Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates, Femen By Femen with Galia Ackerman; trans Andrew Brown, book reviews

A generation of angry young women are mobilising street protests and online activism: but are they feminists?

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The Independent Culture

It is the year of the Suffragette – it must be if Meryl Streep is playing Emmeline Pankhurst in the film about their lives. But what about their heirs – the living, breathing feminists of today. Is it also the year of Fourth Wave Feminism?

Femen and Everyday Sexism are two breakthrough movements to emerge in recent times, and they bring their own distinct “manifestos” in book form. Both confirm that feminism is no longer a dirty word among twentysomethings but also that the ideology manifests itself differently from their campaigning Second Wave predecessors.

Femen was born out of Marxist theory and performance protests in the Ukraine in 2008, Everyday Sexism from an online forum begun in 2012 that has turned into a global collective, of sorts. The former wear flowers in their hair and not much else; the latter aims to unite women though story-sharing and social media.

Out of the two, Femen is more flamboyant in its ambition, and also more contentious. Femen begins with a six page manifesto (“Our Tactics: Sexstremism... Our Objective: total victory over patriarchy”) and proceeds to tell us the life-story of its Ukrainian founders, Inna Shevchenko, Oksana Shachko, Alexandra Shevchenko, and Anna Hutsol. Viktor Sviatski, the man alleged to be their leader in a film last year is mentioned, but only as their “Marxist mentor”.

They are, at first, rebels without a cause who reveal a yearning for the good fight. “They pondered. What should they protest against?” One of their first “actions' is to hand out balloons on trains in order to make the metro a friendlier place. Further brainstorming leads to the ”Ukraine is not a Brothel“ campaign against sex tourism, actions against Putin's regime, against Alexander Lukashenko's regime in Belarus, against Iran's stoning of women, but most brilliantly of all, an action against Dominique Strauss-Kahn which involves them dressing up as hotel maids and knocking on his door.

At some stage, they decide to develop a ”simpler and more understandable means of attracting girls to feminism“. Significantly, ”we started using our sexuality on behalf of the feminist cause“. This is where toplessness comes in, a problematic feature for many who join and then leave. But before we come to this, there are other problems: the Soviet era is described with dewy-eyed nostalgia – ”they fantasised about the days when communist youth built up the country“.

That would be those happy days before Stalin's gulags, one assumes. Their condemnation of religion verges on ideological tyranny. They ”disapprove“ of Pussy Riot when they call themselves Christians. They disapprove not just of the niqab (full veil) but the hijab (headscarf). Some Muslim feminists might be riled by the cultural imperialism embedded in this. And for all the talk of politicised nudity, it seems to remain a confection, like the ”pretty“ crown of flowers that accompanies it. It is never satisfactorily explained.

The politics of the female body has been intensively investigated by feminists including Susie Orbach and the acclaimed French feminists, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous. The latter's theories on relativism versus femininity arising from biological difference clashed wildly – Kristeva was for relativism, Irigaray for a biological essentialism that could be liberating, not limiting. These arguments were informed by critical theory and psychoanalysis, and Irigaray's ideas might extend to ”bare-breasted“ protests at a push. But Femen's belief system seems to arise not out of this branch of feminism but exhibitionism and vacuous statement. Consider Sasha's view on toplessness: ”I felt it was more for girls with fuller figures. For Oksana... it's perfect, because she has nice breasts.“ We are told that a woman weighing 120 kilos ”doesn't really fit the Femen image“. Their slogan, ”I am naked. I am free,“ rings a little hollow in the light of this.

If Femen's endeavour to create a new global feminism is problematic, the Everyday Sexism project appears less so. Laura Bates created her online forum to give women a space to offload stories of sexism. She was, to her surprise, deluged by women from around the world. Her aims here, in her manifesto, of seeking equality in the workplace, in income, in education, seem sadly similar to those advocated by feminists over 30 years ago. What is clear, and shocking in Bates's book is that despite the gains, a sustained and gross inequality exists across cultures. She is particularly effective in undercutting the smugness of the West on this score.

An international body which calculates that 20 per cent of parliamentary seats in the world are held by women puts UK figures at 22.5 per cent, placing our gender equality – at least in Parliament – in a tie with Pakistan, but trailing Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan and Tunisia! Chapters travel though women's lives from birth to college, work, and discrimination around motherhood. Each begins with a slew of statistics, some all too familiar – the domestic-violence rate, the gender pay differential, the depressing under-reporting of rape and sexual assault. The picture that emerges is bleak and shocking, from the ”calm down, dear“ sexism of the Commons to the scrutiny that women in power receive over their appearance, from Hillary Clinton, to Louise Mensch, to Angela Merkel.

The most unsettling elements in the end are not statistics, but personal testimonies, particularly from girls under 16. In the light of these, the Jimmy Savile era of silence and turning a blind eye doesn't seem quite over. Scores of women – and girls – speak of not being believed when they reveal instances of sexual harassment or rape.

Bates's campaign seems like the natural inheritor of Second Wave Feminism, which disseminated its ideology mainly through books. Her movement can be similarly charged with appealing only to the middle-classes (women need to be literate and rich enough to have internet technology to take part). Even so, it carries the democracy of social media – a call-centre worker in India or Europe or Canada is given an equal voice to that of a barrister, for example. Her call to arms is less flamboyant than Femen's but the integrity of the project – particularly its ability to tailor itself country to country – makes it admirable and culturally transferable. ”A storm is coming“, writes Bates. After reading this book, I hope it is.

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