Can men be feminists?

  • If men want to understand feminism and help the cause, they first need to analyse the norms that inform their social identity
The patriarchal structure and mindset still relegates women to the position of the “other” as compared to her male counterpart

Apr 13, 2018-Simone De Beauvoir, in her pioneer work The Second Sex, famously argued that “man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other”. This quote is relevant to date as although many women, but not all, have come a long way in terms of making personal and professional choices, the patriarchal structure and mindset still relegates women to the position of the “other” as compared to her male counterpart. Given this context, feminism becomes ever more crucial both as a theory and in practice.

Feminism collectively refers to an extensive body of theories and social movements that seek to challenge established notions of ‘normality’, ‘neutrality’ and ‘rationality’ through a centralised focus on how unequal gender relations and oppressive social systems are produced and reproduced. At its core, it is a struggle against patriarchy, which in the simplest term refers to a social system in which men hold power and authority over women, children and sexual and gender minorities.

But there are different norms of masculinities that feed patriarchal systems, which can be equally oppressive to some men. Thus, if men can perpetuate and/or benefit from the patriarchal system, could they also have alternative potential to challenge norms of masculinity, recognise their male privilege and give it up to start a conversation on creating an equitable co-existence of all?

Keeping this in mind, on March 6 this year, we organised a panel discussion on the topic ‘Can men be feminists?’. The aim of the event was to start a conversation on feminism, men and masculinity rather than to come up with a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.  

In a packed seminar hall, a lively debate ensued between panellists and the audience, which brought to light a number of misconceptions regarding feminism. Of course, there were progressive voices on deconstructing masculinity, learning about how patriarchy impacts men and women, and exploring structural power relations that imbue both social and intimate relationships. But those views were largely outnumbered by voices that questioned the very relevance of feminism, which we want to highlight and address.

(Mis)understanding feminism

Unsurprisingly, feminism is largely understood through ‘men haters’ and ‘women only’ perspectives. The commonly used disclaimer by many male participants was ‘I don’t know about feminist/gender theories but…’, and that would be followed by remarks such as feminism is exclusionary as it does not talk about other gender identities, men’s rights and humanity. Some questioned whether feminism as a “Western import” is even relevant to the Nepali context.

Tone down ‘aggressive feminism’

One piece of advice on addressing the backlash against feminism was to tone down ‘aggressive feminism’. No definition or clarity was given on what that meant but it appears the very word feminism was being labelled and dismissed as ‘aggressive’. This is unsurprising, as usually in our society, women only remain non-aggressive and desirable as long as they accept their subordination to the terms laid down by men and patriarchy at large.

One other suggestion was that since feminism is exclusionary, in a diverse country like Nepal, commonly used development jargon for Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) would provide more meaningful and neutral grounds to discuss differences and everybody’s rights. To emphasize GESI as the alternative, one of the panellists presented a ‘gender role reversal’ video, created as part of a collective initiative by an international donor organisation to challenge gender stereotypes. We felt the underlying message of swapping gender roles still meant oppression, but by the matriarchy instead. Thus, the limitations of such an approach became apparent.

Overall, without engaging with feminist thoughts and theories, most seem to have concluded that feminism is exclusionary, narrow-minded, irrelevant, and perhaps it substitutes the patriarchy with another form of oppression against the male species in general.

Feminism is relevant

A commonly heard accusation was that feminism is a “Western import”. In fact, the same could be said for Marxism, communism, socialism and the representative system of liberal democracy that Nepali politicians and people have embraced. As suggested by one of the panellists, the same goes for email, Facebook and Twitter that most Nepalis are well-versed in. The point is, globalisation is an age-world phenomenon. And in an increasingly interconnected world, feminism will remain relevant in Nepal and globally as long as sexist and misogynist social systems and cultural values exist.

For Nepali feminists, the key questions should be—how do we utilise a rich body of feminist thoughts to explore, critique and enrich our collective understanding of diverse gender relations and interconnected patriarchal systems in Nepal? How do we go beyond hill ‘upper caste’ Hindu centric modality that currently dominates feminist and wider political thinking, and activism in Nepal? How do we connect oppressive gender relations in Nepal to the wider question of how the Nepali state and nationalism have been (re)created?

Regarding the GESI approach, as much as development I/NGOs and the government would like us to believe, it is not going to address Nepal’s societal chasms that were built along the lines of gender, caste, ethnicity, sexuality, religion and geography. If anything, it depoliticises the political struggle to end sexism and social injustice, by focusing on individual/community empowerment and safely abstaining from questioning deep-seated structural inequalities propelled by the patriarchal and exclusionary state.

Revisiting power and privilege

A minority commented that men are also victims of patriarchy. However, talking about victimisation is pointless if we don’t talk about power and privilege as well. The conversation should not end with the portrayal of men as victims, because it is not about women vs men, or who has it worse. As the feminist and author bell hooks suggests, feminism concerns a broader dialogue on power relations—how we are oppressed and how we become oppressors. For those men who want to support the feminist cause or be feminists, we suggest the first step is to critically analyse the norms of masculinity that inform their social identities and how that creates a matrix of privilege and oppression for them and the others.

Limbu and Jha are based at Martin Chautari


Published: 13-04-2018 07:39

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