Engaging men: the malice problem

I anticipate “engaging men” to be a topic that I will have to return to several times. There is much to be said about engaging men in gender issues and it is not a topic that can be comprehensively covered in a single article. Instead I have decided to address what I have noticed to be a preliminary concern amongst some people when it comes to acknowledging the presence of patriarchy and acknowledging playing a role in oppressing (other) women. Namely – no one feels evil and apparently everyone feels attacked.

For the past week I have been contemplating an issue I have decided to call “the malice problem”. The problem is essentially that there is the underlying expectation that oppression be carried out through positive actions – i.e. actually doing something as opposed to omitting to act, performed with malicious intent. In the minds of many, the image they have of oppression involves lots of blood, gore and untold, constant, physical violence, coupled with cruel unfeeling perpetrators who fully intend to cause harm on unreasonable or irrational bases. Furthermore these perpetrators seem to enjoy it because they are obviously evil. If all these requirements are met then assertions to do with being victims of oppression will be considered valid. The thing with patriarchy is that it is often perpetuated by people choosing to just live their lives and to colour within the lines. All this living performed whilst being seen to play nice and appropriately without coming off as angry or hostile. Patriarchy does not require malice in order to exist – and thrive. It just needs one to fail to challenge the status quo. This is not to say that people in any way lack agency or that patriarchy isn’t sometimes actively maintained. I am merely asserting that when we choose not to confront patriarchy and actively disrupt patriarchal discourse we are instead choosing to perpetuate it. Furthermore patriarchy is perpetuated in very mundane ways.

In the article, Media coverage of women in relation to Property and Inheritance Rights (PIR) in Zimbabwe, Nyathi and Dewa identify a worrying trend within the reporting of gender based oppression within newspapers surveyed[1]. The problem is essentially two-pronged: firstly women are often presented as ‘powerless victims’ whose progression in society can only be engaged through the benevolence of men. Secondly the men who are accused of engaging in gender discrimination are presented as particularly evil or villainous. What this essentially does is on the one hand strengthen and legitimise calls for increased paternalism lest our poor women keel over and die because they don’t have men to prop them up. On the other hand by choosing to use sensational examples as the yardstick for gender discrimination, it prevents true introspection or analysis of the effects of patriarchy on the lived experiences of women. The paradigm that this framing of gender issues creates is one where the problem isn’t that patriarchy and its gross cousin paternalism exist, rather what is problematic is that some of the men within this system are using their correctly vested power incorrectly. As the reporting is presented within a patriarchal framework, essentially calling other men to arms, the radical possibilities of having gender disparity in the media is lost. Instead the fallacy that there can be no gender discrimination in the mundane or seemingly innocuous goings on of life is created. We have stumbled upon “the malice problem” which allows people to reject the idea that they are implicated in the oppression of women simply because they do not meet the level of malice patriarchy informs us to expect. So when some feminist, say – me, comes over and asserts that patriarchy itself is problematic and oppressive what people begin to hear is, I hate men and you are evil.

Feminists are often accused of fundamentally hating men. Not men who think that engaging in the subjugation of women is an appropriate thing to do, just men, in general. Point blank. This is an accusation that clearly rests on a basic misunderstanding of what patriarchy is. Patriarchy isn’t just a man or a group of men, rather, it is a complex system of social structures in which there are unequal power relations between men and women, with men having a privileged position of power and authority over women (Weedon 1987). We are said to consent to patriarchy through the socialization process, which assigns gender-based roles along with an appropriate “code of conduct” for all, based upon stereotyped conceptions of “masculine” and “feminine”. This code is imbued with all the gestures and attitudes that will be considered appropriate for the sexes (Millet 1970). This means that we are all taught the ways in which to perpetuate patriarchy or, behave appropriately, as patriarchy is often packaged. The key here is that each and every member of society can be implicated in patriarchy. It is not just a man thing. What is male is the concentration of the benefits accrued.

Nyathi and Dewa assert that ‘patriarchy can be understood as an overarching discourse which subjectifies all who subscribe to its ideals… patriarchy is at its most powerful when men and women operate within its belief systems and willingly accept its general principles.’ This means that the simple act of behaving appropriately and following social convention can be an act of oppression because we uphold the values and assumptions that brought these norms to fruition. Thus oppressive acts can be performed by both sexes and both sexes may have a stake in the perpetuation of patriarchy. Furthermore, after having put a lot of effort into properly conforming to patriarchal society some people regard attempts to reject its norms to be a personal affront, as patriarchy rewards or praises those who will dance to its tune. How often in a polemical debate do we find women both on the side of radical re-ordering of society and on the side of the status quo?

 Whilst the fact of the pervasive influence and impact of patriarchy in society poses a challenge to those who would otherwise like to plead innocent on the charge of being oppressors of women, it also places a large impetus on those of us who claim to be committed to the true emancipation of women. It is quite clear that left unchecked patriarchy has the power to enter any discussion and distort it to fit its purposes. In many ways it is a learning complex structure that is able to adjust to changing social climates, particularly because so many people are invested in the maintenance of the status quo and so many people are indifferent to its operations. Patriarchy will not simply die out if left alone long enough. Rather it will become deeper entrenched. This means that in order to have a true impact we have to make an active effort to disrupt patriarchy’s discourse. Which means actively rejecting the ways in which we were socialised and in fact acting in some ways that will disrupt the peace. When we choose not to carry the burden of being offended by the hand of patriarchy in every aspect of our lives we choose to instead to be implicated in patriachy’s oppression.

Simply being aware of gender disparities is not enough. Indeed under our new constitution it is acknowledged that the State must take positive measures to rectify gender discrimination and imbalances resulting from past practices and policies. This is something that Zimbabwe realised at least a decade ago – the reversal of oppression requires actual acts or amends to be made. Recognition of a problematic situation does not a solution make. If we could grasp this for the purposes of fighting against the grasp of neo-colonialism, isn’t it high time we used similar reasoning for the emancipation of women?


[1]Both public and private publications were used

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