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I run a feminist group, but today I am celebrating International Men’s Day

The Guardian logo The Guardian 19/11/2018 Carys Afoko

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Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Today is International Men’s Day – and I’m celebrating it for the first time. I have to admit I’ve taken myself by surprise on this one. If you’d told me I would be doing this a year ago I would have laughed in your face. Or assumed “celebrate” was code for “take the p*** out of some arrogant dudes on Twitter”. Because feminists don’t celebrate International Men’s Day, right?

What’s changed since 2017 is that I quit my job to run a feminist startup. In other words, I took a huge professional risk and a big pay cut. Then, in April, my personal life began to implode. Work was going well, but that was the only thing that was. I started reading about Brexit and Donald Trump for light relief. I was a strong, confident woman who couldn’t admit she needed help. Asking friends and family for support felt needy. So I pretended everything was fine and most people assumed it was.

             

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But not the men in my life. The handful of men I am lucky to count among my close friends have made this year bearable. One of them is a new dad, but when I told him I was having a tough time he immediately arranged to take me for a drink after work, even though it meant missing his son’s bedtime. My male friends who don’t live in the same city as me stayed up late into the night WhatsApping me about my feelings. They listened patiently to me explain how hard I was finding life, without any judgment. My younger brother has been my rock. Sending me silly gifs and television shows to watch. Taking me to Nando’s when I could barely leave the house. Dispensing his unique brand of tough love whenever I was about to do something self-destructive.

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Before you send me an angry tweet about letting down the sisterhood, I have plenty of close friends who aren’t men and I love them all. But I realised this year that I’m better at celebrating women and non-binary people in my life. I send them cards. I buy them books and flowers. I tell them how beautiful they are and swoon over cute pictures of their babies. Aside from the occasional heart emoji on WhatsApp, I never tell the men in my life how much they mean to me or how grateful I am to know them.

Feminists know that sexism hurts everyone, including men. Two women a week in England and Wales are killed by a current or former partner. World Economic Forum statistics suggest gender equality in the UK has not improved in the past 10 years. If you are like me, those facts probably make you feel sad and angry. But I’m just as sad and just as angry that in the UK men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women, that we live in a country that celebrates men such as Philip Green and is surprised to learn they abuse their power. Feminist men are told what they need not to be, but we rarely tell positive stories about boys and men.

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This feels obvious to me as a black woman. My earliest memory is going to St Thomas’ hospital to meet my baby brother. He is two years younger than me and has been 6 ft 7in since he was 18. I saw first-hand how differently we were treated, even though we grew up in the same community. We were both bright and sensitive, both geeky and eager-to-please teenagers. Time and again, society punished him for things it celebrated in me. He had a tough time at school. I kept my head down and was a straight-A student. When I walk down the street I deal with street harassment. Depending on what he wears and which area of the country he is in, he has to deal with an overt racism I rarely encounter. I know in the pit of my stomach that I want to live in a country where a man like my brother is celebrated for the right things. Like how smart and funny he is, and how caring and protective he can be. As much fun as it can be to b**** about men, I’m not going to be part of a culture that vilifies them any more.

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Not celebrating men has a lot of negative consequences. It feeds into a culture where some men feel empowered to bully and harass, while others struggle with mental health problems in silence. The organisation I run, Level Up, looks for tangible ways for all of us to work together to end sexism. The small things that chip away at a big problem. Taking the time to celebrate International Men’s Day isn’t about closing the pay gap or the orgasm gap. It won’t make it harder for men to talk about their feelings, but it might make it easier. It won’t end violence against women and girls. But it might make the men who are great fathers, brothers and colleagues feel a bit braver. It might give those men the courage to tell a friend not to ghost people on Tinder. Or that taking someone home from a party who is too drunk to speak is not OK.

Women are not all delicate emotional flowers who need to be protected and rescued. Men are not all violent and sexually aggressive brutes who are only after one thing. Some people don’t even identify as women or men. All of us are living in a culture that puts us into boxes based on old-fashioned ideas that are well past their sell-by date. So if, like me, you’re tired of being forced to think and act a certain way based on your gender, join me in celebrating the men in your life today.

Watch: Equal Pay Day: Why Women Are 'Working For Free' [HuffPost UK]

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