Reflections on the Mujeres Discussion: Feminismo y Que at Enero Zapatista (Jan 8, 2008)


A week into 2008, I attended the first discussion of this year's Enero Zapatista at Chicana Perk [San Diego, CA]. Coming in from a long day of work, I neither knew what to expect nor had I had a moment to give it thought. What I found was pleasantly surprising and inspirational. A group of more than a dozen folks came together for the Mujeres Discussion: Feminismo y Que - the group itself was diverse in some ways, not in others, but certainly offered a variety of perspectives and experiences.

The dialogue was organized through three loose go-rounds based in two basic questions. The first time around the group, people introduced themselves and answered the question: What do you imagine a world without patriarchy/gender roles looks like? To follow that and the related discussion were two more sets of questions broken down by gender. First, female bodied folks / self -identified women were asked to discuss: What is something you're doing for yourself to deal with patriarchy and how those around you can support you? Then similarly to male bodied folks / self-identified men: something that you're working on to change yourself in relation to patriarchy and how can those around you support you?

I want to touch on the subjects that came up that stand out most in my memory. These are neither in chronological order nor do they particularly coincide with where they fell in the three go-rounds. Because similar ideas came up repeatedly at different times, I would prefer just to reflect on themes.
The first handful of ideas that I recall includes how women relate to body image and the desire to feel more free to think and say what they want. I think that this is significant because often we falsely believe that some of the basic remnants of sexism have faded away but these concepts coming up in discussion as ongoing and intense problems that women are struggling with reminds us that we must continue to work on the basics in the face of an intensely misogynist culture.

Similarly, there was talk about the way that women feel the need to be "nice" as opposed to "bitchy" and that moments of speaking assertively or even just without a quiet, pleasant manner puts one at risk of being perceived as a bitch. This also brings to mind something I brought up about male validation. In my experience, there is an ongoing dynamic wherein women seek the validation of men in many ways that is counter-productive to creating strong community where women feel empowered.

In addition, several participants brought up the way that things would look different in family life as well as community dynamics in a world without patriarchy and, furthermore, how much work it takes to continue to challenge those existing patterns in people around us. It was really meaningful when one woman shared her experience in regards to her treatment by a predominantly male group when she brought up challenges within that group. She told of how she was quickly called out as being divisive and had to speak through a male who was personally close to her so that ideas would get out there. Basically, when she would say something that was dismissed, if he said it, it would be heard. She was considered divisive at the same time instead of feeling empowered as a part of the organization. This is something that I've experienced repeatedly in organizing and I feel is truly important for self-identified 'organizers' or 'activists' or 'radicals' or whatever to become far more aware and critical of.

There were many more things than those above that found their way into the dialogue but, in the end I found there to be two dominating themes. The first one is pretty cut and dry: in a world without patriarchy, gender and sexuality would exist differently. Including, as at least one person made a point of stressing, oppression related to sexuality would not exist nor, potentially, would the ways that we delineate it at all. It was also touched on by a man in the group how he is currently working on learning how to shift the way he thinks about gender as a binary and how that is reflected in language. He shared that this had a lot to do with a personal friend who doesn't identify with or use 'he' or 'she'.

What I cannot emphasize enough is that throughout the discussion, a constant theme was violence. Without patriarchy, almost all participants noted, violence worldwide, from wars to domestic violence, would exist on an incredibly lower level. What was great was that both men and women discussed their relationship to this violence. I think that it would be impossible or, at least worthless, to discuss patriarchy without talking about how overwhelmingly prevalent violence against women is in this and every culture in the world. Rape and sexual assault, partner violence and more were brought up. And, what was incredible was that as people spoke, they seemed to really come from a place of day-to-day experience that was so valuable for the rest of the group to hear. What woman doesn't think about what her weapon is if she's walking down the street alone. How many of us carry mace or other means of defense? It's a given.

What was again incredible, in addition, was that men talked about the threat of violence that they experience which I feel is not discussed enough. It was not in any way portrayed as being on the same level to that which women face but it also could not be dismissed that men are expected to fall in line with the patriarchal norms that they are taught and breaking out of that can cause at the least the loss of relationships or, potentially, a violent response. To add to that, a queer man in the group spoke to how much he had come to admire what women put up with everyday as he went through his own coming out process.

Conclusion & Critical Thoughts

There have been so few times in my life where I have found myself in such a space - people really opened up and shared their emotions and experiences and created a space where real dialogue could happen around a difficult and deeply entrenched oppression that exists in every aspect of our lives. What I can only hope is that folks continue to push forward in questioning the discussion itself as well as learning from it. A few critical points that I'd like to bring up pertain to the question of gender and gender roles. That was a common use of terms in the discussion and I would like to pause and step back and contemplate those ideas. Because I believe that when they were talked about, it was in relation to the solid boxes that individuals are placed in because of their gender, or more appropriately, the sex that they are born as. I do not have a problem in questioning the strict nature of these roles and I would like to push past that questioning and encourage us to think about what is empowering in self-definition and reclamation of gender.

The majority of the room was not made up of folks that I would perceive to consider themselves (or be seen by the outside world) as gender-queer or transgendered. As someone in that room who identifies as genderqueer or gender non-conforming, my process to find and hold onto my gender identity has been lifelong and central to my own liberation. It is imperative that as we move forward toward a world without patriarchy, we learn how to continue to question our own limitations around gender - not just in a traditional way wherein women are liberated from the chains of strict gender roles but also in a way where gender is called into question all together.

I believe that the space may have been more influenced in this way given a make-up of participants that included more genderqueer and trans folks as well as time to break down the men/women dichotomy of gender.

In the end, I can only hope that this and similar conversations continue as well as continue to show up in all communities. What was a side comment of so many people in the initial go-round about a world without patriarchy was how impossible that is to imagine. In the process of dialogues like this one, that world can be more than continually imagined - perhaps it can slowly be built.