He for she

Acknowledging the false construction of masculinity in Pakistan and in the region, it is vital that the Pakistani feminist movement takes a note from Emma Watson’s UN speech and involves men in the process for change

He for she

In the weeks since UN Women Goodwill Ambassador actress Emma Watson delivered her speech in New York, criticism of her supposed naiveté has been gaining popularity in some feminist circles. Displeased by Watson’s ‘formal invitation’ for men to join the campaign, critics of her speech say the Harry Potter star is naïve to think that this gesture will gain male allies for the global women’s movement.

Men are seen by her female critics to be unwilling to join a campaign depriving them of patriarchal privileges and domination in all aspects of life. To put it simply why would men, who benefit so overwhelmingly from gender inequality, wish to dismantle patriarchy?

Undoubtedly, the question is a valid one given the realities of today.

In the United States, the bastion of human progress, full time working women were typically paid just 78 per cent of what men were paid in 2013 -- an astonishing 22 per cent differential. Turning to Pakistan, the chances for broad-based male support appear less likely to occur. The Global Gender Gap Report 2013 published by the World Economic Forum stated that the country ranks second-worst in equal pay for women, followed only by Yemen.

Writing in response to Watson’s speech, the American activist and blogger Mia McKenzie dismissed the invitation extended to men, saying: "It’s a false equivalency. The ways that gender inequality is bad for men and boys are very, very different from the ways it’s bad for women and girls. Namely, it oppresses and abuses women and girls in nearly every facet of life."

Even as the experience of patriarchy for both women and men is distinct, Watson’s mention of gender stereotypes and societal expectations of young boys and male adults is important.

Addressing the UN on 20 September, Emma Watson said: "We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive…Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive… It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideals."

 Ultimately, both women and men need each other to be themselves. Patriarchy is not just the enemy of women.

To be sure, the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador spoke from her experience growing up in the West and being a part of the testosterone-powered Hollywood industry. But her talk of gender stereotypes and hyper-masculinity should lead to a moment of critical introspection in the South Asian region.

In both Pakistan and India, men are expected by society to be tough, assertive, and be able to control their women.

Internalizing patriarchal logic and passing this on to future generations, a staggering number of South Asian mothers, daughters, and sisters accept the higher status of their male counterparts both outside and within the confines of their homes. Since their arrival into this world, a girl child is told that good behaviour, an obedient nature, and a slender waist can secure rishtas with a man who has a six-digit salary and a dual nationality. While their brothers are free to pursue their desires, girls are left to the pressure to marry. A man growing up in an environment where the females of his house are taught the virtues of submitting to their husbands will naturally expect his wife to do the same.

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Mothers fed this patriarchal fodder, belonging to both the upper and lower classes, typically lecture their sons on the need to discipline their wives into submission. A man, unable to fulfill these expectations of control and command, is usually perceived to not be manly enough, in other words he is ‘emasculated’ and ‘effeminate’.

Explaining this vicious cycle of patriarchy present in South Asia and other parts of the world, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously said: "We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity becomes this hard small cage and we put boys inside the cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear. We teach boys to be afraid of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves because they have to be…the ‘hard man’."

Even our politics has not been spared of this gender stereotyping described by Adichie.

As the dharnas being led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and Awami Tehreek in Islamabad have led to a dirty decline in the quality of political rhetoric, a huge mass of social media jokes and slander have called out both Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif on their ‘unmanliness’. Whilst Khan is being compared to a typical needy housewife desperate for her husband’s attention, Sharif is the old woman scrambling to walk on her feet. Even worst, the Pakistan People’s Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is repeatedly attacked through the lens of gender and sexuality by the media, politicians, and the Pakistani public at large.


Stretching back to the pre-1947 partition era, famous male political leaders have also been scrutinised on their ‘unmanly’ appearances and manners. Indian independence leader, Mahatma Gandhi, appeared to be effeminate and weak to his critics at home and in the West. Called out for his soft-spoken speech and sensitive demeanor, images of Gandhi spinning his own cotton on a wheel were used to undermine his movement.

Acknowledging this mainstreaming of hyper-masculinity in Pakistan and in the region, it is vital that the Pakistani feminist movement take a note from Emma Watson’s speech and involve men in the process for change.

Speaking on the topic of collaboration, founder of Women Action Forum Farida Shaheed stated: "I would suggest engagements with ‘femocrats’ and other state representatives -- male and female occur in the pursuit of more gender equitable development plans and policies. This interaction is essential for helping to institutionalise changes and for broadening the support base for the women’s movement."

Inviting men in the Pakistani feminist discourse could bear fruit. Lahore-based women rights activist Tanveer Jehan says the idea of leadership in South Asia has always been gendered with it being viewed as a ‘masculine domain’. "Changing this cultural construction of leadership vis-à-vis hyper-masculinity at home and in the public sphere could have massive benefits for women and their space in politics," says Jehan.

Meanwhile, programme officer at Aurat Foundation, Mumtaz Mughal, says societal norms and requirements for achieving true ‘manliness’ results in violence against women, embodied in domestic violence and honour killings. "By understanding this dimension of masculinity, movements for women rights can achieve a more tolerant and less brutal Pakistani society," the activist observes.

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Similar to Mughal’s concerns, noted Sindhi scholar Amar Sindhu states that feudal Sindhi notions of mardangee (masculinity), mursmanhu (a powerful man), and ghairtimurs (holder of honor) are irretrievably tied with a man’s power, control, honour, protection, aggression, anger, and revenge. "A man’s honour is reflected in his control over women and boys are taught to internalise this mindset from a young age by both male and female members of their family," notes Sindhu. Women should acknowledge that this construction of masculinity is partially a consequence of how their mothers have conditioned them to behave, she adds.

In spite of the long battles ahead, successful examples of both women and men coming together to fight patriarchy in Pakistani society do exist.

Students associated with the Feminist Society at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) decided to take on the idea of ‘exemplary masculinity’ in their ‘I Need Feminism’ campaign this year. Inspired by a similar campaign held at Oxford University, images of young men and women holding placards to voice their opinions about women rights and stereotypes became popular on social media. Young male students, involved in the campaign, said patriarchy oppresses both genders as it divides them into strict categories and a set of personality traits.

"Feminism was one of the first movements in the world that challenged gender stereotypes and questioned why women and men have to behave differently," said a male member of the LUMS society.

A part of the Shirkat Gah Women’s Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratization programme, Ghulam Haider said his trainings had given him an alternate understanding of masculinity. A resident of Bhakkar district, Haider returned to his village community and reached out to tribal male leaders. Since then, the activist said he had noticed a fundamental change in male-female relations and a group of male college students was now working to eradicate girl child marriage in the area.

Ultimately, both women and men need each other to be themselves. Patriarchy is not just the enemy of women. It prescribes how we both should be rather than recognizing how we are. In the words of Emma Watson, "If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we are -- we can all be freer and this is what He For She is about. It’s about freedom."

He for she