Women are prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Getty
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Why doesn’t patriarchy die? Time to break away from parochial arguments about feminism

If we are going to talk about how feminism is too white, Anglocentric and insular, we have to put our money where our mouth is.

As soon as I tweeted about my new book project I'm working on with Beatrix Campbell, called Why doesn't patriarchy die?, some wag – no, misogynist – tweeted back that this was like asking: "Why doesn't Godzilla die?"

Another tweeter helpfully explained that this meant: "Awesome things are forever, ha!", which led to the original twit clarifying, "just like Godzilla, patriarchy theory is fiction".

In case my little female brain hadn’t quite got it, he then went on to dazzle me and contradict himself with Some Science: "Why is the force of gravity 32 feet per second square?"

He was upbraided by an equally witty friend, showing a faux-sympathy with feminists, that, "Mathematics is oppressive. It's the language of the Patriarchy."

The next tweet told me that our question had already been answered by Steven Goldberg’s book, The Inevitability of Patriarchy, which was based on the premise that men were biologically superior to women, a book that was published in 1971. How I miss another Seventies term, "male chauvinist pig", for which we have found no satisfying modern equivalent to describe this tweeter.

But by the standards of a twitterstorm, this was a breeze.

We suspect that a more sophisticated version of these attitudes is to be found on the editorial boards of some publishers. Initial excitement at our project would be replaced with interminable tinkering with the proposal before it was dropped altogether. We think that a Nancy Fraser view of feminism continues to dominate in some circles, including elements of the left, a view that is essentially a modernised version of the trope that feminism is the Trojan horse that betrayed the class struggle.

Fraser believes that feminism has entered into a dangerous liaison with neoliberalism. As I have argued elsewhere, "It is not so much that feminism legitimised neoliberalism, but that neoliberal values created a space for a bright, brassy and ultimately fake feminism."

And as Beatrix Campbell has argued, Fraser’s case that feminism sups with the devil is a heresy that has gone too far: "her apostasy becomes absurdity". 

While the question that we are addressing will come as no surprise to feminists – the survival of patriarchy – what we want to try and understand is what contributes to its resilience. What is it about patriarchy that means it works with the successful functioning of all political regimes, be they capitalist, socialist or theocratic? If we can understand what weakens its potency in some societies, perhaps it will help us develop a strategy to pry it loose in others.

And conversely, where and why does feminism thrive? Even before we have fully embarked on our project, our preliminary research has shown us that the entire gamut of the patriarchal writ, from being super-dominant to undergoing challenges, runs from Saudi Arabia to Rojava, a Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria, within a distance of only 1500km.

Both regions are predominantly Muslim, both are based in the Middle East and considered to be hugely oppressive towards women, where polygamy, forced marriage and honour crimes are legion. And yet, they could not be further apart. In Saudi Arabia, women are famously banned from driving; in Rojava women peshmerga fighters have pushed back Isis, a territorial victory but also one of ideas, given that Isis promotes various forms of sex-slavery.

Furthermore, in Rojava, three self-governing cantons, influenced by the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Turkish Kurds, a radical experiment in democracy is taking place where every committee and neighbourhood council is co-chaired by a man and a woman. Despite the war situation, cultural practices like forced marriage and bride price have been criminalised. We would visit both areas to report firsthand on the conditions that enable women to live such different lives.

Much of the research will be desk-based and Skype-based interviews, but travel is essential. We managed to raise money from a trust to cover our travel expenses, but we had no money for a project so ambitious that it is likely to take up to two years' work for both of us.

So we decided to use a crowdfunding platform, Byline, a bold new concept in funding journalists when print sales are declining, blogs are proliferating and the whole economic model is in transition. Readers can pay small sums of money, say £1 a month, to read a regular column by their favourite writers and thus enable them to earn a living. Byline’s slogan is "Nothing between you and the news", which is developed further in their mission statement: "We're taking out the middlemen  the newspaper proprietors and advertisers who have agendas of their own  and giving power back to the reader and the journalist."

As Byline is fairly new, and we’re new to crowdfunding, we set a modest target of £10,000. We've also built in a series of rewards for donors that involves additional work like travel diaries and monthly progress reports. For the top donation of £250, we have offered to cook dinner, and that dinner is to be hosted by brilliant, funny person and national treasure, Sandi Toksvig.

Among our supporters, there appears to be real excitement at the prospect of engaging with the big questions. One donor who has been urging her friends to donate points to the parochialism of some of our political work: "Women's inequality doesn't start and end in the workplace. It is deeply rooted within many cultures. I can't wait to see the outcome." Nor can we!

If you would like to donate to our project, crowdfunded via Byline, please click here.

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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.