The male oxymoron

The word patriarchy carries with it so much history, pain and baggage, and in the midst of all this fragmented complexity, we as black men exist in a strange paradigm: we exist both as victims and perpetrators. What I mean is that we’re primarily victims of racism in society but in equal measure, we’re also perpetrators of patriarchy. To explain this further, let me simply say that we as people are the products of our communities. It is almost impossible to perceive being anything different from what we are because of everything that shapes us as people. It is essential for us as men to understand this underlying factor so as to better tackle the main issue at hand here.

Everything in society is somewhat patriarchal in expression: from our cultures, to our religions, to any of the other numerous activities directly influenced by our societal norms. It is almost impossible to find spaces where patriarchy isn’t rampant and obvious. Even in women’s conferences patriarchy sneaks through and sets its own agenda. Some of our very own liberation movements (which have been set up specifically for the struggle of women) have been deeply captured by patriarchy. For example, The ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) recently revealed the depths of its own patriarchal identity crisis when four brave women stood up in protest against male domination and rape culture at President Zuma’s IEC address. What should have followed should have been unwavering support and solidarity for these brave women, however, these ladies were later scolded by the ANCWL and man handled by security – all in defence of a man: Jacob Zuma. Dololo care about black bodies. It is everywhere.

From a young age we as men are nurtured in the ways of patriarchy, both directly and indirectly. It’s in the small things, such as the expectation on women to cook and clean for the family even when the male siblings are around doing nothing; it’s evident in the expectations on women to blindly follow a man’s leading without any questions; and it’s most deeply evident in our society’s unchallenged standardised gender roles.

In this regard, the recent Olympics provided a great example of such subtle (yet at the same time obvious) patriarchal undertones through a simple headline. A female gold medalist was described in the headline merely as someone’s fiancé. Her entire achievement was described through her relational connection to a man who had nothing (or very little) to do with her victory and hard work. It seems innocent enough, but upon further inspection this is a clear example of a women’s role and value before the world being primarily defined through a man. The opposite would never happen, not even by mistake. Thus, it is male domination like this that has led to more and more women spelling the word women as “womxn”. The statement is a powerful one: women will no longer be defined by men, not even in the English spelling of the word.

So as men we live this oppressive reality out everyday; in fact, as a man, I would actually identify myself as a recovering sexist. Everything around me has taught me that women are there to please me, serve me, and satisfy me. Everything has taught me that women are defined by the roles they play in relation to me. Everything has worked to create this abusive society that women have to daily survive in. In fact, as a black man, I recognise that even in my Zulu culture there is a practice called ukuthwala. This is a practice whereby a man basically kidnaps a woman he wants to marry and keeps her until she accepts the proposal (this is in practice still in many forms today). Now even if many of us men do not actually practice ukuthwala, we still find so many other ways to kidnap the bodies and identities of women so as to make them our own.

The problem is that most men refuse to even acknowledge the existence of their own male privilege. If we do not accept the reality of this patriarchal privilege and openly confess to it, then the work to dismantle our patriarchy will be all the more harder. But what does dismantling patriarchy look like? Well it’s both in the small things, such as taking notes in a board meeting instead of a lady always being expected to take notes without complaint; and it’s in the big things, such as being radical enough to call it quits on one’s career as a man for the sake of being a stay at home dad so that one’s wife flourishes in her respective career. It’s the breaking of gender roles (which is both individual and systemic in nature). It’s refusing to accept a higher salary than our female co-worker who does the exact same work as us. Society has undervalued women enough! It’s in the calling out of our friends at braai’s and on social media for their patriarchal tendencies. It’s in the space of being open to correction and criticism, being aware that our own male privilege blinds us deeply. It’s being comfortable, as men, to no longer be the dominant voices in a room.

The problem with patriarchy is that it is so ingrained into our male social psyche that it is almost like having an existential crisis, in the sense that to challenge it is to challenge the very lenses by which we see ourselves and the world. It requires a deep unlearning of so much of what we thought was right and acceptable as men. Yet it is because of how deep it goes and how oppressive it is to women that we as men need to aggressively reject these notions internally and externally. We need to continually listen and engage when women speak out. As the old saying goes, “evil prevails when good men and women do nothing.” These words should haunt us as men. Our sisters, mothers and daughters will remain being oppressed by us as long as we actively and passively perpetuate the problem of patriarchy.

Patriarchy must fall!

Ntobeko Mzolo – Izwe Lethu


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