What we talk about when we talk about patriarchy

Carolina Maldonado Pacheco??????????

On International Men’s Day, I reflect back on the international symposium ‘Undressing Patriarchy: Redressing Inequities’, organised by a programme on Gender, Power and Sexuality at IDS in September. It had the goal of exploring new ways of thinking about patriarchy and challenging superficial conceptualisations of gender.

Described as ‘an unlikely encounter of unusual suspects’, the symposium lived up to the expectations bringing together researchers and activists working on feminist movements, masculinities, sexual rights and queer theory, among others. Rich and lively discussions took place, ranging from the definition of patriarchy and how and why should men get involved in gender justice, to how sex workers challenge traditional gender roles and how to use media, art and technology for gender equality.

The discussions between people with different perspectives, histories and ways of thinking were bound to hit disagreements at some point. However, the symposium was proof that dialogue and empathy are the best way to build bridges between people with different perspectives.

One of the biggest surprises for me was seeing how difficultit is to reach common understandings even around the same cause. Everyone in the symposium was – without a doubt – unhappy with the current patriarchal structure that they see in the world around them, in their own personal lives and even in their jobs and organisations. However, two main disagreements struck me the most:

  • Defining exactly what patriarchy is and the supposed division between theorists and pragmatists around it.
  • The role of men in the struggle against patriarchy and the extent to which men can be feminists.

Defining ‘patriarchy’
On the first case, arriving to a more nuanced definition of patriarchy and how to undress it proved to be extremely difficult. For example, the participants discussed whether the term patriarchy correctly encompasses the different axis of discrimination that people face, which go beyond gender to class, caste, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and others. Moreover, it was clear that if we were to properly undress patriarchy, we needed to explicitly bring power and privileges into the conversation.

There was also a division between those who thought that we couldn’t move forward without a clear, deep theoretical understanding of the concepts we were using, and those who thought that it was more important to think in practical terms about what organisations can do in ‘the real world’ to end patriarchy. I was part of one of the most practical teams during the group discussions, and I agreed with the need of coming up with practical ways in which we can foster change in organisations and projects. Nevertheless, having just finished my MA in Gender and Development at IDS, I also understand the benefits of having clear theoretical understandings of the limitations that patriarchy imposes on us.

Can men be feminists?
The second disagreement that I noticed was about who should be involved in the discussions around gender equality – that is, what roles can women and men have when working towards gender justice. It was clear that there were some misunderstandings and a reluctance to work together between sectors of the feminist movement and from those who work with men and boys towards gender justice.

This seeming conflict made me think about my own history with feminism and men. Ever since I ‘discovered’ feminism and got involved with women’s movements, feminist men have been around me. Oddly enough, most of what I know about gender and feminism has come from conversations with two very important men in my life. Having male teachers and a male convenor during my MA did not seem out of the ordinary. Only after deeper reflection and a better understanding of the struggle of the various feminist movements around the world, I have realised the difficulties of bringing feminist and masculinities movements together.sign saying 'pragmatism versus utopia is a false binary'

Luckily, these two disagreements were thoroughly analysed and people walked away with a better understanding of the dynamics in both situations. Two cards that were anonymously posted during the evaluation session summed this point perfectly. The first one said, referring to the most emotional moment of the symposium: ‘When we were asked who in the room considered themselves feminists, and everyone raised their hand’. The second one, on the most important learning for them: ‘Pragmatism vs. utopia is a false binary’.

These two cards, for me, summed up what the symposium was about: people with different views, but who are working towards the same goal, coming together through dialogue. Gloria Anzaldúa beautifully describes this sentiment – and my feelings after the symposium – in one of her essays:

’Not all of us have the same oppressions, but we empathize and identify with each other’s oppressions. We do not have the same ideology, nor we derive similar solutions. Some of us are leftists, some of us practitioners of magic. Some of us are both. But those different affinities are not opposed to each other

Carolina Maldonado is an MA graduate in Gender and Development at IDS.

Read more about the symposium

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