By Khaled Diab
Some regard possession of a vagina as crucial for membership in the feminist movement. But can't a man be a feminist too?
Thursday 8 March 2012
‘Female' is a biological distinction. ‘Femininity' is that group of personality traits women are traditionally expected to exhibit. ‘Feminism' is a movement which challenges these gender stereotypes and combats discrimination against women.
If you're a male, obviously you cannot be a female – at least not without major, and quite painful, surgical intervention. As a man, you can be feminine, or, like most people, exhibit a mix of feminine and masculine characteristics. Likewise, progressive men should be allowed to regard themselves as feminists. Despite my aversion to the limiting effects of labels, I would certainly define my views on gender issues as being ‘feminist', at least the form of feminism which strives for gender equality and not reverse gender inequality.
However, defining men as feminists is controversial within gender relations circles. Some claim that men cannot be regarded as feminists which seems paradoxical to me, since feminism strives to end sexism, yet this exclusion strikes me as sexist.
The main rationale for this view seems to revolve around the notion that only women can truly understand the female plight and truly know what it is like to face gender discrimination. But humans are equipped with a remarkable imagination and sense of empathy, if they choose to exercise it. History is replete with examples of ‘outsiders' who become the iconic embodiment of certain struggles, such as the privileged young doctor turned poor man's revolutionary.
After all, you don't need to be working class to be a socialist, nor a member of a minority to appreciate the suffering caused by racism. People didn't need to be black to struggle against Apartheid nor Spanish to fight Franco's totalitarianism.
Besides, if the lack of direct experience disqualifies one from being a full member of the cause, should we bar Western feminists from showing solidarity with their ‘sisters' in less enlightened societies because they have not experienced the same magnitude of discrimination in their relatively egalitarian corner of the world?
Moreover, men do have direct experience of sexism and a major stake in combating it. First of all, there are the women in their lives. If your wife, girlfriend, mother or sister experience gender discrimination, it also has an impact on you, because it makes you angry and frustrated on their behalf. Moreover, men who discriminate against women are not acting in the name of the rest of their gender and the best way to express that would be to describe ourselves as ‘feminists'.
In addition, the macho culture which sidelines women can also belittle and ridicule the men who fight it – and so fighting shoulder to shoulder for the cause of gender equality is as much a progressive man's prerogative as it is a woman's under the banner of ‘feminism'.
Moreover, some of the loudest advocates of the patriarchal order, both in the past and today, have been women. And this highlights perfectly the fact that just because you have a vagina does not automatically make you more sympathetic to the cause.
There seems to be a fear that men would try to dominate the movement. As one feminist put it: “I really don't need men telling me how to be a better feminist, or that my kind of feminism is wrong.” I find such a description of, let's call it, ‘male, feminist pigs' rather unflattering. Relating obnoxiousness and bossiness to gender in this way is quite frankly rather sexist. After all, men do not have a monopoly on being domineering.
To be successful, the battle for gender equality needs to involve like-minded women and men fully, not have them fighting in opposing trenches of the battle of the sexes.
This piece is based on an article which appeared in The Guardian's Comment is Free on 29 April 2008. Read the related discussion.