It was an honor to be a United Nations (UN) Economic & Social Council delegate for Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS). I came together with other women from around the globe to lobby a “Global Policy Document on Gender Equality”. It was exciting to take part in such a great event and meet people who dedicate their work towards reaching a gender-equal Utopia.
45 Member States of the UN, organizers, scholars, hundreds of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) from around the globe and many other institutions and individuals representing civil society and their communities, gathered in the headquarters of the UN in NY. They all came to give voice to the voiceless, to hold their national leaders accountable and to push the agenda for more equitable rights for women. This conference offers the platform for civil society to demand changes and influence the Global Policy Document negotiated by Member States behind closed doors.
When I first received my acceptance letter to attend CSW-62 from SWS, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into and I didn’t know what to expect, other than an anticipation of pushing the agenda for gender-equal Utopia.
For a week I was running from one room to another in the UN headquarters building in NY and to other venues around the city. Topics discussed varied, including sexual violence and rape; mental health; feminization of poverty; girls and women’s right to education; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which we are still battling to implement in the US; lack of access to infrastructure; minor marriage; women farmers right to property; limited access to public sphere; need for separate sanitation facilities for girls; need for safety; and human trafficking. The right to abortion was also discussed. A subject, I can’t fathom how are we still debating. The number of women subject to rape is high (UN report showed that more than 250 000 cases of rape reported by police annually, data covered 65 countries); we still haven’t eliminated child abuse, poverty and economic difficulties for women; minor marriage and many others burdens put on women; so I think access to abortion should be a right not a current topic of conversation. Yet, behind closed doors, the representative of the Gender Equality Office of the US appointed by Donald Trump, Bethany Kozma, tried to position the US as anti-abortion rights at this conference on Women’s Right to equality.
The subjects discussed and the overwhelming content of the presentations on women’s status in the world today, left me depressed and hopeless by the end of the week. The Utopian world I had imagined had collapsed over my head, we are so far far far away from it. The oppression women endure today around the globe is beyond imagination.
Patriarchal ancient society power structures still dominate today’s global culture. Social norms and constructs of gender still insist on male superiority, men’s right to women’s bodies, minds, properties and finances— “It’s only for her safety!” the usual argument, just like beating her is for her own good and learning. Equality is a question of power, and for many centuries, men held this power. They make the laws, policies, govern, occupy public spaces and dominate them, and because of the social norms, these inequalities are accepted and believed to be natural and God-given, thus unchangeable.
In the third millennium, it is time to aggressively challenge social norms and constructs, and we particularly need to redefine masculinity. Empowering women is an important agenda but societies, cultures, norms of “hegemonic masculinity” have to change. Hegemonic Masculinity— characterized by men separating themselves from femininity, restricting their emotions, being tough and aggressive, being highly sexual with women and proving their heterosexuality via homophobia— is harmful not only to women but also to men. These male conventions normalized across class, ethnicity and race perpetuate gender inequality of man over woman but also man over man. The concept of Hegemonic Masculinity has been addressed by theorists since the 1980s. It has been used to explain men’s health behaviors and the use of violence. Gender activists also mobilized the concept but evaluating broader societal change in hegemonic masculinity remains an enduring challenge. The concept was brought up at the CSW-62 but never made it to the final document.
Among very few events on masculinity, at the first week of CSW-62, there was a presentation on “Masculinity in the Middle East and North Africa region” organized by UN Women, Promundo and Sida. I was excited to hear about how they are working on redefining masculinity in that region, but after the presentation I thought it was pathetic and cynical. One of the male speakers made a claim on women’s role in her community and how she shouldn’t identified as “the sister”, the “daughter” or the “wife”. Women is a status itself. She shouldn’t be identified as the “Other”. Yet, the campaigns used in the Middle East shown to us at the presentation were charged with dominant masculinity discourse: “if you are a man you don’t hit a woman”. How about if you are “a human”? How about you don’t hit humans to prove you are a dominant male? I also found it sarcastic that the presenting NGO targeted men to work with on redefine masculinity who are the vulnerable disempowered men coming out of war, living in refugee camps, with no economic stability, no home and relying entirely on donation and help to survive. Overall, this was a disappointment on addressing the matter and the strategy used. It suggests a new form of Orientalism and imperialism in the Middle East and also, for not seeing this topic addressed by many countries and presenters.
I have to acknowledge though the intervention of a Tunisian actor during the presentation, Dhafer El Abidine, who criticized media portrayals of the desired man in a society as the macho man and argued the need for a change. Soap operas are inserted in social reality. They represent every day authentic stories. When a famous actor takes on a role representing “hegemonic masculinity” yet is presented as the most desired man, who takes advantage of his place in society to abuse women left and right and get away with it, what are we telling to the audience, “this is how man should be?” or/ and “Women should support this attitude, encourage it and fantasize about it?”
Overall, to enable change, it is essential to reflect on the social construction of hegemonic masculinity and challenge it. Masculinity and manhood exist beyond “hegemonic masculinity”. There are variety of ways that men from all backgrounds can live beyond this harmful restriction and way of living. There are an infinite number of ways to be a man.
The organization that presented on masculinity in the Middle East and North Africa is planning to have a campaign in Tunisia. I am hoping that, for a more advanced women’s rights society, they will adopt another approach and strategy to work on redefining masculinity.
Perhaps next year, during the CSW-63 we will hear more on work done globally on masculinity. With today’s fourth wave of feminism and their primary use of social media, there should be more critics on media presentation of “hegemonic masculinity” as an accepted and even ideal masculinity. The power of social media and hashtag activism is capable of changing the discourse. Hegemonic Masculinity should become part of an unpleasant history and I hope that the 4th wave feminism will be marked by its end.
A great thanks to all organizations that enabled me in one way or another to attend CSW-62, 2018: Kentucky Foundation for Women, Sociologists for Women in Society and US Women Caucus at the UN.
To take part of the CSW you don’t have to be physically at the UN Headquarters, most of presentations are broadcasted live.
To read CSW-62 final documents (also documents from prior years and eventually next year 0 Document): http://www.unwomen.org/en/csw
The event happens every year in March, to find out when is the next one follow this link: http://www.unwomen.org/en/csw
To see more of my Art work and Visual Anthropology: http://www.amiraart.com