The first day of my women’s human rights class was amazing. It seemed that everyone in the class agreed that women’s rights are important, even if we all had different points of view, different backgrounds, and different ideas about how best to advance those rights. I signed up for the class because I needed a change from my usual course of study (terrorism), and women’s human rights are a particular passion of mine. The first week more than met my expectations.
But by the second week we started discussing some of the serious issues, delving into a debate about whether a universal or more culturally nuanced definition of human rights was more important to ensuring rights for everyone. The debate was lively, and even a little heated, but most of my classmates were able to keep it civil.
However, one man began to show his true colors. Let’s call him D.
D felt that Western cultures are inherently superior to Eastern cultures (especially those in which Islam is the dominant religion). He expressed a desire to see Western ideals forced on other cultures through force and implied that people living in these other countries are unable to create cultural change.
These comments made during the second week of class turned out to be D light.
As the class continued, the topic turned more specifically toward women’s rights, and D revealed himself to be a full-blown misogynist who fancied himself an ally. D regularly made comments about women needing male protection. He once said that women are expected to remain in bed while their husbands protect them in the case of a home intruder.
I began to dread going to class because of the insensitive comments D would make in what was supposed to be a break from the everyday sexism faced in my other classes; but the sexism in my women’s rights class was actually far more oppressive and stifling than any class I have ever taken. Discussions were limited to D and the one or two students who were willing to take him on — almost always other men.
It finally came to a head when our professor posted a video of female fighters from Kurdistan on the mandatory discussion forum. D immediately posted a critique of the video, calling the young women “girls” and using language that infantilized and minimized them. Most students expressed that whether this film was made for propaganda or not (and featured actual trained fighting women as opposed to actors) was irrelevant to the message it was sending: that women can be involved in the military in Syria.
Collectively, the students and the professor responded to D’s comments with outrage. Our professor called in a female former Marine to address his comments and lead a discussion about why the language he chose was inappropriate, especially since D had never interacted with the young women in the video and had no idea what they had actually gone through. As the former Marine pointed out, even if the women featured were as inexperienced as D suggested, everyone has to start somewhere. Everyone (who shoots) shoots for the first time at some point.
D dug in. He made reference to the makeup the women were wearing and pointed out that soldiers would never wear such a thing, as though it had any bearing on how capable the women were. As most women in the class pointed out, female soldiers are often expected to wear makeup for official functions, and many would wear makeup on camera, even if it is not typical of their day-to-day life.
The professor tried to lay some ground rules for having a productive discussion, but by the time D’s comments crossed a universally agreed upon line, we were already through midterms and the tone of the class was set. It took weeks for the classroom dynamics to come around, but it finally did in the last few weeks.
D never really changed his behavior; he just made it much quieter. He started speaking to others during breaks, making quiet jokes about women’s weakness and even suicide when he thought most weren’t listening. D’s misogyny made it difficult for most of the women in class to feel safe speaking up about some of the most difficult topics presented. It took away from the learning experience. Disagreement and discussion is the most valuable element of a traditional education, but when it isn’t done in a way that’s respectful, it has the opposite effect.
We did finally manage to salvage what was left of the class, near the end of November. Since D started making quieter comments that other students either didn’t hear or could ignore, more students started speaking up during discussions, and we had a productive last few weeks.
Perhaps the biggest lesson for all of us is that misogyny can come from anywhere, and it’s worst when it comes from someone who thinks of themself as an ally. These “allies” are perhaps the worst of all because they are often unwilling to see their own shortcomings.