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"Oppression is a system with several pillars"

French star political scientist Emilia Roig is one of the most important voices in the anti-discrimination debate. Her book «Why We Matter» was a huge success on all major bestseller lists immediately after it appeared in February 2021. Ana Campos spoke to Emilia Roig about the illusion of progress, the male body as a point of reference and what companies can do to combat oppression.

Ana Campos spoke with Emilia Roig

Dr Roig, in March was International Women’s Day. Where are we in terms of equality?
We have certainly made progress. However, it is an illusion to believe that we have overcome misogyny. When talking about women there is often a discussion about violence. You almost feel that as long as there is no physical violence against women, things are not all that bad. However, there is no area in which women are not disadvantaged.

Can you give examples?
There is still a big difference in pay on the labour market. Women are heavily under-represented in politics. In medicine, research is still based on the male body as a reference point. In the film and media industry, the objectively valid perspective is the male perspective. Overall, I would say that there is not a single area where we could say equality exists.

In your book you talk about the “trap of individualism”: You say we often look at discrimination in a very one-sided way and limit ourselves to individual groups, in this case men and women. What would be an alternative approach to combating oppression as a whole?
Oppression as a whole must be understood as a system comprising several pillars. These pillars, in turn, are the different systems of oppression: capitalism, patriarchy and racism in the sense of white dominance. Each of these systems, in turn, has subsystems that exist as a mixture of all these systems. It is imperative that the various systems are combated together or alternatives sought. Focusing on a single system has the effect that the others grow because they amplify and nourish each other.

However, there is no area in which women are not disadvantaged.

Imagine, if you will, a bag with 3 holes that water flows out of. If we were to plug one hole, this simply means that more water flows out of the other two. It doesn't solve the problem. With regard to women, it is very important to initially deconstruct the category "woman". The root problem is that we divide humanity into two rigid sexes: This maintains a hierarchy that cements the existing power ratio. Looking at the systems together means also considering the different characteristics within the category of "woman" that lead to different forms of discrimination, e.g. skin colour, ethnic origin, social class, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.

You talk about “unlearning” in your book. Unlearning established structures and patterns as a prerequisite for being able to dismantle the existing foundation of oppression in the first place.
Exactly. Revealing the patterns is the first step. Unlearning them is the second and is a very important step that takes a very long time and is also extremely difficult. Because we have internalised "reality" as objective and neutral. If we were to question it first – and by "we" I do not mean the few people who are aware of it and live outside the matrix – we would make much more progress. Then we could create new possibilities for how our society should look and how our institutions should work.

In this context, you also talk about a necessary revolution.
Yes, this process requires a profound transformation. Many of our institutions would initially be abolished. Let’s take the tax measures in most European countries as an example: They are based on the very patriarchal model of a bread-winner and a wife who stays at home or only works part-time. Once we have recognised that systems like this lead to discrimination, we would abolish them and design new systems.

With regard to women, it is very important to initially deconstruct the category «woman.» The root problem is that we divide humanity into two rigid sexes.

What can companies do to dismantle the aforementioned foundation of oppression, even though, of course, they are capitalist?
Of course companies are capitalist, but they are also patriarchal and racist – it is important to recognise this. As a first step, companies should become aware that they maintain and perpetuate time-honoured hierarchies – at least if they are meritocratic.

What would the next step be?
There are several ways in which companies can make a contribution. For example, by creating better access for people who have so far been disadvantaged and excluded. Or by rethinking definitions of what is considered "professional", "competent" or "productive" – and no longer measuring a person’s value by gender, social class, skin colour, etc. By defining new criteria for recruitment processes, promotion, etc. – that is, for all those systems and measures that are used to define what constitutes a good employee. For example, there are companies that say: Ok, when a woman comes back from parental leave, she gets points or is automatically promoted, because this experience has taught her important skills that she would not learn at work.
Most importantly, we should question the 40-hour working week. Many of our jobs and activities could be completed in less time. We would all be less stressed and would also have the opportunity to acknowledge unpaid work and give it a corresponding place in society. Of course, it is precisely the 40 hours that are a way of maintaining the existing system. It is this free time, which would be associated with less work and would threaten the system’s existence – quite apart from the fact that people would suddenly no longer invest the majority of their lifetime for someone else and for "money". This would call many things into question.

You have achieved a lot. What do you plan to do next?
As an NGO, we are to some extent dependent on external funding partners. They participate in the decisions over what we can or cannot do. At the moment, we spend a lot of time measuring impact, with monitoring and evaluation. This is also a way of controlling civil society: by "pinning it down" in framework conditions so that it cannot move freely and also cannot react as quickly to social changes. Either way: We have a lot planned and will continue our work.

About Emilia Roig

Emilia Zenzile Roig (*1983) is a French political scientist, activist and founder of the Center for Intersectional Justice (CIJ) in Berlin. In February 2021, her first book entitled “Why We Matter – Das Ende der Unterdrückung" (Why We Matter – The End of Oppression) was published. Among other things, she uses her family history to describe how power hierarchies and systems of oppression can be recognised and combated.


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