- UPDATE: 27 September, 2010
I had taken this post down because I did not feel comfortable engaging with this topic with an online community before I had a chance to let the organization I worked for know how I felt about it, particularly as the comments here got heated.
I have since left that organization, due to irreconciliable differences in our feminisms, and am eager to continue the dialogue around the problematic actions that are peppered throughout our social movements.
I have a couple of interesting points to add about this issue, including reporting on the dialogue that is happening among certain feminist circles about the event. More to follow... Watch this space!
I work at a women’s sexual assault center where the majority of the work is counseling and advocacy. The staff listen to and validate traumatic stories from women daily, and strive to maintain a safe space for them at the center. Only women are allowed to volunteer, and to serve on the board. The team I lead does slightly different work. We focus on prevention. We encourage young people to break free of constricting gender roles. And the only male on staff works on my team.
The vast majority of all sexual assaults are perpetrated by men. My job is to find ways to engage with men to stop male violence. By the very nature of my work, I cannot see boys and men as the enemy. The main prevention strategy I use is to find the boys and men who do not themselves initiate misogyny, but are too afraid to challenge their peers. We give them the tools and motivation to do so. Thankfully, there are many such boys and men and I am privileged to work and play with men who call themselves feminist and break out of gender roles. These men are queer and straight and only some of them were born male.
When the center I work for organizes an event called Walk A Mile in Her Shoes to fund-raise, I cringe. This is an event where men are encouraged to walk in flamboyant women's high heeled shoes for a mile and pledge funds to the sexual assault center.
I cannot ask my friend who transitioned from female to male just a few years ago to participate. I feel it would mock his journey.
How do I explain this event to my friend who is saving money up to transition from male to female. And in the meantime, faces harassment and violence every day for wearing makeup and women’s shoes in a male body.
And what of my male friend who plays both music and sports and meticulously paints his nails a bright red every week?
I have male friends who challenge gender norms in meaningful ways everyday. They share housework, childcare and financial decisions with their female partners. They do not need to show their support for women through this trivial exercise.
The event somehow seems to give the false impression that walking a few steps in high heels helps men understand the sufferings, deprivation, incredible courage and resilience of women around the world oppressed by patriarchy?!!
I have heard that men who participate in the event bet among themselves about who can raise the most money. The person who loses has to wear bright pink shoes with the highest heels in the group. The message these men seem to be taking away is that a real man always wins. Losing identifies him with femininity or weakness and is to be laughed at.
And finally, at the end of the march, the men get to take off their shoes, and go back to their lives where they never have to question their male privilege. If that is not an example of systemic power, I don't know what is. None of the men in the march would be walking in my shoes, because I never wear high heels. I do not wear make-up, and I hardly wear any jewelery. Because of my personal history, it is empowering for me to reject these symbolic markers of femininity. I am aware, though, that I have enough agency in my life to make that choice. Of course, many women wear high-heeled shoes, jewelery and make-up as a style choice. However, there are also many situations particularly in the life of working-class women, where there is no room to express personal style. These women may not have the agency to wear flats even if their back, knees and feet are injured by wearing high heels. I will never forget the tall, strikingly beautiful woman that I met who had worked as a model and a television newscaster in her home country, Guyana. She casually showed me the long surgical scars on both sides of her two feet due to a condition caused by wearing high heels for her career.
It seems to me that what the march demonstrates is that men can ‘kick off the high heels’ whenever they choose. How does this help the women who can’t?