Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Pedagogy of the Oppressed: A Reflection

…healing begins where the wound was made.
- Alice Walker

“Hey sweet China eyes,” shouts the man on the corner to my roommate. “Them are some sexy China eyes!” We keep walking.

“How much, baby?” The man rolls down the passenger side window and makes an offer to my friend. She keeps walking. 

“I love Mardi Gras! Ya gotta show ‘em,” our neighbor slurs toward my female housemate. “Come on, let me see ‘em! Ya gotta!” Our male housemates laugh nervously. Everyone walks away.

“A man who sits in front of the liquor store was saying really sexually inappropriate things about [female teammate],” reports a male friend. “So, I think you ladies need to be more aware of what you’re wearing. Maybe start dressing more modestly.”

“Do you notice Freire writes ‘women and men’?” My female housemate asked. “He puts women first. Isn’t it jarring?”

Jarring. For women to be first. For women to be considered at all. Jarring.

There is a deep feminine wound that penetrates every culture, every language, and every major religion—a wound so deep, so engrained in the fabric of our collective subconscious skin, that many women don’t even know it is there; others are awakening to discover they’ve been in pain for years, aching from an injury they never knew existed.

I look into the eyes of the women in my Fifth Ward neighborhood, women who have seen the days of cold sidewalks, cold hearts, the back of a palm, the bottom of a bottle. Women who have accepted the image projected upon them: object. I see the hopelessness in their eyes, the glazed stare that looks beyond me to a future covered in darkness. They are addicted. They are ashamed. And the men on the corner yell a little louder, pull them in a little closer, let their hands linger a little longer. I see the women. I see their wound. The same wound within me, within all women.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire explains, “Self-depreciation is another characteristic of the oppressed, which derives from their internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them. So often do they hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing and are incapable of learning anything…that in the end they become convinced of their own unfitness” (45). To be convinced of their gender’s inadequacy and their second class citizenry, how often do the young girls in my neighborhood need to see their mothers touched and yelled at by strange men; how often do they need to hear their pastors tell the congregation that women should remain silent; how often do they need to see the advertisements and billboards telling them they are a sex symbol, an object of men’s scrutiny; how often do they need to sing the hymns and read the words that pronounce God as male and women as the downfall of all creation, the stain of original sin embedded on their bodies and in their souls, the sex that brought the curse. How young does she have to be to internalize the message that she is worth far less than her male counterparts in our patriarchal society?

The Christian Church of North America has relied largely on the idea of banking education to both implicitly and explicitly assert male dominance. The “knowledgeable” men from the pulpits and from ancient history pour static reality—static religion—into the brains of “ignorant” women, women who have internalized the patriarchal view of womankind and, in the eyes of the “educators,” need to be told how to think and feel. Those who have benefited from patriarchy are quick to distrust those who do not benefit, those who question the system. They have a “lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know” (42). Even women, “given the circumstances which have produced their duality…distrust themselves,” thus relying on the information fed to them by the beneficiaries of a patriarchal culture and religion (45).  In his weblog “5 Ways to Avoid Undermining Your Theology of Gender, Tim Peck discusses his own interactions with patriarchy benefactors within the Christian church saying, “In my previous ministry experiences, opinionated and assertive women were sometimes labeled by male leaders as “troublemakers” or “busybodies”. Once labeled, men had the social justification to discount anything these women said, in effect silencing their voice.” By silencing women, men effectively close the door to dialogue.

Friere writes, “Because dialogue is an encounter among women and men who name the world, it must not be a situation where some name on behalf of others. It is an act of creation; it must not serve as a crafty instrument for the domination of one person by another” (70).  Instead of dialogue within the church and the society it has shaped, men have chosen to name the world on behalf of women, expecting complicit acceptance of this fixed reality.

“The language we use says a lot about what we value,” says Tim Peck. “…I would sometimes speak of ‘men’ or ‘man’ to refer to all people, not realizing that such language eclipses women...” In the Bible, God gives Adam, the first man, the task of naming the animals and his helpmate, thus making meaning of, identifying, and shaping the world and the women in it. It has been passed down from Biblical times that those who “named the world,” who created the language, the vocabulary, and the terminology of our culture, did so on behalf of those who were not, as the story goes, granted that authority.  Women have not had the opportunity or the encouragement to make their own meaning, to name their own world.  The inability to create their own meaning of the world has had rippling effects on women throughout time, converging in examples I see within my own neighborhood. Women in my neighborhood have been submerged in the myth of God-given male dominance. Women respond to this myth in several ways: anger, indifference, submission, or eager assertion (because they do not see how the myth only benefits the oppressors, in this case, the men who have perpetuated the myth). 

In many cases, I have seen women fall prey to fatalism. As Freire explains, fatalism could be misconstrued as docility, but far from being an inherent characteristic trait this fatalism “is the fruit of an historical and sociological situation” which leads to women seeing “their suffering, the fruit of exploitation, as the will of God—as if God were the creator of this “organized disorder.” Submerged in reality, the oppressed cannot perceive clearly the “order” which serves the interests of the oppressors whose image they have internalized” (44).  Fatalism, in turn, leads many women in my neighborhood to drugs or prostitution. The thinking behind these choices may very well be based in the idea that the world has been presented to them as a static, unchanging reality that they can do nothing about; they must accept their domination as submissive receptors. When she does not feel she has the power to change her world, her situation, her place in the “pecking order,” she must find some way of dealing with this system by numbing her pain or giving in to the idea of submission, if only as a façade in order to survive.  Since women have been conditioned to perceive this system of oppressive male dominance as being assigned by God, Freire says, “it is extremely unlikely that [they] will seek their own liberation—an act of rebellion which they may view as a disobedient violation of the will of God, as an unwarranted confrontation with destiny” (145). In Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd explains her own violent awakening to the oppressive system of patriarchy, her first steps toward the “rebellion” of which Freire speaks: “I was in a religion that celebrated fatherhood and sonship. I was in an institution created by men and for men… the church, my church, was not just a part of the male dominant system I was waking up to, but a prime legitimizer of it…religion has given men a God like themselves—a God exclusively male in imagery, which legitimized and sealed their power. How fortunate for men, she said, that their sovereign authority has been vested in them by the Supreme Being…” (50). 

As Freire points out, “as long as the oppressed remain unaware of the causes of their condition, they fatalistically “accept” their exploitation” (46). The first step toward true freedom from oppression is dialogue and problem posing.  This step has been in process for years, but needs to be culturally and historically situated to meet the needs of each generation. While women nowadays are not asking, “Why can’t we vote?” They must become aware of the questions that need to be asked in our cultural context: Why are women not leading the church? Why is pornography the biggest industry in the world? Why are women expected to change their appearance to satiate men’s sexual impulses? Why is it expected for women to marry and have children? Why are most single-parent households female led? Why is rape happening and being used as a weapon in war? Why are women being exploited around the world for sex? Why are women not given the same opportunities as men to lead businesses, households, and congregations?

While working with an after school program at my church, a little girl asked, “Are you married?” “No,” I replied. “Why not?” She asked, obviously confused.  This little girl had already internalized that female identity relies on men. She did not understand how a woman could grow to adulthood without being married, without a man as her distinguishing factor.  She had not yet learned to ask questions about her thought process. She had learned only to accommodate to “this normalized ‘today’” (73).

As women and men begin to ask questions about “the way it’s always been,” they will begin to enter into dialogue, together. “Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence,” says Friere (72). This mutual trust among women and men opens both genders’ eyes to the disservice being done to both of them through this system of male dominance, which has made women into objects and men into object owners.   Both genders need to be liberated from the oppressive unjust system of domination, freeing both women and men to embrace their full humanity and become creators of their world, a world in which equality is for everyone.

As my neighbor Juanita told me, “Oh, you gotta be a woman. You be a woman. Everywhere you go, you be a woman.” Advocating one another’s full humanity, women and men can liberate themselves from our patriarchal culture.


Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum International
Publishing Group, Inc.
Kidd, S. M. (2002). Dance of the Dissident Daughter. New York: Harper Collins
Peck, T. (2013, Nov. 20). 5 Ways to Avoid Undermining Your Theology of Gender.
[Weblog]. Retrieved from

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