Every November, Scotland gets a little bookier than usual thanks to Book Week Scotland, but for this year, it also got a little dangerous. Bringing together a group of brilliant women to discuss their lives as women in public, the working world and literature sector, it was an evening set to learn and inspire.
Chaired by Head of Literature at Creative Scotland Jenny Niven, attendees were led through an enthralling discussion with YWCA Scotland writer-in-residence Nadine Aisha, author and journalist Chitra Ramaswamy and writer Karen Campbell.
“I know my power. I own my power.”
The obvious place to start, as it’s part of the Dangerous Women Project: what exactly is a dangerous woman? “I first blanched about the term,” admits Chitra. “I’m not often into reclaiming terms.” But then she thought more about it – there’s an aspect of danger, excitement, a thrill – it can mean edgy, other, subversive.
“For me a dangerous woman is a woman who has a voice and uses it to speak her truth,” she concludes, adding, “I feel privileged to be one.” As a woman of colour, a writer, a journalist – she’s always felt she occupies a tiny space, but refused to be hemmed in. In her book Expecting, she writes about her pregnancy and in turn discovered that it, too, is a somewhat dangerous topic. She doesn’t know why people feel odd about pregnancy – given the fact that everyone has, at some point, been born – but she wanted to tackle it in a way that doesn’t police or silence, or overmedicalise, which hasn’t really been done before.
But back to being dangerous. “I was a bit ambivalent as well,” notes Karen, who’s authored six books in the last few years. “Who defines what dangerous is? It seems to be a woman who opens her mouth. Having an opinion you want to express seems to ignite a real fury.” In her 20s she almost felt like feminism was done, never mind considering it could go backwards. She joined the police – got equal pay for equal work, had no restriction other than a skirt. “I literally felt the world was mine for the taking. I worry for my daughters in their 20s that that’s not the case for them.” She sees younger women shy away from the term feminism, and wonders why.
“I’m gladly a dangerous woman,” beams Nadine, who fully embraces it. “What makes me a dangerous woman is that I’m saying something, a lot of things, that people don’t want to hear. In order to change and challenge something you’ve got to call it where it is.” She too questions why feminism is often seen as a bad thing – it shows how far we have yet to go. Is it being uncomfortable having to challenge the status quo? Nadine speaks out and won’t be held back. “I know my power, I own my power.”
They’re unsure of agreeing that feminism is receding, rather it’s evolving. The conversation is always changing, the lessons shifting. We’re facing challenges routed in the same old misogyny, but in different forms – online abuse being a key example.
“My life isn’t an experiment.”
Each panellist has a different route through their career, with their own stand out moments on the topic. Chitra had some stark moments as a journalist where she’d see clear divides: white men on news desks and women on features, for example. An editor once asked her to go out, do normal things and report if she experienced racism, to which she said, “My life isn’t an experiment.”
Karen’s had two very different careers. In the police, she found the power of a uniform trumped her gender, which was very liberating. But, she said, “you start to become a person you don’t want to be – it’s the nature of the police that you start to act the part.” When asked to present a video from the Metropolitan Police on assaults, the focus was on women restricting themselves – clothes, hair, decisions – to be safe, rather than placing focus on the attackers. Karen spoke out, and that’s one of the key points: doing that gives other women the tools and knowledge. It’s okay to not be silent about these things. As a writer, however, working life is very solitary so the experiences differ like night and day.
Nadine was quite young when she started out, wanting to educate and work on stopping violence against women. She quotes Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “The mission is what matters.” – and Nadine, too, worked her way up and made a great impact in a short time. She aims to make other women comfortable to speak out and gain a similar confidence, through supporting them and making save spaces for more Muslim women and women of colour.
“One lesson that feminism must take is that misogyny is rife.”
Safe spaces can be a divisive topic, but the panel think they’ll be needed more than ever once Trump is in the White House. With the rise of the far right – not the “alt-right”, no one is here to normalise the rise of white supremacy – there could be one good thing: that more people – women, LGBT, people of colour – all acknowledge the need for their own safe spaces and stand shoulder to shoulder and organise. “It seems to obvious to me that so much of the response to the Clinton campaign can be pinned to misogyny,” Chitra notes. Their badness was considered an equivalent – emails vs. everything Trump has done. “One lesson that feminism must take is that misogyny is rife.”
Karen wouldn’t like it to become an echo chamber, though. She hopes people can feel empowered in that safe space and go out and do something with it. The fundamentals in the world are shifting, and regardless of nuances there feels like the two sides to pick from are clear.
Next we move onto motherhood and feminism, or the age old magazine goal: having it all. “Having it all is a capitalist slogan,” counters Chitra. You are made to behave more like men. It makes you accept the models and not challenge them. It’s interesting with writing, because people think creativity is swamped by so-called “baby-brain” – that your head isn’t as valuable after having children. Actually, it crystallises a lot. Older people and children are often invisible, adds Karen. The structure is that work is all-consuming and everything else falls to the background. But the question is how to challenge this view.
There is an overwhelming sense that the world doesn’t value the work it takes to be a parent – it’s the same for both men and women; we need to find ways to value that, offer more support and money, and make parents comfortable with the decision to stay at home rather than be put straight to work.
“You cannot use someone else’s fire.”
And so we come to the most important part going forward: keeping the door open. What tips can they offer to help women on their own paths, and how to help others?, asks an audience member.
Nadine turns to Audre Lorde’s quote: “You cannot use someone else’s fire.” You’ve got to believe in yourself. Keep your power. She makes spaces in her work, she mentors other young women, she’s always finding ways to help.
It took Karen 40 years, she says, to realise that “you are not responsible for other people’s happiness.” It always fell to the women to keep things going, and she assumed it was her mantle. It was a constant pressure. For helping others, she works with WoMentoring, a network of writers, publishers and agents that offer free services. It’s about being with other likeminded people, extending a hand of friendship.
For Chitra, visibility is key. She gives lectures and talks on journalism. She encourages other voices to do that too, and encourages publishers – like her own, Saraband – to keep taking risks. She hopes that women can see her – an LGBT woman of colour – writing for the Guardian and think that they can too.
“Go for it.”
Another audience member asks whether there’s a pressure to be a dangerous woman and be vocal and if, in turn, that’s regressive. The panel deliberate on this, but say that they never felt a pressure in that sense, but they do find other expectations placed on them. If you’re a writer of colour, by default there are pigeonholes that appear. Many people can only approach them for comments on race, Islamophobia and the like, not the multitude of experience, talents and interests they have. There can feel that perception that one person speaks for a race or religion, rather than people making space for more diverse voices.
With all having published work to varying degrees, what insight can they offer for getting dangerous stories out there? For one, independent publishers take risks. There’s a real problem with dangerous stories not being taken on across the board. Write the story you want to read, try get an agent – that can be a hurdle, but they are your absolute champion.
Their advice can apply to all women looking ahead. Chitra remembers she wanted to be a lawyer as a child and was told, “Asian women don’t become lawyers.” It broke her heart (though, admittedly, she’s glad now!). “There’s something to be said for saying to little girls you can be whoever you want,” she says. “So go for it.”
And that seems a fitting way to end it all. Be dangerous. Be whoever you want. Go for it.