Gugu / 31 May, 2019

So I recently have had a few situations in which I felt that a man was demanding to be right, heard or given audience simply because he was a man. I haven’t had those encounters in a while…or I have just become oblivious to them. Of the two, the latter is probably (sadly) more likely. I can’t tell you how this kind of attitude and entitlement riles me up. I mean, I literally wanna burst. And scream and shout. Really, I do. It is definitely, definitely one of my pet peeves. In addition to having a short fuse (admittedly), I find that I also have a very sensitive ‘mansplaining’ and ‘patronising’ radar. Dare do either of these things even to the slightest degree and you immediately stir up my ire. A combination of both? Something almost inevitable because mansplaining by its very nature is patronizing and well…man! You have a ticking time bomb on your hands.

Being in the workplace, of course I have had my share of being undermined because I am a woman. In particular environments, this is more so if you do not engage aggressively, bullishly or operate underhandedly. Instead, you are labelled stupid, timid or unambitious. But what surprises is that should any such woman labelled as this, balk at something she takes displeasure with in the form of gendered patronizing, then suddenly, she’s a bitch or full of herself. There is this constant need to label women in the manner that suits others. And generally women are tolerated, even looked down upon, so long as they don’t confront, upset, or ‘show up’ a man or behave in a manner that challenges the idea or picture that others have of them. If they do, then there is a problem. What this means is that we as women may then respond by changing ourselves to fit the work culture we find ourselves in – we too begin to adopt the ways and practices employed by others to play office politics and hopefully secure oneself a title or stature of some sort. Others remain themselves, disinterested in the shenanigans of office kerfuffles. It is very possible to have the latter kind of woman who also will not be pushed over. Men who take issue with such women tend to have a black and white, often dim, view of women. Because how dare she be complex and not fit my ideas of who a woman is? Or who she seems to be at face value? LOL – to those, I simply say, “Nizoba strong”. You will continue to be disappointed as you meet women who are different, do not conform, are unafraid and know themselves and aren’t afraid to be that…all of that.

I think that the male-female ‘divide’ is sullied when people interact with each other on the basis of stereotypes or prejudice such as that which is facilitated by patriarchy. And to be clear that what one is often dealing with is sexist prejudice, I have observed that men often don’t take too much issue with men who also enforce their boundaries. Generally, men respect each other’s complexities (so no gendered stereotyping or assumptions) and boundaries. And they are quick to move on from such ‘corrective’ encounters with other men – where even if they do try to manipulate, take advantage of or patronise, and they’re met with a firm resistance, they don’t seem particularly offended or shocked that someone would dare exercise their boundaries. I find that there is power in living outside of people’s expectations of me…particularly male expectations. I feel so ‘naughty’ and like a rebel with a cause. But really, all that that is, is me being myself – in the same way that a man could be his complex self too, without being reduced to an archetype of his sex or gender. As much as I take great pleasure in enforcing my boundaries, it also gets tiring, because you have to be vigilant and be a hyper-perceptive discerner of people and their intentions. And this is the struggle of being a woman, generally – always walking around feeling or knowing that you will always have to prove yourself twice as much, protect and cover yourself more than is ‘fair’ and always be fighting the battle of asserting your own worth, your intelligence and your right to just be respected. In professional spaces, there is this absurd and unspoken prescription that one must perform ‘masculinity’ to be respected. But what qualifies characteristics such as “bullish’, “assertive”, “tough”, or “shrewd” as masculine and worth respecting? Can’t they belong to women too? And why can’t “quiet”, “gentle”, “accommodative” and “utalitarian” be equally admirable and lauded? Conversely, more widely and socially speaking, the ‘norm’ is that women exhibiting or performing the latter characteristics will garner respect – those are the marriage-type women. They’re respectful, well-behaved and mouldable to the whims and likes of a man. And this is usually problematic because it facilitates the servility of women and ends up placing them in vulnerable positions in their intimate relationships. And this is because the ‘role’ of women is basically accorded secondary and subservient status. But I guess by virtue of there being differences in roles, we introduce power dynamics. It’s just how us humans are. The power vacuum must be filled somehow. It seems that whatever the theatre, professional or personal, women are always the losers.

I have advocated for the elimination of these discriminatory and disadvantageous prescripts that more and more in today’s world, are exposed for what they are – disingenuous and sexist mores that exist largely to benefit one gender at the expense of another. I am convinced that we can all be either masculine and feminine and have relationships that are based on mutual respect and equal power between the parties. And even if one views their relationship through a Christian lens, the numerous instances of ideal intimate relationship exemplified in the Bible are premised on willingness to serve, love and mutuality. And unpacking love, willingness to serve and mutuality is a whole other blog all on its own. But there’s plenty free Christian reading online about what that means and therefore looks like. But it does not involve declaration or assertion of power or subjugation of a party. But the combination of culture and religion has birthed some pretty detrimental things for us as societies. And the work of undoing and unlearning and debunking some of these ‘codes’ is mammoth and slow, and of course, met with much resistance. No one wants to be removed from a position of advantage. I get that. But it must be done. 

Recently, a newly appointed somebody called me to have a chat about ‘myself’. I figured it would be just a laid back, ‘tell me about your interests and career goals’ situation, but boy was I in for a surprise. I, a whole 36 year old woman, with all the experience, know-how and insight I have, was instead, lectured, told about how ‘women needed to be more than just pretty faces’, and that in order for men to be able to help women progress, it was important for them to know what they had offer, professionally speaking. Yhuuuu! So much in there that was problematic. Do women need men in the workplace to be their ‘sponsors’ or allies? Perhaps the fact that more often than not, men find themselves in benefactor positions is the core issue. It speaks to the on-going inequality of sexes in the workplace. I’m just going to come out and say that the cause of gender parity is not succeeding. Anyhoo, back to the specific conversation. Now this is a micro-aggression because the manner in which the conversation unfolded was more ‘I’d like to get to know you for purposes of extending professional patronage”, and it was certainly from a good place, as the gentleman is a kind soul that is always looking out for others. But the innuendo and nuance in his statements revealed that there was an air of sexist superiority and presumptuousness – that I would need male patronage in order to progress, and how I had to reveal to HIM, what it is that I could do, beyond perhaps just being a pretty face. That last aspect of the conversation was especially unnecessary and infuriating. Patronisation at its best. Needless to say the conversation was very unsuccessful. When he would allow me to speak, I told him I didn’t see the need to talk myself up to him and that I’d prefer to allow time to take its course and for him to become exposed to my work in that manner. Even if I had wanted to then share with him some of my broad subject interests career-wise, I was so darn ticked off that I wouldn’t have been able, in good conscience, to entertain him. That would have felt like I was okaying his approach and the frame in which he presented his ‘case’. I also told him that I think he misunderstood feminism…completely. Yes, that TOO came up. 

And that’s how privilege works – it’s unconsidered, and you think there is nothing wrong with your way of speaking and living generally, UNTIL someone calls you out or you have the opportunity to self-reflect and introspect. The sexist undertones were just glaring for me and when I pointed them out, I got a response that didn’t allow me to speak. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise and yet, it was supposed to be me telling him how I felt misunderstood and unfairly typecast in more ways than one. This was an encounter he could have used as a learning moment about some of his uninterrogated presumptions about male-female relations in the workplace, generally. Do women specifically need male sponsors? If so, why? In what ways could I frame this conversation differently? How about, “Hey, I know we live in a generally sexist world and some of these codes permeate into the workplace. You’re bright and I like what I have seen thus far of you. What are some of the ways someone in my position could assist you in this environment?” Like, not that hard! But apparently is…

And I think some men often talk over you or try to mansplain themselves and their bad behaviours and ill-conceived notions about women because they’re OBVIOUSLY not used to being challenged by, or having a robust discussion on how something is unacceptable with, a woman. And you will get the man that will then lead you down a rabbit hole of trying to mansplain a situation after he has been called out. Those are the really frustrating encounters. You also see A LOOOOT of that on social media too – men wanting to tell women what it is that constitutes femininity or womanhood! But I usually see that for what it is – a species that does not want to lose its advantageous position in the evolution of life. As my aforementioned tête-à-tête segued into feminism (not my doing by the way), the gentleman at one point said, “This feminism seeks to pit men against women and make us enemies, and more specifically men the devils. I believe they have it all wrong.” LOL. Guys.

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So many questions. So many. Who is ‘they’? Does having men acknowledge their unfair advantage make us enemies? Which is the ‘right’ feminism then? Could you show it to me? Is it the one that does not rock the boat and is conducted according to the approval of men? Idk hey. 

My feeling is if you won’t allow me agency and the right to self-determination, you are my enemy and not my ally. If I must listen to and run my decisions on how I choose to express and live by you first, in order for the world to be right, then no – I don’t want that feminism. There is a statement I have seen on social media that loosely says “Everyone is happy and pushing for the final and real emancipation of women, but who’s preparing men for these women?” And that’s the true story. Men aren’t prepared for this revolution. They still want to centre themselves in the conversation. They want to be mollycoddled and spoon-fed into understanding how patriarchy has been so wrong and why women are now revolting. But I feel that having women do this work slows down the progress and distracts. Allies must reach out to be shown, guided, and ultimately have the parts of their thinking that need reformulating, reformulated. It must be a genuine and unassuming desire to learn and unlearn. So disclaimer – I guess I am not one of the ones to do the work of helping men ‘understand’. Some others with more patience than me can do it. And I get it – we need to teach and extend grace and be patient with those men that truly want to learn, but generally, if I pick up an attitude of entitlement and/or superiority, I’m out. You’ll learn with someone else or the hard way. Because like it or not, the change is a-coming. And so I guess we all have different roles in this struggle.

I hope I have been clear thus far that I am referring to some men. I don’t wanna be accused of throwing around blanket statements – but where applicable, yes I do extrapolate to cover the entire gender. It’s the whole ‘men are trash’ debacle all over again. And I think the men who refuse to see this for the truth it is, miss the point. They miss the point of collective accountability, privilege and gain, even if they are self-declared ‘good men’. They are not allies. Again, they’re centering themselves as individuals and not wanting to be mollycoddled. Asikho lapho. Alas, not gonna go into it here.

But I too happen to have several special and heart-warming relationships with some fantastic, fantastic men. So, yes, I can tip my hat off to some individual men. These are relationships wherein my thoughts and opinions are respected and treated with the weight they deserve, just because I am a thinking person. Period. There is nothing as precious as a man who is sure of himself and the validity of his convictions in the presence of an intelligent and strong woman. That man is ‘progressive’. No. That man is precisely the man that all men should be. Intellectual sparring is respectful and non-condescending, even where we may differ, and conversation never devolves into “It’s because you’re a woman”, EVEN, even if the point of departure is based on gender-related differences. My point is that is never said as an insult or a way of diminishing one’s opinion or experience. When men do this, it in effect silences and diminishes a woman’s voice and her lived experiences, respectively, and her reactions are annoyingly and insultingly attributed to a function of her being female, as though that is a/the weakness, an affliction, a pitiable condition to ever find oneself in. Because we know the pervasive thinking about women’s brains short-circuiting because they become overwhelmed by emotions and can’t keep them in check. Grrrrrr! Yeah, suddenly all rationality and intelligence leave and all you’re left with is an emotional wreck. This kind of thinking is as dangerous as saying men are basal and animalistic and can’t help themselves. No. If anyone behaves in a way that defers to anything other than reason, it is a choice, even if it is a learned one – and it has to be corrected if it is disadvantageous. If I become a hot emotional mess to my and others’ detriment, I need to check myself. But that is not a basis on which to generalise about femininity – especially not when we are all capable of having and expressing emotions.

The ideas/notions around being a woman and/or female ought to be ‘liberated’ from being thought of as existing merely to serve men or subsidiary to masculinity. Also, there isn’t a set way to be a man or a woman, just as masculinity and femininity are not the exclusive preserves of specific sexes. We have a long way to go in terms of ‘normalising’ male-female relationships. Stereotypes, entitlement…the whole lot must go. Do not presume to know me via generalisation, especially bigoted or undermining generalisation. Rather assume you know nothing and move from the specific to the general – induce, rather than deduce. Our interactions in professional or personal spaces ought to be less coloured by prejudiced notions and more by an affirmation of someone’s inherent right to respect as a human and our actual experiences of people. This would go a long way in easing this ‘tension’ that’s building up between the sexes…

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