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To truly empower themselves, women must recognise their relative privilege in the structures that enable men to hold on to power and oppress women, says Vinutha Mallya in this eye-opening article.
I’ve been struggling to keep from exhausting myself with all the reading, talking and thinking about #MeToo (the hashtag campaign, not the actual issue). So much is being said and written, that I’ve been unable to hear myself think at times.
These are some of my reflections on the issue and the campaign, and things I’ve been reminding myself about:
Anyone, man or woman, trying present the issue as being anti-male, remains far from understanding it. #MeToo assertions are those that point to patriarchal power — in our homes, our work places, our public spaces and the larger society.
It is the socially accepted power structures that enable men to harass, abuse and assault women. These range from sexual overtures (physical and verbal) to misogynistic expressions (physical and verbal).
The combination of gender and power that is exercised to control, exploit, oppress and/or suppress women must be acknowledged and recognised as the essential qualities of abuse and harassment.
Often, and especially in a country like ours where sexuality is a deeply uncomfortable term, expressions of desire can be confused with harassment.
An older generation of feminists have made it a point to highlight this. Why? Because that was the generation that fought for the sexual liberation of women, for women’s right to feel and express sexual desire.
In simple terms, confusing all forms of male sexuality with harassment is very dangerous for women. Desire, of men and/or women, which respects the autonomy of the other, which establishes genuine trust, and seeks consent before it grabs as a matter of right, and which does not intend to exploit the body or mind of another, is very different from harassment. But most of us rarely get to experience this, if ever. Yet, women are not always victims either. They can and must exercise agency, but they must understand it and they must understand equality too.
When the lines blur, how do we separate the wheat from the chaff?
Expressions of male desire can be power-loaded, leaving women vulnerable, and enabling situations where submission feels required, safe even.
Look at the (allegedly) most intimate of relationships: marriage. Marital rape is justified, and countless women submit to it because they are made to believe that their existence is defined by serving the man they were wed to (sex, food, ‘love’). With their right to say “no” being taken away by the evil patriarchal system, which insists they say “no” (‘tight slap’ logic) only when a male does not own them by law, the female psyche is completely messed up.
Ours is a culture that privileges male achievements, male role models, the male worldview, the male right to everything including our bodies. Learning to say “no” on the basis of their desires, even deciding what they really desire, is something many women struggle with even as adults. They are often punished for it.
Women of the generations before ours felt empowered when they could claim a place in what were traditional male bastions. That was an exhausting fight in itself, which left little room to question the inherent problems of those male bastions. To belong, they had to learn to exist in the boys’ club, turn a blind eye, learn to appropriate maleness, laugh at lewd jokes, participate in body shaming, and pretty much shaming all forms of otherness that were not male-accepted.
My generation of working women have carried forward much of this in our own ways. Fighting our small battles in our small circles, but not daring to take on the megalith. Which is why the discussions around #MeToo lately have been clarifying.
The struggle for empowerment has to turn inward now. How can women emancipate themselves from seeking acceptance and validation in this patriarchal system? How must women interpret this word? How can men liberate themselves from the privileges handed down to them? And, like this article reminds us, how must privileged women break down the structures that are convenient to them but oppressive of other women?
A lot of work remains to be done.
Image source: shutterstock
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