Men Explain Things to Us

  • Mężczyźni objaśniają mi świat Rebecca Solnit (Karakter, Kraków 2017)
  • Wszyscy powinniśmy być feministami Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Zysk i S-ka 2017)
  • Kiedy będziemy wolne. Moja walka o prawa człowieka Szirin Ebadi (Znak 2017)

When she was at a party, she met a man.

“As I heard, you wrote a few books.”

“A few, indeed,” she answered.

When she told him what subject she dealt with, he interrupted her and started talking about a very important book that had just appeared and addressed these issues. He pontificated in a very complacent tone without letting her in, until he was told: “It is her book.” But even then—although he went deathly pale—he was undeterred and quickly came back to his typical attitude of an authority in every eld.

Rebecca Solnit, an American historian and feminist, started with this event to write her widely debated essay, Men Explain Things to Me.

One day, when she returned to her native Nigeria, she was spending time in Lagos her friend, Louis. By one of the cafes they were quickly taken care of by a small group of men helping people to park where it seemed impossible because of the crush. She was so impressed with the skills of one of them that she tipped him. He took the tip, happy and grateful. “Thank you!” he said to Louis. He thought that since she was a woman, her money came from the man.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an African-born writer, aflficted by this and other events in her life wrote an essay We Should All Be Feminists.

When Islamists removed women from all public offices, she became an attorney and fought for the freedom of the victims of the extremists. One day, security agents arranged a meeting between her husband and his former lover. They recorded the proceedings, arrested her husband and blackmailed him, telling him to publicly admit that his wife acted in the interests of West- ern imperialists attempting to weaken Iran and that she had not deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. As a result of their actions, the married couple which had spent 34 years together fell apart.

Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian activist and the first female judge in the history of Iran, wrote a book Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran.

The Female Question in Poland as an Ideological Clash

 

America, Nigeria, Iran—although these worlds are distant from each other, the situation of women in each of them demands our attention. And not only there. In Poland, from which I write these words, the bill “Let’s Save Women 2017,” which included a liberalization of the current law on abortion, was rejected by parliament before its first reading. In the same Poland where the current government limited access to emergency contraception for women and now announces a tightening of the anti-abortion law.

All three books were published in Poland roughly at the same time, in line with the atmosphere around the female question—an atmosphere which is very tense because of an ideological clash. The genie has been let out of the bottle also in other latitudes.

From Poland to France, India, or Japan, thousands of women, emboldened by the courage of others, told their increasingly horrifying stories of humiliations connected with men crossing the lines.

The most resonant was the Harvey Weinstein affair, which erupted in the United States in the autumn of 2017—the prominent film producer was accused of sexually harassing actresses and subordinates. The scandal resulted in a wave of subsequent accusations (including Kevin Spacey) and an international internet campaign #metoo, which showed the alarming scale of the phenomenon of sexual harassment of women, from slipping hands under skirts in trams to violent rapes or even murder. From Poland to France, India, or Japan, thousands of women, emboldened by the courage of others, told their increasingly horrifying stories of humiliations connected with men crossing the lines.

What was so blatantly and rapidly revealed in reality, is now penetratingly, poignantly, and accurately scrutinized in literature. In three instalments, it analyses a culture where social awkwardness leading to a sense of inferiority and reprehensible acts are two sides of the same coin. “Culture matters,” writes Solnit.

The Status of Women in the Current World Is Not Optimistic

All three books have a common theme—the female issue, the temperament of the authors and the locally-specific nature of the problems addressed makes them distinct. Rebecca Solnit is a historian, author of many academic books; the essays collected in the volume Men Explain Things to Me is an intellectual attempt at capturing, from many perspectives, the phenomenon of men patronizingly telling the story of the world to women—even the world which is closest to them—along with the reasons and consequences of that. In her erudite argument based on statistics, quotes, and references to contemporary culture, the author follows various forms of aggression against women—from simple verbal assaults to physical and psychological violence.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is definitely a writer—she watches people and their behavior, describes it and draws conclusions. She does it brilliantly, with a huge sense of humor and empathy. We Should All Be Feminists it just a few dozen pages of collected observations from the life of the author herself and her family. It is a great read, but it leaves you with a grim reflection—the situation of women and men in the world is not the same.

None of the authors has anything particularly optimistic to say about the status of women in the world—both the past and the present world.

Shirin’s Ebadi’s book is yet another story—Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran is located at the juncture of autobiography and reporting. Ebadi speaks about her work as a lawyer, defender of human rights after the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979; she describes the inhuman actions of the regime, which used all available measures—from harassment through surveillance to prison or even death—in the fight against its opponents. And of course, Ebadi does not ignore the female question—for it is women that were most afflicted by the Islamization of all aspects of Iranian life introduced by the revolution.

“The Higher You Go, the Fewer Women There Are”

None of the authors has anything particularly optimistic to say about the status of women in the world—both the past and the present world. “Women are still struggling to be treated as human beings, endowed with the right to life, liberty, and freedom to participate in culture and politics, and sometimes it is a really brutal struggle,” writes Solnit. Examples illustrating this state of affairs can be found in all three books.

Historical facts or everyday practice are one thing, while the subtle, culturally de ned ways of silencing women, disciplining them, pressing them into the current mold, undermining their credibility, and depriving them of their voice is quite another.

Both trivial examples from everyday life and historical ones embedded in the law or customs are depressing. “Cook some pasta for your brother,” Ngozi Adichie hears a mother talking to her daughter in her native Nigeria. The brother is not given such tasks. In a family of academics with equal professional status, the responsibilities related to raising children fall on the wife. “Thank you,” says the wife every time her husband changes a diaper. In Great Britain, women had no property rights before the first “Married Women’s Property Act” was passed in 1870. Previously, everything had belonged to the husband. In Iran, provisions allowing a woman to inherit their husband’s property after his death were introduced only in 2008 and it had required a great social pressure. In the English-speaking world, until recently, a married woman was addressed with the word “Mrs” preceding her husband’s Christian name. Children received and still most often receive his surname.

All over the world, positions connected with prestige and power are held by men. “The higher you go, the fewer women there are,” says the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai. In many societies, women are locked up at home in order to control their sexual energy. Their bodies and even their faces are covered, making them practically disappear. They are killed: in 2004 in Iran, a 16-year-old girl was hanged for premarital sex, a “crime against chastity.” These are just a few examples; the three books are simply packed with them.

Women Can Have Ambitions, but Not Too Great

Historical facts or everyday practice are one thing, while the subtle, culturally de ned ways of silencing women, disciplining them, pressing them into the current mold, undermining their credibility, and depriving them of their voice is quite another. Rebecca Solnit starts with an anecdote in order to prove that when a woman says something which undermines the opinion of a man, especially a powerful one, his answer questions not only facts, but also her very ability to speak. “Generations of women were told that they were delusional, confused, manipulative, malicious, conspiring, innately dishonest… Infrequently all at once.” They are denied recognition. Classified as crazy. Solnit is supported by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an author of widely read novels: “You can have ambitions, but not too great. You should aim at success, but not too big, for otherwise you will threaten men. If in your relationship with a man you are the breadwinner, pretend that you are not, especially in public situations, for otherwise you will deprive him of his masculinity.”

“Why do you not speak about yourself simply as a human only as a woman?” The author of the novel Americanah once heard this question from a man. Indeed, it is a very interesting issue, probably faced by every female writer who chooses a woman for the protagonist of her book. And then the answer comes easily—because some things happen to women by dint of their being women.

Anger seems to be the only correct strategy. Especially that it is a feeling, a reaction often denied to women, who are often silenced through the use of this key phrase: “She is crazy.”

Because the fact that they are women matters. Examples from life? When Chimamanda enters a restaurant in Africa accompanied by a man, the owner greets only this man. It is women who overwhelmingly fall victim to rape: according to data cited by Solnit, one fifth of women in the US experienced rape—and only one in 71 men. In Poland, surveys show that 87 percent of women experience some form of sexual violence. It is women who are restricted in their reproductive rights—access to contraception and abortion. The Islamic Republic discriminates against women because they are women.

The People Create Culture

Is it strange that women are angry? Anger seems to be the only correct strategy. Especially that it is a feeling, a reaction often denied to women, who are often silenced through the use of this key phrase: “She is crazy.” But anger can bring change. “I feel anger. We should all feel it,” writes Ngozi Adichie. “It has long been known that anger brings positive changes. But I am also full of hope, for I deeply believe in the human ability to change for the better.”

How should we achieve this? What should we do to change the existing state of affairs? “Listen instead of explaining,” says Rebecca Solnit to men. And using the words of Susan Sontag she quotes, she recommends to women that they should resist even if this resistance should be fruitless. Yet it is never fruitless. As Solnit explains in another fragment, referring to the myth of Pandora, who let all the misfortunes out of the box, ideas released into the world never come back to their container. Ideas cannot be boxed. So their dissemination is of great value in itself.

“It is not culture that creates people. It is people who create culture,” writes Ngozi Adichie. That is why she proposes to raise boys and girls differently than before. We should stop encouraging girls to restrain themselves, to be ashamed, to cover themselves, to dream about marriage and strive for it at any cost. And we should support boys in showing fear, weakness, sensitivity. “The more a man feels compelled to be tough, the weaker his ego becomes,” she reminds us. And then girls have to deal with this ego. Ngozi Adichie focuses on awareness. And on a conscious change in attitude.

We can draw some hope from the fact that so much has already been done to improve the male-female relations. Keep going, do not look back and do not succumb to resignation—this is the only right strategy. “We are sailing in darkness, not giving in to pessimism, not thinking about the so distant shore,” concludes Shirin Ebadi.

Patrycja Pustkowiak

is a writer and journalist, author of a novel Nocne zwierzęta (Night Animals), shortlisted for the Nike Literary Prize and nominated for Gdynia Literary Prize. In 2018, the novel will be published in Argentine. She received a scholarship from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. Winner of the Adam Włodek Prize. Currently working on her second novel Maszkaron.

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