Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Girls and Women Change our World: What about the men?

Series introduction

One of the biggest disservices that we can do to IWD and women’s rights in general is to think – and perpetuate the idea – that IWD and women’s rights are only about women.

Women’s rights are not solely the concern of women, just as other issues are not solely the concern of those affected. Human beings take action when they feel it is required. We can call for action to prevent the spread of infectious diseases without having AIDS or malaria. We can participate in a fun run fundraiser for cancer research without having cancer. We can call for marriage equality without being gay – we can be straight but not narrow. We can Stand Up against poverty, even though we aren’t malnourished children facing death from preventable illness before our fifth birthdays. Heck, we can even buy fundraising chocolate bars from the local footy club without playing junior footy. One does not need to be directly involved in a problem to see that it is unjust and to cry for change, healing and hope.

It is not just possible for men to care about women’s rights, but essential. Men need to be strong role models to other men and boys about how to act. Men need to teach their sons and nephews and students and mates and brothers and fathers and neighbours what is acceptable. ‘Locker room banter’ is disrespectful to men, as well as to women. How will a young man ever learn to treat his girlfriend with respect, if he has never seen that modelled?

As asked my husband if he had changed his thinking about women’s issues now that he is a father of a daughter; and his answer was yes. He said that he is more conscious of thinking about women’s safety and equality, and also the messages that the media sends. He is concerned about the ‘deification of people like Paris Hilton’ and how that will impact on our precious daughter.

I am also reminded of when I completed a teaching practicum when I was at university. It was in my final year, and I had a ten week prac in a co-educational school. During those ten weeks I was astounded at the ways that boys and girls interacted. One of the boys once dropped a pencil from his desk, so he said to the female student next to him ‘pick it up girl’ and she did. It wasn’t playful banter, but an order, and she obeyed. The sexist jokes and gutter humour abounded – in the playground and the staffroom. One student was subjected to disciplinary action due to his comments to me of an inappropriate nature. Another student, who was going to drop the subject I was teaching before I arrived, suddenly decided that he wanted to attend extra lunchtime tutorials now that I was running them, and my supervising teacher encouraged me to do this as it got kids interested and engaged. (She did go on to tell me that I couldn’t rely on my looks as one day they would fade and I would need other methods to teach, but it bothered me that my appearance was considered part of my teaching repertoire when teaching teenaged boys. She was an excellent supervising teacher in many other ways and I feel privileged to have learned from her, but this one piece of ‘advice’ has left a bitter taste in my mouth.)   

Until this point in time, most of my work with teenagers had been in all-girl environments. I had worked in two all-girls boarding schools, and had been a Girl Guide leader for years. I myself had attended an all-girls high school. I thought that this was normal behaviour – for boys to look down on girls, and for girls to accept it.

For my final ten week prac, I was placed in a different, but still co-ed, school. I could not believe the difference in the atmosphere at this second school. Male and female students were polite to each other, and engaged as equals. Not only were sexist jokes absent from the playground and staffroom, but the students were vocal in their disapproval of sexist, racist and homophobic ‘jokes’. Indeed, the student body was concerned about some aspects of these creeping in, and they organised a formal response and statement of disapproval which was read on Assembly and published in the school newsletter. I felt comfortable walking around campus – something which I hadn’t been able to do at the previous school. It worried me that I thought that feeling uncomfortable was a normal way to feel around male students.

Strong, kind, respectful, generous, fun, caring, fierce and compassionate male role models are needed to teach boys how to behave, how to treat each other and how to treat girls. These men are also needed to teach their daughters and sisters and nieces and neighbours and friends - and student teachers - that feeling uncomfortable because of one’s gender should not be normal. These girls need to see that men are kind and caring and respectful, not to be feared or dismissed. This is why International Women’s Day is important for everyone, not just the girls.

Part 2: The girl child
Part 4: You don't exactly look like a feminist...

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