March was International Women’s Month but for women’s rights advocates like myself, the women’s rights movement is part of my everyday life and it’s something I can’t restrict to a certain period of time. Indeed, human rights struggles based on different aspects of intersectional identity demand consistent action due to the constant difficulties from the interconnected, entrenched patriarchal, racial, and heteronormative hierarchies that confront us daily, as we seek to exercise our rights.
Through my work with various institutions and civil society groups, I’ve been involved in many advocacy projects through which we have sought to raise awareness and empower women and girls as part of a historical, global feminist movement. For more than a century, the various historical waves of feminism have fought to obtain these human rights, and like any rights-based movement, there have been successes and failures, progression and regression. The strategies and tactics of the women’s movement is a topic that I’ve written about before, while the various strategical options are frequently discussed in feminist spaces and even mainstream political discourse.
Therefore, I wanted to take this opportunity to share my thoughts on an aspect that is directly related, yet I haven’t heard as much about; the role of men in girls and women’s lives, a subject that I feel is often taken for granted or forgotten in these conversations. Some women have been fortunate enough to have masculine figures in our lives who have sought to guarantee our rights - often in outright anti-feminine contexts. In my case, my father encouraged me to pursue my right to education in a place where other men adhere to the traditional norms regarding the life trajectory of a woman with a disability. Those who follow and maintain these cultural, and sometimes religious anti-feminine norms, continue to be an obstacle in women’s pursuit of their rights to better healthcare, education, cultural, political, and economic opportunities.
In academic circles, adherence to anti-feminine norms is referred to as ‘toxic masculinity. For example, for many fathers, brothers, cousins, even male neighbours where I’m from the honour of women is a virtue that men are charged with protecting. Failure to do so brings shame to male relatives and the woman herself. The extreme example of this is the concept of honour killing when there is a perception that if a female family member has shamed the family in some way, there is an obligation to kill her in order to protect the family’s honour. A more banal example is from an economic independence project for women I worked on in Syria.
Women were provided with economic opportunities to supplement their family’s income, which was helpful for their economic security. However, rather than alleviate the women’s burden, the job added to it, as they were expected to do the job, while still completing the same household chores. Obviously, in this situation, the man needed to step up and help out with the household chores. This problem illustrates the need for men’s education on what is expected of men in our changing world. Another of the troubling aspects of raising boys is when we hear parents who have told their boys “don’t cry like a girl,” which teaches them to hide their emotions. Closing down emotions blocks communication, and lets frustration or pain build up until it explodes in violence. Permitting men to share fears and emotions is therefore ultimately a fundamental condition for a more peaceful and equitable world.
In my experience, conversations about educating men and boys often revolve around the nature versus nurture argument. It has also been argued that since traditions have always given these roles to men and women, this will never change. Progress can even be seen as a threat to identity. Instead of getting stuck in such discussions, we have to concentrate on what we can change, the rearing of boys into men. This is not a task that has a single answer or one which will ever be completed. Progress will take different forms in each society, and for each family. But the road to change will become much easier if we share our experiences and concerns and support each other on the journey, instead of looking for others to blame.