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White Ribbon Day, And What We Can Learn From Men Who Challenge FGM

November 25, 2016

16-11-25-white-ribbon-dayIt’s White Ribbon Day, when the focus is on male violence against women and girls.  In the words of White Ribbon UK :
‘This is not and never has been a “women’s issue”… We address men directly – so they understand the scale of the problem, and become part of the solution, alongside women.’
I’ve been invited to speak in support of White Ribbon day at the SE Region TUC Women’s Rights Committee event at Congress House. Here’s what I shall say:

A woman telling men what they can do to help women? Please bear with me. This is not, I hope ‘[wo]mansplaining‘. Rather, it’s ‘sharing’. …

I’d like to look at why the brief to stop violence against women – most, though not all, of it perpetuated by men – requires more than simply male acquiescence. We need active engagement by the large majority of the male population who wouldn’t themselves dream of inflicting harm on their wives, daughters, or other women and girls.

This harm comes in many forms, physical and psychological, social and economic. In contemporary manifestations it includes everything from cruel words designed, however unreflectingly, to destroy female confidence and autonomy, to the crass and conscious intrusion into matters physiological and sexual: the denial for instance of access to family planning and abortion.

In traditional communities the abuse may be even more overt. Male hegemony and control are often exercised via the idea that women, even young girls, are simply ‘baby machines’, to be fed and nurtured only until they can be sold by fathers to other men as ‘pure’ (read: ‘virgin’) commodities ready to produce the next generation of, hopefully, sons or, regrettably, daughters.

That autocratic way lies everything from flat refusal to ‘waste’ money on girls’ education, through to the barbarities of bride price or dowry, so-called ‘honour’ killings (more than one every month in Britain) and my own specific focus, female genital mutilation / FGM (somewhere around 140+ thousand affected women and girls in the UK alone; and 200 million world-wide).

Researching for my book, Female Mutilation, I learnt a lot about how men can engage in promoting gender equality and preventing harm to women and girls. Searching via Twitter, in Kenya I discovered Evanson Njeru, Gerald Lepariyo, Samuel Leadismo and Tony Mwebia, all determined that their sisters, daughters and neighbours should get an education and never, ever undergo FGM. In Uganda there was Ahabwe Mugerwa Michael, organising the wonderful ‘barefoot grannies’ to take health and EndFGM messages into the bush. In Minneapolis, USA Ahmed Hassan works hard to stop FGM in Somalian communities.

Likewise, we have Kameel Ahmady on whose book In the Name of Tradition on FGM in Iran I was lucky to collaborate, and the surgeon Pierre Foldes in Paris, who undertakes pro bono reconstruction of damaged genitalia for women who seek it. Plus, amongst others, Dexter Dias QC and Karl Turner MP in the UK, striving to establish in everyday perceptions that FGM is a gross abuse of human rights. The list goes on…

These men show what can be done. We need to know about them. But what can the rest of us, and men in particular, do to confront and challenge the damage to women, girls and indeed our wider society? of the harm that I, amongst many, without apology term patriarchy? How can men tackle these issues without themselves appearing over-bearing? Here are a few ideas:

* Open your eyes. Much of the behaviour which hurts women and girls is embedded in accepted routines and customs. Do you even know it’s there?

At home, you surely already know the score? Who does the housework, cares for the kids, attends to the needs of seniors, and sorts your family celebrations? Do you need to show your own children that fathers are as responsible, caring and affectionate as, so often, are mothers? What do these girls and boys see as their role models? Are you certain your son appreciates, and as a man will undertake, his share of the hard graft of domestic work; and your daughter knows how she will become an autonomous, independent adult?

In the workplace, ask how often women colleagues are spoken over by the men. Are their ideas considered respectfully, or does a man then take them forward without due attribution? Do people respond the same way if a mother has to leave work early to pick up a child, as if a father does? Do women, especially middle-ranking / senior ones, get as much support as the men? Are they offered the same opportunities? Will you be as helpful and respectful to women colleagues, as you would wish other men to be to you? Have you any constructive personal strategies to counter sexism, and sometimes direct harassment of women, in the workplace? Do you have a plan?

And in your wider communities, will you respond well if you see a woman or girl being compromised or threatened? Are you as willing to vote for a good female politician as a good male one? Do you support businesses you know are led by women as seriously and positively as those headed up by men? You get the idea….

Now to the more difficult challenges:

* This is personal. It’s about you as a man, and as a human being.

How will you cope if family members, friends or workmates by word or deed contest or deride your belief that all of us deserve equal care and equal respect? Do you have any response beyond disregard, irritation or embarrassment?

Can you talk appropriately, openly and respectfully about sexual and other intimate matters? Have you pondered how crude sexual comments, let alone pornography, diminish women? Do you perhaps need to check out your understanding of the fundamental human biology and how this relates to our shared experiences as people?

Do you get that sometimes we must all try harder to listen well, to acknowledge the pain of others, whether it be the isolation of angry men, young and older, drifting towards self-destruction, or the fear of women threatened with (or trying to survive) domestic abuse, forced marriage, FGM or other forms of gendered harm?

Will you support ending violence against women to demonstrate quiet solidarity, not to demonstrate your credentials? To serve the coffee at a meeting, not to tell all those women what they ‘should’ do? And if you don’t want to get actively involved in any of that, do you have other ideas about how you can challenge violence and cruelty, especially of the insidious gendered kind?

And finally, to the realities of life as we all live it…

* These are not challenges only for men. Many women find some of this as difficult as do the chaps.

We all want sometimes to run and hide, to behave egotistically, to be a bit mean, or simply not to bother. Women are as human as men, strong and weak, kind and less so. Nonetheless, we know how the odds are stacked: sexual abuse of children, usually by men, remains a vile scourge. Around 90% of domestic violence in Britain is perpetuated by men on women (and half of that in the presence of children). Still FGM and honour violence are found in the UK.

It can seem that women are doing most of the work to stop these cruelties, but many men and women alike want to make gendered violence history. Already some men – supporters of the White Ribbon campaign to suggest another example – give voice to this demand. Truth to tell, their voice is vital. We need each other in the struggle to end gendered, and indeed other, violence.

As another contributor to my book, the valiant Qamar Naseem of Blue Veins in Pakistan, says:

Male chauvinism is a cocoon from which men must emerge. Everyone is happier when girls and boys, men and women, coexist in peace.

~ ~ ~

White Ribbon Day is on the 25th of November, celebrating the international day against violence against women.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 25, 2016 12:29

    Excellent, Hilary. And I admire as much what the post doesn’t say as I do the practical route it takes. The terrain of unanswered, and possibly unanswerable, questions follows the signpost WHY? Do clues reside in popular detective TV series that overwhelmingly feature a female corpse and male murderer? Can it be that this trope asks to be dissected to allow the source of some male-toward-female negative emotion to emerge? Which 70s feminist psychologist hypothesized the challenge in a male infant’s separating from the mother as a buried resentment, triggering hostility of males to females because its opposite — identity with the mother and hence with women — has been forbidden? Why don’t little boys like to play with girls? Why do Abrahamic religions legislate gender segregation? It may sound like I’m pouring vinegar on your ice cream but the point I’m getting to is that IT DOESN’T MATTER for the choice of action a man is capable of making. Maybe what I actually missed but wouldn’t even recommend putting into your discussion is the degree of difficulty men face in becoming women’s allies. Each male person can CHOOSE to support women no matter how deep, hidden, or incomprehensible the overarching theme of male enmity toward women may be. In sum, you offered a guide to action and refused to be paralyzed by all we don’t (can’t?) know. You DID warn men that it wouldn’t be easy, and that they were risking the charge of betrayal from their own gender associates. So … Kudos!

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