Monday, March 23, 2009

More On Being a Male Feminist

This blog is quickly becoming a an extended feminist rant, but so be it.  I wrote the article below for an Egyptian magazine, but I don't know if or when it'll ever see the light of day.

My friend Francesco has a tendency to bellow various and sundry catchphrases that he has coined over the years:  he does so loudly, frequently, seemingly unprompted, and for no particular purpose that I can ascertain.  Among his favourites is the phrase “a little bit of feminism”.  Francesco’s general tendencies towards the Neanderthal-esque in other aspects of his life lead me to believe that he does not intend this as a rallying cry for the emancipation of women.  Instead, with his somewhat tenuous grasp of the English language, I suspect Francesco understands “feminism” to mean “lesbianism.”

He certainly wouldn’t be the only one.  When I taught English literature to first-year university students in Canada, feminist theory was to be introduced only after what eventually became a ritualistic recitation of caveats: No, feminists were not angry man-hating lesbians.  More worryingly still: No, feminism was not obsolete simply because women could now vote.  Finally: No, feminism is not applicable only “over there” (read: far-off places where people always seem to be at war and women always seem to be veiled).  I would end my spiel with the assertion that, differing interpretations notwithstanding, feminism at its essence boiled down to a belief in the equality of the sexes.  “Given such a definition,” I would tell them, “I would hope all of us would define ourselves as feminists…I certainly do.”

What invariably ensued was silence; a tense, uncomfortable silence broken only by an awkward giggle from the back of the class.  It may simply be because as a male I lacked the biological accoutrements traditionally considered necessary in order to join the ranks of feminists.  I did not meet the “member”ship criteria, if you will.  Whatever the reason, students in my overwhelmingly female classes not only showed a distinct aversion to identifying as feminists themselves, but also met my self-identification as such with a combination of scepticism, discomfort, and amusement.

For too many, the term “male feminist” is an oxymoron.  No doubt, there was a time during the evolution of the feminist movement when, in the face of an oppressively ubiquitous patriarchy, women-only spaces were necessary.  Thanks in large part to the gains made by the various feminist movements around the globe, men have come to be seen not only as welcome, but necessary allies in the sometimes seemingly quixotic quest to stamp out the systematic and systemic discrimination against more than one half of the world’s population by the other half. 

Perhaps it’s too easy to pick on Cairo as a case in point.  The sexual harassment which has reached pandemic proportions in this city has been well-publicized of late, but ­– with few exceptions – to no noticeable effect.  As is frequently observed, it is no small irony that the very same men who ostensibly hold the honour of their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters in such high regard, have no compunction about violating that of others.  Of course the reasons for this sort of behaviour – poverty, unemployment, urban anonymity, sexual frustration, a sense of emasculation, etc. – are manifold, but none constitute excuses.               

If, therefore, men are the problem – as we unfortunately so frequently seem to be – then only through the active engagement of men can solutions reasonably be expected to be reached.  Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the notion of male feminism gaining more traction is a curious zero-sum-game mindset which pervades the less enlightened of the male sex: seen through this retrograde lens, to be pro-woman is somehow, by definition, to be anti-man.  That which is good for women can only chip away at the privileges which men now enjoy.  It may be true that women’s liberation will require some concessions on the part of men, but if that is the case, then they are concessions of advantages men did not deserve in the first place.   

No one, least of all me, is saying that this will come soon or easily; the relinquishing of privilege for the sake of greater egalitarianism never does.  However, slavery ended only through the agitation of both black and white abolitionists, just as the advances made by the American civil rights movement were brought about thanks to the combined efforts of black and white activists.  So too will the pernicious patriarchy which afflicts us, both men and women, be defeated only when more men make a genuine call for “a little bit of feminism.”


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