Three weeks after the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, one panel still stands out to me. Maybe it was because, for the first time that I had seen there, a man was presenting. But I think its memorability is based more on what was said than who said it. The panel was called “Engaging Men and Boys in Achieving Gender Equality,” and the speaker, Mr. Bafana Khumalo, co-founder of Sonke Gender Justice, opted to tell us stories of the gender equality and inequality he has seen in his native South Africa. I will do as he did and simply re-tell the stories and leave the interpretation to you.
The first story he told was somewhat unnerving. Once Mr. Khumalo was at a soccer game, watching his son play. There was a girl on the opposing team who was quite good. The younger brother of another player, who was playing against the girl, was getting upset because the girl was doing better than his brother. He began yelling out for the coaches to “take her off the field!” His mother was standing behind him, and she was embarrassed by her son’s calling out. She tried to quiet him. But instead of stopping, the boy turned around and said, “Shut up, woman!” And she did.
Mr. Khumalo’s ending comment was, “Clearly something was going on at home, that the boy thought to tell his own mother that.”
The second story was longer but considerably more uplifting. Mr. Khumalo started a men’s group that met once a week to discuss gender equality and the ways the members could implement it in their homes. One of the men was a man in his 60s who, because of his age, was more traditional in his views of gender roles and had been stubborn about having equality in his home. At one meeting Mr. Khumalo challenged the members to really watch and take note of what their wives did around the house for 24 hours, remembering that all their work was unpaid. At the next meeting, the older man raised his hand to speak. He said that the day after watching his wife, he brought his three children together–two boys and one girl–and told them that, from that day on, “things would be different at home.” He said that “it wasn’t fair for [their] mother to go to work every day and come home tired at 6 and then do all the cooking and cleaning around the house with [their] sister while they [he and his sons] did nothing. From that day on they would all help their mother and sister with the house work.”
The third story was the most amusing of them all. Mr. Khumalo had been invited to speak to a group of men, and in the course of his talk he asked how many men there cooked at home. No one raised their hand. “Oh come on,” he said. “How many?” After a moment, one man very slowly raised his hand. A couple more followed. “There you go,” Mr. Khumalo said. Finally many more men raised their hands as well. Mr. Khumalo asked why they didn’t want to raise their hands, and the men answered that cooking was women’s work, and that they wouldn’t be caught dead in the kitchen. One of the men said that when he cooks he closes the curtains. Another man said that when he’s cooking and someone comes over, he runs from the kitchen, turns on the TV, sits down in front of it, and pretends he hasn’t been cooking!
Has the West reached real gender equality yet? No. Will we ever? Hopefully. But at least our men don’t have to sprint from the kitchen.