Men #mansplain feminism to me


I recently got into some Twitter exchanges regarding Ethiopian feminism. Seeing a bunch of men telling women that they can’t be both religious and feminists despite those women arguing otherwise, started it. Let me clarify things in a bit more detail here. Not only are you mistaken, as there are plenty of remarkable Muslim feminists, the arrogance in your tone is unbearable.  The real irony was though you failing to see the privileged standpoint which you are speaking from. A privilege that grants you to think that your opinion on feminism should be more trustworthy than the experience and say of women who live sexism and misogyny every day. I am not at all religious but one doesn’t need to be religious to see how wrong-headed it is for men to alienate and exclude women from feminism based on faith. Especially, when those women are declaring themselves feminists and providing justifications (note that they needed to) why it works for them. Do you think they need your approval to qualify as a feminist because you have problems with letting go of authority? Why should women feel they need to fit your definition of feminism to call themselves one? Do you think they need men like you to think for them and tell them what feminism is or should be? Telling a woman that she can’t be both religious and feminist is like the oppressor telling the oppressed what oppression means. If you think women need your approval and validation as they explore what feminism means to them, it is a sign that you have failed to grasp the kind of patriarchal society we live in and you are likely to be part of the problem.

I am not advocating for any strand of feminism here. Neither am I trying to define what feminism is nor who should be categorised as a woman and why. My issue is you belittling and demeaning women for saying what kind of feminism works for them and what feminism means to them. It doesn’t matter what level of education you have, or how enlightened your knowledge of feminism might be (although I highly doubt most men who think they should be in charge defining feminism know much about it at all), telling a feminist what feminism is or should be, defeats the very essence of what feminism stands for – namely women thinking and deciding for themselves. You wanting to be the central voice here not only gives you complete authority, which feminism is trying to shift, it also disregards and invalidates women’s experiences.

Do you find the idea that women can think and decide for themselves and that your input comes second indigestible? That might be because it has been the accepted norm (thanks to patriarchy) for your voice to be the dominant and authoritative one. You wanting to take the upper hand and explain what feminism is to women is an indictment of your unquestioned and taken for granted privilege as a man. It takes one to critically reflect on societal structures and one’s place in such structures to be aware of one’s own privilege.

If you think feminists central focus should be the protection of your freedom of speech, then you’ve got it all wrong. And if you can’t see why your rights aren’t the centre of attention in the feminist’s agenda, then you really are blinded by your male privilege in which case you urgently need to scrutinise those privileges.

If you truly want to contribute to the whole movement, learn to critically analyse your place as a man in society and carefully listen to what women have to say. Your knowledge is no good if it is dismissive of women who live to experience sexism every day. There can only be a common ground for discussion of your contribution to feminism when you first believe and accept that women are capable of leading their own movement and are the primary role-players as far as feminism goes.

Finally, this is aimed at those men who think that their knowledge of feminism is far superior to women’s lived experiences and say on feminism. If you are not one of them, then this post doesn’t concern you and you are most likely to agree with me here. If you are, I hope you find this post somewhat helpful in terms of clarifying issues – absent in the restricted Twitter exchanges.


  1. Abeba, what I’m about to write is going to be a high-risk exercise, it will be difficult (for both of us, I presume) and long.

    I need to start with a lengthy premise, with the aim of explaining why I’m replying. First of all, my comment qualifies as a “yes, but” (re-reading edit: actually, I’ve left the “yes” part implicit!) reply, or even as mansplaining, despite my best intentions. This is probably the main reason why I’m writing: I see a contradiction in your position, which in turn automatically puts any criticism from me in the above mentioned categories.
    The other reasons are more personal, so I’ll be spilling a few of my old beans. I’m a white heterosexual male, I grew up in a non-poor family and a thoroughly intellectual environment. I did not have to work to pay for my studies, I could study an pursue other interests at the same time, and I’ve had fairly well paid jobs ever since. In other words, I’m one of the most privileged human beings in history.
    I was also raised by a feminist mum, of the “all men are pigs” variety, who nevertheless had/has unconditional love and esteem for me; my parents divorced (messily) when I was 9YO. This contingency generated a good amount of contradictions in my youth, a side effect is that I have always been conflictually interested in feminism.
    Fairly late in my life I found a way to pacify myself a little (in this respect), thanks to Ani diFranco; during a concert of hers she said something like “Do you think people should be given equal opportunities? Well, that makes you a feminist” – the inclusiveness of the definition is what helped me.

    Last premise is about my intellectual journey: you may know this already, but I am obsessively interested in my/our own fallibility. A central problem I grapple with is the fact that whenever we make a mistake, we do because we don’t recognise it as such – this is especially true and important for mistakes we keep repeating. Thus, managing to identify and overcome our deeply seated “sources of error” is both prohibitively difficult, requires the input from other people and is potentially very useful. Note here the tie with the invisibility of privilege: it is indeed (mostly) invisible from within – making input from trusted outside sources a requirement from learning to see it.

    Premises over, I can tackle your argument. You write:

    Finally, this is aimed at those men who think that their knowledge of feminism is far superior to women’s lived experiences and say on feminism. If you are not one of them, then this post doesn’t concern you and you are most likely to agree with me here. If you are, I hope you find this post somewhat helpful in terms of clarifying issues

    I’m replying because I want to be “not one of them”, but no, your post does not help clarifying issues. More importantly it does not help me to understand whether I am “one of them” or not. It actually makes it harder for me to find out!

    It’s interesting that the original debate involved religion. I am violently allergic to religion, the very idea that one can/should accept some text as the revealed truth, the unquestionable definition of all that is good, rubs against all my deepest instincts and the way I have built my own identity. Thus, I know that if I had witnessed the Twitter exchanges that triggered your reaction I would have been tempted to intervene. My primary drive, if left unchecked, would have placed me directly and unquestionably in the “one of them” box.

    What troubles me is that your clarification might be setting the conditions where any criticism I may offer is going to be automatically dismissed as unwarranted. Sure, I do not, never had, never will experience sexism on a daily basis – to some extent, my condition of being a white straight man makes sexism invisible to me. Even worse, I might be part of the problem and not even know it! Specifically, I might be repeating the same mistakes precisely because I do not and cannot experience sexism on my own skin. This is why I need to be able to express my views, my doubts and my criticism. If I’m not allowed to, no one ever will get the chance to challenge them and eventually help me recognise where I’m getting it wrong. The situation is naturally symmetric. In case I think I’ve spotted an error in your thinking, given my own general approach, the most useful thing I can do is try to find a way to help you seeing it (which is precisely what I’m doing right now, I suppose – disagreements signal learning opportunities).

    So here we go: possibility one is that my primary drive is downright wrong. In such debates, asking something like “How do you reconcile your right to think for yourself with the idea that truth has been delivered by divine intervention?” would be wrong. Perhaps it’s always wrong if done by me: since I don’t share the relevant experiences, I can’t claim to have anything useful to offer. If that’s the case, I’m in trouble because my current outlook requires an outside view to spot recurring errors.

    Otherwise, perhaps I’m right, and it’s precisely my outside view that makes it potentially valuable. In this case however, your position becomes unhelpful, because it stands as an explicit obstacle to expressing my views/criticism.
    For example:

    You wanting to take the upper hand and explain what feminism is to women is an indictment of your unquestioned and taken for granted privilege as a man.

    I’ve paraphrased Ani diFranco above to highlight the contrast: your position seems to shut me out a priori (unless I’m misreading you badly), Ani’s take welcomed me in. There is pain and frustration in your words, probably more than I can imagine. Unfortunately I can’t sooth the pain, not beyond letting you know that I can see and recognise (part of) it. But perhaps my problem stems from pain itself: if the reaction is defensive and segregates us from them, victims from perpetrators, perhaps you are forcing me to become either completely irrelevant or a perpetrator. Given what you’ve written, perhaps my reply is indeed an act of (unintentional) violence.

    There might be (let’s hope there is) a third option, but I’m failing to see it, unfortunately.

    In conclusion, I hope that you can at least appreciate why I felt compelled to reply – even if, or because(!) my reply counts as an example of what I shouldn’t be doing. As an irredeemably outsider, I struggle with feminism and perhaps I always will. Moreover, this struggle points straight at what might be wrong in my general outlook. OTOH, if my approach isn’t hopelessly wrong, then trying to resolve the struggle might be a useful thing to do…

    Thanks for provoking all this. I’ve been mumbling about it for quite a while, thought-provoking is always good in my book!


    1. Hi Sergio. Thank you very much for a very thoughtful comment. Also, nice to hear some of the personal stories of your upbringings. I must admit this post was written in a rush mainly out of frustration with some of the Twitter exchanges I was having with men, mostly Ethiopian men. It was more of an alleviation of frustration rather than a way of opening a platform for conversation. So perhaps you are right it mightn’t have provided much clarification in the grand feminism discussion and women’s place in it. However, it was as a clarification from the point of view of 140 characters restricted Twitter exchanges I was having.

      Fairly late in my life I found a way to pacify myself a little (in this respect), thanks to Ani diFranco; during a concert of hers she said something like “Do you think people should be given equal opportunities? Well, that makes you a feminist” – the inclusiveness of the definition is what helped me.

      I totally agree that feminism should be all inclusive. Who in their right minds would object to ‘equal opportunities’, right? However, how equal opportunities are achieved, if at all possible, is problematic in reality. For me, the first step to achieving it is for men not only to be willing to grant that women are disadvantaged but also their willingness to acknowledge that men are over-privileged as Peggy McIntosh beautifully articulates it here. Returning to my point about inclusion and exclusion, I think we are in agreement that feminism shouldn’t be defined by who is excluded. In fact, exclusion was what I was trying to object to in the first place – exclusion of religious women from feminism, to be specific. Like you, I can’t stand any form of religion but I firmly object when I see religion used as a means to exclude women (the very group it was supposed to benefit) from feminism. Especially when there exist some remarkable women that demonstrate that it is possible to be both religious and feminist.

      “You wanting to take the upper hand and explain what feminism is to women is an indictment of your unquestioned and taken for granted privilege as a man.”

      To which you reply:

      “your position seems to shut me out a priori (unless I’m misreading you badly), Ani’s take welcomed me in.”

      No, I don’t think I am shutting you or men in general out but rather I was aiming to point out that since women live through everyday sexism (while men benefit from privileges wrought about by societal structures) they should be the one to say what feminism is or what kind of feminism they want. Men dictating the way and defining feminism would defeat the purpose – the liberation of women from male-dominated discourses. Sure the statement might seem provocative but I would also think that it would prompt men to engage in self-scrutiny regarding the privileges they might not be aware of having. The more we engage in such self-scrutinies, the more likely we are to see our privileges and other’s oppressions by default. Privilege is, of course, very elusive and invisible. I won’t attempt to unravel it here but I highly recommend Peggy McIntosh’s beautifully articulated piece on it. Such critical engagement, in turn, brings us all (well, I hope anyway) to some sort of shared view as to why women’s experiences need to take the centre stage in defining and shaping feminist issues. I am here speaking, or rather writing as if there is one coherent picture of feminism but we both know that isn’t the case and we won’t get into that here. Similarly, the men/women dichotomy is a much-contested issue despite my simplification here just for the sake of our conversation.

      Still, you might say, putting women’s experiences at the centre is putting others views secondary (certainly doesn’t exclude other views as far as I can see) which might invoke questions as to what place men’s contribution should have and why. For me, this seems to shift the emphasis to men’s rights and their concerns (arguably an important question but one that need not be a central question here and one needs to be addressed elsewhere) and move away from the issue at hand that needs central attention, namely women’s place in feminism.

      Yes, reasoned and well thought out knowledge, regardless of an individual’s race, gender or relevant background is important. Mind you, the more privileged you are, the more likely you are to produce such knowledge as this certainly is tied to access to good education. I think, legitimising such knowledge as of primary importance is in danger of making feminism a purely academic endeavour that ignores the most under-privileged (thinking here in terms of class, race, educational background, etc.,) that actually experience race, gender, etc., related disadvantages and discriminations on a daily basis.

      I hope I have covered most of your important concerns and that this is a bit more of a clarification than my post was. If not agree on everything, I hope that this brings us closer to a common ground where we are able to discuss things using a common language.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Abeba, you sent my mind spinning in a multitude of directions, which is precisely the best thing I could have hoped, thanks!
    It does have the effect of making it much harder to produce an intelligible, organised and on-topic reply, though. My apologies if I’ll fail to do so… [Note: all my internal safety circuitries are flashing, they tell me that I’m venturing in directions where I shouldn’t trust my own thoughts! Also: this is my take two, my first attempt was even more confused.]

    I will start with a little, probably incomplete recap of things I think we agree on, the aim is trying to minimise misunderstandings and the risk of getting confrontational. As you note, even establishing a common language (on these subjects) is something that requires a concerted effort. Will then try to better explain my point (if I have one) and finish off mentioning two connected sources of confusion (my confusion!).

    a. There is no single valid, monolithic version of feminism.
    b. It’s probably not a good idea to define feminism by making it exclusive. An inclusive framing looks better.
    c. Similarly, the very idea that men can take the upper hand and explain what feminism is/should be (to anyone) doesn’t make sense on its own, even less after accepting a. and b.. More in general, telling someone how they should or should not self-identify is preposterous, with few, if any, exceptions. I left this consideration implicit in my first comment, not the best decision, I think.
    d. Therefore, I have precisely zero problems with your initial impulse (objecting to men who did try to impose their view on who can and cannot self-define as feminist).
    e. Moreover, I never even considered it possible that you wanted to exclude me or men in general.
    f. “[H]ow equal opportunities are achieved, if at all possible, is problematic in reality”. Indeed!
    g. One reason why it is problematic is that privilege is frequently, if not always(?), invisible to the privileged.

    Just listing the above makes me realise how hard it is to pin down exactly what it is that I’m objecting to: do I really disagree with anything you’ve said? The honest answer is that I don’t know! So perhaps it’s worth trying to clarify my main point, your reply still gives me some reasons to think we are partially talking past each other.
    Key point: “your position seems to shut me out a priori”. The intended message here is that reading your post made it harder for me to offer any form of criticism. This is an exquisitely subjective observation: I’m not claiming this effect was intended, nor that it is justified by what you actually wrote, I am merely reporting that it did happen. However, since my own epistemological stance relies on criticism offered from outsiders, I saw this as a potential problem: given my stance, I have to consider counter-productive any position that raises a barrier against outside criticism.
    I suppose this applies to all movements that fight for the rights of any given group X. Their declared foundational intent generates a tension, a natural inclination towards making a sharp distinction between group X and all the others. This in turn always feels uneasy from my perspective, probably because I’m almost never part of group X. Given my reliance on external criticism, the tension becomes hard to resolve, as I don’t feel free to offer my criticism and this makes me wish to point out the contradiction, but alas, it would count as criticism! Clearly we won’t solve all this between you and me, but I am grateful that I got the chance of putting it in writing and thus organise my ideas at least a little bit.
    [Seems that WordPress doesn’t like my lengthy comment, so I’ll try to divide it in two parts, the above is on topic, what follows is tangential.]


  3. […Continues]
    Second strand of interesting difficulties is the matter of the invisibility of privilege. As you certainly have spotted already, the invisibility itself fits perfectly with my general stance: privilege is (normally) invisible from within, thus you need help from the outside to even realise there is something you should watch out for. Peggy McIntosh’s piece is indeed very good, but I disagree with one side: as a general rule, no one needs to be taught how not to see their own privilege, its invisibility is the natural state, given the default self-centred biases we all come equipped with. Making privilege visible to the privileged requires active effort, as well as help from those who don’t enjoy it. Moreover, I’m afraid that we can’t demand/expect/hope the multitudes to readily start seeing what their self-interest would prefer to ignore. As a consequence, I’m not sure what to make of McIntosh’s starting point:

    I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are over-privileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged.

    It is a good point, and directly singles out how self-interest makes us blind (even to obvious symmetries!). Loads of good, well intentioned people are likely to be prey of this sort of mechanism (I assume it does apply to me, reason why debating with you might help me out), but demanding a generalised acknowledgement feels dangerous (not wrong in principle, merely tricky in practice). If selective blindness is the problem, making something more visible will be easier if it is framed in a less threatening way, but doing so risks to defeat the purpose!
    Until right now, my default position was that the invisibility of privilege allows to recognise the good intentions of the privileged (if present), and thus offers a way to empathise. From there, helping to make the privilege visible becomes easier. In contrast, a confrontational (or normative) setting frequently triggers a defensive reaction, resulting in nasty self-reinforcing loops of “us against them” on both sides. Unfortunately, this dynamic is obviously prominent when considering both racism and feminism. Thus, I was happy to hold onto my idea of how not to trigger a conflict. It all works, until I realise that I’m clashing with McIntosh’s foundational point: it is a good point, but I don’t know how to accept it without facilitating defensive reactions. Result: I’m confused and it shows!

    Final strand is what we mean with equality. Also problematic. Radical equality of opportunities is clearly both unattainable and undesirable: the only society where everyone share exactly the same opportunities is a completely homogeneous one. As I argue here, even trying to get close to this aim doesn’t seem a good idea. The problem thus becomes one of limiting the amount of inequality to a Goldilocks level (hidden here: how we measure the level and how do we identify the sweet spot?) and reducing the downsides of what’s left. From this stance, viewing the problem in terms of “reducing unfair disadvantages” (as opposed to the formally equivalent “reducing unfair advantages”) seems somewhat less preposterous (but still a dubious rhetorical trick). Same result as before: I don’t really know what to think, but recognise that the subject is frightfully complicated.

    Overall, I’m fretting over a a few technicalities, and I’m doing so from a hopelessly egocentric view: of course I don’t think my issues should be at the centre of feminist discourse (I can be deluded, but up to a point), it’s OK to keep me (and/or men) on a marginal role; not only OK, it is necessary and inevitable. However, I have (some) control only over myself: I may be able to change/improve how I approach the subject, if I learn more. Thus, I’ve jumped in because you tried to provide some guidance/clarification, but I (personally) found it confusing.
    I know I wasn’t the intended audience, but I did expect you’ll be able to recalibrate and provide food for thought nevertheless; in fact, you did. Thank you again!


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