What does it mean to be a man?

11 08 2009

There are some dominant characteristics that constitute being a man in south Asia. Being physically strong and attractive, being the protector, the leader, the chief decision maker, being sexually successful and being heterosexual are just some of them. These definitions are commonly referred to as Masculinities. The plural form “masculinities” conveys that there are many definitions for being a man and that these can change over time and from place to place.

These dominant forms of masculinities are instilled in men from birth onwards and perpetuated by men and women, mothers and fathers, in schools and on the streets, throughout a mans life. Once instilled, men are required to constantly prove their manliness. Men are taught from an early age that to be a successful leader you must be ready to put up a fight. Adolescent boys for example think they are proving their manliness by engaging in risky behavior, like driving too fast and too rash, or drinking and driving, or proving them selves to their friends by going through with certain dares. Ragging in universities is a good example of this in Sri Lanka. Some men consider beating their wives an expression of their manliness. Many young men are initiated into sex by their friends. Some are forced to visit sex workers whether they like it or not and rarely refuse for fear they will be considered less of a man.

These aspects of masculinity are encouraged to prevail for a man to be a “real man” and are endorsed by key institutions, such as in business, politics, the military and in sports. Such institutions are structured and designed around these masculine roles making it extremely difficult for women to play a leadership role. We see this from the few number of women in parliament in Sri Lanka for example.

However, these behaviors have a cost to society. Ragging for example has lead to countless closures of our Universities and even to the death of some students, most notably S. Varapragash in 1997. Drunk driving and the resultant injuries and deaths from road related accidents amount to millions of rupees in losses. These are costs that can be easily avoided, lives that can be saved.

What if a man were to develop and take on characteristics that are not those of the dominant man, if he were to become for instance a secretary, or a kinder garden teacher, or a nurse, would that make him less of a man? At least as women we are given the choice today to either wear pants or skirts, to work and pursue a career or to stay home and bear children or both. A young girl can be a tomboy and get away with it, but a boy who is sissy is called a “sothiya” a “ponnaya”, laughed at and taunted. A man who is not naturally aggressive or competitive is forced to pretend to be or face scorn. In fact, “feminized men” are at the bottom of the hierarchy. Studies in our neighboring countries India and Bangladesh show that feminized men are more likely to be abused as adolescents, most often by members of their own family. They are also more likely to harm themselves and commit suicide than their peers. It seems like the worst insult one man can hurl at another is the accusation that a man is like a woman.

One reason for this is that women are less valued than men in our society. We know from the rates of female infanticide across the region that this is true. The girl child is seen more as a burden and liability to the family. When compared to boys, girls are less valued hence less educated, less fed, given less opportunities, confined and treated as less than human in many instances. Our culture and the rituals associated with it celebrate the male child, while a daughter’s arrival is not half as jubilant.

Certain jobs associated with caring and rearing, are considered too demeaning for men to do, almost unclean and dirty.

But no man can possibly live up to the dominant characteristics of being a man all the time and still be human. As a society we expect too much from men. We expect them to be super human; men are looked down upon if they show emotion or if they cry, men are expected to do tough physical jobs, they must succeed at all costs, they are expected to be assertive, to know all about sex and how to perform in bed (in reality young boys get even less sex education that young girls[1])  We place too much pressure on men. And if men cant live up to the pressures we place on them, they turn to other ways to vent their frustrations like drinking, violence, abuse and the like.

As a society we need to redefine what it means to be a man. This will not only allow men to develop deep and rich connections with others, including women and children but also with other men. These connections are what make life full and rewarding, but they require vulnerability. We need to allow men to explore their softer side without being ridiculed and tormented instead of narrowing their emotional range and depth. This will be good, not just for men, but for women too. By redefining what it means to be a man, there will be less violence against women and more harmony between the sexes.


[1] In a recent review of the Millennium Development Goal indicators for young people from 9 countries in Asia, no country reported more than 50percent level of sexual knowledge among boys with some countries reporting as low as 3percent. Redefining AIDS in Asia, 2008

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One response

4 09 2009
vatura

this is very interesting…especially in the light of what I wrote about south asian male behaviours in SAM. one rarely stops to think about the weight of social pressure and the obligation to ‘deliver’ on so many fronts, that the average man has to deal with.

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