Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Gender and Patriarchy as Micro Issues

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I found myself thinking recently, how some discourses about gender and patriarchy use such abstract language to talk about everyday realities, that they often miss out on being useful to women oppressed every day in small and big ways.

I was thinking there are ways someone can cause emotional terrorism (not blackmail, but terrorism) such as by telling you one morning that another helpless human being could have died because of your inaction.

Same day, I had a discussion on empathy with oppressor and later, separately, was, for some odd reason, inspired to buy bell hooks’ book “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love” and she uses the term psychological terrorism and talks about all the patriarchal micro-transgressions females go through on a day to day basis. Much of what she talks about resonates with me, but not all. For example, I did not in any way have an aggressive father. He was tender and loving and giving. I had lots of issues with him, but I never doubted his love. It’s not that he was perfect at showing his love (e.g. When he knew I was pregnant after years of trying his reaction was pretty bland; i only ever remember seeing him cry once; he rarely defended me when I needed him to) but he was nothing like the kind of father bell hooks describes. But a lot of other stuff she talks of resonates with me, e.g.

“Patriarchal culture has already taught [kids] that Dad’s love is more valuable than mother love” – bell hooks

I see this every day. It might be an Elektra complex. But it might be society. On another level, I remember being a kid and wanting to be a boy. Instead, I was a tomboy, and was so proud when boys told me, “you’re …a boy!” – I was tall and strong and could fight (but was no bully by any stretch of the imagination). And then it was suddenly time I wanted guys to look at me differently, as a woman. And I think about this now, and notice it’s all been about how men/boys perceive me. I reached a stage where I liked the attention, then I reached the stage where I wanted more respect than sexual attention (yes, we women know where guys look when we wear certain things, and though we like the way we look in the mirror, we don’t always like those looks from just anyone) – and so I made the decision to start wearing what is known as “hijab” (that’s head covering, plus dressing more conservatively, though people tend to emphasize the head part). No one in my family forced me into it. In fact, they weren’t too thrilled about it. I don’t kid myself here: yes, it was a totally independent decision, i thought it through a lot and have never looked back. Yes, it’s not required in Egypt. Yes, people of my social class do not feel culturally compelled to wear it or anything. There are so many layers here, but one important one is this: whatever independence I had in making that decision was still clouded by how I wanted men to perceive me (or not). I did not want a particular type of attention or gaze. I was 20 years old, and I was done with it. My now-husband met me for the first time around 5 years later. I once asked him after we got married what first attracted him to me, and his answer shocked me, “your looks”. And I was like, what looks? I cover the most beautiful parts of me (and I am by no means beautiful altogether, and I am comfortable with it, still a bit of a tomboy in me), I wear no makeup, v little jewelry… I intentionally don’t mean to attract by my looks, though I mean to attract by my personality. I was insulted, but then stepped back and thought, “would I want to be married to someone who did not find me beautiful?” – and the answer, of course, was no. I’d like to think there were more important traits that made him propose, but I can’t be stupid about this: of course I’d rather he thought I was pretty.

And here is where bell hooks does something beautiful. She talks about how feminists often in their anger and rage at men fail to acknowledge that despite women’s anger at men, they want to be loved by them. Often, the feminist way (which I now admit has been mine) was to reach a level of hardness where one no longer needs men. But that ignores their existence. We may wish them dead and fallen off the face of the earth so we can be liberated, but will we be truly liberated if they do? Will it truly make us happy? Will we be happy if all our kids (who, admit it, adore their dads, and we are jealous) were all suddenly fahterless? Aren’t there aspects of maleness that we like, need or even actually love, at least in some of the males in our lives?

And bell hooks goes one even better: she talks about how little women have invested in trying to understand men, how patriarchy as a social phenomenon affects them, makes it difficult for them to express themselves freely and openly. And hence makes it difficult for them to in turn love us, the way we wish to be loved.

A lot of the relationship issues I see here in Egypt occur because women have allowed men to get away with all manner of things. And then proceeded to convince other women (daughters, daughter-in-law, friends) that this should be acceptable, it’s the way men are, you don’t try to understand them, and you just live with it, because that’s the way it is.

But what if I don’t want to live with it? Not just for myself, but for my society?

I was recently in a conversation about Saudi women, I heard the (incorrect) story that for a Saudi woman to study abroad, she needed a male relative to accompany her. Coincidentally, I was sitting beside a Saudi woman later (who was out of her own country, btw) and asked about this. Her response was, “No! We only need the signature of the guardian to create the passport the first time. And that’s an automatic thing, the rest does not involve them. No approval, no accompaniment”. So first, I was a little pissed off at the rumor (though it might be an old law that was retracted… Like the weird Egyptian one that lasted a short while that prevented a woman from leaving the country without her husband’s permission… Boy that was a horrible one, it was). But see, these big laws are issues, but the micro-transgressions in everyday life are what make them worse. It’s the outside-legal-discussions impositions of control and power on the micro level that are the real problem.

Yes -the men who treat women in the workplace as id they were a different species, ignoring them and their ideas as if they were invisible. Yes – the men who make their women feel guilty for not being good enough mothers (as if moms needed to be made even more guilty than they already feel) and the men who belittle their partners’ professional achievements as if they weren’t already struggling to get recognized in a man’s world. Or the men who give the outward appearance of appreciating or involving women, when they actually silence them or treat them as lesser beings. Those men.

I am looking forward to reading bell hooks and becoming more empathetic with these men and how they got that way. Because it must be some inner complex, a need to control and to prove superiority that makes them behave this way, and I am guessing it,s all about social definitions of masculinity and how being with strong women threatens that or something? How the patriarchal culture and gender roles make them feel helpless as parents, so they give responsibility to the mother so they can later blame her for not measuring up? I don’t know. I am hoping the book will calm my anger, and it’s strangely already doing so, even though is blogpost might not show it!

More soon…

2 Comments

  1. Beautiful, thoughtful post as always Maha!
    It resonates with me at this moment.
    I find it problematic that all men can be branded as essentially evil and all women as essentially good by people who claim that they do not believe in essentialism – and that also argue that whatever flaws or failings that women have have been constructed by patriarchal society – whereas somehow men are responsible for all their own flaws and failings…
    If we women are constrained by the societies that form us – then so too are our menfolk.
    Where (some) women think that men are unproblematic beneficiaries of the social construction of gender, identity and patriarchy – it can be as you argue – that at first we see men as benefiting more than we do from the injustices created.
    However – blaming men and forgiving women for something that neither has control over creates the wrong battle and the wrong debate.
    We are all socially constructed – we are all complex – we all typically need to love and be loved – need to desire and be desired – need to be experienced as rounded human beings and not just as objects (sex objects, strength objects, wage objects…) – and thus we all experience the problems associated with these often conflicting pressures.
    We need a much more nuanced discussion than a simple men = bad; women = good mantra.
    Best, Sandra

  2. You’re so right, Sandra! One of the worst forms of prejudice is generalization and treating sides as if they were monolithically black n white… When we know outside any such discourse is never the case…
    One of the issues (so far) with the bell hooks book is she focuses on women who make things worse by perpetuating patriarchy in their own ways… I don’t think she means to be reductionist (women may be doing all sorts of harm unrelated to patriarchy altogether, right?) but i guess it’s just the focus of the book.
    There is also an Islamic notion of “qewama” where men are “responsible” for women in certain ways, and that goes with patriarchy as well, albeit a benevolent form, often used as a way to impose further controls… Will think and blog some more soon…

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