ashwednesday: (Ticktock)
Yesterday's journey to work featured some guys calling "vous êtes belle!" and blowing kisses at me; yesterday's journey from work featured a guy exposing his penis to me. I could write a nice little blog post linking these two events, and coming to the conclusion that they are both signs of our patriarchal heritage. But that would be glib. I see quite a lot of glib writing on the internet lately. There's a strong human desire to draw patterns between events, to draw them together in the narrative of our lives, and that makes sense. But doing that simplifies complexities, which does nobody any good.

I was looking rather fetching yesterday, I think. It was a beautiful spring day, temperatures soaring, and my fitted dress was complemented by a jaunty silk scarf ("men loves scarves" says Joan Holloway, and who am I to disagree with The Joan?) and espadrilles. The guys calling out to me from their van didn't upset me. I know plenty of women dislike men doing things like that, and I understand why. For me, though, there's a difference between kinds of catcalling. "Good morning," one of them called, to get me to look round, and then they said "you're beautiful" and blew extravagant kisses to me before the traffic lights changed. I laughed pretty hard, and I felt flattered. They didn't make any overtures, or make any explicit remarks, and as such I have no problem with people marking their appreciation of people they find attractive. I have had plenty of things shouted at me that are offensive - you'll be unsurprised there are a lot of references to my boobs - or being reasonably aggressive in making an approach in a public place, and for me there's a difference between men encroaching on my personal space and trying to appropriate the way I look for a coarse kind of gratification without caring how that makes me feel, and with receiving a straightforward compliment. I'm aware that some of you may disagree, though, and if you feel like sharing your views, please do so! I'm aware that my views on what's acceptable to say in public is shaped by my extrovert nature, for one thing.

The only issue I have with getting a comment like the above is that socially this is acceptable for men to do but not for women to do. Because I think that IS linked to men thinking it's ok to shout more explicit and offensive things, to focus on a part of your anatomy in a way that is objectifying, to make you feel potentially unsafe when you walk down the street, to not think hey, going up to this lone girl in the street at night may seem kind of sketchy. Because that's a case of men having power and either not realising they have the privileged position or just not caring.

Obviously the metro guy didn't care how I felt about what he was doing. It was a pretty gross experience, frankly. The metro was very crowded - it was about 6.30pm, so not late at night - and people were crushed together. I felt a guy pressing up against me, and I wasn't sure if it was just because it was so busy. But I looked round to see that he had his erect penis out, hidden behind his jacket so it wasn't visible to the rest of the train. Nothing quite like knowing someone's getting their kicks from rubbing against you. Ugh. And I did have the brief moment of thinking: this WOULD happen on a day I feel pretty and stylish! But I put that thought aside, because I am not responsible for whatever some disturbed loser thinks about me, and he could just as easily have tried to molest some sweet old lady. Anyway, I got off the metro. I felt vaguely guilty for not reporting it, but it would have involved spending lots of time using my non-native language to no great effect, since I doubt anyone would find the guy. That does make me angry, that men can get away with doing things like that, because so often it's more trouble than it's worth to try to take action.

I dunno where I'm going with this. There are clearly lots of questions around gendered power and the public ways we express our sexualities here, but I am seeing a tendency in gender studies to answer any questions like this with a glib response of patriarchy/kyriarchy - as if we actually know what those words mean. (Trust me, we really don't.) That's almost - though not quite - as annoying as the kind of people who, in well-meaning earnestness, honestly don't see the immense amount of privilege they show by saying "I don't see gender/race; I don't care about sexuality/ethnicity/religion", often followed with a plaintive "why don't we all just get aloooooong."

And I guess I'm also saying: it's ok for me to feel flattered by a compliment from a stranger. It doesn't make me Part of the Problem - at least, not any more than we're all Part of the Problem (whatever the hell "the problem" is). And it sure doesn't mean it's ok for a guy to molest me. The thing is, I reckon everyone who reads this will be on board with thinking the metro guy crossed a major line. But I think people will be divided over whether men making any sorts of comments to women is ok - whether some comments are ok but not others, whether it's an offensive use of privilege to make any sort of comment about a woman's attractiveness, and so on. Which is sort of my point, I suppose: when you're talking about "patriarchy", you're talking about something embedded so deep into our culture that deciding where lines should be drawn varies enormously over time, space and for individuals. There's nothing simple about it at all.
ashwednesday: (Ticktock)
Tonight I watched the BBC documentary This World: Stolen Brides, written and presented by Lucy Ash, a respected reporter with a background in covering Russian politics, warzones and women's issues. This programme was on the topic of forced marriages in Chechnya, a region with a complex and violence-ridden history, now struggling to recover after the Second Chechen War. Bride kidnapping has a long tradition in Chechnya, but it has seen a marked revival in recent years, with some estimating that up to 1 in 5 marriages begins with the kidnapping of the bride. Typically a young man and his friends snatch a woman off the street. They will then contact her family to negotiate for her hand. The marriage is usually agreed to, both to preserve the woman's honour and to prevent the need for a blood feud in a country where family honour is prized and where every man seems to have access to a gun. The narrative of the episode moved between the story of Zulikhan, a young woman snatched off the street and married a week later to a man she had met on only three occasions, and interviews with mullahs, human rights activists and ordinary Chechens.

I finished the programme feeling profoundly unsettled by what I had seen. There was a great deal to unpack from the footage, far more than could actually be analysed in the programme (though Lucy Ash gave a useful introduction to isues, she reported rather than analysed - which I think was probably more helpful in this context; it let the footage speak for itself). I sat in the bath, wondering why exactly it had upset me so profoundly. I see terrible things on the news every day, after all. Part of it, of course, was that there was a personal story there. Journalists know that a personal story is worth a hundred nameless casualties, and it would have been a stony-hearted person who wasn't moved by Zulikhan, a university student who suddenly had her career prospects and even her location taken from her as she was displaced through marriage to a near-stranger who moved them to remote Kazakhstan. Clearly bright and capable, Zulikhan had the air of a woman making the best of a bad situation; she liked her new mother-in-law (who enrolled her in a local university), and she described her marriage as "fate", but she had little to say about Bogdan, her new husband. Bogdan, meanwhile, was dismissive when asked if he thought his wife was upset about being snatched. Women, he said, just cried because they didn't want to leave home, but really they wanted to be married.

It would be easy to have gone away from the programme - with its men shooting guns in the air from the wedding cortege, mullahs exorcising women of demons that made them unhappy in their marriages, and grim statistics on women forced into prostitution and human rights activists murdered - thinking that Chechnya is an oppressive nation dominated by cruel, religious-fanatic men who are systematically crushing women's rights. Which in many ways is actually a fair assessment, but it's also a glib one.

One of the issues I have as a researcher on masculinities is the way so many people invoke the word "patriarchy" without actually understanding what it means. And before you ask, no, I don't know what it means either. I may have written a thesis on fatherhood, but I think I've only begun to understand what patriarchy really is. What this programme brought into sharp relief for me was the complex ways in which patriarchal constructs can shape, promote, and oppress. The people of Chechnya are victims of grotesque and repeated abuses of privilege. In 1944 the entire Chechen population was deported by the Russians. Half a million people were exiled to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and allowed to return only in 1957. Unsurprisingly, the ensuing years have seen continued bloody struggles with Russia. An increasingly radicalised Chechen population has in recent years moved away from seeking a western-style democracy independent of Russia and moved toward the ideal of a powerful Islamic state fighting for Caucasian independence - at almost any cost. The war with Russia is supposedly over, but violence is endemic, the unemployment rate stands at a third of the population, and a Médecins Sans Frontières survey in 2007 found that an astonishing 77% of respondents showed evidence of psychological trauma as a result of the war.

It is perhaps not surprising that in a nation that has been systematically brutalised and humiliated by a more powerful enemy that its citizens should seek ways of self-empowerment. It's all very well if we at home, comfortable in our privileges of peacetime and education, think it would be better if people sought productive ways to empower themselves. For many Chechen men, growing up with the expectation that their lives may be cut short by violence, ambitions stymied by economic stagnation and political corruption, an act such as bride-stealing may seem to them an exertion of personal choice and of vigorous masculinity. Patriarchal constructs tell men that they are not really men if they are not demonstrating their masculinity, if they do not prove their manliness. And of course the constructs of patriarchy involve not only the domination of women by men, but the domination of men by more powerful men. This isn't, by the way, all about gender; patriarchy's a lot more complex than that, and maybe sometime I'll have time to get into that. But for now - Chechen men have lived for decades as the whipping boys of their own government and of the policies of an autocratic and powerful neighbour. Is it surprising that a radical and conservative version of Islam which allows men to marry more than one woman, that allows men to make women cover their heads, that encourages men to take back their nation's independence, that neatly gives the blame for their problems to Russia and to the population's moral laxity. In many societies, patriarchal constructs subtly instil the notion that the household is a microcosm of society, and so the man who controls his household is a man who can take his proper place in a social hierarchy.

I couldn't warm to Bogdan, who seemed to have little interest in his new wife, and who did seem like the kind of cold misogynist you might expect. But Lucy Ash spoke to his father on Bogdan's wedding day. The father was visibly relieved; most people, he said, got married at eighteen or nineteen, but then the war came... And now Bogdan was thirty. There was in what he said a sense of an anxiety that went beyond a typical parental desire for a child to settle down and start a family. There is a sense in Chechnya of there being very little time; lives are borrowed, not owned, and this attitude makes snatching a wife - a custom that seems better suited to a more ancient time, not to a society with glossy billboards and a busy TV industry - make more sense. "I didn't want to wait," said Bogdan, and whilst his dismissive attitude toward his wife's ambitions was repulsive, it was easier to understand his anxiety to be married when an old man started speaking at the wedding reception. He discussed how he and his family were deported, how he saw his siblings die - a tiny fraction of the horrifying one-third of all deportees who died during transport or shortly thereafter. He talked about how women knelt down in front of Russians so that the fighting would stop, and how they were mowed down. Everything that the Chechen people have has been scraped together, fought for, stolen, wrung out. They are simultaneously absolutely certain of their right to be Chechen and absolutely uncertain of anything else that governs their own lives. They are fiercely proud of their race and nation; they are afraid of their government, of the future, of the shadow of Moscow.

"It's the law of our grandfathers," one man said about bride-snatching. "We have to respect our Chechen traditions." "Tradition" is often a useful cloak for abuse, and you may rightly sniff at men using dubious "history" to justify the abuse of women's rights - but in a society with an uncertain future and a distressing and bloody recent past and present, the concept of "tradition" is something to cling fast to. Whether or not it actually does anyone any good.
ashwednesday: (Academic at work)
For those of you not familiar with my research, my PhD thesis (soon to be submitted, Deo volente - though I've been saying that for a good five months now...) is on late medieval English fatherhood. In general, then, I am interested in patriarchy and its parameters, as well as conceptualising masculinities. I thought the following quotation on modern fatherhood was quite nice - not in that it's saying anything new, but because it concisely and clearly makes a good starting point for studying masculine identity.

In most of the situations that have been closely studied, there is some hegemonic form of masculinity - the most honoured or desired... The hegemonic form need not be the most common form of masculinity, let alone the most comfortable. Indeed many men live in a state of some tension with, or distance from, the hegemonic masculinity of their culture or comunity.

R.W. Connell, The Men and the Boys (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 11-12.

Something also worth considering is that this "hegemonic masculinity" has not remained the same over the centuries; something that should be obvious to academics, but apparently is not always. Similarly, whilst the institution of patriarchy has remained in place for most of the history of Western civilisation, its parameters have changed a great deal over time. I got to thinking about this today because I got to read an interesting article on the topic of Ancient Greek pederasty that is forthcoming in 2010, and then I re-read Ruth Mazo Karras' article on sex and single women which talks about how historians conflate illicit sex with prostitution, and put together the two made me think about the assumptions that scholars make about "being male". At least now it seems like these are questions more people are asking.


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January 2013

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