Can men be the allies of feminism?

Yes they can, argues NIGHAT GANDHI, because feminism is a philosophy and a movement for ending all forms of oppression, including that which is gender-based. In fact, gender-sensitive men should very much feel a part of this movement, she says.

THIS article aims to clear the misconception that feminism is an anti-marriage, anti-family, and anti-men movement imported from the West. Men can also be feminists, because feminism is a philosophy and a movement for ending all forms of oppression, including gender-based oppression. It is not against family and marriage, as much as it is about transforming these institutions to weed out their inherent injustices. Men are not excluded from feminism; in fact, gender-sensitive men should very much feel a part of the feminist movement. K. Bhasin and N.S. Khan have defined feminism in the South Asian context as "an awareness of women's oppression and exploitation in society, at work and within the family, and conscious action by women and men to change this situation". Therefore, a feminist is anyone who embraces this philosophy and espouses a commitment to end gender-based oppression. I would extend this definition to include other interlocking sources of oppression, such as class, caste, ethnicity and religions. These affect men too, but not to the same degree as women.

Gender does not just denote the female gender. Men are also gendered beings, and are affected in negative ways through the social construction of masculinity. Not all men are naturally hypermasculine, aggressive, competitive, and emotionally distant. Men should be bothered about ending women's oppression because it might also be a way of ushering in an alternative masculinity, and for blurring gender boundaries. Male and female genders don't need to be diametrically opposed. In a harmonious world, the dissolution of binary genders used to describe men and women may give way to a pluralistic, many-gendered world, where many shades of masculinities and femininities thrive and are accepted.

Sounds unnatural, anarchistic? Look at it as a re-definition of what we consider biologically determined or natural. Accepting the world as multi-gendered may make it more stable, peaceful and prosperous than insisting on a rigidly bi-gendered world. It may free men and women from performing their constricted gendered roles that are dualistic, rigidly defined, and ultimately destructive. Feminism challenges the binary construction of gender. It promotes freedom from constraints imposed on men and women by their gendered roles. It is social conditioning, not the biology of being male or female that burdens men as the sole providers of women, and conditions women to be dependent on men.

Mere recognition of injustice is not enough to end it. Recognition must be accompanied by action. Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed defines solidarity with the oppressed as an act of love. Speaking to those who have historically been in the role of oppressors, he writes: "Rationalising (their) guilt through paternalistic treatment of the oppressed, all the while holding them in a position of dependence, will not do. The oppressor is in solidarity with the oppressed when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with — when he stops making pious, sentimental and individualistic gestures, and risks an act of love."

Acts of love are not passive; they are passionate commitments to change. It is not enough for men to say that they are not personally involved in the oppression of women. This is passivity. Each time a woman is not allowed to reach her full personhood, each time a woman is abused in any way simply because she is a woman — beaten, burnt alive, raped, maimed, or denied her right to be born — and well-meaning men turn the other way, they participate in the ongoing oppression of women. For silence is a form of participation. Neglect is participation. And so is indifference. Neither silence, nor indifference, nor neglect are acts of love.

The impact on South Asia

Silence, neglect, and indifference are indicative of the desire for the status quo to remain unchanged. When men side-line women's oppression as a non-issue, or as a women's issue to be dealt with by women, they are advocating that such oppression should continue, because risking their own involvement in the ending of women's subordination might threaten their present privileged positions. The Mahbub ul Haq Human Development in South Asia (2000) report warns that "Human development, if not engendered, is fatally endangered." What this means is that unless correcting gender inequality is considered an urgent priority, South Asia will continue to be one of the most impoverished, malnourished, illiterate, and gender-insensitive regions of the world. The unchanged subordinate status of women may derail the advancement of South Asian nations.

Men as allies

What could pro-feminist men do as allies to enhance women's achievement of equity? As allies of the oppressed, pro-feminist men need to become (actively) politically involved. Feminists believe that politically significant change begins in the home. Let's take a fresh look at the gendered division of labour in the home. Housework is work that is unacknowledged as work, since most of it is unpaid work done by women.

A pro-feminist man can't expect women to be entirely responsible for housework and childcare. Housework is work that has to be done to keep the family functioning. It is not just women's work. Active solidarity means pro-feminist men participate fully in sharing housework. And promote the idea of doing housework as an ideal among other men. Passive sympathising would be to feel sorry for his overworked partner, or at best, to suggest that she hire a maidservant.

Frances Kendall provides a to-do list for allies of the oppressed in an article titled: "How to be an Ally if you are a person with privilege." She outlines simple ways in which allies can self-assess their own privileges and the impact on the lives of those who are denied privileges. An ally questions how his life would have been different if he were not male? How do his male privileges shield him from injustices? How has a lack of the same privileges withheld opportunities for advancement from women? How can he align himself with women's causes? This means breaking his silent allegiance with other men. Kendall insists that it is important to break these pacts of solidarity with one's own group in order to be "most useful to the person or group with whom you are aligning yourself." Pro-feminist male allies may have to speak up in a situation in which women are being overrun by other men, even when they don't stand to benefit directly from such outspokenness; it may mean interrupting a joke that insensitively stereotypes women. Lastly, a male pro-feminist ally knows that he is not doing women a favour. He is clear that he is an ally in the interests of building a more egalitarian world.

Let me end with a quote from writer, activist and feminist, Bell Hooks: "When women and men understand that working to eradicate patriarchal domination is a struggle rooted in the longing to make a world where everyone can live fully and freely, then we know our work to be a gesture of love. Let us draw upon that love to heighten our awareness, deepen our compassion, intensify our courage, and strengthen our commitment." It is such committed love that male allies must offer to express solidarity with feminism.

Nighat Gandhi is a feminist activist and a writer.

[Reprinted with permission from The Hindu Times.]