Dismantling Patriarchy: The Deconstruction of Traditional Gender Roles
The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, “It’s a girl.” -Shirley Chisholm
When I was about 11 or 12 I saw my cousin get her face punched in by her husband in front of an abandoned gas station. It was a warm summer night and the normally loud Brooklyn neighborhood was uncharacteristically quiet save for two crack heads getting high down the block and a passing car that was blasting Slick Rick’s “Hey Young World” from the speakers. My mother, sister, aunt, cousin and I were walking home from the annual feast of St. Carmel eating zeppoles and recounting the events of the night. I don’t recall Maggie’s husband being with us. I remember him appearing out of nowhere like the boogey man in a bad dream.
One minute we were strolling down the block, and the next minute Shorty was dragging Maggie across the filthy pavement. When she tried to fight back he put one hand around her neck and squeezed. The weight of his arm came down like a sledgehammer. He punched her so hard Maggie lost her breath for a few seconds. Her mouth agape, but no sound came out. She didn’t scream or cry. She floated midair, voiceless. I stood there waiting for my mother and aunt to do something, to say something, but all they said was, uno no se mete en cosas de matrimonio. We stood there frozen until it was over.
It was the first time I’d ever witnessed such violence and my young mind did not know how to process what I saw. That night when we got home my mother put my sister and I to bed like she normally did. There was no discussion or explanation. In fact, we never talked about it. It was as if it had never happened. Now almost thirty years later and with two daughters of my own, I reflect back on that night and try to put myself in my mother’s shoes. What if I was her? Would I have responded differently? Would I have intervened? Would I have had a conversation with my daughters that night about domestic violence? Would I have talked to them about the dangers of staying in an abusive relationship? Would I have told them about the family member who was murdered by her husband in a jealous rage? Would I have told them that domestic abuse is never ok? Would I have reminded them of their beauty and strength, and worth?
Domestic violence isn’t talked about much in Latino cultures. In fact, emotional and physical abuse of Latinas by their male partners is deeply woven into the tapestry of Latino culture in this country. Many children witness their mothers or female family members being physically and emotionally abused by their husbands or partners (Perilla et al, Violence and Victims, Vol. 9, №4,1994). It is something we are internalized to believe is normal and acceptable despite how wrong it is.
I grew up in a family where machismo was prevalent. Generational conditioning had acclimatized the women in my family to do as their husbands, fathers, brothers said. They never questioned them about anything and simply did as they were told.
When I witnessed my cousin get hit by her husband my natural instinct was to help her, because isn’t that what you do when someone is in danger? My young mind couldn’t comprehend why no one intervened on her behalf. After that beating I remember watching them walk off together and everyone acting as if nothing happened. As if getting pummeled in the middle of the street was a completely normal occurrence.
In some way, I guess it was because these events happened more than once with other family members and each time it wasn’t talked about. It was swept under the rug and the women would return to playing their roles as good wives and nurturing mothers. They had adapted to relinquishing their power because that’s what they were taught. The construct of machismo is rooted in the idea that women should be self-sacrificing while men are dominant and tyrannical.
What I didn’t realize back then was that from the moment a female is born she is taught how to conform and relinquish her power. We are told how to look, how to act, how to speak, when to speak, what to wear. Society imposes gender biases the minute a child leaves their mother’s womb and enters this world. We’re taught that blue is for boys. Pink is for girls. Dolls are for girls. Trucks are for boys. We’re taught that girls need to be quiet and reserved while boys must be assertive and outspoken. Women apologize when they don’t need to. Men hardly ever apologize even when they’re wrong. Women shrink themselves so that their partners can feel bigger, greater, even when they are not.
And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man. If you are the breadwinner in your relationship with a man, pretend that you are not, especially in public, otherwise you will emasculate him.- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
We learn to compete with one another for the affection of men. We nip, tuck, and contort our bodies into unrealistic expectations to make ourselves more attractive. We suck in bellies. Push up tits. Contour faces. Plump lips. Risk our lives in back alley basements to get our back sides injected with industrial grade silicone, cement, Fix-a-Flat, mineral oil, and superglue administered by unqualified individuals to attain a level of beauty that society has brainwashed us into believing is necessary. And while I believe women should do whatever makes them happy, a part of me wonders what is it that one is truly trying to fix when making these on the surface cosmetic changes.
The desire to change what’s on the outside stems from something going on internally, a longing to become something other than what we are. What damage is the inner child trying to repair? Why isn’t who we are enough? This feeling of inadequacy, is often rooted in the individual’s low self-concept of themselves and many times is based on what some man in their life has communicated as desirable. As a mother, it is my job to deconstruct the patriarchy in this country so that my daughters know unequivocally that they are enough.
In my home, we don’t conform to traditional gender roles. We are raising our girls to be both strong and strong willed; to be smart, confident, and independent. I am unlearning what I was taught about gender and what it means to be a woman. I’ve come to realize everything I witnessed as a child has influenced who I am. My writing and the empowerment work I do with women is a direct result of my childhood experiences. My writing is a form of resistance. I write so that my daughters know our voices and our stories matter. I write so they know there is power in words.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “To choose to write is to reject silence.” I’ve learned that we risk repeating history if we don’t learn from it. We can’t avoid it or run from it, but instead meet it head on. We must not be afraid to ask the tough questions or have the difficult conversations. We must be willing to construct a new narrative. We must be brave enough to rewrite what history has traditionally taught us we should be.
As President Obama once said “ We need to keep changing a culture that shines a particularly unforgiving light on women and girls of color.” We must relentlessly work at dismantling patriarchy even if we’re doing it one word at a time.