How women support patriarchy

Well, that’s a big title, but all I want to do is record a passage from Eve Ensler‘s thought-provoking book, Insecure at Last: Losing It in our Security Obsessed World. It relates to my “Feminism by any other name” post.

She talks about her time in Kosova (I don’t know why she calls it Kosova, I’ve always heard it as Kosovo, but she’s the one writing books about it, not I). She has been interviewing women to learn their stories and to give them the space to begin to heal. She is returning to a bombed-out home with supplies to help a small family of women which has been hoping against hope that its menfolk will return. And lo and behold:

Her son Agim was a big man, strong, muscular, dark-haired, in his forties. He seemed paralyzed—unable to move or talk. Maybe it was our arriving at that moment and being witnesses, maybe it was his hearing I was from the United States, but for some reason he looked at me, threw his arms around my neck, and started weeping. No, it was more like wailing. I have never heard a sound like that. He would not let go. The wailing grew louder. I sat down in order to hold him better, and he buried himself in my arms. Then this weeping wailing began to build and release. It could not be controlled or stopped. It resounded through the neighborhood. People from the village began to gather around.

I held onto Agim, but inside, honestly, I wanted him to stop. All these years I had told myself I wanted men to be vulnerable, to have their feelings, to cry. All of a sudden it felt like a lie. I did not want this man to be so destroyed, so out of control. I wanted him to have answers and be tough and know the way and make everything work out. I understood how part of me was afraid of men being lost, how I needed them to be tough and sure. I understood how many years I had carried their invisible pain so I wouldn’t have to see them weak or ashamed. This weeping liquid man in my arms was my undoing, pulling me out to sea in the wild waves of his crying.

The wailing went on. His body shook and thrashed about. It was as if I were holding the secret story of men in my lap. Centuries of male sorrow and loss, centuries of unexpressed worry and doubt, centuries of pain. I suddenly understood violence and war. I understood retaliation and revenge. I understood how deep the agony is and how its suppression has made men into other things. I understood that these tears falling down Agim’s face would have become bullets in any other case, hardened drops of grief and rage directed toward a needed enemy. I saw how, in fighting to live up to the tyranny of masculinity, men become driven to do anything to prove they are neither tender, nor weak, nor insecure. They are forced to cage and kill the feminine within their own beings and consequently in the world.

I remember once in the long ago, when I was walking down to the post office with my once-upon-a-time fiancée, I was criticizing this and that about him. Nattering on and on, digging and digging. With this perfectly wide open, vulnerable, beautiful face, he turned to me and asked, “Why do I always have to be the strong one?” I was speechless. As so often happened with him, he raised a mirror to my faults and gently allowed me to recognize and correct them.

In my case, I was actually trying to protect him, in a twisted way. I don’t remember what we were talking about before that, but it was clear to me on a subconscious level that his comments expressed his vulnerability on the issue. On cue, I responded like I had since I was a child: Attack the vulnerability and eliminate it before higher powers notice it. My siblings and I used to do this to each other—cut each other down before our parents could notice our weaknesses and do greater damage. It was our way of looking out for each other.

I have never forgotten what he said to me that day, or how he said it, since it threw into such stark relief how I viewed his role as a man (and how different his self-conception was). I was plenty strong for the two of us; I didn’t need him to carry me. He had a different strength, a gentler strength, deep and passionate but not tinged with violence and sheer pig-headedness as mine is. And I had not made room for it. As much as I decried patriarchy, I was demanding that he take on a patriarchal role—one that hurt us both. It is a mistake I hope never to repeat.


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