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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

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 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt