Post 291.

Minister of Education Anthony Garcia needs extra lessons on what not to say about the SEA examination.

Last week, he found it important to note, “The student who placed first in this exam, in other words the student who scored the highest, was a male student…For some time we have been noticing that our girls have been outperforming the boys where first place is concerned…From the fact that a boy was able to top the exam, it seems as though our male students have improved.”

These statements reflect appalling and invalid assumptions.

Traditionally, families didn’t invest in girls’ education because girls were expected to marry, be helpmates and be financially provided for by boys. Boys were expected to have access to better paid employment, be able to invest more in their careers, and to exercise leadership and authority in spheres of work more greatly associated with or dominated by men.

That changed over the last decades. We began to think of girls and boys as human beings with an equal right to educational achievement and economic independence. Reforms also significantly reduced gender stereotyping in school content even if it continued to rule the hidden curriculum of girls’ and boys’ socialization.

Are boys’ struggling against beliefs in their natural role of caring for children and greater economic dependence? What’s the basis for emphasizing a boy ‘topping’ girls in the SEA examination? What historical inequality or entrenched sexist ideals are boys overcoming that we want to highlight?

Shouldn’t we also consider the significance of one boy doing better than all the other boys? Does it only matter that he dominated the girls? Why does that matter at all?

Public response to girls doing well in education has been moral panic about emasculation. From girls’ success emerged baseless opinion about women teachers’ inability to be role models for or competent teachers of boys. This insultingly assumes that women cannot be role models for all human beings, and that there is something wrong with boys seeing such adult humans worthy of emulation.

‘Single mothers’ were also wrongly blamed. Greater poverty and absence of fatherly sharing of care and costs are factors, but blaming boys’ exam ranking on resilient mothers managing many challenges again shortcuts to emasculation as the issue.

Is it that boys must have dominant manhood enforced in order to do well? And, if so, what are the implications for girls, who will grow up in a society where, despite their educational successes, about 35 000 women will experience male partner violence in a twelve-month period. Are we prepared to pit boys and girls against each other whatever the costs?

‘The war on boys!’ was a backlash slogan which positioned girls’ beating books as an attack on masculinity itself. As if boys didn’t have a long history of reading, as if school had not always involved hours of sitting still, as if boys and not girls needed more play and active learning, and as if the demands of subordinated styles of teaching were not bad for all children. This view misdiagnoses current schooling as biased toward girls. At the same time, it is unable to explain how boys can still do well.

Panic also extended to blaming girls for doing too well or being too distracting. More than UWI Principal thought it cool to slight thousands of graduating women students by highlighting, not their historical and hard won success, but their apparent ‘outperforming’ of boys, and the expectation that they take on additional responsibility for helping male peers do well. Our message to girls is that their pursuit of power, capability and achievement should not intimidate boys and men, nor threaten the ‘natural’ balance of patriarchy.

Boys’ educational improvements are necessary, but what do they have to do with girls? Should girls not aim for first place? What, besides a moment of youthful resurgent male domination, is being celebrated here?

When we rate girls’ successes in terms of what they mean for boys, we continue to position males as the standard by which females’ lives are understood. This is called androcentrism. It refers to thinking that continually centres men and boys, and protection of manhood as obsessive priorities. Boyhood and girlhood are wholly irrelevant to children’s achievements unless these ideals in some way hold them back.

Headlines should focus on the urgent national concern of thousands of girls and boys whom schooling fails. For them, violence, mental health, learning challenges, class inequality and gender provide more complex explanation for SEA success and failure.

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Post 268.

Comandantas from Mexico’s Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) recently called for a global gathering of rebellious women. Their language reflected centuries of radical leadership of Indigenous women in the Caribbean.

“With regard to the Zapatista men”, they wrote, “we are going to put them to work on all the necessary tasks so that we can play, talk, sing, dance, recite poetry, and engage in any other forms of art and culture that we want to share without embarrassment. The men will be in charge of all necessary kitchen and cleaning duties”.

Here at home, I had just had one of those conversations about how feminists should make our work more about men and more relevant to men, but no words were said about them manning the kitchens.

This pressure is ironic. In all its diversity, feminism is the only social movement in history to put women’s rights and their challenge to patriarchal power first, and it emerged specifically because other movements, from unions to political parties, aimed for merely halfway liberation, and still do.

The millions of women who are the majority labouring in feminism’s trenches must unapologetically prioritize women’s freedom from sexual violence and equity in political and economic power, both still to be won.

Yet, this movement has also been active on issues of peace, nuclear disarmament, trade agreements, gang violence, literacy, conservation, and other areas which impact both women and men’s lives. Additionally, feminists have long been active on ‘men’s issues’ whether they are arguing for greater paternity leave, for greater care for boys’ emotions, prison reform, and much more.

And, it’s worth noting that men’s violence against women and women’s under-representation in global and national decision-making are not ‘women’s issues’. They are issues of men’s occupation and exercise of unequal power, and they should be solved by men with an iota of commitment to justice because that’s what manhood, in all its diversity, love and strengths, brings.

Do we appeal to a majority of men by leaving traditional notions of manhood and womanhood unchallenged or by prioritizing men’s needs, cleaving feminism’s radical vision and analytic challenge to precisely these from its mobilization and power?

We know that’s not necessary because men all over the world are involved and doing great work in feminist movements without us even trying to “put men and boys more to the centre of our policy solutions”, or pretend there is anything equal in experiences of domestic violence, or that one woman President is enough when women have never been 50% of our parliament.

These are brothers-in-struggle who don’t need women to exercise power behind the scenes, in the home, while rocking the cradle, or nicely because they know that commitment is about justice, not comfort, not a battle of the sexes, nor a decentering of women from feminism, even as we also care about our children, brothers, nation and planet.

In a final irony, marking feminist success by men’s visibility risks becoming vulnerable to those demanding newspaper space for gender – meaning only men – while failing to get definitions, facts or analysis right. Because of word space, I won’t dust out those SFATT soundboys tonight*.  

We don’t get men on our side by softening, repackaging or marginalising accurate analyses of power, but because collective transformation of patriarchal ideals of manhood and womanhood, which ultimately harm both women and men, is necessary.  

To quote these Zapatista Comandantas, “We greet you with respect and affection as the women that we are—women who struggle, resist, and rebel against the chauvinist and patriarchal state. We know well that the bad system not only exploits, represses, robs, and disrespects us as human beings, but that it exploits, represses, robs, and disrespects us all over again as women…Yet we are not fearful, or if we are, we control our fear, and we do not give in, we don’t give up, and we don’t sell out.”

 

*An earlier critique of comments in the article highlighted: 1. Murders of women do not occur when fathers are alienated from their children and respond in a wrong manner. Fathers may become alienated from their children when women end abusive relationships. Intimate partner violence, without accountability, which includes threats to women’s lives and their families created that alienation, at least in this case. 2. Withholding sex from a spouse is NOT abuse. It may mean the relationship should end but nowhere in any UN position or national law is choosing not to have sex with a violent partner an example of sexual abuse. 3. “In most cases, the perpetrator would not have murdered before or had a criminal record”. This is vastly missing the point. Anyone who is going to murder their ex/partner needed help long before that relationship or its ending, anger doesn’t turn to murder without pre-existing controlling and abusive behaviour, which may indeed be recognised and reported on…in this case, police and family were aware of reports. 4. The argument that women’s abusive behaviour to men is the “true offense”, much worse that physical violence (for which is harm is unequally borne by women), more widespread, more harmful and more at fault when cases of woman-murder happen absolves men of responsibility for femicide. 5. Men and women can be abusive. Both need access to counseling and life without violence, but when women are run down and murdered, they are not responsible. Wrapping valid arguments in equally irresponsible victim-blame does more harm than good.

 

Post 215.

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.

Post 188.

Last Thursday, my Men and Masculinities in the Caribbean students were out on campus learning through engagement with pro-feminist men’s movement-building. These were students who never imagined they would choose to publicly critique homophobia for hurting both gay and straight men. Students who never imagined they would become passionate about raising boys, not to be men, but to be good people, considered to be nurturers just as naturally as women.

Students who never imagined they would commit to the idea that men’s issues are best addressed through men and women’s solidarity to dismantle and transform men’s unequal privilege and power. Older men who never imagined they would play Midnight Robber breaking down patriarchy and younger men who never imagined they would say that this is what a feminist looks like, referring to themselves.

You might think this kind of movement-building is not possible, or too feminist for folks of all religions, races, ages and creeds to connect to. But, it’s amazing how students change once it clicks that patriarchy and the culture of male domination both benefit and hurt boys and men. For, different men occupy different positions of power and status that give them uneven access to resources, rights and respect.

While students saw men’s issues as their higher rates of suicide and alcoholism, high rates of prostate cancer, high risk behaviours, lower investments in schooling, and greater silence about experiences of child sexual abuse, they also understood women’s experiences of male domestic abuse, sexual violence and sexual harassment as men’s issues.

Such movement-building creates greater consciousness of the idea that men, not just women, are responsible for advancing women’s rights to equality and equity in politics and the economy, challenging women’s sexual vulnerability to men, and breaking the interlock between femininity, housework and care of children. It sees women’s full freedom to choose whatever happens to their bodies as a question of justice in which men should invest. For, what kind of manhood is proudly invested in injustice?

Such movement-building aims to end notions of manhood based in the beliefs of men’s natural headship of families, religious communities, the economy, the public sphere and the state. It reaches out to male allies willing to end sexism and homophobia, both of which teach that manhood is and should be nothing like womanhood, leading men to seek refuge in a macho, heterosexual ideal, despite the stigma, shame, and fears of harm it creates among men who don’t measure up, regardless of their sexuality.

Recognising men’s feelings of emasculation because of shifting relations between females and males, such movement building engages men in a conversation with women and amongst themselves about the long struggle against sexism in which men need to get involved.

In this conversation, the misleading ‘men’s rights’ myth that men are now marginalized, meaning oppressed by women and excluded from power, is questioned. Girls are not wrongly be blamed for boys’ choices regarding school work, women for earning qualifications to compete with men in the legal job market, mothers and wives for men’s resort to crime and violence, or feminists for “too much equality”. Students know that ending women’s subordination would end the pressure men face to avoid appearing too feminine or too ‘gay’, enabling men to be valued for simply being human beings.

What are men’s issues? What are our most creative, interactive and analytically sound strategies for tackling them without reproducing a battle of the sexes? And, what will a Caribbean men’s movement look like after a thousand students have learned how to explain why pro-feminist movement-building is necessary? In the decade ahead, watch and see.