Feb 19, 2016

The Trouble With Equality: Feminism and the Forgotten Places of Power

"...Patriarchy is not the rule of men over women, it's the rule of the binary - the insistence that there really are sides, and that each is a pre-existing category unto itself, fixed and hallowed, one superior to another."
By Adebayo Akomolafe / bayoakomolafe.net
The Trouble With Equality: Feminism and the Forgotten Places of Power

As if in jest of the overwrought standards of ‘debating’ we were subjected to as school-going kids, whereby we would be made to curtsy before an animated audience of wide-eyed parents at end-of-year school events – telling them why teachers were ‘better’ than farmers (or vice versa), my friends and I often came up with our own equally silly corollaries. After school hours, when the teacher had left the classroom, we would pucker our lips, squint our eyes, and waddle out in front of the many rows of desks. “Ladies and gentlemen, my fellow co-debaters, parents and teachers, good afternoon!” we would say, with an exaggerated curtsy and to wild applause from our impressed colleagues. “I’m here to argue that women are better than men!” And then, if we remained uninterrupted by a righteous adult, we would proceed to a long list of non-reasons to support our comical standpoints.

Of course, as is the case with many kids who are supposed to be the grateful recipients of school’s benevolence, we saw through the whole charade. So we mocked it – calling out the nakedness of the emperor. Not only were ‘debates’ so unnatural and alien to how we actually held conversations in Nigeria, we seemed unduly pressured to make unwarranted cuts between things, whipping up versus-statements just for the sake of what our teachers called “correct thinking”. In the end, I suppose we learned what we were supposed to learn: how to act like we were debating, skirting around anything substantial, missing the point, and winning points in heaped shovels of smiling nods and anxious applause.

In the same way, most of the contemporary debate around gender equality, now looming like a spectre over the vexed landscape of the 2016 American presidential race, misses a crucial point. What point? The point that the modern ideal of ‘equality’ is how patriarchy erases the radical, colonizes the conversation, closes the gates, and treats being wo/man as instrumental to phallic frameworks of power.

I am not American, but have over the years had an undue affection for the American election season. The frantic minute-by-minute reporting of the mainstream media. The debates. The cheesy slogans ensconced in svelte arcs. The promise of a candidate that can fix everything. The spectacle of victory, gloriously embodied by exuberant balloons, stoic teleprompters and starstruck faces painted red, white and blue. Blame it on my diplomat father, who taught me to speak about my ‘favourite American president’ (his was Bill Clinton), and who named the two dogs he brought to our home in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) ‘Bill’ and ‘Hillary’. Right from those initial moments back in 2008 when then-Senator Obama’s poetic speeches evoked the promise of a politics of mutuality, I have found myself drawn again and again to the swirling morass of events that is American politics – even as I lose my faith in the power of human-centred politics to summon the kinds of difference-making I want to see in the world.

So when Hillary Clinton’s coronation candidacy was threatened by a 74 year old self-acclaimed democratic socialist, I noticed as the groundswell of a discursive tsunami of voices attempted to carve out a moral highway for her – insisting that it was time for a female president of the United States. Painting in obviously broad strokes, the argument being sustained by some is that…

…because of aggressive, ambient sexism in general, and Sec. Clinton’s decades of high-profile public life and service in particular, she has faced extreme challenges that no other mainstream candidate (and particularly not Bernie Sanders) has faced. No woman, it is argued, could be an unkempt, ranting socialist from Vermont and have the level of success that Sen. Sanders has had. And on the flip side, anyone with the sort of experience Sec. Clinton has, who has faced the unfair sexist barrage she has, would have had to have made similar political compromises. Thus, it goes, to fault Sec. Clinton for her ideological impurity, or for unpopular decisions, or for supporting regressive policies is to participate in a sexist system. The charitable interpretation of this charge is that Sec. Clinton’s perceived faults qua progressive candidate for President are themselves the direct result of a sexist political system that constrains women in a way that it does not constrain men.[1]

The moral urge of this line of reasoning is that Hillary’s candidacy and hopefully-eventual presidency represents not merely a watershed moment in the history of American politics, but a resounding triumph for women everywhere – and the fight for gender equality. To elect a woman into an institution whose very labels and attendant concepts were designed with men in mind would be a culminating point, a victorious resolution of a long string of tropes stretching from the days when Rosie the Riveter flexed her biceps in defiance of the stereotypical association of women with frail secondariness, to the third-wave commoditized feminism of Lady Gaga.

The rise of women

One of the more popular anecdotes of standpoint feminism is that as a response to patriarchy, women ought to assume power – and that if such were the case, if more women took the reins, they would not only do just as well as their male counterparts, they would do better. When most people think about feminism, this is probably what comes to mind: women unshackling themselves from their ‘natural’ place, turning in their skirts for trousers, or daring to stand up to the domesticated overlords they call husbands. It’s a man’s world after all – so it is something remarkable when yet another woman defies the order of things and breaks through. She wins not only for herself, but for a ‘sexual minority’ itching to be heard; she stands defiant in the face of nameless years of anonymity, domination and existential rape. She sticks it to them – as Lillith, the mythical mother of feminists, did to Adam and their maker when he (Adam, not their maker) wanted to be on top.

In a world that now pays attention to Merkel, Winfrey, and Lagarde – and might very well be receiving marching orders from a female-led White House (barring the insurgent and astonishing rise of Bernie Sanders), the case for gender equality in a modern milieu has never been stronger. The arc of justice dips towards a world where women are finally equal to men, and are treated fairly.

Except that the discursive thrust of gender equality does women a disservice. And does us all in.

The ideal of a world where women are finally equal to men (or the prospects of female domination) is as unsatisfactory an ethical response to patriarchal domination as is taking a child’s playthings away – and then rewarding the child with the promise not to beat her too much if she stopped crying so loudly.

It is an underwhelming compensation – one which pretends that women – and men – are really bound by a phallic system of value, and that the only way to be relevant, to be useful, to be real, is to ascend a pyramidal structure, the estranged pinnacle of which is the source of power.

Gender equality is not a-contextual or apolitical. It’s not merely the innocuous notion that women should be treated fairly. It is not merely a rebuke of inequality. Its ethical promulgations are indissolubly entangled with a certain political agenda. For instance, by bemoaning the number of girls that go to school vis-à-vis the number of boys, it sets up institutionalized public education as the only legitimate way to think about education – and delegitimizes other ways of thinking about learning. Also, by insisting that women should be equal to men, it pretends to advocate for women – while, in reality, it forcefully compels us to accept its own metric baseline for deciding equality or disparity.

As a moral resolution of the power disparities between men and women, it displaces a thousand cosmo-visions and enactments of bodily presence – namely, other places of power and practices where a woman’s relevance is not accrued based on her movement along a linear trajectory of manly moments. Its containing apparatus is a particular way of producing the world, of sterilizing it and cleaning it – until everything else pales into a decorative backdrop, and only a rights-based framework, a single corporate story if you will, stands out in bold relief. It is a plea for the perpetuation of modern power and the rejection of the abject ‘other’. The condition for equality is monoculture.

The real culprit is gender

Last year I was part of a webinar conversation about sustainable menstruation/menstrual hygiene and gender equality. The introductory blurb noted that the current widespread practice of disposing of used tampons poses a threat to the environment, and that there is a need to create sustainable solutions that deal with the problem of disposal, while allowing women to favourably compete with their male counterparts in a cut-throat, white water, dog-eat-dog world. I took issue with this framing: there was something problematic about asking women (and men) to adapt to a sick world, or treating the menstrual period as a disgusting untimeliness, a biological sin that needs to be hushed or covered away in shame. So, when it was time for me to speak, I named the neoliberal, capitalist, growth-oriented, operating system as complicit in usurping bodies as instruments of its perpetuation. My grouse wasn’t (and still isn’t) that menstrual technologies shouldn’t pay attention to the environment, or that women shouldn’t feel more comfortable during these periods, but that what is at stake is an entirely different way of relating with/partnering with our bodies – a relationality excluded by a ‘phallogocentric’ (a word coined by Jacques Derrida to refer to privileging the masculine in the production of meaning) framework that divorces us from the tides and vibrancies of our bodies and the nonhuman world. Contrast today’s deep aversion to, and shaming of, bleeding with how some ancient indigenous cultures reportedly saw menstruation as a cosmic event, a time to slow down, an attuning to moon tides and lunar cycles, an unfurling of power. A bleeding woman was not to be shushed, hidden away behind a blitzkrieg of flashy graphics and blue water; her vagina was a rift in the sky, a portal whence came wisdom that the status quo did not possess.

The construct of equality might inspire the deconstruction of glass ceilings, but it leaves one problematic barrier in place: the divide between ‘man’ and ‘woman’.

It’s a vexed point that often leads to the demonization and vilification of ‘men’ and the ‘masculine’. Patriarchy is not the rule of men over women, it’s the rule of the binary – the insistence that there really are sides, and that each is a pre-existing category unto itself, fixed and hallowed, one superior to another. In fact, western thought is replete with fundamental dualisms it takes for granted: men/women, white/black, self/other, god/man, divine/mortal, human/nonhuman, agent/resource, user/technology, choice/determinism, man/nature, living/non-living. Why these pairings are so problematic is that they are used to justify hegemonic, racist and sexist relations and the exploitation of the ‘other’. The dualization leaves out how inexplicably entangled ‘women’ and ‘men’ are. To notice this, one needs diffractive ‘lenses’ – a way of ‘seeing’ that brings us to the intersection points, where things cross-out, cross-into, spill through, and de/construct (the hyphen in the midst of the word helps us see the simultaneity of what is happening, without privileging sides) boundaries.


A foremost feminist thinker and theoretical physicist, a woman with whom I have had some very consequential conversations – Karen Barad – is responsible for coining the neologism ‘intra-activity’ to show how the world is not a collection of things, but entangled processes that are always in a state of becoming. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around, but what Barad posits – drawing from her studious engagements with the radical insights of one of the most prominent physicists in modern times, Niels Bohr – is that the nature and identity of a ‘thing’ isn’t fixed or pre-relational. As such, the common sense view that ‘things’ interact with ‘things’ to form relationships (things precede the relationships they form) is upturned by the observation that relationships create things. That is, it is in the context of relationships that things find definition, and not the other way round.

Hundreds of experiments have been replicated to demonstrate how light is either a wave or a particle (two seemingly incongruous states) depending on the apparatus that co-produces the phenomenon. But lest you think that this quantum weirdness Barad points out is limited to infinitesimally small ‘things’, it might be instructive to learn that the ‘big’, macro world is not in any way exempt: we have fashioned instruments to study very ‘small things’ and do not yet have sophisticated means to notice how so-called big things demonstrate this porosity as well. The implications are however radical for the debate on gender relations: women aren’t born, women are made.

It was a point Simone de Beauvoir was famous for – and one that is increasingly influential in challenging the essentialist ways we’ve come to think about gender and the imperative of gender equality. Of course, to say ‘women aren’t born, but made’ is to say ‘men aren’t born, but made’. ‘Men’ and ‘women’ are entangled; the masculine is irretrievably mangled with the feminine. The world is a material performance, a congealment of practices that co-produce the world. The cut between these ‘performances’ are not absolute, but emergent.

It comes down to how we think about nature – whether it is the nature of women, the nature of men, or the nature of nature. The history of the world is the history of attempts to stabilize nature, to pin it down, to put it in the family way. Once ‘black’ people were ‘naturalized’ as ‘genetically inferior’ or ‘less intelligent’ by virtue of the sizes of their skulls, it was easy (and even commendable) to justify the institution of slavery. Even the great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, reportedly said, “I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” A stabilizing practice of ‘nature’ is always mobilized in order to perpetuate exploitation and domination.

A religio-scientific sexism of sorts has also been used to justify why ‘women’ (notice how even the term presupposes a homogeneous, monolithic group) are inferior to men. From the story of Eve being taken from Adam’s side (a seemingly obvious figuration of her subservience), to the Darwinian idea that men were exposed to more selective pressures and thus more superior in cognitive and physical capacity, gender oppression has found different performances of ‘nature’ to justify its existence.

Keeping Barad’s insights in mind, we come to a very radical edge of things: we realize that nature is not fixed. It is an ongoing trope, a constant becoming. Nature is its own deconstruction. Nature is not ‘natural’ (as duck-billed platypuses and monkeys humping chickens remind us!). Thus, it is impossible to gain its endorsement. In this sense, nothing short of challenging the ‘nature’ of women or the nature of ‘men’ will be adequate to the task that gender equality pretends to accomplish. Even the attainment of a painful truce between the sides, in this un/televised war of the sexes, is not potent enough to meet the injustice of their dualization in the first place.

The history of ‘gender’ is more convoluted, more monstrous and chimeric than the neat and intact binary of man/woman allows us appreciate. From bearded women to pregnant men (yes, that is not a typo!), from the hermaphroditic Hijras of India to asexual critters like marmorkrebs, the world is rich and teeming with spontaneous, amazing bodily presences. It’s more of a rainbow coalition of weird others, than a two-party state. There are many ways to be ‘man’ that defy the stereotypic portrayal of physical strength and emotional ineptitude – just as what it means to be ‘woman’ cannot be ‘coded’ or reduced to the colour pink, tears and being prolific in the kitchen. There is a simultaneity – an entanglement involved – that calls for a dismantling of the conceptual frames that keep women and men as already-intact species.

Equality falls short…

A while ago, I watched a powerful Indian public announcement that highlighted the ways we continue to co-produce gender as a modern institution. It began with a baby boy crying, and progressively moved through the boy’s life – showing scenes where the boy had broken into tears, only to be told by his parents that “boys don’t cry!” A generation later, and at the conclusion of the ad, we see a man struggling to control his tears, his face stern and broken, his eyes red and defeated, as he manhandles his female partner. The message was potent: gender inequality is not created by men. Men and women are both victims of a gender cut that excludes our fantastic emotive and physiological expansiveness from mattering. The violence of seeking equality is the equivalent of carving out a racetrack in the middle of a garden – insisting that the only way to be in the garden is to cross the finish line.

Is this an apologetic for men? Is this a denial of numberless years of male domination, or yet another liberal attempt to downplay the role of women? I would argue that what I write about is a deepening of the kinds of shifts that need to happen if we are to really address ‘inequality’. The object of this essay is not to invite us to go back to some hallowed period or golden age when men and women slept side by side, like lions and lambs. The object is to invite us to notice our porosity, to invite us to contest the holding frameworks that sustain the ethics of equivalence to the exclusion of other spaces of power.

The domination war addresses nothing, neither does its palliative: equality. To say that women are equal to men or that men are equal to women is to perpetuate the same naturalizing effects that allow exploitation to thrive sooner or later. Equality falls short where entanglement stands tall. It is not so much a glass-ceiling that should worry us as it is a glass-wall between.

We desperately need a new vision of gender – new practices of porosity. Hopefully the future will be queerer than we can think, and filled with gender-bending communities that diversify the supposed gender binary equation – allowing us to touch ourselves in ways that being man or woman doesn’t allow us now.

We are all in this together – more than we thought possible.




[1] The Self-Defeating Argument for Hillary Clinton, by Annaleigh Curtis (February 15, 2016).http://hlrecord.org/2016/02/the-self-defeating-argument-for-hillary-clinton/

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