Joan Bakewell: A new generation of writers joins feminism's fight

Many of these bold women draw attacks and criticism for what they write
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The Independent Online

I was recently one of a whole clutch of women invited by the campaigning Fawcett Society to wear a T-shirt that proclaims, "This is what a feminist looks like." I was pleased to do so because I know there are still many problems women have to face in their struggle to gain equal opportunity and recognition with men. In fact, I am the wrong target wearer of the Fawcett message because I belong to just that generation who set the pace for change back in the 1960s, and whose feminist message many young people today reject as out-of-date and no longer relevant to their lives. How wrong they are!

The lives and attitudes of young women today are rooted in the changes brought about by the pioneers who saw equal pay and opportunity laws on to the statute book. Today, they take these gains for granted. Their glowing confidence and high expectations have replaced the rather suppliant air with which I approached television moguls in the 1960s with a plea that perhaps women could have a place on screen to rival that of men. Nonetheless, today's women are right to insist that time is long past, since those achievements and the debate about feminism has moved on.

Just where it might go was brought home to me on Wednesday night, when the 29-year-old Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won the Orange Prize, awarded for the year's best novel by a woman writer, for her Biafran epic Half of a Yellow Sun. Her best-selling Purple Hibiscus had been shortlisted in 2004.

When the prize was set up in 1996 it ran into opposition. Men took it badly, considering it iniquitous and discriminatory to have such an excluding prize. Several older and distinguished women novelists agreed, and refused to enter on the grounds that they were novelists first and foremost, and not to be judged for their gender. Nonetheless, the prize has flourished, and has unwittingly charted an interesting literary development - the emergence in recent years of talented women writers of black and Asian background.

Andrea Levy, whose parents came here from Jamaica, won the Orange in 2004 for her fourth novel, Small Island. Zadie Smith, from dual-heritage parents, won in 2006 for her third, On Beauty. This year's Man Booker winner is Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss. Monica Ali's Brick Lane was a best-seller in 2003. And those are just the better known among many others. In the theatre, too, women playwrights are being heard: Tanika Gutpa has written a string of plays with productions at the Young Vic, The National Theatre and the Royal Court. Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play Behzti was set within a Sikh community, and Yasmin Whittaker-Khan's play Bells dealt with Muslim mujra clubs, where Pakistanis enjoy their own version of lap-dancing.

It is not simply good news that these interesting voices are being heard. Very often their work is critical of the communities in which they live, and stir up trouble for themselves and other. Behzti was famously driven from the stage of Birmingham Rep by a rioting crowd of Sikh men who disapproved of the play's setting in a place of worship. Ironically, they knew all about the play because of attempts by the theatre itself to consult the Sikh community about it, with actors making visits and having talks with them. Likewise Bells caused something of a stir at the same theatre, drawing disapproval for its depiction of the private indulgences of Pakistani men. Brick Lane, set among the Bangladeshis of the East End, roused such rage within the Sylheti community that they forced the film company to move locations away from its actual setting.

Many of these bold women draw attacks and criticism for what they write because of the light they shine on the behaviour and traditions they know personally and wish to criticise. They and their like can expect the pressure on them to intensify as different ethnic groups close ranks against the perceived indifference or hostility of the world around them. Minorities are busy enough coping with the challenges of living in our multicultural society without being, as they see it, exposed to criticism, and even ridicule, by some of their own.

In a wider context, as religions consolidate and extend their extremist wings - and this can include the religious right of Christianity as well as Islam, Hinduism and others - they will wish to restrain their women within the ancient traditions that kept them down. Women will continue to be kept within family precincts, required to be fully covered, and denied equal rights, equal justice and the opportunities for education. Was there ever a more ready need for feminist values and efforts than in such places? And, indeed, determined feminist groups exist in many countries where the national religion is dead set against them.

They struggle against ingrained prejudice and the multitude of petty social restraints that make their lives so totally different from that of men. Whenever women describe in their writings the personal struggles of individuals to take control of their lives, they are helping bring to Asian and black women the rights of equality and justice that young women here have come to take for granted.

There remain many inequalities still to be dealt with in Britain, matters of labour and pension rights, child care and maternity provision. But they pale in comparison with what women face in other cultures. So let's not hear it glibly claimed that feminist objectives are all but achieved. Across the world millions of women know there's still a long way to go.

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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