12 March 2015

We don’t want you to just love us, we also want you to respect us as equals.

ON International Women’s Day this year, some Afghan men did an extraordinary thing. They paraded in Kabul wearing the burqa to draw attention to the issue of women’s rights in their country, or rather the lack of women’s rights.

In most countries, events on International Women’s Day are mostly by women and for women. Rarely do men ever do something to show that they too are concerned about the violation of women’s rights.

When men do, they are often ham-fisted about it. Last year, I was on a panel with two other prominent women, talking about issues affecting women at work, when an earnest young man stood up to ask how a wife can support her husband in his work.

This was a fine example of male tone deafness and the inability to understand the milieu he was in and therefore the clanging awkwardness of that question. I have also been at women’s forums where men get up to declare how much they love women and manage to sound condescending and creepy at the same time. We don’t want you to just love us, we also want you to respect us as equals.

Men can also be blindsided by the dazzle of a few women. When there is an outstanding woman whom men respect, they tend to think that these women are exceptions. To them, it is not normal for women to be so good at what they think of as men’s jobs, so these women are not the rule but the exceptions that prove it.

I have seen men become totally dumbfounded when asked to name expert women in a particular field apart from the one they see in the papers all the time. They assume that no others exist. A little research, with the assistance of their female assistants, would have unearthed many.

In some cases, men think they are doing women a favour by “defending” them in very masculine ways. In India, a mob attacked a jail where a suspected rapist was being held, stripped him naked and then beat him to death.

What difference does this actually make to the female victim, who would still be shunned by society, and to other women who still face the same dangers every day? This murderous act was done more to avenge the honour of the men to whom the woman “belonged”, rather than in defence of the woman herself.

And interestingly enough, when I posted an article about the Delhi rapist blaming his victim for her own death, among the many violent reactions from men was one calling him a derogatory female epithet. The highest insult to a man is to call him a woman because we are still lesser beings.

In our own country, we can hardly find any man who would stand up publicly in support of women’s rights. Instead we have men who can find a myriad of justifications why women get raped, beaten, summarily divorced, denied positions of leadership and so on.

When women call them out on it, they retreat and then deny what they said or wrote. But how many men, from the same community, told him off? Did their silence mean they agreed with him?

There are many men out there who do not believe that women deserve to have such horrific treatment meted out on them. These men are well aware that women gave birth to them and cared for them until adulthood and that they have sisters and wives whom they would never wish such violence on.

But at the same time they are cowed by the culture of macho-ness where to talk about women’s rights is to be a traitor to their sex. Where sometimes even their own sexuality can become suspect, just because they defend women. That such a culture can be also oppressive to them is something they are oblivious to. Why should any man be vilified just for being a decent human being?

When we teach young boys that violence towards those they perceive as weaker than them is all right, then we should also prepare them to live in a world where there will be nothing except violence all the time.

They will have to spend their time always having to fight either someone weaker or someone stronger than them. Why would we want to subject our sons to this? Won’t they ever get sick of it?

Gender inequality may seem like fair sport to some but studies have proven that it does nothing except drag a whole society down to its most primitive levels. Gender equality, exemplified by less violence against women, benefits both sexes and allows a country to progress.

Perhaps we should ask the misogynists whether what they really want is a society with only men?