Gender equality a larger societal issue

I do not remember exactly when it happened, but somewhere over the last 18 years, I was told—not explicitly, though—that when I grow up, I will take care of my family. When I will marry, my wife will come stay with me in my house. When asked to choose between Auden and hockey or Keats and cricket, I must chose hockey and cricket. When in a moment of weakness, I should get over it. Embrace my personal identity—”be a husband, a son, a boy, a man.”

It did not seem strange back then. Everyone around me was following these embedded social norms. Families all over the world were doing it. Across cultural and social boundaries and economic disparities, these norms had persisted, had been propagated and become generic to almost everybody’s identity.  There was a sense of acceptance and a sense of obligation. The choice of an alternate never existed. It was what it was.

But, after 17 long years when I ask myself why, it irks me how ignorant I had been my whole life. Why was I told to follow these norms? When? By whom? Why must I take care of my family, why not my sister? Why must my wife come and stay with me, and not the other way around? Why not her house? Why not Auden or Keats? Why cricket, why hockey? Why getting over it? Why not being vulnerable, exposed or feel needed? Why “husband, son, boy and man?” Why not “spouse, child, kid and person?”

It is interesting, therefore, that how in the past 18 years, as I came to realize the sexist and often stereotypical terms to which men were subjected, I saw an aggressive expansion in the feminist movement among many people. For the first time ever, we had an openly queer feminist poetess become Poet Laureate, the pen being criticized as a phallic and therefore anti-feminist symbol, Disney being ridiculed for portraying a false sense of female beauty and gender-biased perfection, and active debate in public domain on the equality of the sexes. While the feminist movement increased in popularity, it gained a false construct of radical patriotism. Feminism became a pejorative for a movement that catered not only to a sex, but was mistakenly taken to be constituted of that same sex alone.

As both these narratives—that of feminism and one of my own—grew, as time passed, they seemed to contradict each other. While there was no movement that actively recognized problems with the male identity (ever heard of “male-ism?”), the only movement that did promote equality of the sexes had become secluded from the male gender itself, leading to a vacuum, a movement that achieved equality for the sexes but only for one half of the populous.

Therefore, it became both a moment of personal triumph and sociological significance when a much too-nervous Emma Watson, at the meeting of the UN General Assembly on September 20, successfully proclaimed, “Men, I would like to extend you a formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.” In that one sentence, Watson, a Goodwill Ambassador for United Nations Women, bridged a gap that had been prolonged for way too long in this nation and around the world; that recognizing feminism, or any movement that demotes gender bias, is an issue for all the sexes. As she said, “We don’t talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes, but I can see that they are, and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled,” there seemed an undeniable truth in her words: Change cannot be brought about when only half the world is invited to participate.

Therefore, it is a matter of serious concern when the campaign for which Watson spoke, HeForShe, falls short of delivering on such tall, necessary and unquestionably urgent thoughts.

The truth is that the campaign HeForShe is in itself nothing but a mere petition, a contract, which requires a mere signature to make a person feel happy about what he has done, a guilt-free day for “becoming part of the war against inequality of the sexes.” On a visit to the campaign website, it becomes surprisingly evident how the campaign itself lacks substantive matter to support its moral thrust—how little of it, if any at all, is devoted to providing any solutions to the problems that Watson speaks about in her speech. It asks a person to register and declare his sex. If male, it gives him a number and a note of gratitude (“Thank you for being a HeForShe. You are man number 158,429 to take the commitment”), and that’s that.

Though Watson’s speech and her mission’s intent carries revolutionary strength, the same integrity is not displayed in the construction of its campaign. While it makes for a nice post on social networking media (“I am man number 158,429”) and a good reason for another self-portrait, it also gives the lazy achievement of feeling helpful by pressing “Like” or clicking an “I Accept”…of receiving a false sense of philanthropic satisfaction by telling people to care for something, but not telling them how to translate their “much appreciated concerns” into productive outcomes.

It was a bitter moment, I now confess, to discover the huge disparity between what Watson spoke and what her campaign proposed to do. As a firm believer of her words, and a HeForShe member, I only hope that early criticisms will ensure a more sure-footed future. As of now, the HeForShe campaign comes across as terribly short of delivering on words that will live infinitely long.

—Udbhav Agarwal ’18 is currently undeclared.

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