It’s been a little while. A conversation I had in the presence of three men reminded me of how difficult it is to understand what goes on in men-only spaces, for example when a group of guys are hanging out and joking around. The conversation we had was not in itself earth shattering (we discussed men paying for women on dates — whether a man would feel comfortable with a woman insisting to pay, whether splitting a bill still makes it a date) but several comments that were made bothered me. One, was that invariably the joke that feminists just spout a lot of angry rants. The other was that while men might think one way (rationally, they support gender equality and disagree with gender stereotypes), they find themselves pulled towards ingrained behaviors and attitudes towards women. Because they’ve been socialized to believe that (strong) men must protect (weak, vulnerable) women, they put value on being the protector in all social situations (paying the bill, bringing back the bacon). I guess what’s interesting is that while men are starting to adapt to changing gender norms (sometimes the woman brings home the bacon, sometimes both do) and accept it in varying degrees (though some men are still uncomfortable with a woman who earns more), they still hold on tightly to small practices that re-assert their masculinity in traditional ways.
Fighting those small battles are clearly not as important as the big ones (violence, rape, pay inequality, lack of rights). But it’s just a reminder that we have a long way to go to include men in the fight for gender equality: we need to start figuring how to talk about it in different terms, in a way that they would be more receptive to. Clearly the way we’ve been talking about it so far has not worked: feminism is still seen as a woman’s issue, not a human rights issue. So how do we talk to them about? Clearly the way I was talking to the men was not entirely effective: one walked away laughing, making a disparaging remark towards me. But another acknowledged he was holding gender discriminatory views, and recognized that he had been socialized to think in that way. Will he break out of that mold? Who knows. But it can’t stop me from engaging men as much as possible, even though I might meet a hostile audience.
Sometimes the articles that cause me to reflect on feminism come from strange sources. An article I was reading yesterday in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, in the Styles section no less, was talking about men wearing heels.
It’s basically a piece on several trendy young men in their 20s who wear high heels when they go out. Though it was a pretty straightforward, more style-oriented article that focused more on the aesthetics than the meaning behind the shoe-wearing, I was immediately struck by how bothered I was by it. Bothered as in that seeing men wearing heels just seemed so wrong. Now I wouldn’t ever go up to those men and tell them I thought they shouldn’t wear that, or that was inappropriate, because I don’t think those things. I think we all know how we’re socialized into gender norms, but it didn’t strike me how it rules every aspect of our lives until I thought how subversive it is to do a simple thing as to wear footwear men don’t normally wear. The article thankfully didn’t divulge the high heels wearers’ sexual orientation because frankly, it doesn’t matter.
What does matter is to think of the gender assumptions that come with every aspect of our lives. In the article, none of the men interviewed considered themselves to be in drag. “I always make it very clear that I am a man, and I’m not trying to portray an illusion to anybody,” Mr. Wagner said. “I wish society was more acceptable of men wearing heels,” Mr. Paice said. “I think it’s fun. I think it makes a statement.”
We automatically make the assumption that if a man is feminine (in behavior, clothing or otherwise), he must be gay. Feminine - effeminate - thus gay. Why can’t men display feminine behavior? This touches on how we categorize certain qualities as being male and others being female. This reminds of another great article I read recently called “Masculine, feminine or human?”. It talks about how men define masculinity differently depending on the audience and environment. “One common way men define masculinity in practice is not through affirmative statements but negative ones — it’s about what a man isn’t, and what a real man isn’t is a woman or gay. In the vernacular: Don’t be a girl, a sissy, a fag. To be a man is to not be too much like a woman or to be gay, which is in large part about being too much like a woman [….] If the positive definitions of masculinity are not really about being a man but simply about being a person, and if the definitions of masculinity within which men routinely operate are negative, why are we holding onto the concept so tightly? Why are we so committed to the notion that there are intellectual, emotional, and moral differences that are inherent, that come as a result of biological sex differences?”.
Now this raises many questions, of course one of which is how different are we? “Human biology is pretty clear: People are born male or female, with a small percentage born intersexed. But how we should make sense of those differences outside reproduction is not clear.” It’s uncomfortable and difficult to question the rigid concepts of masculinity and femininity that are entrenched in our society, but it’s necessary. Discrimination against women is rooted in our inability to see past these stereotypes and expectations of male and female behavior.
The first step for me in critically analyzing these concepts is seeing how I perpetuate them in my daily life. I’m going to stop teasing a male friend that he’s being a girl because he cares about his weight. I’m going to stop assuming that a person who is effeminate is necessarily gay. There’s certainly bigger fish to fry when it comes to overturning gender stereotypes, but change has to start somewhere.
Writing on and fighting for women’s rights is often very depressing, infuriating and tiring. Not a day goes by when there isn’t another injustice to rally against or a sad story to bring to light. As a feminist, you have to wake up every day knowing that the more you educate yourself and work to chip off the many small and gross injustices that pile up in this world, the more disillusioned you get. (And I’ve only been an activist for a handful of years so I can hardly imagine how more experienced activists feel).
This is why I hope this blog is not just a litany of the negative, but also shows all the positive work that is being done. One question that nags at me over and again in my work is how to engage men and boys in fighting for gender equality. I’ve been in classrooms and conferences where it’s women preaching to women. We know what needs to be done. What about the other 50%? I would argue that most men are not pigs, or assholes, or abusers. A small minority of them are, and the silent majority lets them tarnish their name. I guess men (especially straight, white men) don’t really feel the need to fight against discrimination when they don’t really feel it in their day-to-day lives. This is not a justification for inaction, it’s merely a theory for why they are not as involved. I try to engage my male friends in conversation about gender issues to get their perspective and most of the time I find them eager to listen but at times just unable to comprehend the depth of discrimination that women face. It’s hard for people who benefit from the status quo to see the need to change it. There are some organizations, like A Call to Men, that are paving the way for men to take on the fight on their own terms and in their own space. There’s no doubt that being a man and living up to the expectations of what a man should behave like is hard. It’s even harder to be the lone voice in a group of men fighting against ingrained stereotypes. I think that the list on A Call to Men’s website on 10 Things Men Can Do To Prevent Domestic and Sexual Violence are a good and necessary step. I also think in practice each one of these steps will be incredibly hard to put into practice.
Acknowledge and understand how male dominance and aspects of unhealthy manhood are at the foundation of domestic and sexual violence.
First of all, how many men think that the traditional aspects of manhood are unhealthy? After watching Tony Porter’s TED Talk on “the man box” (a must see, by the way), I wanted to gain a male perspective on it. One comment was that telling boys that it’s OK to cry doesn’t change the fact that if your little brother or kid goes to the playground and cries, he will get teased by other kids who don’t have family or friends that are thinking outside the man box. What’s the good in small change when the whole environment is geared towards supporting one view on what defines masculinity? My only (perhaps naive, or idealistic) answer is that many views were in the majority (segregation, slavery, homophobia) that have been overturned or are slowly being overturned. It takes time to overturn discrimination, and you have to keep working on changing one mind at a time. It might seem a little pointless for me to think that small actions I take, such as refraining from stereotyping my male friends, will make a difference. But I can certainly try.
I entered the Young Feminist Blogathon organized by AWID. Here is my post, a response to these questions:
What motivated you to become a feminist activist? What issues does your activism focus on? What other issues are young feminist activists organizing around in your context? How are they creating change?
Tell us about an organizing experience that taught you something about young feminist activism or moved you in some way. What did you learn from the experience and what advice would you give to other young feminist activists outside of your region, country or context based on this experience?
I can’t pinpoint one event that transformed me into a feminist activist – rather, a succession of small personal events led to a decision to co-found my own women’s rights organization and make a lifelong commitment to fighting gender inequality wherever it may be.
I feel like I always knew I was a feminist. There were things in life that bothered me, that I knew were wrong. Walking to take the bus to school one morning, at 17 years old, a nagging realization bothered me. The domestic worker (or maid as she is called in Singapore) was washing the car in her employer’s driveway at 7:30 in the morning. I heard that she wasn’t given a day’s rest, ever. She could only leave the house when her employer allowed her to. She worked long hours and often went hungry. And she was exactly my age, 17. She would never have a chance to go to school, pursue a career, make choices for herself. She was washing cars, and I was walking to school.
It was a nagging thought, which grew into small actions. I read an article in the Straits Times, the national newspaper, that said that women watched soccer just for the hot dudes and were as good to look at as cars. As a budding feminist and avid soccer fan (I know what the offside rule means, thank you very much), I wrote a riposte with my sister to the Editor, which eventually got published in the newspaper.
It was a small victory, but it tasted sweet.
Those two events remain seared in my memory, along with recollections of teachers in my high school light-heartedly teasing me for my feminist views. I’ve gotten many remarks, more flippant than anything else, about my feminism from people clearly uncomfortable with what I was doing. “Women are equal now, remember?” What am I complaining about?
I went to college in the United States and was welcomed to a diverse and tolerant campus – where feminists were still kind of considered to be “complaining”. I discovered a wonderful community of feminist activists and had conversations that challenged and shaped my feminist mindset.
And I became more and more exposed to gender discrimination. Two of my friends were sexually abused. I felt helpless. I tried to be there for them as best I could, and that’s when my feminist went from theory to practice.
I met a fellow feminist activist and that encounter changed my life. My friend Claire had grown up in Nepal and witnessed 13 year old girls being married off in her rural village or joining the civil war. Most were not able to pursue an education. Our dorm room discussions grew into an idea: why not start a project that empowered young women to become leaders? We were sick of women’s voices being silenced, and wanted to put our own voices to good use.
The project started in the summer of 2010, our junior year. We organized a two-week leadership development course for 30 female high school students in Kathmandu, Nepal. This is not one of those stories where a privileged girl meets a disadvantaged girl in an exotic locale and that experience just changes her life and she makes it her life goal to save her. There was no saving. There was no me telling them what to do. There was listening. Listening to their hopes and dreams and goals and finding out what we could do to support them in pursuing their passion.
The two-week course has become a growing organization, Women LEAD, which has now trained 64 girls in leadership development. And the whole process of setting it up has made me realize what my feminist activism will be focused on for the next few years. I’m committed to providing resources for young women across the world to pursue their vision for change. I’m not working FOR these girls; I’m working WITH them. As partners, we respect what they’ve already done to create change. We’re not transforming their lives – we’re supporting them as they change their own lives and their nation.
My advice for women who want to help other women around the world is to make sure your relationship is based on equality. They are not our beneficiaries: they are our partners. They define their own needs and the success of our program. As we work to ensure women are treated with dignity and respect, we must make sure we work with them as equals.
You should never feel like you’ve been convinced to have sex, and you should never feel like you’re doing the convincing. You want partners—one-night-stands or long-term relationships—who want to have sex with you as much as you want to have sex with them. The culturally established “no means no” is too low a bar. Only yes means yes. And I’m not talking about an “I guess we could…” or an “I don’t really care….” or an “Only if you really want to….” or a “Might as well…” I’m talking about an enthusiastic, excited, sustained “Yes!” Are those “yesses” less frequent than the non-committal, hesitant “not-nos?” Yeah, they are, but it’s worth it to know that the people you’re fooling around with really want to fool around with you, too.