Why do I want to undress patriarchy? Reflections from the ‘Undressing Patriarchy’ symposium

Alexandra Wanjiku KelbertA Kelbert photo

The symposium was organised as part of the Gender, Power and Sexuality Programme from 9– 12 September in Hove. At the start of the week, we were asked to answer the question ‘Why do I want to undress patriarchy?’ as a means to introduce ourselves. Some participants gave accounts of how they encountered patriarchy in their lives, while others chose to relate experiences of dealing with patriarchy through their work, and of course a few unavoidable jokes flew around.

For me, the reason I wanted to take part in these conversations was a lot to do with the use of the word ‘patriarchy’ itself. Indeed, as soon as I received my invitation to participate in the symposium I couldn’t stop myself from telling my housemates about my fantastic week ahead. Yet, what I found is that as soon as I uttered the word ‘patriarchy’, I could sense from people’s body language that they felt as if I had attacked them. The word ‘patriarchy’ sometimes reeks of aggression and often frightens people, particularly outside of feminist spaces.

In ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, fully dressed and adorned, the Emperor frightens. Naked, his power crumbles, his subjects have seen the truth underneath the layers and overcome the fear.

Maybe by undressing patriarchy one layer after the other, we can make it less frightening and start understanding, challenging and dismantling it.

Participants Undressing Patriarchy Symposium

Participants at the symposium in discussion

Of course, part of the discussion is to understand what it is about the word that frightens and puts people off. For many of us in the room, this comes from the association that is made with radical feminism and organisations like SCUM – Society for Cutting Up Men – who framed their struggles as a fight against men as oppressors. Thus, the term patriarchy as used by old-school radical feminists suggests that all men are patriarchs in cohort with the system. At the symposium, many of us have come to see patriarchy not as embodied by all men, but rather as an oppressive system operating through internal social structures, oppressing people in differentiated way regardless of gender.

Over the course of the four days, many new questions emerged, such as:

  • How many clothes does the patriarch wear?– pointing to the different structures of power relations, through race, class, caste, sexuality, age etc. and the intersectionalities of those structures of power
  • How do we make (the word) patriarchy more sexy? – here opinions were divided as to whether the word itself should be abandoned, with the concept of kyriarchy coming to the fore as a potential contestant for replacement (read more on why patriarchy is dead and on kyriarchy and privilege)
  • If patriarchy is like a prison, who are the prisoners? Who are the wardens?

The symposium brought together a wide range of academics, development practitioners, lawyers, people working for women’s rights, and others working with men and boys, filmmakers etc. Some very rich discussions were had, notably around sex work, privileges and vulnerabilities.

Masculinities versus Feminism?
Anyone familiar with the evolution of feminism and the emergence of the Men & Boys agenda knows that sometimes having both feminists from women’s rights backgrounds and people doing Masculinities work in one room can generate sparks. At the start of the symposium comments were made by some participants about the ‘highjacking’ of the feminist agenda, while other expressed discomfort in the face of what they saw as the ‘diversion’ of resources away from women’s groups towards projects focusing on men and boys. For me, as a young feminist growing up when the Masculinities agenda was already around, it is difficult to relate to such conflicts. As such, it was great to see that by Day 4, some of the participants who acknowledged that they had entered the symposium with great doubts about the Masculinities approach purposefully chose to engage with men from Promundo, Sonke Gender Justice and Men For Gender Equality Now. The atmosphere had shifted from confrontation to curiosity and finally to dialogue and mutual learning. Together in a small working group -, we came up with the first draft of a blueprint for what a political approach to masculinities work should entail. Similarly, lots of other groups were formed around exciting projects that I look forward to see take shape.

So did we manage to Undress Patriarchy? Well, we certainly started taking off some of the layers. But most importantly we learnt from one another how some of us go about undressing or challenging patriarchy in our daily lives both at the personal and the professional level. Now the symposium is over, whether or not the Emperor is fully naked by now or not, a process has started. So watch this space!

Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert is an MA graduate in Development Studies at IDS. She is currently working with Naomi Hossain on the ‘Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility’ project, a collaborative project between the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS and Oxfam.

Read other blogs by Alex Kelbert:

4 Responses to Why do I want to undress patriarchy? Reflections from the ‘Undressing Patriarchy’ symposium

  1. sheelsred says:

    Sounds like you spent a lot of time undressing “old school radical feminists”. Ageist and sexist… Perhaps naked patriarchy rules after all.

    • I chose to use the term ‘old school radical feminist’ because that’s how some of the participants chose to describe themselves. The term was not used to be either sexist or ageist. I assumed the tone of this post would reflect the admiration I have for some of these ‘old school radical feminists’, some of whose work I have been following for a long time and who made some of the most valuable contributions to the symposium.
      For me the symposium was made a success by the level of interaction between different people each coming from a different background. I hope this clarifies the misunderstanding.
      Best,
      Alex

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