Heather McDaid, Elif Shafak & Nicola Sturgeon
Photograph courtesy of: © Antonia Reeve
Turkish author Elif Shafak is one of this year’s Guest Selectors for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Across a series of events she has built a fascinating programme of discussions, including this afternoon’s discussion of life as a woman in the public eye with Nicola Sturgeon and Heather McDaid. Her choice of guests was based on the idea that in a fluid, fast moving world filled with anxiety we need more narratives of hope. We need to hear more from people with a vision and, in particular, we need women of vision to speak louder.
Nicola Sturgeon needs little introduction but Shafak emphasises the powerful image she creates as First Minister for Scotland. Her very existence as a successful female politician sends a strong message, both at home and abroad. Heather McDaid is much newer to the public eye and making her mark in a very different way. She is one of the two founders of 404 Ink, an independent Scottish publisher that burst into existence with Nasty Women. The day after the election of Donald Trump they set out to reclaim his disparaging comment about women with opinions and use it to create a platform for the voices of women seldom heard, in a much more meaningful way than simply slapping ‘Nasty Woman’ on a t-shirt.
Shafak has led a fairly nomadic life but explains that she never experienced any form of culture shock until this morning. Leaders in Turkey simply don’t talk about books, she’s not entirely sure they even read them, and they certainly never discuss women’s rights or LGBT. It was a shock for her to contrast that with the fact that she was about to spend an hour discussing all of those things with a female leader who will be marching in Glasgow’s Pride tomorrow, and a leader who has also made frequent Book Festival appearances in recent years as the interviewer rather than the interviewee.
Sturgeon may seem an unconventional politician to many but her style of politics is becoming more conventional in Scotland. Particularly on LGBT Scotland has an excellent record. We celebrate equal marriage, Sturgeon happily attends Pride, and three out of our five political party leaders are open about being LGBT themselves. Many more politicians in Scotland, from every political and personal background, are becoming more willing to frequently speak up against prejudice, against hate, against injustice.
There is, however, still a long way to go. Sturgeon points out that the legal mechanisms of sexism and the larger social attitude have made great strides but there is a difference between theory and practice and we must keep pushing forward. She recently had a conversation with a 19-year-old man who felt that feminism had achieved equality and was starting to undermine men. The very fact that a young man could feel that way exemplifies that the fight is not yet over. McDaid points out that when you have had privilege then equality feels like oppression, which is a topic not touched on often enough. The point is repeatedly made that we cannot take the rights we have won for granted when they can so easily be taken away. We need to reach out, make more connections, and establish a global solidarity to reach across borders, generations, and genders.
Reaching out applies to other arenas than feminism as well. Shafak admired Sturgeon’s response to Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn Neo Nazis in Chartlottesville this past week. Sturgeon always tries to speak from the heart and felt she could not stay silent in the face of such blatant bigotry. Some things are too fundamental for diplomatic silence. An audience member asks about respect for the President as the elected leader, causing a ripple of discomfort because how can you respect such an ignorant, volatile man? Sturgeon strongly points out that human rights abuses and inequalities prevail because people won’t speak truth to power. Diplomatic silence and ‘respect for the office’ are not always appropriate and must surely be put aside to address the bigotry he seems so determined to encourage.
The rise of nationalist movements is a concern for everyone, though it does sometimes lead to uncomfortable discussions of the name of Sturgeon’s party. If she could go back 90 years and select a word other than ‘National’ she would, because everything the SNP stands for is at complete odds with the ideas conveyed by ‘Nationalism’ in the rest of the world. Indeed I once had to explain to a former flatmate that the values of the SNP were the polar opposite of the nationalist parties she knew in Germany. The SNP strives for inclusion and looking outwards to take on a greater voice on the world’s stage. They are always pushing for greater tolerance and openness and welcoming anyone who wishes to call Scotland their home.
Tolerance and open discussion were two of the factors behind Nasty Women. McDaid explains that they wanted to get as many different female voices as possible. Instead of reaching for the usual laundry list of ‘inspiring women’ they set up open submissions, asking for essays from anyone who wanted to contribute. They were overwhelmed by the support received. They reached their initial Kickstarter target of £6,000 in two days, eventually reaching £22,000, and gained a wide network of supporters, including names like Margaret Atwood, a fact that seems to leave McDaid overwhelmed. The whole idea was to reach people outside their usual echo chamber and allow each person to define how they wanted to reclaim the ‘nasty women’ moniker for themselves.
For the most part they received a vast amount of support and McDaid mentions the importance of a Facebook group filled with women in publishing that became an invaluable source of support and advice. But anyone looking at the Internet knows that social media has a dark side. She jokes that she can only begin to imagine what Sturgeon’s Twitter feed looks like. Even though she feels social media can be hugely important because it gives everyone a voice, there can be a backlash as well. During the process of putting Nasty Women together a group of American Nazis began sending them photographs of mutilated women, though I imagine that was not the only abuse they received. Sturgeon agrees that social media can be hugely empowering and it does democratise debate, but it also makes it easier to threaten. Previously if you wanted to threaten a politician with rape or murder you had to find paper, envelopes, stamps, a postbox. Now you can just type and hit send. Her comments are presented in a humorous way but offer an unsettling insight into the type of content she must see daily.
“Think of the differences between information, knowledge, and wisdom.” – Elif Shafak
Shafak explains the importance of social media in the Middle East where many women can only truly find their voice online but there are barriers. In Turkey Wikipedia is banned and other sites regulated. It’s an alternative online environment where you can only get information from approved, filtered sources, which makes it ever more important for a global solidarity that remains connected to individuals from such countries and attempts to keep information flowing. Though this also brings up the question of how to keep accurate information flowing when outright lies and misinformation are tweeted multiple times a day from the supposed ‘leader of the free world’. Trump tweets nonsense or falsehoods so often that the internet moves too quickly for journalists to be able to adequately counter each one and so the truth is printed piecemeal and fails to keep up with stampeding orange thumbs.
The whole event is alternately fascinating, insightful, and frustrating. It is incredible to have these three women together in open, frank discussion. But, it is also a reminder of the world at large and how many would love to silence them. During the question session there is a reminder of the way the world outside works. The only two men to ask questions both get hold of the microphone and begin monologuing, and continue to do so until both the audience and speakers remind them that they are supposed to have an actual question. One was the individual questioning whether Sturgeon should have more respect for the Oval Office’s latest resident (he of the ‘nasty women’, ‘covfefe’ and ‘the White House is a dump’ comments). The second attempts to question Sturgeon’s additions to the Clark’s children’s shoes argument by bringing up her love of the local shop Totty Rocks. Sturgeon’s first counter is that Totty Rocks is a shop owned and run by two women who picked the name for themselves. The second is that her problem with the Clark’s shoes was not that the girls’ shoe was called ‘Dolly Babe’; it was that the boys’ shoe was called ‘Leader’. She speaks of her 11-year-old niece, who currently wants everything to be pink. She has no problem with the pink but worries intensely that any part of a little girl’s brain might associate the word ‘leader’ with the word ‘boy’. She repeats the phrase that has come up time and time again: ‘The words we use matter’, and they matter a lot.