There is so much to admire in Emma Watson’s sublime speech to the UN on Saturday. There was the poise and elegance with which it was delivered, the subtle charisma and assured performance, but it was the content that has made her the talk of social media and the darling of the world’s young progressive left.
The roster of Hollywood actors and naff pop stars that makes up the (remarkably lengthy) list of UN Goodwill Ambassadors are usually considered something of a joke. Once you have learned that Ronan Keating once put his name to a parliamentary inquiry into global food security, satire and snark can be declared redundant. And yet Watson’s speech was different. There was an inescapable sense that not only had she written her speech herself, every word came from deep within her.
In particular she made a compelling argument that, in the words of bell hooks, feminism is for everyone, or as the theoretical dictum would have it, patriarchy hurts men too. The points have been made often before but seldom with such simple sincerity:
“I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society. I’ve seen young men suffering from illness, unable to ask for help for fear it will make them less of a man …. I’ve seen men fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either. We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are.”
So while I didn’t entirely agree with every word she said, there was more than enough there to win my support. Without a moment’s hesitation, I went to the HeForShe website to add my name to the campaign. I got as far as the button to sign the pledge when I glanced over the wording, and I stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn’t sign. The pledge is only 35 words long. For 30 of them I was agreeing enthusiastically and then…. well, let me talk you through it.
“Gender equality is not only a women’s issue…”
So true, so important, and so seldom acknowledged. How refreshing to see this stated so clearly.
“…it is a human rights issue that requires my participation.”
I’m with you, with you all the way.
“I commit to take action against all forms of violence and discrimination…”
At last! How long have I waited for this? Finally we see a body like the United Nations issue a clarion to the world, to stand as one against all forms of violence and discrimination…
“…faced by women and girls.”
Oh. I see.
So we are not in fact being invited to stand up for all human rights, to take a stand against all forms of violence and discrimination. We are explicitly not standing as one against all forms of gender discrimination and violence. The pledge could have stopped at the 30th word, but those final five entirely changed the meaning.
As it is, the wording betrays and confounds Watson’s heartfelt plea. The discrimination which devalued her father’s role is ignored in this pledge. The prevailing social manacles of masculinity that leave men physically and mentally ill and unable to seek support are specifically excluded. So too are male victims of sexual violence, including atrocities such as the mass rape campaigns in Congo. It entirely removes from the equation issues such as sexual assault in men’s prisons, now acknowledged as a systemic crime against human rights.
Earlier this year the world was rightly appalled by the mass kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram, yet apparently unconcerned when the same monsters slaughtered a dormitory full of schoolboys. We now know this indifference is shared by the UN. To this atrocity, add the mass abduction of boys by ISIS in Northern Iraq. The UN’s determination to end female genital mutilation can only be admired, in stark contrast to their studied and wilful blindness towards the deaths and mutilations of thousands of young men and teenage boys in savage traditional circumcision ceremonies across sub-Saharan Africa.
The UN has form on this. So many men and boys were slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 that by the time it ended the population of the country was 70% female. Two years later UN Special Rapporteur René Degni-Ségui declared that “women may even be regarded as the main victims of the slaughter.” UN Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, treats wartime sexual violence as something that impacts exclusively on women and girls, against all evidence.
Emma Watson says she sees that men can be imprisoned by gender stereotypes. She is a clever and observant woman. At the heart of all gender-based oppression is the poisonous notion that people should be differently treated, differently valued, differently destined by their gender. The idea that only women and girls need protection from gender-based atrocities and discrimination is in itself a form of benevolent sexism and, while masquerading as a solution, is a bloody big part of the problem.