Do It Like a Woman: Caroline Criado-Perez in Conversation with Rachel Hewitt

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.

Do It Like a Woman is available now.

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Nicoletta Demetriou, ‘Collecting music, collecting life stories: The Cypriot Fiddler Project.’

The OCLW started Michaelmas term with a wonderful talk by Nicoletta Demetriou who presented her work on ‘The Cypriot Fiddler project’. Demetriou introduced her research through her own life-story. It was as an ethnomusicologist studying at SOAS that she travelled to do her fieldwork in Cyprus in 2005 and first became aware of the gaps in the history of traditional Cypriot folk songs. The ‘seeds’ of this project were allowed to grow when Demetriou received a Wolfson Research Fellowship in 2012. In Cyprus, Demetriou developed a network of folk musicians, interviewing many of them to learn how music had been performed and to record their life-stories. She chose to conduct these interviews in a very open format, asking the men about their lives and letting them speak freely. This approach has resulted in a ‘mammoth’ collection of recordings that presents challenges (how to catalogue, what to cut), but in their depth and range they constitute a rich record of a ‘distinct professional class that has disappeared.’

The ‘Cypriot Fiddler project’ studies the lives of men of limited financial means who used to play the violin or the laouto whenever there was a need for musicians in traditional villages in Cyprus. Demetriou explained that women only trained as musicians if they were excluded from traditional female roles, as was the case of a blind female fiddler she interviewed. Training to become a fiddler took between 6 months to 1 year, during which time the student would mainly learn the ritual of the Cypriot wedding. Lessons were expensive, so most of the learning took place ‘on the spot’ at village festivals, fairs and weddings, where a player would be expected to play any song that was requested. Demetriou identified fiddlers as ‘a concrete professional class’ that existed until the 1960s. Various factors changed the role of tradition in the last half of the twentieth century: Cyprus’ independence from Britain in 1960, the societal changes caused by the de facto partition of 1974, and the overall modernisation of society. The 1930s had already seen changes in rural migration and labour consciousness, but it was only after the 1960s, particularly after 1974, that the political changes and the scale of urbanisation altered the landscape of folk music in the island. Fiddlers started finding no places to play – the village square was replaced by private venues as the location for weddings, and modern bands and DJ’s became the norm when music was needed.

The goal of the project is for the life stories of these musicians to be preserved as part of a group biography. Demetriou described her own role as that of an editor of the musicians’ own accounts of their lives. She hopes her work will convey the experience of the life of the fiddler, to understand why they chose to learn to play their instrument and what this life has meant to them. In this portrait, Demetriou also aims to convey what the fiddlers’ considered a good musician and how others in society viewed them. She stressed that this was not the story of individual musicians – it was the story of a country, and of a world that no longer exists.

Since many of her interviewees are quite old now, her priority at the moment is to put together a documentary in the hope that they can have the chance to see it. During the second half of her talk, Demetriou showed the first edits of a few of her interviews. These illustrated some of the particular challenges of such recordings, chief among them the question of translation. A poignant example was the phrase ‘making a wedding’ used by one of her interviewees in lieu of ‘playing at a wedding’, conveying the integral role of musicians in that traditional rite of passage. Another interviewee spoke of his music in terms of feeling satisfied, using a word that refers to having enough food which Demetriou chose to translate as ‘satiated’.

Having the opportunity to see clips from Demetriou’s research gave the audience a glimpse of the cultural richness collected in her work. Given the lively discussion after the talk, I am sure many of us will be looking out for Demetriou’s documentary when it is finished in early 2016.

To keep up to date with ‘The Cypriot Fiddler Project’, please follow this link to their Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/TheCypriotFiddler/timeline