Radical? Really? (On Sexism in So-Called “Alternative” Communities)

“A lot of work to be done.” A few years ago I attended a talk that was supposed to be about the “third world feminisms” that were emerging in the townships in post-apartheid South Africa. When the presenter walked in, I was surprised to see that he was in fact a he – and that he was in fact a white guy from the USA. As the man spoke, he referred to the African National Congress as being made up of “petit bourgeoisie,” and I got a pretty good sense of his political orientation. But I think that it is very useful and often thought-provoking to hear what people on the far left have to say – and I wanted to hear what he had to say about feminism.

Unfortunately he did not say much about either women or women’s rights. Toward the end of his talk, he was finally asked about the role of feminism in the communities he was discussing. This question seemed to catch him up a little bit. He grappled for an answer, and finally said:

“Well, it has a long way to go. For example, we were all shocked to discover that one of the community organizers in the township where I was staying was beating his wife. It was really, really shocking. And we didn’t know how to respond. So there is a lot of work to be done.”

No longer shocked. Just disappointed. Perhaps it is because I have been working on issues of men’s violence for so long that I am no longer ever shocked when I hear that a certain man – regardless of his professed ideologies – is beating his partner. Battering leaves no segment of society untouched – not even these “progressive” groups.

But just because I am not shocked does not mean that I am not terribly disappointed whenever I hear about any man beating his partner. And my disappointment is especially acute when I hear about violence against women within these more “progressive” communities. After all, one would think that if any group of men would understand the horrors that are associated with the abuse of power, it would be these guys, right? One would assume that men who are involved in working to end the exploitation of the workers, of the poor, and/or of the earth would "get it" around issues of violence against women.

Unfortunately, one would be wrong.

The meal was organic, locally-grown, fair trade, vegan... and sexist. I was once asked to help conduct a training about sexual harassment for the employees and volunteers of a cooperatively-owned, organic grocery store. The organization had been experiencing sexual harassment from male customers toward female staff, and from male staff toward female staff. The organization’s response to this problem had been no response at all. But in countries where we are fortunate enough to be covered by sexual harassment laws, businesses are required to have a response. This training was to be one part of the organization’s response.

It failed.

The men involved in this organization were some of the most difficult men to reach that I have ever encountered. They were well-versed (terribly well-versed) in theories of oppression. But to them, oppression was all about “the system.” They had an acute sense of their own persecution by the capitalist bosses, by big agriculture, and by globalization, but they had no sense that they themselves were also capable of engaging in oppressive practices and behaviours. And they were in total denial about the fact that their failure to respond to the harassment within their own organization meant that they were in fact allowing the abuse of women to continue unabated right in front of their eyes.

Getting nowhere, we decided to break for lunch. The men all took a nice, relaxing break while the women from the cooperative jumped up and began to prepare the all-organic, locally-grown, fair trade, vegan meal. Not one man lifted a finger to help prepare the food.

(I believe that in this situation a sexual harassment complaint was ultimately filed with the Federal Government.)

Fighting “the man” – but not stopping violence against women. Unfortunately, sexism and overt violence against women can occur even within the most “alternative” of groups. In that same city that was home to the food coop there was an anarchist-identified man who had reportedly raped a number of women in the anarchist community. Because of the typical anarchist disdain for state authority, however, there was no plan to go to the police with this information. Instead, the group’s plan was “to hold the man accountable within our own community.”

There were more than a few problems with this strategy, including determining just what “holding someone accountable” really means, and the lack of power within that community to actually provide any sort of containment or consequence for this individual. There was also nothing that could be put in place to stop this man from simply moving on to other anarchist communities in other parts of the world and abusing the women there.

Ultimately dissatisfied with their own community’s response, some of the local women decided to put up posters in the man’s neighbourhood that named him and exposed him as a rapist.

(The issue of rape within anarchist communities continues to be a very fiery topic on the internet. For some thoughts on dealing with the continuing sexism within the anarchist movement, see: http://libcom.org/library/listen-anarchist-sexism-movement)

If it’s not feminist-informed, it’s not truly alternative. It was not my intention in writing this piece to undermine the progressive efforts of these “alternative” groups. Although I may not necessarily agree with some of their beliefs or some of their actions, to me there is something inspiring about people who envision a kinder, more just, and more sustainable world and then work through peaceful means to try to achieve it.

It was also not my intention when I began writing this piece to conclude that these “alternative” groups are no better in responding to sexism than mainstream groups are. But when they fail to respond to domestic violence, to sexual harassment, and to rape, then that is the only conclusion that I can reach. And it seems very clear to me that change efforts that do not also try to end patriarchal violence against women can hardly be considered revolutionary. Or radical. Or even “alternative.”

In the end, however, I do find myself fully agreeing with at least one thing that was said by the U.S. leftist who spoke about South Africa: “There is a lot of work to be done.”