This Country Made a Very Sexist Misstep

There are bad ideas, and then there are bad ideas, and then there's planning a conference about violence against women and only inviting men. If you think this sounds like something you'd hear about in The Onion, you're not alone, but there's no need to check for any Facebook satire alerts; this is unfortunately very real. Iceland is planning a UN conference about gender equality, with a special emphasis on violence against women, and has decided, for some unknown reason, that they will only allow men and boys to attend. This is really happening.

The Icelandic Foreign Minister who announced this idea, Gunnar Bragi, says that the conference will take place in January of 2015. He referred to it as a "barbershop" conference, whatever that's supposed to mean, and said that it would be place "where men will discuss gender equality with other men, with a special focus on addressing violence against women." He added that it will be "the first time at the United Nations that we bring together only men leaders to discuss gender equality." And here I was, thinking that it was a good thing the UN had never barred women from discussions about violence against women.

Obviously, this is a bad idea. In fact it's a bad idea on so many levels it's hard to count them all. First and foremost there's the simple (and, in an ideal world, self-evident) fact that not including women in discussions about violence against women is just another way of denying our agency. Apparently, our problems are not something that we should have an active role in combatting, but something to be discussed by men without our input or participation. It's insulting to say the least, not to mention counter-productive to actually combatting gender violence.

Equally insulting is the idea that men even think they can solve issues of gender inequality and gender violence without women's input. By its very nature, violence against women (along with myriad other gender inequalities), is something best understood by women. Men have the luxury of not needing to think about this stuff in the same way; women, largely, do not have that luxury, and as such it is the work of women that has brought these issues to the forefront, and it has been women who've provided the analytic framework necessary to even discuss these problems. To dismiss all of that by not including female voices is to devalue the decades of work that many women have done. And to act as though women are not needed in a conversation about women's issues is not only unspeakably arrogant but also delusional given how the entire movement to combat gender violence has always been led by women.

Iceland's Foreign Minister stated that the conference wants "to bring men and boys to the table on gender equality in a positive way," and that's an admirable goal. I'm a firm believer that men and boys should care about gender violence — everyone should care about gender violence. But this conference is not bringing men and boys to the table; this is giving men and boys a separate table, far away from those pesky women and their years of lived experience that makes other people uncomfortable and their justified anger that nobody wants to face up to.

You do not teach people better respect for women by keeping women out of the room. You do not advance conversations about gender violence by keeping both the foremost experts and those most impacted out of the room. Bringing men and boys into feminist discourse by keeping women out is not bringing anyone to the table "in a positive way." It just teaches these men and boys that women — actual flesh and blood human women — are incidental to these conversations, not central as they should be. And re-centering feminist discourse around men and what makes them most comfortable is so anti-feminist it makes my head spin around.

You do not teach people better respect for women by keeping women out of the room.

The strangest part about all of this, though, is that Iceland is one of the top-ranked countries for gender equality, so you'd think they'd have a bit of a better handle on this stuff. So hopefully someone steps in and deals with this hot mess before things get any further. Because I can't see how a conference like this could possibly be a positive force for the fight against gender violence.

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