Gender equality: More than just ‘women’s issues’

Gender equality: More than just ‘women’s issues’

Former Turkish Interior Minister Meral Akşener (C), Deborah Bergamini (R) from the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe and Albanian Deputy Labor Minister Filloreta Kodra were among the participants of a conference on the empowerment of women, “The Political and Socio-economic Empowerment of Women based on Women’s Stories,” which took place on Nov. 5-6. (PHOTO AA, EMRAH GÜNEY)

November 11, 2012, Sunday/ 15:52:00/ ALYSON NEEL

Prominent academics, activists and leaders from the northern and southern Mediterranean region met earlier this week in Istanbul to share their experiences and strategize how to empower women. But one group was conspicuously absent -- men.

The aim of the international conference, a joint effort of the Council of Europe’s (CoE) North-South Centre and Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) and Turkey’s Parliament, was to provide a platform for women from different cultures and countries to network and share best practices in advancing gender equality. By the closing session, though, many of the participants agreed men need to be part of the conversation.

“Let’s talk about men,” Federica Mogherini Rebesani, rapporteur for the session on the political and social empowerment of women, said on Tuesday in her final report.

“We need more men speaking, listening and participating in these ‘women’s issues,’” said Rebesani, a member of PACE’s Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination, with exaggerated quotes in the air.

Deborah Bergamini, chair of the executive committee of the North-South Centre, agreed the empowerment of women is traditionally boxed in as women’s, not society’s, issues. “Gender equality is not a one-way process. Maybe this is why it has taken so long to advance,” said Bergamini, stressing the center and its work are not and should not be “anti-men.”

The handful of men -- all ardent women’s rights activists -- present at the conference said the key to getting more men on board is to show how it hurts them, too.

Outgoing Executive Director of the North-South Centre Dr. Denis Huber was told growing up he was very lucky. He would not learn otherwise until decades later.

Baptized as a Catholic at 6 months old, Huber grew up learning he belonged to the “best and only religion” of the world. “I thought: ‘Wow, how lucky am I. What poor people who have no chance to go to paradise’.”

He was raised in a small town -- the “best and most beautiful place on earth” -- wedged between France and Germany. In French history class, he learned of the similar superiority of his nation. “We fought many wars but fantastically were always on the good side,” he mused, “Again, how lucky.”

Huber lived in a society that taught him he had been born with the charmed set of chromosomes -- XY. “That was true,” said Huber, recalling how his mother was not allowed a passport and could not sign a check without his father’s permission. “I’m not talking about the Arab world. I’m talking about France in the ‘70s.”

“I grew up in an [education] system that forbade mixing. There was a school for boys and a school for girls. It was the same in college. In university there was one school for male teachers and a separate one for female teachers. I turned 21 years old without ever having a working relationship with a woman,” he said. “Sitting here now, as the first male speaker at a women’s empowerment conference, I am proud to have made some progress.”

Whether religion, politics or gender related, Huber said we all grow up with a number of stereotypes. To make real progress, Huber stressed we must first begin with ourselves and unlearn them. “There is no such thing as the best nation, religion or sex,” said Huber, who can now laugh at such absurdity. “We need to become ignorant. This is the first step in having an open mind and the starting point for growth.”

Just good business

Integral to breaking down entrenched stereotypes is recognizing gender equality is just as much about men as women.

“Gender equality is not about empowering women alone,” Huber told Sunday’s Zaman in an exclusive interview. “We need to convince men they have something to gain from getting involved in so-called ‘women’s issues’.”

Men, take your pick. Freedom from stifling gender stereotypes, opportunity to explore less traditional societal roles, more meaningful relationships with women… the list of possibilities goes on.

If a shift in public mentality of gender is necessary -- and hopefully, we’ve at least recognized that -- Huber said it follows that we must involve all members of society, including men.

Franco Frattini, member of Italian Parliament and president of the European People’s Party (EPP) Working Group on Foreign Policy, argued gender equality simply makes good business sense and that that, not social responsibility, should be the call to action.

“Gender equality is not just a moral duty -- it makes economic sense. Women represent half or more of our countries’ populations. In times of financial crisis and economic downturn, we cannot afford to exclude them,” Frattini said. “Investing in the integration of women means investing in democracy and the economy. It’s that simple.”

“It’s very basic,” said Huber, laughing. “You have a country. It has a population. Now would this country be more developed if it utilized half or all of its population’s potential?”

The World Economic Forum (WEF), which recently released its 2012 Global Gender Gap Report, would concur as it continues to show a direct relationship between gender equality and national competitiveness.

Turkey, by the way, failed miserably again this year, ranking 124th out of 135 countries in terms of gender equality.

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