Feminism must include men, and discussions of masculinity ["Men and women are partners, not rivals"]
This is my weekly newspaper column from The National
The trouble with women’s events about women’s rights is that all too often it can feel like women talking to other women about women’s problems. And, generally, there are almost never any men present.
This seems to be an absurd position, as women’s lives are intertwined with those of men. Don’t men care? If you’re a man and you’re upset by my question, then I’m pleased: it shows you care. If men do care about their mothers, wives, daughters and sisters – and womankind as a whole – then they need to be involved in social improvements for women.
This will mean changes for men, too. So men need to be ready to explore, understand and embrace the changes that affect them. Yet the discussion around what it means to be a man today is muted. Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope that the meaning and role of masculinity is now on the table for discussion.
Before I get accused of overlooking women’s oppression in favour of the already privileged male elite, let’s be clear: a sensitive and future-facing women’s movement must be sensitive and future-facing when it comes to men, too. Men and women are social partners, not rivals.
We need to understand what it means to be a man. In the same way we challenge female stereotypes of what it means to be a woman, we must challenge outdated notions such as that of the domineering Neanderthal.
Research from advertising agency JWT London starts to explore the nuances of male stereotypes, and understand what masculinity today really means. For British men, for example, being emotional – something that has traditionally been a sign of weakness in men – is now a source of pride (62 per cent). Men are just as much at home in the kitchen as with doing traditional DIY. And, nearly half of men (43 per cent) feel that men are better rounded today due to the shift in gender roles.
At the beginning of this month, the inaugural Being a Man festival was held at the Southbank Centre, one of the UK’s leading arts venues. It follows the success of the Women of the World Festival, which first took place in 2012. Its commissioning was in recognition that men too need to talk about their anxieties, challenges and place in the world.
Studies like one by students at Zayed University are looking at generational changes and can give young men an insight into how masculinity has changed through the family line. And a recent groundbreaking book published in the United States finally gives an outlet to Muslim men to create some new options outside of the usual stereotypes of either being oppressive monsters or terrorist villains. “Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex and Intimacy” gives a first-person peek into the kind of preoccupations that men have and would like to discuss, but which prevailing narratives prevent them from sharing.
As a women’s activist, I know how important it is for women to talk about womanhood, its challenges and how the system is currently rigged against women. The system’s consequences are violence, oppression, abuse and death. But the system is also rigged against men who are stifled by outdated expectations of masculinity, men who are expected to bottle up their feelings and struggle on in emotional isolation.
Creating space for discussions of both womanhood and manhood is not mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s vital to a healthy functioning society.
We need a new way to talk about motherhood: the old dichotomy of working mums and stay at home mums is dead
This is my weekly newspaper column from The National
Mothers never win. If we go out to work, we’re neglecting our children, and inviting doom on family and society. If we stay at home, we’re not contributing to society, wasting our talents and slowly atrophying our brains.
Behind the heady mix of guilt at never being good enough at being mother and the priceless feeling of raising small people are piles of laundry, meals to be prepared and served and a trail of toys. This is modern motherhood.
Mothers who express the challenges of being a mum today, especially if they are working, are often accused of suffering from the failure to “have it all”. The Twentieth century women’s idealism that we can be superwomen has – supposedly – left us bereft.
Today’s mums are over that. We don’t expect to have it all, so put away your outdated criticisms. We understand that motherhood brings incalculable joy, and is the most important job. That doesn’t mean we can’t point out that it’s very hard work, and by the way we still also do most of the world’s housework. Looking after children, especially infants, is draining. Sleepless nights, little adult company and a never-ending circle of chores can make it hard to keep our fingers clinging on to the cliff edge of sanity.
Today’s women know that we don’t need to put a brave face on the hard work of motherhood in the way that generations before us did, a cause of depression in many women. We know that being a parent is an awesome status, but being a mother does not have to be our only or primary defining label.
Yet when women have children, motherhood is still only offered to them in two flavours: the stay-at-home mum and the working mum.
I’m neither of these and both at once: a work-at-home mum, part of a growing phenomenon but only rarely discussed.
I chose this path because I love the work I do. It makes up who I am, and gives me a sense of fulfilment. I feel it contributes positively to the communities of which I’m part. I’m also conscious that in years to come once the children are at school I’d like to work, and that means I need to “keep my hand in”. I’m very fortunate to have a flexible and understanding employer. And of course, the money helps too. But I’m happy to take on the enormous challenge because I want to spend time with my child in her early years. Cuddles from mummy are on tap, fun is squeezed fulsomely in between meals and mayhem. We navigate the tears, tantrums and trials of toddlerhood hand in hand.
It sounds idyllic, but the reality of working in the same place as your children is tough. While friends complained of the pain of non-intellectual stimulation looking after their infants, I was trying to feed the baby then work during naps. While others felt the confusing guilt of leaving their children in day care while simultaneously enjoying a few hours of me-time at the office and the chance for an uninterrupted cup of coffee, I was eking out every minute to meet my deadlines. I’m not a saint. I want to do this. I’m not alone in trying to construct motherhood differently from the two rigid caricatures offered to women, neither of which reflect reality.
Limiting motherhood to two mutually exclusive choices is a form of oppression against women. We need to talk about motherhood in a different way, one that continues to honour the importance of mothers, but doesn’t forget we are women too.