Today is National Women’s Day. We asked six Belgian feminists about which books and documentaries have shaped their thinking, acting and writing. This way you know what to read in the coming weeks.
Uschi Cop’s eyes were opened by ‘Invisible Women’ by Caroline Criado Perez
Uschi Cop is a writer, poet and curator. She just released her first chapbook Weakness and is the founder of Hyster-x, a feminist collective for female and non-binary writers. She chooses the book ‘Invisible Women’ by Caroline Criado Perez.
‘This book really opened my eyes to the impact of patriarchy on women’s lives. Using data and statistics, Perez clearly shows how many small things have an immense impact, without necessarily having bad intentions behind them. Why do many women often feel cold in the office? Because the thermometers are set to the average comfort temperature of men, which is a few degrees lower. Why do more women die in traffic accidents? Because all safety testing in car development is done with male dolls. Why are many smartphones too big for women’s hands? Man is often used as a test subject for new developments. You see the consequences in all areas. IIt’s a man’s world. This book explains very clearly why that is the case without waving an accusing finger.’
‘A decolonial Feminism’ is a must read according to Dounia Bourabian
Dounia Bourabain (28) is a sociologist and professor at Hasselt University, where she conducts research into racism and sexism within universities. She considers ‘A Decolonial Feminism’ (Pluto Press, 2021) by the French political scientist and historian Françoise Vergès a must-read.
“Like many feminists, I used to assume that striving for gender equality would benefit all women anyway. In this slim book, Vergès clearly explains that European feminism is not that universal at all. For example, it pays little attention to the specific needs and barriers of women from the working class or women with a migration background, while matters such as your socio-economic position and origin are very decisive for your experiences as a woman. Moreover, European feminism not only mainly benefits white, middle-class women, but because of its one-sidedness and exclusivity, it is also used by policymakers as a means of excluding migrants and refugees. Yet, according to Vergès, everything is connected: we cannot achieve gender equality as long as we do not fight against racism, poverty and other forms of oppression. If you want to discover your own blind spots and broaden your horizons around feminism, then this book is a real eye-opener.”
Hind Eljadid was touched by ‘Phenomenal Woman’
Slam poet and author Hind Eljadid speaks out against discrimination and injustice both on and off stage. A feminist work that is close to her heart is ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou.
‘In the poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’, the American poet and activist Maya Angelou challenges the stereotypical image of women. A few years ago, I collaborated with three other women with a migration background on a theater piece of the same name, directed by Nyiragasigwa Hens and Jaouad Alloul. In the tradition of Angelou, we spoke out against prejudice, told our personal stories and what makes us phenomenal. Because I am also professionally involved with language and word craft, Maya Angelou is a great example. As a woman of color, as a feminist and as a poet, her words hit home extra hard. What I like about poetry is that the words are layered and can therefore touch different chords. A poem usually comes across as less offensive than a sermon or speech. Although Angelou’s poems certainly also contained activist messages and she used her words as a form of protest, she was still able to reach and move a large audience. Precisely because poetry goes through the heart. Rather than directly picking on the finger or pointing out mistakes, poetry appeals to our emotions. Through art you can go deep with your listeners. Feminism, unfortunately, often has negative connotations. That is precisely why it is very important to find a form that gets through to people. Feminism is about equal rights between men and women. How can you be against that?’
Heleen Debruyne is fascinated by it ‘The Vindication of the Rights of Women’
The radio producer, author, writer and feminist (35) chooses a book from 1792, namely ‘The Vindication of the Rights of Women’ by the British philosopher and women’s rights activist Mary Wolstonecraft.
“I read the book as a history student and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was, and am, fascinated by the past, and as a child I sometimes fantasized about what it would be like to live in the Roman Empire or the Middle Ages, or as a Beguine. Reading this book made me realize for the first time that at no other time in history would I have been taken seriously in literature, as a political thinker or philosopher, as a woman. Of course I knew that somewhere. History as we look at it today is still too often about warring empires, historical criticism and a bit of social history, and in this you encounter very few women. But somehow I needed that book to really face the facts. Wolstonecraft writes about how inequality is maintained by clichés, by clothing, by double standards and the fact that women are seen as a kind of ornament. Is it still readable today? I think so. Anyone who has ever watched a costume film or is fascinated by history will certainly be fascinated.”
Martha Claeys understood better what misogyny is thanks to ‘Down Girl’
The Doctor of Philosophy (29), who is affiliated with the center for ethics at the University of Antwerp and author of Pride, the philosophy of an emotion, chooses Down Girl by the American moral philosopher Kate Manne.
‘I have analyzed this book with students for 13 lessons, so I know it well. Manne tries to expose the logic behind misogyny, to find out why it is so persistent. She concludes that it is not misogyny in the sense of an individual belief of men, but a system to maintain gender roles and patriarchy in our society. Simply put: women are the givers in our society. Givers of time, care, attention, children, sexuality. Men are the recipients. And the system punishes the people who fiddle with those roles. So misogyny has a clear purpose. The fact that Manne concludes that misogyny is very deeply rooted in our world and is more difficult to solve than expected does not make it an optimistic book. But it is enlightening, because in order to tackle these types of patterns at their root, you first have to understand them properly. I myself sometimes thought while reading: ah, that’s why I think or feel this. Manne is American, and she writes from her world, but if you look, for example, at how much hatred women receive online, it is very recognizable. What also becomes clear is that tackling misogyny will not only make women’s lives better, but everyone’s, because it affects society as a whole.’
Bieke Purnelle was deeply touched by ‘Sex in a cold climate’
Co-director of the knowledge center for gender, feminism and equal opportunities, RoSa and cycling columnist (52) was deeply affected by ‘Sex in a cold climate’, a 1998 documentary about the Irish Magdalene laundry’s.
It actually started with a Joni Mitchell song. One of the songs on the masterful Turbulent Indigo album was about The Magdalene Laundries, Irish Catholic institutions where young women were used as slaves in laundries. These girls had become pregnant out of wedlock, sometimes they had been assaulted or raped, and sometimes they were simply beautiful and therefore seductive and a danger to morality. In 1998 I saw a documentary, ‘Sex in a Cold Climate’, by Steve Humphries, in which three women living in such laundry had sat, testified. They were now 60, maybe 70, but their story was blood-curdling. A woman had a baby, which was simply taken away after a year. The pain and trauma in those interviews were told without frills, but the impact was immense. I was really blown away by it.’
‘A few years later Peter Mullan made a feature film based on this documentary, ‘The Magdalene Sisters’. I cried with tears. It started in 1922, but the last laundry only closed in 1996. The fact that these institutions have been able to exist for so long is because not only the Catholic Church, but all of Irish society, has allowed them to do so. Unhindered. It was not until 2013, when mass graves of babies and children were discovered, that the Irish government admitted responsibility. It was large-scale, organized misogyny put into practice. When it comes to misogynistic religions, we like to point the finger at others, but the Catholic Church is also at fault. The Irish situation was extreme, but here too their influence was great and detrimental to women. That’s why I look with icy fear at today’s generation of young men who want to return to traditional conservative family values, because that’s what this was all about. If it’s over trad wivesanti-gender or trans women, I always think of those institutions that could easily have featured in Margaret Atwood’s The Handsmaids Tale.’
Three more recent publications that definitely deserve a place on your reading list.
Eva, by Cat Bohannon
A lot has been written about women’s bodies, but not the way Cat Bohanon does it. In this book, this American author and researcher focuses the spotlight on the female body, from ‘breasts to toes’. Until now, thinking about evolution has always focused on men, but since reproduction is the most important thing for the survival of the species, Bohannon focuses on women. Language may have originated as a means of communication between hunting men, for example, but between mothers and children. The most important innovation we have come up with as a species is not fire or stone tools, she says, but gynecology. Bohannon collects fascinating facts and uses them to develop fascinating theories. And if that all sounds very serious, know that this book is wonderfully written, packed with fascinating information.
De Bezige Bij, 488 p., 34.99 euros.
Femina, by Janina Ramirez
A new history of the Middle Ages through the women who were excised from it. That is the subtitle of this book. Cultural historian Janina Ramirez not only wants to break the idea that the Middle Ages were dark, but also nuances the male view of that period of our history. In Femina you will meet, for example, a Norwegian warrior who was buried with all the paraphernalia of a man of prestige. Only, after 10 years of research, it turned out to be a woman. But Ramirez isn’t just talking about powerful women and even though she only has room for a few portraits, her book makes you fantasize about how diverse, fascinating and complex the lives of our female ancestors were.
Prometheus, 428 p, 31.50 euros
Pose, by Basje Boer
That The Spice Girls, in all their diversity, may be a better role model than Beyoncé, high on her silver horse. And why films and series are full of women who do nothing and are therefore attractive. The Dutch writer Basje Boer wrote a book full of essays about the stories we live in, the images we look at, the clichés we live with and how women are viewed by both men and women. She writes about popular culture and her own life, she asks a lot of questions and certainly doesn’t have all the answers, but don’t let that stop you from picking up this book.
Nijgh & Van Ditmar, 381p., 26.99 euros