A curious case: No short cuts to ending??toxic masculinity

2014-11-25 06:45

Over the next couple of weeks, for the duration of the “16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children”, men will be called upon to beat their chests, march and repeat slogans such as “not in my name” and “count me in [the campaign against violence]”.

And we’ll hear men, without a second thought, speak about “protecting our women” as though women were the personal property of men.

We’ll also hear a lot about what “real” men do and don’t do.

Never mind that some of these are, at best, superficial actions and, at worst, reinforce the sexist, homophobic and transphobic ideas that foment gender-based violence. This is where government is directing its energies during the 16 Days campaign this year. Men.

Not just any men, mind you. Masculine, heterosexual, cisgender men. That is, men whose gender expression is outwardly masculine, whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth, and who are sexually and romantically attracted only to cisgender women.

Let’s call them cookie-cutter men – cut and moulded to traditional ideas of what a man is and how men act and express themselves.

Other men, gay men, transgender men and gender nonconforming men, fall outside of these essentialist notions of masculinity and manhood.

As a result, these men are also often victims of gender-based violence.

According to Minister of Women in the Presidency Susan Shabangu, the previous years’ 16 Days campaigns had been victim-centred and thus left out cookie-cutter men, who are almost always the perpetrators of gender-based violence. As a result, the violence has continued unabated.

This is not an entirely accurate statement. Even the supposed focus of previous campaigns fell far short of supporting and empowering victims, potential and actual, which is why the violence did not subside significantly.

But Shabangu’s concern is nevertheless valid. Victims are not the causes of the violence they are subjected to. Thus any attempt to prevent violence ought to problematise the beliefs and actions of the perpetrators.

But the minister and government appear interested only in superfluous acts of understanding and preventing this malevolent form of violence: slogans, marches, speeches and lighting candles.

The sorts of things that, while important, typically come after deconstructing and understanding the root causes of violence and developing a plan on how to prevent and combat it.

This was apparent in the patriarchal and antifeminist rhetoric that ran unchecked at the ministry’s summit earlier this month to announce its plans for 16 Days.

According to civil society organisations present, Shabangu gave the stage to a chief who said women must be submissive to their husbands.

Another royal denounced feminism as “unAfrican” and said the government should cut funding to centres for abused women and children. According to her, such matters should be dealt with in the home.

Shabangu herself apparently resurrected the heteropatriarchal idea that men are the natural protectors of family and society and should be restored to this supposed position if gender-based violence is to end.

It was a strange series of remarks when you consider that Shabangu denounced in this very paper two weeks ago those kinds of male supremacist ideas and the power brokers who seek to protect them.

She seemed then, when she wrote the opinion piece, to understand the political struggle we as a society are charged with to destroy patriarchy and, if possible, recreate masculinity to be egalitarian – both steps necessary to end gender-based violence.

So either Shabangu used a ghost writer or changes her views to suit her audience.

Whatever the cause of this contradiction, it’s becoming increasingly apparent government is ill-equipped to lead this cause.

It’s no wonder that many civil society organisations have officially distanced themselves from the government-sanctioned 16 Days campaign this year and are staging campaigns of their own, mostly to pressure government into providing funding to develop and implement a national strategic plan to combat gender violence.

They, with national and provincial governments, had come together to form a national council on gender-based violence whose goal was to develop the plan.

This plan is necessary and should come before the official ceremonies that will take place in the coming fortnight.

Without it, patriarchal ideas will continue to hollow the actions to end gender-based violence, not just during the 16 days but throughout the rest of the year.

And without it, we will return to this point in another 15 years, wondering why it is that the violence has not ended.

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