What Could ‘Masculinity’ Mean in 2017? by Meghana Bahar

There have been so many times
I have seen a man wanting to weep
but instead,
Beat his heart until it was unconscious.

— ‘Masculine’, Nayyirah Waheed



There have been many times when I have wondered whether the world has reached a peak in a broken kind of masculinity.

The notion that there is only one kind of masculinity deserving pedestalisation, or even just one kind of masculinity, has long been discarded in the enclaves I have access to as a grassroots activist and scholar. These are not secret societies that are password-protected. They are protected, of course, by communities that uphold principles of freedom, dignity, equality and justice. But anyone is welcome.

It remains to be seen whether everyone will come.

Six years ago, news broke out that sixty-six teenaged boys had been sent to a government-authorised “anti-gay” boot camp in the state of Terengganu, a rather conservative Islamic province in eastern Malaysia. Their offence? They were considered ‘effeminate’ by their custodian-teachers. The boys were sent to a week-long counselling camp to ‘correct’ their behaviour.

I want to draw attention to the psychological effect of such an experience on these apprehended boys. Their trust in their protectors has been broken. Their behaviour has been singled out as being not of the norm, and wrong. Inevitably, they lose trust in themselves. The addendum to this Camp Islam makes it very clear that gays are not acceptable in ‘normal’ society: “Submit to the new twisted faith of hyper-masculinity – not Allah – based on this trinity of pillars, or become outcasts.”

Could outright rejection be more traumatic?

Teenage years can be the site of many a battlefield of emotions, but they can also provide the grounds for developing healthy self-esteem. The institutions that are entrusted with the responsibility of safeguarding these boys have overlooked its possibilities and have instead enforced them to suppress their affection for one another, taught them to hate gays, to distrust femininity (which they are trained to associate with only girls and women), and, irrevocably, to hate their true selves. As a result, these boys will plod on with life guided by the delusion that homophobia is the hallmark of a man of faith. Since a pious man is surely the epitome of the purest masculinity, this attitude must be the most natural thing to right-thinking men.

Fast-forward to April 2017 and the death of a 11-year-old Madrasa student from festered wounds as a result of merciless beating, pokes at the numbed nerves of not just a fragile Muslim masculinity, but a frail Malaysian-Muslim identity. Despite evidence to the contrary, religious leaders facilitated by the government deny the cause of death was cruelty and torture in the hands of a bully.

The undeniable truth is that the adult-custodians of these young lives have failed them. Beneath the narrative that I have outlined is the distinctive power-play of the dominator and dominated. From the enclosed spaces of homes, schools, boot camps and subsequent moving out into the wide spaces of a heteronormative, capitalist, competitive, patriarchal world – hegemonic masculinity survives, within and outside communities of faith. Peer approval based on shaming and male initiation rituals by way of aggression and violence become rites of socialisation. Boys and men are thus answerable to a standard of heterosexism that in turn teaches girls and women self-assertiveness is a threat to femininity. No one is held accountable to an ethics of love, for example, showing love to all human beings irrespective of their gender or sexual orientation.

Similarly, a militarised masculinity engulfs post-war Sri Lanka today, which remains heavily policed by armed forces even though the Tamil Tigers were defeated eight years ago. Throughout the island, constant spurts of violent attacks against Christian and Muslim communities, their livelihoods and businesses rage on. Hate speeches by fascist monks and their supporters are livestreamed across social media in ‘defense’ of Buddhism and to ensure their bastion is fortified against “creeping insurgents”. How can a society that embraces hypermasculinity ever come to reject the notion that oppressing the marginalised is not an act of bravery? The road to justice remains murky and long.

In the Sri Lankan Army’s recruitment of soldiers during three decades of war, the predominant message that has been driven into our psyches is that of the “heroic warrior”. This praiseworthy being embodies such traits as superior physical strength, mental agility, rigidity, independence, big-heartedness, apart from being principally male and Sinhalese. The message helped eclipse the Eelam’s assertion of autonomous rule and its wish for representative governance.

​The alternative faith that is Sri Lankan cricket

It is a well-known fact that a majority of sons (and daughters) of the soil that enlisted in the armed forces and lost their limbs or lives, were from impoverished homes in the rural areas of the country – families that wanted to live. Status that could not be had by poverty and its emasculating effects could now be gained by conquest and valour.

The story of the Tamil villain or anti-hero, the sub-text that was hammered into malleable mindsets during the war, continues to be regurgitated presently, along with types of rhetoric that otherise ethnic and religious minorities. Any treacherous deshdrohi would be feminised, singularised and ostracised by chauvinist, sadist, leonine Sinhala Buddhist ethno-nationalists, and controlled.  

On the rebels’ side, the Tigers’ well-known strategy of recruiting female suicide-bombers can be credited to what femininity embodies to a heteronormative society – innocent, unsuspecting, demure, maternal, apart from the ease with which an explosive vest and a cyanide locket can be slipped into hidden crevices of sensuous curvature – an act of exploitation as it is a revulsion of woman. A few of us, though, would regard this strategy as a successful subversion of the trope of ‘docile woman’ in the making of a woman warrior who fights and achieves freedom for her people through martyrdom.

With patriarchy as the precursor to institutionalised violence, men and boys are forced to conform to a masculinity that the Army reinforces through its aggressive regimentalisation. This hierarchical pattern is repeated across the board in numerous ways, including in the family. Where men and the nation state exercise rights and responsibilities that protect and provide, those under their care are expected to acquiesce into submission and subservience in exchange.

Where force, aggression and machoism colour every aspect of power, contexts that are still recovering from the blitzkrieg of colonial devastation remain stagnant and unliberated years after the master has left the house. This false reality, maintained and controlled by patriarchs in government, education, religion or the media, keeps the masses in a quantum entanglement of mental and emotional slavery that builds on generation upon generation.

~END of Part I~

Meghana Bahar is an intersectional feminist, women’s and human rights activist, and gender & media strategist. She is a consultant writer and engagement coordinator for the Asia-Pacific arm of www.witness.org, an advocate of www.musawah.org, and serves on the board of editors for www.newceylonwriting.com. She can be reached at meghana.bahar@gmail.com.

Categories: Activism, Education, General, Islam, Military, trauma

Tags: , , ,

8 replies

  1. Excellent post on a subject that needs much more attention. Our sons have become slaves to a form of insanity that is soul destroying.


  2. Anyone who thinks what you describe occurs only in conservative Muslim countries needs to take a long look at the current rhetoric in the USA. In addition, here, like what you describe, the majority of young men who join the military are from families who are not wealthy, who see the military as a means to get ahead in the world.


  3. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and feedback! Appreciate it xx


  4. Very sad to hear about the forms of hypermascullinity practiced in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Patriarchy isn’t everywhere, but it certainly is hegemonic in many places.


  5. We have to look at what masculinity may not mean in the future also, for instance God, necessarily.

    An important book on this topic titled GODDESS AND GOD IN THE WORLD, by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow (published 2016), states the following (p.142): “For many feminist theologians, the turn to the world is associated with the search for a new female language for divinity. Imagining God as a woman affirms the minds and bodies of over half of humanity. Because femaleness has been disparaged in dualistic thinking by linking it to the body and nature, it makes sense that a new female language for divinity not only revalues and reclaims the female body but also affirms divinity in nature.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for you feedback!

    Nancy, we must start with the premise that patriarchy still IS.

    Sarah, the reference to God as male will be for a future post :)


    • Meghana, I have been a feminist since 1968, taught Women’s Studies from 1975 – 1991. I always assume that patriarchy still IS. But I also know from my reading about matriarchal cultures that it doesn’t exist everywhere (thank goodness!).


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