Over the past few years there has been an interesting trend in news headlines: reports of people in power showing a small sliver of emotion. What’s unique about these headlines is that the showing of emotion is the entire headline. It IS the news. 

John Boehner Cries. Again. A Lot.
ABC News

Hillary Clinton Tears Up in Benghazi Testimony
Bloomberg

President Obama weeps over Connecticut school massacre
CNN

Commander in handker-chief: teary Obama thanks his campaign staff 
The Sun

Dustin Hoffman fights tears, gets emotional remembering “Tootsie”
CBS News

The sentiments here are that anyone in these circumstances shouldn’t be showing these emotions. It seems an inhuman expectation–anyone would be affected emotionally in uncountable ways if faced with similar situations. But sentiments like these can be made with little criticism because they are connected with larger systems of patriarchy and power. Here’s how. 

Teaching patriarchy

In the US, we’re taught patriarchy at an early age, even if not intentionally. Part of our early learning teaches us that people who deal with their lives by themselves, push through adversity, and don’t complain are strong, and therefore masculine. These qualities are put in binary opposition to femininity, which we’re taught are bad qualities held by people who are weak.

The resulting gender stereotypes leave little room to be anything else and there is no spectrum in between. The message we get is to be powerful by conforming to patriarchy, or be dominated. 

On power

These gender stereotypes teach us that people with power act in specific, masculine ways. When people of non-male genders gain power, they’re held to the an extreme of the same expectations of behavior as their male counterparts, and with much more scrutiny. By conforming, they’re seen as credible to hold such power, and at the same time they’re judged as inhuman for not conforming to the stereotypes. When this type of news is about them, it’s often a mix of ‘see, they’re still human’ and ‘they’re too weak to lead.’

Don’t show those emotion

As a big part of learning patriarchy, we’re taught that there are two genders that are limited in the emotions that are acceptable for each to show. In some communities it’s deemed appropriate for men to only show anger, lust and excitement. While for women, it’s only safe to show fear, anxiety and affection. Anything outside of these rigid boundaries become signs weakness, brings to question our gender and, by extension, our sexual orientation. The weak man is called ‘pussy,’ ‘gay’ and ‘faggot.’ The strong woman is called ‘bossy,’ ‘bitch’ and ‘dyke.’ Trans and gender non-conforming people are targeted from both sides of it. 

There’s a huge range of emotions that we’re capable of expressing as human beings, at varying intensities. All genders are expected to keep our feelings locked up to a certain degree, and men in particular are only allowed the smallest of possibilities in expressing our feelings. 

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We are rarely encouraged healthier emotional habits, particularly among boys, to ask for help, know our limits, care for ourselves and to show our hardships in healthy ways. As human beings, showing the full range of our emotions in healthy ways is vital. It connects us with others in deep, meaningful ways, heals us from the ways we’ve been hurt in our lives, and allows us to think more clearly. Being robbed of the ability to truly show ourselves is harmful to our very being.

We’re taught to fear loss of respect if we dare to show our true feelings. This could mean lots of things from losing important relationships to being seen as weak and losing power. We’re taught to fear being made victims of violence, and for some the consequences of showing emotions can be life-threatening, like in communities where gang violence and police brutality are present. Essentially, we’re systematically threatened to not be our full, human selves. If these systems can be used to control us at the very core of our being, there’s no limit to the level of domination we’ll be targeted with. 

On the headlines

The headlines above are part of a system of oppression that is used to control and dominate us. As the range of emotions we’re allowed to express gets smaller and smaller, so does our ability to heal, reclaim our selves, make sense of our world and fight against injustice. 

I’m discouraged by these type of headlines, which act to limit the ways and the extents we are allowed to express ourselves. I am hopeful, however, that we’re living in a time when the President of the U.S. along with others in the most powerful country and military in the world have the courage to show a little bit of their vulnerability. To show that it’s okay for a person in power to emotionally feel, even if just a tiny bit, the devastation that’s happening in our world. There’s power in these moments, in them making the range of emotion we’re are allowed to express a little bit bigger. 

1377579_10201302768305522_1507004579_nThe following letter to Marissa Alexander is my show of support in the #31forMARISSA campaign, a national month-long letter writing campaign by men in support of the freedom of Marissa Alexander.

“Alexander is the Florida mother who was sentenced to 20 years for aggravated assault after firing a warning shot in the air as her abusive husband — against whom she had an injunction — threatened her.”
alternet.org


Dear Marissa,

I’m writing to let you know that I’m on your side. I don’t think you’ve done anything wrong. Nothing that happened to you was your fault. I believe you.

It must have taken a lot of strength and courage to stand up for yourself. I’m grateful that you decided your safety was that important, that you are absolutely worth fighting for. In that light, I’m heartbroken, angry and scared by how our system has mistreated you.

When I read about what happened to you, I’m filled with terror. I feel paralyzed. I recognize that it’s the same terror I felt when I witnessed violence as a child, which kept me frozen, stifled and silent. I’ve struggled in my adult life to not carry that terror with me all the time.

I’m a second child of Indian, Hindu immigrants who lived in a mostly-white suburb. My sister was raped by my uncle for 3 years, from before I was born until I was 1 year old. When I was 19 my sister confided in me what happened to her. She told me “you were there.” I don’t know any details beyond that and I don’t remember anything. I’m not sure knowing the details matter, because I’ve seen how sexual violence has devastated her life.

I saw my mom and my sister fight a lot when I was young. They called each other terrible things while filled with rage: bitch, whore, slut, you hate me, I never should have moved here, you’re killing me. They screamed, yelled, threw things, slapped each other and hit themselves. It was frightening to witness the two most important women in my life show so much hatred towards each other. I used to cry myself to sleep while they screamed right outside of my bedroom. I was always alone. Frozen and silent with my fear and my pain.

I try hard to recall where my dad was during all this. I have memories from when I was very young of him standing between my mom and my sister trying to get them to stop, but not taking a stand on either side. At some point, he disappears from those memories, and all I can recall is him sleeping on the couch in the hot summers. I think he got overwhelmed not knowing how to stop the violence, and never had a space to show his own struggles.

As I grew, I pushed my feelings further and further down. I started mediating between my mom and sister. They fought less and less. I started making friends and feeling welcomed at school. But I never dared to show anyone all the pain, fear and anger I carry with me. I compensated and learned to act joyful and positive, like everything was okay. But whenever I became witness to violence, all those old feelings would resurface, and I would again be paralyzed and voiceless.

I don’t want to be frozen silent when I witness violence. That’s not how I want to live.

In spite of my own struggles, I’m writing to let you know that I stand with you. I might not be able to show it fully, and it might be hard for you to tell sometimes. But I stand with you with all the strength I continue to muster, as I work on letting go of my fear and my pain. I stand with you, Marissa, hand-in-hand with other men in my life who haven’t found their voices yet, either.

In loving solidarity,
Feminist Bhai

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Credit: ModernGirlBlitz

I’ve been thinking about the perspectives I heard at a Male Accountabilty Forum I attended a few weeks ago and have been wondering what accountability for males in sexism means and how it should be practiced. In her book Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks writes not directly about accountability, but about love:

“When we accept that true love is rooted in recognition and acceptance, that love combines acknowledgment, care, responsibility, commitment, and knowledge, we understand there can be no love without justice.”

I like the idea of male accountability as an act of love. It’s a good reminder that one of the main reasons I fight against sexism and male domination is because I love women and men who have been hurt in real, concrete ways by sexist oppression. Of course, then, I would want to acknowledge, care about and take responsibility for my privilege and the ways my actions affect others, particularly those who don’t have the same advantages societies have given me. As an act of love, committing to end sexism and male domination is easily something I would want to address in every part of my life.

Taking hooks’ definition of love as a que, here are some things we can do to practice male accountability from a place of love:

  • Think of acknowledgement as a complex understanding of our actions that includes a lens of oppression and dynamics of power.
  • Listen openly to other people’s perspectives as a foundation of acknowledging our actions.
  • Care about others and the ways our actions affect others.
  • Take responsibility for our actions and the direct impact they have on others in our lives.
  • Commit ourselves to ending the ways sexist oppression has directed our behaviors and thinking of others.
  • Fight against oppression wherever we find it in our lives, relationships, communities and societies.

When news about Steubenville first started appearing on my Facebook feed, I was paralyzed and horrified. Likewise when news about the gang rape on a Delhi bus started coming out. How could men be capable of such vile acts? As a man, what does this say about me?

I wasn’t able to read the articles and analysis that my friends were posting. I never watched the Steubenville video. I never read about details of what happened on that bus. I couldn’t bring myself to bare witness to rape, however remotely. Just the thought of it creates a swell in my chest, a lump in my through. Paralyzed and horrified.

After the guilty verdict came out against the two boys in Steubenville, I wasn’t particularly relieved. I hoped the survivor finds some sense of closure as the judicial process ends and the national spotlight on her community fades. But how does a guilty verdict provide her space and resources to heal? How will prison help the boys heal from the hurts that caused them to rape an unconscious girl in the first place? How will their community heal?

I’ve been working on finding my voice in situations like this that are difficult to stomach, and this blog as a part of that. Over time, as I work through what gets hard for me to be a more fierce ally, I’ll find myself still just as horrified, but hopefully less and less paralyzed.

I fight against sexism because I want to be my complete self without conforming to rigid definitions of gender and masculinity. I fight against sexism because I want to be close friends with people all along the gender spectrum. I fight against sexism because I want to engage with other people’s minds instead of getting confused about our bodies. I fight against sexism because I want a clear picture of what it means to connect with my partner through sex. I fight against sexism because I don’t want to be confused about any of these things anymore.

As a cisgender male, I’ve got a lot of reasons to fight against sexism and male domination. Below are a few of the main reasons why I decide to fight.

I fear violence if I don’t conform with rigidly defined genders.

Since we’re children we learn gender stereotypes and the specific ways they say we should act. We also see that when we don’t conform we find ourselves victims of violence, which enforces a hierarchy of power based on gender.

Societies of our world have systematically set up women and trans folks to be victims of violence for hundred of years. There is a long legacy of people being beaten, raped and killed for not conforming to gender stereotypes–Stonewall, Matthew Shepard, “corrective” rape. People have been treated horrifically through the enforcement of gendered power structures–the gang rape on a Delhi bus, rape as a weapon of war, selective abortion. The list goes on but the message is clear: conform to gender, submit to the intersecting hierarchies of power, or else.

Stereotypes are also harmful to people who do conform because they limit our lives. We fear harsh punishment if we don’t conform. We don’t expect to be treated as fully human and we are rarely allowed to be our complete, honest selves.

I don’t want limits on who I can be close friends with.

The way we enforce gender stereotypes discourages us from developing close friendships with people outside of particular definitions of gender. Stereotypes isolate us from each other and make it hard to take the first steps to really get to know one another.

Throughout our lives we get messages saying it isn’t okay to be close friends with particular “kinds” of people. During my young life when I wanted to be friends with a girl or a gender non-conforming boy, adults had excited or cautious curiosities that made me feel uncomfortable. Walls started going up between me and my peers based on gender, and also class, sexual orientation, race, religion, and other general sweeps of people.

As adults we still struggle with relationships. Some of us hold back from developing friendships for fears that people will think we’re cheating on our partners. We find it hard to support our partners in their friendships with people of the gender they’re attracted to for fear of being seen as a jealous partner.

I don’t want a society that prioritize the way bodies look over the way minds think.

The media presents us with images of men and women that are primarily centered on our bodies. People’s bodies, particularly women’s, are seen as objects, commodities to be consumed, disconnected from a human mind that’s brilliant, intelligent, loving, creative, and thoughtful.

When we first came to the world, we were really excited when we engaged with other’s minds–learned or created things together, figured something out. At some point, we started attributing people’s worth to the way their bodies looked before we took the chance to engage with their minds. Messages in the media and social pressures encouraged this behavior and made it difficult to live against it.

I don’t want to be confused about sex.

In the media, sex is presented in ways that feeds into our insecurities. We’re given tidbits of information to form a picture of what “normal” sex is instead of being allowed to decide for ourselves through healthy relationships and interactions with our partners.

I rarely talked about sex growing up.  When I did it was limited by my fears of being honest and vulnerable, and was riddled with judgement and assumptions. I never talked to my father about sex, not even as an adult. I luckily had a thoughtful adult in my life who had the attention to let me be honest about the things I was confused about in my preteens–during a time when I heard about all sorts of things in locker rooms and hallways. I would guess that few men have had a thoughtful adult around to help us learn and talk about sex at an early age, but those of us who did found it indispensable.

This is why I fight.

The ways in which we perpetuate sexism and male domination systematically divide us, and it’s been harsh. Men are treated with violence and isolation in order to act out power to keep the system going. Women are treated with violence and are made to feel unimportant, less valued and worthless in order to discourage and prevent them from taking positions of power. Queer, trans and other folks in the gender spectrum are made invisible and not treated as fully human. And we are all kept from being full, open and completely ourselves with each other.

Why do you fight sexism and male domination?

Today is the last day of Navratri, an important holiday in my family. Last year I summarized the holiday and wrote about Navratri as a celebration of collective decision for action. This year, I’ve been thinking about the holiday from a different perspective, and some complicated questions have arisen for me.

In the story of Navratri as my family tells it, all the Gods got banished from heaven, and combined their powers to create the Mother Goddess. I asked my mom this year about more details of one particular question: did both Gods and Goddesses combine their powers to manifest a divine being? According to my mom only the Devas (male Gods) combined their powers to create Ambaji.

My first instinct is to retell the story. Both Gods and Goddesses powers should have been equally needed in the fight for change, they should have been standing, working and fighting side by side. What does it mean that a bunch of men got together and created a woman (even though she was more powerful than all of them combined)? My current-day thinking on sexism and male domination confuses me too much to be able to critically analyze this part of the story right now.

But let’s take the story as is for a second. What if the story can be read as a group of men who got together to completely back a woman? That after she was created, she had complete freedom of her own mind to lead an enormous charge to create radical change in the world, and the male Gods backed her without question or hesitation, 100%, all the way to the end? What would it look like today, for us men to completely back every single woman in our lives? To completely trust their thinking, follow their leadership, and not stray behind? This has been a challenge for me, to completely, fully, even in seemingly small ways, back every woman in my life–in my personal life, at work, through my work as an artist, through my activism work. EVERY woman in my life. If I’m completely honest with myself, I tend to pick and choose which women in my life I back, I do it on my own terms, and I feel like a hero. It feels embarrassing to say that, but I trust I’m not the only man who does that, and I’m not alone in feeling bad about it. Right now the idea of completely backing *every* woman in my life feels overwhelming and almost impossible. But if I want to fight for a world without sexism and male domination, if I want end this oppression in every part of my life, in every part of the world that I touch, how could I not try to take this on? How could I not consider the idea of committing to fully support every woman I have any sort of relationship with? Maybe the story of Navratri can remind me that I can’t do this alone: it was a group of Devas that combine their powers to support a woman, not just one. And maybe I could look to the story of Navratri as a model of what completely backing a woman can look like, and what’s possible: everlasting, radical change for everyone on the planet.

Navratri is a Hindu holiday celebrating the Mother Goddess’ triumph over evil. Over the past year, I’ve also been thinking of it as a celebration of the collective action of people to create liberating change in our world.

Navratri is a nine-night holiday my family has celebrated for generations. In their communities back in India, both my mom and dad’s family were Brahmins–a historically established privileged priest caste. My father is from a small farming village in Gujarat. His was the only Brahmin family in the mostly-Hindu village. Families went to his house for pujas, and my dad’s family often led religious celebrations in their community. My mom’s family is from a small town in Gujarat, and her family served a similar role in her community. After immigrating to America, they continued to celebrate Navratri as their parents did, and still do today. It’s the most important holiday of the year in my family.

The mythology around the holiday is a beautiful story of female power, and the collective action of people to create change in their world. In my family’s version of the story, Lord Shiva granted Mahishasura, a devout man, the wish to be more powerful than anyone on Earth and any God in heaven. Over time, Mahishasura became corrupt with his power, and created an army to take control of heaven, and exile the Gods to life on earth. Without any power to take back their land, the Gods put all their best qualities together to manifest a single, powerful, female warrior. She led the Gods to heaven and waged a nine-night war with the Mahishasura and his army. On the ninth night, she destroyed Mahishasura, and the Gods returned home.

My family has mainly celebrated this holiday as reverence to the divine mother. Growing up and celebrating women’s power had an immense influence on my feminist worldview. Celebrating a Goddess, that was much bigger than our world, and fought unfathomable injustice gave me pride in being a fierce ally to my mom, my sister, and all the women-identified people I’m close to. Celebrating the feminine power that lives in all of us is an important part of this holiday for me.

But another aspect of the holiday that I’ve been thinking more and more about over the past few years is the decision of the Gods during a time of turmoil. Being banished from heaven, and individually being powerless to fight, the Gods decide to put their powers together. They decided to put their minds and their bodies together towards one goal to fundamentally change the state of the world they found themselves in.

Particularly over the past few years, we’ve seen many examples of communities coming together to change their worlds. The dynamics of each of these have been very, very different, but they share in common the collective decisions among the people that they wanted change, and they needed to work as a group to achieve it–Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, Tibet, Myanmar, Wisconsin. At this very moment, people are gathered on Wall St. in New York and in financial districts in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Baltimore and across the country. In these movements, people without power to create change alone made decisions to add their power to a group of individuals. To demand and create change as a community of voices, as a collection of minds acting together towards a common goal.

In the story of Navratri, what came after the Gods’ decision to act as a group was Ambaji, the Mother Goddess, divine female energy. In the examples we see in our world today, what comes after the collective decision for action is revolution. Ambaji embodies the collective fight for change in our world. She fought a nine-night war, against a massive army that was set up right from the start to win, and she persevered. Just like we have.

Navratri is a special holiday for me, and I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few years about what it means for me to celebrate it, and what my celebration of it should look like. During these nine nights, I’ve been thinking about how I can add my mind and body to the collective actions that are taking place in my own city. I alone may not have the power to change the world today, but collectively, we have the power to do anything.

This week President Obama announced that the U.S. military killed Osama bin Laden. As a response, people flocked to the White House and Ground Zero partying to the news, chanting “USA! USA!” I’m frightened and confused at the celebration of violence as a resolution to conflict, and I’m particularly hurt by a sentiment underlying this response: that South and West Asians are valueless and disposable.

Violence as a resolution of conflict

I realize this celebration is a response to a tremendous amount of pain that has been felt since 9/11. Bin Laden took responsibility for the unbelievable, horrific events on 9/11, and I am not losing sight of the fact that he should be held accountable. But how does a thoughtful, rational society hold someone accountable for large-scale acts of violence?

Bin Laden’s actions were a result of hurt and anger from racist and imperialist foreign policies that were (and still are) oppressive to his people. Since then, America and other ally countries have been engaged in a “war on terror” to eliminate people we’ve oppressed to such an extent that their anger may manifest into violent actions against us. As a thoughtful, rational person, I do not accept that to end threats to our safety, we must eliminate not the conditions that cause such extreme hurt and anger, but the people our systems oppress.

I do not accept “success” in “ending terror” being defined by who lives and who doesn’t. I do not accept killing being the resolution of difference. I do not accept that economical colonialism and American globalized oppression is not part of the conversations about 9/11 and Bin Laden’s death. Killing Osama bin Laden does not end the oppression that caused his anger. It unfortunately is not even slightly connected. The systems that created his anger are still in place.

Celebration as a response to Bin Laden’s murder shows that we’ll continue to be distracted from real, meaningful solutions to our world’s problems. We’ll continue to be confused about what a better world will look like and how to get there.

South and West Asians are valueless and disposable

No one’s death should be celebrated. Violence is not an acceptable form of resolution to conflict. I don’t care how violent someone has been against us, retaliatory violence is not an acceptable response. America does follow this line of thinking in some spheres of our country’s foreign policy, why does it not apply in cases of “terrorist camps” in South and West Asia? Because South and West Asians are viewed as a dime a dozen. As disposable. As if it doesn’t matter if we’re on this Earth or not.

America’s immediate response to 9/11 was to bomb the heck out of Iraq, letting the world be in “shock and awe” of our great power to mercilessly eliminate a mass of people at the blink of an eye. Mainstream news media here never really gave us a complex understanding of whom it was we were attempting to wipe out. Our government was responding with intense emotions and naming entire countries on an axis of “evil” (which is similar to how Bin Laden viewed America, which we as Americans felt was an unjust generalization). We were operating under the thinking that If you were in one of those countries, no matter who you were, you were of no value, disposable, and it was in our country’s best interest if you no longer existed.

We as Americans were disgusted when a video was released of Palestinians celebrating in the streets after 9/11 (a video later to be found as manufactured and fake). But the idea that a people would celebrate such an act of violence was beyond our comprehension. The idea of those celebrations sent us the message that “they” don’t really care whom it is they’re killing, they just want us blindly eliminated. Our celebration of Bin Laden’s death, though not quite the same, signals that we too approve not only of violence as a resolution to conflict, but more so of our little value for the people of South and West Asia. We approve of flying into a country without their government’s consent and deploying huge amounts of weaponry (the bomb blasts were felt 4 miles away), because America’s sense of safety, however false it may be, is more important than the people of South and West Asian countries.

Personally, I’m disheartened by what’s happened outside of the White House and in New York. I cannot accept that violence, as a means of resolving conflict, is an appropriate option. We must eliminate the oppressive conditions that cause so much anger that people are willing to organize huge missions of attack. We must seek to understand the complexities of globalized, imperialistic racism and xenophobia, and the conditions the rest of the world is in as a direct result of our oppression. Only then will we be able to think about alternatives to violence as a response to violence against us.

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