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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  The problem with ‘ladies only’

The problem with ‘ladies only’

Author Kamila Shamsie might have convinced a small printing label to only publish women writers for a year but that can't be a way to bridge the gender gap

Kamila Shamsie (in sari) with other authors at a photocall for the shortlisted authors for the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction award ceremony in London on 3 June, 2015. Photo: AFPPremium
Kamila Shamsie (in sari) with other authors at a photocall for the shortlisted authors for the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction award ceremony in London on 3 June, 2015. Photo: AFP

Of course, it was click bait. Of course, it was provocative. But less than a week after she issued her challenge, Pakistan-born novelist Kamila Shamsie has scored a goal. Why not have a year of publishing women, only women, she asked in an article in The Guardian. The year 2018 would be a good place to start as the centenary of women over the age of 30 getting the vote in the UK.

I’m not sure Shamsie actually expected anyone to accept the challenge. But on 10 June, a small print called And Other Stories, which publishes around 10-12 new titles every year, picked up the gauntlet. “If we don’t do it, what is going to change," said publisher Stefan Tobler in The Guardian.

We know that publishing is gender-skewed. Men writers are more lauded, feted, awarded than women. Men writers are more published than women. I daresay men writers are invited to more parties than women. To understand how loaded it is against us, take a look at novelist Nicola Griffith’s research that shows how the awards ignore not just books written by women, but also books about women.

So, I get that Shamsie is mad.

What I don’t get is the ladies compartment tag.

I don’t get it for many reasons. First, in a month where I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with Sara Nović (Girl At War), Chimamanda Ngobi Adichie (Americanah) and Anthony Doerr (All The Light We Cannot See), I’m worried. Imagine a situation where every publisher everywhere in the world decides to lay off men authors for 365 days. Do I wait for this time-out period to pass before I can love a male author again? The prospect is too bleak for words.

Second, imposing a choice on who I will read based purely on a biological accident of birth comes perilously close to bumping into freedom of expression. Censorship of an author, and it is censorship no matter how you cut it, purely on the basis of gender is not what I signed up for as a feminist, and a proud feminist might I add.

Third, I understand the need for affirmative action. I’m all for reservation. But I’m not sure that women writers of privilege, many who sit on juries and swill red wine at lit fests (no, this is not a dig at Shamsie) qualify. If you’re going to look at gaps in publishing, then why not Dalits versus upper castes in India or black versus white in the West? Or immigrant versus non. Or Ivy League versus the public-school educated.

As evidence of the gender gap in publishing, Shamsie points an accusing finger at the Man Booker prize: over the past five years under 40% of the books submitted for consideration for the prize have been by women. I’m thinking: Wow, 40%, that’s kind of cool.

If you want to understand gender gap, look at Fortune 500 CEOs (where 4.8%, not 40%, were women in 2014).

If you want to understand gender gap, look at India’s 11% women members of Parliament (fewer than the 17% MPs who have criminal records) and the plan to raise it to 33% has been shoved into the deep freeze now that the election is over.

If you want to understand gender gap look at Fifa Women’s World Cup—if you don’t know it’s on, you can stop reading now—being played on artificial turf. Last year, six of the world’s biggest names in women’s soccer, and more women players eventually, sued Fifa for the fact that all 20 prior men’s World Cup soccer games were played on the vastly superior grass.

If you want to understand gender gap, look at the coverage of sport. In 2014, ESPN’s SportsCenter devoted less than 1% of its airtime to cover women’s sport, found a Sage Publication study by Cheryl Cooky, Michael A. Messner and Michela Musto—two women and a man, it must be clarified.

And if you want to understand how a response to the gender gap can be both witty and devastating, you have to only look up the hashtag DistractinglySexy, which is how women scientists all over the world have chosen to respond to Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt’s misogynist speech about his “problem with girls" in the laboratory.

I’m not in denial that there is a gender gap in publishing. Perhaps this gap stems from the fact that those more likely to have the cash to buy books are men not women (and so writers, even women writers, are more likely to write about a man’s world). Or perhaps it stems from another, more fundamental, gender gap in literacy and opportunity.

Do we fight this back with Shamsie? Hell, yes. Literacy and girls’ education is a good place to start. So here’s my personal challenge to publishing houses: How about a year of setting aside a portion of your profits to educating girls?

Namita Bhandare is gender editor, Mint.

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Published: 12 Jun 2015, 08:29 PM IST
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