Kate Mosse chaired a lively session at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this afternoon, hosting a panel with Lisa Appignanesi and Kamila Shamsie on the recent publication of Fifty Shades of Feminism. The book was Appignanesi’s brainchild, a timely publication after the 2012 reports of casual misogynies such as Todd Aitken’s comments about ‘legitimate rape’ in the US, and the Rochdale sex grooming scandal in the UK. Appignanesi said the book was the result of a ‘moan’ about the current state of gender politics, and came up with the tongue in cheek title as a counterblast to such depressing news stories. Fifty Shades of Feminism is a collection of short essays by women about their experiences; a means of remembering. It is not designed to be representative but to offer a range of women’s responses to feminism fifty years after Betty Friedan’s famous study The Feminine Mystique. In discussion Appignanesi argued that feminism should be wary of the ‘waves of forgetting’ its own histories. When Mosse asked her to define feminism – always a tricky one – Appignanesi simply said ‘Women are people’ and that feminism was ‘needed for human dignity’.
Kamila Shamsie spoke of her own memories as a child in Pakistan, being aware of women activists who marched on Islamabad in opposition to an oppressive government regime. She noted the dangers of feminism which does not recognize the intersections of sexism, imperialism and racism – and spoke positively of the quota system in Pakistan which has seen its parliament transformed as women make up 23% of its members. Cross party alliances were formed to change legislation which disadvantaged women: ‘It has made such a difference in a country which is hugely patriarchal and misogynist, make no mistake … I wish Britain would learn what happens when you get more women into parliament.’ If nothing else, a quota system would provoke debate. Kate Mosse agreed that, while quotas were a blunt instrument, they would transform the agenda, taking away the burden on individual women to push through the system.
In response to a question about what was the priority for feminism, Appignanesi proposed that it was important to get men to recognise that feminism was about them too. Mosse cited one of the epigrams in the book – a quotation from the anthropologist Margaret Mead that every time you liberate a woman you liberate a man too. Kamila Shamsie said that was what solidarity looked like, arguing that feminism has to be worldwide – because patriarchy is so endemic. Laughing, she told the audience that when she travels to any country and announces at passport control that she is a novelist the (usually male) passport officer assumes that because she is a woman she only writes romances.
Discussion was then opened up to the floor. How do we deal with misogyny when it is so multi-layered; can there be a single response? Kamila Shamsie said that misogyny is so old and so hard to recognise that we have to have a response at every level. Lisa Appignanesi noted ‘the embeddedness of misogyny’ in culture and in our own psyches. Kate Mosse recommended the Everydaysexism site: http://everydaysexism.com/ .
An audience member from Australia reminded the packed tent of recent events in Australia, where Julia Gillard was under siege from the media and the opposition because she was a woman prime minister. She worked collaboratively colleagues to try and effect change but her male opponents took this as a sign of weakness, using it against her.
Another audience member noted the role of social media in communicating feminism and activism much more effectively than in the past – yet it also provides a forum for vicious misogyny. Someone asked how to get more men involved in supporting feminist issues; and the panel replied that men get more men involved. Kamila Shamsie suggested (to much laughter) that more men should only have daughters. Her father took an equal role in raising the family, yet she sees men of her generation (she was born in 1973) following traditional gender roles once children appear.
Discussion ranged across the Twitter attacks on Mary Beard, the fragmentation of feminism in the 1980s, and the inequities regarding hate crime, which is illegal against some minorities but still legal against women.
The session went slightly over the allotted hour, in an increasingly hot and stuffy tent, but nobody wanted to leave. As the crowd filed out it was clear that groups were gathering in the cooler air outside to continue the discussions.