“I wish for all feminists – radicalism, unrespectability, radical rudeness and Stella Nyanzi’s audacity. May we continue to speak with our damn chests, shake these tables, silence our fears, unlock our [voices], decenter the male gaze, understand the manifestations of power and rest. Let this be the year we grow together in our feminism.” Vivian Ouya, Feminists in Kenya
I hate that patriarchy teaches women self-preservation at the expense of everyone and everything else. This self-preservation often results in the softening of our tongues to explain away systems and situations which are, by themselves, protective of (mostly heteronormative) men, and masculine authority and control. Until recently, I thought this was a softer form of feminism – permissible in certain circumstances for those who unlike some of us, are not ‘radically rude’ – even though I myself did not fully have a grasp on it. So when I would be called “aggressive” for being assertive; or when I would be told that when negotiating with men, their egos must be preserved over the safety of women, or their comfort, I would usually back down, thinking, this, perhaps is the face of feminism I am yet to understand – one which strategically negotiates diplomacy with patriarchy. I couldn’t quite wrap myself around the idea that there is room for respectability politics, and the insistences to mind my tone, lest one comes off as too hostile or lacking peace in my approach. Not only could I not wrap my head around it, I didn’t agree with it. These are often the same foundations which insist that women dress more appropriately and in less revealing manners, because our society is conservative and sexy in real life, is an invitation, that is of course when we are not on twitter trolling the “women should dress better” brigade.
I am realising, however, that there is no such thing as softer feminism, in a patriarchal system and society. There will always be a need for an aggressive claiming, and reclaiming. There exists, instead, what we can refer to as ‘palatable patriarchy’- a form of patriarchy which dangerously allows those who think patriarchy can favour them the opportunity to exist in it, until it strikes because like every other narcissist, patriarchy has no real friends.
We have been taught, and less passively, we have learnt to be so careful and aware of the male ego. As a society, we come across as holding the thinking that conformity offers protection to a marginalised person, from prejudices and systematic injustices. For a long time, the fight against gender inequality was a “women’s issue”. This is largely stemmed from women being seen as the targets of the discrimination. It has been assumed thus, that they are the ones who should be concerned with improving the position of women in society. We have, in recent years, started to experience political solidarity with the feminist agenda, by men. This has created an opportunity to discuss and discover the role of the [supposedly] advantaged group members as allies in promoting social change.
One of the components in the theory of pedagogy of the oppressed by Paolo Reglus Neves Frerrie suggests that the oppressed are the ones who have the responsibility to show the oppressor that they are oppressed and that there is need for reformation. Often, men who ally themselves with the gender equality agenda take a paternalistic approach, stemming from the position of their privilege. The idea here is often that privileged groups would more effectively and more impactfully confront prejudice compared to those who are, by prejudice, oppressed. This thinking is rooted in the ideology that the privileged would experience fewer costs and greater benefits of confrontation – it being less probable that they would be perceived as complainers. The question asked by Frerrie’s declaration of how impactful an oppressor’s interventions would be, is still a question science contests with. Experts in gender sex and sexuality, dealing primarily with psychology have suggested, in fact, that high status groups helping behaviour in some cases, legitimizes the privileged status; and that at the same time, the disadvantaged group feels grateful, legitimising the social inequality thereby perpetuated.
The question that this position begs is an interrogation of feminism against palatable patriarchy which often presents itself in paternalistic ways. The argument I make, advancing the above quote by Ouya, is that there is no space, in feminism for respectability, politeness or the centering of the male gaze. For there to be any real change in the ways marginalised groups are treated, we have to radically revise our approaches and ways in which we have perpetuated marginalisation by advancing arguments on tactical strategizing which says we should negotiate with patriarchy and stroke the male ego, to get ahead.
In this short series, we will explore the most effective role that can be played by those who hold higher statuses in the context of patriarchy. We will explore the dangers of reinforcing patriarchal norms through advancing softer approaches to advocacy, and we will finally make recommendations of how to “shake tables, silence our fears...” for the advancement of feminism in our present society. The idea, afterall, as Ouya suggests, is to grow together.