As the University of Nottingham prepares to launch a new gender equality campaign, Imran Rahman-Jones argues that the idea that feminism is solely a women’s issue is naive and outdated. It’s time for all men to get on board.
The University of Nottingham was recently part of the #GetFree tour from the UN Women’s HeForShe campaign. In a series of inspiring talks, the speakers outlined the importance of pushing further gender equality. Ex-UoN student Emma Barnett was the key-note speaker. She was careful to avoid using the word ‘feminism,’ explaining that, in her experience as editor of the Women’s Editor of the Telegraph, too many people are turned off by the word. Feminism should not be a dirty word. In a 2013 YouGov poll, 81 percent of respondents agreed that men and women should have equal rights. However, in the same poll, only 19 percent were willing to define themselves as feminists. David Cameron has trouble calling himself a feminist, and even Meryl Streep, who plays Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette, refused to use the f-word.
“The aim of the HeForShe campaign is to show that feminism is not a woman’s issue, or a man’s issue. It is a people’s issue”
But let’s not get bogged down in terminology. In a way, it does not matter what we label ourselves, as long as we are advocating the same thing (but in my mind feminism equates to gender equality and we should not be ashamed to use it). The aim of the HeForShe campaign is to show that feminism is not a woman’s issue, or a man’s issue. It is a people’s issue. All the speakers at the event were keen to stress how this is a collective movement. Elizabeth Nyamayaro, the head of the HeForShe campaign, explained why change has to come from both men and women: “We cannot achieve an equal world with half the team sitting on the bench”. So far, most of the progress in gender equality has been down to women. It is now time for the rest of us to get on board.
One important fact that we need to remember when it comes to feminism is that men are not the target. The target is the patriarchy; the skewing of society in men’s favour. Placing the blame for this solely on men would be wrong. In her speech, Emma Barnett outlined some ways in which the patriarchy affects women – and included examples of women being guilty of propagating this as well as men. She told of how her mother expected her to do the cooking and housework rather than her husband, despite both partners having full-time jobs. Barnett calls this the ‘imitation game’ and explains that it is very difficult for women to break out of. Older mothers, who have usually grown up in a culture with more deeply-ingrained ideas of gender-specific roles, expect their daughters to live in a similar way to them. With a natural desire to impress your parents, it may be hard for a daughter to defy their mother by not accepting these roles as gender-defined.
“One important fact that we need to remember when it comes to feminism is that men are not the target. The target is the patriarchy; the skewing of society in men’s favour”
Equally as importantly, we must remember that it is not just women who benefit from feminism. We, as men, are also under pressure to conform to gender stereotypes. We are constantly told that we need to be more manly or to man up. Men’s magazines can be just as guilty of falsely defining the masculine ideal as they are of defining the feminine ideal. Women’s magazines are just as bad. It is thanks to movements such as feminism, as well as the LGBT movement, that we are changing what it means to be a man to be more inclusive and more accurate. Yet with suicide still the biggest killer of men between the ages of 18 and 50 and over three quarters of suicides by men, the idea of what it is to be a man still troubles us. A lot of this is down to the fact that feeling vulnerable or showing emotion are seen as female traits, only displayed by weak men. We have not yet finished positively changing the identity of men, but we must remember that through gender equality, everyone benefits. Not just women; everyone.
In fact, it is not even just men and women who benefit from this movement. Greater equality has helped us to understand that gender cannot just be described in binary terms. One criticism of the HeForShe campaign is that its name focuses solely on self-defining men and women (Elizabeth Nyamayaro did address this in her speech, making sure to define gender as a spectrum). One of the main points raised in the University’s follow-up meeting was that the fight was not just for men and women. Nottingham SU’s fledgling gender equality campaign (with active support from existing campaigners such as FemSoc and the Women’s Network), will be inclusive of everybody. This will truly be a collective movement. There has been opposition saying that it will be men who champion the cause. As most within the feminism movement are still women, it is clear that we need more men to get behind this. Being a people’s movement, we are all automatically included in it. The SU campaign will bring together existing networks such as the feminist society and the women’s network so that the campaign is as strong as possible. As Elizabeth Nyamaro says, “no one is equal until we are all equal”.
“Yet with suicide still the biggest killer of men between the ages of 18 and 50 and over three quarters of suicides by men, the idea of what it is to be a man still troubles us”
Taking action will be the most difficult part. When Activities Officer Rob Jennings said that it is easier to be part of the problem than it is to become part of the solution, he hit on the biggest obstacle facing the campaign. Some people may say that there are not enough male feminists because we are met with pitchforks by the female feminists every time we try to get on board. Actually, the biggest obstacle preventing men from getting on board is other men. We need to have the courage to challenge other men when we don’t like what they have said.
SU President Angharad Smith is keen that “students need to be at the forefront of this movement”. UoN’s rugby team was photographed outside the HeForShe tour bus outside Portland. Getting the sports teams on board would be a huge step. These are far-reaching and influential networks within the university, and support for the campaign by their leaders from within these societies would be an excellent start. As Rob Jennings said, “when Emma Watson extended her invitation to men and boys around the world… she didn’t ask that they know how to speak correctly on the topic, nor that they know the history of the feminist movement. All she asked was that they were willing to be a part of its future”.
Image: Dario Reyes via Flickr