We need to talk about roles

Claudia Silva Salinas

“The most fundamental shift of the human consciousness since Darwin’s natural selection, and the recalibration of humanity worldwide.”

This is how British writer Joan Bakewell described feminism in her contribution to Virago’s Fifty Shades of Feminism, which was launched on Saturday at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It was the starting point for a serious but entertaining discussion between three great representatives of feminism who all contributed to the book.

For Kate Mosse (who founded the Orange Prize and wrote the bestselling Labyrinth) feminism is about women having the absolute right to choose who they are, without being told what they can or cannot do – and men should feel free to do the same. “For me feminism is also liberating men from roles that they don’t want to do either,” she said.

Mosse, Kate

Kate Mosse

Academic, author and civil rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti is a very tiny person, and yet is described by the Britain’s tabloids as the most dangerous woman in England. She agreed with Kate: A man can be a feminist too,” she said. “And it is going to take global action and solidarity on the part of women and men to do anything to shift gender injustice on the scale that is required.”

Another issue that came under discussion was that in some countries women’s rights have been going backwards. There are parts of the world where they have the idea that women should not be allowed to read let alone write. “Even in the UK at the moment there is a move to make it illegal for women to smoke when they are pregnant. The idea that the state is saying that anyone can go up to you and arrest you is saying that women are not their own,” said Kate.

Shami Chakrabarti; picture by Gurjit Nahal

Shami Chakrabarti; picture by Gurjit Nahal

“I don’t think we should be imposing behavior norms on women because everybody else has been trying to do that for a long time,” said Jude Kelly, the British theatre veteran who is the artistic director of London’s Southbank Centre. She said gender discrimination is partly women’s fault ­– another issue that stood out during the session. “Women often put themselves in a box where this is appropriate or this is not appropriate and when they do that they put other women in the box as well,” she said.

“You can be a feminist and still be part of the debate; we are not monochrome as women or as feminists,” she said. “If you are brave enough to be a feminist in Pakistan, you are brave enough to be a feminist in Sydney.”

Jude Kelly; picture by Kieron McCarron

Jude Kelly; picture by Kieron McCarron