A few months after I set foot into activism, I wrote to a very close friend and asked if they would be willing to support me in my work against gender-based violence. The email I sent my friend was lengthy, and described my views about fighting gender-based violence and changing the system. They responded to me with one line: Kirthi, you know you have my support. But I think we’re going down the wrong route if we’re looking at going “against” something.
That was all they had said.
The email remained on my mind for a while, as I mulled over the emboldened, italicized word within quotation marks. And that was when I saw it.
One of the common things we’ve grown to learn in our collective, global attempt at addressing gender inequality and putting an end to violence on the basis of sex and gender is that we’ve always stood poised “against” the phenomenon of violence. We’ve always sought to go against what’s prevailing – rather than for the change, instead.
Think about it like a Chinese finger trap: the harder you pull, the harder you go against its impact by pulling away, the faster it stays on, the more it resists your efforts to break free. Instead, if you push both ends toward the middle, it frees the fingers from its grasp. This acknowledgment made me go deeper. I invested my energies and time in peace education, which taught me some very significant, fundamental rules:
- That violence only begets violence, and keeps violence alive.
- That to ensure a future free of violence, it is important to address structures that allow violence to thrive – because it’s not just the violence you see outwardly that’s an issue, but what’s lying under it.
- That the ends and the means must both be peaceful, if you want a peaceful solution that would remain.
- That the path to peace will let you reach the destination if you choose to remain peaceful along the way.
This learning helped me recognize a very powerful truth, one that many already know: that the issue underlying gender- and sex-based violence is patriarchy, which is the structure that is kept alive by a combination of cultural practices, rigid beliefs, and largely, a sense of power.
When men and boys are socialized into and through patriarchy, they are led to believe that they have this power to wield: and quite like any human whose hands come to grab power, it feels “empowering” to be powerful, and to have the kind of power that comes without question feels doubly so.
What they don’t realize, though, is that this power, this patriarchy – dehumanizes them. It is as much the force that foists the burden of being a breadwinner on them as it is the author of an “acceptable” idea of “masculinity” – which, if one did not conform to, rendered them “emasculated.” It is the very force that keeps men and boys bereft of their right to being in tune with their emotional needs and seeking help for their mental health. Imagine leading a life like that: it takes away the freedom of a life. It makes them take to violence, and policies their bodies, too – for if their bodies don’t fall in line with cookie cutter views of the ideal masculine, they are body shamed, too. This patriarchy causes for tremendous silence around the abuse and rape of men and boys, and prevents them from taking help when they need it. This patriarchy chases heteronormative agendas that it keeps alive – thus knocking every other sexual orientation out of the picture.
Power like that, is quite like a double edged sword that cuts both ways, and leaves everyone bleeding.
This socialization of men and boys that offers them an illusory power while dehumanizing them is what needs to be addressed. Think about weeding a garden. Do you cut down the weeds? Or do you uproot it entirely?
Oftentimes, men and boys tend to feel a sense of disempowerment when the thought of feminizing the world comes to fore. By asking for equality for every other gender identity, most men and boys feel a sense of having to give up on their power to make room for those that they used this power over – and this sense of disempowerment makes them resist attempts at equality.
Many attempts at educating men and boys tend to work on telling them not to harm, not to rape, not to abuse, and the like. This is, of course, important – but it’s not going to make an impact unless the underlying theme of patriarchy is addressed, and they are made to see that they have so much more to gain from an equal future, and a future built on place for everyone.
Patriarchy is toxic: it has, for generations, kept gender-based and sex-based violence alive. It has propped up several other structures of inequality – be it racism or casteism, religious differences, colourism, or even poverty. This means that it is important to understand that one’s race, caste, religion, colouor, poverty, ethnicity, sexual orientation and several similar identity attributes come together to create very unique gender-based oppressions.
If we need to address this gargantuan, old-as-the-hills force, we need to start by freeing our minds through education, by recognizing that patriarchy affects all of us – even if in different measures, it affects all of us – and then working towards dismantling it.
Peace education also asks of us to “heal” the underlying trauma, for trauma creates a basis for violence – as history and world politics has showed us. Patriarchy has traumatized the world for too long. It’s time to heal now.