Last year Jude Kelly mentioned that she felt the WOW Festival could do more to encourage men to attend, and to involve men in the discussions taking place there. She felt that it was important that we, as women and feminists, engage with men more to see how they could help us. This year, that definitely seems to have become a focus on the programme as several of the sessions sought to bring men into the conversation.
The need to involve men actually arose early on Friday in the panel on International Activism. Valerie Amos (UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief coordinator on the Millennium Development Goals) was speaking about violence against women and girls and how this was a major barrier to the Millennium Goals being achieved. She clearly stated that men needed to raise their voices on this issue, not just to show support for women, but to lead other men in change. Jude Kelly agreed, admitting she finds herself ‘baffled’ when hearing about some violence against women, having a moment where she wonders if men do hate women (just a moment – it’s clear that she doesn’t). Although most men would never commit such acts, it’s important that they speak out against those that do. When women speak out on these issues it’s assumed to be important to them because they’re women. It needs to be important to all of us.
This point that men need to speak out came up time and again throughout other sessions on Friday and Saturday. The Guy’s Guide to Feminism session saw Michael Kaufman (co-author of the book of the same name and co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign) pick this up. He clearly stated that violence against women is an issue for men. It happens to women they love – mothers, sisters, daughters, friends – and this should be something that they care about. He worries that violence against women makes some women suspicious of all men and his anecdote of women crossing the street late at night to avoid him sounded familiar to me. Crucially however, he said that men look to other guys to define what being a man is. All men must speak out as silence could give the impression that they’re okay with what’s happening. In fact one of the stated aims of the White Ribbon Campaign is that silence allows violence to continue. This must end.
Kaufman did admit that since most men broadly support equality (even if they wouldn’t call themselves feminists) they don’t speak out or engage in it. Another of the WRC’s aims raises the point that collective responsibility is required, but that it’s not about guilt; it’s not about men feeling guilt as men because of the violence that exists against women. It is, however, about men taking the opportunities presented to them to speak out and create change; men need to accept that responsibility.
Kaufman had a number of other interesting points to make in the Guy’s Guide to Feminism session. While funny and light (reading extracts from the book that set the tone) it’s clear that he feels very strongly about campaigning for change. He also spoke about the use of language and how it can be used to make women ‘disappear’. Describing women as ‘my lovely assistant’ (rather than capable for example) or using terms such as cavemen, mankind, chairman or postman – even when referring to women – just erases women completely. Women are diminished by being referred to as girls or chicks, especially in workplaces. Being aware of this may stop men from using these terms.
He also, interestingly, discussed the opportunities that feminism brings for men to transform themselves. He feels that the ‘macho’ culture is damaging to men and is something that feminism directly challenges. From birth, boys are bombarded with messages about what it means to be male and are openly humiliated if they don’t live up to this – boys don’t cry, don’t throw like a girl, play through the pain. However, these ideals are impossible to live up to. All people need love, nurture and connection but men cannot admit this. Men are left with massive internal conflict in trying to live up to these images.
When women challenge these ideals, as feminists do, it can leave men confused and angry. If this behaviour isn’t what it means to be a man, then what is it that still makes them men? Some men however can and do embrace this as an opportunity and a positive move towards transforming men’s lives.
Kaufman brought some of these points with him into the Conversation Between the Sexes panel, which was at times entertaining and at times somewhat uncomfortable to watch (Jon Snow and Shami Chakrabarti seemed to particularly butt heads, even when agreeing with each other). Jude Kelly did ask why more men don’t speak out about other men’s behaviour. Kaufman replied that he felt it was out of fear of appearing as if they are not a ‘real man’. He was optimistic that this was changing though. Jon Snow also commented that men could learn a lot from a festival like WOW as he couldn’t imagine men gathering to address issues in this way. It’s interesting to note that Jude did announce that Southbank Centre will be holding a Festival of Masculinity in January 2014 (that should be interesting!).
Kaufman’s last point, about what men need from women in order to change, did feed back into something I also heard in a few sessions over the weekend (so far). He noted that the nature versus nurture debate is shifting and that gender is something we learn. Our brains are shaped by our families, and we become gendered. He felt that men needed encouragement to reshape what it means to be men by transforming fatherhood. Increased parental leave would help but we also need to recast ideas of motherhood. Women need to accept that men can also nurture and allow them to fulfill this role.
Models of fatherhood cannot be underestimated (where fathers are present). In the International Activism panel Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Malala Yousafzai, spoke about what he did as father that allowed Malala to be the girl she has become. In Pakistan, having sons is important – the birth of daughters is barely celebrated. Men are known by the achievements of their sons but he described himself as ‘lucky and fortunate’ to be a man who is known by his daughter. So what did he do differently to other fathers? He says he did nothing but honour her as a person and treat her with respect. He said for too long women have been happy to be the strength behind men (behind every great man is a great women) but we should be side-by-side. Crucially he said there are three things men should do for their daughters – honour them, trust them and educate them. Wise words that certainly seem to have worked with Malala.
In The Keys To The Castle talk, Angelique Kidjo picked this up in relation to her own childhood. Every year her extended family would come to her parents (well, her father – her mother was considered to have no say in the matter) and tell him that it was time for Angelique to marry. Every year her father would tell them that no-one would tell him what to do in his own home and would insist that Angelique continue in her education. Even as she began to perform and singing became her passion her father told her that she could only continue singing if she continued attending school. The difference that education can make in a girl’s life in Africa is well documented but not all fathers feel able to take such a strong line, or believe it’s right.
So is there a role for men in helping to bring change in women’s lives? It’s clear that there is. They don’t necessarily need to call themselves feminists or be on the streets with us protesting. They don’t even need to attend WOW with us! They just need to take steps in their own lives – how they speak about women, how they relate to other men, their example of what it means to be a man and how they raise their daughters (and sons).