Granta 115: The F Word, edited by John Freeman

The Times, Saturday 14 May 2011

Look, I don’t quite know how to put this. Feminism — it isn’t just about relationships. It’s an international movement encompassing everything from the original demands for equal pay and political representation to new campaigns against the exploitation of women in the sex industry. It has produced thousands of controversial books, essays and fiction, while campaigns on subjects such as prostitution still attract full houses at public debates.

If I were asked to list the subjects at the top of the feminist agenda I would start with the disproportionate impact on women and children of the UK Government’s cuts; the urgent need for protection of women and children in war zones; the continued use of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa; the abuse of young women from Eastern Europe, Africa and South-East Asia by sex traffickers; and how to support the women who have taken part in the wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

So why am I reading this lacklustre and apparently random collection on the theme of feminism from Granta? I should have been warned by it taking the literary magazine so long to acknowledge one of the most significant political movements of the last half century. The magazine has always had a laddish reputation but even I didn’t anticipate a volume that seems to have been assembled on the premise that feminism means “anything by women” or “anything about women”.

Thus it ticks the following boxes: lesbianism, student-professor sex, Native Americans, power struggles between men and women and feminists letting each other down. There’s a handful of exceptions, chiefly a standout piece of fiction by Taiye Selasi, “The Sex Lives of African Girls”, and an extract from Caroline Moorehead’s forthcoming book, A Train in Winter, about a group of Frenchwomen transported to Dachau in 1942. But overall the volume manages to convey the impression that its subject is a mild, puzzling and rather dated phenomenon.

What’s it all about then, feminism? Better get some big names, which is the only reason I can think of to justify the inclusion of A.S. Byatt’s tepid recollections about men-only institutions at the University of Cambridge and Durham University. A smart editor might have talked Byatt out of a whimsical title inspired by a grandson (No Grls Alod. Insept Mom). The same individual, had she or he existed, would surely have pointed out to the poet Linda Gregerson (Ariadne inTriumph) that it’s impossible for any woman to have “her arm and leg akimbo”. Some elements of anatomy are inescapable, even for the most passionate feminist.

Passionate feminists — and there are still plenty of us, from women in their 70s to younger women campaigning through groups such as the London Feminist Network, or those organising the “slut walk” anti-rape marches around the world — will wonder at the omissions. Even if it was put together too early to reflect the role of women in Tunisia and Egypt, and the hostility that they have encountered, there’s no work from distinguished writers such as Ahdaf Soueif, Nawal el-Saadawi or Hanan al-Shaykh. There’s nothing to reflect the struggle for survival of women in Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan. Has anyone at Grantaheard of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman still waiting to find out if she is to be stoned to death for adultery?

Subversive feminist organisations such as Ni putes, Ni soumises, which have made powerful contributions to debates about the rights of Muslim women in France, are ignored. Instead the tone is set by the opening piece, an inward-looking reflection (Aftermath) by the novelist Rachel Cusk on gender roles in a failed marriage.

Does this volume seriously reflect Granta’s view of feminism? It strikes me as an astonishing achievement — though not in a good way — to reduce a great movement to this etiolated affair. What I’d like to suggest is that The F Word should come with a health warning: readers are unlikely to be shocked, moved or made to think on more than a couple of occasions. And that certainly isn’t feminism as I know it.

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