Although there can be different forms of feminism, the one central tenet that runs through all of them is a struggle for women’s agency, space, and voice. This at the very least should be kept in mind when formulating what men’s role within feminism should be. I say this because, as we sometimes see, there are often ‘well-intentioned men’ seeking to define or learn this role, sometimes in a’‘well-meaning request’ to women in a long thread of comments on Facebook or in a general conversation.
What also needs to be clear from the outset of such a project is that whatever rubric you may find for yourself, including this one, is not something that men have come up with themselves. Even the lauded helpful husband who does the dishes or ‘allows’ their spouse to go to work does so because throughout history women have kept fighting for this. To put it clearly: men’s role within feminism has been/gets/will get created by what women have asked of men. If you find yourself speaking to someone who credits men with making an original contribution to the fight against sexism and patriarchy, question that. Why? Because that – their agency – is exactly what has been denied to and snatched away from women, courtesy patriarchy. Could the contribution not have been made by women? Was a woman who made the contribution silenced, or erased from or not recorded in history?
The practical examples that are developed here are then also the result of being made to do the line of questioning that we take in the previous paragraph, which is – if you observe – only derived from the basic tenet of feminism that we began with.
For over two thousand years, we have heard men speak – in books, on television, on the radio, and in scriptures. It is not as if feminists want to ban men from speaking. When a woman is speaking, and speaking about feminism at that, kindly desist from hogging the mic for yourself as the know-it-all. Nobody is going to doubt your speaking skills or your knowledge. You have thousands of years of documentary evidence of men speaking, men learning, men singing, men shouting, men using all available media of speech to look up to, imitate, or worship. You are already privileged enough to speak.
As this popular Tumblr blog has been documenting for quite some time, this privilege has meant that only men tend to be portrayed as experts on all subjects of discussion. A great example of such all-male-panels (aka “manels”) is the Indian parliament. This male-dominated body – the highest ever representation of women here has been just over ten percent – has decided time and again that the parliament does not need reservation for women.
So, yes, men also have the privilege to speak about (or over) women. But listening to women allows you to learn what they want– which could lead you to what feminism is, how it has evolved over the years, and continues to do so.
Now our ‘well-intentioned’ dude will, after considerable bickering, finally give up with something like, “I have not read up on this,” or “Can you please elaborate?”
Feminists are also often accused by these guys of having resorted to ‘specialised knowledge’, ‘theory’, ‘history’, and ‘jargon’ to ‘just beat them down’. But feminist theory is not something that women learn just for laughs. Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ begins with the trouble that she had to go through to even begin writing that text.
What I am trying to put across is that what you call specialised knowledge is the result of a lot of labour that women have undertaken to liberate themselves. Feminist theory did not come out of thin air. Right from the women who fight for their rights within their homes to those who fought on the street to those who had to fight to produce and disseminate this knowledge to the woman who perhaps with patience explained to you in five short sentences (because you were lazy) the knowledge that she accumulated after much work, women had to do a lot of labour to fight patriarchy. And you want to make her work more, for free? That’s not very feminist of you, is it?
Now suppose you read up on feminism, you learn about oppression, and you want to support women’s fight against patriarchy. You could be then called an ally. But you are not satisfied with it. You go ahead and proclaim yourself a feminist ally.
Privilege alert! ‘Feminist’ is not a badge that you get to wear just because or even if you have read everything about feminism and agree with it. As soon as you ‘proclaim’, you are again demanding space and attention, all of which you already have without even having to work for it.
If you continue to participate in patriarchal practices, your proclamation is plain theatrics (hence, the word ‘ally-theatre’). Women might call you an ally if they find support from you when they fight to end gender pay gap, gender discrimination at work, sexual harassment, when they demand affirmative action, etc. But if earning brownie points for being termed an ally is your motivation for supporting women, you are not supporting women’s struggles. You are just performing ally-theatre for your own benefit.
Another form in which ally-theatre presents itself is when men who call themselves allies point out that ‘not all men’ are bad because male allies exist. Two things are to be kept in mind here. One, when women criticise men, they are not targeting you or allies specifically. They are attacking a whole system that privileges men. Two, even if you are an ally, you still are part of the problem, because your privileges don’t vanish once you are an ally.
What women demand from men is support in the form of actual work, which we will deal with in the next section. What must precede and follow such work is the understanding that this work alone is men’s role in the feminist movement. A ‘Hello, I am a feminist ally!’ declaration is not.
While learning to do all of the above, what men can do is make their own spaces feminist. This would mean putting an end to the manel, the sexist talk that you are used to, patriarchal norms that you easily give in to, the easy-applause that male writers, artists, activists get, and more. For our ‘well-intentioned’ dude from above, this would also mean speaking to men about ending sexist practices, instead of educating women on what feminism “really is”.
This is also to say that men should not demand space from women’s platforms and forums. This is yet another way of saying that you already have huge footprints all over the globe, which you can start working on. If your family, workplace, organisation, institution, or party is male-dominated, patriarchal, misogynist, or sexist, change that instead of asking women’s spaces to share their mic.
Most of this piece treats gender as a binary, because oppressive structures tend to work in that manner. Ending this binary would mean doing all of the above and staying alert for any new demands that the feminist struggle makes from men. Now some men may have been doing this work but as the joke goes, ‘a male feminist walks into a bar because it was set so low’. Feminists have to work hard to keep even this bar from sliding even lower. Feminism has come to include the struggle of several other marginalised groups. If men want to raise the bar, they must also learn about the struggles of all such marginalised groups.
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