Conversations with a misogynist: “My mother was a slut”

I was proud of myself for waking up (early-ish) to write the other day- it was the day I finally stopped making excuses and I started writing again. My travel journal lay next to me, invitingly plump, filled with stories of adventure that begged release to a wider audience. I touched the soft surface of it’s cover and wanted to draw it to myself in an embrace. I flicked through the pages restlessly, eventually pushing it away. It would remain ajar, peppering my periphery, beguiling and admonishing me simultaneously. What I thought I would write about, what I wanted to write about was our most recent adventure. I longed for the freedom of those words, I longed to revel in the pastels of nostalgia, but I found no release. I felt like I was shaking a magic eight ball, in the foolish way one does when it’s given you an “answer” you don’t want, and you think, If I just try again, I’ll get a different outcome. The thing was, my magic eight ball was sort of warped – the tile that kept popping up read “misogyny” and no matter what I did, I couldn’t shake another answer out of it.

I don’t often have cause to thank Trump, but I do suppose he’s helped me learn to spell the word “misogyny”. I suppose he’s gotten that word a lot of airplay since becoming the US president, but I wonder if, even though we’re better at spelling it, we’re any closer to understanding what it means. Misogyny or misogynist aren’t words I’ve used often, but I found myself in a situation where the word escaped my lips so effortlessly that it surprised even me. I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where someone says or does something that immediately triggers a word in your mind, forging an unbreakable and immediate connection. The word for me was “misogyny”, and the scenario was hearing the words “My mother was a slut, because she had me young” from an older man in a position of power, speaking to a group of around 30 people in a work setting. He was telling the story of his life, and who raised him, and had decided on a killer opening, it would seem. Later, in a joke, he would speak of my reaction, saying I reacted physically to his comment. I would be the only one in that group, on that day, to tell him that his comment was inappropriate, not so much because of his warped relationship with his mother, but because I thought he was shaming women by deeming them “sluts” if they were sexually active at what he considered a young age. The word “misogynist” would fall heavily in the room, sucking up the air and pausing the moment, but he would manage to laugh awkwardly and deftly change the topic. Even after the day, the conversation replayed itself in my mind, each time exposing another question. Was he a misogynist or was I being the girl who couldn’t handle a joke?  Why didn’t he apologise? Why didn’t anyone else find it inappropriate? Why did he think that his words were appropriate in such a forum, or at all? Was he “punishing” me later when he cut me off mid-sentence and dismissed what I was saying, or was that simply “just his style” or manner? It’s almost as though I had prepared myself for the subtle slurs, for the “well meaning” propagators of patriarchy even, but when faced with this explicitly demeaning comment, I was confused and caught off guard. I also wondered if I truly understood misogyny and what it meant.

I thought about the classic definition of misogyny, something along the lines of Merriam-Webster definition, “a hatred of women”, and it felt too narrow for me.  Apply that definition and all of sudden, misogyny doesn’t really exist or apply to many. All of a sudden, the issue of misogyny becomes non-existent because finding people who fit that definition to the letter is probably akin to finding the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But here’s the problem, misogyny and misogynists do exist, they live and breathe among us. That classic definition was off base and incomplete for me. I began a search in earnest for a better understanding of misogyny. A couple of very odd articles later, some of which I’m convinced were written by misogynists themselves, I came across an interview with Kate Mann regarding her book Down Girl: The Logic Of Misogyny and something clicked for me.  Kate Mann draws the distinction between sexism and misogyny, referring to misogyny as the “policing” of certain behaviours and the punishment of women who do not confirm to the “norms” or do as they’re “supposed to”. Misogynists seek to punish or control women who don’t fit their narrow definition of what it means to be a woman (i.e.“bad” women). Contradict this norm or withhold certain things that women are meant to provide (be it care, attention, sex) and a misogynist will seek to put you in your place or punish you. Kate Mann refers to the classic definition of misogyny I mentioned earlier the “naïve conception” because it allows us to think of misogyny as a rare thing. I thought back to the incident that prompted this entire investigation and not only was I angrier, but I also felt defeated. Sure, now I felt vindicated for having called someone a misogynist but I’m not sure that I had made the situation any better.

I admit that I liked the anger in the word misogyny and the heady trip of righteous indignation. It was good to be angry; it was good to call someone out, but to what end? Don’t get me wrong, I’m neither apologetic or ashamed of my anger, such comments should inspire anger and action in all of us, but I still don’t know how we move forward. I still don’t know what the best course of action is or if my voice, on that day made the slightest bit of difference. I still don’t know why so many remained silent and why, even when I spoke to others who were present, I was told to understand that it was “just the way he was”. When I think about the fact that Stats SA routinely publishes data that tells us that the labour market favours men, when I think about the lack of women representation in leadership roles, when I think of all the young mothers who would have heard that comment and felt ashamed, I feel lost. I feel lost and angry. And somewhere in that, I know that, despite not having a solution, I will not be silenced. I know that I will speak until someone listens, even when mine is the only voice in the room. All I can hope for, is that one day you will join me.

Confessions of a loud girl

Even writing this title makes me uncomfortable. I hate being called “loud” and every time someone refers to me as such, I cringe. Whether it’s the sudden turn of your head and narrowing of your eyes when you hear me laugh, or whether you actually call me “loud”, I hate it. It sounds like an insult, like you’ve invited an elephant to your tea party just so you can make fun of her for breaking your china. Shame. That’s an accurate description of what I feel when I’m called “loud”. I feel ashamed. Maybe in ancient times, my people required the power of sneakiness as a means of survival, and that’s why I’m ashamed to be loud. Maybe my brain triggers shame to protect me from an evolutionary perspective. Maybe, a more likely option, my shame is linked to the idea that women are not meant to be loud. To be a woman is to be quiet, delicate and gentle, you don’t speak out of turn and you’re not bossy or opinionated.  To be a woman, is to be a creature of grace- serene femininity oozing from every measured word with the indulgence of a coquettish giggle when the occasion calls for it. How easily a loud girl fails that criteria. Truth be told, I don’t even consider myself loud. I am assertive, opinionated and unapologetic about using my voice, but I’d never describe myself as loud. But perhaps I should, perhaps I should reclaim it. Perhaps in this world, where all too often we silence the voice of women in so many inventive and subtle ways, I should be proud of being loud. If I am loud and just one woman hears my voice, isn’t that enough to be proud of?

In thinking about being loud, I’ve thought of my voice. I’ve also thought of women around the world who feel like they have none.  I used to think that my greatest fear was not being understood, but I’m beginning to feel like it’s something that precedes understanding. At its most basic form, if no one hears you, if your voice is lost, how will you ever be understood? I can’t say with absolute conviction that I feel like I’m heard. I can’t say with even a little conviction that men have not spoken over me, that I haven’t been ignored in male dominated environments. Yes, even though I’m “loud”. I can say that often during a discussion when I offer a suggestion to an otherwise male audience, it lands heavy but with no purpose. It serves to draw silence before an awkward man who has not really heard the concept, or my idea, presses forward as if I had not said anything at all. My words were just a speed bump along the road that starts and ends with solutions that I have no power to shape. It’s more than a slap in the face to be ignored in that way, it more than an insult, it’s an indication of my worthlessness. It’s often at some later point, once I’ve tried to make my point for the third time, that some man comes to my “rescue” saying, “What I think she’s trying to say is…,”. It fascinates me to see others bob their head when my ideas take on a male voice. Of course, it’s not uncommon that whichever man explained my suggestion also gets the credit for “his idea”. I reread what I’ve just written and part of me wants to delete the entire thing because I want to believe I’m making it up. I want to believe this isn’t what I’m experiencing with a shocking and sickening regularity. But it is true, and it does happen and not only to me. I’ve also seen this happen to men, from all walks of life, but I’ve never seen it happen as frequently as I see it happening to women. All around me I see women being silenced, I see their ideas being trampled on, I see men taking the credit where they don’t deserve it. We silence women by telling them they need to show up in certain way to fit in. We silence women when they grow tired of fighting to be heard and simply give up. We silence women when we show them that their voices do not matter. We silence women daily, routinely and without thought. Women do have voices and they aren’t afraid to use them, but have we been listening?

Perhaps what I should be, beyond loud, is louder. Perhaps I should speak and write till I am heard, perhaps I should also let my actions be louder. Perhaps I should own who I am, along with my voice so that I can allow other women to also do the same . For the longest time one of my frustrations with being “loud” was the assumption that I should be anything but. That I shouldn’t own the space I occupy, that I should be apologetic for even existing. That I should make myself and my voice smaller so as not to inconvenience anyone. It feels like that judgement seeks to replace me with a more acceptable version. But I’m not having that. Sorry, that’s not me. I am inconvenient, and, you know what, I love that about myself. The world is better with me being loud, brass, assertive and ambitious because that’s who I am. And folks, that’s most certainly nothing to be quiet about.

For women only: No men allowed

Here’s something I’d never thought I’d hear myself say, “I’ve had so many fights since I started a book club,”. I should clarify that it is a woman’s only book club and that it is a corporate one, not that that sheds any light on why this is such a contentious topic though. For some reason people (read men) are shocked, appalled and angry with me because I’ve created a platform that excludes them. Yes, I know, I should buy them all dictionaries so they can look up the word “patriarchy”. I suspect that I’m beginning to lose my sense of humour around the whole thing, I did want to title this blog “How not be an idiot and other useful tips” so perhaps we’re already in dangerous territory. It just frustrates me that men think that they should weigh in on certain things that, quiet frankly, are none of their business. Now, I am not saying that feminism shouldn’t include men, I’m not saying that men should be excluded from the dialogue, that’s as stupid as some of the comments I’ve gotten regarding a woman only book club. What I am saying is that I’m sick of men telling what I should do and I’m sick of them thinking they have right to do so.

I’m not about to apologise for pushing the agenda for women empowerment

I’m not about to apologise for pushing the agenda for women empowerment. Neither am I willing to apologise for the fact that I’ve created a platform for women to learn and grow from each other, and hopefully one that will encourage women to use their voices. Nope, I’m not about to do that but somehow, many men I’ve spoken to seem to think that’s exactly what I should be doing. I know the conversations would be easier if I was a bit more diplomatic (read agreeable) and if every time a man told me of how the book club should also include him I simply bowed in submission and said, “Kind sir, thank you for that golden suggestion, my fragile mind had not yet thought such grand thoughts”. Truth be told I had thought of whether the book club should include men or not, I had even discussed it with a wider audience and put it up to a vote before deciding because I am explicitly aware of the fact that to move forward, we must not do it in isolation. I also believe that this book club will evolve to include a wider audience one day. I don’t know when, but one day. I am fully aware that men exist in this world and that it is also their voices and their actions that we need to dismantle patriarchy. Nobody is saying otherwise, least of all this book club. But somehow, I need to explain it, I need to justify it, I need to make the men who I’ve excluded feel better because that is what’s expected of me. Unfortunately, I’m not willing to do any of that either. Tell you what I am willing to do though, I’m willing to pretend that I’m less annoyed and put together these few gentle, guiding points on how to be less of an idiot during these conversations with me. One day I’ll learn how not be sarcastic, I don’t know when, but one day.

Instead of saying, “I also like to read”, (because my response will remain the same “So, who’s stopping you?”) say, “That’s a great idea. I also love reading, what is the book club reading now?”. Say that and you’ll shift the conversation away from me saying, “By starting a book club that I did not invite you to, I did not magical cast a spell that stops you from reading or buying books. It is my sincere hope that you do not reproduce on the off chance that they inherent your intellectual abilities.” Instead I’d merrily leap into a conversation about our current book, what key things interest me and what actions it’s sparked. Chances are, I’d probably volunteer to lend you my copy once I’m done.

Instead of saying, “Yes, but why aren’t you involving me?” say “Yes, and I’d also like to get involved. How can I contribute to uplifting women?” That would probably earn you a high-five or a hug or both and we’d get to talking about how we can do something together to serve and even wider audience.

Instead of saying, “Women need to tell us how to fix this, otherwise we’d never know” say “Patriarchy has served me my entire life and I am ignorant to the challenges that women face. Are you aware of any known cure for my ignorance?” There’s no telling how this would pan out but I’d sure respect you for admitting that your were ignorant.

Instead of saying, “I don’t understand why women need to talk amongst themselves,” say “I think it’s great that you’re creating a space where women can leverage off each other and while I’d also like to be part of the conversation, I have no right to tell you or any woman what she should be doing with her voice.” Again, this is totally five-high and or hug material. We’d probably launch into a conversation on how we could go about breaking conventions and how we could leverage of each other to do something great for women. You would inspire me and you’d also probably be a unicorn, but a girl can dream.

It’s really not that challenging to stop and check your privilege. And if you want to be part of the solution, I applaud you, I really do. We need more men who want that. We also need more men who don’t think they have a right to tell women what to do. We need more men who call themselves feminists. We need more men challenging words, thoughts and actions that cement toxic masculinity in our communities. We need more men who listen, who have been listening to what women have been saying for centuries. We need more men who believe that patriarchy is wrong and who are willing to do something to challenge something that serves them. We need all sorts of men to do all sorts of things, but by god, we do not need more men in book club.

Women in the workplace: Two reasons why we won’t let each other win

When I was a young girl my mother told me of how she earned less money than my father did when they both started working as teachers. I remember hearing the story and thinking that the world in the late seventies/early eighties was not only ridiculous, but also backward. It made no sense to me. My parents were the same age, got the same education and went into the same profession. The one fundamental difference between them was something they had no choice or control over, their gender. I found it hard to believe that humans could be that stupid. I admit that the idea of different pay scales based on gender as well as race fascinated and appalled me in equal measure, but I absorbed the story with a certain smugness. I was smug because I knew that the world would be a far different place once I started working. I knew that we would not make the same mistakes our parents did. Now all these years later, I’ve come to realise that our biases are far stickier than we would like to admit and that although we’ve come a long way since cavemen dragged women around by their hair, we’ve still got an awful lot more to learn and change in the name of progress. I don’t have the answers as to why women are still inadequately represented top of the corporate ladder or why patriarchy and toxic masculinity find such prevalence in our daily lives. What I do have is a few thoughts on why we, as women, don’t let each other win.

I have a two-part theory about why women struggle to, as Melinda Gates urged us to, “share power”. It’s not novel and by no means entirely my own, but it is something that we need to start thinking about. Someone said to me that women don’t need to learn about how to empower other women, that we do it already. And while that thought alone fills me with hope, I know it’s not entirely true. Just because we’ve felt the strong hand of patriarchy pushing us down every time we try to rise, just because we face the daily burden of unpaid work stifling our growth, just because we’re afraid of what it means to be a woman in this country, does not necessarily bind us to a common goal of supporting and uplifting each other. I don’t have an exhaustive list for why it is that we don’t support each other, nor do I have a theory that will apply to every woman but what I do have is thoughts around what I’ve experienced. The first part of my theory is based on scarcity and the second on sacrifice.

It’s easy to buy into the concept of scarcity if being who you are invalidates your access to the opportunities that are meant to help you.

The scarcity concept makes us believe that there a limited amount of opportunities and that when someone, a woman, rises to take one, she’s taken something away from us. It’s odd though, because sometimes we aren’t even interested in that specific opportunity, all we know is that now it’s no longer available to us. Part jealousy, part competition, we believe in the idea of win-lose, that another woman’s success means the loss of an opportunity for someone else. I link this to the dark side of competition, to the thought that there exists two teams in the world, the winners and the losers. When you think about it this way, any win that isn’t your own puts you squarely in the loser camp. Doing something “first” is also important here, you’re not winning unless you were the first to do something. Your friend starts a blog and it’s something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t gotten around to it, is your initial reaction to support her? Or did she steal the one last spot available to bloggers all over the world? A coworker gets a promotion, she’s your age or younger but progressing quicker up the corporate ladder than you did. Are you wishing her well while secretly harbouring thoughts that seek to lessen the comparison between yourself and her? I get it, I do. For so many reasons, but also because I’ve felt that way. And to a degree, who can blame us for thinking this way? We’ve seen men win at the expense of women for centuries, at the very heart of patriarchy is win-lose thinking. And sure, we’ve created more opportunities for women to succeed but in order to be considered for those opportunities, you need to the “right” sort of woman. You know what I mean, the woman who speaks her mind, but is never loud or assertive. The one who disagrees, but never strongly. The woman who is committed to her family but whose children aren’t sick too often. Go ahead, be who you are, we tell women, as long as your hair’s not too untidy, you’re not too loud, you don’t sleep around and, of course, you know your place and don’t rock the boat too much. Is it any wonder why we believe that opportunities for success, or getting to the top of the corporate ladder are scarce? Perhaps we all understand that there are opportunities but that getting hold of one requires the sort of backflips and jumping through hoops that is both offensive and inauthentic. How about we start talking about opportunities and a lack thereof, when women are rewarded for who they are, instead of who others expect us to be? It’s easy to buy into the concept of scarcity if being who you are invalidates your access to the opportunities that are meant to help you.

We become the very ones we hated, we fought against. We do it because we’ve bought into the idea that success comes with sacrifice, we need that pound of flesh because it’s what we gave up.

The sacrifice concept is based on the principle that women must often fight their way to success, that women often have to work much harder than men do just to be considered for the same opportunities. Our burden of proof is much larger and naturally, so are our sacrifices. That we fought, clawed and pushed our way into typically male dominated environments, that we sacrificed so much to do it, is sometimes a difficult thought to let go off. We want to hold onto it because it shows our strength, our perseverance and our sheer will beyond our capabilities, because we know capability alone is not enough when you’re a woman. We tell ourselves that we were more, we did more, that’s how we rose. The struggle we faced, did more than validate us, it defined us and our views on success. So, when someone comes along whose progress along a similar path seems easier, it’s hard for us to think of all we’ve sacrificed and make room for this younger woman who probably won’t face the struggles we have. Instead of shaping a journey that is fundamentally different from the one had to embark on, we shape something very similar. We become the very ones we hated, we fought against. We do it because we’ve bought into the idea that success comes with sacrifice, we need that pound of flesh because it’s what we gave up. We do it because we’ve learnt that success is painful, that it wouldn’t be right unless it was. We do it because we believe other women, need to “earn their stripes” in much the same way that the men who held the power expected from us.

I write this for women whose futures will be shaped by all sorts of men and women, in the hope that we are brave enough to claim our power or to ask for a share of it, knowing full well that it might be more than others think we deserve.

Like I’ve written earlier, I certainly can’t speak on behalf of all women worldwide, I probably know, in equal measures, women who both fit and disprove the descriptions above. I write this for the women who challenge the concept of scarcity, who go forth and shape opportunities, who challenge the notion that opportunities are only available to those who tow the line. I write this for both the women who will understand that their struggles have prepared them to make the path easier for those that follow and for the women who use their struggles as some sort of a measuring stick to gauge success. I write this for women whose futures will be shaped by all sorts of men and women, in the hope that we are brave enough to claim our power or to ask for a share of it, knowing full well that it might be more than others think we deserve.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any entity or organisation.

Why it’s okay to hate your husband and other tales from a bad wife

Husband is eating a mushroom but by the sound of things he might as well be crunching on concrete. That he is at least 500km away from me at the moment does nothing to dampen the sound of his chewing or my anger. “You know people wont even be surprised when I kill you, in fact they’d be shocked I put up with your chewing for so long” It’s pure nastiness on my part, he can’t help it. Somehow Husband’s mouth was designed to amplify. Husband decides to distract me by changing the topic but only succeeds in increasing the volume of the concrete crushing and shifting the sound closer to that part of the brain that triggers violence. I look at him through narrowed eyes, ready to spit out the snarky, mean comment I have ready for him, but I find myself stifling a laugh instead. He moves to hide himself behind and wall and continues the conversation in a manner that is impossibly cute. This must be madness, this desire to want to kill him and kiss him at the same time. Perhaps this is what marriage has done to me, I’ve been made mad by living in such close quarters with another human. I veer between laughter and anger before the former wins and I realise that this man, destroyer of mushrooms and of quiet spaces, is my Husband. Mine, and well, I do like collect things, so I might as well keep this one.

Husband once asked me why it is that I refer to him as such in this blog. I wonder if it is symbolic somehow, as if through marriage, I have stripped him of his name and so labelled him “Husband”. It would make a great change from the norm of women having to cast aside their names for the sake of marriage, so I think I’ll stick to that version. It is incredibly hypocritical, in light of what I’ve just written, that I am very often annoyed at Husband when I am introduced as his wife. Maybe it’s because Husband has a habit of gesturing to me and saying “This is my wife” in a way that makes it seem as though he’s forgotten my name or if he was simply pointing out his new running shoes (in fact that might get more enthusiasm). Is it wrong to be introduced by my name (provided he can actually recall it) or perhaps by something fantastic and awe inspiring? This is Denira, reader of books, slayer of ignorance! It’s not too much to ask that this man, to whom I have bestowed the title of Husband, alludes to my greatness at very opportunity, is it? Also, if I’m being honest, I really don’t like the word “wife”, which is probably why I’m so cavalier about brandishing the title of “bad wife”. Wife, even the word sounds subservient, like you’d find it hiding in a kitchen cupboard because it forgot to salt it’s husband’s socks or wash his food, or something backward like that. Every time I say the word I want to shrug it off, it’s much the same for when I find a bug on me unexpectedly, there is a shaking of my shoulders and head and a completely paranoid check to make sure it’s really gone. I don’t like it. I don’t like it just as much as I don’t like the men who hide from their wives, who can’t be themselves around their wives. You know who I’m talking about, those men who seemed to have decided to marry their mothers. Those men who make it seem as if when they’ve managed an escape from the house, their wives are waiting for them clad in a housecoat with curlers in their hair, rolling pin in hand. The word wife makes me feel old and irrelevant, like I am incomplete, only one part of whole. There’s too much dependency in the word for someone who believes herself, alone to be enough. It’s too definitive and not powerful enough a word to encapsulate who I am. Yes, I am married but is that all I am? Will the world only ever see me as first a daughter, then a wife and finally as mother? No, that certainly will not do.

So, I am happy to be a bad wife, if it means that you’ll find me reading a book while Husband washes the dishes or if you’ll see Husband cooking dinner while I tell my puppies that I love them. I am happy to be a bad wife, if Husband is my partner, the looney human that I love spending time with, the keeper of all of my secrets and the person I can eat chips with in bed. I am happy to be a bad wife who challenges Husband, who speaks her mind and who isn’t afraid to be called “bossy”. I am happy to be a bad wife who is able to not only see Husband’s potential by my own and who is unwilling to comprise on any of our dreams. I am happy to be a bad wife who will admit that Husband frustrates, disappoints me and hurts me, he is not perfect, and neither am I. I am happy to be a bad wife who knows that apart from myself, there is no one else I’d rather be with, that Husband is my choice. I’m not a bad wife so that I can wear the badge, although the idea of the badge does appeal to me (I feel like I should start a Bad Wife Club). I’m a bad wife until we find power in the word “wife”, until it loses it dependency and until we stop selling the myth that a woman is only complete with a man.

Castrating Casanova

When I was a child my wily mother would seek a few moments of peace by allowing my sister and I to have a bubble bath. There was nothing I loved more even though the time spent in said bubble bath would almost always be filled with strange and elaborate games sprung from the fertile mind of my sister. Looking back, all those games had but one common thread, that I was the slave girl to a beautiful princess who would demand an endless supply of “tea” (the top of a shampoo bottle filled with bath water and topped up with bubbles). I always wanted to be old enough so that I could be the one shaping the storylines of those games, never realising that when you have an older sister, you’d reach the end of your days before you’d ever be “old enough”. Even though I didn’t shape those stories, I most certainly knew how they would unfold. I too would be a princess and like in every fairy-tale, I would be rescued by a handsome prince. My stories were as dreadfully unimaginative as they were unyieldingly Caucasian, it would be easier to spot an alien than brown skin in any of the fairy tales I’d read as a child. Those were childish games, dreamt of in a childish mind, where men were heroes and women were sweet virgins waiting to be rescued. Except of course, I wonder when it was that we stopped asking men to be the heroes of the story. I wonder when it was that we started raising boys to be men instead.

This has been a difficult blog for me to write, I’ve mulled over the idea for a while, constantly picking it up and then dismissing it because the words I put together don’t fully shape the thoughts hurtling around in my mind. But the idea, I suppose, is a simple one. What happens to the boys raised to be heroes when they have no one to rescue anymore? What happens when those boys raised full of bravado find their masculinity threatened? What happens to the boys who grew up and were unprepared for the world they find themselves in now? The answer isn’t only the increased violence that seems to befall women as they progress in their careers. I heard a female executive speak, with quiet disbelief and horror in her voice, that she was observing a disturbing trend; the higher up women seemed to rise in the corporate world, the angrier their spouses became. To gain one form of power was to lose another. It is a harsh reality that for some men, a more successful partner is emasculating.

The answer isn’t only in the fact that women still downplay their smarts, their abilities so as not to threaten, so as to be accepted, to be liked. My sister (Princess of the Bubble Bath) tells me the other night that she read about a study that showed women of all ages uniformly downplaying their intellect when they were around men. Thoughts of the sheer waste of that capacity, that potential, are heavy and suffocating, to understand the constraint is to imagine a world without it. How could it be true that we’re still playing to the gender stereotypes of our parent’s generation? Is it because we never stopped creating the male hero, the Casanova, the strong yet gentle breadwinner, the provider? Part of me believes that. Part of me believes that we are still raising boys who will grow up and find their place in this world threatened. Those boys will grow up to see powerful women wielding invisible machetes and clutch their nether regions with despair.

Rightly or wrongly, I look to the mother here. I look to the women here, not because men are stupid and incapable of seeing logic. Not because the power struggles that we face daily are our fault or because no man on earth wants to see an end to patriarchy. I look to the women because I am one. I look to women because no one will understand this better than we do. I look to women and I ask, what is it we expect of our boys? Of our men? Do we expect a toxic, old fashioned version of strength? Do we expect to be taken care of? Do we expect to be rescued? Because if we do, we are part of the problem as well. We cannot to continue to propagate the power myth with our words and actions, to our sons, our brothers and our partners, if this is a myth we are seeking to dispel. I write this, and I know full well what happens to some women who challenge the power norms, and by no means do I ever want to trivialise violence or suggest that the one who survives it is somehow responsible for it in any form or way. But for me, there has to be something more here, we have to be able to look deeper and beyond the overt cases of sexism in our society. We have to start thinking deeply about what kind of messages live in our words, said or unsaid, and what clues lie in our everyday actions, conscious or not. Because if we are willing to do so, we continue to grow boys who will struggle and who will fight for significance and power in a world that would seem to take it away from them.

The Curious Case of the Detachable Penis

Do you know what’s weird about me? I like thinking deeply about things, things I don’t understand, things I want to explore, things that interest me. I swear, inside my brain there is a senile old man pushing a wheelbarrow, traversing through my experiences and collecting stray ideas and thoughts before arriving at my front door and upending his discoveries at my feet. Of course, faced with “gifts” from W-Man (he’s also kind of a plaid wearing hipster), I have no choice but to devote an unending supply of energy into figuring out my strays so that they can be rehomed elsewhere. One such gem that W-Man presented to me in my teenage years was the idea of “penis envy”. I had never heard of a more ludicrous thought, I mean “pen envy” I definitely get, in fact, as someone who loves the old school guide of pen over paper, I often am guilty of pen envy. Big time. But to envy a penis of all things? Nope, teenage brain and W-Man laughed that one straight out. It’s only years later that I start to wonder about Freud and if I haven’t misunderstood his theory.

I’m not saying that I have penis envy or that I believe the theory holds true, but I have been thinking lately that maybe having a penis would be useful. I mean imagine this, instead of me getting angry the other day, not the screaming-throwing-chairs-around angry, but the cross-your-arms-and-lean-back-in-your-chair kind of angry, I could have just whipped out my penis and broken the tension with the resounding slap of it on the table. Instead of me having to yet again defend my right to exist as Patron of Patriarchy’s peer, we could have just laughed of our “misunderstanding”. Oh, how we would have laughed- Patron of Patriarchy and I. How we would have laughed and laughed. Because instead of Patron of Patriarchy feeling insecure, threatened and a deep desire to see me fail, he would have seen me as one of his own. He would have wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes and slapped me on the back and joked of how just moments ago he had asked me to prove myself to him. It would not have been my education, years of experience, capability or that I was good at my job that would have changed his mind about me, it would have been the penis that I literally brought to the table. I’m no psychologist, but if that’s how Freud had described “penis envy”, then I would have been the first one to raise my hand and say “I’m broken” because the inconvenient truth from an inconvenient woman is that life is easier as a man. Patriarchy is absolutely amazing, if you have a penis that is, for the rest of us, let’s just say it’s not that grand. So yes, I am envious of those who have had an easier time than I have, I envious of those who don’t feel like they need to run twice as hard just to stay in the same spot. I’m envious of those who get a chance to fail and who are applauded for it, I’m envious of those who are naturally heard and who don’t have to fight for it. You bet I’m envious.

I am not, however, so envious that I want a penis permanently attached to me, that’s so old school I almost fell asleep thinking about it. No, I want a detachable penis to use as and when I see fit. In fact, since I’m on this path, how about having a wide variety of these penises? A handbag sized one or an emergency one that you could attach to your car keys. A business penis for those important meetings where your tiny female voice doesn’t exist. A home penis for the days when you want to claim that you’re “just not as good at washing the dishes”. A family penis when someone wants to ask why you haven’t had children yet and prescribes some home remedy for a quick pregnancy. A disco penis (I am picturing glitter) for the guy who thinks buying you a drink means you’ve consented to having sex with him. Sign me up, I’ll take one of each in every colour you have.

The feminist who did not know her name

“So, you’re some kind of feminist then?” He makes a face like he’s just taken a drink of milk that’s gone sour before he recovers and smirks at me. He knows that his position commands authority, he knows that “feminism” is an ugly, dirty word and that what he really wants is my obeisance. There is something about me, something about my demeanour that challenges him, that challenges his view of how women should behave. He is eager to show me that there is no place for my attitude here. He smirks like he knows he’s won. Hush now little girl and remember your place. Emotions rage within me. Fear: please don’t dislike me or think badly of me. Shame: did I really have to be that outspoken? Finally, anger: my voice will not be silenced to soothe your ego. I am surprised at the quickness and clarity of my response. My answer is short, containing one word, yet it is long enough to carry the challenge and conviction of my thoughts. It is one word to seal my fate and to claim my title, I look him dead in the eye and say, “Unashamedly”.

When I used to talk of feminism I always felt the need to clarify what I meant, to somehow clear the air just in case you mistook me for a radical.  When the topic was broached I’d um and ah my way through a mandatory explanation, it was almost as if I was trying to grasp something that my fingers could not close around. I’d offer strained, empty words that were never sufficient. I’d often say, “Yeah, I’m a feminist, but it doesn’t mean I’m about to burn my bra in the streets” to soothe, to placate, to let others know that I was not contagious. In a way, I was not explaining anything, I was apologising.  What I was actually saying was “I’m sorry that I believe something that upsets you Mr Man, please don’t hate me”. This is me; I’m arrogant, unapologetic and a woman who is, more often than not, sure of her voice, yet there I was, time and again, explaining my way, apologising for wanting something that is so basic. That bothered me, it bothered me deeply. Why did I even care?   Maybe it’s rooted in a desire to fit in and to be liked (two things I’ve never excelled at, but that, are only human to desire). Maybe I knew that in this complex world, women must still tread carefully not to hurt the fragile male ego. Maybe I was cognisant of the fact that I had seen the face of leadership in our country and that it was male and I knew that no one likes the girl who causes trouble. Maybe it went beyond that. Maybe, beneath it all, I had some sort of a qualm with the very notion of feminism itself. Maybe I wore my title of feminist like a poor man wears an ill-fitting coat in winter; without true choice, in an attempt to protect myself from the elements because I had nothing else. Did I want equal access to opportunity across the gender barrier? Did I question the roles that we are taught to be “natural” for men and women? Did I believe that no one gender had the monopoly over logic, reason, intelligence or being nurturing? Of course, I did, but still the word “feminist” caught in my throat. How did the very notion of feminism become so ugly? Men and women alike have more than accepted the notion that feminism is about man hating, that feminists are a bunch of unhappy, angry females who are, deep down inside, very unfilled (no doubt because no self-respecting man would marry them). We have seen the “feminist” and we do not like her; she’s fat, unmarried and ugly. She has warts and stray hair grows from her chin. She spews vile comments with breath so terrible we cannot pay attention to her words. We look at her and feel sorry that she lives such an unfulfilled life. It is the beautiful, docile, well put together wife and mother who epitomizes the female ideal, we’d listen to her, we’d want our daughters to be just like her. Who wants to be a man hating, (god forbid unmarried) feminist?

So, this is my truth, I am a feminist, warts and all. I am unapologetically a feminist. The fact that it has taken me this long to say that is something I shall berate myself for later, but the important thing is that I am here now. I am here, and I am part of what we have started seeing feminists as, as men and women who share common beliefs about the empowerment of women, as people who believe in equal rights and that we need to see an end to patriarchy. Chimamanda Adichie was not just right when she said, “We should all be feminists”, she was making a call to action and it is one that we cannot ignore. I am a feminist, unashamedly and unapologetically, and I ask you my brothers and sisters, are you?