Tuesday, September 23, 2014

HeForShe and HeAndShe

Recently Emma Watson spoke before the United Nations to unveil and describe her HeForShe campaign, which is asking men to sign up on their website to show a commitment to supporting gender equality. There have been the usual critiques of the ideas which she presented, and of the motivations of Ms. Watson herself (as well as some pathetic attempts to shame her with threats of leaking compromising photos of the young woman), and even some who have suggested that we should instead use the "HeAndShe" hashtag as a more appropriate banner for the fight for gender equality. 

While I do not often describe myself as a feminist*, I take issue with the central arguments behind those who have offered the HeAndShe alternative, as it implies that men and women can advocate for equality equally. But that's the problem, isn't it? If women and men could advocate for themselves and each other equally, we wouldn't even be talking about equality - it would have been attained. 

The reason HeForShe is important is specifically because we aren't equal yet. I may choose to say I am a humanist rather than a feminist, but my objection to the term is purely semantic, as I believe it's important to support feminism's guiding principles, even if I don't always agree with every feminist. 

To best illustrate my point, I think of it in the following way:

A man and a woman begin a journey together.
As they walk, their paths deviate.
Eventually the man ends up at the top of a hill, from which he can see far off into the distance. He remarks about the breathtaking view.
The woman has tried to climb the same hill, but there were challenges she couldn’t overcome, and the man did not always reach back to help her, so she is only halfway to the top.
She wants to climb up to the top of the hill to be with the man and see the view for herself, but the constant setbacks and challenges have worn her down, and she knows it will take much, much longer to get there on her own.
She waves and calls out to the man, asking him to help her get to the top of the hill.

HeAndShe implies either that the man does not need to help the woman get to the top of the hill, or worse, that the man and the woman are already on top of the hill together.

HeForShe stands for the man doing whatever he can to help the woman get to the top of the hill.

There are those who say that HeForShe puts "women and children first". No it doesn't. It means that men should be active participants in achieving equality for women, so that they can both enjoy the view from the hill. Sure, we could just dig in our heels and let women fight their way to the top on their own, but what does that say about us? I won't stand idly by if someone, anyone, is genuinely asking for the same rights I, and others, already have and I am in a position to help. 

This was a deliberately simplistic example, and no I don't pretend to have all the answers or to imply that men aren't also suffering in certain areas or face no gender bias, or that those who are transgender or questioning don't have their own unique challenges. All of those problems exist, and it's not going to be an easy solution, but I agree with Ms. Watson's overriding philosophy, and I feel that we need to start with the most obvious problems first, and right now if we're going to expect women to advocate for both genders equally, we first need to help get them up the hill. 

If you still support #HeAndShe, I have a suggestion for you! Perhaps we can and should re-purpose the #HeAndShe hashtag as the rallying cry for both men and women to advocate equally for those who are transgender or questioning. Imagine a world where everyone stands on the hill together, regardless of who they identify as. What a world that would be!

If you are a man who believes that we need to be active participants in securing equal rights for women, you can sign up at the HeForShe campaign's website here: HeForShe's Website
* I personally prefer to champion gender equality under the umbrella of humanism, because gender equality is a HUMAN right, and also because I don't see the issue as a binary equation but rather I believe people's identities exist on a three axis spectrum of gender, orientation and biology. I don't dislike the term feminist, I simply find it doesn't adequately describe my own philosophy.