Gender equality will make the world kinder, less violent, and less demanding for men as well.
For the third year in a row, on Valentine’s Day when many celebrate romantic love, women and men in more than 160 countries around the world danced, sang and rallied for another kind of love — one based on safety, equality and respect for people of all genders. It is estimated that a billion girls and women face violence at some time or the other during their lives. A global call was therefore made for One Billion to rise, and it caught the imagination of people around the planet.
Last year, the focus of the campaign was to highlight the pervasiveness of many forms of gender violence, and this particularly resonated in an India wounded with the brutal gang-rape of a student in a bus in Delhi. This year the global demand was for justice for survivors. This symbolic global rising of people against violence unites survivors of violence, breaks down their sense of being alone, and heals the battering not just of their bodies but also their spirits.
It is often assumed that gender equality will make the world better, safer, happier and more dignified for girls and women. What is forgotten is that it will also make the world kinder, less violent, and less demanding for men as well. As Nancy Smith writes unforgettably:
For every woman who is tired of acting weak when she knows she is strong, there is a man who is tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable.
If the world is to evolve into a fairer and less threatening place for all people, women as well as men, it is imperative to work not just with women but also men, not just with girls but also boys. Many fine organisations today are working with masculinities, or the ways that men socially construct the idea of manhood. These include MASVAW (Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women); Forum to Engage Men (FEM); the MenEngage Alliance; and SANAM (South Asian Network to Address Masculinities). They work with boys and men to help them introspect how their socialisation pressurises men to be strong, powerful and potent, and how a more gender-equal world will also set them free.
For every woman who is tired of being called “an emotional female”, there is a man who is denied the right to weep and to be gentle.
Patriarchy is a system of social organisation fundamentally organised around the idea of men’s superiority to women, while masculinity is the socially produced but embodied ways of being male. But what happens when men cannot make the grade of socially determined standards of masculinity? Not all men can suppress their soft natures, or be successful in earning money, competing against other men (and increasingly women) and supporting their families. Men can and do fail financially, socially and sexually, but they often lack the emotional resources to cope with these failures.
For every woman who is tired of being a sex object, there is a man who must worry about his potency.
Both the need to dominate and the inability to deal with failures lead men to be violent, and this is why violence across a large majority of cultures is an essential component of masculinity. Scholar Michael Kauffman observes that ‘the imperatives of manhood (as opposed to the simple certainties of biological maleness), seem to require constant vigilance and work, especially for younger men. The personal insecurities conferred by a failure to make the masculine grade, or simply, the threat of failure, is enough to propel many men, particularly when they are young, into a vortex of fear, isolation, anger, self-punishment, self-hatred, and aggression.’
For every woman who is called unfeminine when she competes, there is a man for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity.
It has been my consistent experience that only strong men can act with compassion and gentleness. It is weak and insecure men who are violent. Today, many more women are entering the labour market, but on unequal terms of much lower wages, greater exploitation, vulnerability to violence and denial of social protection. Even so, men feel threatened and confused, and violence helps them compensate for their insecurity and low self-esteem and to hold on to the ephemeral idea of power.
For every woman who is denied meaningful employment or equal pay, there is a man who must bear full financial responsibility for another human being.
Successful and powerful men, those wielding power of class, wealth, caste and race, use violence against women as an extension of their overall sense of entitlement. Men seek not only to dominate women but also other men. Suppressed and oppressed men learn socially to reclaim their manhood by violence to women. Violence against women is the last resort of defeated men.
Many women today have imbibed the spirit of equality, and are battling all odds to follow their hearts and achieve their potential, in homes as well as work-places. It is men who still need to learn much better to give up their sense of entitlement, privilege and power, and to recognise that in so doing they are also setting themselves free.
For every woman who takes a step toward her own liberation, there is a man who finds the way to freedom has been made a little easier.