The cure for ‘toxic masculinity’
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.