Book Review, Of Women

Book cover of Of Women“It is autumn again. That shouldn’t matter and yet somehow it does”, starts Of Women and instantly I love this notion that we are involved in our world and its cycles far more than we imagine or than is mentioned. The weather and its personal associations becomes more relevant as Chakrabarti later on writes of how bailiffs are not meant to kick people out of their homes when it’s raining.

I thought of this as I listened to a council meeting on our upcoming budget where our Finances Director Denise Murray and Deputy Mayor Asher Craig talked about bringing bailiff services in-house in a way of providing a more ethical service for families. They were shunning the inclusion of private companies who were just in it for the money. There was also an ever-increasing need for bailiffs.

Our council is battling the effects of austerity and the 90% reduction of our central government fund that helps us pay for local services such as roads and schools and charities and children in care and children in nurseries and community police officers and a myriad other functions. Bristol has to find a way to make up for £108 million of further cuts over the next five years and this is a direct result of government policies.

Yet, Of Women doesn’t deal with that. The inequalities, subjugations and suffering of women are presented as some kind of inevitable vague structural outcome that is as amorphous as it is unnamed. Sales tax on tampons is criticised and yet the process and policy of its imposition — it is in fact the lowest possible taxation the governments in power could impose after EU regulations on tax had been settled — are not mentioned.

I am surprised at how disappointed and impressed I am by Of Women at the same time. It’s a tough task to cover every theme that affects women and Chakrabarti does a pretty good job of identifying those at least. Each topic could be a book all of its own and the issues are in danger of being oversimplified when managed within only a few pages.

She also includes some personal observations and also statistics from international bodies in order to encompass the whole world. This isn’t easy and either the ignorant or hypocritical nature of the assessments come shining through when she can state that the failure of Clinton (H) to come to power was the result of sexism and that much of the developing world’s problems come from poverty and inequality, without equating US imperialist tactics with the cause and effect of these situations.

In the metaphorical activist’s handbook, the weakest call to arms is that of ‘someone should do something‘ and unfortunately, Chakrabarti’s inability to delineate the forces that have led to women’s inequality, and more importantly to class inequality, leads us directly to this statement.

Someone; somewhere.

The great invisible forces that she does not name are neoliberalism, the patriarchy, and US imperialism.

Chakrabarti laments the housing sector, the lack of mental health support, the elimination of free school meals and the school and social situations for many girls and women but does not state that neoliberal policies are specifically designed to strip money away from public services in order to benefit corporations and the 1%.

We have to rely on Oxfam,  among others, for a better attack on neoliberalism,.

Those who advocate for the strictest neoliberal policies are the Conservative government and before them the coalition government (and ‘New Labour’). The austerity program that slashes spending on public services, directly contributes to women’s inequality and yet Chakrabarti’s only mention of the Conservatives is to point out what a great friend Baroness Warsi is and how she has written about Islamic feminism. Nevermind that Warsi voted for tuition fees and for raising the amount to be paid. Nevermind that tuition fees disadvantage the caring professions and the women who are more likely to study locally rather than be able to travel.

Chakrabarti even mentions with no apparent sense of contradiction that in the movie I, Daniel Blake, with which Ken Loach quite explicitly calls out the ‘conscious cruelty‘ [YouTube] of the Conservative Government policies, a woman has to decide between food for her children and sanitary products for herself.

The call for better public services is made through Of Women over and over again: “Worldwide, women have even greater need of safe streets, public transport, adequate social and affordable housing, policing and access to real justice”; “Work in the caring professions should be better valued and remunerated and we should aspire to greater gender balance therein”; “we need to the see children, the elderly and the disabled as our shared societal responsibility”; “Police and law enforcement authorities around the globe should be better resourced”; “the struggle for gender justice asks for a social engagement of a completely different order. It is not a ‘single issue’. It cannot be separate from politics and economics in the deepest and broadest sense.”

Chakrabarti says “Gender injustice is structural, social and economic” but does not refer to what those policies are and how to overcome them.

We come away thinking ‘something needs to be done by someone‘ but she provides no roadmap for how things got to this state and, therefore, there is no implication for further action. This is really a work of pointing out inequalities and then stepping aside and saying ‘nothing to do with me’.

The most damning part of the book, for me, was the lack of discussion on Hilary Clinton’s role while in power. When a woman can attract “upwards of $225,000 for a speech to Goldman Sachs” then she is not just an ordinary woman who is the victim of sexism.

Journalist John Pilger writes on the fake feminism of Hillary Clinton, and this is ever more relevant in Of Women, because it has a worldwide approach. Chakrabarti tries to cover all women.

In The New York Times, there was a striking photograph of a female reporter consoling Clinton, having just interviewed her. The lost leader was, above all, “absolutely a feminist”. The thousands of women’s lives this “feminist” destroyed while in government – Libya, Syria, Honduras – were of no interest.

Chakrabarti writes about Isis and the oppression of women and yet as we read from Pilger:

The leaked emails of Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, revealed a direct connection between Clinton and the foundation and funding of organised jihadism in the Middle East and Islamic State (IS). The ultimate source of most Islamic terrorism, Saudi Arabia, was central to her career.

[emphasis mine]

The article by Pilger is worth reading in full, as are his other works. The role of a woman who had a hand in destabilising the Middle East and causing untold suffering for millions of refugees is left out of Of Women. Instead, we hear just of the refugees who face sexual abuse and danger in their passage out of their torn countries. The author talks of mothers putting young children in boats to get them out of the country, without knowing if they’ll ever see them again, but not once does she talk about the causes that led to these refugees. This is an appalling and offensive omission.

Chakrabarti talks about poverty in Colombia without mention of US imperialism’s hand in wreaking havoc in that country. There is no sense that female inequality has a structural basis from her writing, and this lack of engagement with context limits what we think we can do. If inequality just happens, rather than is a byproduct of policies worldwide that seek to destroy public services and infrastructure in pursuit of profit for the 1% then there is nothing we can do. We can wait for the affirmative action lists and hope that men stop hitting women after being educated for a few years.

Of Women fails women in a way that the world has failed us since politics/Politics began. Our private struggles are not linked to politics at the structural or public level. Conservative and neoliberal policies and US / UK imperialism harm women all around the world. We need better ways of saying this and better methods to combat it.

My solutions are simple; information and engagement with political processes starting at the lowest levels. Then vote the Tories out and — after the Labour Party are in power — get the Greens in. [I’d say vote Green right from the start but people don’t have enough faith yet.] Then we can have equality. The Labour Party’s support for neoliberalism gave us the Tories’ version of austerity although now apparently Corbyn will change that. We’ll see.

All I know is that the policies that put people on the street are those same policies that put refugees on the boats and let them drown as they crossed. Oxfam and much of the world has a name for it but Of Women does not.





Of Women was provided by NetGalley for review. Published 26 October 2017.

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