Sept. 20th, Emma Watson, the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, addressed the United Nations at their headquarters in New York regarding gender equality. Her speech focused on unifying the world in the gender equality movement but did not offer specific solutions for achieving that equality.
She began by reminding everyone that feminism is not “man hating;” rather it is the belief that women and men should have the same social, political, and economic rights and opportunities. She also pointed out some of the ways sexism has negatively affected men, from devaluing the father figure to mocking males who express emotion. She admitted that she is grateful for her privileged life, but called for action to end child marriage, equalize pay for the same work between men and women, and make secondary education available to all girls. In doing so, she announced the launch of a UN initiative called HeForShe.
After I was done applauding how Watson chose to use her fame as a platform to promote social justice, I noticed that she was very ambiguous in some of her terms. She said that both sexes should be able to exude both strength and sensitivity, leading into her statement that gender should be viewed as a spectrum, not as a set of opposing ideals. However, she neither specified the poles of this spectrum nor whether it allowed for transgender identity. What really caught my attention was her assertion that she should have the right to “make decisions about [her] own body.” Proponents of the Pro Choice movement often use this language, so I paid careful attention to what she said next. Instead of endorsing a woman’s right to abortion, Watson moved on to other issues and left her comment open to interpretation. Because feminism is such a controversial topic, it makes sense that Watson was careful to use language that would not alienate more conservative crowds. Instead of taking a stance on hot-button issues like LGBTQ concerns and abortion, she chose to reach a larger audience by avoiding them altogether.
Thus she did not alienate liberals by opposing these issues nor alienate conservatives by supporting them. The way she quickly sought to “de-radicalize” feminism early in her speech by defining it as the belief in equal rights for men and women showed that she was seeking to include a new group of people who have traditionally been scared off from feminism because of its perceived extremism. Throughout her speech, Watson made it clear that change is necessary to achieve gender equality, but she avoided more controversial topics to appeal to as many people as possible.
Watson’s efforts, in her ambiguity, to cater to a broader population make sense given the ambitious goal of HeForShe: “to mobilize one billion men by July 2015 to help communities around the world develop sustainable and transformative programs to promote gender equality.” In much the same way that Watson’s speech was open to interpretation, the HeForShe movement itself lacks specific plans for ending gender inequality. I visited their website, and the main feature is a button for men to click, affirming that “Gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it is a human rights issue that requires my participation. I commit to take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls.” Under the website’s “donate” tab, I found that, if you donate money, it goes to unspecified UN Women programs, and the suggestions for taking action merely amount to saying “just do something.”
Unfortunately, I believe that a lack of a defined, practical plan of implementation weakens the HeForShe movement and this weakness becomes evident by looking at the movement’s lack of support. The year long campaign is about halfway over, and so far only 206,000 men have gone online to support HeForShe. That’s not even one fortieth of one percent of their goal. Granted, it seems ridiculous to expect one billion people to unite behind anything, which makes me wonder why they even set such an outrageous goal.
HeForShe seems much more concerned about raising awareness than getting people involved with specific initiatives. Raising awareness is absolutely necessary in the fight for gender equality, and there certainly is merit in letting people choose their own charity or action plans. Individual involvement at the local level is undeniably key for overcoming gender equality, and no one is better equipped for knowing how to best address the problems of a particular area than the people who live there. If you’ve ever taken a Community Development class, you’ll know how dangerous it is for an organization to promote a cure-all program that does not take into account the differences of individual cultures.
As important as this grassroots approach is, though, the UN is in a unique position of being able to speak to almost 200 nations as a relatively unified whole. They seem to have missed an opportunity by just asking men to click a button and come up with something to do. There are no teeth to this movement enabling it to bite a chunk out of gender inequality. Additionally, although Emma Watson’s speech did a good job pointing out how gender biases have harmed men as well as women, this conversation does not seem to be a part of the HeForShe movement, according to their website. This is an essential part of feminism that I believe is critical to the continuation of the movement that seeks the welfare of all people both practically as well as rhetorically.
HeForShe might be useful in introducing a new audience to the fight for gender equality, but does not offer practical steps for walking down that path. So the question remains: How should I respond? I hope to address how the issue of gender equality fits into the Covenant community next week.