[Even though the title foretells its content, I’ve been advised to add a trigger warning at the top of this post. It doesn’t hurt to be careful.]
It’s been a few days that I’ve been meaning to write this. I even discussed with a friend two days ago about when would be a good time. Emma Watson’s speech on gender equality yesterday (transcript and video) inspired me to go for it: “if not now, when?”.
I want to touch a delicate subject, which she brought up masterfully: how gender inequality works on men.
The story of any oppression is that of three roles: a mass of oppresed ones; a few who oppress them; and a mass who turns a blind eye, who are oppressors by proxy. This is the story of racism, of religious discrimination, and so on. Ms. Watson’s speech shines a light that the issue of gender equality is even more complex than that. Men are hurting women, and also hurting themselves in the process.
What made me want to write this was something that happened last week. I was with two friends, a guy and a girl, at a bar in a foreign country. (It was in Russia, but it could have been anywhere.) A disgusting scene happened. I didn’t see it firsthand, but the girl who was with us was looking straight at it, so I’ll reproduce her report:
At one point the guy who seemed to be the manager started to harass the waitress, just like that, in front of anyone. She froze. And so did I. She stood still in front of the counter while the man held her from behind rubbing his penis violently against her ass. I watched, petrified. I zoned out of my friends’ conversation. The pleasant look in the girl’s face was gone. After he let her go, I tried to approach her in another corner of the bar. The manager went to annoy two other women who were customers. One of them pulled her arm so he’d let her go. And they stayed in the bar! In the corner of the bar I asked the waitress [using Google Translator] if he was her boyfriend and if she was okay. She didn’t speak English, didn’t answer and just said “it’s okay, it’s okay.”
Of course it was not okay. My friend shared her concern with us. Dismayed as we were with it, our only reaction was to express our impotence with the situation. The reflex instinct of being part of “the mass who turns a blind eye”. We think ourselves better because we don’t do such things (and we probably are). Still, being “oppressors by proxy” is not a place we’re proud to be. Our sense of impotence, however, was very much real.
We said “What can we do?”. She said, “I don’t know, if he does it again I’ll make a scene in this place! A scandal!” Then I said “Women have that option.” I didn’t mean to sound rude, but that’s true. The way things work with men is that if we were to confront the (shirtless, tattooed, long-haired) guy, things would soon go violent. We told our friend: “What can we do? Get into a fist fight in a foreign country?” Her reaction was “Oh, men.”
This story highlights a less-discussed aspect in gender inequality. The prevailing rule of male violence serves not only to harm women, but also to stop other men from taking action. My male friend and I, we both knew we were under an unspoken law that if we were to do something, things would get violent.
(A flashback: The only time in my adult life that I got in a fist fight was years ago, also in Eastern Europe. I was walking down a street with a group of friends. Some guys across the street started yelling at the only woman in our group. She yelled back. They crossed the street and went for her. We stood in the way and it quickly got ugly. I think eventually someone shouted “police” and they ran away. One thing that strikes me from that story is that I’ve rarely retold it, and I’ve never seen any of my friends telling it. Men get ashamed of getting in a fight like that, even if it was for standing up for a woman. The other guys probably just made jokes about beating up some foreigners the next day.)
Back to last week’s story, we all felt the waitress really just meant “please don’t get into this”. Still, I wanted to think of something to do. If were we in our home country, we’d know how to report the manager in a safe way. We didn’t know if he owned the place, if anything we did would just get her fired, or worse. All these things crossed my mind.
We evidently didn’t want to stay in that place and give them any more money, so we spoke of leaving. We were waiting for a local friend, and I could just message him saying we had to leave. Then I told my friend “No, let’s wait for my friend and then we’ll explain him what happened and ask him to talk to her in Russian.” She replied, “Good idea.”
As soon as he arrived I told him the story, and that we wanted him to talk to the waitress about what happened before leaving. He seemed surprised; both with what happened and with our seriousness about it. We called her to our table. My Russian friend talked to her, and she told him that he was her boss, not a boyfriend, that he was “like that” but that it was “okay”. Before leaving the waitress went to my friend and repeated to her “it’s okay, it’s okay”, but her sad look said otherwise.
Even if she did think that enduring that guy was “just part of the job”, I hope that our concern reminded her that no, it’s not okay. And if she already felt it’s not okay (as I think she did), now she knows she’s not alone in thinking that, and that she’s not invisible. I’m very proud of my friend for reaching out for her, and shaking us up to do the same. The next day I had a long conversation about it in the airplane with my male friend who was there. These things matter.
We can’t fight gender inequality only by having women to stand up to men. Men have to stand up against inequality as well. And by “standing up” I don’t mean picking up fights. That is only reinforcing the gender stereotype. It’s a matter of redefining gender roles. I feel that society is slowly making progress (though clearly not at the same pace everywhere), but it’s a struggle into which both women and men need to take part. We men have to learn how.