Writing a new feminist text for our times

In what conditions does patriarchy thrive? And in what conditions does feminism thrive? Travelling from Rojava to Rwanda and beyond to find out, provocateurs Beatrix Campbell and Rahila Gupta are writing the book.

Marion Bowman
8 March 2016
Two women sit holding hands, one of them in combat fatigues.

Commander and spokeswoman YPJ Womens' Defense Units, with Amina Ossa, Foreign Affairs, Rojava. Photo: Rahila Gupta What is the best way to communicate feminist ideas and arguments?

Books, those wordy, weighty, time travelling testimonials to human ingenuity and thought, have played an honourable and crucial part in the history and development of feminism.

Books as varied as Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) or Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: the Case for Feminist Revolution (1970) have nourished and inspired women’s movements across the centuries, shocking orthodox society with fresh ideas and injecting energy into campaigns and projects in the face of ridicule, repression and backlash.

Political ideas like feminism have also been animated by pointed, single sentence questions at the other end of the textual and philosophical spectrum. Think of the call and response soundtrack to every demonstration. ‘What do we want?’ [Insert your favourite response, ‘equal pay’, say.] ‘When do we want it?’ ‘Now!’ Always now.

One of the most famous questions in political history is Vladimir Lenin’s ‘What is to be done?’, in Russian the two simple words ‘Shto Dyelat?’ The title of a polemic published in 1902, it brought the scope of a book and the appeal of a question together to extraordinary effect. The answer, said Lenin, was to create a political party that would raise the class consciousness of industrial workers way beyond mere trade unionism, leading the proletariat towards revolution. Onto the world stage, then, in 1903 came the Bolshevik Party, later the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, providing a model of ‘vanguardism’ that has been emulated by many political movements since, including fascist parties and radical Islam.

Questions are also at the heart of democratic processes, as the current US presidential primary season and the UK’s looming EU referendum remind us – ‘Whom shall I vote for?’ ‘Should the UK remain in or leave the EU?’  

The posts and hashtaggage of 21st century digital media - #OscarsSoWhite, #YouAintNoMuslimBruv, or #everydaysexism – inject a torrent of certainty into political discourse. They play a useful and increasingly significant part in how contemporary political engagement works and ideas are disseminated, but they tend to reflect fixed views and gut responses to events, their brevity carrying neither the invitation to think of a question nor the exploration of ideas to be found in the most influential books.

Step forward provocateurs Beatrix Campbell and Rahila Gupta combining a question with a book that might just become the feminist text for our times - Why doesn’t patriarchy die?

The two writers – regulars on oD 50:50 – have embarked on a book project that is vast in its global reach, all marshalled under this one exasperated question. The title is deliberately catchy, designed to get people’s attention, say Campbell and Gupta. But its succinctness belies complexity. ‘The question that animates the whole project is about looking at the resilience of patriarchy and how it connects to ways of thinking and different political and economic regimes. Why is it so essential to theocracy, why is it so essential to democracy?’ says Rahila Gupta.

‘There is something about the permanence of a book versus the impermanence of online publishing,’ she says. ‘Things just disappear into the ether. This is such a big project, even if we don’t come up with totally satisfactory answers, if we ask the right questions it will be of interest to future generations of researchers and activists. And the scope of this, the vastness of it, needs a book’.

A book seems the best format, too, given the problem of resources for feminist writing. ‘It’s a massive issue,’ says Campbell.  She emphasises they are reporters, not academics, their craft is journalism. But ‘I don’t know of any newspaper or publishing medium that would any longer sponsor the kind of work that we do,’ she says. ‘What you could do is be a war correspondent and that way get to travel the world, but beyond that….’ The project is being crowd-funded with support from private sources. Their journalism is original and way off the radar of mainstream media. This is not armchair punditry or the analysis of desk-bound commentators surfing the web for leads and second hand facts. This is also political investigative journalism of a very different order to Watergate. And despite their interest in conflict they are not conventional war correspondents filing on running stories – patriarchy is not a place even though it happens everywhere. There’s no Intercontinental Hotel in the country of the mind where their questions are taking them and if there were they would be interviewing the cleaners not relaxing in the bar with the pack after a day in the field.

And yet, they are travelling for the book, and to some fairly inhospitable places for independent women with ideas – Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Russia. Their first destination is Rojava, the Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria. They have chosen it because its fighting forces and civic administration are characterised by a commitment to equality between men and women.

A woman sits behind a desk

Amina Omar, Head of Women's Ministry, Rojava. Photo: Rahila Gupta ‘Rojava will be an exemplary locale for our questions: in what political conditions does patriarchy thrive, and where does feminism thrive?’ says Campbell. ‘How did traditional Kurd culture effect such a transformation? How do different generations think about their new relationships? What does Rojava need to survive?’

Like all political books with real impact, the timeliness of their inquiry is crucial. Rojava is of its time, as is Rwanda, another of their destinations, a country that, in the wake of a catastrophic genocide, has adopted a constitution with one of the most egalitarian parliamentary systems in the world. ‘What does that actually mean?’ says Campbell. ‘Is there really a transformation in the sexual division of labour? Or will Rwanda go down the road which its current president proclaims, like Singapore or South Korea, of a relatively authoritarian model that will protect an idea of women’s representation but women’s representation for what? It’s hugely problematic. Some dictatorships proclaim women’s equality and lots of democracies don’t.’

Campbell and Gupta’s guiding question springs from a conviction that patriarchy has renewed itself as the equality projects of the late 20th century stalled.

‘Equality as an idea really only became institutionalised in the mid 70s and as soon as it was part of a framework of international law and global institutions, the conditions for its realisation ebbed away,’ says Campbell. ‘Since the 80s there has been a protracted assault on that project and neo liberalism is that assault. It defines the way that the world’s economies work and we have to face that.’  

Gupta adds: ‘We are also living in a strange paradox of religion versus secularism. We are not just concerned with Islamic religious forces, but Hinduism in India and the Russian Orthodox Church in Putin’s Russia. At the same time, women’s rights become a marker of modernity, of the secularism of Sisi, Saddam, or Gaddafi. Women’s rights nestling in the arms of military men. So we are interested in the way these different forces are locked together.’

Large concrete barriers next to a car

Roads blocked off against Daesh suicide bombers, outside a women's art exhibition. Photo: Rahila Gupta The two began with a more modest proposal – to explore the nature of patriarchy within the historical colonial relationship between Britain and India.  But they quickly moved on to a globalised vision. ‘There’s no escape from thinking globally and locally simultaneously,’ says Campbell. ‘It’s only women who bring a gender curiosity to that project. It’s only feminists who really looks at things in all their different dimensions. We are interested in economics and we are interested in race and the relationship between those two. Usually people who think about the economy don’t think about sexual violence. We do.’

Gupta adds: ‘We are at point of transition, as significant a moment as the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944. Neo-liberalism is imploding. We can’t just tinker with the system. There’s a lot of discussion around the notion that the success of the system is dependent on endless growth that is not sustainable. So we need to completely change the way we think about things. Even hyper-local phenomena such as Rojava can help that. It started out as a nationalist project of Syrian Kurds but they are going beyond that, they are concerned with the environment, with women’s rights, with the Yezidis, the Turkmen, without a big state apparatus and what’s clear is they can’t not talk about gender.’

Campbell and Gupta are aware that answers all too often lead on to more questions. ‘You would think that more education, more employment for women would lead to less violence but it doesn’t work like that - that’s what we want to get to the bottom of in societies we are looking at.

‘We hope that through our research we can come up with some kind of template for feminist campaigning.’  And a book to shake the world.  

Read our series of articles for International Women's Day 2016

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