By Rafia Zakaria
March 8th, 2017
A MAN feels no fear. A man is never scared. A man never cries. Regardless of the particularities of politics, of class or the specifics of caste and culture, all boys in Pakistan grow up with the echo of these sentences in their ears. By the time they are teenagers and then adults, they have been etched into their brains.
The men that come from this sort of conditioning are men who believe emotions must be repressed and an artificial bravado projected all day every day. There is poison in this process and its product; men who don’t cry are burdens on everyone, not least the women who must endure these stunted and repressed creatures.
Most conversations around International Women’s Day are dedicated to the usual topics, the violence and harassment women face in nearly every venue, their homes, the street, their workplaces. At the end of events and rallies and conversations, commitments are made to bring about change. Few are met; everyone believes others to be at fault, everyone believes themselves too lacking in power to actually bring about change. One way to break out of these vacuous commemorations is to confront the seed from which the trees of patriarchy are generated, cultivated and grown. The norm that preaches that men are all powerful, never fearful and always in charge, is precisely that.
Since harm to women is not always a convincing argument for most Pakistanis, we can begin with considering how these norms of masculinity, of never crying and always dictating, hurt men. There is science to prove it: according to one study published in The British Journal of Criminology, the gendered stereotypes of fearless males and fearful females encourages physical and verbal aggression in men which in turn increases their likelihood of taking part in criminal acts. For those who may not go that far, the attitude of male fearlessness promotes an emotional immaturity via which these men become avid deniers of their own vulnerabilities.
Crying women and cruel men are merely opposing sides of the same coin, their fates and futures inextricably intertwined.
In simple terms, the greater the push for males to project a ‘fearless’ persona in a given society, the greater the chances that in individual cases that push will culminate in a higher crime rate. Since criminals routinely target the weakest in any society, these hyped up aggressive males, so bent upon projecting fake bravado, will make women their targets. The connective loop closes here; men who don’t cry want to make women cry. In their tears, they find a reflection of their own power.
In Pakistan, which is a society dominated by these kinds of men, the problem is gotten around by decriminalising the rage-filled actions of men. Men who murder women can be forgiven by other men; men who beat women are not seen as doing anything wrong at all; those who kill for honour have even greater honour bestowed upon them by the communities that goad and egg them on.
Lesser sins, the regular verbal and emotional abuse of women, the refusal to allow them the liberty to make their own choices, even very small ones, are not considered problematic at all. The room for men who don’t cry is made by making the other half’s tears entirely expected, completely regular and an incidence of things being just as they are, as everyone wants them to be.
The evidence of this dynamic is everywhere. Pakistani television dramas, that mirror of our culture’s evolution (or lack thereof), feature both stereotypes with great accuracy. It is impossible to watch any one of these for more than five minutes (unbelievers should set a timer and watch) without encountering one of the two, a woman crying, a man yelling, slapping and being generally domineering. Often, since one is the cause of the other, they appear in close conjunction. Crying women and cruel men are merely opposing sides of the same coin, their fates and futures inextricably intertwined.
Many men reading this article will not acknowledge how they are imprisoned by the norms of masculinity and how the requirement of projecting constant fearlessness and (largely fake) bravado has bred a persistent feeling of inadequacy and insecurity. Pakistani society, and arguably the world at large, provides a limited vocabulary for such conversations or admissions. Just like women can be the enemies of other women, men can be the greatest hurdles in the path of other men, magnifying the slightest perceived weakness in the co-worker, the brother, the friend and the son, forcing everyone to pretend all the time.
There is an opportunity here for women, for mothers in particular. Even while a son may get entirely different messages from fathers and brothers and friends, he can be told by his mother that true bravery lies not in denying feelings but in acknowledging reality, which in turn means recognising and admitting fears. If Pakistani mothers tell their sons that it is okay to cry, they can make the first move in dislodging a constricted system where gendered roles have become so entrenched that no change is possible. After all, a nation whose men cannot be honest with themselves is a nation half sunk in the mire of deception.
The bulk of articles published on International Women’s Day are devoted to evaluations and appeals, considering where women’s rights are and where they must go. They feature appeals to the state, to judicial institutions and to civil society. While all of those are important, it is crucial to realise that none of them can be successful if the foundation for change is not erected on the terrain of the ordinary, the you and me of the world. Here, then, is a prescription for that: tell your Pakistani sons that it is okay to cry and your Pakistani daughters will no longer cry.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.