“I did want to stop by and make one thing very clear: I may be a little greyer than I was eight years ago, but this is what a feminist looks like.” This is a great line for any man to use – particularly a man whose strikingly greying hair has been the subject of much political banter – at a women’s conference and it came from Barack Obama at the United State of Women Summit held earlier this year in Washington DC in the United States of America.
I wish I had come up with it but I don’t have grey hair and I have never spoken at a women’s conference either. Right now I am writing on this platform, and I imagine the pressure is just the same as it would be speaking in front of thousands of women’s rights activists.
I would never have thought of a confluence of feminism and grey hair, particularly one that could end up yielding interesting perspectives on gender and the battle of the sexes. But, for men grey hair is supposedly a symbol of maturity and wisdom (and it does get them favourable perceptions) while for women society won’t come up with anything better than it simply being a sign of old age and better days gone by. I do know a few grey haired men that I would never describe as wise though.
It’s always hard to become part of a conversation in which you are offering support or are becoming part of a movement which in essence wants to abolish your power, your privilege and the age old perks and advantages that you and your kind have enjoyed for generations.
How do you get yourself to be taken seriously? How do you get yourself to not be treated as something of a novelty? It was not easy for white people aggrieved by the injustices of racial societies to create an identity for themselves in the black liberation or nationalist movements, as sincere as they may have been in their intentions. Be it in Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa or during the civil rights movement in the United States. But some did pull it off and to good effect too.
So I guess I too can become part of the feminist movement. But as what? A feminist? Can I be a feminist? Or maybe I can opt for the somewhat less intimidating term; feminist ally?
Obama is a great communicator and that is or should be well known by now and with his joke he seamlessly blended into the conversation.
But there are questions that still nag my mind. How will I be perceived, not only by those in whose corner I will be fighting but also by my own kind, the ones whose attitudes need to change?
The downside, and this is what I’m afraid of, is something that Emma Cueto also warned about. And it is that I may end up doing things that are not helpful— things which could end up being downright counterproductive.
One reason why men’s participation in feminism is contested is that some tend to want to take the front seat. This complicates things because the argument is that men cannot speak for women because they have not experienced the injustices. But for me this is not about grabbing the microphone from the affected, it is simply about helping amplify their voices. Maybe getting a job backstage will do.
One important life lesson I have learnt, and I learnt it from a woman – Emeli Sande, you may have heard of her – is; don’t bite your tongue and don’t stay stuck in silence, afraid of saying something wrong.
So like Obama at the convention I have got to find my way into this discussion. Cueto contends that feminism is about dismantling patriarchy, and that means we should stop reproducing its twisted social power dynamics. The last bit isn’t always easy when one was born and has lived in a society as patriarchal as ours all his life and benefitted from it as well- but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
In a way this article feels like an ode to my mother and to and for all the countless women I have encountered in my life. The women crammed on the street pavements of our great nation, eking out a living, selling all kinds of wares. I have listened to their conversations. I have seen their faces. I have looked into their eyes. I have seen determination, I have seen pain, I have seen hope, I have seen despair I have seen laughter, I have seen nonchalance and I have seen indifference.
I think of a woman seated behind a pile of vegetables, gently rocking the baby strapped on her back while keeping out an eagle eye for potential customers. The baby cries and keeps on crying despite the mother’s valiant attempts to quieten her down. Finally the mother yells in frustration as if to say what does this child want me to do? Can’t she see I am doing all this for her? She untucks the poor child and glares at her in anger, but we all know it’s not the child she is angry with, but a bigger structure that tramples on her freedom of being.
I have this good friend of mine, a single mother and unemployed. The father of the child is employed. But she has to look after her son all by herself. She wakes up, prepares the boy for daycare when she has the US$3 to pay for that day. If not then for the whole day wherever she goes, looking for items to resell, he goes too. That’s no life for a child and no life for a parent either. But what else can she do? Because she is the woman she has had to reshape her life and sacrifice her dreams. This is what society expects of her, and this is what she will have to do to be considered a respectable woman. Yet – the father of the child still maintains his social status just because he is a man. For him, life goes on. Nothing has changed. But for the mother everything has changed.
It is these stories that tell me to give my voice. We’ve got to do better. The streets of Harare are no place for a woman or anyone with a young child tagging along. Social constructs that allow the father to roam the plains like a wild stallion while the mother and the child toil should simply be challenged. Caring for a child is a duty for both parents not just the mother.
So for now I am going to be a disciple of Cueto’s top 10 tips to being a good male feminist. One of the tips is to; listen, listenandlisten. And that’s what I am going to do.
I understand that feminism is expressed in different ways by different people but for me it is striving to better the lives of women and of men through gender equality socially, politically, and economically. These are the issues that moved me to want to be part of this movement. It really does not need a genius to know that when women have better economic, social and political opportunities we all benefit. Besides why can’t women have equal rights to access these opportunities like men do?
Not everyone though is sold to the idea of male feminists. Brian Klocke does not think male feminism is possible though he puts in a disclaimer. Not “in the strictest sense of the word in today’s society”, he says.
So I think to start with, I will think of myself as a ‘feminist ally’ – albeit one who has a lot to learn and will learn until I earn the label feminist. Why? Simple. For my mother. For the opportunities that she missed, the education that she couldn’t get because she was a girl, and the sacrifices she made because she is my mother and everyone expected her to do so. I will do this for myself, for I believe in what this movement stands for.
Written by Farai Siebert Mabeza
Main Image:Can Men be feminist? Image taken from taramoss.com