Naomi Wolf: No Western feminism model for Asia

Naomi Wolf. -- PHOTO: SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL
Naomi Wolf. -- PHOTO: SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL

Naomi Wolf is known for her outspoken views, but the American feminist and political activist says she would rather listen than preach to her audience at the Singapore Writers Festival.

"Mostly what I'd like to do is listen to women in Singapore and get a sense of how they interpret beauty issues," says the 52-year-old author best known for her 1990 book The Beauty Myth.

An expose of the cosmetics and plastic surgery industries and the billions it makes from making women idealise an unreachable standard of beauty, the book made her the leading spokesman for feminism and ties perfectly into this year's festival theme: The Prospect Of Beauty.

Throughout the telephone interview from her home in New York, she is careful to frame her responses in the most politically correct manner possible, reiterating a few times her desire "not to impose Western feminism" on other cultures.

"It's something I try to do, which is really important, to frame the wish for women's rights in a respectful way," she says. "Every country is so different and I love to learn from the context."

Who can blame her for her caution? The Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar to Oxford has made controversial headlines in the 24 years since The Beauty Myth.

Most recently, last month's protest against the Israeli killing of civilians in Gaza led to fellow Jewish writers criticising her position on Israel while her 2012 memoir of sexual healing, Vagina, divided feminists over whether it advanced or infantilised the cause of female sexuality.

Wolf is sanguine about criticism. "Reactions never surprise me. The Beauty Myth was greeted with outrage and then became a part of the high-school curriculum."

She apologetically declines to discuss or name her two children, though she wrote powerfully of how hospital births dehumanise the expectant mother in her 2001 book Misconceptions, and says her career would not have been possible without the support of their father, journalist David Shipley, who she divorced in 2005.

She co-founded The Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, which trains young women for leadership roles, and is a regular columnist for non-profit opinion site Project Syndicate.

For her work, she travels to countries from the Philippines to Morocco and India and has realised how much she has to learn.

This year, a Sept 11 Facebook request for discussion on why women wear hijab invited hundreds of comments, many of which surprised her. She says: "I've been struck by how many women I meet - many very well-educated and self-confident - choose to wear the hijab. Their reasons are not the reasons given in the Western media. It's about pride in their heritage. I tried to explain that but got attacked by certain interest groups."

She asks whether Singaporeans would be interested in this issue and is pleased to hear audiences would be. She sees more hope for women's rights in Asia and the developing world, where women are creating their own forms of feminism and leadership and power-sharing models.

Progress in the West has not been as fast as she would like, she says, blaming "gatekeepers" and "elite" power groups.

"I find more openness to the idea of change in the developing world. The reason probably has to do with the way in the West there's an unconscious but systematic reluctance to let women walk in, that leaves doors unopened."

She travelled in India not long after the horrific Delhi gang-rape case in 2012, when a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was attacked on a bus and died after being flown to Singapore for treatment. Four of six suspects were sentenced to death last December, but have not been executed.

Though shocked by the horrific details, she says she was thrilled by the concurrent groundswell of support for women's rights. She met young women who, for example, were the first in their families to go to college and felt confident enough to challenge the portrayal of women in the media.

"The young women are not rejecting the values of their family and culture. They might be from a very traditional family, but they have computer skills, they are smart and they are also developing new forms of leadership."

Asked if her advocacy for women's rights ever puts her in danger, she laughs and says: "I have felt nothing but support." In countries such as Brazil, Morocco and India where one might expect an "old guard" to denounce her work, she found "the old guard has daughters".

She says: "It's the same global desire of women and men to have a life where their daughters are valued."

Akshita Nanda