Why asking: “What if it were your mother/sister/daughter?” sucks

Happy Thursday everyone! It has been an exceedingly long time since I posted anything and we should all be very angry at my exams for that! Today I’d like to talk about why relational rhetoric is the absolute worst. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely understand the appeal: it’s an easy way to humanise and concretise issues that may seem really abstract and removed from people’s daily lives. It gets you through the door, and having a conversation about women’s rights in a way that people are receptive to. It’s great to be able to talk about women’s rights and feminism. However, my problem is this: when we employ patriarchal reasoning to legitimise our arguments we inadvertently reinforce patriarchal norms. Below I’ve listed three of the most irksome and yet basic tenets of patriarchy we reinforce when we engage people in this manner:

  1. Women are not really people: only men are people. This is the thing that really makes my heart bleed. We make it seem as though women only accede to the lofty office of human being when we a man can be found that cares about us, romantically or otherwise. Women are only embodied in the roles they assume for, or the services they provide to, men. Other than that nope. This also makes it easier to frame our rights as something other than human rights. They’re special interest – minority, rights because men are people. Women are just some grotesque deviation from the norm.
  1. Paternalism is okay. Paternalism is and has always been patriarchy’s go-to tactic when dealing with women. Patriarchy is constantly of the opinion that it, and by extension the men it artificially elevates, are in a position to make decisions on behalf of women. Paternalism actively excludes women from decision-making processes on issues that directly affect us because we are deemed to be incapable of reasoning. What is particularly key here is that patriarchy considers such intrusion into our lives to be a benign act, perhaps even a merciful one because “the poor dears don’t know any better.” Thus when we feminists/gender activists/ decent human beings ask people (usually men) to consider the plight of their female relatives, and make a decision on how they think their female relatives should be permitted to behave we are engaging paternalistic rhetoric. Indeed we are reinforcing the idea that patriarchy (and its intrusions) isn’t harmful, patriarchy is merely considerate. This place of paternalism and the “best interests” doctrine ultimately results in the exclusion of women from decision-making arenas. Furthermore, we’ve made explaining why patriarchy needs to get the heck out of women’s lives that much harder.
  1. Women are not capable of deciding what’s best for them. This is an idea that props up paternalism and triggers the “best interests” doctrine as applied by patriarchy and its institutions (e.g. the legal system). When we are asked to think in terms of the best interests of a certain group of people the implication is that these people are not in a position to think for themselves. Not only are these people incapable of making their own decisions but also any decisions they attempt to make will be harmful. Therefore, goes this reasoning, society has a vested interest in ensuring that this segment is denied any self-determination. What this segment wants simply doesn’t matter. This is how we usually deal with children and those the law considers to be incompetent. When we trigger paternalism we’re infantilising women and saying that patriarchy has been right all along. What we must be aware of is how deeply entrenched this type of reasoning already is – we need not aid it. It hasn’t really been that long since black women in Zimbabwe have been deemed capable of reaching adulthood (see The Legal Age of Majority Act passed in 1982). Furthermore the move to consider black women as capable of adulthood was greatly contentious; indeed at the time the drought the country experienced was blamed on the passage of the act.

So what can we use instead? Well my current tactic involves emphasising the humanity of women. I’m really trying to focus on the individual personhood of women and asking what gives society at large the standing to deny our right to be considered human beings with complete agency? I also try to remind everyone how we felt when the imperialist powers did the same thing to black people in general. I’ll let you know how it goes.


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