Speaking Volumes: The F-Word, revisited

(Published in the Business Standard, June 2011)

The first issue of Granta, on New American Writing, came out in 1979. This was 11 years after Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, six years after the Boston Women’s Health Collective published Our Bodies, Ourselves and nine years after Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch challenged conventional history. (To offer a little Indian context, it would be five years later, in 1984, that Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia would set up India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women.)

Over the decades of the ‘80s and the ‘90s, Granta’s pages would be open to some of the strongest feminist voices of the period, and its contributors’ page reflects a reasonable degree of equality between men and women writers. Doris Lessing, Susan Sontag, Jeanette Winterson, Germaine Greer, Urvashi Butalia, Zadie Smith and a hundred other women made their presence felt, on issues that covered everything from anorexia to ambition, motherhood, war zones, climate change, work and play.

But it is, in many ways, typical of this literary magazine to explore feminism at a time when it’s become, as the title of Granta 115 indicates, the F-word. Suggestions that feminism has been dying, or should be summarily executed, have been made since the late 1980s. We’re supposed to be living in a post-feminist era, and to many, feminism is not so much a threatening idea as a musty old word, a problematic label, a relic from another time.

Or so the media would have us believe. Granta’s F-word issue is a powerful collection in part because it is a reminder of why feminism shouldn’t, and can’t, die out. Back in the 1960s, feminism in the West was fighting for financial equality, sexual and reproductive freedoms, the right to emerge from decades of invisibility, more political and cultural power. Within the feminist movement, whether this was in the West or in Africa or in India, questions of class and race often came up, causing feminists to bump into and confront their own areas of discomfort.

(Image from Granta: The F-Word. Naddy Photomaton (My grandmother)’ ©Clarisse d’Arcimoles)

This might be the perfect time to take stock of feminism and its discontents. Granta 115 has a broad, and global, canvas, but there are very few pieces here that are predictable. Some are inevitable, reflecting one of the problems with feminism itself, which is that the old battles are endlessly recycled.

AS Byatt’s reflections on the old days when women academics were excluded from men’s-only clubs may seem almost archaic these days, but it is a useful reminder of a time when the barriers for women were unthinking and all-pervasive. Taiye Selasi’s short story, The Sex Lives of African Girls, updates an ongoing narrative (incest, rape, mutilation) with such sharpness that her sentences will stay branded on your mind for a while. Urvashi Butalia’s Mona’s Story updates her account of the life of Mona Ahmed, moving from her initial attempts to capture what it means to be a hijra to a meditation on the cages of gender itself.

Many pieces are unsettling. When Lana Asfour writes about the recent revolutions in Tunisia, she explores the much larger and urgent question of whether the revolutions of this summer will include women. This was one of the few instances where one felt a gap; a parallel essay on whether the focus on preserving multiculturalism in the West had led to women’s rights being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness would have been very welcome. And the fiction is often brilliant; Lydia Davis’ story, The Dreadful Mucamas, about a couple’s uneasy equation with the two sisters who work as their household help, is an examination of power and abuse that should be read by every over-privileged Indian.

Other excerpts and essays are illuminating, in the strictest sense of the word, casting light on forgotten and overlooked corners of history. Caroline Moorhead, who has explored what it means to be a refugee in the riveting Human Cargo, turns her attention to the women of the French resistance, the relationships between them, and the train that took them to the Nazi death camps. It is yet another reminder of how often, and easily, women’s histories are written out of the grand narrative, even today.

About the only glaring absence here is the energy and ferocious activism one sees among the younger feminists, especially on sites like Feministeing; a Jessica Valenti or two would have added much to this debate. But this is a thought-provoking issue despite these omissions. Beyond the impact of any individual piece, what Granta 115:
The F-Word reminds us is that feminism back in the 1960s raised some deeply uncomfortable questions, and that we don’t yet have the answers. In the intervening decades, feminism hasn’t died, or even gone underground; instead, it’s morphed into a hundred local avatars and versions of itself. Perhaps The F-Word will remind this generation yet again, as the old feminist slogan goes, that well-behaved women rarely make history.






One response to “Speaking Volumes: The F-Word, revisited”

  1. work_in_progress Avatar

    "a parallel essay on whether the focus on preserving multiculturalism in the West had led to women’s rights being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness would have been very welcome" I would like to say that the racism and Islamophobia of some of the mainstream feminists is the mirror image of the patriarchy found in many minority Muslim communities. Minority women are caught at the intersections of this politics and very often silenced.

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