Naomi Wolf: No Western feminism model for Asia

Naomi Wolf: No Western feminism model for Asia

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.

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