In early October, Iceland announced it was hosting a 'barbershop' conference on gender equality specifically for men. However, no women will be invited to speak or attend. The Icelandic Foreign Minister said:
'Iceland and Suriname will convene a "Barbershop" conference in January 2015 where men will discuss gender equality with other men, with a special focus on addressing violence against women. This will be a unique conference as it will be the first time at the United Nations that we bring together only men leaders to discuss gender equality.'
Sophia Network asked two social activists to comment on this idea. Is a positive development or is it a regressive step in the battle to end Violence Against Women? We'd love to also know what you think!
Natalie Collins from Spark:
So this is an actual process that has happened in recent weeks:
“A specific oppressed group is continually being oppressed. This is terrible! What we should do is organise an event to work towards supporting that oppressed group. The genius thing about our event though is that it will exclude any of those oppressed people. What an amazing plan!”
This is the thinking of a UN conference that is due to take place in Iceland. It comes after the launch of HeForShe, a UN initiative focussing on engaging men in working to end gender inequality. The campaign itself has been both celebrated and criticised after well-known actor Emma Watson articulated powerfully some of the issues women and girls face as she launched HeForShe. The Icelandic conference will be an opportunity for men to discuss the challenges facing women and hopefully will lead to action being taken.
I will be the first to acknowledge the challenges in engaging men in ending violence against women and addressing gender injustice. I have spoken at many conferences, covering domestic abuse, exploitation and wider power issues, and without fail the vast majority of the audience will always be female. Violence against women is not a women’s issue. It is a men’s issue. On every level men are almost always the perpetrators of the violence, the gatekeepers to justice and the decision makers for policy change.
Yet, a male only space to discuss violence against women is wrong on so many levels. If the only way we can get men to discuss this issue is to feed their entitlements and giving them a special “man-only” space to do it, then we are perpetuating the issues of male privilege and entitlement, which cause abuse of women in the first place.
Some will counter my views by suggesting that women-only spaces have been important throughout the decades in which violence against women has begun to be addressed. However, the purpose of women-only spaces is about safety, physically, psychologically and emotionally, in which women and girls can explore their oppression in a meaningful way. The oppressed do need safe spaces to do that; the oppressors do not.
This is not to say that all men are intentionally oppressing women, I know many men who contribute to the liberation of women, both in the UK and globally. And yet every man benefits from the system of gendered oppression, their physical and emotional safety, greater financial security and the opportunities offered to men are set against the stark backdrop of women’s and girls’ ongoing lack of safety, lack of financial security and lack of opportunity.
We need to find ways of getting men to engage with ending violence against women, but that must be through a genuine commitment to the cause and to doing the deep work of owning the innate and unfair advantages they have as a result of being male - not through entry into yet another special club.
Peter Grant from Restored:
When Iceland and Surinam announced an all-male conference to address gender, equality, women’s rights and ending violence against women, they met with a predictable chorus of disapproval. Comments included “men taking over” and “like having a conference on racism with only white people”. It now appears that the organisers will indeed invite women, although “not to all the sessions”. This feels a rather awkward compromise. The question remains as whether it is right to have all-male discussions on gender issues. My answer is Yes and No.
There is no doubt that there is a deficit of men engaged in addressing violence against women. I often go to meetings where there are one or two men amongst a large number of women. Restored believes that violence against women is not “a women’s issue,” it is an issue for all of us. Women and men need to stand together to address it. Restored has two Co-Directors, a woman and a man, and a gender-balanced Board of Trustees, in order to model this approach. Ultimately, it is the attitudes and actions of men that have to change if violence against women is to be ended. This means confronting perpetrators of violence and holding them to account. But it also means mobilising non-violent men to be aware of the issues, and to speak out.
Restored runs a men’s campaign called First Man Standing which asks men to respect all women, to challenge each other’s attitudes and actions, and to sign up to the White Ribbon pledge never to commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women. Through this we have seen a range of men speaking out about ending violence against women, intervening to prevent violence and working to improve the quality of their own relationships.
I speak to a number of all-male gatherings such as men’s breakfasts and meetings organised by Christian Vision for Men including their annual conference where over 1500 men gather for a weekend in a field near Swindon. The atmosphere at such events allows for an honest discussion of issues such as masculinity, violence, pornography and prostitution in a way that does not take place in mixed groups. It has led to the mobilisation of several hundred men to the cause of ending violence against women and has always been on the basis of speaking together as men in order to then engage more positively with women.
Why then would I have concerns about such men’s meetings? Firstly, you cannot have a debate on these issues without hearing women’s voices and particularly the voices of survivors of violence. Secondly, there is a danger of men taking over and feeling that they have the answers, while not acknowledging the leadership of women or having the willingness to work with existing female-led initiatives. The key question is what is the objective of engaging men? If it is to exclude women’s voices then I am against it. If it is to engage men so that they can then better relate to women and work to end violence then I believe it has value. So half a cheer for the Iceland meeting and let’s see where it leads.
So what do you think about this conference: should it be men only or are they missing the point?