Dismantling the masters’ house: how to remove the seat that patriarchy built
Two months ago, the women of the world marched on the world. Literally. With over 500 million people in 676 locations, to say the official Women’s March on Washington had a turnout would be an understatement. They had a turn up. Yet, almost two months later, I hate to be cliché, but a turn up for what?
Intended to protest the misogyny and divisive politics that riddled the US presidential elections, from the beginning the movement was dogged with dissent and disenfranchisement. From appropriating its name, to not including women of colour in its leadership, the movement lacked the intersectionality that third-wave feminism is meant to represent. Yet, after ‘Black Twitter’ set the record straight and online articles dissected the problems in more than 144 characters, the movement was once more underway and gaining traction. The vision had also expanded. No longer was it simply about protesting misogyny and sexism in the political sphere: it now incorporated safeguarding American women’s sexual and reproductive rights, protecting immigrants’ rights, advocating for the disabled, preventing radical (i.e. Republican) healthcare reform, challenging Islamophobia, calling out rape culture, advocating LGBT rights, fighting for the environment and standing up for workers. And the list goes on.
The fact that so many different people came together under one banner (or pink cat-hat) is a testament to the solidarity that defines humanity. It is a testament to the liberal ideologies that have shaped our societies, cultures, economies and — to a lesser extent — our politics. Or at least that is what I would like to think.
In advocacy circles, there is a phrase we like to throw around: ‘movement building’. The idea behind it is similar to the phenomenon of crowdfunding and at the heart of social-media icons. It is about mobilising people to generate action. That action could be following the latest Instagram queen, or paying a friend’s tuition via 10,000 donations from over 27 countries. In short, an action is magnified and multiplied creating a movement and even a community. In an era where we are so disassociated and (ironically) disconnected, that longing for community speaks into the deepest core of our being — it triggers our pack mentality. To not be in the crowd is to miss out (FOMO is real). But, like the #IceBucketChallenge, #HarlemShake or any number of fads, the danger with movements is that while they gain momentum they lose vision, and without a vision, the people perish.
To see solidarity in action is empowering. It is emboldening. When people are chanting, demonstrating and singing about safeguarding your freedom, it is uplifting. The Women’s March had all that, but it did not have a mandate. It lacked a political action plan, though it was directed at the politicians and policymakers of the US (and wider global politics). It lacked an end-point to its trajectory. What it had was a lot of feeling, a lot of emotion and a lot of media. Yet that is not enough to stop a demagogue breaking the Geneva convention on refugee rights. That is not enough to ensure basic universal healthcare. That is not enough to prevent the demonisation of legal and illegal immigrants. It is not enough to make Black Lives Matter more than just a protest chant and it is certainly not enough to safeguard women’s sexual and reproductive health rights or ensure sexual harassment and rape are not just relegated to ‘locker room talk’.
A few days before the march, activist and writer Yasmin Nair stated the following:
‘A women’s march is terrified of or angry at a monstrous man, a feminist one understands how to vanquish the system that birthed him. Tomorrow, march as a feminist, not as a woman.’
At the heart of her message is the understanding that oppression is a system, not a person. Oppression slides itself over the structures that shape and uphold our world, it buries itself into the policies that influence our social life, and it creeps into our minds to establish itself as a social norm. An acceptable social norm. While the sexism that Trump displayed might have outraged Christian voters, it did not outrage them enough to denounce him politically. No matter their party affiliation, it did not outrage them enough to spoil their vote or to demand a new nominee because that sexist oppression has wrapped itself around a structure called rape culture which, to anyone else, is shorthand for the ‘normalised’ understanding that violence, especially sexual violence, is an inevitable fact of life. In other words: ‘get over it’.
Yet systems are built by humans. Created based on our ideologies, beliefs, desires and visions, systems are the fertile ground upon which institutions are born and institutions like the government, schools or the family shape and, to a certain extent, dictate our social, economic and political lives. The people who inhabit these institutions (places of power and influence) might differ over time. As individuals they might believe that black lives really do matter, that water is sacred and that Native Americans do have a right to their ancestral land. They might believe that grabbing a woman’s genitalia or forcing yourself upon her is criminal. They might believe in building bridges not walls, but that does not mean their actions will reflect that. To paraphrase French sociologist Michel Foucault, because our political institutions were designed for a specific purpose, even if we have forgotten what that purpose is, the system will keep doing what it was designed to do. This is how, 50 years after the civil rights movement, black Americans are still being gunned down by police for walking to their stepdad’s house, selling cigarettes or obeying law enforcement. That is why the rich keep getting richer and the poor get poorer — that is why warfare has not ceased and why rape culture still exists.
It is not about who sits in the chair, it is about the systems that birthed the chair and its occupants in the first place. In regards to Trump and his cabinet, if your personal values line up with the oppressive modus operandi, then you are absolutely part of the problem. However, if we focus on one man, guess what, there is another one behind him who will be just as bad, if not worse (read Steve Bannon). This is not about getting an impeachment, but getting a revolution, and that starts with dismantling the system.
When I look at the character of Jesus — a revolutionary and rebel to all intents and purposes — He seemed to understand the difference between the man and the system. He lived in a time when the Jewish people were under severe political and economic oppression both from Rome and their own religious leaders. Yet He did not assassinate Caesar or the religious authorities. He did not hunt down tax collectors. He challenged the system. He healed on the Sabbath, breaking religious convention because, guess what, you cannot confine God’s work to a box. He knelt next to a woman about to be stoned and challenged the patriarchal system that dared to judge her because nobody is without sin, so nobody has the right to judge. He welcomed the tax collector to eat with Him and made him a disciple. He picked the school dropouts to be His students, and He destroyed a system that exploited the poor in exchange for ‘blessings’. He interrupted a culture that put the individual first and said everyone is your brother (or sister). He told enemies to love one another as they love themselves. He up-ended the belief that self-respect means revenge and said ‘turn the other cheek’, greet your enemies with peace, feed them, clothe them, forgive them. He recognised that flesh and blood were not the root of the oppression, saw how the system distorted flesh and blood and told His followers to challenge it. To see the real picture and rewrite it.
The action required to finish a revolution is physical, emotional and spiritual. Jesus spoke out — He gathered people on top of mountains and beside lakes — heck, He even marched into Jerusalem (and marched on Golgotha) — yet His protests subverted the idea that revolution comes with human warfare. He put the needy before the individual and He made sacrifice the ultimate form of love. He made His vision clear, accessible and practical: ‘treat others as you want to be treated’. He transformed His culture and its politics and those changes continue to reverberate around our world today.
Real, sustainable and transformative change requires a movement, but that movement has to go above and beyond the men and women with good — or bad — haircuts if it is to succeed. It has to radically dismantle the systems that put those people there. Revolution requires radical evolution, which in turn requires stamina and a clear vision. Jesus’ life perfectly portrays that vision and His teachings explain His mission.
I am proud that the world took a stand against a system that devalues life in all its forms. A system that is divisive and breeds hatred, fear and inequality. But that system existed before the election of Donald Trump. Perhaps prior presidents, prime ministers or monarchs, with their looks, public speaking skills or humour made it more palatable, but that does not make the system any more acceptable. It has to go. Which means we need to mobilise behind a clear vision and keep marching, keep searching, keep challenging and keep building. This is not just a march, this is a mission.
Justina Kehinde Ogunseitan
Justina Kehinde is the deputy editor of MAGNIFY. Her day job involves writing policies, designing advocacy campaigns and implementing projects to safeguard the rights of women and girls affected by sexual and gender based violence. You can follow her @Justina_Kehinde or justinakehinde.com