While I read our previous posts about sexism as manifested in different areas of life: the rape culture, the denial to abortion, internalized sexism and the battle against the devaluation of feminine characteristics, I find myself going back to the role of men in patriarchy and masculinity.
It’s not new to say that men in machismo always have the upper hand, in the sense that they are considered the powerful, rational, wise beings who shall dictate and protect, honour and lead. As with any group with power, there is abuse of it. This is not a matter of opinion but a fact: let’s look at the statistics of gender based violence, political participation, equal pay, etc.
However, as a feminist, I am a bit tired of the discourse of fellow feminists who continue to identify the battle against inequality as exclusively a female struggle; to see men as the enemy. They are not only wrong but stealing our real possibilities of success. It is only by seeing sexism as a social construct that affect both women and men –and I’m not trying to diminish the oppression of women in patriarchal societies- that we will ever get there.
In his blog, Inequality by (Interior) Design, Tristan Bridges explains sexual and gender inequality in a great and simple way: as any inequality, gender inequality is reproduced in ways that feel natural, but are actually designed. Sexism, according to Bridges, is naturalized (men don’t cry and a woman reaches her purpose when she becomes a mother), minimized as tradition (from FGM and child marriage to men always having to pick up the bill), structured by relationships (husband and wife, brother and sister) and part of the social spaces in which we live in.
Although I always understood this, I learned it even better when I taught young adults about women’s rights. I started the class with the obvious concepts: sex vs. gender. Once these concepts and others (sexism, androcentrism and patriarchy) were clear, in an interactive conversation, I went one by one asking my students to share one aspect in which they felt personally affected by patriarchy or by living in a patriarchal society.
Everyone had more than one thing to say, men and women. A lot of my male students had a huge list, not because they suffered more than girls in general, but because they had never been asked to think about it that way, even less to talk about it. Patriarchy and sexism obviously oppress women, but this doesn’t mean that the roles that men play in it are all positive for them. Let’s think of some examples:
With all the rape culture news we’ve been seeing lately, I was sad when reading this Observer article about what a particular group of men in the western region of Goa (India) had to say about rape: “When the girls look sexy and the boys can’t control themselves, they are going to rape. It happens” was one answer. Another was “girls are not allowed outside after six [pm] because anything can happen – rape, robbery, kidnaps. It is the mentality of some people. They are putting on short and sexy dresses, that’s why. Then men cannot control themselves.” I cannot help to feel insulted as a woman by these comments, but also as a woman who knows so many men that would never think of using darkness and short skirts as a reason to hurt another person.
With these arguments being repeated over and over again, I wonder why psychiatry has focused its research on female hysteria, but never thought such irrational behaviour by men was worth any attention. It might be, of course, because of our long tradition of viewing these situations as innocent and helpless Adam tempted by the -oh yes- original sinner, Eve. Never gets old, does it?
As a woman I am offended by this and by our constant portrayal of women as dramatic, hysterical beings incapable of rational thought. Why do we have to be compared to ridiculously emotional beings incapable of reasoning? But again, I also hate that this suppositions, as they compare all the great guys I know and their rational self-control to that of crepuscular converted beasts. I mean, do we see the common trait here, people?
And this is just one of many examples. Men in patriarchal societies also experience other stigmas which build up pressure and stress and have a (not excusable) contributing factor to violent behaviour: men don’t feel, they don’t bend; they never cry or express emotions. Men should be strong and provide, as the survival of a family depends on them. In all situations, their manhood is at stake if the expected standards are not met. Men should always be ready for action, for a man with a normal or lower libido is not a man, really. Isn’t this pressure also overwhelming?
For it is true, women in patriarchy live under the constant pressure of proving they are “good women”. But men in patriarchy live under an enormous pressure as well, that of always having to prove themselves as men. Manhood is questioned by parents while boys are being formed, by friends at school since they learn how to talk: Be a man! Don’t be a sissy! Boys don’t cry! Be the man of the house, daddy says when he’s leaving. Be strong. Men pay the bills. Men always take the hardest choice to protect women. And don’t complain about any of it, after all, you’re a man, you’ll survive. (This last line I actually got from a mini book I bought my husband in one of those brainless airport shopping sprees, entitled “Stuff Every Husband Should Know”. I know. I’m embarrassed).
Add to that millennial pressure of proving yourself a little bit of change, a change in the roles without a proper understanding of what those roles meant and how they affected men as well, and you have a recipe for disaster: like a pressure cooker it could explode leaving bad consequences.
Do we need more examples? Men during exile (refugee families) have a harder time finding jobs than women, which creates a reversed bread winner situation, making unemployed frustrated men more prone to domestic violence. There are also articles relating this lack of understanding of social gendered roles and their changes they have been experimenting with the success of the women’s rights movement, in very egalitarian societies such as the Swedish one: they have one of the better rates in the world related to various aspects of gender equality, but have not been able to tackle sexual and gender based violence successfully.
This should not surprise us, though. If we, men and women, continue to think and act as if gender equality and feminism are a female thing, if we continue to fail to involve men in this fight (and not only for women’s benefit, but for men’s benefit as well) we’ll never achieve equality in all areas of life, public and private.
We cannot continue to think sex and gender inequality is different from any other form of discrimination. Do we see racial minorities excluding non-members from their struggles? Do we heterosexual believers in equality not join our fellow LGBTI friends in their struggle for their rights being recognized as human rights? Why should this be different?
It’s very simple to me: people, if you believe and want to attain gender equality, you are a feminist, whether you are a boy or a girl. Learn about the concept, deal with the stigmas the word has and help to correct them in the general collective mind rather than hide from them. But don’t stop there; get involved in this struggle. If you are a girl, involve the men in your lives; help them understand this is important for everyone. If they love you they will fight for you too, in their own individual ways. If you are a boy, consider your role in perpetuating and ending sexual and gender discrimination. After all, we’re all in this together; this is in everyone’s benefit. It’s not easy, of course it isn’t! Social change is hard and as it’s seen as natural and traditional, you’ll have to battle against a lot of unconvinced persons (the hardest one will be yourself).
So it won’t be easy for anyone. Girls: you will have to open that space of shared ideas and comfort you already have formed with your girlfriends and other women. Opening means opening for debate, understanding where other positions come from and finding a way of selling yours. Boys: it will be especially hard for you, as this is relatively new and in my experience, it’s hard not to take things personally and not to feel always as the attacked party. But you’ll survive, after all, you are men.