Apr 24, 2019
Guest article written by Eve Bradley
Women's March 2018
I feel comfortable saying that Model United Nations (MUN) has always been somewhat problematic. It's only after events at a recent conference that I’ve realised that very few people understand unequivocally why. For me, MUN’s issues are spawned by the nature of the beast; an imitation of a political body which is dominated by men, who often hold outdated, patriarchal opinions and beliefs about women. This will invariably cause sexism in practise. The UN is a Boys Club in which well over half of countries represented either legally, socially, or culturally discriminate against women. MUN, in my personal experience, is no different.
As a delegate, sexism is less noticeable. Slight patriarchal biases influence behaviour, just like they do in everyday life. You might notice your idea, which was previously dismissed, be taken more seriously when repeated by a male delegate; maybe you’re passed over for a male delegate to speak for a paper a group have written, when you know you would be better suited. Very often, these microaggressions are not picked up on; maybe the group just didn’t hear you properly, or maybe your male counterpart really is better suited for the job of speaking for your paper than you are. It’s that uncertainty that makes this kind of sexism so hard to detect or be sure about. Whilst these are, in the grand scheme of things, minor micro-aggressions, when repeated over time, they become a symptom of an attitude which is left unchallenged on the circuit.
These differences in attitude and sexist influences are way more evident, to me, when staffing a conference as a Chair, and in Crisis committees. Maria Slobodina, an experienced Crisis staffer, wrote an article on Gender Equality on the Crisis circuit, explaining how crisis had been “run by men for men” for years, at the expense of gender inclusivity, and how toxic masculine biases make Crisis somewhat hostile to women as “both the real participants and the characters within crisis storylines”. Whilst bringing up specific cases and examples, she notes that:
“In the vast majority of cases, there is no conscious desire to offend. Instead, there seems to be a system that has failed to adapt to the changes of its demographic and the broader global movement for gender equality. […] Although single instances of these behaviours may seem benign or unintentional to some, when taken together they present quite an unfortunate reality that we should want to change.”
On this, I have to agree. Both in GA and in Crisis, I believe that men who intentionally or knowingly act in a manner which makes the women around him uncomfortable are few and far between. This being said, ignorance does not justify discrimination, and I hold very little patience for those who have been called out and who continue with sexist behaviour, and for those who should know better.
Recently, I staffed a conference which had a Wellbeing service. For the entire weekend, an office was open with a female Wellbeing officer present to hear any complaints or grievances bought forwards by anyone at the conference, and provided a safe space for people to bring complaints, worries or queries to. This was, in practise, an amazing resource which I feel has been missing on the circuit, which was very well executed by the conference. Over the weekend, I saw the policy be made into a joke; some people felt that Wellbeing was overkill, took away from the “fun” of the weekend, and overly policed all attendees in an effort to push “extreme political correctness” on people. I would like it noted that as far as I could tell, most of those who believed this were men; when speaking to my female friends in private, we overarchingly agreed that Wellbeing was good practice and should become standard. The problem here is that to an extent, my female friends and I joined in with the jokes we heard about Wellbeing; somebody would say something about our personal lives, or make a risqué joke, and another would say “Wellbeing!”, to our amusement. Why would we mock something which we all agreed protected us?
To my eyes, the MUN circuit often falls foul to the use of humour to cover opinions and statements which should be deemed problematic. The best example of this I can think of, is at another conference where an award was given during the official closing ceremony to the Best Meme created over the weekend. The meme itself was an edit of a meme created by and popularised in Incel chat rooms. Incels (Involuntarily Celibates), are an online subculture whose members believe that they have been unfairly denied sex by women because they're unattractive or socially awkward. They exist for the most part online, supporting each other in their beliefs of women as subordinates or possessions which they feel they are entitled to, and sharing violent content and ideas with each other. Most recently, terrorist attacks in Canada in 2018 and in the United States in 2014 have been linked to the subculture.
When I found out the nature of the joke, I was shocked, and made the assumption that those around me, and those who gave the award, were unaware of the Incel connotations. However, I was wrong; the overarchingly male secretariat of the conference knew where the joke had come from, laughed about it, published it for those at the conference to see, and then congratulated the content with an award. To me, that should have been a direct breach of a Wellbeing service, had there been one; spreading Incel culture, consciously or unconsciously, is not a joke. And again, when I informed my friends, who all accepted this as deplorable, we sat and said nothing. As I see it, silence seems to be a trend on the MUN circuit; I’d like to bring forward another instance where I said nothing.
On the MUN circuit, it’s easy to get close to people, spending an entire exhausting 3 or 4 days in close proximity, and to my eyes, there is nothing wrong with making close friends and developing relationships with people you meet and spend time with at conferences. The problem begins when female staffers are repeatedly shamed and subjected to sexist ideals which take away from any of their academic integrity, and reduce them to simply, “girl”.
The classic bro culture where men are applauded for their sexual “conquests”, whilst women are shamed for the same behaviour is alive and kicking in the MUN universe. For example, I chaired at a conference in 2018, and designed a debate which I was extremely passionate about. The debate was done extremely well by the delegates; having clocked a significant amount of time on it throughout the term, I was extremely angry to hear how, rather than remarking on my success, the only thing I heard from my peers was how I had been too flirty with a friend. Over the weekend, this point was further enhanced, when at the closing ceremony, instead of being commended for my hard work, a joke was cracked at my expense, ridiculing me. The fact that this comes here angers me; I should not have to ever justify my personal life nor my choices. Yet, it’s important for me to bring this up here, because I hear so many similar stories from friends on the circuit.
It’s important to call out the blatant double standard. I feel completely sure that had I been male, talk would not have focused on such matters but instead on congratulating me for my dedication, such that my personal life would not have impeded on my ‘professional’ achievement. In this instance, just like other very similar experiences my friends and I have had since, I chose to do nothing. I did not speak out, and I did not bring it to any form of authority. I was subject to direct slut shaming over the weekend, my academic integrity was repeatedly belittled, and I said nothing.
Because of the nature of MUN, I hold those who participate in it to a higher standard. It should be standard to expect experienced MUN staffers, secretariat members and delegates to understand how gender biases affect equity in the real UN and by extension, in MUN. It should also be the norm to expect MUN-ers to be respectful and supportive of the idea of equal opportunity. Personally, I expect any sexism in MUN to be condemned, but overall, I feel that MUN often fails to reach that standard. MUN as a whole should have no tolerance whatsoever for the kind of behaviour which supports or allows gender biases to affect performances and recognition at conferences; we should be better than that, because as the younger generation, we should be championing change, not support or be indifferent towards a system which effectively keeps women silent.