Harbeer Sandhu
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Towards a New Theory of Masculinity & Violence

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Just across the Rio Grande from El Paso lies Ciudad Juarez, the border town made infamous for the rash of brutal femicides — murders of women — that has claimed hundreds of lives over the past 20 years. Anthropologist and journalist Cecilia Ballí has been studying them for over a decade, and yesterday she gave a talk at the University of Houston that raised many interesting questions, chief among them, “How can masculinity be redefined in a changing world?”

To begin with, Ballí contends that these are “social crimes” in that they reveal something about the society in which they occur. She made a quick comparison to the brutal gang rapes and femicides that garnered international attention in India.

Ironically (predictably?), many of the men, particularly men living in poverty, who Ballí has interviewed in Juarez themselves feel under attack — by drug organizations, by the police and military, and by the maquiladores (border factory) which favor hiring men over women.

“Manhood,” Ballí noted, is a status that is earned, traditionally through marriage. With males’ job prospects diminishing, and with women claiming greater economic independence through their own increased job prospects, people are marrying later, if at all. This is happening all over the world, and in the US, we see its effects in the rise of groups like the Promise Keepers, men’s rights advocates, and entitled douchebags who go on killing sprees.

Violence, then, particularly these brutal slayings that are meant to send a message, become a way for men to reclaim their “manhood.” The police and military torture hapless men living in poverty, the drug organizations mimic the authorities’ tactics, and disempowered, emasculated men copy both the authorities and the drug lords — taking their anger out on women and girls.

This is not to make excuses for brutal rapists and murderers, not at all! Life is hard for everybody, and it’s arguably even harder for women, but when Ballí says that, “Traditionally, in gender studies, we focus on women, but it’s important to also ask questions about men,” I could not agree more. Let’s ask questions and debunk the whole man/woman gender binary in its entirety!

Patriarchy harms us all, holds us all back. Concepts of “manhood” that place so many burdens on men — of being the primary breadwinner in a nuclear family, of sexual performance, of closing off their emotions so as to never appear vulnerable — these indeed exact their tolls.

I was not able to stay for the panel discussion which followed Dr. Ballí’s insightful talk, but I look forward to the discussion it generates.

People of the world — smash patriarchy and binary gender constructs! We have nothing to lose but our chains.