Feminist Book Club: Caitlin Moran’s “How to Be a Woman”

I missed last month’s book club meet up, but I did read the book, Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up. I enjoyed it, and thought the protagonist was hugely, flawed-ly relatedly human. She was continuously perplexed by all the people around her who wanted her to feel certain ways and be certain ways, and sort of struggled with the fact that she didn’t. I had fun hike-chats about it, and swim-chats about it, so although I missed the actual meet up, I was able to discuss it individually with book club members.

This month our book was Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, which I read while I was at Oxford and had only just started reading about body positivity, feminism, feminism in pop culture, intersectionality, all that fun stuff. I was pleased to have the chance to re-read it.

It did feel a bit dated while re-reading it – many of the issues covered in the book seem to have fallen out of conversation, superseded by what seem now to be more urgent issues. The chapter on body hair, for example, her throwaway line on how she feels about the burka (she opposes it. I much more subscribe to Luvvie Ajayi’s modus operandi, which is – feminism isn’t about helping women to be more like you. It’s about helping women to be whatever they want to be, freely). The two chapters side by side about why to have children, why not to have children. Undermined, to me, by another throwaway joke about how her accomplished, childless sister should stay childless so she can babysit Moran’s own children.

Some chapters, on the other hand, were so emotionally truthful that they were definitely worth the re-read. The chapter on abortion. On the awful relationship she had with that man who was just in it for her connections.

As usual, the conversation at book club ranged widely from the book to other things we’d read, and proceeded at a pace of about 100km/hr. Here are some of the things we talked about:

  • Alex Tizon’s essay, “My Family’s Slave” in the Atlantic. The critiques that have sprung up around it, the various perspectives of Americans who still have to confront the legacy of slavery in the country. Our own feelings as Bruneians, as people who live in Brunei, about cheap labour, domestic workers, the corrupt, rotten infrastructure of amah agencies and complicit embassies and the labour department. The (illegal, unethical) rampant practices of holding on to passports, refusing to stick to agreed on wages, the lack of standardized working hours. Our own stories of maids who have lived with us for decades. The increasing religiosity of Brunei, leading to different questions about the politics and tensions of having an unrelated woman live in your home, around your husband and children. The need for a concerted, holistic effort to reduce dependence on this exploitative system – daycares, creches.
  • Keryn’s essay, “On white faces and white bodies in Malay dress”. In short, we all hate this practice, and we all get mad about it.
  • Related to the book, what do we all call our own genitalia? Several rather hilarious and interesting names came up, and a brief reminiscing about ugama school and its contribution to our sexual vocabularies.
  • When expats talk to us like we are dumb. Alternatively, being the token “oh you’re not like other Bruneians” Bruneian.
  • A brief skirmish over whether we call ourselves feminists or not. What this label means to each of us, individually.
  • The shadow dating scene in Brunei – Tinder, OKCupid, expectations, in-laws. Pornography – of the Malay variety.
  • I managed to sneak in a brief chat to a friend about her thoughts on UBD art exhibitions. I haven’t arranged my thoughts appropriately, but it is well worth a read.

All this, accompanied by warm chocolate cake, nutella french toast, sauce-drizzled char siu kolomee, lemongrass carbonara pasta, lots of water and various flavoured drinks. Soft yellow lighting, and karaoke music being sung along to by the waiters. It felt like being in a bawdy, literary (ish) salon – I was surrounded by intelligent, strong, funny women telling amazing stories and laughing and listening.

It was a great way to spend the night as we walk into Ramadhan. Salam Ramadhan to all – may the year ahead see peace, wisdom, faithfulness and joy reign.

Our next book is Naomi Alderman’s The Power! My thoughts on it here.

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