Arifa Akbar: Don't listen to the lipstick feminists

The week in books

I remember going to the launch of one of Shere Hite's sex surveys which focused on female desire, and being stunned not by what she said but by how she looked. She was heavily made-up and wore a spray-on dress with precipitous heels. It looked like a book launch that could burst into burlesque at any moment. I was studying French feminism at the time and had tortured debates on whether Hite was a lipstick feminist or if she was cleverly illustrating Simone de Beauvoir's theory that femininity was a performance.

Reading Catherine Hakim's Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, this week, I was reminded of that moment. She is an academic at the LSE who advocates that women use their sexiness strategically at work and in their relationships, as it is their unique advantage over men (who, she suggests, are hungrier for sex than women). She also works with the conspiracy theory that while some feminists urge women not to use their looks to get ahead, this is really playing into men's hands as it they who have put this notion out there in order to sideline a powerful asset: "It is not surprising that many young women regard feminism today as irrelevant," she concludes.

Yet her brand of feminism is based on a need for acceptance by any means necessary. Where I was in awe of Hite, I'm discomforted by Hakim. Let's leave aside the fact that erotic capital is a currency that women have long traded in, mostly out of a lack of other options. Let's also leave aside the fact that there is already a hysterical focus on women's body image (from its pornification in mainstream advertising to the unattainable ideal in fashion, to the sexualisation of young girls in the consumer industry). It seems as if Hakim is urging women to use sexiness as a weapon against men (and possibly other "fat" or "ugly" women). Hakim has examples that equate sexiness with success: the beautiful sister who does better in life than the dowdy one, Michelle Obama, Christine Legarde, the French MD of the IMF, for whom fitness is apparently more important than getting enough sleep. We are supposed to believe in the equation Hakim draws. Yet isn't it shallow, to draw the comparison between a commercial version of beauty and success (which surely should be defined by high levels of happiness and contentment)?

Period dramas like Mad Men remind us that women in the workplace did not gain their advantage by flashing décolletage or wearing pretty outfits, otherwise the impossibly curvy Joan would have got further than the dowdier, more successful Peggy. Nowadays, a women who sexes up for work may not be taken as seriously in the boardroom. Hakim concedes this, though she presses on with her argument. Nicola Horlick, the fund investment manager who famously juggled the care of six children with her career, speaks of a kind of glass-ceiling for women who rely on erotic capital - it will get them so far: "I think it is very important to dress well and to look smart at work... Thereafter, women must be totally professional and seek to be judged on their skill and worth to the organisation. I have seen women progress by other means, and this may have helped them to make progress in the short term, but they have generally failed in the long term. This is because they did not have the respect of colleagues."

What is depressing about erotic capital - which Hakim will discuss next month at the Southbank Centre, is that it reduces feminism to economics. The suggestion is that women need to use all they've got in our straitened times. It is a market-led theory - a Capitalist Feminism.

Caitlin Moran, the columnist and author of How To Be A Woman, says such "capital" is akin to trickery: "The rule I have in my book to see if sexism is happening is "Are the boys doing it? Fairly obviously, men are not having to be sexy [in order] for women to get on at work, and that's because the balance of power still rests with men, and women basically have to "trick" men into their fair share of the money/power with such things as sexiness.

"I would say you're working in a company that's not really operating at its full potential if women are only getting ahead because they're being successfully, effortfully and expensively sexy... I mean, what kind of tuppenny ha'penny organis-ation is disabling 52 percent of its potential brainpower in favour of only listening to the chicks who have nice legs?"

"Why not champion femininity rather than abolish it?" Hakim asks, reminding me of the eccentric theories of the French feminists I studied. They talked about female sexuality that was essentially distinct from men's and urged women to talk with their "lips" (the labial variety). I wonder what Dr Hakim would make of that.

Shortlist for Muslim writers

The Cairo-born author, Bahaa Taher has been shortlisted for the Muslim Writers Award (sponsored by Penguin). His book, 'Sunset Oasis', despite being set in colonial Egypt amid the embers of failed uprisings and disenchanted antiheroes, provides a trajectory that traces Egypt's past with its most recent uprising, and Mubarak's trial. As one of the best-read contemporary novelists in Eygpt (he won the first International Prize for Arabic Fiction) his readership is spreading well beyond the Arab world. The shortlist also includes the Iranian writer, Shahriar Mandanipour as well as Aamer Hussein, Farahad Zama and Roopa Farooki.

A night with a poetry whore

A 'Brothellian Movement' for poetry has been growing apace in recent times, originally conceived in Brighton and quickly spreading across America and Europe. Timothy Grayson, host of the UK Poetry Brothel, explains that it is a mix of "poetry, burlesque and debauched entertainment". The point, he says, is to sex poetry back up so that it resembles the status it held in the Romantic Age. For clients willing to pay extra, there is a personal service in which a Madame will lead them to a 'poetry whore' of choice declaiming original poems. Each show is themed: the last was called Belshazzar's Feast, while the next major event, opening on 27 August in Leicester, is the decadently named Gomorrah. It includes"all manner of Caligulan delights", promises Mr Grayson, as well as an enormous range of poetry. Like the touring show, The Theatre Brothel, which takes place in unexpected spaces, this too has an edge of the illicit, and it is a wonderful way to enliven the performance aspect of poetry.

a.akbar@independent.co.uk

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