“I don’t know if I am qualified to be here. All I know is that I care about this problem. And I want to make it better.”
These are the words of Emma Watson. Yes, the Harry Potter girl. Guess where? At the United Nations Headquarters in New York, where she called for more feminists in society and called on men to advocate gender equality! I hope I do not come across as smug or boastful when I say that in my case she is preaching to the converted! One has only to look at my body of work to see that I generally address and explore gender issues in my art making. But it did not start there, this need in me to fight for the end of the discrimination and exploitation of women and to voice my displeasure at it and my shame at being part of a group at the forefront of it; the male sex. It started with my mother, a strong, proud woman who raised two boys alone when her husband died when she was only 22. Being told I was to be “the man of the house” upon my father’s passing, the 5 or 6 year old me took this role very seriously. This would be my reality until I was “ritually” separated from her at 18 when I was conscripted into the South African Defence Force. I grew up reading Cosmo and a myriad of other “women’s” magazines that my mother would buy weekly and monthly, taking the quizzes on how to please your man or how not to allow PMS to ruin your relationships. By all accounts I was a “mama’s boy” and the bullying and mockery I endured as a preteen were testament to this.
However, I found my masculinity in high school on the sportsfields where to the surprise of all I excelled, especially in rugby. The high school was an all boys school and thus removed from the female sex I had no other option but to compete and posture with the rest of the boys. I think they still found me odd because I found pleasure in the mere participation and inclusiveness of sports rather than dominating or subduing the opposition. Often I would quote Shakespeare or the line of a poem which would not really endear me to my teammates but they put up with me because I wasn’t a bad player/runner/teammate. I was forever the boy who had cried in class with the girls when the teacher read us Charlotte’s Web and Charlotte died. I know I am presenting this picture of a Jane Austen character but that was me, is still me, I guess. The point I am making is that through circumstance and personality I am a person that the young Miss Watson is calling for: a HeForShe! I have long pinned my colours to this cause and taken a lot of flack for it, from both sides of the fence sadly. But it is something I genuinely believe in so I was really pleased to hear a young woman speak about it on such a prestigious platform.
This is her speech:
Today we are launching a campaign called “HeForShe.” I am reaching out to you because I need your help. We want to end gender inequality—and to do that we need everyone to be involved.
This is the first campaign of its kind at the UN: we want to try and galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for gender equality. And we don’t just want to talk about it, but make sure it is tangible.
I was appointed six months ago and the more I have spoken about feminism the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.
For the record, feminism by definition is: “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.”
I started questioning gender-based assumptions when at eight I was confused at being called “bossy,” because I wanted to direct the plays we would put on for our parents—but the boys were not.
When at 14 I started being sexualized by certain elements of the press.
When at 15 my girlfriends started dropping out of their sports teams because they didn’t want to appear “muscly.”
When at 18 my male friends were unable to express their feelings.
I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word.
Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.
Why is the word such an uncomfortable one?
I am from Britain and think it is right that as a woman I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decision-making of my country. I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men. But sadly I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these rights.
No country in the world can yet say they have achieved gender equality.
These rights I consider to be human rights but I am one of the lucky ones. My life is a sheer privilege because my parents didn’t love me less because I was born a daughter. My school did not limit me because I was a girl. My mentors didn’t assume I would go less far because I might give birth to a child one day. These influencers were the gender equality ambassadors that made who I am today. They may not know it, but they are the inadvertent feminists who are. And we need more of those. And if you still hate the word—it is not the word that is important but the idea and the ambition behind it. Because not all women have been afforded the same rights that I have. In fact, statistically, very few have been.
In 1997, Hilary Clinton made a famous speech in Beijing about women’s rights. Sadly many of the things she wanted to change are still a reality today.
But what stood out for me the most was that only 30 per cent of her audience were male. How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?
Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.
Because to date, I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society despite my needing his presence as a child as much as my mother’s.
I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less “macho”—in fact in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20-49; eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. I’ve seen men made 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 that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.
If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.
Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong… It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideals.
If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we are—we can all be freer and this is what HeForShe is about. It’s about freedom.
I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too—reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves.
You might be thinking who is this Harry Potter girl? And what is she doing up on stage at the UN. It’s a good question and trust me I have been asking myself the same thing. I don’t know if I am qualified to be here. All I know is that I care about this problem. And I want to make it better.
And having seen what I’ve seen—and given the chance—I feel it is my duty to say something. English statesman Edmund Burke said: “All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough good men and women to do nothing.”
In my nervousness for this speech and in my moments of doubt I’ve told myself firmly—if not me, who, if not now, when. If you have similar doubts when opportunities are presented to you I hope those words might be helpful.
Because the reality is that if we do nothing it will take 75 years, or for me to be nearly a hundred before women can expect to be paid the same as men for the same work. 15.5 million girls will be married in the next 16 years as children. And at current rates it won’t be until 2086 before all rural African girls will be able to receive a secondary education.
If you believe in equality, you might be one of those inadvertent feminists I spoke of earlier.
And for this I applaud you.
We are struggling for a uniting word but the good news is we have a uniting movement. It is called HeForShe. I am inviting you to step forward, to be seen to speak up, To be the he for she. And to ask yourself if not me, who, if not now when.