Written and Edited by: Christopher Skelton and Nikhil Dutt Sundaraj, from Allies Anna Mohan, Brenda Tan and Jesie Randhawa [from Ideas]
Women Unbounded’s Allies...
had a chat with some of the Ideas Division, to talk about men and feminism… and more specifically, feminist men. With the setup of the Allies branch, it only makes sense that a conversation should ensue on what exactly that means – why it is needed in the first place, and how to be a stronger feminist.
The questions being asked have much to do with the resistance faced by feminist men when being allies to women – Bob is all of us, but the point is, we can always have answers to Bob’s questions
...and do better.
Bob: Why do men have to be feminists? Isn’t that
just a ‘female’ thing?
Chris: Men have to be feminist to support the cause. We have to explicitly call ourselves a feminist; otherwise, we're not helping.
Nikhil: I agree. We shouldn’t do things silently. It helps to get the word and be vocal supporters. That achieves the added effect of bringing on more people who could also hold similar views.
Jesie: Additionally, the word ‘female’ denotes sex at birth. Instead, ‘woman’ is a subjective identity that many people could identify with, if they were not assigned ‘female’ at birth.
Anna: Not to mention, a lot of the time, a woman’s value is seen as relative to a man, as if that's what it takes for a man to care about feminism, for example when men say “I have a mother, daughter or sister”. In reality, she's just another person, and another human being that shouldn't be treated badly.
Bob: Why would you call it feminism, and not equality?
Chris: Feminism is about empowering women. A person is a feminist when they believe men and women should be treated as equals.
Nikhil: Yeah, agreed. I'm also glad that what we're getting at is the idea of equality. It has to be emphasised that we're talking about equality of outcome, not just equality of input. We want to lift women up, not bring men down.
Jesie: I think it's also about privilege. Which is exactly why we need to shed light on the underprivileged. So, inequality in this regard, which means more power to certain gender over another, creates problems for both sides of the spectrum. In of itself, just being a feminist is already considered a radical thing relative to the rest of the world’s power imbalance – so we need to be actively one.
Chris: Yes, as men we should understand and recognise our privilege, and also the negative effects that inequality has brought onto the physical and mental effects on a person’s health.
Anna: Too many people try to make feminism a bad word. Therefore, It’s important for men to call themselves feminists because they need to show that they're proud of that label.
Bob: But how is it that men are feminists? Surely
feminism is just for women.
Nikhil: Well, feminism is for men too because the fundamental objective is equality between genders, which is effectively done if both genders work towards the same goal. Furthermore, some views that we hold which represent equality, kindness or fairness, are actually feminist views. We need these views to become part of the general dialogue so people start to identify themselves as having feminist views as well.
Bob: Okay, why do you guys seem so eager to be feminists?
Nikhil: I call myself a feminist because I realised that women who were just walking around the city and being catcalled, are experiencing this by virtue of doing things, i.e. walking, which men wouldn't think twice about. It isn’t fair that women are put in that compromising position just because society enables this ‘normal’ behaviour. People should be able to live their lives not fearing for their safety.
Chris: I realised early on that there is a tendency to objectify women, especially in commercials that make things look sexy using only highly conventionally “attractive” women. Some women are not spoken about as people but as belongings, which I find troubling.
Bob: What’s the problem with having sexy women in commercials? It sells.
Chris: It dehumanises individuals. This can happen to anyone, anyone can kind of be objectified based on outside characteristics on how they look. They stop being a person and become an object of attraction. This is wrong.
Bob: But why, WHY should men care? How is this OUR problem?
Nikhil: It’s EVERYONE’S problem. A lot of the things that feminism tries to combat are issues that men face as well. These include for example, judgmental attitudes due to toxic masculinity, or societal expectations, and gender roles which themselves can be oppressive against men who don’t naturally conform.
Bob: Um, it's not always the man’s fault when things happen, a lot of the time women seem to be asking for it. How can they always be the victim?
Anna: Well, they’re not always the victim, but they are disproportionately the victim. Is there a pattern – are many individuals experiencing similar things? If half the population seems to be experiencing catcalling, it can't possibly be true that all of these women are doing something to bring this on themselves. It’s a larger systemic issue.
Jesie: And on the individual level; when harassment or any incident like this occurs, it should not be the default assumption that a woman would ask for this to happen to her. It's about educating those who are actually committing the harassment, not just protecting those that are subject to it.
Bob: Okay, so I guess maybe women receive a lot of poor treatment, but not all men are contributing to this. So why should all men care about it if not all men are causing this problem?
Nikhil: Well, the problem still exists even though not all men act in the way you say. The problem is largely due to widely held societal beliefs which enable people to act in a certain oppressive way, even if they don't explicitly say something misogynistic, sexist or violent.
Chris: The aim is to dismantle patriarchal societal elements. People need to be made aware of their gender biases. Only then do you get to see a fuller picture. Our beliefs, values and biases have real world impacts. Therefore I think it is extremely important for people to embrace feminism, even if they don't think it's for them.
Jesie: Yeah, and then the “not all men” thing; it's just generally an unproductive response to the work that feminism is trying to do. It's not about accusing all men of inherently acting or being a certain way. But trying to highlight the inequalities that do exist.
Bob: So isn’t this putting too much pressure on men? There are so many men out there who don’t do or say sexist stuff but now they’re expected to pay for something they don’t do? It seems like a lot to me.
Chris: Again, it’s about privilege. Many guys don't understand the power they have in terms of the system that they're in. So, there is a responsibility to challenge it. Of course, a woman can try to talk about all these things, but some guys find it easy to disregard those valid concerns. Therefore it's so important for us to talk about this issue, because it can’t be brushed off by others who don’t want to listen to women.
Bob: So what's the problem if this talk stays in the locker room?
We know we don't mean it.
Jesie: I think a lot of men don't see the bigger picture in terms of locker room talk, and how this progresses to violence committed against women. It starts with frequent, accepted objectification of women. With that comes normalisation, openly disparagingly commenting on women’s bodies and making dangerous remarks like “grab her by the ___”.
Anna: There will always be someone in the room that takes those remarks seriously. That progresses into other more dangerous things, like rape, sexual violence and furthering the power imbalance between men and women. Since this ‘locker room talk’ happens in private male-dominated spaces, it is hard for women to break through. Locker room talk occurs when a woman can't penetrate.
Chris: I agree. Locker room talk can legitimise certain problematic and dangerous beliefs, even though some people know what’s being said is not true. For some people it confirms what they may (wrongly) believe, like (for instance) that women are “not to be trusted” during their period because “they're too emotional”. Even though men in a locker room may not mean what they're saying, it can risk legitimising this in others’ minds.
Bob: So is it enough for me to just say I'm a feminist? I'm embracing my ignorance and I'm saying that I'm a feminist and I stand for women's rights – is that it enough?
Chris: It's not enough, but it's a major step. What's important is to shut up and listen to the experiences of women. It might take effort to understand as a man, but it's important to call yourself a feminist and educate yourself. Otherwise, your support is not vocal and won't bring about change.
Nikhil: Yes, being a feminist is an active ongoing process. It's not just something you can achieve with a one off by calling yourself a feminist, and being ‘neutral’. We have to identify the biases that exist in our lives or in our society, and take whatever reasonable steps we can to elevate women who don't have the opportunities that you see men having.
Jesie: I completely agree! Speaking as a woman, I need the men around me to be active allies. I need them to also speak up with me when I'm saying something isn’t okay. I know men who call themselves feminists and yet are friends with really misogynistic men, while trying to excuse it by saying “but I’m not sexist”. The problem is, you're okay with people around you being sexist. You wouldn't be as accepting of a racist. Believing in equality ‘in principle’ is not enough; follow it up with action.