Parents and guardians of boys in South Africa are having serious talks with them about gender violence. A series of high-profile attacks on women across the country have forced these interactions. These conversations are similar to what African-American parents have with their teenage boys on what to do if confronted by the police – and have become an uncomfortable, but necessary, rite of passage.
In SA’s case, it is about how young men need to man up in the way they treat women.
For the most part, these conversations have a series of don’ts. Don’t hit a woman. Don’t force a woman. Don’t touch a woman. Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!
While the intention is noble, it has serious flaws. By starting and ending the conversation along these lines, it does not solve the root problem.
The problem is the warped and flawed version of what it is to be a man. Especially in a world where the role of women has changed so much.
Once, we had very definite parts to play along clear gender roles. Many men are floundering when coming to the question, “What is the role of a man?”
Before, it was easy, men were in charge of everything and women played in their shadow. The very concept of a powerful man was of someone that was assertive, aggressive and would not back down. A man that owned his space and protected and provided for those around him. He determined the course, and others (women) follow. This is what we teach our boys. Be powerful, be strong, be a warrior. Whether in the boardroom, on the sports field or in the bedroom, you are in charge, anything else and your manhood is in question.
He was rewarded and revered for this bold, abrasive type of manhood.
This very notion of man as a warrior, with all its noble misguided intentions, is the cause of a lot of unintended problems. Warriors need someone to fight in order to protect their territory. Yet all too often their territory is not theirs to own. The minds, bodies and spirit of women do not need a man’s protection anymore. Women can provide for themselves, assert themselves and the warrior in a man is challenged by a world that tells him, we don’t need you.
This flawed form of masculinity is fighting back hard. In the more extreme versions it amounts to the cruelty experienced by so many women in so many headlines. In more subtle terms it occupies space such as telling women how to dress, where to go, how to speak and to mind her place. The very act of being dismissive of a woman’s point of view is a subtle attack on her dignity. Thus the warrior is no longer protecting her, but policing her. It is about domination and subservience in order to serve a fragile ego.
How do we ask boys to give up the power that society has given them purely on the basis of being born with male genitalia?
We need to give them options in defining their own sense of manhood that does not diminish the humanity of others. The warrior needs to be replaced by someone who builds and nurtures, rather than someone who polices and controls. Too often this is associated with weakness on the side of a man and men who do this are dismissed as soft.
In the conversation with the boy in our house, we told him “you have no rights over any woman. Nothing! Zip! Zero! She can go, do and think and says what she wants.” He should not be intimidated by a woman who speaks her mind, or holds her ground. It is not his role.
Your manhood is not dependent on keeping her in her place. Your role in the life of a woman is to support her and help grow her into being the best person she can possibly be.
We told him: “If you are not creating space for others to be magnificent, you are failing as a man.” When coming to relationships we said, “If she is not doing the same for you, you are failing as a couple.”
Our definition of manhood is a man who creates space for others to grow and be their best.
The boy in the house is a tall, gangly, quiet teenager with a gentle soul and does not have it in him to harm anyone. But at some point, he will fall short of our and his own expectations in the way he has treated women. How do I know this? Because I have fallen short so many times. Even well-intentioned men who would never hit a woman are blind to their own prejudices. So we told the boy in the house to be reflective of his actions, to question his own motives and to think about his role in society that benefits him.
"We are surrounded by story." ~ Alice McDermott