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Review: Women against Fundamentalism : Stories of Dissent and Solidarity (Eds Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Nira Yuval-Davis) 2014
Review by Rebecca Durand
Women against Fundamentalism was one of the most interesting, challenging and inspiring British feminist groups of the last few decades. The new book celebrating its 25 year history takes the form of political narratives of 19 women who were at some point involved with WAF. The book is subtitled Stories of Dissent and Solidarity. These words are apt. Dissent, because the women who write here stepped out of the roles expected of them, in their families, communities, and political comfort zones, to challenge racism and fundamentalism at the same time. Solidarity, because women of diverse backgrounds were able to ally together and give each other personal and political strength while so many others were preoccupied with divisions highlighted by identity politics.
WAF was born in the midst of the Rushdie affair, when in the late 80s Islamic political groups were mobilising internationally and in Britain to condemn Rushdie’s work as blasphemous. While many on the Left were paralysed with confusion fear of offending Muslim sentiment, a group of women came together to discuss the increasing power of religious fundamentalism, and took a brave stance. They linked the threat to Rushdie’s right to expression with their own right to write and speak out, against both racism and those in their ‘own’ communities who would silence them. It was a unique theoretical position which was immediately manifested in the streets, when they protested at an anti-Rushdie march and came under attack by marchers and white fascists.
After that, they continued to develop the critique of the political uses of religion in a variety of contexts. These include the pressures on women from the Indian subcontinent to keep silent about domestic violence, the influence clerical and nationalist struggles on Irish women in London, the diverse ways that Jewish identity played out in religious and secular Zionist contexts. The three contributions by Jewish women show that to a certain extent WAF dealt not only with religious fundamentalism but other ethnic identity politics as well.
WAF wasn’t anyone’s only political home, rather it was a forum where women involved in other activism came together to develop a definition and critique of fundamentalism and gain strength to take back into other struggles. For WAF, fundamentalism is defined as modern conservative political movements that use religion to gain or consolidate power. They distinguish religious belief, which is a private matter, from the political movements that use religion. This definition emphasises the similarity of different fundamentalisms, noting that they all share a central concern with women and women’s bodies, and use ideas of purity and authenticity to decide who has legitimacy to speak and act. They locate these movements in their modern historical specificity, rejecting the claim by fundamentalist that they represent traditional or true forms of religious practice.
The book is organised as a series of mini biographies of WAF members, tracing their personal and political development, what concerns led them to WAF and what they took away from it. Each chapter is a great read. Women’s lives are interesting; feminists who challenge received narratives of gender, ‘race’, migration, nationalism, religion and politics have especially interesting lives. It’s rare to read stories of such a variety of backgrounds and experiences in one volume and clearly the WAF women valued this mix themselves.
There is much of use to historians. Many of us won’t have realised that in Britain, ‘the resurgence of religion as a political identity began in earnest in the 1970s, among Sikhs mustering support for a separate Sikh state (Khalistan) in India’ (p. 10). We may not know as much as we should about the Southall Uprising, the underground support network for Irish women travelling to England for abortions, or the way that the politics of Bangladesh influenced an East London FE College.
We may not have appreciated the complex politics involved in setting up the first Asian women’s refuges, or know that British and Iraqi women came together in sustained anti-war activism. Shakila Taranum Maan’s chapter describes the journey of a politically engaged artist, referencing the multitude of Black and Asian arts initiates exploring race and gender in theatre and film. The reader is left wanting to know more. Fortunately, along with a good index, there are excellent Notes at the end of each chapter provide references for further investigation via books, academic articles, videos, leaflets and links to the WAF archive.
WAF-style politics are very often outside the orthodoxy in academic and activist feminism which has tended to privilege religious identity and critique secularism as a ‘western’ construct. A WAF insight was the way British multi-culturalism, which itself tended to view migrant communities as internally harmonious, was gradually replaced by multi-faithism, as the State, particularly under New Labour, sought to identify or create religious ‘community leaders’ to represent (and exert control over) Black and ethnic minority groups. That some socialists and feminists have also uncritically accepted the authority of such leaders is a disaster for left and feminist politics. As predicted by Southall Black Sisters, a close relation to WAF, the construction of religious communities as the best way to ‘reach’ women came at the expense of secular services and spaces.
There is a lot of honesty in the book; arguments and divisions, some serious, are discussed and examined; there is no attempt to smooth over serious differences in the name of sisterhood. Some of these differences concerned the extent to which it was possible to work as feminists within religious movements. Cassandra Balchin’s exploration of Muslim Family Law is relevant here. Other differences emerged later, especially after 9/11 when many feminists felt that they could not critique the Muslim Right given the imperialist war drive and increased racism in the UK while others insisted this was necessary.
While Women Against Fundamentalism no longer exists as a group, the former members remain politically engaged. We see them campaigning against the Hindu Right politics of India’s new Prime Minister, working for migrant rights in an increasingly violent border regime, and challenging the ways in which agendas set by religious fundamentalist movements have made inroads into education and law. This brilliant book will help us find, in the stories of the brave women, the courage to dissent ourselves.
Rebecca Durand teaches ESOL (English for Speakers of other Languages) to adult women in East London.
Review: America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation (2010), by Elaine Tyler May
By Charlie Jeffries
I first learned of the contraceptive pill in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. I was eight years old, and on an elementary school field trip. This was a critical moment in my personal history as, peering reverently in to the softly lit glass boxes of the exhibition, it was the first time that I understood that people had sex for reasons other than reproduction. Having pored over The Body Book myriad times and considering myself quite the expert on the subject amongst my third-grade peers, this came as quite the shock. But the invention of the contraceptive pill has had an impact that reaches much farther than blowing my eight-year-old mind. The history of the myriad ways that the pill has influenced women, men, and sex over the last fifty years are explored at length in Elaine Tyler May’s recent historical study, America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation (2010).
Beginning my review with a personal anecdote, while certainly not as personal as those testimonials included in America and the Pill, mirrors the highly personal-as-political premise of May’s study. May introduces her work by introducing the role her parents played in the development of the pill. She outlines in the introduction that both of her parents contributed significantly to the clinical trials and distribution of the pill in its early years, and that she herself was a ‘human guinea pig’. However, this does not appear to bias her study. The inclusion of personal narrative is often a critical component of feminist histories, and May successfully navigates the many potential pitfalls of this kind of scholarship. May’s principal interrogation is in line with a question that has troubled many women over the past fifty years when dealing with the responsibility, side effects, and in some countries the price of the pill: why were male hormones never tested as strenuously? Why, when the female birth control pill has come so far, is medical research on a male birth control pill still in its infancy? As May explains, ‘…if men faced the same discomforts, dangers, and complications that women risked from recently developed contraceptives, such products would never reach the market.’ Though she acknowledges the liberating aspects of the birth control pill for women, at the center of May’s critique is the medical research community for its insistence on laying responsibility, yet again, at women’s feet.
By collecting hundreds of email testimonials from women whose lives have been in some way affected by the pill, May’s principal methodology acknowledges the bravery and burden of this responsibility. May’s book thus provides a mouthpiece for the countless women who took medical, societal, and familial risks in taking the pill in its early years. In doing so, May removes the issue from the predominantly male medical researchers, Evangelists, Members of Congress, and Presidents who have historically controlled women’s access to the pill, and whose opinions on the subject are those most frequently heard. These voices prove the continuing efficacy of the personal-as-political, and demonstrate the urgency of current feminist research on late twentieth century medicine and society, as the ‘survivors’ can still be interviewed. This method critically links these medical and social histories, and refocuses our understanding of the pill on the area in which it truly matters: women’s bodies.
This work draws out important themes in the pill’s history. One major focus is the significance of race, and of the communities that ‘had reasons to be distrustful after centuries of manipulation of their fertility.’ America and the Pill serves as a reminder that America’s fraught postwar race relations reverberated in the nation’s sexual politics. May examines specific moments of this tension, including the eugenic ambitions of some of the pill’s early scientists, the initial testing of the drug on poor Puerto Rican women, and resistance from Black communities. May appears unswervingly aware of her own privileged position in the pill’s development, in that she does not come from one of the ethnic or socio-economic groups that had good reason to be initially suspicious of the intentions behind the pill’s creation.
Whilst undoubtedly crucial to address, the fact that the pill contributed to American intersectional identity politics will not surprise the feminist reader. A more controversial claim to be found in this work is May’s assertion that the pill was far less important in the sexual revolution than has previously been accepted. Feminist researchers of the period and those who witnessed the movement might balk at May’s statement that ‘we know very little about the pill’s relationship to the sexual revolution’. Was the pill not the locus of liberation? May challenges this assumption by demonstrating how much of the public discussion at the time centered on the role of the pill within a marriage. She reminds us that by the 1970s, three out of four young women who were sexually active did not use protection. While sexual behaviors may have changed in the Cold War climate, this didn’t necessarily carry through to contraceptive decision-making: ‘Undoubtedly, the pill had its greatest impact within marriage.’ May doubts that the popularity of the pill was enough to change the deeply entrenched socio-sexual mores of the time, and extends her somewhat revisionist approach to this period to include a criticism of how the sexual revolution has been misconstrued; in her view, the sexual revolution was more like an evolution. Forcing the reader to confront the myth of the pill’s power in the sexual revolution, and questioning the revolutionary rhetoric that this legend rests upon shakes the very foundations of what we have commonly come to accept as the pill’s role in history. This inevitably raises the question that is as old as the drug itself: To what extent has the pill been liberating for women?
By offering new insights on this question and on the medical developments of antebellum America, May’s book serves to reinvigorate her field. In the book’s conclusion, May looks at the politics of the pill today, reminding us that contraceptive controversy is a living history. While many young women of this generation have benefitted from being raised by feminist mothers, they still have to manage the guilt, fear, and the weight of responsibility that current contraceptive choices offer. One is left with the conviction that this continuing inequality will not be diminished until further developing a pill for men becomes a priority in contraceptive medicine.
Charlie Jeffries is about to start an AHRC-funded PhD in History at the University of Cambridge. After completing her Master’s in Women’s Studies at Oxford, she moved to Chittagong, Bangladesh where she has been a Teaching Fellow in History at the Asian University for Women.
Reading Dworkin in the 21st Century
A reading of Andrea Dworkin’s Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women. London: Virago, 1997.
A writer makes words come to life; portrays emotion and sentiment as much through her syntax as through her semantics. Andrea Dworkin is a writer. Her prose drips with incredulity until you feel like it burns your eyes to read it.
I picked up a collection of her writings from my local library; a meagre picking of feminist literature often favours the compendium over the event. My aim was simple: read Dworkin and see if my preconceptions were true. My foreknowledge of Dworkin and feminist literature was only a little above average. I knew feminism came in waves, but I still needed a textbook to define them. I vaguely knew Dworkin was of the 60s/70s brand, a time when feminism was about sex, power and the raw edge of life, that it was as vicious as it was victorious, and preferred to break the glass ceiling with a hammer. I was fearful her book would make me hate a movement that I’d come to define myself as part of, that her brand of angry feminism would make me understand why some of my friends recoiled when I wore a Fawcett campaign t-shirt with the F-word on. In some small fraction I was right, in another I was wrong.
All movements need writers just like they need technocrats, bureaucrats, institutionalist, activists and nay-sayers. The variety of the genres that have taken on the mantle of feminism and shaped it to find their niche add to the richness and dexterity that can be found in it. Dworkin is without a doubt a wonderful writer, her language is rhythmic, painting a vivid and realistic portrait of the world she inhabited. For being different Dworkin should not be criticised.
Neither should she be criticised for being difficult. Her writing is provocative, punchy and would by modern standard come with a *trigger warning*. She was raped, she was battered, she was belittled and she rose up and fought back. Her frequent references to the assaults she endured make her work tough reading; her constant references to violence often make it seem as if she thinks all women face this as part of their daily lives. For those of us who’ve had little or no experience of violence her words seem a little hollow, even exclusionary; as if by not being battered women we have no place in her philosophy of feminism, that we are not really women. Indeed here is where we find Dworkin’s primary failing as a feminist writer; the absolutism of her testimony leaves little room for anyone else. Often feeling like a one woman show her writing suggests her life, her extremes, are not just her reality, but reality for all.
Dworkin’s writing seems to leave no room for the idea of a woman as a free agent, suggesting they are subjugated by men, servants to the patriarchy and tormented for male titillation. Her claim that society views women as ‘born to be fucked’ is so total in her eyes, so pervasive throughout society, that she seems to be saying to the female reader that because of the society you live in, this is all you are; because they view you as it, you are essentially born to be fucked. Such an affront is difficult for any woman to swallow. Further Dworkin’s discussion of sex hints at a belief that all sex is used to subjugate women further; that it can never be a meeting of equals due to woman’s unequal role in society. Whilst the logic seems sound, this suggests that every woman reading Dworkin’s work must renounce every sexual or romantic encounter they have experienced as an assault on their person, view every man they’ve ever loved as an attacker. Such a view sits uncomfortably with a 21st Century woman. The changes of the 80’s onwards have given women more sexual freedom, and few would define their sexual experiences as evidence of male domination. Indeed many women feel liberated by their sexual experiences and feel now more than ever they meet their partners as equals, regardless of their genders.
The greatest recognition of Dworkin has to be as a testament of her time. Her writing is a glimpse of a time when the voices of women who were battered were even more silent than they are today. Indeed from this respect Dworkin’s universalism and force implies that although it may be the experience of the few, the experience of the battered woman is important enough that we must all take it up as our own. To shine a light, not just fleetingly but fully, on such a painful topic is powerful, like the way we stare at a dead body even though we want desperately to close our eyes. It is only by staring that we can overcome the slightly voyeuristic horror and see that the people inside are just like us. Dworkin wants us to stare at violence against women until we really see the women inside and how she is suffering. This is the only way we can help her, this is Dworkin’s gift.
I once read ‘the most dangerous thing you can do is tell your story’. I think that’s exactly what Dworkin did. You may not like everything she says, it can be uncomfortable reading, but anyone who cares about feminism should at least recognise the wit, dedication and veracity with which this woman wrote. Dworkin said that if a misogynist is going to kill you, you should be guilty of every crime they accuse you of. Dworkin’s crime against misogyny is speaking out, and she practically yelled it.
Claire Smith is an undergraduate studying politics and philosophy at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. She is engaged in women’s empowerment in left wing politics and international development.