Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Men and the Masculine Identity

Ghanaian contestant DKB slaps a female housemate on the MNET show Big  Brother Africa in June 2012.

I spent the last week in the city of Accra, Ghana, where I went to attend the Yari Yari Ntoaso Conference of Writers of African Ancestry. I had a wonderful time meeting new people and discovering all kinds of fascinating information about writing, history and the struggles of black women everywhere. In fact, I enjoyed my stay in the city so much that I decided to stay for another two days. I had planned to spend those days in Lagos anyway, but I was charmed by the beautiful simplicity of the city and it’s friendly, open people.

Yet, Accra has a dark side. On the last day of our stay, my friend who had joined me on the last leg of the trip, rented a car from a local company named Ghana Car Rentals. The trip itself was wonderful until the driver, Ken, physically assaulted me – ripping my clothing and breaking my glasses – over what was essentially a cultural misunderstanding.

Now, I’m not really here to talk about the incident (which I must say was very poorly handled by the management of this car hire company, Ayikoo Tours), I am here to talk about the construction of masculinity that made this driver feel that an appropriate response in the face of an argument with a female customer was to grab her by the neck and drag her across a parking lot.

In his wonderful TED Talk, Dr. Jackson Katz, a long-time gender rights activist, highlights the problematic ways many societies define masculinity, ways which actually encourage domestic violence and deviant sexual behaviours like rape. Many societies insist that men ought to be dominant over all things all the time – especially women. And they are to use physical and sexual violence to assert that dominance, if necessary.

This is particularly true in the West African society that I live in and that the man who assaulted me was raised in.  If you don’t believe me, watch any typical Nollywood movie. For those of you who don’t know, Nollywood is the movie industry of Nigeria and it’s widely popular across West and Central Africa. However, I have yet to watch a movie produced by this industry that does not depict some form of domestic violence. Whether it is simply a man screaming at his girlfriend, wife or daughter to shut up should she say something he might find disagreeable, to outright scenes of battery and assault. Very few of these movies (at least those I have seen) question or challenge these men’s actions, normalising them as legitimate avenues to establish dominance.

The idea that men must be in control of themselves and the people around them is not limited to Nollywood and West Africa. Every Hollywood action movie you’ve ever watched centres around this theme – and don’t get me started on Bollywood and films from China, Korea and Japan. The problem is, no one can be in control all the time. Circumstances of economy, class, education, race and geography can all serve to take away one’s autonomy. But while all these other things may be abstract, a man’s relationship with the women in his life is not. And if control and dominance can be enforced and established with violence, well what’s a man to do?

I think that how violence is often framed with a focus on the victims rather than the perpetrators is telling. Whether it is the focus on the female (and occasionally male) victims of domestic and sexual violence rather than on the predominantly male perpetrators, or the focus on the casualties of war rather than on the soldiers who perpetuate them, I feel we have been looking at the wrong end of the telescope.

We fail to see that the idea of violent masculinity is not just damaging to its victims, its affects the perpetrators as well. After all, to try to function under the burden of an identity that is impossible to fulfil is incredibly destructive. It chips away at one’s sense of self and leaves its victims hyper-vigilant, constantly looking out for situations that may threaten their fragile egos. It is also destructive to societies as well. It is no coincidence that those places with the highest ratios of gender inequality – ie. those that more strongly insist on the violent dominance of the masculine over the feminine – are also some of the most dangerous for both men and women.

We need to re-examine how men are being trained. It is not by accident that data from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe shows that in the U.S. and Europe, 85-100% of people convicted of assault are men. And 90% of murders are committed by men. Statistics from the United States' Bureau of Justice show that over 85% of violent crimes in the country are committed by men. While I don't have the numbers for countries in West Africa, I am sure the numbers would pan out similarly here as well.

As Paul Campos, a professor of law at the University of Colorado at Boulder points out in a Salon.com article, gender-based violence isn't really about women – and leaving women to solve the problem alone is like trying to cure a gangrenous foot by exercising.

He notes:
Yet because men belong to a – or rather the – socially dominant group, they find it relatively easy to ignore demands (from people they dismiss as “shrill feminists”) that they take responsibility for male violence.

If we don't begin to ask serious questions about what it means to be a man, about the connections between masculine identity and violence, we’ll keep hearing the same stories of rape, assault and murder and we’ll keep wondering why.


  1. I am so sorry about your experience, sometimes being a woman is difficult, scary, challenging... for so many reasons, and domestic violence, assault, rape are just a few.

    Childbirth, beautiful as it maybe is frightening, life changing. Our bodies change more times than a male body - hormonally, chemically, physically. As a woman we are limited although the world is ours for the grabbing, it always seems metaphoric, or circumstantial. Everything is a bigger risk for us than for men! always!

    I love your conclusion and agree to it fully.

    1. While the reality of being a woman is difficult, I don't think it's something I'll ever be OK with. Part of why I'm a feminist is because I don't think that life should be "hard" for women or men. I think that the gender roles our societies construct for us are limiting and destructive and it's only when we let them go that people can start being free to remake their worlds into ways that best fit them. Yes, women's bodies go through a lot - but so do men's bodies as well, we just don't pay as much attention to it very often. I think once we stop looking at physical differences as signals of inferiority or superiority, we can go a long way to making the world a lot safer and accepting for everyone.

  2. Crap. I'm really sorry that happened to you Chinelo. Can you buy a taser there? Would it be legal to use in a similar situation? Outside of that, I hope everything else is going well.

  3. Wow, what an awful thing to have happen to you! I spent a month in Accra and was similarly charmed by the simplicity and easy-going nature of the people. And the Ghanaian men I met, in the fact the people as a whole, were more genteel and easy-going than Nigerians.

    I would have loved to know what exactly made the man so mad, and how did the bystanders react to his violence? Was he punished? I must admit that after the second paragraph where you described the incident, I read through everything else hurriedly to see if you'll return to a description of the incident...

  4. I am sorry that happened to you but you can't insist it happened simply because you are a woman.

  5. Visit any Lagos market everyday on any given week day. Yo will see "market women" exhibiting their eponymous behavior.

  6. I really appreciate your professional approach. These are pieces of very useful information that will be of great use for me in future.