Male feminists: why it’s important to get the boys on board

By Angelique Mulholland. Angelique is a writer for The Pixel Project and a women’s human rights activist.

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“You can’t legislate the way men are brought up. We simply haven’t done enough to change the attitudes of men. We need to re-define and challenge traditional notions of masculinity. What does it mean to be a good father, a good partner? We need to work more effectively, and challenge the inherent inequalities in our societies today.”

Todd Minerson, The White Ribbon Campaign

Back in 2010 I interviewed Todd Minerson, head of The White Ribbon Campaign, a leading global charity that engages men in ending violence against women. In the first few minutes of the interview, Todd had me laughing with an anecdote about the first time he decided to stand up to sexism, an anecdote that helped me realise the importance of men in the battle for equality.

Being a typical hockey-loving Canadian, Todd had just finished a game with his hockey team, and all the boys were in the locker room together with banter flying from all corners. Then one of his friends made a sexist joke. Todd had just taken his pledge to The White Ribbon – which involves promising to always stand up for women’s rights – and he knew he couldn’t let it go. He was facing his locker, he took a deep breath, rehearsed an articulate, brilliant response in his head, turned to his friend and then promptly blurted out… “Dude, it’s not funny.” Silence. A man had challenged another man on his misogynist dialogue and attitude. Todd cheerfully told me that after this first challenge, more challenges took place and then eventually the sexist jokes were no longer part of the locker room banter and now all his hockey team belong to The White Ribbon campaign. Including the “sexist one”. Well, the former sexist.

Todd’s anecdote makes a powerful point. Men cannot be ignored in the conversation on inequality. Men’s positive contribution is needed to challenge rape culture, misogynist dialogue and inequality whenever and wherever it arises – whether it’s in the locker room, down the pub, at work, on the street or in the family home. We need men to be women’s advocates and not to be afraid to challenge their peers. Male feminists need to be celebrated and seen as role models for other men.

I saw a great example of this type of campaigning earlier on this year in India. I spent International Women’s Day with a human rights charity called Breakthrough. Their lead campaign, “Bell Bajao”, which began in 2006, galvanizes Indian men to stand up to other Indian men who commit violence against women. This isn’t chivalry. This is about men saying no to human rights violations against women and girls, saying no to inequality, saying no to injustice.

Ignoring the male feminist voice is a huge mistake. We need their perspective on patriarchy and working out where we have gone wrong in raising boys who commit violence against women. Many men will admit they were not allowed to cry as children. They were told to be tough and were never taught how to handle their anger. Boys, as well as girls, grow up with images of pimps being cool and their “bitches” needing a good… well take your pick from the lyrics of a variety of leading music-makers.

We need to discuss these issues with men. How do these messages affect their view of women? How do they affect them in their roles as fathers, brothers, partners? Men’s voices are important on how to prevent the violence before it starts. We need to start talking and then start educating.

We also need male activists to help shift the idea that gender-based violence is a “women’s issue”. Why is it a woman’s issue when it is mostly men committing violence? We all know the stats: violent crime is committed disproportionately by men against men, against women, against boys and against girls. Women and girls are trafficked into Britain and kept as sex slaves because there is a demand, from some men, to have sex with them. We need to start asking why.

Why are so many young men growing up angry, aggressive and treating women like disposable sex objects? Why do they hurt the women who love them? Why did Charles Saatchi put his hand around his wife’s throat and why did all the national papers comment on Nigella Lawson’s character rather than question his? What about his “weaknesses”?

We need to move the conversation forward as it is only by understanding the “whys” behind some men’s behaviour that we can find solutions, and ultimately work towards the end goal of prevention.

Both men and women, boys and girls, are losers in the violence committed by some men. Let’s start talking, as equals and without judgement, on how to end it.

Photo of two men holding a banner that reads “Men against violence towards women”, supporting women marching at Take Back The Night, Ontario, Canada, by Toban Black, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

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