It may seem odd – almost offensive- to some to pay tribute to men on international women’s day. Ironically though, the more reactionary, the more intense the backlash against women’s rights, the greater the need to pay tribute to the men who stand up in opposition, who choose to be positive deviants and who even put their lives at risk to support a more humane society.
The so-called Arab Spring countries, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen have been experiencing one of the worst backlashes against women’s rights in modern history. The modicum of rights vary greatly from one country to another, Tunisia for example surpassing many European countries in the rights that had been secured previously, Yemen being very far behind, and Egypt somewhat in the middle. Such rights are now jeopardized by Western supported regimes complicit in creating a culture of impunity against those who assault women in the name of religion. In Egypt and Tunisia, there have been frequent verbal and physical assaults on women who have gone out to protest to demand that their rights be protected and upheld. One month after the ousting of President Mubarak, in commemoration of International Women’s Day on 8 March 2011, women organised a protest in Tahrir Square, reminding the public of the role they played in the revolution and that the words ‘bread, freedom and social justice/human dignity’ applies to women’s rights too. They were spat upon, sexually molested and told to go home. A larger crowd appeared on Women’s Day on 8 March 2012, and again they were subjected to the same treatment, with more cases of sexual molestation being reported.
This year a large march is also planned to take part to Tahrir Square starting 1pm GMT, with the participation of women’s organisations, coalitions, youth revolutionary groups and political parties. Yet the main preoccupation of the organisers for the past few weeks has been how to protect the citizens who participate in the march from being subjected to physical and sexual violence. Memories of the sexual and physical violence which protestors experienced on 25 January 2013 are still fresh in everyone’s memory. There are at least 25 cases of women who were sexually assaulted on that day, some to the point of sexual torture with the use of knives and cutters.
Whose responsibility is it to protect Tahrir Square from such politically motivated assaults? The government won’t do it and members of the ruling Freedom and Justice party have openly blamed women for going out to protest in the first place – and they have blamed the organisers of protests for failing to secure the protection of women (as if safe streets and squares was not the responsibility of the state).
It is in this context that I would like to pay special tribute to the men who have decided to join the women’s march today. They are putting their lives at risk for the sake of showing support for gender justice. Let us recall that in previous instances when women were subjected by organised groups to politically motivated sexual assault, many men had sought to intervene to save the women from the sustained acts of stripping and molesting and raping them that had gone on for sometimes hours. Some had received blows to their heads, been stabbed with knives and beaten to the ground as they sought to save these women. Others who persisted in trying to save women have become targets of sexual violence themselves, including acts tantamount to gang rape and having their reproductive organs beaten with hard objects. The purpose of being so graphic is not to sensationalise but to bring to the fore the extent to which men have been subjected to sexual violence and their ordeals have neither been captured by the media nor recognised by advocates of women’s rights, despite the heroic role they played because of their fundamental belief in women’s rights to bodily integrity, irrespective of where they are.
Some would argue that men intervene in incidents of sexual violence against women in patriarchal societies so that they would protect their ‘honour’ as women’s bodies are sites of honour for whole families and communities. This reductionist conclusion is, in my view, highly amoral. It negates men’s suffering to see other human beings in pain. The emotional trauma afforded to men who try and fail to save women from being violated cannot be reduced to questions of honour, it is about the anguish of seeing the women they love, care for or respect subjected to inhumane treatment that you cannot do anything about. I have heard stories of men who suffered nervous breakdowns and collapsed to the ground in tears on 25 January 2013, because they had tried to save a woman from being carried away by a group of men, and had failed to save her.
The politically motivated acts of sexual assault on women and men as we have encountered in Egypt have been accompanied by campaigns to vilify women who go out to protest as sexually amoral and men who support them as lacking in manliness. It is another reason why we need to pay tribute to men who go out in solidarity with women to demand gender justice: they are not only putting their lives at risk, but their reputations as well. On previous occasions, many of the men who have accompanied women on marches, have been called names to suggest they are not real men, that they are lacking in genuine masculinity and the proof is that they are in the company of women. Many took it in, never flinched and stood strong, others got into fights and again, risked their lives in the process.
The tribute I afford to men today is not to take away from women’s own experiences of injustice, nor to suggest that because they are men, they deserve more credit. It is simply to say that men who have put their lives and reputations on line to show solidarity with women in demanding a more dignified existence deserve to be recognised. A special tribute to all the men around the world who have endured sexual and gender based violence in silence in the quest for social justice. A special tribute to the men whose identities as men have been questioned because they dared to not conform to the misogynist and political notions of what real manhood looks like.
Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.
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