Misogyny and the Oppression of Men

This article is written by Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, Co-Chair of the National Lawyers Guild’s International Committee and is a human rights attorney focusing on the intersection of gender and racial justice.

A few weeks ago over dinner with friends catching up on life, family and our social justice work, I brought up a recent interview I had just heard concerning the rape of an unconscious girl in Steubenville, Ohio. I wondered aloud why many people, myself included, hadn’t heard anything about it even though the rape occurred last year. That led to the three of us expressing our collective remorse over “India’s daughter,” Jyoti Singh Pandey, the 23-year-old physiotherapy student, who was gang raped by six men on a moving bus in Delhi for nearly an hour and subsequently thrown off of it afterwards. One of my friends informed us that apparently the conductor colluded with the men on the train beforehand to rape the next woman who boarded, which happened to be Jyoti. Her friend, Awindra Pandry, was unable to help her fight off the men after he himself was beaten with an iron rod and left to die. Jyoti’s intestines needed to be removed at the hospital she was transferred to, where she ultimately died. The subsequent outrage and rallying cry by the women of India has led to them asking their country to reexamine the impunity that reigns when a woman’s body and integrity are assaulted.

Not that misogynistic laws are anything new. The day before that dinner, another girlfriend mentioned in passing that the Nebraska legislature had redefined the definition of domestic violence to relieve prosecutors from charging as many crimes, an apparent relief to their resource-strapped budget. The fact that I didn’t even bother looking into this further to ascertain its truth only proved my weariness with the latest round of misogynistic laws and policies. Of course by now we’ve all heard of Steubenville and the self-congratulatory video of the high school footfall team bragging about the girl they gang raped while unconscious. And while it has finally passed, the reauthorization of VAWA included repeat discussions of the “controversial” provisions that would provide domestic violence care for immigrant and Native American women. Yet other laws are further off the radar, almost invisible. Even among activist communities, not many women I know realize that in Puerto Rico, domestic violence survivors who are LGBT or in a non-marital relationship are not covered by domestic violence laws and are not entitled to the same protections as a heterosexual married woman. And all of this has taken place in the past year alone.

I thought back to Jyoti and sat with her image and her struggle. I didn’t want to shy away from the gruesome images simply because it was uncomfortable and upsetting. After the initial and routine numbing feeling overcame me as I allowed myself to wander into the image of her being raped with an iron rod, I asked myself what happened to those men that they could no longer see her humanity? That they would premeditatively plot to rape an unknown woman simply because she dared to board the bus? That men otherwise unknown to each other would feel comfortable enough to collectively plot to rape and potentially murder someone of their own community?

It dawned on me all the ways in which men – especially men of color and poor men – are themselves dehumanized daily, made to feel powerless over their lives and those they feel responsible for. How their worth is tied up in their economic prowess, which often lies in the hands of factory owners, landlords, bankers, creditors and willfully blind governments who refuse to hear or acknowledge their struggle for survival. I can only imagine how heavy the weight must be for a man to feel powerless to feed his children, provide shelter for his family, remain gainfully employed and skilled – especially in a society that has pinned all your worth to the ability to do just that. When one feels powerless, they may delve within themselves or their faith for strength. Or they may search out those they perceive to be weaker than them to exert dominance and control over, thereby reigniting and affirming their belief in their own power and capacity. Jyoti died at the hands of men who must’ve felt completely powerless in their own lives.

As a feminist and activist, I have looked at violence against women exclusively from the lens of misogyny and the systemic sexism that touches us all, men and women alike. Yet as a woman who has seen and experienced violence by men who have themselves been abused, exploited, underemployed and unemployed, and felt threatened and humiliated by their inability to be the economic and intellectual leader of their home, I see the more expansive version of that story.

Of course, the prevalent belief that men are entitled to express shame and anger through violence, particularly directed at women or children, is what we continuously and collectively challenge. Violence is inflicted by those who feel impugn from the consequences of their actions. And while misogyny exists, not all men consciously choose to act upon it so violently, or to comment on it like Eric Cantor or Todd Akin have so negligently. For those that do, like the “Rape Gang” in Steubenville, or those six men facing trial now in Delhi, how deep must their powerlessness run? Rape is in fact an act of power and an assertion of control. Men who feel powerless rape. We know this because sexual violence inevitably increases in regions that are in conflict or have experienced a natural disaster – both causing upheaval of families and causing great incertitude in people’s lives. Poor men and men of color living in societies that place unattainable financial burdens on them likely feel powerless to change their lives and those of whom they feel responsible for.

Of course, I know I cannot end violence against women in my lifetime, or that of my children to come, unless men are equally engaged in examining their own power, powerlessness and privilege. I recognize that men need an outlet to express their extreme outrage at the social and economic burdens placed on them, and that that place cannot be a woman’s body. They need a space and an audience to listen to their outrage at a society that won’t provide for them, yet demands they provide for others.

With V-Day having just passed and a renewed call to end violence against women and the rise of women raped that is approaching one billion, I hope our brothers will join us in our call to action. Ending violence against women requires an honest examination of the root of misogyny, which is the premise that a woman’s inherent worth is determined by the patriarchal society’s judgment, and recognizing that it is inextricably linked with the cyclical social and economic violence inflicted on men. As we rise up to demand that unwelcome hands be taken off our bodies, I hope our brothers will also rise to throw off the hands of capitalism, exploitation and patriarchy.

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