“Isn’t gender about women and men?” When that question is asked it is typically a reflection of one of two sentiments: 1) an implicit accusation, as in, “if gender is about women and men then why are we only hearing about the ills women suffer, and don’t some women abuse men?” Or 2) it is a genuine, curious enquiry, as in, “is gender really about men as well?”
Perhaps I have not been sufficiently abused by any male – no neglectful father, no defrauding uncle, no boyfriend or husband who beat me up, no disrespectful son – hence my privileged and naïve belief in the need to engage with men in order to find gender equality? I remember those days in the 1970s and early 1980s when African women seemed a little daft: all those “unwanted” pregnancies but almost no contraceptive use. A group of demographers coined the term “unmet need” to help study how to fix these women. In those days too, fertility survey respondents were 100% female. And then some (mostly male) demographers underscored the obvious – shouldn’t we be talking to men as well, shouldn’t we find out if they are a factor in the equation of women’s low contraceptive use?
Ah, voila! Yes, women are self-censoring their reproductive inclinations because of male preferences.
Now why on earth would they do that?
Because men have more power and often they want more children, or fear their wives will become unfaithful if they use contraceptives, or are afraid of being mocked by the hegemonic or ruling male brigade because they don’t have a son… etc, etc. That’s talking masculinity speak. And I have to ask now, as I did then – if we want women to not have that so-called “unmet need” shouldn’t we be actively seeking to understand this ruling or hegemonic masculinity?
Hello? Doesn’t the term gender, that social construction we feminists refer to, mean we should be looking at femininities and masculinities? How is it that we ultimately recognised that we (black folks) needed white folks to work with us to dismantle apartheid? And how is it that we eventually conceded that we (women of colour/women from the global south) needed to allow white women/women from the global north to work with us to address gender inequalities both globally and locally – even if our priorities were not identical, and even if for many whiteness implied complicity in our oppression? We (middle class, a.k.a privileged black women) are even slowly recognising that we have battles for which our “underprivileged” sisters already have the battle scars and experience to enter a full-scale war, and that we can learn from and work with them. So why is it that we become so nervous when we hear ‘masculinities’ or ‘men and boys’? Why is there little or no space for men (and, oh dear! boys) here? I would suggest 3 reasons:
1) We are nervous, nay even angry, that when women’s issues finally made it to the world stage and received some serious attention and funding, it will be (is being) hijacked by a masculinities agenda devoid of any politics or serious interest in gender equality. A bit like all those “white” people who, when affirmative action finally created space, and provided financial support for indigenous minorities (Native Americans, Australian “aborigines”…), suddenly discovered they were whatever per cent Cherokee. Where had they been before when indigenous minorities were crying for recognition, support and equal treatment before the law? Not fair indeed!
2) We are nervous that notions of womanism will cloud the activist edge of “true” feminism, that we will sell out to a watered down agenda where motherhood, to cite but one example, is hailed in unproblematic terms that gloss over women’s gender struggles to become, or choose not to become, or have to become mothers. We are nervous that doing “masculinities” will simply mean “add men and stir” and we will completely forget that gender is a social construct that is about power. Somewhere in that mix is also the fear of hearing about cultural relativism, a la Oyewumi’s “Yoruba’s don’t do gender”. And of course when we begin to talk about our culture, our men, our women – then almost anything becomes permissible from male access to land while women merely have use rights, through male political leadership, to female circumcision (or genital mutilation or genital cutting or whatever the current terminology is).
3) I know I will win no popularity contest for saying this, but some of us are nervous about the whole masculinity discourse because we feel men don’t “deserve” to receive any Oscars. They haven’t suffered enough for what they have done to us. Witness how we moved from violence-against-women to gender-based violence and all that whinging about men suffering abuse from women. Those poor oppressed men we scoff sarcastically.
However, to borrow a cliché here – by failing to recognise the place of masculinities, by failing to understand what these are and how they operate in all their diversity – we risk throwing the baby out with the bath water. We need feminist men. I know some, albeit too few, who have worked with us women on issues ranging from pushing for the passage of domestic violence legislation to equal representation in political institutions. Indeed, in Ghana the 3rd coordinator of our Domestic Violence Coalition is a man who has worked tirelessly and suffered personal disadvantage in the struggle. Just as anti-racist work among white folks has been effective, so anti-“patriarchy” work among men and male-dominated institutions is most effective when carried out by feminist men. In the year that my graduate gender class focused on men and masculinities, strangely, I had only men students, I saw men holding other men to account in ways I had not seen in the mixed-sex class. Gone was the defensiveness when faced with accusations of misogyny from women colleagues that could not be denied. And in its place came depths of introspection, self-recognition and transformation I normally did not encounter.
Akosua Ampofo Adomako
Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana