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.”


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.