Earlier this week, the internet went slightly mad over a speech by Emma Watson to the UN General Assembly in New York. A Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women, Watson was there to launch HeForShe, a campaign which calls on men to become advocates for women and "agents of change" in the fight to end gender inequality.
OPINION: In her speech, which has been repeatedly labelled "game-changing", Watson highlighted the impact of gender inequality on boys and men. After providing some very accessible, positive and necessary thoughts on feminism in general, she offered this observation:
"We don't often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are, and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence."
I'm sorry to be the Grinch who stole Popular Feminism, but this is utter rubbish. Gender inequality comes as a direct result of the enforcement of patriarchal structures. Although men are impacted negatively by it, they are not impacted in the same ways or to the same drastically violent extent as women.
Additionally, men are overwhelmingly the beneficiaries of these patriarchal structures, seeing themselves reflected broadly across society as change-makers and power brokers. Whatever benefits Watson's speech may have in regard to inspiring a new generation of young feminists (and that is unquestionably an achievement), it is offensive and farcical to suggest that equality and change will come for women "as a natural consequence" of men being supported to get their feelings in order.
Unfortunately, ideas like this have begun to bubble up in a feminist discourse which seems to have not only adopted a "gently, gently" approach to social and structural change but repositioned the perpetrators of inequality and violence as some kind of vague shadowy cloud and not identifiable groups of people. It's no longer enough to demonstrate to men the reality of gender oppression through activism and adult dialogue - now we must "engage" them as one would a child, encouraging them to see how behavioural change will also benefit them.
In her address, Watson wondered why a 1997 speech on gender inequality delivered by Hillary Clinton boasted only 30 per cent of men in its audience. "How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?" she asked, before going on to officially extend a formal invite to men to make gender equality their issue too.
It's a nice gesture but this, too, is rubbish. Men have always been welcome to "participate in the conversation", most notably when that participation involves action, change and acknowledgement of their own privilege and power.
It's telling that a second speech delivered by the UN Women director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has received little to no traction, and not just because she lacks the star power of a well intentioned celebrity. Mlambo-Ngcuka's speech made no secret of what violence and gender oppression looked like for women, nor which group - men - was overwhelmingly responsible for causing it. Yet none of the facts or chilling statistics referenced by Mlambo-Ngcuka have even been incorporated in the HeForShe website, which is a confusing mess of meaningless platitudes and simplistic quotes.
It's true that a person like Watson is very well placed to inspire people who may still be labouring under the weight of stereotypes regarding feminism, and that is undoubtedly cause for celebration. I applaud her for being brave enough to speak out when so many others haven't.
But feminists have been battling these stereotypes for decades and we will almost certainly be battling them for years to come because the unfortunate truth is that gender inequality is about power - who has it, and who wants to retain it. No amount of window dressing (for that is surely what the HeForShe campaign amounts to, given its entire breadth seems to be asking men to click a button and download a twibbon) is going to change the systemic global oppression that results in women's degradation, subjugation and death in persistently high numbers. And it isn't, as some have suggested, "tearing another woman down" to want to discuss that reality.
While busy launching flashy guff like HeForShe, the UN has also acknowledged it will fail to meet its Millenium Development Goals (MDG) on gender equality by the target date of 2015, especially its goal on maternal health care and mortality. In the UN Women's paper on the MDGs, they admit that limited funding has been devoted to programs which address women's economic, sexual and social equality.
When UN Women was established in 2011, it was granted less than 1 per cent of all UN funding. That same year, Germany, the US and the UK provided a paltry $1 million, $6 million and $10 million apiece towards its goal. That lack of political will is at odds with these truths.
In 2013, an estimated 140 million women worldwide were unable to access family planning services that would enable them to delay or stop childbearing, a liberty which the UN and health bodies admits plays a significant role in the empowerment of women and their families.
Across 63 countries around the world, girls are still more likely than boys to be denied access to primary education because of perceptions about girls' worth. Women do not feature heavily in political leadership, despite evidence suggesting that female-led governance improves policy-making and community benefit.
These are not facts that exist because men have thus far been "denied" entry into feminist debate and activism. They won't disappear "naturally" when men are empowered to be sensitive. They exist because patriarchal power hinges on the subjugation of women, and anything that distracts from that is a liability to the cause.
I love that Emma Watson has bravely put herself on the line as a proud feminist. It's wonderful that she may be instrumental in inspiring millions more to consider these issues. Bravo to her. But to be truly game-changing, you have to actually change the game. And while it is important for men to choose to be allies, addressing actual systemic inequality through the funding of programs which empower and defend women's sexual, economic and political rights is the only way to ensure women have a chance at winning.
- Clementine Ford is a freelance writer.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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