Toxic masculinity is a problem. So what are men going to do about it?

Can a society where half the population feels unsafe, traumatised, and harassed every day of their lives make progress?
Updated 21 Oct, 2020 10:58am

Toxic masculinity can be defined as an extremely narrow and repressive form of manhood, with the male becoming defined by and portraying strength through violence, aggression, status, and sex. Showing so-called “feminine” traits like crying, being emotionally vulnerable, or dressing in a way that challenges traditional norms is seen to take away from one's status as a man and undermines one's manhood. More often than not, toxic masculinity ends up inflicting violence on women — emotional and physical — and is found to be deeply embedded in our society as well as in the country’s institutional and legal frameworks.

I grew up in a conservative household, attended an all-boys Catholic school, and went to the neighbourhood mosque’s madrassah to learn the Holy Quran and better understand Islam. Throughout those early years, I was taught many of the best values of Islam and Christianity, along with a rational, science-based education. I was taught how to be a good man and a good Muslim: seek knowledge, treat the poor with respect, don’t lie, work hard, and follow the path of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).

While learning these important moral and ethical lessons, I was also exposed to an undercurrent of male supremacy that is dominant in our society. Long hair was seen as feminine; men did not and were not supposed to cry; casual harassment of women who were not our relatives was broadly tolerated; and it was espoused that a man held supremacy over women.

It has taken many years of learning and unlearning for me to understand how poorly I myself had treated women as a young boy. This includes passive harassment of young girls who studied at the all-girls school across from us, an active disdain for younger female teachers, and staring at women out on the street. It was only later in life that I realised how all of that was wrong: even the swear words we profusely used were heavily gendered and the best way to abuse a man’s honour was to dishonor the women he was related to.

While we were caned for not polishing our shoes or made to run rounds for not clipping our nails, no one at the school or outside taught us to be better. Our parents mostly didn’t know what we were up to and older men did not really sit us down to impart any meaningful lessons. In short, we did not know any better and no one taught us to be any better.

But that is no excuse. I am ashamed and apologetic for the acts I committed as a juvenile and see the importance for men to confront the traits of toxic masculinity and exorcise their demons. This is the only way to teach younger boys to have more empathy and more respect for women and girls for who they are, and not for what their relationship to a man is.

Pakistan is an unsafe place for women and this is not an accident. It is directly related to the society’s inability to confront toxic masculinity, teach successive generations of men to be better, and improve the legal, institutional, and societal norms that uphold the status quo. Go on social media today and you will see men of all ages using language that demeans themselves, their families, even the faith they profess to love, all the while causing unimaginable trauma to women.

For a digitally native generation, the stakes could not be higher. Imagine a young version of myself with WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram on their phone, showcasing toxic masculinity on the internet for all to see. In this day and age, this behaviour cannot be forgotten, is bound to stick and if found out, is not going to fly when it comes to admissions at prestigious universities.

Therefore, we must improve ourselves. Nearly one in four Pakistani women have experienced physical violence, so odds that a woman you know has been abused by a man are very high. Start by listening to the women and let them express their anger. Try to understand the pain and trauma that women go through from a very young age. Make an effort to unlearn what you consider normal and acceptable behaviour. And finally, speak to the young boys around you and teach them to be better. Teach them that harassing or being violent towards women and girls doesn't make them worthy — in fact, just the opposite.

In the end, I'd like to say that the question we all must be asking is: Can a society where half the population feels unsafe, traumatised, and harassed every day of their lives make progress? The answer is clearly, it cannot. And to fix this, Pakistanis must be willing to engage in open and honest conversations when it comes to the status and safety of women and their right to exist in a society without being afraid. Men must learn and unlearn a lot, and those among us who know better and are further along the journey have a duty to speak up.