By Alexandra Killham and Asha Katz, Opinions Contributors
Note: Throughout this article I will use female/male-identified in place of woman/man. It is important to recognize the difference between gender (which society gives us) and binary sex (assigned at birth based on genitalia). Although we are taught that gender is natural and also binary (either masculine or feminine), we should always have the freedom to question that and identify with what is most comfortable.
I would like to talk about something really difficult. It is tough for me to explain, and something I am constantly attempting to work through; please bear with me. With that said, patriarchy is alive and well. Unfortunately.
To ensure we’re all on the same page, the definition of patriarchy that I am using is, firstly, the history of male domination over all types of thought, be it social, political, popular, or historical. It is also that progressive efforts to address social imbalances in power structures are met with a discouraging, exclusive, and systemically discriminatory barricade. Experiencing these obstacles firsthand, particularly in the form of sexism, has, more than ever, heightened my drive to address these issues in social discourse.
Although its presence is too often hidden from view, the evidence is all around us. Its invisibility can be challenged by those willing to look a little deeper. Running for senate in the recent Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) elections was an opportunity to do just this. I was more than aware of the existence of patriarchy and the effects it has on my life, but this experience was shockingly eye-opening. In fact, amongst the celebrations and congratulations on the night that I decided to run, a female-identified friend commended me and offered her support, but also expressed her respectful disbelief that I was truly prepared (or thought I was) to run for this position on council. In all honesty, her response terrified me. Was I committing to something that I didn’t fully understand?
Without a doubt.
We so often hear that, historically, men have occupied most or all positions of power in society. What we don’t often hear is that in reality this is still the case. Even here, DSU councilors and executive are often predominantly male-identified. Perhaps this is simply that female-identified folk aren’t as interested in positions of power. But that is certainly not my experience.
It is always easy to point the finger and say that someone else, some other time, in a different place did it wrong. Not often enough do we turn that accusation back on ourselves and think critically about the popular social norms that we collectively and personally adopt. In fact, many times during the elections I was challenged, humiliated, and humbled for my own use of ignorant language. As a third-generation settler of European descent who self identifies as a woman, I was put in situations that made me recognize my need to make conscious changes and embody the values that I claim to have. It cannot be emphasized enough how difficult it is to unlearn what we are taught is acceptable. What I hope these words will tell is that recognizing there are changes to be made is the first step. While that is a big one, the real challenge is living up to and enacting these ideals.
An uncomfortable, recurring experience throughout the campaigning process was the misguided emphasis placed upon my appearance. It is expected that women-identified folk will always receive compliments willfully. The assumption that my validation will come from physical recognition is false; the assumption that there is a void in my self-worth that must be filled is false; and the assumption that my campaign photo is more important to my campaign than my platform, my political voice, is absolutely false.
However, I was frequently complimented solely on my appearance throughout the election process. In fact, I am still receiving non-consensual messages from a student I met while campaigning who expressed romantic interest. In no way could my actions, simply handing him a flier and a brief discussion of what the elections involve, have been interpreted as an invitation for these types of personally intrusive messages. I have not responded to these messages and don’t plan to do so. It is disappointing that my platform was perceived as an invitation for anything but political discussion.
Despite popular misspelling, mis-gendering, and what the official election results might have expressed, I am not a descendant of the Killams and my name is not Alexander. In fact, the issue of language was a largely problematic part of this process. Like I said, my own exclusive language around gender was brought to the forefront; I had to address my mistaken and offensive assumption that I knew someone’s preferred gender identity.
I was also put in an uncomfortable situation where it was necessary for me to confront a council member regarding their casual use of homophobic slang. Language creates environment. We must address the need to create an environment that does not discourage and exclude, but that is fair and inclusive to oppressed groups and minorities—otherwise these groups will not be accurately represented at a political level.
The discomfort of the election environment came from many places, including multiple incidents that made punchlines out of women-identified folk. A particular post on Punditry.ca (which is a website that I was encouraged to not visit ever, especially during elections where there would be a constantly unnecessary, obnoxious stream of critique directed at the more progressive candidates) put the women-identified candidates in such a position. Added to this was the decision by a candidate to arbitrarily include the ogling of a woman-identified person’s behind in his campaign video. These are only two examples of the unfortunate reality of the political environment and the value that it places on women.
My intention is not to reprimand or victimize anyone, but rather to be part of creating a healthy space where people can recognize their discomfort and openly discuss how uninformed we are around these topics. I am privileged to have been given an opportunity, through the election process, to confront these issues within myself. This struggle is far from over.
I hope these incidents and my experiences will highlight some of the ways in which our everyday, learned behaviours can be problematic and harmful to those we often do not, or choose to not, recognize or appreciate. Finally, the importance of everyone’s support of the fight for an anti-oppressive society is inexpressibly valuable. This is not to be reduced to solely the fight of those that experience oppression. Some of the most progressive, understanding, and supportive people in my life are allies who have recognized their own immense privilege and used these realizations to challenge the system that gave it to them. Fighting oppression is challenging the ways in which we are oppressed, as well as how we are placed in oppressive roles.