Undoing one’s positionality in situations of male privilege (Steffen)

Considering the controversial feedback for our first takes, we have realised that it wasn’t a particularly elegant move to start with the less important question on how we should label ourselves; less important, indeed, in relation to practical matters. Although we both have argued that male feminists (or allies) have to prove themselves worthy in practice, we have started with focusing on the end (gender equality), whilst we might better have begun with the means to that end (practice).

One female commentator to our posts, for example, pointed out that men have a different role in feminism and that our role is to undo our positionality. A first step in unbecoming a person that benefits from patriarchal structures is, of course, becoming aware of one’s own privileges and, secondly, to position oneself differently (that is to act accordingly). I will point out a few incidents from my daily life which illustrate situations of male privilege and gender biases. Some are about my own privileges, some about other men’s privileges; some about my own biases, some about other persons’ biases.

1. I was walking on the pavement with a female friend and colleague, and we had just stopped in front of a traffic light when a woman asked my friend for the way. They had already exchanged a few words when that woman realised that I belong to my friend. From that moment, she only addressed me. It was as if I had made the impression that I was generally more competent, although I am quite sure that – apart from witnessing the scene and looking at them speaking – I hadn’t taken any initiative neither to take over the conversation nor to help out (at least not one that I was consciously aware of). This relatively trivial experience exemplifies broader structures and more serious gender inequalities in favour of men, for example, when men are regarded more competent and being paid higher wages than women for the same job.

Furthermore, it evokes a pattern which was recently described by Jessica Valenti in The Guardian. Women are constantly ignored. Valenti claims and illustrates that men constantly ignore women, and I totally agree. But with regard to my example, I would argue that the sexist structures even go beyond that. Men and – maybe to a lower degree – even women constantly ignore women, and in particular in the presence of men.

Let me add another observation indirectly related to the above, because it is about the outcome of being iteratively ignored. Being seen and heard as a woman, paying attention and listening as a man, both are delicate issues. I have noticed plenty of times that, even if I want to listen, it is significantly more difficult for me to understand some women (writing this feels terribly awkward, but it is my genuine perception). I’m not trying to do anything like a biological argument here, quite the contrary, I know this doesn’t have anything to do with women having a weaker voice or so – they don’t. Rather, it is in many cases a question of (not) daring to speak out loudly. I think that the iterative experience of not being considered (as) important (as men), makes women (but, in principle, disregarded men as well) speak in a lower voice and very quickly so that what they say doesn’t appear intrusive and will be over as soon as possible. Of course, I can think of examples of women which I understand without any problem – women who have acquired rhetorical authority (speaking clearly, loudly and in a comfortable pace) and who are confident that what they matters. Ultimately, this only illustrates the importance of the feminist goal to get women to speak up and men to listen (and that in too many situations we haven’t yet found an acceptable balance).

2. Some weeks ago in a pub I was talking with a female friend who has graduated in gender studies. I don’t remember precisely the story she was telling me, but it involved a lawyer. She had told me a few sentences when I asked a question for clarification about the lawyer and why he was…hold on…he? We both noticed instantly that, while my friend hadn’t attributed any sex to the lawyer, I simply had a male person in mind, although as it turned out it was actually a female lawyer. “I was being sexist, wasn’t I?”, I said half-ashamed and half-glad that I had admitted it without my friend having to give me a hint. The incident then made her remember a computer programme she knew from university which was about disclosing our implicit assumptions and gender biases (must have been something like this).

3. Only a few days later I had a similar experience although my role switched: I was telling a different female friend that I had talked to the presidential candidate of Somalia today. “That’s interesting”, my friend asked “what did he say?”…To be honest, being female, black, and muslim, the current presidential candidate of Somalia doesn’t quite correspond to the stereotypical imaginary of a president. And there are reasons, of course, why we have these biases. They are gendered power inequalities sedimented discursively and materially into our bodies and brains. As these biases and resulting practices are so deeply engrained and often quite subtle, they are difficult to prevent. Nevertheless, it is important to become aware of one’s positionality, if they are to be changed towards more gender equality.

Although I am grateful for having experienced these revealing situations (and I will try to keep up practical awareness), maybe it is not the gender biases of me and my friends which ultimately come to matter seriously. Rather, it is the gender biases, the hostility, and the threats that Amal Abdirahman is likely to experience in her brave political struggle. I doubt there has ever been a female, black, and muslim head of a modern state, and I don’t know what her odds are to actually become one, but I wish her all the best. She had come to the feminist teach-in at the University of Manchester in the course of the International Women’s Day/Week to talk about Women and Politics in Somalia.