16-22 January 2015 #741

From femininity to masculinity

Equity and justice for women should not be held captive to narrowly-defined interests of development
Bernardo Michael and George Varughese

Ensuring equity requires changes in masculine interests, desires, and actions, and it has to begin with socialisation.

What if all these years of frenetic development programming had also resulted in self-aware, self-critical men in Nepali public and private life? Would Nepal’s long-awaited peace dividend have had a better chance? Would the morally bankrupt and politically hypocritical non-issue of citizenship by now been resolved? Would we have elected representatives who were more accountable and concerned with public interest instead of populist interest? Would we have a constitution for, by, and of the people of Nepal?

Despite the gains in gender-sensitive approaches to every aid program, advancement of women in public life is still slow. Poverty alleviation programs that push for a specific percentage of involvement of women in different programs do not address the structural cause of feminisation of poverty, which has more to do with differential access to food, education, money between men and women.

Similarly, the numeric representation of women through reservation in elected bodies does not address the issue of structural barriers to accessing and using power. Thus, many gender proponents are pacified, some remain frustrated by the lack of durable progress, and a few have begun to wonder if men now need special attention.

Masculinity is now becoming part of the vocabulary of development chatterati, the number of programs that focus on educating men about women’s rights is increasing.

What constitutes masculine and feminine are socially constructed, porous categories that are dependent on other factors such as class, caste, ethnic origin, age and so on. The advantages men enjoy over women because of the roles, stereotypes, and attitudes foisted upon both through the process of socialisation has created a human order between men and women over millennia, and impacts every decision at individual, community, and nation-state levels. Confessing this and accepting that we need to change is an initial small step in the direction of seeking the elusive goal of equality within the human community.

Indeed the voices of men are critical, men who are sensitive to the power and privilege they have enjoyed should question their complicity in the creation and perpetuation of a male-dominated world. For far too long men have enjoyed advantages over women that are rarely acknowledged by them in education systems, workplaces, media, politics, religious discourse, and so on.

The taken-for-granted privileges that have allowed men to subordinate women are inculcated at a very early age in the family, at school, and in almost every dimension of daily life.

However, these deeply instilled values and instinctive actions cannot be dismantled by merely raising the awareness of men concerning gender issues. Gender sensitivity training, readings in feminist theory, or the pursuit of equity and inclusion goals are necessary but insufficient for bringing about the kind of institutional and personal transformation required for men to change.

Such change will have to be not just in awareness and knowledge or rhetoric but also manifested in attitudinal and behavioral shifts. Men have to confront their privilege head-on rather than succumb to defensiveness, guilt, or silence. Failure to confront privilege will most certainly cement and perpetuate inequity within the human community. And, this confrontation can only come at some considerable personal cost-entailing shock, grief, and loss, as men embark on the long (and possibly painful) journey of giving up long-enjoyed privileges in order to recover themselves.

Men’s voices are critical: but what about men’s choices or actions? The burden for change needs to be placed on men as well. This could begin with something as simple as consideration of feminine needs when constructing places of stay, study, work, and worship, and committing to send daughters to school. Or it could be about surrendering to the desire to control women or adjudicate on what constitutes a family’s and community’s sense of honour.

Ultimately, men, because they are born into and raised in a world ruled by men, are not cognizant of the privileges they enjoy or the shortcomings they suffer from: they become even more lost as they progress. The advantages they enjoy over women render men even less able to express emotion and vulnerability, so-called feminine traits.

The current construct of  gender roles do not  provide the opportunity for men to look beyond their pre-defined roles as ‘providers’, to address growing aspirations amongst many men to lead more creative and nurturing lives. Clearly, we need fresh thinking on what strategies might trigger useful interventions that strengthen men’s will to change and to reconnect with themselves. This change would not be to cater to the demands of political correctness or even because we need our fellow humans to be our equals.

Rather, we need this change to understand how male privilege prevents us from being whole human beings, and to then begin the long journey back to a meaningful, shared existence. Until we do, equity and justice, especially for women, will remain captive to narrowly-defined interests of development and social well-being.

Bernardo Michael is Professor of History at Messiah College and author of the recently released book Statemaking and Territory in South Asia.

George Varughese is Nepal Country Representative for The Asia Foundation.

Read also:

Daughterhood, Feby Boediarto

Macho nationalism, Mallika Aryal

In a stateless state, Mina Sharma