Just after we had graduated to secondary school, a new boy joined our class. This new entrant was of pale, white complexion, had shiny, silky hair and walked like a girl. His spotless uniform and filed nails made the other boys feel like …well, lesser animals. After tiffin break, when all the boys smelled of sweat, dirt and mischief – a gentle whiff of Nivea wafted from his person. The fascination continued for a week. Slowly, the students began to realise that he avoided contact sports, refused to learn or repeat dirty words and abstained from planned disobedience in class. Slowly, the entire class’ attitude changed.
It started with whispered taunts and escalated to bullying and scuffles to the point where teachers had to intervene. On multiple days, he was sent home weeping, his mother confused as to what her boy had done wrong. The teachers knew what it was, but had no language to discuss it.
As most of us already know, boys who are (mis)identified as ‘effeminate’ often become prey at an early age. They are mockingly called hijra (hermaphrodite), ‘gay’, ‘ladies’, ‘half ladies’ and other perceived derogatory terms. They are punished for not being ‘manly enough’ and are excluded from social circles and activities that produce and reinforce masculinity.
The social reaction to effeminate boys relates directly to the construction of masculinity. ‘Gender’ (masculinity, femininity) is a social construct i.e. it is not inherited at birth, but taught subsequently. Through gendered names, colour-coded clothes, gendered toys, resource allocation and nurturing of ambitions – gender is socially imparted. A boy is a boy not because of his anatomy, but because he was constantly taught to be so.
In essence, masculinity is the idea that a man is the opposite of a woman, and that certain symbols and behaviours are warranted to demonstrate this difference. Think about these norms: men don’t cry; they don’t dance or take money from their wives; it’s unmanly to wear makeup or bangles; men fix things; they fight wars. Simple enough, right? But millions of such rules give a surprisingly consistent meaning to manhood almost all over the world. Men compete on these criteria and receive various socioeconomic rewards (or punishments) within patriarchal systems.
As per Connell’s ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’ framework, a number of characteristics are encouraged in men: violence / aggression, stoicism (emotional restraint), courage, toughness, risk-taking, adventure and thrill-seeking, competitiveness, and achievement and success. Not without its share of criticisms, the hegemonic masculinity framework provides some understanding of what could constitute an ideal male. It tells us that a man is a provider, protector, builder, fixer and adventurer.
Masculinity is a big deal, and men are far more concerned about preserving it than women are with femininity. Researchers Bosson and Vandello (2011) write that femininity functions more as a (biological) state, while masculinity is a status. In fact, they argue that masculinity is a terribly fragile status that can be dismantled by a single unmanly act. The social sanctions against defying male role expectations appear to be harsher too. This means that masculinity must be constantly reinforced through masculine attitudes and behaviours.
Fragile masculinity has been under assault from a number of directions for centuries now. Anthropologist Peter McAllister in his tongue-in-cheek book Manthropology argues that Neanderthal women had 10 percent more muscle mass than the modern European man. Usain Bolt, he says, would be outrun by ancient aboriginals. Other studies show that modern men are substantially weaker than they were even 30 years ago. Present day workouts regimes, muscle-building, steroids, body-revealing clothing and gym-selfies are all ways of compensating for the loss of physical strength. Readers may want to search the hashtag #MasculinitySoFragile for more similar instances.
Add to this the fact that men and women now enjoy similar citizenship benefits and work similar jobs. Instruments of politically and economically excluding, and thus, dominating women are becoming less effective. Naturally, this creates a sense of anxiety in men. It creates confusion as to how they should assert and reassert their gender identity.
The capitalist mode of production – by marketing rugged clothing (denims, hoodies), guyliners (eyeliners for guys) and heavy metal music – exploits this very vulnerability. The market for keeping up masculine appearances is at its peak. While all this sounds innocuous enough, there are darker expressions of masculinity, giving rise to the notion of ‘toxic masculinity’. Toxic masculinity advocates stricter punishment for ‘deviant’ men, forceful subjugation of women and the use of violence to maintain the status quo.
Because heterosexuality is an essential ingredient of mainstream masculinity, any alternative idea or arrangement elicits derogatory and exclusionary treatment. In Bangladesh, work on HIV-AIDS prevention reveal that Bangladeshi men who engage male sex workers (MSWs) are typically married (to women) and have heteronormative social identities. Due to the (perceived) centrality of sexual orientation in determining gender, they are compelled to keep their practices separate from their gender identity. It is the only way to save face. Thus readers will start to see why ‘effeminate’ boys in school are marginalised: they conform fully to neither entrenched gender roles and thus become threats to both.
Toxic masculinity is even more dangerous for women. As it is, masculinity feeds off of subjugating women as an underclass that acts as a symbol of male conquests. In Bangladesh, female council members are sometimes ‘controlled’ by their husbands. Female workers tend to turn over their earnings to husbands. Men’s sense of masculinity still remains deeply tied to girls’ / women’s bodies and sexuality. As new strains are applied to this connection, men are likely to respond with coercion: dictating what women may wear and where they may go. With further loss of power, things could take a more violent turn. Sexual harassment, acid-throwing or rape are all common forms of violence against women that potentially originate from male powerlessness. It could partially explain the spike in physical and sexual violence against women in this region.
All around the world, sexual assaults, gun violence and terrorism as a product of toxic masculinity have been making the headlines. Some schools of thought recommend dismantling the gender dichotomy altogether. But the boundaries and practices of masculinity in Bangladesh are unique as they are useful: e.g. our masculinity rebukes paternal absenteeism and prescribes caring for ageing parents. But in the absence of avenues for advocating social change, violent expressions of masculinity could easily surface. That is why it is important to study these expressions independently of imported discourses, and advance ideas for rooting out the toxic elements.
First published on The Daily Star.