Books, Bikes, and Food

Reviews, Recipes, Rides… and some other things, too.


Gioconda Belli: El país de las mujeres (2010)

el_pas_de_las_mujeresI started reading El país de las mujeres (I don’t think it’s been translated) because I was intrigued by its premise and because I remembered having read and enjoyed La mujer habitada (The Inhabited Woman). Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan feminist writer, and this novel is no exception from her feminist literature. In a fictional Central American country called Faguas, Viviana Sansón and her friends decide to launch a radical feminist party, the Partido de la Izquierda Erótica (which abbreviates to PIE, meaning “foot” in Spanish, and so the party’s symbol is a woman’s foot), “Party of the Erotic Left”.

Viviana is a highly successful TV presenter who is on a mission to change the highly corrupt politics of her country. Initially a group of outsiders that relies on political actions mostly designed to attract a lot of attention, they suddenly get help from mother nature: a volcano erupts and its gasses leave the men of Faguas without testosterone. As a result, they become weak, malleable, and lose their will to keep power. Suddenly, the PIE finds itself in power and Viviana is President. She instals a series of measures to change her country, the most radical of which is the removal of all men from government positions.

Men are relegated to the household, while women staff all the ministries, police, the army, and all public services. Of course, some are not happy. As their testosterone levels return to normal, those who have been ousted from power start plotting. The novel opens with their plot coming to fruition: Viviana is shot in the chest at a public rally and falls into a coma. El país de las mujeres runs in two parallel strands of narration, a first in which we witness Viviana’s colleagues and allies dealing with the extraordinary situation, and a second that consists of Viviana’s memories of how she came to power and the developments that led there. She’s stuck in a kind of limbo between life and death in which she remembers all the significant moments in her and her party comrades up until the shooting.

Intriguing, right? And I did enjoy parts of El país de las mujeres quite a lot. But on the whole, I have to confess that this book left me a bit cold. I wasn’t in the right mindset when I started: I expected a novel, but this is a thought experiment. A lot of the political ideas expressed seemed not just far-fetched, as they would have to with this kind of premise, but more than naive and completely unrealistic. Don’t get me wrong, there are many important ideas in this book I wholeheartedly agree with, starting with the premise that the value society attaches to “typically female” tasks such as housekeeping and care-giving needs to be placed on a par with the value of “typically male” tasks. But as a thought experiment I found El país de las mujeres to be a bit simplistic.


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Happy International Women’s Day

To celebrate International Women’s Day, I thought I’d do a round-up of some interesting things in the world of feminism I’ve come across recently (some more bookish than others).

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Currently reading: 

Gioconda Belli’s El país de las mujeres (A Women’s Country). It’s set in a Central American country where a feminist party takes power and starts exercising it, much to the dismay of some men. Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan poet and fiction writer and an awesome feminist. I’ve previously read and enjoyed another of her novels, La Mujer Habitada (The Inhabited Woman). Check her out!

Looking forward to: 

Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. I know I’m REALLY late to the party on that one, everyone and their sister have already read it except me. Since everyone is also raving about it, my excitement just keeps growing!

This excellent quote sets some things straight and is available as a print from this great Etsy shop.


I’ve already ranted at length about the This Girl Can campaign and why I think it’s awesome. For International Women’s Day, the ladies at the BBC have gone and shot their own video of being awesome while female and sweaty.


  • The idea of making International Women’s Day your #feministdayoff (Link in German) – enjoy Sunday while feministing to your heart’s content: watching films, reading, posting a blog entry… the possibilities are endless!
  • This article in the Guardian’s Women in Leadership section addresses an important career dilemma for women: how to manage employees who are older than themselves? (Unfortunately the article’s advice wasn’t that great, I thought, but at least they identified an important topic)
  • One of my male friends who asked his female friends on Facebook what advice he should give to a younger woman in his department. If only more men asked these questions!
  • This post on on feminist books for kids and teenagers. Yeah for getting them started early!

Have a great day 🙂


“This Girl Can” – Of Criticisms and Pigs (of Sorts)

Today’s post is slightly off topic from what I usually write about, but I’ve given this quite a lot of thought over the last week or so and wanted to share and discuss it with you knowledgeable folks on the Interwebs. Many of you have probably already watched the latest Youtube video to go viral: the This Girl Can campaign launched by Sport England. If you haven’t, here it is in all its glory:

The good folks over at Sports England have studied what keeps women from exercising and found that a lot of them don’t exercise for fear of being judged for their looks while they do sports. This isn’t surprising, since sports brands and fitness clubs only ever seem to put pictures of perfectly toned stick insects on their advertisements. And from fashion mags and ads we already know that our bodies are far from perfect. So naturally, lots of women don’t exercise because they’re intimidated. Will they be made fun of? Will the guys at the gym find them ugly? Will the other super-fit almost-models with whom gyms, pools, and sports centres are apparently populated judge them? So Sports England went and made this awesome video to show “normal” women doing their favourite sports: swimming, dancing, cycling, etc.

I LOVE THIS CAMPAIGN. I felt hugely inspired by these fabulous ladies doing their thing and having the time of their lives. I myself am a woman with many “imperfections” and I’ve felt super self-conscious when doing exercise because of them. In fact, I felt so inspired that I even took a silly selfie of my post swimming-pool racoon face and posted it under the #thisgirlcan hashtag. Here it is, just for kicks:

But of course, as these things go, whenever a campaign to empower women is launched, the critics from the feminist camp itself aren’t far away. The Guardian published a piece by Jessica Francombe-Webb and Simone Fullagar entitled “The This Girl Can campaign is all about sex, not sport”. Essentially, its points are: (1) Where are the women? If this campaign is targeted at all women, why does it perpetuate the myth of “youthfulness” and belittle women by calling them “girls”? (2) By accompanying the campaign with lines such as “Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox”, women’s bodies are once again sexualised and objectified. It ends thus:

It’s disappointing that a campaign to get women more physically active doesn’t focus on how exercise strengthens friendship, reduces the stress of work and care and gives us physical and emotional strength. And we suppose it would be far too much to ask to see a campaign that shows exercise as an opportunity to find an active space outside the cult of body worship and display.

First of all, I want to emphasise that I find these thoughts important. We need to have a discussion about them.

I still disagree with the article.  I’m not the only one, either. Erika Nicole Kendall of This Black Girl’s Weight Loss published a very interesting critique of The Guardian’s piece, and I recommend it. She argues that the term “girl” is used in a colloquial way by the campaign, not to exclude elderly women. And she also argues that the language used precisely plays on stupid stereotypes such as women sweating “like pigs” being un-sexy or “to throw like a girl” meaning to throw badly. Indeed, I would argue that a more “thoughtful” campaign like the one The Guardian’s critics would like to see wouldn’t have gone viral the way This Girl Can did. And if it gets even one more woman to exercise who didn’t do sports because of body image issues before, then this campaign has already done a tremendous job.

I’m aware the campaign isn’t perfect. Personally, I’m quite bothered by how snuggly they are with certain sports apparel producers, especially since these folks are to a great degree responsible for perpetuating the idea that you need a “perfect” body to exercise through their very own ads. Links to sports apparel brands are only a few clicks away once you start digging into the This Girl Can resources: if you scroll down the “swimming” page, you will find a link to… (wait for it)… a Speedo campaign that’s basically an undercover ad for their “body-shaping” swimwear

“to help your body appear in perfect proportion, creating optical illusions that enhance and shape the body: slimming, lengthening, balancing or creating curves, while distracting from the bits you’re not so keen on.”

I kid you not. Major “WTF” moment right there.

However, I want to discuss something else about the criticism levied against this campaign and many other initiatives that’s been driving me up the wall. As I’ve previously mentioned, whenever a book/campaign/whatever intended to help empowering women comes out, it’s instantly criticised by some feminists for everything it doesn’t do. For example, as I discussed in my post back then, Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In received plenty of criticism for ignoring the hardships of women not in up-scale managerial positions, as well as for taking pressure of institutional and societal reform by calling women to “lean in” and overcome barriers rather than calling to remove such barriers, etc. All of these are important points, I admit.

BUT. Why the hell do we feminists expect every women’s empowerment campaign to address ALL THE ISSUES? This is simply impossible. No single campaign, especially if it wants to move out of the obscure corner of high-brow feminism in which only very few feminists actually feel comfortable, can address every single problem there is with gender inequality. Or even “only” the problems with objectification, sexualisation, and body image issues. Campaigns like This Girl Can are designed to address A LOT OF WOMEN, including many who have never thought about any of these questions and “just” don’t feel comfortable while exercising because they don’t “look right”.

I’ve found a term for this demand for empowerment campaigns to address the entire universe of all that is wrong with the feminist world. Unfortunately, it only works in German. So bear with me for a moment. My wonderful mother tongue has a great term for wanting something that solves all the problems you’ve ever had, are currently having, and will ever have. You’re looking for an “eierlegende Wollmilchsau”, a pig that lays eggs, gives milk, and grows wool.

Now that would be a handy beast to have, right? Just as handy as it is fictional, of course. What people, more often than not, seem to expect of empowerment initiatives is a swiss army knife-type of solution.

It sometimes seems as if everyone else gets to do single-issue campaigns, except the good people seeking to empower women. They target young women (or “girls”), they’re criticised for not thinking of the elderly. They target professional women at the management level, they’re criticised for not considering working-class women. They use colloquial language, they’re chided for perpetuating stereotypes. It seems that women, and especially women’s empowerment campaigns (books, articles, speeches, whatever), really can never have (or do) it all, especially when it comes to living up to expectations.

I think in many cases it’s because the campaigns and the campaigners themselves overreach in their language and portray themselves as the saviours we’ve all been waiting for to relieve us of gender inequality.

But more importantly, I think it’s because we still don’t have enough of those campaigns. They’re so far and few between that whenever one does come out, we expect the world of it. Encouraging all kinds, shapes, sizes, and colours of women to work out should be normal, not a one-off thing that goes viral on Youtube. Encouraging women to be just as (professionally and personally) successful as they want to be shouldn’t fall only to the Sheryl Sandbergs of this world, it’s a responsibility to be assumed by bosses, politicians, rule-makers and society as a whole to create an environment in which women (and other genders!) can live the lives they want, and to remove any barriers that hinder this development.

In the meantime, we should cut these campaigns and initiatives some slack. Baby steps are where it’s at, people! These initiatives are each working on their part of the puzzle. No initiative can do it all. There are no egg-laying wool-milk pigs (who could even handle the cuteness overload?!). We need all different sorts of animals to provide eggs, wool, milk, and ham. And that’s a good thing. Because variety and diversity are good things, right?


Anne Wizorek: Weil ein #Aufschrei nicht reicht: für einen Feminismus von heute (2014)

Ger_Lit_Month_2014This is my non-fiction instalment for German Lit Month. It hasn’t been translated because it only just came out (and the context is very specific to the German-speaking world and Germany in particular), but its title roughly translates to “Because an #Outcry is not enough: for a contemporary feminism”. It’s difficult to write about this book because I wanted to love it so much that I find it hard to acknowledge that I thought it was a bit of a disappointment. BUT, let me get this out first: I think it’s a hugely important book, especially for those who are sort of drawn to feminism but haven’t made contact yet. It provides a good introduction to some of the main issues and above all, it makes clear that feminism isn’t some sort of man-hating club of bitter female professors who sit around in stuffy offices and hate on each other and all things male. I just wish it was a bit better executed.aufschrei_book

I can’t stress enough how important feminism has become for me over recent years. The older I become, the more impatient I get with issues like the glass ceiling, male privilege, and everyday sexism. And I think the events of the last few weeks only prove me right. An ESA scientist wore a hugely unprofessional shirt on the day of us landing a robot on a comet and no-one thought to prevent him from it (if you’re going to read one final article about “that shirt”, please make it this one, it’s simply brilliant, and if you want one more, this one is also very good)*, resulting in Lewis’s Law being proven right on about a million articles. The morning after pill has to become prescription-free by order of a European agency and against the will of Germany’s most important political force, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The compulsory 30% quota for women on the boards of listed companies in Germany – that will affect just over 100 companies in total because smaller companies are not obligated to implement it – is pushed through after years and years of negotiation and vitriol (the vitriol, of course, continues to be spilled all over the place). I think we have plenty of reason not to become complacent about “how far we’ve come” on gender equality.

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Ursula K. Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

Left_hand_darknessAre you ready for a confession? Because this girl has to eat some humble pie. I read a science fiction* book, and I loved it. Who would have ever thought this would happen? I admit that my dislike of the genre is based mainly on prejudice: I just don’t care that much for star ships. But as with all genres, there’s usually something out there that’s just right for you.

What drew me to The Left Hand of Darkness was, an article in the Guardian, advertising it as feminist science fiction and stating that it “arguably marks the point where SF came into its true political strength.” Together with a fellow political scientist’s recommendation, that had me intrigued, so I decided to venture outside my comfort zone and into the world of Gethen, a planet of genderless inhabitants. “Genderless” only most of the time though, because once per month they come into “kemmer”, during which they take on either the role of a man or that of a woman, and they appear to have some choice in the matter.

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Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre (1847)

jane_eyre_smallRecently, I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump. I’ve been exhausted, and it seems to me I tried a bit too hard with my reading choices recently. I’m still working on La muerte de Artemio Cruz, and I think it’ll only be a matter of years until I finish The Book of Disquiet (which is excellent, but I can only take it in small doses). In other words, I needed some palate cleansers. Two books were chosen to perform this task: Jane Eyre and All the President’s Men. The latter is doing an excellent job and I’ll tell you all about it once I’m done. Jane Eyre was a bit more difficult to get into, but about halfway through the action picked up, and it turned into quite a good pageturner, actually!

Jane Eyre starts out a little bit slow with a poor orphan, Jane, who is forced to live with her rich relations. She knows of no other family she might have left, and her aunt and cousins treat her very badly. But Jane is headstrong, and she has a sharp sense of the injustice she’s suffering, so that doesn’t help her standing: she speaks up and gets punished even harder as a result. Her salvation occurs when she’s sent to school. Even though life there is hard, there’s sickness, hunger, and cold, she makes friends and is able to move forward, becoming first a very good student and later a teacher at the school. Jane, you see, loves books (a trait that endeared her to me).

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Caitlin Moran: How to be a Woman (2011)

This is another one of those posts I begin by going “I read this ages ago but never posted on it because…” This time, my excuse is that I wanted to do this review “properly”, but I’ve realised this is probably never going to happen, so I’ve decided to just post some more or less incoherent thoughts based on notes I took after finishing How to be a Woman. For more coherent thoughts, I’d like to refer you to the posts of the more put-together-than-me ladies Melissa and Iris – and there are probably a million other excellent reviews out there (if you’ve written one, please do leave a link in the comments!).

So, How to be a Woman. Honestly, it’s not often that a book produces such conflicting reactions in me. There were bits I wanted to shout from the rooftops because everyone needs to hear them loud and clear, but there were also parts where I wanted to get a hold of Moran and give her a good shake. I think the reason for this is that How to be a Woman doesn’t really know what it wants to be: a feminist manifesto, a “hilarious” autobiography, or a show of “I am Caitlin Moran and look how awesome I am”.

As it stands, it has a bit of each, and as a result, the fact that it has been heralded as the new awesome feminist manifesto is, at least in my view, a problem. How to be a Woman mixes Moran’s feminist with other views that don’t seem to be particularly well thought-out (e.g. her constant quoting of Germaine Greer, known holder of anti-transgender views – what is up with that?!*). Throw in some not strictly necessary episodes that seem to be there mostly in order to reinforce Moran’s own standing as The Coolest Woman On Earth, a.k.a. “Look at me, I party with Lady Gaga!!! Does that make me cool or what?!”), and you get a rather confusing jumble. If this is the New Feminist Manifesto Every Woman Needs To Read, I think we need to reassess our expectations, because we’re heading in the wrong direction.

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