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Challenge patriarchy as you organize

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“Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”

bell hooks
In Sum

Like all other unjust and arbitrary systems of authority and power, patriarchy must be actively challenged in political organizing if we are to achieve collective liberation.

Patriarchy is a system of unequal power relations that gives men privileges in all areas of our lives — social, economic, institutional, cultural, political, and spiritual — while women and gender non-conforming people are systemically disadvantaged. Feminism is not about “man-hating”; it is about transforming the socially constructed and hierarchical ideology of patriarchy. Since patriarchy pervades society, it is no surprise that it pervades social movements as well. So a commitment to feminist praxis that challenges the toxic impact of patriarchy in organizing efforts is essential to building inclusive movements.[1]

Given the urgency of confronting “big issues” like corporate power, militarization and environmental destruction, patriarchy and sexism within our groups often remain unaddressed. Some male allies feel they are not capable of sexism; but simply believing in gender equality does not erase male privilege. If we want to challenge patriarchy, we must understand how our actions and assumptions are influenced by the prevalence of sexism in our consciousness and social relations.

There are five key ways in which sexism manifests itself in our social movements:

1 Women face an uphill battle to prove their intelligence and commitment as political activists.

2 Political meetings are dominated by male speakers and leaders, while secretarial work, cooking, childcare, and the emotional labor of supporting community well-being are largely borne by women. This gendered division of labor is a frequently reproduced patriarchal pattern.

3 Women continue to be sexually objectified. Women of color and femme women in particular are fetishized, obscuring the dynamics of racism, fatphobia, ability and hetero-patriarchy behind “personal preferences.”

4 Women are more likely to challenge men on sexist comments than men are. Given the particular socialization of women under patriarchy, seemingly minor comments or incidents can leave women and gender non-conforming people feeling humiliated, angry or upset; yet such comments are often dismissed as harmless. Women discussing sexism are often characterized as “divisive” or “over-reactive” and women’s concerns are belittled unless validated by other men. This highlights disrespect for women’s voices in discussing their own oppression.

5 Feminism is not seen as central to revolutionary or collective struggle; instead it is relegated to a special-interest issue. This results in the trivialization of women’s issues, particularly violence against women and reproductive justice.

Transforming gender roles is not about guilt or blame; it is about a lifelong learning process to effectively and humbly confront oppression. Some ways to build pro-feminist communities include: a shared division of labor; encouraging women’s voices and leadership in non-tokenizing ways; respecting self-identification by using preferred names and pronouns; being pro-active in breaking the silence around sexual violence within broader society and activist communities; making our groups safe spaces in which to raise and address issues; and not marginalizing women’s issues or placing the sole responsibility for fighting oppression on the oppressed.

We must also realize that we do not just want “more” women’s representation; rather, we must actively facilitate and highlight women’s own analysis and experiences of capitalism and oppression, especially those of women of color. Though patriarchy affects women much more severely, it distorts the humanity of all genders and reduces our ability to be in kinship with one another. Smashing patriarchy is not just a collective responsibility — it is ultimately about personal and interpersonal growth and collective liberation.

  1. [1] This is an abridged version of a lengthier piece available on the Colours of Resistance website.

Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist, facilitator, writer and legal researcher based in Vancouver, occupied Indigenous Coast Salish territories. She has been active in (unpaid) community-based grassroots migrant justice, feminist, anti-racist, Indigenous solidarity, anti-capitalist, Palestinian liberation, and anti-imperialist movements for over a decade. She works with women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. Her writings have appeared in a number of newspapers, anthologies and academic journals, and she recently co-created a short film on poverty and violence against women. Harsha believes in overgrowing the logic of the state. You can find her at https://twitter.com/#!/HarshaWalia


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