The next evolution of Feminism? Taking aim at the Kyriarchy

Today a friend of mine made the comment (one that I would have very much agreed with him on a year ago) that he doesn’t like feminists/the term “feminism”, because it implies that one side is more important, or should be better off than the other, it doesn’t speak to equality. I wasn’t in a position to easily correct him, but I have since told him I don’t agree.

Last year I felt the same way, mostly because anti-feminists have been so successful at bastardizing and vilifying the term and making feminists out to be raging, hairy, fat, man-hating people. Perhaps it’s a bit similar to how in America, the media has made efforts to vilify the term “liberal”, as out-of-touch hippies who want to give everyone participation medals and welfare for nothing. But I’ve realized that feminism is very important, and it is important to wear the label proudly and defend it whenever and however necessary against these malicious naysayers.

Feminism is definitely misunderstood, something it took me a while to figure out and understand what is really going on. I won’t get into it here (I already dealt with this on my podcast), but I did come across an article a couple of days ago that I do want to highlight and share because I think it will better help make the distinction between what feminism is fighting for and striving to accomplish, vs what the naysayers think/claim it is.

From Everyday Feminism, “Kyriarchy 101: We’re Not Just Fighting the Patriarchy Anymore”:

If you’re familiar with feminism, you’ll have heard of the term patriarchy – the social order that privileges men and oppresses women. It’s a useful term as it gives a name to the institutionalisation of male privilege.

But feminism has moved on from being purely concerned with male privilege.

Intersectional feminism tells us that oppression comes in many different forms. Someone is not simply oppressed or privileged: we can be simultaneously privileged and oppressed by different aspects of our identities.

For example, somebody can be privileged by the fact that they are cisgender, thin, and white, while being oppressed by the fact that they are queer, disabled, and female.

Because of this, we need a word to describe the complex social order that keeps these intersecting oppressions in place.

Kyriarchy is an excellent word for this concept – it is more in line with intersectional feminism, and is not as problematic as the word patriarchy can be.

Kyriarchy 101

The term kyriarchy was coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza in her 2001 book, Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation. In the glossary, she defines kyriarchy as:

a neologism…derived from the Greek words for “lord” or “master” (kyrios) and “to rule or dominate” (archein) which seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination… Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression.

In other words, the kyriarchy is the social system that keeps all intersecting oppressions in place.

Many anti-feminists argue (and complain) that feminism is wrong because it only fights to help women and ignores other problems in society, but they make this claim based on incomplete information and improper understanding. Feminism started as a women’s movement, but once they started fighting social injustices that affected them, surprise surprise, they noticed other social injustices that affected others as well, and since they were already fighting the system, they just expanded that fight. (Note, this is not to say I am a scholar on feminism, but I know a few people who pretty much study this stuff constantly because they live it, often being part of several oppressed groups simultaneously, and I listen to what they have to say, and read the articles they share)

An example:

To extend this example, let’s imagine two people: one is a white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied woman. Another is a black, transgender, pansexual, disabled man. According to the theory of patriarchy, the woman would be oppressed and the man would be privileged.

Sure – the woman will experience oppression as a woman, and the man might experience forms of male privilege. But it’s a whole lot more complicated than that.

In this situation, the man would not have control (or economic, social, and political privilege) over the woman. To merely call the man dominant and the woman oppressed without taking any other factors into account would be to erase all the other aspects of their identities.

This is not to say that male privilege can be totally erased because of certain factors. Rather, it means that the way someone experiences male privilege is dynamic and dependent on other identities.

These complexities are something I wasn’t able to see right away, it has taken years of reading, listening, pondering, starting to have the blinders come off slowly but surely to start actually being able to see and recognize this for myself. I had a pretty big personal epiphany about a year ago, that I wrote about because it hit me so hard when it slammed into my awareness. It’s complicated, and that’s why a lot of people have a hard time ‘getting it’.

Oppression is not simply about discrimination. It is about being institutionally and systemically repressed.

Gender-based oppression, for example, is not just about someone making a joke about women belonging only in the kitchen. It’s about women being denied equal access to education, the job market, equal pay, reproductive health services, and legislative equality for centuries.

It’s about women being presented as weak, overemotional, lacking sexual desire, irrational, and superficial by institutions such as the media, education system, politicians, legislation, and commercial groups.

It’s about socializing people to believe one gender is superior while the others are inferior. It’s about the social, political, and economic repression of women.

Oppression is not about isolated incidents. It’s about a number of incidents, habits, culture, and tradition enforcing the domination of one group over another.

Effective anti-oppression movements will view oppression as systemic. These movements take into account the fact that oppression can only be eradicated through radical, holistic change.

We therefore need a name for the institutionalisation of oppression. Feminists often call the institutionalisation of sexism “the patriarchy.”

Mainstream feminism has been traditionally concerned with gender inequality. Intersectional feminism, however, is concerned with all types of inequality. The term kyriarchy is useful as it is therefore more in line with intersectional feminism.

The tricky thing here is that some people will say (and honestly believe) that this isn’t true, because they don’t think anyone is inferior just because they’ve been told so, but it’s not nearly that obvious. There are a lot of subconscious biases that form, and are reinforced over the years, to the point that for many of us (yes, I include myself since I am still working on weeding these biases out), we act on them even if we don’t actually want to, or know we’re doing it. I know I’m particular bad with this when it comes to people who are overweight. The media would have me believe that anyone who is “fat” is lazy, unhealthy, and not a valuable human being. That’s the message I’ve been given my whole life (and it doesn’t help that I’ve had family members who reinforce the validity of that idea). The right thing to do is assess each and every person on an individual basis, but that’s very time consuming and energy intensive, so a lot of us don’t bother. And since many of us have been socially programmed in very similar ways (if we grew up in the same culture), if we get lazy, and fat shame, it’s very unlikely that someone is going to speak up and tell us we’re being inconsiderate.

Anyway, getting back to the article, what does this new term help with?

1. It acknowledges that gender-based oppression is not the only type of oppression that exists.

2. It acknowledges that one can both benefit from and be oppressed by the system.

3. It could suggest why so many oppressed people are complicit in their own oppression.

4. It does not erase people who do not identify as men or women.

5. It acknowledges that oppressions are interlinked.

I remember being dumbfounded earlier this year, when just before the annual Toronto Pride Parade, news broke that festival organizers were giving transgender groups grief and wanted them to have their own separate celebration. Yes, that’s right, the gay community felt it was separate from, and arguably more important than the trans community. Both groups are oppressed, and one is acting to further oppress the others. Similarly, as the fight for gay marriage and rights has raged on in the US, I’ve seen people remark at how the black community hasn’t come more to their aid, since the black community knows what it’s like to be held back by the system.

I happen to be “lucky” (if you want to call it that) that I was born a white male, thin (easy to get and stay “in shape”, though I have been thin-shamed many times), able-bodied, though not completely cisgender (at least not anymore), so I benefit from a lot of privilege. But I’ve always had a social justice spark in me, it has only grown much stronger as I’ve learned about feminism and the various isms of oppression (sexism, ableism, classism, ageism, etc). It has been my goal to learn and to know better, and to try to contribute as minimally as possible to existing systemic oppressions. It’s definitely not easy, especially when a lot of my peers (other white, thin, hetero, cis, middle-class, able-bodied people) haven’t learned to see or understand this stuff, and thus when I raise issue, they react to me as if I’m either “being too sensitive” or worse, “out of my mind”. I’ve had people unfriend me on facebook (at least one anyway) for posting too much about this stuff, and I’ve toned it down, but I can’t be silent. I’m just trying to find better ways to express these ideas and be less militant and radical. Really, it’s just about trying to be a better, more kind human being, and it’s bizarre that some people view efforts to do so, as going unnecessarily out of their way for something they don’t think matters. But it does.

I’ve still got a lot of work to do for myself, but the more I learn, the harder it gets to be complacent. The more I learn to see the ever subtle forms this oppression takes, the more it pains me to be in the minority of people even coming close to acting to stop it. That’s part of why I share these articles on here as well, because I want to pass on the wisdom that helps me know better, so maybe you can too.

One last quote from the article:

It also reminds us that since different oppressions exist, we can fight one form of oppression while perpetuating others.

So, I hope you consider this. Take aim at the Kyriarchy and fight to help everyone. We’re all in this together.

Care to share your thoughts?