Let's face it, the term "feminist" still scares the shit out of a lot of men. They think feminists are man-haters, women who are getting all worked up over "the patriarchy"—this thing some men view as an intangible. Male feminists? Forget about it. What a bunch of overly sensitive men whining about gender equality.
Thankfully, not everyone thinks this way. Today, there are more and more men out there like Syaldi Sahude—the founder of Aliansi Laki-Laki Baru, or the New Men's Alliance. The organization is a pro-feminist group for men that promotes the idea of being a male ally to feminist women.
Syaldi and his friends initially formed the alliance as a way to combat violence against women. But then these guys discovered that physical violence were just one of the tactics used to control and oppress women in Indonesia. He then expanded the group's focus and worked to combat all forms of gender-based violence and oppression. They use their privilege as men to try to educate the kinds of men who, at least on the surface, seem less receptive to conversation about the patriarchy. And, to a certain extent, it's working. Syaldi told VICE.
Our reporter Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja spoke with Syaldi about the importance of male allies in the fight for gender equality.
This story is part of our ongoing collaboration with FemFest 2017, a two-day festival on feminism and gender issues held in Central Jakarta. For more details on the fest, see the bottom of this story.
VICE: What makes someone a 'male ally'? Is it enough to be a feminist and a man? Or is there more to it?
Syaldi Sahude: There's a lot of debate over the term feminist allies since these days everyone can be a feminist, regardless of their gender. If we look at the term 'allies,' it implies that men are excluded from being feminists. But for me it's all about good intentions. The allies are anyone who supports and sympathizes with feminists across the globe. They could be anyone, whether they're a government official, a religious cleric, or a doctor…
There are also people who don't want to be labeled, people who say 'I'll do my best to support the principles of feminism, but I don't want to be burdened by the feminist label and what not."
I feel like the term 'male allies' implies that there was a time when men weren't considered feminists. Is this true?
Back when I was younger, very much so. It was because I had a very limited knowledge of what it meant to be a feminist. Feminism wasn't as developed back then in Indonesia as it is today. Now men are involved in feminist activities. But back in the day there were radical feminists with the view that others were 'sleeping with the enemy,'—basically saying that if you married a man, it meant you were sleeping with the enemy.
The patriarchy benefits men the most, and it was created by men to suit their own interpretation. So I totally understand the anger directed at men. Most men who wish to enter the feminist circle felt intimidated from the start.
So you felt conflicted back then?
I did. Back then, before I had adequate knowledge about feminism, I made a lot of jokes about it. In the early 2000s, I would make jokes like 'I'd rather be chased by an army battalion than get scolded by one feminist.' That sort of joke came about after I saw how suspicious and angry people were when I tried to enter the feminist circle.
How is it today? How do female feminists respond to the idea that there are all these men who want to support the cause?
It's a lot more open now. Friends that I considered very 'vicious' are now way more welcoming. Imagine this, all these men have the potential to be perpetrators [in the patriarchy] but now there are men who want to educate themselves and try to fix the situation. Strategically speaking, men need to be involved. And there are also plenty of men now working on gender equality issues like feminism.
But within the Aliansi Laki-Laki Baru there is a debate about the terms 'male feminist' vs 'pro-feminism male,' right? Why?
I personally don't like labels, so I see myself more as a man who supports feminism. So if anyone labels me a male feminist, I will just go alright whatever. Feminism is based on ever-developing theories. Some friends still use the radical feminist approach, that the physical experience of being a woman can never be understood by a man.
We can't experience how difficult it is to access reproductive health care for abortions. Woman are encouraged by the government to get IUDs, to take birth control pills, hormonal injections, and so many other things even though it would be so much easier to just tell men to use condoms.
How important is the role of a pro-feminism male?
Everyone is important, including the pioneers of feminist movement who we learned a lot form. However, the reality is that most positions of power in society, starting from the neighborhood unit chief (RT) and moving up through the executive, legislative, judicial, and even the president, are all occupied by men. This is a fact. The effort to mandate that 30 percent of the House of Representatives are women still hasn't been realized today. Why does it have to be men occupying all of these roles? Because I have to admit it, that sometimes men are only willing to listen to other men.
Men only listen to other men?
Yeah, it's obvious isn't it? Like when women talk about their rights, men feel like 'this is for your benefit, none of our interests are in this.' The resistance to new ideas is way stronger when it's a woman talking. We've tried this so many times, during trainings, seminars, and workshops. At first, we tried to have a female speaker and male participants. But there was a tendency for the participants to not listen, to ask, 'who is this woman, and why is she lecturing us men about equality? Is there a problem with equality?'
After this happened a few times, we changed our strategy. Now the opener is a man paired up with a woman facilitator, or a female speaker. These men need to act as the bridge to get other men to listen. It's the same with advocating feminist ideals.
We've tried it at the Jakarta Public Order Agency (Satpol PP) and also the government. And yes, they would only listen to their fellow men. So, as I said before, men can help start the conversations and women can weigh-in about the essential stuff.
These men will learn to listen to women. One of the hardest things a man can do is to listen to others, especially women. Men are more reluctant to listen to those they deem beneath them, to the vulnerable and powerless. That's why if we're talking to the clerics and other religious leaders, we ask for help from someone they look up to, someone they respect. The way we see it, it's pretty quick progress because it turns out many men think alike [and opt for feminism]. It's just they don't have the courage to speak up, to stand up for others, because they thought they would be labeled as 'girly' and 'less masculine.'
So you're basically using male privilege to get men to listen to you about feminism?
The most-vulnerable men are still more privileged than women. We're trying to be male allies, and that's just what Aliansi Laki-Laki Baru is trying to do. We are people with privilege an we try to use that privilege to degrade our own privileges by speaking out a public events. We use these opportunities to highlight injustice. While we're aware that we may lose our male privilege by doing os, we realize that those privileges don't really give any positive impacts for us.
Do you think that men are worried about losing this privilege? That they are fighting against their own interests?
That is a question we often ask ourselves and each other. Being privileged feels so good, so it's hard for us to leave it behind. But we know that it's for the greater good. Why not? If we could share the power, why not? It's not like men can do everything by themselves. It would be better if we could cooperate with each other, irrespective of our genders or sexual orientation. We should just see each other as fellow humans.
How is the patriarchy toxic for men too?
Ruben Osnu is one example. For the longest time, men were privileged to not give a damn about nurturing their children. Our society sees that role as exclusively a woman's responsibility. What people don't seem to notice, however, is that they want to co-parent, they want to be there for their children… to hold them, to bathe them. But men who are open about this are deemed 'less manly.'
This is dangerous. Children need their fathers too. We held a workshop where we talked about a child's relationship with their father. Almost every participant confessed that they felt somewhat detached from their fathers, but felt very close to their mothers. And in cases where the wife in a marriage has better career prospects and higher salaries, they still have to stay home because it's the husband who is supposed to take charge and be the leader. It brings more harm than good when, say the husband has a smaller salary and less career prospects.
Why do you think people are skeptical toward male allies?
I'd personally encourage our female friends to give us feedback about what we do as male allies. It important to keep us on the right track. We don't want to go on our way and end up being counter-productive.
This interview was produced in conjunction with FemFest 2017—an event discussing gender, sexuality, and feminist issues right here in Jakarta, Indonesia. The feminist festival runs from 26-27 August at SMA 1 PSKD in Central Jakarta. See the full address here.