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An open letter to men everywhere: Question yourselves, question society

It’s not only mindsets but also the politics of language that enable a complex persecution of women. Manasi Subramaniam writes this open letter to men, urging them to introspect to overcome unwitting hindrances in the liberation of women.

Manasi Subramaniam  14th Mar 2015

The oppression of women is an inescapable fact of society, one which men need to ponder over and introspect.

f "feminist" is such a dirty word, you can call me something else, anything else, as long as you don't make me shift focus. I don't know what to call this movement, no word seems powerful enough, sexy enough, tragic enough, to encapsulate the tremendous, heart-wrenching tides of anger and support that have crashed into our realities. We have all cried and our tears are part of this deluge, this storm that is frustrating and inspiring in equal parts. We are angry, just as we should be, and our anger has breathed and burned and bled and exploded into a searing series of demands that we should have made years ago. Let us quickly promise each other never to stop burning.

To the men around me, I don't know if you know firsthand, as I do, the fear of sexual assault that has come to cloud our joys; I don't know if you have hated yourself for that fear, as I have; I don't know if you have been struck by the frequent irrationality of that fear and still found yourself unable to stop fearing; I don't know if your anger is as fiery and insatiable as mine, if your anger will even last as long as mine. But do you know what I do know? I know that you are good and kind and brave. I know that you are outraged by cruelty, and that you have compassion in your heart. I know that you would never think of asking someone — male or female — to use their body against their will, never lay a hand on someone who did not want you to.

And, therefore, it is to you that I must speak, because you, who are good and kind and brave, it is you who must look past the cataclysm of outrage that has shaken you these last few years and ask yourself some questions and never stop asking yourself these questions.

Ask yourself this — why did it take you so long to feel this outrage? When the women you knew screamed themselves hoarse about the trajectory of their lives, did you roll your eyes? Did you josh about it with your male friends in those late nights of whiskey and football? Did you laughingly, indulgently bemoan female fury whilst you shared in the social camaraderie? How many rape jokes have you laughed at without thinking through what you were laughing at? Did you ever think to be outraged when you heard about women being groped on buses, assaulted on streets, leered at on the beach? Why does it take an incident of magnitude for you to react?

Ask yourself this — how many times have you held women to a different scale of judgement from men? Have words like "decency" and "modesty" crossed your mind while describing a woman's outfit? How often have you used the word "slutty" when you meant "sexually active"? Have you been more surprised when you see women who drink, smoke and sleep around than when you see men who do the same? Do you worry more about the reputation of your daughter than your son?

How often have you used the word “slutty” when you meant “sexually active”? Have you been more surprised when you see women who drink, smoke and sleep around than when you see men who do the same? Do you worry more about the reputation of your daughter than your son?

And most importantly, even if the notion seems laughable, ask yourself if you would ever use force as a method of persuasion. The reason I ask you to do this, even though you know what the answer is and even though I know what the answer is, is this: Men rape women. Rape, although it is a gender-neutral term, has come to refer to a systemic male issue, an endemic male problem, committed by men and enabled by men. To understand its roots, it is the men that we must first question. And we must begin with that most basic question, even if the only purpose it serves is putting that thought in your head.

nce you ask yourself these questions, let's talk more. Let's talk better. And let's talk as equals, as partners. As friends.

These are questions that I wish that you, as goodhearted men, should ask yourselves. I am not asking you to wish away your sexual desire. Desire claws at our skin and our bodies with a terrifying beauty that we both know that we like. Why should I wish it away? But can you try and recognise the difference between desire and power? Words have a cogent and compelling way of affecting the way you think and the way people around you think. Don't say "eve-teasing" — say "sexual assault". Don't say "rape victim" — say "rape survivor". Don't think about honour and virginity; instead, think about respect and consent. Say "He raped her" instead of "She was raped by him" — it's a simple exercise that underscores the fact that the problem is the perpetrator and not the victim.

I feel, sometimes, that you're grappling with evolving notions of chivalry and masculinity. Is being protective patronising? Is it okay to cry? Should you open doors and pull out chairs for me? Is it demeaning when you whistle in appreciation at my dress? Our gendered relations have become so complex that we are constantly making and building new rules for the ways in which we interact with each other. So if you've started wondering, then start asking. It can only be a good thing that we're redefining the grammar of our dealings.

Your goodness and your kindness have meant a willingness to change, if that's what is needed (and I want to thank you for that, I want you to know how much I love you for it), but you're not entirely sure what we're asking for. You've grown up with a certain value system in place, and all these new and unfamiliar rules assail your long-cherished prerogatives. But yours is a privileged sort of distress. Margaret Atwood is believed to have said, "Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them." That, really, is the difference between our troubles. So be patient with our impatience. Image 2nd

Do this — protest loudly when you see violence around you. Yell and scream. Kick up a fuss. Talk to people about it. Blog about it. Fight it. Be angry without being violent. I don't want to learn self-defense or carry a pepper spray and a rape whistle in my handbag. I don't want to have you drive me home in the nighttime. But if sometimes it is needed, let us both agree, under the gravest degree of protest, to do these things.

Start at home. Make dinner. Teach your sons to make dinner and clean up afterwards. Buy them dolls and hold them when they cry. Begin a dialogue about sex without blushing. When your pre-schooler pulls a girl's pigtails to demonstrate his awkward feelings for her, take him aside and tell him that violence is never an acceptable way to show affection. In fact, violence is never acceptable, period. When you tell your daughter not to go out alone at night, make it clear that this is the fault of a system that cannot safeguard its women and not hers, that if you had your way she and her brother would have the same freedoms and restrictions. Do this in front of her brother, so that he knows this too.

Reclaim the nights — keep going out in the company of women and doing as you please so long as you hurt no one. Don't mock female stereotypes, don't say "dumb blonde", don't laugh at male effeminacy anymore than you laugh at tomboys. In fact, don't even notice these things. Don't show more rage to female drivers than to equally defaulting male drivers. Don't expect to be rewarded for these things.

Don't cringe when you hear the word "feminist" — not until you have made the women of the world feel as safe as the men of the world, not until you have ensured that gender equality is the norm. Don't let your sympathy come only at shockwave moments. Let it be an everyday affair, let it tinge your every social interaction, let it haunt your waking hours, let it give you grief so often that you begin to react just as severely to daily injustices.

In short: don't be a man. Not until you have changed what that word has come to mean to so many of us. Instead, try being a feminist.

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