On Thursday, I joined hundreds of thousands – maybe millions – of women across the world in a mass movement to protest violence against women and girls – One Billion Rising. Bristol had a number of flashmobs in the day and BFN organised one in the evening – it was a great moment of joined up activism with other groups in the city so that an event would be accessible to everyone who wanted to be involved.
As the stereo system was set up, I jumped up on to a bench and shouted as loud as I could ‘today we are rising against violence against women, against the 130 rapes that happen in Bristol every month, the 69,000 rapes that happen in the UK every year…we rise with our sisters in Afghanistan, Hong Kong, the Congo, Europe, America, London…’ It went something like that anyway. I made it up as I went along! Then, two minutes later the music started – Sisters are doing it for themselves. A troupe of stunning hula hoop dancers took to the square, I jumped up and down and people tentatively joined in with the dance. Some women didn’t dance at all, some bopped on the spot, but we were there, together. It only lasted half an hour, but as with every feminist action I’ve been on, I felt that surge of pride that we were here, together, making a stand against violence against women and girls. As I watched the live blog on the Guardian later on that evening and saw the women dancing and marching all over the globe, hundreds, thousands of women, men by their sides, I felt proud to be connected to such a powerful, global moment – a feminist past, present and future.
Men were there in Bristol too. One guy was holding his baby whilst his partner danced. And another guy came over to me and complained that it felt like it was all about women, that we were playing music by women and making it all about women. He told me that men cared about violence too and shouldn’t be excluded.
Of course, men weren’t excluded. He was there. But it made me think about how some men engage with the feminist movement and problems that can then arise for them.
There are lots of amazing men who identify as feminists who don’t seem to feel excluded by women-centred events and also understand the necessity of women-only events (which this wasn’t). But there are also some men who seem to engage with the feminist movement whilst perhaps not understanding or feeling comfortable with the fact that sometimes the issue under the spotlight will be focused on women. And so I wanted to write this, in part in response to that guy and in part to explore how I feel about men and feminism.
Across the globe, one billion women will experience gender based violence – from rape to FGM to assault to domestic abuse to murder. These crimes are committed against women because they are women. This is an issue about women and so One Billion Rising – whilst a mixed event – was still an event focused on women.
When women come together to protest the violence committed against us, we may want to do that alone. We may want to rise as self-identified women together, creating a strong and safe women-only space. We may want to just hear women’s voices, telling our stories, giving our stories a priority in a culture that is all too often male-dominated. I personally don’t understand how a man can identify as a feminist and not accept women-only space. I feel this particularly in the context of creating a safe space to talk about an issue like violence against women – an issue where women are so often silenced. I don’t know how people might feel about that or whether men who identify as feminists might feel differently than me. Our policy when we have had women-only events at BFN is to encourage men to self-organise on that issue in an act of solidarity or to create a space for men to explore these issues too. For me, I should add, women only space means a safe space for all self-identified women.
On other occasions, women and men might want to come together to protest gender based violence – as was the case on Thursday. But even then, it is still probably going to be women-centred, women-led. Because we’re coming together to act to end violence against women. We’re making a statement about how this misogynistic violence has to end. And sometimes, like on Thursday, we might want men to stand in solidarity with our anger, our sadness, our determination. We might want men to join in with that anger and determination. We might want men to listen. We might want men to act too, to voice their anger, to commit to change. After all, to end violence committed against women by some men, we need men onside. Men who can challenge the causes of violence, men who can challenge rape culture, men who can support the fight to end violence.
But an event like One Billion Rising is still going to be about women because at its core it is about women reclaiming our bodies, making a statement and refusing to be hidden or silenced against violence that is often used to oppress and silence.
What we don’t need is men wanting some kind of reward for their presence. What we don’t need is men wanting to be recognised for being ‘against violence’. And we certainly don’t need men telling us what the ‘real issue’ is here.
Because, frankly? You don’t get and you shouldn’t expect a cookie for saying you disagree with violence against women. I mean, that should just be standard.
I don’t know why there weren’t more men there on Thursday. The event was advertised to a mixed group. Maybe there weren’t many men there because they thought this was about women rising up against violence, raising our voices as women, reclaiming our bodies as women. Maybe some men stayed at home with their children whilst their partners went out. Or maybe it just wasn’t an event that interested men. I don’t know. But as much as I believe men should be and must be part of feminism, my priority is always making sure women and girls are included and women’s voices are heard. Feminism is a movement that benefits men and women but it is also a movement where we can and must hear women’s voices.
Again, this is from someone who believes that men can be and should be feminists. I believe we do need to move forward together. I really do believe that, I don’t just say it for men to like me! And I know lots of great men feminists who get it, who respect the need for women’s spaces and the need to hear, really hear, women’s voices.
I just wanted to finish on the music point. The music collated by my BFN colleague and inspired by the One Billion Rising suggested playlist included Sisters are doing it for themselves, Respect, One Thing, I will survive, I’m every woman and Girls just want to have fun. Having music by women singing about being women doesn’t exclude men. It just meant that for half an hour we only heard women’s voices. Every day I listen to the radio, watch TV, read newspaper articles and can go for hours without hearing (or seeing) a woman’s voice in our cultural landscape. For half an hour, we didn’t hear a man’s voice. It was important to have women’s voices singing through the speakers because this was an event about women.
If your a man and you feel excluded because for half an hour you didn’t hear a man’s voice, then it’s time to think how women might feel every single day. And then maybe think about why we were rising in the first place.