The cure for ‘toxic mas­culin­ity’

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The me­dia has of­ten sin­gled out mur­der and rape as the only, or most preva­lent, forms of gen­der-based vi­o­lence. How­ever, gen­der-based vi­o­lence man­i­fests in many ways. The other forms of gen­der-based vi­o­lence are also di­rect con­se­quences of our pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety in which such vi­o­lence man­i­fests in our homes, re­li­gious spa­ces, schools, work places and sports fields. Here, I am talk­ing about the “struc­tural” vi­o­lence that of­ten hap­pens in our com­mu­ni­ties. For ex­am­ple: when women are made to feel so de­pen­dent on men that they will live with ver­bal or emo­tional abuse and con­trol although it un­der­mines their dig­nity, or when re­li­gions do not al­low women to be ac­tive par­tic­i­pants. These are be­hav­iours that are en­demic in our pa­tri­ar­chal cul­ture that in­flict vi­o­lence on women by mak­ing us be­lieve men’s needs and voices are more im­por­tant.

In our com­mu­ni­ties, many men are guilty of these forms of gen­der-based vi­o­lence and this is much more preva­lent than rape and mur­der. The dig­nity of women is im­pugned by such con­trol­ling or abu­sive be­hav­iour and yet we, as an an­dro­cen­tric com­mu­nity, of­ten tol­er­ate it. In Rape: A South African Night­mare, Pumla Di­neo Gqola dis­cusses the his­tor­i­cal con­text of rape: how colonis­ers raped slaves in the Cape and the nor­mal­i­sa­tion of vi­o­lence in our so­ci­ety. To fur­ther un­der­stand this epi­demic, I would like to fo­cus on three causes of gen­der-based vi­o­lence.

One of the main con­tribut­ing fac­tors is what ac­tivists call “toxic mas­culin­ity”. What this un­der­stand­ing of mas­culin­ity or ways of ex­press­ing “man­hood” or “be­ing a man” dis­plays is that to be a real man is to be dom­i­nant, pow­er­ful, un­emo­tional, ra­tio­nal and en­ti­tled to re­spect. Un­for­tu­nately, many of us have grown up to think that this way of be­ing a man is nor­mal and cor­rect and if you do not ex­press your man­hood in any other way, you are a “lesser” man. Con­sider what mes­sages are sent in our work places. Who talks the most or dom­i­nates the con­ver­sa­tions in the board­room? Or on the soc­cer field, how many times have we told the boys on the field to “man up”, “stop be­ing a sissie” or to “take that tackle like a man”?

This limited un­der­stand­ing of man­hood is detri­men­tal to men them­selves. Toxic mas­culin­ity casts a vi­sion of a hu­man who is not al­lowed to feel, must bear the brunt of prob­lems alone, is un­able to ex­press emo­tion and must at all times con­form to a nar­row ideal of what it is to be hu­man.

The thing about “toxic mas­culin­ity” is that it is a learnt be­hav­iour. We learnt how to be cold, un­emo­tional and dom­i­nant. We can learn how to be warm, com­pas­sion­ate and car­ing, ie, we can learn how to be dif­fer­ent men.

The sec­ond con­tribut­ing fac­tor I would like to high­light is “rape cul­ture”. A ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of rape cul­ture in­volves how we as a so­ci­ety think about, com­monly en­gage with and sub­tly per­form types of gen­der-based vi­o­lence. When we talk about rape cul­ture, we are crit­i­cally dis­cussing some­thing more im­plicit than a so­ci­ety that openly ad­vo­cates forms of sex­ual vi­o­lence. We are talk­ing about so­cial, cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal, re­li­gious prac­tices that ex­cuse or oth­er­wise tol­er­ate sex­ual vi­o­lence.

And this hap­pens a lot. All the time. Ev­ery­day. For ex­am­ple:

When we say that an exam pa­per raped you.

Call­ing women who re­port their rapes liars.

Say­ing cer­tain women de­served to be raped be­cause of how they were dressed or be­cause they were in­tox­i­cated.

Gen­der-based vi­o­lence is in­ti­mately con­nected to this cul­ture, which al­lows it to flour­ish and sur­vive. End­ing the rape epi­demic re­quires that we think crit­i­cally about what so­ci­ety teaches us.

The vi­o­lence in this world is a prod­uct we have cre­ated. Men who abuse women or per­pe­trate any form of gen­der-based vi­o­lence are part of our com­mu­ni­ties. While we might brand these men “mon­sters”, evil and so on, we also need to note that these men were cre­ated by and are part of the so­ci­ety that we al­lowed to be fash­ioned. While these men have de­cided to sink to the “low­est of the low”, they are part of our so­ci­ety.

We as a so­ci­ety have not pro­vided proper sys­tems to pro­tect these men from turn­ing into “mon­sters” and mod­els of mas­culin­ity that are toxic.

This is not an at­tempt to dis­count in­di­vid­ual agency; I am rather com­ment­ing on struc­tures, which act as a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to gen­der-based vi­o­lence. What this cri­sis shows is the fail­ure of our cur­rent ways of be­ing. Ways that are de­struc­tive. Greedy. Selfind­ul­gent. Vi­o­lent. Ways that mimic the broader struc­tural in­jus­tice of racism, clas­sism, ho­mo­pho­bia, cap­i­tal­ism, ableism and en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion.

We as a col­lec­tive need se­ri­ously to rethink our re­spec­tive tra­di­tions and cre­ate new ways of be­ing. When do­ing this, we need to think about what we are teach­ing the peo­ple we care for. In our homes, how many of us have taught our boy chil­dren that it is fine and okay for them to do ab­so­lutely noth­ing while our girl chil­dren must do all sorts of domestic ac­tiv­i­ties like cook­ing and clean­ing?

How many of us emo­tion­ally and fi­nan­cially ma­nip­u­late our wives or daugh­ters to do all the cook­ing, clean­ing, laun­dry and child care, while we watch TV or so­cialise on the sports field, or sleep after a long day of work? In our re­li­gious spa­ces, what mes­sages do we send out when women are not al­lowed or given the op­por­tu­nity to take lead­er­ship of any­thing? The point of this sug­ges­tion, is to make us aware of how we are rais­ing and car­ing for peo­ple in our com­mu­ni­ties and what mes­sages we are send­ing them through our ac­tions.

Gen­dered vi­o­lence, is among other things a fail­ure of our own moral ca­pac­i­ties to imag­ine, de­mand and live with a vi­sion of hu­man flour­ish­ing which is premised on so­cial jus­tice, com­pas­sion and hu­man dig­nity. Our cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is both a time of cri­sis and a time of op­por­tu­nity.

Os­man is a UCT re­li­gious stud­ies grad­u­ate and is the youth rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the board of the Clare­mont Main Road Mosque. This is an edited ver­sion of the Jumu`ah (Fri­day) ser­mon he de­liv­ered at the mosque yes­ter­day.


Women take part in a protest against vi­o­lence in Dur­ban.

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