‘Patriarchy, the resilient force that never takes a time out, must be overcome’ – Op-ed by Sue-Ann Barratt

In this opening address to the 2023 MenEngage Global Members Assembly, Sue-Ann Barratt, PhD, illustrates the stubbornness of patriarchy and conservative backlash, and provides a rallying call to members to harness knowledge as power in dismantling inequalities. Sue-Ann Barratt is Lecturer and Head at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, The University of the West Indies, Augustine Campus. She is an active member of the global MenEngage Climate & Environmental Justice Working Group.

I am most honoured to have been invited to share a few words at this global assembly. This gathering is one moment, among many, of reflection and evaluation that is crucial to a feminist approach to our work and our commitment to transformative action to confront, dismantle, reimagine, reconstitute the social relations of gender. To understand, address, and transform that complex system of power that reproduces inequity as the norm.  I am happy to join you as we work to step closer and closer to gender equality, equity and justice.

Today’s reality

Today’s reality is one of global conflict, confrontation and increasing insecurity. At the same time, incredible actions for inclusion, nondiscrimination, resolve and resilience act as counterpoints to worrying global trends.

I am minded to keep Nelson Mandela’s words in mind, “Freedom can never be taken for granted. Each generation must safeguard it and extend it. Your parents and elders sacrificed much so that you should have freedom without suffering what they did. Use this precious right to ensure that the darkness of the past never returns.”

Feminist scholars, advocates and activists have long reminded us of crucial lessons; that freedoms, rights, and justice are hard won. But in gaining them, we gain  the capacity to do, or to refrain from doing, to refuse to do, or to do in unique and varying ways. These freedoms depend on preconditions of recognition, inclusion, and non-discrimination, which all face  hostile resistance, and are persistently tenuous, contested and complex.

Our declarations and commitments only take form through consistent, unapologetic, affirmed action to reinforce their significance in context. In a moment of clarity I said, and say again for its continued relevance, let us be strangers to the full stop.

Patriarchy, as a system of power, is resilient: Examples from the Caribbean

Patriarchy, as a system of power, is resilient in preserving its privileging effect, a privilege often unrecognised by those who enjoy it – largely the hegemonic masculine. It is a resilient mechanism that never pauses, never takes a time out, never surrenders.

Let’s take some examples from my region, the Caribbean.

Just last week in Trinidad and Tobago, explosive moral panic emerged over a children’s book in a local bookstore. The matter made the news, being covered in local press and television. The matter went viral on social media. The matter spawned a Change.org petition with over 30 thousand signatures in 24 hours. The matter prompted endless rumour about changes to the school curriculum and threats to the nation’s children. What’s the matter, you may ask? On the shelf of a local prominent bookstore appeared Mark Kanemura’s “I Am A Rainbow!”, a children’s book telling a poignant story of self-acceptance and recognition, alongside a line of Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper Novels which tells the story of two boys and their love for each other.

The resistance declared, ‘save our children from oversexualisation, gender dysmorphia and the gay agenda, leave that in foreign countries’, and ‘stop the attempt to turn our society into something we do not recognise’.

Incidentally, all this fear came with no acknowledgement of the persistence of gender based violence, especially in the forms of violence against women and girls, child sexual abuse, family violence in general.

The call to action is to boycott the bookstore. Seemingly, books should be censored, and the Ministry of Education confronted, along with the Comprehensive Sexuality Education curricula that is perceived by conservative actors as a threat to society based on spreading ‘falsehoods’ in response to international mandates to transform gender and sexuality. The emotive appeal is to guard your children from the circling evil. That supposed evil being a character dressed in a rainbow cape, full beard with feminine marked fashion.

Last month in Jamaica similar moral panic emerged over amendments to the University of the West Indies (UWI)’ Gender Policy.  The Jamaica Observer headlines declaring “Gender Policy Row Brewing at UWI” and “Gender Policy Backlash” on May 10th and 11th 2023.  The so-called row and backlash was over the policy’s use of gender inclusive language to recognize gender non-conforming identities.  The policy was designed to be a framework of inclusion and non-discrimination. Originally approved in 2017, the recent media coverage became the focus of much anger at the perceived threat to society of the use of gender- affirming pronouns. This news was taken as an affront to biology, and to the security of those who do not wish to consider anyone outside of the gender binary –particularly trans women.

This story also went viral on social media. It too fueled a petition on Change.org (which, incidentally, was taken down after multiple inaccuracies were drawn to the attention of the originator). It too preoccupied the media cycle, it too led to a call to Save the Children, and it too led to a determined attempt to preserve the dominance of the established curriculum, this time at the university level.

I share these examples not only to make the self-evident point that sexism, homophobia, transphobia and so much more continue to be pressing threats to gender equality, equity and justice–in turn, complicate other efforts for justice in other sites of insecurity, be it climate, food, energy, health, economic insecurity. Rather I share these examples because they demonstrate so well that knowledge is power.

These confrontations and insecurities rest not only in struggles over the material, the political, and the cultural. They are also deeply rooted, as they have always been, in spheres of influence, spheres of what we know and can know and how we come to know, in spheres of being and doing and how these are made possible or impossible.

Fears for survival are deployed in the interest of the reproduction of systems of power and all the norms, ideologies, structures they perpetuate under the guise that they are necessary conditions for existence.  Inequality, inequity, injustice, discrimination and exclusion are deployed in what is said, and what remains unsaid, as survival mechanisms for the supposed right and good among us.  Transformation, as we see it, then becomes the perceived threat, especially when that transformation directly addresses patriarchy and the subjects it privileges.

We take nothing for granted

As we take nothing for granted, as we honour the struggles and achievements of those who came before us and those who work alongside us, as we inherit and share strengths and weaknesses, as we encounter long standing challenges and those that emerge to trouble us, we too must be relentless in our action. We too must strategically enter these spheres I’ve mentioned, subliminally, covertly, overtly, we must engage with knowledge as a site of extreme power.

We live in a world where extremisms and fundamentalisms persist and pervade.  In some spaces its messages and meanings are explicit, loud, aggressive; the essence of damaging rhetoric. In some spaces it is administered by the state and other social institutions. In other spaces it is subtle, simmering, and embedded in the status quo. In yet others, it is all of the above.

We also live in a world where transformation of patriarchal norms, especially the most toxic and insidious, is seen as almost akin to death to society. In my experience, the perpetual question is “What about the men, the rights of men, the loss of manhood, the crisis of masculinity” The ‘what about’ abounds. I suggest that this constant inquiry is not, for the most part, lest I engage in flawed generalisations, driven by reflective evaluation aimed at transforming masculinities and engage men and boys in gender equality and social justice, as is stated in the Ubuntu Declaration and Call to Action. Rather, I suggest it is driven by a nostalgia for the status quo, a wistful lust for the patriarchal bargains and binds that maintain the inequalities and equities we are striving so hard to dismantle.

As we can see through political discourse, through user-driven content on social media, and through mainstream media coverage, where power is perceived to be lost (or potentially lost), it is reclaimed with a doggedness that signals a clear unwillingness to relinquish ideologies that undermine our purpose.

I thus conclude by encouraging us to persist, to be proactive always, to contend with the discomforts of the strategic, to commit our attention to countering the counter-narratives, to harness knowledge as power. Let us be strangers to the full stop.

03 August 2023