A way forward for men and gender equality

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In disquiet, the seed of a new understanding:
A way forward for men and gender equality
By Abhijit Das

Every day the news is becoming painfully similar. A man in the US has shot students in a school or college, a gang of young men had a street fight somewhere leaving many dead and wounded, a young man is arrested in a European country for being part of a terrorist plot that killed and maimed many people somewhere else, a man has raped a girl, a brother has shot his sister for planning to marry a man of her choice in Pakistan, a father killed his children and then his wife before hanging himself somewhere deep in the central part of India. The list is endless.

 

Men all over the world are in the news for killing, shooting, raping, road rage, domestic violence, honour killing, acid attacks and many more forms of violence against others – women, men, children, sisters, children, wives. Society has often glorified violence and killing, especially in wars aimed at political gain and public safety, where the other ‘party’ is cast as the enemy. But in recent times such ‘heroic’ acts of violence seem to be replaced by more inter-personal violence, or violence which is not aimed at any obvious enemy. And this disease seems to affect men everywhere.

 

In the last few weeks I have had discussions with the leadership of a number of development organisations who have asked me about ways they could start a conversation with men in the communities that they work in. All these organisations have been working with women for years, in some cases decades. Women had organized into community groups, they were engaged in different kinds of economic activity, were bringing more money into their households, but now because they were more articulate and mobile and had more aspirations for themselves they  faced resistance from men in their families and in their communities. The request was that we work with men at community and family levels to create a more supportive and enabling environment for these obviously empowered women.

 

You may be wondering, what is the relationship between the violence by men that I have described in the first instance and the societal and familial control exerted by men in the second? For me the relationship lies in our expectation of men in the family and in society. In the second case there is an expectation now that the men become facilitative of women’s new aspirations, provide them with encouragement, or at least space and opportunity. While I can understand where the anxiety of the organisations comes from, and respect their understanding of women’s rights, I feel that they have failed to understand how patriarchy — a society based on men’s primacy — creates men and leads to a kind of ‘hegemonic’ masculinity which controls not only through boundaries, orders, coercion and force but equally through a kind of overweening concern and protectiveness. Men are comfortable being in a position of authority tinged by fear, and if we work with men to make them understand women’s need for more opportunity and space, moving men to this different position can become equally problematic, as some can become violent or cruelly controlling when their  control is challenged.

 

This phenomenon, of men becoming cruel and violent when their comfort levels are upset or challenged, is at the core of the high levels of violence that we are witnessing everywhere.

 

Violence, control and coercion are key to expressions of power, and as mentioned earlier, society often valorizes these expressions for purposes of ‘safety’ and ‘discipline’. Boys are trained to become men in all families, internalizing masculine roles through myths, stories, games, toys, comic books, video games, TV serials  — this list is endless, too. Even the most well-meaning mother prepares her son for his future role by encouraging study, sports and outdoor life, and discouraging the practice of household work, or of art, music or dolls.

 

Among the emotions allowed by masculinity, being sad is discouraged, and anger is allowed but immediately pacified or satisfied so that disappointment doesn’t linger. Today boys are encouraged to be happy and successful at all costs, and they are not at all trained to manage disappointment. So we raise boys to be men who are familiar with being in positions where their needs are satisfied — in other words, to be in positions of authority and power. They know they can express dissatisfaction through anger and believe that violence by people in positions of authority can be morally justified if it is against an ‘enemy’. Taken together this can become a very toxic mix.

 

But the real world is very different from the cocoon of the family. It is full of potential disappointments and frustrations. Today the world order is changing rapidly. Subordinate social classes are now much more assertive, livelihood opportunities are evaporating, jobs are insecure and there is increasing poverty. In many cases, the security of the home is becoming lost due to patterns of migration. There are more men who find their world topsy-turvy and fewer reside in the comfort zone of continued privilege and authority. In this confusion many try to hang on to  earlier security blankets of caste, ethnic, race or religious–based superiority. And many groups are in turn preying on this insecurity of young men. The killing of bloggers in Bangladesh or the ISIS, they all seem to be feeding off this phenomenon. Men now see the ‘enemy’ everywhere and thus their violence is justified. This sense now has come to infuse politics everywhere as well.

 

The staggering economic growth of neo-liberal capitalism, coupled with the technological revolution have not only given the world unprecedented rates of change, but have also led to increasing social and economic division all over the world. Women have been aspiring for social, economic and political changes and achieving them for the last hundred years. Women have fought for changes and so are adapting to the overall environment of change much better than men. The fact that women at home are aspiring for change and adapting to change so easily also makes enemies out of them. This may explain some of the violence that is happening at home and in the community. At the same time men’s inability to cope with change sometimes induces a deep sense of failure. Failure is a phenomenon men are not trained to deal with. From childhood onwards success is the only credo they have learnt – in school, in the field, in the battle field. Believing that a man who has lost has no honour, many failed farmers in India have opted for suicide, leaving their families to manage their inherited debt. Women, better trained to manage failure, and continue on in their absence.

 

Where does this analysis leave us in our dealings with men? What pathways to a different future does it indicate? Some of us who have been engaged in women’s empowerment have been experimenting with how to work with men as allies in this process. In the last two decades or so we have learnt some lessons about how we may work towards a better future.

 

Many men find the incidents of violence that I mentioned in the first paragraph ‘upsetting’, or ‘gross’, or ‘unacceptable’. It is a matter of hope that there are such men, because in this feeling of disquiet is the seed of a new understanding of human relations. In many cases this sense of disquiet is followed by a rationalization that such violence happens among ‘others,’ or by avoiding such news, or in some cases by  an intellectual discussion about the state of the world which creates sufficient distance between such events and our personal world to render them harmless.

 

The beginning to a different future lies in the acknowledgment that the problem is not in ‘those’ men or communities, but in the men we ourselves bring up — our boys — through our own unconscious reinforcement of hegemonic masculinity. The most enlightened parent concerned about equality between the sexes will say “I bring up my daughter like a son” but it is never the reverse. Boys are never taught the values of nurturing and empathy, of managing adversity and failure, and to manage for themselves. Among all classes it is nearly universal for a boy not to clean his own dishes or his own clothes. This is not just a training for future participation in domestic work but a valuable lesson in self-sufficiency. Of course there is a pressure to succeed, but rarely an emphasis on collaboration, cooperation or respect for others. Equally if not even more important is the need to train boys to manage disappointment.

 

Now let me come to the afore-mentioned discussions I’ve had with leaders of development organisations and the problem that they see women in their communities facing. Here too the solution does not lie in the most obvious approaches, i.e., asking men to loosen control at home and to protect women in public places. These approaches, as I mentioned earlier, can inadvertently create greater paternalistic concern and control.

 

We have found through our work that to create greater gender collaboration between women and men we need to work from the place where there is the least contest. In the typical patriarchal set-up, public space belongs to men and private space is the women’s domain, but under masculine control. This control is maintained either directly or indirectly through other senior women like the mother-in-law. There is little interaction between women and men, even husbands and wives, in the home or personal space. An obvious symptom of this dynamic is men not sharing housework. However, even child care is often the sole domain of women. In rural India we have found that there are many physical barriers between husbands and wives interacting with any degree of intimacy. Similarly, brothers and sisters often drift apart after puberty. Fathers are not close to young children, since the latter reside within the women’s domain and only when sons become men through a coming-of-age ritual does the ‘man-to-man’ bond strengthen. We have found some men regret the lack of closer interaction with their wives, with their daughters, or even their sisters and sisters-in-law.

 

In our work we have found that building closer relations with women at home has enabled men to understand the value of empathy. In forging closer relations with their children, men have come to value the virtues of care, nurture and sharing. And this has happened with adult men in their twenties and thirties, and even older. In addition, men can be encouraged to develop a new sense of fairness which is able to see through the limitations of social arrangements of patriarchy. Taking this a step forward, we have successfully encouraged men to take stands on caste and religious discrimination as well. But the initial step was taken via the roles and relations in the family.

 

I have heard friends say that this kind of work is essentially ‘reformist’ and not sufficiently political, as it does not adequately address deeply ingrained power inequalities embedded in society. Others have said that it lays too much emphasis on the private and personal sphere and not the public or political space. I hear them and I understand their anxiety. My justification of our approach is not only through my own personal practice and some small- and large-scale community-based interventions, but also draws on a nuanced understanding of power and privilege and how it is exercised and experienced.

 

A politically-sound approach towards social justice or an envisioned world with less violence and more mediated solutions to it cannot come from work with the violent and the under- privileged alone. Many political movements have been born from a sense of injustice and claims for rights and justice. However, acknowledgement of this reality requires people in positions of power and privilege to change their own actions and exercise of power accordingly. In the battlefield the loser loses power; in a negotiated settlement a third party is often asked to mediate so that there is acceptable ‘loss of face’ for the party which is required to cede most in the settlement.

 

In society there is often no third party. To get where we want to get – to gender equality – men need to give up their positions of authority, which requires first that they acknowledge that their present advantages of power and privilege are often one-sided and lead to the subordination of others. But they have never given up power without loss of face. At home and within intimate relationships they can give up power without loss of face and become used to a sense of comfort without wielding power and authority. This can serve as is valuable practice for creative use of men’s ability to share power and yield authority in public spaces without a sense of loss. We have seen it happen, over and over and in different situations.

 

We believe that there is no better time than the present to take these lessons to scale. If we feel that what we see around is unacceptable, if we believe in the fundamental equality among all humans, then we can adopt these simple ways of behaving towards others and the way we raise our children, especially our boys. In it lies the only hope for the profound changes that we all want to see for the world which we leave behind for our children. If you agree, share this with you friends.

 

 

 

 

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