The feminisation of politics
Social systems that are deeply entrenched in notions of patriarchy need to undergo fundamental transformation. But this is not an easy task since the existing order has served the male power establishment well. If men learn to honour their differences with women, and could accept the traits they contemptuously assign to the latter, peace and harmonious co-existence can flourish, writes NIGHAT GANDHI.
MAY 9 is usually a special day for me. It is my wedding anniversary but this year I had few reasons to celebrate. My mother was hospitalised, Gujarat was a fresh wound, and the world seemed torn by mindless violence. On May 9, the papers reported that a suicide bomber in Karachi, Pakistan, had blown up a bus carrying French technicians. Yet another suicide bomber killed 17 people south of the Israeli city of Tel Aviv on the same day.
Why do we spend time and money preserving human life, which in rage and revenge, we spend time and money destroying through wars and genocide? Is this one of the schisms so characteristic of human nature that we hold most dear about ourselves, we annihilate most ruthlessly?
On May 9, the newspapers also reported that the Government dismissed the allegations made by its Pakistan counterpart regarding India's role in the Karachi bus explosion. I recall reading similar statements made by the Pakistani Government in March, denying their involvement with the Godhra train torching. Allegations and counter-allegations shrugged off, governments can simply resume their daily functioning without any guilt.
Governments have lost the humanity to offer prayers for the murder of innocents, to come together to ferret out those who perpetuate such treachery, regardless of which side of the border the murders were committed on, and by whom. It sounds unfashionably naïve to ask governments to display compassion and forgiveness. Such traits are only expected of mothers, not the ruling elite, who are mostly men. Perhaps the time has come to demand that our leaders cultivate the traits of compassion and the ability to hold a mutually respectful dialogue for resolving world conflicts. The very definition of a leader needs to be redefined: we no longer need merely ambitious, smart, aggressive, acquisitive, will-break-but-not-bend leaders. What we are most urgently in need of are leaders with traits, which have derisively been labelled "feminine" throughout recorded history. We need leaders who are pliant enough to bend from their unflinching stand on issues, who are ready to sacrifice the short-term goals of their own survival for the greater good of humanity.
Women and mothers routinely compromise their own personal achievement goals for the sake of their families. Present human society would not have been possible, had women not exercised restraint, compassion, and altruism, which most of the world takes for granted from them. This is not to suggest that women should exercise these traits, although they are encouraged to, to their excessive and destructive limits, where these nurturing qualities deteriorate into masochistic self-sacrifice or martyrdom. The time has come to re-interpret these so-called "feminine" traits and cultivate their positive aspects in men as well as women.
The survival of the planet may be dependent on a re-examination of what, if anything, is natural, that is, biologically determined about "masculinity" and "femininity". How natural is it for males to be aggressive, unemotional, and rational? How natural is it for females to be passive, emotional, and irrational? Is it not possible that under patriarchy, gender specific roles have been constructed and assigned to men and women for the perpetuation of a social order whose very functioning depends on the subordination of women to men?
In response, some men might say, "But we've always said that women are gentler and more caring than men." While this may be true, we don't want women's gentleness, whether natural or conditioned, to become the reasons for keeping them confined to the home and out of the "dirty" world of politics. If women's "softness" is essential for rearing the human race, we can safely assert that it is also essential for the survival of the adults as well. If gentleness and caring are such worthwhile virtues, isn't it about time that men, and not just women, got liberal doses of it in their upbringing?
The fruits of patriarchy namely, capitalism, imperialism, and militarism are poisonous and life-destroying. Male dominated world politics, with its attendant traits of aggression, competitiveness and divisiveness, has been the modus operandi for human societies. Civilisation as we know it today can only lead to an increasingly unjust, and inequitable, distribution of power across the globe. After all, it is mainly male political leaders of the world who decide to wage wars; it is mostly men who rape women victims of war, and not the other way round.
So my suggestion for a more peaceful world? The feminisation of world politics. This can be effected in two ways by the greater participation of women in politics, but most importantly, by consciously engendering the "demasculinisation" of male politicians. Gender sensitisation of their male colleagues should be uppermost on the agenda of women-centered politicians. Simply electing a few women to assume key political positions is mere tokenism, and should fool no one. Such women are simply the mouthpieces of men who place them in power in the first place. What is needed is the entry of women with an awakened political consciousness, women who take pride in exercising wisdom, intuition, cooperation and compassion as tools of their politics, and actively oppose the dog-eat-dog attitudes of traditional male politicians.
What is being asked for is a fundamental transformation of social systems entrenched deep within the system of patriarchy. The disdainful epithets in our vocabulary for men who display feminine traits are "eunuch", "effeminate", "sissy" and "prissy". It isn't going to be easy to undo a system of functioning which has served the male power establishment well for thousands of years, even when it is amply evident that irreversible rot has set in. Poverty and wars are becoming the order of the world threatening to demolish the very edifice patriarchal capitalism strives to protect.
The litany of daily miseries suffered by the powerless public of the subcontinent on both sides of the border should make us ask, why? Why, when those men in power have let us down time and again, do we invest such fatalistic faith in their governance?
Celebrated feminist and poet Audre Lorde wrote, "we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion." The typical patriarchal pattern of dealing with differences, according to Lorde, is one of three ways: "ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate." Differences between the sexes, countries and cultures have been subjected to one or more of these three treatments. It is a shame, because, differences that are nurtured lead to diversity, and diversity that is celebrated is the "springboard for creative change within our lives."
If men learned to honour their differences with women, and were not afraid of embracing traits that they contemptuously assigned to women, we could all be living on a planet where peaceful and harmonious co-existence flourished unthreatened.
Unfortunately, we have allowed our leaders to lead us into fearing and distrusting our differences as human beings, as men and women, as majority and minority communities.
Gujarat, and even Partition, would not have happened if we had believed that our differences could "enrich our visions and our joint struggles" against our common enemies poverty, discrimination, illiteracy the kaleidoscopic facets of patriarchal politics.
"What is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood." I keep this quote from Lorde at my desk as I write. I know my silences can never protect me. Breaking the silence is an act of affirmation, a gift I give to myself.
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