Equal but separate?

The ministry for foreign affairs in Iceland recently announced that Iceland will be hosting a conference in New York in January 2015 on gender equality, aimed specially at men, with the theme “The Barbershop”. The conference is held in cooperation with Surinam and The United Nations. There are understandably, mixed feeling about the endeavour because of it’s separatist and exclusive (dare I say elitist) nature.

That’s not saying that separatist events or movements can’t be used in creative and radical ways to fight against injustice. Separatist events have for example been very important in creating support and raising awareness amongst marginalised groups in the society. Women-only groups were vital for second wave feminism, for example when discussing and analysing shared experiences of gendered violence. Similarly separatist courses for disabled women on ableism and disabled rights, recently made available by Tabú here in Iceland, are very important in this matter. When used in this way separatists movements create a safer space for marginalized groups and the aim is to give power and voice to those who don’t have it.

Did you know that before the Civil War black customers were not allowed into barbershops in America, mainly because white customers didn’t want them around. That smacked too much of social equality, so barbers capitulated to the wishes of their white customers. Sound familiar?
Did you know that before the Civil War black customers were not allowed into barbershops in America, mainly because white customers didn’t want them around. That smacked too much of social equality, so barbers capitulated to the wishes of their white customers. Sound familiar?

However, separatist movements also have a history of just the opposite; increasing injustice and keeping powerless people in society from being included. The Ku Klux Klan might be one of the most extreme examples. Another example might be the rule on no-female catholic priests, no homosexuals in the boy-scouts and various all-male clubs where men in power-positions bond over a drink, golf, at the barbershop or whatever else is fitting in the time and society in question.

But where on earth does an semi-separatist conference for men on gender equality fit with this ambiguous history of separatist movements and events?  To me, the idea seems problematic.

Before I go on, I must say that even though the barbershop theme struck me as kind of odd I did keep an open mind when I first heard about the conference, thinking: “OK, since it is aimed at men, it must be focused on masculinities and privileges or something.” I imagined a conference on how men need to hand over their privileges and how masculinity is hostile to the world peace. Women are for sure by far more disadvantaged by the gender system and gendered stereotypes, they are the oppressed ones by all standards. But sure, men also suffer in many ways under the gender system, but they also gain something. For example higher salaries, better self-esteem, more assets and more power. I just assumed (or optimistically hoped at least) that this would be the topic of the conference. Perhaps with workshops such as “20 ways to take responsibility for your privileges in your daily life”. And with a possible topic like that I was ready to entertain the idea of a conference on gender equality aimed specially at men.

But then I heard that the topic of the conference is violence against women. And the red flags started going up.

My first concern is whether the conference will be tackling the oppressive nature of the gender system or not? After all, violence against women is not the cause for women’s oppression. Instead violence against women is the manifestation of an oppressive gender system where women are dehumanized. It goes like this:


  1.  Women and everything female is of less value in our culture

2.     Women are dehumanized and not listened to

     3. Women are subjected to violence, often from men


While an all-male conference claims to tackle issue number 3 it utterly fails in addressing the cause, that is issue number 1. In fact, not only does it not address it, it reinforces it by stating: “Ok dear men, you won’t show up to equality conferences because it is beneath you to think about women’s issues, work with them and listen to them? No problem! We will make sure you will not have to face your privileges, arrogance and prejudice by minimizing the involvement of women in the conference. (I mean, they nag all the time anyway, don’t they?) To make sure you and your masculinity will feel at home the theme of the conference will be: The Barbershop!” How brilliant.

This is how and why the conference is at risk for reinforcing the idea itself  “that women and everything female is of less value on our culture”. And thus, unknowingly, unintentionally, it might end up strengthening the world view that breeds violence against women.

In order for the cause for violence against women to be tackled expert advice is needed. Namely from women.

Another thing that strikes me as odd is that there are no news on who the speakers at the conference will be. Will the speakers be only men as well? Or will there be room for female survivors of gendered violence?

In order for the privileges and masculinities to be challenged and the cause for violence against women to be examined, recognised and tackled, women should be present. After all what is a conference about violence against women without the experts on the issue; namely women. No, not one or two university educated, white, cis, non-disabled women but a large, diverse group of women who would speak up and be listened to. Women of colour, trans, queer, disabled, immigrant and otherwise marginalised women.

And perhaps, dare I suggest, the men should sit and listen and take notes? That would be a good start in men facing and taking responsibility for their privileges. That could even be a step in addressing the root for gendered violence, namely the fact that women are not listened to and their experiences are not often heard by those in power. Women are experts on the issue and the platform should be theirs.

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