“The opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, it is fraternity, and I think that it’s women who will have to break the spire and find the trick of cooperation…” – Germaine Greer.
Having the privilege of working with so many strong women, all silently brave and with their own stories, I have cause to reflect on a daily basis on the way women are treated in society and in the world. Not a day goes by where I don’t have the opportunity to point out to my female friends that they are more amazing than they, or anyone, gives them credit for. It saddens me that our culture doesn’t instil that self-confidence or offer that automatic assurance in our women. It distresses me that the forbearance taught to our women is not a quality that is celebrated, but moreover one that is taken advantage of, abused and exploited.
The past few days have thrown up some interesting discussions and I’ve seen some things to make me think about men and women in the world. It is true that once you understand that there are patriarchal and misogynistic structures that shape the behaviours of, the relations between and the (abitrary) ‘worth’ of a member of either sex, then you see those structures of control everywhere and in everything. Chances are that if you’re reading this post you’ll have experienced the bitter end of these structures. If, however, you have not, then it has become very clear that there is one thing you can do to become better informed: LISTEN TO WHAT PEOPLE WHO EXPERIENCE IT TELL YOU.
The first conversation this week that brought this home to me was about trans issues, and I was brought back to thinking about Women’s Liberation, and the realisation that there is at least one basic principle that both feminists and trans people share in common, and that is that legal rights and equalities are not the same as liberation. In a world dominated by patriarchal structures, being made an equal participant in those clearly defined structures of power and agency have not made women (or men) free of them. Equality has forced us to settle for equal exploitation rather than freedom, even if improved rights have elevated the social status of some of those who had little before. But is this enough? Is it enough simply to encourage the legal altering of the human body to conform approximately to the opposite gender, and to dictate to trans people and to society at large that we still have to make essentialist, binary choices between the extreme definitions of male and female? Choices that still leave most trans people flailing far short of a truly convincing physical version of their assigned gender. That is what equality does. Liberation surely would mean that we could have more (or literally any) room in society to diverge from the essentialist idea of what it means to be male or female, without needing to go to the radical length of having functional flesh removed from their bodies. I’ve heard some MTF and FTM trans people talk about their pre-transition experiences, and the feeling that the way people treated them or interacted with them, or the behaviour expected of them in their birth gender was drastically at odds with who they felt they were. I experienced this myself, as growing up male I was often referred to as one of ‘the boys’, and the expectation was that I would behave like a boy. Well, never in my life have I been accepted as being part of the male gender in any way other than by my anatomy, partly because of my sexuality and partly because I’ve never conformed to typical engrained male behaviour. My feeling is that with the trans community we are partly missing an opportunity to free ourselves from definition. People should be free to do with their bodies what they want to do, certainly, and they should be able to do that without cultural or legal stigma. But instead of really seizing on the opportunity to work with the trans community to better understand the experience and expectation of gender both cis and trans, and to create a broader canvass and public acceptance of variation, we’re forcing that community and the cisgender population to continue confining itself to the narrow gender roles assigned to us. Equality seems to use those categories to split people into groups and mandates that all categories should be treated the same. Liberation might instead be where we don’t see categories of people any more, we just see individuals, and perhaps we should learn to see the importance of the differences we experience. But given that Liberation is still not even distantly on the horizon, perhaps moving towards an accepted trans or third gender might be away of introducing that space into society. Or maybe we just have to get rid of our prejudices. I don’t know, why don’t we talk about it? Why don’t we LISTEN to what people affected by those issues tell us?
The next conversation that made me think was on genital cutting. I remembered reading an interesting article that began with three fundamental points – one, that when we talk about genital cutting we only think about Female cutting (FGC) and don’t consider male circumcision as part of the issue; two, that when we do think about FGC we automatically think of the most invasive, drastic forms and life-threatening cases; and three, when we think of Male cutting (MGC) we only ever think about the Judo-Christaic form of circumcision in Western clinical or religious settings. I was talking to someone who was vehemently against FGC who described it as a form of torture that should be illegal, a view I hold sympathy with. Her view was that it was a practice that girls were forced into, one that bears some scrutiny. The question of choice is to a large extent prescribed by the society you live in, including in the West, but the truth is that not all women are forced into cutting, some seek it. Those reasons often have to do with the process of initiation into adulthood, with cultural identity (remind you of the ancient male Hebrews much?!), and with the perception of you in your community if you refuse to do it. That last point eludes to choice, but it is more accurately described as coercion. Should women be coerced into genital cutting? No, and neither should men. Does it make any difference to classify FGC as a crime against humanity? No, because the places where it is most common don’t have the resources to police it, and they have constituencies that actively support it. A point that Germaine Greer made was that for many girls and women who experience FGC, it is that rite that gives them status in their communities, and so by criminalizing it are we not just driving it further behind doors and threatening women’s already shaky standing in traditional societies? Every society has the right to make choices for itself and we don’t have to accept GC in the UK, the US, Australia or France, but rather than demonizing the women of the poorest parts of the planet who have it done or do it to one another, might we not be better directed to build clinics, send anaesthetics and disinfectants and other medical supplies? Might we not invest more in training women physicians in those communities to do safe practice? And might we not remember that MGC is far more common globally, and that it is also not usually carried out by people with any medical training or even in a clinical setting, and that many forms of it include far more than simply the removal of the foreskin and carry significant risk too the recipient also? Rather than imposing our Western, post-imperial values on the most vulnerable and deprived parts of the world and particularly on third world women YET AGAIN, maybe we could give people there the tools to live their own way safely, without risk to human health or life, while at the same time making it clear that it is not acceptable practice in our own societies. The saving of lives from medical complications is perhaps helped a lot more by good medical practice than it is by laws. It might also help if instead of judging people by our own standards, we actually LISTEN TO WHAT THEY TELL US about the reasons why they act the way they do.
And lastly, yesterday was a strange day. I tuned into the TV news for the first time in a while and it was shocking in a number of ways. Firstly, the BBC News is more like John Craven’s Newsround than ever before, dumbed down to appeal to an illiterate denominator that we in the West pay huge amounts of tax to educate so they can think and analyse at a higher level. What’s the point anymore if the only public information you get after 14 years of education is targetted at people with 2nd grade reading abilities?! Anyway… the day’s news seemed to revolve around the actions of men (surprise, surprise!). There was footage of ISIS fighters destroying mosques and abusing women, then of little boys who use electronic devices too much and whose only aim was to beat the other guy, and then footage of a guy who had climbed unaided or adorned by safety equipment to the top of the metal arch over Wembley Stadium in London. He said he wanted to ‘live life to the full’ or some bullshit people say to romanticize banal achievement. Then there was news of HSBC moving out of the UK to more profitable territories. The whole news cycle was devoted to stories about men destroying things and beating competition, about strength and weakness. I guess that’s because those things constitute the pageant of masculinity we expect of men, and they were just confirming that it’s everywhere. Then later in the day, at work, we had to call the paramedics out to treat an elderly man we found hunched over a freezer and who was struggling to move or respond verbally. The two paramedics arrived, two buff, ‘strong’-looking guys one of whom was ex-military, whom if you were walking down a dark alley would have made you want to run for your life! Outwardly imposing, they were. Burly. And then they started doing their job and it all changed. What I witnessed was genuine caring. They cared. They treated a weak man with dignity. They were kind. They had chosen to do this job because they wanted to help. They were patient. They LISTENED. All the things we expect women to be without thanks or appreciation. In that moment it was obvious to me that the strength of men and women (cis and trans) is at its most inspiring, its most productive, its most useful, when it is directed into the use of caring. I watched these guys and it was clear to me that if all men lived in this way on a daily basis, there wouldn’t be an ISIS. If we didn’t train men to want to beat their opponents, but to want to work with them, our species might stand a chance of survival. Men who choose to be caring, like women, express the very best that our species has to offer the universe we inhabit, and it’s in all of us. We never look stronger than when we are caring for others. So let’s stop training men to think that being kind is a choice against the ‘norm’, let’s tell them that being destructive is. There are enough of us of all genders that feel like this, and it’s time we all chose to LISTEN to one another. That is where we find our strength.