Rita Segato: “The feminist movement is helping men liberate themselves”

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The Argentinian anthropologist –one of the most influential intellectuals in Latin America– reflects on recent cases of violence against women and sexual non-conformism in Chile, and explains the opportunities that feminism gives men to dismantle what she calls the “mandate of masculinity”. She also points to the dangers of installing and normalising “moral lynching” as the only alternative of self-defence for women.

By Bárbara Barrera

Since the first march under the banner “Ni una menos” in 2016, Chile has seen an overwhelming wave of protests led by women. “Feminist May” and the historically massive attendance on the latest International Women’s Day are clear signs of a growing social awareness of violence, without, however, there being a correlating increase in reactivity from the legal system. The lack of denunciations, verdicts and effective punishment in the case of gender violence is one of the factors that has installed public accusations –real and virtual– as the main line of self-defence that women have. These new dynamics have been questioned by various authors either because they base themselves on essentialist behaviour from both men and women, or because they install a “policing” logic to monitor human relations in a way that completely contradicts the emancipation of feminism.

Rita Laura Segato (1951) discusses her concerns about this debate and defends the importance of respecting due process. The feminist anthropologist sees a fundamental difference between the escrache –the name given in some Latin American countries to the pacific public protests denouncing an unjust situation– and “moral lynching”: while the first is a fair public process that citizens often have recourse to when the state justice system is deficient, the second, explains Segato, “is spontaneous, with a significant margin of error; it is simply an accusation that is immediately obeyed. We can’t have what I’d call “a moral guillotine” because of the mistakes that could be made and the subsequent damage done to the great advances we’ve made in the feminist movement in recent times”.

The Mexican anthropologist Marta Lamas makes the same point in her book Acoso. ¿Denuncia legítima o victimización? (“Harassment. Legitimate Denunciation of Victimisation?”, 2018) when she defends the need to install “a greater clarity about what harassment is, to establish the limits of behaviour and intentions, looks and molestation, aggression and ineptitude”. Her political position on harassment infuriated hundreds of feminists who, in a manifesto signed by 482 women and 91 collectives, condemned Lamas’ essay and called for her not to be considered “a point of reference for theory, methodology or epistemology” because of her “justification, normalisation, naturalisation and perpetuation of harassment, sexual violence and femicide”.

One of the main preoccupations of Rita Segato –who recently visited Chile at the invitation of the Chilean Network Against Violence Towards Women, and CLACSO– is women’s loss of the capacity for self-defence. When relations are symmetrical, when all involved are equal, explains the anthropologist, “then women need to know how to say yes or no, to recognise their desire or lack of it, and to use non-lethal forms of self-defence when confronted with masculine violence. This is lost when all the expectations are laid at the door of the patriarchal state, and this faith in the state has neutralised us as powerful and sovereign subjects”.

Crédito: Felipe PoGa

If there’s one thing that defines the work of the author of La guerra contra las mujeres (“The War Against Women”, 2016), it is the creation of new concepts to shape her theories. In her early research at a prison in Papuda, Brasil –her country of residence– Segato interviewed 16 detainees imprisoned for rape, in an experience that resulted in Las estructuras elementales de la violencia (“The Elemental Structures of Violence”, 2003), a seminal work for understanding the development of her thinking, and a starting point for not only an academic career dedicated to studying violence but also for the idea which she later expressed as the “mandate of masculinity”, a concept which identifies men’s perceived obligation of domination in order to belong to a “masculine brotherhood” whose principal condition is the exercising of territorial control over women’s bodies.

“Men aren’t our enemies; the patriarchal political system is. There are women obsessed with acquiring power just like any other man – it’s a patriarchal obsession. Being a woman isn’t enough to make you a feminist, what’s necessary is an understanding of what the objectives of power are”.

Segato takes apart what might seem obvious in this thesis, and argues that the first victims of this mandate aren’t women, but men. “The ‘mandate of masculinity’ enslaves them and submits them to an early death, to being canon fodder, to suffering because they can’t develop the full range of human emotional connections and ways of behaving, nor experience the various ways of living together that are such a pleasure and that we, as women, are able to enjoy”.

How can the “mandate of masculinity” be taken down? What role can the feminist movement play in this struggle?

We’re often asked whether men as well as women can be part of this movement, and my response is that this is the wrong way of looking at things: we, the women, are the ones collaborating in the liberation of men. The feminist movement is helping men open their eyes and free themselves from this “mandate of masculinity” that so negatively impacts on them physically, that exposes them to danger. All around the world young men and boys die in circumstances linked to the world of organised crime, to which they’re attracted because these are instances in which they can show their masculinity and power.

And at the same time as feminism is ensuring that women are more likely to denounce violence against them, there’s a sense that this violence is increasing, with new forms of violence developing. For example, the murder of Estefanía Martínez, the 27 year old woman whose burnt body was discovered in a suitcase in the centre of Santiago. Is there are link between these two phenomena?

In interpersonal relations a man can react in a variety of violent ways when he feels overcome in his intimacy, but I find it hard to believe that men in general would go out onto the street to kill or be cruel just because of a feminist movement. Consider also that, although the feminist movement is much more visible these days, we as women haven’t overtaken men in terms of pay, and in many cases women take care of the children alone. The violent nature of men in recent years isn’t due to a vulnerability in their position vis-à-vis women; their vulnerability comes from economic pressures, precarious work conditions – it’s part of the economic phase that we’re going through at the moment, especially in Chile, where the Chicago School economic dogma was applied, but also across the continent. Men have lost certain economic prerogatives and that makes them less able to have the necessary elements to appropriate women’s lives.

Is it linked to the concept of ownership that you use to define this new phase of capitalism which is characterised by previously unseen levels of wealth concentration?

During this economic phase of wealth concentration that is so extreme, that came about so quickly and gives so much to so few, I speak about a period of “ownership” rather than inequality. Patriarchy as an ideology and relationship structure is the perfect language for the structure of ownership of the planet and the lives of others, which is why the patriarchy is being safeguarded. Men are being dispossessed, so how can they reclaim their position of power? A masculine individual has to prove his power in some field: sexual, war, economic, political, intellectual and moral. So while his masculinity is being threatened the only way of restoring it is through violence.

Why don’t you use the words “hate crimes” when talking about gender crimes against women?

The expression is tricky because it depoliticises the phenomenon, and my struggle has always been to politicise these crimes, to show that they hold up an unequal political order, a rapacious, appropriating political order. To explain these crimes as mere expressions of hatred seems to me to reduce our capacity to understand them.

In Chile, this year alone, there have been at least 15 attacks against sexual non-conformist individuals in public places. Don’t you think that hatred is part of that violence?

In the case of sexual non-conformism I do definitely see that there is an element of hatred of their freedom, of the fact that they express themselves in public places; hatred of these bodies that have allowed themselves what the aggressor hasn’t allowed themself because they’d lose what they consider is the most valuable part of their worth as member of the masculine corporation. The masculine gaze punishes or eliminates everything that it perceives as disrespectful to its order. So women, and all sexually non-conformist individuals who disobey the mandate of the body, are punished, which is what we are seeing: the aggression against sexually non-conformist individuals has become ferocious in recent years.

Recent years have seen an uptick in Chile of episodes of institutional racism and violence against women, especially in the Haitian population. What is your interpretation of the racism present in our society?

Our countries, Argentina and Chile, are countries that consider themselves white, but which aren’t. Each and every one of us, however white we appear, is dark-skinned when we go to Paris. Our corporality is part of this landscape, just as Haitians are also part of this continent. There’s a lack of self-awareness; of what I call “mirror, mirror on the wall” of the wicked queen. The colonial era took away that mirror which could have shown us who we really are, and on what side of history we are. That mirror would show us how none of us is white, so the element of racism and xenophobia is expressed when we see the Haitian woman, with the result that the value of her human life is diminished.

How can feminism help construct a different way of thinking?

When I talk about the politicisation of women I’m referring to the political order that isn’t state-bureaucratic. I talk a lot about how the politicisation of women will domesticate public life, about how it is a politicisation that is written with feminine codes, and that is indispensable today for society to function, otherwise people will hide themselves behind that distant bureaucracy which, in my theoretical model, is the characteristic of the state and is the last bastion of the history of masculinity.

Some women in the feminist movement are reluctant to assume that women have to educate men in these matters. What do you think?

I truly believe that men aren’t the enemy; the patriarchal political system is. There are women obsessed with acquiring power just like any other man – it’s a patriarchal obsession. Being a woman isn’t enough to make you a feminist, what’s necessary is an understanding of what the objectives of power are”. The world can’t be made of only women or only men. It’s silly to think that if my work opens men’s eyes or makes them aware of things then that’s not interesting or is even a waste of time. We’re all trapped within this patriarchal structure, all of us, because the hegemonic gaze, the way in which we are taught to look at the world, is patriarchal.

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