Beware of the progressive patriarch

Work in progress: The ‘Not in My Name’ march in Pretoria on May 20. (Wukus de Wet/AFP)

Work in progress: The ‘Not in My Name’ march in Pretoria on May 20. (Wukus de Wet/AFP)

We all know them. We may be some of them. Self-proclaimed “real men”.

Brothers who advocate for social justice campaigns with slogans that read “real men don’t rape”.
They can often be heard saying things like: “Think about how these victims could be our mothers, our wives, our sisters and our daughters” at protests against gender and race-based violence.

The underlying message shared here is a simple one: women and femmes are important, but only in so far as they are seen as maternal, matrimonial, innocent and naive. The bottom line? Humanness is extended to women and femmes only by virtue of their respectable relationships to men.

What of the women who didn’t want to become mothers? Or the women who married their same-sex partners? The women who sell sex for work? Or the women who transitioned to embody themselves?

For women and femmes who cannot be readily imagined into these relationships with men? These selective-justice advocates are known as progressive patriarchs.

Frequently members of the “not all men” bandwagon, they absolve themselves from any complicity in perpetuating patriarchy. All the while, they enjoy the benefits and privileges afforded to men.

Wolves in sheep’s clothing, progressive patriarchs often pay lip service to the importance of equality in relation to gender and sexuality. In fact, they publicly espouse their vehement dislike of misogynists and drop buzzwords like “feminism” and “intersectionality” into their speech.

But their knowledge of issues relating to gender and sexuality leaves much to be desired.

More comfortable when discussing issues of racial prejudice, they are stunningly well versed in the work of thinkers such as Steve Biko, quoting passages of his text like scripture. Yet, to achieve their dreams of a transformed South Africa, progressive patriarchs expect the dreams of other marginalised black people to remain deferred.

For the progressive patriarch, the sole political priority in South Africa is achieving racial equality. This is achieved by prioritising the lives, realities and struggles of black men.

As far as they are concerned, all the black people who are not men have rights that are protected in the Constitution, which can be realised at a later time. Blackness first — feminism, not just yet.

Ironically, in narrowly defining their political goals, progressive patriarchs tighten the shackles of colonialism.

In our colonial past, enslaved black people were hypermasculinised. The black man was thought of as resilient and emotionless, which served to profit slave owners who would then overwork black bodies that they positioned as strong and brutish. Softness was undesirable and unprofitable. Thus, when progressive patriarchs respond to racism by holding up masculinity and heterosexuality, they act in wilful ignorance.

For us to dismantle patriarchy, a system that actively destroys lives, black men need to reimagine masculinity beyond its racist context. To do this, it is vital that they see how violence against black women, queers and femmes in South Africa is systemic. When progressive patriarchs tolerate, but do not move towards the acceptance of those who are different to them, they vilify the very people who offer tools to deconstruct toxic masculinity.

With true critical engagement and recollection, these men would learn that many African cultures did not view masculinity and femininity as binary forces at odds with each other. There are countless examples in our histories where one person could harmoniously embody both of these aspects. Men’s shock upon hearing about matriarchal communities block them from interrogating outdated gender norms.

True transformation can only begin to occur when the men who think themselves progressive begin to acknowledge all the ways in which colonisation and apartheid affected black identities, not only around race but also around gender and sexuality. Through this acknowledgement, and with earnest and sustained work, masculinity can lose some of its toxic fragility. Rejected advances would no longer seem insufferable when manliness is no longer synonymous with sexual prowess. The change could be to go from #NoHomo to #YesHomo.

But to do so, men must be more than “not-patriarchs”. Instead, they need to progressively and continuously work against patriarchy. To let themselves be soft. To introspect and recognise that “real men” are also perpetrators of sexual assault. To turn the conversation around by looking at their brothers at protests against gender and race based violence and saying: “Think about how it is our fathers, brothers and sons who commit this violence. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

Nigel Patel is a queer rights activist and a University of Cape Town graduate. They are currently pursuing a postgraduate degree in law at UCT.

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