What are the barriers that women face because of their culture? What does woman empowerment mean in your culture? And more importantly, what is the role of men, specifically, in breaking these barriers?

These are a few of the questions we addressed at the Women and Taboos Panel on the 3rd of March 2020. I invited three panelists for the discussion: Sondos Abdelgaw, a female entrepreneur and the Vice President for new business development in a company; Lucia Ferrerio, who is currently conducting research on the reaction of men to feminism; and Waleed Abu Nada who created Champ Camp in Jordan’s largest Palestinian refugee camp to create champions amongst young girls and boys alike. Through the discussion, we wanted to applaud those men that have helped empower women while also acknowledging that there is still a large gap in the fight for gender equality. Unfortunately, this was also visible at our panel, where only two albeit enthusiastic male students showed up when our topic of discussion was the role of men in empowering women.

We started off by watching ‘Period. End of Sentence’ an Oscar-winning short documentary about Muruganantham, a man in India who created low-cost sanitary napkins for women to use during menstruation. Particular scenes and sentences can tell one so much about a culture. The reaction of men towards the word ‘period,’ where they treated it as if it was a disease, and then later pretended as if the women were making diapers for children in their houses said a lot about the taboo around menstruation in India. Yet, there was something really beautiful in the documentary. All Muruganantham did was provide this one machine and a few raw materials to create the sanitary napkins. The rest was left up to the women. We watched these women produce the napkins and then go around knocking door-to-door trying to sell them. By the end of the story, these women had gained skills they never even thought they needed. Their first earnings, equivalent to 3 euros, brought a smile to their faces and you could tell that they had already felt the empowerment that comes from being more proactive and becoming a little more financially independent. And adding to that, they ensured a safer menstrual life for all the girls and women in the village. In a country where 23 million girls drop out of school every year when they start menstruating, this one step is bound to transform Indian society. All because a man provided them with a single machine.

One of the recurring words throughout the panel was ‘empathy’. Empathy towards the women as well as men. Sondos, who has been working in a male-dominated finance sector, found herself the leader of many male engineers at one point. Her advice to us: make allies out of men. You don’t need to be their friends nor their enemy. But she understood early on, that if she wanted to progress, she would need these allies. And how should one do that? She put herself in the shoes of these men and imagined what they felt. A woman leading them threatened their position and in some ways, their masculinity. She knew that ordering them or being forceful would, unfortunately, not help in gaining their respect. She had to thus, find a way in which she maintained her leadership role while not seeming to offend the employees. Lucia too agreed that although many feminists may not approve, a non-confrontational approach is very effective in empowering women, especially when the cultural context is considered.

The men at the panel brought up an interesting point. Men often want to help but there is a gap between what men think women need and what women actually need. To this, Waleed’s humble answer was: Ask the woman. If a man doesn’t know what the woman wants, he will not be able to support her or empower her. Again, this is usually because a lot of times, men haven’t felt the same pain that many women have or they just haven’t been in the same situations. It is their lack of empathy that leads them to misguided actions of support. And sometimes, it’s not their fault. They’ve not had anyone to tell them so otherwise. The solution to that is to have great role models. While we focused on how important it is for women to have significant male role models, boys at a young age also need inspiring female figures to understand the best way they can support women in the future.

Moreover, we agreed that although the role of a man should be active, it should not reiterate the notion of a ‘damsel in distress’. Here, the man feels the need to uplift a woman but even after she has accomplished her goals, she is still very dependent on him. Women have all the courage and drive to create opportunities and uplift themselves. So maybe a man doesn’t have to play an active role where he is constantly fighting with society for women’s rights. Maybe it’s best if he takes a step back and just helps the woman recognize her own potential let her lead her own way. Eventually, when she does accomplish her goals, she knows that the majority of it was due to her own determination along with the encouragement of those around her.

Sitting in a room full of students from different countries, we recognized that one thing we have in common is our privilege. And I don’t mean a privilege that comes from our economic background or social class. But especially for the girls out there, it was the privilege that came from our families, particularly our fathers, encouraging us to receive an education. Sondos’s father always said that “if you want an impossible task to be done, give it to a woman”. A man often recognizes a woman’s potential once he has received an education. We often undermine this tool. But it is this very tool that will help us become more rational humans, helps us learn our rights, helps us realize what is okay in our culture and what is not, helps us form our own opinions and most importantly, become self-reliant since that is the essence of an empowered woman.