‘Uncomfortable Spaces of Privilege’: Reflecting on the ‘Undressing Patriarchy, Redressing Inequalities’ Symposium

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed

As part of the Gender, Power and Sexuality Programme, a group of academics, students, activists, policy makers, artists, feminists, pro-feminists, and more, gathered at the Imperial Hotel in Hove this September to explore new thinking about patriarchy.

I had only just recently joined IDS when I was told I would be participating in the Symposium. While I was really pleased to be part of what I knew would be an interesting meeting, my first thought couldn’t help but be, ‘Why?’ As excited as I was, I was also curious as to why patriarchy was chosen as the focus of the Symposium. Patriarchy is a term that many people are uncomfortable with. As a concept it also tends to be seen as old-fashioned, out of style and even un-sexy.

I must admit that until I was invited to the Symposium I had not consciously thought of patriarchy for a long time. This is because while I associated it with oppression and domination, I did this in relation to women’s oppression. When I did think about it, I tended to see it as part of a process which separates struggles for liberation. As someone who does not believe that one (marginalised) group’s rights should take precedence over another, I did not think about – or truly engage with – patriarchy.  Yet, here I was about to spend four days undressing it.

I am glad I did. By the end of the Symposium I realised that patriarchy is not synonymous with female oppression. It goes deeper than that and it takes many different forms. Patriarchy affects everyone. By that I mean it’s not only about gender. ‘Race’, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, age, class, religion, and more all come into it. Even those in power who have to conform to a specific set of rules are affected by patriarchy. One of the most important things I discovered was that patriarchy is not only about big structural issues, but also manifests itself in casual ways that tend to go unnoticed by many of us in our everyday lives.

I could never do justice to the rich and in-depth conversations that we had at the Symposium. So I am not going to write about the proceedings of each day or give a blow-by-blow account of what we did. While there are many things that struck me, I have chosen to reflect on two things that helped change my perceptions about, and lack of engagement with, patriarchy. The first was a task we had to do on the Day 1 of the meeting in which we had to draw our encounters with patriarchy throughout our lives. The second was a provocation on Day 2 when the notion of uncomfortable spaces came up.

Life Encounters with Patriarchy
Drawing ‘our lives’ encounters with patriarchy got us to think about our individual positions and the privileges that we were comfortable with, uncomfortable with, and when we felt a lack of power and authority. It was through this exercise that I became aware of the simultaneous feelings of powerlessness and power and being comfortable and uncomfortable that many of us could be subjected to as a result of patriarchal structures. This also made me conscious that as an individual while I might be adversely affected by patriarchy (as we all are in some ways), I could also benefit from it. This, in particular, made me very uncomfortable. I have spent the weeks since the Symposium thinking about my different encounters with patriarchy and also re-reading a lot of texts which I had put aside, such as bell hooks’ essay ‘Understanding patriarchy’ (bell hooks, 2004, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, Simon and Schuster), to begin to start paying attention to this concept that I had ignored for so long.

Uncomfortable Spaces
Having spent the first day of the meeting being fully aware of my positions of privileges and lack of authority and undressing my own individual thinking about patriarchy, I began to move away from associating patriarchy exclusively with women’s oppression. Day 2 began with a provocation from Marc Peters of MenEngage. One of the things he mentioned was seeing patriarchy as a catch-all for all forms of discrimination and how we experience the world through different lenses. His provocation, which centred on his ‘privileged’ position as a straight, white male, made me aware that while being in a position of power can make someone choose to do nothing, we need to instead be aware of this privilege and use it for good. It was after this that I feel I truly begun to connect with the thinking behind undressing patriarchy.

There are many of us who may have some sort of privilege – be it a prominent position in an NGO or having a large following on social media – and while this in itself might make us feel uncomfortable instead of ignoring it, pushing it to the side or disowning it, we need to delve into these uncomfortable spaces of our privilege and power.

‘Patriarchy is uncomfortable to think about, to talk about and to do anything about’
I chose to end this post with this quote from a participant at the Symposium because it captured perfectly why I had not engaged with patriarchy for a long time. I have stayed in my safe space because, for a lack of better explanation, it is safe. Yet, one of the major things I took from the Symposium is that for us to undress patriarchy we might need to step away from this safety zone and engage in these uncomfortable spaces. Challenging patriarchy also means challenging ourselves, which can be really scary.

While four days is probably not enough time to undress patriarchy and redress inequalities, we were able to reveal patriarchy’s many different layers. I can’t speak for the rest of the participants, but I know on a personal and professional level I will use whatever privilege I have and go to those uncomfortable spaces to talk about this un-sexy and old fashioned termed called patriarchy. If not, how else can we begin to undress it?

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed is a Research Officer in the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction Team at IDS. She is also a PhD Candidate at the London School of Economics researching male and female domestic workers in Lagos, Nigeria.

Read more about the ‘Undressing Patriarchy’ Symposium:

 

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