In the last couple of weeks men from Azerbaijan and Turkey have taken to the streets wearing miniskirts to protest the death of 20 year old student Ozgecan Aslan who was abducted and clubbed to death by a bus driver who also had allegedly tried to rape her. This is part of a welcome change of tide in the discussion around sexism, one born out of the recent arguments for stopping rape culture, that is, instead of it being the responsibility to teach young women to keep themselves safe, we should be teaching men not to assault women. When I first came across the idea behind the reversal of focus in the discourse on rape, I remember how poignant was the realisation that we had got the perspective wrong and how powerful it felt to swap ends.
The image of a row of men standing shoulder to shoulder with bare legs is a welcome change in the dynamics of gender politics where women have been historically left responsible for changing men’s attitudes towards them. Long before Emma Watson’s UN “He For She” speech last year which urged men to take up the mantle and own their responsibility for remaining silent in the presence of other men’s sexism, there have been in recent years a number of examples of men taking the initiative to protest against sexism and it’s quotidian and insidious invisibility. For instance, Australian newsreader Karl Stefanovic wore the same suit to work for over a year to highlight the public and industry’s relative lack of attention to his appearance in contrast to other female presenters. He was right, nobody noticed. Other men have become more vocally supportive of campaigns like #everydaysexism and against sexism in gaming culture. This is a welcome change.
What I think is most interesting however, is how fresh these male led campaigns look and feel. Not only are the men actively campaigning in specific campaigns and therefore raising those campaigns’ profiles, but the very act of their involvement in the debates around gender is having the effect of queering up the whole scene. This is something only men and transgender people can do as we have got so used to seeing women campaign they have almost become invisible or at least a bore for some. How fresh to see men in skirts (and actually, how sexy) and how masculine to see a man take on a one man campaign to highlight the unfairness of his female colleagues’ issues. Surely these values are in line with the type of modern masculinity we strive to encourage, both strong and inclusive?
I believe we may be getting to a tipping point where men are beginning to be expected to stand up for women’s equality, to take it personally, to own up for their privilege and to learn about it. After some time out the wilderness of extended adolescence – the lads mags phenomena of the 1990’s for instance – where football, sex and beer were useful tools to take men’s attention away from their confusion about their changing gender roles, men are now being encouraged to grow up, and this is very good. As long as we can avoid falling back into the masculine stereotype of men ‘saving’ women (rather than standing by them) we could be about to witness a quite steep change of attitude, especially with millennials who have been found to hold more egalitarian attitudes and a inherent respect for how different aspects of a person intersect (gender, sexuality, race, able-bodiedness, etc) than previous generations.
Some feminists have historically been skeptical of pro-feminist men, assuming their interest to be based on retaining power in the face of women’s challenges to them. I can see this point and have certainly experienced some men who blithely tell you (especially if you happen to be a female porn director) what women need politically, and it usually resembles a Scandinavian type of leftist feminism that I find both deeply troubling and equally as restrictive as the supposed non-egalitarian status quo they are trying to improve upon. Indeed, I can remember my flatmate who was *literally* a Brazilian lap dancer that worked most nights at Stringfellow’s, London recalling the worst customer she had ever had. It was a Swedish guy who saw no hypocrisy in him sitting in a strip club drunkenly telling her she was disempowered and “in my country you wouldn’t have to resort to doing this”. Save us (especially those in the various sex industries) from those types of men, there is nothing more irritating than a man who has either consciously or unconsciously morphed himself into a progressive mold, whilst retaining his sense of superiority. And the shock of this is, it usually the highly educated men who make this mistake (because they think they have done the research or checked their privilege enough).
But, I think the more recent examples such as those in the media today point to a genuine realignment of men’s willingness to act on their progressive beliefs. This is especially relevant for middle eastern men who don’t usually represent a progressive type of masculinity in the West (for instance even this week the Turkish male government were seen to engage in fisticuffs). Let’s hope that feminists and more widely, women can respond with open minds and begin to let men into the debate around gender, I think they have a lot to offer and their novelty to the scene can be put to good use for all our sakes.