Masculinity, feminism and the fight for gender equality
Host Nelufar Hedayat looks at the evolution of masculinity and what — if any — role men have in within the feminist movements. First she hears from British comedian David Baddiel about how he went from being a “lad” comic to someone acutely aware of gender dynamics.
For her challenging interview, Nelufar speaks with French writer and activist Pauline Harmange, who argues that modern men have no place in feminism.
Finally, she convenes a roundtable of men from across the globe to hear their perspectives on how to change male culture to be more inclusive, and the how men can fight for gender equality. Roundtable guests include Mazin Jamal, Satchit Puranik and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
This is Course Correction, a podcast from Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat, and in season two, we’re focusing on polarization. In each episode, I’ll explore a topic that’s dividing us. I’ll talk to people with a range of perspectives on an issue. And I’ll also try to challenge myself to understand positions that aren’t necessarily comfortable for me.
And in today’s show, I really get to grips with something that’s been bugging me for the longest time. I feel a little apprehensive sharing this episode with you, dear listener, mainly because all of my professional career I’ve been fighting the patriarchy.
NELUFAR: Millions of women like me have taken on the struggle for equality, and frankly, we’re sick of the way that patriarchy holds us down professionally, uses us to sell stuff and wants to control our body and mind in social settings, dammit. I can almost hear you pumping your fist in the air in agreement. But… in our shouts for much-needed haste in getting equality for womankind, have we stopped holding to account — I don’t know — half the world’s population?
According to an Ipsos survey across 27 countries, two out of three men believe women will not achieve equality in their country unless men take action. And yet that same survey revealed half of the men think they’re expected to do too much. So then, frankly, why don’t more men want equality? And where are men’s voices when we’re shouting from the rooftops for there to be no discrimination based on your sex and gender? The role we all play can feel a little bit scripted, and men’s leading role too often comes from the script of toxic masculinity, repressed emotions, loneliness. I almost feel bad for them. Almost.
In short, have we excluded men from talking about equality to the point that they’re too scared to speak up? Or are they silent on one of the most important social justice struggles in human history because secretly they don’t want anything to change? Either way, it’s time to break the silence and start bridging the divide and get men to talk about feminism.
On today’s episode, we’ll hear from a feminist activist who doesn’t believe that men should have a role in the feminist movement.
WOMAN WITH FRENCH ACCENT:
Feminism is a movement made by women for women. And men should really not try to steer the spotlight their way in this matter.
NELUFAR: Then we’ll hear from three men who are finding ways to redefine masculinity in the 21st century.
MAN WITH HINDI ACCENT:
I may not just be a silent observer of the exploitation and be a silent sufferer of patriarchy. So then where is my role?
NELUFAR: But first I want to know why more men aren’t actively fighting for equality. What’s holding men back from declaring themselves feminist? And why is this word so polarizing?
NELUFAR: We’ve made great strides in Western society. A few women are taking on boardrooms…
WOMAN NEWS ANCHOR SPEAKING:
Just 6% of Germany’s largest companies have female chief executives…
NELUFAR: And some are leading countries.
WOMAN NEWS ANCHOR SPEAKING:
Women make up only 24% of all national parliaments, and only 6.3% percent of the total number of international leaders.
NELUFAR: While a number of men are becoming equal partners in the running of a household.
WOMAN NEWS ANCHOR SPEAKING:
Research shows there is still inequality at home, with women taking on most household responsibilities.
NELUFAR: Over 60% of unpaid work in the U.K., where I’m from, is done by women.
WOMAN NEWS ANCHOR SPEAKING:
One study estimates it will be, listen to this, another 75 years before men do half the unpaid work at home.
NELUFAR: On the internet, where I live, the patriarchy is boiled down and turned into a thick paste of hate speech, smeared over women with most perpetrators suffering zero consequences. And frankly, even out on our streets, less than three in 100 reported rape cases ever get prosecuted here in the U.K. I think about this every single day that I live. Seriously, I spent almost all of my life thinking that whatever I do, no matter how hard that I try, on average, I’m not protected and treated as well as a man is. It’s why I’m a feminist. Oh, and men overwhelmingly write our laws, police our streets and commit the hate crimes against women that I’m talking about. So why the silence from good men?
MAN WITH BRITISH ACCENT:
As a man, it is not my place to talk about, you know, the oppression that women suffer from.
NELUFAR: David Baddiel is a British household name. He’s a commentator, a comedian, well-known for his show on football — or soccer, to you Americans — called Fantasy Football League. He’s also someone that I’ve admired for his outspokenness on ethnic minorities and anti-Semitism.
From years and years and years ago, including when I was a new lad and, you know, did things and was involved in things that I probably wouldn’t do now, but even then, I would say I was always very aware of the power structures that allow the patriarchy to flourish.
NELUFAR: I’m worried, David, that we have turned feminists into this thing where it’s a battle cry for half the population.
DAVID: Well don’t forget the answer is, a lot of the time, because we live in a performative culture now, where almost anything you say can get whipped up. The eye of social media on everything means that complex, nuanced conversations about gender or politics or whatever it might be, tend to be stripped down very quickly into binary war, and men and women in one corner of that war. I haven’t got an answer, but I think the beginning is a different type of conversation.
NELUFAR: Baddiel wrote a song that sort of became the anthem for the 1998 World Cup, which topped the U.K. singles charts twice.
[DAVID’S SONG PLAYS]
NELUFAR: Back then, David was a prominent figure and an icon of lad culture. I promise you, wherever you are in the world, you’ve encountered lad culture…
NELUFAR: It’s the boys will be boys. It was a joke, darling, why don’t you smile more, cricket and beer, locker room talk, men’s private club, she was giving me the sign, jocks and frat boy culture that I’m talking about, and some men seem to have no shame saying the stuff in public.
MALE NEWS ANCHOR SPEAKING:
A president declares that women are not fit for the presidency.
MEGYN KELLY ARCHIVAL AUDIO:
You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals. Your Twitter account…
DONALD TRUMP ARCHIVAL AUDIO:
Only Rosie O’Donnell.
MALE NEWS ANCHOR SPEAKING:
Minister on behalf of the Northern Alliance, is the latest entrant to this hall of shame when he said today that a pretty face wasn’t enough to make a political impact, implying that Priyanka Gandhi has no other achievement.
NELUFAR: And yet David doesn’t see a disconnect between being a lad and being a male feminist.
DAVID: I have always been of the opinion that if you can fight against patriarchy, then there is nothing wrong at all in being a heterosexual man with heterosexual desires who at the same time feels that women should not be marked down in the way that they are by culture. You can desire a woman and want her to be a high court judge.
NELUFAR: And so I asked him how he talks about feminism with other men in these types of locker room situations. And herein lies the problem.
DAVID: I mean, I would say I have more of those conversations with women, to be honest with you.
NELUFAR: Yes, just what I thought. Women are having these conversations. Men and women are having these conversations. But men and men, not so much. I believe that we need men as allies working to achieve gender equality. But not everyone agrees with me. In fact, there are groups of people that think men can never be part of the fight for equal rights.
My name is Pauline Harmange and I’m a writer and a feminist activist.
NELUFAR: She’s one of them, probably the leader of them. She’s actually written a book called, I’m not joking here, I Hate Men. It doesn’t get more on the nose than that. For the challenging interview today, I spoke to Pauline Harmange, who was trying to explain why I should think twice before standing shoulder to shoulder with men to demand the end of patriarchy and a move to equality. I decided to start things gently.
NELUFAR: Why do you hate men?
PAULINE: [LAUGHS] You know what? Nobody really asked me this question so bluntly in the past six months. What I’m trying to say is that we have to start looking at men like a social group of people that are benefiting from patriarchy, and most of the time, abusing their privilege to step on other people, whether they be women or other marginalized people. And when I say “I hate men,” it’s because I really think that the vast majority of men do not want to fight sexism the way they should.
NELUFAR: But your father was a man. I’m sure you have male people in your life that you don’t hate completely. But why do you feel that all men must be tarred with this brush of gender inequality?
PAULINE: Of course, I have men in my life, and I am lucky enough to have a very loving father and have very funny brothers. But there will always be in their behaviors, and I’m sure in the behaviors of a lot of loving fathers, etc., some reflexes that stem from being a man and having the privilege of acting like men. And what I really resent is that even when they are the most well-meaning, men don’t do enough to understand what women are going through.
So I feel it’s very important that they realize that they’re part of the problem, even if they are not actively the problem. They need to think of themselves as being part of this society that enables them to step on women and other people. You know, it’s like when you say “It’s OK, it’s not enough to say I love you. You have to prove it somehow.” And I think it’s quite the same. It’s not enough to say I’m a good man and I have never raped any woman, which is not to say that it’s just so, so low a standard to be a good man. But you have to prove that you want the best for women in your lives and for people in general.
NELUFAR: Can there be feminist men? Is that something that can ever happen?
PAULINE: I think that when a woman says, “This guy, I’ve known him for a long time and I really think he’s a feminist,” I want to trust her, but I’m never, never going to be OK with a man who comes to me and says, “You know what, I’m such a feminist,” because I don’t think that I can trust men with knowing really what feminism is all about. And we are in the moment when you want to be a progressive and you are in this progressive fear with other people. It’s trendy to be seen as a feminist and it’s just not enough to say, “Yes, I am a feminist.” You have to actually do the homework. And it goes for women, too. It’s just not enough for women to say that feminists have to have knowledge of what it is and what we’re working towards.
NELUFAR: Pauline, is your husband a feminist? How do you feel about his role?
PAULINE: My husband never, ever calls himself a feminist.
NELUFAR: Oh, my God. Wow. I’m surprised by that!
PAULINE: I’m grateful for that because it saves me a lot of frowning. We have a lot of very deep conversations about what feminism is for me and what gender equality is for him, and the ways he as a man who is being educated to be tough and to be masculine, the ways he suffers from that. But he really don’t think that he has a part to play in the feminist movement because he and I both agree that he can do a lot of things to help achieve this gender equality that we’re talking about, but that feminism is a movement made by women for women and that men should really not try to steer the spotlight their way in this matter.
NELUFAR: This is critical to Pauline’s argument. And yeah, hi. This is future Nel talking to in the voice-over booth, because at the time, I completely missed what Pauline was very clearly stating. It’s not that men can’t talk about and fight tooth and nail for equality, it’s that they don’t have any place mansplaining it to women. That in fact, it is a completely separate discussion men need to have with each other about women’s rights. Back in the challenging interview, I wanted to press Pauline on why men should be excluded from this discussion.
NELUFAR: Why? What harm will come if they do?
PAULINE: Maybe it’s not a question of what harm it will do. I mean, we can already see in a lot of progressive movements that when men try to take the spotlight, they end up being more or less abusive like they’ve been taught to be. We saw that in France in various social movements, where men were trying to address issues of sexual abuse, and then you realize that they were themselves abusers and had not really dealt with that murky past at all. But really what I think is at stake here is that men need to realize that there are places and there are moments when they are not the center of the universe, just like we know that we as women, that we are not the center of the universe. And it’s time that they share this knowledge that you cannot always be the star of the show.
NELUFAR: Can feminism, can gender equality succeed without men’s input?
PAULINE: No, I think we need men, but do we need the men that we have now? If the men that we have now that are so willing to put the blame on women for wearing short skirts or for walking in the streets at night are the ones that are willing to give their opinions on feminism, then I think we don’t need them. We need men that have changed, and that have done a lot of work on themselves and on their place in society and what they want to do and what they want this society to look like. We need those men, and I think we don’t have them yet.
NELUFAR: Pauline Harmange. Thank you so much for talking to me. I have learnt so much from you. Thank you.
PAULINE: Thank you.
NELUFAR: There was a lot that speaking to Pauline Harmange brought up that was swimming in my head. I knew plenty of women that weren’t feminists. Heck, I knew plenty of women that were anti-feminists, that thought the entire fight for women’s rights was phony and unfounded. But we don’t tend to think of them as our enemies. So why men? I still think men are very much needed in the discussion for and the success of feminism, but that my expectation of them was skewed.
It was time to assemble the manel — an all-male panel, you know, a manel. It’s a thing, go look it up. And I promise you, this will be the only time you’ll hear three men talking on a panel on this show. So for today’s manel, we’ve enlisted three different men from three different parts of the world, each with his own take and experience with a fight for women’s liberation and equality with masculinity and how they deal with it in society. Joining me from California in the U.S. is Mazin Jamal. Mazin’s background is from the northeastern African country of Sudan. He runs a company called Holistic Underground, and they help companies in Silicon Valley with their diversity and inclusion problems.
Also on the line is Satchit Puranik. He’s an Indian writer, theater- and filmmaker and is active in Men Against Violence and Abuse. He’s an activist in what is intermittently viewed as the world’s worst place to be a woman. So he’s got his work cut out for him.
And I’m also pleased to welcome Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. Tomas is an organizational psychologist, whose main work is assessing and screening for leadership roles for businesses and organizations. An Argentine by birth, he’s now living in New York.
Let’s be clear. These men have self-selected to come on the pod and talk with me about women’s rights and what involvement they should have as men. So they’re quite unlikely to be the kind of lads that would be misogynistic, hateful or hurtful to women. No, these are men that want to find out what, if any, their role is in all of this.
NELUFAR: So I’m going to start with you, Mazin. Are you a feminist, and if so, why are there so few of you, men feminists?
I will say yes. For me, it’s less about the title. It’s less about labeling myself as this or that thing. And at the end of the day, it’s like I believe in liberation for all people. I believe that people should be able to define what their gender is for themselves, what it means to be a man or a woman or whatever gender they identify with, they should be able to have their own agency and kind of saying what are the standards of who they are and not have that forced on them.
I think there isn’t yet a enticing and beautiful and inspiring set of role models and images for young men to see growing up where they’re like, “Oh, wow, like I want to be that, like I want to be a feminist. I want to be redefining masculinity. I want to do that.” Like, we don’t have that imagery growing up. And so I think by the time we’re adults, because power systems let us keep it going the way we are, you know, there is not much incentive for change and it’s not a good thing. But I think it’s the reality.
NELUFAR: Tomas, if I can ask you to come in at this point.
Sure. Yeah. So first, I’d like to think that I am a data-driven scientist. And the research shows that if we selected people for leadership roles in a gender-blind way, trying to select those who are more competent, more qualified, more curious, more humble, more empathetic and more honest, actually the world would see a surplus or overrepresentation of female leaders. So in that sense, you know, I do think that there is a female superiority in terms of the predisposition for leadership.
NELUFAR: I was right! I was right all along!
TOMAS: You could say that is a feminist conclusion.
NELUFAR: Vindication, gentlemen. Vindication. I was right. Satchit, if I might come to you, do you identify as a feminist? And if so, what is a male feminist? What is a man feminist? What does that mean?
Firstly, yeah, I would say for me in the label, the word, is, is very, very important because first it was my way to kind of be the elephant in the room by choosing the kind of word which most people don’t want to get into.
NELUFAR: You were being a provocateur. You were being provocative.
SATCHIT: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think the man feminist, if one had to define, should be into this time the one who is, first of all, embracing of the fact that he’s a feminist. You should not be in denial of that. Like in India, there is a lot of kind of apologetic attitude about even being a feminist.
NELUFAR: So when we’re talking about equality, of course women are going to fight for equality because we’re punching up. When we talk about equality for men, we’re asking them to relinquish power. I wouldn’t do it. Why should you?
So Mazin I want to come to you, like when you were in those spaces, how do you do that? How do you move that conversation forward?
MAZIN: I think the place that arises from is in my own healing work. Where I’ve sat in a circle with other men, and whether it’s in a therapeutic or healing context or whatever it might be, you know, I’ve worked with men who are, you know, directors at major companies in Silicon Valley, and they have so much power. And I’ve coached them and I’ve also just sat in a men’s circle with them and have them cry and, before the pandemic, held them as they cried.
And the thing about power, right, is what kind of power are we talking about? Because the way we have defined “leader” is “white man,” and the way that we define “man,” particularly “white man” is this [EXPLETIVE BLEEPED], basically. And then white men and other men are born into this world and they’re typecast into that role.
NELUFAR: It seems to me that modern society has lobotomized men. It has cut out huge significant chunks, chunks like vulnerability, chunks like emotions, chunks like caring, chunks like expressing yourself, chunks like language, even. You know, this is what feminism tries to fight. It’s about equality for everyone.
MAZIN: The current state really has hindered the potential of billions of people, men, women, everyone in between. But I think really it begins with us as a society and men having a major role in this, asking what does it mean to be a man for me? Because there is no standard definition of “men.” If you go to Korea and you look at the male heartthrob, right, you look at the like archetype of this sexy man that everyone wants to be, you know, and you took that archetype to Nigeria or you took that archetype even to the United States. People are like, “That is not manly at all.”
NELUFAR: Cue BTS montage.
MAZIN: Right. You know what’s, it’s not even that we don’t have access to those things, is that we’re extremely unskilled.
MAZIN: Because we don’t have in our society opportunities or incentive to practice those skills. Like men, horrible leaders, are extremely emotional. They’re emotional the way a 7-year-old throwing a tantrum is emotional, but they’re not aware.
SATCHIT: Yeah, if I could say one thing, that also if men were to realize that, how much are the men suffering with this kind of patriarchal structure, then their kind of holding on to power would be would be really stupid, because that’s like saying that, “Oh, why are we against rape? Because it’s taking the right to rape or molest from us.” But like, do people actually want that right? Are they even enjoying it? What are they getting from it? Except for, you know, a kind of power abuse?
TOMAS: You know, power is not a drive. It’s a lust, usually. We have also allowed, to Mazin’s point, for a certain profile that is more psychopathic to accumulate power. And so I think, you know, we shouldn’t operate under the illusion that this can self-regulate, you know, we need to introduce incentives and sanctions to correct the system. And, you know, some change is potentially happening. I think when big corporations feel the pressure to pretend they care about these issues, they know that actually they’re going to have to be more profitable and more powerful if they do. But we need to keep on putting pressure, so that it is not pretend, but genuine change actually happens.
NELUFAR: Why is it not OK to cry and still be a man?
SATCHIT: My problem has been that this kind of society, which is based on a very strict yardstick of performance, like gender, it has to be performed. I work with an NGO in Mumbai called Men Against Violence and Abuse, and there are political risks that make the performance pressures from the boardroom to the bedroom. And I think it’s very important to understand the intersectionality of all these things because even the institution of marriage or the idea of private property. Like, how has power been exploited to propagate that system?
NELUFAR: Oftentimes women, feminists, are gatekeepers of gender equality because we are systematically oppressed in ways that are horrifying and horrific. But I believe we need men to want this for us and with us. What role do you see men going forward playing? I’d like to start with you, Satchit.
SATCHIT: I think we really need to see it as a human right. And unfortunately, since men are a part of the problem, they have to be a part of the solution.
NELUFAR: Let me ask you a follow-up very quickly, if I can. What right do you have to talk about women’s rights and of women’s oppression? You’re a man. What right have you got to talk about any of this?
SATCHIT: It’s actually about finding really where do I stand in this society? Because firstly, I’ve been asked to choose between these binaries and perform a certain gender. And I may not just be a silent observer of, you know, the exploitation and be a silent sufferer of patriarchy. So then where is my role? It’s like I need to fit myself somewhere in this world. So I think that gives me the right as a human being, it gives me a human right to kind of speak about every problem under the sun.
TOMAS: Also, you know, I mean, I agree with what Satchit just said, but I would say even from the perspective of, if only humanity were more greedy, we would actually all want more women to do better, because we’ve known for many years that you would add to the world’s GDP if there weren’t any gender-based restrictions for women’s careers. So I think most of us would want to live in a world that is richer, not poorer.
And I, I was just remembering, after spending a year, a year and a half, playing football in England, going back to Argentina for the first time, and it was a weekend and we’re having a barbecue at a friend’s place, which is what you typically do there. And, you know, and it was the first time I actually realized that there was a table for women and a table for men. You know, it’s not Saudi Arabia, but Argentina. And I, of course, sat with the women because I find it more interesting, and we had played football already. And of course, the comments were like, “Oh, look at the European femi-nazi.” Or, you know, it’s like completely transform, which I think is very interesting because we’re all alluding also not just to gender, but to culture, and how what you might consider is laddish, masculine or chauvinistic culture in the U.K. by Argentine standards is very feminist.
You know, it’s like if I think about the exchanges I have with my current group of friends, male friends on WhatsApp or whatever, they’re all quite feminist and liberal by conventional standards. You know, so there aren’t any jokes or sexist remarks, even names that circulate, etc. You just don’t see. But progress is slow, but it’s also much faster than we think, and we’re trending in the right direction.
NELUFAR: Mazin, you get the last word.
MAZIN: As humans, you know, I think we inherited these brains that use fear to keep us alive. And so what we’re dealing with is an issue of people fearing change. And I think men need to have the courage to heal themselves, the courage to transform ourselves and then have a vision for what it means for us to be a man, to be a person in this world. And it’s not just my right. It’s my responsibility because I love the women in my life, and I love the men in my life. So courage — “cœur” is French for “heart” and “rage.” The rage of the heart. And I think that’s where we need to come from.
NELUFAR: Mazin, Tomas and Satchit, thank you so much for talking to me.
THE MANEL: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
NELUFAR: My thanks to all three panelists. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Satchit Puranik and Mazin Jamal.
What it means to be a woman has drastically changed since 1900, as we have claimed power and rights without so much as fighting a single war for it. I’m quite proud of that. We’ve put our bodies on the line. We’ve explained, explained again and re-explained why we need to be treated equitably. But, but, the same cannot be said for men. The narrative on what it means to be a man has not changed. Silent, strong, logical to a fault and unflinching, patriarchy demands that men become invisible. Never asked to look into himself and question why, what do I feel? What are my needs and why can I not be vulnerable? What does all this power cost me? What does patriarchy cost me?
Men need to radically reimagine what masculinity means in the 21st century, and more importantly, men need new heroes, new stories and experiences of what it means to be a human man today. Pauline said she doesn’t want men to be part of feminism, but she said it was the men we have now. This is a critical point. I think that Mazin, Tomas and Satchit are the men of the future — pioneers, and we need to hear more from introspective, sensitive and emotionally intelligent men who can help inspire a male gender revolution so that we can together be more human, more equal.
OK, you enlightened men, women, non-binary folk, whoever you may be. That is our show. Are we feeling empowered, motivated or maybe still skeptical? Whatever it is, we want to know what your reaction is to the episode. Tweet us @DohaDebates, or me, I’m @Nelufar. And I always love your feedback. And speaking of feedback, we’ve been getting some great tips from people on how they were able to reconcile differences with people they disagree with. Here’s just a few.
When I find myself after a while that I was mistaken, I go back to the person that I made the mistake with and apologize.
I listen to them first and vocalize my opinions, evidences and, and facts. And then when they don’t buy into them, I agree to disagree with them. And that’s how we overcome our differences.
The way that I overcome those kinds of situations is inviting others to understand and see the way that I see things without being aggressive.
As someone who has friends around the world who don’t have access to the vaccine, I immediately want to just get angry, like, how can you not take this vaccine? But when you understand that the motivation behind that hesitancy is fear, then you can start finding ways to alleviate that fear.
NELUFAR: These are great. Please keep them coming in. And here’s one more request. Could you possibly write a review of the show? It really genuinely helps spread the word about what we’re trying to do here.
Course Correction is written and produced by me, Nelufar Hedayat. Editorial and production assistance comes from Foreign Policy with producer Sarah Kendal, Zamone Perez and Rosie Julin. The managing director of FP Studios is Rob Sachs. The show is brought to you by Doha Debates, which is a production of Qatar Foundation. Our executive producers are Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Join us for the next episode of Course Correction, wherever you get your podcasts.