One of my Facebook friends, a young woman academic, recently posed a question, inviting discussion. (I’ve abbreviated her post for the sake of space.)
“What is it about white male liberals that just MUST have me buy [into] their ideas when they diverge from mine? I am struck that over the years, I have had a handful of white male liberals make it a mission to convince me that I am WRONG about Hillary. When I say, listen, the case is closed, she cheer led the Iraq war, I am done, [t]hey just cannot handle it.”
She continued: “What is it about needing to convince me, needing to prove me wrong about my respect for Iraqi and Palestinian life (good luck with that one!!), needing me to stop talking about it? I’m not going to validate you, brother, especially not over the lives of innocent civilians, the fates of which your privileged self cannot even begin to imagine.
She then said: “I’m interested in the thoughts of WOMEN OF COLOR on this question, and MAYBE the thoughts of allies…but what I am NOT interested in are denials of my premise.”
I’ve wondered the same thing. Why do many liberal white men, when faced with my point of view—different from theirs—attempt to “set me straight?”
Placing myself in the ally category, I replied. “Our culture puts women and men in different social spaces. Women and men don’t experience the world identically, and so what we (women) often say about the world doesn’t make sense to many men…[who] are socialized to ‘just know things.’”
A woman of color responded: “I’ve had this happen to me with radicals, progressives, liberals, moderates…they all want me to know that if I just understood whatever it is they think I don’t understand, I’d change my mind. It is racism and misogyny and entitlement and while I experience this from people of other demographics it is especially special from white dudes.”
This resonates with me big time: “…if I just understood whatever it is they think I don’t understand, I’d change my mind.”
A liberal, white male colleague of mine, whenever we discuss patriarchy, assures me that not only men dominate. He’s quick to give examples of women who do so when occupying positions of power. “It’s a human thing,” he says.
I don’t completely disagree with him. However, the reality of the situation within patriarchy is that all women have secondary (less than men) standing and must navigate their lives from that secondary status—a place men are not familiar with. No matter, my colleague holds fast. “Both sexes dominate. It’s a human thing.”
Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American journalist published an essay titled, “Why Do They Hate Us?” The “they” refers to men and the “us” refers to women. Even though her immediate context is the Egyptian uprising known as the Arab Spring, misogyny blooms wherever patriarchy has taken root. She writes, “Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.”
Eltahawy explains that all Egyptian citizens have been (and continue to be) oppressed by a long line of political dictators. But when we look at things in a more nuanced way, we find that women are doubly oppressed as Egyptians turn a blind eye to the “oppressors on our streets and in our homes.”
It’s not just Egyptians who turn a blind eye to misogyny. Most people don’t “get” how systemic misogyny seeps into the structure of our cells, shaping our thinking and behavior. We (women) learn to hate ourselves. Misogynistic men don’t usually hate themselves.
Men have also absorbed entitlement. They are presumed to “know things.” So, for many women, it’s “natural” to think, “if I just understood whatever it is they think I don’t understand, I’d change my mind.” If we (women) are lucky, we eventually get to a place where misogyny in all its forms and manifestations doesn’t feel “natural” anymore.
My friend who started the Facebook discussion was wise to stipulate, “I am NOT interested in…denials of my premise.” I think it’s easy to become sidetracked by the argument my colleague makes. “Women can dominate as well as men. It’s a human thing.”
Poor people, people of color, and immigrants experience oppression in patriarchal societies. Additionally, women experience oppression from the misogynistic “givens” in our society. Even though these “givens” are freely absorbed by both women and men, there’s a difference.
A young friend of mine, walking along in the mall with her husband, told me her husband eyed up a woman and said, “If I were not with you right now, I’d be tasting her.” (This incident is troubling on many levels.) When I mentioned the anecdote to my liberal, male colleague, he said he’s heard women speak that same way about men. “There’s a difference,” I insisted.
I had just finished reading The Last Girl, written by the winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, Nadia Murad. Nadia is an Iraqi Yazidi and when the Islamic State (Daesh) captured her village, young women were abducted to serve as sex slaves for the men of the Islamic State, often passed around from one man to the next as if they were a piece of jerky. One does not hear about women enslaving men in the same fashion. Therein lies the difference. Women’s experience in patriarchy is not the flip side of men’s experience in that system.
Most men find it easier (and more comfortable) to chalk up domination in patriarchy to being “a human thing” when really, it’s far more nuanced. As Mary Sharratt, in her 12/5/18 essay on FAR, wrote: “Although female bullies exist, women, from my experience, are more likely to experience the most severe forms of bullying at the hands of entitled males. I would even argue that female-on-female bullying is a direct symptom of patriarchy’s attempts to divide and conquer us.”
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.