s essay it becomes all the more cringeworthy when various writers in the collection casually refer to acid-throwing or female genital mutilation in their writing, perhaps with the hope of adding substance to their musings. It’s the kind of thing (much like the incorrect stylistation of South Asia as south Asia in the review copy) that would likely go unnoticed by readers in the West but prickle those elsewhere.

But Fifty Shades never promises to get everything right. Instead it offers itself as a model to be replicated around the world, encouraging readers to compile similar projects to reflect feminist values and ideas from around the world.
And judging by the number of successful essays in Fifty Shades of Feminism, it might just be a worthy endeavour. Some of the most engaging essays are the ones where personal experiences are used as a lens to examine the importance of feminism. In ‘The Words of Women,’ Pakistani writer and editor Muneeza Shamsie describes how she went from studying at a secretarial college in London (“where success depended on reproducing accurately someone else’s words”) to becoming a writer in her own right. As a schoolgirl in England, she was once the only girl in class who believed in equal pay for women. After getting married, her then school-going daughter wrote ‘My mother is a writer’ for an essay, only to have it marked incorrect by a teacher. Shamsie does not express outrage at these incidents — after all, they are outrageous enough as they are.

In ‘The Words of Women,’ Pakistani writer and editor Muneeza Shamsie describes how she went from studying at a secretarial college in London (“where success depended on reproducing accurately someone else’s words”) to becoming a writer in her own right. As a schoolgirl in England, she was once the only girl in class who believed in equal pay for women. After getting married, her then school-going daughter wrote ‘My mother is a writer’ for an essay, only to have it marked incorrect by a teacher. Shamsie does not express outrage at these incidents — after all, they are outrageous enough as they are.

Other writers too talk about women and feminism in relation to professional life. Composer Shirley J. Thompson — the first woman in 40 years to have composed and conducted a symphony in Europe — and Josie Rourke — the first woman to run a major London-based theatre — both write with a mix of puzzlement and ire about how women in prominent roles are questioned and placed under microscopes. Famed British-Indian actor Meera Syal presents an exultant piece about finding a feminist voice through the role of Beatrice in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing while fellow actor Juliet Stevenson talks passionately about the limited acting opportunities for middle-aged women in cinema and theatre.

From how gender stereotypes can be ingrained in Chinese characters to the universal obsession with perfect mothers, this collection certainly achieves the diversity of topics and views that it set out to achieve.
Even with its occasional bouts of preachiness and sentimentalism, the writing is certainly better here than what you would find in E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. But still, James can sleep well at night knowing that this collection will not eclipse the fame and success of her work anytime soon.

Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.