Recently (yesterday), SIUE participated in the national event known as “Walk A Mile in Her Shoes.” As is typical of such programs across the nation, and as described in a press release from SIUE earlier today, “Men crammed their feet into red high heels and walked on the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville on Tuesday, Feb.13 to support women and to bring attention to gender-based violence.” While a post-event session offered by SIUE’s Prevention and Education Advocacy Center (PEACe) offered much more depth and a chance to really learn about being active bystanders and preventing violence, the event itself is often reduced in the public perception to being about the red shoes walk, itself. Our own Prof. Saba Fatima (SIUE Philosophy Department) reflects on this public perception of these kinds of events–not necessarily the SIUE event itself–in a blog entry authored before the event took place. Note that this public perception is reflected in the way that the University’s press release covered the event even though the event itself contained a much richer opportunity to explore issues of gender, sexual harassment, and other aspects of sexism.
Across US campuses, men get involved in “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” event an effort to raise awareness for violence against women. So on Feb. 13th SIUE men walked in high heels to literally experience what it feels like to walk in a woman’s shoes. The idea is an event that is a “playful opportunity for men to raise awareness in their community about the serious causes, effects and remediations to men’s sexualized violence against women.”
The whole point of ‘Walk a Mile Her Shoes’ is to get a glimpse of what women experience. The walk is generally followed by providing productive information that focuses on raising awareness about sexual violence. I think everyone that organizes & participates in it has their heart in the right place, but perhaps we need to rethink specifically the ‘high heels’ activity that accompanies this intent. I cannot help but think that there is something off about men walking in high heels to experience women’s experiences. Here are a few thoughts on it:
· The experience of walking in heels is not the relevant experience that men need to gain insight on, in order to understand the pernicious nature of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape. The pertinent experience is understanding the experience of being devalued as a human being, being treated as an object, experiencing overpowering social dynamics, and/or just understanding what it feels like to be disrespected day in and day out because one is seen as a (mere) woman.
· In some sense, the walk in heels continues to make fun of women; women wear, what seem like to many, painful shoes and supposedly do so simply for vanity. The environment at “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” events is generally festive, where often men are more keen on making fun of each other for walking wobbly, rather than actually discussing what it would mean to be a good ally to survivors and to do the work of breaking the toxic cycle of patriarchy & misogyny.
· The walk ends up being self-congratulatory and is not oriented toward actual action.
· A lot of women do not wear heels. They wear practical winter boots, and joggers, and flats, and comfortable sandals. Wearing heels is not the experience of many women and the practice of wearing heels ends up reinforcing gender norms.
Instead of wobbling around in heels in a festive walk, we can do so much more! Maybe we can make the talk that generally follows the high-heel-walk the central event, or the men can do a walk around campus holding signs that invite people to the talk (without the heels), or do a teach-in on sexual violence with various voices from across campus, or do a talk about the pervasiveness of rape culture. Or maybe, we can read & discuss narratives by diverse voices of women to see how we as women describe our own experiences. You know, walk a mile our shoes.
Saba Fatima is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Her research interests include issues concerning social justice, often but not limited to issues that concern prescriptive Islam and Muslim/Muslim-Americans. In her spare time, she likes to write some more.