White Ribbon Ambassador Tanveer Ahmed's dangerous message on domestic violence


Clementine Ford

Tanveer Ahmed

Tanveer Ahmed

Not all arguments positing men's disenfranchisement are presented in the aggressively delusional manner of those men who proudly count themselves as MRAs, or men's rights activists. Some, like that presented by Tanveer Ahmed in the Australian this week, come with a veneer of reason that belies the falsehoods presented within. These are the ones we need to be especially wary of.

Writing on the issue of men's violence against women (although notably shying away from the specificity of that term), Ahmed launches a frankly dangerous argument regarding causal links between violence against women and men's social and cultural 'disempowerment'. Ahmed, a psychiatrist who was once exposed on Media Watch for repeated offences of plagiarism, warns against focusing on the impact of gender inequality on women alone, referring to the disempowerment and displacement of men whose industries are giving way to 'casualised, service-oriented work with relatively low wages'.

According to Ahmed, the 'feminisation' of men previously used to the security of unionised labour is a delicate issue that needs to be taken into account when addressing violence against women. Further, "family violence within newly arrived ethnic groups is often related to the sudden dilution of traditional masculinity, leaving men lost and isolated, particularly as females enjoy greater autonomy and expectations."

Sorry, what?


Ahmed's views are made all the more disturbing given his position as a White Ribbon Ambassador. Now, I don't have much time for the White Ribbon movement. Call me persnickety, but it seems to me that an organisation addressing men's violence against women should have more stringent standards for action than signing an essentially meaningless pledge and handing out a ribbon that can apparently be worn by anyone. The White Ribbon Foundation has, in my view, very carefully and subtly distanced itself from feminist activism in order to align itself with a more corporate, mainstream agenda that ignores the hard work done by underfunded women's health services across the country.

Indeed, Ahmed begins with, "Gender relations have changed dramatically in the past few decades, but discussions about family violence are stuck in the mindset of 1970s radical feminism." Ahmed goes on to refer to 'radical feminists' again, arguing that "the Prime Minister's move to acknowledge the Australian of the Year award to Rosie Batty and community outpouring on domestic violence through a COAG committee is worthy, but it risks becoming dominated by ­radical feminists and a worldview around the powerlessness of women."

It's disturbing that an organisation whose very existence was made possible by the tireless work of 'radical feminists' would consent to being repped by a man so eager to deride them. Radical feminists didn't endure the wrath and measurably violent pushback of people opposed to women's liberation so that their activism could be scoffed at by a man directly benefiting from its passion and fearlessness. Nor did feminists come so far just to end up back in the frustrating position of being ordered to preserve men's privilege 'for balance'. If most people recognise White Ribbon as an organisation dedicated to bringing about an end to men's violence against women, it does significant harm to have one of their ambassadors touting a message which prioritises men's power over women's safety. As Tasneem Chopra, Chair of the Australian Muslim Women's Centre for Human Rights, said to me in response to Ahmed's piece, "It's completely out of sync with the progressive work in this sector. One hundred per cent of men's violence against women is caused by men. Triggers of economy, culture and 'radical feminism' are disgraceful attempts to deflect responsibility."

There is value in discussing how notions of masculine power are constructed and prioritised. The social expectation that men be in control is deeply embedded, leaving both men and women disenfranchised. It's one of the things that feminism (the same feminism Ahmed repeatedly sneers at) is working hard to change for the benefit of the whole. It strikes me that Ahmed has done very little, if any, consultation with the women's health groups who work with men's behavioural change groups and have comprehensive programs in place to work with migrant families adjusting to different cultural practices. If he did, he would know that the 'inclusivity' he speaks of is already in action. Ahmed insults the expertise of service workers by making their work invisible just so he can execute a boring and passe critique of the kind of feminism that makes him and numerous other men uncomfortable.

There are reasons why experts have documented a spike in incidents of family violence as a response to a broad range of activities or practices, from natural disasters to the loss of sporting events and yes, even the resettling of migrant families coming to terms with a values system that expresses patriarchy in different ways. But if people want to say that men's disempowerment is a key driver of violence against women, what they're really doing is reinforcing a framework in which men can reestablish their position in a patriarchal hierarchy by exerting dominance over the women subjugated by it.

It is not the job of women to absorb men's suffering.

And this is really what Ahmed is alluding to. Not that we take more a strident and uncompromising position in regards to what is and is not acceptable gendered behaviour, but that we be more understanding about the apparently terrifying prospect of men becoming 'feminised' by a loss of status privilege. Frankly, when a woman is still being murdered every week in Australia by a partner or ex-partner, I don't have time for men's woe-betide-me feelings over how feminism is challenging traditional ideas of masculinity. As Chopra says, "Men behave badly because they watch and learn from those around them and believe they are either entitled to abuse or can get away with it."

The question isn't how we can accommodate men's feelings of disempowerment to challenge the violence they exert over women. The question is why men experience the loss of privilege over women as disempowerment in the first place. Ahmed might consider that a retro view to take - but perhaps that's appropriate, given the fact that ideas around men's empowerment and 'place' within society clearly remain so terribly old-fashioned.