Last month saw the annual celebration of InternationalMen’s Day put men’s issues and male suicide on the political agenda for a few hours writes Glen Poole.
It was an historic occasion, according to the Conservative MP, David Nuttall, who highlighted the fact that this was “the first time ever that International Men’s Day has been marked by a debate in this Parliament”.
The right to hold a debate on men’s issues was hard fought for in the run up to the day, with the Labour MP, Jess Phillips, wearing her visceral opposition to International Men’s Day, both on her sleeve and all over her face. Phillips, who sits on the Backbench Business Committee that eventually endorsed the debate, sniggered and snorted and declared her hatred for “fools who think men don’t have equality” when the issue was first raised.
Rather than graciously admit defeat and retire to lick her wounds, Phillips decided to use her position of political power and privilege to trash International Men’s Day, firstly telling Andrew Marr that the day did nothing to tackle male suicide and secondly writing in The Independent that the day was equivalent to having a “White History Month”.
Then, on International Men’s Day, Phillips publicly stated that “you hit the jackpot when you are born a boy child”, demonstrating her continued lack of compassion and concern for the 13 men a day whose response to the apparent “jackpot” of being a man is to kill themselves.
Fortunately, not everyone in the Labour Party is as cynical and unsympathetic towards men and boys as Jess Phillips. Her colleague, the Shadow Mental Health Minister, Lucian Berger, turned up for the debate and said:
“The rate of male suicide in this country is a national scandal [that] demands our urgent attention. Every time a person is lost to suicide, it is a tragedy. We need a revolution in suicide prevention to address the fact that many more men than women take their own lives.”
Berger was one of several female MPs who outshone their male colleagues in this debate. For the Conservatives, Maria Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, recognised the value of the day saying:
“International Men’s Day is not about pitching men against women; it is about the health of men and boys, the promotion of gender equality, positive male role models and men’s contribution to family life and their children’s lives. It is an opportunity to challenge all gender stereotypes, which are not good for any of us, and to support men to speak out, as women often speak out, on behalf not only of women but of men.
One of Miller’s male colleagues who did speak out, was the Conservative Andrew Percy, who decided to step into the role of White Knight by ignoring the problems men have and highlighting the problem that other men cause instead, saying:
“International Men’s Day is the perfect opportunity for men to stand up as part of the White Ribbon campaign, for which I am pleased to be an ambassador, and say that we will never remain silent when other men commit violence against women?”
The White Ribbon campaign has an uncomfortable relationship with International Men’s Day. In 2013, one of its Canadian founders, Michael Kaufmann, advised supporters of gender equality to ”stay away” form the day. Though in the UK, some White Ribbon supporters like the Men AgainstViolence project in Preston have, held International Men’s Day events in the past.
For me, the star of the debate was the Conservative MP for Telford, Lucy Allan, who took Percy to task.
“Equality is not about forcing men to wear a white ribbon,” she said. “Men do not need to be shamed about the violence of other men towards women, and to demonstrate their shame with a badge.”
Allan also criticised her local council for failing to talk about the area’s high male suicide rate and instead using International Men’s Day for “an elaborate social media campaign parading photographs of men on Facebook holding up signs saying ‘I support the white ribbon campaign’.”
“The poor men can hardly refuse,” she said, “for fear of being labelled anti-women.”
The tension here is gender political, while White Ribbon claims it wants to men to speak out about domestic violence, in reality it only wants to work with men who are prepared stick to a hardline, feminist-approved narrative about domestic violence, as the case of Dr Tanveer Ahmed revealed earlier this year.
I spent International Men’s Day this year with Ahmed at a debate about masculinity in Sydney. He is a warm, intelligent and passionate man, who was banned form supporting White Ribbon for daring to express his own views on the problem of domestic views.
Meanwhile, back in the UK, the SNP’s Dr Paul Monaghan was quoting me in the debate as saying: “when 13 a men a day in the UK are dying from suicide, it is essential that everyone in positions of power, trust and influence does everything they can to help men talk about the issues that affect them.”
This is what White Ribbon and other feminist initiatives on men fail to do because of their narrow view of gender politics. International Men’s Day, on the other had, is a broad, inclusive platform that welcomes intellectual diversity. Anyone, no matter what their gender politics, can use the day as a platform to talk about the issues that affect men and boys.
As Lucy Allan said: “too often we polarise the gender debate to depict men as aggressors and women as victims. Many women who, like me, have a passion for gender equality and who identify as feminists feel deeply uncomfortable about the increasingly negative caricatures and gender stereotyping of men. My son said to me, ‘I don’t like feminists, mum.’ I said, ‘Oh, why’s that? ’Well, they don’t like men, do they?’
And that contribution to the debate captured the essence of the first ever international Men’s Day debate in Parliament. It was about men and women, feminists and non-feminists, taking time to discuss the the way the world currently works for men and boys---or not.
As Philip Davies, the MP who made the debate happen said in summary: “lots of people throughout the country are delighted that some of those issues have finally been raised, as they have been campaigning on them for years and years, and not really getting the recognition they deserve. We have done the country and the House a great service by debating these things.”
And he is right, for we cannot continue to complain that men don’t talk about the issues they face if our MPs don’t lead by example and make talking about men’s issues on International Men’s Day a regular feature of the political calendar. If we did nothing more than win the argument that International Men's Day should be a platform for debating men's issues in parliament, then that was a debate worth wining and building on next year.