A Pox on the Patriarchy
I had about 20 minutes to kill today and I saw a tweet that set me off on a thought-path. Given I’m in a noisy cafe and in a rush, these thoughts are quite rough and are intended to be the start of a discussion, rather than the final word. But the central point is one I think is deeply important. It might not be my “job” or my “responsibility” to educate you – but there’s no doubt in my mind that irrespective of that, I’m the best person to do it. And so, when I can, I will.
Today I want to discuss the phrase “it’s not the job of the oppressed to educate the oppressor’. There are variations on this, such as “not the responsibility”, “the onus is not on the oppressed” etc etc etc. I take issue with this phrase. It seems like yet another pat, memefication of activism, that sounds good, looks good, but achieves little. Let me explain what I mean.
As a woman, I am oppressed on the basis of my gender. I am paid less than men for the same work. My emotions and body are deemed problematic. I am expected to conform to behaviours that I don’t want to – but blamed for being weak when I do. I am expected to spend reams of time and money to fit into an oppressive and completely unachievable standard of beauty, do serious damage to myself with unwearable shoes and clothes – and mocked and belittled if I do. I face the daily reality of sexual harassment, the threat of rape, being disbelieved when I talk about my trauma, when I talk about sexual violence committed against me, and of course, when I talk about my oppression.
This final point is really important. It does get exhausting to explain your oppression to people who don’t understand, and worse than this, who don’t care to understand. It is exhausting to have to repeat yourself over and over again, on a daily basis, to people who, even if they do try to, can never really understand what it’s like to have been brought up to hate, belittle and demean yourself, and to know that you are hated, belittled and demeaned for what you are. You can never understand what it is like to be a woman if you are not yourself a woman. You can have sympathy, you can listen to stats and figures, you can accept that we are oppressed, but the kind of intimate, and crucially, intuitive knowledge of gender oppression can only come from a woman, because she has lived with it every day of her life and it is all she knows. It informs her worldview. It informs every decision she takes from the moment she gets up, to the moment she goes to bed; from the moment she’s born, to the moment she dies. I cannot tell you, if you are not a woman, what it feels like to be in a woman-only space. The sheer relief at being understood, implicitly, without having to explain.
The other day, I was in a women-only space, and one of us started talking about when she had almost been raped. And the response from the other women wasn’t “how awful that that happened, how did you feel?” – and we realised that it was because, rather then being shocked, her words had triggered our own memories. She was describing our own experience. She didn’t have to explain how she felt: we knew, because we had been there ourselves. There is nothing quite like feeling understood without having to explain.
And so, I have sympathy for people who trot out this line. It takes the aching burden off our shoulders, of not only have to suffer, to live this oppression, but of having to continually justify it, explain why the daily pin-pricks you feel are so disheartening and grinding, having to continually place those pin-pricks in the wider context of the daily fear you feel – fear of sexual violence, of being mocked and belittled, of not being the default, of not being believed.
Today I was at the launch of Women For Refugee Women’s report on the treatment of female asylum seekers in the UK. The stats are shocking. The treatment of the women is appalling. And one of the worst things, one of the things so many women will recognise, is the repeated theme that these women are not believed. They are not believed when they recount the rape, the torture, the oppression they have fled. And this morning, they were publicly branded liars by the Home Office, who dismissed the whole report as a fabrication. Once again, women’s voices are being ignored, diminished, undermined. Women, are being ignored, diminished, undermined.
It’s exhausting and demoralising to be disbelieved, to be diminished, to continually have to explain, justify. Rinse and repeat. But here’s the thing: the routine dismissal, disbelief, diminishment and casting aside of the oppressed will not be solved by buying into that very diminishment. It will not be solved by its perpetuation. It will not be solved by letting other people speak for us because it’s just too tiring to keep speaking up about the same thing, to say it over and over and over again till you collapse with exhaustion and get up the next day and do it all over again. I understand the temptation. I understand the frustration that we have this added burden of explaining ourselves to people so entitled they don’t even recognise their entitlement. To people who don’t believe us when we talk about how we are made to feel and who demand explanations. “It’s not our job” line, sounds so clever, so black and white, so neat (especially because, of course, it’s not our “job”). And this grain of truth, this neatness, make it sounds like a solution. But the thing is, it’s not. It’s the opposite of a solution: it’s part of the problem.
No-one understands the oppression of women better than women. No-one is more able to explain the daily indignities, fears, miseries that make up the lot of being a woman in this world, than a woman herself. More than this, since part of our oppression is that our voices are not heard, it is even more imperative that this, that talking about our own oppression, is not something we hand over to someone else. It is not a job we can farm out to google. It is something, if we are serious about ending our oppression, rather than talking about it on twitter, that we have to own ourselves. Speaking about our oppression is not just part of the fight: it is a victory in itself.