Voices of Resistance and Change
Tremendous changes are under way around the world. The news is full of popular risings occurring in the Arabic-speaking world against corrupt and authoritarian governments. New social media are used by these movements, and access to the Internet is spreading. New trends in politics are seen. In Latin America, neoliberal market ideologies are called powerfully in question. Movements for environmental justice are springing up across the map.
Behind these events are deeper and slower changes. A great revolution has occurred in education, with literacy achieved by hundreds of millions, especially women. Elementary education for girls is now provided almost everywhere, and secondary education is now opening up for large numbers of girls and boys too. Economies have changed; labour forces of women as well as men are drawn into paid work, however terrible the conditions export factories often are. Huge numbers of people have migrated from the countryside; those who count the population of the world recently found, for the first time in history, a majority of human beings live in cities.
It would be nice to think we lived in a time of smooth and rapid progress. But our busy technologists are making smart new weapons as fast as they make smart new telephones. (There are more than 20 000 nuclear weapons in the world, right now.) In the global metropole, the wealthy countries of Europe and North America, there is rising social tension in the aftermath of the financial crisis in the global economy that they dominate. The economic rise of China and India is bought at the price of growing social inequality and terrible environmental impact. In parts of Africa the inequality and environmental destruction are not even mitigated by economic growth. The gap between the global rich and the global poor continues to widen.
And this means tension and inequality in gender arrangements, too. More women have entered the top political leadership in some countries, but not in others – China and Russia for instance. Transnational big business is almost totally controlled by men. Military forces are almost completely controlled by men. Violence against women (rape, domestic violence, public harassment) remains a social problem in every part of the world, and in some regions has reached new peaks. Gender-based violence is severe in the civil conflicts in central Africa, for instance, and in the Mexico/US borderlands, where Mexican activists speak of ‘femicide’ in Ciudad Juarez.
So the need for change in gender relations remains, indeed in some respects it has grown. Our knowledge of gender has certainly increased. Gender studies is now a flourishing field of research in many parts of the world outside the global metropole. As knowledge grows, it is easier to see the gap between what is, and what might be.
Struggles for gender justice have mostly been led by women. That is understandable, since in almost every gender order, men are privileged and women disadvantaged. The claim for justice in gender relations, therefore, mainly comes from women. It is also important to remember that in many cultures, including that of ‘the West’, women’s voices have been silenced, or derided when women do speak up. Claiming the right to be heard, the right to assert leadership, is itself a key part of women’s struggle.
Yet women’s advancement also depends on action by men. For something as deep-seated as the gender order to become more democratic, wide popular support is required – and that must involve men. For violence against women to end, large numbers of men have to act differently, and become involved in the process of change.
This is not just a matter of goodwill. Because of gender privilege, particular groups of men control many of the resources needed for change. These may be the economic resources needed for education, or fairer distribution of income – and men control most big budgets in the world. The resources may be knowledge, and the right to teach – and men control most universities in the world. The key resource may be religious authority, the right to interpret – and men control most of the religious institutions in the world.
Men, in such ways, are important gatekeepers for change in gender relations. Change will come, but it is not always benign – it may involve more violence or exploitation of women, as the vast amount of pornography on the Internet shows. For change in gender relations to take a democratic direction, to move towards equal resources and equal respect, large numbers of men must take an active role.
What will inspire men to do this? Some understanding already exists; some more, we hope, will come.
Some men become involved in gender change because they can see the damage gender inequality does to the women in their lives – the women they love, or live or work with. What boy or man wants his mother or his wife to die in childbirth? – improving perinatal mortality is one of the issues in the Millenium Development Goals. A great many men are fathers of daughters, and want a better life for them in the next generation.
Some men become involved in gender change because they can see the damage gender inequality also does to many boys and men. Boys who are bullied in school, or pushed away from fields of study that are too ‘sissy’; gay men bashed or even killed because they do not conform to conventions of manhood; salarymen who work themselves to death trying to conform to a rigid ideal; soldiers whose bodies are torn apart because their generals and presidents are battling for more power – these too are damaged by a toxic gender order.
Some men, also, join the struggle for gender equality because they believe in justice. This belief may have religious origins – the Christian bible says ‘In Jesus Christ is neither male nor female’, and some Muslim scholars have found in the concept of Tawhid, the indivisibility of God, the basis for a concept of human equality. Or it may have secular origins, in socialist ideas about economic equality or in liberal ideas about human rights.
Justice is not a simple concept, because injustice comes in many forms. Philosophers now often distinguish between justice in the sense of material equality, and justice in the sense of equal respect. Both are relevant to gender.
Material inequalities remain highly significant. In a country like Australia, most people believe that women get nearly equal to what men get, perhaps 90% of men’s wage rates. But that is for equivalent amounts of work in equivalent jobs – which is an unusual situation. Across the whole economy, when we look at actual income, Australian women get around 60% of what men get.
In terms of respect, there is also a long way to go. Commercial popular culture, such as television and the Internet, is full of sexist images and language – and has probably become more sexist in the last ten or fifteen years. In my country, all the major religions are headed by men, and some allow no women to exercise any religious authority. We currently have a woman Prime Minister (head of government) – she is the first woman to hold that position in Australian history, and she is currently the target of unprecedented public abuse.
There is, then, a lot of work to be done. What can men do? Over the last forty years, many answers have been given to this question. Some involve action in existing institutions. Men have, for instance, worked in government and political parties to create equal opportunity laws and anti-discrimination laws. Men have helped to change the way rape cases are dealt with, and to create new means of dealing with domestic violence. The impulse here has usually come from women but the participation of men has been vital in making these changes happen.
Action has also happened in workplaces. Men in unions have sometimes resisted change, but have sometimes supported equal pay and better working conditions for women, and have sometimes supported women moving into leadership positions.
Changes have also happened in private spheres. Men have negotiated with women to create ‘fair families’, to equalize personal incomes, to share out the boring housework and the not-boring job of caring for babies and young children. Some men involved in domestic violence have learned how to stop, how to handle anger and conflict differently. Some men have explored more diverse and more equal forms of sexual practice.
Men have also been involved in cultural change. There are ways of picturing men and women that don’t involve sexism; there are ways of thinking about human relationships that call into question masculine domination. And there are ways to envision men’s lives that project a future of equality, respect and peace. The imagination is also involved in social change.
For this issue of the E-magazine, we invite participation in this kind of change. We invite readers to discuss the experiences they have of change in gender relations, whether in public or private spheres. We invite them to talk about the inspiration for change, wherever that inspiration comes from. We invite them to share the stories of the movement that is occurring, and that must grow, if we as a human species are to flourish, or even to survive.
Gender change is never easy. If it were easy we would be there already! There have been setbacks and reversals, and plain hard slog.
So we invite participants to tell not only about achievements, but also about troubles, difficulties and setbacks. Sometimes a plan is launched that doesn’t work. Sometimes opposition swells and cannot be overcome. Sometimes outside events derail a good approach to change. These stories too should be told, because we need great realism to accomplish great change.
We also invite stories about difference and diversity. To speak of ‘men’ is to speak of a very large and very disparate group around the world. Men come from different cultures, from poverty and wealth, with differences of sexuality, race and migration. Sometimes the differences of background and interest are too great to be overcome; sometimes a surprising unity is achieved. Both kinds of story need to be told.
In moving from a present of inequality and struggle, to a future of gender justice, we are not only resisting an unjust gender order. We also have to build the new world, timber by timber, brick by brick. The stories of building also need to be told: how families, villages, neighbourhoods or factories are made more gender-just. An undramatic change in an ordinary situation is just as important, in the long run, as marching with banners, and the news of such changes should be shared. (Marching with banners is also good, and I have done a lot of it!). By sharing our stories and reflections about the struggle for change – for peace and justice in relations between men and women - we can inspire action by others – both big and small - for gender justice.
This blog was written by Raewyn Connell as part of the Engagingmen.net E-magazine series.
This Blog is part of the Men Say No Blogathon, encouraging men to take up action against the violence faced by women.
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