The problem with male feminists

2015-02-02 16:22

For a few years now, I have self-identified as a feminist. It is a big deal for me because of where I was raised—in a rural village in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Rural villages have rigid hierarchies caused by years of cultural corrosion and divide-and-conquer by colonialists. Men are the centers of power. They control women, children, land and livestock. Feminism is the seed that poisons this patritopia. “How dare you question the way of the ancestors,” a respected community leader once barked at me.

I could not tell you how I became a feminist. I cannot recall the precise moment when I declared my feminism. It was gradual, not deliberate. I was influenced by the petri dish of noxious patriarchy, horrific gender-based violence and crippling inequality.

The single most influencer of my socio-cultural turnaround was my mother. Like many black women born and raised in rural villages in 1960s South Africa, she suffered the trifecta of social, political and economical oppression. Today, as an adult, I wonder how she pulled us through in such a quiet, unassuming way.

My mother is my frame of reference for the brutality of patriarchy, for the cost of inequality and for the archaic nature of cultural assumptions. She is the core premise of all my feminist arguments. The problem with this: my mother is not every woman.

I wonder whether my feminism is not in fact substitution. I wonder whether my feminism is not in fact a warped feminotopia where every woman is like my mother.

I struggle with articulating a concrete view on most feminist controversies. I do not have concrete views about marriage, prostitution or religion. My only feminist by-line, a mantra of sorts, is that women should not be subjugated. It is not a particularly radical view. It is humanistic common sense.

Basically, your feminism would eat my feminism’s lunch!

This, I think, is the problem with most male feminists. Often, we substitute the “barefoot women in the kitchen” with a “stilettoed executive in a business suit, who juggles a striving family with her Fortune 500 job”. I concede that I may be hyping the substitution. However, I find this respectability-politics strand of feminism to be common among men who self-identity as feminists.

What if a woman has no desire to be like Michelle Obama, or Hillary Clinton or my mother? Should she be subjugated?

The reality, I must admit in earnest, is that I am a man--whatever that means. I live in a world of patriarchy, heteronormativity and male privilege.

In the war against gender inequality, I am soldier for the oppressive institution, consciously or unconsciously. I cannot be both a freedom fighter and the oppressor.

I do not think this means all is lost. “Woman” is a lazy term for a complicated mass of identities (as is “man”). The role of a male feminist is to listen and to lend support to said identifies as they chart their path to freedom. A male feminist must not pretend, even for a second, to understand the plight of women in patriarchal societies. He must assume that he doesn't---but be willing to learn.

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