The Bond Women’s Festival this January promises to be a fun and engaging space to celebrate the creativity, talent, and entrepreneurial spirit of women across Chiang Mai. The women-led festival is the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, and will serve as a collaborative platform through which women from Thailand and all over the world can showcase their extraordinary and diverse talents to an already vibrant global community of both women and men. It is also an opportunity for the organizers and performers to demonstrate their commitment to events that challenge prevailing gender norms and ultimately push us towards a more just and equal world.
As a man and an aspiring ally to women’s movements in Southeast Asia and beyond, I am so excited to be attending this festival with an open mind, open ears, and an open heart. I am curious to learn from the women of Chiang Mai about how I can best support such women-led spaces, and how I can do my part to eliminate sexism and misogyny around the world. And of course, I am excited for all the incredible workshops, music, art, innovation and food that the event has to offer!
However, as a man, I must admit that many of us men may see a women-led festival and assume it is only open to women, even when the organizers make clear that the event is for women and men alike (#ByWomenForEveryone). Having had great conversations with the event organizers at fundraising events around Chiang Mai, I have been reminded that even though the event is being put on by the women of Chiang Mai, all are encouraged to attend – women and men, girls and boys.
I also know that it is common for men like myself to go a step further and question why such a women-led space is even necessary in the first place. Many of us may think, “In an age of increased gender equality, why do we need a women-led festival? If we are all equal, shouldn’t we be working together to create gender-equal events?”
What is important for all of us – women and men alike – to keep in mind here is that we currently do not live in a gender-equal world. Recent global movements like the Women’s March, #MeToo and #TimesUp have brought increased public attention to rampant sexist attitudes and behavior, persistent pay-gaps, lack of political representation, gender-biased laws and policies, sexual harassment, and a global epidemic of gender-based violence that disproportionately affects women and girls – just a handful of the more visible components of gender injustice still alive in the world today.
I have been working in gender equality, domestic violence prevention and international development programming in East Africa and Southeast Asia for the past decade, supporting women-led organizations to address inequality through rigorous research, gender-responsive health and education programs, and community dialogues to address oppressive gender norms and end violence against women and girls (VAWG). This work contributes to a rapidly growing body of evidence that VAWG is firmly rooted in men’s power over women and the ongoing silence about gender hierarchy in communities around the world. If we are going to address this power imbalance, we must have spaces where we can talk about it.
“It is not up to women to tell men how they can help or how they should act. This is up to men to learn for themselves.”
Critiquing power is an enormous challenge, particularly for those who have benefited from it for so long. Throughout human history, men have occupied the vast majority of positions of power, have been the lead pen on the development of constitutions and institutions that value men over women, and have continued to benefit from the advantages of gender hierarchy.
In most community dialogues aimed at addressing women’s rights, many men often ask, “what about men’s rights?” Many men would argue that women are afforded the same opportunities. Many would argue that women have and do occupy significant power positions. Many would argue that men, too, are the victims of violence, and sometimes it is their very gender that makes them more vulnerable to certain forms of it (such as gang-related violence or military recruitment). So when a festival or event comes along that is led by women, many men may wonder, “well, what about a men-led festival?” What I think is important for us men to recognize is that many (if not most) public spaces throughout human history have been traditionally organized by men – and often for men only – excluding women from many aspects of the public domain.
I have held discussions with many men and boys throughout my career about how we can become effective allies to support women’s movements and the global fight for gender equality. Some men may assume that it is the responsibility of women to guide us through this process, but we cannot expect women to hold our hands through this journey towards equality while they are simultaneously leading the very equality movements we claim to want to support. It is not up to women to tell men how they can help or how they should act. This is up to men to learn for themselves.
So what can men do? First and foremost, we must listen, without interrupting, with sincerity and understanding, to the women we wish to support. We must be open to taking a backseat role in the movement for gender equality, to not leading as we have always been socialized to lead, and to not dominate the conversation around equality (as I admit this very article runs the risk of doing!). We must remember that this movement is not about us, and we should never assume we know what is best for women in any circumstance. We must instead embrace women as experts of their own lived experiences and truly value what they have to say, even if we disagree with it. We have to be ready to challenge the status quo, to stop ourselves before making sexist jokes, to call each other out on sexist behavior, and to have uncomfortable conversations about our privilege and how we can keep it in check.
“The push for gender equality requires women and men working side by side…”
Most of all, we must learn to respect spaces led by women, whether they are for everyone (men and women) or whether they are safe spaces for women themselves. These spaces are essential for women to be able to have their voices and stories heard, to mobilize and organize for the long road of work that needs to be done, and to maintain full ownership over a movement that seeks to bring equal opportunity to half of the world’s population. To many men, this is seen as threatening, and it can be tempting to respond to women-led spaces with fear, doubt and uncertainty. Often the reactions of men (and women!) to women-led spaces can take the form of backlash, whether online through “trolling” comments, or in person through incendiary remarks or arguments. When women’s safe spaces are encroached upon, this is itself a form of VAWG that needs to be addressed.
Spaces like The Bond Women’s Festival are essential for both men and women to demonstrate to the women putting the space together that women and girls are important, that they matter, and that they are worth supporting in every way possible. There is still so much work ahead of us if we are to create an equal world, one where sex, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, class, sexual orientation, age, tribe, clan, political leanings, size, shape, weight, and physical/mental ability are merely attributes of one’s identity and not grounds for discrimination, hatred and oppression. If we are to create such an equal world, we must start by talking to one another, by working to understand one another, and by celebrating all of humanity and the contributions we all bring to the human experience.
And we men must also remember that gender equality (like feminist movements around the world) is not about women taking over the world, it is about women and men all coming together to share power and opportunity equally. The push for gender equality requires women and men working side by side to dismantle the harmful gender norms and hierarchies that continue to hold women (and men!) back. This includes questioning and ultimately bringing an end to the gender norms that continue to harm men, such as overwhelming social expectations to be the primary income-earner for our families, or to be so tough and strong all the time that we have no space to be able to process our own pain, our own suffering and even our own emotions.
It is not enough to simply commit to being a good father, brother or spouse – this is just a bare minimum standard of being a good human being. It is up to men to critically interrogate notions of toxic masculinity, to challenge their social dominance over women, and to negotiate more equitable roles in their relationships, communities, and societies. And it is up to women to lead feminist movements and work together to understand what equality looks like for women of all backgrounds, particularly for those who face multiple forms of oppression at the same time (as in those who experience simultaneous oppressions due to their gender, race, class, sexual orientation, etc.).
I am personally quite tired (and I know many women and men would agree with me) of reading about men’s opinions about what men should be doing for women and women’s movements, and this piece may merit more than a few eye-rolls. But I also recognize that the more voices there are advocating for equality and productive allyship, the better off we will all be, so long as those expressing their opinions are ready to challenged, to be questioned, and to be wrong. And rather than rely only on a man’s word on what needs to be done, we all need to engage with spaces like The Bond Women’s Festival where we can actively listen to women and hold real and substantive conversations about how we can all effectively work together.
I am thrilled to be attending The Bond Women’s Festival this January, alongside some of my fellow men who wish to better understand how we can support women’s movements and collective self-expression, and I am immensely grateful to each and every woman who is pouring their talents and gifts into such an important space, created #ByWomenForEveryone.
Devin B. Faris is a Gender & Development Consultant supporting civil society organizations to use research, practice-based insights and collaborative networks to improve programming to reduce violence against women and girls and uphold women’s human rights. He has most recently worked to support the extraordinary women of The Prevention Collaborative, Raising Voices (Uganda), UNESCO Myanmar, and Save the Children. He is currently based in Chiang Mai.
Here’s more on Bond Women’s Festival