Event review: Women and Freedom in the Islamic World, Asia House, London

Left to Right: Samira Khan, Kamin Mohammadi, Haifa Zangana and Elif Shafak [My own photo]

Left to Right: Samira Khan, Kamin Mohammadi, Haifa Zangana and Elif Shafak [My own photo]

Women, Freedom and the Islamic World – The Asia House Festival of Asian Literature 2013

The diversity and eloquence of this all-female panel gave a fascinating insight into what female freedom means in Muslim states today

This post first appeared on the Asia House website here

Asia House is no stranger to distinguished figures discussing complex issues, and this, the second event in this year’s Festival of Asian Literature, was no exception.

Although technically a pre-event (the festival proper begins on May 7th, with guest Michael Palin, no less) the guests were just as renowned and the topic just as wide as if a central element of the festival itself. Women, freedom and the Islamic world – one could hardly have chosen a more expansive, nebulous discussion, and yet the writers on the panel addressed the idea with characteristic thoughtfulness and poise.

Chaired and led by journalist and presenter Samira Ahmed, the panel included Turkish author Elif Shafak (The Bastard of Istanbul; Honour), Iraqi political activist and author Haifa Zangana (Dreaming of Baghdad) and Iranian journalist and self-professed “memoirist” Kamin Mohammadi (The Cypress Tree). Having each left their own countries, either voluntarily or under violence, the women explained how their positions as writers have influenced their views on the meaning of female freedom, in the context of states that could be seen as nightmarish societies for women by many in the West.

Firstly, they were keen to point out that the ‘Islamic World’ is by no means homogenous. Elif Shafak called the idea “problematic”, especially in relation to women’s freedom. A feminist movement has existed in Turkey for decades, she pointed out, explaining that her novels deliberately incorporate people from different parts of society or backgrounds (Armenians and Turks, for example) because the cultural landscape of Islamic states – and their views towards women – is rarely straightforward.

Her books rarely try to dictate one view or another, Shafak explained, and prefer to examine the issues subtly, on the understanding that women raised in patriarchal societies can often become strongly “matriarchal” and “actively participate in their own repression” and that of others. Her writing, she added, also tries to question masculinity and its role in shaping Islamic gender relations.

Mohammadi was also keen to show that the concept of freedom is rarely simple.

“Our cultures are group cultures, and not geared towards the individual,” she said.

And yet, the discussion then turned personal, discussing the idea that writing honestly about potentially difficult – or sensitive – topics, can be especially difficult for family-centric, Islamic women. All panellists agreed with this, and admitted that they had struggled with sexual elements of their books, worried about what their family and communities might think. This, too, they said, was about female freedom.

Shafak admitted that when you write about sex, “people always think it’s about you”, which makes it even more difficult. Mohammadi also wrestled with writing about personal issues, and said that eventually, she had made the decision to just be honest, however hard for readers known to her. Zangana was certain that writing about sex is much harder for women than men.

All writers agreed that gender was undeniably a factor in how free Islamic women’s writing can be. In the words of Shafak: “If a man writes something you think of him as a writer foremost, if you write as woman, you’re seen as woman foremost.” In such a patriarchal culture, sensitive issues are especially affected.

The panellists talk to audience members and sign books after the event [My photo]

The panellists talk to audience members and sign books after the event [My photo]

And yet, when I spoke to her during the book signing immediately after the event, Mohammadi admitted that despite such difficulties, writing her book The Cypress Tree was almost cathartic – a way for her to deal with her country’s turbulent history as well as her own story. “It allowed me to get some distance from it,” she said, “and say to people, here, this is my story, this is my past.”

In fact, perhaps it is this positive association with writing that made the panel so keen to address the so-called “Islamic women’s misery memoir”. Not only did Zangana lament the “shocking” lack of literature by Islamic women – claiming that in 100 years, they have only written 400 books compared to the 100,000 written by women in the West – Shafak argued that even if they do manage to write something, two thirds of female Islamic writers’ books will inevitably show miserable, veiled women on the covers. “Why not show joy as well as sorrow?” she asked.

Mohammadi agreed, saying that Islamic literature – and by extension, female freedom of expression – would benefit from telling as many stories as possible. “It’s a case of the market maturing,” she said. Referring to Malala Yousafzai, the Iraqi teenage girl shot in the head by the Taliban, who has since reportedly signed a $3million {£1.9m) book deal for her story, Mohammadi added: “That’s all fine and good, but it’s just one side. Why not show the others as well?”

Also discussed, although briefly, was the effect of the Arab Spring.

Elif Shafak suggested that the upheaval has potential to deliver changes for women and allow them to break free from their hitherto-hidden communities. “Perceptions of Middle East are changing,” she said. “People assumed [these states] were static, but the Arab Spring was unexpected. We now begin to understand,” she added.  And yet, she still felt that there was a danger of women’s rights being forgotten as new societies are forged. “Often ‘women’s problems’ seen as able to be postponed, despite being central to wider issues,” she said.

And yet, while some may have seen the Arab Spring has been a great springboard for freedom, Mohammadi admitted that since the 2009 political crackdown, and “loss of hope” in Iran, she has found herself unable to write about it.

But all hope is not lost, argued Zangana, whose work with women in arguably the most-oppressed Islamic state (although it should hardly be seen as a competition), Saudi Arabia, has shown her that feminism, and an awareness of women’s issues, can be apparent no matter how outwardly restrictive the veil.

“They are strong women in subtle ways,” she said. “We have to challenge misconceptions.” Mohammadi agreed, arguing that in the West, we tend to equate lack of freedom with the veil, “because it’s an obvious symbol”. In Iraq, the panel agreed, “it’s the last thing they think about.”

It is testament to the panellists’ honesty and eloquence that the book signing immediately after the event was awash with fascinated audience members, asking for more insights from this varied and talented line-up. As is usual at Asia House events, many were from the countries directly mentioned, adding a genuine, meaningful atmosphere to an evening that, in less skilful hands, could have drowned under its own rhetoric.

In fact, what emerged was a genuine, thoughtful discussion, more of hope than of hopelessness, and in full appreciation of the freedom and catharsis that writing – and reading – can bring. ‘Freedom’ as a concept may have some way to go in the Islamic world when measured through Western eyes, but this event proved that Islamic women are beginning to stand up for their own ideas, and that far from being an alien concept, feminism and expression are central to the identities of the changing, varied, growing and jostling Islamic world – and as much part of its past as its uncertain future.

See the tweets from this event, and follow the rest of the festival on Twitter, using the hashtag #FAL13.

This post first appeared on the Asia House website here

Stand Up To Sexism and No More Page 3: How one night of comedy proved sexism is still no laughing matter

Review: A hilarious comedy evening event featuring male and female comedians, organised by some of the loudest and most-relevant voices in feminism today ‒ plus, Sabrina Mahfouz and one of the most powerful anti-sexism poems I’ve ever been lucky enough to hear

No More Page 3 Stand up to sexism

Stand Up To Sexism: a taste of the line-up

Women in comedy. Three words always guaranteed to provoke at best defensive naming sessions of women that yes, actually, we do find funny; at worst a tired editorial on whether men are just better at laugh-making than women – and worse still, a general agreement from your immediate companions that women just don’t cut it compared to the men.

By way of example, allow me to wheel out that seemingly-ancient yet still-valid observation about the numbers of women on panel shows; as much as I love QI, Mock The Week et al, it has to be said, again and again, that female appearances, women-majority or, heaven, women-only line-ups seem as rare as a bag of purple Skittles (sigh).

But tonight, laughter rang to the rooftops of the beautiful Harold Pinter Theatre as woman after woman, mixed in with the odd brave bloke, prompted peals of amusement (as well as the odd overwhelmed tear) in the name of the online campaign feminist powerhouses that are Everyday Sexism and No More Page 3.

The Stand Up To Sexism event, which I found out about via social media (where else?!), was as hilarious as it promised ‒ presenting a solid line up of male and female comedians and poets, most of whom I’d never before heard of (save the wonderful compere Lucy Porter, whose repartee sparkled with biting yet reassuring joy), exploring everything from Page 3 models to the perils of Bikram yoga, via yummy mummies and how not to hate your body (yay).

Special mention must go to the absolutely glorious Tiffany Stevenson, who I’d never heard of before this evening but whose insights into body image, iPad apps for cats and aging was easily one of the comedic highlights of the night (basically guys, when you think flesh-coloured popsocks are a great idea and biscuits fall out of your bra when you take it off, which in no way stops you from eating them, it’s all over. Frankly though, I can think of worse ways to go, and when it comes to biscuits, I’m basically halfway there already).

John-Luke Roberts, another comedian I hadn’t heard of before (I know, sorry!), almost stole the show with his ‘burlesque’ act involving paper slogans taped to various layers of clothing, including such gems as ‘Stop asking if women are funny: Some are, some aren’t’ and ‘100% of rape cases are the fault of the rapist’ (since I have the memory of a distracted goldfish, these are paraphrased, but I hope you get the gist!). Kudos also go to the pleasingly dishevelled Joel Dommett, who should be applauded not only for being the first bloke on stage at a feminist gig, but also for his ability to hold a yoga position without dropping the microphone at the same time as talking enigmatically, inoffensively and bloody hilariously about the balancing power of an escaped cock (seriously). Genius.

The deadpan and sharp-mouthed Suzi Ruffell was also truly incomparable, while Kate Smurthwaite was both erudite and uncomfortably accurate in her side-splitting take-down of the Daily Mail’s consistently-disappointing, face-palmingly awful columnists, as well as one local newspaper’s charmingly barmy letters page on the subject of women and shoes.

Viv Groskop’s feminist-Wollstonecraft-Emily Davidson-referencing rap (along with her white-streaked hair and amazingly sparkly dress that said, in her own words, “Cruella De Vil from the neck up, Liza Minnelli, the Wilderness Years, from the neck down”) also gets a mention for sheer, bizarre, entertainment value.

Women and men alike whooped and clapped from a crowd that was as intelligent as it was friendly. Jokes about grammar, middle-class shopping and Muswell Hill revealed the audience’s predictably London, largely middle-class, lefty credentials, making my mind flit slightly wincingly over to the recent Twitter debate on intersectionality (for want of a better word, the discussion over the idea that feminism today appeals only to a certain class/kind of woman, and that feminism cannot/should not be considered in isolation to other forms of oppression) and yet I was in no doubt that here were my people – a set of fantastic individuals who share my sense of humour, my values, my notions that these issues and problems are still relevant and still not won. A quick scan of my Twitter afterwards revealed that loads of the feminists, journalists and bloggers who I admire were also in the audience, such as @VagendaMagazine  and @WeekWoman. It really was like my inspiring Twitter timeline made life, and holy shit, I loved it.

One small caveat, which I almost hate myself for writing, and yet, feel I must admit in order to give a full picture of the night: I am always left unbelievably frustrated by the fact that, despite all these wonderful people standing up against sexism, proclaiming the need to break free of fucked-up societal norms about what is and isn’t beautiful or clever, and all these women and men, of all shapes and sizes, shining on-stage with confidence and wit, I still leave the theatre irked by the usual self-hating bollocks that my thighs are too fat, my skin is too blemished, my stomach is more barrel than beautiful and my style is more drab than diva.

It’s pretty appalling that I simultaneously and sincerely believe these things about myself at the same time as knowing that there’s SO MUCH MORE TO LIFE. I guess old habits die hard, and when your culture has been pumping harmful images and messages at you as long as you can remember, it takes more than one night of feminist comedy to exorcise that panoply of body-image demons. But the fact that these people exist, that they are trying, and that they are symbolic of a wave of others, gives me hope and strength that I’m not alone. And that in itself is empowering.

To see people throwing such brilliant and funny lampoons into the issues that are so often shunned, attacked or marginalised as ‘wimmin complaining’ by utter, useless twatmonkeys who refuse to acknowledge that despite feminism having achieved lots already, there’s still more to do, was absolutely fantastic, and frankly one of the best ways I’ve found to spend a Sunday night (well, until the next series of Downton comes on, in any case).

But it wasn’t all fun. While I must acknowledge the comedians who entertained for hours on end, and the fantastic women who organised the whole thing (Lucy-Anne Holmes from No More Page 3 and the impassioned Laura Bates from Everyday Sexism, who have done so much to bring these discussions into the mainstream where they so dearly belong), the most powerful and poignant bit of the night has to be the poem by Sabrina Mahfouz (and here on Twitter), who nearly caused a riot with her incredible beat poem on why Page 3 exists.

I truly hope she won’t mind that I recorded it for future reference, and have transcribed the whole thing here (unbeknownst to me at the time, it can also be found here, on her website, which also reveals her to be a seriously big deal – I love how true it is that you really do learn something new every day). It was powerful, meaningful, and bloody well written, and, as I replayed it over and over, caused me to walk a little taller on my trip back home (which for me, standing all of five foot tall, is a pretty significant achievement).

Good on you Sabrina, and good on you all the comedians and behind-the-scenes wranglers. I hope you succeed. Here’s to No More Page 3, and all it represents. Gloriously, fabulously, hilariously good on you.

Sign the No More Page 3 petition here

Everyday Sexism

No More Page 3

Stand Up to Sexism

Video and transcription – entirely, 100% copyright of the absolutely fantastic Sabrina Mahfouz, website here.

No More Page 3 Campaign Poem

It’s like walking home late from raving

Hearing the drunks shuffle, scuffing the paving

Behind you, like just to remind you, that by the way,

You’re a girl

And that means danger towards your world,

And so shouldn’t you be curled up safe in bed with crumbly biscuits and a magazine

Filling your pretty head with thoughts of who you’d rather be

Instead? Cos I read

That 92% of girls under 22 hate their bodies, and yet,

63% of them want to be

Not Hilary, not JK, not MP, not Professor, Doctor, Lawyer, not mother, or even Beyoncé,

But a glamour model. A model of glamour. G-g-g-g-glamour.

I stammer over the word, ‘cause when I first heard it back in the day, I was like

Yeah, I’ll take some of that

You can breathe your hot breath on to my neck

As between my breasts beaded with sweat in preparation

For being an Internet sensation

But I had a mad moment of realisation

At the meaning of forever and I didn’t do it

The modelling thing

The how deep can you sink in thing

The pink, brown, black, flesh, flash for cash thing

I didn’t – but I nearly did

Cos I was so caught up in the hype of papers, magazines, film, TV,

That even though I’d gone to grammar school not glamour school

And I was at university

It seemed to me that the only way that I could see to the top

Was through desirability

‘Cause that’s what I saw in the papers, magazines, films and on TV

Now fast-forward ten years later

And I hear of this thing

No More Page 3

And it makes me so happy

That finally

Eight-four years after winning the right to vote through protest and death, yes

Papers might actually

Start to fill pages

With the sagest

Almost outrageous

Words of powerful women, everyday women, whose faces don’t need to be pleasing

And stomachs don’t need to be thin and boobs don’t need to be bared

So a four-year-old son can see the family paper when painting at the dinner table

And he doesn’t grow up to think

All girls are fair game

And little daughters grow up to know that they will be valued for their brain

So the training is worth it

There’s no more excuses

We’ve got to stop it, the lot of it

On top of this, I’d just like to add

That I am all for free speech and keeping liberties

But these pictures are taking liberties

And they’re not speaking, except the word ‘pornography’

So do what you wanna do on your type-the-pincode-TV, but

NEWSpapers are made of paper that’s supposed to print the news

And boobs are not news so excuse me if I do more than just

Not buy it

I’ll scream it’s not right as it shines an airbrushed light

On the fact that this society sees women as bodies

That are commodities

But only at their peak of conceivability

After which please go away and don’t say anything

Not that you ever had anything to say anyway

Strange, you may say, that I’m a woman saying that

Given a mic and a stage from which to say it

But trust me

For every girl behind a mic

There’s ten thousand behind a phone screen

Keen to take pictures to send to men who’ve told them that

They can live the dream of Page 3

And maybe

They will

And maybe that is really their dream they want to fulfill

But if so then that’s a crying shame

‘Cause they’ll never get to know who they really could have been

So, to help let that 65% of under 22s find a different dream

Please sign the petition

No More Page 3

Sign the No More Page 3 petition here

Everyday Sexism

No More Page 3

Stand Up to Sexism

My old Matthaie Café story in the Richmond and Twickenham Times :-)

So I wrote this thing on a local building near me…and the local paper agreed to publish it. Exciting times (even if perhaps me, my mum and dad form three of the whole five people who actually read it – the circulation is 61 000 a week but there was a Find Fenton the dog competition on the page before mine so…haha). Incidentally, though, the paper has been in publication since 1874, which makes the history geek in me very happy!

Here’s a screenshot – hope it’s legible!

Many thanks to Rachel Bishop at the paper for being so willing to read and publish this 🙂


Why I’m a feminist

In my life, I could view gender struggle as something that ‘happens to other people’. So why do I feel such a strong need to view the world from a fighting, ‘feminist’ point of view? Because it’s only by understanding what happens when gender equality is not upheld that I can appreciate just how lucky I am, and therefore how important feminism still is

Feminist doormat

Sound familiar?

You know the scene.  A few glasses of wine have been had, and a discussion starts. And yet again, I take a feminist viewpoint on something, and see the issue irrevocably coloured by its gender politics. And yet again, I find myself having to justify my stance, to women as often as to men. I find myself having to justify why feminism is still relevant to someone like me.

‘Why are you a ‘feminist’, anyway? Isn’t that all about bra burning and stuff? Why do you even need it, it’s so outdated?! You’ve got the vote and equal pay, haven’t you/we? Women go out to work nowadays, you/we can get divorced, have access to the Pill, get abortions, men do housework, look after the kids, I mean, what more do you/we want? How often do you/we get cat-called in the street? Maybe other women do, but you/we hardly ever do, right? And didn’t you hear that story a while back about how even builders don’t think shouting out at women is OK anymore? Think how much better you have it than women around the world! I mean, honestly. Are you just looking for something to get angry about?’

And despite the seriously frustrating nature of these questions, it’s not always that easy to give a proper answer.

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Dear The Huffington Post: A letter I wish I didn’t need to write

Dear The Huffington Post,

It pains me that, in 2012, I need to write this, but, surprise, if Bar Rafaeli tweets that she had a pat-down at the airport that made her uncomfortable, then that’s it. End of story. If anything, such a revelation prompts an investigation into the practices of American frisking staff, and emphatically NOT the incredibly misjudged, misogynistic and utterly mind-baffling array of ignorance that you actually published, which went far beyond the value of the non-news story you were trying to mock.

Yes, Bar Rafaeli is a supermodel with dubious choices in fashion, underwear and frankly occupation. Yes, she’s more traditionally ‘beautiful’ than most other people getting a pat-down in your average airport queue. Yes, she’s using a very public forum to air her view, so is technically giving people the right to discuss what she may or may not have meant, or why she’s chosen to air her views in that way, without her having the opportunity to reply.

But the news that a woman – hell, a person ‒ whoever she or he is, felt uncomfortable during what should be an entirely perfunctory and routine check to ensure safety and nothing more (I’ve been frisked at airports loads of times and never once felt uncomfortable with the actions of the woman doing it), does not give you free rein to suggest that, perhaps because for some, she is easy on the eye, she is ‘humblebragging’, or in any way deserved it.

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