According to a recent BBC World Service programme about Malawi, the nation’s population hit 17.6 million this year and is expected to double by 2040, which the country’s finance minister described as “scary”. “A ticking timebomb of poverty and starvation,” said the reporter. “Malawi desperately needs economic growth.” Malawi has one of the highest incidences of child marriages in the world and last year introduced a new law raising the marriage age to 18.
Changing the law doesn’t by itself change cultural norms fast, but plenty of evidence shows that when women get educated and when countries get richer, birth rates drop very fast. Take Italy – Catholic, still very traditional in its attitudes to women – described not long ago by the Financial Times no less, as the “country that feminism forgot”, it has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe. Economic growth is still widely cited as a neutral champion of women’s rights. But now I find myself asking whether the cultural prejudices that see an enduring pay gap between men and women in nations like Britain, 46 years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act can be eliminated or whether they can in some ways be strengthened by a focus on economic growth?
In France, where feminism is rooted in a proudly secular and monocultural self-image a political row recently blew up after the government’s minister for women’s rights Laurence Rossignol accused fashion houses such as M&S and H&M, which were designing Muslim women’s wear including burkinis, as promoting “the imprisonment of women’s bodies.” She made the ill-received comparison with African Americans voting for slavery and compounded the offence with the use of the word “Negroes”.
It’s legitimate to reason that the comments suggest a fundamental lack of understanding of how faith and modesty can co-exist with feminism. You don’t have to be Muslim to not want to wear a bikini or show your cleavage. But if we’re honest there’s a deeper problem intertwined therein. The big spenders from nations such as Saudi Arabia who boost British retailers’ bottom line, have shown that economic growth and oppression of women can happily co-exist. In fact with the help of Western corporations selling everything from fashion to police weaponry wealth can be used to solidify barbaric, degrading and cruel oppression. Rossignol’s ignored wider point was that “Today there are some women promoting political Islam and there are some women who are suffering in the suburbs from the pressure.”
In other words that old feminist adage: The personal is political. Our acts of personal consumption are not in isolation but connect us to others. The small but significant number of highly educated British born women choosing to wear strict Islamic dress and demand gender segregation need to think about whether it really is empowering, given the experience of the vast majority of women forced to dress that way around the Muslim world.
Talking of bikinis, the other thing that raised my hackles in recent days was seeing The Nice Guys, Shane Black’s big crowd-pleasing buddy flick set in the porn world of 1977. There’s lots that’s charming about its two leads Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, so I assume the film will make big money. According to Forbes’ analysis it’s been doing best with men under 35, ie too young to remember the real 70s. We reviewed it on a recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme, when even the male film critic I went to see The Nice Guys with was the first to point out that an opening sequence in which a porn star is seen lying sprawled and naked covered in blood in a Playboy pose, dying after a car crash was in questionable taste. Every woman in the film is a dim witted porn actress or a villain with a handful of lines. The only major female role goes to a 13 year old tomboy, safely pre-sexual in her adolescence.
1977 was the year of Charlie’s Angels and Lynda Carter’s 6 foot tall Wonder Woman, of Lyndsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman and Charlie perfume. Feminism was mainstream in popular culture. Even Virginia Slims cigarettes controversially played on a feminist slogan with the line “You’ve come a long way, baby.” So how come women are being airbrushed out of our modern versions of it?
Last Christmas why were parents eager to spend having to point out there no Rey costumes or figurines in shops to tie-in with the release of Star Wars The Force Awakens? (According to Forbes this is apparently because those smart economic growth focused toy executives were limited by their prejudice that only boys buy figurines and they won’t buy girls).
Economic growth might bring down birth rates, but it doesn’t necessarily challenge shameful attitudes to women and girls. And while consumer power might nudge big corporations, only campaigning changes social attitudes. Remember the personal, not just personal consumption, is political.
A version of this article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine – journalism worth paying for. On sale from street Vendors around the UK or subscribe here.