We need to talk. We need to talk about why we live in a society that lives in fear of the actions of misguided men. We need to look at what we have been teaching our boys that brought us here and how we can move forward.
When my father passed away some years ago, a day before the funeral there was a dilemma with regards to customary practice. As is our tradition in many cultures in Africa, when someone passes away, a cow is slaughtered. This is to both feed the masses of mourners who would attend the funeral and as an observation of ancestral lore. Now, the dilemma was confusion as to whether the cow is slaughtered before the body arrives, from the mortuary, at our house for the night vigil or after the body’s arrival. Both sides reasoned with decades of their own interpretation of tradition. Then came one of my favourite aunts. She took a sniff of her snuff, wiped her nose and said, ‘the reason there was a specific sequence in how things were done in this situation, back in the day, was because there were no coffins. So the cow needed to be slaughtered first so that the hide could be used to wrap the body when it arrives from the mortuary. So, now that we have coffins, the sequence of slaughter is actually irrelevant.’
Just like that, with that simple explanation, she unravelled generations worth of irrelevant and outdated cultural beliefs. To undo the narrative of broken men, we need to look at what it is that we are teaching our young boys. We need to dismantle concepts at the very root of what manhood is perceived to be that are doing our society harm. I believe that as complex as our social structures are, at the core of human existence is a handful of beliefs that were born out of very pragmatic circumstances. Circumstances which, over time have been shrouded in myth and flawed character.
It is difficult to try to pinpoint when exactly the concept of patriarchy came about, however, we can begin at the point where nature saw a necessity for duality in existence; male/female, masculine/feminine. It so happened that the male species was endowed with brute strength. But both sexes lived in relative equality, that is, until, as one theory goes, 4000 BCE when ‘climate change around led to famines in the Sahara, Arabian peninsula and what are now the Central Asian deserts’. This lead to humans having to work harder to find food and also protect it from others. This obviously required brute strength more than anything else. At this point it became apparent that male humans were better equipped, physically, to deal with the provision of food. But when the famines ended, this pseudo-hierarchy continued. One can assume that, as Thandiswa Mazwai sang, ‘we fell in love with the instruments of our liberation’.
The hunt for food led men to travel further and further away as women remained to keep the fires burning at home. These travels took these men to places where they gained new knowledge. Less and less of this knowledge was shared with the women who had been left behind. Over time, belief systems were created around men’s’ abilities to provide and to gain knowledge. These beliefs sought to not just celebrate and entrench but also to exalt and protect the bearers of those abilities and their knowledge.
When religion came along, men’s abilities and knowledge became not just perceived practicality, but a perceived sign moral, even divine, superiority. The fact that most religions regard their deities as male is a testament. Over time, men, unhindered by restrictions of child-rearing and laundry, became more sophisticated in their knowledge of the sciences, commerce, politics, etc. men began to believe that there was something inherently inferior about women that prevented them from not knowing what the men knew. This belief system then evolved into what we call patriarchy
So what do we teach our young boys about patriarchy?
We have to begin at the beginning; to remind them of the duality of existence. Ironically, children from broken homes have a subconscious grasp of this concept because, even at a very young age, a child knows that they need both their parents in their life. Young boys need to understand that a difference in physical or intellectual ability is not a measure of morality and character. Young boys must be taught that manhood is not a superlative compliment and womanhood is not a pathological insult. They must show that duality is a balance on which rests life itself and men and women were built to complement each other, not for one to be a tool to another.
Inevitably, this is taught best through the child observing how the men and women in their lives carry themselves and interact with each other. As men, we need to relook at how patriarchal beliefs have disadvantaged the women in our lives. But talking about male privilege is as difficult as talking to white people about white privilege. We perpetuate this behaviour subconsciously and would require much calling out by women and being open to listening. So maybe we can start by talking to the women in our lives about their own experience of patriarchy and to invite a young boy into the conversation.
To be continued…