Commentary | Why not WeForShe?

UN Women’s HeForShe campaign is simplistic and exclusionary

The HeForShe campaign was launched on September 20 as a global solidarity movement for gender equality. Developed by UN Women, the United Nation’s entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women, HeForShe encourages men and boys to speak out and take action against inequalities faced by women and girls – the ultimate goal being to mobilize “one billion men by July 2015.” In essence, the campaign is a global call to marshal men as untapped potential for the feminist cause. While it has received widespread media attention and praise on social media, the campaign is riddled with problems.

Since HeForShe fails to link raising awareness to quantifiable action, it will likely turn out be a hollow campaign that breeds “slacktivism.” Neither will it reorder the status quo. To note its plus sides though, it does bring into focus the critical point that gender equality is not an issue that only concerns women, but a human rights issue that affects us all. This shouldn’t be up for debate – there is overwhelming evidence that when women are empowered, the whole of humanity benefits. As Harry Potter actor turned HeForShe advocate said on Twitter, “Gender equality liberates not only women but also men from prescribed social roles and gender stereotypes.”

The economic benefits of gender equality are also significant. A series of reports by major banks in the past few years concluded that closing the gap between male and female employment rates would add significantly to the GDP of several Western countries, and even more so to the economies of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. The implications of female empowerment for global development from the figures presented in the findings alone are astounding.

There is a need for a campaign like HeForShe, but how does the campaign actually plan to engage men and boys to take action?

However, despite the overwhelming evidence of the social and economic benefits to female empowerment, the oppression of women persists globally. The media continue to sexualize and objectify women on a massive scale, and rape culture remains ever-present. Just last school year, the Montreal Gazette revealed that in April 2012, three Redmen football team players were charged with the confinement and sexual assault of a Concordia student, yet they faced no punitive measures and were allowed to play for the remainder of the sports season.

The facts point to men as the ones perpetuating rape culture and domestic violence – one in six women have experienced an attempted or completed rape, compared to one in 33 men. This is why the goals of the HeForShe campaign matter. Men and boys must view themselves as responsible and capable agents of change who hold the potential to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women; this includes their responsibility as a social group to combat the economic inequalities and domestic violence faced by women.

There is a need for a campaign like HeForShe, but how does the campaign actually plan to engage men and boys to take action? It hopes to spark action by raising awareness; spreading the message at least gets the word out that gender equality is everyone’s responsibility. The hope is that through the campaign, the process of changing stereotypes and cultural symbols surrounding gender, identity, and rights will leap forward.

The campaign relies heavily on social media to disseminate its message. It urges men and boys to show their solidarity for HeForShe by posting a photo with #HeForShe, submitting “impact stories” about their experiences with empowered women, or participating in webinars, Google hangouts, and ‘tweetathons’ organized by UN Women National Committees around the world. Metrics from such online participation will largely assess whether the campaign succeeds in reaching its goal of mobilizing one billion men by July 2015.

A consequence of the campaign choosing a simple and marketable idea – engaging ‘he’ for ‘she’ – is that this campaign viciously reinforces the unrealistic male/female gender binary. A campaign titled ‘WeForShe’ would be more inclusive to all genders and sexes.

However, problems plague the campaign – it excludes those who are a part of the LGBTQ communities. For example, someone whose gender presentation does not align with the gender binary may not know how to engage with HeForShe, since they might not identify completely as ‘he’ or ‘she.’ A consequence of the campaign choosing a simple and marketable idea – engaging ‘he’ for ‘she’ – is that this campaign viciously reinforces the unrealistic male/female gender binary. A campaign titled ‘WeForShe’ would be more inclusive to all genders and sexes.

On top of this, when HeForShe engages with the mass media through celebrity endorsement, it is both patronizing to its audience and actually enforces the stereotypes it seeks to change – those of an unattainably ‘perfect’ masculinity and femininity.

Even the language of ‘he’ for ‘she’ implies that women are unable to release themselves from the shackles of their male oppressors, and that men are the custodians of female empowerment. HeForShe suggests that women can only be seen as human when they are framed in relation to men, and that it is up to the ‘he’ to release the helpless ‘she.’ This campaign is asking for permission from men for female empowerment as well as asking them to be partners in this endeavour. What’s problematic is that this doesn’t address the asymmetrical power relationship between men and women. A prisoner asking for partnership with their jailer is rarely going to have their request accepted – there is little guarantee that women asking men to help fight gender equality is going to create change.

Change will come not by women asking the permission and partnership of men, but by all citizens of the world beginning to view gender as a dynamic and complicated spectrum of difference.

Also, with much of the HeForShe campaign focused online, the likelihood of it having any impact is remote. Will HeForShe actually change the behaviour of men engaging in normalized and endemic domestic abuse? Unless UN Women plans to set up working groups for men that aim to change attitudes firsthand, the answer is almost certainly no.The campaign’s emphasis on social media is a bone of contention too. There is a high chance of HeForShe becoming an exercise in ‘slacktivism,’ as men around the world will post, share, and ‘like’ the campaign without taking real action. Online campaigning makes it too easy for men to show their support without being held accountable. If HeForShe is to positively transform the status of women, it should launch concrete programs, such as youth education workshops on how to identify and report sexual abuse.

Gender inequality is connected to the deeply entrenched patriarchy that we live in – and this will take centuries to change. Change will come not by women asking the permission and partnership of men, but by all citizens of the world beginning to view gender as a dynamic and complicated spectrum of difference, on which all individuals are to be treated as equals by everyone.

Notwithstanding the exclusion of those who identify with LGBTQ communities, the HeForShe campaign will garner attention worldwide about the responsibility men have in advancing women’s rights. Yet, if this awareness is not translated into concrete, measurable, and accountable action for men, something for which this campaign provides little opportunity, the HeForShe movement will fail to change the status quo.


Kai Ariac is a pseudonym. To contact the writer, please email commentary@mcgilldaily.com.


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