HeForShe and the overlooked complexities of gender and imperialism: an open letter

Dear Emma Watson, Elizabeth Nyamayaro, UN Women, and all followers of the HeForShe movement,

Today while I was looking through the “Gender equality is your issue too” speech, articles and blogs praising HeForShe, and the HeForShe website and social media, I realized that there were two problems I’d failed to spot in my past critiques of the movement: imperialism and the complexities of gender.

Let me tell you a little story. For a long time, I thought that gender could only be defined as male or female. You were either male or female, never neither or in between. Sure, you could have traditionally masculine habits if you were female, and vice versa; you could choose to dress in traditionally feminine clothes if you were male (and the reverse as well), but in the end it boiled down to being either male or female. That was it. Or so I thought.

Then I learned from a person we will call D. Most people thought of D as female, including me, until D got a pixie haircut and told me: “I’m agender.” Neither boy nor girl. D’s pronouns: they, their, and so on. Due to my grammatical snobbery, I wouldn’t accept those pronouns–I’d read that the grammatically correct way was he/she, not their: “This person got his/her first pair of glasses today” vs. “This person got their first pair of glasses today” is an example. I shouldn’t have let correct grammar get in the way, though. To D, I’m really sorry for that. I won’t do it again. Later it came to me, why did I choose grammar over respecting someone’s identity? Isn’t the latter more important? Now I try to be more sensitive to people’s orientations. Even though I am a practicing Roman Catholic and the gender binary is one of the Church’s teachings, acknowledging other people’s experiences and identities is now as important to me as my faith.

This story brings me to an area–the complexities of gender–where the movement falls short. Look at its Facebook description:

UN Women’s Solidarity Movement for Gender Equality bringing together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all.

The goal of HeForShe is gender equality. If you want everyone’s efforts, it is essential to recognize those who do not identify as either male or female and those who sometimes identify as male and sometimes as female. Acknowledge the genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, intersex, and so on. The world is not half-and-half when it comes to gender. How can these people contribute to the movement when they find no place for them in the movement? If I were a person whose orientation didn’t fit in the gender binary and my pronouns weren’t he or she, I’d say, “HeForShe? Who will help people like me? If humanity is divided into half-and-half when it comes to gender, does that mean that I’m not human?”

And then there’s the problem of imperialism:

im·pe·ri·al·ism
imˈpirēəˌlizəm/
noun
  1. a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through diplomacy or military force.
    “the struggle against imperialism”
    • historical
      rule by an emperor.

Let me tell you another story about an encounter with imperialism. When I was in the Philippines last summer (my first time), I noticed that all the signs and labels on the street were written in English. There were only a few written in Tagalog–I remember seeing these Tagalog words painted on the wall of a canal telling people not to dump their trash there (but they did anyway). Well, the widespread use of English in the Philippines is a result of imperialism. Another time, I was at a restaurant with my cousins. I remarked that I could still hear American music and get American stuff here in the Philippines. America was basically the center of the world! One of my cousins said, “Some of my classmates think that everything is better in America. It’s not a healthy way of thinking.” Personally, I think America is better in some ways than the Philippines, and the Philippines is better in other ways. But the assumption that “everything is better in America” was alarming to me. Whenever I recall my cousin’s words, I am reminded of the fact that many feminists use this statement to justify war and military force in the Middle East. The war will liberate women and civilize a barbaric, primitive, misogynistic society! These feminists do not see them as colleagues–they treat them more like little kids who don’t know what they’re talking about. This treatment is patronizing and demeaning.220px-heforshe_logo_badge_withtagline_use_on_white

One thing I do like about HeForShe is that it features men and women from all around the world more equally than other movements I’ve seen. You see more PoCs (people of color), and it treats people from developing countries more as colleagues. The problem I see with HeForShe is not that it reinforces imperialism, but that I never see any HeForShe post speaking out on imperialism. I don’t even see the word imperialism at all! Or colonialism. If this is a global movement, we have to look at sexism and oppression at the global level, the transnational level. We have to examine sexism through the power relations between countries and how Western countries have been guilty of erasing cultures, identities, traditions through colonialism and imperialism.

Dear Emma Watson, UN, and the HeForShe movement, this is not an attack on you. Please don’t view it as one–these are legitimate concerns. I hope you will take these concerns into account so that we may build a better, stronger movement for the good of all.

Thank you.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “HeForShe and the overlooked complexities of gender and imperialism: an open letter

  1. This is one of the most refreshing posts on feminism that I’ve read in a long time! I wholeheartedly agree with you and I think it goes back to the idea of intersectional feminism vs. white feminism. Patronizing WoC when being white and acting as if feminism will save WoC from their oppressive cultures isn’t accurate at all – it makes me really annoyed to see and I feel like to truly be feminists, we have to learn to appreciate and understand women from all walks of life, cultures, countries, and religions.

    I’m so glad that I found your blog and I’m looking forward to reading your posts! I only recently started a blog for my writing and so I really admire your style of writing as well. You are so eloquent and well-spoken! And a feminist too, which is even better :).

    -Meghna
    http://www.penintobattle.wordpress.com

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting point of view – thanks for making me think! One point of clarification, though: why is it important for HeForShe to ackowledge/speak out against imperialism? Aren’t they speaking out against imperialism by treating people in the developing nations as colleagues (aka equals)? Doesn’t that defy imperialism without them needing to verbally argue against it?

    Not an attack on you, just curious what you think 🙂

    Thanks for sharing. Great post!

    Like

    1. Well, I think there is more to fighting imperialism. Treating people from developing nations is a great first step, but I wish they would make it clearer. Western people who join the movement may be patronizing to non-Westerners in implementing their HeForShe work wherever they go. People who admire organizations like FEMEN (notorious for its Western feminism) could also join HeForShe. The movement, in my opinion, should speak out more against the wars in the Middle East and work to change it. Right now I don’t see very much on that. So I think HeForShe should dig deeper to change imperialist mindsets. Take a look at the work Filipina feminist organization AF3IRM’s doing against imperialism. That’s what I’m thinking.

      Like

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