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Violence and masculine performances

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According to Zimbabwe’s 2005 Demographic Health Survey (DHS), 47% of women aged 15 to 49 reported an experience with either physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.

Statistically speaking, it is difficult to make an over-time comparison because the 1999 DHS did not collect data on incidences of violence against women.  I suspect, and literature supports the argument that including incidences of violence in the 2005 DHS is the result of recognition that violence against women in Zimbabwe has been increasing.  Beyond statistics I see the pressing and complex question as follows.  If you ask a Zimbabwean man:  What do you think your wife would do if you hit her?  Or a Zimbabwean woman: What would you do if your husband hit you?   I suspect, more often than not, the answer to either of those questions would not be an immediate, without hesitating…. I would never hit my wife. Or my husband would never hit me.  Instead, a male or female respondent would pause.  And think.  Their pausing and thinking is because that act of violence in the home is a very real possibility.  That real possibility is troublesome, but to me equally as troublesome is resting in a space where it’s ok to pause before answering the questions I posed.  In Zimbabwe, copious are cultural practices, traditions, perspectives around normative spousal roles, forms of peer pressure, extended family dynamics, failures to communicate, economic hardships, and so on which explain away why domestic violence exists.  Yet, these types of explanations only scratch the surface in trying to understand the baseline crux of the matter:  What prompts one human being to inflict physical and emotional harm on another human being?

With an interest in exploring the issue of violence, International Video Fair Trust (IVF)  brought a group of seven men and seven women together for a week of discussions during the first week of July.  These in-depth discussions were filmed and I served as director for the week’s programme and the film project.  The methodology follows that used for the 2008 filming of IVF’s Sex in the City of Harare.   The basic idea is this:  Create a safe space for people to speak and debate openly and honestly.  Encourage the participants to move beyond the predictable conversation.  Capture the discussions, the emotion, and trepidation on film.  Make a documentary film which presents the story that unfolded during the week.  Screen it locally as a way to guide individual communities to engage themselves in similar conversations.  In the end, both the week long discussions which are filmed and in turn, the documentary film itself, serve as an awareness-building, educational, and advocacy tool.  In this case, advocacy which ultimately is about helping people understand that there are options other than violence when it comes to resolving disagreements.

One reason this participatory discussion methodology works well is that nearly all pressing issues have, at their core, simple solutions.  Just that getting to that simple solution is a layered process which requires honest, probing, and direct conversations about what is preventing positive change from taking place. Therefore, with respect to the topic of violence is the line of thought that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the simple equation violence = harm is not sufficient to bring about an immediate shift to non-violence.  Instead, making the shift involves letting an introspective process play out.  This is to say that it is easy to assert that violence is wrong, but much harder to actually make the necessary changes at both personal and societal levels to enable violence-free lives.  The latter step to actually change requires an intellectual thought process to recast ways of thinking and ways of being.  Further it is not merely a matter of women demanding men change. Or men demanding women change.  Change has to come from within.  And it doesn’t happen overnight.  What the week of filming brought forth was a group of people who I observed as intricately conflicted individuals, very much at different points with respect the introspective process that tries to understand and reduce violence.  The discussions provided space to recognize the complexities at work and to reflect on why you yourself and people in general are resistant to change.

Now that the filming is complete, I’ve been trying to conceptualize a story for a film.  And have been thinking a lot about performances of masculinity and their potential relationship to acts of violence.   In this instance, by performance of masculinity I mean the ways people (men and women) put on an act as a way to assert authority and control over another person.  The thing about these kinds of performances is that to an outside observer they often make evident contradictions.  But to the person engaged in that performance of masculinity likely the contradiction is not seen.  The inability to see the contradiction is because what’s at work is a performance to get what you want, what you think you are entitled to.  And what you want, your entitlements, and the ways in which you obtain them do not necessarily bring forth contradictions in your mind.  For example, it’s not unheard of for a man to speak gushingly about loving his wife.  When that husband enters discussion concerning, for example, labola, conjugal rights, and/or household duties, there are ways that conversation becomes about the authority and control the husband feels he has over his wife.  Engaging in a discussion of wanting that power is a performance of masculinity, while pursuing that desire might result in the husband using physical and/or emotional violence to get his way.  The outside observer is likely going to look at that situation and ask:  If you love your wife why would you hit her?  And go on to say:  That’s a contradiction.  But not to the husband, as he feels he is rightfully doing what is necessary to get what he wants.

Another example might be a woman who intelligently and passionately asserts that it is wrong for a man to be violent toward a woman.  This assertion might become so strong in the woman’s mind that she will make maneuvers and strategize how to ensure her husband does not become violent.  Whether it involves being a perfectly obedient and subservient wife or gaining economic independence within the marriage and keeping those earnings for herself, there are ways she is engaged in a performance of masculinity, working to position herself as the person with authority and control of the relationship.  The outside observer is likely going to look at that situation and ask: If you love your husband why do you manipulate him and withhold from him?  And go on to say:  That’s a contradiction.   But not to the wife, as she feels she is rightfully doing what is necessary to get what she wants.

The paragraph above is a tricky one.  Probably not the status quo line of analysis around the topic of violence.  After hearing fourteen Zimbabweans talk about violence for five and half days, it has become crystal clear to me that the status quo analysis is not enough.  All status quo gets to is the far too easy space of relying on broad sweeping statements such as men are socialized to be violent, women must be empowered, culture accepts violence.  But those concepts—socialization, empowered, culture—often are either loaded or vacuous, they don’t go very far in actually telling us much about the nitty gritty detail of the dilemma.  What’s much harder, yet in my view far more important, is to open up.  Be honest.  And dare I say, get in touch with your feelings.  Recognize your own masculine performances that concern desire for power and in turn the ways ensuing actions towards others might be contradictory.   Fourteen Zimbabweans admirably spent a week travelling down this path of honesty.  The door is open for the next fourteen.

Alternatively, if broad sweeping statements must be invoked, my suggestion would be the one that is the broadest of the lot.  This being.  Much of Zimbabwe’s history (and world history for that matter) has involved one big chess match of masculine performers and their quests for power.  To be successful in the quest might require violence, so the wisdom contradictorily goes.  Flows then that individual homes and extended families in the present often end up smaller-scale versions of this chess match.

2 comments to “Violence and masculine performances”

  1. Comment by Joseph:

    Hi Susan.

    I want to know if the project on Violence would help to reduce the prevalence of violence in the Zimbabwean communities or not. I just want to know your fair minded judgement based on what the fourteen participants contributed on that topic of violence. Is the film going to help all the people (men and women) or women only or vise versa? If it cannot help, what are the areas that were not clear that will leave the people still wanting more information concerning violence?

    Thank you

  2. Comment by Kubatana.net speaks out from Zimbabwe » Blog Archive » Violence, the simple and not so simple answers:

    [...] a previous blog of mine entitled Violence and masculine performers a reader raised the following questions: I want to know if the project on Violence would help to [...]