‘Were we really ready for the men in MenEngage to call themselves feminists?’ – Op-ed by Tumie Komanyane

This post shares the insights of Tumie Komanyane, Programmes Lead at Frontline AIDS, speaking at the MenEngage Members’ Assembly 2023 and as part of the six-part webinar series on decolonization. In her critical reflections at the event, Tumie recounts firsthand experiences of the early years of MenEngage Alliance to shed light on topics including decolonization, intersectionality, men-as-feminists, and privilege—and what they mean for MenEngage Alliance.

I start any submission with the recognition that we all bring who we are into every space. And the experiences around the decolonization conversation can often be racked with emotion. I say this, having had the privilege of working as Regional Coordinator for MenEngage Africa from 2012 to 2018 through her role with Sonke Gender Justice, the secretariat for MenEngage Africa.

‘Were we really ready for the men in MenEngage to call themselves feminists?’

When we talk about decolonization, it’s always a very political entry point into issues of development work. Decolonization forces us to think about positionality, intersectionality, as well as how who we are influences how we show up in spaces.

Between 2013-2018, we started to ask ourselves, ‘are we doing development differently?’, recognizing that we needed to foreground localization in the work we did as MenEngage at the time. This is a conversation that started with MenEngage many years ago. But whether we spoke about decolonization in a very political sense, I don’t recall. But there were always opportunities to reflect. And so in my reflection of the years spent at MenEngage, there was always an understanding that things had to be done differently. So from a visionary point of view these reflections were around the theories around male engagement—as well as the beginnings of the labels of ‘male allies’ and ‘men as feminists’.

As a black woman working for MenEngage and often one who identified as a feminist, I remember the conflict that I had. I recognized MenEngage was moving towards a very progressive stance around gender equality and gender justice. But were we really ready to have our male counterparts, or the men in MenEngage calling themselves feminists?

That was a debate that many of us had behind closed doors. But it moved so quickly, and I think part of why the ‘men as feminist’ label, and MenEngage, took center stage in that conversation was because of who was leading the conversation.

This is not in any way against any one particular person. But if you think of MenEngage, and who really was at the forefront of the work that happened there was still that stereotype that it had to be the white men within MenEngage who held the decision-making power, who presented strategies, who presented to the rest of MenEngage what is to be taken to the fore, and how the rest of us just need to adapt. I don’t recall ever there being a space as to whether the women within MenEngage believed we were ready to label men as feminists. And what that would mean for the work that we were doing.

‘We were seen as the enemies in feminist spaces’

It was a very interesting time as a woman working for MenEngage, where sometimes we were seen as the enemies in the feminist spaces, because we were seen to be ‘sleeping with the enemy’. But we were also the women whose voices were very powerful around the values of engaging men. I remember many platforms where I would sit, and I would feel sidelined by default because I was seen to be part of the other group that puts forward men, that chooses to be blind to the privilege that men hold by default. And therefore, being seen to be part of the vehicle or the patriarchal system that actually reinforces patriarchy speaking on behalf of men as a female, as a feminist, as a black woman.

Once I got out of that labeling and thinking about issues of accountability, as MenEngage, I think it paved the way for some really important conversations. But I still felt that the conversations were not informed at grassroots level—particularly in Africa. I stand to be corrected on how that discourse showed up in other regions.

But at some point, it really felt like it was a top-down approach. Oh, ‘now we’re talking about men as feminists. This is the strategy. These are the plans. This is the advocacy work’. But we would then find that as we were implementing work in communities, with faith leaders with chiefs, they couldn’t quite relate to the ‘men as feminists’ label.

‘We put intellectualism in front of practical, homegrown, roots-based solutions’

I think that when we’re talking about decolonization, we have, in the past, put intellectualism or academic theory in front of really practical homegrown roots-based solutions. I think that was another thing that would often happen; we were very donor driven. We were all about approaches, theories, and what needs to happen. But I feel we could have spent better time sitting with communities and making sure that we were learning and having conversations that would see the label (of men as feminists) not just as a technical approach within MenEngage but a whole community-owned ideal—as well as enabling us to sustain the work.

We always say ‘the personal is political, the political is personal’. But I think let’s be fair, when you’re sitting with donor requirements and what has been put to the donor is that, ‘we can bring Utopia to you’, but there’s really never enough time to sit with communities where this work around engaging men sits, and really extract that kind of thinking. So we end up designing interventions to convince communities that this is the solution. What you find is that a lot of our solutions, or the work we do around engaging men was often short-lived. For example, you go in and you train faith leaders. You would probably have at most three touch points with them, and you never go back. We’re quick to count the numbers of faith leaders, for example, who we’ve trained. But how many of us have gone back to actually check the progress of this work? Was that change sustained? And were they saying the things that we had conditioned them to start saying? Or has the change been able to sustain itself with or without MenEngage?

‘How do I say to a male leader in the network, “I thought that what you did was patriarchal”?’

Another dynamic as a woman working in MenEngage was often seeing how in a meeting, simple things like catering were still expected of the women in the room. The women were still expected to take the minutes in a MenEngage meeting. So you even see how the application of duties and tasks was somehow still confirming along gender lines.

But often many of us were afraid to express that. Because ‘how dare the women within MenEngage question the men, who we know are “progressive” and “feminist”’. So it was almost like, ‘who’s lens should you use in engaging with the men you work with on a daily basis?’ I think it was a dilemma that we (men and women at MenEngage) all knew the principles of gender justice and gender equality but sometimes it felt like the same knowledge was used by some men to also silence you when you have to hold one of them accountable.

So how do I say to a male leader in the network, for example, ‘I thought that maybe what you did was patriarchal’? I cannot even begin to say that because the person in a leadership position knows everything there is to know about feminism! And so I think it would really be interesting for us to learn from some of those experiences and start shaping the work with men and boys, which I still maintain is critical, but perhaps for us to go into it with less blind spots about men’s privilege and positionality.

‘This is a man who will never appear on the cover of a report because he doesn't fit the profile’

I remember when we’re doing some work around MenCare, the fatherhood project. And when you think back to our publications about what makes a good father, we used to joke that it’s always the typically a blonde, blue-eyed man from the Scandinavian countries, who are seen to be examples of fatherhood.

I remember thinking, ‘I wish I was a writer’, so I could tell you about the man I’ve seen in Sierra Leone, who was living with disabilities. I think he had suffered from polio, and he was pushing a wooden wheelbarrow and was taking his children to school. And I was like, this is a man who will never appear on the cover of a MenCare report because he just doesn’t fit the profile of the Utopia of fatherhood.

But where we sit, these are the men we live with, these, our husbands, are our partners, our brothers, our sons. But I would often feel that racial tension of how we sometimes put forward this vision of what an ideal man looks like. But we would go back into a workshop setting and tell women, ‘you know, the ideal man is not just the one with muscles, men come in all shapes and forms’. But when we do our publications, that ideal man still only fits one form – one narrative. And it’s not that diverse. So those were some of the experiences at the time, on some of the work that we were doing.

‘A shared space is not shared until we can level the playing field’

I’m often left wondering about the conversation around shared leadership, shared power, co-leadership. Actions speak louder than words. In the development space in general, I think we’re very quick to go with what’s hot. If the hot thing is shared leadership or co-leadership, we do it. And then we almost expect that the building blocks and the thinking to shape practice should come after. And that’s why we always find ourselves in these conditions. But a lot of shared leadership, in my opinion, is done because it’s aesthetically pleasing. It’s a nice picture to have an NGO with two co-directors, one male one female, and it looks good. But the real work to accommodate co-leadership especially from a gender lens, is hardly done.

Often when I see conversations about shared space, and I’m like? ‘Well, yes. That’s good. But what does it practically mean?’ A woman in a leadership position, shared or not, has very different needs compared to a man in a leadership position. So what we’ve seen over time is where you get female executives, or even female program managers like myself, where the organization has met the quota. ‘Yes, we’ve got women in leadership. Yes, we’ve got a woman running multiple programs’. But how I show up in that space is often the blind spot. Right? As a woman I could be a manager, I could take care of programs. But I’m also dealing with; What does motherhood demand of me?; What does my presence in a white environment demand of me? And therefore, how I show up in a shared space is very different. And I think as MenEngage, it’s an opportunity for us to reflect.

A shared space is not shared until we can level the playing field. And this is possibly the one exercise we’ve all done in communities. There used to be a running joke that we think communities need ‘gender 101’ training. But if we were to assess ourselves as MenEngage, would we all have the same gender 101 knowledge around these issues of equity or equality?

Something to really put into consideration is that context really matters in the decolonization agenda. There are regions where feminism has moved and progressed so much that it is not feared for men to be entering that space. The environment is ripe for that to happen. And then there are spaces where men taking up the feminist label is premature.

‘The bar is set so low for men to take on a feminist label’

I for one still battle with the concept of men as feminists, because the bar is set so low for men to take on a feminist label compared to when a woman wants to call herself a feminist. As MenEngage, we all rallied around the UN Women HeForShe campaign. And where there was descent, I remember at the time, it was once again a very intellectual conversation. So it’s almost like, ‘Oh, if a man wants to be a feminist, cool, here’s the T-shirt, sign a declaration, go stand in front of the He for She image, take a picture. You’re a feminist.’

But as a woman, being a feminist is not as easy as just donning an ‘I’m a feminist T-shirt’. And I think that’s another space where MenEngage has such potential; to describe how the entries or the barriers to feminism, to gender equality or equity, need to evolve beyond the colonial setup, beyond the patriarchal setup. We need recognition that, even as a collective, we sometimes support campaigns that are, by nature, very problematic because the entry points for men and women are very different, and the bar is usually lower for men than for women and people who identify differently. .

‘You can also use privilege to change how things are done’

I’ve always believed that there are three kinds of people. There’s a person who knows they are privileged but denies their privilege, and is very willing to benefit from that privilege. Then you have a person who knows they are privileged, but really doesn’t do anything about it. Then you have somebody who recognizes their privilege and uses that privilege to change the narrative.

And I think that this whole series around decolonization is perhaps a recognition that any work that brings men together recognizes the privilege that men have, and therefore uses that privilege to change systems, to change the status quo. If MenEngaged had said, ‘hold on, HeForShe is problematic. Let’s rather think about how easy it is for men to take on a feminist label’, The campaign would have probably changed. And so I think we sometimes need to stop and reflect. You can be born into privilege, but you can also use privilege to change how things are done.

I think dialogue is one way of doing this. Conversations. Listening. But also not feeling that feedback is an attack on the person, but rather, ‘how do we all collectively work on responding to a system?’ And I was really dying to use this He for She campaign as an example because I see how, even in communities it’s literally ‘sign a piece of paper, wear a T-shirt, and you are a He for She champion’.

From a pragmatic point of view, and as a practitioner working in communities, I often feel that life is not that easy for us in feminism as women. It’s okay to create an enabling environment for men to take on the language of feminist work, of gender equality, of social norms transformation. But in our pursuit for that to happen, let’s not perpetuate inequalities by allowing some of us to get an easy way in, while others don’t.

‘There's an opportunity for all of us to acknowledge the positionality we have’

This even speaks to how we do donor relations. Once again privilege opens doors. As MenEngage, there are some of us who will have that language, the technical know-how, and sometimes, the race, to open the door and get a meeting with a certain group of people.

What really matters is, what is the agenda that we’re bringing into that space? For me, it’s being able to reflect and recognize who’s not in the room with me, what needs to be said and what are the discomforts that I might have to deal with in the privilege that I have in order to break ground and open spaces for better engagement.

I think there’s an opportunity for all of us to acknowledge the positionality we have and to explore ways in which we can bring it to the fore. What this doesn’t mean, for example, is writing speeches for people who don’t speak English, or for people who don’t speak what is considered the mainstream language. That is, us creating clones and perpetuating that colonization of how you speak, how you know how enunciate, or what is expected in a meeting room. And I think that’s another space that MenEngage has such potential to really undo. That everyone’s identity is worthy. We don’t need to speak and write for and prepare speaking for people, so they sound like the ‘right’ side of the room. But rather we create spaces for them to enter a room in their most authentic self.

About Itumeleng (‘Tumie’) Komanyane

Itumeleng Komanyane is an accomplished development practitioner with many years of her life devoted to social and gender justice work. The range of issues she has worked on includes gender equality and women’s empowerment, gender-based violence, HIV and AIDS, sexual reproductive health and rights, youth development and leadership, engaging men and masculinities, sustainable livelihoods and support for orphaned and vulnerable children. She brings a wealth of experience in integrated programme management, governance and accountability, movement building, advocacy, feminist organizing, and building organizational capacity to undertake social justice work. She is a member of the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative to end GBV Global Reference Group and the Lead Programmes at Frontline AIDS, overseeing the adolescent and youth portfolio, delivering work across Eastern and Southern Africa.

03 August 2023