A recent collection of essays, edited by Natasha Walter, claimed that feminism is still relevant to young women. Anne Applebaum's essay was commissioned for the collection, but then excluded as "too negative." She argues that the battle for legal equality has been won, and that we should now focus on some of its unwanted consequencesby Anne Applebaum / May 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
For me, the final straw was Huairou. Not everyone will remember Huairou, but some of us will never forget it. Huairou was the Chinese village which in 1995 was transformed for a few days into a sea of tents, huts, makeshift wooden walkways and mud, when more than 20,000 women from around the world met there for the UN’s fourth world conference on women.
For sheer colour, the occasion was not to be missed. Saudi women covered in black jostled with American feminists wearing “Why have sex when you can have gender?” T-shirts. Workshops on “stereotyping and sexism in advertising” (sponsored by the Montreal Council of Women) were held a few feet away from tents where Cambodian peasant women in national dress were sewing a quilt in honour of the conference. Tanzanian women sold brightly-coloured scarves; Singaporean women distributed fresh flowers, “flown here courtesy of Singapore Airlines”; the American Association for the Advancement of Science was answering questions about teaching science to girls.
Just occasionally, the different worlds were forced into awkward confrontation. At a workshop entitled “Politics of difference: single women,” a few third world women turned up expecting to talk about prostitutes, and the pressures on women in traditional societies to marry the men of their families’ choice. An articulate Indian woman stood up and gave a moving speech about shelters which she had organised for women who run away from their violent husbands, and are subsequently shunned by communities which simply do not recognise the right of women to live alone. A few Americans turned up at the meeting too to talk about the difficulty of living alone in Philadelphia (“People, like, think you’re lesbian”). Throughout the workshop, the two sides listened to one another in incomprehending silence.
Most of the time they didn’t bother to listen to each other at all. The Africans were talking about clean water and basic education for girls. Women from Islamic countries were arguing about whether to wear veils. The Americans were talking about “breaking the glass ceiling,” and the French about the literary significance of “the Other.” I left Huairou filled with admiration for a handful of brave and energetic women from developing countries; and filled with cynicism about most of the women who had trekked to China from the west. The former had many real causes to fight for; most of the latter were indulging in the false belief that a cause called “feminism” still exists.