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OP-ED: Men: Silent allies or complicit bystanders?

  • Published at 10:43 pm October 13th, 2020
rape protests
Be a true ally, don’t just pretend MEHEDI HASAN

To the men who are our allies -- please speak up

Over a decade ago, I was sitting down with a group of classmates who were watching a football match at our university common room. A Greek friend, sitting beside me, was highly charged as his favourite team was playing and winning. During the match, he started saying in his enthusiasm regarding the losing team: “They are getting raped! They are getting raped!” 

There were other men in the room, nobody said anything. But I did feel a sense of discomfort in some of their faces. However, the majority were busy watching the game. I went silent for a while, thinking how I will be perceived if I say I am very uncomfortable with his choice of words. Will I be judged for being the “highly sensitive woman” that can’t take a joke? Or the “angry man-hating feminist” (words people love to say) during a football match, dampening the mood?

However, as his enthusiasm grew, so did the use of the word, and at one point I blurted out “that’s not a word you should use so lightly. Rape is a serious crime, and your team is just beating another team.”

My friend, obviously taken aback by my words, tried hurriedly to justify it by saying, “just meant it in this context, of course I know rape is a crime, calm down.” Flustered and annoyed, I kept saying how the use of this word means you are associating winning with raping and it’s very inappropriate. Needless to say, I spoiled everyone’s mood.

Over the years in Bangladesh, I have had to pick and choose my battles with words: Extremely derogatory, misogynistic, and sexist language in countless private and public encounters. A male friend of mine, a few months back, was telling me that someone he had met professionally was talking about women very disrespectfully, and it didn’t sit right with him. He observed that even the men that claim to be flag-bearers of gender equality, tend to talk differently amongst male-only circles than they do in a mixed-gender audience.

I asked him a question: “If you felt uneasy when this man was talking about women, why didn’t you say something?” A question I never asked the male friends in that university common room: Why didn’t their discomfort turn into words?

However, after reading the news of rapes continuously for a few days, I realized this silence is all too common. Many men, angered and frustrated by rape and sexual harassment, often remain silent and complicit when it comes to “locker room talk.” On the surface, you might think that putting down women or derogatory remarks about women in close circles doesn’t mean you are supporting or enabling male violence against women in society. Think again. 

Words matter, words are important weapons against any group of people. Words define the society we have, words express our mindset, privilege, and worldview. Words can show love, words can equally dehumanize, desensitize, create bias, and bring out the worst in us. 

Let’s use a few examples: When a powerful leader says, “We are at war with Islam,” there are implications of that. When populist leaders in the West tell their impressionable young supporters, “Immigrants are taking all our jobs and they are all criminals,” that too has far reaching consequences.

The same standard should be accorded to toxic language against women, regardless of close circles or large platforms. You don’t stay silent when someone attacks the colour of your skin, or the country you come from -- then why do many of you remain silent when people in your close circle show toxicity towards women, which makes you uncomfortable? 

When a friend says, “Look at her clothes, she is asking for it,” or “she is too pretty for her own good,” when a classmate wants to share nude pictures of a girl who trusted him, when a colleague questions a female colleague’s character, when a friend jokes about rape and harassment, when an uncle says, “If women wear the burqa, rape will go away,” when a friend says he has a crush on a girl and will not take no for an answer -- ask yourself, what did you do?

Ask yourself if by staying silent with your close group of people, you are being complicit in the continuous harassment and systemic disrespect towards women as human beings in our society.

Delve even deeper, when a man or a woman, told you, “Be a man,” “Man up,” “Don’t act like a woman,” “Don’t cry like a girl,” “Haate churi pore boshe asish,” “O ekta half-lady” -- what were they actually saying? Be everything, but don’t be a woman. Because anything is better than being a woman.

What do you think happens when little boys grow up hearing this? What type of toxic masculinity makes people fear for their manhood so gravely, that the only way to boost it is by degrading women in private circles?

We use slightly offensive to downright hostile and sexist behaviour and language to put women down regularly and this language sends a message to society that women are inferior to men, that they are sexual objects and not wholly human. This has far-reaching implications in the communities we live in, as we are sadly witnessing.

Try to identify the part you probably unwillingly play in the verbal and social misogyny that has manifested in the country. In the face of hateful and insensitive words against females, did you miss countless opportunities to speak up, and therefore showed complicity? Or did you trivialize the situation or maybe convinced yourself it didn’t happen by denying it?

Ask yourself if the reason for your silence has to do with your fear of being bullied and made to feel “less of a man.” And most importantly, ask yourself whether you want to address this and speak up while facing toxic language against females.

Saying simply, “I don’t find harassment or rape jokes funny,” “I am not sure about what you are saying,” “Those are toxic words, and I cannot agree with that,” “You are victim-blaming,” “I am perfectly secure in my actions, words, or in my worth as a human being, without degrading women,” “By saying ‘man up’, you are promoting dangerous gender stereotypes,” -- can go a long way.

You will be able to use the opportunity to make that friend or colleague pause for a moment, and think about what they said, feel the discomfort you experience, and might even change someone’s use of words. You might not find a huge supportive audience, but know this, you will give voice to many men and women around you, who like you feel pressured into silence and conformity.

Finally, with the rapes that are happening in the country, check if you have taken the time to talk to your brother, your father, your friends, your children, or any other males in your life, regarding the issue of consent, or sexism and apathy towards women; also focus on how men, boys, and transgender people are abused worldwide.

You will observe language that degrades women and promotes sexual predatory behaviour -- talk about that in the circles you maintain, and the social media platforms you use. Ask yourself if you are willing to hear out the females in your life about the continuous harassment and threats of violence they face every day and how that affects them.

To the men who are our allies, who understand the definition of consent and are horrified about rape and abuse and realize that this happens to all genders -- have the courage to speak. Have the boldness to go against the mob mentality, have the bravery to be bullied in your personal and professional circles for standing up for the right cause. Your silence is deafening. Speak up!

Tasmia O Saad is co-founder of Diverse Communications. She works as a political and security consultant in Bangladesh.

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