Exploring Ethiopian Masculinities

In my perspective, the conversations and interventions to promote gender equality in Ethiopia have focused heavily on women. Therefore a natural inclination has been to assign   gender issues as ‘women’s issues’. If by definition, gender, refers to the socialized roles and responsibilities of men and women that are assumed within families, societies, cultures and expectations held about the characteristics, aptitudes and behaviours of women and men, then we should always keep in mind to challenge women’s socially constructed subordination vis a vis challenging men’s socially constructed domination. I don’t attempt to question why the promotion of gender equality has focused on women’s rights and empowerment, as by definition subordination subsumes oppression and inferiority in status/position within society. Hence, work to reverse female subordination requires a deeper level of engagement with those that have been historically marginalized in many realms on the basis of biological differentiation.

I’ve always also contemplated the extent to which these levels of engagement in reversing women’s subordination would have far reaching impact without the same level of engagement to address constructions of male dominance. A level of engagement beyond simply articulating it as a problem, and rather devising interventions to counter negative masculinities that are at the root of gender inequalities. In many gender equality workshops I have facilitated in Addis through Earuyan Solutions, common confusions arise when attempting to define attributes of being male. And i don’t refer to dominant and widely held conceptions of being male; rather what individuals themselves (women included)  believe are traits of being male. These often cited attributes are continually defined as: strong, provider, hero, aggressive,  decisive, logical, sexually assertive,  etc. Rarely are people able to differentiate between socialized and biological traits; nor is there a wider reflection on what the implications are for men who do not fit into these stereotyped boxes and are non-conforming. Therefore, with lack of far reaching spaces and interventions that enable reflection and analysis of what it means to be a gender conforming and non-conforming man and its implications, we run the risk of continously estimating a longer number of years to close the gender gap.

The lack of in-depth studies (and conversations) on masculinities in Ethiopia runs a number of risks, two of which i can clearly articulate: i) attributing dominant or hegemonic masculine identities to all men, regardless of age, ethnicity, class, ability, locality, etc. and ii) assuming non-conforming masculine identities as anecdotal exceptions. The latter, I particularly find dangerous, as it can clamp down the potential to maximize on non-conforming experiences as an entry point to promoting positive masculinities. To ground it in an example; following an almost three-year journey with #ArifWond – a local community of men and a few women working to promote gender justice in Ethiopia through exploring and promoting positive masculinities, I’ve become much more aware of the plurality of masculinities in Ethiopia. Through these explorations, within the #ArifWond community and outside of it, there are experiences/stories of some urban men living in opposition to some of the dominant/hegemonic masculine identities that have come to be accepted as the ‘way men are‘. i.e. stay-at-home-dads vs ‘the provider’; the willing injera baking husband vs the ‘couch  on the feet till dinner is ready husband’; the single-dad taking sole responsibility for his kids vs  the divorcee with weekend visiting rights.  However, not enough of these experiences are extracted and analyzed for their origins and circumstances, to give us a better understanding of the currents that drive alternate masculine roles and identities in contemporary Ethiopia.

Why is the exploration, unpacking of Ethiopian masculinities and promotion of positive masculinities important? I alluded earlier to the challenge of ensuring gender equality and women’s rights in contexts where half the population may have internalized a single and dangerous narrative of being a man – strong, aggressive, provider, hero, hyper-sexual. Where the space to exercise these descriptors of hegemonic masculinity may become limited, and unchecked male dominance is increasingly being contested in various spaces, the manifestation of hegemonic masculinity often is through explicit and implicit violence – violence on women and violence against male counterparts, who may be non-conforming.

Since our society and communities (including both women and men) have a tendency to ostracize and ridicule those that do not live up to the socially constructed masculine ideal, men and boys often perform and propagate traditional male norms. Living up to the standard of what masculinity theorists call ” The Big Impossible” often leaves men having to continuously reassert their masculine identity. For example, according to a rare masculinities study undertaken in the town of Dessie (2006) in Ethiopia,” lack of employment opportunities and inability to fulfill their traditional gender roles as providers may lead young men to commit sexual violence to boost their masculinity and self-esteem (Genene, Tadesse).” With such a high premise put on men to fulfill such roles, it can be inferred that boys grow into men with entitlement over such domains and therefore resistance to women’s increased influence in public domains and spheres often understood as masculine. Such feelings of entitlement put into question the equality agenda especially in spaces that historically have had low female representation. i.e. political, religious, economic institutions.

While #ArifWond is an emerging platform designed for men with men, to explore, contest negative masculinities and promote positive Ethiopian masculinities, the need for similar platforms to emerge, as well as the need to integrate such reflexivity into gender equality promoting interventions is of paramount importance. Otherwise, we perpetuate divisive and ‘no end in sight’ debates if the only type of engagement to such issues we get from men is ‘not all men‘ in response to public outcries from women on grave inequalities and injustices faced in our society.

It’s becoming apparent – ‘not all men‘ is becoming vey cliché and an #ArifWond type of engagement – a new norm of active male reflection and participation in promoting gender justice – needs to become the new normal in Ethiopia.

AW 3
A response received from a male respondent on how he defines an #ArifWond (Cool Man)