The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?" — Gilles Deleuze
I woke up with a colleague's hesitant post on Facebook wishing his friends well on the International Men's Day. The comment thread is filled with issues ranging from locker room banter to the high theory on the dominant form of masculinity. Frankly, I didn't know that there was a day reserved for men (November 19). Now that I do, maybe I will be better prepared to defend March 8 against the charge of being discriminatory.
I, therefore, turned to my daily dose of morning news. The man accused of raping a DU student at Airport Road has been given life imprisonment. Good. The Daily Star has talked to a Member of Parliament about his comments that wearing T-shirts makes women vulnerable to rape, reminding one of the infamous "tamarind theory" promulgated by a recently deceased religious leader. Dreadful. The Samakal reports that a mortuary assistant of the Suhrawardy Hospital in Dhaka has been allegedly found guilty of necrophilia; his secret came out when a forensic team started investigating the presence of semen in the body of a young suicide victim. Disgusting.
The news samples taken that morning revealed a pathological crisis and are enough to blur my position on the dominant masculinity that pervades our society. Is it possible for me to detach myself from the samples that I just shared?
In my introductory class on gender, I often ask my students to close their eyes and tell me about the first image that comes to their mind when they hear the word "man". Most think of a muscle-bound homo sapien (usually sports or media icons with ribbed bellies); a few mention their fathers or brothers. But no one has ever mentioned Newton, Einstein, Churchill or Hitler. I wonder why and how such image of masculinity is injected in our system!
With the rise of wide-reaching #MeToo or #MasculinitySoFragile movements, men are fast being touted as nothing more than unthinking and emotionless sexual predators. The proof is in the pudding, and there is little room to deny such an allegation. For instance, when you watch the clip from the "subsequent" Borat film in which a conservative politician reaches for his manhood during an interview with an undercover actress-journalist, you know that the fairytale wolf of Red Riding Hood is not a thing of the past. Men are dangerous. They always have been. They pose threats. They can be the most powerful man in the world with a finger on a nuclear bomb or a druggie Md Majnu roaming the sidewalks of Airport Road.
There was a time when we could sing the greatness of men, ignoring their follies and foibles. The medieval church once promoted the concept of Great Chain of Being in which God sits atop with man conveniently niched between angels and animals. The vertical arrangement with man at the third place is summed up brilliantly by Shakespeare, who made Hamlet ponder: "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals." Indeed, man has the qualities of an angel, animal and God.
Unfortunately, we have slid down the chain to lose sight of "noble reason" and "infinite faculty" to become mere animals. I am sure there are many animals and animal-lovers who will take offence at such a comparison. Trust me, I love animals too.
On a serious note, do we really need a day to celebrate men when there are so many reasons to be ashamed of being a man? This made me look up the six objectives of the day, which include: "Valuing male role models; acknowledging the contribution of men and boys; improving male health; tackling discrimination and disadvantage; fostering positive gender relations; and making the world a safer place for everyone."
Ah, the last point. Yes, we need to protect the vulnerable groups of the world from the evil eyes and deeds of men. The danger from men, after all, can come in different shapes and sizes: they can come as political or religious leaders, soldiers or solicitors, employers or teachers, relatives or strangers. Then again, we should not paint everyone with the same brush. We need to acknowledge the contributions of men and celebrate those who could be role models. He could be a fire fighter, a frontline worker, a bread earner. The positive role played by the gender should not be overlooked. At the same time, their well-being should also be taken into account. This year's theme is pertinent in this context. It says, "better health for men and boys."
While reading about this year's theme, I learned that men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. The pressure of being a man is often overlooked. These are complex issues, and they cannot be separated from the violence exhibited by men.
The mental makeup of boys and men is conditioned by an environment that both involves and expects violence. The macho image while growing up in the sports field, the fight-club model in which a boy grows into a man, allows men to expect violence to be normal. It is a sign of power. It is an enactment of power.
A four-wheeler driver can, therefore, beat up that of a two-wheeler at his will and knock out his teeth, not realising that the uniform that he was wearing was more powerful than the sticker that the jeep was donning. So when a civilian driver caused a serviceman to lose his dignity in public, the men behind the two-wheeler ganged up and sized up the perpetrator in an episode of "who's the man, now?" Such daily display of machismo is normalised as hormonal tide and ebb. The violence committed against the weak and the vulnerable is no different from those done against the women and female children; they all involve a deviation from the normal—even if in different degrees. I have no intention of slighting the violence done against women, but I think November 19 has provided an opportunity for us, the male, to reflect on the daily battles and realities that we face as males. After all, can I deny the fact that I am privileged as a man in a patriarchy?
I know what my spouse has to go through to become who she is in her career today even though we shared the same educational, social and cultural backgrounds; yet our experiences in terms of gender expectations in our professional careers have never been the same. When it comes to the issue of property or promotion, the male card has always come handy. And as a father of a bright young daughter, I sometimes feel ashamed of having brought her in a world that does not have gender parity. I suffer from the twin attack of shame and guilt: one that rusts outside and the other that corrodes from inside.
What then are my options: to continue to recognise myself as someone who silently approves and accepts these conditions of violence and gives consent to identify with the givers of such violence? Or to dissociate myself from the essential solidarity that I have with my fellow beings? Or is there a promise of moral sensibility and sanity that can one day be attained with the right education and orientation?
I look forward to a day when I am not ashamed—not as a man or a woman, but as a human being.
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at Dhaka University (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.