Can men be allies in the struggle to end gender violence?

Bernedette Muthien. Photo supplied.
By Bernedette Muthien

Like some people’s Facebook relationship status, the question of men as allies to
women’s liberation is complicated.

All identities are artificial, social constructs. And serve particular interests, notably maintaining physical, structural and/or cultural domination of the privileged over the dominated. Identities are formed and maintained in the mind, in the consciousness, and it is there that the chains of subjugation and control must be broken.

To understand men as potential allies, and to understand GBV, we need to understand sex and gender.

Women is conceived as the opposite of man, but a lesser version, like Eve in the Christian Bible formed from Adam’s rib, man always on top, with women, children, and in the Bible, slaves and animals on the pyramid towards the base. Sex is understood as nature, as science, as hormones and chromosomes, set in concrete. But we know that nature is not a line, but the interdependence of far more complex equations, like a piece of string thrown in the air, taking many shapes over time, no end or beginning. So too we have different articulations of femininity and masculinity in nature, with no human on either extreme. 

Caster Semenya, who is intersex, personifies the complexities of a narrow definition of sex. Gender is thought to be socialised: we are often involuntarily polarised into social categories of feminine and masculine, with no two ends meet, in a dangerous hierarchical dance with masculine always supreme and feminine always subordinate, codified in religions, expressed in-laws and societal mindsets and behaviours. 

Yet intersex people like Caster Semenya show how complex sex and gender are. And then there is trans-gender, beyond-gender, don’t stick me in your sex or gender cage kind of trans, beyond polarities. So when we conceptualise a “woman” or a “man” we must do so in all their complexity, in a moment, and including all their intersections: socio-economic class, age, ethnic origin, geographic location, sexuality, disability, etcetera past and present. 

The South African Constitution’s Bill of Rights contains 16 categories of non-discrimination. Women who do not conform to a narrow definition of society’s understanding of feminine are brutally attacked and sometimes murdered. So too are male persons who do not conform to rigid definitions of masculinity, masculinity which is often violent. Gender-based violence is precisely violence based on gender, violence based on the maintenance of the gender hierarchy, that is patriarchy, the rule of some men over women and everyone and everything else. This violence is predicated on gender inequality. 

To end GBV, we need to effect gender equality. All identities including masculinity are formed through Othering. I am because I am not. Boys become men through asserting anti-feminine, anti-homosexual identities, identities that are impossible to maintain, that require constant group and individual policing. 

Girls too are painfully and often violently socialised. For men to contribute to ending GBV they need to break from within themselves the shackles of masculinity through which their privilege can routinely be asserted with violence. This takes enormous courage, to assert an alternative identity. They also need to break from the chains of societal conformity, with threats of emotional and physical violence as backlash. Instead of identifying with and exploiting power and privilege, men must ally with women and see the benefits of social and gender egalitarianism over patriarchal violence. This requires constant resolve and resilience on the parts of male persons who wish to be allies in the struggles not only to end GBV, but also to affect gender equality.

When violence is perpetrated, not only the victim of violence suffers. The perpetrator is brutalised before committing violence and through their very acts of violence. Witnesses to the violence also suffer of vicarious trauma. So all of society suffers when violence is perpetrated. No one is immune from violence. Yet everyone benefits from peace, as everyone, even racists, have benefited from the end of Apartheid.

That said, men should not expect to continue their privilege and power over, for example, funding and leadership positions over women and gender issues, and even for straight men, access to adoring women. To be true allies, men may need to not only share power but relinquish power to women. Women should lead the struggles for gender equality and ending GBV, with men and other allies to support us.

President Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso once said: “We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up half the sky.

Bernedette Muthien has held senior positions in academia, civil society, government and constitutional rights. She is a researcher, facilitator, poet and social justice advocate.