Relax… Don’t be afraid of Feminism(s)!

Dr. Pamela Chrabieh
Dr. Pamela Chrabieh
2013, Lebanon

This is my answer to one ‘intellectual and highly educated person’ who expressed a while ago his ‘fear’ of Feminism in Lebanon and the Arab World: ‘you, Feminists, want women’s power over men. Men will not help you in your fight. Even most women in our countries, who are impregnated with the Patriarchal System, seem to like it; or they must be thinking: too much of a risk! You, Feminists, are all alike!’.

Fortunately, I was only drinking a Perrier while having this conversation. Unfortunately, this statement is not an exception in our context, even – and especially – in the Academic circle. I often hear the following: ‘There are no gender stereotypes’; ‘Gender Studies should not exist’; ‘Feminists want Matriarchy’; ‘Feminists are Lesbians, thus hate men’; ‘Why do you complain? Women and men have particular functions. Stick to what is being assigned. You bring children, we rule’; ‘God created men, and gave them women to serve them!!’ etc…

In the most ‘refined and advanced’ elitist areas, this is a sample of what I and other women have to deal with. Being a Feminist, as I see it, as I am, as others also are, simply = fighting for equality on all levels, partnership and a better management of diversity in a society. There are, of course, many different kinds of feminism. Feminists disagree about what sexism consists in, and what exactly ought to be done about it; they disagree about what it means to be a woman or a man and what social and political implications gender has or should have. Nonetheless, motivated by the quest for social justice, feminist inquiry provides a wide range of perspectives on social, cultural, economic, and political phenomena. Important topics for feminist theory and politics include: the body, class and work, disability, the family, globalization, human rights, popular culture, race and racism, reproduction, science, the self, sex work, human trafficking, and sexuality.

The term ‘feminism’ has many different uses and its meanings are often contested. For example, some writers use the term ‘feminism’ to refer to a historically specific political movement in the United States and Europe; other writers use it to refer to the belief that there are injustices against women, though there is no consensus on the exact list of these injustices. Although the term “feminism” has a history in English linked with women’s activism from the late 19th century to the present, it is useful to distinguish feminist ideas or beliefs from feminist political movements, for even in periods where there has been no significant political activism around women’s subordination, individuals have been concerned with and theorized about justice for women. So, for example, it makes sense to ask whether Plato was a feminist, given his view that women should be trained to rule (Republic, Book V).

My spontaneous answer to this ‘highly intellectual human being’ was: Relax!!! Let me explain, and let yourself think/rethink… Feminism, according to my humble world-view, isn’t about building a Matriarchal system versus Patriarchy. Gloria Steinem, while speculating about the origins of the patriarchy (in ‘Wonder Woman’, 1972), told her readers that ‘once upon a time, the many cultures of this world were all part of the gynocratic age. Paternity had not yet been discovered, and it was thought … that women bore fruit like trees—when they were ripe. Childbirth was mysterious. It was vital. And it was envied. Women were worshiped because of it, were considered superior because of it…. Men were on the periphery—an interchangeable body of workers for, and worshipers of, the female center, the principle of life. The discovery of paternity, of sexual cause and childbirth effect, was as cataclysmic for society as, say, the discovery of fire or the shattering of the atom. Gradually, the idea of male ownership of children took hold….Gynocracy also suffered from the periodic invasions of nomadic tribes…. The conflict between the hunters and the growers was really the conflict between male-dominated and female-dominated cultures… women gradually lost their freedom, mystery, and superior position. For five thousand years or more, the gynocratic age had flowered in peace and productivity. Slowly, in varying stages and in different parts of the world, the social order was painfully reversed. Women became the underclass, marked by their visible differences”.

However, I don’t believe in this ‘mythical past’, even if the story is circulating widely, even if there are several definitions of ‘matriarchy’ – not only a crude reversal of patriarchal power -, including a model of peace, plenty, harmony with nature, and, significantly, sex egalitarianism. “The evidence available to us regarding gender relations in prehistory is sketchy and ambiguous, and always subject to the interpretation of biased individuals. But even with these limitations, what evidence we do have from prehistory cannot support the weight laid upon it by the matriarchal thesis. Theoretically, prehistory could have been matriarchal, but it probably wasn’t, and nothing offered up in support of the matriarchal thesis is especially persuasive. However, a myth does not need to be true—or even necessarily be believed to be true—to be powerful, to make a difference in how people think and live, and in what people value. Yet even as I tried to put aside the question of the myth’s historicity, I remained uncomfortable with it (…). The image of women is drastically revalued in feminist matriarchal myth, such that it is not a mark of shame or subordination, but of pride and power. But this image is nevertheless quite conventional and, at least up until now, it has done an excellent job of serving patriarchal interests. Indeed, the myth of matriarchal prehistory is not a feminist creation, in spite of the aggressively feminist spin it has carried over the past twenty-five years. Since the myth was revived from classical Greek sources in 1861 by Johann Jakob Bachofen, it has had—at best—a very mixed record where feminism is concerned. The majority of men who championed the myth of matriarchal prehistory during its first century (and they have mostly been men) have regarded patriarchy as an evolutionary advance over prehistoric matriarchies, in spite of some lingering nostalgia for women’s equality or beneficent rule. Feminists of the latter half of the twentieth century are not the first to find in the myth of matriarchal prehistory a manifesto for feminist social change, but this has not been the dominant meaning attached to the myth of matriarchal prehistory, only the most recent”.

So, relying on matriarchal myth in the face of the evidence that challenges its veracity leaves feminists open to charges of vacuousness and irrelevance that we cannot afford to court. And the gendered stereotypes upon which matriarchal myth rests persistently work to flatten out differences among women; to exaggerate differences between women and men; and to hand women an identity that is symbolic, timeless, and archetypal, instead of giving them the freedom to craft identities that suit their individual temperaments, skills, preferences, and moral and political commitments.

The opposite of Patriarchy is not Matriarchy… It’s equality, equity, partnership, the search for unity in diversity… It’s about liberating men and women, in fact, all individuals, from unjust and authoritarian systems – social, political, philosophical, ideological, etc.

To be continued…

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