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{September 10, 2013}   Supremacy and masculinity

This is the third and final part of my series on understandings of what it means to be a man and some of the implications for both men and women.

As earlier pointed out, the masculinity that our society promotes as ideal is largely constructed in relation to power and dominance. It therefore follows that dominance, particularly over women, is a significant marker of ‘real’ manhood. This is well in line with patriarchal ideology which positions the man as ‘naturally’ superior and the woman inferior. It must be said right here that there is nothing natural about this hierarchy; it is socially constructed to serve particular interests and it is necessary to interrogate whose interests get negated in this process. 

In order for this ‘superior man’ type of masculinity to be achieved, women are required to take up a subservient role; one that does not threaten the man’s ‘natural headship’. This is why the centuries- old project to constrain women and keep them ‘in line’ remains relevant and much protected to this day. Most of the methods have changed, obviously, but the goal remains pretty much the same.

Consider how a woman’s empowerment and success beyond a certain level is constructed as a bad thing for herself and others. This woman, the one who asserts herself in arenas beyond what patriarchal thinking has assigned her, is bound to face all kinds of opposition and negativity from both men and women. This is because the place she now assumes contradicts her ‘natural’ place as a woman and consequently challenges what it means to be a ‘real’ man.   

So the expectation is that, no matter how smart a woman is, she must be careful not to excel ‘too much’ and empower herself beyond  the reach/acceptance of a potential or current partner. It also means while a good education and big job significantly enhance the eligibility of a man among both educated and uneducated women, the same can and actually do encumber the eligibility of a woman.

This idea of dominance as a marker of ‘real’ manhood and concern about women empowering themselves ‘out of the market’ is not just a Zambian thing. “Strong, independent – and lonely – women” is the title of one of the chapters in Steve Harvey’s book Act like a lady: think like a man. This chapter, like the well repeated advice many girls and women are familiar with, is a ‘warning’ to women to not be “too empowered” and “too independent” because it ruins their chances of either getting or keeping a man. Apparently, such a woman scares off men because she denies them ‘their right’ to “take charge” and consequently emasculates them. 

It is such ideas that encourage that unnecessary hostility to female strength and success that is so common; the illogical fear that the bigger she grows as a woman, the smaller he becomes as a man. I often wonder of what use it is to anyone to applaud a man’s success as the good thing it actually is but construct the same success as a bad thing if it’s a woman’s. I find anything that hinders a woman from reaching the limit of her best detrimental. I also find this thinking detrimental because it promotes insecurity and a sense of inadequacy in many men. It means that a man’s sense of self worth is attached to factors he has no realistic control over e.g. how accomplished a woman becomes. It means that no matter how well a man does for himself, if the woman in his life does better then he will have ‘failed’.                                                                     The paranoia that is promoted due to this belief that a woman’s empowerment automatically makes a man irrelevant in her life is proof of how problematic the common ‘real man’ script is. It has convinced many men that all they are good for is ‘headship’ (which some interpret as answering to no one) over unquestioning women and providing the bacon so when they encounter an assertive woman who can bring home the whole pig, they feel small and irrelevant. Did nobody talk to anyone about companionship; about being relevant beyond material support?       I mean if you believe that your relevance to another person is solely dependent on their vulnerability and subordination then surely you have reason to worry. This same belief that an empowered woman causes a man to lose his ‘natural’ power and control over her cannot also be divorced from the many cases of GBV. Some ‘threatened’ men resort to physical and emotional abuse to assert what they believe is their rightful dominance. That is one of the many prices being paid for encouraging misplaced entitlements and expectations. 

A woman, however, is free to be a thousand times better than any man when it comes to doing house chores and no one will feel emasculated because she gets no economic benefits from it. This is no accident; it is a patriarchal strategy. With house work safely reduced to unpaid work, it becomes a woman’s ‘natural’ role; it is why women can have it all and they do not have to lose sleep over securing their participation…there’s no need to campaign for 30 or 50 % representation, they can have 100 % if they want. And it is not a surprise that a lot of men feel that doing house work emasculates them. From childhood, house chores are not traditionally considered essential skills for boys. The expectation is that their mothers and sisters will take care of that business and later their wives will take over. So on the one hand, society prepares a boy to expect to be served in that area and on the other it creates anxiety for the girl who cannot cook, clean etc; society stresses her into learning because “no man can marry a woman who cannot cook.”

And that is just one of too many problematic ways girls and women’s lives are made all about being acceptable to men. From a young age and throughout their lives, many girls and women are socialised to be submissive, demure and keen for male approval. “Men like women who do this; who don’t do that; who are like this; who are not like that” and so entire lives become about being the ‘ideal woman’ who will get a good grade from a man. From there, it follows that pleasing a man is one of her most important ‘natural’ roles. And that is how some girls and women’s lives get policed; their worlds shrunk and their options and interests shaped to fit the script recommended by patriarchy. Many boys on the other hand are socialised to be bold, in charge, autonomous and of course taught what to expect from an ideal woman, how to keep her in line as a ‘real’ man etc.  

I have never believed that suppressing women so that men can enjoy their ‘natural’ dominance is useful to anyone. Like Toni Morrison correctly points out: “if you’re going to hold someone down, you are going to have to hold on by the other end of the chain. You are confined by your own repression.”

Today’s man needs to choose a progressive way of being a man. One that allows him to aspire, achieve and be content without needing to be validated through supremacy over women; one that does not look to oppressive hierarchies and brutality for validation.


{September 10, 2013}   No to the smoke, yes to the fire

This is a continuation of the previous blog “who do men think they are?” It continues to interrogate some of the types of masculinity that our society privileges and the implications for both men and women. The case I continue to make here is that such understandings of what it means to be a man are not immaterial; they play a role in the pathetic attitudes towards women and girls that we currently witness.

Violence against women is one of the most visible indicators of what is wrong with the way men and women relate in our country. I cannot begin to count the number of times Gender Based Violence (GBV) is reported in the news; women being battered and killed by intimate partners. Today you hear about a woman who was killed for not preparing her husband’s meal on time, killed for allegedly cheating on her boyfriend or husband, killed because the husband came home from a drinking spree (as our news typically says it) and started beating her until she died. Pregnant women are not exempt from this battering and murdering, you already know this if you follow Zambian news or live in those neighbourhoods where GBV is a part of daily community life.

While many people strongly condemn such happenings, they have no problem with the underlying mindset that enables such behaviour in the first place. Male violence against women is largely accepted and continually encouraged and defended in different ways especially in understandings of what it means to be a man. When a woman is beaten up, be it by a partner or stranger (refer to my regular song on ‘indecent dressing’), she is not always recognised as a victim of violence, sometimes she is seen as a deserving recipient. “She asked for it” “she was taught a lesson” “what do you expect from a man when you do this and that” “he disciplined her”… These same voices of collusion and apologism are also heard when a woman gets raped “what was she wearing when it happened?” “Ama mini naya cilamo” Excuses are made for the male perpetrator and his victim made to share part of the blame which is logically all his. “She provoked him, that is why he beat her up” “She wore a ‘slutty’ skirt and enticed him, he could not help it” “She is very pretty and he is a man, what did she expect?” 

The very loud message in all this is: do not get beaten, do not get raped instead of do not beat and by all means do not rape! This, however, is the entitlement that society continues to hand male perpetrators of GBV and so the impunity continues. Is it logical to side with perpetrators and sanitise GBV by deploying all kinds of euphemisms then later get surprised when this ‘discipline’ or ‘lesson’ one day results in murder? How can we expect real change when we do not tackle the source? It is like hating the smoke but doing nothing about the fire that is producing it, the smoke will not leave on its own. 

These behaviours do not get developed overnight; they are long term outcomes of an environment that nurtures them and allows their growth to suffocating levels. An environment that allows disrespect for women to be reduced to the banal, a ‘no big deal’ part of everyday. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by all the hate and insults that get directed at women; the amount of contempt in them is just sickening. It just takes a small thing, sometimes even just boredom, for the deeply held contempt for women to get spewed. Online media platforms especially convince me that there is a gigantic reservoir of this contempt just waiting for expression and that is why it never runs out.

When expression and social practices that demean and violate are left to continue unchallenged, when they are repeated and normalised, what exactly do we expect to follow? Is it not collusion when we quietly tolerate derogatory attitudes and violence against women and yet we find our voices when there is a woman to be trashed and put in her ‘rightful’ place? Why do people find it easier to live with unjust patriarchal systems and practices which constrain even them yet cannot tolerate any disruption; cannot tolerate those who even just dare question them?

I get very uncomfortable by our society’s general inclination towards the perpetrators; how rather than try to address the perpetrator, they teach the victim to just live with it. This is why marriage as a shipikisha club (endurance club) and ubuchende bwa mwaume tabonaula ng’anda (a man’s infidelity does not destroy a home) still find themselves acceptable traditional teachings. This is typical of the male supremacy promoted as ideal masculinity: you are the head, you answer to no one (see next blog). What then does it mean for women when you remove this expectation of accountability from men?    

It is for the purpose of sustaining this type of masculinity that certain behaviours are even encouraged in women, like romanticising the idea of the self-sacrificing woman who forgives everything and has no problem giving more than she gets. There are in fact several forms of oppression and abuse that have been romanticised to help the victim cope better. Some women who get beaten, exploited, disrespected, abused etc even justify their tolerance as strength; a strong and well cultured woman who weathers much to keep her relationship going. This is probably part of the reason why some women are even in the forefront of perpetuating practices that actually constrain them; they participate in their own suppression because the project has been sold to them in a form so disguised that they do not recognise themselves as victims. 

I think a lot of people have a harsh understanding of what it means to be a man: real men don’t do this, real men do this, real men this and that.  Some of the benchmarks are harsh and damaging and not in the least bit necessary. That is why we need engaged and continuous discussions on what it means to be a man today in order to challenge some of the prevailing problematic understandings. Today’s man needs to create his own discourse of what it means to be a man; he cannot uncritically replicate his grandfather’s script for example, when the times in which they exist are so different. Times have changed and so should mindsets. Society also needs to be more supportive of the men who do not subscribe to the dominant brutish masculinity that believes might is right. This is how progressive attitudes will become more widespread and entrenched. It is possible.

The next blog is about supremacy as a marker of ‘real’ manhood.  

et cetera