What looks the strongest has outlived its term; The future lies with what’s affirmed from under. - Seamus Heaney Patriarchy is a complex structural and sociocultural system. Its survival depends on its ability to self-reproduce and create, every day and second. Often, this happens in insidious and benign ways. We reproduce it because it appears to be normal.Sometimes, even feminists whose mission is to change society can be caught in the dazzling trappings and normalcy of patriarchy. To break from this we must question not just society but ourselves, our intentions, everything we hold dear and our beliefs, including our feminism(s). Of all the essential tools needed, empathy is the most critical for a feminist.I have been following the debate on the prospect of a woman president with these preoccupations in mind. I come to them with my biases, expectations, vulnerabilities and as an unfinished subject, rough at the edges and very raw in the soul. But I come with a handful of glittering triumphs which guide and ground me.I differentiate between feminists, women politicians and gender justice politicians and activists, wherever they are. Flowing from this is my understanding that my expectations of women politicians, chief executive officers, academics and others are no different from those I have of men in those same positions.Of course, there is hope that lived experience and awareness influences us to act in emancipatory ways.This is where empathy and commitment to the minimum standards that we have set in law and the Constitution become important. Irrespective of whether one is necessarily a feminist or not, if people in public office act in line with the Constitution and rule of law, there is a possibility of a starting point that is not harmful to people, especially the most vulnerable.We can no longer deny that standards are not applied equally in our country. Nor can we afford to neglect the fact that the we have two tiers of law, one which works for the political elite and those they consort with and one which works for ordinary people.“Selective prosecution”This is laid bare in the treatment of Mduduzi Manana, deputy minister of higher education, who assaulted a woman at a Johannesburg nightclub. Despite the minister of police’s statement to the nation that Manana would not be treated differently, he was not arrested. The special treatment continued in court.Public calls for Manana to step down from public office intensified with revelations of an outstanding case of assaulting a woman. In response to these calls, Bathabile Dlamini, minister of social development and president of the ANC Women’s League, said the case was used as “a political tool” and did not support calls for him to resign. She went further and stated: “there are many who have done worse things. Why are they not dealt with? You must deal with them first before Manana”.We have come to expect her defence of patriarchal men, when it suits her. She is not alone. Her statement was a signature of the Jacob Zuma years. The modus operandi is simple (although it is sometimes communicated in a convoluted manner): shift focus, present the perpetrator as a victim of “selective prosecution” and conspiracy by people with a secret agenda. It was first unveiled in the mid-2000s during Zuma’s rape trial and when his friend and financial adviser Schabir Shaik faced fraud and corruption charges arising from their relationship. It continues today.Dlamini, like many, has lost sight of other human beings, especially the poor and those who are suffering – as seen in her handling of the SA Social Security Agency debacle and her insensitivity to the woman assaulted by Manana. It is the same insensitivity we saw during the Zuma rape trial. Whatever the issues, no matter how sharply drawn the battle lines, there are human beings on the other side, and in the case of the rape trial, not just any human beings, but a young woman, her mother and family they knew very well.In her book, Maneuvers, The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives, Cynthia Enloe writes about patriarchal institutions in the military and everyday life.She writes about women as “belonging and not belonging” in these institutions and oppressive “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” policies. While what she writes about is associated with sexuality in the military, it also operates at certain levels of society and in various ways. It conditions us not to see others as fully human and to “unsee” their pain and joy.Manana is obviously not the only man who has assaulted a woman. Dlamini makes an important point. However, if she knows of other women who are abused, why does she use their pain as a bargaining chip? Is this not adding to their pain and shame? What measures has she taken to ensure that such men are brought to book?In his film Moolaade, Ousmane Sembene skillfully locates female genital mutilation within the patriarchal traditions of a small village in Burkina Faso. He shows women located in different positions within the patriarchal order – there are those who enforce the tradition with the support of patriarchs, there is Collé, who leads a women’s resistance to female genital mutilation and provides shelter to girls who escape from the practice. Collé is lashed in the village square by her husband. Her sisters in the resistance take her home and tend to her wounds. The ties that bind are not only those of resistance to female genital mutilation. They share grief, joy and laughter. In the end, the resistance wins. A tradition that seemed so strong is broken. The village which was torn apart by difference heals and there is rousing triumph and change.Change is only possible in South Africa if we look beyond women in formal positions of power, work with them and build alliances. But to do this, we must learn a sense of right and wrong that is deeper than what is lawful. We must use the rule of law as a minimum standard and look at it not as a substitute for morality and ethics. If we learn this, it is possible to build a future that is “affirmed from under”. Gasa is adjunct professor of public law at the University of Cape Town, and researcher on land, gender, politics and cultural issues.