Male feminists, anyone?

Men have stayed away from the issue of women’s rights and empowerment for far too long, writes Amrita Nandy-Joshi.
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Published on Mar 07, 2007 12:47 AM IST
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None | ByAmrita Nandy-Joshi

From a day once known only to officials, the International Women’s Day, March 8, has come a long way. Multinational have joined the fray while women’s groups have done their best to garner support for the cause. However, what is unfortunate is the fact that men have kept themselves away from the issue of women’s rights and empowerment, and its intellectual wellspring — feminism. If men were to appreciate the central ethos of feminism, they would realise that the movement struggles to liberate the ‘male’ from his demanding and politically correct masculine roles. Yes, feminism does work in favour of men too.

Across cultures the traditional model of masculinity governs men. Gender norms constantly control and dictate their lives. Feminism can help men shed layers of false consciousness that masculinity covers them with, just as it does away with the irrationality behind the need for femininity.

Such an exercise is significant in this day and age when studies have linked the cult of masculinity with the rise of militarism. And, since men are the gatekeepers of this unequal gender order, they need to reflect on their acquired behavioural patterns that stymie their emotional well-being.

There are enough examples to prove that it is possible to bring about a change. The Canadian White Ribbon Campaign helped men question other men about violence against women. An American organisation, Men Can Stop Rape, ran a campaign called ‘My strength is not for hurting’. The impact-evaluation studies of such programmes have showed positive results: young male participants were keen to question and react judiciously to gender-based violence. It is imperative that men take responsibility for male participation in this debate. For a start, we should sensitise young boys on gender-related issues and help them develop a healthy sense of identity because masculinity can inhibit social egalitarianism.

Large swathes of India are still governed by patriarchy — a system that sanctions power to the male and preaches submissiveness to the female. These oppressive rules have evident fallout: domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment; marked preference for a male child and rising number of female foeticide cases.

We will be better off as a society if we inculcate some of the basic ethos of the feminist discourse into the lives of both men and women. For instance, ‘male’ or ‘female’ is not the same as ‘man’ or ‘woman’ respectively and therefore our sexual identity should not be allowed to define our socio-cultural roles. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ refer to biological identities. However, for a ‘male’ to be masculine (and therefore aggressive, strong, a breadwinner, and so on) and a woman to be feminine (and thus passive, obedient, polite, and a home maker) are mythical constructs of a patriarchal, ‘man-made’ world.

Boys and girls, men and women who do not adhere to these norms are teased and harassed. Think about the plight of female footballers, male nurses or stay-at-home fathers.

Children are also conditioned by gender norms. Often, when kids are asked what their parents do, they are taught to disclose only what their fathers do; their homemaker mothers do ‘nothing’. Such norms have pushed women to the margins of social, political and economic life. Feminists also don’t understand that like women, men are also being pushed to the margins. It is important that both are treated as ‘different equals’.

For decades now, men (and women) have labelled feminists as Amazonian warrior women, bra burners or man-haters. But in reality, no single word or a phrase can do justice to a movement as rich and heterogeneous as feminism. The movement sees great diversity and disagreement about issues and approaches. However, like other movements, feminism does not prefer neat definitions because of the vast spectrum of ‘people’ it represents. The movement accommodates all — women and men — and allows its practice in various ways, though without any dogmas, codes of conduct or stereotypes.

A leaf out of feminism’s vast book can be used in different ways to spread the word. National policy-makers can institutionalise gender neutrality and create strategies to affect large-scale changes. Celebrities can target masculinity’s violence and aggression. Women’s groups can build supportive alliances with men’s groups and communities. In our homes, we can be vigilant about the socialisation process of the young. The media can send out messages that gender equality is cool and hip. Feminist scholars can simplify the jargons and present its fascinating worldview to the people. Such a concerted, multi-pronged effort will work to transform relationships, perceptions and cultures. International Women’s day serves the purpose of highlighting the cause but would fall short of its expectations till the time men are involved.

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