A case for male feminists

2013-08-11 08:00

The month of August has been christened “the Month of women” and, yes, it is cause for celebration that in 2013 women are filling the lecture halls of the country’s oldest and most renowned universities.

Society can pat itself on the back for moving forward and not only recognising women’s potential as leaders and meaningful contributors to politics and the economy, but also allowing us the opportunity to live up to this potential.

Let us not, however, get carried away in celebration and congratulate ourselves too much yet.

Having women in the boardrooms of large corporations and the exam and lecture halls of the country’s oldest and most renowned universities is merely a step in the right direction towards realising gender equality.

It does not solve the overarching problem in South African gender relations, that being the patriarchal nature of our society.

The recent sexual harassment issue which hit Wits University (my soon-to-be alma mater) brought to light the fact that even though women were making strides in the world of commerce, politics and academia, they cannot escape the fact that despite their intelligence, talents and efforts, they are still sometimes seen primarily as sexual objects and secondary to their male counterparts.

It would be a mistake, however, for a female at any other university (or anywhere else in the country) to feel comfortable just because her institution or company is not embroiled in such a scandal.

I say this because what happened at Wits University merely reflects the kind of society we live in, and it can therefore be guaranteed that the same is happening at other tertiary institutions, at schools and perhaps even in your office.

Universities are mere microcosms of the societies in which they find themselves and so mirror the prevalent attitudes of the world around them.

An attitude of entitlement prevails among many men in South Africa, and as a result they feel they can dominate and exercise their power over any and all women.

Ours is a society in which, most often, masculinity is measured by how well a man can get his woman to listen to him.

These attitudes make it likely that a woman will find herself being the victim of domestic violence or sexual harassment.

The issue of sexual harassment is difficult to tackle. The conduct of peers is often overlooked because that of the “superiors” – employers, managers or lecturers – is being scrutinised.

However, few policies exist to protect peers from one another.

Who do I go to if the young man sitting next to me in my lecture slides his hand up my summer shorts?

Being that so few (if any) of us would know what to do in such an instance, a blurred line occurs between what conduct does and does not constitute sexual harassment.

Is it sexual harassment only when there is direct contact, or will just an uncomfortable gaze or improper statement suffice?

We know what type of behaviour to expect from our lecturers, but we are not so sure what to accept from our peers.

Why should the repercussions for a pat on the bum from another student be any different from a pat on the bum from a lecturer?

At the end of the day their actions are the same, they violated a woman’s bodily integrity, and one’s situation on the hierarchy should not excuse him from having to behave appropriately.

Having a conversation about whether there will ever be an end to gender-based violence with the country’s patriarchal practices and attitudes being so deeply entrenched into a lot of South African men, a good friend of mine (also studying at Wits) mentioned that she found it pointless to try to fight a deep-rooted mind-set through any form of legislation or by merely allowing women to participate in Parliament and sit on the boards of big firms, but what we need instead are more male feminists.

There is no statement truer than that when it comes to the matter of gender equality.

Male feminists are important because they can play a role in challenging and shifting the way men view, speak about and treat women, and confront their counterparts who perpetuate sexist ideas and stereotypes.

As much as women are doing a lot to own their issues – we see this by their considerable involvement in NGOs such as Powa and even with the Commission for Gender Equality – men still have a privileged position in society, therefore the importance of their support in ensuring that the issues affecting women are taken seriously cannot be underestimated.

» Zwane is a student activist with Project W at the University of the Witwatersrand

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