What does it take to be a male feminist?
Prof. Austin Bukenya talks about how he came to describe himself as a feminist and about the challenges and chances of male feminists. He explains why it is important for men to internalize gender awareness, instead of just opportunistically faking it and how they should consistently practice it as a way of life.
By Austin Bukenya
When and why did you start using the word feminist for yourself and what does it mean to you?
I would say somewhere in the mid-to-late 1990s. I cannot give an exact date, because my involvement in feminism has been evolutionary. I adopted feminism from observation of the social realities around me, and specifically from direct sensitization and training in gender relations.
Feminism is a system of beliefs and practices that puts the woman at the center of all one’s activities. When I say I am a feminist, I mean that I try to look at situations from the woman’s point of view and act in her interests.
You do not have to be a woman to be a feminist. Anyone opposed to the discrimination against women because of their gender and the privileging of men because of their gender can claim to be a feminist.
You are, among other things, a poet, a scholar, a writer, an actor. How does feminism as a practice as well as a theoretical and critical way of thinking influence your work?
I try and mainstream the cause of the woman in my creative, scholarly and educational work. In creative writing, I attempt to create convincing strong, intelligent, and assertive female characters who can inspire readers and audiences to emulate their struggle in the emancipation and empowerment of women.
My journalistic writing affords me the best opportunity to advance the feminist agenda. I use my columns in leading East African newspapers to not only publicize the struggles and triumphs of women, and expose and denounce injustices against them. I also use my media writing to educate my fellow men about the need to understand and empower women.
In my language and literature teaching I strive to sensitize the students to the need to avoid sexist and stereotyping language (e.g. “manpower”, “weaker sex”) and to the assumptions that go with it. I also encourage them to read and study works, both fiction and factual, that implicitly or explicitly advance the struggle for gender equity. We also constructively critique works that exhibit male chauvinism and its impacts.
You have promoted women in literature and have contributed to the Eastern African region volume of Women Writing Africa, published by the Feminist Press New York, you are also an honorary member of FEMRITE – Uganda Women Write’s Association. Can you tell us about your involvement?
I got actively and consciously involved in feminist activism after a sensitization and training program in gender sensitive research, study and publication in the mid-1980s. It was under the auspices of the Kenya Oral Literature Association (KOLA), of which I am a member.
At Makerere, my original teaching university in Uganda, in the mid-1990s, I found Mary Karooro Okurut, one of my former students, trying to set up an organization to promote writing and publishing by Ugandan female authors. She consulted me and I advised and encouraged her and her colleagues.
When FEMRITE , the Uganda Women Writers Association, was founded in1996, Okurut invited me to participate in its activities as an honorary founding member. FEMRITE is still going strong, and its mentoring, training, fundraising and publishing activities have uniquely promoted Ugandan writing, both at home and abroad. Most internationally recognized Ugandan female writers and literary scholars rose through or have been associated with FEMRITE.
FEMRITE connected me to the Feminist Press of New York in early 2000s. Professor Florence Howe, who had founded the Press at the City University of New York (CUNY) in 1971, wanted to publish selections of writings by African women through the centuries. They asked FEMRITE to recommend collaborators on the Eastern African project and FEMRITE recommended me. Howe, regarded by many as one of the “Founding Mothers of Women’s Studies”, had long accepted the profit of working with men who believed in the woman’s cause and she readily accepted my credentials from FEMRITE.
How would you define your role in these fields of work and have you ever felt any tension with regard to you gender within female spaces? If so, where do you think this tension is rooted?
I do not feel any kind of tension or anxiety when working with my female friends and colleagues. When you are adequately gender sensitized and trained, you understand and feel that we are all ordinary, equal human beings in common undertakings. The tensions unliberated and unenlightened men suffer when working with women or in female spaces arise from the ill-informed, chauvinistic assumptions that it is impossible for men and women to relate in non-manipulative and non-exploitative situations. Getting over these hang-ups of male misinformation is a great step towards much-needed male emancipation.
What would you say are the chances and challenges when men partake in feminist activism or other forms of feminism?
Men who opt to participate in feminist activities are assured of the opportunity of advancing a patently just cause. Secondly, they will definitely improve their relationships with their female relatives, friends and colleagues by gaining true and genuine insights discarding the distortions fed to them by male chauvinists. I see three main challenges men have to meet. First, men should humbly accept gender training and sensitizing by women and knowledgeable men. Second, they should internalize gender awareness, feel it, instead of opportunistically faking it. Third, they should consistently practice it as a way of life.
What do you think is the role of male feminists and how can they challenge patriarchal systems of thought?
Male feminists should openly, confidently and sincerely acknowledge and profess their conviction. They should keep informing themselves and their colleagues of the latest developments in feminist and gender equity studies, and the implementation of gender justice in all areas of social operation. They should expose and denounce all cases of gender injustice that come to their attention. They should challenge the patriarchy by demonstrating in their own ways of life that they consistently work for the emancipation and empowerment of women on all fronts.
What are the biggest achievements recently in terms of gender inequality and what do you hope for the future, especially regarding East Africa?
There are many positive developments in the gender equity struggle in East Africa. The rising number of male feminists is itself one of them. The rise of Women and Gender Studies departments and schools in our universities, including one at Makerere, East Africa’s oldest, is another. We are approaching a gender balance in educational enrolment. Female political gains are evident in most lands. But there are many drawbacks. Kenya is still struggling to implement a constitutional requirement that at least a third of the total membership of every major state organ should be of the opposite gender.
Moreover, at the grassroots level, many significant problems persist, including domestic violence, property, inheritance and land rights, matrimonial equality and female genital mutilation, among many others. A lot remains to be done.
The questions were asked by Antonie Habermas, online editor of the Zeitgeister magazine.