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When NO! means death

Friday, March 16, 2018

In one of my psychology classes, the question for discussion was “Why do men kill women?” The ladies offered answers such as low self-esteem, insecurities, lack of a proper male role model, hatred and disrespect for women, a dominant mother, and all of the often cited reasons for male disempowerment.

One young man, about 26 years old stood up and said, “Miss! Don’t bother with all of that! Men don’t want to hear the word ‘No!’ If women tell us that, we feel rejected. Useless. As if you rip out our heart and soul. That is how we grow up! Women soft. They could take no. But not us!” The rest of the class was laughing as he spoke, especially at his gesticulations and facial expressions. But was there truth to what he said?

In Trinidad and Tobago, the culture of the society influences gender roles to a large extent. There are differences in the way that males and females define themselves in relation to others. For example, males have to be strong, focused and assertive and females are identified as caring, compassionate and emotional.

These “stereotypes” exist from childhood, as boys are socialised not to display emotion or to talk about their feelings, but to “put on a façade…a bravado” and not to talk about traumatic issues that create anxiety and despair.

In Jamaican society, one writer notes that “the socialisation of men in our country places tremendous pressure on them to continuously reinforce their masculinity in ways that are actually toxic and self-destructive. They are not allowed to be expressive or depressed, but they are allowed to be angry”. So too in T&T.

Violence is continually portrayed as the masculine way of conflict resolution. Among males, emotions are seldom displayed or expressed, and crying is regarded as “sissy” or girlish behaviours. This can affect relationships and when men feel rejected, they may lash out in violent and murderous ways. In recent years, male suicide has become an increasing statistic and research shows that men are more likely to use violent or lethal methods to kill others or to kill themselves, as these are more congruent with the dominant constructions of masculinity that view males as aggressive and “macho”.

Working with male and female adolescents in group therapy, I have found that males tend to take a longer time to “warm up” and to talk about issues than females, and many talk only when they feel they can “trust” the group; if not, they may remain emotionally withdrawn and rigid. “Males only” groups therefore are not to be regarded as sexist but are a recognition that masculinities and the pre-conceived notions of being male, are important to boys and men and that they prefer to discuss certain topics within this frame of reference. Until and unless the wider society addresses these stereotypes, it seems unfair and unwise to ignore that they exist.

The spiralling crime rates and the increasing statistics for domestic violence and the murders of our young girls and women, demand that we address gender socialisation roles in schools and in the wider society.

Telling a man NO! should not be a death wish for women, but perhaps can be regarded by males as an opportunity for reflection and change. Our boys and men must be taught that it is okay to express their emotions. It does not make you weak or effeminate to do so. Let us teach our males that they can feel depressed and vulnerable, without feeling as though their masculinity has been compromised.

Margaret Nakhid-Chatoor


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