Over the last 18 months, I’ve written a number of times about female empowerment and ridding gender inequality from our community. Those articles have been somewhat hit-and-miss attracting moderate debate and derision in equal measure. Humbly, they were a public airing to activity I have engaged in ‘on the ground’ so as to speak to raise the profile of female voices and provide platforms where both men and women have the same opportunities. Earlier this week though, I saw a video shared on social media that has got me thinking my approach to redress gender imbalances in our community might be flawed, considerably so in fact. And so I’m taking to writing publicly on the topic again in the hope of reaching out and gaining clarity and increasing dialogue.
The video I watched is titled ‘Violence against women — it’s a men’s issue’ and was delivered last year at a TEDx event by Jackson Katz, the founder of an American social program ‘Mentors in Violence Prevention’. I’d strongly urge you to watch the video in its entirety (http://youtu.be/KTvSfeCRxe8) because the speaker presents a compelling argument for reshaping how we look at violence against women; in this article I am articulating my interpretation and application of those ideas in a specific context and so may slightly depart from the premise that was presented. At the heart of this presentation is the idea that we have been wrongly focusing our attention on women and ignoring the perpetrators – men. Violence against women is predominantly perpetrated by men, creates associated victims (such as male offspring) who are men, and is perpetuated unintentionally in society by leaders, the vast majority of whom are men. In that light it is postulated and practiced by Katz that to solve the issue of violence against women, efforts must be concentrated on the aggressors.
One might be forgiven for thinking that surely this way of tackling the issue is already commonplace, but Katz provides an eloquent lesson in how the status quo continues to place emphasis on the victim. His explanations got me thinking about the way domestic violence and rape are treated in a South Asian context where it is quite easy to see how the role of men is diminished and instead all attention, both good and bad, is placed onto the woman. The Indian sub-continent was again in the headlines recently for horrendous news of multiple gang rapes, although they didn’t receive the kind of widespread attention a harrowing gang rape in Delhi did just over a year ago. But it is precisely when these issues are not propelling people onto the streets that we should take the time to discuss them further and instigate change that is not fuelled by a temporary hype. Whilst rape and domestic violence are not suffered by every woman, some form of inequality is and so perhaps it is in those everyday occurrences that we can start to make real change by focusing on how men behave towards women in our community generally.
There are a plethora of examples in how women are (mis)treated that we could look at: limitations on career choices, expectations of domestic responsibility, restricted freedoms to socialise etc. Many of these inequalities that women face have even made their way into our own Gurdware – revolutionary institutions where the Guru led rebellion against traditional society and levelled the human playing field. There are few Gurdware worldwide where female members of the congregation might lead an Ardas or take a hukumnama, let alone conduct the bhog or laavan (main service); sadly there are few where women contribute outside of the kitchen at all. From the stage to the treasurer’s desk at the back of the Darbar, men dominate the Gurdwara landscape and perhaps that is because we make it difficult for women to participate. The language we use, our attitude and the atmosphere that we foster is intimidating and unwelcoming to those who are seasoned political veterans, let alone a demographic that has been withheld from active participation for centuries. If such an environment has taken hold in the places where we revere and learn from our Guru, it should come as no surprise that we fare no better elsewhere. My own experiences in recent years have been in charitable organisations and activist groups where usually the same conditions apply and women can be made to feel uneasy to say the least. Instead of focusing on encouraging women to persevere and to help them through, I am now heeding Jackson Katz’s advice, looking at myself and my male colleagues. Without sounding conceited, I would like to think that I won’t find anything gravely of concern, but I am under no illusions that there will be changes to make, myself included.
In writing this article I wanted to take an important step: to put my friends, students and acquaintances on notice that if I haven’t made it clear before, ‘harmless jokes’ about a woman’s ‘place’ or comments on her looks, IQ or ’emotional state’ are not acceptable. I will rebuke you for it irrespective of where we are or who might be around. It is not friendly banter. I won’t ask you to be more sensitive, but will ask you to grow up. We are all leaders in our own right, men and women, but as men we need to use our position of privilege to set the example for others to follow. We need to reverse the inequalities that we have allowed to envelop our World, that have held back half of us from moving forward and that blight our community every day.