Caroline Criado-Perez, author of Do It Like a Woman, at the National Women's Conference. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Show Hide image

What does it mean to Do It Like A Woman in a sexist society?

After successfully earning Jane Austen a place on the £10 note, Caroline Criado-Perez has turned to feminist action around the globe.

Do It Like a Woman
Caroline Criado-Perez
Portobello Books, 326pp, £12.99

Feminism is a tradition of thought and ­political action that goes back more than 300 years. It is one of the great democratic global movements of our time, no matter what you make of its conclusions. So you would think that when Caroline Criado-Perez pointed out to the Bank of England in 2013 that dropping Elizabeth Fry as the face of the fiver and replacing her with Winston Churchill would leave us with no woman on a banknote apart from the Queen, it would have thanked her. But the Bank stonewalled. Criado-Perez took it on and launched a campaign – thanks to which we will now have the mighty Great Briton Jane Austen as the face of the £10 note.

Criado-Perez’s mother, Alison, who became a nurse for Médecins Sans Frontières in her post-divorce fifties, is the maternal role model who launches this debut about women in our present day whom we must not allow to be forgotten and what it means to “do it like a woman” in a sexist society.
Criado-Perez collects the contemporary feminist equivalent of an international brigade of non-violent freedom fighters from around the globe and reminds us of their stories. The book reads as an extended and immersive piece of investigative journalism, strong on sound facts and figures, finding interconnections and then leaving readers space to draw our own conclusions.

Criado-Perez organises her subjects in five themed chapters on “doing”, “speaking”, “leading”, “advocating” and “choosing” like a woman, crossing continents in her case studies and making international comparisons within each chapter. It’s an effective structure, supporting both the personal quest and political investigations of a book that is – in keeping with Criado-Perez’s peripatetic upbringing – deftly global, not parochial.

Visibility is the price of activism and has always made campaigners vulnerable to attack. But the relentless, misogynistic Twitter terrorism of extreme and explicit rape and death threats to which Criado-Perez was subjected – just because she supported celebrating women’s achievements on a banknote – was off the scale. It is typical of her style and integrity that she spends just a few pages frankly summarising her experience in a chapter about the consequences to women of speaking out. Then she moves on swiftly to Asmaa Mahfouz, whose video calling on people to join her in Tahrir Square to protest publicly against the regime of Hosni Mubarak sparked off Egypt’s revolution; then to the still-raging controversy over the journalist Mona Eltahawy’s magazine piece “Why do they hate us?”, about women in the Arab world; and onwards to the work of Emma Norton, a solicitor for Liberty, representing the case of the Royal Military Police (RMP) officer Anne-Marie Ellement. In 2009, Ellement reported being raped by two colleagues. RMP officers investigated but no charges were brought and she was bullied and harassed. In 2011, she took her own life.

Criado-Perez pursues the incidence of unprosecuted rape in the military from the UK to the US, sifts the statistics and steps back to reflect on institutional sexual violence. Keeping her vision broad and objective, she turns her sights on development NGOs that bolster and perpetuate rather than challenge sexual violence in, for example, India, with insensitive local solutions blinkered by an imperialistic white saviour complex.

These are just a few examples from a book packed with stories ranging from the mainstream to those from the margins of activist work. The pleasure of Do It Like a Woman is that it’s about other women – their campaigns, their political interventions, their stories. In a world overstuffed with tedious me-myself-and-I-as-hero-of-my-own-narrative books, Criado-Perez has had the good sense to deliver an overview that grasps the essential impetus of feminism – as collective, connective action by a diversity of women whose voices are as brave and informed as Criado-Perez’s.

Emerging clearly from Do It Like a Woman is the impact of social media and digital networks on feminism. In 1970, in The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone looked to future technology as an unpredictable but certain force for feminism and gender equality. Not surprisingly, since she was writing in the 1970s, Firestone mused with accuracy on revolutions in reproductive technologies and labour-saving automation. But what she didn’t predict was the revolution in communications technology. Criado-Perez – who shares some of the clarity and insight of the young Firestone – shows that, for better and for worse, it is the internet, not in vitro fertilisation, that has become the enabler of the new 21st-century feminist movement.

Rachel Holmes is the author of “Eleanor Marx: a Life” (Bloomsbury)

Rachel Holmes is the author of, most recently, Eleanor Marx: A Life (Bloomsbury).

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism