Caroline Criado-Perez opened her event at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing by reading from her book Do It Like a Woman. The powerful excerpt focused on the stories of female poets living and writing in Afghanistan. Caroline spoke of the necessity of poetry, how women engaged with and subverted Pashtun poetic traditions, and the obstacles women had to overcome to participate: one setting herself on fire in a desperate protest.
Caroline and OCLW’s Rachel Hewitt began the question and answer session by discussing the global picture presented in the book. Caroline was keen to emphasise the international feminist movement because ‘patriarchy isn’t parochial’ and many of the problems facing women today, from female genital mutilation to slut shaming, exist on a continuum, both attempts to suppress female sexuality albeit on a different scale. She also noted that in the 21st century feminism can be a truly global movement, through the internet: this means women can forge links around the world, think outside their own experience and create a more dynamic movement, with a wider reach. She gave the example of a recent conference bringing together women from Syria and Bosnia, so that the Bosnian women could share their experiences of rebuilding society after a traumatic war in which rape had been used as a weapon of war and then women had been excluded from the peace process. Caroline stated that the image of the tapestry had been used on the cover to reflect Liz Kelly’s quote that ‘every woman brings their own thread’. Feminism, she said, can not only reflect the very different experiences of different women: it is better and stronger for not being homogenous.
The next issue discussed was whether western women can really be said to be oppressed. Caroline highlighted numerous statistics on violence against women, sexual violence, equal pay and even FGM to draw attention to the breadth of issues facing women in the UK today. Caroline then reflected on the role of emotion in feminist politics. It’s a fine line to walk: breaking women out of a box of stereotypical femininity, without suggesting that femininity is inferior, or even that emotions are inherently female. Women expressing emotion are conforming to gendered norms, but in doing so, they are easily dismissed. Caroline expressed the difficulties she’d faced in her own experience: some suggesting that she wasn’t upset enough, others that she was ‘crying all the way to the bank’ and others saying that if she did crack, she was simply being an overemotional, hysterical woman. The Crown Prosecution Service even refused to prosecute one individual who was harassing her, because she hadn’t appeared concerned enough on television, so he couldn’t be expected to know that his behaviour was affecting her. One of the women in her book, the explorer Felicity Ashton, deals with this issue every day: she has to put up with many preconceptions about what she can and can’t do, but also states that whether she cries or not shouldn’t take away from her achievements (and men around her also cry!)
Free speech, especially in universities, came up as a particularly topical issue. Caroline recognises that proposed restrictions on free speech can be well intentioned, arising from a desire to create more spaces for other people to speak. But what is ‘offensive’ and what makes people ‘uncomfortable’ are very subjective calls: who gets to decide that? Caroline argued that it is far better to engage, argue and demonstrate why the opposing view is wrong. She also suggested restrictions on free speech gives fuel to the fire of people like Nigel Farage, who are able to present themselves as the silenced and oppressed voice of the majority, when they are anything but. Staying with current issues on campuses, Caroline and Rachel discussed how feminism can reach beyond academia; again, Caroline suggested the internet has been an incredibly powerful tool. It has taken away the gatekeeping function of traditional publishing and enables access and participation (through, for example, the growth of online petitioning). Online feminism can be fractious but it can also be fantastic.
Finally Caroline reflected on whether the process of writing the book had changed her feminism. As well as making her better informed, it had also reshaped the way she campaigns: it’s not just about highlighting problems, but also giving people solutions, inspiring them and offering hope.