I had a paradoxical childhood. I can’t remember how old I was when I gained consciousness of my surroundings, at least when it comes to where I was or who I was with. The question about who I am is still a present existential question of its own. But, by the time I gained awareness of the location and people I grew up with, I vividly remember that I shared a house with three other permanent residents: my mother, her youngest sibling (my uncle), and my late grandmother. We also shared the house with other family members from time to time, mostly my grandmother’s five other sons, who usually spent a couple of weeks at the house (even months, for the reason God knows what) but never actually stayed.
During that period, I realized that the house and its household were controlled by the women: my mother and my grandmother. The legal owner of the house, my late grandfather, died before I was born. My biological father, on the other hand, divorced my mother shortly after I was born. I first realized the absence of their respective husband when I looked at framed photos spread throughout the house: pictures of my grandparents standing side-by-side, wearing formal clothes and an image of my parents, holding the newly-born me, in what seems to be a hospital ward. Then, I connected the dots, “Wait, why are these men in the pictures but not here?” The dynamics endured after we moved out, soon after I began kindergarten, to the place where my parents and I lived today. My mother was the sole breadwinner, while my grandmother took care of her youngest son, who is schizophrenic, and me.
However, the presence of my other uncles, albeit irregular, constructed my understanding of what a man ‘ought’ to behave. Despite the absence of a ‘father figure,’ my uncles introduced me, for example, to the 90s alternative rock music (although, in retrospect and in comparison with today’s music, they sounded more like a pop instead of rock), the concept of dating, and violence. Their music taste was okay. But, let’s just say that my uncles’ behavior towards women was not exemplary: they all would be at least ‘canceled’ by today’s feminists (if not reported to the police). My uncles used to bring their woman friends to the house, act as if it was their own, and settle their problems there: the yelling, throwing slaps, and breaking items included. Ironically, my uncles also treated my mother and my late grandmother similarly.
As such, during that formative stage, I started to believe that a man is entitled to get whatever he wishes as long as an ample amount of selfishness and force is used.
Nevertheless, the vicious cycle of violence was not without resistance. My mother was ruthless, to say the least, in countering her brothers’ behavior. At one time, my mother caught one of my uncles using drugs in the house we lived in right now. I was in elementary school when this happened. I heard screams from my room, so I went outside, looked into my uncle’s room (because the yelling came from there), and witnessed my mother pummeled a porcelain ashtray into my uncle’s forehead. “Enough is enough!” my mother said after barraging a series of curse words and blood dripping out of my uncle’s skull.
Hence, the paradox: on the one hand, my uncles taught me how a man ‘should be,’ and, on the other hand, I witnessed a woman who (literally) fought back.
The paradox got even more paradoxical when it came to the relationship between my mother and my biological father. My mother is still sour (and rightly so) when talking about my birth father’s attitude towards her and his eventual decision to file for a divorce. I remember my mother once told me that she once woke up from her sleep to what I later understood as an act of marital rape. However, she also believes that it is unfair if I have to grow up possessing similar resentment towards him. As such, she always encouraged me to get in touch with my birth father and ‘behave.’ “Hold on. You were raped, and yet you expect me to get along with your rapist?”
And so I went through the rest of my elementary school years until my undergraduate years in college believing that male superiority and women who resist are two sides of the same coin, in which ultimate result would be I, by virtue of my sex, will eventually get whatever I want. Some of you may think that because I enrolled in one of the best college programs in the country, I will soon realize that my thought process was totally mistaken. I hate to break the news: it was not. One of my biggest regrets in life is that, when I was in college, I accused a friend of being gay just because I could do so without thinking about the intended or unintended consequences of my action, leave alone thinking that my accusation was discriminatory and misogynistic. As a result, the accused was ostracized and stigmatized while I continued living my life as usual. Oh, the privilege of being a cis-male.
It was not until I met and talked to more women (and other marginalized groups, such as the LGBT+s) who share similar struggles to my mother’s that I realized that violence against women can not be justified for whatever reason. In 2016, a couple of friends and I co-founded a YouTube channel called March, aiming to produce short documentaries on issues considered taboo in Indonesia. For two years, I met with tons of people, including victims and survivors of gender-based violence. I started noticing patterns. First, of course, the realization that what my mother had to go through is also being undergone by numerous other women. Secondly, what I did to my friend in college is also being normalized and done by many men. Subsequently, stigmatized people are also enduring the same repercussions as what my friend encountered, if not worse. Thirdly, despite the vast number of victims and survivors of gender-based violence, instances of brutality are still underreported. “Women are silenced by both the invisibility and the acceptability of the problem,” said Laura Bates in a book she wrote in 2015, Everyday Sexism.
It took me 24 years to recognize these patterns and that women and other marginalized groups are unjustly treated in the current patriarchal system; the system I and many others helped reinforce for years. Since then, I have tried to be a better ally for women and other marginalized groups. Or at least that’s what I intended to do.
I wouldn’t say that unlearning and undoing the patriarchy is easy. As I explained above, it took me until 2016 to realize that the system was a colossal error. However, I wrote this piece to encourage you, men, to try unlearning and undoing male superiority nonetheless. Because, first, time and time again, various research have shown that gender-equal societies thrive better than their discriminatory counterparts. Take, for example, the World Health Organization’s report in 2018 that says that where women are allowed to work, receive equal wages as their male equivalents, and are freed from undue violence, men are healthier and more satisfied with life. Or the fact that, according to Human Rights Careers, where women are free to regulate their own reproductive system and, hence, have a child they really want to take care of, the child would have better access to education, healthcare, and, eventually, a better future. Fighting for women’s rights, therefore, is a positive-sum game: everybody wins.
More importantly, the second reason for us, men, to try unlearning and undoing patriarchy is because the fight for a more just world is far from being over. In 2020, The Guardian said that although the conviction rate of reported rapes nosedived from 24 percent in 1985 to 2 percent in 2018, rape cases soared during this period from 1,842 to 67,600. Bear in mind that the figure excludes at least three things. First, it omits the number of unreported cases, such as those commissioned by my uncles toward their woman friends or the domestic violence experienced by my mother, which, I assume, could reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Secondly, the figure represents only reported cases in a particular region. It does not take into account, for instance, cases in Indonesia which in 2020 alone, according to the National Commission on Violence Against Women, had almost 300,000 reported cases. Thirdly, it ignores the number of everyday, seemingly mundane sexism that women encounter on a daily basis: the catcalling, the mansplaining, the uninvited gaze, the stalking, the slut-shaming.
I want to end this article by saying how I regret who I was and how I behaved. I apologize for not taking the marginalized’s size sooner. I wish I had stood up for my mother and my late grandmother during their turbulent times facing my biological father and uncles. I wish I did not spread false rumors about my friend’s sexual orientation. I wish I was brave enough to fight the patriarchy alongside the victims and survivors of gender-based violence alike way before 2016. I wish I was a better person, and, oh, how I wish you loathe the older version of myself as much as I do. If your past experience (or your present self and surroundings) even remotely resembles mine, make a quick u-turn and fight for women’s and the marginalized rights immediately.