Women’s issues are so contentious and so difficult to discuss today in an objective, rational way that it often seems easier to avoid them. Nonetheless, they are fundamental to our lives and society and require open discussion.
Gender relations have changed profoundly over the past fifty years. The women’s movement and feminism questioned the societal roles given to men and women.
They criticized gender inequalities and injustices and tried to create a better and fairer world for both women and men. The successes of these movements, plus other social changes, have greatly changed men’s expectations and responsibilities in life.
Men now face higher expectations from their girlfriends and partners, friends, sisters and daughters, and from other men.
Character traits once traditionally considered ‘typically male’ — such as being emotionally closed-off, dominating, work-obsessed and aggressive are often seen now as out of date and unhealthy.
Male control in the upper echelons of work and politics is no longer taken for granted. And men are being encouraged to change their behaviour in the kitchen, the bedroom, the classroom and on the street.
Men are expected to be sensitive and knowledgeable lovers, to treat the women in their lives with respect, and to avoid sexist behaviours ranging from patronizing female co-workers and obnoxiously hitting on strangers in bars to date rape and domestic violence.
Many men increasingly support and comply with these calls to equality and respect. But very few truly seek to challenge the systematic gender inequalities which still characterize African society.
Feminism for positive change
If we are to create a society based on fair, respectful relations between women and men, men have a crucial role to play. If men’s behaviours and attitudes do not change, gender equality will be impossible. Men are a big part of the problem, but also a big part of the solution.
Many men have a vague support for the principle of gender equality and try to avoid the more obvious forms of sexist behaviour, at least when among women. But most men have not really questioned their own and other men’s active participation and tacit support in sexism.
Some are openly hostile to feminism, resenting the loss of their traditional privileges as men, and most men have been fed on a highly distorted and negative media stereotype of feminism as man-hating and blaming. The truth is that feminism is a force for positive change and optimistic about the possibilities for women’s and men’s lives.
There are a thousand everyday ways in which men can and should support gender justice. Respect and support the women in your life. Learn to see and be aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which you have learnt to ignore or dismiss women’s opinions and experiences.
Don’t go along with friends’ sexist or homophobic comments and jokes. In sex, take “no” for an answer, make sure that the sex you have is always consenting, and reject the idea that having sex is about proving yourself or getting status among men.
Clean the bathroom. Avoid pornography. Inform yourself: take Gender Studies and read feminist literature. And if you accidentally offend someone and are criticized, listen, accept responsibility, and learn.
Feminism helps free men from a way of life that has been isolating, violent, obsessively competitive, emotionally crippled and physically unhealthy.
Sure, it demands that men let go of our unfair privileges, but that is a small price to pay for the promise of more trusting, honest, happy and fair relationships with women.
Feminism vs Antifeminism
“Gender”— the system of attitudes, expectations and customs that distinguish men and women — has always and everywhere been basic to human life. To speak of “deeply rooted social stereotypes” is to speak of the centrality of masculinity and femininity to how we understand the world.
Grammatical distinctions for gender in language are a sign of that centrality. Although the detailed content of sexual distinctions has varied somewhat their general outlines have been stable.
The men and women in ancient literatures are immediately recognisable to us today as men and women like ourselves.
The practical aspects of gender are no less universal than the symbolic.
Nearly all societies have roots in patriarchy, with men mainly responsible for public concerns and women for domestic matters and the care of small children. Always and everywhere men, while possessing no general right to domination, have held most positions of formal authority.
But these power constructs were based on the roles and realities of a world long gone, when men were needed to hunt and use their physical strength to provide, while women could gather edible plants and tend to children.
In the modern world, such gender dynamics are not just anachronistic – they are at best hindrances to development and at worst deadly, in cases of rape, domestic abuse and spread of HIV by male refusal to use protection during sex.
The rejection of sexism as a narrow and destructive fantasy responsible for destruction, social backwardness and murder is not radical. It is opening oneself to the reality of things.
Feminists are not necessarily women
More and more African men are slowly but surely evolving beyond the harmful ‘traditional’ ways they used to perceive and treat women.
It would be very unfortunate to keep them out of women’s emancipation and the nurturing of egalitarianism in our region. It has been wrongly portrayed by most women activists and feminists that the fight for women’s rights is the work of women and not men.
This is a complete misconception. In much of Africa, women continue to harass fellow women from the kitchen to the bedroom. For example, men are not the only ones guilty of abuse of female staff.
The way women treat their house-girls can be very disturbing. The men of the house are usually their saviours when they are threatened by violence from the woman of the house.
Unfortunately, men have little say when it comes to domestic governance. So there is little chance left for a man to help a house girl threatened by their wife or mother-in-law.
Just as women are empowering themselves to speak up against male abuses and domination, so must men also learn to assert themselves against injustices they see perpetrated by women.
The success of feminism has owed a great deal to the centralization of public life today, and the triumph of liberal ideology in international public and intellectual life. The process of women’s emancipation in Africa has been sluggish.
Do not only say that men should be part and parcel of the process women’s emancipation, directly involve them.
Institutions and jobs that seek to address issues of women’s rights should not be filled by women, but women and men together. Whether you are a man or woman, you can champion women’s plight.