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{June 18, 2013}   Who do men think they are?

Our society proposes particular ways of being a man by esteeming some types of masculinity over others. This is how come we have categories: “a real man”, “a sissy” and so on. Needless to say, some categories are more desirable than others. My interest in this categorisation, and the hierarchy it promotes, is its inclination towards brutish masculinity; how the ideal manhood is largely constructed in relation to power and dominance. 

I think it is important to interrogate some of the thinking (as prescribed by society) that informs men’s understanding of who they are, who they are expected to be and how that influences their conduct. It is important because for every ideal way of being a man that gets promoted, there is an accompanying implication for women; who men think they are affects, to a significant extent, who they think women ought to be. We, therefore, cannot divorce the appalling sexism and GBV we witness in this country from some of these understandings.

A situation: a government minister goes on a public platform and claims that in his culture,   beating your wife is a sign of love. He sparks outrage for promoting Gender Based Violence but mostly, he gets quiet solidarity and in some sections even open support. Why? Because he was simply repeating what many men and women understand as one of the roles of a man: to “discipline” his wife whenever necessary. This stems from a broader view of women as minors who best exist under a male guardian and within this thinking, it makes sense for a wife to get “disciplined” just like a child.               

This view also accounts for other attitudes that entitle men, in different situations, to think, speak, and act on behalf of women the way you would for a young child. Today women may no longer need the written permission of their husbands to do certain things (although this requirement still exists in some cases!), but they are still expected to satisfy external approval even in personal business. It is why women and girls still get beaten and stripped naked by male strangers who do not “approve” of their “indecent dressing” because those men feel entitled to a say in what those women should or should not wear.  

A situation: a key opposition leader calls a fellow man a “woman” in a context that suggests “woman” was on that day a synonym for “coward”. Again, some outrage but largely quiet acceptance. This, I think, was because he merely stated what is widely accepted within this particular thinking. When a woman is told “she is the best man for the job” or “she has balls” (this decidedly evokes masculinity), it is meant to be a compliment as man in this context is used to represent competence, courage etc. When a man is told “he is such a woman”, this is an insult regardless of context. So you can praise a woman by calling her a man and you can shame a man by calling him a woman: what does this say about our perception of men and women? See how even men who foreground their sensitive and gentle side are sometimes shamed as “weak”, “not real men” because that nature is supposedly for women and, according to this thinking, not something respectable.

A situation: years later, the same opposition leader mentioned above calls a female political opponent, a party president like himself, a little girl and tells her to go to the market and shop if she has run out of things to cook. So here again, apart from this woman being addressed as a minor she is also being ‘reminded’ of her ‘rightful place’ in the kitchen. Again there was some outrage but no serious consequences because these remarks were not exactly a deviation from the script: the public sphere is for men and any woman who ventures there is misplaced and cannot be taken seriously. This one woman of course does not represent all Zambian women and if she was being addressed as a politician, we would have all taken it as a message for her alone. But the statement was anchored on the fact that she is a woman and it was on that basis that she was dismissed in such an insulting way: you have no business in this space, go and cook! The fact that this was not this particular politician’s first sexist statement suggested a very disturbing mindset.       

A situation: this one happened last week and although it failed to meet some basic news standards, this story is an important reference. The essence of the story, which I first saw on Facebook where it had been shared in many different groups, was that a female politician (same one mentioned above) was being offered sex with random men to “shut her up”. Apparently, she was being too vocal in her criticism of the government (on national issues that is!) so this man’s advice to “that girl” as he called her was for her to “shut up and concentrate on her broken and failed marriages”. He then went on to offer her “bedroom” solutions, in the process referring to a female government minister as a fellow quarrelsome woman who had been ‘cured’ after the said men “sorted her out” in the bedroom. So here it is again, a grown woman being called a girl and being demeaned to such appalling extents. Another woman gets dragged into an issue she’s not logically part of, just so she too can be insulted. This is partly coming from this man’s failure to deal with women who are asserting themselves in the public space and feels he needs to send   them to the bedroom (a domestic space like the kitchen) where, as he clearly states, he hopes to be the one in charge.    

Normally, you would wonder where anyone would get the courage to speak such sexist and plain ridiculous rubbish, and how it managed to get published. One critical look around, however, will show you that this rubbish is perfectly at home in our public discourse. Online commentary also daily proves that many citizens have no problem being sexist and demeaning women, in fact they enjoy it.

Does it make sense to call ourselves a democracy and even say we live in 2013 yet make it impossible for a woman to offer checks and balances or indeed express a dissenting view without risking being trashed? 

The examples cited here, and how there is no accompanying public censure to write about, are just a few indications of how much acceptance some of these attitudes enjoy. See how public figures who have dared show their disdain for women have lost neither face nor popularity; life has gone on. But again, I am yet to see a Zambian politician’s career get ruined on account of a scandal. I mean how many politicians do we have whose reputations are beyond tainted yet their careers are intact? Even being convicted by the courts of law is not enough to ruin a political career…but I digress.  

I will continue this topic in the next blog.

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