Redefining Masculinity: Intersectionality and the Scale of Gender Oppression

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Jasmin Lilian Diab
Member since July 21, 2017
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  • Age 26

Source: Walk a Mile in Her Shoes (2017)

Source: Walk a Mile in Her Shoes (2017)

After in depth interviews and discussions with trainers in 2001, Women for Women International (WfWI) national chapters developed pilot programs in countries like Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the aim of “training” men. The target of this training was clear: develop a space for men where they too can explore gender, masculinity, and grasp the advantages this yields upon families and their respective communities when women are empowered. With the support of organizations like Promundo, a champion in the field of engaging men and boys in gender equality since 1997, WfWI was able to develop and give effective training to over 15,000 men in some of the most remote and inaccessible communities in countries like Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Kosovo*, Rwanda, and South Sudan.

In training sessions facilitated by local male trainers, groups of men learned and explored notions and intersections between gender and violence through approaches from role-play and reflective storytelling exercises, to small moderated and mediated focus group discussions. Throughout these trainings men discussed un-tackled and otherwise “sensitive” issues ranging from masculinity, gender-based discrimination in the labor and taskforce, to their own personal roles in preventing and breaking the cycle of violence against women and more particularly, against young girls.

How Will Men Speak Out about a Form of Oppression from which They Benefit?

More recently, and rightfully so, there has been an unprecedented wave and much debate surrounding the term feminist, the majority of which still centers around a fundamental misunderstanding of what “feminism” actually means. In its essence, and although simply defined as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities,” it is often the case that the word is associated with radical values and behaviors to which it is not necessarily a preacher of – and even more so, to interpretations and fears surrounding the term that are unfounded and warped.

On this day and today more so than ever, the rights of women and young girls are under consistent threat in every corner of the world and in every field, sector, and social construct. From calls to defund access to birth control and family-planning services, to women in countries still living as second-class citizens in terms of nationality, to decriminalizing “minor” forms of domestic violence, to the eighteen countries where a husband may prevent his wife from taking a job, to the defining prostitution as a crime “only a woman can commit” — it may seem challenging to make the case for investing limited gender-program funds and resources towards initiatives which target men and young boys.

However international development organizations and networks are progressively making the argument that with Patriarchal cultural norms acting as the fundamental hindrance to the empowerment and upward social mobility of women, initiatives must aim to shape attitudes among men and young boys in order to produce durable progresses for women and girls.

Dr. Christina Fink, Director of international Development Studies at George Washington University, has famously said:

“International development actors are now realizing that if you don’t change men’s attitudes towards women, then gender programs which focus on women first won’t be successful, and in many cases can bring about increased dangers to women”.

She further elaborates: “Women’s economic empowerment projects often lead to initial increases in violence from male partners who feel threatened”.

Dr. Fink’s message is further cemented by Gary Barker, Co-founder of Promundo, in his stating:

“Women’s empowerment and the vulnerabilities of girls are the focus of so much development assistance but there are limitations to their effectiveness if those programs are not engaging men, as well as thinking of men’s own gendered realities which are affected by poverty”.

Moreover, a recent study conducted by Promundo and the United Nations in 2017, which looked at men’s perspectives and understanding of male-female relationships across Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine, showed a resurrection in anti-feminist views, a matter Barker argues is a driving force behind his fundamental assumption that the international community needs to accelerate the engagement of men and boys in gender equality discussion.

Barker elaborates the report highlighted “traditionally-assumed responsibility to provide for the family’s physical safety and financial security” as the driving force behind the hostile response against gender equality – a reality he believes can be aggravated in the future by rising economic and social pressures, migration and growing inequalities.

Gender Oppression is a Scale. Men are also on this Scale.

Prior to assessing the manner in which men may express their support of women, it is highly valuable to look at the scale of gender oppression. According to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), over one third of women globally are currently victims, or have been the victim of violence from an intimate partner or sexual violence from a man. The United Nations approximates that over 133 million women and young girls have been subjected to female genital mutilation, and also estimates that close to all of the 4.5 million individuals “forced into sexual exploitation” globally are women, and more particularly, young girls.

There is also an economic end of the stick – one less discussed but equally as violent. The International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s Managing Director, Christine Lagarde pronounces “an insidious conspiracy” against women across legislation, undisputedly varying in scale across different counties of the world, which hinder and obstruct women from being an integral part of the labor market/force. She further stresses that women are inexplicably concerted in the least paid most unsafe and most condescending forms of labor whilst also being expected to do the bulk of unpaid housework and childcare. The persecution of women is inclusive and intersectional indeed.

So you Think You’re a Meninist.

We live in a present day reality where there is undeniably no shortage whatsoever of men offering their very constructive opinions on, well, absolutely everything. A study conducted in 2012 in Britain found that male journalists wrote 78% of all front page articles across magazines and newspapers, and that 84% of those quoted or cited in main news and pieces were men. National, regional and international debates are shaped by men; delicate and pressing issues are ranked by men and the lens through which they are examined, explored and evaluated is decided by men. It would be an utter charade if men were tasked to debate men’s oppression of women. What would not be a charade however, is making them an equal part of the dialogue and evaluation process.

American sociologist and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Meredith College, Kris Macomber discusses the perverse irony in men speaking out in support of women, without involving the women in the process:

“[…] men are members of the dominant group; they have access to social and institutional power that women lack […] their support for feminism is useful for the very thing feminism is struggling against – their power.”

The reality of the matter is that women are often placed in the awkward position of having to see men applauded for saying what women have said for centuries. And this, circles back to the training-centered approach discussed earlier. And this is why a notion of participation and inclusion surrounding the debate on Women’s Rights is to be tackled collectively, from all ends of the scale, or else it will simply not see the light of day while we still breathe.

As long as there are the men who elect themselves “feminists”, without any understanding or grasp upon the inclusiveness and intersectionality of this definition, and subsequently resolve they could not possibly be sexist, even as they interject a woman to emphasize their feminism, the world is going to have to change its approach.

Why Can’t Men See they are Also Oppressed: Is the Problem Men or Masculinity?

Incredibly striking, is not the mere oppressive behavior of men upon women, but their oppressive behavior against other men as well. Fascinating enough, masculinity itself, is not an all-encompassing term which includes all men, and across the entire spectrum.

While a large faction of men is not oppressed by men’s oppression of women, vast majorities of them is most certainly victim of it. Worthy to this debate, although a completely different discussion in its own right, gay men are an outstanding example of how it isn’t necessarily “women” that are the problem, but rather “femininity” and the trouble in definition there.

Gay men are consistently segregated for being deemed to be too feminine (or falsely labeled: “too much like women”). Is that a debate men are willing to open? Are bodies or minds the problem here?

But again and again, this is part of an oppressive vicious cycle, one that perhaps stems from “men”, but one that has perhaps accidently cornered them into an oppressive and aggressive form of masculinity too. The limitations and expectations of how a man must behave are destructively regulated by sexism and its counterpart: homophobia.

Men who do not conform to this binary fear being labeled “unmanly”, but what is “manly” to begin with? – If it is related to sex solely, this argument has been debunked centuries ago, and I am not about to revisit it today.

So Where Does Masculinity Stand in All This?

The liberation of women has been up to women throughout the century old debates, and the tremendous progresses made so far are the tangible results and manifestations of the brawl, scuffle and sacrifice of women – those remembered, those known and those combed into history.

And what we can say today, across all genders, identities, sexes and orientations is that the fight for women’s rights and their equality to men has not only changed men for the better, but has also reshaped and redefined masculinity in the modern era – moving it from is oppressive roots in its own right. Men are more likely to accept redefined social constructions, to break out of their own oppressive roles, to have female and gay friends, to openly discuss their feelings, to have a greater role as nurturers and caregivers, and to their credit, they have come to flourish and be incredible in each of these spaces.

Men are habituated to privileges they are not even aware they exist. This is why it is fundamental and pivotal that men are not only incorporated into training and initiatives which discuss these matters openly, but also that they are willing to share the stage in this historical fight for justice, willing listen to women’s testimonies and experiences, and more importantly willing to learn. Men will stop murdering, raping, excluding and oppressing women if they change, this is true. But this will also fundamentally change when we change our approach. If international organizations, local initiatives, as well as grassroots movements wish to tackle attitudes which permit for the objectification of women, the normalization of violence against women, as well as the violation of women’s dignity day after day, they need to view each and every faction in society as a beneficiary, male, “masculine”, female, and feminine or not.

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