Talking about gender

  • Most men still do not recognise that gender inequality negatively affects them too
- NERINE GUINÉE
Talking about gender

Oct 13, 2014-

According to a quick Google search, men in Nepal are: awesome, very good looking, treated ‘higher’ than women, and tend to discuss politics at length. Which compares interestingly to women in Nepal, who are (according to Google): subordinate to men, victims of violence, killing themselves, trafficked for sex, and suffering from uterine prolapse, among other things. Obviously, if women are in such a bad place while men are discussing politics, it is women who have problems that need to be fixed.

But if the men are doing so well, then who is committing all this violence, abuse, trafficking, and other not-so-nice behaviours women suffer from? We can’t blame everything on men but we most certainly can’t blame everything on women.

The perhaps obvious and yet very much ignored truth is that gender inequality is not a ‘women’s problem’. Society has a problem, and men are a big part of it--in terms of causing it, perpetuating it, but also in suffering its consequences. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that in a society where gender inequality persists and violence against women is pervasive, it is not just women who have ‘issues’. Perhaps behind every unhappy woman, there is an unhappy man too.

Gender has as great an influence on men’s lives as it has on women’s, but we don’t really talk about men and gender, because ‘gender’, that is a women’s thing. Indeed, women’s issues and interests have dominated the gender debate. For once women dominate something, rather than being dominated. And yet, it is time for this to change.

Men need to lean in

While most men do indeed support gender equality in theory, it takes persistence and courage to deal with the real-life consequences of such an endorsement. To ‘help empower’ women is one thing, but truly changing the status quo, changing one’s own attitudes and behaviours, actually relinquishing some power and privilege, is another. Sure enough, there have been positive changes, such as the (almost) 33 percent women’s participation in the Constituent Assembly, but such changes are hard-won and continue to cause disgruntlement among men. Not to mention that women are made to feel they should be grateful for being ‘given’ such rights and therefore, to stop complaining. Men, meanwhile, are doing just fine; and rather than discussing gender, they mostly prefer to get on with life and deal with the other important things they have on their plate. They don’t truly own the issue.

Moreover, even if gender dynamics tend to privilege men, that does not mean that men ultimately benefit from the status quo in terms of health and happiness. It is, however, not entirely men’s fault if they have not been bristling with enthusiasm to speak openly about gender issues. Some men are so terrified of saying the wrong thing when it comes to gender that they’d rather not say anything at all. Among women too, there is a sense that since it is the women who suffer, only women have the right to speak and men need to listen. Not just in Nepal, but internationally, little space is given to men to speak out honestly about their views, doubts, concerns, and experiences with regard to gender and gender inequality. As much as people are right to be outraged by prevailing injustices, shutting up, shaming, and alienating men will not bring us gender equality. If men are to be part of the solution, they need to be part of the debate.

Men suffer too

Apart from a lack of men’s involvement in the wider gender and women’s empowerment debate, there is an even greater gap when it comes to men reflecting on themselves and their gender in the way that women are increasingly doing. One misunderstanding about gender is that men are either unaffected by it, or benefitting from it.

But take, for example, the disturbing issue of violence against women. According to the Nepal Demographic and Health Survey 2011, a third of married women have experienced some form of spousal violence, 22 percent of all women have experienced physical violence, and 12 percent of women have experienced sexual violence. But when all we notice in statistics like these is the word ‘women’, we miss the point. The statistics also show that the vast majority of perpetrators are men and that right there signals a men’s issue rather than a women’s issue.

Incidentally, gender has a lot to do with violent behaviour. Some research in fact indicates that boys and men are under even greater social pressure to conform to gender stereotypes than girls and women are. From a very young age, boys the world over face pressures to be tough, strong, self-reliant, man up, not show emotions (except anger), dominate, or even prove their manhood through intolerant, violent, and sexually aggressive behaviour. Strong links have been found between masculinity (or the way men are socialised and their identities as men socially constructed) and violence, and masculinity and the abuse of women and girls.

All this is not to say that men are passive victims. Men actively contribute to perpetuating dominant masculinities but in their pursuit of enacting and proving their manliness, they harm themselves and those around them (both male and female). That is why it is important that this becomes a topic of discussion. If men were able to assert their masculinity without feeling the need to turn to harmful behaviors, society would look very different. Apart from making men healthier and happier, it would also go a long way to solving many so-called ‘women’s issues’.

Women are not exempt from responsibility in engaging men and breaking down unhealthy masculinities. Women need to acknowledge that they too put gendered pressures and expectations on the men around them. That said, men still hold most power in society, including most power to make changes.

Celebrities taking the lead

Last month, a video of UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson inviting men to join the ‘He for She’ gender equality movement caused quite a stir. South Asian men (including big names like John Abraham and Farhan Akthar) have started speaking out against rapes and violence. At the global level, men like Jackson Katz and Tony Porter question masculinity norms in much-viewed TED Talks. Here in Nepal, actor Rajesh Hamal recently joined a World Bank event on violence against women and girls, where he echoed the need to start treating violence against women as everyone’s issue, calling on men to show more leadership in ending it.  

These are promising signs, but the real shift has yet to happen. Over the past decades, women have taken the lead but it is time for men to catch up. Let’s stop misrepresenting gender inequality as a women’s issue. Let’s also stop assuming that men are fine simply because they are men (even if they are very good looking). As Emma Watson pointed out, men, it is time to recognise that gender equality is your issue too.

Guinee holds a Masters in International Development Studies and works as a gender equality researcher and consultant

Published: 14-10-2014 09:23

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