By Angus Yip (18A01A)
Many recent movements in feminism have been spearheaded, unsurprisingly, by women. Last year’s Women’s March in the US was sparked by four women as a large-scale demonstration to “send a bold message to [the new US administration]… that women’s rights are human rights”. The #MeToo social media movement encouraged women to speak up about moments where they felt sexually assaulted or harassed in everyday life, especially in the workplace. Locally, organisations like AWARE which aim to promote women’s rights are still very much led by women.
It is only natural that women should lead the charge to speak up for their rights. Many of us believe that men have some form of role to play in these movements. In considering the role men should play, we must also consider the extent to which their involvement may create problems that hinder this very movement, and what can be done about this.
I write this article knowing that feminism today is impossible to homogenise. Certain acts can be interpreted differently, as championing feminism or undermining it – when Miley Cyrus released her “Wrecking Ball” music video, she argued that she was acting against traditional conceptions of femininity, but others denounced her for sexualising herself. Entire branches of feminism are in disagreement over the goals of the movement too. For instance, liberal feminists aim to create equality of opportunity in the legal and educational spheres, while radical feminists posit that the whole patriarchal system must be overturned.
While definitions of feminism are complex and ever-changing, for the sake of this article, it is necessary to simplify things (at the risk of being reductive). It is perhaps best to consider the “goal” of feminism as the common ground that most branches of feminism have: a society where women can live without any particular discrimination from others by virtue of their sex.
Many of the experiences women have discussed are things that I (or most men) have never experienced or scarcely thought about. For instance, in Singapore, many women still feel afraid walking alone on the street when it is dark. One of my friends mentioned that she has a strict curfew and her parents believe that if she is not home by a certain time, she will be sexually assaulted. Many of my friends have also mentioned how their parents want them to dress modestly to avoid attracting undue attention. Beyond these fears, larger systemic problems like sexual harassment in the workplace are also things that many men will not be able to empathise with.
Singapore and many other first world countries are fortunate not to have any discrimination against women that manifests itself through practices like arranged marriages or abortions of female foetuses, which other societies accept as normal. These countries have also been largely spared from criticism regarding the institutionalisation of sexism in legal codes.
Instead, these experiences manifest themselves in the cultural practices, values and teachings shared by members of society. However, this also means that much of what women experience are things that the media does not report. After all, it does not make much sense for newspapers to report simply that a cultural perception still exists without any recent newsworthy events that emphasise this. This makes it even more difficult for men to realise that these issues even exist and understand what women are speaking up against.
To be very clear, men should aim to be more aware of the injustice women describe and realise that such injustice cannot go on for equality to be achieved. Men should focus on questioning their assumptions about gender roles and becoming more conscious of the privileges they enjoy. However, while men can be allies, men must not claim leadership over a movement that is ultimately about improving the rights of women. This not only diminishes the authenticity of the feminist movement but is also a manifestation of what women are speaking up against – suppression by men.
Beyond this, there are other issues that stem from the fact that many men have not experienced what women go through – it also makes it difficult for feminism as a movement to gain traction in Singapore. It is easy for many men to feel that sufficient progress has been made since physical acts of violence against women have by and large been made illegal, and these acts are no longer seen as morally justifiable by the majority. This goes against the view of many feminists who posit that discrimination still exists in less overt forms, which is the message they aim to spread.
Of course, the difficulty of getting men on board is a problem that some feminist groups have perpetuated through their rather militant rhetoric, or by other groups which believe that women-only spaces are necessary for women to share their experiences, leading to the men feeling excluded from the conversation. The formation of men’s rights activist groups, which many view as misogynistic, has been mostly spurred by the belief that feminism has gone too far. (A Voice For Men, an influential website in the men’s rights movement, claims that it aims to “reject the unhealthy demands of gynocentrism in all its forms”.)
While there are some feminist groups that are aggressive in their approach, as stated earlier, feminism as a movement is extremely heterogeneous and so the generalisation of all feminists in a particular way is very problematic. When people think of “feminism”, they may simply think of a group of women forcefully imposing their own views on others without listening to others’ opinions, even though this does not reflect the nature of most feminists. Compounded with the belief that sufficient progress for women’s rights has been made, many may simply choose not to care about this issue. This makes it difficult for feminists in general to be heard.
Beyond the inability of men to recognise the problems women face, what is even more concerning is that men could be perpetuating certain mindsets and attitudes without even knowing it. In a patriarchal system, it is extremely difficult for men to remove themselves from their positions of power and privilege in relation to women. The traditional view that men are more responsible for earning money while women should take a greater role in taking care of children still largely prevails. This is an image that many women have criticised as an example of oppressive standards of femininity.
To address these issues, I believe that an honest, open conversation between men and women is necessary at some stage for genuine social change to be achieved one day. Some feminists argue that feminism is a woman’s battle – women-only spaces are needed for women to feel safe. However, I think that this makes it easy for feminism to be seen as something that does not take the views of others into account.
Men must care if feminism is to create change. Even if we do not consider feminist groups that many perceive to be overly radical, there are still many moderate feminists who campaign fervently for equality of opportunity. If men do not support these groups, it naturally diminishes the impact that they have and their potential to create the change they desire.
Even if I acknowledge that I cannot fully empathise with what women experience, there is nothing preventing me from listening to their words. Yes, I may not fully understand everything feminists speak for, but I can talk to other women and listen to their opinions on what men can do.
Ultimately, that is the most important contribution that men can play. Even if men ultimately decide that they disagree with the tenets of feminism, making an informed decision to do so is better than dismissing the entire movement as a whole. Men must do their best to understand the discourse surrounding feminism as a movement and make a more educated decision on where they stand.
And if men decide to support the feminist movement (or certain branches of it), they must be more aware about the ways in which they may be unintentionally perpetuating the very problems feminists wish to tackle. Simply claiming to be a feminist is insufficient; one’s actions are far more important in forwarding the movement. It is only through a genuine engagement with the feminist movement that real, genuine change can be created.