Amongst a conference bustling with thousands of women debating about female struggles amongst other women, it was more than refreshing to assume a different perspective in the session, “Real Men Do Not Hurt Others: Ending Sexual and Gender Based Violence by Working with Men and Boys on Positive/Transformative Masculinities”, where I was greeted by an enthusiastic all-male panel. It was both a comforting and morale boosting experience for all the women in the room to be reassured that they are not fighting the feminist fight alone, but rather backed by the strength and support of many influential men also devoted to their cause.
Panelists included a president of a Canadian-based NGO focused on youth empowerment and violence prevention, a South African minister raised by a single-father, and an English-Anglican priest working for Christian Aid International. Together, these men from colored backgrounds all agreed that a major underlying threat to women’s empowerment is the way in which the idea of ‘masculinity’ is socialized in society. Universally, men are expected to uphold a degree of masculinity that is characterized as being successful in their finances and careers, emotionally and physically strong, and exercising power and dominance in whatever they do. Images of these ideals are inescapable, persisting in traditional family dynamics, societal judgments, and media. Many times, as we are familiar, these pressures of socialization initiate a need that men experience to display, or prove their masculinity to others when they feel as though they are frustrated, vulnerable, or being challenged - which often results in aggression towards others, especially women and girls in their lives.
Therefore, the panelists argued, women will never be able to be fully empowered until this harmful, discriminatory concept of masculinity is broken down. With this understanding, it is men too that need to be targeted through education and empowerment in a movement towards an equal society. Specifically, we need to transform the definition of what it means to be a “real man” into a concept that acknowledges and accepts men’s ability to feel, empathize, lose, and cry, to ultimately delineate the idea of masculinity and domination. The strength associated with masculinity should be interpreted as a strength to love, care, help, and protect rather than hurt. We also need to recognize that while striving for positions of leadership and power, whether official (president of a company) or unofficial (patriarch of a household) is natural, that it no longer becomes a positive attribute when such power is used to injure, hurt, or undermine the rights of others – and be able to identify when such abuse of power is occurring. In this way, these panelists insist that gender issues are not solely about women, but also involve and affect everyone. Not only will achieving gender equality help women escape societal oppression and domestic violence, it will also save many male lives, such as the seven men for every one women who die a violent death in an attempt to defend their “alpha-male” qualities.
Organizations such as NGOs have the power to bring together men, women, boys and girls from around the world and unite them under the universally beneficial goal of challenging dominant patriarchy. This can be done through empowerment of both sexes by raising the self-esteem of both men and women to be comfortable in challenging gender-norms and standing up to defend their individual feelings, opinions, and societal roles regardless of their biological sex. Camaraderie, rather than competition, should be the desired relationship amongst males and respect, rather than control, should be the desired relationship between males and females. While feminism roots itself in female empowerment, this socially transformative goal cannot be achieved without willing collaboration between both sexes - for if the socialization of masculinity continues to “project a fragile male ego, and women continue to submit themselves to protecting this ego”, this oppressive system will remain unbroken.