White Ribbon Australia’s ethical dilemma

White Ribbon Australia has suspended Tanveer Ahmed as a White Ribbon Ambassador and requested that he step down. In a statement from the CEO, Libby Davies, it was made quite clear that White Ribbon Australia doesn’t support the views of Dr Ahmed. As to what these views are, the main criticisms of Dr Ahmed’s opinion piece in The Australian revolved around what feminist commentator Clementine Ford claimed was a frankly dangerous argument. The thing is however, there is a vast amount of international research that supports Dr Ahmed’s position.

The frankly dangerous argument that Clementine Ford is in opposition to is, simply put, that in order to address issues of gender inequality and violence against women, we need to address inequalities faced by both women and men. This is what she wrote in her article.1

Writing on the issue of men’s violence against women (although notably shying away from the specificity of that term), Ahmed launches a frankly dangerous argument regarding causal links between violence against women and men’s social and cultural “disempowerment”. Ahmed, a psychiatrist who was once exposed on Media Watch for repeated offences of plagiarism, warns against focusing on the impact of gender inequality on women alone, referring to the disempowerment and displacement of men whose industries are giving way to “casualised, service-oriented work with relatively low wages”.

According to Ahmed, the “feminisation” of men previously used to the security of unionised labour is a delicate issue that needs to be taken into account when addressing violence against women. Further, “family violence within newly arrived ethnic groups is often related to the sudden dilution of traditional masculinity, leaving men lost and isolated, particularly as females enjoy greater autonomy and expectations.”2

She also takes issue with very idea that some violence against women could be caused by the marginalisation or disempowerment of men. Unfortunately for both Clementine Ford and White Ribbon Australia, there is a substantial body of both Australian and international research that supports the claims that Tanveer Ahmed makes.

The claims are supported in the findings of the United Nations Multi-country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific.3

The case study from China in box 5.3 provides a life history narrative on how men’s work-related stress and perceived disempowerment within their career trajectory can manifest in men’s display of power in other spaces in their lives. Li Ma’s narrative reveals the complex interplay between feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness alongside his gendered attitude of women’s and men’s roles in society. [3 p.65]

From the given case study, Li Ma is unhappy, stressed at work and feels that he works in a feminised career. As a result he has a low life satisfaction manifested in his feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness.

Li Ma is a male nurse working in Beijing. Li Ma was a mediocre student during his early education. Although he wanted to be class monitor, his low grades prevented him from being elected, despite his efforts to improve his work. When he failed to test into high school, his older sister (a nurse also) urged him to study psychiatric nursing at medical school instead. During those studies, he envisioned his future career as easy, with relatively good pay. He began working as a psychiatric nurse in 2010, and he finds now that he is overworked, stressed and underpaid. He speaks at length about his unhappiness with his current job, but he does not want to change jobs because he does not imagine he is suitable for another profession. He believes he would not be good at other types of work because he was specifically trained as a nurse.

Li Ma seems to have an inferiority complex about his profession. He believes that because there are few male nurses, society looks down on people like him. This contributes to his job dissatisfaction. Li Ma also seems to make up for his perceived disempowerment as a male nurse by emphasizing his superiority over women. Although he says that he supports gender equality and that women are equally capable as men, he believes that men should be the main breadwinners and handle external matters while women should be in charge of the household. He believes that ‘real men’ should be mature, calm, not afraid and should be able to make their loved ones feel safe, which suggests that he finds affirmation of his masculinity within the relationship space. [3 p.67]

The study also finds that gender roles related to being a provider, work-related stress, food insecurity, low levels of education, and unemployment lead to a higher prevalence of depression in men affected by these factors.

The findings on work-related stress suggests that given the prevailing socially expected role of men as providers, work stress reveals more about men’s life experiences than simply asking about income or employment status (Barker et al., 2011). The fact that men who have current food insecurity, low levels of education, high levels of work stress, are unemployed or have sex with men are more likely to suffer from depression indicates that specific groups of men, particularly those who are economically and socially marginalized, face specific gendered health risks (WHO, 2007). [3 p.67]

And in examining causal factors for violence against women, men with depression or who have a low life satisfaction are more likely to perpetrate violence against their partners.

Depression was found to be a significant factor associated with partner violence perpetration in four countries (Bangladesh, Cambodia, China and Indonesia), and low life satisfaction in three countries (Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka). Men who had current alcohol abuse problems were more likely to have perpetrated partner violence in Cambodia and China. [3 p.72]

Looking closer to home, similar claims are also made in the stakeholder report from the Australian 2013 National Community Attitudes Towards Violence Against Women Survey. The findings show that attitudes that are supportive of violence towards women increase the longer migrants have been in the country, this is posited to be a result of women exerting greater freedoms and men attempting to regain control over them through violence.

Changes over time are most likely to be due to a backlash from some men as women assert greater freedoms in Australia and other countries of migrant and refugee settlement (Fisher 2009; Pittaway 2004; Rees & Pease 2007; True 2012; Zannettino 2012; see also p. 35). However, the possibility that violence may increase over generations suggests that other factors to which new arrivals are exposed in their new countries may also be influential.4 [4 p.80]

Also from Australia we have the paper Engaging Men from Diverse Backgrounds in Preventing Men’s Violence Against Women presented at the 2013 National Conference on Eliminating All Forms of Violence Against CaLD Women.

Experiences of immigration and resettlement also can shape men’s use of violence, their actual perpetration. As Flory’s report notes:

The experience of resettlement, particularly changes in women’s social and economic status can increase tension and the risk of violence by men towards women. Whilst women often felt empowered by changes to their social and economic status, men reported feeling disempowered and attributed conflict within the relationship to these changes. […] these changes in the gender dynamics within families often results [sic] in increased efforts by men to maintain or regain control, including through violence. (Flory 2012: 8)

Experiences of resettlement may contribute to men’s use of violence against female partners in refugee communities. James (2010: 280) highlights a series of potential dynamics here. For example, in the context of shifts in their dominant status within families, men may use violence in efforts to make their wives and children obey and show respect. Men may fear separation and divorce from their wives. As a result of war trauma, they may experience physiological arousal and respond more readily with violence.5 [5 p.7]

All three of these studies and conference presentations
support the claims made by Tanveer Ahmed.


All three of these studies and conference presentations support the claims made by Tanveer Ahmed, and all three have a single person in common, Dr. Michael Flood. He was a member of the UN study Research Technical Advisory Group, a member of the National Community Attitudes Survey (NCAS) team, co-author of the NCAS technical paper, and the presenter of the conference paper referenced. Michael Flood is also the chair of the White Ribbon Australia Research and Policy Group.6

According to the White Ribbon Australia Research and Policy Group webpage, the purpose of this group is to “provide expert advice to White Ribbon Australia to ensure our work is evidence-based and best practice.”6 The suspension of Dr Ahmed as a White Ribbon Ambassador in light of the evidence supporting his position (considering that some of this research has been conducted by Dr Michael Flood personally) seems quite contrary to the claim of White Ribbon Australia making evidence-based decisions.

Tanveer Ahmed has been suspended for the completely outrageous act of telling the truth. Something that is particularly ironic considering that White Ribbon Australia itself explicitly encouraged it’s ambassadors to speak out about the NCAS findings.7 And as a member of a culturally and linguistically diverse community, he spoke out about the issues surrounding the perpetration of partner violence in culturally and linguistically diverse communities as published in the NCAS report itself. He was doing exactly what White Ribbon Australia specifically asked him to do as an ambassador.

If White Ribbon Australia wants to seriously end violence against women using evidence-based and best practice decisions in it’s work, there is only one ethical approach to take. Admit you were wrong and reinstate Dr Ahmed as an ambassador. This is not going to be easy, but doing the right thing often isn’t. In doing this you will also have to admit that men have issues and are sometimes discriminated against, marginalised, and disempowered. If low life satisfaction and depression have a causal link to
intimate partner violence, then solving the problem requires the issues affecting both men and women be addressed. Ignoring the issues men face isn’t going to solve the problem of intimate partner violence, there is a distinct possibility it will actually make things worse (as seen in some Australian immigrant communities).

However, if White Ribbon Australia disagrees that a causal link between male disempowerment and violence against women exists, and that promoting such an idea is dangerous, then White Ribbon needs to request the resignation of Dr Flood and stop using the NCAS findings in it’s advocacy. If White Ribbon Australia is so strongly against the viewpoint of Dr Ahmed, then Dr Flood needs to go too (and the citation of Rees & Pease 2007 in the NCAS report that also supports the claim, that would be Professor Bob Pease who is also a member of the White Ribbon Australia Research and Policy Group,6 you should probably ask for his resignation too).

There is however one other approach White Ribbon Australia could take, that is to pretend that none of this exists and do absolutely nothing. But doing nothing would harm the credibility of the organisation, how can you ask one individual holding particular views to step down while at the same time continuing to engage other individuals holding the very same views as research and policy advisors? That would quite a hypocritical position to take.

White Ribbon Australia, the ball is in your court.

  1. White Ribbon – White Ribbon Australia statement: Dr Tanveer Ahmed & Clementine Ford
  2. Daily Life – White Ribbon Ambassador Tanveer Ahmed’s dangerous message on domestic violence
  3. Fulu, E., Warner, X., Miedema, S., Jewkes, R., Roselli, T. and Lang, J. (2013). Why Do Some Men Use Violence Against Women and How Can We Prevent It? Quantitative Findings from the United Nations Multi-country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific
    http://unwomen-asiapacific.org/docs/WhyDoSomeMenUseViolenceAgainstWomen_P4P_Report.pdf. Bangkok: UNDP, UNFPA, UN Women and UNV.
  4. VicHealth 2014, Australians’ attitudes to violence against women. Findings from the 2013 National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey (NCAS)
    https://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/%7E/media/resourcecentre/publicationsandresources/pvaw/ncas/ncas-stakeholderreport_2014.ashx, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, Melbourne, Australia.
  5. Flood, M. (2013). Engaging Men from Diverse Backgrounds in Preventing Men’s Violence Against Women
    http://www.xyonline.net/content/engaging-men-diverse-backgrounds-preventing-men%E2%80%99s-violence-against-women. Stand Up! National Conference on Eliminating All Forms of Violence Against CaLD Women, April 29-30, Canberra.
  6. White Ribbon – Research and Policy Group
  7. White Ribbon – White Ribbon Ambassadors Speak Out About National Survey Results
    http://www.whiteribbon.org.au/update/white-ribbon-ambassadors-speak-out-about-national-survey-results, 17 September, 2014

Recommended Content

%d bloggers like this: