Living in the Kyriarchy

In Nashville, Tennessee, a routine traffic stop turns into a nightmare for expectant mother Juana Villegas. Driving without a license would normally earn her a citation, but instead, Juana is arrested. An immigration officer at the police station finds she is in the country illegally. Imprisoned and awaiting a court hearing, she goes into labor three days later. At the hospital, the guard will not leave the room while she changes into a gown, forcing her to undress in front of him. While recovering, Juana is shackled by wrist and ankle to the bed; her ankles are shackled together when she gets up to go to the bathroom. The guard has disconnected the phone in her hospital room so she cannot call her husband. When she is taken back to county jail, the authorities take her newborn son from her and give him to her husband, whom she is still not allowed to see.

The sheriff’s deputy takes away the breast pump the sympathetic nurse has given Juana. Unable to pump, Juana’s breasts become painfully engorged and infected. Her child, denied her milk, quickly develops jaundice. The sheriff’s office ignores the damage done to both mother and child while Juana waits over the long 4th of July weekend for her day in court, in pain and unable to sleep.

All of this occurred pursuant to Nashville’s 287g deportation law, permitting immigration status checks at traffic stops. If Juana had been white, she would have received a citation and sent on her way by the sheriff. Because she is Latina, she was instead treated, in her own words, “like a criminal person.” (Story broken by local Latino blogger Tim A. Ch├ívez at Political Salsa and covered there in great depth; picked up by Daily Kos, the New York Times and RH Reality Check.)

Biologist Susan Shane discovers her 7-year-old adopted daughter has begun to enter puberty. Alarmed, she makes a doctor’s appointment and searches the internet for clues on what has caused her little girl to prematurely develop breasts. What she finds is startling: scientists have linked chemicals in polycarbonate plastics (used in food packaging, water bottles, and baby bottles) and in phthalates (in food packages, time-release capsules, shampoos, lotions, and deodorants, among other things) to early puberty in girls.

Susan’s daughter is Black and has probably been exposed to these damaging environmental toxins since birth. In part because U.S. government’s WIC program discourages breastfeeding by dispensing free formula, 95% of Black women bottle-feed their children–and four times as many Black girls as White girls begin puberty around age 8. And early puberty puts them at heightened risk for breast cancer, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome. Susan stops using plastic water bottles and lunch containers, and her daughter’s pubertal symptoms disappear. “But I cringe as I watch her classmates line up for school lunches heated in plastic, and eat and drink food carried from home in plastic containers,” Susan says. “Some of the girls have already grown prominent breasts and with all that I have learned, I am worried about their futures.”

These two stories illustrate intersecting oppressions beyond those of gender, injustices that can’t be entirely linked to that old, familiar villain “patriarchy.” What we’re talking about here is the operation of kyriarchy perpetuating reproductive injustice for immigrant women, poor women, and women of color. We cannot blame patriarchy alone for these injustices.

So what is kyriarchy?

Sudy lays it out for us at A Womyn’s Ecdysis. “It’s about recognizing the power-over relationships that exist because of property, religion, security, economics, citizenship, and geography.”

And, “when you talk about power assertion of a White woman over a Brown man, that’s kyriarchy. When you talk about a Black man dominating a Brown womyn, that’s kyriarchy. It’s about the human tendency for everyone trying to take the role of lord/master within a pyramid.”

Gender is never the whole story. You know that Karla Weikel, the sheriff’s spokeswoman quoted in the NY Times article about the Nashville travesty, doesn’t see herself as a woman standing in solidarity or sisterhood with Juana Villegas when she talks about how what Juana experienced is just part of “the business of corrections.” She’s not speaking from her identity as a woman–she’s speaking as a person from a position of power, invested in shoring up that system of power and oppression.

Kyriarchy is a concept pioneered by radical feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. It’s not a simple or an easy idea–particularly because it requires us to examine our own privilege. Sudy, a feminist Filipina blogger, wrote her post about “kyriarchy, not apologies” in the wake of the recent explosion about racism and exclusion of women of color in the feminist blogosphere. I recommend reading her entire post, because she speaks directly to feminist and social justice movements when she talks about what’s lacking in the concept of patriarchy.

–Erin Simonitch

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