I'm a man, and for the past three years I have been volunteering at The Garden of Hope
, an organisation devoted to ending domestic violence. The biggest thing that I've learned is that women generally don't need men to give them anything or do anything for them - until we (men) start doing things that are wrong. Women only need to be empowered because men are the people with the power.
Every interaction, every day, carries with it the potential to
reinforce the idea that men are the people with the power and women have a lesser, dependent status. From our body language, to the requests and promises we make, to the values we impose by the way we live, we men continually involve women in a competition for dominance that they can't really win. Even if we think we're modern sensitive liberal guys, we show them in a million small ways that we're the ones who are in charge. Many women buy into this idea, after a lifetime of conditioning, and will never be free until they start to see themselves as being worthy and respected
- which is different from simply deserving
And usually we don't even realise we're doing it.
If we see women as 'the other' to be helped we automatically assume a higher status. That's appropriate on the front line when dealing with genuine victims who genuinely need our help right now in a crisis, but if we want to 'empower' then we have to get into the habit of letting go of our power. This means teaching people to believe in themselves and take charge of their lives without a man giving permission or finance.
Of course, if you really believe in someone, then a helping hand (or donation/loan) may
still be appropriate if you don't patronise. I remember years ago,
watching my girfriend take off with a toolbox on the passenger seat of
her car after a crash-course in engine-tuning. She was looking for
hills, freeways, and other challenging bits of road where she could make
the final adjustments. When she came home she told me that three
different men had stopped to 'help' as she fine-tuned the ignition
timing, and she had taken great pleasure in telling them she was fine. Thanks, guys, but I've got it.
Yumna Moosa's blog post on this
is excellent, because it illustrates the importance of believing in someone in real life, face to face. She chose to tell someone "you can do it," and that's worth a thousand anonymous donations. All of us have the power to believe in someone we know, a girl who thinks she can't do something because she's a girl, a woman who is adjusting to life without a husband to take care of her, the nervous waitress who screws up your order on her first day in the job and doesn't have enough testosterone to argue if you give her a hard time, the significant other deferring to our choice of restaurant again
, the small business owner struggling to take care of everything on her own who just needs to know that you have confidence in her abilities to make the right choices. (Even if that means closing the business.)
I'd also like to take this opportunity to introduce my friend "pokaya," (blog)
who started sailing with me a few years ago. After our first big trip, where she had to helm a small boat in fairly big seas for several hours, alone, at night, she told me that it was the hardest thing she had ever done, and if I had told her what was in store then she would have stayed at home. But she came back for more, and now routinely makes long ocean voyages in small sailing boats. She gets invitations from men who previously thought it would be fun to have a girl sitting at the back of the boat sipping tea, but now want her to teach their crews. That's empowerment!