Hilary Clinton (archive): Human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights once and for all.
Mehdi Hasan: VO: Oppressed and objectified for centuries. Woman have fought for liberation with many triumphs. But has gender equality really been achieved?
Malala Yousafzai (archive): We should all consider each other as human beings and we should respect each other.
Hasan: VO: And while we continue to debate what feminism actually means, many question its ability to represent women across the globe. My guest tonight is a prominent democracy advocate. And one of the world’s most renowned feminists, so why has her latest book been described by fellow feminists as reductive and reactionary?
Mehdi Hasan: I'm Mehdi Hasan and I've come here to the Oxford Union to go head to head with Naomi Wolf. I’ll ask her whether she is honouring or undermining the many achievements of the women's rights movement and whether her brand of feminism is still relevant to women across the world today. I’ll also ask her whether she really believes the United States is becoming a fascist dictatorship.
Hasan VO: Tonight I'll also be joined by: Caroline Criado-Perez, a feminist campaigner, journalist and author of Do It Like A Woman; Andrea Stuart, an award-winning feminist author and lecturer; Doctor Finn Mackay, the founder of the London feminist network and author of Radical Feminism; and Hana Riaz, founder and director of the Body Narratives NGO.
Hasan: Ladies and gentlemen please welcome, Naomi Wolf.
Hasan VO: A bestselling and award-winning author, Dr Wolf came to global prominence in 1990 with her book The Beauty Myth.
Hasan: Naomi Wolf, these days lots of women and lots of men self-identify as feminists, but it often means different things to different people. You're one of the world’s best-known feminists, what does feminism mean to you, how do you define it?
Wolf: So to me it’s such a commonsensical definition, it’s nothing more complicated than the logical extension of democracy, nothing more than extending human rights to every person on the planet, and I believe that every person on the planet deserves human rights, that’s feminism.
Hasan: That’s a very powerful definition, but as a feminist how do you then explain that some people, to some people feminism, even now, today, after all these years is still seen as a bit of a dirty word. There was a recent poll done in the United States and in the UK, which found four out of five Britons and Americans say they believe in gender equality, but only one in five of them is willing to call themselves a feminist. Why do you think that is?
Wolf: The fault is frankly with the media, mostly, because ever since 1919 you know the sort of first great backlash against feminism, there has been a caricature of feminists as man-hating shrews who just want to create dissension rather than a recognition which is that it dates back to the enlightenment and its part of the enlightenment value system of equality, dignity, human rights, and so the media tends to identify just the most conflict-laden, or the most outlandish aspects of feminism and focus only on that instead of, you know, women fighting against rape in India or women fighting against wage slavery in China or sex trafficking in Central Europe. That, does not get the recognition it deserves in the media, so that’s part of the problem we face as feminists.
Hasan: Your first and perhaps most famous book, The Beauty Myth, back in 1990 argued that as women have progressed and idealised a quite rigid concept of beauty has been imposed upon them almost as a way of holding them back. In your most recent book, Vagina, A New Biography, you argue that there exists a brain-vagina connection and that the vagina is “co- extensive with the female brain” and “essentially part of the female soul”. Obviously in writing this book you intended to empower women, but many of your feminist critics have argued that you’ve done the exact opposite, that the arguments in your book are informed by a kind of simplistic, reactionary, biological determinism that reduces women to their body parts, to their genitalia. In the space of 20 years, you’ve gone from saying women shouldn’t be defined by their appearance to effectively saying today they should be defined by their vaginas.
Wolf: I certainly didn’t say that Mehdi, that is a reductive yeah.
Hasan: It’s a, it’s a summary of your views?
Wolf: No it's not.
Hasan: Some would say.
Wolf: It’s not.
Hasan: That’s how it was interpreted by many of the critics, leading feminists in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of books, The Guardian. Slate, they all.
Wolf: So let’s, let’s move on to what I actually wrote ok.
Hasan: Go on.
Wolf: If you read the book, you’ll find that far from reducing women to their vaginas, what I’m fascinated by is that there is extraordinary new research, just like we’re more and more recognising that there is a mind-body connection in treating the brain and the intestinal tract, for instance stress affects digestion or we all know that stress affects male potency. By the same token there is new research about the brain-vagina connection. I wrote about this interestingly the brain-uterus connection, brain-breast connection in my book about childbirth, called Misconceptions, in 2001, no one had a problem with it, cause OK, wait, wait.
Hasan: But maybe.
Wolf: Cause it’s OK for women to be mothers and have a brain, but it’s not OK for them to be sexual and have a brain.
Hasan: Maybe people didn’t object to the earlier comparisons or the earlier linkages of brain, breast or brain uterus because in those books, correct me if I’m wrong, you didn’t say, the uterus is essentially part of the female soul or coextensive with the female brain, that’s quite a strong claim to make.
Wolf: I mean look, any neurologist will tell you that sexual response is part of brain function that’s like obvious. Are there any scientists here? We all know that, scientists know that.
Hasan: But just to check just so we’re being fair to body parts, is there any other body part that is part of the female soul or is it just the vagina.
Wolf: I think every body part is part of the female soul, I think every male body part is part of the male soul, but I do believe that what harms women is that they are reduced, their vagina's are reduced to mere pornography or mere medical outcomes.
Hasan: A lot of critics charge you with getting the science wrong, with cherry-picking from the studies. The neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz writing in Time Magazine said that your book, “profoundly misrepresents how the brain works and how neuro chemicals really affect our love lives; it portrays human beings, especially women as automatons, enslaved by brain chemicals they cannot control”.
Wolf: So that’s just nonsense. We all know that thoughts affect desire. If a woman is resentful or angry or in fear she can’t get aroused. And you know two thirds of women don’t reach orgasm regularly during sex, so to me, and that hasn’t budged since the sexual revolution, so the sexual revolution isn’t working for women by not taking into account the fact that they aren’t just discrete body parts, they aren’t just vaginas waiting to act like they act in pornography, they’re connected to human beings. Also a third of women have either, you know, a rape history or a history of being abused by a trusted man before their 18, that affects their sexual response. So absolutely what I’m trying to do is put the vagina in the context of something we can talk about, something we can own.
Hasan: You say in the book, straight men would do well to ask themselves, do I want to be married to a goddess, or a bitch. You continue, “unfortunately there is not physiologically much middle ground available for women. Either they are extremely well treated sexually, or else they become physically uncomfortable and emotionally irritable,” how is that not a reductive, quite binary, quite offensive view of women as kind of irrational slaves to biology?
Wolf: OK, I guess I really challenge your interpretation; the first part of your quote is a joke, it’s the way I talk with my girlfriends, and I was writing for people who have a sense of humour, I’m sorry, but. (laugh)
Hasan: I’m a humourless man.
Wolf: That’s awesome.
Hasan: There is not physiologically much middle ground available for women, either they are well treated sexually or they become emotionally irritable.
Wolf: So now, let me elucidate that.
Hasan: That’s pretty binary.
Wolf: So now, I’m going to stand absolutely by what I said in intent and you know hashed out over 400 pages and hundreds of footnotes in the rest of the book, which is women have sexual desire which is misunderstood, not addressed, not recognised, not respected. It is a very important part of their lives when people understand it and get it and respect it; more important when women are raised in a culture that says you are allowed to be a sexual being. And we understand this. We have gay people and lesbians by the way, we all get it, that if you raise a, a gay child or a lesbian child, gay male child or a lesbian child in an environment in which they’re ashamed of their desire it is bad for them on so many levels. So I’m saying absolutely, women deserve to know and understand and appreciate their sexual desire; to live in a culture that doesn’t slut-shame them, doesn’t silence them, doesn’t mock them, doesn’t traffic them, doesn’t rape them, doesn’t reduce them to body parts. I stand by that and, yes, the people who live with women should learn about, know about, respect and attend to their sexual pleasure, because I believe women have a right to it. Round of applause.
Hasan: That’s a very good tactic which I will advise my other guests to do as well, just ask for a round of applause. Lets on that note go to our panel of experts, academics, activists, authors who were listening to this. Finn Mackay is an academic author of the book, Radical Feminism, founder of the London Feminist Network. Finn, am I right in thinking that you are an admirer of the Naomi Wolf who wrote The Beauty Myth but not such a fan of the Naomi Wolf who wrote Vagina, A New Biography?
Finn Mackay: Well Mehdi I really cannot get past the rabid gender essentialism in the book. It's, to me it was like Mills & Boon meets A-level biology, and I think there was, there’s a fundamental flaw in it for me, a theoretical flaw which you don’t seem to get or I didn’t get from the book, which is that it’s the same essentialising, othering process, it’s the same masculinist logic that goes on whether a woman is being put on a pedestal or put on a ducking stool. Whether women are being worshiped or burned, is the same othering logic underneath and you fail to notice that, so you describe in great detail the symptoms, the negative effects on women of patriarchal society or a male-dominated society or what masculine logic has done to women’s bodies and done to women’s vaginas. But my point is that you, you’re actually guilty of, of doing what you rally against, because you also, "other" women.
Wolf: Well I hear you, and there are other feminists who charge the book with what you call essentialism, and I understand that perspective. I profoundly disagree with it. I am all about deconstructing biological gender and understanding that we should chose our identities, but we’re also in a time of huge advances in brain science. I think that if feminism continues to tell young women especially, you have to hide your heads in the sand and not look at science, then we’re going to be like it’s like the 50s where we’re, you know, refusing to look at.
Mackay: I think science goes back to the 50s, the science here just smacks of 1950s images of what a man should be, what a real man should be, and what a real, what a real woman should be. You know I think the newsflash that we need, the awakening call that we need for women all over the world, I've got a new scientific fact for you, I’m going to break it to the world right here and now, which is that women are human beings, and men are human beings and both are capable of nurturing others, of compassion.
Wolf: Of course that’s true. Of course that’s true.
Mackay: Both need to be desired, both need to be loved, I am not interested in a so-called pop psychology neurosexism that wants to set up ancient stereotypes about what real men and what real women should be, because that’s what we’re trying to fight against.
Wolf: Certainly, that’s certainly not the book I wrote and I’m sorry that that’s what you took from it.
Hasan: Andrea Stuart is here, feminist historian, lecturer in cultural studies, what do you make of her thesis?
Andrea Stuart: I love your work and it changed my life, in many ways.
Wolf: I love your work.
Hasan: OK, to the matter in hand.
Stuart: And I did feel a little bit, though, that when I was reading this, that it was a slightly missed opportunity, and I’ll say the reason why is that, you know, where in The Beauty Myth, the very personal energy that you brought to the book worked really well as to connect with the reader, in this case I felt alienated and, and separated from it. The real question to me is, why after all these years women are still not having better sex?
Wolf: And that’s a great question. We’re sitting here in Oxford talking about the flaws of this book, which doubtless exist, but one reason I wrote it was to break open that silence and now.
Hasan: But couldn’t you have written a book called Vagina, my biography, rather than A biography suggesting, this is a universal.
Wolf: That’s, you can write that book about your body in that way.
Hasan: But it is this critique that is levelled at you.
Wolf: Aha. So let me speak to that.
Hasan: That you universalise your views, you take your experience of childbirth, you take your experience of medical injuries, you take your experience of interactions with men and then you say this is what all women think, do, act, etcetera.
Wolf: I’m not saying everyone should write like me but I’m saying men spend centuries drawing on their own experience and thinking their experience is important, I went to war, let me call that the Great American Novel, you know.
Hasan: With the respect, with the respect and you know it’s a great line, this time you don’t have to ask for applause, with the respect it’s not a male-female thing. Your feminist critics have attacked you for trying to speak on behalf of all women, they’ve accused you of narcissism.
Wolf: But I don’t try to speak, who says I speak on behalf of all women?
Hasan: They do, they accuse you of narcissism; they accuse you of turning your memoir into a self-help guide for all women. You do make sweeping claims in the book based on what, the plural of anecdote is not data.
Wolf: So first of all, (laughing/Clapping), so first of all I profoundly challenge your reading of my method because ever since.
Hasan: Not just mine.
Wolf: The Beauty Myth, of your, all these critics, I challenge them as follows, any one of my books truly does include my personal experience because I think women’s personal experience is valuable and important, including mine, I’m not ruling myself out and I believe as a journalist in the importance of eye witness accounts and also because I am interested in my own consciousness and that’s a very socially taboo thing for a woman to say in public.
Hasan: On that, on that specific note you talk about women’s voice.
Hasan: One of the big criticisms of the feminist movement in recent years, from within the movement is its lack of inclusiveness and diversity; that it doesn’t give voices to women of colour; that it doesn’t have much to say about class differences , cultural differences, or differences in sexuality. What’s your view of that argument? Is that something that you sympathise with?
Wolf: I will speak to that and transition by saying in all of my books, though I use my experience I also interview great numbers of women, and I look at the data, and you can check my footnotes if you have any question about that.
Hasan: OK, well let’s broaden this discussion out to our panel; let’s go back to our panel. Caroline Criado-Perez is a feminist, activist and journalist here in the UK, author of the book Do It Like A Woman and the campaigner who helped put a woman’s image back on the British banknote. Caroline, is it fair to say, as some feminist activist do, that modern feminism is being “hijacked” by white, middle-class, western feminists?Is that a fair criticism do you think?
Caroline Criado-Perez: I think certainly within the media the voices that are most often heard are those of white, middle-class feminists, and I think that that’s obviously a huge problem, but it's reflective of society as a whole. It’s a problem within feminism amongst feminists as well. All of us are going to be, to an extent, coloured, our views and our priorities and our perspectives are going to be coloured by what we know, and I think it always behoves us to reflect on that. But I think the most important thing, actually, is for white-middle class feminists is to try and amplify the voices of those who don’t have such access to the media rather than spend our time navel-gazing about how privileged we are.
Hasan: Before I bring you back in, let’s hear from Hana Riaz, who is a feminist writer and curator of the Body Narratives which is a web project committed to empowering women of colour and their experiences. Hana, do you think the messages that you hear from the modern feminist movement, feminist icons, books like Vagina a New Biography, are global, universal messages?
Hana Riaz: No, and I think it’s not even a case of modern feminism. Those voices have always existed. There has been a plethora of voices, diverse experiences that have existed you know throughout the movement, we just have to go back as far as Sojourner Truth for an example in kind of the modern experience around women's rights and specially black women's rights. In terms of your book Naomi, if you had just simply said this is my experience, this is who I am, where I’m located in terms of your, your identity and your experience as a white, middle-class American woman, it would have made it a lot more comfortable for me. I personally couldn’t engage.
Hasan: Finn and Andrea very quickly, if I ask you the question, and sorry to be brief on such a huge question: What do you say when people say feminism is too white, Finn?
Finn Mackay It is, but feminism as a social movement for women’s liberation is, I would argue, one of the most reflexive, the most self-critical social movements going and I am proud that things like black feminism as a school of feminism has found a place within feminism, has grown proudly out of that and that our movement continues to challenge ourselves and try and move on, but it’s an aspirational target.
Andrea Stuart There, we have these kind of debates and discussions and it’s very easy for all of us to say so and so has that kind of privilege, that so and so has, we all have different priorities, our goal as women is to work together, not necessarily sharing the exact same priorities, but respecting and supporting each other’s priorities in order to make this movement powerful.
Hasan: In 2012.
Wolf: Do I get to respond to the race thing, cause I think it’s very important.
Hasan: Very briefly.
Wolf: So briefly, so what’s surreal to me is that we’re talking about a book I wrote like four years ago which was about a body part and female consciousness, but what I’ve been working on for the last five years is more about global feminism than anything else, I mean if you look at what I’m actually doing in my life day-to-day, I’m convening discussions among thousands of women around the world online about what the hijab means to them, and finding out that all of their perspectives, from women wear who wear hijab to women who don’t, are feminist perspectives.
Hasan: So let me ask Hana, is that something you welcome and approve of, when you hear that does that make you happy?
Hana Riaz: One of my biggest critiques around the Western narratives and the conversations about the veil is, those conversations should be happening, but they should be happening within Muslim communities.
Wolf: Sure well all that was happening on the platform, I wasn’t, I was just listening.
Riaz: So the kind of framing in this century, yeah but the platform is a reactive platform to counter particular narratives or engage in a western centric debate around the hijab.
Hasan: In 2012, you took a very controversial stance on the issue of the Swedish rape allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. You suggested that the accusations of rape and sexual assault made against him by two women may have been politically motivated. Now whether or not it was politically motivated, whether it was about who Julian Assange is, put that to one side. Isn’t it extremely irresponsible for a feminist of your standing to take a position that’s been criticised as belittling, or mocking or questioning the two women at the centre of this story. You’ve been criticised since by fellow feminists, for “victim-blaming, for perpetuating rape myths in the media and for basically trivialising a crime like rape”.
Wolf: I made the point not this reductive point, I was not victim-blaming, I was not saying they were politically motivated. What I said is this is atypical; that not a single other rape victim in Sweden was treated this way. Interpol doesn’t track down any woman’s rapist unless there’s some bureaucrat involved.
Hasan: You also questioned the women.
Wolf: I said that they needed to have their day in court, and he needed to have his day in court.
Hasan: You said, "I’m pleased that the alleged victims are using feminist inspired rhetoric and law to assuage what appears to be personal injured feelings." It sounds like you’re mocking them.
Wolf: OK, so there I have to take responsibility for that. The Daily Mail ran a piece that turned out to be badly sourced and I should never have trusted the Daily Mail.
Wolf: That’s right it was my mistake and so I shouldn’t.
Hasan: Do you regret that sentence?
Wolf: I do regret that sentence.
Hasan: OK, you then caused a little bit of other controversy when you argued that Assange’s alleged victims, and rape victims in general, should not be given anonymity in the media.
Wolf: I did not say that.
Hasan: What did you say?
Wolf: I said that I support women not choosing to be anonymous because in my 25 years supporting rape victims I have found that anonymity only serves to allow cover ups, to allow impunity, to allow rapists to go free, to allow the police to do nothing, because there is a feminine consensus until recently that it’s better to protect, to urge women to be anonymous and to protect the anonym.
Hasan: And you don’t agree with that?
Wolf: I think it’s much better to go on the record and say: "This is my name, this is not my shame, this guy raped me, this is where it happened and I’m here to tell my story."
Hasan: Even though that could lead to fewer women coming forward and reporting rapes than already?
Wolf: It leads to more women coming forward, thank you very much, it leads.
Hasan: Finn Mackay’s shaking her head there, come back in Finn.
Wolf: The more women who come forward the less ...
Mackay: But unfortunately we do live in a culture where men do get off with rape, all the time, where women are shamed, where women are actually prosecuted for making false allegations in some cases, I think it’s dangerous to, to make that suggestion, it’s dangerous.
Wolf: It should be every woman’s choice.
Mackay: But that’s the point; it should be every woman’s choice.
Wolf: Sure, I agree with you.
Mackay: And, and actually rape crisis centres for years their whole ethos is to give power back to women. Women have had choice taken away from them and the ethos of rape crisis started by second wave feminists, you know in this country in the second wave of feminism is to give women the choice back.
Wolf: I’m a mother and I want my daughter's generation to grow up in an environment where they are supported, if they want to, in coming forward and saying, you know what I got raped, not my shame, not my fault, not my problem, this is your problem, it’s your crime; and just like saying I was assaulted or I was burglarised or I was hit by a truck, I think we’ll have less PTSD which is a huge issue.
Hasan: OK, let me just ask our other panellists, do any of you listen to Naomi make a very persuasive case there? Do you share her view on the whole anonymity and rape issue?
Criado-Perez No, I mean women who report rape are routinely attacked by their supporters.
Wolf: I know that, I know that, but I came forward.
Criado-Perez So a lot of women won’t come forward unless they have the anonymity there. For example, I’ve never reported my sexual assault for the very reason that: A, I felt shamed; B, I didn’t think anyone believed me; C, I didn’t even know how to explain what had happened. There is no way I would have done it if on top of everything else I had to potentially face being reported in the media.
Wolf: Totally understood.
Hasan: OK on that note we’re going to have to take a break now. When we come back in Part Two of Head to Head, we’re going to be hearing from our audience here in the Oxford Union and were going to be talking to Naomi Wolf about geopolitics, join us after the break on Head to Head.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome back, you’re watching Head to Head on Al Jazeera. Here in the Oxford Union, my guest tonight is the bestselling author, activist, campaigner Naomi Wolf. Naomi, we talked a great deal in Part One about feminism, what you’re most famous for perhaps, but in recent years you’ve also become quite well known for a lot of other things. You’ve taken quite bold, many would say very admiral stances on Palestine, on the Occupy moment, on civil liberties issues. But you’ve also taken some very controversial opinions, some would say some very odd positions, on the big geopolitical issues of the day. I just want to read to you some of the headlines in the press in recent months about you. "The insane conspiracy theories of Naomi Wolf", "The fevered delusions of Naomi Wolf", "What has made Naomi Wolf so paranoid". The New York Times review of your book concluded, that "Wolf has rendered herself less than unreliable over the past couple of decades with one rant more hysterical than another".
Wolf: Oh, hysterical.
Hasan: Do you accept that you’re now seen by some, rightly or wrongly, as a bit of a conspiracy theorist?
Wolf: I accept that a bunch of headlines exist and that that was something that came up actually last October. If you want to ask me a specific follow up question I can,
Hasan: Well I do. Let’s run through a few of the things.
Wolf: Yes, I do not agree that I’m a hysterical lunatic.
Hasan: Well let's run through a few of the things (laughing). No shock, horror, I wasn’t expecting you to say yes but the point is it’s out there and it’s a lot of the discussion about you recently is not about your.
Wolf: Can I just say the beauty of studying feminist history is that every woman in the world who’s ever made a difference has been called a hysterical lunatic and whenever she’s zeroing in on a real social problem that has to change, she’s called paranoid and delusional.
Hasan: Let's run through some of the things that have bothered so many people and you can respond briefly to each.
Hasan: For example there are plenty of people on the US far-right, on the kind of Tea Party end of the political spectrum, who think the US government is planning to round them all up; that the US is becoming a fascist dictatorship that there’s a military coup coming; that Obama is like Hitler and you, Naomi, in a lot of your writings and interviews seem to agree with them?
Wolf: Well I would go further than that.
Wolf: I predicted this decline in American civil liberties. Certainly not the terms you’re using, but in 2008 I wrote a book called The End of America, which looked at times and places where democracy, democracies have collapsed or been overthrown, whether by the right or by the left: I looked at Nazi Germany in the 30s; I looked at East Germany in the 50s; I looked at Chile in the 70s; I looked at China in the 80s; and what I saw is that every dictator, on the left or right does 10 things. It’s a formula and I made the case we were seeing those 10 things under Bush. And the steps, the 10 steps to fascism that I isolated, went much further in the Obama administration; they’re going further now; they’re being introduced in Britain in Australia, in Canada, around the world. So I did foresee these erosions of civil liberties in the West and I’m proud of that book, it’s one of the things I’m proudest of.
Hasan: You said it’s not the language you would use, but you were the one who said Americans are facing a coup as of this morning, October 1 in 2008. You’re the one who said Obama has done things like Hitler did. You’re the one making these kind of slightly ...
Wolf: Yes, I was not being rhetorical; I’m the daughter of Holocaust.
Hasan: You’re not being rhetorical. You think Obama is about to kill 6 million Jews and burn Congress?
Wolf: Is this good journalism,? I mean that’s not what I said, I did a systematic study.
Hasan: Obama has done things like Hitler did?
Wolf: They, exactly right, so has Bush, so I mean Hitler.
Hasan: It’s a very provocative comparison to compare people with Hitler.
Wolf: If you’ve read The End of America you’d see that it’s not provocative at all, I looked at the early 30s I looked at three years between 1930 and 1933 and the Nazi party came to power democratically elected, and then they passed law after law after law, everything they did was legal, and they passed laws to engage in ...
Hasan: And do you think that’s happening in America today, the Democratic party is the Nazi party.
Wolf: I didn’t say that.
Hasan: So what analogy are you making then?
Wolf: Listen to what I wrote: They are doing things like the things the Nazi’s did.
Hasan: And where does that lead you? What’s the point of that comparison?
Wolf: It led me to predict a surveillance state which we now have in the United States; it led me to predict the National Defense Authorisation Act.
Hasan: You also predicted a coup that didn’t happen?
Wolf: I personally think that if you’ve, many people disagree with you Mehdi; many people in America are talking about the police state, many people in America if you read the headlines.
Hasan: Was there a coup?
Wolf: I think coups can be slow and I think we are in the process, yes, of democracy collapsing into something like a police state.
Hasan: So why didn’t Bush stay on in power forever?
Hasan: Why didn’t he just seize power?
Wolf: Please don’t have such a reductive reading of what a police state looks like.
Hasan: I’m reductive; you said on October 1, 2008, Americans are facing a coup as of this morning. I’m quoting your words to you.
Wolf: I think there has been a kind of a coup, I do I stand by that.
Hasan: Even though it went from Bush to Obama, that was the coup.
Wolf: Do you know that in police states around the world, and military dictatorships around the world, they still have elections, they have judiciaries, they have journalism, they just don’t have freedom. They don’t have real choice.
Hasan: So American’s don’t have freedom today, in your view.
Wolf: In many ways American’s do not have the freedoms that we had when I was growing up.
Hasan: Oh, I totally agree with you, and I’ve written the same thing. But there’s a difference between saying that and saying America is a fascist state or a police state or similar to Nazi Germany.
Wolf: I believe that America is in many ways a police state right now, and I say that as an American, I can give you chapter and verse all night long: We have people shooting protesters, we have black men being shot to death on the streets of the United States.
Hasan: Those are all bad things but it doesn’t make you a police state.
Wolf: We have the - bear with me - what is a police state; a police state is when you have the military engaging in police.
Hasan: A police state is a rule of law in police.
Wolf: And it’s a suspension of the rule of law, exactly.
Hasan: In Baltimore, six police officers have been charged with an unlawful killing.
Wolf: That’s good I’m pleased.
Hasan: How is that a police state?
Wolf: Because when you’ve got a slow or rapid erosion of liberty it’s not black and white, Nazi Germany didn’t come to power over night, Chile didn’t fall overnight.
Hasan: So you do believe there’s an analogy between modern America and Nazi Germany?
Wolf: Absolutely, you know how some headlines said: Why is Naomi so paranoid? I would say why are you so naive, not you personally, because why is the press so naive.
Hasan: You made that point very strongly. You suggested in a Facebook post that the horrific ISIS beheading videos that we saw last summer may have been “staged” and that the people we saw beheaded may have been actors. Now of course, again, don’t be naive, we need to be sceptical of any claims the US government makes about terrorism, terrorist groups, the terrorist threat, but do you at least recognise how hurtful that must have been to the families of Steven Sotloff or James Foley or Alan Henning or Peter Kassig, to hear you make or suggest such a provocative ...
Wolf: So I’m glad you brought that up. What I actually said, as a journalist, is that every single piece of evidence, especially propaganda or what might be terrorist propaganda which is not necessarily the best source in the world, should be independently verified. That’s what they did with the Watergate tape. As a journalist, I believe every piece of evidence, especially when you go to war on should be independently analysed and verified and while I was.
Hasan: But there was no doubt about those videos, or who those aid workers were; you were the only one with the doubts?
Wolf: I didn’t have doubts; I said they should need to be independently authenticated, because ...
Hasan: That’s what you said. You said, where are they getting all these folks from?
Wolf: That was an ill-put.
Hasan: And people have just been beheaded.
Wolf: There was a video that purported to show people being beheaded and what’s interesting to me is that since then Fox News, AOL, Yahoo other major new sites have actually subjected some of these videos to independent analysis and found tampering, so I’m not saying they are real.
Hasan: But not the tampering you’re talking about. No one has found a video with stage actors.
Wolf: I haven’t, I probably not, but that wasn’t ...
Hasan: But that’s what you threw into the public domain.
Wolf: I was making a rhetorical point that they were not independently authenticated and I want to say something stronger.
Hasan: Do you stand by that post?
Wolf: I think everything should be independently authenticated.
Hasan: Do you stand by that, though?
Wolf: I think it was ill-worded and I regret my wording, but I.
Hasan: Is that why you deleted it afterwards?
Wolf: Yeah I regret the wording absolutely it was, it was.
Hasan: But you then went further; you regret the wording of that.
Hasan: And you then said, you repeated claims from an unnamed Pakistani source of yours that ISIS is funded heavily by the United States and Israel and claimed that, that’s the news behind the news.You can understand why some people think that’s a con, you sound like a conspiracy.
Wolf: I again, I believe you’re taking that strongly out of context. What I was trying to report is that many people in the Middle East have questions about the funding of ISIS, and that many of the news stories that we get out of the Middle East raise those questions. I have no knowledge about ISIS but I think.
Hasan: And yet you concluded the post: That’s the news behind the news?
Wolf: The news behind the news is this, is what those people believe; I think it’s important for us to know what people in the Middle East are asking about.
Hasan: So basically if anyone anywhere says anything we should report it as interesting, fact, things to be investigated?
Wolf: No we report it.
Hasan: And there are a lot of crazy people in the world saying crazy things; we don’t all report those things.
Wolf: Correct, you’re right.
Hasan: But do you think, do you stand by that post as well?
Wolf: I do believe it’s the news behind the news that there are people who have questions about ISIS the West isn’t asking.
Hasan: Do you agree with them? Do you think ISIS is funded by Israel?
Wolf: I have no idea what ISIS is. ISIS is a total mystery to me.
Hasan: But do you think it’s funded by Israel?
Wolf: I have no reason to believe it’s funded by Israel.
Hasan: You have no reason to believe it’s funded by Israel. OK, let’s go to our panel.
Wolf: I’m glad we solved that. But I do want to say something important.
Wolf: The President of the United States said in a State of the Union speech that Saddam Hussein had Yellow Cake Uranium and that drove us to war; The New York Times reported that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, they didn’t ask any questions and that drove us to war.
Hasan: I’ve written extensively about the lies that were told about the Iraq war. That doesn’t mean because the government in one place and time told lies about this that therefore everything they say about everything in the world should be questioned or that they’re actors in videos.
Wolf: That is not what I’m saying. Can I finish my sentence Mehdi? This is a really important sentence, if I say nothing else tonight. If the media had done its job and if citizens had done their job at that time, say let’s not take dictation from the State Department, just because the President says it, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true, 100,000 people would be alive today and 3,000 brave young men and women would not be dead in the United States as well.
Hasan: That’s true.
Wolf: It is our job as journalists to ask questions, it’s our job as citizens to ask questions, and I was a political consultant. I saw how the sausage gets made. Politicians lie, or they start with the deal and then they tell the story. So yes, ask the questions.
Hasan: I’m just going to go very briefly to our panel. I know this is not your specialist subject at all, but just on the perception of Naomi Wolf, as someone you’ve all talked about her writings, do you think her political writings have helped or hindered her in the other world?
Caroline Criado-Perez: I think that the language that’s used, particularly in the reviews of Vagina, but also in the things that Naomi said about civil liberties is very interesting from a feminist point of view, because it is undoubtedly sexist calling a woman paranoid and hysterical a lunatic. These are all words that have historically been used against any woman that dares to stand up.
Wolf: I love you so much.
Criado-Perez: I mean I get called a hysterical lunatic every day on Twitter just for complaining about sexism because any woman who stands up for herself is defacto crazy. So that ...
Hasan: That’s about the criticism, but what about the substance of the claim?
Criado-Perez: So yeah …
Wolf: That’s really good
Criado-Perez: Thanks, so yeah the, I think that with what I think about what a lot of Naomi says, like with the Vagina, with the civil liberties, there’s no doubt that there’s a kernel of truth to everything that she says. There is a huge problem in civil liberties within the West.
Hasan: Yes, agreed.
Criado-Perez: I do think that it gets, that you extrapolate it to an extent that I can’t follow you down that path; I couldn’t follow you down the path to say that the ISIS beheadings were staged.
Wolf: I didn’t say that, I didn’t say that.
Criado-Perez: Or to even potentially question that they were staged.
Wolf: I didn’t say that. I just said they hadn’t been authenticated.
Criado-Perez: And I think that, and I think that it’s really, I find it really sad and is because you are making really important points and then when you take it to the extent of whatever it was you said about ISIS.
Wolf: What I said is important.
Criado-Perez: That, that it allows people to start making these criticisms and it takes away from the really important points that you are making about civil liberties in America and in the West.
Wolf: Thank you. Just for the record I did not say they were staged, I said the video had not been independently authenticated cause I’m a journalist.
Hasan: You did suggest that they were staged, the tone of the post, people can read it for themselves. Let’s go to our audience who have been waiting very patiently here in the Oxford Union. We’ve talked about feminism, we’ve talked about rape and anonymity, we’ve talked about media and erm standards of reporting, who wants to come in here and ask a question. Here, let's go to this lady here in the second row.
Audience Member 1: Hi.
Audience Member 1: Great discussion. How do you think we can move past this idea of a kind of de facto sisterhood and realistically and constructively confront division, now, in our time?
Wolf: I mean that’s a lovely question I’m sure all of us here have, you know, different and important strategies, and I guess that the first thing for me is that I’m here and you’re there because I think we need to be all together figuring this out and what the media does is it always sort of singles out two or three voices and ignores the other voices. So I guess more important to me than healing divisions, is making room for more and more and more voices, agenda’s, platforms to make the world better for women or make the world safer for everybody or more peaceful. And so, rather than asking how do we heal divisions, I think that when we make more abundance for voices and more respect for everyone and their diversity. we won’t worry so much about division because everyone will be heard. That’s my dream of the world I want to live in.
Hasan: OK, let’s take a question from the gentleman here.
Audience Member 2: Many women agree with the general causes of feminism but still they’re reluctant to use the label feminist. Do you think we should insist on keeping this label due to its history and legacy?
Wolf: I’ve been all over the world and I’ve seen women in every kind of country tackle the problems they face in different ways. A lot of them don’t call themselves feminists in this Western way that we are using the term, that doesn’t bother me at all, I don’t care if these teenagers in South Africa are calling themselves feminists or not, I’m really excited that there are 16-year-old boys in South Africa from every community leading the fight for women’s dignity and girls' safety. That’s what I care about, does that make sense to you guys? Like not to ...
Hasan: Finn Mackay is shaking her head there. Do you want to come in very briefly before I go back to the audience?
Finn Mackay: Here in the West the reason people object to the word feminism is because of misogyny and homophobia. It’s because of the threat of misogyny and the remaining brutal threat of homophobia. Let’s face it, women don’t want to be seen as lesbian man-haters, because they have so much to loose. This is why we’re seeing a growing movement of men claiming the label of feminist because no one is going to accuse a man of being a man-hater. For a man to declare himself a feminist, if he’s a heterosexual man, makes him, if anything, more attractive to women. Whereas for women who are heterosexual and claim that their feminist they often experience the very opposite. So if you want to, we need to reclaim feminism. We don’t need to change the word, it's already been changed. It was called women’s liberation. Feminism has been diluted down, so we need to not rename it but reclaim it and get on and finish the job that we started.
Wolf: Awesome, thank you.
Hasan: OK, let’s go back to the audience, second row here with the glasses?
Audience Member 3: Is feminism too preoccupied with biology and not focusing on people’s expression in the trans community as well, widely regarded that genitals doesn’t equal gender. So why are we prioritising chromosomes and people’s genitals and not allowing them into feminine and female spaces ? And where does that put non-binary and intersex people who don’t fit this rigid colonial, Western idea of sex and gender?
Wolf: Right, also great questions. Let me stress, I mean I grew up in San Francisco, in a place where everybody was every gender all at once. Like it was the original diverse bubble and I thought the whole world was like that, so I was very surprised to find out how rigidly people thought about gender identity when I left that bubble of San Francisco in the 60s and 70s. But I don’t, I believe everyone should be in every space that they want to be. I think that people should claim whatever identity they want to claim. If you want to claim that you’re a woman, if you want to claim that you’re a man, I don’t care if you want to claim that you’re trans gender, I don’t care, that’s not my concern. I just thought it was very, very interesting that there’s new discoveries of how the neural wiring is structured in the female pelvis that go right to whether a woman can have an orgasm or not and I thought I should report on that in case women wanted to have orgasms. You know.
Hasan: OK, let’s go back to the audience. The gentleman here in the second row?
Audience Member 4: Hi, there is a complex and long history between feminism and the gay rights movement, and I think you have written about your support for same-sex marriage. Going forward, both in America and globally, where do you see the future of gay rights movement once same-sex marriage becomes a constitutional right?
Wolf: It’s inevitable that more and more states will pass the right to gay marriage and I think it’s inevitable that more and more countries will as well. And by the way, I think the gay rights issue is very interesting in terms of the should women come out as rape victims, because it used to be the gay men were told, stay in the closet, don’t tell anyone about it, it’s your shame. And then they began to say, "Not my shame, not my problem it’s your problem if you have a problem with it", and that changed the environment for gay people generally.
Hasan: OK, lady in the third row. Do you want to wait for the microphone to come to you?
Audience Member 5: How can we include men in the feminist debate and should we include them?
Wolf: So if the human rights and democracy movement were part of it, of course we want men to be a part of it because they’re part of our family, they are part of the human race and I think nothing would be better than for men and women to be talking about how we have a more gender-just world. Just like, I think, it’s great for people of all classes to be talking about ending poverty, or people of all races to be talking about ending sexism.
Hasan: OK, let’s take another question from the back. Gentleman there in the glasses and the beard.
Audience Member 6: So, just to follow on from that question, what advice do you have for men who want to navigate the conversation or conversations on feminism, and how specifically they should confront sexist women, cause sometimes that’s a very difficult and problematic situation.
Wolf: I love that question. Can you give me an example of a moment you wanted to confront a sexist woman?
Audience Member 7: So, I am Arabic and I confront a lot of very conservative erm views in the Middle East in my home town.
Wolf: I think it’s very powerful when white people challenge white racists, when you know straight people challenge homophobia, I think you should speak from your heart, if you care about justice and equality for women, just say what you think, respectfully and passionately. I think that’s the best help anyone can be is tell their truth and fight for justice.
Hasan: All right, I’ll take this lady here in the third row. Do you want to wait for the microphone to come to you
Audience Member 8: Good evening, I have a rather personal question, perhaps and quite broad. I’m curious to know how spirituality and religion affects your work, particularly as a feminist and knowing the whole debate about whether religion has a bad impact on women and their rights or rather empowers them.
Wolf: I’m not religious, I, I sort of feel like I’m post-religious.
Hasan: How big a barrier do you think religion or religions are to female empowerment right now in the current era?
Wolf: So thank you. So that’s huge. And to that point I will say, religion is used by every sector and every sect as a means to say God says I’m right in treating you really badly. And especially against women, so you know Christians, Jews, Muslims all of them find ways to treat women badly and say God likes it. So I really think we all need to snap out of that and that’s why I love Muslim feminists challenging patriarchy, Christian feminists challenging patriarchy, Jewish feminists challenging, patriarchy Hindu feminists challenging patriarchy, cause that’s where people within their own context do the most good work.
Hasan: Let’s go there to the front row?
Audience Member 9: Hi.
Audience Member 9: Drawing on some of the previous questions, do you think white western woman can ever speak or act in solidarity with woman of colour?
Wolf: Well, I mean, speak, no cause we all can speak for ourselves, but no one else. But act in solidarity of course, I mean I’m just thinking of the kind of activism I do. I can’t help being a white western woman. I guess it’s just if you’re really an activist and you’re working hard with your colleagues on a project, what you do is give your home, do a kick-starter thing for the square, you know get on line and tell people to raise money, we raised $25,000 for the square, directed by an Egyptian woman, produced by Egyptian woman and men, young ones and it was nominated for an academy award and it told the story of the uprising and the Arab Spring was largely led by you know Muslim, Egyptian young women on line.
Hasan: I want to take another audience member here who’s waiting. Lady here in the third row.
Audience Member 10: Do you think that a gender quotus is an appropriate way to achieve gender equality?
Wolf: So, I don’t think that quotas are helpful because they always tend to be 30 percent for some weird reason, cause we’re the majority of human beings and workers, but also because it's, they tend to be a way for the real decision-making to happen behind closed doors, you know the power just moves elsewhere. What I do like is shareholder action. I like a boycotts, I like lawsuits - that’s done a lot in the United States to make people more nervous about being found wanting in gender balance. And I really like that all of you might go on to be influential in the workplace and the more if you’re a lawyer, you say: "You know what I don’t want to do business with this company because there’s something wrong with them. They have only men at the top or only women at the top, only white people at the top or whatever." That’s very effective.
Hasan: Lady there in the second row on the back section, yeah.
Audience Member 11: Hi, so I agree with your idea about, you know, no shame. Rape is not women’s shame. But don’t you think that maybe it would create this kind of guilt of being a bad feminist if women don’t want to speak out and say that they’ve been raped, and are we placing extra guilt on them for, for wanting them to do that?
Wolf: We often are way too judgmental of each other’s choices. I’m not saying women should come out, I’m saying I think it would be great if they did and I would support that cause I think it’s a healthy outcome.
Hasan: You mean support a law change that got rid of anonymity in public?
Wolf: I, well I, I do think anonymity in the law stigmatises rape, I do.
Hasan: But would you support a change in the law to give no anonymity to female rape victims?
Wolf: I need to think about that.
Wolf: But to your point, I know what 300 million viewers means I need to think before I talk sometimes.
Hasan: You were saying you believe in choice. I mean I was wondering if you change the law then they won’t have a choice?
Wolf: I really need, no I actually mean I really need to think about that.
Hasan: Fine, I await the next piece on it.
Wolf: Thank you but it’s a great thing to think about and write about. But to your point what I would like to see is women stop policing each other so much. So if one woman wants to write about her abortion and another woman doesn’t, that’s her business. We actually have an interesting legacy from the 19th Century kind of keeping each other in line, the angel in the house and I think we need to kind of, to liberate ourselves. We need to liberate each other and what you choose to do doesn’t threaten me and vice versa (clapping)
Hasan: I just want to, just before we finish one quick question before we finish as I said at the start I mean you wrote this book in 1990, The Beauty Myth and 25-odd years later I’m just wondering what would the Naomi Wolf of today who’s been on that journey since then say to the Naomi Wolf then? What have you learned, what would you do differently now in terms of your campaigning, that you didn’t do then?
Wolf: I don’t know, I, I kind of like it when young women aren’t so careful and aren’t so worried about whether they make a mistake or not, so I’m reluctant to tell my younger self to not make mistakes that I made. I think all my mistakes I learned something from, and as a teacher now, and as a mum, and as someone who cares about young women, I want them to go out and make mistakes because they’re passionate and they’re curious and they’re not afraid, that’s my hope.
Hasan: That is a great answer to end the show on. Thank you very much for joining us here on Head to Head. (clapping). Thanks also to to Naomi Wolf for coming here to take part in this programme. Thanks to our excellent panel of experts, thanks to you all for your comments and contributions from the audience, and thanks for watching at home, this is a debate that is far from over. Goodnight.
Source: Al Jazeera