Carving A Space: Reflections On The 2nd MenEngage Symposium
| By Srilatha Batliwala
FRIDAY FILE - Srilatha Batliwala, Scholar Associate at AWID shares her reflections on the recently concluded MenEngage Global Symposium 2014 in New Delhi, November 10 – 13, 2014.
The 2ndMenEngage Global Symposium offered its nearly 1000 participants an impressive breadth and depth of discussion and debate on reshaping masculinities and the role of men and boys in building a gender just world. Bringing together “field people” (activists), “thought people” (academics), “policy people” (government and donor agency representatives), and “ordinary and curious people” (the rest of us!), not to mention a respectable number of feminist activists and academics, the Symposium sought to carve out a new space for those actively working with men and boys to advance gender justice.
Unanimous agreement that patriarchy is the root cause of gender injustice
The level of discourse at the Symposium, especially in the plenaries, was exceptional – the ideas were cutting-edge, the ground-level organizing experiences inspiring, and the analysis of changing masculinities in an era of neo-liberal globalization - and resultant impacts on gender power relations - was timely and thought-provoking. The symposium also ensured a significant presence of people and perspectives of other gender identities, and this nuanced discussions of the challenges posed by current gender regimes on all of us. Most impressive was the realization that there are hundreds of initiatives in every corner of the world – from Australia to Bangladesh to Kenya to Mexico and New York – organizing and building the collective power of men and boys to question cultures of gender-based oppression and homophobia, including their own part in it, and working to transform it.
The greatest achievement of the Symposium, in my view, was the virtually unanimous agreement that the root-cause of gender injustice was patriarchy, and hence the shared political agenda of all those present was to dismantle it. I never thought to hear this articulated so clearly outside a feminist space! It was remarkable to hear this view from so many other voices - from men’s groups and trans activists located across the geo-political spectrum. Patriarchy, they agreed, is the primary oppressive power structure not only because of what it does to women and other subordinate genders, and its dehumanizing effects on men, but also because it is the engine that fuels exploitative economic models, environmentally destructive development, and all forms of war, conflict, and violence.
People who had attended the MenEngage Symposium in Rio de Janeiro in 2009 told me that this second convening had moved light years ahead of the more academic discourse of the first one, and in terms of the diversity of participants we saw in Delhi. Kudos for this welcome shift must go to the India Organizing Committee, which ensured that the issues were anchored within a larger global context, that there was a greater balance between academic and activist perspectives, between formal session spaces and open, performative spaces – so that people could be informed and moved not just cerebrally, but emotionally, through music, dance and theater.
Nevertheless, I came away troubled on several counts.
First, there was little audible acknowledgement of the huge – if indirect – role that women’s rights movements and feminist scholars have played over the past half a century in highlighting the role of patriarchal masculinities in perpetuating gender discrimination and violence, and calling for men to become allies, rather than bystanders or opponents, in the struggle for gender justice. It was as though patriarchy had been newly discovered, and masculinities were being addressed in theory and practice for the first time, with no credit to the decades-long work of feminists in researching these issues, building solid theory and analytical tools, and indeed, in trailblazing work on the ground. I wonder how many at this symposium would even know the word patriarchy without the work of the feminists who placed that concept squarely at the centre of our social justice frameworks several decades ago?
Secondly, as a representative of AWID, I could not help but worry about the impact of this emerging focus on men and boys on resources for women’s rights organizations, who are struggling not only with a decline in funding for transformative strategies, but with the increasing demand for short-term, instrumental “quick fixes” that only compound problems in the long run. There is already some anecdotal evidence that “working with men and boys” could well become the next magic bullet among donors. Activists from at least one feminist social justice organization in India told me that not one but several of their long-standing donors have begun to ask: “Why don’t you work with men and boys? It would help us support you if you worked with men and boys!”
Women’s organisations have always worked with men and boys
The really paradoxical thing here, which is my third concern, is that at least in the South Asian context that I know best, most organizations that work to empower women and tackle gender inequality in communities – whether rural or urban; poor, working class, or middle class – have ALWAYS had to work with men and boys, in one way or another. Indeed, one could not mobilize or build women’s collective power while ignoring the men in those women’s lives. My own grassroots work – with women living in Bombay’s pavement slums and Dalit and indigenous women in the villages of Karnataka state in South India, involved identifying male allies and working with men in the families and communities of the women - if nothing else, to prevent men from obstructing or sabotaging the women’s organizing. And if we tried to avoid this challenging task, the women simply did it themselves, often in ingenious ways.
Our lapse was the failure to document and analyse the lessons from this work, because we didn’t see it as a distinct strategic component, but an organic part of our organizing. My concern, though, is that much of the current work with men and boys seems uninformed by this rich body of previous experience. Not because it needs to be limited by it – some of the new work is incredibly fresh and innovative - but to avoid reinventing wheels. I heard many principles of organizing men for gender equality at the Symposium that I realized I had learnt a long time ago, but never had the wisdom to record for posterity – such as helping men see how they also gain from breaking down rigid gender roles.
Finally, although the Symposium broke fresh ground by organizing a plenary for a “Dialogue with women’s movements”, this only reinforced, for me, the profound lack of structured and systematic dialogue, cross learning, and intentional partnerships between the emerging initiatives for men and boys and the legion of organizations and movements that make up the complex topography of women’s rights work worldwide. There were few instances that I could see that address gender justice in holistic ways, or consciously build on or align with the existing efforts of feminist activism and progressive women’s movements, especially on the ground.
The good news is that the MenEngage Symposium created the space and possibility to bring these issues to the surface. Let us hope that conscious learning from and dialogue with women’s movements will become a reality in the next phase of work with men and boys.