Getting under the skin of patriarchy: how change is happening in oppressive gender orders

Thea ShahrokhThea Shahrokh

The Delhi Global Symposium on Men and Boys for Gender Justice (November 2014) provided a space for an unconventional dialogue between social movement activists, thinkers and policy makers engaged in the Gender, Power and Sexuality programme hosted by IDS. This was a conversation that cut across contexts, genders and identities and provides insights on the changing nature of patriarchy and how different constituencies are challenging oppressive gender orders for gender justice. This article captures key points from this exciting and oversubscribed session which saw participants fill all seats, floor space, aisles and walls to engage in discussion and debate.

Manifestations of patriarchy and evolving forms of oppression

Patriarchy is reproduced and reinforced through complex political, social and economic processes that work to constrain equity and justice for men and women of diverse gender, ethnic, racial, class and ability based identities. Of note Alan Greig argued for the recognition of a deep-rooted interlacing of male supremacy, white supremacy and capitalism. Through this form of intersectional analysis it is argued that patriarchy and supremacy are bound up together in their origins, they work together racialising masculinities and power hierarchies. The situation of ‘angry young men’ was highlighted by Carolina Wennerholm as a manifestation of complex processes such as these; however, the issue is not recognised within development policy. By not engaging, are we enabling the roots of patriarchy to grow deep into the lives of boys and young men manifesting as violent and repressive performances of masculinity?

Darkening international contexts and geopolitical strategies was an important strand of oppression highlighted in this dialogue. Emily Esplen argued how the growth of conservatism and religious fundamentalism is a significant force playing out from local to global levels driving a fierce backlash on women’s sexual and reproductive health rights, and using tradition and culture to promote control and oppression of women within a protectionist framing. akshay khanna argued that sexuality has been cynically appropriated into the centre of geopolitics and the political strategies of the nation state to construct norms of personhood and national identity that valorise heteronormative and specific class, caste and religious identities against a subordinate, and criminalised other.

Marcos Nascimento emphasised the role of national policies in controlling gendered norms and identities through the case of a male gay couple in Brazil being granted maternity leave as the system could not reconstruct the norms of maleness that limit paternity leave to five days (versus six months for maternity). Care work is invisibilised, and misconstrued in the dominant patriarchal economic model also as a result of the value of market growth in macroeconomic policy, not people, and not their economic and social wellbeing. Valentina Utari highlighted how policies that identify unpaid care of women within families and communities are necessary to ensure that development programmes recognise the importance of caring activities in women’s lives – both in terms of how care restricts opportunities, and also the value of care to human and social relationships.

Alexandra Kelbert spoke to the rapidly changing, food insecure contexts perpetuated by the global economic crisis and related shocks driven by capitalist macro-economic policies. Poor and marginalised women are pushed into new forms of work and more work, having to be more creative to gain food on a smaller budget whilst retaining their unpaid care roles. In parallel, a poor man’s patriarchy is evolving, where the pressures of provision within the home cannot be met, in turn masculine norms are challenged and men find themselves in crisis. She asks however is this a possibility for transforming gender relations and building solidarity between men and women for redistribution of gendered roles within the family?

Strategies for getting under the skin of patriarchy

In order to penetrate the skin of patriarchy the duty bearers and the institutions in which the structures of patriarchy are perpetuated and secured need to be transformed. Satish Singh and Phil Otieno highlighted the significance of engaging men in the critical reflection of power in institutional settings. This relates significantly to the resources necessary for gender transformation – can we release resources from the clutches of patriarchy to invest in men’s engagement for gender equality? Alan Greig asked however that where state and societies are satiated with racism and capitalist intent, is the state a legitimate source of justice?  He outlined that we also need to understand alternative modes and mechanisms of justice in our communities. There is potential for transformative justice in communities that are bound by geography and identity, and men can play a critical role in this.

Julia Hamaus highlighted research on gender justice in social movements working to transform the systems of oppression that patriarchy enables.  She asked how to create critical engagement and reflection of repressive gender orders within and across social movements in order to address the hidden hierarchies that exist. Cross-movement dialogues between women’s and wider social justice movements represent an opportunity to challenge patriarchal structures. Involving men in dialogues to reflect on internalised notions of masculinity is a critical approach to interrogate gendered division of labour, leadership, decision-making and other barriers to women’s active participation. Alan Greig takes this line of introspection further, asking us to recognise the socialisation of our oppression or privilege within our own bodies and that our bodies can channel the change we want to see. Where we may have built a discourse of social justice, it is critical to hold our bodies to account in recognising their response and reflecting on the meaning of this in a process of healing and personal transformation.

Transformation in oppressive gender orders

Unlikely dialogues enable us to get under the skin of patriarchy and understand oppressive power as a living entity that adapts aggressively to changing contexts. Patriarchy is finding new ways to subjugate and constrict our humanity. We need strategies for social transformation that get under the skin and disrupt, dismantle and deviate from the privilege and control that patriarchy prescribes.

This is a continuous process that enables new trajectories to grow, through critical engagement and reflexivity. Mobilising men and women for gender justice in institutional settings is not seen as a one-off project, but a process of constructing new norms of gender equality. This goes beyond adopting the right jargon and the introduction of policies for gender equality. It involves finding allies across spaces and levels including those unlikely alliances which will enable greater momentum for changing deeply entrenched structures of inequality. Joint monitoring by rights holders and institutions can ensure that accountability is demonstrated in the upholding of these new norms as they translate into behaviours and practices. The work of social movements was also expressed as an ongoing struggle for political and social change, where strategies evolve and transformative potential is deepened over time. However as new rights claims are made and achieved, and our understanding of patriarchy is enlightened we need to continue to revise our tools of engagement and strategies for change, ensuring they are specific to people, place, and the contextual drivers of poverty, inequality, and gender injustice. Carolina Wennerholm emphasised the important role that donor governments can play in resourcing this work, enabling strategies for change that work across structures and systems. However Jerker Edstrom – moderator of this discussion – concluded by arguing the very real way in that patriarchy is embedded in the aid business and how a fundamental shift is needed in the positivistic tyranny of donor systems and related reductive, target-driven approaches that we all engage in.

Success as outlined by a number of the panellists will mean building alliances across civil society movements, nationally, regionally and globally, building solidarity by identifying common ground in terms of social justice that responds to gender inequalities in an increasingly violent, conservative, fundamentalist and market oriented global context. It is important to draw the connection between various forms and systems of oppression and realise that they all follow the rules of patriarchy. Getting under the skin of patriarchy means to engage in a deep reflection through continuous and persistent dialogue, redefining concepts of gender identities and social justice.

Thea Shahrokh is a Research Officer at IDS.

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