The patriarchy — not the pandemic — is leaving men as lonely as women

Many will attest to the fact that the lockdown has been tough. Relationships — old and new — have not withstood the pandemic (quite literally because of the colossal loss of life on account of the government’s abysmal response), and also because love is hard enough when your brain isn’t consumed by the thought of a mutating virus, eradicating mankind from the planet!

I have been fortunate enough to have the likes of Bell Hooks, Bernardine Evaristo and JJ Bola as my companions during the lockdown. Also present (and often overstaying their welcome in such esteemed company) are dating apps, Bumble and Hinge.

I’ve been on and off Bumble for the past year, either taking a break with a jackpot of ‘screenshot research’ for the sitcom on matrimonial services my cousin and I are writing. Or more frequently, deleting the app in abject horror/frustration/disgust on account of an interaction that leaves me convinced I’m being featured on the new season of Punk’d. Admittedly, Ashton Kutcher is not emerging from a concealed control room to feign sympathy for my ordeal. Instead, the damning effects of the patriarchy on the psyche of men everywhere is oozing from behind the screen, jamming the keyboard and poisoning the interface — rendering it entirely inaccessible.

From men telling me they’re looking for “good Muslim girls” to declaring that I’m “too white for a Pakistani” which apparently makes me “more attractive”, the tentacles of the patriarchy Octopus (analogy borrowed from the brilliant Mona Eltahawy), have been firmly locked around my phone — and consequently my throat — all the while tightening its grip.

In 2020, a year rocked by a global pandemic; the ongoing effects of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy seen in the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor (whose killers are yet to be arrested) and countless others; colossal COVID-19 deaths because money is king; natural calamities resembling Biblical plagues; horrific aviation disasters and more, is my search for companionship really that relevant right now? I’d say no, if the patriarchy weren’t contaminating the process.

Take, for example, the man who asked me about my recent travel experience to Cairo. I explained I was tentative to return. “Why?” he enquired. Well, in 2012, I had been chased by a group of men in a Cairo market. “People go a bit crazy with selling things sometimes.” No, this wasn’t in pursuit of a sale. It was sexual harassment. “How can you be sure?” Um, maybe because it happened to me. Street sexual harassment is horrific in many places across the world, and sadly, in this survey on girls’ safety by Plan International, Cairo ranks in the Top 10 for cities where girls and young women are at risk of sexual harassment in public spaces.

Anyway, I tell him, I was relieved to not have had that same experience on this occasion, and was equally delighted I got to visit the Umm Kulthum museum! I went on to explain that I was working on completing a documentary proposal on the Egyptian singer — known as Egypt’s fourth pyramid — whose music I love, and whose life and illustrious career I am fascinated by. Since starting my research, I had fallen even more in love with Cairo, the city that had moved and inspired Kawkab Al Sharq — the star of the East — herself. I had even contemplated moving there for a few months to develop my Arabic language skills and experience the wonders of Cairo.

The response was curt and cut just as sharply.

“It’s stupid to go to a tourist market and expect anything else.”

Sorry?

“And who are they to make this list? I could make up statistics and say anything. Cairo is no worse than anywhere else.”

Absolutely. Sexual harassment is terrible anywhere it happens — I was just explaining tha- I don’t bother to complete typing my response because before I’m done, this arrives:

“You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

I am incensed. I want to shout and scream and burn a hole in my keyboard as my fingers beat out a response packaged perfectly with my wrath and the ineradicable facts about his ignorance, his gas lighting, his deep-seated misogyny. But I feel my spirit waning under the tightening tentacles of the patriarchy. I’m tired and I’ve had enough. What’s the point? I ask myself. Do I want a partner or a project? I exhale.

I don’t think we’re compatible. Wish you the best of luck in your search.

Before I can reach for the ‘unmatch’ icon, the ‘typing…’ prompt appears. Do not stick around, I hear my brain warn. Hit unmatch now — you won’t like what’s coming. But she knows I’m stubborn.

“Fine — if you want to judge me and not read between the lines, that’s up to you. All I’m saying is, you shouldn’t be so naive.”

Amidst the silence, the resounding response from my brain arrives: Told you, dumb arse.

The interactions have continued in a similar vein.

“I’m a sapixosexual and you sound so intellectual…you definitely have potential…” and finally when my patience runs out: “You’re letting emotions take over passions…trust me, you’ll start thinking differently when I educate you on some things.”

Hope is a strange thing. Unlike a phoenix rising magnificently from the ashes, hope emerges punctured with holes and barely afloat, gasping wildly, but grateful for the air just the same. Or maybe it’s not hope at all but the drive of a spirit running wildly from the possibility of a lifetime of loneliness (not to be confused with solitude, which we all desperately need more of, IMO).

And so, two weeks ago, I tentatively ventured back into the world of in-person dating. Like many, I have been exercising caution on account of my parents: my father is in his 70s and is diabetic. Since March 15th, as the designated family ‘shopper’, I have only really left my house for essentials and the bi-weekly grocery shop for three households.

So I meet the orthopedic surgeon after running a work errand — open area, socially distanced, masks on and sanitising hands while standing, sitting, walking etc. He arrives late and seems as fed up as me. But we both quickly warm during the conversation. I offer my solidarity for the treatment of NHS staff during the pandemic. He seems unfazed and says he hasn’t been working on any COVID wards, so it hasn’t really bothered him. The conversation veers towards the specifics of why we are meeting. I explain, as per my profile, that I’m looking for empathy — I feel someone who carries this quality will care deeply for the world and the people in it, and by extension, be motivated to fight for justice and equality.

“You’re a feminist then?” he asks, annoyance dripping from his tongue while his eyes roll so far back into his skull, I wonder if his pupils will ever resurface.

Yep.

He takes a sip of his drink.

“I just don’t get what all the whining is about? There are real problems out there.”

I’m holding my breath now. I notice my right hand, previously sat relaxed in my lap is now curled into a fist — nails digging mercilessly into my palm. I exhale. Have you ever read Bell Hooks? I ask in the friendliest tone I can conjure.

What follows is a brief conversation on Hooks, intersectionality, and JJ Bola (whose brilliant ‘Mask Off’ I had just finished reading that morning). I reference a handful of “real problems”: violence against women, the pay gap, notions of ‘femininity’, and the concept of patriarchal masculinity among others. I notice he is listening intently. He asks questions, seeks clarification. I can’t work out in this moment if this is a respectful exchange between two inquisitive people or if he is being polite and waiting until I stop talking to change the subject.

Silence ensues.

“So what do you do for work again?” Of course it was the latter.

At the end of the date, I bid him farewell and we go our separate ways. Seven days later, while I’m on FaceTime with a dear friend, a Bumble notification pops up. It’s him:

“I’ve got a cold and a positive COVID test. I think you should get a test too.”

I’m holding my breath again. I screenshot the message and send it to the friend I’m on FaceTime with. The screen reads ‘paused’ while she checks her messages. I hear a gasp. She returns onscreen, hand clasped tightly around her mouth. We stare at each other in silence. “Are you OK?” she mumbles from behind her clasped hand. She watches me spiral.

In the ensuing 30 minutes, I make a mental list of everyone I’ve been in contact with in the past week; I log on to the government website to book a COVID test — and am stunned by the amount of personal information required to book said test; I contemplate adding my parents onto the test request. I cannot believe I put their lives at risk for this. I am ashamed and furious with myself. I book a test for the next morning. I pace my room, attempting to regulate my palpitating heartbeat. I think about going downstairs at 1am to tell my father there’s a chance I might be infected and have been spreading COVID around the house for the past seven days. I reason with myself that panicking my 70+ diabetic father in the early hours of the morning is probably not the best decision. I start thinking about the importance of a memorial service for my non-Muslim friends. Grief is hard enough without having a way to process, I think. I FaceTime my friend back and ask her to execute the emergency plan for my impending memorial. She giggles uncomfortably but promises to follow through and I know she means it.

“Have you responded to him, by the way?” she asks. Oh no — in the midst of my selfish breakdown, I completely forgot to respond and say something encouraging to the person who unequivocally has the virus. “What are you going to say?” my friend asks. I don’t know. I’m still processing and frankly, angry — at myself, at him, at the situation.

Thank you for letting me know. Wishing you better.

“That’s a good response,” my friend says encouragingly. She proceeds to give me a pep talk to help me stop spiralling. Now gone 2am, we bid each other farewell.

I have a Bumble notification. It’s him.

“Lol. That was supposed to freak you out.”

Another message.

“I’m okay.”

I don’t understand. Did you test positive or not?

“Noooo.”

Another message.

“Joke. Clearly poor.”

I’ve stopped breathing again. I am gripping my phone so tightly; the blood is fleeing from my fingertips for fear of what my keyboard is about to be subjected to. I exhale and furiously jab at my keyboard, teeth gritted.

I booked a test.

“Seriously? Cancel, cancel. Sorry. [Shocked emoji]”

Silence.

“[Face palm emoji]”

“[Missed Bumble voice call]”

“I feel bad now.”

I screenshot the messages, send them to my friend. She is calling me on FaceTime. I answer. Her hand is clasped around her mouth again, her eyes wide with disbelief. “I can’t with your dating life,” she says. Neither can I.

The next day, I receive another message from him.

“Hey. Can I make it up to you? I’m free later this afternoon.”

I scroll back to an earlier message I’d sent about my reluctance to meet, given my dad’s health. I reread his encouraging response about a socially distanced, outdoor date, about having been recently tested negative, about how he — as a medical professional — wouldn’t suggest it if there was a real chance of infection.

I think about my response all week. I think about the many forms of non-physical violence women are subjected to: manipulation, deceit, psychological torture and torment, emotional and verbal abuse. I think about how I am always suppressing my anger and outrage for the sake of being polite, and how in the pursuit of anything but the patriarchy, I have internalised the patriarchy itself in so very many ways. I think about the “whining” he referenced. I think about Bell Hooks, and the earnestness with which I had perceived him listening.

If you’d really like to make it up to me, I’d encourage you to read ’The Will to Change’ by Bell Hooks. Might help you put into perspective all that “whining” feminists do. Stay safe and best of luck with your search.

Before I can reach for the ‘unmatch’ icon, the ‘typing…’ prompt appears. Don’t do it, I hear my brain say. Don’t you fucking dare hang around for this.

“I cannot promise I will. But I will try. Interesting that you took ‘whining’ so seriously, when it didn’t appear so during the conversation. Also, suggesting I am insensitive to women’s problems because of a stupid prank is unfair.”

Amidst the silence, a familiar response from my brain: Told you, dumb arse.

It wasn’t a match because my nicety is no match for the patriarchy — we must be incensed, and we must channel that anger into banding together to chop off each tentacle of Mona’s perfectly coined ‘patriarchy Octopus’ until the damned thing is dead. I am ready and willing to cut out its poisonous venom from the chambers of my own self first and foremost.

In the words of Matilda: No more Miss Nice Girl.

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Ayman Khwaja

Ayman Khwaja

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