The din over Emma Watson’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week has died; it moved some people very much indeed, while others saw it as hugely problematic. The speech was made to launch a new UN Women campaign, called HeForShe, which asks men to get involved in the struggle for gender equality, for the rights of women, and to pledge action against all forms of violence against women. Watson said, “Men– I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender Equality is your issue, too.” She seems to believe that real change cannot happen without the commitment and participation of men — true — and said, “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?”
Watson spent much of her speech telling us of the negative impact that gender inequality has had on men – something, she assumes, we often forget, in our fight for women’s rights. Men cannot show emotion; they are expected to be tough and strong; they are expected to ‘provide’, which often leaves them with no life of their own, no room for the pursuit of their own happiness. She is telling us that gender inequality is problematic for us all; not just bad for women. Now, there’s a word for that: patriarchy. Patriarchy is the all-encompassing, all-consuming, age-old structure which has been in place in human society for a long, long time. Patriarchy tells us that to live by it, is only way to live: that man should have power over woman. It requires women, therefore, to be constantly and consistently denied of any agency or power, in order to sustain this structure as it is. Patriarchy manufactures and propagates gender-roles, creates gender stereotypes and requires us to stick to these roles: it tells us how we should live, if we are man or woman. Women, just as much as men, then and now, in many ways, enable patriarchy, and ensure it is kept in place. Feminists, then and now — I think I can be sure that I speak, at least, for most of us — understand this. We understand that patriarchy is bad for all of mankind. That’s why feminists have tried to resist it, and have asked for its total annihilation. Feminism is, in principle, a call to end patriarchy.
Why then has the feminist struggle been so concerned with the struggle for women’s rights? It is because women were for hundreds of years made to suffer violence, shame, indignity, humiliation, and often even death for the rules that patriarchy tells us we must live by, and men simply were not. Women, in many instances, continue to suffer violence and discrimination as a result of patriarchy. So, yes, forgive us for having limited our struggle to fighting for the rights of women all these years: while patriarchy says men should not show emotion, it says that if you rape a woman, it’s understandable, because she deserves it. While patriarchy says that a man should provide for his family, it says a woman should not venture outside her kitchen, and if she does, she should be punished. While patriarchy says that a man should always strive to be strong, it says a man can beat his wife as a way of regularly asserting, to himself and others, that strength. While patriarchy says a man cannot cry, it says a woman’s feelings are wild and unpredictable and therefore she is a witch or a nymphomaniac. So: do you see how patriarchy may have been a bit worse for women? Do you see why we had to start from scratch — start with asking for the basic right to life, freedom from fear and violence, dignity, economic independence, fair pay — before we could address how men were also undeniably victims, in many ways, of patriarchy? Sometimes patriarchy can be detrimental and fatal to men, too. No one disputes that. The reason that we have been pitted this way — men vs women and women vs men– is because patriarchy has been known to be enormously beneficial to men, over the years, at the cost of women’s human rights. It necessarily needed to step on women to be beneficial to men. Maybe its benefits are not right for the modern-day, thinking, balanced man, but it must have been hugely so, to the men who put it in place and the men who kept it there. No one can deny that we are all equally vulnerable to violence, the impetus of life and uncontrolled fate. But it is hard to ignore the fact that women — practically on a daily basis — encounter some form of violence, usually pretty unique, because they are women.
Now, what’s the problem with HeForShe? What is the problem with Emma Watson, and the campaign for that matter, asking men to participate in the feminist struggle? Certainly, it is of great importance that they do; immediately. The problem is that she more or less directly says that men have felt ‘unwelcome’ in the feminist corner thus far — by ‘inviting’ men to get involved where they have felt unwelcome before, seemingly righting this wrong, she implies that the feminist movement is to blame for the lack of male participation in the struggle for women’s rights.
Another thing that is the fault of us women! Can’t we get anything right?
I think it should be fairly obvious why men may have not been involved in the women’s movement in a big way over the course of history. It is a direct result of this thing: patriarchy, both the fact that men did not want to get involved, and the fact that early feminists may not have wanted them there. Can you really blame them?
To say that the feminist movement has shut men out and made them feel unwelcome — and to now say ‘I invite men to join us’ — is to completely deny and ignore very important parts of our shared history and context, as men and women. It is to deny the truth that women have indeed been victimised and marginalised, sadly, most often at the hands of men. The feminist movement emerged and continues to emerge as a direct response to this victimisation and marginalisation that women face, at the hands of men, and at the hands of patriarchy, all over the world, though perhaps in varying forms. It is, by nature, a force of opposition and resistance to existing structures of power. You can’t simply blot out that part of it; you cannot erase that part of our history, to make it easier, simpler, or nicer to think about. How is it — that the lack of male participation in the feminist movement is seen as the problem, and the fault, of feminists? Why is it — that so many people seem to believe that the negative image that men have today, is the fault of feminists? I think it’s wonderful if men want to get involved in the struggle for equality and freedom for women. Why would we assume they need to be invited? Why have they waited to be invited? I believe men should — and should want to — step in and step forward to prove their commitment — and, in effect, prove themselves. Sadly, we cannot give them the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, every good man does have something to prove. That, in my mind, is possibly the biggest way in which patriarchy affects men negatively.
Why didn’t UN Women select a man to be the spokesperson for a campaign like HeForShe? Why does a women’s rights organisation believe that the work of getting men involved in feminism is their responsibility? Why did those men — celebrities, mostly — who are now openly supporting HeForShe, wait for Emma Watson to invite them to join a struggle that’s been going on for hundreds of years, and affects every single one of us, every day?
Campaigns like HeForShe only fix in place and reassert existing misconceptions, stereotypes and deliberately unsound interpretations about the feminist struggle and about feminists; though Watson says that feminists are not ‘man-haters’, pretty much everything else she says simply reasserts several age-old misogynistic ideas about women who fight for their rights. It undermines the hard work of the brave women and men who have fought the fight, and achieved so much for us all.