Review: All The Rebel Women, Kira Cochrane

Around two years ago, I returned from Brownies with a real feeling of contentment.  We had just had a lovely meeting telling the girls about International Women’s Day.  The girls – none of whom were older than ten – had discussed what they hoped for women in the world, which ranged from better healthcare for women in Africa to equal access to education.  I got home, checked my emails and rather idly updated my Facebook status to commend the girls for their budding feminism.  Around half an hour later, I received a series of irate texts from a friend who like me was brought up by a single mother.  She was absolutely livid because someone had commented on my status with the words, “Feminism represents all that is wrong with this world.”  My happy little balloon was popped.  I had come up yet again against the Anti-Feminist Brigade.  Most distressing of all, the person speaking out against feminism was a woman.
Looking at the recent images of the young Indian girls left hanging from a tree after being gang-raped, remembering the woman facing being stoned to death for Christianity, worrying for the kidnapped girls in Nigeria … The first thing that springs to mind is not that we should blame the feminists.  There is a problem in our society.  It will not be healed by ignoring the rights of women.  In this Guardian Short, Kira Cochrane explores the Fourth Wave of Feminism – this book is both mission statement and battle cry, a must-read for thinking women and men of the twenty-first century.
Cochrane has a strong UK focus but also considers recent events on a global stage.  She divides her arguments into six chapters; the first chapter documents the rise of the fourth wave.  Listing issues such as Female Genital Mutilation, the continued existence of Page Three and the proliferation of internet pornography.  Having extensive experience working with young people, I concur completely that there is a disturbing amount of pressure on young girls to conform to an often unhealthy ideal of beauty.  I have heard girls as young as ten discuss the ‘thigh gap’ and the importance of waxing.  In America, the most requested plastic surgery procedure is ‘the Barbie’ which excises the entire labia minora.  Women are mutilating themselves in pursuit of some illusory goal of perfection.
In Ireland, Savita Halappanavar died in October 2012 from blood poisoning after being refused an abortion despite the fact that her foetus had already died.  Barely seven months later, pro-choice activists faced over a decade in prison for distributing leaflets explaining how to access British abortion clinics or termination pills.  In Russia, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova went on hunger strike over the prison conditions – although she was released in time for the Winter Olympics.
In Britain, the cuts carried out by The Coalition have led to a drastic downturn in women’s services, including a 31% drop in funding to the sexual abuse sector.  Even more disturbingly, in Yarl’s Wood; the country’s biggest immigrant removal centre for women; residents reported serious sexual harrassment including rape but attempts were made to deport all those who complained.  My generation has been brought up to expect equal treatment, meaning that I am always shocked and angered when I read cases like these – I believe in my country, I am proud of my country and I am ashamed that the fight for true equality is not over.
Emily Davison
As Cochrane points out, 2013 marked the centenary of Emily Davison’s frantic leap in front of the King’s horse.  As a child, I never really understood why she had done it.  She represents that first wave of feminism, the ones defined by their quest for The Vote.  In her second chapter, Cochrane explains how the achievement of that goal left a kind of vacuum of feminist ambition.  The second wave rose up to demand better pay and more female involvement – they protested against Miss World, they wanted more.  They pushed through the Equal Pay Act of 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act of 1971.  Rape Crisis Centres were built, the magazine Spare Rib was founded and the feminist publishing house Virago was founded (a personal favourite).  However.
The third wave came from the backlash against all this, the idea that career women were ‘cold’, ‘unfeeling’, ‘unnatural’.  Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the US Supreme Court despite credible evidence that he had harrassed and abused a female colleague.  Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker announced the need for The Third Wave.  Still, despite although marital rape was abolished in 1991 and a more outspoken youth culture appeared to champion women, it was all too often merely a marketing slogan.  I loved the Spice Girls, I am nostalgic for them as a symbol of my childhood – I do not believe that they were feminists.  Women are repeatedly told that we are in a post-feminist society now, that we need to forget feminism – but Cochrane states and proves repeatedly that this is not true.
Fabulous Fringe Show
The media builds up female celebrities and then is fascinated by their downfall; Kerry Katona, Jade Goody, Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse – the list goes on.  The size zero aesthetic means that models are airbrushed and photoshopped to promote a body ideal that can only undermine the self-image of young girls and women.  Lads mags such as Nuts and Zoo accidentally published a topless photograph of a 14 year-old and are regularly displayed in newsagents and supermarkets in the eye-line of young children, something that Bridget Christie lampooned terrifically in her award-winning Edinburgh Comedy Festival show A Bic for Her (I saw it, it was superb).  As Cochrane points out, all of these situations are combine to ensure that a woman is never able to be comfortable in her own skin.
Rape culture is the focus of Chapter Three.  About a fortnight ago, I commented to one of my male housemates that I wasn’t hungry because I had been feeling sick all day.  He quipped that possibly I was pregnant.  I responded mildly that that would be impossible, to which he replied, “Well maybe one of [our two other housemates] raped you.”  I will state now what I said to him:  Not.  Funny.  Rape has become a punchline, a joke – something to blame the victim for.  Women shouldn’t drink too much, dress revealingly, walk alone at night – it’s never really said that perhaps men shouldn’t rape women in the first place.  Catcalling, street harrassment, rape jokes – all of these seem a way to control women’s behaviour and movements.  The Tumblr account Victim Blaming chronicles the mind-boggling ugliness of attitudes towards rape.  Click and take a look – it made me want to cry.  The problem is not short skirts.  The problem is consent.
Movements such as One Billion Rising has grassroots movements in 200 countries.  The UN states that one in three women will be raped during their lifetime – as OBR’s founder Ensler states, that is a pandemic.  Even in the UK the figures state that one in 10 women and one in 70 men have experienced sex against their will since they turned thirteen.  Not even Operation Yewtree can catch every predator.  It was heartening therefore to read of Yas Necati and Lili Evans, both teenagers, who started the Campaign4Consent, pushing for education about sexual consent in schools.  Children can access pornography on their phones – while myself and many of my peers endured the embarrassing Talk in Year 6, that is far too late for today’s children.  Freshers culture does not help – Leeds University had a club night called Freshers Violation, one of the rugby clubs at Oxford discussed spiking the wine of female members.  The courts do not encourage victims to come forward, given that in 2013 a thirteen year-old sexual assault victim was described as ‘predatory’ by both prosecution and judge.
The Steubenville case, while echoing the Glen Ridge case of two decades previously, highlighted how the nature of rape as a crime condemns the victim.  No other crime would involve the perpetrators sharing photographs of the crime, knowing that the only person who will be humiliated is the victim.  In South Africa, an average of ten lesbians are raped every week in an attempt to ‘cure’ them through ‘corrective rape’.  And in India, women are snatched and violated in the most inhuman way imaginable, with authorities who turn a blind eye.  Government officials say that ‘Boys will be boys’, that ‘Sometimes rape is wrong, sometimes it is right’.  There are many points in All The Rebel Women when I had to pause to take stock of what I was reading, but time and again I remembered that comment from my Facebook status and I thought – do people really believe that feminism is to blame for this?  That the desire to promote women’s equality is at the root of all that is wrong with our world?  Comments like that seem staggeringly ignorant in context.
Malala Yousafzai and Gabrielle Giffords
Still, while the internet has afforded numerous avenues via which women are oppressed, it has also given women opportunities to unite.  Chapter Four chronicles Online Feminism, with particular coverage given to the Everyday Sexism project which is always worth a look, since on a bad day it does make one feel slightly more sane.   While in the 1970s, women could only connect in small groups, sites such as Mumsnet have built a real global network.  There are many others, Feministing, the Twitter Feminist Youth army.  Still, Twitter does also have the potential for harassment and unfortunately it does have a recurring theme – even I’ve been threatened with rape since I linked my Twitter to my blogger account.  What worries me most is the way that it has become so normal.  However, as New Statesment editor Helen Lewis remarked, ‘The comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.’
Bridget Christie
I do not believe that the ghastly recent events represent a rise in misogyny.  In 2012, a pregnant teenager in the Dominican republic died because her cancer treatment was delayed due to the country’s ban on abortion.  Several years before that, a nine year-old girl who had been raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather was excommunicated along with her mother and doctor because an abortion was performed, even though continuing with the pregnancy would have resulted in her death.  It’s lucky really that Senator Todd is around to kindly explain that in cases of ‘legitimate rape’, the female body was able to ‘shut the whole thing down.’  And this is a man who has children himself.
In her comedy show, Bridget Christie skewers the notion that feminists are humourless, pointing out that Nelson Mandela was not well-known for one-liners and that Gandhi was no comedian either – Amnesty International has never been accused of lacking a sense of humour.  As Christie points out, feminists are encouraged to deny their beliefs, with that infamous opener, “I’m not a feminist but …”
I’m not a feminist but … aren’t child brides a bit … off?
I’m not a feminist but … isn’t female genital mutilation … not very nice?
I’m not a feminist but … rape – it’s actually not that hilarious.
I’m not a feminist but … I thought the Taliban were being a bit harsh when they shot Malala Yousafzai in the head.  Ditto for the guy who shot Gabrielle Giffords.
I’m not a feminist but … hang on.  Yes, I am.  And an unashamed one at that.
Feminism is about asking the questions, it’s not clicktivism, it’s about not having to be flippant about the sexism which is just endemic in our society.  We shouldn’t have to be nice and unthreatening because otherwise we’re scary raging feminists.  For me, feminism is about living my life in a way that is respectful to others – it goes hand in hand with my Christianity.  I am pro-human, therefore I am pro-woman.  Feminism is not about men versus women – the who’s better than who debate should have died out in the school playground.  Cochrane’s book is an impassioned call-to-arms, not to war but rather to recognise that we are not in a post-feminist world.  The figures are depressing.  The stories are chilling.  But the passion for change remains and that is what I will cling to the next time I hear somebody deride feminism.  This book is short but it is an important one to read and to ponder. Referring back to the Facebook status incident, my friend who was infuriated still asks me regularly if the girl who believed that feminism is responsible for the world’s ill has moved to Saudi Arabia yet.  She hasn’t.  We all appreciate the advances of feminism whether we admit it or not.
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All the Rebel Women by Kira Cochrane
Published by Guardian Books on December 5th 2013
Genres: Social Science, Feminism & Feminist Theory
Pages: 70
ISBN: 9781783560363

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