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HeForShe is for me

Words are interesting. Have you ever thought about how a word finds a common meaning and embeds itself in the way we talk, giving us new ways to speak, write, and even think? And how about when that meaning changes over time; who gets to make that change, and how long until the rest of us catch up? 

Last week, movie star and UN Goodwill Ambassador for Women, Emma Watson joined many others in making a big play for the meaning of the word “feminist.” In a speech marking the launch of the new UN initiative for gender equality HeForShe, Watson said:      ”… the more I’ve spoken about feminism, the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.”

This change of meaning for many will be no mean feat. There is an unhelpful stereotype in the minds of many in Western culture that feminism is about competition; that the chief goal of a feminist is to replace men as a dominant gender at any cost. Watson provides her correction:

“For the record, feminism, by definition, is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.”

It is helpful for us to remember that an initiative like HeForShe is speaking into a global context, including countries where women do not enjoy anything close to equal access to politics, financial independence or even education. Earlier this month, the men accused of gunning down 15 year old girls’ education advocate Malala Yousafzai were finally captured, reminding us that this divide is real, and in some places brutally enforced. 

The finer details of how these gender gaps are to be narrowed across extremely diverse nations, religions and cultures will be complex, controversial and take a long time to work through. What is possible for us now is the kind of action that HeForShe is calling for, men taking on an equal role in championing women as worthy of the same dignity and opportunity as their male counterparts. 

Emma nailed it when she said: “Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too. Because to date, I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society despite my needing his presence, as a child, as much as my mother’s. I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help, for fear it would make them less of a man. … I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either.”

The definition of feminism may yet be changing, but I am settled. HeForShe is for me. 

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