Review: Of Women by Shami Chakrabarti

Genre: Non-fiction, feminist literature

Similar to: A Good Time to be a Girl

Could be enjoyed by: People looking for a broad overview of feminist issues

Publication date: 26th October 2017 

*puffs out cheeks, blows out through pursed lips* 

Yeah.

This book was so close to being a DNF multiple times but I was just about interested enough to keep going. 

JUST.

Of Women in the 21st Century (to give it it’s full title) is a series of essay-like chapters regarding the treatment of women in various different areas of life (education, faith, healthcare etc.) highlighting the myriad of injustices that they face. Light bedtime reading it ain’t.

As the description suggests, the book is, well…it’s pretty depressing. There are SO MANY issues facing women and Shami Chakrabarti has detailed them all, with credible stats and references, eleventy billion times throughout the text. My main takeaway is that women are basically f*cked.

And that’s my problem, because I’m generally a positive little sunflower and I like to think that the world is ever so slowly changing for the better. I know that all these problems exist but there are lots of people working very hard to tackle them. It would have been great if they had got a mention – or if Chakrabarti has proposed her own solutions in a more concrete fashion.

I’m not knocking the inclusion of facts and figures in the book – far from it, Of Women is impeccably researched – but that doesn’t make for an enjoyable reading experience. The endless stats became meaningless when read as large chunks of text and the whole thing felt highly impersonal. I didn’t disagree with anything that she said but I wasn’t fired up by her arguments either.

I also felt that the book was highly, highly biased. There was no interrogation of the data presented and no consideration for any counter-arguments. I also got the impression (even though it’s not overtly stated) that it’s those bloody Conservatives who have caused/failed to solve some of the problems detailed – remembering of course that Chakrabarti is a Labour Party politician. Again, I didn’t necessarily disagree with what she was saying but it was all very one sided.

However, there were some parts of the book that were genuinely enjoyable. In particular, the section on faith was really interesting and well researched. I think this area is often overlooked in feminist discussions so it felt like Chakrabarti was bringing something new to the table, instead of summarising the main points of old ground.

Overall, I felt like the book was a fantastic overview, a starting point, an introduction to some of these issues but the tone of the piece was so dry and heavygoing that I could only really recommend it as a reference book for the basics of gender studies.

Rating: Two and a half stars out of five.

A good overview of the main issues facing women but written in such a dry, uninspiring fashion that what should be a hard-hitting account became meaningless.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! 

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Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

​​“Electrifying!”

Genre: Science fiction, speculative fiction

Similar to: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of dystopian fiction or readers wanting to explore gendered oppression from another angle

Publication date: 27th October 2016

Imagine a world where, on the basis of your gender, you’re expected to act demurely and not come across as angry or aggressive. A world where you’re patronised, belittled and afraid of physical and sexual violence because you’re not physically strong enough to fight back. A world where society is structured to silence you, dismiss your ideas and treat you as a maid/sex slave. Where you can only leave the house with a chaperone, aren’t allowed to drive, can’t go out at night, can’t run a business or own property, can’t vote and have to dress in an appropriate manner. 

That’s not too hard to imagine, right? Because I bet you related those ideas to the treatment of women in places like the Middle East (or maybe even the UK or US). 

Ok, so now imagine that I wasn’t talking about the treatment of women – I was talking about the treatment of men.

Oooh.

That’s exactly what Naomi Alderman did in her prize-winning novel “The Power”. In it, women have developed a “skein”, a body organ that produces an electrical charge at will. Some women have a stronger charge than others but almost all are able to produce a bolt of electricity so strong that it can kill whoever they aim it at. Only women are affected and the book follows four individuals (three women and one man) to see how the world changes. 

The novel is also a book within a book, where a fictional male character  (Ben) writes to Alderman from some point in the future, daring to challenge the assumption that men have always been the weaker sex. The subtlety in the writing of these letters is incredible – the way that Ben defers to Alderman, her arguments that biologically women have to be strong and dominant to protect their children, her patronising tone and the final killer line to help Ben’s research to gain credibility “have you considered publishing it under a woman’s name?” all absolutely slayed me. It also highlighted some important points about our own long held beliefs about inherent gender differences – are they really as factual as we think or are they based on lazy stereotypes?

The main thrust of the novel showed how, as always, absolute power corrupts absolutely. It actually shocked me how there was a part of me genuinely cheering on the women who used their newfound strength to oppress the men. One of the best illustrations of this is the inclusion of two news anchors (one male, one female) and the shifting power dynamic between them as women across the globe caused riots, overthrew governments and created wars to exercise their dominance. Again, the subtlety of the writing was excellent but it really made me question the bit of myself that was thinking “ha! Now you know what it’s like!” which kind of suggests that as much as I would have hoped that the discovery of The Power would have created an equal society, the chances are that things would probably play out exactly as described. And – and this is a terrible transgression and one that I’m not proud of – you know who annoyed me the most? The men’s rights activists. I’m a terrible person and a very guilty feminist. 😈

I read that Naomi Alderman doesn’t like people referring to her work as dystopian fiction because for a lot of women this is simply their lived reality. It was amazing how, by simply flipping the genders, the treatment of men felt so abhorrent – and yet we know that women around the globe are treated like this every day. The Power made me confront my own internalised misogyny in a way that completely took me by surprise (I genuinely didn’t think I had any) and made me think about gender issues from an entirely different perspective. If anything, it’s actually given me a tiny bit of empathy towards men who think that feminists are just miserable women trying to take over the world – we’re obviously not but I can see why, from their lofty privileged perches, some men might see feminism as a threat to their way of life – which I guess it might be. (That’s about the point that my empathy dissipates and I think “why do you think you’re entitled to this? It’s not fair!” and I’m back to bring angry.)

The only issue that I had with The Power was the characters. In The Great Female Power Grab most of them behave horribly and there wasn’t really anyone that I connected with. I think this lack of engagement was the missing cherry from the top of the cake – if just one character had been a bit nicer then this really would have been a five star review 😥

Overall, The Power is a dazzling, electrifying book (see what I did there? Ok I stole the pun from Margaret Atwood but still).  The premise is incredibly ambitious and it made me think about power and gender dynamics from an entirely different perspective. If only the characters had been more likeable I would have been fangirling left right and centre but as it stands…

Rating: Four “Not all women!” out of five

Clever, unique, thought proving but not quite attention grabbing enough – the best chips you’ve ever had but without salt and vinegar .

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #17 Read a sci-fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author. 

 

Review: Misogynation by Laura Bates

This afternoon, I went for a walk. There’s some trees by my house with a path that runs through them to the main road. The road is paved but the trees are quite thick and its quite dark. I automatically went to high alert, put my phone away and put my keys in my balled up fist, just in case.

As I walked around my local area, three separate van drivers beeped their horns at me. The first time was a man laughing at me. The second time was three men making jeering noises. The third was a man staring intently.

On my way back to my house, I walked past a carpet shop. Three men were outside loading the van. They all stopped what they were doing to stare at me. One of them made a comment (I’m not sure what he said); the others laughed. 

This was all in the space of an hour. It is absolutely typical of what happens to me every time I leave the house. 

I know a lot of people don’t think that street harassment is a serious issue. I’m continually told that a wolf whistle or someone beeping their horn at me is a compliment. I’m told that men telling me to “cheer up love” are just being friendly. I’m told that men grabbing my bum, slapping me on the arse or just having a quick grope on a night out is “just a joke” or that its OK because the person doing it was drunk. If I complain, I’m told to lighten up, to stop being a feminazi, to understand that it was done as a bit of a laugh. 

Frankly, I’m tired of it all. I’m tired of being expected to play along. I’m tired of being intimidated. I’m tired of people making excuses to shift the blame to me – I’m wearing makeup, I’m wearing a skirt, men can’t help themselves. I’m tired of policing my own behaviour – I can’t walk through those trees, I can’t go into a pub on my own, I can’t talk to a man without it seeming like I was flirting, like I was leading him on, so what did I expect when he pinned me against the wall and tried to ram his tongue down my throat?

Until fairly recently, I’d felt completely powerless to stop men from treating me like this (I know it’s not all men, but a woman has never harassed or sexually assaulted me – despite being friends with lots of gay and bisexual women and often going to gay clubs when I was a student). The problem is partly that harassment of women is so commonplace that an isolated incident is never going to seem that serious. But that’s the thing – it’s never just one isolated incident. Its the repeated comments, the constant judgement, the myriad ways in which society tells us, over and over, that women are to blame for their treatment by men.

So thank god for Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism project. By asking people (not just women) to tell her about their experiences with low level harassment, sexism and intimidation she’s managed to shine a light on what many of us have struggled to put into words – how persistent, low level sexism not only affects every single woman I know (and a decent proportion of men) but how the frequency and scale of the issue forms a foundation for sexism to pervade every echelon of our society.

Misogynation is a collection of Bates’ Guardian articles that were based on the thousands of personal testimonials received by the Everyday Sexism Project website. Bates has taken some of the main themes (street harassment, stereotyping, being patronised, gender pay etc.) and investigated further, pulling in some extrodinary facts and figures to back up her claims. Despite the seriousness of her work, she’s made the book really lighthearted, with plenty of tongue-in-cheek comments and ironic metaphors. I thought that this worked really well to get the message across whilst remaining engaging and accessible. 

I’m not sure how Bates/her editor/the publishers decided on the order of the essays but I did feel that they were a bit all over the place. It would have been nice to see them grouped by topic (although I did find there was quite a lot of repetition) – perhaps the book would have worked better if the essays had been amalgamated or summarised by topic into individual chapters? Although this would have involved actually writing a book and not just re-publishing articles that have already been put into print (something that always feels to me like a bit of a cop out). 

I did like the fact that because the essays were short you could dip in and out of the book – it’s an easy one to read if you’ve got another book on the go. I found that despite how hilarious it was, the facts and figures (along with some of the comments which showed the general attitude to what she was writing) could quickly get depressing so it’s great that you can read it in tiny chunks without losing your way. Some of the best parts were the clapbacks to sexist behaviour that people had sent in on twitter – one girl loudly narrated how a man was trying to feel her up on the tube, one girl, when asked if she was on her period replied that if she had to bleed every time she found someone annoying she’d be anaemic by now, and my favourite -a woman who was loudly harassed by builders from a rooftop who, after asking them to stop and receiving a barrage of nasty threats simply took their ladder away. 

I also loved the element of hive mind support – there were many examples of other people offering practical solutions to problems that others had written in about. I personally felt far less alone in my experiences and more supported in speaking out against misogyny. 

Overall, I thought that Misogynation was a good, empowering read that really opens your eyes to all of the low level, unreported behaviour which goes on every day. The fact that every story is real and is backed up by hundreds of others all saying the same thing really adds weight to all of Bates’ arguments. The content of the book could have been better defined but I loved the humour, ingenuity and resilience shown by the contributors. I thought it was a great way to showcase an issue that’s so often brushed off or minimised by society. 

Rating: 3.75 burnt bras out of five (incidentally, did you know that feminists burning their bras is a myth? Thanks, patriarchy!)

Empowering, eye opening and often hilarious but with a serious message that comes across beautifully.  

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! 

Lumberjanes Volume One by Stevenson, Ellis, Watters and Allen

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Wow, how much do I love the Lumberjanes? Sooooooo much!

I picked up the first copy of this all-ages comic partly because it’s part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge and partly because I’d heard so much about it on here. All I can say is – wow.

Somehow, the creators have managed to get EVERYTHING that is good and positive and feminist across in a totally non-preachy way.

There are SO MANY positive messages that are put across in the first issue that I don’t even know where to begin. There’s teamwork, there’s diversity, there’s women helping each other, there’s women being strong and brave, there’s women being clever….all of the things!

The comic itself is a really interesting story of the adventures of a group of girls at a summer camp. There’s danger, adventure, friendship and more. The story is engaging and fun and would appeal to a really broad range of people (not just kids).

I loved the way that the main characters in the comic are so different to each other. None of them conform to demeaning feminine norms and they all show attributes which aren’t usually thought of as positive in women – so there are girls with short hair, girls in boots, girls in gender neutral clothing, girls being brave, girls being loud, girls breaking rules, girls kicking ass…

I also loved the playlist suggestions at the end. I though this was a great way to get kids/teens to explore another art form where the songs and artists chosen were all representing different positive messages.

Overall, I thought this comic was amazing and I would recommend it to anyone. 

Overall rating: 9.5/10

I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #6 Read an all ages comic.

Review: Animal by Sara Pascoe

This book was #19 on my Book Riot Read Harder Challenge list: read a non-fiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes.

If you’re ever feeling a bit depressed about your body, you should read this book and rejoice in your fat thighs, persistent unwanted body hair or cellulite. Sara Pascoe is here to help.

With an almost painful honesty about her own body insecurities, Sara examines the female body from a genetic and evolutionary perspective to explain that IT’S NOT JUST YOU and that WE’RE ALL MEANT TO LOOK LIKE THAT. Sara shouts many important concepts at the reader but the book never feels preachy or judgemental.

The overall tone of the book remains fairly light throughout despite touching on really emotive subjects such as rape and abortion without trivialising them. Sara adds some very personal annecdotes which makes the whole thing really engaging, despite the fact that the book uses scientific explanations for many of the concepts discussed. Funny and entertaining whilst also being informative and educational, Animal is one of those books that you encourage all of your female friends to read. I wish I had had a copy as a teenager, I genuinely can’t recommend it enough.

Sara Pascoe for PM! (or failing that, my new BFF).

Overall rating: 8.5/10.