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{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.  

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