An Interview with Mark Thomas, Kayan’s Development and Public Outreach Coordinator
What do you think characterises Kayan’s feminism?
Well, I definitely had to be part of Kayan to understand its brand of feminism. I don’t think we advertise it very much. It’s certainly not something that we wear on our sleeve. I guess the most outstanding characteristic of the feminism here is that it’s pragmatic. And I don’t just mean that in the sense that we find a way to exist in a hostile environment, but rather that our feminism is grounded in whatever is most able to improve the lives of women. That, I think, is the centre of gravity for everything we do here. I don’t have a background in feminist theory and I’m just now learning to develop that. My feminism at this stage is based on action and is not defined by what one feels or thinks, but what one does. I think this is also true for Kayan.
Don’t you think that what makes an ideology an ideology is that you have both theory and practise?
I think that theory can help us to understand the conditions that we face. It helps you to understand the reality that you live in and to understand your operating environment. But it’s the course of action that unifies because it is here that the various streams of feminism can converge in a practical way on the ground. I don’t think we all have to agree on whether or not there are fundamental, innate differences between men and women in order to agree on a course of action that can improve the lives of Palestinian women in Israel.
So it is Kayan’s pragmatism that unifies all of its different ‘feminisms’?
I think so. I’m not sure that the different ideological streams have ever played a major role in decision-making here. The theory does not determine our course of action. What determines our course of action is where we understand we can have the most impact. In that sense the theory rarely makes it to the action level. We don’t determine how we are going to interact with the women in the field based on a theory. I think the reason for that is that if there are gaps between the staff here (and there are), there are huge gaps between the staff and the women that we work with in the villages in terms of their understanding theories of feminism. We try to help them understand the different factors that contribute to the realities they live in and their own perceptions of what this means to them. I think this is a journey and as you go forward you become more and more capable – we call that ‘empowerment’.
What empowers Kayan’s staff?
In everyone’s personal life you have this journey, this cycle of believing that you understand how things are and then having it disproved, having your dichotomies shattered through experience, rebuilding a smarter more nuanced understanding of things, moving forward and having that broken into more pieces. Slowly over time your puzzle becomes comprised of more and more pieces. We learn that through practise not through theory. It is the same with relationships – the way we interact with people. For me my theoretical understanding has become more complex than it was when I started here while my practical ability, or my ability to practise feminism has become much stronger. I’m much more careful with the language I use with men and with women, for example. I’m a better listener; I hope that I’m a better partner.
What does feminism mean to you personally?
For me, feminism is a way of challenging injustice in the world. It’s not limited to the interaction between men and women. Feminism is a prism through which I can look at all sorts of things – the way that corporatism hurts people, for example, the way that wealth is consolidated by the powerful. This feels to me to be very anti-feminist intuitively because of the inequality in it. I think that feminism boils down to a question of equality. Feminism is a way of breaking down our understanding of the world. It is a way of breaking down the status quo and asking ‘how did we get to where we are and what practically can be done change it?’ It’s about getting rid of inequalities whether they are about wealth, or gender, or race or anything else.
But feminism is specifically about gender inequalities. You can be a feminist, and an anti-racist, and a peace activist…
Yes, but fundamentally, I think feminism is the core of all of those other kinds of activism and social awarenesses. Even before you’re black or white, you’re a boy or a girl – it’s the most basic component of our socialisation. It all boils back down to that first thing. Before you’ve even entered into the world, before you know how you’re going to vote or what kind of privilege you’ve been born into, people are treating you based on their preconceptions, their preference for your gender. Hierarchy, patriarchy, capitalism, corporatism, and all the other social structures derive first from this fundamental distinction that sets us apart from one another.
Were you aware of this when you started at Kayan?
I don’t think I spent as much time on thinking about these issues before Kayan. As I said before I think that Kayan helps me to practice feminism, helps me to see all those other things. I was very aware about how I felt about corporate injustice, economic injustice, racial discrimination and things like that but I don’t think that before I met these women at Kayan and started working with them did I tie all of those things to gender as directly as I am able to do now. I don’t think that gender was a driver of my activism in other arenas until I was able to practice feminism. I was able to feel like feminist before I was able to act like a feminist.
Do you think you’re a ‘good’ feminist?
I think I’m a better feminist than I used to be; I think that as an individual I’m irreverent. If people take things too seriously I’m the first to crack the inappropriate joke, and I’m the first to take away the things that we hold so dear and sacred because I think that the way in which people cling can be very detrimental. I think that this is also true for feminism.
Do you remember the first time you consciously identified as a feminist?
I probably first identified myself as a feminist consciously when I was in college, but I never identified as a feminist outwardly until recently. Not because I felt more or less strongly about it, but because maybe there was something about the word that still made me uncomfortable. Now it is something I’m very happy and quite proud about.
What does feminism mean to you as a man specifically?
First of all, in terms of my own feminism, any hang-ups about being a man in an otherwise female environment have been revealed to be my hang-ups. The sensitivities that I thought I should bring to my work here – like limiting my exposure to certain areas of our work or not sticking my nose into ‘female environments’ – were based my own misconceptions. I have never received any sort of feedback from anyone that suggests that this might be the case. I have never been received with anything but enthusiasm anywhere I have gone into the field, to villages, to meetings. The women have always listened to what I had to say and they have given me no prerogative or privilege nor handicapped me in anything. The only person who tried to bring some inequality to it, who tried to disadvantage me was me. I think I’m very comfortable now with the language of feminism as I understand it and I’m very comfortable with our work and mission here.
Why do you think so many men (and women) are wary of the term ‘feminism’?
We are all part of the same process. We don’t do ‘feminism studies’ in grade school. We don’t grow up to understand ourselves as ‘feminists’. We grow up to understand ourselves as boys and girls with fundamental differences between us. And while those are reinforced, they are rarely celebrated. They are certainly not critically explored when we are young and when socialisation is at its strongest. If the terminology of feminism gets lost in all that, we shouldn’t be surprised. To grow up and take on new language is difficult, especially as an adult. Like a foreign language that doesn’t yet fit quite right; it might feel strange. And it may be threatening based on how you are expected to look and behave. But ultimately, it is pretty simple to get over those barriers. I think that is the biggest difference now after having been part of Kayan; I enjoy being a feminist. I enjoy talking about these issue and have a whole new set of tools to understand frameworks of activism. Feminism has given me a new language to speak.