Sociologist Michael S Kimmel in his essay titled Masculinity as homophobia writes, “In one survey, women and men were asked what they were most afraid of. Women responded that they were most afraid of being raped and murdered. Men responded that they were most afraid of being laughed at.” Kimmel writes this in US context, but it can be beneficial to see how such a reality applies to other contexts too. Shame is detrimental to the masculine image, for which men look for acknowledgement from other men. In relation to shame, Dr. Parveen Akter, team leader, Youth Friendly Services (YFS) team, UBR Bangladesh Alliance, says, “While talking to young people for need assessment in different parts of Bangladesh, we have come across adolescent boys who expressed concern about the size of their genitals. They think that the smaller the size the less they will be able to satisfy their girlfriend or wife. Many get these ideas by watching porn.” These preoccupations with size become a great concern for boys and men, mainly because their status as a masculine man depends on that. One only has to go through the tiny leaflets distributed for free on the streets of Dhaka that over-enthusiastically provide information about how to enhance genital size or increase sexual stamina with the use of oil and medication. This shows how sex and body are determined and constructed by society as well and how sexual assertiveness and dominance is seen as an integral part of masculinity.
Feminist Kamla Bhasin writes, “An excessive valorisation of virility, for example, can have a disastrous impact on men. Maleness here is equated with sexual performance, which in turn is equated with power, power over women, and other men. A man who cannot perform sexually is called “impotent”, considered weak, powerless, non-male. According to this yardstick, a man's power/potency is located in his sexual organ. Impotence in a man is not just a shortcoming, it's a disgrace.” To prove one's own sexual assertiveness, men might not even respect consent when it comes to engaging in different kinds of sexual activities. It is often believed that rapists cannot control their sexual urge, for which women should dress in a moderate way, so that men are not 'tempted'. However, such a claim is nonsensical, because men are not rapists by nature. Men are encouraged to act in a 'manly' way, through which violence becomes an entitlement and normalised part of the masculine identity.
The development sector's initiative of eliminating violence against women has largely revolved around the idea of creating 'role models' and examples of 'good' men. Engaging men in household chores and bringing up the child, and encouraging men to not sexually harass women on the street, is believed to bring gender equality on the basis of such initiatives being the barometer of a man's 'goodness'. However, working around masculinity yet again in the framework of women's empowerment, and the binary of good and bad is not only apolitical, but also limiting, because such an approach does not explore power and neither does it politicise gender by reading it in mediation with other power differentials such as class, sexuality, nationality, dis/ability, religion, etc. We have to get rid of the rubric of the 'good' and 'bad' man once and for all, and really understand how power functions, and what relationships we have or do not have with power.
In the context of masculinity and power, it is also important to ask how men counter and negate social expectations and not stick to norms— for example, men who exhibit culturally 'subordinate masculinities' such as gay men, men who are subjected to the power of other men due to societal power structures based on ethnicity and/or class— the dents and tensions they create when they emerge with alternative visions of being a man and transform normative ideals of masculinity altogether.
Through a project on masculinity that I conducted with my friend, a photojournalist, we interviewed men about what it means to be a 'man' and took their pictures. We tried allocating different expressions of masculinity through these narratives and visuals. We wanted to address the larger questions of violence and unjust relations men exhibit with men, and see how that spills out to affect other community members. This is an attempt to bring in narratives from different intersectional positions of community members, and see how these narratives can shape how we look at men and understand masculinity.
As activists, we need to find answers, raise questions and strategise in much more creative ways than we have done before. By exploring how our position in society influences our action, thinking and gender expression, and by mapping out disparate narratives, we should try and understand how to create deeper and meaningful ways of communicating and connecting. These are critical concerns we should think about in the context of gender based violence and injustice.
The writer is a researcher.