DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
THIS MONTH, I’ve highlighted transwomen and sex workers, both categories of women about whom there are myths and stereotypes. This week, I’m explaining another pervasive myth and its problematic power: the idea that “women are their own worst enemies.”
This debasing “own worst enemy” label is untrue, but is a stereotype often cast against subordinated groups, and then repeated as a way of seeing and blaming themselves for their condition.
It’s also a way of circulating self-hate which has long been a successful divide-and-conquer strategy, encouraging those who are oppressed to be more likely to trust, stand by and forgive their oppressors than each other. It’s propaganda, propagated since Plato, which has become a cognitive short-cut for explaining who women are today.
There are moments that feel true in this representation of women as untrustworthy even among themselves. The "tief head" is when one partial view becomes the whole story, displacing how it is also and more greatly untrue. Stereotypes work in such devious and disparaging ways.
Dominant narratives about women in Western society either put them on a pedestal and require them to be perfect in feminised ways, or demonise them. We have inherited the patriarchal framing of women as either virtuous or evil, and often repeat what has come to have the feeling of common sense.
The ease with which this phrase rolls off the tongue says more about the power of patriarchal typecasts of women than about women themselves, particularly when women know how complex we are.
Men constantly undermine men, literally killing each other for walking on the wrong street. Men may be unbreakable allies against women because the "bro code" positions them as women’s opposites and superiors, but they bully, fight, wound, exploit, oppress and kill each other in unprecedented numbers, whether as individuals, gangs, armies, or male-led corporations. They are their own worst enemies. Why does this phrase not roll off our tongues so easily?
Women being their own worst enemy is untrue because women do not primarily beat, sexually assault, kidnap, sexually harass or kill girls and women. Women’s worst enemy is those who perpetrate these crimes.
Yet no one uses this phrase to describe a daily relationship between an oppressor and oppressed. In this way, men’s historic role in (violently) excluding women from power is mystified and denied. Hence, no catchphrase comes to mind.
Positioning women as their own worst enemy also names an expectation that women will automatically be allies and support each other. They certainly do. This is why the currrent wave of the feminist movement is the most powerful global revolution of the last 50 years.
It was fought by women defending each other’s rights, exercising collective power, speaking out in transnational solidarity, and building unapologetically woman-centred movements. It hasn’t been perfect. There have been hierarchies and exclusions, but it’s an unarguable example of women not being “their own worst enemies.”
Feminism is also the most demonised of social movements. Thus the major example that challenges this misogynist phrase gets successfully filtered back to us through a patriarchal lens, encouraging us to disidentify with it.
Patriarchies always recentre men so that a movement that is about caring about women becomes framed as one that hates men, or one that prioritises including and amplifying women becomes cast as one that excludes and silences men.
Today, feminism is increasingly cast as legitimate when it makes immediate sense to men, takes responsibility for meeting men’s needs, makes space for men’s perspectives, and is sensitive, gentle and kind.
Propaganda. You can tell by how quickly all this rolls off people’s tongues.
It’s also true that women are not necessarily kind or supportive to each other, and that some hold more power than others and over others.
Women are human beings. They are imperfect, and may see each other competitively, be traumatised, toxic, self-interested, aggressive and indoctrinated, or just not nice. There’s work to do individually and collectively.
Even then, we will never all get along. Sisterhood is therefore an achievement even while solidarity is a must.
More problematic is how a vast vision of women’s rights gets mixed up with, and flattened down to, whether women are nice (to each other), as if ideal nurturing behaviour is what legitimises their demands.
Focus on whether women are nice turns our gaze away from cold-eyed analysis of systemic power over women, and strategising to bloodlessly destroy patriarchy and its intersecting oppressions without mercy.
More to say, but remember this: an oppressed group is never its worst enemy.
Diary of a mothering worker