The 'International Sisterhood' and FGM in Spare Rib (March 1980)

The magazine Spare Rib was published in Britain between 1972 and 1993, challenging “the stereotyping and exploitation of women, while supporting collective, realistic solutions to the hurdles women faced” as the British Library highlights. It was an outspoken publication, tackling topics from orgasms to equal pay to a number of other topics, coinciding with the rise of Second-Wave feminism.

In this issue are examples of what would today likely be called ‘intersectional feminism’ as Spare Rib focuses on “international sisterhood” in March 1980. The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by African-American academic Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and emphasises the need to recognise that none of us has one identity that solely defines us – be it gender, race or any other aspect. Instead, we are all highly complex beings with extremely diverse experiences. When applied to feminism, intersectionality emphasises the need to recognise that although women who identify as feminists all have a common cause (equality between the sexes), black women inevitably have very different issues and needs compared to white, privileged women. Intersectional feminism essentially entails recognising people’s diverse experiences and raising minorities’ voices onto a platform so that they are heard. As such, this issue - discussing women’s issues in Sweden, Russia and Muslim women’s experiences - is highly interesting should the historian wish to see some examples of what could be seen as very early intersectional feminism.

Of particular interest to this theme is the extract from Nawal el Saadawi’s book The Hidden Face of Eve about contemporary female genital mutilation (FGM) in the Arab world, el Saadawi being an Egyptian herself. Spare Rib states that el Saadawi’s works at this time were known throughout the Arab world but were only recently being published in English, illustrating that the magazine wanted to promote her message. El Saadawi in this extract describes her experience of FGM at the age of six years old, being woken up in the night, taken and having “something like an iron grasp caught hold of my hand, and my arms, and my thighs, so that I became unable to resist or even to move”. The pain is conveyed as “not just a pain, it was like a searing flame that went through my whole body”. Perhaps most disturbing is that el Saadawi recounts how “I called out for my mother for help. But the worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my side.”; portraying that FGM at this time was a deeply entrenched cultural phenomenon in Egypt. On returning to school, el Saadawi found that all of her classmates “without exception” had experienced FGM, “no matter what social class they came from”. The extract is very candid and depicts that Spare Rib did not hold back from discussing sensitive issues that women from across the world were facing, alongside more trivial topics such as how to deal with spots which is also a feature in this issue.

Spare Rib follows the extract with an afterword, highlighting that FGM or ‘clitoridectomy’ (as it is called in this magazine) was not only taking place as the custom of “faraway tribal people” but was still taking place in the West. The publication also encourages readers to write to women in Eastern countries where FGM is more commonly performed to learn the ways “these sisters… may want us to support their struggle”. Considering that in popular discourse the feminist movement has been highly ‘white-washed’ in Britain, this issue of Spare Rib serves to provide an alternative narrative; that at least in some publications work was being done to attempt to provide minority and international voices with an audience.


Looking for more sources?

The Hypatia Collection includes a number of other issues of Spare Rib which can be found here, as well as other feminist magazines such as The Female State: A Journal of Female Liberation which can be found here, On the Issues: The Progressive Women’s Quarterly (find this here) and M/F: A Feminist Journal (find this here) which discuss topics of a similar nature relevant to feminism during this period.

The British Library has digitised a huge number of issues of Spare Rib which can be found here. Of particular utility if the historian is interested in this topic of international feminism in this time period may be this discussion of how Spare Rib dealt with the topics of race, identity and difference.

The British Library also has a collection devoted to Sisterhood and within this a section dedicated to race, place and nation. These collections contain a number of resources from secondary commentaries, oral histories and videos which may be of interest in this area.

Written by Anna Hartley

The 'International Sisterhood' and FGM in Spare Rib (March 1980)