Equality for women can only be achieved with men’s active engagement
I wish there was no such thing as International Women’s Day. How absurd that one half of humanity has to struggle just achieve the same standing that the other is granted. Yet for all its absurdity, gender inequality must surely be the most pervasive inequality of all – faced by women of every age, colour, religion, nationality and sexuality. Whatever the variations of statistics from place to place, from the farms of India to the red carpets of Hollywood, women face all manner of barriers simply because they are not men – from unequal pay to restricted work opportunities, from poorer access to education and healthcare to the gender-based violence of genital mutilation, forced marriage, harassment and rape.
We know what gender inequality is and that many political, economic, social and legislative changes need to happen to address it. But the more fundamental issue to understanding and overcoming it is to answer why gender inequality exists and persists. It is largely embedded in deep-seated male attitudes towards the status, position and roles of women – attitudes have been so ingrained throughout our histories that they are widely accepted without question. For equality to ever be achieved, they need to be questioned – and that means engaging men in the process.
“Ordinary, normal, unremarkable men”
That will not be easy. There is no more disturbing illustration of how intractable those attitudes can be than the words of Mukesh Singh, one of those convicted of the fatal gang rape of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh in New Delhi in 2012. In the BBC documentary, India’s Daughter, broadcast last week, Mukesh Singh is unrepentant and blames Jyoti for her own rape and murder. “A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night,” he says. “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.” His excuse is not only abhorrent in its misogyny, it is terrifying for its candour. He truly believes that he is innocent and the victim guilty, that the rape was a moral act, a lesson for Jyoti’s supposed immorality for not knowing her rightful place. The director, Leslee Udwin, wrote that the rapists and murderers she interviewed for the film were not the psychopaths she expected but “ordinary… normal… unremarkable men“. It is terrifying to consider how many ordinary men might sincerely believe they are entitled to use and abuse – and kill – a woman if she happens to be in the “wrong” place at the “wrong” time or in the “wrong” clothes.
It can be tempting to consider ourselves in the West far more enlightened in our attitudes towards women. But I was reminded of last October’s viral video of street harassment filmed by activist group Hollaback!. In the film, a hidden camera recorded a woman walking alone around New York for ten hours and captured 108 instances of whistles, comments and catcalls.
Many online commenters scoffed at the notion that this amounted to harassment, pointing out that some comments were simple hellos and compliments, but it was plain that the greetings were preludes to something more. One of these polite gents silently stalked the woman at close quarters for a full five minutes when she didn’t give him the response he thought he deserved. However seemingly polite, if the unwanted attention makes a woman feel intimidated or harassed then it is harassment.
Admittedly, flattering a female stranger – even with an ulterior motive – is a far remove from gang-raping a woman on a bus and throwing her battered body into the street. Wolf-whistles and catcalls and stalking are similarly far removed from paying a woman less than a man. But the point is that as long as men – at an individual or societal level – retain any attitudes of entitlement over women, then the barriers and challenges women face to their own entitlements, to equal status and respect, will remain entrenched. And we will still need International Women’s Day.
“To understand how women feel”
Equality is relative. By definition, it is about how two things relate to each other. In human terms, that comes down to one’s attitude to the other. It involves and requires both. Equality – in any form – is at its core about respect, mutual understanding and empathy. It relies on the willingness to see things from another’s perspective, to consider their experience, to accept that they are no less a person than you and you are no more important than they are. Women’s equality, then, is not solely a women’s issue – men’s participation is just as essential for achieving it.
This is happening. More and more men are becoming engaged in working towards gender equality. Last year, the Irish development NGO Concern Worldwide ran a campaign against sexual and gender-based violence called Walk a Mile in Her Shoes that challenged men to do quite literally that – to parade through Dublin’s docklands in high heels. Around the same time, I was challenged to paint my nails as part of a men’s initiative to instigate discussion our responsibilities in rape prevention. Ahead of yesterday’s International Women’s Day, a group of men marched through Kabul wearing burqas to call for equal rights for women. As much as criticising the repressive dress code, they were challenging their own assumptions as men and seeking to understand women’s experience. “One of the best ways to understand how women feel is to walk around and wear a burqa,” one man, Basir, said. This is all encouraging and has to continue and grow.
However, when I think of the “ordinary… normal… unremarkable men” who raped and murdered Jyoti Singh, or those who believe a woman belongs at home or even those who think nothing for how their self-gratifying flattery might make a woman feel harassed and threatened, I wonder what it would take to make them “understand how women feel”.
I am reminded again and again of Eléonore Pourriat’s powerful short film, Majorité Opprimée (Oppressed Majority – watch below), a simple role reversal tale that challenges the viewer – and men in particular – to consider how they would feel in a woman’s place. It quickly leaves its initial humour behind for a disturbing, harrowing alternate reality. I recommend taking ten minutes to watch it and share it (though be advised: it is definitely NSFW). I suspect, however that those men most likely to be affected by it are those who are already willing to wear nail polish, high heels or burqas. I suspect that it will take a lot longer than ten minutes and more concerted effort than a single film to change such entrenched attitudes.
I imagine it will be a long time before there is no need for an International Women’s Day. For now it’s good to have a reminder not just of the barriers facing women, but the great strides women have made to overcome them. And if women can have the stamina and endurance and commitment to strive for centuries of slow progress towards their deserved equality, then surely we men can start to play our part in helping to make it happen. After all, equality is not a battle of one side over the other: it is the achievement of a common purpose. In the inclusive, gender-neutral words of John Stuart Mill, “The true virtue of human beings is to live together as equals: claiming nothing for themselves but what they as freely concede to everyone else.”
Watch Eléonore Pourriat’s short film, Majorité Opprimée (Oppressed Majority) below. Remember: it is not safe for work.
Dubliners: to coincide with International Women’s Day, Rathmines library is screening the three-part documentary, Hoodwinked on Tuesday 10th, Wednesday 11th and Thursday 12th of March at 12.30pm. Details can be found here.