Fifty Shades of Feminism


Kamila Shamsie interviews Rachel Holmes in Guernica:

“As a white, educated, American woman from a middle-class family, I have not suffered the horrors of overt, brutal misogyny. I was never subjected to genital mutilation or sold to a man as his wife or sex slave.” So begins Siri Hustvedt’s essay in the just-published compilation Fifty Shades of Feminism. How do you read those lines? Are they the self-effacement of a woman aware of her own privilege? Or are they a straightforward expression of sisterhood across borders? I confess I read that opening with a slight grimace—one that might not have been there if I hadn’t just digested Sayantani DasGupta’s preceding discussion of “the imperialist use of women’s oppression as justification for political aggression” and how “feminism itself has been used as a weapon against women of the global South.” I suspect, however, that the three editors of the new book would be entirely delighted to know that my thoughts tangled up as I read and re-read the essays.

The project developed in part as a reaction to E. L. James’s stratospherically popular series, which hit the market roughly a half-century after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, and in short order sold more than 70 million copies of a reductionist fantasy. Psychotherapist Susie Orbach told me that the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon echoes a growing—and worrying—essentialism that colors conversations about women. As an antidote, Orbach and Lisa Appignanesi, the former president of PEN English, proposed bringing together multiple voices, stepping away from fantasy and into the complex range of women’s lived experiences. Together with the biographer Rachel Holmes, they managed in the space of weeks to assemble fifty essays by women from different nations, generations, and professions on the particular gradients of feminism that inspire them.

The resulting book is, unsurprisingly, an assorted mix, including Lydia Cacho, Elif Shafak, Jeanette Winterson, Xinran, Ahdaf Soueif, and Shami Chakrabarti. But there are several threads that weave their way in and out from start to finish—the dominant one being women’s relationship to the word “feminism.”

Which other threads catch your eye will probably say much about the particular shade of feminism you’re living with or reacting against. So likely it’s because I’m a Pakistani feminist living in London in 2013 that I was so struck by the number of contributors—Hustvedt is by no means alone—who make reference to the lives of their less fortunate sisters in other demographics.