Of bikes, poems in the dark and sex strikes

Fifty Shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach, proves to be a fascinating collection of fifty brief reflections by an intriguing mix of voices: poets and novelists, politicians and social activists, journalists and physicians …. It also features women from a variety of cultural and racial backgrounds.

The contributions are, as I said, brief. Fifty chapters in about 300 pages, that does not leave much room for the individual authors to express their thoughts and reflections. And yet, in the first 100 pages (which is as far as I have got) I have already come across a few thought-provoking observations and some moving and also sometimes shocking stories.

Nathalie Handal, for instance, mentions her Lebanese grandmother, who rode a bike at a time when, unimaginably for us, it was considered a sin for women to do so. And she reports this story from Afghanistan:

Nadia’s son joined the Taliban. Her daughter wrote. Every evening, she would wake up in the middle of the night to write poems in the dark so as not to raise any suspicion of her audacity – a woman writing. When she finished, she would go to the window and like magic see her lines perfectly straight on every page. She hid them under the mattress. The day they found out her brother was killed, her father, in rage and in grief, shook his daughter’s bed and the pages spread across the floor like a testament challenging fate. He beat his daughter to death. Nadia did not say anything to her husband, she knelt by her daughter’s body, held her tight, went to the window where her daughter once read her verses, and fell.

Handal goes on to reflect on the need of women, in every culture, no matter what the nature of their oppression, to be brave and take the responsibility to define themselves.

She also notes that ‘men wage war when they lack imagination’ and that, ‘without the evolution of women, no society can evolve’. And she points out that Nadia’s quietness in that story from Afghanistan ‘was not silence but an assertion, I will not lie any more’.

Handal’s chapter is followed, rather fittingly, by Natalie Haynes writing about ‘Sex, Feminism and the Ancient World’. It’s a fitting sequel, because Haynes talks about Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece, having got fed up with their warmongering men, decide to hold a sex strike. They will not make love as long as the men keep making war. Does the strategy work? The play being well-known, we all know the answer. But even if we didn’t, it would always be a foregone conclusion. There are some tactics that cannot fail.

And Handal is absolutely right to suggest that, ‘without the evolution of women, no society can evolve’.

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