Feminism's biggest challenge for 2012: justifying its existence

No one likes being told what to do.

"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist," says Verbal Kint at the end of The Usual Suspects. As we approach the beginning of 2012, feminism's greatest trick must be to convince the world it should still exist.

This morning, because I am apparently constitutionally unable to take a holiday, I asked my Twitter followers what I thought was a simple question: "What is the biggest, most important single issue for feminists in 2012? What should we get angry about?" My reasoning was that with limited attention spans and resources, any movement has to have a focus; and with feminism now so diverse (and its different strands sometimes so combative) it would be interesting to see what the biggest issues were.

Perhaps I should have predicted the first wave of answers: pandas. It was a reference to yesterday's teapot-storm about the BBC choosing a female panda as one of its "Faces of the Year - Women". I'd had a mild grump about this, and then a larger grump at people telling me that I shouldn't be grumpy when famine and disease were going on. (It's all about proportion. Yes, it's important not to get endlessly bogged down in trivial crap, but it's not as if I would have spent the time I used on those handful of tweets to further the Middle East peace process. But that's a post for another day, to be entitled: I CAN CARE ABOUT MORE THAN ONE THING AT ONCE, YOU KNOW.)

After that, an incredibly diverse range of answers began to flow in, including: women's rights in Saudi Arabia; the mistreatment of women in Egypt by the security forces; the disproportionate effect of the coalition's cuts on women; the low number of female MPs; gender stereotyping in advertising; under-representation in the media; lapdancing clubs; rape; "slut shaming"; abortion rights . . . the list goes on. Have a look at the #fem2012 hashtag for more.

These are all fascinating topics, and give the lie to the idea that Western feminists are only interested in opposing pink Lego to the exclusion of the graver issues faced by women in theocratic and developing countries. (Again: it's possible to care about more than one thing at once.) But soon, two common complaints emerged alongside the suggestions.

The first was that feminism needed to find a way to be less "angry". Now, this was partly down to the phrasing of my original question (as one person suggested: Why didn't you ask what feminism should try to achieve in 2012?) and I accept that. No one likes being lectured all the time.

The trouble is, of course, that feminists do have to be angry - or passionate, to use a less loaded term. I don't know how you can expect anyone to campaign against, say, female circumcision without getting just a little bit cross that girls who haven't even yet reached puberty are told their bodies are dirty, that sexual pleasure is sinful, and then forced to undergo excruciating, dangerous and unsanitary DIY operations to "cure" this. Yep, I'm feeling pretty shrill right about now.

The bigger problem, however, is to justify that anger when it's not directed at issues which are so obviously, manifestly wrong. And that's a particular challenge for Western feminists, because some huge battles have been won: I love voting. I love being able to drive (OK, only on Forza, but I could totally do it on the roads if I can just learn to tell my left from my right reliably under pressure). I love that I went to university. I love that nobody is approaching me with a pair of rusty scissors.

The battles that remain involve telling people -- often, but not exclusively, men -- that I don't like things they like, and I wish they didn't like them either. I'm sorry, I know that you enjoy sexist jokes on TV panel shows, but they make me uncomfortable. I'm sorry, I know that you read lads' mags, but I find them deeply depressing. I'm sorry, I know that you don't think it's a problem that women are under-represented in parliament, in science and in the media, but it is.

As a bleeding heart liberal, I feel hugely uncomfortable with trying to dictate other people's tastes -- and I certainly wouldn't try to "ban" jokes or magazines or adverts or toys (or whatever) that I disagreed with. But fundamentally, feminism is about trying to change people's minds. It just is. I am a killjoy. The last time I can remember someone trying to make feminism fun, it was Geri Halliwell jiggling around in a Union Jack dress burbling about "girl power" to flog a few more records for Simon Fuller. The only hope I can offer is that living in a more equal word will make everyone happier, on average -- but the truth is that for some people, the current world is working out very well, thank you very much.

Which brings me to the last, and biggest point. One of the most thought-provoking responses to my original question was this: "IMHO, [the] single biggest issue should be to work out why vast majority of women don't think feminism represents them." Is it because the big battles have been won? That must be something to do with it. Is it because first-world feminists don't talk enough about the struggles of women elsewhere? Probably, but I can care about being allowed to use "Ms" and the withdrawal of abortion rights.

Is it because feminism doesn't seem very fun? Undeniably. We've just got to do it anyway.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser