Op-eds

Challenging sexist culture in our boys

  • sexist
On a chilly Saturday night, we logged in to a Zoom panel discussion with 40 boys and 40 girls from two very well-known private schools in Johannesburg. The discussion was on gender-based violence, and they were in the middle of a fascinating exercise.
by ROZANNE SACK AND WENDY HENDLER | Jun 25, 2020

Each of the boys and girls were asked to raise 10 fingers in response to 10 statements. They were asked to lower a finger if any of the statements applied to them. Transfixed, we watched as the statements were read out, including: “You think twice about what you are wearing before going to the shops to avoid getting catcalled”; “You always have to go to the bathroom with at least one friend”; “Your bad mood or moodiness has been blamed on your hormones or gender”; “You know someone that shares your gender who has been sexually assaulted”. One by one, the girls’ fingers went down, while the majority of boys still held up 10 fingers at the end of the exercise.

We were asked to sit on this panel to offer support to these amazing Grade 11s and 12s should anyone become triggered or need help after the discussion. As the discussion unfolded, we became aware of existing in an almost parallel universe, getting a very privileged glimpse into the world of our youth who are determined to make changes.

Words such as “patriarchy”, “toxic masculinity”, “rape culture”, “misogyny”, and “#menaretrash” bounded around this forum like a ping pong ball, and as we scrambled to keep up, it became clear that these issues have been around for decades, albeit under different guises and movements.

The term “gender-based violence”, has become the banner under which an age-old societal scourge exists. These amazing young men and women are now tackling it head on. As I listened, I felt a deep sadness for this generation. Their world is complex and dangerous, made even more difficult by having to live their lives on social media, vulnerable and exposed.

Patriarchy is a system in which men hold the power and subjugate women. It’s rooted in the belief that men are superior to women, and that they need to dominate them. The younger generation has identified this as the underlying cause of gender-based violence, and they are trying to change the narrative by encouraging men to start questioning the unspoken rules that have existed in their families for generations.

It seems that by starting to undo these preconceived ideas about women and their place in the world, a number of other issues start to unravel. The primary issue is toxic masculinity, which is spotlighted as a major contributor to violence against women and girls. Toxic masculinity refers to the traditional stereotype of men as strong, dominant, fearless, unemotional, and sexually aggressive. Patriarchal society socialises boys to act in strong, “masculine”, and aggressive ways. This behaviour is then normalised and excused as “boys just being boys”.

How many times have you heard a boy being told, “man up”, “don’t be a sissy”, “don’t throw like a girl”, “don’t wear pink”, “boys don’t cry”, “score the girls”, “don’t be a snitch”, “don’t show weakness”, and “play rugby”?

Listening to the panel discussion with the students, it became evident how damaging this “man box” is to the boys of this generation. Many of them either take part in or would like to take part in cultural extra murals, but are scared of being labelled by their peers as “a girl”. There do, however, appear to be an increasing number of boys who are willing to challenge these notions, who are tolerant of diversity and more comfortable with expressing their emotions. It’s these boys who are trying to eradicate the ingrained culture of patriarchy and resultant toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity is a violation of the dignity of manhood. It has a damaging effect on how the average male lives his life by influencing his expectation of behavioural norms. While we cannot excuse the horrendous rate of femicide and gender-based violence in our country, we need to understand the factors that underlie this epidemic if we are to make any meaningful strides towards change.

The panel discussion touched on the movement #menaretrash, and it was fascinating to hear some boys challenge other boys who wanted to disassociate from this hashtag. They were asked whether they actively challenged patriarchy and toxic masculinity in their own and their friend’s behaviour. For example, would they call out a friend in public who is objectifying girls by rating them on a scale of 1 to 10, or who is making sexist remarks and jokes that degrade girls? It was heartwarming for us to hear some of the ideas being put forward to begin changing the narrative.

Ideas such as encouraging boys to challenge the traditional images of manhood that keep them from taking a stand; or asking how they could help if they suspected a case of abuse or assault by not buying into excuses that sexual violence is due to stress or intoxication or drug use.

Boys were encouraged by girls on the panel to look in the mirror, and question all their attitudes and actions that help support the objectification and de-valuing of women. They were challenged to be a role model for their peers by teaching with words and actions that being a man actually means respecting women, learning from them and standing up for them, and speaking out in support of their rights. It was proposed that healthy masculinity means being honest with yourself about your own feelings, needs, and desires. It also means treating all others with the kindness and respect that you deserve and not using your size, strength, or power to get what you want from others.

It’s our greatest hope that these discussions start to take place in our community and our schools, with the youth taking the initiative to set up the discussion groups. It’s through this type of introspection and dialogue that real change can start to take root. We challenge you all to start these discussions in your homes or workplace, shul, or school. Societal change can happen only when each person takes responsibility for their own attitude and behaviour. By changing ourselves, we change our world.

  • Rozanne Sack and Wendy Hendler are the co-founders and directors of Koleinu, the helpline for victims of abuse in the South African Jewish community. The helpline number is 011 264 0341, operating on Monday and Wednesday from 09:00 to 24:00, and Tuesday and Thursday from 07:00 to 22:00.

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