British journalist and author, Bee Rowlatt, who now lives in New Delhi, speaks about her work, about being a white feminist, about the misogyny that defined the US presidential elections, and how it is a great time to be a feminist in India.
You started out as journalist with BBC World Service in the 90s. How did your first best-selling book, Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad (2010) happen?
It was a direct result of my work as a journalist. While trying to interview Iraqis after the invasion of Iraq, I got to know an academic (May Witwit) and our friendship developed over email. When her colleagues were being beheaded, she asked me to get her out of Iraq. I tried a number of things which failed. Ultimately, someone at Penguin found this interesting and asked us for our emails. The advance helped towards her getting a visa to come to the UK.
Your second book In Search of Mary retraces Mary Wollstonecraft’s treasure hunt across Europe in the 17th century.
There were two factors at play: As a working mother, I was finding the idea of self-fulfillment very challenging. The idea of doing something utterly selfish seemed extraordinary to me. Mary Wollstonecraft — the first mother of feminism — wrote a bestseller, travelled with a baby on her own in 1795. I found this to be very compelling. My smallest kid, who accompanied me on this trip, was of the same age as the baby she travelled with — 10-months old.
What were the takeaways from this trip?
I learnt a lot about privilege. As a white woman swanning around the world could I claim to be utterly oppressed? Well no! But a lot hasn’t changed since Wollstonecraft’s time, for example, the excoriation of women in public life. Look what happened to Hilary Clinton; the same thing happened to Wollstonecraft.
The level of debate around an experienced politician like Clinton was very gendered. Women in the public sphere face unequal levels of scrutiny of their private lives and unequal share of abuse online. Look at the abuse that Barkha Dutt gets, and women politicians as well.
Misogyny is the same across the world, but there have been gains as well.
Absolutely. There have been huge gains. I think what we are witnessing is a backlash. There was a huge backlash against Mary Wollstonecraft and against the suffragette movement as well. But in a country where there are women like Justice Leila Seth, there is scope for optimism. Women in the judicial system are making a change and creating policy. That is how you change people’s lives, through education and through policy.
What do you think of feminism in India today? On one hand we had this huge civil society movement against gender violence after the Nirbhaya gang rape and then we have celebrities who distance themselves from the term ‘feminist’.
I think they don’t know what it means but there can be no excuse for not knowing. Men can be feminists too. In many ways, they are trapped in patriarchy in the sense of not being able to express their emotions or take time off to care for their kids. I think feminism in India is breathtaking. I’ve seen some very young, witty campaigners and brilliant campaigns like the one around the menstruation taboo.
You have four children, aged 6, 10, 14 and 15. Is it easier being a working mom in UK or in India?
It is harder in the UK because we have a minimum wage. Stuff is really cheap in India and, unlike in UK, most middle-class people have help at home. If you’re a working mum in UK with low income and you have to pay for childcare, you’d end up poorer. So the incentive is to not go back to work.
The problem in India is the societal pressure on women to leave the workplace once they get married. They go and get an MBA, then they get married and then they leave the job! That bothers me.
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