Blogbox | Feminism

Feminism, culture and power

By - 17.12.2020

What are we doing wrong?

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women this year (November 25), RAI — the public television channel of my home country, Italy — broadcast a video explaining to women how to walk sensually down the aisles of supermarkets while wearing high heels. For the most helpless women, it also included a tutorial on how to pick up items from the floor, including suggestions on how to do so with suggestiveness, all the while avoiding looking like a “no-good.”

If it was not primarily nauseating, one could have found this almost exhilarating. Which woman, in the midst of this pandemic, juggling between increasing, disproportionate responsibilities toward her family and society, would go to the supermarket wearing high heels, a miniskirt, sinuously living her “Victoria’s Secrets” runway fantasy with the sole goal of catching a man’s eyes, while running to buy panettone before the curfew? Which woman, after inadvertently dropping a package of mascarpone, would frantically go on YouTube looking for tutorials on how to pick up stuff from the floor? 

As opposed to initiating discussions around their power and how they use it, institutions spend money and words to shift the focus on individuals.

The vulgarity of this message, and the offensive timing that Italian public television chose to air this 50s-looking “manual for marriageable maidens,” sparked an intense debate in Italy. Politicians, feminists, activists and commentators spoke up against this medieval horror, denouncing how violence against women has intrinsic cultural roots, and must be fought precisely by challenging oppressive narratives which provide cognitive grounds for more tangible acts of violence. On that very day, while this was happening online, in real life in Italy three women were killed at the hands of their partners.

‘Oranging’ our world — for 16 days

Each year, November 25 marks the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, lasting until December 10. The 16 Days of Activism are a time when, led by the United Nations, regional and national governmental and nongovernmental institutions release campaigns to bring awareness of violence against women. The 16 Days of Activism are possibly the greatest concerted awareness raising initiative against gender-based violence (GBV), and in that they should be cherished and celebrated. What they do, however, is also to reproduce an interesting paradox.

While institutions show their support to gender equality by “oranging up” their buildings, sharing posts and launching awareness raising campaigns, they also shift the focus to individuals and society, suggesting that GBV is primarily cultural, and must be combated on cultural grounds. Although this is at least partially true, institutions and individuals are not the same, nor interchangeable.

While individuals can and should contribute to the fight against GBV by advancing cultural change, institutions have not only the means but also the legally mandated duty to operate in the real world, preventing violence against women when and where culture — and individuals — cannot. The continual need for awareness raising campaigns against GBV, and 16 days a year dedicated to that, is first and foremost a testimony to the failure of institutions in using the power that they, alone, are invested with to fulfill their duty to protect women.

Among these failures that stands out is to systematically provide gender-sensitive and human rights education in schools, which, if organized, would render awareness raising campaigns like the ones of the 16 Days of Activism unnecessary ab origine. This is the paradox of institutions advocating for cultural change, when they, alone, have the means to operate not through culture, but through power.

However, all who fight for gender equality should never forget that violence and discrimination against women is not a matter of culture. It is a matter of power.

As opposed to initiating discussions around their power and how they use it, institutions spend money and words to shift the focus on individuals; who are neither similarly equipped nor equally responsible for the persistence of endemic violence against women. To put it very simply: While all these initiatives within the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence are surely commendable, they limit themselves when they choose to operate solely in a theoretical — or cultural — world, and not in the actual word we live in.

Women suffer on their bodies the concrete failures of institutions, occupied by real men and women with names and surnames, to fulfill their responsibilities — responsibilities that cannot be outsourced or generalized. As a result, many of these initiatives, stressing the role of culture as opposed to power, almost infallibly omit the only action women ultimately need to attain freedom from oppression: The removal of those currently in power who have both the duty and the power to put an end to the phenomenon, and their replacement with competent feminists.

Power vs Culture

Undoubtedly, violence and discrimination against women is cultural. Even more so, one may argue it is a consequence of a cognitive deficiency: Men keep belittling and abusing women because they are personally convinced that they deserve it, or, more simply, that they, as men, are entitled to power and dominance. It follows that education and correct representation in politics and the media are fundamental in the fight against this phenomenon.

However, all who fight for gender equality should never forget that violence and discrimination against women is not a matter of culture. It is a matter of power. The revolting tutorial that was broadcast to millions of women and men across Italy was not a consequence of a toxic culture. It was the result of years of capture of apical positions in the Italian public television from the part of male-led political parties, which have preferred party interests over diversity and journalistic competence and rigor. 

Otherwise, by reasons of necessity and certainly not of intention, those who will access much-needed, adequate, human rights-respectful education will often be those who are comparatively less in need of it.

So much so that, after suspending the program due to the widespread public outrage it triggered, the following day RAI chose to air an older episode from the same TV show — this time focusing on bras. Including a runway of half-naked models in lingerie and a “bra expert” sharing her suggestions for use.

This is not to say that initiatives that promote cultural change — often at the hands of civil society organizations (CSOs) which, underfunded and inadequately supported by the state, bravely challenge gender stereotypes, provide youth and others with much-needed education in respect of difference and human rights, and demand accountability from institutions — are useless. This is to say that, in Italy as much as elsewhere in the world, these initiatives are insufficient, alone, in bringing about durable change.

The effectiveness of these efforts, in fact, relies on the support — or at least the benevolent neglect —- of institutions. It is greatly limited by the unstable funding CSOs normally experience, and, for the obvious reason that limited resources cannot operate everywhere, is characterized by unevenness across space and time. Put more simply, I would argue that there is a reason why decades ago we have delegated education to the state, as the only body that can guarantee access to knowledge and liberty to all. CSOs should be left to do what they are supposed to do: Monitoring and not substituting for the work of public authorities. 

Otherwise, by reasons of necessity and certainly not of intention, those who will access much-needed, adequate, human rights-respectful education will often be those who are comparatively less in need of it — those in the capital or in the cities, those who are already more socially active and politically engaged, those who have the means to “indulge” in extracurricular activities — those, in short, who already dispose of at least some means to challenge pre-constituted norms on their own.

Advocating for cultural change in the fight for the liberation of women is fundamental. Yet, one should always know that, if she wants to create a world that is systemically, sustainably, democratically equal, that provides cognitive tools to liberate the mind and bodies of all — across class, across generations, across geography and race —- she has to replace those in power who are currently refusing to use that power to advance justice. She cannot limit herself to external criticism, however needed and enlightened.

Politics and power

As a person who was born right after the implosion of the post-WW2 political order in Italy (the end of the so-called “First Republic”), and just in time to assist to the Berlusconi-zation of Italian politics, I believe I can relate to at least some of the disillusion, diffidence and aversion that the many progressive, principled and talented activists, artists and civil society professionals of Kosovo often feel toward the politics of their country. I sincerely do not know how anyone could feel any other way.

Nevertheless, looking at my and other countries’ experience, I would argue that this sentiment of disillusionment, or “desencanto,” is not an unwanted byproduct of current Kosovar politics. On the contrary, this is arguably one of its ultimate goals. Politicians in power know better than anyone else that, as long as their power is not directly challenged, they will be able to use that very power to keep preserving their status — amassing even larger amounts of privilege, resources, and power. 

While they engage in enough performative gestures to instill the doubt that things might indeed get better in the future, they strenuously defend the status quo when it really matters. They painstakingly drain — by using the power that they, alone, use as either a weapon or an irresistible charm — all real efforts to challenge them through electoral processes.

Culture is essential. But you do not fight power with culture.

To make things worse, one cannot overlook the violence that women face when they seek public power. Everywhere, women in politics are subject to levels of harassment and abuse that men can hardly conceive, let alone experience. This can take a tremendous toll on their mental health, on their family, on their privacy, on their reputation and on their bodies. While these toxic, widespread behaviors are surely the result of deeply rooted patriarchal cultural norms, I believe this should serve as further proof that this sick culture does not exist or proliferate in a vacuum, but as a culture that surgically seeks to protect power from those who wish to use it for the greater good.

Less culture more power

As master politician Cersei Lannister — from the famous TV series Game of Thrones — clarified to a man clumsily trying to mansplain to her that “knowledge is power,” knowledge is not power: “Power is power.” While feminists from civil society should keep uplifting their communities through watchdog, cultural and advocacy activities, they should also keep in mind that, always, “power is power.”

These civil society feminists should find among themselves women that are brave enough, visionary enough, or maybe just crazy enough, to fight power with power, and support them. They should use their voice and their position to rally around these women, protect them from the vicious attacks they will almost inevitably receive, and ensure that they are backed by a community strong enough for them to strike the final blow to patriarchal power.

Otherwise, it is really hard to see how, if everybody pushes for change “from the outside,” while all those who have power, visibility, money and resources; all those who write laws and lead institutions, all those who preach in the media and rally crowds remain where they are, one can hope to attain durable change. It is equally hard to see why those in power should renounce the disproportionate power and privilege they enjoy — and the instrumental use they make of it — as a consequence of some cultural initiative. Most likely, they will try to use them to pinkwash their abuse, and solidify their power further.

Culture is essential. But you do not fight power with culture. Women do not have a right to live in a patriarchy-free culture, benevolently gifted them by the flag-bearers of patriarchy in power. Women have a right to live in a patriarchy-free culture that is given to them by themselves, and that is preserved through the only way one can hope to preserve it: By systematically occupying positions of power. The alternative is to remain indefinitely stuck in a master-slave dynamic where principled people will forever need to beg those in power to do what they are already supposed to do — exhausting their time and energy, and ultimately renouncing to demand and obtain true emancipation.

At some level, patriarchy oppresses men too, cis straight men included.

Once one has challenged the patriarchal notion that women do not belong in the corridors of power, and that sustainable and democratic change can be obtained without occupying positions of power, she has to engage in an even more difficult task. In the external fight for women’s rights, where resources are scarce and one has to fend off the blows of both patriarchal power and patriarchal culture, solidarity among feminists is fundamental.

Feminism is not just about women

True feminists, however, should always be aware that any feminism that is not intersectional not only is not feminism, but it is actually a dangerous and perverted form of patriarchal oppression. They should remember this always, and, while confronting patriarchy on the outside, commit to mercilessly root out all those who weaken the fight for equality from the inside.

In a talk organized by K2.0, feminist giant Mona Eltahawy brilliantly defined these saboteurs-in-disguise of the fight for equality as “foot-soldiers of the patriarchy,” adjacent enough to patriarchal power to enjoy some of its benefits, while still being part of a demographic which is generally oppressed by it. 

Eltahawy provides the example of white Western women, who, while being victims of the patriarchy like other categories of women, often hinder true feminist progress for everyone else — such as Black, non-Western, non-Christian, trans, queer or poor women — and use their relative privilege to maintain their positional superiority toward the rest. They betray gender solidarity — often for the sake of class solidarity, connive with the patriarchy, and end up solidifying a structure of patriarchy which, albeit less violently, oppresses them too.

Nowadays, there are plenty of examples of these foot-soldiers of the patriarchy, who engage in such activities not necessarily as a consequence of false consciousness, but precisely to defend their apical position among the oppressed. One could mention white women from the US, the majority of whom have again voted for a President who has an endless track-record of patriarchal oppression.

One could also mention the rising activism of so-called TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists), people whose definition I strongly refute, in that there exists no such thing as trans-exclusion, but only transphobia; transphobes cannot possibly be considered as feminists; and transphobia, like all faces of patriarchy, is anything but radical — it is the conservative norm.

The occasional “feminist,” who sometimes comes from abroad, engages in such acts of treason for one thing and one thing only: Personal visibility.

As the linkage between the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the World Human Rights Day demonstrates, the values and the struggle behind feminism go beyond the struggle for women’s equality. Throughout the years, feminism has evolved to include a wide, bottom-up, participatory and democratic fight for the elimination of all forms of patriarchal oppression, which persecute women, but also LGBTIQ+ people, poor people, Black people, non-Western or non-EU people, non-Christian people, people with disabilities, and so on.

At some level, patriarchy oppresses men too, cis straight men included. Feminists, real feminists, have come to realize that women, although majoritary, are not alone in their oppression; but that the oppression of other minorities is the result of the same patriarchal system that oppresses women in the first place. They also realize that women are not a monolith, and within this macro-category different women face different layers of oppression, which intersect and leave some much more vulnerable than others.

As a result, they have understood that, if the fight for women’s equality is to be achieved, all these fights must be fought simultaneously. They realize, for instance, that as long as femme gay men and trans women are oppressed for their gender expression or identity, cis women will never be free from conservative norms that thwart their safety and freedom. 

This is because they realize that the two phenomena are the two sides of the same coin, namely, patriarchal notions of what a woman is and is allowed to be. Consequently, they have built and keep defending solidarity across all groups oppressed by patriarchy, a solidarity that does not erase different identities, experiences and restorations, but on the contrary sustain and enrich one another.

Accomplices of the oppressor

For this reason, all who fight for gender equality should be wary of those who use their membership in an oppressed category, such as women, to weaken, corrupt or trivialize the fight for justice from the inside. Kosovo too is plagued by some of these self-proclaimed feminists who, with their ignorance and relative privilege, poison already existing feminist efforts. 

These Prishtina-based foot-soldiers of the patriarchy offer those who are opposed to women’s emancipation an excuse to pursue their beliefs, and worse, offer to all those in power who are not using their position to promote veritable equality an excellent opportunity to pinkwash their inadequacy — by way of supporting this fake feminism, voided of all meaning and transformative power.

As Simone de Beauvoir masterfully put it, “the oppressor would not be so strong if he did not have accomplices among the oppressed.” The occasional “feminist,” who sometimes comes from abroad, engages in such acts of treason for one thing and one thing only: Personal visibility — something all true feminists should pledge to deny them with stoicism, operating a damnatio memoriae that relegates them to the oblivion they so desperately fear and so clearly deserve.

An example of this phenomenon of “inside jobs” within feminism is the response that some self-appointed women’s defenders have had to the news that the City of Prishtina would be investing in what is going to be the first shelter for queer folks in Kosovo. They argued that, while so many women are facing violence and femicides in their homes, the few resources available should not have been dedicated to violence against LGBTIQ+ people.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that many LGBTIQ+ persons are women, nobody who truly understands that women’s rights are human rights — and that women deserve freedom not because they are women, but because everybody unconditionally deserves freedom — would have ever been able to posit that, since women die at the hands of patriarchy in larger numbers, then a few LGBTIQ+ lives were worth sacrificing.

True feminists, women and men, straight and queer, cis and trans alike have to make it adamantly clear that, always, when you set the oppression of some against the oppression of others, you are fighting for the liberation of none. As a consequence, they should pledge to extirpate these fake progressives, purify the movement of all patriarchal infiltrations, and organize to create a sociocultural space large enough for a sufficient number of them to attain positions of power. As the saying goes, “if you are not at the table, you are on the menu.”

Feature image: Screenshots from the RAI 2, illustrated by K2.0.