The role of men in feminism: From women’s issues to gender issues

by Robert Lutz

Robert Lutz_Blog 1 Illustration

A collage of individuals who attended the UN Commission on the Status of Women at the UN Headquarters in New York 2015. All photos by Robert Lutz.

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Robert Lutz discusses his journey to carve a role for men in feminism and the importance of having a platform for male and LGBT voices in discussions on gender issues.

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I was not born a feminist; I became one over time. It happened in college when I learned first-hand about the way patriarchy hurts people—my family, friends, strangers, and myself. I went through a period during which I was very ashamed of myself, reflecting on all those times when I had been, frankly, a shitty person trying to “be a man”. I also blamed myself for reaping the benefits of white male privilege.

I did not like being a man much during that time, but I also felt strongly that being a man was the foundation of my identity.  When I participated in feminist activism as a “male ally”, I thought a lot about who I was and about my role in the feminist space.

I recognized the importance of simply listening and showing support, yet having only an ally role made me feel disempowered. I felt that I had a personal stake in the struggle for gender equality: beyond advancing women’s rights, I wanted men to rid themselves of the constraints of patriarchy on their lives as well. In short, I always thought feminism should focus on gender issues as opposed to women’s issues alone.

In the last few years, I have met a lot of men who are passionate about promoting gender equality and are interested in figuring out the role of men in feminism. Men’s studies is a growing field and there is a global alliance of organizations working with men and boys to promote gender equality. Both platforms explore how gender shapes the options men have at their disposal, to live lives of their own choosing.

Individuals speaking out for gender equality at the 59th Committee on the Status of Women  https://www.facebook.com/humansofcsw59/timeline

Individuals speaking out for gender equality at the 59th Committee on the Status of Women
https://www.facebook.com/humansofcsw59/timeline

In case you are wondering, these groups and studies have nothing to do with anti-feminist men’s rights activists who claim (most visibly in online spaces) that women are systematically oppressing men. This is immediately apparent from the inclusion of women at the grassroot and policy levels of these studies. The president of the American Men’s Studies Association is a woman and organizations such as White Ribbon and MenEngage work in coordination with women’s organizations with the explicit goal of ending violence against women.

In the growing global movement to engage men and boys for gender equality, the role of men in feminism is becoming increasingly important. Should men just be allies or do we need a distinct platform?

While male allies are crucial to feminism, many organizations feel it is important to highlight men’s well-being issues too. Men reap many privileges on account of their gender, yet the demands of patriarchy deprive men of caring relationships to themselves and others, induce greater risk-taking behavior, and lead to reduced quality of life and early death.

And consider that the vast majority of violence against both men and women, is perpetrated by men. It seems wise to consider violence prevention as a matter of public health that needs to be addressed by tackling attitudes from childhood.

I recently attended the International Conference on Masculinities (ICM) and the United Nations’ 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW59), both held in New York City.It is no wonder that UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka spoke at the ICM, given that she once again highlighted the importance of men and boys for the women’s movement. The empowerment of men in the women’s movement was quite the buzz at CSW59, yet most of the conversations I observed focused on the men-as-allies model.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Image source: Julie Lunde Lillesæter/PRIO

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.
Image source: Julie Lunde Lillesæter/PRIO

I want to finish this piece by highlighting three example of how nurturing the role of men in the debate on gender equality can benefit feminism.

The Victim/Perpetrator Binary: When we view men as the sole beneficiaries and perpetrators of patriarchy, we get trapped in a vision of women as the victims and men as perpetrators. This limits how we think about the lived experience of individual men and women. For example, both men and women experience intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and stalking. When we recognize that fighting patriarchy is the common ground men and women share, we can get much further.

LGBTQI Issues: The victim/perpetrator binary also makes it harder for people who do not fit neatly into the gender boxes to receive support. When we oppose men and women, how do we conceptualize gay or trans lives, for instance? Here, the delineations between feminine and masculine, man and woman fail. Why make it harder for people and stigmatize them as a “special group”? Let’s be inclusive instead.

Real Equality vs. Legal Rights: The women’s movement has a rich history of successes, especially in the legal arena, but we are far away from real gender equality. To get there, we need to change the hearts and minds of men, as they make up half of the world’s population. We need to listen to men and help them live better, healthier lives. And, while we are at it: listening does not mean supporting the constant whining of the MRAs. Stop giving them a platform: they get way too much media attention these days.

Visit Humans of CSW59 to see more activists talking gender equality at the Commission on the Status of Women 2015.

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Motherhood: What I am trying to teach my daughter

by Josephine Namusisi-Riley

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Josephine Namusisi-Riley gives an honest and moving account of motherhood and the challenges of protecting a child’s innocence while instilling awareness

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Josephine and her 16-year-old daughter in New York

I am a mother.

And now a blogger. Let me start with a confession. I can’t remember the number of times I made a start on this but pressed delete.  There are many people who are better qualified to write about gender equality; doctors, therapists, victims, survivors – but I have decided to write from my personal perspective about my own reflections, experiences and challenges to date.

The biggest challenge at the moment is not my new job although that is also high up there. It is way more challenging and it is this – parenting my 16 year old daughter.

She is sassy and stylish, independent and strong. She loves dressing in grey and black, looking smart and making her own choices. Her clothes all look the same to me, yet she says she looks different in each and every one of them. “Oh, mummy you don’t understand, grey is the new black!”

How am I going to ensure that she appreciates the abundance that growing up in the UK offers, but remains sensible and keeps safe? The jungle here is online, the danger, sleek and sassy, just like her. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snap-chat and yes, these are probably yesterday’s apps as new new ones become available, cooler, free and offering all the things that the youth are into.

As a young woman, my upbringing was not much different from the rest of my peers. Poverty, hard work and domestic violence, sometimes it took me three days to travel to school. But I persevered and saw the journey through and here I am, trying to guide my daughter through a much smoother route.

Josephine age 16 (left) and her daughter aged 16.

Josephine age 16 (left) and her daughter aged 16.

Throughout my childhood and for a very long time, I knew that I did not want to get married. This is the single thing I was absolutely sure about. Why? Every single woman I knew who was married, was miserable. I don’t know whether being a girl exposed me to the woes of my kind, but their suffering at the hands of their husbands left me determined not to follow the same path.

I had seen my parents laugh one day and then the next, watch in horror, as my father attacked, beat and walked all over my mother. I could not begin to comprehend it. What I knew, was that I loved the laughter filled days and basked in those moments, but absolutely loathed the violent days. My father was an elegant, charming and handsome man and when he was good, he was amazing. When he was drunk and abusive, he was unrecognisable.

A colleague once described me as a very nice person, but went on to say that they would not like to step on my toes. That was about 20 years ago, but I will never forget that moment. It is the first time someone had described me correctly. These were and still are, the two sides of my coin.

As a young girl, I failed to distinguish between the two sides of the marriage coin. The dark, nasty, violent side and the warm, loving side. I decided that the best thing to do was to avoid marriage all together. Did I succeed? No! I have been happily married for 10 years now. Life and marriage is still tough but I am not disrespected or abused and I feel most complete and happy when I am walking beside my husband.

When my teenage daughter tells her friends that she has never seen her parents argue, they think we are weird. I think we are weird and wonderful because we chose to live our life by the sparkly side of the marriage coin. At my traditional wedding when relatives were giving me unsolicited advice, I flatly refused to agree that I would put up with abuse of any form from my husband for the sake of marriage. I promptly informed everyone that I would leave my husband if he so much as kissed his teeth at me. Everyone said I was way too westernised. Fine by me.

I have listened to my daughter’s many debates with her siblings, my friends and her friends and my proudest moment is when I hear her describe the ideal of marriage. She sees no point in getting married for anything else other than love. Of course, there are other things that come into play, but why aspire for less? Although her upbringing to date has not exposed her to domestic violence or the dark side of the marriage coin, she understands that it exists.

So as a mother raising the next generation, I feel a tremendous amount of anxiety for my children. I want them to be happy, productive human beings but at the same time be empowered and let people know they should not be crossed. Subtle but clear. How do I teach them to communicate this without a word or action? While I search for a solution, I have decided to fill my home with laughter and love.

We talk about anything and everything because I know being able to communicate is one of the essential life skills. As a child, I just listened. As a mother, I love giving my children a voice.