Why men's voices make all the difference in changing the role of women in the Arab world
Last night driving home I was listening to a panel discussion – of women – discussing the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique". The discussion focused on which themes in the book still did, or did not, resonate today.
One recurrent theme was that true partnership in a marriage and raising children requires men to step up to and assert their rights over prerogatives that may have been previously viewed as "mother's only." This includes such things as taking time off from work to take care of a sick child or to take that child to see a doctor.
Stepping up to responsibility and asserting a father's equal right to care for a child, even at the expense of work, has the added effect of reinforcing a mother’s equal right to be at her place of work for the sake of her career. It also ultimately gives a child more equal access to both of his/her parents.
With this, and other examples, it is more evident to me that the remaining gaps in the West between men and women will more likely be overcome if men decide that parity is important for them too, and push for it with their own voices.
As I continued listening, I imagined shifting the setting of this review of "the Feminine Mystique" to current events in the Middle East, and, most notably, sexual violence in Egypt (and also India). I have followed closely the media coverage of the rise of sexual violence in and around Tahrir Square. What has impressed me the most has been the impassioned voices of men not only speaking out against this violence, but also taking action to prevent it. As I've listened to interviews from the region, I've come to understand the tremendous power that men's voices bring to what is viewed as "women's issues", such as:
1. A man speaking out breaks down the "us versus them" dichotomy: Hearing a man speak out against the physical defilement of women, or for the right of women to feel safe walking in the streets of their neighborhood, or for the right for mothers to also have careers, dismisses any notion that this is an "us versus them" matter, or that if women gain, men must somehow lose. When men speak out it is clear that, on the contrary, when women gain safety and security, men gain as well.
2. A man speaking out shifts responsibility to men's roles in creating solutions: Often, women's issues are relegated to women to address and resolve. However, especially when it comes to sexual violence, men's voices can ask crucial questions such as: "What role does each of us as men play in defining and perpetuating social norms? What is the responsibility of adult men not only to girls, but to boys as well? What is the responsibility that each of us has to teach, mentor and model for younger men and boys non-sexist attitudes and behaviors toward girls and women?" This shifts the conversation away from victim-blaming and towards a collective sense of responsibility for changing behaviors, and doing so in a more sustainable way.
3. Men's voices speaking out on perceived women's issues helps frame the conversation as one of universal human rights: Most "women's issues" that concern significant gender gaps are human rights issues. The right to paternity (and maternity) leave, the right of equal access to education for all children, the possibility of a job to match one's educational skills. Many sons (of mothers), fathers (of daughter), and husbands (of wives) want improved education and better jobs for themselves as well as for their female family members. When men stand up and remind their peers that these are human rights issues, not "women's issues," and that they motivate men and women equally, it goes a long way to identifying them as issues everyone is invested in.
4. Male voices as champions of equal rights make a difference: Many women who have risen to the top of Fortune 500 companies or become political leaders point to having a significant male mentor in their professional life as a key influence. Often, these are men with a strong sense of "fair play", who tend to have broad concerns about issues of fairness and the distribution of resources in society. Not only do these men have "fairness ideals", they are also willing to stand up publically and defend these ideals. Rather than fearing a loss of status among male peers, these men are focused on longer-term values. They see the benefits of sharing responsibilities with a partner to manage finances and households better, and to be a better parent. This is achieved by revising the traditional expectations about what a husband, a father, and a man can be. The few men who see an advantage in redefining masculinity for the benefit of men and women can be the most formidable catalysts for change.
I think acknowledging the strong and singular role that men must play in "women's issues" is another step forward in the progress toward real parity. We must trust that men recognize they have as much to gain as women do. What do you think?