We Need More Male Feminists and Action. Not Less. 6/12/2016
Published by SONKEGENDERJUSTICE
Before Trump’s unimaginable victory captured the headlines, a
lesser controversy brewed over Bono of U2 fame. Glamour magazine
presented him with one of its annual “Women of the Year” awards. Some
responses were scandalised. Australian feminist Clementine Ford sternly noted
that “feminism is not obliged to make room for men”. She noted her
feeling embarrassed by it. Why? “To see yet another women-led event be
overcome by the urge to hand the reigns of feminist leadership back to
All this palaver might induce one to ask a few questions. What does
this controversy tell us about relationships between men and women in
2016? Who should be doing what about gender equality? And, more
specifically, what does it mean for “The 16 Days of Activism for No
Violence Against Women and Children” that kicks off on 25 November?
A worthwhile starting point is to get the facts straight. Bono won Glamour’s first Man of the Year Award –
not Woman of the Year. To those invested in the essentialia of gender,
this is an important difference. Bono received this nod for his ‘Poverty is Sexist’ campaign.
This has done a lot of good. It has raised awareness about how gender
inequalities play out within poverty. It emphasises the rights of women
and girls, empowerment and education. And it works towards the goal of
raising every women and girl out of poverty by 2030. It has leveraged
support from a wide range of popular culture and political leaders
and encourages its mainly middle-class audience in well-resourced
countries to think critically about global inequalities and how they
could play a role in reducing them.
Who cannot think a campaign like this should be supported and
celebrated – not pooh-poohed? Nor should we make the wrong-headed claim
that by celebrating one man’s contribution to gender equality, we
diminish women’s power.
some people do hold just these views. Ford is not alone. Some strands
of feminism are just about man-unfriendly. They are adamant that men
should never call themselves feminists. This is because of their
privileged position within the gender hierarchy. And that it prevents
them from truly and fully understanding the oppression of patriarchy.
I am not convinced by this reasoning. I support a concept of feminism
that is less insular, and more proactive. Listen to the
African-American feminist bell hooks. She argues, simply, that “feminism
is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression”.
Straight-forward. Gender-neutral. Forward-thinking. Man-inclusive.
I hold a job at an organisation that supports these goals, and works
explicitly towards gender equality. Sonke Gender Justice was founded ten
years ago. Its initial focus was on working with men and boys to
challenge harmful gender stereotypes, and its particular concern was
This philosophy and approach remains firmly grounded in feminist
principles. Sonke’s work has had a wide-ranging impact. It has, I
believe, influenced public debate, public perceptions and the way men
and women relate to each other. We can even plausibly claim it has
reduced gender-based violence in communities. These claims have been
tested and tried by rigorous research.
Sonke has grown steadily over the years. It has expanded its mandate
to include work with women and girls, and is immersed in advocacy and
policy-formation. The staff and management composition has changed.
First it was mainly men. Then there was gender parity. Now we are
dominated by women. Yet some persist in claiming – in the face of the
simple facts – that Sonke is a ‘men’s organisation’. They say it should
have a narrowly prescribed role within the gender sector.
I was surprised at the doggedness with which some (female) feminists
have resisted collaboration with Sonke. This, even where partnership and
cooperation would strengthen a collective response.
Take an example. Earlier this year, one of my colleagues received an
invitation to a solidarity event for gender-based violence (GBV)
activists who are female or identified as female. When she RSVPed, the
organiser strongly encouraged her not to attend. Why? Because she was
from a ‘men’s organisation’. Her presence would have ‘compromised the
It did not seem to matter that she is a woman. Nor that she had
worked on GBV for years. Not even that she would have benefitted from
the support of other activists.
“Could do with more solidarity there,” I thought, shaking my head regretfully while we gave each other a consoling hug.
That’s a small instance. But it shows how a rigid and exclusive view
of a “true” gender approach can be exclusionary, hurtful and
unproductive. Equality is not attainable only brought about by women.
This approach is deeply troubling. Gender equality, by definition,
suggests active participation of all genders. More challengingly, it
also entails radical transformation of the way we view ourselves, and
the relationships and power between us.
Gender equality, and stopping GBV, will become more practically
attainable when men, women and transgender people embrace feminism. When
in concert they tackle sexism. And when, together, they tackle
During this ’16 Days’ period, we all face a sobering truth. There are
terrifying levels of GBV in our country. In our communities, our
cities, our suburbs, our townships. We do better to face this together,
and head-on. We empower ourselves by committing to a principled and
It requires a comprehensive policy that cuts across fields and
disciplines and institutions. For this we need a GBV National Strategic
That demands engaging all genders. This is where collective action is
our strength. That way lies the challenging, and tempting, and
indispensable task of politicising more men into embracing feminism.