The “men only” signs may no longer be needed for a U.N.-supported men-only conference on gender equality, plans for which were unveiled earlier this week by leaders of Iceland and Suriname. After some pointed criticism of the proposed January meeting in New York, the organizing countries have said that women will be — or at the very least are likely to be — allowed to attend after all…but they will still be barred from some sessions.
The somewhat muddled backtracking over the gender specific invitation list aside, gender experts say the attempt to hold a men-only meeting, something they believe is misguided, underscores the plight women have in trying to gain acceptance at the head table at international conferences.
The apparent about-turn on the January confab came just days after Icelandic Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson announced its details. Iceland and Suriname told leaders at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday they would convene the “barbershop” conference in January, in which men would discuss with other men the issue of gender-based violence.
The event would be “unique,” Sveinsson said, adding, "It will be the first time at the United Nations that we bring together only men leaders to discuss gender equality."
That statement irked experts who balk at the idea of a meeting that does exactly what they say is at the root of the problem: exclude women’s voices from participating in conversations on political decision-making.
Dyan Mazurana, associate research professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and author of a report on peace, women and security to the U.N.’s Security Council, characterized the announcement as “a lack of awareness of the history of the exclusion of women from decision-making."
"We don’t want to be spoken for, we’d like to speak for ourselves,” Mazurana added.
Gary Barker, international director of Promundo, an organization working to engage men and boys in gender equality, and a member of the Network of Men Leaders — an all-male council appointed by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon — said he disapproved of any political gathering that would reinforce the trope of men who “sit in a dark room, smoke cigars and hold on to power," saying "it reinforces the binary we're trying to break.”
Whether it was because of outside pressure or not, Suriname’s Ambassador Henry Mac Donald, permanent representative of Suriname to the U.N, subsequently announced that women would be invited alongside men after all.
“The idea is to gather males from all walks of life, not only diplomats but athletes, politicians, artists, actors, to come to the United Nations, to discuss this issue in a serious manner in order to find solutions for violence against women from a male perspective,” Mac Donald told Newsweek, describing the impetus for the conference.
“It’s not that women aren’t involved, but we will focus on how to make men and boys part of the discussion. It’s not going to be only men; women will be participating,” he said.
Iceland's Representative to the U.N. Greta Gunnarsdottir said the idea of opening some sessions just to men is an "experiment" to get more men to care about women's issues.
"We need to find a way to engage men and boys," she said. "This is just one way of doing that, by providing a forum.
"Women are excluded from the table most of the time, that’s something that my country for example, and other Nordic countries, have been trying to change."
Iceland ranks first in the World Economic Forum's gender gap index.
U.N. Women, an agency dedicated to gender equality, said in an emailed statement that the barbershop initiative is not an official U.N. conference, and that the international body would only provide technical support.
“We believe that it is important for the event to constitute a dialogue between men and women about men’s role and responsibility in promoting and achieving gender equality. It is an important opportunity to sensitize male leaders, ambassadors, and other stakeholders about the positive role they must play to implement the gender equality agenda," a spokeswoman said.
Whatever role the organizers decide to grant women in the upcoming conference, the backtracking of recent days has not put the meeting in a good light.
“The U.N. does not have a good reputation for the outcomes of men-only meetings for women’s rights,” Mazurana said. “[It] has a long and disgraceful history of men-only meetings on issues that are foundational to the rights of women. That’s unacceptable.”
Some have cited the Syrian peace negotiations in Geneva as an example of meetings at which women were underrepresented. Only a handful of Syrian women were invited to meet with international representatives at the summit, aimed at ending the years-long civil war, but they weren’t allowed around the negotiating table.
Cynthia Enloe, research professor of political science at Clark University, who joined prominent female peace negotiators from Guatemala, Bosnia and Liberia in discussions assisting the Syrian women in Switzerland, said that changing “the narratives of the politics of war,” continues to be a huge challenge for women activists in conflict zones around the world.
At the Geneva meeting, Syrian women held brightly colored banners in the hall and demanded to be included in the talks, Enloe reported, but to no avail. The 10 Syrian women who had traveled to attend were not allowed inside in the building where the male negotiators had gathered. Similarly, the U.S.-brokered Dayton Accords for peace in Bosnia in the 1990s did not include any women.
One redeeming aspect of the Icelandic conference, according to Brian Heilman, gender and evaluation specialist at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), is the awareness that the controversy was able to raise in regard to the benefits of engaging men in gender conversations. “It’s very encouraging to see such a high-level visibility campaign, and the international conversation that it sparked,” he said.
Iceland’s initiative followed U.N. Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson’s announcement of the organization’s #HeforShe campaign last week, which was promoted as a “solidarity movement” for gender equality that brings together men in support of women. In the same way that the #HeforShe campaign received criticism from some over a perception that it elevates narratives of the male role of protection over a women’s right not to be harassed, Iceland’s initiative “is still finding its feet,” Heilman said.
“I see that the intention was in the right place, but the execution is still being worked out,” he added.