Last week, Vernon Ramesar of iETv interviewed me about hostility to feminism.
I first explained that part of the problem is that North American stereotypes are often imposed on our home-grown, centuries-old social movements. Instead, we should see feminist struggles as grounded the ways that big systems of slavery and indentureship provided the foundation for issues of sexual violence, unequal wages, or the ideal of male breadwinners and female housewives, which Caribbean women continue to negotiate today.
Not watching much further past this point in the interview, one guy wrote in response: “Gosh. I dislike when women highlight how much of a victim they are. ‘Look at me. I’m a victim since slavery. Treat me special and give me everything!’”
I was intrigued by this mangling of the message, and its hostility. Feminists don’t ask for special treatment, just what is fair. We don’t want everything, only what is just. So what is going on? Is explaining that persistent inequities still exist, and that justice inspires us to challenge them, the same as claiming victimhood?
No. Does analysis of beliefs and values about manhood and power, in religion, family, law, media and the economy, automatically mean that women are being cast as completely powerless? Here, too, the answer is no. So, what else is going on? Accusing women of claiming to be victims, when that is not what they are doing, is an act of silencing them from articulating the conditions of their oppression, which are real.
Feminism gets the biggest backlash here. That’s because, for us, it isn’t that everyone is always individually responsible for their place in power. Unequal relations aren’t just about women’s attitude. There is agency, meaning capacity to make decisions, but there are also ways that women’s opportunities and choices are delimited by, for example, the unsafe conditions for securing termination of pregnancies, the low numbers of sexual assault cases successfully prosecuted, or the greater risks women face at the point of leaving abusive relationships.
Yet, what feminism is navigating is a historical moment dominated by the tyranny of agency and denial of the big political-economic systems that still penetrate women’s lives. We hear it all the time. “Women have the vote, they have rights, what more do they want? If women didn’t dress this way or go there or say what they did, that wouldn’t have happened. You all want equality, but want special treatment, like men to hold open doors, make up your mind. Feminism is passé, women have to stop hearing there are obstacles to them achieving. Now the playing field is unbalanced because women and feminists have biased society and state against men.”
In other words, the hand that rocks the cradle is both ruling and ruining the world, and men are suffering at women’s hands, from violence, from economic exploitation and from women’s domination of family arrangements. Sound like more twisted mangling of feminist arguments about women’s subordination?
There is an ironic slip of hand here: the stereotyping of feminism in ways that force closure of victimhood to women and, simultaneously, its frequent and increasing opening to men as the new, legitimate victims.
The result is a denial of patriarchal power, combined with appropriation of feminist concepts to articulate a backlash. It’s like billionaires in the US claiming that there is a class war against the rich, using the very concept “class” that was created to name economic inequality.
Some women, even those concerned about women’s rights, may also misread feminism as claiming victimhood. The distaste and fear of being similarly labelled means that they too wield a stereotype they wish to avoid. They want to see women as powerful, networked, capable, tenacious, strategic and inspired. But, focusing on women’s personal power won’t simply erase when and why their power is devalued, denied or taken away.
Feminism has always been about women’s consciousness, aspirations, communities and capacities, and how these have been resisted by racism, classism and patriarchy.
It has long been about transforming masculinity from both benefiting from and being hurt by these systems. It has always been about facing victimisation with vision. Today, these remain valid, reasonable intentions for the Caribbean despite distortion and opposition.
• The interview can be viewed at grrlscene.wordpress.com.