By Siddhi Jain
New Delhi, Feb 15 (IANSlife) Noted writer, journalist and a key campaigner for the recognition of 20th century feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, Bee Rowlatt, who will be speaking at the upcoming 14th edition of Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), believes that due to the coronavirus pandemic, women’s progress has been unraveled and has, in fact, going in reverse.
“What happened to working women during the coronavirus – and this is playing out globally – is the expectation that women pick up the slack in the domestic sphere and take on the extra work. Particularly here in the UK, women are overwhelmingly being forced out of their jobs because they can’t keep up with everything at home. I just wonder how this will be in the case in 2021. There are horrendous statistics on domestic violence. There are so many things going wrong, which makes you think we have only scratched the surface of these systemic inequalities and feminism is and always will be a work in progress,” Rowlatt, the author of ‘In Search of Mary’, told IANSlife over phone from London.
Asked what it will take to balance the scales, she says:”Some people are, perhaps hyperbolically, comparing the coronavirus to a third world war. I’m not so fond of war analogies, but there’s something about this shared, extraordinary and very, very challenging situation. For certain British women, previous world wars had a liberating effect. They’ve occupied the work space, got out of the house, wore trousers and ultimately got to vote. What’s happening is this situation is that women’s progress is being unraveled, it’s going in reverse. The most important thing we can do is look at why. Is it just inbuilt sexism, is this an assumption that women will take the caregiving role and their careers are far more disposable? These subjects are being scrutinised in very bright light thanks to coronavirus. At the very least, we can learn about what’s behind these assumptions and make changes from there. I’m a very optimistic person generally, this makes me think that the fight never ends! But I try to draw hope and inspiration from the amazing women around me.”
At the Jaipur Literature Festival, on February 20, Rowlatt will share her thoughts as part of a timely session on ‘Feminism Reframed’, and is joined by Mariam Khan, Sabrina Mahfouz and Afshan D’Souza-Lodhi, to inform us, critique and reframe feminism for contemporary women. On February 21, “One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time” author Craig Brown will be in conversation with Rowlatt, where Brown takes viewers through the story of four men who represented not just a cultural milieu but also timeless music and fervent fame.
Having appeared in festivals in Russia, Bangladesh, India, Mexico, Iraq, Colombia and the UK, Rowlatt also chairs the Mary Wollstonecraft campaign. She was the central activist in the installation of a statue for Wollstonecraft in London, something she agrees was a “long journey”. The statue has stirred many debates online thus far.
To contextualise, Rowlatt says that the name Mary Wollstonecraft may not be familiar to many people but she is a giant in the British political landscape.
“She’s a key Enlightenment thinker and was a pioneer of writing about what we now call human rights, and is called the mother of feminism. I wrote a book inspired by her life, and became obsessed with this extraordinary woman from history, and that’s how I first got involved in the campaign for a memorial. Given how important and influential she was, there was no memorial for her anywhere, and yet in most cities and in London, there are monuments to men, some of them who we know traded in human beings. It struck me as a great injustice, both in terms of visible equality and who we celebrate, and an injustice to her legacy. We fundraised for a decade,” says Rowlatt who co-authored the bestselling book ‘Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad.
Rowlatt mentions British artist Maggi Hambling, who was selected for the Mary Wollstonecraft statue. “She’s quite controversial and iconoclastic, very well known for her previous art which has caused a big stir. She celebrated the writer Oscar Wilde and the composer Benjamin Britten, both of who were prosecuted for homosexuality. Her works have been attacked in the past. There’s data that shows that women artists tend to be singled out for abuse compared to their male counterparts.”
“There’s a sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft. People were seeing the sculpture online and the image was represented, it was zoomed in to show breasts and pubic hair. The internet exploded. Art is not intended to please everyone. But it led to a huge global search for Mary Wollstonecraft, so there was an unprecedented spike of interest in her work.”
(Siddhi Jain can be contacted at [email protected])