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Dear Men: You Can Be Feminists

In recent conversations with my husband – a kind, generous man who grew up in a house full of women – I’ve realized that not everyone understands what feminism is, who a feminist might be, what is detrimental about our current social system, and how to make change. For the men who love us and want to be our ally, I have decided to write this piece. I hope this offers some insight into what feminism really is, and how men (and women) can be part of the movement.

  1. Understand what feminism is (and what it is not)

As a young girl, I understood feminism to be a movement from the past when angry bra-burning women screamed obscenities at men and hated the world in which they lived. I thought of it as a movement aimed at bringing men down and declaring women to be superior. A feminist then was someone who hated men (and bras), didn’t use personal hygiene products, and was too far out in left field to carry any weight in the present times or the future. I now understand that this isn’t what feminism is.

Feminism is the advocacy for women’s equal rights to men, on political, social and economic ground. Equal. That’s what we’re working toward. Yes, there is anger behind this movement – because why doesn’t this equality exist yet? But the anger is directed at our social system, not at individual men or women who unknowingly uphold this system. And personal hygiene products, bras and makeup aren’t necessarily tied up in this movement; I think what women really want is the freedom to be able to make choices about their bodies and lives without being confined by social thinking. So, we can get caught up in the many ways that women express their outrage, or we can look beneath the surface and ask ourselves, “Why does feminism exist?”

  1. Understand what the word feminist means (and that you should be one)

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declared himself a feminist. Author and TED speaker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests that we should ALL be one. But what does it mean to be a feminist? Can men be feminists?

A feminist is a person who supports feminism. If you believe that women and men should be equal on political, social and economic fronts then you fit the bill. Men absolutely can be feminists, and in fact, we really all need to be on the same page here for change to come. And while it might sound honourable for a man to say he is a feminist because he has a mother, a wife, a daughter, a niece or whatever, a feminist simply believes in equality for equality’s sake. For example, I don’t believe I know a single Sudanese person. But I still believe that any Sudanese person is deserving of rights. I don’t need to have an actual, tangible connection to someone to believe they are worthy.

  1. Understand and dissect socialized thinking

Being aware of social thought is critical to making change. It’s the system that needs revamping and that system is engrained in each of us; it has had a heavy hand in our upbringing and is reinforced in our social interactions, in the marketing of our products, in the expectations we have of each other and ourselves. It’s passed down through parenthood and the stories we tell our children, consciously and subconsciously.

Listen to the ways in which girls and boys, men and women, are placed into categories. Listen to the words we use when we describe the actions of each sex. Listen to what comes out of our mouths when we refer to gender roles.

Observe. Observe how women are treated in work situations. Observe how women are treated in social situations. Look at the industries that tell women what their limitations are. Look at how sons and daughters are treated.

Think critically: are these differences based on biology or sociology? Are women paid less because they are biologically different from men or because they are sociologically different from men? Are women slut-shamed because they are biologically different from men or because they are sociologically different from men? Are there fewer women in certain fields of study because of their DNA or because of society?

We can’t change something we don’t recognize, so we better get really good at recognizing the issues.

  1. Understand the ways in which you can be positively disruptive

So, how do we shake up a system that has existed this long? We call it out situation to situation. Men, if you notice your colleague being spoken over in a boardroom meeting, call it out. Call out sexist jokes. Call out sexist comments.

First, draw attention to the comment and name it: That’s sexist. And then, depending on the situation, you can spout a fact: When a woman wears a short skirt, she is not asking to be sexually assaulted. Or you can even turn it back to the commentor: What do you mean by that comment? Why would that be funny? Alternatively, you can explicitly point out the difference between the treatment of men and women by saying something like: When a man is promiscuous, society congratulates him. When a woman is promiscuous, society shames her.

Men must do this, too. Not saying anything is the same as silently agreeing. Speaking up, calling out, can be difficult but often the right thing to do is not always the easiest.

  1. Listen to the lived experiences of women and accept them

One of my favourite Canadian authors, Lawrence Hill, received an honourary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Guelph during which time he addressed the gatherers with some remarkable comments about women and their right to be heard. He touched upon the fact that when women are brave enough to come forward about being sexually assaulted, they are often silenced or vilified. He spoke about how women who bring forward cases of sexual harassment whether in a professional or personal setting are at risk of being further abused by society through social or traditional media.

Hill asserted that the only response to a woman in these situations should be respectful attention and the assurance that she will be kept safe. Had I been in that audience, I would have jumped to my feet clapping when he said, “And they have the right to carry on with their studies, their work and their lives without fear of censure if they speak up about their fundamental human rights.”

This is how a feminist thinks, man or woman. And this is what we need.

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