Society

The ‘recovering sexist’

Ben Zeman during a performance.

Ben Zeman during a performance.  

Performer Ben Zeman believes that every man must challenge violence and sexism in the world and in themselves

Ben Zeman is the spokesperson for the National Organisation for men Against Sexism (NOMAS) and has for the past 20 years been committed to the cause and has worked as a prevention educator for rape crisis centres and domestic violence programmes. Ben will be in the city next week to lead an interactive workshop on ‘Engaging Young Men on Stopping Violence Against Women and Promote Gender Equality’, involving representatives from NGOs working on gender related issues. He will also perform ‘Voices of Men’, his multi-media play at Lamakaan on August 12.

You used to do improvisational comedy; what inspired you to dedicate your time to educating people about gender violence?

My wife Lucinda and I met doing improvisational comedy 15 years ago – we still perform and improve to this day in our local theatre.  I’m 48 years old, and learned about gender violence from women who had experienced it.  They did me the honour of sharing what had happened to them, and asked me to become involved in violence prevention efforts.

You have travelled across the globe talking about this - what aspects of gender violence are universal?

I continue to learn from women – feminist women in particular.  One of the things they’ve taught me is this: Gender violence does not exist in a vacuum.  One man abusing one woman can only exist in a culture that favours my gender.  Street harassment, pay inequity, interrupting women, verbal abuse, power and control, workplace sexual harassment – all these micro-aggressions form the foundation upon which the more overt forms of gender violence are perpetrated.

But again – the real experts on gender violence are the survivors of that violence, and the advocates who support them.  In India, I hope to be able to support the work those advocates and those NGOs are doing on behalf of those survivors.  

What are some of the things you will be addressing during your workshops in India?

I’ll address the notion that these are somehow “women’s issues.”  Most perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence are men – yet most men are not rapists and batterers.  But we men stay on the sidelines when it comes to speaking out against this violence.  We men need to become active in speaking out against violence, and in supporting women’s leadership on these issues.  

I’ll address the notion of blaming the victim.  We need to stop asking “why doesn’t she leave (her abusive partner)” and start asking “Why does he have the right to abuse her?”  We need to stop asking “why did she go with him” and start asking “why did he rape her?”  We need to stop asking “why was she walking there” and start asking “Why did they harass her?”  

What is the response from men after listening to one of your talks or attending one of your workshops? How do young boys respond?

Many of my performances, the audience is not there voluntarily.  The performance is part of an orientation session for college, or a mandatory training for the military.  So many men will become defensive, or “tune out.”  But even in those situations, many men will approach me afterwards and ask how they can get involved.  Some men will contribute time and money to NGOs that work to stop violence.  Some men email me and say, “I’ve been waiting all my life to stand for something – this is the work I’m going to do.”

What do you think is the right age to start talking to children about gender violence?

How young are children victimised by gender violence?  In the United States, rape prevention educators facilitate workshops for children as young as 8 or 9, using puppets instead of a Power Point presentation.  Age-appropriate education is not the problem – the violence itself is the problem.  

What do you think your greatest challenges in India would be?

Leaving!  I have a feeling I’m going to fall in love with India and with the work being done there to stop gender-based violence.  Hopefully I’ll be able to keep in touch with the activists I meet via Facebook and email.  

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2020 2:28:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/the-recovering-sexist/article6295834.ece

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