Iceland's men-only UN meeting on women

Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, who spoke at the recent UN conference.

Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, who spoke at the recent UN conference. Photo: Facebook/Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson

In 1995, Hillary Clinton delivered an historic speech in Beijing which urged the world’s leaders to make women’s rights a priority. Titling her speech ‘Women’s Rights Are Human Rights’, Clinton highlighted how the issues facing women and girls around the world were often either downplayed or ignored altogether.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of this historic moment, and, despite Clinton acknowledging at an event earlier this year that “women and girls still comprise the majority of the world’s unhealthy, unfed and unpaid”, the UN is set to ‘celebrate’ it. As part of that celebration, it was announced earlier this week that Iceland will host a UN conference in 2015 looking at the issue of women’s rights, with a specific focus on violence against women. 

Oh, but only men and boys will be invited to attend, participate or speak.

In what has been dubbed the “barbershop conference” (because men hang out in barbershops, geddit?), Iceland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson said of the assembly, “We want to bring men and boys to the table on gender equality in a positive way.”

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Language, while sometimes employed thoughtlessly, rarely fails to convey the truth of people’s motivations. The positivity that Sveinsson speaks of is undoubtedly related to the idea that gender equality typically has negative associations for vast quantities of men. Not because they’re being asked to surrender a degree of power (although that certainly accounts for the real reason), but because when women talk about systemic discrimination, violence and oppression, it makes men feel baaaaaaaaad.

It’s no surprise that this conference has been planned as part of the global ‘HeForShe’ campaign launched earlier this month by Emma Watson. And it’s no coincidence that the campaign itself equates men’s significant action on gender equality with clicking a button on an information-free website. This, we are told, is what will really elevate women to a position of power and equality - having men lead us. And this is what that looks like now - having women roundly shut out of moments of world governance in which our voices, our experiences, our input should be considered vital.

In regards to leadership and governance, be it a community or political level, women have not historically been invited to participate. Even now, governments around the world typically boast more men than women, despite evidence which suggests that women’s greater participation results in positive community outcomes. Australia, whose Prime Minister retaliated against feminist opposition by appointing himself the Minister For Women, has the unfortunate distinction of boasting fewer women in its Cabinet than the government of Afghanistan, a place whose record on human rights and specifically women’s rights is currently extremely bad.

For some time now, the discourse around women’s rights and gender equality has been fixated on the pernicious question of how we can best provide a space for men in the movement. Men, we are told, must be allowed to become leaders if feminism is to have any hope of succeeding. It is only through men that we can expect other men to listen and take note, to wake up to the realisation that women are not peripheral to the experience of being human but central. If women - and, to be more specific, feminists - truly want equality, they’re going to have to learn to prioritise compromise and accessibility.

That the implications of this remain wholly counterproductive to the cause of women’s liberation is treated as irrelevant, not to mention ignorant of the standard order of things. Women have always been expected to compromise and to be accessible in order to secure the scraps of respect and legislative rights that have come our way. Feminists, meanwhile, have been especially punished for their refusal to do what has always been done, which is practice politeness and deference and hope for the best. Even now, we continue to have this ridiculous circular discussion about whether or not feminism means ‘man-hating’, with vital resources and energy directed into countering what is essentially a baseless and utterly powerless trope.

Avoiding real social and structural change in the name of what is right, be it for women or people of colour or LGBTQI people or disabled people or some glorious combination of all of the above, has been lately made easier by the ways in which projection of fault has been tolerated. The latest narrative holds women responsible for the failure to secure equality. This evidently occurs through some nefarious combination of us being our own worst enemies and our unfair hostility towards the men who need to be enticed, coerced and officially invited to be supporters and allies, where it is then expected that they should be gratefully rewarded and praised.

It’s a long con, the end result of which appears to be slightly altering the status quo while maintaining the very ideals which support it. Men in leadership. Women gratefully welcoming their scraps. Patriarchy firmly entrenched.

In her historic speech in 1995, Hillary Clinton said:

“If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely — and the right to be heard.”

The right to speak freely, and the right to be heard. Yet here we are, 20 years later, having the door closed on us once again so that men can lead the way.

 

18 comments

  • "when women talk about systemic discrimination, violence and oppression, it makes men feel baaaaaaaaad"

    I think an important part of Emma Watson's speech is that it recognised many men feel excluded by Feminism. Men feel they're not allowed to be feminists, and the condescending tone of the above excerpt is an unfortunate example of why men feel this way.

    The point Emma was making, the point of the HeForShe campaign, and the point of this Icelandic conference is to make men feel welcome as part of the Feminist cause. Or to use Emma's words, to "extend an official invitation to men".

    I think this recognition that Feminism needs universal acceptance if its ever to succeed is very encouraging. This could be the first step in feminisism's journey from being seens as radical and disruptive, to a totally normal and accepted way of thinking for everyone. And in the end, that's what really matters.

    Commenter
    Male Reader
    Date and time
    October 02, 2014, 9:29AM
    • It's actually ok for men to talk to each other especially when they are inviting boys to be part of it. If men start leading men in a better direction as far as women are concerned then it's a good outcome. The fact that it wasn't brought about by women lecturing men at a conference doesn't matter. It is still actually and clearly a response to women's voices, they are not excluding women's voices. They wish to discuss it amongst themselves it is incredibly arrogant to resent that. The idea that it's not good enough because you didn't get to tell the men what to thimk and do is a little bizarre. Wait and see how it turns out, change begins imperfectly and evolves over time, you seem to resent the fact that Emma Watson has had more impact than your good self.

      Commenter
      lizzy
      Date and time
      October 02, 2014, 10:48AM
    • "Or to use Emma's words, to "extend an official invitation to men".

      And we agree with Emma's words, but how are women or other feminists supposed to extend an invitation to a clubhouse where the door policy is "no girls allowed", and at which the very women themselves and their fate is to be discussed?

      How cannot you not see the glaring WRONGNESS (for want of a a better word) of this?

      Plenty of men don't feel excluded by feminism, because they're not approaching discussions about the topic from a defensive point of view.

      And I say this as somebody who is in their 20s and in who's main groups of friends the men are generally blokey guys, tradies, really into bulking and shredding for stereo etc (throwing this in before somebody makes a comment saying that this attitude is only true of affeminate men in skinny leg jeans or something lame like that)

      Even in very casual social or party situations I occasionally bring up feminism in a sort of matter of fact way (usually purposely just to see what happens) and get mostly positive reaction or interest, except from the odd defensive guys who would definitely join the ranks of Men's' Rights Activism, were they more inclined to take an interest in political issues.

      Commenter
      Dee
      Date and time
      October 02, 2014, 10:58AM
    • If the HeForShe campaign was at all invested in men doing anything tangible, it would have provided comprehensive information about the extent of the oppression facing women worldwide today. Instead, it just asked men to click a button and then congratulate themselves on making a difference. It's patronising bullshit and it does nothing to help women at all.

      And men have never needed an invitation to do the right thing and recognise their privilege. That this has become the new catchcry is deeply concerning. I don't need to be officially invited to care about civil rights. Why do you need to be officially invited to care about women?

      Commenter
      Clementine Ford
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      October 02, 2014, 11:49AM
    • Fifty years of modern feminism and you're still married to the view that it is "radical and disruyptive"? I'm sorry, but the "official invitation" has been extended many, many times, particularly in recent decades. A slew of feminists writers and activists have fallen over themselves to get the message out there that men can be, and many are feminists. Many, many men I know are proud to call themselves feminists, and I've seen little if any backlash against that.

      If you feel "excluded" by feminism, do you also feel excluded by other equality movements, like the LGBQTI movements, or affirmative action by racial minorities? If not, why not? If so, is the problem really about the movements, or is it a deeper discomfort with acknowledging the viewpoints and experiences of others?

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      October 02, 2014, 12:53PM
    • Apologies male reader, that wasn't aimed at you. Must have pushed the reply tab by mistake, I thoroughly agree with your comment!!

      Commenter
      Lizzy
      Date and time
      October 02, 2014, 1:08PM
    • Lizzy, perfect. Thank you.

      Maybe Clem should have a read of your comment and learn a different perspective.

      Commenter
      Blake
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 02, 2014, 1:10PM
    • Oh please lizzy. Your view is simplistic in the extreme - we are not talking about a few guys chatting down at the pub here.
      Besides, it's with a sense of historic irony that I point out that a strategy of "appeasement" has never worked - not just in the fight for equality but in anything.

      Commenter
      for the love of
      Date and time
      October 02, 2014, 1:49PM
    • "for the love of" - it seems like you're making a LOT of assumptions based on your own view/opinion of the world. How about being open minded?

      Commenter
      Blake
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 02, 2014, 2:28PM
    • Umm for the love of ....this has nothing to do with appeasement, what appeasement?

      Some men are getting together to discuss what they can do about their own behaviour.. Feminists are constantly calling on men to do something about their own behaviour which is fair enough. Some men get together to discuss their own behaviour and suddenly we are up in arms because men are getting together to discuss their own behaviour. You really couldn't make this stuff up.

      Commenter
      Lizzy
      Date and time
      October 02, 2014, 2:42PM

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