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Celebrate International Men’s Day for the right reasons

  • Published at 12:06 am November 22nd, 2019
Masculinity?
Photo: BIGSTOCK

It is not the opposite of International Women’s Day

November 19, 2019 was the day my social media exploded with people surprised by the existence of International Men’s Day. Yes, you read it right. It exists.

Curious, I walked into office and asked a group of colleagues getting ready to celebrate the occasion why we have a men’s day. They instantly replied: “Oh, since we have a women’s day for women, we have a men’s day for men.’’

I take this as an opportunity to discuss what these days are all about. 

International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the 20th century in North America and across Europe. It is celebrated on March 8 to commemorate a rallying point to build support for women’s rights and participation in the social, political, and economic arenas. 

International Men’s Day was founded in 1999 by Dr Jerome Teelucksingh, a history lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago. Over 70 countries celebrate it as an annual rallying cry aiming to draw attention to some of the most important issues facing men in the 21st century.

This year’s theme is: “Making a difference for men and boys.”

One of its pillars addresses a set of rigid expectations that define what a man is. 

Traditionally a man is strong and stoic. He is a bread-winner and plays sports. 

This man box culture excludes a part of the population who are deemed to be different, often mocked for not conforming.  

Moreover, men around the world are taught to refrain from showing any emotional vulnerability, and are expected to show only a limited range of emotions. This process often sets the path toward anger and aggression. 

As a result, in comparison with women, men are less likely to seek help for emotional problems. Researchers suggest that depression is diagnosed less frequently in men because of the tendency to deny illness, to self-monitor symptoms, and to self-treat. 

Mental health remains a key factor behind men’s suicide. 

International Men’s Day encourages men to feel a range of emotions, supports their struggles with mental illness, and leaves room for masculinity to come in many forms. 

Masculinity no longer limits itself to macho men hungry for power. It also includes boys who are nurturing and men who like to wear pink shirts. It extends its hand to the shy man who likes K-pop and plays with puppies. The idea is to embrace diversity in masculinity that makes masculinity more beautiful. 

The day brings focus on male victims of violence, the challenges faced by fathers who are separated from their children.

It also offers an excellent opportunity to talk about newer issues such as men’s breast cancer. While men do not have well-developed breasts, they do have a small amount of breast tissue that can develop breast cancer. Similarly, prostate cancer is a cancer of the prostate gland that silently kills men.  

Brands recognize their power to not just play a role in the cultural conversation, but to help shape it. In 2018, Gillette flipped the script on its tagline “The best a man can get” by confronting the notion that “boys will be boys.” In a similar move, menswear brand Bonobos responded to the #MeToo movement in its #EvolveTheDefinition campaign, which sought to push back against society’s traditional framing of masculinity

Ironically, many are celebrating men’s day for all the wrong reasons. 

A group of people is Googling Men’s Day driven by the fear that by supporting women’s rights, we might be eroding theirs. The same band of keyboard warriors also object to lengthy maternity leaves, women’s marches, and affirmative action. 

Screaming men’s day just because there is a women’s day makes the latter sound like just a tea party for women to doll up for merely existing. It robs Women’s Day of the historical significance of the movements that led to women’s rights. It denies the struggle of women who continue to remain shackled by patriarchy in the remote corners of the world. 

On the other hand, celebrating Men’s Day without understanding its essence paints men as insecure individuals. It further dismisses the issues that affect men silently and forces everyone to conform to strictly prescribed expressions of gender.  

My Facebook is filled with gratitude posts for men for, well simply, doing their fair share of responsibilities such as cooking, taking care of the children, co-operating at the workplace. Don’t get me wrong. Someone performing their responsibilities is, of course, a relief and worthy of acknowledgement. 

However, to glorify that act actually consolidates gendered roles that we are trying to break. It hints that men were not supposed to wash dishes, be patient, or treat you with respect. 

These subservient dynamics between men and women do a disservice to men themselves. It reinforces the idea that men are providers. Does that narrative halt our momentum and bring us back to zero? 

Rather than being the opposite of International Women’s Day, International Men’s Day seeks to raise awareness about these important issues and more, and work against damaging gender stereotypes that harm us all.

Celebrating Men’s Day won’t make it harder for men to talk about their feelings, but it might make it easier. It won’t end violence men silently suffer, but it might make them feel a bit braver.

It’s not about trying to put a circle in a square, but rather embracing how dynamic men are. 

Myat Moe Khaing takes an interest in gender and indigenous politics.