By Sneha Roychoudhury
Edited by Namitha Sadanand,Senior editor, The Indian Economist
“If not me, who? If not now, when?”
She looks into your eyes and stares into your soul and asks you one of the most pertinent questions of our troubled times. Quoting Statesman Edmund Burke, she says, “All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for the good men and women to do nothing.” She glides from chord to chord, nimble hands touching each, pulling a string, tuning them all to strum a perfect symphony of an ideal appeal.
On the 20th of September, British Actress and UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, stood tall and called for all those who care to listen, reached out with her precious words to the hearts of men and women from all over the world, for a cause she is sincerely and entirely devoted to- a cause that humanity must now turn to, notice and decisively work for. And thus was launched the HeforShe campaign. In a poignant speech that addresses various relevant issues of gender equality and actively emphasises on the urgency of the crisis it poses today, Watson sums up a whole range of affairs that the world must be acquainted with and ready to embrace.
The speech, laden though with inspiration, stood out most for its running note of active participation- the extension of invitations for men to engage in this subject (which they seem to have been alienated from)- in challenging the problem of patriarchy and its manifestation in gender-based inequality. She says, “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feels welcome to participate in the conversation?” And, indeed, how can we exclude one half of the world’s population in our pursuit to break free from one of the most resolute human institutions, to establish parity in the truest sense of the term?
The speech dabbles in a variety of very relevant subjects, capturing the very essence of this innovative and extremely significant campaign. It helps the dominant, the one projected as the oppressor to identify and come to terms with the oppression inflicted upon them by a force greater than the individual- the force of patriarchy itself. This, to my mind, is the spark of a movement that can be transformed into a war against human oppression by these man-made organizations of rigidity and exploitation. At the beginning of her speech Emma highlights the taboo that has come to be attached with feminism and its programme of gender equality. “Women”, she says, “are choosing not to identify as feminists.” Various assumptions are made about the feminist agendas and much is done to frame it as a ‘man-hating, propaganda-ridden ideology’ which aims to destroy the current system of imbalance only to substitute it with another society where the distribution of power is irregular and discriminatory. Well, the news here is that such constructs are fundamentally incorrect; and feminism, as Watson points out, is by definition “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.” And in its quest, it becomes as much the prerogative of the men of our world as the women. Inadvertent though these believers in equality may be, they are the harbingers of social change, as the many stalwarts before them were, and shunned though they may be today, they are the World’s sole hope for the protection of the last vestiges of its humanity- to reclaim, from the ravages of society, what is left of its compassion.
In the wake of the HeforShe initiative, the Ambassador talks of the rights of women, the rights she and many like her consider basic human rights, the rights of choice and independent decision, the rights to dignity and to equal pay and opportunities as that of their male counterparts- the rights that constitute the very base of our existence as human souls. But Emma does not fail to point out another very pressing component of this movement- the one that in fact forms the crux of it. She evokes the men of the world to fight for themselves, to notice and identify how gender-roles and the theories of masculinity entrap them and how establishing equality is as much a need for men as it is for women. She says, very effectively, “… 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”… 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 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.” And once she has said these things, led us through some undeniable truths of the world as it stands today, who can refuse to notice, who can shy away, and who cannot be affected?
It is time to join hands, to redefine realities, to break through the shadow lines on the “us” and the “them” and to come together and fight the one thing that stands against us- the demons of our own divides. It is probably time for us to bring out those neatly labelled files of “our problems” and “clearly their issues” and to review their contents, exchange notes and face the devils together, as a single entity, as humanity. It is time we questioned our identities as what has been spelt out and allotted to us. It is time we “…stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we are”. It is time we all claim our right to the freedom we truly and rightfully deserve, the freedom that has so long been kept away from us, veiled by the existing and prevalent ideas of subjugation, stereo-types and social definitions. The HeforShe campaign, in all its promise, does not come across as one that seeks to advocate the protection of women (as weaker vessels), by men, from the exploitation of Patriarchal dogma. It does not come across as a ploy for the dominant to take over the feminist movement. It transcends the suspicions of repression and the need for control, and concentrates keenly on that one bridge that can lead to a solution to one of the biggest problems we face today.