By David Michael Newstead.
Nikki van der Gaag is a gender expert and author whose latest book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Feminism, is a wide-ranging examination of the issues impacting women’s rights around the world. Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with Nikki about her work and about feminism today. Our conversation is below.
David Newstead: What do you hope people will get out of this book? And why do you think it is significant right now?
Nikki van der Gaag: I did a No Nonsense Guide to Women’s Rights almost 10 years ago. And I said I’ve got to completely re-do it, because the political and social and economic framing of the way that we’re looking at gender has changed so radically. We needed something which tried to look at the way that feminists are responding to the world in the way that it’s changing. Both in terms of the things that have improved and will continue to improve and in terms of the things have and will get worse.
David Newstead: There’s really a wealth of material in this book and you cover a lot. You have conversations with people, you talk about sex workers, and climate change. That’s a wide range. What are some of things that stood out the most to you, while you were writing it?
Nikki van der Gaag: Good question. And a difficult one to answer. Inevitably when you’re writing something short, you’re really condensing things down. But I also wanted to make it readable. I wanted the statistics in there, but I also wanted the stories. I didn’t want this to be something that’s only read on an academic course. I wanted it to be read by people who are interested in the issue from all walks of life, men as well as women. So, I was trying to write it in a grounded and accessible way.
The reason I wanted to do it was because I felt really excited by young feminisms and those from the Global South feminisms that were growingly vocal and growingly public, saying some really interesting and different things. In addition, in a context where women have clearly made huge gains in lots of different ways, there has been such a pushback from conservative agendas all over the world. I’ve got Indian friends who are talking about what’s happening in India with Modi and it’s not actually that different from what’s happening with Trump. So, I wanted to take a global perspective. I wanted examples from lots of different countries.
But I also felt really strongly that the stories and the way that things have changed began to form a pattern as I was writing. For example, the way that conflicts within feminisms sometimes are presented as a negative thing and women pulling apart. It can be. But actually when you’re doing a book like this, you get such a sense of the diversity. I think that very diversity is really exciting and vibrant. It means we’re dealing with the difficult things as well as the easy things. And that really excited me. Whether that’s between younger and older women, whether that’s between Global North and Global South, or black, minority, ethnic and white. The kind of vibrancy of it I think is exciting. And it is the diversity itself that builds a strong movement that is capable of discussion and dissent.
Having done the Feminism and Men book, I did think about doing a whole chapter on men, because it seems to me that is absolutely key. But in the end, I tried to weave it in. It’s the old story of if you put something in a chapter on its own, then it doesn’t become part of the fabric of what you’re doing. The way men are getting involved in gender equality has been something I’ve been exploring for about ten years. I wanted to bring that into this in a different sort of way.
Then, I was trying to think about: what are the main threats to feminism and women’s rights? Consumerism and capitalism, conflict, climate change, and the broader agenda of religious conservatism, which isn’t just about Islam and isn’t just about Trump seem to me to be absolutely key – not just in terms of the rise of misogyny, but the rise in intolerance and violence more generally as well.
David Newstead: I remember the line about “our diversity being our strength” coming up. And I liked it quite a bit just because I don’t think I had ever seen it articulated that way. Because usually like you’re saying it’s mentioned as a sign of lack of consensus, when really it’s a sign of everyone being engaged with diverse opinions.
Nikki van der Gaag: Yes, they are difficult discussions. For example, getting involved in some of the debates around the women’s marches in January. In some countries, they were quite bitter about the fact that in many northern countries this was organized by white middle-class women and where’s the black, minority, and ethnic equal participation? But actually, I think we learn far more from the areas where it’s difficult than from the areas where it’s not.
David Newstead: I’m sure this stands in contrast with some of your previous books, but one thing that stood out to me is you talk about online abuse that women and prominent feminists face. You know that existed 10 years ago, but not to the extent it does now and I was hoping you could say more about that.
Nikki van der Gaag: It has existed, but it’s booming now. I think it does put a lot of women off. If you’re out there in a public space talking about feminism, you know you’re going to get attacked. When I did my TEDx talk, it got on some horrible Men’s Rights website and I stopped looking at the comments, because they’re so abusive. So, you either stop looking at them. Or you try to fight back. In the UK, for example, the historian Mary Beard had a lot of abuse on Twitter. I thought she was really brave. She didn’t ignore it. What she did was to contact the people who were saying these horrible things and I actually she met with them and talked to them and engaged with them.
Online abuse, particularly for young women, is just terrifying. How do you separate online and offline abuse, because there’s clearly a link there as well? I don’t know if there has been a rise in violence against women, but there certainly hasn’t been a decrease. It seems to be often increasingly accepted and violent and part of a culture of intolerance. And I don’t know what you do about it. There’s been lots of lobbying of Facebook and Twitter to monitor better. And I think Facebook just employed a lot more people to do that kind of monitoring job. But in the end, unless you actually work with people so they don’t make those kind of abusive comments then you’re shutting the door after the horse has bolted. That’s why I think working with young people, particularly young men, is so important.
I was on a board of a small NGO here in the UK called Great Men Value Women, which worked with young men in schools and I went along to watch them do a couple of sessions. Just really interesting, because they were getting these young men who were between 15 and 17 to think about what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be a woman. They did an exercise cutting out pictures of women from magazines and getting them to discuss it. Once they started talking about, often for the first time, they were really shocked at the ubiquity of naked women, women being used to sell things, or used in provocative positions. So you’ve got that bit of it. In addition, pornography seems to be increasingly driving lots of young men’s (and young women’s too perhaps) ideas about what sex and relationships are about. And we just have to work with that. We have to be open and honest and discuss it.
David Newstead: Two combine the two strands of your response, I don’t know if you’re familiar with revenge porn at all?
Nikki van der Gaag: Indeed.
David Newstead: A friend of mine got revenge porn’ed once by her ex-husband from like six years earlier. Anyway, it was very dark and not a good experience. But the fact is that online abuse can take multiple forms and it’s hard to separate out what is an actual threat from an attempt to slander and demean you. You know, is it somebody just rattling off? Or is it something more serious than that? And how can it affect your life?
Nikki van der Gaag: There’s a group of men’s rights activists that are just out and out misogynists and horrendous. Then, there’s a group that I’ve tried to engage with globally and in the U.K. who would say that they are not misogynistic, but not feminists. I remember one tweet, somebody saying “I don’t know why women are making such a fuss about their body’s being objectified. Here’s an example of a man’s body being used in an advert.”
But what they do is they completely lose the hundreds of years of objectification and abuse that women have had to face. And they completely ignore the current relationships into which that one image is slotted. You can’t take one event and just disassociate from everything else that’s gone before and everything that’s happening everywhere else. I think often that’s what happens. Revenge porn, is kind of angry men too, isn’t it? Trying to take revenge on the people they can most take revenge on.
David Newstead: Last time we spoke, I asked you about what you thought of the state of feminism in the world. And what I’d like to ask now is, I’m curious what you think the state of patriarchy is in the world today?
Nikki van der Gaag: One of the difficulties of doing a book like this is ending up making vast generalizations about what’s happening. Because what’s happening in a rural village in Indonesia is so incredibly different from what’s happening in New York or in Kigali.
But I’m still an eternal optimist. That’s partly because I have the privilege of doing the kind of work, which takes me around the world meeting the most amazing women and men who are very aware of what we mean by patriarchy and are really concretely trying to put into place to challenge it and change it and questioning their own power and privilege. Meeting those kind of people all over the world gives me a huge amount of hope.
But that said, if you look at the kind of structures that are still in place… You know next year in the UK, it’s going to be a hundred years since women got the vote. And we still have less than only around 30 percent of women in parliament. Patriarchy is still pretty stuck in there and that’s why I feel it’s so important for men to challenge it as well, because women have been doing it relatively successfully for quite a long time. But we also need to work with men in power as well as women. It’s still alive and kicking, I reckon.
David Newstead: As you detail in the book, you know you talk about all the progress that’s been made with girls’ education over the years. So maybe, that’s a lot of the seeds of future progress.
Nikki van der Gaag: I think it is if you also make sure that you look at structural barriers. Thinking about some of the girls I met in Pakistan a couple years ago, they were living in a very rural area and a few of them were going to the local boys school, because there wasn’t a girls’ secondary school. I could see that they might want to grow up to be leaders and teachers and have these dreams for the future. But actually, the society they were living in and structures and institutions around them were not going to allow them to do that.
I’ve been quite critical of the discussions around simply empowering and supporting girls whether that’s through education or in others ways without looking at the wider patriarchal structures.
I remember being invited into one project that had been started in Morocco. There was a young woman that this organization had worked with who was fantastic and had really challenged what was going on around her. And basically, her dad had beat her up. He said “I’m not having my daughter speak to me like that,” because that wasn’t the kind of cultural ambiance where she was growing up. So, we absolutely look at the structural issues, patriarchal issues, and we need to look at questions of power as well as giving girls education and knowledge and working with boys.
David Newstead: Especially considering everything that’s happened even since you wrote this, where does feminism go from here?
Nikki van der Gaag: That’s a good question. I think for the moment: more of the same. But my point I made at the beginning about diversity becomes even more important. Sounds like Star Wars, but there are forces out there who are desperate to divide people whether that’s by gender or race or class or geography. What the Women’s March was trying to do, not always successfully, was to bring people together. So, that’s one of the things that I’m working on in Oxfam, to think about the fact that working with women overseas for example is not so different from working with marginalized women in the US or the UK.
Some of the issues are the same. Bringing people together feels like a really important task at the moment, even if that’s bringing people together who don’t agree with each other. You know, that whole idea about building bridges and countering the divides that we see and talking to the people who we don’t agree with. You must be struggling with that in the U.S. We’re certainly struggling with that around the Brexit decision here: trying to understand why people make the decisions they do. And There are reasons why people vote the way that they do and think they way that they do.
I think the really scary thing in the last six months here in the UK is how much more acceptable it’s become to say the really nasty things that people were probably thinking, but now they’re saying. That kind of openly voiced intolerance and misogyny is really scary and those of us who are more progressive need to find ways to talk to those people in the same way that historian talked to her Twitter trolls. So, I think the biggest task for feminists today is building bridges, with each other and with those we disagree with. That is the way our movement will grow.