Yes, men too can be feminists and genuine partakers

A man in a risky act of balance to help a woman cross a sewerage tunnel in Uhuru Park, Nairobi. Men are key partakers in feminism and play a key role in holding women's hands and helping them overcome obstacles.

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • There is scepticism, and even suspicion, that men engaged in gender equality work are opportunists competing for donor funds and are not sincere in their feminism.
  • Men’s involvement in gender equality work is and will remain imperative as long as inequality exists; they are part of the problem and must be part of the solution.

When former colleagues and students at Kenyatta University recently did a party to celebrate the 80th birthday of Prof Austin Bukenya, one thing he highlighted was his feminist credentials.

This declaration brings up a question one often hears: Can men be feminists?

Often asked by inchoate women’s rights activists, this question is inlaid with scepticism and even suspicion that men engaged in gender equality work are opportunists competing for donor funds and are not sincere in their feminism.

The latter notion is referred to as performativity. Thus a notion has emerged that men in feminist work should be “accountable” to women. This is territorial protectionism that does not help the cause of feminism.

Arguing that men cannot be feminists is akin to attempting to stop an electric train that has already left the station, one that did in the 17th century.

Men’s involvement in gender equality work is and will remain imperative as long as inequality exists. They are part of the problem and must be part of the solution.

Take the impasse in Kenya’s Parliament on the two-thirds gender rule, for example. Legislation to entrench the constitutional principle requires support by no less than two thirds of the National Assembly.

Two attempts in the 11th Parliament failed because women did not enjoy a super majority to pass the bills without overwhelming support from men.

Even the current Parliament is male-dominated. If the men in it are not feminist enough to appreciate the added value of more women in Parliament, it is predictable that any new legislative effort towards the same will also flop.

What then is feminism? In some writings, it is referred to as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”. 

Simply stated, feminism is an ideology seeking to eradicate gender inequality so that women can enjoy their human rights similarly with men.

It is also a political movement that seeks to dismantle patriarchy. 

There are various versions of feminism. The exclusionary version sees men as dispensable and condemns them as the oppressor class.

It maintains that men cannot be true feminists simply because they are not women and have not faced discrimination and the other disadvantages the latter have.

Such thinking was articulated by French author Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex where she opines that because of sexual differences, men’s experiences differ from women’s.

Such radicals think that including men in feminist work only entrenches patriarchal values. In other words, all men are condemned as incorrigible oppressors.

The more moderate versions understand, correctly, that not all men are oppressors and that the fight for equality must be carried out by both.

And men’s involvement in feminism did not begin yesterday. Philosopher John Stuart Mill propagated it way back in his book, The Subjection of Women (1869), in which he castigates exclusion of women from formal work as morally reprehensible and wasteful. 

In parliament, he advocated women’s right to vote and further argued that relegation of women to the domestic sphere was retrogressive. Mill envisaged “perfect equality” in which no group had monopoly of power and privilege.

In his opinion, excluding women from certain activities based on the assumption of natural incapacity was fallacious and unjust. Furthermore, he criticised marital laws that treated women as items for trade and denied them property ownership and financial independence.

It is probably necessary to remind the sceptics that the word feminism (“feminisme” in French) was actually coined by a man, François Marie Charles Fourier in 1837.

Fourier was a French socialist and utopian philosopher who envisioned a world of liberty.

His thoughts are captured in his statement that “social progress and changes of historical period take place in proportion to the advance of women towards liberty, and social decline occurs as a result of the diminution of the liberty of women.” 

He believed that gender should not be a basis for exclusion and stated that women are autonomous human beings.

Fourier philosophised that marriage enslaved women and was a mechanism of control. He argued that women should be allowed to work based on ability, not identity.

In the same way, men should not be excluded from feminist pursuits on account of their identity. Feminism inheres not in biology but thought and behaviour. Men's identification with the feminist movement is an asset, not a liability.

Excluding them is self-defeating and is, in fact, reverse sexism, what some refer to as toxic feminism. We agree with the iconic Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her statement during a TED Talk (2012) that “we should all be feminists.”

And by the way, it is a fallacy to think that all women are feminists.

The writer is an international gender and development consultant and scholar ([email protected]).