Breaking the Barrier: How Men Can be Feminists
Writer: Itumeleng Sibiya
Editor: Mikada Green
Graphic Designer: Maulina Gheananta
What is feminism? Feminism is the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. It is the belief in social, economic, and political equality. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said, "Empowered women are the best drivers of growth and the best hope for reconciliation. They are the best buffer against the radicalization of youth and the repetition of cycles of violence."
Leroy Eldridge Cleaver said, "If you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem.” The issue of gender inequality is not a women's-activist-only issue. Men should also present themselves at the frontlines of this aggravating social issue and advocate the importance of women’s empowerment. Primarily, because they are the direct beneficiaries of a discriminatory status quo, thus they are called to push the agenda of gender equality forward through words and actions.
World Economic Forum's deduced calculations reveal that it will take 99.5 years to achieve gender parity across the globe. That means waiting a whole century. 15.5 million girls will be married in the next 16 years as children, and at current rates, it won't be until 2086 before all rural African girls can receive a secondary education. These examples demonstrate the gravity of gendered issues and how crucial immediate action is to reach the desired results. One of the strategic and effective ways that this goal can be achieved is through men also participating in the movement. Men hold part of the solution by setting an inclusive culture, promoting a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and discrimination, and ensuring equal participation.
Now to compound and put a spin on the whole discussion, what causes men to alienate or distance themselves from being feminists or identifying as one? On a commencing note, they fail to do that because they don't have a proper understanding of (or know at all) the definition and values it upholds and stands for. In this context, "sameness" is not the goal; equality is. It is simple: being a feminist means believing in equal rights for all genders. Feminism shouldn't be mistaken for misandry, defined as hatred towards men.
“Feminism can be seen as a movement to put an end to sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression and to achieve full gender equality in law and practice,” said bell hooks, an American author and social activist. hooks understands and defines feminism as an eradication plan with a set of essential goals that can afford equality for all people. Take note that she didn't point out a specific gender that is more worthy of these benefits; instead, she offers the idea that everyone is for this and feminism is inclusive. bell hook's ideology opens up a portal of possibilities for both benefits and responsibilities of such work to achieve these goals as being shared by female, male and non-binary individuals equally across society. Analyzing bell hooks' approach to feminism, it is clear that anyone can be a feminist. Even noble figures like Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, Emma Watson, Dr. Jane Good, etc. all share the same sentiments. (Note: Author bell hooks opted not to capitalize her name, hoping to keep the public's focus on her work.)
"Some men believe that for women to gain equality, they, in turn, must lose their own equality. This belief cannot be further from the truth. Rather, it's like John F. Kennedy's idea that 'a rising tide lifts all boats ' since gender equality helps everyone, and society as a whole benefits," said Eric Rudberg, retired U.S Army Captain.
The patriarchy also causes men to be so unwelcoming of being feminists. Some men do not see women as their equals, but as objects to inflict oppression. In one breath, there is also something called "male privilege" that is always at the center of every feminism discussion. Male privilege is a system of advantages or rights available to men solely based on their sex. A man's access to these benefits may vary depending on how closely they match their society's ideal masculine norm. The academic studies of male privilege during the 1970s show that to reach equality and equity between the sexes, we first must examine barriers to equality between the sexes. Patriarchy makes life easier for men because it is embedded in the structure of social institutions, making the concept invisible and normal. You find that with systemic subordination of women, males gain economic, political, social, educational, and practical advantages that are more or less unavailable to women. The long-standing and unquestioned nature of such patriarchal systems reinforced over generations tends to make privilege invisible to holders. It can lead males who benefit from such privilege to ascribe their special status to their merits and achievements rather than to unearned advantages. Misogyny, sexism, patriarchy, and the male gaze add to the element of male privilege.
What also creeps into the "why" part of men struggling to associate themselves with the feminist movement is the link between male biological sex and the social construction of masculinity, as scholars see it as a limitation on men's collaboration with the feminist movement. They take upon themselves the ideologies of society and culture on how they should behave as men. Many men believe having the slightest consensus with women is an act of weakness and giving up your "male power." The opposition directed at women is not just a current issue. Still, it finds its roots in history as in the early 1980s, the men's rights campaign emerged in America in response to the feminist movement. Activists for men's rights refer to themselves as "masculinists" or have been labeled as such. Masculinists claim that eliminating traditional feminine privileges has not balanced feminist advances and that men should empower themselves by "revitalizing their masculinity."
The feminist movement has been divided on whether or not men can be considered feminists, as some male-exclusionary feminists argue that men can't be true feminists because they do not have the experience of living as a woman. They believe feminism is a lived experience compared to a label or a buzzword. The experience of being cat-called, victim-blamed, shamed for having periods, or made to feel uncomfortable at their job because of gender identity are just a few of the struggles women face daily. Thus, they have no legitimate right to call themselves feminists. Separatist feminists debate that only by rejecting the masculine perspective can feminism allow women to define themselves on their terms and that the involvement of men in the feminist movement will inculcate the values of patriarchy into any social change. On the other side of the division line, we have those who believe men can identify with the feminist movement. For its continued relevance, the universalization of the feminist movement is thus very important. Excluding men from the feminist movement labels it as solely a female task, which shouldn't be the case. One could argue this idea to be sexist in itself. The term "pro-feminist" occupies the middle ground in this semantic debate because it offers a degree of closeness to feminism without using the term itself. Additionally, the prefix "pro" describes and marks the term as more proactive and positive. bell hooks concludes that gender issues are not just for women, as some men may believe, but it is for everyone.
In the words of Don Steinberg, former U.S Ambassador to Angola, "It is vital for us to know our place. We are allies. We are partners. We are facilitators of women's leadership. But the agenda and the leadership of the movement itself needs to come from those who are impacted." In simple terms, as separatist feminists argue, this practice will allow patriarchy to play out at its fullest form. Men who identify as feminists should not be there to define this on their own terms but to enable women to fully embody and express feminism the best way they can while men are allies. They have not walked a mile in women's shoes, but they can unite with women as they are direct beneficiaries of this status quo.
Moreover, what can allow women and men to merge is simply intersectionality. As described in the theory of strategic intersectionality, utilizing the experiences of one part of our identity that intersects with another provides insightful tools to improve the available tactics of the feminist movement. For example, both men and women experience emotions. So the social construction of masculinity and femininity creates a barrier to how men and women should express emotions. Men are discouraged from expressing emotions, while women are encouraged to do so. This societal standard gets tricky when men want to express emotions and women do not feel like being emotionally vulnerable. Intersectionality is introduced as both parties have emotions and want to exhibit them in their own way. The idea of gendered expectations of emotional expression is a common ground that allows more engagement and less opposition.
Feminism is for everyone, and uniting for this cause can drive our world to greater heights. "How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation? If men don't have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won't feel compelled to be submissive. If men don't have to control, women won't have to be controlled. Both men and women should be free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, not as two opposing sets of ideals," said Emma Watson. It shows that both parties must come together to make this work. Men can be feminists by not rejecting the knowledge that feminism brings, cherishing the idea and the ambition behind it. It comes in supporting feminist causes, challenging discrimination and gender stereotypes, and being a pioneer in seeing women thriving in leadership positions, receiving the same wages, and many other aspects of life.
To summarise succinctly, achieving gender parity will take significant work, but uniting and acting now will secure a better future. It will take us 99.5 years to reach equality if nothing changes. Emma Watson said, "I am inviting you to step forward, to be seen, to speak up, to be the 'he' for 'she'. And to ask yourself, if not me, then who? If not now, then when?"
Robertson, Stacey (2000). Parker Pillsbury: radical abolitionist, male feminist. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. ISBN 9780801436345.
Murphy, Peter F., ed. (2004). Feminism and masculinities. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199267248.