Rocky Balboa, James Bond, Austin Powers.
Ben Atherton-Zeman slipped into the voices of these icons of masculinity for his little “trick using humour and theatre” to engage men and steer women’s fight against violence and abuse.
The American activist-performer presented his one-man play, Voices of Men, at American Center on Friday evening. “I’m more an activist who works as a performer,” said the 48-year-old spokesperson for the National Organisation for Men against Sexism (NOMAS), one of America’s oldest networks of men working to end men’s violence against women who performed.
Ben wrote Voices of Men 10 years ago using humour, celebrity impressions and costumes to educate audiences about gender-based violence. “I ask men to pledge to never commit, condone or remain silent about men’s violence against women. It encourages them to become a part of the solution,” said Ben, who has taken his one-man show in Canada, China, England, Turkey, South Africa and the Czech Republic. “It is now being translated and adapted culturally to Nepalese and Telugu.” He has also spoken at military bases, colleges, high schools, public theatres, conferences, houses of worship and juvenile detention facilities and worked in shelters for battered women and on domestic violence programs in the US as a community educator.
NOMAS was formed by a group of men from the second wave of American feminism in the ’70s and ’80s. “They began re-examining what it means to be a man by bringing feminist principles into manhood,” said Ben who was transformed into “redefining masculinity and challenging sexism in my ownself and attitude”.
Ben’s skill at “making funny voices” helped him with a career option that furthered his cause. He also has a pair of high-heeled shoes that “hurt” when he walks. Ben isn’t queer. He does it to create a public spectacle as part of a campaign called Walk A Mile In Her Shoes. “It’s where men wear high-heeled shoes and walk a mile as a fund-raiser and to create awareness. They also learn to listen to survivor stories and the extent of harassment. We have big built cops and football players doing it too as a statement to our commitment,” said Ben, who’d love to assist a theatre group in Calcutta.
So what made Ben one of those few rare men to stand up and steer women’s fight against violence? “I was 18 and in college when my girlfriend told me about being raped by her previous boyfriend which just knocked me out. I was upset and angry and she told me, ‘Don’t just be mad, do something about it’,” said Ben, for who, it was a conscious call at a time when there were “such few men who raised their voice in support of women”.
Ben started off by volunteering at the women’s centre on his campus. “I was one of their first male volunteers and they didn’t quite know what to do with me,” he said with a laugh. Little did he know then that he would soon land himself a, “$4, 000 job for helping battered women get restraining orders!”
Everything he did ever since was about driving home the point that “it’s not just a women’s issue but a human issue. The least we can do is listen to, learn from, seek leadership and believe women instead of questioning her”. Still a handful but Ben sees more and more men and boys “joining in, speaking out and opening up” today.
Ben signs off with a metaphor for thought. “Men are like a tree of apples. There are some low hanging ones that fall fast while some are tight green defensive ones that are hard to pull out. It’s a tree that just needs a good shaking!”