Interview – Bidisha
Lauren Mayberry interviews journalist, author and activist Bidisha.
WE RECENTLY SAW YOU AT ‘AYE WRITE!’ FESTIVAL WHERE YOU WERE DISCUSSING THE BOOK 50 SHADES OF FEMINISM. COULD YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR INVOLVEMENT IN THAT PROJECT?
I knew the editors of 50 Shades of Feminism through work and absolutely support every single one of them as feminists, as writers and thinkers, as women forging strong and distinguished careers. Each of the editors, Rachel Holmes, Lisa Appignanesi and Susie Orbach are active sisters in the sense that they stand alongside other women and speak out against the misogyny and machismo that keep us down. I had already been writing about women in society for my entire career – shockingly, now 20 years in – and so I didn’t hesitate when asked to be a part of the project. My piece is a distillation of everything I’ve been thinking on gender all my life.
WHEN DID YOU START IDENTIFYING AS A FEMINIST?
I’ve always been a feminist, since I was 13 or so. I got involved in Riot Grrrl at 14. The reality of misogyny, through stereotypes, patronage, sexual harassment, the way we are either ignored or slanderously and untruthfully portrayed in all aspects of cultural life, the extreme exploitation of our labour (including sexual labour) and marginalisation from nearly all positions of power is completely and utterly obvious. People who don’t think we’re living in a misogynistic society are living in a dreamworld of their own, as these things really are just in front of our faces – and that was as obvious to me at 13 as it is at 34. It was obvious when I saw the way people spoke to my mother and I noticed that from when I was a child.
WE KEEP HEARING PEOPLE SAY THERE HAS BEEN A ‘RESURGENCE’ IN FEMINISM IN THE UK IN THE PAST FEW YEARS. DO YOU THINK THIS IS THE CASE?
Yes – in the last 5 years there has been an extremely strong resurrection of feminism not just in the UK and internationally and it’s fantastic to see. Every event I go to which is even tangentially about women in society is packed. There is enormous interest, concern, dynamism and activism around a combination of factors, some new, some sadly very longstanding: endemic male sexual harassment; endemic male sexual violence, rape, gendered bullying, stalking; the fact that the statistic of 2 women a week being killed by their current or former ‘partner’ not having changed; the extremely low rape conviction rate and the entirely of rape culture, in which victims are blamed, silenced, attacked or told that they are lying and the men who attack them are excused, pardoned and under-punished even when convicted; the under-representation of women in media, politics, the arts, law and so on at high levels and our over-use as exploited, underpaid, overworked labourers further down the hierarchy; the pay gap; the unequal labour division within the home (which is a massive euphemism for men not doing their fair 50% of cooking, cleaning, drudge work, family admin, care of parents and all childcare); the effect of misogynist porn on beauty aesthetics and also on the way boys expect girls to behave and the way boys treat girls in relationships; body anxiety, dysmorphia and self-hate due to the prevalence of unrealistic beauty standards and myths; the fact that we are still having to fight for and defend our right to abortion… and much, much more. There is an incredible resurgence of anger, outrage, energy and motivation around all of these issues. I’d also say that the government’s cuts, which have dramatically and disproportionately punished women, have radicalised many people who may not have seen themselves as political before.
AT THE ‘AYE WRITE!’ EVENT, YOU TALKED A BIT ABOUT THE REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN ON PROGRAMMES LIKE NEWSNIGHT. COULD YOU EXPAND ON THAT HERE? WHAT CAN WE DO TO ALTER THE SITUATION?
I’ve had a long enough career, at a high enough level, in enough different places in the media, to be able to say that when women are under-represented in public life it’s down to misogyny and nothing more. When the perpetrators are challenged about their misogyny they do what womanhaters always do: they blame the victim. They say that women are scarce, shy, don’t put themselves forward, and so on. This is a lie which they are spouting to back up their misogyny and it devastates me to report that in many cases the perpetrators are women, just as much as men. Shows how intensely women have internalised cultural misogyny and how deep women’s own encultured deference, submissiveness and masochism will go: they will contribute to their own oppression, even while being over-worked, underpaid, overused as producers (and then passed over for promotion). In the last few years I have moved into producing events myself and I can tell you that there are dozens of women available and willing to speak for each slot I am trying to find people for – and each of those women know dozens of other speakers who are just as fantastic and keen. The way to alter the cultural femicide of women, which is a deliberate (if unconscious) expression of intense misogyny is to get more women.
YOU HAVE REPORTED A LOT ON THE MIDDLE EAST AND ALSO WROTE A BOOK ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCES IN PALESTINE. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE SITUATION WHICH YOU FEEL PASSIONATE ABOUT? DO YOU FEEL THE ISSUES ARE PROPERLY REPRESENTED IN THE UK MEDIA?
Yes, I’m incredibly passionate about the issue and the region, and it was an honour to go to the West Bank and meet the many Palestinian artists, writers, teachers and activists there. I am lucky that my book, Beyond the Wall: Writing A Path Through Palestine, has been a success precisely because coverage of the region can feel very overwhelming, can be cliched and make readers feel that they must be experts even to approach the topic. I decided to keep it as clean and simple as possible: to report on what I saw, as I saw it, as it happened in front of me. I was working also to counteract very persuasive and longstanding stereotypes which are casually used in the Western media about Arab peoples. We all know what the sterotypes are: backward, angry, volatile, oppressive, corrupt, misogynistic, religious, fanatical, intolerant. These stereotypes are un-nuanced, generalising and inaccurate. That said, I do think that the debate and tenor of discussion about Palestine has shifted, not necessarily at an official level but certainly at a cultural level and in many people’s understanding. There is not more empathy, more curiosity and sometimes more sympathy and there has always been a very strong pro-Palestinian movement internationally. So the debate is moving forwards.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO GET THE INTERNATIONAL REPORTING PROJECT FELLOWSHIP? WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN REPORTING ON?
I am honoured to be working as a Fellow with the International Reporting Project in 2013. My focus is on global health and international development, drawing in the gender, economics, geographical and political background which have influenced the issues. So far I’ve reported on maternal health, immunisations and vaccines, sexual violence in Syria and Zimbabwe, world hunger and much more – but I have to confess that I was very wary when initially contacted and encouraged to apply. I didn’t think I was enough of a specialist. But I have really, really enjoyed the process as I’m learning all the time and the assignment suits my global mindset. I do wish it would lead to more, though, as I am a huge admirer of the Gates Foundation and have been inspired by what I’m studying and reporting on: I’d love to travel and would love to cover international gender affairs for them… They are doing incredible work and, as always, it’s always great to interface with a large (or at least powerful) organisation because you have the feeling that stuff is actually being achieved.
WE HAVE SPOKEN TO SOME FEMALE JOURNALISTS WHO FELT THEY WERE TREATED DIFFERENTLY BECAUSE THEY WERE WOMEN. HAVE YOU FOUND THIS TO BE THE CASE IN YOUR WORK?
I’m afraid I’ve witnessed and experienced incredible openly casual misogyny, man-worshipping, the marginalisation of women and the exploitation of women’s labour, the belittlement of women’s achievements and talking-down of women and the massive under-representation of women as speakers, experts, pioneers, figureheads etc in every area of the media in which I’ve worked and also in the realm of arts events, prizes, commissions and star opportunities. The perpetrators are not always men – one of the most shocking things about patriarchal misogyny is the way in which many women have internalised it and will put together a roster/spread/event/exhibition/festival featuring 80% men, 20% women. It’s disgusting. The Culture Show, The London Review of Books, World Book Club on BBC radio are all produced or edited by women and yet severely and markedly discriminate against women. The examples of casual misogyny are too depressing to go into, but all involve the casual, petty and open trashing and demeaning of women. It’s endemic – part of the air we breathe.
WHICH WOMEN INSPIRE YOU?
All of us, especially women’s women. We live in an extremely misogynistic, macho world which absolutely derides women (while using and exploiting our labour) and I think that simply surviving, however we do it, is something. All other achievements and advancements are built on that. And, more than anything, my mother inspires me. She is an amazing woman.
WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR CAREER HIGHLIGHTS THUS FAR?
Just surviving for 20 years feels like something to be proud of and thankful for. I love what I do but we’re in the middle of an enormous, intellectually exciting, professionally devastating shift: digitisation, globalisation, recession, the race to free (meaning the trend towards all content including, soon, all media, music, film and other arts) being free to view online by consumers). It’s easier than ever to write about or film what you want to, harder than ever to get paid for it. This is going to make journalism into something which only those who are well-supported in either family or financial terms can do. Presenting on the radio, produced by the BBC, is probably the best fun I’ve ever had. It’s a buzz and great fun to be in the studio.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
My fifth book, about asylum seekers and refugees, is out in May 2014. I’m currently thinking about returning to fiction and working on a few ideas. And in my day job actually I’m so enthused by the international reporting and human rights work that I would love to take it further, as a diplomat, envoy, ambassador, attaché or whatever those travelly-speaky-reporty roles are. I never thought in a million years that I would begin to tire of the career I’ve had til now, but working on global human rights has really opened my eyes and I very much want to take the journalism further, expand it and be some kind of advocate for women with a global stage, to go beyond the UK and have an international role. Watch this space….
IF YOU COULD INTERVIEW ANYONE ABOUT ANY TOPIC, WHO WOULD YOU CHOOSE AND WHY?
I’d talk to my mother about her life and career and write about it. Or Hillary Clinton, Aung San Suu Kyi, J K Rowling, Madonna.
AND FINALLY, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ASPIRING JOURNALISTS?
First and foremost, do what you love. But also: be strategic, work hard, be clear and value yourself. I believe that labour should be paid, even if you’re fine with not being paid at the very beginning. Be present: meet people, communicate with your peers. Don’t compete: it’s pointless and worthless. And keep a general sense of what you’d like to achieve. So… you’d like to edit a web site; you’d like to be an international affairs reporter; you’d like to write a novel? Go for that dream in practical ways. Everything is achievable if you are talented, shrewd, diligent and committed. And work hard… but not too hard.
For more on Bidisha’s work, visit http://www.bidisha-online.blogspot.co.uk.