Sunday, March 1, 2015

Redefining Patriarchy

Reflections on Dr Mamphela Ramphele’s “Ndiyindoda! Yes, you are a Man”
Had I not attended the 2nd International Leah Tutu Symposium held at Odeion, University of the Free State, I would have remained believing that masculinity is only a preserve of the ignorant! Yet, masculinity, which is at the root of questions and problems surrounding gender, identity and contestations thereof about defining gender equality, is a problem of the world at large. The deliberations that ensued in the course of the day shook me and left me quite afraid of where my country, Kenya, is hurtling herself towards in lieu of men, masculinity and feminism.
UFS Nelson Mandela Gate: UFS FaceBook Images
UFS is here: 
Mamphela Ramphele’s keynote address inspired me so much that I decided to pen a blog post in honour of her presentation whose title and content is the source of my reflections and summations. Drawing largely from African traditional knowledge, cultural practices and other social norms, she noted that the true spirit of Ubuntu demands that we have to make it our business to touch the lives of the people we encounter and not to bask in the limelight of dominance and oppression. But it was her discourse on masculinity; the expectations of the society about men that elicited animated rejoinders from the audience. Her paper was predicated on the Xhosa initiation phrase Ndiyindoda – shouted at the moment of circumcision meaning “I am a man” – I have become a man through initiation.
After listening to her, now I am more than ever convinced that what ails the society is the ideal alpha male figure that we have propped up and imagined that every man/woman should strive to become in the course of their life. It is this alpha male myth that we celebrate; a narrative that thrives on the triple heritage of dominance, power and control. I can surmise convincingly here that it is the biggest problem that bedevils Kenyan politics, economy and social life and perhaps that of Africa at large. Otherwise how can you explain the voracious appetite for pieces of land, political power and the widening economic and social gap between the rich and the poor; the men and the women? Besides, the alpha male narrative flaunts sexuality and sexual prowess through belittling and undermining other males as sissies, wimps, moffies, weaklings or losers.
It thus bears mentioning that if we are to correct this image, we have to define masculinity differently and teach young men that they can define themselves outside the realms of the alpha male figure. This definition must occlude egalitarian values such as amassing wealth, wielding power over others, being a hero etc. As such, the mere adoption of a constitution by a country, like Kenya for example, does not directly translate to upholding of human rights and other gender related issues.  Also, being initiated through circumcision does not necessarily qualify one as a man and neither does hoarding or having havens of wealth and money transform one into a man. Thus, civic education must be stepped up to teach young generations of the ethos and values that define a holistic society – the need to embrace the value system of a human rights culture.
Image courtesy of University of the Free State website

One of the best ways to begin conversations about questions of identity is at school. We have to create safe spaces for teachers and mentors to discourse on matters of gender, identity and sexuality. As many developing countries grapple with emerging issues of LGBTI, homophobic behaviour and other sexually oriented issues, we must find apt means to confront and deal with them. If this does not happen, the phantom of the alpha male will keep haunting humanity. It is good to note that education can help negate aspects such as subjugation, disempowerment and alienation which are a resultant effect of the ideology of dominance.
It is also worth noting that women end up being collateral damages of subjugation. When the narrative of the alpha male dominates a society, this leads to other males being ridiculed and in turn they turn their angst towards the women in their lives. In their bid to remedy their broken egos, the men turn to crime, violence, drugs and anything else that can help fill the void of the feeling of vulnerability. Consequently, they rape, batter, maim and other times kill women and children. An example given in the discussion demonstrated how a man murdered a woman and when asked why he did so he said that he wanted her to respect him and recognise that he is a man and that as a result the society would see him as a man and respect that!
Of interest to the discussion was the fact that the increase in adult shops and other porn related issues is tied to the alpha male narrative that projects man as an insatiable being. This leads to human trafficking and the casting of the female body as an object of male desire, conquest and satisfaction. As a result, misogynistic images thrive as men compete to outdo each other in showcasing their money and power; again reflecting domination. This raises the question: Why do men feel they have to control and command? How can we teach alternative masculinity? Thus, as long as we uphold the alpha male – where the winner takes all, we will continue to nurture conflict and violence amongst ourselves!  
It simply emerged that human rights is an issue that resides in the realms of an ideal world, one which is far removed from the reality of the problems on the ground. We need to teach men that they can be real and that there is nothing wrong with crying. The traditional notion of a tough heterosexual man who is privileged as a provider, protector and leader must be challenged. If not, the men who do not exude such valour will continue to be ridiculed and when they suffer inferiority complex all manner of psychosocial issues will break loose. The detriment of such a situation might explain the isolated cases of Kenyan men massacring their entire family and committing suicide. In fact, if unchecked, the moral stability of the country will eventually crumble leading to a society of lawlessness and anarchy – a phenomenon that is already common in parts of South Africa and other places such as the USA.   
Image courtesy of UFS FaceBook Page 
Questions around the triple burden of poverty, unemployment and inequality undermine identity formation. For example, a man who cannot provide feels inadequate. If a boy is born to such a man and he grows up being asked to man up, he will have a warped imagination of what masculinity is because he is already traumatised by his father’s figure of a man who comes across as a loser thus encouraging transgenerational trauma. This tells us that we are overburdening men by telling them to be men and yet we are not equipping them with the requisite resources to be so. The corollaries of such a situation are gender based violence, indulgence in substance abuse, suicide and other crime related matters.
Care must be exercised so that we do not define men only as providers, protectors and leaders without providing them with the means to actualise the same. If these men are disempowered, such a perception, of an alpha male, will lead to destruction of the self which can only spell doom for the society at large. We have to find a way of initiating men into manhood without setting them up for failure. Ramphele reiterated that boys need to be socialised to understand that they can be gentle, communicative, and caring persons who can express emotions. But we must protect this and dissuade ourselves from joining ranks with those who demean them for being so. Both men and women must see each other as complimentary as opposed to competitors. Indeed, women cannot abdicate their responsibility of protecting men and helping men to understand their identity as well as position in society and vice versa. Read more about Ramphele:

Last but not least, the African culture had no alpha male and everyone was equal. Social gatherings were held with all the men sitting in a circle on equal apparatus without even the chief being elevated. In this setting, everyone contributed equally and was listened to with mutual respect. Therefore, we must refuse quoting things out of context or selecting social constructs that satisfy our selfish whims such as the bible verse that women must be submissive. Ramphele ended her speech by quoting Fredrick Douglass’ statement that “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”. 

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