[R-G] Patriarchy makes men crazy and stupid

Anthony Fenton fentona at shaw.ca
Wed Jul 9 11:54:33 MDT 2008

Patriarchy makes men crazy and stupid
Islamabad, Pakistan
Robert Jensen

Some lessons learned while spending time in a different culture come  
from paying attention to the wide diversity in how we humans arrange  
ourselves socially. Equally crucial lessons come from seeing patterns  
in how people behave similarly in similar situations, even in very  
different cultural contexts.

This week in Pakistan, as I have been learning more about a very  
different culture than my own, I was reminded of one of those  
patterns: Patriarchy makes men crazy.

The setting for this lesson is the International Islamic University in  
Islamabad, where I am teaching a three-week course on media law and  
ethics as a visiting fellow of the university’s Iqbal International  
Institute for Research and Dialogue. Institute Director Mumtaz Ahmad  
brought in me and my Canadian colleague Justin Podur, who is teaching  
a course on critical thinking, to bring new perspectives to the  
students at what is a fairly orthodox university, and the dialogue has  
indeed been rewarding.

As is the case in my courses at the University of Texas at Austin, no  
matter what the specific subject of the course -- freedom of  
expression, democracy, and mass media, in this case -- I often raise  
questions about how our identities -- race, gender, class, nation --  
structure our position in a society and understanding of the world.  
Given the gender segregation at IIU -- I have male and female students  
in my class, but they are housed on different campuses and much of the  
regular instruction is in single-sex settings -- it’s difficult not to  
circle back frequently to gender.

One day while I was talking about race, I pointed out that while white  
people in a white-supremacist have distinct advantages, there is one  
downside: It makes white people crazy. The students’ expressions  
suggested they weren’t sure how to take that, so I explained: White  
supremacy leads white people to believe they are superior based on  
their skin color. That idea is … crazy. Therefore, lots of white  
people -- those who explicitly support white supremacy or  
unconsciously accept such a notion -- are crazy.

My students are mostly Pakistani, with a few from other Islamic  
countries in Asia and Africa; all are brown or black. They tried to be  
polite but couldn’t help laughing at the obvious truth in the  
statement, as well as the odd fact that a white guy was saying it.

I then moved to an obvious comparison: We men know about this problem,  
I said, because of the same problem in patriarchy. In male-supremacist  
societies, men have distinct advantages, but we often believe that we  
are superior based on our sex. That idea is ….

This time the women laughed, but the men were silent. They weren’t so  
sure they agreed with the analysis in this case.

The next week a power outage at the university helped me drive home my  

When we arrived that morning and found our classroom dark, we looked  
for a space with natural light that could accommodate the entire  
class. The most easily accessible place was the carpeted prayer area  
off the building lobby, and one of the female faculty members helping  
me with the class led us there. I sat down with the women, and one of  
the most inquisitive students raised a critical question about one of  
my assertions from our previous class. We launched into a lively  
discussion for several minutes, until we were informed that the male  
students had a problem with the class meeting there. I looked around  
and, sure enough, the men had yet to join us. They were standing off  
to the side, refusing to come into the prayer space, which they  
thought should not be used for a classroom with men and women.

Our host Junaid Ahmad, who puts his considerable organizing skills to  
good use in the United States and Pakistan, was starting to sort out  
the issue when the power came back on, and we all headed back to our  
regular classroom. I put my scheduled lecture on hold to allow for  
discussion about what had just happened. Could a prayer space be used  
for other purposes, such as a class? If so, given such that space is  
used exclusively by men here, is it appropriate to use it for a  
coeducational classroom?

It’s hardly surprising that students held a variety of opinions about  
how to resolve those questions consistent with their interpretation of  
Islamic principles, and a gendered pattern emerged immediately. The  
women overwhelmingly asserted that there was nothing wrong with us all  
being in the prayer space, and the men overwhelmingly rejected that  
conclusion. I made it clear that as an outsider I wasn’t going to  
weigh in on the theological question, but that I wanted to use our  
experience to examine how a society could create a system of freedom  
of expression to explore such issues democratically.

The lesson for me came in how the discussion went forward. The women  
were not shy in expressing themselves, eager to engage in debate with  
the men, who were considerably more reserved. After a contentious half  
hour of discussion, we moved forward to my lecture. During the break,  
the men huddled to discuss the question of the prayer space. When we  
reconvened, one of them asked if a representative of the men could  
speak again on issue. He began by saying that he had hesitated to  
speak in the previous discussion because he felt it was obvious that  
the women were wrong and he had not wanted to hurt their feelings or  
impede their willingness to speak up by pointing out their error  

I suggested we resolve that question first. I turned to the women and  
asked, “Will your feelings be hurt or will you be you afraid to speak  
if he is critical of your arguments?” Their response was a resounding  

I turned back to the man and made the obvious point: We now have clear  
evidence that that your assumption was wrong. The women are telling  
you directly that they are not shy about debating, and so you can make  
your points. When he did -- and when the women disagreed -- they let  
him know without hesitation. From what I could tell, his argument did  
not persuade many, if any, of the women that their judgments had been  

What struck me about the exchange was how ill-prepared the men were to  
defend their position in the face of a challenge from the women. It  
was clear that the men were not used to facing such challenges, and as  
they scrambled to formulate rebuttals they did little more than  
restate claims with which they were comfortable and familiar. That  
strategy (or lack of a strategy) is hardly unique to Pakistani men.

To modify my previous statement about the negative effects of  
privilege on the privileged: Patriarchy makes us men not just crazy  
but stupid. The more our intellectual activity takes place in male- 
dominant spaces, and the more intensely male-dominant those spaces  
are, the less likely we are to develop our ability to think critically  
about gender and power. Sometimes when faced with an incisive  
challenge, men become aggressive, even violent; sometimes men retreat  
with an illusory sense of victory; sometimes men sulk until women give  
up the debate. Individual men will react differently in different  
times and places; it’s the patterns that are important.

Cultural diversity exists alongside universal patterns. The United  
States and Pakistan are very different societies, but they are both  
patriarchal. Patriarchy takes different forms in each society, and the  
harms to women can be quite different, but my observation holds in  
both. It doesn’t mean patriarchy doesn’t sometimes also constrain  
women’s thinking, nor does it mean women are always right in debates  
with men. To identify patterns is not to make ridiculous totalizing  

There’s one more valuable lesson I took away from this episode: I have  
to be vigilant in challenging my stereotypes about women in Islamic  
societies. I can be quick to assume that Islamic women always  
capitulate to the patriarchal ideas and norms that dominate their  
societies. While I can’t know what each woman in the room was  
thinking, there was a consensus that they would not accept the  
conclusion of the men without challenge. In front of me were women  
with their heads covered (the hijab) and some with the full face veil  
(the niqab). Others had scarves draped around their shoulders, their  
heads uncovered. One of the two most forceful women in the debate wore  
the hijab and the other was uncovered; I couldn’t predict the content  
or tone of a woman’s response from her dress. No matter how much I  
know that intellectually, I still catch myself making assumptions  
about these women based on their choice of head covering. The class  
discussion reminds me to remember to challenge my own assumptions.

These conclusions are hardly original or revolutionary, but they bear  
regular restatement:

It is crucial that we remember the reality of cultural diversity and  
encourage respect of that diversity, while not shying away from  
critical engagement. That’s especially important for those of us from  
privileged classes in affluent imperial nations, who often are quick  
to assume we are superior.

It’s just as crucial to look for patterns across cultures, to help us  
understand how systems of power shape us in ways that are remarkably  
consistent and to help us develop better strategies to resist  
illegitimate authority and transform our diverse societies. That is  
important for us all who care about justice.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at  
Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center http://thirdcoastactivist.org 
. His latest book is Getting Off: Pornography and the End of  
Masculinity (South End Press, 2007). http://www.southendpress.or/2007/items/87767&Jensen 
  is also the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and  
White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our  
Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and Writing Dissent: Taking  
Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang). He can  
be reached at: rjensen at uts.cc.utexas.edu

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