Wednesday, 5 August 2009

A lovely list of feminist icons

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Sarah called yesterday. She was to write about icons for the new feminism in The Times. Who would I nominate? Natasha Walter, I said, at once. I love Natasha Walter; she is rigorous without being pompous, articulate without being hectoring, sticks to her guns without being pious. She wrote a great book about the new feminism a few years ago, which I recommend enthusiastically.

Then we thought farther afield. It could not just be the obvious suspects. The one who fights fundamentalist Islamists, I said, you know. Yes, yes, said Sarah, the one who gets the death threats. What is her name? I said. Ali, Ali, something, Sarah said. Our minds went suddenly blank. I can see her face, I said, I have heard her speak, best friends with Christopher Hitchens. We both started googling madly: feminism, Islam, death threats, Hitchens. Hirsi Ali, we both shouted in chorus, rueful that we could forget. Neither of us is brilliant with names, but even so. I have put her picture up at the top of the post, so that I shall not let that name go by me again.
Here is the list -

You will have your own favourites. What was interesting about the conversation was that we found it very easy to think of old feminist icons, the ones who have been around since the second wave - Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem- but it was much harder to think of those of our forty-something generation or younger. There is no woman in the public eye in her thirties that I can think of who would describe herself as a feminist. In some ways this is not a desperate thing: you do not have to carry a placard or a label to be a feminist, you can just live your own liberated life and not call it anything except what it is. But as a proud, unreconstructed, unrepentent feminista, I find it a little sad that the word has become something to fear, or even worse, is regarded by anyone born after 1975 as an antiquated irrelevance. When women in the Sudan are getting flogged for wearing trousers and girls in Iraq are having acid thrown in their faces for daring to go to school and honour killings still exist and the CEOs of top Footsie 100 companies are almost all men, the feminists must still be needed, surely? Or did I just read too much Female Eunuch at too formative an age?


  1. Born after 1975 (if only just), I can assure you: no, I don't regard feminism as a dusty concept or irrelevant at all. Au contraire. I think that we desperately need women to look up to - today more than ever. I mean, WAG? Glamour model? What kind of rolemodels are these? What ever happened to beauty that comes from the inside and brains that count? I really hope that this whole trend of publicly criticising women's bodies no matter what's the brain and the soul and the heart of the respective woman is going to stop. Soon. I don't want my daughter to develop an eating disorder, because she feels under pressure to comply with a certain publicly approved body image. I would love her to feel some pressure to study hard and develop her given skills as good as it gets.
    I tried hard to think of a newish feminist I am looking up to. I can only think of the German Alice Schwarzer, who must be in her 60s. But at least she's still alive.
    One reason for the word feminism to be perceived slightly negative might be that some feminists in the 60s and 70s just took it a little bit too far. Being the daughter of a rather extreme feminist myself, my mum never developed a real bond with me. Her life and her career, her needs and relationships always came before those of her children. All in the name of feminism.

  2. My nominee would be Jasvinder Sanghera, whose experiences of forced marriage, domestic violence and abuse led her to found Karma Nirvana (

    Other icons, other thoughts? I asked my daughter why, from a feminist perspective, she thought that Michelle Obama had had such an impact on the pupils at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School (an inner-city school we both know well), when she visited the UK. (We had agreed that we would be hard-pressed to think of a female public figure from the UK - from any ethnic background - having the same impact.) "It's because she's so positive," said my daughter, "and we don't do positive in this country."

    So maybe we need to rethink how we convey or weight the vital messages of feminism to younger and future generations. That's not, for one minute, to suggest that we should drop the outrage - we must, must continue to be outraged for precisely the reasons you list. But we also need to spell out (or continue to spell out) the advantages that fundamental changes in attitudes and legislation can bring, especially where they are most needed. We need to talk about and demonstrate possibilities as well as obstacles.

  3. you are so right- i cannot think of any young feminists in the public eye from our generation. all my icons seem to have been born before 1975, as you said. they are: Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon & Fatima Mernissi. I suppose the idea is that gender is now mainstreamed into "humanity" and men and women alike should be speaking up against these horrible acts.

    Unfortunately, we need more female Muslim voices from within the community, to speak out against the crimes committed in the name of "Allah."

    I myself am a Muslim Feminist, but I would have to say I would vote for Hirsi Ali to be off the list. Hirsi Ali has done little to add any value to the status of Muslim women, all she has done is spread hatred against Islam. She has painted Islam with a broad brush and made statements like, "human curiosity in Muslims has been curtailed". Last time I checked, I attended a Baha'i religion lecture with my husband, which we thoroughly enjoyed, and we are both, for the record, Muslims. My father, who prays 5 x's/ a day, is "curious" too, he eats books/newspapers for brekkers, lunch and dinner, and they range from topics like the Jews of Islam to Jancis Robinson's column on wine in the FT (by the way, he is a teetotaller, for religious reasons).

    Of course one can understand where her hatred for Islam comes from, she was mutilated at a very young age in the name of "Allah." I do feel for her on this level. However, what she fails to mention, though, is that this practice of Female Genital Mutilation is carried out by non-Muslims, too, the Ethiopian Jews, for example. I am from Pakistan, a country where we have "the Islamic Republic" stamped on our passports, however, FGM is not practiced there, nor is it practiced in my father's country, Afghanistan, which is considered to be the most "fundamentalist" Islamic country in the world at the moment.

    Hirsi Ali has so much hatred for Islam, that she seems to be wearing blinkers, she focuses so much on her hatred that there is little she has actually done for women. She had proposed in Holland, that all girls be inspected once a year (internally) in order to ascertain as to whether they are victims of FGM. I am vehemently against FGM, as any normal human being would be, but I am also someone who believes that the State has no right to involve themselves in these sort of practices where they are "policing" little girls internally. There has to be another way. Mind you- majority of the Muslim immigrants in Holland are Turkish, where FGM is not practiced, so who exactly were Hirsi Ali's rules benefitting?

    Hirsi Ali thinks that Muslim women are not strong enough to find someone within their communities to speak for us. That we need her, someone from the West. Well Hirsi Ali, who made you our Ambassador? Perhaps we dont have any famous faces to put on the cover of Western newspapers, but I can speak for my own country, we have a large group of women and men, in Pakistan, who are doing excellent work to fight for womens' rights. My best friend's father is an acid burn victim surgeon- he could be in any hospital in the USA of his choice right now as the Head of Surgery, however, he works, gratis, in Islamabad. Thanks Hirsi Ali, but no thanks.

    Two writers who have written about Ayaan Hirsi Ali are Maria Golia (Egyptian scholar) and Laila Lalami.

  4. "I was never a feminist because I was never ugly enough for that."

    Feminism, memory, masquerade and Karl After Coco. Please take a look at my post on Mr. Largerfeld's interview with Harper's Bazaar.


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