On feminism, human rights, and raising sons

I just read a short article in The Independent on Patti Smith’s refusal to give an opinion about the overwhelming sexualisation of women by the music industry in contemporary (global) culture. Apparently for Smith, engaging critically with something amounts to nothing more than passing judgment, but as anyone concerned with literary/cultural criticism well knows, a ‘critical reading’ is far from being the same as ‘a judgment of value’. Moreover, in order to engage critically with something one needs to leave aside judgments. According to Smith she cannot ‘judge how another person does their work’ and that ‘Everyone has a choice’. Her arguments fall well in line with one of neoliberalism central tenets, namely, its intense emphasis on individualism and the question of choice. The idea of depoliticising culture and reducing it to a matter of choice and/or personal expression or realisation is one of the most cleverly performed neoliberal ruses. It has helped the neoliberal project –in its cultural, economic and political aspects– to get and maintain a worldwide hegemonic position, while brushing aside any potential criticism. In this respect, Smith’s standpoint endorses the dominant discourse that takes the political back to the private sphere: if women want to be hyper-sexualised it is their choice and nobody has any rights whatsoever in challenging anybody’s personal choice. Although I staunchly disagree with her views in this respect, I am not going to discuss this issue here. Rather, what I would like to discuss, is her reported comments about feminism and its apparently incompatibility with raising a boy. This is what she reportedly says:

“I have a son and a daughter, people always talk to me about feminism and women’s rights, but I have a son too – I believe in human rights.”

So she is saying that because she has a son it is her responsibility towards that son not to endorse feminism. Further, she seems to think that being a feminist would mean to put one’s daughter’s interests before one’s son’s interest. Although I have no problems with her disengagement with feminism –I do not believe ‘women’ have the intrinsic responsibility of being feminists– I find very problematic her construing of feminism as being opposed to men’s rights. This is a common misconstruction that keeps feeding antifeminist sentiments with dire consequences for both women and men.

A central premise of feminism is the equality of the sexes. This means, firstly, that one believes discrimination on the basis of people’s gender is problematic; and secondly, that one admits that discrimination on the basis of gender is still rampant, and that women are the most affected by this type of discrimination. I do not think one needs to be a feminist to acknowledge that historically women have been cross-culturally subjected to discrimination in a systematic manner for the only reason of being female. I don’t think either that one needs to be a feminist to admit that most of human beings subjected to rape and different forms of sexual abuse are overwhelmingly female. Accepting these two facts does not mean to put girls’ and women’s interests in front of boys’ and men’s. It does not imply either the hindering of human rights. On the contrary, it implies extending human rights to that part of the world population that are excluded from such rights for the solely reason of having been born female. If we really care about justice and human rights, these issues should not only concern women and parents of girls, but also men and parents of boys.

I do too have son, and no daughter, and central to my –and my son’s father with whom I share custody– educational project is to make our son understand his privileged position as a European, white, middle-class male in a world that is highly hierarchised along the axes of gender, race, class and sexuality. If parents of girls might get anxious about their daughters being exposed to the dangers of falling prey to sexual or domestic abuse –global statistics are terrifying in this respect–, parents of boys –like ourselves– get anxious at the possibility that our son ends playing the culprit. A few weeks ago I received a phone call from the mother of a girl that goes to school with my son. She told me my son –along with his new mate– was bullying her daughter, calling her names, and telling she was ‘ugly’ and ‘silly’. The world beneath my feet trembled and I had to force myself not to cry. Surely being the victim of bullying –or any type of abuse– is terrible, but feeling responsible for abuse is equally dreadful, and I felt pretty much responsible because it was my own son who was behind a girl’s suffering. I spoke to my child and explained to him what he was doing. I made him aware of the fact that he was hurting this girl and making her miserable. Happily my son listens to us, his parents. He felt ashamed of his behaviour and changed it immediately. I didn’t have to punish him or get angry. I just had to explain the problem and I did explain it using all the terms and language of feminism. I realised that my son engaged in bullying this girl as a means to create a bond with the other boy, an old story in this old world. His misbehaviour was clearly configured along the axes of gender, the girl being placed at the bottom end of a hurting practice that had as its goal the bonding between two boys. Although the boys were not aiming at hurting the girl, they hurt her. The fact that I explained to my son why his and his friend’s behaviour was wrong and why it was important for him (them) to stop it didn’t mean I was putting this girl’s rights before my son’s. It meant that I made use of feminist politics to make my child aware of the effects of his actions on the girl’s well-being. As a mother I am using feminist politics to educate my son in hopes that my now-little-boy will grow up to be a socially responsible and sensitive adult. Feminism is not incompatible with human rights, neither with raising sons. Rather, feminism is about being aware of social injustices on the basis of gender –and class, and race, and sexuality– and about knowing how to face such injustices in the quest for a better world.


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