Thursday, April 21, 2011

The problem with patriarchy

I want to apologize for not posting as much as I should lately. My internet access has been a little limited over the last month. However, I have been doing some reading, some writing and generally expanding my brain. This post is based on a thought that popped into my head a few weeks ago in the course of my readings.
The problem with patriarchy is that it’s like beach sand; it gets in everywhere – particularly in the unexamined crevices of the mind. Even the most dedicated feminists can find themselves dancing to the patriarchal tune without even realizing their feet are moving.

This was brought home to me a few weeks ago when I was going through some materials from the 2010 African Feminist Forum. The forums have been held annually in different countries for at least the last 3 years. They bring feminists from across the continent together to discuss what it means to be a feminist in Africa and how to overcome issues facing the movement. While African feminism faces a lot of issues, one that struck me was the problem of poor leadership.

Like government and other patriarchal structures across the continent, feminist organisations were suffering from rigid, hierarchical power systems, incompetence, poor accountability and corruption. Patriarchal systems thrive on rigid hierarchies where those at the bottom are completely beholden to those above them. These caste systems can be enforced on the basis of class, age, race and of course, gender. Between individuals, that means that there is always a master-servant dynamic. Someone has to be in charge.

The goal of feminism is the goal justice and equality for all, with an emphasis on ending oppression based on gender. Thus “feminist spaces are created to empower and uplift women. At no time should we allow our institutional spaces to degenerate into sites of oppression and undermining of other women.”

Yet a pamphlet from the 2008 Uganda Feminist Forum noted that “some sisters have used their leader ship poditions and authority to undermine and suppress other women. Some have refused to relinquish their positions...The managing of organisations like personal chattels has run them down.”

Because the feminist movement is fighting against some very deeply ingrained prejudices (there are very few societies on earth that do not practice some form of gender discrimination) those who commit themselves to it must always be on their guard. In the 60s and 70s when the movement began to gain traction, there was a saying that “the personal is political.” It meant that feminists – and those who fight injustice of any kind – have to realize that they live within complex social systems that privilege certain ways of acting and thinking.

To fight these often unconscious biases, one has to examine everything one does - right down to the most mundane and the most personal - to make sure that they are in line with one's chosen principles. Those who don’t risk being labelled as hypocrites should they act outside of the boundaries of their professed values. 

Thus, when I write I have to be careful that my characters don’t blithely act out gender stereotypes. When I structure my worlds, I have to pay attention to how women are treated without resorting to lazy assumptions of superiority and domination. That is not to say all my characters, settings and plots are feminist (there are wide ranges of thought even within the movement), but it is to say that if they aren’t, I can tell you why.