Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

Can men lead the women’s movement?

As many of you have heard, there was further violence against women at the Noord Street Taxi rank earlier this month. Two young women were assaulted by a mob of violent men, justified by the premise that they shouldn’t have been wearing revealing clothing. We have been here before, and this violence is evidence that women do not have access to their constitutional right to safety in South Africa.

The movement against violence against women in South Africa has been primarily driven by women, and by women-led NGOs. This is simultaneously obvious and problematic. It is obvious, because in a fight for women’s rights, a women leader is essential. It embodies the principles of self-definition, ownership and empowerment. It is problematic because women led movements aimed at empowering women can only go so far without speaking to the primary perpetrators of violence against women – men. That is not to say that speaking with men will stop the problem of violence against women, but only that it seems logical to assess the root of the cause whilst empowering women to stand up for themselves. In addition, male role models who speak out about male-led violence against women are important in order to dispel excuses for violence against women. Slowly and reluctantly, the violence against women sector in the NGO world has begun to work with men, and men’s organisations. We have yet to see the results, but I think that this is an essential step.

At the same time, working with men’s organisations risks some of the very real gains women’s organisations have made. It is common to fall into comfortable (read patriarchal) patterns of gendered leadership and discourse. Men often aim to be the spokespeople, when there are equally suitable women who could perform the job. This may or may not be because of men’s desire to regain dominance, but it certainly does have an effect on the ability of the women’s movement to encourage psychological freedom (rather than psychological oppression in the Bartky sense of the word).

I think that the question of ownership of the feminist movement is one that will necessarily be a painful one to all those who are invested in a better and more gender equal world. The world that I would like to invest in IS one where men are able to participate in the women’s movement.  This week a Facebook debate took place over the violence against women at the Noord Street Taxi Rank. Walter Pike, who you might remember from Slutwalk Johannesburg, has been incredibly vocal about the need for the eradication of this violence, and its undesirability in South Africa. In response, Gillian Schutte, a documentary film maker, slated Pike for his attempt to equate the feminist movement to advertising/airtime goals and for his attempt to lead a movement that is in her view, not his to lead.

He responds:

“Apparently this fight, the fight against patriarchy, against woman abuse, against victim blaming is a woman’s fight and that a man should be one of the leaders of this fight is unacceptable. I don’t think so I think this is everyone’s fight and that my presence makes it easier for mainstream of society to identify with it.”

Whilst I commend Walter Pike for being ahead of his time in wanting to get involved in the women’s movement at all, I am uncomfortable as is Gillian Schutte with the idea that this movement would be led by a man or have a male spokesperson. I thought it was rad that Pike was at the Slutwalk with his daughter and her friend, showing them that they need not be afraid to speak their minds or get involved. I was irked that a white man had been chosen to MC a movement that in South Africa, lets face it, needed to be led by a woman. I also don’t think that the presence and leadership of a white man ‘makes it easier’ or more desirable to be part of any movement in the new South Africa.

In South Africa it is natural for men to feel that they are the best, or most able, or just the most genuinely interested spokesperson. They have been given this position for centuries. The women’s movement, in contrast, requires that women build themselves up and take ownership of their struggle, and that women lead and are respected as leaders. If we fall back to letting a man, regardless of his good intentions, lead our movement we will make losses. Imagine a black consciousness movement with a white leader, or a gay rights movement with a straight leader. I think the role of men is most certainly in supporting, getting involved, and in speaking to other men.

Remember that in patriarchy it is not only women who lose, though it is women who lose most significantly. In patriarchy men live in a limited world where only half the population is worthy of engagement. In this master-slave state of affairs, men want the respect of women, whilst not giving women’s respect any value. So in order to truly change the status quo, women and men must both be freed. Women from their physical, sexual and psychological oppression and men from their dominance.

These movements must be owned by the people whose interests they represent, or they will only partially liberate participants.

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