A few years ago, I got into a fascinating conversation with a taxi driver. It began with him asking me what I did, and when I said I was a writer, he asked what I wrote about. I always hesitate before answering this question because I am not certain what response I may get. Nevertheless, I tell the truth.
“Lots of things,” I said, “but particularly women and feminism.” With relief, I saw he liked this answer. Some men don’t. “Ah,” he responded, enthused. “My religion, Islam, is very feminist. We are taught to respect and venerate women as mothers, wives and daughters.”
“That’s good,” I said, “but do you also venerate them as themselves? You know, not because of their relationship to a man, but just as fellow human beings who happen to be female?”
My driver turned to look at me. (As a woman, I always sit in the back – I have had the occasional unpleasant experience in a taxi.) “I never thought about it like that!”
Of course, Islam is no more guilty than any other male-dominated religion or organisation (and isn’t that almost all of them?) of seeing women entirely through the prism of their relationship with men. Our own PM, a devout Pentecostal Christian, is just the latest (at time of writing, anyway) in a long line of blokes who have inadvertently revealed the unconscious narcissism at the core of patriarchy by their response to the suffering of a woman. Instead of empathising as a fellow human being, they centre themselves.
Asked his response to a young woman alleging sexual assault in a minister’s office by an LNP staffer, Scott Morrison said his wife had given him a new perspective by advising him to respond as “a father first – what would you want to happen if it was our girls?”
He copped a bollocking for this “father of daughters” response, mostly from women who are very clear as to why they do not wish to be defined by their relationship to men. But for some men, like my taxi driver and our PM, this assumption is so unconscious it’s literally something they have never thought about. That’s why they are so blindsided when women object.
Women object because defining them as someone’s mother, wife or daughter hints at ownership. It reveals a tendency by some men to see the women in their lives as possessions, something to be guarded (protected?) rather than free and equal human beings.