This is the article I wrote after the “Where are the Men? Critical Perspectives on Masculinities” event held at the University of Western Cape on Thursday 6 to Friday 7 September 2012. The article was published on Times Live on Sept 12.
The article in my view was really a kind of a report on the event, besides being an iteration of the question that possibly stimulated the organisers and participants. At the same time, like many of the pieces that I send to Times Live and post on this blog, it was really a thinking-aloud piece, as opposed to research contribution or a scholarly essay. That happens elsewhere, and for good reason must remain there.
The article stimulated vigorous exchanges when someone posted it on facebook. That was interesting to observe. Even though I am aware of the long debates about men and feminism within feminist discussion, something about what a woman said during the exchanges – and yes, how she said it – that has made me reconsider the use of the term feminist for men. It may take a while for me to put down my thoughts in full, and I am may do it via a different medium or in a different forum. For now, I want to reproduce the article. And here it is:
“Last week the University of Western Cape hosted an event under the title ‘Where are the Men?’ The programme covered topics on men and fatherhood, sexualities, leadership, circumcision, and violence. In this last regard, Marikana was mentioned a few times.
A number of nationally and internationally recognised male and female scholars and activists on issues of gender and masculinity gave talks at the event. There were also two acclaimed novelists, one famous for a well-received book on circumcision.
What man would want to miss such a gathering? Well, you could not ask for a better image to capture the concern behind the question in the title of the event. The number of men in the audience could be counted on the fingers of two hands. The stellar lineup of speakers spoke to a group constituted largely of young women. The men who were the main topic of discussion were in short supply, and African men were even more so.
The fact that the men tend to be missing at events discussing masculinity is not something new to me. In the decade-and-half that I have been engaged in studying and working with men and boys I have spoken far more to women who want to understand their sons, fathers, brothers, husbands, and lovers than I have to men.
Indeed, some women are interested in understanding why some men, including those who profess to love the women, would chose to hit, emotionally abuse, or rape them.
Women in my calculation are more interested in public discussions on men than men are interested in talking about issues of men.
Men, it seems, are not as concerned to ask questions about what kind of men they are, let alone about seeking to really know their daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, and lovers.
Whereas women seem keen to know what men want, a reciprocal interest from men about women’s desires and aspirations is not in great evidence.
To be precise, I am talking about numbers I have seen. It may be that men are interested in the difficulties they face as men, and yet are just nowhere to be found when there is talk about the difficulties and finding solutions. It may also be that men do want to know what women want, they just don’t know how to ask.
There is a part of me that perversely hopes that perhaps all this time I have been looking at the wrong places. Perhaps universities and seminars and classes are not really the best places to interest men in working out issues of masculinity. Pubs, taverns, and mining towns, and football stadia are possibly some of the better place to look for men. However, these places may not be the most conducive to talking.
It is true that things seem to be slowly changing, but I wish they could hurry up so that I could hear and speak to as many more sons, fathers, husbands and lovers, abusers, killers, and rapists before I grow old and disillusioned.
Even though I have been studying this issue of manhood from the moment I started my career as a scholar, I should mention that I don’t have a ready answer to the question of what to do to make men interested enough in masculinity to talk about what is making them many kill others or die violently prematurely at great numbers, abdicate their responsibility as fathers, or rape.
However I do know an answer to another question. That question is what men need to get them back on track when we eventually find them?
What men need, specifically those of a heterosexual variety, are women. They need football and cars and beer, but mothers and wives and girlfriends are up there close to the top.
In turn, women need men to treat them as imbued with the same rights men take for granted – in bed, the house, streets, university, and work. The thing is, although many young and older women are afraid of calling themselves feminists most of them are actually closeted women liberationists.
The upshot of all this is that men have to come to grips with what feminism says about the world. And the f-word, in my experience, is mistakenly believed to be bad.
Some of the men I have gotten a chance to speak to over the years are naturally resistant to this pressure demanded by feminism to transform their practices as men. Many women too, to be sure, get all twitchy at the mention of the f-word.
Changing our practices and beliefs is no walk at the beach. Besides, compared to getting a job, raise, food and sex, looking inward to find the source of the resistance to change is not such a pressing need. Sex gives you immediate gratification too.
There is no way around it though: if men need women, and women have a right to equality, men have to make peace with feminism. It may not be so obvious to some men, but gender and sexuality equality between women and men are the result of long struggles by feminists and women liberationists. That right to equality in fact includes the right to work and be paid the same salary as men, not only the right to dignity and bodily integrity.
But I bring good news. It turns out that feminism is good for men, not just women.
For black men, understanding your manhood in relation to feminism will make you see how good you are having it relative to the majority of black women. If that does not make you change, then who wants you as a brother, boyfriend, or husband.
Feminism will make you see how power works more clearly. It will also give you new allies against powerful men.
Actually, feminism will get you closer, but in a different way, to your parents, especially your mother. It might also help you get closer, in a different way, to your children, if you have any and haven’t been close to them.
Of course, feminism will save your life because you are likely to start to see how your subscription to the idea of a tough guy might be your passport to an early death. That is a fact.
Last, contrary to the black power song, there is research evidence that feminist men have more sexual fun. I am not making this up.
Now, if only we could get men to come to the party.”