The lioness eats the parrot: a feminist response to an “alternative” reading

A Serious Conversation

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Mada Masr published an article “An Alternative Reading of Feminist Discourse”. In this article, the author – a self-proclaimed feminist man – says he wants to open a “serious conversation” with feminists. Criticism is important, and should be welcomed by any movement that wants to remain reflexive and accountable. We don’t receive enough genuine criticism and engagement. Rather, we are flooded with reactionary anti-feminist rubbish that we waste our energies defending ourselves against. We want to take seriously any attempt to genuinely engage in a conversation about feminism.  So here we go.

The article opens with a quote from Camille Paglia, an academic and social critic who rose to fame in the early 1990’s (and perhaps should have been left there) for her highly controversial criticisms of feminism. More recently, in Time magazine, she described any talk of rape culture** as ‘hysterical propaganda’, arguing instead that men are biologically programmed towards rape, particularly when they see too much ‘bared flesh and sexy clothes’. She argued that young women dressing provocatively simply do not understand the ‘constant nearness of [men’s] savage nature’.  Paglia argues that men are inherently violent and innately sexually predatory. So actually it’s Camille Paglia (rather than feminists, as the article suggests) who believe that there is no possibility of a masculinity that is anything other than aggressive and predatory. It’s kind of strange then that so many men support, and indeed quote from, Paglia’s arguments about men’s intrinsic nature.

There is no shortage of rape apologists, from Camille Paglia to the convicted rapist Mukesh Singh, who after brutally raping and killing Jyoti Singh claimed that ‘a girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy’. Or when Tamer Amin blamed a girl for being sexually assaulted by a group of men inside the university because of her clothes. In a moment like this, we have to ask, what kind of solidarity can we foster? And with who? What do we want from male allies in a time of pervasive rape culture? What does solidarity look like?

It has to be said from the outset that the so-called “different” or “alternative” view of feminism offered in the Mada Masr article, is not at all different or new. These same critiques have been made of feminism for many decades now. Problematising the notion of organising around an injured or victimised identity category (which is the basis of identity politics) has been a live discussion within the feminist movement itself for decades.  Third wave feminists have since the early 1990s rejected the gender binary, and instead looked towards queer theory, postcolonial theory, women-of-colour organising, postmodernism, anti-racist organising, and transgender politics as the basis for a new feminism.

Political Identities vs. Political Practice

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If we agree that categorical identity politics is exclusionary and perpetuates a hierarchical way of thinking, then how can we think about feminism? If we don’t organise and identify around the category of being a “woman”, then what do we organise around? It is here that it is important to understand the difference between identity and practice. Let us imagine a feminist activism that is not centred on the subject (that is, the woman, and often a white woman), but on the object (that is, political practice). Third wave feminists have sought to separate feminist political practice from the fixed identity category of being a “woman”.

Challenging categorical thinking is not incompatible with feminist activism; instead, it opens up a new way of thinking of possibilities for changing oppressive mentalities. There cannot be a universal prescription for men’s relationship to feminism, a universal decree on whether you are “in” or “out”. Thinking through our lived experiences of patriarchal practices (as opposed to our identities of man versus woman) allows us to live with the messiness, the contradictions, the fluidity of our realities. It allows us to think differently about queer men, transmen, transwomen, men who have survived sexual assault, men who have suffered under patriarchy. And men who have simultaneously benefited and suffered from patriarchy.

The two-eyed metaphor for feminism used in the article therefore limits the possibilities, and attempts to squeeze a complex and messy reality into a simplistic binary. The article argues that society needs to look with both eyes in order to achieve a complete vision, rather than being myopic and adopting either the view of men or the view of women. This two-eyed “balanced” view echoes some sort of yin yang harmony where the two genders (who are “equal, but different”) coexist in a perfectly balanced heterosexual binary, where men and women complete one another. This denies the plurality and diversity of genders and sexualities, and restricts us into a suffocating and fundamentally patriarchal set of binary norms and identity categories. These oppositional binary categories of male and female are indeed artificial constructs which maintain the power of the dominant group – in this case, men. Such gender categories are fundamentally oppressive for humans.

There are not two eyes, but many. What someone who has suffered under patriarchy sees is going to be different to what someone who benefits from patriarchy sees. What we see may not balance or complement what you see. What we see is born out of our experiences of oppression, of violence, of sexism, of dismissal, of fear. That is where our knowledge comes from, that’s where our rage comes from, and that’s where our desire for action comes from. These experiences, these personal histories, leave us fragile. They leave us angry. It is often extremely painful experiences – of violence, of assault – that lead us to feminism. It is these memories that get woven into a feminist politics.  As Sara Ahmed reminds us, feminism hurts.

Our lived experiences of oppression come not just at the hands of patriarchy, but from interlocking systems of oppression – nationalism, racism, imperialism, classism, capitalism, homophobia and transphobia. We need to ask ourselves, how do all these systems intersect? It is not surprising that amidst such alienation and prevailing neoliberal individualism, the author makes a cry for inclusion.

Power and Privilege

If we can agree that identity categories are barren terrain around which to organise or find solidarity, then we have to think about our experiences, practices, and performances of gender. We have to think about who is privileged, in what ways, and in which moments. Feminism is not about hating men (although of course some feminists do hate men), nor is it about glorifying the category of women. It comes down to a simple analysis of power in any given moment, which may be dynamic, fluid and contingent on a particular set of circumstances. It’s about seeing a male-conforming person in the street and knowing that he walks around with a sense of safety and security and entitlement that the woman beside him (even the most right-wing and anti-feminist of women) never gets to experience. It means that her and I are constantly living within our bodies and within the world knowing that we are rapeable. This does not mean that this woman is necessarily my ally, nor that this man is my enemy. It means that he carries a form of patriarchal privilege that is attached to his performance of the male gender. Even if both men and women are subjected to the aggression and violence of the state, of capitalism, of imperialism, on top of this, women have to deal with the violence and aggression of men, including their male comrades.

Thinking that all men are potential enemies is simply a strategy of safety. If we are consistently attacked by a particular creature, should we not learn to think that this creature might be harmful? Should we not act as if we are potentially under threat? Privilege is embedded in male bodies, whether they practice this privilege materially or we experience its immaterial effects. So seeing all male-conforming bodies as a threat helps to keep us safe, and it is for men to prove otherwise. It is up to you to turn your back to me in the elevator so I don’t feel threatened, it is up to you to cross the road away from me when walking late at night. You cannot ask me to trust you until I have evidence that you are trustworthy. And trust can be gained in a range of ways, some of them less tangible than others. We remain deeply suspicious of those men who talk the talk of feminism, who have access to class privilege, have access to information and feminist discourse that allow them to pass themselves off within certain educated circles. At the same time, they coerce women into sex, dominate political conversations, and fundamentally see women as lesser intellectual and social beings than themselves. While at the same time, working class men bare the brunt of policing and stereotyping around public sexual harassment. My trust then is gained through how you talk, how you move, how you look at me, how much space you allow women in your conversations, and how you treat the women in your life.

Those who suffer under patriarchy – primarily but not exclusively women – are always asked not to be affected by the everyday aggression that we face simply moving around in the world. We are meant to remain calm, be forgiving, not over-react, not be angry, not be hostile, not to assume the worst of men. We are asked to prioritise what is most effective for the movement, to consider what would make us more popular and more palatable for non-feminists.

Feminism as the Female Version of Patriarchy

A reductive view of gender and power might wrongly categorise feminism and patriarchy as two opposing sides of the same coin. That is, that feminism is “pro-women” and patriarchy is “pro-men”, and therefore an assertion of feminism is just the same as patriarchy, but by women. This logic misses the fundamental point that feminism and patriarchy are not symmetrical ideologies with a difference of gender. Patriarchy is an all-encompassing system of domination in which males hold a disproportionate share of power, political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property; and in the family, fathers hold authority over women and children. Feminism is a liberatory ideology which seeks to overturn this domination and replace it with equality.

Even if there were such a thing as a “feminarchy” (as opposed to feminism), then it still wouldn’t be the female version of patriarchy, because such symmetry does not exist. Men and women (as complicated and problematic as those categories are) do not have symmetrical and therefore invertible experiences of gender oppression. To imply that they do is just as ludicrous as the concept of “reverse racism”, which has been hilariously debunked by the anti-racist comedian Aamer Rahman. Feminarchy or reverse racism are both concepts based upon a complete denial of history. It comes from a fundamentally defensive position, whereby men are quick to claim that they too suffer, that they too are oppressed. Any conversation about gender-based violence or sexual assault will no doubt find at least one man piping up with the defensive claim that women also abuse their male partners or sexually assault men. Any talk of “both sides” in relation to a conflict between the categories of “men” and “women”, assumes a historical and contemporary relationship of equality that has simply never existed. As in the Israel-Palestine conflict, any talk of “both sides” needs to undertake a serious historical excavation of who these sides are.

The writer Jess Zimmerman has proposed five possible stages in the development of a man’s feminist consciousness. She argues that the trajectory goes like this:

1. Sexism is a fake idea invented by feminists.

2. Sexism happens, but the effect of “reverse sexism” on men is just as bad or worse.

3. Sexism happens, but the important part is that I personally am not sexist.

4. Sexism happens, and I benefit from that whether or not I personally am sexist.

5. Sexism happens, I benefit from it, I am unavoidably sexist sometimes because I was socialised that way, and if I want to be anti-sexist, I have to be actively working against that socialisation.

At the risk of sounding patronising, the article in question registers somewhere around the second or third stage, with the writer seemingly quite stuck on the negative effects of “reverse sexism” on men, particularly men who identify broadly with the feminist cause. It is no wonder that men find feminism aggressive and difficult and that it gives rise to a certain reactionary defensiveness. A feminist political practice or agenda, by its very nature, requires men who benefit from patriarchy to give something up. To surrender a degree of power and privilege. And it means surrendering this privilege quietly – without thanks, without acknowledgement, without gaining the adoration of women for being a “good guy”. It means not taking up space, in every sense of the word. It means closing your legs on public transport, it means piping down sometimes when among female friends even when you really have a point to make, it means recognising and challenging all the benefits you receive from women’s unpaid labour, including emotional labour.

Not All Men…

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The author complains about being blamed by feminists for the crimes of those of his gender, crimes he acknowledges are committed by other men, but not by him. This is basically a variation of the Not All Men argument, which has been used since at least the early 1980s (probably earlier) but circulated in 2013-14 as an internet meme. Not All Men refers to a defensive strategy used by men (but not all men!) to interrupt a conversation about a feminist issue to remind the speaker that “not all men” are guilty of that particular offence. Instead of reflecting on their own relationship to patriarchy and privilege, these men derail the conversation by making their feelings and experiences the centre of the conversation. The Not All Men interjection does not help us to fight against behaviours that are primarily committed by men, against women and against other men. Not all men are rapists or violent partners, but the overwhelming majority of rapists or violent partners are men. The fact that that not all men commit these acts does not change the overwhelming gendered nature of these dynamics. And the real point is, while “not all men” commit gender crimes like rape and sexual assault, all men do benefit from male privilege in various ways. And it is this that some self-identified feminist men struggle to admit.

Jess Zimmerman has also pointed out that the “not all men” interruption could be considered a sub-category of mansplaining. “Mansplaining” is a term used to describe an explanation that is given in a condescending, patronising tone, usually from a man to a woman, regardless of the respective knowledges and experiences of the two people. In most cases, the term mansplaining is used when a man attempts to explain to a woman something that she in fact knows more about than he does. The “not all men” interruption can be considered a form of mansplaining since a man privileges his perspective in explaining to a woman how patriarchal oppression functions.

On Being an Ally

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If interruptions such as “not all men” are fundamentally unconstructive, then what contributions can male allies actually make? What is an ally? What does being an ally look like? An ally is certainly not someone who tells feminists how to set their goals and how to better attract the oppressor to the movement. The person who is oppressed should not have to make joining the movement softer and easier for the oppressor. Let us imagine for a moment a white person writing a manifesto on why they felt that political organising by people of colour was exclusionary, and offering advice on how anti-racist movements could be less alienating for white people. Or a white “anti-racist” manifesto that blames people of colour for their own oppressed position. There are plenty of resources to turn to on how to be an ally and, importantly, how to not be an ally.

It is not a new critique to point out that women also transmit patriarchy. This is not a revelation made by men, but is an issue that has been discussed for decades by feminists. I don’t know any form of feminism that exculpates women from being transmitters of patriarchal culture. Women are of course not separate from the hegemonic power structures of patriarchy and it is important to examine the ways that women perpetuate and sustain patriarchal culture.

Let us think about why women are bringing up children according to patriarchal norms. Firstly, the reality is that women the ones most burdened with childcare responsibilities. They are the primary carers and play an important part in their children’s socialisation. Secondly, women and men impose paternalistic domination over children within a heterosexist nuclear family environment in order to ensure that their children succeed within a patriarchal society. Why, for example, do women practice female genital cutting upon their daughters? Because they want them to marry well, because they have been raised to believe that women’s messy desiring vaginas need to be made tighter, made cleaner, and generally reduced in order to reduce their sexual desires and sexual pleasures. To whose benefit is this? In whose interest is this? While some women are raising dominant sons and submissive daughters, we have to analyse the power dynamics of the broader context to understand why.

We have all been socialised into oppressive modes of thinking. Why is it that it’s not only white cops who shoot unarmed black men in the US, but also black cops? Why is there no solidarity between black cops and other young black men? Because everyone has been conditioned to believe that young black men are a threat, are prone to violence, and are therefore fundamentally killable. In Egypt, why is it that poor police or army conscripts direct their guns towards those who are revolting against the very conditions that put them in this inhumane position? Why aren’t they instead turning their guns on those who are responsible for their condition – the state, the army, the officers, the corrupt and privileged businessmen? Because they are conditioned to service a nationalistic, classist, militaristic logic that works to keep them poor and oppressed.

Against this social context, it takes work to be an ally, not just an announcement. Being an ally cannot be about your feelings. Being an ally is also not about ignoring difference, and the attendant power and privilege that is attached to those differences. It’s about recognising the everyday micro-politics of power and privilege and working against it as best we can. We cannot deny the forms of privilege that we carry in our bodies – male privilege, color privilege, class privilege, heterosexual privilege, able-bodied privilege. We have to acknowledge the forms of privilege that are afforded to us based upon the bodies and statuses that we inhabit. And that these privileges accrue not just on an individual level, but on a structural level.

Being an ally is about listening. Any person who claims to be an ally has to expect and accept some degree of accountability. If you want to be an ally to feminist women, you have to accept that feminist women are going to hold you to account. Most important perhaps, is how to respond when they do. Allies have to be able to articulate how particular forms of privilege benefit them while oppressing others. For many people, this means exploring the ways in which we are all at various times both the oppressor and the oppressed. And it might mean accepting that as someone who benefits from patriarchy and male privilege, you may sometimes feel excluded from feminism. This comes with the terrain of acknowledging your own privilege.

If paying for your privilege appears too radical or as another example of feminists going “too far”, then maybe being a feminist is not for you. Ultimately, a feminist discourse is not trying to market the movement or its ideology to make it more palatable to its opponents, or to the oppressor. A radical agenda for change does not seek to be reformist or populist. A radical discourse contributes to shifting the centre, to shaping what can be said and what can be imagined, beyond a liberal reformist agenda.

(**Rape culture is used to describe the persistent acceptance and naturalisation of rape and violence against women due to certain beliefs about gender and sexuality. In rape culture, the persistence of rape is “just the way things are”. Rape culture includes victim blaming, sexual objectification, denial of widespread rape and violence against women, trivialising rape, and denying the harm of some forms of sexual violence. In rape culture, people are surrounded by images, language, law, and everyday practices and statements that validate rape. Rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, laws, words, and imagery that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem normal. For more on rape culture, see FORCE.)

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